Nero: the man behind the myth @ the British Museum

Surprisingly, given his notoriety, this is the first major exhibition in the UK devoted to the Roman Emperor Nero or, to give him his full name, Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Marble bust of Nero. Italy (around AD 55) Photo by Francesco Piras © MiC Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Cagliari

Nero, some basic facts

Nero’s predecessors

Nero was the fifth Roman emperor, his predecessors having been:

  • Augustus, who overthrew the Roman Republic, established the principate and reigned 27 BC to 14 AD
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Caligula, star of the 1979 porn movie starring Malcolm McDowell (37 to 41)
  • Claudius, star of the famous TV series based on the novels by Robert Graves (41 to 54)

Last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty

Nero, born in 37 AD, reigned from 54 to 68, 14 years, from the ages of just 16 to 30, so he was very young. He was the last male descendant of Rome’s first emperor Augustus (his great-great grandson and so his death marked the end of what came to be called the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It was later claimed that during his reign he had his own mother killed, Agrippina, who had schemed to help her son to the succession, then did away with his first wife and allegedly his second wife.

The Great Fire of Rome

The Great Fire of Rome occurred during Nero’s reign, in AD 64. For 9 days the flames rampaged through Rome utterly destroying 3 of its 14 districts. Later accounts claim Nero watched it from the vantage point of his palace, singing to the accompaniment of his lyre. Some later sources claim that Nero deliberately started it in order to flatten Rome so he could rebuild it more magnificently, not least by constructing his enormous Golden Palace.

Wars and rebellions

During his reign Nero had to deal with:

  • a major uprising by British tribes led by Queen Boudica which seriously threatened Roman rule in this distant colony (60 to 61 AD)
  • ongoing war against the mighty Parthian Empire on Rome’s eastern border
  • then, in 66, a major insurrection of the Jewish population in Palestine which was to drag on for four years until the Romans finally suppressed it in 70 AD, razing much of the Jewish capital, Jerusalem, including the temple of Solomon, and dispersing its Jewish population, a key event in the rise of Christianity

The Pisonian conspiracy There had been simmering discontent with various aspects of Nero’s rule among Rome’s traditionalist, aristocratic families, and a number of low-level conspiracies to overthrow him. The most serious came in 65, centred on Gaius Calpurnius Piso who aimed to have Nero assassinated and replace him. The conspiracy involved at least 40 individuals, all of whom were executed, forced to commit suicide or sent into exile.

The Galba revolt and suicide In 68 Gaius Julius Vindex, the governor of Gallia Lugdunensis, rebelled against Nero’s tax policies. Lucius Verginius Rufus, the governor of Germania Superior, was ordered to put down Vindex’s rebellion. In an attempt to gain support from outside his own province, Vindex called upon Servius Sulpicius Galba, the governor of Hispania Tarraconensis, to join the rebellion and to declare himself emperor in opposition to Nero. This set in train a series of events which led to Galba leading his forces on Rome.

Abruptly the Senate, who had always been resentful of his populist and unorthodox policies, abandoned Nero, declaring him a public enemy, and the leader of his own bodyguard went over to Galba.

Nero fled to a villa outside the city and, when he was told soldiers from the Senate were coming to arrest him and drag him to the Forum where he would likely be beaten to death, he ordered a loyal servant to kill him. It was 9 June 68.

Civil war

Far from securing a peaceful transition of power, the removal of Nero led to a series of short-lived civil wars or military battles for supremacy among a succession of provincial generals in what came to be known as the ‘Year of Four Emperors’, being:

  • Galba, governor of western Spain, murdered in January 69
  • Otho, governor of northern Spain who supported Galba, but then overthrew him, before committing suicide in April 69
  • Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior, who overthrew Otho and ruled for 9 months till he was executed December 69
  • Vespasian, general of the armies in the East, who marched on Rome, overthrew Vitellius and founded the Flavian dynasty, which ruled from 69 to 79 AD

Once order had been restored by Vespasian, the Roman Senate excised Nero’s memory from official records, his images were defaced or destroyed in a ritual process known as damnatio memoriae, and his name was vilified in order to to legitimise the new ruling dynasty which emerged from the chaos, the Flavian dynasty.

Bust of Agrippina the Younger, younger sister of the emperor Caligula, niece and fourth wife of the emperor Claudius, and the mother of emperor Nero who, it was said, had her murdered in 59 AD.

The fabrication of Nero’s negative reputation

Nero has been for nearly two thousand years vilified as a monster who murdered his own mother, had Christians set alight to illuminate the games, who fiddled while Rome burnt and possibly started the great conflagration himself, who indulged his absurd fantasy that he was a great artist, and wasted a fortune on his overblown Golden Palace.

Nowadays, we live in a great era of revisionism and Nero’s is one among many reputations which are coming in for a major reconsideration. And, in the spirit of the times, this major exhibition sets out to overturn the traditional image of Nero the monster.

The curators’ contention is that Nero’s bad reputation image was a political and literary fabrication, invented generations later, in order to legitimise the overthrow of the Augustan dynasty and validate the authority of its successors, the Flavian dynasty (69 to 96 AD) and the Nerva–Antonine dynasty which followed (96 to 192).

In the words of the exhibition curator, Thorsten Opper: ‘The Nero of our common imagination is an entirely artificial figure, carefully crafted 2,000 years ago.’

Certainly the Roman historians who are our main sources for the lives of the emperors were writing a long time afterwards. Tacitus (56 to 120) wrote his histories between about 100 and 110 AD, 40 to 50 years after the events he depicts.

The other main authority is the Lives of the Emperors written by the historian Suetonius (lived 70 to 122), a gripping read, even after all these years, because of the juicy and scandalous gossip it contains about the first twelve emperors of Rome but, like Tacitus, several generations removed from the events he describes.

A century later Cassius Dio (155 to 235) wrote a vast 80-volume history of Rome from its legendary origins to his own time, which includes a summary of the reign of Nero. It is one of only three sources we have for the rebellion of the British warrior-queen Boudicca against Roman occupation in 60 to 61 AD.

The exhibition implies that all three of these main sources are not what we would nowadays think of as attempts at historical veracity, but narratives created much later in order to bolster the authority of the later dynasties by discrediting their predecessors. Seen in this way, Tacitus and Suetonius tell us as much about the conflicts among the elite of their own times as of Nero’s.

The curators make a series of claims to back up this theory, but they can all be subsumed under what is maybe the basic premise of the exhibition which is that: A whole host of new (and newish) archaeological discoveries shed more light than ever before on the attitudes and lives and opinions of people living in 50s and 60s Rome and, taken together, these undercut the idea that Nero was perceived in his own time as a vicious tyrant. If anything, these new discoveries tend to prove the reverse: that Nero was extremely popular during his life and long afterwards, among the common people of Rome and, particularly in the East of the Empire.

Evidence for a positive interpretation of Nero

So the curators set up a dichotomy which runs through the exhibition, between the written texts of later ‘historians’ which (they claim) are seriously compromised and biased, written to please sponsors in the tiny Senatorial elite – and the archaeological evidence which, in numerous ways, suggests the opposite: that demonstrates that many Romans liked and even worshipped Nero, during his lifetime and even after his death.

The evidence they bring is highly varied in style and weight:

  • They show how melodramatic speeches put into the mouth of Agrippina by the ‘historians’ Tacitus and Dio Cassius, as Nero supposedly stabbed her to death, are in fact copies of speeches from a play written soon after Nero’s death, Octavia, which itself adapted the entire scene from Seneca’s Oedipus, itself, of course, dependent on ancient Greek originals. In other words, Tacitus and Suetonius’s accounts are less to do with what we think of as ‘objective history’ and much more to do with tapping into well-established literary stereotypes and tropes, not least for producing high drama with its requirement for tearful victims and callous, cold-hearted villains.
  • Nero had nothing to do with starting the Great Fire of Rome nor singing during it, as he was absent in Antium at the time. On the contrary there is evidence that he made great efforts to shelter refugees from the flames and then organised the rebuilding of the city afterwards.
  • Talking of building, Nero inaugurated building schemes throughout Rome including the building of a new larger central market and also the rebuilding and expansion of the port of Ostia, popular with the people and merchants.
  • Nero certainly performed onstage but there is evidence that this was a popular move. He created a claque of followers, the Augustiani, who clapped and cheered his performances. Spinning his association with the theatre as a populist tactic reminded me of King Charles II, who was also criticised by the elite for his debauched lifestyle but was wildly popular with the general public. Was Nero the Charles II of his day?
  • Nero expanded the chariot races and other games held in the Circus, also very popular.
  • There are several exhibits focusing on Nero’s haircut. He initiated a new style of having his hair brushed forward and a little curled at the front. We know this from statues and know that other nobles followed him. He set a fashion. ‘I’ll have a Nero, please, Mario.’
  • Down at the more plebeian end of the scale, the exhibition displays some pro-Nero graffiti found on a wall and which the curators have blown up large and displayed on an exhibition wall. There’s also a caricature of Nero from the wall of a shop on the Palatine Hill, which the curators have entertainingly animated, so we can watch it slowly being drawn on a screen.
  • On a more elevated geopolitical plane, Nero continued to be popular in the East after his death. We know this because a succession of impersonators arose who used his name and reputation to gather followings and lead forces before, inevitably, being crushed by the army but still, why would anyone set themselves up as followers, devotees or reincarnations of the man unless he retained a high degree of popularity?

The Senate

The Roman Senate consisted of some 600 men from Rome’s oldest and most prestigious families. They saw themselves as guardians of traditions and values. The first room or space in the exhibition is devoted to an impressive raised platform maybe 50 feet long on which stand a series of lifesize statues or busts of the first Emperors (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius) and some of the key female figures (Livia, Agrippina), behind them on the wall an enormous family tree of the Julian Dynasty.

Gallery of statues of emperors from the Julio-Claudian Dynasty (photo by the author)

As usual I found it challenging to follow the precise details of who married who, adopted who, murdered who and so on. But I was struck by a thread that ran through the labels for all of the figures and this was mention of the Senate and how each of the emperors sooner or later incurred the criticism of the oligarchy, the small number of hugely rich and influential senators who regarded themselves as keepers of Rome’s traditional values, many of whom thought they had as much right to the principate (as Augustus called his position) as the madman Caligula or the stammering wretch Claudius.

As you carry on reading the wall labels this undercurrent of Senatorial resentment keeps recurring. Nero’s appearances on the stage may have been popular with the plebs, but the aristocrats severely disapproved. Lowered the tone. Conduct unbecoming.

Agrippina, Nero’s mother, certainly seems to have been the powerful schemer historians depict and so – she brought down on herself the vituperative criticism of the Senate, which strongly disapproved of powerful women. The legend that Nero had his own mother murdered reflects badly on both of them, and so was a perfect propaganda slur.

The people may have approved of the new building works in Rome, but the Senate disliked the higher taxes required to fund them, and so on.

Slowly but consistently, the curators are making the point that there was always opposition to the very idea of a prince, a princeps, a supposed ‘first among equals’, to the very idea of what people eventually came to call the ’emperor’, right from the time of Augustus.

Augustus’s homicidal rule (he had some 5,000 men from Rome’s leading parties executed in order to enforce his power) was only grudgingly accepted because the ruling class was exhausted after two generations of fratricidal civil war.

But the upper class sniping and criticism never stopped and highly educated, highly ambitious men never stopped gossiping and scheming against the First Family, and paying lawyers, orators and ‘historians’ to undermine and defame them at every opportunity. This then, should be understood as the background to the parti pris accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius.

The point being that it wasn’t just Nero. The exhibition slowly, subtly builds up a picture of a political system which was seething with resentments and power struggles at every level. The reputation Nero acquired for being a monster was just the latest in a succession of insults and abuse which had been hurled at Tiberius and the supposedly perverted goings-on at his villa on Capri, at the outright insanity of Caligula, at the doddery ineffectiveness of Claudius, and so on. The very idea of an ’emperor’ was deeply resented.

The more you look into it, the more you realise that all opinions in such a society were party pris, biased, sponsored by and supporting particular factions in the never-ending struggle for supreme power.

It prompts the thought that maybe being Roman Emperor was simply an impossible job. Maybe it was impossible to try and balance all the forces and please everyone in such a strife-ridden society, trying to suppress the slaves on the estates as much as the rebellions which kept breaking out throughout the occupied territories, all the time watching your back for the unceasing threat of a coup or assassination closer to home. Maybe it’s this simple fact which explains why so many of them started out welcomed and hailed by writers and people, yet ended their reigns in paranoia and violence.

Wider context

And this brings me to the most important thing I want to say about this exhibition, which is this: the pre-publicity and the posters and the website and the title of the exhibition itself all promote this idea that the exhibition addresses this one big question: was Nero the monster posterity has made him out to be? (And answers, pretty solidly, No, he wasn’t).

But in fact, the exhibition is much bigger and more ambitious and more wide-ranging than that. It feels like it sheds light on an enormous range of subjects going far beyond the personality or role of one man. By the end you feel like you’ve been given a panoramic overview of an entire society, analysed at multiple levels, from high politics and military strategy, through colonial rule, the role of women, of slaves, theatre and the arts, architecture and town planning, right down to day to day implements such as lamps and mirrors and coins and jewelry.

It feels like a wonderfully informative and dazzling total immersion in every aspect of first century Roman culture.

Exhibits

The exhibition fills the Museum’s largest gallery, the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery. I’ve been to some shows, such as the Rodin one, where the gallery is fully lit and sparkles with Scandinavian clarity. For this exhibition the overhead lights are turned off and the different spaces are separated by dark wood panelling and gauze hangings to create a dark and brooding atmosphere. In this setting are displayed over 200 objects, large and small, which appear out of the gloom, beautifully mounted and lit.

The very first exhibit has been carefully chosen to set the tone. It is a bust of Nero which, we are told, started life as the likeness of a different emperor but was extensively remodelled in the 1660s. In what way? To make the image blunter, heavier, more sensual and crude. Why? Because the sculptor was following the by-then established myth of the sensual, murderous tyrant. It is symbolic of the way the curators think Nero’s image was systematically besmirched after his death.

Bust of Nero, marble with later alterations (AD 59 to 98) Roma, Musei Capitolini. Photo by the author

The exhibition includes numerous objects from the Museum’s own collection, alongside rare loans from Europe, and ranges from humble graffiti to grand sculpture, precious manuscripts, objects destroyed in the fire of Rome, priceless jewellery and slave chains from Wales.

The new archaeological finds include:

  • treasures hidden during the destruction of Colchester in AD 60 to 61 during Boudica’s Iceni rebellion
  • burned artifacts from the Fire of Rome in AD 64
  • evidence from the destruction of Pompeii which suggest a new understanding of Nero’s reign

Statues

Statues of Nero were erected throughout the empire, yet very few survive due to the official suppression of his image. A star piece in the exhibition is a bronze head of Nero, long-mistaken as Claudius, which was found in the River Alde in Suffolk in 1907. The head was part of a statue that probably stood in Camulodunum (Colchester) before being torn down during the Boudica-led rebellion.

Head from a copper statue of the emperor Nero. Found in England © The Trustees of the British Museum

Roman Britain

The so-called Fenwick Hoard was discovered in 2014 beneath the floor of a shop on Colchester High Street. The treasure was buried for safekeeping by settlers fleeing for their lives during Boudica’s attack. Among the items are Roman republican and imperial coins, military armlets and fashionable jewelry similar to finds from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Fenwick Hoard, England (AD 60 to 61) © Colchester Museums

It’s impressive but it is dwarfed by two other exhibits in the same section. First there’s a map of Roman Britain which shows where the important mines were. Just like the conquistadors who conquered Central America in the 16th century, the conquering Romans came looking for resources of all kinds to exploit and these included mines which were worked with slave labour. The exhibition includes some massive lead ingots shaped and marked with stamps indicating they date from Nero’s reign, and invites us to consider the back-breaking slave labour which went into their production.

But the most striking exhibit is a big slave chain of the type used to shackle native Britons, as they were bought, sold, transported around the country to work the land and the mines. People forget that Roman society was first and foremost a slave economy. People really forget that Britain was famous in the first century for the quality of its slaves who were widely exported throughout the empire.

Iron slave chain from Llyn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey, Wales (100 BC to AD 78)

Later on we are told a spine-chilling story concerning slaves. In 61 a distinguished senator was murdered by one of his household staff. Despite protests from the populace, Nero backed the senate’s decision to uphold an existing law which stipulated that, if one slave committed a capital crime, all the enslaved members of the owner’s household must be executed, to act as a deterrent.

Brutality was all around, at every moment, in a strictly controlled, rigidly hierarchical society subjected to multiple types of power and enforcement.

Nero the performer

Famously, Nero was the first Roman emperor to act on stage and compete in public games as a charioteer. The exhibition includes some vivid depictions of these chariot races including oil lamps show a racing quadriga (four-horse chariot), a victorious racehorse and a triumphant charioteer, as well as mass-produced architectural panels showing details of the races, like this one in which a quadriga is approaching the turning posts at the end of the course. (Next to it the exhibition actually includes three life-sized replicas of these turning tall conical posts.)

Terracotta relief showing a chariot-race, Italy (AD 40–70) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Obviously, ancient Rome was also famous for its gladiator contests and the exhibition includes a selection of scary-looking gladiatorial weapons from Pompeii on loan from the Louvre. Nero set up his own gladiatorial school, the Iudus Neronianus. A famous gladiator of the day, Spiculus, later became the loyal commander of his bodyguards.

Bronze gladiator’s helmet, Pompeii (1st century AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Sometimes rivalries connected to the games got out of hand. In AD 59, a violent riot erupted during a gladiatorial contest in Pompeii’s amphitheatre between opposing supporters from Pompeii and nearby Nuceria. The show includes a photo of a wall painting giving an aerial view of the event, showing the amphitheatre and people fighting in the arena and in the stands, as well as in the streets outside. Nero handed the investigation to the Senate, which issued Pompeii with a 10-year ban on holding gladiatorial games. Football hooliganism is nothing new.

Compare and contrast those bloody scenes with the rather less blood-thirsty spectacle of the ancient theatre. The show includes some large frescoes from Pompeii depicting actors and theatrical masks lend by Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Mind you, Roman tragedy could be a bloodthirsty affair, as the tragedies written by Nero’s tutor, the philosopher Seneca, amply demonstrate.

Fresco of a seated actor dressed as a king and female figure with a small painting of a mask, Italy (AD 30 to 40) With permission of the Ministero della Cultura ̶ Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Aged 21, Nero first took to the stage as part of private games, but a few years later he performed publicly in Naples and then in Rome itself. This event was described in elite sources as unprecedented and scandalous, but contemporary evidence shows that Nero was hardly the first young man of good family to take part in public performances.

No doubt Nero thought of himself as a great artist – and the curators emphasise that he put a lot of time and energy into learning the play the cithara, or lyre, to professional standard – but his performances may also a political motivation, reaching out to the crowd, the plebs, the common people, showing he was one of them and enjoyed popular entertainment; part of his ongoing attempts to create and maintain a popular power base to balance the ever-present threat from the disapproving aristocracy. Again I think of Charles II, never really confident of his throne…

Nero created a group of supporters, the Augustiani which comprised knights and commoners alike, young men who accompanied Nero’s performances with rhythmic clapping and chants, steering the reactions of the audience. Not content to leave it at that, the curators have actually created a one-minute long aural recreation of these roisterers cheering and chanting in Latin, which plays from speakers directly above the theatre frescos.

In one of the show’s smaller pleasures, there’s a six-inch-high ivory carving of a Roman actor in the middle of a tragic performance. His pose and gestures are theatrical, you can see his face behind the stylised mask they all wore, but what was news to me was that the actors wore raised platform shoes called cothurni. He looks like a member of a Glam Rock band (admittedly, wearing a toga).

Relics of the Great Fire of Rome

One of the defining moments of Nero’s reign was the Great Fire of Rome in AD 64, which burned for nine days and laid waste to large parts of the city. Excavations in recent years have revealed the true extent of the ferocity and impact of the fire. As you might expect the exhibition includes a bit of peppy son-et-lumiere, with flickering red flames licking around a map of the city blocks affected with sound affects of a Big Fire. The prime exhibit is a big iron window grating, discovered near the Circus Maximus, which was twisted and warped by the fire’s intense heat.

As mentioned, Nero was for centuries blamed for the fire and not doing enough to quench it. Nowadays, opinion is that Nero a) was not even in Rome when it occurred b) took prompt steps to both rehouse those made homeless, but to rebuild Rome bigger and better.

The Domus Aurea

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the centrepiece of Nero’s building a new palace called Domus Aurea or Golden House. It shows us photographs of the surviving rooms, corridors and halls and displays fragments of the luxury frescoes and wall decorations which adorned it.

Fresco fragments from the Domus Aurea, Italy (AD 64 to 68) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The elaborate designs and the use of precious materials such as exotic marbles, cinnabar and gold speak to the height of imperial luxury. Another display case shows a selection of silver cutlery, plates and mirrors, all top luxury items. It’s all housed in a distinct setting which is, unlike the rest of the exhibition, bright and well lit, to subliminally give us the impression that we have entered the villa itself. Clever.

Conclusion

The curators argue that the conclusion to be drawn from this wide survey of the archaeological evidence is that Nero was not the merciless, matricidal maniac of legend; that the physical evidence gathered here suggests, on the contrary, that Nero was widely admired among ordinary Romans due to his popular policies, his funding of and participation in extravagant games, his grand building projects, even his popular haircut, and that he remained popular, notably in the East of the Empire, long after his death.

In this version, the Domus Aurea was vast but large parts of it were open to the public. The great fire certainly happened but far from fiddling, Nero organised the rescue and rehousing of much of the population.

So the infamous legend which went down to posterity is the product of authors representing the view of the later Roman ruling classes and Senatorial factions who triumphed in the civil war which immediately followed his death.

Do I buy this new revisionist version? Difficult to say, maybe impossible for anyone who isn’t a real scholar of the times, and even the historians themselves (as so often) seem to disagree.

What I think is clear is that by the end of this huge and sumptuous exhibition, the narrow question ‘Nero: Man or Monster’ has been superseded by the awesomely wide-ranging and thought-provoking variety of artefacts on show, which inform you about all aspects of a society which was so completely, almost incomprehensibly, unlike our own. This is a really great exhibition.

Marble portrait of Nero, Italy (AD 64–68). Photo by Renate Kühling. Courtesy of State Collections of Antiquities and Glyptothek, Munich

This portrait dates to the last years of Nero’s reign. It was probably created to mark his 10-year anniversary as emperor. Nero’s forehead is framed by a row of curls and his hair is worn long, intended to convey a sense of vigour, refinement and god-like beauty. Contemporary poetry likened Nero to Apollo and Mars. His elaborate hairstyle set a new trend that remained fashionable for decades.

BC and AD

I thought that some time ago we all adopted the terms BCE and CE denoting ‘Before the Common Era’ and the ‘Common Era’ to replaced BC and AD, which were seen as too Christian, Eurocentric and uninclusive. So I was surprised to see BC and AD used universally throughout the exhibition.

BP and the BM

Odd that the British Museum which hurries, like all other museums and galleries, to keep up to date with woke imperatives about diversity and inclusion, which in its wall labels and official pronouncements is hyper-sensitive to issues of race and gender, is tone deaf to the greatest single issue of our times, climate change, and so continues to allow exhibitions to be sponsored by the multinational, fossil fuel-promoting corporation BP.

Ironic that an exhibition about the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned is supported by a corporation which is helping the planet to burn.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

John Hassall @ the Heath Robinson Museum

In the early twentieth century John Hassall was one of Britain’s best known commercial artists. Starting his career in 1895, he quickly developed an impressive reputation as a book illustrator, a humorous cartoonist for postcards and magazines, an art school founder and teacher, a painter in oils, consummate clubman, and a designer of toys, figurines, pottery and nursery decor. But it was through his commercial illustrations, and especially his posters – for travel companies, political causes, theatre and panto, and a host of well-known brands – that he made his name in an age when advertising hoardings were known as ‘the poor man’s art gallery’.

In the course of a hard working career Hassall designed some 600 posters, illustrated some 150 books and much more. By 1905 one magazine could dub him ‘the King of Posters’.

Skegness is SO Bracing – the famous poster featuring the jolly fisherman designed for the East Coast seaside town by artist John Hassall. Hassall was paid £10 (1908)

The small but beautifully formed Heath Robinson Museum up in Pinner is hosting an excellent exhibition showcasing the full range of Hassall’s work, along with loads of photos, caricatures and paintings of the great man at work, and correspondence, brochures and whatnot relating to his many additional activities as art teacher and founder member of the of London Sketch Club and of the Savage Club.

Potted biography

John Hassall was born in Kent in 1868 but, when he left school at 18, art wasn’t his first choice. After twice failing entry to The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he emigrated to Manitoba in Canada in 1888 to begin farming with his brother Owen. The exhibition includes some fascinating correspondence describing, and a set of sketches depicting, the tough life of rural Canada, as well as a couple of wonderful illustrations of well wrapped-up children hunting wildlife in the snow (a moose and a walrus).

Boys hunting moose by John Nassall

It was only when one of his illustrations of daily life in Canada was published in the London Graphic magazine that he decided to return to England and try his luck with an artistic career in 1890. On the advice of friends, he went to study on the Continent, first in Antwerp, then in Paris. He met a fellow artist, married and moved back to London in 1894, when a couple of paintings were accepted for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

But it was only in 1895 that he was given an introduction to the firm of David Allen and Sons, leading printers of theatre poster. At the interview he was asked to demonstrate his abilities and quickly knocked out a sketch for a poster of the fashionable hit, The French Maid. He was hired on the spot and, over the next four years, went on to produce almost 600 posters.

Poster promoting Pontings department store in Kensington High Street by John Hassall

The range and variety of posters (and postcards and book illustrations) on display in this exhibition allows you to trace Hassall’s development as a commercial artist, and his deployment of different styles for different purposes.

Early influences

The very earliest posters, including the fully worked-up version of The French Maid design, included here, very clearly demonstrate the influence of the French style of posters. In fact the 1890s was by way of being a golden age of poster art, technological advances in printing allowing for an explosion of colours and styles, exploited by artists like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha. This in turn triggered a craze among connoisseurs to collect poster art and Hassall had arrived back in London just as the craze arrived with him, partly triggered by a major exhibition in 1894. Here he is, in the early days, very much channeling the elongated, exotic and semi-abstract feel of Alphone Mucha’s Art Nouveau designs.

The Daughters of Babylon by John Hassall 1897

But as the exhibition shows, after just a few years Hassall had moved a long way from his Continental origins and developed his own, very distinctive style. The exhibition curator usefully defines this as consisting of:

  • bold outlines
  • flat colours
  • minimal letting
  • large areas of negative space

which Hassall combined to produce ‘an engagingly cheery style.’

I think that phrase about ‘negative space’ refers to the way that the use of shading to indicate perspective and/or light sources is dropped in order to produce flattened and simplified images. Probably the most extreme example of this is this almost surreal poster promoting the joys of Morecambe. Flat colours, bold outlines, minimal lettering, large areas of negative space. Look how far he’d come from his languid and cluttered, fin-de-siecle, Mucha phase!

Poster promoting Morecambe as a holiday destination by John Hassall

Hassall produced posters promoting a number of seaside destinations, of which the one for Skegness (at top of this review) became iconic. In 1936 the town invited him for a VIP day to celebrate its success and awarded him a vellum certificate, displayed in the exhibition! The town now boasts a statue of the jolly fisherman.

The Skegness poster became so iconic that it is occasionally riffed on by later cartoonists: the exhibition features two examples, including a very funny one by Peter Brooks where the figure of the jolly fisherman is replaced by a swivel-eyed Jeremy Corbyn.

Book illustration

In 1899 Hassall took on his first book illustration project. In total he illustrated some 143 titles, not including jacket and spine designs. As you can imagine, many of these were for children’s books, some for older readers, such as the adventure stories of G.A. Henty, but most collections of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Making use of flat colours enclosed by thick black lines, his poster style was very adaptable for children’s books, and he produced many volumes of nursery rhymes and fairy stories, such as Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes (1909).

Cinderella enters the coach by John Hassall

In 1900 Hassall was commissioned by Laurence and Bullen of Covent Garden to design a range of nursery wallpaper friezes and lithographic prints for children. He produced a frieze of seven prints of children with their toys designed to be mass produced, sold and installed as a literal frieze around nursery walls. They were retailed by Libertys and other upmarket stores. You can see a slideshow of these on the Hillhouse antiques website.

The exhibition points out that J.M. Barrie’s 1904 play, Peter Pan, became an overnight sensation, generating piles of merchandising and spin-offs. As one of the leading illustrators of his day, Hassall contributed to the sensation with a series of six panels illustrating scenes from the play which are, to the modern eye, oddly flat and stylised. They resemble the stark simplifications of his toy friezes and in this particular scene, as Peter enters the children’s bedroom, you can see how it is liberally decorated with examples of Hassall’s own posters and friezes, a pleasing example of self-referentiality. In fact Hassall was deeply involved in the production: he drew the official poster and designed the cover of the programme, which also advertised these large-scale panels for two shillings each (10p in modern money).

Illustrated panel of Peter Pan by John Hassall (1907)

Also magazine covers: by this time his strikingly simple but effective designs made him a popular choice to provide cover illustrations for a wide variety of magazines such as the Scout magazine, and many others, on display here.

Pantomime

Pantomime is a form of theatre for children so his ability with cartoon and caricature was well suited to produce reams of posters for each season’s pantos.

Original antique theatre poster for the Drury Lane production of Babes In The Wood by the playwrights J. Hickory Wood and Arthur Collins. Poster by John Hassall (1907)

In fact the exhibition includes the complete set of 26 illustrations from a book titled The Pantomime ABC projected as a slideshow up on the gallery wall, with humorous and sometimes genuinely funny poems for each letter by Roland Carse.

The Great War

The First World War was actually the busiest time of Hassall’s career. He continued his commercial work but added a whole new stream of patriotic content, ranging from recruitment posters, to illustrations for patriotic pamphlets and songs, as well as personally touring the front in 1915, and working as a special constable.

The war posters are interesting because they feature iron-jawed, cleancut young men who are quite distinct from his commercial cartoon-style work. They’re the clearest proof that he could adapt his style quite drastically to suit the client and the need.

First World War recruitment poster by John Hassall (1916)

There are quite a few of the smaller cartoons, postcards, sheet music, pin badges and so on in a display case, the highlight of which, for me, is a copy of a satirical work he wrote and produced called Ye Berlyn Tapestrie a parody of the Bayeaux Tapestry featuring numerous examples of the perfidy of the beastly Hun.

Something the exhibition doesn’t include is any of the wonderfully realistic oil paintings depicting machines of war which Hassall made during the conflict. In these he applies all his skills he’s acquired over 20 years in the art of clear, striking composition, but infused with a wonderful ability to depict light and shade and depth. Its presence in stunning works like this (not in the exhibition) highlight how very much he excluded all these elements and abilities in his commercial work.

Short Seaplane by John Hassall (1915) The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery)

This section of the exhibition also showcases his broadly ‘political’ works, satirical cartoons about contemporary politics. These include a little sequence of cartoons produced in support of the little-known Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, an excellent cause which I think some brave and foolhardy souls ought to revive in our day.

Anti-suffrage cartoon by John Hassall (1912)

Pick a favourite

I loved all of it, I loved everything I saw. Hassall was a commercial artist who aimed to please, whose works are designed to make the viewer feel good, to associate a positive feeling with the product being sold, whether play or panto, shop or product, book or story – and it works. This is a hugely enjoyable, interesting and uplifting exhibition. I defy any visitor not to come out with a broad smile on their face.

Pick a favourite? Well in the midst of his immense productivity and hard work, Hassall found time to create uncommissioned art works which he submitted to serious exhibitions and competitions. These were generally storybook in style and took as their subject classic moments from English history, such as the morning of the battle of Agincourt.

I found them very appealing because they remind me, I think, of some of the long distant children’s books about history I read when I was very young. They are packed with crowds, soldiers or raiders, they have a rugged Edwardian masculinity and vividness which I really enjoyed. Here’s a photo I took of a detail of the painting ‘The morning before Agincourt’, which was exhibited in 1900. (Apologies for the terrible quality, the exhibition is held in a darkened room and I have a terrible camera. I include it to demonstrate what I mean by the ‘manliness’ of the figures in his ‘serious’ art works.)

Detail from ‘Morning before Agincourt’ by John Hassall (1903)

In these historical paintings Hassall took the opportunity to reintroduce those elements he so rigorously excluded from his commercial work. There is deep perspective, there are complicated crowds instead of a handful of isolated individuals, and, when you look closely, there is a deliberate blurring or mistiness about the faces which gives them a strange dignity, which somehow implies that you are seeing them through a time machine, their faces flickering and blurring through the distance of 500 years. In every way except for the patriotic storybook subject matter, as unlike the minimalist clarity of his posters and commercial work as can be.

Procession by John Hassall (1901)

But if I had to choose one out of all the works on show here, it would be a classic example of Hassall’s commercial poster art, a clear composition, limned with bold black lines in the style of a newspaper cartoon, all background detail kept to a bare minimum in order to focus your eye on the main character which is drawn with affectionate humour.

It’s titled ‘Treasure Trove’ and is an original artwork for a brand of whiskey but, intriguingly, nobody seems to know which one.  I think I was partly attracted because the fish look the dead spitting image of the fish which feature in the Tintin adventure, Red Rackham’s Treasure (and because both feature a man in an old-fashioned diving suit). I wonder whether Hergé knew and was influenced by Hassall’s work, by its clarity of composition, solid outlines and blocs of bare or negative space…

Treasure Trove by John Hassall (date unknown)


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty @ Barbican

‘The things we truly love, which form the basis of our being, we generally never look at.’

This is a wonderful exhibition, I enjoyed it very much indeed, went round four times and lingered in front of half a dozen standout pieces. After a year in lockdown, I found its  visual energy and originality and diversity immensely refreshing and revivifying.

In a nutshell, Jean Dubuffet (1901 to 1985) rejected the entire tradition of Western art, condemned the whole idea of ‘culture’ as it was understood in his day. As he put it:

Cultural art in its entirety appears to be the game of a futile society, a fallacious parade.

So he set about making art from scratch, basing his aesthetic on graffiti, children’s drawings, finding inspiration in the streets, the look and feel of bricks and dirt and stone and earth, experimenting with found materials like broken glass and torn fabrics, coal dust, pebbles, snips of string, butterfly wings, weeds, handfuls of gravel, unusual industrial oils and waxes and so on.

It sounds dire, but the two big take-homes from this exhibition are that:

  1. in his 45 or so years as a practising artist (1940 to 1985) Dubuffet developed an amazing range of distinct visual styles or approaches
  2. in each of these styles or approaches he created masterpieces, some of them quite stunningly beautiful

‘Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty’ is the first major UK exhibition of Dubuffet’s work in over 50 years, and it is big – it brings together more than 150 works from early portraits, lithographs and fantastical statues to enamel paintings, butterfly assemblages and the later, giant colourful canvases – but it isn’t big enough. I’d liked to have seen more, much more.

Coursegoules by Jean Dubuffet (November 1956) Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London © MAD, Paris/Jean Tholanc

Intro

The exhibition begins on the first floor with each of the dozen or so rooms filled with works which reflected his styles from about 1940 to 1961. These are very varied, with each room devoted to a different theme or project. They’re all quite small. It is a succession of rooms of small or medium sized paintings and small sculptures.

The exhibition explodes when you come back down to the ground floor and the 6 or so rooms here which feature a succession of big, awesome and sometimes overwhelming works. It’s a great adventure.

There’s a big introduction wall label, supplemented by a biographical timeline, and both bring out the unusual way that, although he moved from his native Le Havre to Paris when he was 17 to study at the prestigious Académie Julian, he left after six months, realising that he could create his own syllabus of favourite subjects, which included philosophy, literature and ethnography. Although he made friends with fellow artists such as becoming close friends with the artists Juan Gris, André Masson, and Fernand Léger, he preferred to go back to Le Havre, marry and work for his father’s own wine business.

In the 1930s he established his own business and was still running it when the Germans invaded France in 1940 and it is typical of his stroppy, anti-establishment contrarianism that, later in life, he boasted about all the fine wine he sold to the occupying Wehrmacht.

1940s

In 1942 Dubuffet decided to start painting again, and adopted a naive style for painting scenes from Paris life. Early on he abandoned the traditional method of applying oil paint to canvas with a brush and instead created a paste into which he could create physical marks, such as scratches and slash marks. In 1944, as the Americans landed on the Normandy beaches, Dubuffet created a series in which he wrote rough, scrawled ironic messages in the style of graffiti onto fragments of newspaper.

In 1945 Dubuffet began to make portraits of friends. They impressed the wealthy American expatriate Florence Gould, and he ended up doing portraits in pen and ink or oil of most of her circle. He would stare at them for hours then go back to his studio and draw or paint them from memory, the key elements of their faces emerging in childish caricatures.

Dhôtel by Jean Dubuffet (July–August 1947) Private Collection © ADAGP,Paris and DACS, London

In 1947 Dubuffet had his first solo exhibition in America, which was a success among young American artists rebelling against the European tradition and looking for new directions. He met and impressed Jackson Pollock and there’s something of Pollock in his earth paintings and, more surprisingly, in his very late paintings (see below).

Between 1947 and 1949, Dubuffet took three separate trips to Algeria, learned some Arabic and spent time in the desert with bedouin. When he returned to Paris he developed his thickly painted style into a specific set of desert paintings, trying to recapture the primeval sensation of being far from traditional culture, almost alone with the universe, the dense clotted surface gripping meaning, existence and all those other existentialist buzzwords.

Exaltation du ciel by Jean Dubuffet (1952)

Right from the start Dubuffet had dismissed the traditional concept of perspective. You can see it in these desert paintings where 90% of the picture represents the earth with only a sliver of sky at the top, creating a claustrophobic sense of total immersion.It is also a dominant feature of the butterfly paintings

1950s

In the 1950s Dubuffet moved to Vence in the South of France where the climate would be better for his wife, Lili, who had weak lungs. He was inspired by the natural scenery. In 1953 he was on holiday with his friend Pierre Bettencourt who was a lepidopterist, catching butterflies and sticking them to boards. This inspired Dubuffet to experiment with incorporating butterfly wings into paintings. The result was a series of entrancing painting-collages. These were really lovely, inspiring, worth dwelling over each one and savouring.

Landscape with Argus by Jean Dubuffet (August 1955) Collection Fondation Dubuffet, Paris © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London

In the late 1950s (starting September 1957) Dubuffet embarked on a new series which he called ‘Texturologies’. He developed a technique of putting oil paint onto branches of trees or bushes and then speckling canvases. Sounds silly but the result is a set of captivating canvases which can be enjoyed from metres away as shimmering collections of micro-spots or from close up as surfaces teeming with thousands of dots of a range of earth colours.

Jean Dubuffet with soil (1958) (© Archives Fondation Dubuffet, Paris; photo: Jean Weber and © Fondation Gianadda, Martigny)

1960s

In 1961 Dubuffet returned to Paris after 6 years’ absence and was astonished at its transformation from battered survivor of the war to booming consumer society. He developed an entirely new aesthetic (or reapplied his existing one) to capture the busy-ness of the capital’s streets – what he called the Paris Circus – in paintings which were consistently large and dominating. Many have a deliberately sketchy scrappy style, scratchy but vivid and alive. I was particularly entranced by La main dans le sac.

Caught in the Act by Jean Dubuffet (September 1961) Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London © Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands

Right from the start of his career Dubuffet had ignored the entire tradition of perspective, preferring to create a two-dimensional presentation of space, filling every inch of the picture plane, sometimes overlapping solid objects as in the butterfly collages. It is this utter rejection of perspective and a child’s motivation to fill every centimetre of the surface which creates the cramped effect of his works.

L’Hourloupe

One day in 1962 Dubuffet was doodling during a phone call, creating zoomorphic rounded shapes then colouring them with tints of blue and red and stumbled across an entirely new look. He called them ‘L’Hourloupe’ and they developed into a whole new cycle of work, created over a decade and encompassing paintings, sculptures, architectural environments and performances. He created 175 freestanding pieces which he called praticables.

The series culminated in a theatrical performance of a show named ‘Coucou Bazar’ at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1973 performed to music composed by Ilhan Mimaroglu. This ‘living painting’ was a one-hour spectacle with sixty artworks animated by performers, motors and remote control. Later the show was recreated in Paris, and then, in 1978, in Turin with music composed by Dubuffet himself. My God, what would that have sounded like?

Hourloupe figures by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

The room devoted to the Hourloupe pieces is the largest in the exhibition and, as well as half a dozen large paintings in this style, it includes a low stage holding no fewer than 16 of the life sized cutouts and four dazzling costumes. This was an amazing visual spectacle. I was entranced. I looked at them from all angles possible. So simple, just doodly lines of black against pure white and tinted with blue and red, so big and fun and goofy and strange and delirious.

Hourloupe figure by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

1970s

In the second half of the 1970s Dubuffet created a series titled ‘Theatres of Memory’, a reference to the history book, The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. They are a return to assemblage (the term he preferred to collage) layering fragments of paintings over each other, arranging and rearranging cutout figures, colours and shapes into the discreet panels.

The largest and one of the most stunning pieces in the show is Vicissitudes (1977). At over 3.5 metres wide it’s huge and fills an entire wall. Dubuffet was now 75 and making works like this involved ‘a good deal of gymnastic exercise on a ladder’. I found myself totally absorbed by this piece, and came back to it again and again.

Installation view of Vicissitudes by Jean Dubuffet at the Barbican (photo by the author)

I love the way it’s made of panels which each have a distinct colour palette and style; but the way the panels are very much not arranged symmetrically or classically and yet, at the same time, feel right. The arrangement and patterning feels just so. This has been true throughout the exhibition.

Works from this series were exhibited in New York in 1979 and influenced, among others, artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, and my first reaction on seeing it was ‘Basquiat!’, not least because these very same galleries hosted a massive and awesome Basquiat exhibition just two years ago.

1980s

At the end of the 1970s Dubuffet returned to black and white ink drawings, now with the fluid grace of a master. I liked these a lot, but they were a bit eclipsed by another series of large colour paintings, which he called Mires, dense clusters of interweaving lines and shapes in primary colours. Whereas the Theatre of Memory pieces had recognisable, if cartoon-like, faces and other real world objects, the Mires are exercises in pure colour and pattern, extensions of earlier ideas but also surprisingly reminiscent of the Jackson Pollock who he met in New York in the late 1940s.

Fulfilment (Epanouissement) by Jean Dubuffet (November 1984) Collection of Milly and Arne Glimcher © 2021 ADAGP, Paris/DACS, London, Courtesy Pace Gallery

Art brut

A key aspect of Dubuffet’s achievement was the almost single-handed establishment of the concept of art brut, which can be translated as ‘raw art’, in the 1940s, and which later acquired the tag, in the English-speaking world, Outsider Art. (The term outsider art was coined by art critic Roger Cardinal in 1972.)

From the outset, Dubuffet was drawn to other untrained artists, graffitists, tattooists, spiritualists, prisoners in gaol or inmates of asylums, whose creativity felt much more inspiring to him than anything on display in the city’s museums. From 1945 he began to collect them in a systematic way, always keeping his eye open for the strange and non-conformist. During and after the war he built up his own collection of such art, which he called art brut or ‘raw art’.

In 1948 he formed the Compagnie de l’Art Brut along with other artists, including André Breton. The collection he established became known as the Collection de l’art brut. It contains thousands of works and is now permanently housed in Lausanne, Switzerland.

He believed that mainstream culture, fully incorporated into international capitalist consumer culture, assimilates every new development in art, and by doing so takes away whatever power to disturb or astonish that it might have had. The result is to asphyxiate genuine expression. Art brut was his solution: only art brut is immune to the ravening maw of ‘culture’, cannot be easily absorbed and assimilated, because the artists themselves were not willing or able to be assimilated.

Thus a major aspect of the exhibition, a simple but inspired idea by the curators, is to dedicate not one but two entire rooms to pieces from what grew into a huge collection of outsider art which Dubuffet himself amassed. 18 artists are featured from Dubuffet’s huge collection, including Aloïse Corbaz, Fleury-Joseph Crépin, Gaston Duf., but two artists, in particular, stood out for me:

Laure Pigeon

Laure Pigeon (1882 to 1965) was a French medium who produced an oeuvre of 500 drawings related to her Spiritualist practice. When he heard that her entire oeuvre was about to be thrown away after her death in 1965, Dubuffet rang the executors and asked if he could have them. The exhibition includes half a dozen examples of her dynamic dark blue cutouts, like Matisse with attitude.

11 December 1953 by Laure Pigeon (1953) Collection de l’Art Brut, Lausanne. Photograph by Marie Humair, Atelier de numérisation

Madge Gill

Madge Gill’s monumental calico drawings in which scores of cartoon faced-women appear trapped in huge, complex skeins of material.

Faces*

Faces by Madge Gill (1947)

The last room is showing a ten-minute video made up of excerpts from various films about him and interviews shot in the 60s and 70s and 80s. At one point he says there’s only really one way of being normal and it’s boring; but there are a 100 million ways of not being normal and they are all fascinating!

Here’s a montage of Dubuffet art works which gives you a good sense of the variety of impression he could create from such disparate materials.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint @ the British Museum

‘Thomas is the best doctor for the worthy sick’
(Inscription on a lead ampulla created before 1200 to hold some of the Saint Thomas Becket’s miracle-working blood)

Two years after his murder on 29 December 1170, Thomas Becket was canonised by Pope Alexander III and his tomb at Canterbury cathedral quickly became a site of miraculous healing and wonder cures, and one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in all of Europe, second only to Rome and Santiago de Compostela.

How appropriate of the British Museum to re-open after the long COVID lockdown with a grand exhibition devoted to one of the greatest healers this country has ever known.

The healing of Ralph de Longeville. Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Thomas’s story

The exhibition is in the central rotunda at the museum, smaller and more intimate than the large Sainsburys gallery at the back. It is laid out in simple chronological order, with key events told in the dozen or so big wall posters and embellished in the labels of over 100 objects brought together for the first time, including rare loans from across the UK and Europe.

Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll quote liberally from the exhibition wall labels:

Becket was born in 1120 in Cheapside, a stone’s throw from St Paul’s Cathedral. He had a comfortable childhood. His parents Gilbert and Matilda were immigrants from Northern France, and part of a wealthy merchant community living in the commercial heart of London.

Around the age of 18 Becket went to study in Paris. After three years in Paris, Becket returned to England. He was offered the chance to work as a clerk for Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, joining a group of ambitious young men. The legal and diplomatic training that Becket received in his nine years with Theobald was life-changing.

In 1154 the archbishop recommended him as royal chancellor to the new king, Henry II, and the two men became great friends. It was the best paid position in the royal household, earning him five shillings a day. As chancellor Becket was responsible for issuing documents in the king’s name.

In 1162 Henry II nominated Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, following Theobald’s death. It was a controversial appointment. Becket was not a priest and until then had lived a worldly, secular life. The king wanted him to remain chancellor, hoping that having his friend in both positions would increase royal control over Church and State. This plan failed when Becket renounced the chancellorship and began to oppose Henry. In 1164, with tensions escalating, the archbishop escaped across the Channel.

Henry II saw Becket’s rejection of the chancellorship in 1162 as a betrayal. Over the next two years their relationship disintegrated. One issue in particular divided them. The king demanded that churchmen accused of serious crimes be tried in secular rather than religious courts. Becket refused to endorse this infringement of the rights of the Church, provoking the king’s outrage.

Henry II and Becket arguing in a genealogy of the Kings of England, about 1307 to 1327. © British Library Board – Royal MS 20 A II, f. 7v.

With the situation spiralling out of control, Becket was brought before the king and accused of trumped-up crimes. Fearing for his life, on 2 November 1164 the archbishop fled abroad. He spent six years in exile under the protection of Henry’s rival, Louis VII of France, returning on 2 December 1170. Henry II punished Becket for leaving England without his permission, confiscating his land and wealth.

Becket found himself in France at the same time as Pope Alexander III, who was locked in disagreement with Frederick Barbarossa, an emperor with vast territories in central Europe. Like Becket, Alexander was in exile and sought protection from King Louis VII of France. After making peace the pope returned to Rome. This image shows him embracing Becket before their farewell. Alexander was later responsible for Becket’s canonisation as a saint.

Pope Alexander, who had forbidden the Archbishop of York to perform the sacred act, receives a complaint from Becket. He asks for permission to excommunicate the bishops involved in the ceremony, which the pope duly grants.

The coronation of the Young King spurred Becket into action and, after agreeing a fragile peace with Henry II, he decided to return to England. Fatefully, before leaving France he carried out the sentences of excommunication endorsed by the pope.

On 2 December, Becket returned to Canterbury and the cathedral he had not seen for six years. At his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry learned that Becket had excommunicated the English bishops involved in his son’s coronation. He flew into a rage, calling Becket a traitor and ‘low-born clerk’. Four knights, Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, Richard Brito and William de Tracy, heard the king’s outburst. They hatched a plan to bring the archbishop to Henry and headed for England to arrest him.

The knights arrived at Canterbury and entered the precincts. They tried to arrest Thomas but he fled into the cathedral itself. Here the knights again tried to seize him but Thomas refused to go with them. The knights had worked themselves up into a rage and also risked major humiliation if they ended up having to leave empty-handed. Although the precise exchanges will never be known the confrontation escalated out of control and finally the knights attacked, one of them raising his sword and bringing it down to shatter Thomas’s skull. There were quite a few eye witnesses including Thomas’s clerk, Edward Grim, who tried to intervene and was injured in the struggle. All the eye witnesses agree that Thomas’s skull was shattered and a fragment of it flew to the ground.

The exhibition contains numerous depictions of the deed, as illustrations in illuminated manuscripts such as the MS containing John of Salisbury’s Life of St Thomas Becket from the British Library, one of the earliest known representations of the murder, or as carved reliefs, as shown below.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket. England, around 1425 to 1450. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Appalled at what they had done the knights returned to Henry’s court in France where the king immediately grasped the significance of the catastrophe. In the years to come he made not one but two major penances to atone for his guilt and eventually took the extraordinary step of going on pilgrimage himself to Canterbury, where he stripped to a loincloth and shuffled through the cathedral on his bare knees, arriving at the altar where he was flagellated by monks.

To understand the utterly Christian worldview of the Middle Ages, you have to grasp that this was a reasonable and practical thing for a king to do. It cleansed him of his personal guilt and thus enabled his soul to enter heaven. It went a long way to winning back those of his subjects and the hierarchy of the church in Rome which had been scandalised by the murder. And so it, at the same time, fulfilled Henry’s purpose of asserting his authority over the farflung territories of his Plantagenet empire which stretched from Scotland to the Pyrenees.

The personal drama

Complicated story, isn’t it, and I’ve followed the museum’s account so closely because your opinion of the murder has to depend on a good grasp of its context and of the precise chain of events leading up to it.

At the level of personal drama, Henry and Becket had at one time been very good friends. Becket was 13 years older than Henry, better educated and in many ways a mentor to the younger man. The pair worked well together when they were king and chancellor. When Henry raised him to the archbishopric he therefore had every expectation that Thomas would be grateful.

But Thomas was also a flamboyant man, given to grandiloquent gestures as chancellor and, when he became archbishop, there is evidence from contemporary accounts that many other clerics disapproved. He had to be promoted through the hierarchy of clerical positions at top speed which many felt made a mockery of religion.

Therefore Thomas was nervously aware of his lack of deep theological training or of proper clerical experience. Combine that with a tendency to grandstand and you have an accident waiting to happen.

To this day historians debate his motives.

1. When he refused Henry’s demands to reform ecclesiastical law in order to make priests who had committed egregious crimes (for example rape or murder) subject to the secular laws of the land, did Thomas do it because he sincerely felt everyone anointed into the church was only accountable to the church – or because of his awareness that he wasn’t a ‘proper’ churchman so he was trying to curry favour with the English church hierarchy and the distant pope?

2. When he made the dramatic move of excommunicating the bishops who anointed Henry’s young son co-king, did he do it out of purely religious fervour and in order to protect the rights and privileges of the post of archbishop of Canterbury, whose ancient right it was to perform coronations and this undermined his authority. Or was he, once again, grandstanding to curry favour, this time with the pope who he met in exile in France and who explicitly approved his actions?

3. Lastly, why did he insist on staying put when the knights came to arrest him? Chances are he knew they were behaving without Henry’s explicit permission, that arresting an archbishop was illegal, and he knew any confrontation between him and the king would inevitably draw in the pope who was a staunch ally. Why not go with the knights, have it out with the king and be exonerated?

Alabaster panel from an altarpiece showing Becket’s consecration as archbishop on 3 June 1162. England, first half of the 15th century. Private Collection. © Nicholas and Jane Ferguson.

Or, as T.S. Eliot’s play on the subject considers, did Thomas want to be martyred? Facing intractable problems, not least his own sense of inadequacy and illegitimacy (as a man who lacked the deep experience required by an archbishop) did his liking for grand gestures kick in, and he taunted the knights so much they were left with no way out?

This is the view of Paul Johnson in his 1976 History of Christianity who quotes Edward Grim, who was an eye witness:

He who had long yearned for martyrdom now saw that the occasion to embrace it had arrived. (Paul Johnson, History of Christianity, 1990 Penguin edition, page 210)

And one of Thomas’s many hagiographers, William Fitzstephen:

Had he so wished, the Archbishop might easily have turned aside and saved himself by flight, for both time and place offered an opportunity to escape without being discovered.’ (ibid)

Could he have simply walked out peacefully with the knights and accompanied them to France with no fuss? We’ll never know.

The saint and healer

The exhibition really blossoms after Becket was murdered because that’s when he was transformed from one among many squabbling European monarchs and their statesman, into a premier league saint.

News of his murder spread far and wide across Europe and almost immediately people rich and poor, high and low, young and old, male and female, began making the pilgrimage to the cathedral and to the precise steps into the choir where he was hacked down. Relics were many: his clothes, his blood, his bones, his coffin, special prayers, these all helped rain down on pilgrims inestimable blessings, healings and cures.

Not only did Canterbury become by far Britain’s premier pilgrimage site but until the Reformation Thomas was the most frequently portrayed of all saints, had more parish churches named after him than any other saint, and more English boys were called after him than any other namesake.

The exhibition includes many of the precious caskets which were lovingly created to contain this or that relic brought back by pilgrims which are all beautiful examples of medieval craftsmanship, but maybe the most striking is this reliquary casket from Norway. Norway! Because apparently in Norway Thomas’s fame was such that he was second in popularity to St Olaf, the national saint.

(If you look carefully at the bottom panel you can not only see the knight hacking Thomas’s head but also the famous fragment of skull falling to the floor.)

Reliquary casket, c.1220–50 from Hedalen Stave Church, Norway. By kind permission of Hedalen Stave Church

The stained glass

In the decades following his death, the authorities at Canterbury cathedral created a new chapel devoted to Thomas. This included what became a set of 12 tall, narrow stained glass windows over six meters in height and each containing a set of four circular roundels themselves divided into segments depicting scenes not from Thomas’s life, but from the countless miraculous healings which people attributed to his powers. Hence they are collectively known as the Miracle Windows.

Five of the original windows were destroyed over the centuries, so seven survive, and one of these seven has been lovingly dismantled, removed from the cathedral and carefully transported here to the British Museum, where the four sections have been separated and are displayed at head height in a special curving gallery.

So this is a golden opportunity to see some masterpieces of medieval stained glass, really close up, beautifully presented and with the sometimes gruesome stories portrayed in each of the panels carefully described and explained.

Take the roundel which describes the sensational story of Eilward of Westoning.

Miracle window, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Eilward was a peasant who was accused of stealing in a drunken quarrel. In the panel on the mid-left he stands with the stolen items tied behind his back. A judge in a cap sentences him to trial by ordeal. Eilward fails and is condemned to blinding and castration. At the bottom left, Eilward is reclining in bed, his head bandaged from a blow. Becket appears to him in a vision, emerging from a shrine to bless him. In the middle-right panel Eilward lies bound to a plank as a man holds him by the neck and stabs his eyes while another wields a blade, kneels on his legs and reaches for his testicles.

Becket appears in a vision to Eilward. The saint makes the sign of the cross in front of his face. On waking, Eilward’s eyes and testicles grow back. The top panel shows Eilward riding a horse to Canterbury Cathedral. In the bottom centre panel a crowd gathers round Eilward as he points to his eyes while another man points at his groin to highlight his miraculous healing. The green tree at the centre symbolises his restored fertility. The panel at bottom right shows Eilward giving thanks at Becket’s tomb.

The other roundels describe in similar detail the miracle of Etheldreda who recovers from a fever, Saxeva who recovers from a painful arm and stomach ache, two sisters from Boxley who were lame and are healed, a monk called Hugh from Jervaulx Abbey who is cured, and so on. I particularly liked the story of Hugh who, at one point, suffers a catastrophic nosebleed which is depicted as a vivid flow of red streaming down from his face, on the lower left.

Detail from Miracle window showing the story of Hugh of Jervaulx, Canterbury Cathedral, early 1200s. Note the vivid red nosebleed from the prostrate man’s face © The Chapter, Canterbury Cathedral

Move over, graphic novels!

Thomas and Realpolitik

I was already familiar with the story of Thomas Becket, possibly a little over-familiar with it and not much in the main body of the exhibition told me much I didn’t already know or changed my own personal opinion.

Influenced by secular historians like Paul Johnson, I am inclined to think of Thomas as a deliberately obstructive, showboating and irresponsible man who needlessly set out to make Henry II’s life as difficult as possible. In most accounts I’ve read, the Becket murder was a blip or side issue in the bigger picture of Henry’s lifelong struggle to maintain his Plantagenet empire. It had a seismic impact on popular culture but little or no impact on the diplomatic Realpolitik of the day. After his half-naked atonement Henry restored good relations with the pope who approved his selection for next Archbishop of Canterbury as well as other ecclesiastical posts, as well as his plans to invade and conquer Ireland. In practical, worldly terms, Thomas’s death changed nothing.

(It’s worth pointing out that the curators disagree, and include a treasured manuscript of Magna Carta, signed 45 years after Thomas’s death by Henry’s useless son, King John, in 1215, to make their case. The Charter’s very first clause, probably added at the insistence of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, states that the English Church must be free from royal interference. In the curators’ opinion this demonstrates how Becket’s dispute with Henry II continued to shape English politics long after his death. In Paul Johnson’s view this struggle between king and church was the central issue of the high Middle Ages, would remain a bugbear for centuries until Henry VIII decisively ended it with victory for the secular authority, and Thomas’s death didn’t really affect the issue one way or the other. Discuss.)

The Canterbury Tales

The exhibition has a section devoted to The Canterbury Tales, one of the key texts of English literature and, with its varied and colourful tales told by a motley cross section of late 14th century personalities all engaged on a horseback pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, as explained in the lovely words of the Prologue.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

‘That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke’, I love that line. Who doesn’t need holp when that they are seeke?

The exhibition includes one of the earliest manuscripts which contains all 24 of the surviving stories, as well as blow-ups of the original medieval portraits of some of the storytellers (the Wife of Bath, the Yeoman, the Merchant and the Shipman). But none of the stories are actually about Thomas and, if anything, they demonstrate a woefully relaxed attitude to Christian faith and morality which would have appalled the saint and his most zealous devotees.

The suppression of a saint

The one part of the exhibition I found genuinely new and informative came right at the end and deals with Henry VIII’s aggressive erasure of the cult of Thomas.

I knew that, as part of the first steps in the Reformation and linked with the Dissolution of the monasteries, Henry had all pilgrimage sites and saints shrines shut down. I knew from Johnson’s account that Thomas’s shrine was the biggest one in the land and that Henry’s commissioners carried off a vast amount of loot, namely 4,994 ounces of gold, 4,425 of silver-gilt, 5,286 of plain silver and 26 cartloads of treasure. A generation earlier, around 1511, the Dutch reformer Erasmus and the English humanist John Colet had visited the shrine and been disgusted at its tackiness. They were offered the opportunity to kiss a prize relic, the genuine arm of St George, or to touch a manky old rag supposedly stained with the saint’s blood, and Thomas’s genuine original shoe to be kissed.

As the curators observe:

After visiting Becket’s shrine real pilgrims bought similar souvenirs, badges to pin to clothing or little flasks worn around the neck. They were made quickly and cheaply by pouring molten lead or tin into a mould. The range of Canterbury souvenirs is remarkable, from miniature bells inscribed with ‘St Thomas’ to tiny swords with detachable scabbards.

And the exhibition includes no fewer than 24 examples of these multivarious knick-knacks and gewgaws. The medieval cult of saints had degenerated to the level of Blackpool souvenirs.

Pilgrim badge, 14th century, England, showing Becket returning from exile in France.

So I wasn’t surprised to learn the specifics of the demolition of Thomas’s massive and treasure-laden shrine, that:

On 5 September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury. During his three-day stay royal agents began demolishing St Thomas’s shrine, prising off the jewels and smashing the marble base. They packed up its precious metal in crates, which were taken to London. Becket’s bones were removed, and a rumour spread that they had been burnt and the ashes scattered to the wind.

What I didn’t know and found fascinating was the way King Henry VIII singled out the cult of Thomas for special suppression. It was because, at a political level, above the level of popular culture and religion, Thomas was a symbol of the independence of the Church and Henry’s reformation was about decisively ending centuries of squabbling, and asserting the paramount authority of the secular monarch.

This explains why, after 1534 when Henry broke with Rome and Parliament appointed him Supreme Head of the Church of England, he could not tolerate Becket’s status as a defender of Church liberty and denounced him as a traitor to the country, or the new notion of ‘nation’ which Henry was creating.

Hence the passage of laws which singled out the cult of Saint Thomas and banned it. The laws banned visual references to the saint and insisted that the very word ‘saint’ was to be expunged from the record. Henceforth he was to be referred to as ‘Bishop Thomas’. A wall label quotes from a Royal proclamation, of 16 November 1538:

…from henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed, nor called a saint, but Bishop Becket, and…his images and pictures through the whole realm shall be put down…

The exhibition closes with some quite fascinating examples of how this erasure from history, this rewriting of history, was carried out, including:

  • a book of hours where the devotional prayer to Becket has been carefully cut out, although the illustration of the martyrdom has been left (intriguingly) undamaged
  • a copy of the Golden Legend, a very popular compendium of the lives of saints, in which the text and image for Becket’s story have been crossed out with black ink
  • a manuscript containing texts for the celebration of mass, once owned by the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove, near Worcester, in which thick red ink has been selectively smeared across prayers to St Thomas in order to obliterate them

Manuscript containing mass texts from the parish church of St John the Baptist in Bromsgrove in which prayers to ‘Bishop’ Thomas have been obliterated by red ink. Around 1450. © The Syndics of Cambridge University Library

Curators

  • Lloyd de Beer, curator, Medieval Britain and Europe
  • Naomi Speakman, curator, Late Medieval Europe
  • Sophie Kelly, project curator

Related links

Other medieval reviews

Exhibitions

Books

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

This is the catalogue of a major exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits held at Tate Britain back in 2005. I went, loved the exhibition and bought this catalogue. In my opinion the written content of the catalogue is poor, but the colour reproductions of 100 or so of Reynolds’s best paintings are spectacular.

The catalogue contains a biography of Reynolds by Martin Postle and four essays by Reynolds scholars:

  • ‘The Modern Apelles’: Joshua Reynolds and the Creation of Celebrity by Martin Postle
  • Reynolds, Celebrity and The Exhibition Space by Mark Hallett
  • ‘Figures of Fame’: Reynolds and the printed Image by Tim Clayton
  • ‘Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London by Stella Tillyard

The essays are followed by some 100 full-colour reproductions, divided into the following sections:

  • Reynolds and the Self-Portrait
  • Heroes
  • Aristocrats
  • The Temple of Fame
  • The Streatham Worthies
  • Painted Women
  • The Theatre of Life

With separate sections of images devoted to:

  • Reynolds and the Reproductive Print
  • Reynolds and the Sculpted Image

The concept of celebrity

As the title suggests, the idea is somehow to tie Reynolds’s 18th century art and career to 21st century ideas of ‘celebrity’. In my opinion all four essays fail to do this. Despite frequently using sentences with the word ‘celebrity’ in them, the catalogue nowhere really explains what ‘celebrity’ is.

The authors have a hard time really distinguishing it from the notion of ‘fame’ and the pursuit of ‘fame’ and the risks of ‘fame’ – subjects which have been thoroughly discussed since ancient Greek times.

In Greek mythology Pheme was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors… She was described as ‘she who initiates and furthers communication’… A tremendous gossip, Pheme was said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew. In art, she was usually depicted with wings and a trumpet… In Roman mythology, Fama was described as having multiple tongues, eyes, ears and feathers by Virgil (in Aeneid IV line 180 ff.) and other authors.

In other words, the concept of ‘fame’ and the way it unavoidably attracts a spectrum of public comment, from dignified praise at one end through to scurrilous rumour at the other end – is as old as Western civilisation.

In my opinion the authors struggle to establish a really clear distinction between these multiple and time-honoured notions of fame with all its consequences, and their attempt to shoe-horn modern-day ‘celebrity’ into the picture.

The whole thing is obviously an attempt by Tate to make Reynolds and his paintings more ‘relevant’ to a ‘modern’ audience, maybe to attract in those elusive ‘younger’ visitors which all arts venues need to attract to sustain their grants. Or to open a new perspective from our time back to his, which makes his society, his aims and his paintings more understandable in terms of modern concepts.

I can see what they’re trying to do, and it is obvious that the four authors have been told to make as many snappy comparisons between the society of Reynolds’s day and our own times as possible – but flashy references to the eighteenth-century ‘media’ or to Reynolds’s sitters getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, aren’t enough, by themselves, to give any insight. In fact, these flashy comparisons tend to obscure the complexity of 18th century society by railroading complex facts and anecdotes into narrow 21st notions and catchphrases.

Being modish risks becoming dated

The authors’ comparisons have themselves become dated in at least two ways:

  1. the ‘modern’ celebrities they invoke have dated quickly (David Beckham is given as a current example)
  2. it was written in 2005, before the advent of social media, Instagram, twitter etc, so has itself become completely out of date about the workings of ‘modern celebrity’

There is a third aspect which is – Who would you trust to give you a better understanding of social media, contemporary fame, celebrity, influencers, tik tok and so on – a social media marketing manager, a celebrity journalist or… a starchy, middle-aged, white English academic?

There is a humorous aspect to listening to posh academics trying to get down wiv da kids, and elaborately explaining to their posh white readership how such things as ‘the media’ work, what ‘the glitterati’ are, and showing off their familiarity with ‘the media spotlight’ – things which, one suspects, library-bound academics are not, in fact, all that familiar with.

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

Reynolds’s attitude towards fame, and how it was inextricably bound up with a concern for his public persona, or what we today would call his ‘celebrity‘ status.

So Reynolds was concerned about his fame, about building a professional reputation and then defending it, but wasn’t every other painter, craftsman and indeed notable figure of the time? As Postle concedes:

In this respect he was not untypical of a whole range of writers, actors and artists  who regarded fame as the standard for judging the worthiness of their own performance against the achievements of the past.

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

However, Reynolds [achieved fame] by using the mechanisms associated with what has become known as ‘celebrity‘, a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality.

Hmm. Is he saying no public figures prior to Joshua Reynolds cultivated a ‘cult of personality’ or that no public figures tried to cash in on their fame? Because that is clearly nonsense. And putting the word celebrity in scare quotes doesn’t help much:

Reynolds pandered to the Prince [of Wales]’s thirst for ‘celebrity‘ and fuelled his narcissistic fantasies.

The author doesn’t explain what he means by ‘celebrity’ in this context or why the prince thirsted for it and how he was different in this respect from any other 18th century aristocrat who ‘thirsted’ for fame and respect.

Through portraits such as these [of the Duc d’Orleans], Reynolds openly identified with fashionable Whig society; the Georgian ‘glitterati’ – liberal in the politics, liberated in their social attitudes, and libidinous in their sexual behaviour.

Does use of the word ‘glitterati’ add anything to our understanding?

He was also the first artist to pursue his career in the media spotlight.

‘Media spotlight’? Simply using modern clichés like ‘media spotlight’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘glitterati’ didn’t seem to me to shed much light on anything. The reader wants to ask a) what do you understand by ‘media spotlight’? b) in what way did Reynolds pursue his career in a media spotlight?

As experience of the modern media tells us, a sure sign that an individual’s fame has been transmuted into ‘celebrity’ is when press interest in his or her professional achievements extends to their private and social life.

I’m struggling to think of a time when there hasn’t been intrusive interest in the lives of the rich and famous, and when it hasn’t been recorded in scurrilous satires, squibs, poems.

People gossiped about Julius Caesar, about all the Caesars. We have written records of the way Athenians gossiped about Socrates and his wife. Prurient interest in the personal lives of anyone notable in an urban environment go back as far as we have written records.

Here’s another definition:

In a process that seems to prefigure the ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture, the exploitation of celebrity typified by Reynolds’s representation of [the famous soldier, the Marquess of] Granby depended not only on the glorification, in portrait form, of individuals who had already gained a certain kind of renown within the wider realms of urban culture, but also on a continual replenishment – from one year to the next – of this hyperbolic imagery of bravery, beauty and fame.

I think he’s saying that visitors to the annual exhibitions liked to see new pictures – or, as he puts it with typical art scholar grandiosity, ‘a continual replenishment of this hyperbolic imagery’.

‘The ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture’? Does that tortuous definition have any relevance to Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna et al?

What these authors are all struggling to express is that Reynolds made a fabulously successful career by painting the well-known and eminent people of his day, making sure to paint army or naval heroes as soon as they returned from famous victories, making sure he painted portraits of the latest author after a hit novel or play, painting well-known courtesans, carefully associating his own name (or brand) with success and fame.

It was a dialectical process in which Reynolds’s portraits, often hung at the annual Royal Academy exhibition – which was itself the talk of the town while it lasted – promoted both the sitter and their fame, but also kept Sir Joshua’s name and reputation as Top Painter Of The Famous continually in the public eye.

That’s what the essay writers are trying to say. But you have to wade through a lot of academic rhetoric to get there. Take this questionable generalisation thrown out by Stella Tillyard, which sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it.

Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in eighteenth century London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements. (Stella Tillyard, p.61)

‘Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now’? What would you say defines modern society in 2020? I’d guess the list would include the internet, mobile phones, social media, webcams and digital technology generally, big cars, long-haul flights, cheap foreign holidays, mass immigration, multi-cultural societies, foreign food… things like that.

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

Tillyard’s essay is the best of the four but it still contains highly questionable assertions. She thinks there is a basic ‘narrative’ of ‘celebrity’ which is one of rise, stardom, fall and rise again. The examples she gives are Bill Clinton getting into trouble because of Monica Lewinsky, and the footballers Francesco Totti and David Beckham. She thinks this basic narrative arc echoes the story of Jesus Christ, rising from obscurity, gaining fame, being executed, and rising from the dead. You have to wonder what drugs she is on.

Nonetheless, Tillyard’s is the best essay of the four because she’s an actual historian and so has a wide enough grasp of the facts to make some sensible points. She also gives the one and only good definition of celebrity in the book when she writes that:

Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. (p.62)

Aha. Right at the end of the four essays we get the first solid, testable and genuinely insightful definition of celebrity.

According to Tillyard’s definition, the really new thing about celebrity is not the interest in gossip about the rich and famous – that, as pointed out, has been with us forever – it is that this kind of fame can be packaged into new formats and sold. It has become part of the newly mercantile society of the 18th century.

Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes. (p.37)

The assertion is that Reynolds was able to capitalise on his reputation. He made money out of it. He was able to exploit the new aspects of mid-18th century fame in order to build up a successful business and make a fortune.

He developed a process for making his portraits well known. The lead element in this was ensuring they were prominently hung at the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the new Royal Academy and so became the subject of the enormous amount of comment the exhibition attracted in the scores of newspapers, magazines, cartoons, lampoons, caricatures, poems and plays which infested Georgian London.

Deftly riding this tide of gossip and talk and critical comment, Reynolds was able to assure his sitters that he would make them famous – and he made himself famous in the process. And, as a result, he was able to charge a lot of money for his portraits.

He was able to turn the insubstantial, social quality of ‘fame’ into hard cash. That’s how the argument goes. I’ve put it far more plainly than any of these four writers do, and it’s an interesting point, but still begs a lot of questions…

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

When Postle says that the soldier Robert Orme got his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (p.27) it strikes me as being a flashy but misleading reference.

Andy Warhol’s expression, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, refers very specifically to the 15-minute time slots allocated on the kind of American TV programmes which are punctuated every 15 minutes or so with ad breaks. Its merit derives from its source in a very specific technology and at a very specific moment in that technology (the later 1960s).

Whereas Robert Orme took part in an important battle of the Seven Years War (surviving the massacre of General Edward Braddock’s forces by French and Indians in July 1755), returned to England and was for a while feted and invited to dinners to give first-hand accounts of the massacre.

OK, so interest in Orme petered out after a while, but his story hardly conforms to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ description in the very precise, TV-age way Warhol had intended.

It’s an example of the way the authors are prepared to twist the historical record in order to shoehorn in their strained comparisons with modern ‘celebrity’ or the ‘glitterati’ or ‘the media spotlight’.

My point is that just chucking modern buzzwords at historical events doesn’t help us understand the historical events and doesn’t shed much light on the buzzwords or the ideas behind them, either. Not without a much more detailed analysis, anyway.

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

The one place in the four essays which comes alive i.e. presents new facts or insights, is in historian Stella Tillyard’s essay, where she explains that a new concept of ‘fame’ was being driven by some genuinely new developments in mass publication. She suggests four factors which account for the rise of a new type of fame in the mid-18th century:

1. A limited monarchy – the mystique surrounding the Divine Right of Kings which had clung to the Stuart Monarchy (1660-1714) drained away from the stolid Hanoverian monarchs who replaced them after 1714. Their powers were circumscribed from the start by Parliament and this made them much more human, much more worldly and, well, sometimes boring figures, for example. George III, widely known as Farmer George.

2. Royal glamour migrated – instead of surrounding the monarch in a nimbus of glory the human desire to have glamorous figures to look up to and gossip about migrated to new categories of ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’, namely top military figures, successful actors and even writers.

3. The lapse of the Licensing Act left the press a huge amount of freedom. By 1770 there were 60 newspapers printed in London every week, all looking for gossip and tittle tattle to market. Combined with a very weak libel law which allowed almost any rumour and speculation to be printed. Well before the tabloids were invented, the taste for an endless diet of celebrity tittle tattle was being catered to.

4. A public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves or others. This is the tricksiest notion, but Tillyard argues that this huge influx of new printed matter, combined with shops full of cheap prints, to make literate urban populations think about themselves and their roles as citizens of a busy city, and as consumers, in new ways.

Now all this chimes very well with the picture painted in Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds, which clearly shows how almost every incident, not only from his personal life but of the lives of all his famous friends (e.g. the writer Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edmund Gibbon, the poet Oliver Goldsmith) was quickly leaked to scurrilous journalists, who reported them in their scandal sheets, or made cartoons or comic poems about them.

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

By contrast with Tillyard’s authoritative historian’s-eye view, Postle’s art critic assertions are less precise and less persuasive:

Reynolds grew up in an age that witnessed the birth of modern journalism.

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

Googling ‘birth of modern journalism’ you discover that ‘modern journalism’ began with a piece written by Defoe in 1703. Or was it during the American Civil War in the 1860s? Or maybe it was with Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, often referred to as the ‘father of modern journalism’?

In other words, the birth of ‘modern’ journalism happened more or less any time you want it to have done, any time you need to add this cliché into your essay to prop up your argument. And that little bit of googling suggests how risky it is making these kinds of sweeping assertions.

In fact it suggests that any generalisation which contains the word ‘modern’ is dodgy because the term ‘modern’ itself is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Historians themselves date ‘the modern period’ to the 1500s. Do you think of the Elizabethan era as ‘modern’?

The modern era of history is usually defined as the time after the Middle Ages. This is divided into the early modern era and the late modern era. (Define modern era in history)

Postle’s assertion that there was something uniquely and newly journalistic about Reynolds’s era sounds fine until you think of earlier periods – take the turn-of-the 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) which was packed with coffee house publications and scurrilous poems written against each other by leading figures. Alexander Pope’s entire career exemplifies a world of literary gossip and animosity.

Going further back, wasn’t the court of Charles II the subject of all kinds of cartoons, pictures, scurrilous paintings and poems and plays? Lots of John Dryden’s poems only make sense if you realise they’re about leading figures of the day, either praising or blaming them. During the British civil wars (1637-51) there was an explosion of pamphlets and leaflets and poems and manifestos denouncing the actions of more or less every notable figure, and giving a running commentary on the political developments of the day. Wasn’t Shakespeare’s time (1590 to 1615) one of rumour and gossip and pamphlet wars?

And in fact I’ve just come across the same idea, on page 4 of Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War, where he writes:

From the outset, the conflict attracted wide interest across Europe, accelerating the early seventeenth-century ‘media revolution’ that saw the birth of the modern newspaper.
(Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson, page 4)

So surely the widespread availability of gossip sheets and scandal mongering publications was a matter of degree not kind. Artists of the late-17th century (van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller) had earned types of ‘fame’ and certainly tried to capitalise on it. By Reynolds’s day there were just more outlets for it, more magazines, newspapers, journals – reflecting a steadily growing urban population and market for all things gossip-related. Between 1650 and 1750 the British population increased, the population of London increased, the number of literate people increased, and so the market for reading matter increased.

So when Postle asserts that newspapers played an increasingly important part in the critical reception of art, well, they played an increasingly important role in the critical reception of everything, such as war and politics and religion, such as the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and every other kind of debate and issue.

1. That is what newspapers do – tell people what’s going on and editorialise about it – and 2. there were more and more of them, because the population was growing, and the number of literate consumers was steadily growing with it.

Reynolds didn’t invent any of this. He just took advantage of it very effectively.

Reynolds’s strategies for success

  • Reynolds was apprenticed to a fellow Devonian, Thomas Hudson, who not only taught him how to paint portraits but introduced him to important patrons
  • Hudson introduced Reynolds to leading gentlemen’s clubs of the time (the 1740s)
  • Reynolds took care to keep a large table i.e. to invite notable people to dinner, specially if they had had a recent ‘hit’ with a novel or play or work of art
  • Reynolds took dancing lessons, attended balls and masquerades, cultivated a man about town persona
  • as Reynolds became well known he was invited to join top clubs and societies e.g. the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti
  • he helped to found the blandly named The Club, with a small number of very eminent figures in literature, theatre and politics, including Garrick, Goldsmith, Johnson and Edmund Burke, later to include Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • in the 1770s Reynolds painted portraits of the friends to be met at the Streatham house of his friend Mrs Hester Thrale (who became nicknamed ‘the Streatham Worthies‘)
  • during the 1770s and 80s there was a growth in a new genre, ‘intimate biographies’ told by authors who knew the subjects well, such as Johnsons Lives of the Poets (1781) and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) – the intimate portraits of the Streatham Worthies tied into this taste, in fact Boswell considered writing an intimate biography of Reynolds
  • the point of having a cohort of friends like this was that they provided a mutual admiration and mutual support society, promoting each others’ work – for example, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated his famous poem, The Deserted Village to Reynolds, James Boswell’s vast ‘intimate biography’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was dedicated to Reynolds, as was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777)
  • in former times, getting an appointment to work for the king had been crucial to artists’ careers – by Reynolds’s day, however, it was no longer vital because 1. the monarch no longer had the absolute powers of the Stuarts – the Hanoverian kings’ powers and patronage were much more limited and often determined by Parliament 2. there was a well enough developed domestic market for art for a painter to make a career and livelihood without explicit royal patronage
  • Reynolds very consciously bought a large house in fashionable Leicester Fields; the Prince of Wales owned a big house in the same square
  • Reynolds bought an expensive coach that had formerly belonged to the Lord Mayor of London, renovated it and encouraged his sister Fanny to drive round in it in order to prompt gossip and awe

But was Reynolds unique?

As mentioned above, the four essayists have clearly received a brief to make Reynolds sound as modern and edgy and contemporary and down with the kids as possible.

But the tendency of the essays is also to try and make Reynolds sound unique – in his painterly ambition, in the way he used connections and pulled strings to paint famous sitters, promoted himself socially (by being a member of many clubs and inviting all the famous men and women of the time to large dinners), promoted his work through public exhibitions, tried to wangle key painting positions to the royal family, and by having prints made of his portraits which could be sold on to a wider audience.

The trouble is that – having just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which presents an encyclopedic overview of his times, its clubs, newspapers, magazines, his colleagues and rivals, of the mechanisms of a career in art and an in-depth overview of all Georgian society – I realise these were the standard procedures of the day.

For example, the authors point out that Reynolds was keen to paint portraits of famous people to boost his career – but what portrait painter of the day wasn’t? Allan Ramsay and Thomas Gainsborough, to name just two contemporary painters, lobbied hard to win aristocratic patrons, to promote their portraits to other potential clients, to expand their client base, and so on. It was a highly competitive and commercial world.

The catalogue contains sections on the portraits of aristocratic ladies, military heroes and courtesans as if Reynolds had invented the idea of painting these kinds of figures – but paintings of aristocrats go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and statues of emperors, notable figures and military leaders go back through the ancient Romans to the Greeks.

There’s a section devoted to showing how Reynolds used prints extensively to promote his career, not only here but abroad, where British art prints commanded good prices. (One of the few new things I learned from the essays was that British mezzotinting was so highly regarded as to become known as la maniere anglaise, p.51)

But all his rivals and colleagues did just the same, too – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a thriving community of printmakers and of printbuyers.

And the authors strain to prove that the kind of high-profile aristocrats, military leaders, and top artists-writers-actors of the day that Reynolds portrayed were often discussed, profiled, ridiculed and lampooned in London’s countless scurrilous newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, gossip columns and so on.

But this was just as true of all the notable figures that all the other portrait painters of his day painted. It was an extremely gossipy society.

In other words, none of the activities the authors attribute to Reynolds was unique to him – they were being energetically carried out by scores of rivals and colleagues in the swarming ant hill of rivalry and competition that was Georgian London. What is interesting, is the extent to which Reynolds did all these things best (when he did), or where he failed, or where he pioneered a new aspect of this or that activity.

Unfortunately, the four authors don’t really have much space to make their cases. The four essays are relatively short. They have nowhere like the 550 closely-typed pages that Ian McIntyre has in his masterful biography of Reynolds. Therefore, to anyone who’s read McIntyre, the four essays come over as fleeting and superficial sketches of subjects and issues which deserve to be dealt with in much, much greater detail if you want to understand why Reynolds was the towering figure that he was.

It wasn’t that he did all these activities listed above – it’s that he did many of them better, more comprehensively, and more systematically than his rivals.

And also that he just worked harder at it. He was extremely disciplined and professional, working a solid 6 or 7 hour days, every day, often on Sundays. He produced, on average, well over one hundred commissions a year, an extraordinary workrate. This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essays, but it is a key reason for his success.

Or the even more obvious fact that a his success was down to the fact that he was, quite simply, the best portrait painter of his time. He may well have adopted the canny career strategies listed above, but they’d have been meaningless if he hadn’t also been a painter of genius.


Art scholarship prose style

This section contains no facts and is devoted to an analysis and skewering of pretentious artspeak. Art scholar prose is very identifiable. It has at least three elements:

  1. use of fashionable, pretentious buzzwords such as subvert, interrogate, engage, gendered, identity, desire, site, gaze, other
  2. combined with a curiously starchy, old-fashioned locutions such as whilst, amongst
  3. thin actual content

1. Buzzwords

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of prostitutes… (p.29)

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

When the ancient philosopher, Socrates, visited the artist’s house with friends, the courtesan was to be found under the gaze of the painter (p.29)

The word ‘gaze’ now has the adjective ‘male’ attached to it in all contexts, and is always a bad thing.

[At the new public exhibitions of the 1760s] the visitor’s encounter with the painted images of celebrities was crucially informed by those other burgeoning cultural sites of the period, the newspaper and the periodical. (p.35)

Do you think of a newspaper or magazine you read as a cultural site? Alliteration is always good, makes your ideas sound grander and more important.

In arranging that his pictures of such women [the royal bridesmaids at the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte]… Reynolds… was contributing to, and trading upon, a burgeoning cult of aristocratic celebrity within the sites and spaces of urban culture. (p.39)

Tillyard in particular likes the word and idea of the ‘site’:

In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public [Jean-Jacques Rousseau] took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become the site for others’ imaginings. (p.66)

Omai [a South Sea islander Reynolds painted] is both sophisticate and innocent, celebrity and savage, an eloquent but mute subject whose lack of the English language and inability to write allowed his audience and the picture’s viewers to make him a site for their own imaginings. (p.69)

It is surprising that Omai isn’t taken as an example of The Other, an almost meaningless word commonly used to describe anyone who isn’t a privileged white male.

The press functioned as one vital counterpart to the exhibition space in terms of what was emerging as a recognisably modern economy of celebrity… (p.37)

The ‘modern economy of celebrity’ sounds impressive but what does it mean, what is an ‘economy of celebrity’ (and remember the warning about using the word ‘modern’ which is generally an empty adjective used solely for its sound, to make the text sound grand and knowledgeable).

Reynolds painted a number of portraits of aristocratic patrons such as Maria, Countess Waldegrave and Elizabeth Keppel. This allows art scholar Mark Hallett to write:

In being invited to track the shifting imagery of such women as Keppel, Bunbury and Waldegrave, attentive visitors to the London exhibition rooms thus became witness to an extended process of pictorial and narrative transformation, choreographed by Reynolds himself, in which his sitters became part of a gendered, role-playing theatre of aristocratic celebrity that was acted out on an annual basis in the public spaces of the exhibition room. (p.39)

If you read and reread it, I think you realise that this long pretentious sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything. It is prose poetry in the tradition of the mellifluous aesthete, Walter Pater, just using a different jargon.

‘Narrative’, ‘gendered’, ‘theatre’, ‘spaces’ are all modish critical buzzwords. What does ‘gendered’ even mean? That some portraits were of women and some of men? Hmm. And a gallery isn’t really a theatre, no matter how hard art scholars wish their working environment was more jazzy and exciting. It’s a gallery. It consists of pictures hung on a wall. Therefore to say a gallery is a ‘role-playing theatre’ is simply a literary analogy, it is a type of literary artifice which makes absolutely no factual addition to our knowledge.

Translated, that sentence means that regular visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition often saw portraits of the same famous sitters and so could judge different artists’ treatment of them, or gossip about how their appearance changed from year to year. That’s what ‘pictorial and narrative transformation’ means.

The artist’s portrait of Granby can now be understood as just one element within an unfolding iconography of military celebrity that was being articulated by the artist in the exhibition space during the 1760s.

Translated, this means that Reynolds painted many portraits of successful military heroes. As did lots and lots of other portrait painters of the time. But it sounds more impressive the way Hallett expresses it using key buzzwords.

We can even suggest that such details as the Duchess [of Devonshire]’s ‘antique’ dress and rural surroundings… transform her into a figure of pastoral fantasy, a delicately classicised icon of aristocratic otherness… (p.43)

Ah, ‘the Other’ and ‘otherness’, it was the last empty space on my bullshit bingo card. What does ‘otherness’ mean here? That aristocrats aren’t like you and me? That, dressed up in fake Greek robes, leaning against a classical pillar in a broad landscape, they seem like visions from another world? Better to say ‘otherness’. Makes it sound as if you understand complex and only-hinted-at deeply intellectual ideas (taken, in fact, from Jacques Lacan and other French theorists).

2. Starchy prose style

It’s peculiar the way art scholars combine these flashy buzzwords from Critical Theory (interrogate, subvert, gender, identity, The Other) with creaky old phrases which sound as if they’ve come from the mouth of a dowager duchess.

It’s as if Lady Bracknell had read a dummy’s guide to Critical Theory and was trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords into her plummy, old-fashioned idiolect. For example, art scholars always prefer ‘within’ to ‘in’, ‘amongst’ to among, and ‘whilst’ to while – versions of common English words which help them sound grander.

Some contemporary critics thought Reynolds’s experiments with oil and painting techniques meant his works would eventually decay and disintegrate. Mark Hallett says:

The fact that an exhibition including paintings such as these is now taking place, more than two hundred years after Reynolds’s death, helps put paid to such aspersions.

‘Helps put paid to such aspersions’? Isn’t that the voice of Lady Bracknell? ‘I should certainly hope, Mr Moncrieff, that in future you shall keep your aspersions and animadversions to yourself.’

3. Thin content

See above where I’ve highlighted the relative lack of new or interesting insights in the four critical essays, which can’t be concealed by tarting them up with references to the eighteenth century ‘glitterati’ or Andy Warhol.

Sometimes the essays descend to the bathetic. When we read that scholar Richard Wendorf has written a paper in which he observes that

Reynolds was adept at cultivating patrons through observing the rules of polite society

we are straying close to the University of the Bleeding Obvious.

When we learn that Reynolds sometimes flouted these rules in order to create a Bohemian effect, in order to copy the more raffish end of the aristocratic spectrum of behaviour, it feels like a variation on the obvious, and hardly something which required an entire essay to ‘explain’.


Conclusion

Having read the four essays twice, what you take away is that Reynolds specialised in painting portraits of famous people, this ensured the portraits were much talked about, written about and commented on by the larger-than-ever number of daily newspapers and magazines, and encouraged other famous people to commission their portraits from him, all of which boosted his professional career.

And that he was canny in using the means available to him – aristocratic patrons, choosing famous people to paint – famous soldiers, sailors, aristocrats, courtesans, writers and fellow artists – socialising and hosting grand dinners, joining top clubs, getting supporters to talk him up in the press, and encouraging the distribution of prints of his work – to build a successful and profitable career.

All of these were strategies adopted by most of his contemporaries were doing. He just did it better.

I’m confident making a statement like that because I’ve just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which places the great man in the incredibly busy, buzzing, competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of Georgian London, and  gives extended portraits of scores and scores of his peers, rivals, colleagues and competitors.

It shows how British society changed during Reynolds’s long career, from his earliest paintings in the 1740s to his last ones in 1790. He changed, art changed, society changed.

None of the essays in this catalogue have much space to play with and so these art scholars play very fast and loose with the historical record, yanking together quotes and events which were actually far separated in time, in order to impose on the people and culture of a very different society the modish contemporary art scholar concerns of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘celebrity’.

The point being: these essays are actually quite an unreliable introduction to the life and career of Joshua Reynolds, written at the behest of a gallery with an agenda and a marketing plan. By all means buy or borrow this book for its wonderful reproductions of the paintings. But read the McIntyre biography to understand the man and his times.

Unanswered questions

Having read both MacIntyre’s book and this catalogue, I still have a couple of unanswered questions:

1. They both tell me that History Painting was meant to be the highest and most prestigious genre of the day. In which case, how come the greatest painter of the age, Reynolds, didn’t paint any history paintings, and neither did his closest rivals, Allan Ramsay or Thomas Gainsborough?

2. Why are there so many black servants in 18th century portraits?


Related links

Blog posts about the 18th century

Käthe Kollwitz: Portrait of the Artist edited by Frances Grady and Max Egremont (2019)

This is the catalogue to accompany the recent Käthe Kollwitz exhibition at the British Museum.

The two or three essays in the book include:

Käthe Kollwitz’s biography

Born Käthe Schmidt in 1867, left-wing upbringing, married a left-wing doctor (Karl Kollwitz) who practiced in the slums of Berlin, specialised in prints, devoted herself to left-wing subjects i.e. lives of the working poor, plus historic subjects e.g. a weavers’ rebellion, sent son off to the Great War and he was killed within weeks, decades of mourning and grief and obsession with death.

Detailed looks at Kollwitz’s major print series

  • A Weavers Revolt (1898)
  • The Peasants War (1902-8)
  • War (1922-3)
  • Death (1932-7)

A lifelong obsession with death

What comes over from the essays is Kollwitz’s obsession with death – possibly, as one essay suggests, as a result of the death of some of her siblings in infancy – definitely compounded by the poverty, sickness and death she saw all around her in the slums of Berlin.

She was unnaturally, morbidly attracted to the subject in the 1890s and 1900s, well before she made the fateful decision to help her beloved son Peter enlist into the army in the first weeks of the Great War, despite him being under age, only for him to be killed a matter of weeks later. The guilt must have been staggering.

From that point onwards, Death and the grief of mothers was to become her enduring subject.

The prints

The factual content of the book, then, is solid but not revelatory, and all the images are hedged around with an extreme of scholarly punctiliousness and accuracy. After all, this is a reference book for other scholars as much as an introduction to us lay people.

No, the reason for owning the book is not for the biography, detailed though it is – but for the quality of the reproductions, including close-ups of many of the key prints. These let you really savour the details, and make them even more powerful and moving.

Some of her images can be a bit clunky, some of the faces in the weaker pictures are less than persuasive, even though her figure drawing and composition are almost always powerful and commanding. But at her best, there’s a solid body of work of breath-taking power and depth which surely make Kollwitz one of the great artists of the twentieth century.

Self portrait 1912

Kollwitz did at least 50 self-portraits and no portraits of anyone else, hence the focus of the BM exhibition and of this book. They are no frills, no pretense records of a journey through a hard life and a gruelling era of history.

Black and white charcoal drawing of an old lady's face

Self-portrait by Käthe Kollwitz (1912) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Woman with dead child (1903)

The most finished or prominent feature is the woman’s left knee and then, perhaps, her big left foot. This isn’t a dainty Rococo woman or an air-brushed sex object. This is a cave woman, Cro-Magnon Woman. No frills or make-up, no sexuality, just blunt primeval human feeling with extraordinary power.

Black and white drawing of a primitive, almost ape-like woman clasping the body of her teenage son

Woman with Dead Child by Käthe Kollwitz (1903) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Unemployment (1909)

A large reproduction lets you see the fullness with which the baby and the children’s faces have been gently etched, and brings out the contrast between their soft child faces and the rest of the spare, scratchy, shadowy scene, the gaunt shadowed face of the exhausted mother.

Black and white drawing of an ill-looking woman tucked up in bed, holding a small baby, with several other small children asleep on the bedding, while the dark image of her husband sits and broods beside the bed

Unemployment by Käthe Kollwitz (1909) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Arming in a vault (1906)

From 1789 to 1989, the great theme of European history – terror of uncontrolled, violent revolution from below.

Very dark image of a hoard of people armed with axes and spears and halberds thronging catacombs and, on the right of the image, surging up a very steep staircase, presumably into the light of day

Arming in a Vault by Käthe Kollwitz (1906) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Call of Death (1937)

Here I come, ready or not.

Stark, primitive black and white charcoal drawing of a bald woman with an ape-like head, hear arms across her chest so you're not sure of her gender, and from the top right a veined and bony hand reaching down to touch her - the touch of Death

Call of Death by Käthe Kollwitz (1937) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This is the eighth and final image in Kollwitz’s final series of prints which was titled, simply, Death. 

In fact it’s also a self-portrait as a glance at the 1912 self-portrait confirms – but now without hair, without any attributes which identify her gender. Just raw, elemental human.

In the Death series, completed before the Blitzkrieg and Stalingrad and Warsaw, before the Holocaust and the camps, it is as if Kollwitz has plumbed the depths of human experience, not in the relatively superficial terms of despair or emotion, but reaching far deeper down than that, to a grunting, primeval, prehistoric stratum of human experience.

Tell me what you think





Related links

Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Aubrey Beardsley must be the most distinctive British artist. If you see any of his mature works, they are immediately recognisable and almost always deeply satisfying, their elegance of line and composition emphasised by the stylish use of huge areas of unmediated black or white, and the sophistication of his sensually charged portrayal of the human figure.

The Black Cape, illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) Photo © Tate

This exhibition is a feast of Beardsleiana, bringing together 200 spectacular works to make the largest display of his original drawings in over 50 years and the first exhibition of his work at Tate since 1923.

The wall labels to the fifteen or so sections the exhibition is divided into are available online:

And it contains a detailed timeline of his career. Rather than repeat all that, I’ll just single out what were, for me, the key learnings or best bits.

Key learnings

As he turned 18 and needed a job, Beardsley got a job working in an insurance office which, as you might imagine, he hated. What other early modern ‘great’ worked in an insurance office, created a distinctive body of work, and died of tuberculosis? Franz Kafka

Arts & Crafts It is interesting to see Beardsley’s tremendous indebtedness to Arts & Crafts ideas of total design, and the importance of intertwining flower and stem motifs. And considering he was only 19!

Withered Spring by Aubrey Beardsley (1891)

Beardsley began his career just as William Morris was producing his luxury designed books from the Kelmscott Press. The curators usefully summarise the elements of a Kelmscott production as:

  • elaborate decorated borders
  • decorated initial letters
  • full page illustration

The hair-line style The exhibition shows how Beardsley quickly moved from this relatively ‘heavy’ line to move to the extreme opposite, to complex compositions which are covered in a crazy network of super-fine lines. The curators call this his ‘hair line’ style.

How Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley (1893) Victoria and Albert Museum

It is also an early example of Beardsley slipping surreptitious rudeness or irrelevancies into his pictures. At the bottom left of the ‘river bank’, right up against the frame, is the silhouette of an erect penis and scrotum. Towards the top right is a concealed treble clef.

Morte d’Arthur The picture above is one of the Morte d’Arthur series which made Beardsley’s reputation. He was commissioned to make a hefty 353 illustrations for a new edition of the Morte by publisher J.M. Dent, including full and double-page illustrations, elaborate border designs and numerous small-scale ornamental chapter headings.

However, Beardsley quickly became bored and irked by the subject limitations and began introducing extraneous elements and flights of fancy. Thus the picture above is supposed to be of a medieval knight and a dragon though you wouldn’t really think so. Most disruptive of all is the presence of a pan or satyr from Greek mythology, absolutely nothing to do with medieval legend.

Japanese influence The exhibition includes one print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a lovely coloured woodblock which exemplifies the kind of Japanese influence which impacted European art from the 1870s onwards, and influenced everyone with their:

  • abstract depiction of pictorial space
  • linear intricacy
  • emphasis on flat pattern

Kakemonokakemono is a Japanese hanging scroll used to display and exhibit paintings and calligraphy inscriptions and designs mounted usually with silk fabric edges on a flexible backing, so that it can be rolled for storage. It is a distinctly different shape from traditional Western portrait shape, and Beardsley was to incorporate it into many later works.

Mantegna Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a key influence for Beardsley. The Italian was famous for his frescos and murals showing parades and processions and groups of people, and Beardsley used ideas and figures and compositions from Mantegna throughout his career. Even in his last accommodation, a hotel room in the south of France, he had a set of photos of works by Mantegna pinned to his wall. Indeed Beardsley produced several Mantegna-style processions, notably The Procession of Joan of Arc which was included as a foldout supplement to the second edition of The Studio magazine in 1892.

Wagnerite Beardsley was a keen fan of Wagner, attending productions of his operas and illustrating scenes from them. He had ambitions as a writer as well as illustrator and in his last few years worked at a text which was a comic version of the legend of Tannhäuser which Wagner had made into an opera. Given the working title of the Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, excerpts were eventually published in The Savoy magazine under the title Under The Hill, an oddly Hobbit-like title for such a grand Wagnerian subject.

Photo Lineblock Just as important for the quick evolution of Beardsley’s style was the introduction in the 1890s of the new technology of photo lineblock printing, a photomechanical process. Beardsley was disappointed at the poor reproduction of his washes and shading using this new method, but quickly adapted and made a virtue of leaving large areas of a page completely untouched, others pure black, and ensuring the lines and patterns were crisp and clear. The result is startling.

How la Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram by Aubrey Beardsley (c.1893) Alessandra and Simon Wilson

In fact this picture is singled out by the curators as exemplifying another of Beardsley’s traits which was his extraordinary ability to assimilate influences and make them his own. Thus the curators point out in this image:

  • Isoud resembles Jane Morris, with the classic pre-Raphaelite jutting chin and mountain of frizzy hair
  • the Germanic form of the desk is borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s engraving St Jerome in his Study
  • the flattened use of space recalls the influence of Japanese prints
  • whereas the elaborate border of intertwining flower motifs recalls Arts & Crafts designs

Salomé In 1892 Beardsley made a drawing in response to Salomé, Oscar Wilde’s play, originally written in French and based on the biblical story. Wilde admired the drawing and he and his publisher, John Lane, chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley produced eighteen designs in total, of which only ten appeared in the first printing of the play. Publisher John Lane suppressed or censored three of Beardsley’s illustrations for their overt sexual references, in particular when female characters’ hands are wandering towards their privates, as if about to masturbate, or unnecessary depictions of the male characters’ phalluses.

The Climax – illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1893) by Aubrey Beardsley. Photo © Tate

The Yellow Book The exhibition clarified the timeline around the Yellow Book, and has an entire room devoted to it. Beardsley was made its art editor at its inception in 1894 and contributed the front and back covers for the first five editions. But Beardsley was closely associated with Oscar Wilde (having contributed a suite of illustrations for Wilde’s ‘immoral’ play about Salome), and so soon after Wilde’s arrest in May 1895, Beardsley was fired from the Yellow Book.

On one of the days of his trial, Wilde was seen going into court holding a copy of the Yellow Book and that clinched it for the angry mobs and journalists outside. The offices of the Yellow Book’s publishers, Bodley Head, were attacked by a mob who smashed its windows. In order tonsure the survival of the firm, and its staff, and the continuity of publication of the magazine and all his other titles, publisher John Lane had little choice but to distance himself from Beardsley. The sixth volume, of July 1895, still had the cover and several illustrations by Beardsley but he no longer worked for it. (Later it transpired that Wilde hadn’t been holding a copy of the Yellow Book at all, but a French novel, which tended to be published with yellow covers.)

The Yellow Book Volume I (1894) bound volume. Photo © Tate

It looks as if you can examine every volume of the Yellow Book, all its literary and art contents, online

The room has an example of all five volumes of the Yellow Book that Beardsley was involved with. I’ve read about it ever since I was a teenager at school forty years ago, but I don’t think I’d ever seen a copy before and certainly not six. I’d always envisioned it as magazine-size, but it does indeed look like a hardback book, in size and shape and leather binding.

Beardsley’s work desk The exhibition includes the very table or desk which Beardsley used during his glory years. Standing a few feet from it, it is hard to imagine that the man produced all these pitch-perfect works without the aid of architects’ tools or computers – just him, a ruler and a pen.

Beardsley’s address With the money he made from the Salome illustrations and a small legacy Beardsley bought a house at 111 Cambridge Street, Pimlico with his mother and sister, Mabel, to both of whom he remained very close throughout his short life. Only a few hundred yards from Tate Britain where this exhibition is being held…

Oscar Wilde Wilde was an established writer when he saw the first of Beardsley’s drawings and immediately liked them. He approved the suggestion that Beardsley illustrate the original French version of Salomé and they socialised. So far, so well known. I hadn’t realised that Beardsley satirised Wilde quite so much. There are straightforward lampoons of the increasingly fat and pompous aesthete, but he also slyly slips Wilde’s epicene features into numerous other illustrations, in one giving the moon the eyes and nose of Wilde.

The Woman in the Moon by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

The Rape of The Lock is the title of Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic 18th century satire. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that ‘rape’ in the title doesn’t mean rape in our modern sense, but the older sense of ‘theft’ or stealing away. Thus Pope conceived an extended poem which uses all the devices and machinery of the classical epic to describe how one jaded aristocrat cuts a lock of hair from the head of another jaded aristocrat, and this leads to a feud between their families. Believe it or not this elaborate literary joke extends to five cantos with many extended scenes. Beardsley created nine photo-engravings for an 1896 republication of the poem, five of which are on display here for the first time.

Beardsley had been a fan of 18th century rococo prints, maybe because they – like him – are sophisticated, worldly, stylish and much more open about sexuality than the Victorians. The exhibition shows us some of the original 18th century prints which Beardsley bought at auction in Paris, and then goes on to show all the Pope pictures.

The Dream by Aubrey Beardsley (1896) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

What’s immediately obvious is the that the stark clarity of the Salome illustrations has been abandoned for a much more elaborate style, characterised above all by the stippling that creates a sort of lace doily effect on almost all the fabrics. And look at the patterning of the carpet. A long way from the stark black and white of the Salome illustrations. Many critics thought these his best works as an illustrator.

Posters the 1890s were the glory decade for poster design in Paris, led by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and Jules Chéret. I didn’t realise Beardsley produced a number of posters which modified his own style to take on board the need for a) size b) colour.

There’s a room devoted to half a dozen of his posters, none of which match the quality of Lautre or Chéret, and most of which are advertiser’s promotions of new ranges of childrens books or books by women, alongside promotional posters for The Yellow Book and several plays and operas. The section contains the telling quote:

I have no great care for colour, but [in posters] colour is essential.

‘I have no great care for colour’. Worth pondering. And relevant to the one and only oil painting Beardsley is known to have made.

Oil painting There’s a rare outing for Beardsley’s only oil painting and you can see why – it’s rubbish. His entire style was built around absences, around huge areas of untouched whiteness. Trying to translate that into oil, which specialises in depth and shadow, was a hopeless task.

Porn After Beardsley was sacked from The Yellow Book, almost the only publisher who would use his drawings was Leonard Smithers. Smithers operated on the fringes of the rare book trade, issuing small, clandestine editions of risqué books with the boast: ‘I will publish the things the others are afraid to touch’. Smithers encouraged Beardsley’s already growing interest in risqué French, Latin and Greek texts and commissioned drawings to illustrate the Satires of the late Roman poet Juvenal and, most famously, Aristophanes’s bawdy satirical play Lysistrata.

In Lysistrata the women of Athens go on a sex strike, refusing to have sex with their menfolk until they stop the ridiculous war against Sparta. Beardsley made eight outrageously sexual illustrations for Smithers’ edition. Among other subjects, this is the set which includes start, beautifully made black and white line drawings of ancient Greeks with humongous erect penises. Maybe if you’re very young or innocent these are ‘shocking’ images, but to the modern viewer they are vaguely reassuring, certainly humorous. The two figures on the right are mildly realistic but it’s the guy on the left who gets the attention, not because of  his phallus as such but because the entire character is obviously created for grotesque comedy.

Illustration for Lysistrata by Aubrey Beardsley (1896)

The grotesque He knew he was attracted to ‘the grotesque’ and there is a wall label which usefully explains the origins of the grotesque in art. Grotesque originally referred to the decoration of grottos, and came to denote the depiction of deliberately hybrid and monstrous forms, which often combined body parts from different animals, like a centaur or mermaid. As the man himself said:

I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as I draw them. .. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.

Foetuses Nobody knows to this day why he drew so many foetuses, either as insets in frames or as characters in the more grotesque illustrations. Maybe it was simply because they are a kind of quintessence of the grotesque.

My favourite Venus framed by two statues of male gods in the form of herms (a sculpture with a head and perhaps a torso above a plain, usually squared lower section’). I like it because of its formal precision, its symmetry which is, however, broken by the asymmetric sway of Venus’s long dress. I like it because there is no indecency, boobs or penises in sight. Instead there is a sense of genuine menace from the devil eyes of the two herms. And I like it because it is a kind of reversion or revisiting of the Arts & Crafts theme of incredibly ornately interwoven bushes, stems and flowers of (I think) roses. But mostly because it is a pleasingly complete, formal, complex and rather threatening image.

Venus between Terminal Gods (1895) Drawing with india ink by Aubrey Beardsley. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford

Walter Sickert Almost the best thing in the exhibition is the full-length portrait painting of Beardsley made by the English painter Walter Sickert, after they’d both attended a commemoration ceremony for John Keats. Its sketchy unfinished quality makes it a haunting gesture to the memory of the dandy and artist who died aged just 25.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Sickert (1894)

Crucifix The exhibition includes the last photo of Beardsley, taken in the hotel room in the Hotel Cosmopolitain in Menton where he had gone in search of a warmer dryer climate which would be more favourable to his tuberculosis. The photo shows Beardsley looking tremendously smart in a suit and well-polished shoes opposite a wall on which are pinned reproductions of his beloved Mantegna, and a mantelpiece on which sits a crucifix.

Because although I’ve probably read it numerous times, I’d forgotten that in his last months Beardsley converted to Catholicism. He died holding a crucifix. Just a few days before he died he wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers asking him to destroy all of Beardsley’s risqué images, the Lysistrata illustrations etc. Smithers refused and so they were saved for generations of schoolboys to giggle over.

Who does a deathbed request to destroy his works which its address completely ignored remind you of? Franz Kafka.

Film There is a room with benches so you can watch Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s 1923 silent movie version of Salomé immediately following the room of Beardsley’s illustrations. For some reason the gallery lights had been left on full power in this room which made it harder to see the image on the screen.

Legacy The exhibition closes with a sketchy overview of Beardsley’s legacy from his influence on the long sinuous lines of Art Nouveau via a string of now mostly forgotten book illustrators who copied his style (Harry Clarke, Hans Henning Voigt) through the revival of Beardley’s reputation and style which was sparked by a major retrospective of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1966 which led to the incorporation of Beardsleyesque black and white swirling lines into lots of psychedelic posters and, most famously of all, into the portrait of the four Beatles in the cover art for their LP Revolver.

Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley 1893 by Frederick Evans. Photo-etching and platinum print on paper. Wilson Centre for Photography

This is a long, very thorough, exhaustive and informative exhibition about a truly world class and utterly distinctive English artist.

Curators

  • Caroline Corbeau-Parsons, Curator of British Art 1850 – 1915
  • Stephen Calloway
  • with Alice Insley, Assistant Curator of Historic British Art

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

British Baroque: Power and Illusion @ Tate Britain

British Baroque: Power and Illusion covers art and architecture (and gardens and sculpture and oddities and gimmicks) from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 to the death of Queen Anne in 1714. The big word in the title is Baroque but it’s a problematic term and by the end of the exhibition I was left wondering, in my non-scholarly way, whether any of the art on display here actually qualifies for the description ‘Baroque’.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio (c.1674) The Royal Collection / HM Queen Elizabeth II

1. Dates

Traditionally, in art h istory, the term Baroque denotes Power – Religious and Royal Power. Baroque art and architecture are big, heavy and imposing.

The Baroque is one of the major Periods of Western Art, preceded by the Renaissance and Mannerism and followed by the Rococo. The dates usually given are:

  • Early Renaissance 1400-1495
  • High Renaissance 1495-1520
  • Mannerism 1520-1600
  • the Baroque 1600-1740
  • Rococo 1730s-1760s
  • Neo-Classicism 1760-1830

The convention is to date the Baroque from the early 1600s, at least in Italy and on the Continent. It is a striking decision by the curators to delay it as late as 1660 for this exhibition, though you can see why – England was always slow to adopt developments in continental art and architecture.

Some outliers and pioneers may have been introducing ‘baroque’ styles into the English court in the 1620s and 1630s (the designer and architect Inigo Jones is often mentioned), but then all artistic and architectural endeavour was suspended during the great cataclysm of the British civil wars, which lasted:

  • from the rebellion in Scotland in 1637
  • through the civil wars in England (1642-48)
  • the execution of King Charles I in 1649
  • continued wars in Scotland and Ireland into the early 1650s
  • the rule of Oliver Cromwell from 1653 till his death in 1658
  • the collapse of the Parliamentarian regime in 1658-59
  • to the triumphant restoration of Charles II in 1660

Quite obviously the commissioning of royal art and architecture was put on hold for the whole of this war-torn and then republican period.

So starting the exhibition in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II provides a neat, clean starting point to a period which was distinctive in music (Purcell), literature (Dryden, Restoration Comedy) and philosophy (John Locke), as well as architecture (Christopher Wren) and art (Peter Lely) – the subjects specifically covered in this exhibition.

Plus – England was always late. Stuck up here on the remote periphery of Europe, England was late to experience all the trends which originated in the Mediterranean heartland. Thus Renaissance art and literature was flourishing in Italy in the 1400s but we date ‘our’ Renaissance period from the 1530s or later. Literature students tend to equate it with the reign of Queen Elizabeth which started in 1558, getting on for 150 years after the Renaissance started in Italy, by which time the Italians had been all the way through the Renaissance, High Renaissance and Mannerism. During the 18th century the motor for artistic innovation moved to France and stayed there until, arguably, the First World War, maybe beyond.

Anyway, for centuries the Europeans were waaaay ahead of us Brits. Mind you, we had something they didn’t have, which was an empire to set up and run.

2. The term ‘Baroque’

Its origin is obscure. It seems to derive from the Portuguese barocco meaning, ‘irregular pearl or stone’, i.e. a technical term in jewellery for a kind of pearl which was not perfectly round: for a pearl which was ugly and misshapen.

It seems that early uses of the term ‘baroque’ were all negative and used to criticise unnecessary complication and ugliness which were creeping into art. The word was never used by the artists or architects actually working during the ‘Baroque’ period; it wasn’t a self-conscious movement like Cubism.

Baroque is a term which was imposed a long time later, by late-eighteenth century or nineteenth century historians who, looking back, needed terms to assign to all the ‘period’s they wanted to divide art history into.

The Annunciation by Benedetto Gennari (1686) The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the State Art Museum of Florida

3. The origins of the Baroque in the Counter-Reformation

Articles about the Baroque all point to its origins in the Councils of Trent, the organisational centre of the Counter-Reformation.

In 1517 the monk Martin Luther had nailed his theses about theology to the door of his local church (in fact a traditional way to announce a theological debate). Luther called for a revolution in all aspects of European Catholicism, sweeping away scores of central dogmas and traditions and ceremonies which he regarded as later additions, corrupt folklore and legends and superstitions and inventions which had been grafted onto what was originally the pure and spartan teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four gospels.

Many German princes and north European kings took Luther’s teachings as an opportunity to throw off the shackles of Catholic rule from Italy, and within a generation a host of independent ‘Protestant’ churches and states had been established across northern Europe, not least in England where Henry VIII rejected rule of his church from Italy by an Italian pope and declared himself head of a newly-styled Church of England.

One aspect of the Protestant revolt had been aesthetic. In rejecting the cults of saints and relics – the excessive worship of Mary Mother of God and a host of other Catholic traditions – the really revolutionary Protestants (who came to be nicknamed the Puritans, in England) cleaned out their churches, smashing statues, defacing medieval paintings, burning wooden rood screens and so on in an orgy of iconoclasm.

Result: by the 1550s or so European Christianity existed in two forms, a stripped-down, militantly white-walled protestant form held in bit white undecorated halls – and a defiantly gold candelabra-ed, smells and bells Catholicism performed in churches crammed with statues of saints and the crucified Christ and a blue-robed Mary.

In light of the Protestant attacks, the Catholic authorities called a series of congresses at Trent (Trento in northern Italy) to thrash out just what they did agree on, in order to redefine every element of Catholic theology and practice, to create a new, stronger, more centralised ideology. Reacting against what had become known as the Protestant Reformation, this fightback became known as the Counter-Reformation.

Among a host of new theological and administrative rules emerged a belief that Catholic churches, Catholic aesthetics, should defy the know-nothing, philistine, iconoclastic, whitewash-everything Protestants and build their churches on an even more elaborate scale.

Catholic architecture should be enormous, characterised by domes soaring into heaven and festooned with flocks of angels and risen Christs flying over the heads of the congregation. Every nook should be full of florid statues of saints in the agony of their martyrdoms, and the authorities encouraged a style where every fold of their robes and cloaks became more and more elaborate, intricate and charged with emotion.

Italian Catholicism deliberately set out to be as flamboyant, as big, as majestic and as over-awing as could be achieved in buildings, statuary and painting. This is the key impulse behind the new heavy, elaborate, contorted and highly emotional style which later ages were to term the Baroque.

Examples of the Baroque: from top left: The interior of the church of Santa Maria, Rome; The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio; The Trevi Fountain in Rome, designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed by Giuseppe Pannini in 1732.

4. Royal Power

Not surprisingly, kings liked this style. ‘Big, imposing, overpowering, yep that’s me’ was the thought of rulers all over Europe, who proceeded to commission artists and architects to copy this new, super-solid, massive and imposing architectural and artistic style in their realms, from Poland to the Palace of Westminster.

It’s important to remember that, although he rarely features in histories of the civil war and Republic, Charles II was very much alive during all the events and where was he living? In the French court of Louis XIV (in fact the extended reign of Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King more than matches the entire period covered in this exhibition, he reigned from 1645 to 1715.)

Thus Charles didn’t just return in triumph to the palace of Westminster and resume all the rights and accoutrements of a king of England; he returned:

  • with his head full of European theories about the Divine Right of Kings
  • with the example of Louis XIV firmly in his mind about how to be such a king
  • and with his imagination packed with the architectural and artistic achievements of the French courtly builders and painters

It was under Louis XIV in the 1680s that the Palace of Versailles was redesigned and rebuilt to become the largest and grandest royal palace in Europe. Charles had watched his French peer think and plan on the grandest scale.

The British Baroque

So that’s a brief background to the ascent of the supposed Baroque style in Britain. But was it really Baroque? Here’s one of the thousands of definitions you can find on the internet:

The Baroque style is characterized by exaggerated motion and clear detail used to produce drama, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, architecture, literature, dance, and music. Baroque iconography was direct, obvious, and dramatic, intending to appeal above all to the senses and the emotions.

If the Baroque is anything it is dramatic, operatic and exuberant, grand gestures in enormous buildings, huge and heavy marble statues, imposing porticos. Histrionic is a good word.

But after a few sort-of grand paintings in the first room (such as The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review), the exhibition leads into a room of court beauties, a handful of Charles II’s many mistresses – and ‘grand’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘exuberant’ are not really the words which describe these paintings at all.

Barbara Palmer (née Villiers), Duchess of Cleveland with her son, probably Charles Fitzroy, as the Virgin and Child by Peter Lely (c.1664). National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s a nice pillar in this painting and, to those in the know about painterly symbolism, the Duchess of Villiers is wearing the bright red and blue traditionally associated in Renaissance painting with the Virgin Mary, but… It’s not really ‘grand’, ‘melodramatic’ or ‘histrionic’, is it? In fact Barbara’s snub nose, poky little mouth and bulbous eyes are more homely than grand and intimidating.

The seed of doubt whether the term ‘baroque’ really applies to the British art and architecture of the period is sown early and crops up throughout the rest of the exhibition.

The Sea Triumph of Charles II by Antonio Verrio at the top of this review is certainly an elaborate allegorical composition and contains a neat pyramid of tumbling sea nymphs and sea goddesses and so on, but the figure the whole composition leads you to… Charles II’s black moustachioed face of an old debauchee… to me it completely lacks awe or grandeur or dignity.

To me Charles looks a bit of a twerp, as if his face has been photoshopped onto a foreign fantasia.

There’s a moment in the room devoted to architecture where we learn about the murals the painter Sir James Thornhill was commissioned to create to decorate the dome of Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent new St Paul’s Cathedral. They are a series of large murals depicting scenes from the life of St Paul, so far so good. But then we learn that he rendered them in black and white in order to be restrained and dignified and to suit the Protestant atmosphere of what was, in effect, the world’s first Protestant cathedral.

Restrained? That’s like saying we’re going to an all-night Brazilian samba party and we’re going to drink lemonade and dance the waltz.

It is completely against the spirit of the Baroque. The baroque is drama and opera and huge flights of angels soaring up into vast church domes. But that isn’t the English spirit at all. The English spirit then as now is faaar more sensible and restrained and undemonstrative.

A glaring indicator of this was the simple lack of religious imagery throughout the show. Of the exhibition’s ten rooms, only one is devoted to religious imagery and that one is virtually empty. The only interesting thing in it is a wonderful carved wooden cover for a font by Grinling Gibbons which is all Italianate grapes and leaves, with a few winged putti holding up the swags, but there’s nothing particularly Christian about it. Certainly none of the agony and ecstasy and religious melodrama of the Italian Baroque. There are no bleeding saints rolling their eyes to heaven.

Font cover from All Hallows by the Tower church, London, by Grinling Gibbons, carefully avoiding all religious imagery whatsoever

Instead, what comes over is the way British and foreign painters domesticated the brash, grand, outdoors Italian Baroque for a culture which is far more indoors, domestic and family-orientated.

The Children of John Taylor of Bifrons Park by John Closterman (1696) National Portrait Gallery, London

There’s as much, in fact I think there’s more in the exhibition about the late 17th century fashion for trompe l-oeil optical illusions in paint as there is for Christian imagery. We just didn’t go in for the melodrama, the agony in the garden, the upturned eyes of adoring angels and the flurried cloaks of muscular saints.

A quick review

Here’s a quick overview of the ten rooms and my highlights:

Room 1 – Restoration

Artists who returned with King Charles and became associated with his reign included Peter Lely, the King’s Principal Painter; Samuel Cooper, his official miniaturist; and the mural painter, Antonio Verrio.

Miniaturist? Yes there are a number of miniature portraits of Charles and leading courtiers. Couldn’t help thinking that the entire concept of a miniature is the exact opposite of the Baroque spirit which is to be as big and imposing as possible.

Room 2 – The Restoration Court

Contains classy but surprisingly restrained full-length portraits of half a dozen of Charles’s mistresses and assorted courtiers, including John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the rudest poet in English, one of whose poems begins:

Much wine had passed, with grave discourse
Of who fucks who, and who does worse
(Such as you usually do hear
From those that diet at the Bear),
When I, who still take care to see
Drunkenness relieved by lechery,
Went out into St. James’s Park
To cool my head and fire my heart.
But though St. James has th’ honor on ‘t,
‘Tis consecrate to prick and cunt…

What is really striking about these portraits is nothing to do with Power and Magnificence, and everything to do with the extremely stylised depictions of their faces. They all look the same. All the women have the same rounded faces, long noses, white skin relieved by heavily rouged cheeks and, above all, the same rather bulbous eyes, the overlids and underlids of the eyes deliberately shadowed to create a sense of an unhealthy prominence of the eyeball.

Two Ladies of the Lake Family by Sir Peter Lely (c.1660) Tate

Room 3 – The religious interior

As I’ve mentioned, a thin collection. Some surviving paintings and wall paintings from the Catholic chapels in London, at St James’s Palace and Somerset House, where the Catholic consorts Catherine of Braganza (Charles’s wife) and Mary of Modena (James II’s wife) enjoyed freedom of worship, providing a focal point for the Catholic community.

But this was a very small, constrained part of English life or architecture.

Room 4 – Illusion and Deception

Much more fun, much more interesting, and much more English, is this room full of fashionable trompe l-oeil optical illusions. Highlights include a series of paintings by Edward Collier of items apparently pinned to a real wooden board or held in place by tape, which appear astonishingly lifelike and three-dimensional.

There’s an elaborate peepshow by Samuel van Hoogstraten: you look through a little pinhole to the side and see what looks like a realistic interior of a house with rooms giving off in front of you and to the side. There’s Chatsworth’s famous violin painted as if hanging on the back of a door, and the hyper-real flower paintings of Simon Verelst which looked so real that they fooled the diarist Samuel Pepys.

A Vase of Flowers by Simon Verelst (1669)

Room 5 – Wren and Baroque architecture

Here, in the magnificent churches designed by Christopher Wren and his student Nicholas Hawksmoor, with the Queens House and other buildings built at Greenwich and plans to rebuild Whitehall Palace after it burned down, and the country houses designed by the later John Vanbrugh, you approach something like the continental Baroque in scale and ambition.

But as the story of Sir James Thornhill’s murals indicates, it is a European style which has been restrained, watered down and made sensible.

Room 6 – Country mansions and courtly gardens

How Hampton Court was remodelled to be more like Versailles and so was William III’s grand Het Loo Palace in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands. Diagrams and paintings of Chatsworth and Bleinheim, the grandest of grand English country houses.

Paintings of huge, geometric, symmetric formal gardens.

Room 7 – Painted interiors

This was maybe my favourite room. It contains a photo of the vast and sumptuous mural on the ceiling of the dining room at Old Greenwich Palace, and is lined by preparatory paintings of other vast mythological murals by the likes of Antonio Verrio and Louis Chéron and Sir James Thornhill.

Apparently, it was the arrival of seasoned muralist Verrio in England in 1672 which sparked a new fashion for grandiose murals, and it’s in these (essentially private) murals – vast compositions awash with Greek mythical or allegorical figures  that you get closest to thinking the English had a Baroque period or style.

Lower Hall ceiling of the Painted Hall at the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich by Sir James Thornhill

But what I really liked was the preparatory sketches for these works. The exhibition includes huge sketchbooks in which Thornhill sketched out his initial designs and compositions for various murals. For me, these rough sketches often had more energy, vim and dynamism that the finished works.

In particular, the human shapes and faces, although left as rough outlines, somehow, have more character and vibrancy than the smooth finished oil paintings, in many of which Thornhill has had to defer to the peculiar contemporary style of restoration faces, with their rounded features and bulging eyes.

Thornhill’s sketches are fun, mad profusions of tumbling cartoon characters. This one shows a grand mythological scene which was clearly designed to cover the wall of a staircase (hence the 45 degree angle at the bottom left): at the bottom-right Venus is being born from the waves; watched from the left by Neptune King of the oceans holding his triton; and above her a frothing scramble of other gods and goddesses.

A Ceiling and Wall Decoration (circa 1715-25) by Sir James Thornhill

Room 8 – Beauty

A striking and inventive piece of curating in which the Tate has taken seven of eight massive, full-length portrait paintings of English society beauties and made an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the kind of grand drawing room they would have adorned. They’re selections from two series of paintings:

  • The Hampton Court Beauties, a set of eight full-length portraits, commissioned by Mary II in 1690–1
  • The Petworth Beauties, commissioned by the 6th Duke and Duchess of Somerset for their country mansion Petworth House

In a way, though, the real star of the room is the huge heavy wood furniture, adorned with gold clasps and legs modelled from what appear to pregnant black woman (!?) and which bear a set of massive Chinese vases. There are candelabra on the walls and one can only wish the curators had had the courage of their convictions and turned the gallery’s electric lights off and installed replica candles so we really could have seen what paintings like this would have looked like in the flickering candlelight of the 1690s.

Room 9 – Triumph and glory

Critics could easily complain that the exhibition doesn’t really describe or explain the complicated and momentous political events of the years 1660 to 1700, which saw not just the restoration of Charles II, but:

  • Charles’s death in 1685 and the succession of his brother, as King James II.
  • The rebellion of Charles’s eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who raised an army in the West Country, before being crushed by James’s army.
  • The so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 when James announced that he was going to raise his son by his second wife, Mary of Modena, a Catholic i.e. ensuring that the next in line to the English throne would definitely be a Catholic. At this point a cabal of leading aristocrats decided to overthrown James and invited William Prince of Orange (a state in the Low Country) to come and be King of Britain, using the fig leaf that William was the son of James’s dead sister, and also that his wife Mary was the eldest daughter of James II, the king she helped to overthrow.
  • Having secured the throne in England, William went on to defeat the Irish at the Battle of the Boyne in 1689, a defeat/victory which is commemorated to this day in Northern Ireland.
  • And the creation of the Bill of Rights and other constitutional devices which ensured the supremacy of Parliament and other legal rights which made Britain one of the most advanced and liberated nations on earth.

But then this is an art exhibition and not a history lesson.

The advent of William as King not only overthrew the House of Stuart but created two broad political parties among the political elite – those who remained true to the old Stuart line and came to be known as Tories, and those who moved to ingratiate themselves with the polemically Protestant new rule of this progressive king and came to be known as Whigs.

And it also drew Britain deep into European politics. We gained not only a new king but a new web of complex international alliances and enmities which this king brought with him, not least total opposition to the king of France’s ambitions for European hegemony.

And thus this room has paintings of William and various of his generals, in warlike pose, astride horses, in martial postures. The thing is… most of them are a bit rubbish. Here is a painting of Charles I on a horse by the genius Sir Anthony van Dyke back in the 1630s.

Charles I with M. de St Antoine by Sir Anthony van Dyck (1633)

Now here is a painting of King William III, portrayed as the victor of one of his innumerable endless wars, by Sir Godfrey Kneller.

William III on horseback with allegorical figures by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1701)

The van Dyck has genuine grace and dignity and regality. The Kneller has many good effects, but it’s just nowhere nearly as good as the van Dyck. And there’s something about those high wigs for men which is just… ludicrous. And whereas Charles is accompanied by a real retainer the chocolate box angels and putti flying above William are laughable.

(To be precise, the allegorical figures in the Kneller painting are: Neptune in shadow on the far left; Ceres and Flora [goddesses of fertility and crops] the two women on the right; Astrae [Justice] and Mercury [messenger of the gods] flying overhead.)

Room 10 – The Age of Politics

The constitutional and legal reforms which accompanied the Glorious Revolution which ushered in a new age. Formerly a king appointed a lead minister whose job it was to draw up policy and steer legislation through a mostly passive parliament until, that is, the increasing dissension which led up to the civil war.

Now it was agreed in law that parliamentary elections would be held every three years, and this ushered in a new era where groups and cabals of aristocrats came together to press for their own interests. It was the birth of parliamentary parties. And also the birth of an early form of journalism as magazines arose to cater to the taste for reading about the ever-more complex political intriguing and jockeying which was going on in and around Parliament, such as the original Spectator magazine, founded by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in 1711.

Thus it is that the final room contains portraits of leading lights of the is new world of intrigue, clubs and parties. There is a massive and unflattering portrait of Queen Anne (reigned 1702 to 1714) along with portraits of the members of the various clubs which had their origins at this time, including Kneller’s portraits of members of the Whig Kit-Cat Club, and this fine body of podgy, bewigged men – the leading figures in the Whig Junto as depicted by John James Baker.

The Whig Junto by John James Baker (1710) Tate

Conclusion

If you watch the Antiques Roadshow or flick through popular history, nobody refers to an English ‘baroque’ period – the eras and styles they refer to are the Restoration, or Queen Anne, or Georgian periods and styles (the Georgian began at Queen Anne’s death in 1714).

And the exhibition skimps on the enormous importance of the political events of the time, and skates very thinly over the momentous philosophical and scientific revolutions of the period – Newton discovering the laws of the universe and the nature of light, the Royal Society founded in 1660 and sponsoring all kinds of breakthrough in engineering, hydraulics, dynamics, the circulation of the blood and so on.

But then it’s an exhibition of art and architecture not a history lesson. And one of the most interesting lessons I took from it was how very unBaroque a lot of the art of this period was. In sharp contrast with the European Baroque, it was dedicatedly Protestant, unreligiose, unshowy, undramatic and often very tame and domestic in feel.

In fact walking slowly back through all ten rooms I came to the conclusion that in the entire exhibition there was only one real Baroque pieces, an enormous, fearfully heavy marble bust of Charles II made by the French-born, Genoa-based sculptor Honoré Pelle in 1684.

This, it struck me, was grand – large, imposing, showed its subject in a moment of movement, dramatised by the extraordinary realism of the cloak of fabric flying around his shoulders. This, for me, was by far the most convincing and successful Baroque work of art in the exhibition.

Charles II by Honoré Pelle (1684) Victoria and Albert Museum

Promotional video

Curators

  • Tabitha Barber, Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain
  • David Taylor, Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust
  • Tim Batchelor, Assistant Curator, British Art 1550-1750, Tate Britain

Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography @ the Barbican

Barbican Art does things big – exhaustively and exhaustingly BIG. To quote the press release:

Masculinities: Liberation through Photography is a major group exhibition that explores how masculinity is experienced, performed, coded and socially constructed as expressed and documented through photography and film from the 1960s to the present day.

The exhibition brings together over 300 works by over 50 pioneering international artists, photographers and filmmakers such as Richard Avedon, Peter Hujar, Isaac Julien, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annette Messager and Catherine Opie to show how photography and film have been central to the way masculinities are imagined and understood in contemporary culture.

300 works! I wonder if anyone’s ever done a study of the optimum number of works which should be included in an exhibition. Or the optimum number of contributors.

The Piranesi exhibition I went to last week contained 60 images and that was too many to process: I ended up studying about ten of the best. But 300 images! And over 50 contributors! Each with a long and detailed explanatory wall label explaining their career and motivation and the genesis and point of their particular exhibit.

It’s less like an exhibition than a degree course!

Untitled from the series Soldiers (1999) by Adi Nes. Courtesy Adi Nes & Praz-Delavallade Paris, Los Angeles

A degree course in Gender Studies. because Masculinities: Liberation through Photography tends to confirm my sense that, for many modern artists and for most modern art curators, gender and sexual identity are the only important subjects in the world. Thus, according to Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican:

‘In the wake of the #MeToo movement and the resurgence of feminist and men’s rights activism, traditional notions of masculinity have become the subject of fierce debate. This exhibition could not be more relevant and will certainly spark conversations surrounding our understanding of masculinity.’

In fact quoting this much makes me think it might be most effective simply to quote the entire press release, so you can see exactly where the Barbican Art curators are coming from, without any editorial comment by me. So here it is:

With ideas around masculinity undergoing a global crisis and terms such as ‘toxic’ and ‘fragile’ masculinity filling endless column inches, the exhibition surveys the representation of masculinity in all its myriad forms, rife with contradiction and complexity. Presented across six sections by over 50 international artists to explore the expansive nature of the subject, the exhibition touches on themes of queer identity, the black body, power and patriarchy, female perceptions of men, heteronormative hypermasculine stereotypes, fatherhood and family. The works in the show present masculinity as an unfixed performative identity shaped by cultural and social forces.

Seeking to disrupt and destabilise the myths surrounding modern masculinity, highlights include the work of artists who have consistently challenged stereotypical representations of hegemonic masculinity, including Collier Schorr, Adi Nes, Akram Zaatari and Sam Contis, whose series Deep Springs, 2018 draws on the mythology of the American West and the rugged cowboy. Contis spent four years immersed in an all-male liberal arts college north of Death Valley meditating on the
intimacy and violence that coexists in male-only spaces.

Untitled (Neck), 2015 by Sam Contis © Sam Contis

Complicating the conventional image of the fighter, Thomas Dworzak’s acclaimed series Taliban consists of portraits found in photographic studios in Kandahar following the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, these vibrant portraits depict Taliban fighters posing hand in hand in front of painted backdrops, using guns and flowers as props with kohl carefully applied to their eyes.

Taliban portrait. Kandahar, Afghanistan by Thomas Dworzak (2002) © Collection T. Dworzak/Magnum Photos

Trans masculine artist Cassils’ series Time Lapse, 2011, documents the radical transformation of their body through the use of steroids and a rigorous training programme reflecting on ideas of masculinity without men.

Elsewhere, artists Jeremy Deller, Robert Mapplethorpe and Rineke Dijkstra dismantle preconceptions of subjects such as the wrestler, the bodybuilder and the athlete and offer an alternative view of these hyper-masculinised stereotypes.

The exhibition examines patriarchy and the unequal power relations between gender, class and race. Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, comprised of 26 black and white photographs taken inside men-only private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from snatched conversations, parliamentary records and contemporary news reports, invites viewers to reflect on notions of class, race and the exclusion of women from spaces of power during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.

“Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have Standards fallen” from the series Gentlemen, by Karen Knorr (1981-83) © Karen Knorr

Toxic masculinity is further explored in Andrew Moisey’s 2018 photobook The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual which weaves together archival photographs of former US Presidents and Supreme Court Justices who all belonged to the fraternity system, alongside images depicting the initiation ceremonies and parties that characterise these male-only organisations.

With the rise of the Gay Liberation Movement through the 1960s followed by the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the exhibition showcases artists such as Peter Hujar and David Wojnarowiz, who increasingly began to disrupt traditional representations of gender and sexuality.

Hal Fischer’s critical photo-text series Gay Semiotics, 1977, classified styles and types of gay men in San Francisco and Sunil Gupta’s street photographs captured the performance of gay public life as played out on New York’s Christopher Street, the site of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising.

Street Fashion: Jock from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977/2016 by Hal Fischer. Courtesy of the artist and Project Native Informant London

Other artists exploring the performative aspects of queer identity include Catherine Opie’s seminal series Being and Having, 1991, showing her close friends in the West Coast’s LGBTQ+ community sporting false moustaches, tattoos and other stereotypical masculine accessories.

Bo from Being and Having by Catherine Opie (1991) © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London; and Soloman R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Elle Pérez’s luminous and tender photographs explore the representation of gender non-conformity and vulnerability, whilst Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s fragmented portraits explore the studio as a site of homoerotic desire.

During the 1970s women artists from the second wave feminist movement objectified male sexuality in a bid to subvert and expose the invasive and uncomfortable nature of the male gaze. In the exhibition, Laurie Anderson’s seminal work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity), 1973, documents the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side, while Annette Messager’s series The Approaches (1972) covertly captures men’s trousered crotches with a long-lens camera.

German artist Marianne Wex’s encyclopaedic project Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures (1977) presents a detailed analysis of male and female body language, and Australian indigenous artist Tracey Moffatt’s awkwardly humorous film Heaven (1997) portrays male surfers changing in and out of their wet suits…

Thus the press release for this huge exhibition. I’ve quoted it at length so you can:

  • get an overview of the exhibition’s contents
  • get a sense of the thinking behind the exhibition
  • get familiar with the dated sociological jargon which is used throughout – ‘interrogate’, ‘challenge’, ‘disrupt’, ‘heteronormative’, ‘male gaze’, ‘patriarchy’

So you can see the curators’ point of view and intentions before I start critiquing them.


The complete irrelevance of any of these ‘masculinities’ to my own life and experience

Almost none of the art or artists in this exhibition bore any relation to my experiences as a boy, teenager, young man, adult man, working man, husband, and then father of my own son. I thought it was quite an achievement to feature so much work by so many artists claiming to speak for or about ‘masculinity’ or men, but which managed to touch on so little of my own personal life experiences of ‘masculinity’.

I took photos of the wall captions as I went round the exhibition and so, as a sample, here are the subjects of the first 15 or so displays, with the exact subject matter of the sets of photographs highlighted in bold:

  1. Taliban warriors by Thomas Dworzak
  2. Beirut fighters by Fouad Elkoury
  3. Israeli soldiers by Adi Nes
  4. a video of a close-up of the trousers of a man who urinates in his pants and trousers, so you see the wet patch spreading by Knut Asadam (Pissing by Knut Asdam)
  5. American, German and British soldiers by Wolfgang Tillmans
  6. American cowboys by Collier Schorr
  7. a film by Isaac Julien about American cowboys, The Long Road to Mazatlan
  8. American photographer Sam Contis’s photos of a liberal arts college in the mid-West
  9. American photographer Catherine Opie’s photos of American footballers
  10. American artist Andy Warhol’s movies of male fashion models
  11. American photographer Herb Ritt’s photos of buff Hollywood garage attendants
  12. American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and female bodybuilder Lisa Lyon
  13. Akram Zaatari’s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters
  14. 100 black and white photos of himself wearing y-fronts taken from all angles by Canadian transmasculine performance artist and bodybuilder Cassils
  15. a series of photos by a British photographer of London Fire Brigade firefighters at work and in the showers

Men I know

Down the road from me lives my neighbour Nigel. He regularly goes folk dancing with his wife. At weekends they go for long cycle rides in the country. I helped him with a bit of guerrilla gardening last autumn when we planted daffodils on a patch of waste ground at the end of our road, which are now flowering. Nigel tended one of the allotments at the end of our road, and we’d have lengthy chats about the best plants I could put in my back garden to encourage more birds and butterflies.

Occasionally, we see old Richard go slouching along the road to his allotment where he tends his bee hives and chain smokes. A few years ago he was in the papers, in a photo showing him wearing full beekeeping rig and handing a letter into Number 10 asking for more government help to protect bees.

I shared a house with two friends in my last year at university who did science subjects: Nowadays Tony works for the Worldwide Fund For Nature trying to save the rainforests, and David is a microbiologist who helps develop micro-devices which can be installed within the human body to secrete medicine at regular or required intervals, for example in diabetics.

My boyhood friend Jonathan runs a puppet theatre for schools. Tom works for a seaman’s charity in the East End. Adam works for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland, monitoring bird populations, nesting habits, tagging birds to follow their migration patterns.

My son is studying biology at university. He’s considering doing a PhD into plant biology with a view to developing more sustainable crops. We play chess when he comes home at the holidays, although I’m always nagging him for frittering away so much of his time playing online video games.

These are ‘masculinities’, aren’t they? These are ways of being male? At least I think Nigel and Richard and Tom and Jonathan and Tony and David, Adam and Luke and I are men. Aren’t we?

But there was nobody like us in this exhibition, what you could call ‘normal’ people. Not a hint of men who like birdwatching, or gardening, or keeping bees, or study plant science, or like folk dancing, or are helping the environment.

Instead this exhibition’s view of masculinity is almost deliriously narrow: alternating between ridiculous American stereotypes of huge steroid-grown athletes or shouting fraternity members, and equally stereotyped images of flamboyant, make-up wearing gays working in nightclubs or part of the uber-gay communities of downtown New York or San Francisco’s Castro district. It is an exhibition of extremes and stereotypes.

Rusty, 2008 by Catherine Opie © Catherine Opie, Courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Thomas Dane Gallery, London

Paul, who I worked with for all those years in TV, wasn’t camp or flamboyant, he was just a guy who liked a beer and a laugh and happened to be gay. As was his boyfriend. As was Edwin, the Viking-looking giant with a beard who I worked with at a government agency, who also just happened to be gay, it was no big deal, and really hated the way everyone expected him to conform to ‘gay’ stereotypes.

Exactly the kind of dated gay stereotypes which exhibitions like this promote and propagate.

Slavish worship of American culture

Once again I find it weirdly unself-aware that an exhibition which so smugly uses words like ‘transgressive’, ‘interrogate’, ‘disrupt’ and ‘subvert’ about its exhibits, is itself so completely and slavishly in thrall to American photographers and American subject matter and so utterly kowtows to the cultural dominance of The Greatest City in the World (if you’re an art curator) – which is, of course, New York.

The Barbican is in London. Which is in England. Not in New York or San Francisco. And yet only one of the first fifteen or so of the featured photographers was British, and I can only remember two or three other Brits among the remaining 35 or so exhibitors.

The art élite

So by about half way through the exhibition it had dawned on me that there is a very strong political element to this show, just not the one the curators intend. It is that:

Once again an exhibition about gender and race and identity proves beyond doubt the existence of a transnational art élite, made up of international-minded, jet-setting artists and photographers and film-makers, and their entourage of agents and gallery curators, who have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the populations of their host countries.

What I mean is that the curators and critics who’ve selected the works and written the catalogue of a show like this have much more in common with their counterparts in the art worlds of New York or Berlin or Shanghai than they do with the men or women in the streets of their own cities. They speak the same art language, use the same art theory buzz words and jargon, all agree on the wonderfulness of New York, and all share the same supremely woke and politically correct attitudes to LGBT+ and transgender and BAME rights which, the exhibition strongly implies, are the most important political or social issues anywhere in the world.

They liberally throw around words like ‘elite’ and criticise pretty much all white men for their ‘privilege’. It obviously doesn’t occur to them that being part of the jetsetting, international circuit of artists and art curators is also to belong to a privileged élite.

As a small symbol of this, after having read a host of wall labels castigating élite, men-only, members-only clubs and fraternities – which had the result of hyper-sensitising me to the the wickedness of these restrictive organisations – I couldn’t help smiling when I read on the Barbican website about an ‘exclusive Members’ talk’ which is available to Barbican members only.

Preaching to the converted

And so when I watched the curator of the exhibition speaking to the assembled journalists, critics and reviewers about #MeToo and toxic masculinity, and watched the approving nods and murmurs of her audience, I realised she was praising the values and priorities of the art world and its ferociously politically correct denizens, to exactly the kinds of journalists and critics who inhabit that world and attend these kinds of launches. And it crossed my mind that I had rarely in my life seen a purer example of ‘preaching to the choir’ and reinforcing entrenched groupthink.

Horseshoe Buckle, 1962 by Karlheinz Weinberger © Karlheinz Weinberger

Initial summary

To summarise so far:

  • It felt to me that the exhibition is wildly, almost hallucinatorily partial, misleading and inaccurate about its purported subject matter – masculinity. It simply ignores and neglects almost everything I think about when I think about my own and other men’s masculinity.
  • But what it undoubtedly is, is a handy survey of the deeply entrenched anti-heterosexual, anti-male, anti-white, pro-feminist, pro-black, pro-queer attitudes which now dominate universities, colleges, the art world and art galleries. So the exhibition has this additional layer of interest which is as a fascinating sociological specimen of the current attitudes and terminology of the über-woke.

I’m not against or opposed to those positions and views, in fact I broadly support them (pro-feminism, pro-LGBT+, anti-racism etc). I’m just modestly suggesting that there’s more to the world of men than this polemical and extremely limited exhibition – either American footballers or street queens of New York – gets anywhere near suggesting. In fact there is much more to culture, and politics, and the world, than a relentless obsession with ‘gender’.

Highlights

Having got all that off my chest, you may be surprised to learn that I really enjoyed this exhibition. There’s so much stuff on show they can’t help having lots of really good and interesting art here, and – as usual with the Barbican – it is presented in a series of beautifully designed and arranged spaces. So:

I loved Herb Ritts‘ pinup-style black-and-white photos of incredibly buff and sexy (male) garage hands, stripped to the waist.

What’s not to love about Robert Mapplethorpe‘s photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lisa Lyon in their bodybuilding prime?

I really liked Akram Zaatari‘s photos of Middle Eastern weightlifters: he found a trove of badly degraded, faded, marked and damaged photos, then blew them up to wall size, warts and all. The weightlifters are dressed in loose loincloths, a world away from the slick professionalism of Schwarzenegger et al, and then further removed by the spotty blotchy finish of the damaged negatives. I like all art which shows the marks of industrial processes, decay, found objects, Arte Povera etc, art which records its own struggle to emerge from a world of chaos and war.

Bodybuilders Printed From A Damaged Negative by Akram Zaatari (2011)

I liked the work of German feminist photographer Marianne Wex. In the 1970s she made a whole set of collages where she cut out magazine images of men sitting with their legs wide apart and juxtaposed these with magazine images of women sitting primly with their legs tight together. This was funny for all sorts of reason, but also had multiple levels of nostalgia: for the black and white world of 1960s and 70s magazines (and fashions – look at the hair and the flares on the men).

There was a room on the ground floor which I nicknamed ‘The Grid Room’ which contained three massive sets of images laid out as grids, and which I liked simply because I like big grids and matrices, geometric and mathematical designs, in the same way as I like Carl Andre’s bricks. The grids are:

1. German-American photographer Karen Knorr’s series Gentlemen, 1981-83, consists of 26 black-and-white photographs taken inside men-only, private members’ clubs in central London and accompanied by texts drawn from conversations Knorr claims to have overheard.

a) they’re strikingly composed and arranged photos
b) the overheard conversations are amusingly arrogant and pompous, if a little too pat to be totally plausible
c) but what makes this funniest of all is that Knorr is surprised that the inhabitants of expensive, members-only private clubs will be a bit, you know, pompous

2. Back in the 1990s Polish-American photographer Piotr Uklański created a vast, super-wall-sized collage of A4-sized publicity photos of Hollywood actors dressed as Nazis from a host of movies.

It is 18 columns by 9 rows, which means it shows the images of 162 actors playing Nazi. The wall label suggested that the work is an indictment of Hollywood and its trivialisation of atrocity and, in the context of this exhibition, it is also meant to be an indictment of ‘toxic masculinity’ and the hyper-masculinity promoted by the Nazis.

But look at it. It isn’t really either of those things. What it obviously is, is an invitation to identify the actors and the movies they’re in, lots of fun in a Where’s Wally kind of way. Can you spot Clint Eastwood from Where Eagles Dare, Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, Leonard Nimoy from the spisode of Star Trek where they beam down to some planet which is having a Nazi phase?

And then, for me, any serious intention was undermined when I noticed that two of the belong to Monty Python actors Michael Palin and Eric Idle dressed as Nazis (6 rows down, 10 and 11 across). And when I noticed the face of Norman Wisdom (from his 1959 movie, The Square Peg, where Norman is asked to impersonate a Nazi general he happens to look like), I couldn’t help bursting out laughing.

(Having googled this artwork and studied the results, I realise that Uklański changes the arrangement of the photos from site to site, with the order of the faces different in each iteration. The version below gives you an immediate impression of the work’s overall impact – imagine this spread across an entire wall, a big art gallery wall – but in this version Norman’s photo, alas, is absent.)

The Nazis by Piotr Uklanski (1998)

3. The third big grid is a set of 69 black-and-white photos taken by American photographer Richard Avedon and ironically titled The Family, each one depicting key politicians, military men, lawmakers and captains of industry who held the reins of power in America in the Bicentennial year of 1976.

The overt aim is to shock and appal the modern social justice warrior with the fact that almost all the movers and shakers are white men (though I did, in fact, count six women in the grid and two or three black people). But it just didn’t seem too much of a surprise to me that nearly fifty years ago the make-up of the ruling class was different from now or, to put it another way, over the past fifty years the representation of women and black people at the highest levels of American power have changed and improved.

Anyway, any political message was, for me, eclipsed by the hazy memories of the 1970s which these photos evoked – the era when Gerald Ford hastily replaced that excellent American president, Richard Nixon and when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize (1973). There’s a youthful Jimmy Carter (elected Prez in 1977), a serious-faced Ronald Reagan (another most excellent American President), and gorgeously handsome Teddy Kennedy, for so long the poster boy for liberal Democrats.

Americana

As you can see from the three works in The Grid Room, even when I was trying to overlook it, I couldn’t help noticing the American subject matter or the American provenance of most of the photographers.

The America worship continues into the next room, which is devoted to the American tradition of the college fraternity, and the secret initiation rituals they apparently hold.

Thus artist Richard Mosse made a film by asking members of an American fraternity house to have a shouting competition, with the young student who could shout loudest and longest winning a keg of beer. Having contrived this artificial situation in which he films the faces of young American men shouting their heads off till they’re red in the face, Mosse then described his film as ‘a performance of masculinity and elite, white male rage’.

Is it, though? I’d have thought it was a highly contrived set-up, Mosse bribing the men to act out a certain kind of behaviour which he then turned round and criticised using his modish sociological jargon.

Also note how the word ‘white’ in sentences like that is slowly becoming a term of abuse. Mosse is, of course, himself ‘white’, but he’s the OK sort of ‘white’. He’s artist white.

Next to it is a work by American photographer Andrew Moisey, who spent seven years studying college fraternities and putting together The American Fraternity: An Illustrated Ritual Manual. This, you won’t be very surprised to learn,

explores the relationship between hegemonic masculinity and the toxic culture of American fraternities.

Toxic men. Toxic masculinity. White male rage.

The gay American photographer Duane Michals is represented by a series of photos depicting a grandfather and grandson with an eerie, surrealist vibe.

There’s a sequence of photos by American-based Indian photographer Sunil Gupta, who recorded New York’s gay scene in the 1970s.

Untitled 22 from the series Christopher Street, 1976 by Sunil Gupta © Sunil Gupta. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Reclaiming the black body

Upstairs, in the section devoted to Reclaiming the Black Body, there’s a series by American photographer Kalen Na’il Roach which are described as explorations of ‘the construction of the African-American family and the absent father’.

Nearby is a set of brilliant photos by black American photographer Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who arranged human bodies in all manner of creative and interesting poses, all shot as clear and crisply as anything by Robert Mapplethorpe. There was a really beautiful, crystal clear and vivid and intimidating and erotic photo of a black man holding a pair of large scissors against his thigh, wow.

Untitled, 1985 by Rotimi Fani-Kayode © Rotimi Fani-Kayode

Queering masculinity

There’s an entire section of the exhibition devoted to gay masculinity titled Queering Masculinity. Among many others, this contains a set of photos by American photographer George Dureau, ‘a prominent figure in the queer and non-conformist communities in New Orleans’s French Quarter’, which included some disturbing images of a handsome young man with a hippy hairdo who had had both legs amputated right at the top of the thighs, images which didn’t make me think about masculinity at all, but about disability.

A corner is given to the technicolour experimental underground film Kustom Kar Kommandos (1965) by rebel film-maker Kenneth Anger, which explores the fetishist role of hot rod cars among young American men, and whose soundtrack – Dream Lover by Bobby Darin – wafted gently through the galleries as the visitors sauntered around, looking at these collections of cool, gay and black American photography.

And also upstairs was a fabulous series of black and white shots by American photographer David Wojnarowicz, who got his friends to wear a face mask of French poet Arthur Rimbaud and pose in unlikely locations around New York.

And there’s work by Peter Hujar, ‘a leading figure in New York‘s downtown cultural scene throughout the 1970s’ who photographed its various gay subcultures.

David Brintzenhofe Applying Makeup (II) 1982 by Peter Hujar © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

There’s photos by Paul Mpagi Sepuya, an American photographer from who explores ‘the studio and darkroom as a site of homoerotic desire’.

And photos by Elle Pérez from America which are concerned with ‘the artist’s relationship with their own body, their queerness and how their sexual, gender and cultural identities intersect and coalesce through photography’.

While ‘in her meticulously staged photos, American artist Deanna Lawson (b.1979) explores black intimacy, family, sexuality and spirituality.’

Then there’s American avant-garde artist, composer, musician and film director Laurie Anderson who is represented by her 1973 work Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which records the men who cat-called her as she walked through New York’s Lower East Side.

One of my favourite sections was black American Hank Willis Thomas’s ironic and funny collages, Unbranded: Reflections In Black by Corporate America which cut and paste together tacky old adverts featuring black people from the 70s, 80s and 90s. As the wall label explains:

Thomas sheds light on how corporate America continues to reproduce problematic notions of race, sexuality, class and gender through the white male gaze.

(Note: ‘the white male gaze’. The male gaze is bad enough but, God, it’s twice as bad when it’s the white male gaze. Just as male rage is bad, but white male rage, my God, that’s unforgiveable. You don’t have to read many of these wall labels to realise that everything is so much worse when it’s white.)

There are photographers and artists from other countries – from the Lebanon, Cameroon, Holland, Ghana, Norway and so on. Even, mirabile dictu, some British artists. But in every room there are American artists and wherever you look there are images of New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles, while an American pop song drifts over the images of American cowboys and American bodybuilders and New York gays.

It is a very America-dominated exhibition.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the woke, LGBT+-friendly, feminist, anti-patriarchal and anti-white curators are willing to disrupt, subvert, interrogate and question every received opinion, stereotype and shibboleth about the world today except for one – except for America’s stranglehold on global art and photography, except for America’s cultural imperialism, which goes unquestioned and uncommented-on.

Before this form of imperialism, British art curators bow down and worship.

Second summary

Well, if you’re a white man and you enjoy the experience of being made to feel like a privileged, white racist, elitist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist pig by lots of righteous black, gay and women photographers, this exhibition will be right up your street.

But having said all that, I did, ultimately, and despite everything, really enjoy it. In fact I might go back for seconds. There is a huge amount of visually interesting and varied work in it and, as I’ve explained – to take the whole thing on a completely different level – it is a fascinating sociological study of up-to-date, woke and politically correct attitudes and sociological terminology.

And also because the picture of Norman Wisdom dressed as a Nazi was so utterly unexpected, so surreally incongruous among the rest of the po-faced, super-serious and angry feminist rhetoric that I was still smiling broadly as I walked out the door.

Norman Wisdom as General-major Otto Schreiber in the hit movie, The Square Peg (1959), subverting seriousness


Dated

Not only does the exhibition mostly deal in types and stereotypes, but so many of them are really dated.

The concept of the male gaze was invented in a 1975 essay by film critic film critic Laura Mulvey. Not one but two quotes from it are printed in large letters across the walls of feminist section of the exhibition, rather like the Ten Commandments used to be in a church.

Karlheinz Weinberger’s photos of leather-clad rebels date from the early 1960s.

Kenneth Anger’s film Kustom Kar Kommandos is from 1965.

Annette Messager’s series The Approaches is from 1972.

Laurie Anderson’s piece is from 1973.

Richard Avedon’s set, The Family, was shot in 1976.

Sunil Gupta’s street photographs of gay New Yorkers are from the mid-1970s

Hal Fischer’s amusing photos of gay street fashion are from 1977.

Marianne Wex’s project ‘Let’s Take Back Our Space: ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ Body Language as a Result of Patriarchal Structures’ dates from 1977.

David Wojnarowicz’s briliant series ‘Rimbaud in New York’ was taken between 1977 and 1979.

Andy Warhol’s film about Male Models is from 1979.

Hank Willis Thomas’s funny collages use magazine photos from the 70s and 80s

Karen Knorr’s series about knobs at posh clubs were shot from 1981 to 1983.

Herb Ritts photos of stunning hunky men date from 1984.

Now of course a lot of the other pieces are from more recently, from the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, and I am deliberately cherry-picking my evidence, but you get my point.

If the whole issue of gender and masculinity is as hot and urgent and topical as the curators insist, why are they going back to the 1960s and 1970s to illustrate it? My answer would be that, although many of its details have been subsequently elaborated and extended, the basis of the curators (and most of the artists’) liberate worldview date back to the late 60s and early 70s, the era which saw the real breakthroughs for modern feminism, gay rights, and a more ambitious form of black civil rights.

In other words, when you go to a contemporary exhibition of feminist art or gay art or lesbian art or politically motivated black art, you are in fact tapping into movements which have been around for about fifty years. This what gives them a curiously dated, almost nostalgic feeling. The artists and the curators may try to dress these tried-and-tested approaches up in the latest buzzwords or drum up some fake outrage by mentioning the magic words ‘Donald Trump’, but I remember going to exhibitions by gay and lesbian and feminist and black artists in the 1980s, and 1990s, and 2000s, and 2010s which all said more or less what this one does: Blacks are oppressed, women are oppressed, gays and lesbians are oppressed.

For an exhibition which is claiming to address one of the burning issues of our time it seemed curiously… dated. All these carefully printed photographs and films, how very retro, how very 1970s they seem. It’s as if the internet, digital art and social media have never happened. I described the exhibition to my daughter (18, feminist, studied sociology, instagram and social media addict) and she said it sounded boring and preachy.


Counting the countries of origin

It’s good to count. Actually counting and analysing the data about almost any subject almost always proves your subjective impressions to be wrong, because all of our unconscious biases are so strong.

Thus when I looked up the countries of origin of all the photographers represented in this exhibition, I realised the raw facts prove me wrong in thinking that most of the exhibitors are American. Out of 54 exhibitors, some 23 were born in the States and another 3 or 4 emigrated there, so the number of ‘American’ photographers is only just about half of those included.

This exercise also highlighted the true range of other nationalities represented, which I had tended to underestimate. There are, for example, seven Brits, double the number I initially remembered.

However, these figures don’t quite tell the full story, since a number of contributors might not be from the USA, but are represented by their images of the USA. Thus Sunil Gupta is from India but is represented by a suite of photos from 1970s New York (as well as a second series of photos about gay life in India).

Isaac Julien is a British artist but is represented by two movies, one about American cowboys and one – a big one which has one of the Barbican’s entire alcoves devoted to it – a black-and-white movie set in a glamorous American cocktail bar, and set to evocative American cocktail jazz.

To really establish the facts on this one issue of American influence, I suppose you’d have to itemise every single one of the images or films on show and indicate whether they were American in origin or subject matter – which is a little beyond the scope of the present review, and possibly a little mad.

Here’s the complete list of photographers represented in this exhibition with their country of origin, which can be roughly summarised as: the exhibition includes as many American, American-based, or America-covering photographers as those from the rest of the world put together.

  1. Bas Jan Ader (Dutch)
  2. Laurie Anderson (USA)
  3. Kenneth Anger (USA)
  4. Liz Johnson Artur (Ghanaian-Russian)
  5. Knut Åsdam (Norway)
  6. Richard Avedon (USA)
  7. Aneta Bartos (Polish-American)
  8. Richard Billingham (UK)
  9. Cassils (Canada)
  10. Sam Contis (USA)
  11. John Coplans (UK emigrated to USA)
  12. Jeremy Deller (UK)
  13. Rineke Dijkstra (Holland)
  14. George Dureau (USA)
  15. Thomas Dworzak (Germany)
  16. Hans Eijkelboom (Holland)
  17. Fouad Elkoury (Lebanon)
  18. Hal Fischer (USA)
  19. Samuel Fosso (Cameroon)
  20. Anna Fox (UK)
  21. Masahisa Fukase (Japan)
  22. Sunil Gupta (India)
  23. Kiluanji Kia Henda (Angola)
  24. Peter Hujar (USA)
  25. Isaac Julien (UK)
  26. Rotimi Fani-Kayode (Nigeria)
  27. Karen Knorr (German-American)
  28. Deana Lawson (USA)
  29. Hilary Lloyd (UK)
  30. Robert Mapplethorpe (USA)
  31. Peter Marlow (UK)
  32. Ana Mendieta (Cuba, moved to New York)
  33. Annette Messager (France)
  34. Duane Michals (USA)
  35. Tracey Moffatt (Australia)
  36. Andrew Moisey (USA)
  37. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
  38. Adi Nes (Israeli)
  39. Catherine Opie (USA)
  40. Elle Pérez (USA)
  41. Herb Ritts (USA)
  42. Kalen Na’il Roach (USA)
  43. Paul Mpagi Sepuya (USA)
  44. Collier Schorr (USA)
  45. Clare Strand (UK)
  46. Mikhael Subotzky (South Africa)
  47. Larry Sultan (USA)
  48. Wolfgang Tillmans (Germany)
  49. Hank Willis Thomas (USA)
  50. Piotr Uklański (Polish-American)
  51. Andy Warhol (USA)
  52. Karlheinz Weinberger (Switzerland)
  53. Marianne Wex (Germany)
  54. David Wojnarowicz (USA)

Third summary – why American influence is so malign

The reliance on exaggerated American stereotypes of masculinity explains why the exhibition simply omits the vast majority of male experience

American attitudes to masculinity – American images of masculinity – are grossly exaggerated, hyper-commercialised, and do not represent the experience of masculinity of men from other countries.

(Possibly they don’t even represent the experience of most men in America itself: just on the curators’ favourite subject of ethnic minorities, about 18% of Americans are Latino, compared to only 12% or so who are black. But I don’t think I saw any images of Latinos, or the names of any Latino photographers or artists anywhere in the show. To adopt the curators’ own values of diversity: Why not?)

So one way to sum up this exhibition (it’s so huge I’m aware that there are, potentially, lots of ways to do this – a feminist take, a view which focused more on the gay or black or non-western perspectives) is to posit that the Americanness of half the exhibition, photos and photographers – and the overall sense you have of the exhibition’s cultural narrowness and exaggeration – are intimately connected.

Reading my way carefully around the exhibition reminded me all over again – as hundreds of documentaries and articles and news reports have over the past few decades –

  1. just how polarised American society has become
  2. how a great deal of this polarisation is in the realm of culture
  3. and how exhibitions like this tend to emphasise, exaggerate and exacerbate that atmosphere of poisonous polarisation

The relentless criticism of toxic masculinity and the male gaze and manspreading and men-only organisations, along with the continual suggestion that being white is a crime, have their ultimate source in the turbo-charged feminism, political correctness and woke culture of American universities, art schools and liberal media.

My point is that the the poisonous cultural politics of America are deeply rooted in the extremes images of masculinity which America developed since the Second World War – and that these extremes, along with the anger and vilification they prompt on both sides of the political and cultural divide – are just not applicable outside America.

Does Norway have a massive film industry devoted to promoting impossibly buff and hunky images of super-tough men? Is French culture dominated by the ideal of the gunslinging cowboy? Is Czech sporting life dominated by huge, testosterone-charged American footballers? In 1950s did Greek husbands throw open the doors to their suburban houses and shout, ‘Hi honey, I’m home!’

No. Since the war many European countries, led by France, have vehemently resisted the bubblegum stereotypes and crass vulgarity of American culture. The American example just doesn’t apply to Swiss watchmakers and French winegrowers and Greek hotel owners and Italian waiters.

Obviously accusations of patriarchy and sexism and toxic masculinity and the male gaze and white anger can be, and routinely are, levelled at all men in any Western society, but my suggestion is that the level of anger and rancour which politically correct and woke culture have reached in America is unique.

America has morphed during my lifetime into a violently aggressive and angry society which stands apart from all other industrialised countries (look at the levels of gun crime, or the number of its citizens which America locks up, 2.2 million adults, more than all the other OECD nations put together).

The anger of American liberals against Trump has to be witnessed to be believed, but so does the anger of American conservatives and the mid-West against the tide of immigrants and liberals who they think are ruining their country. America has become a swamp of hatreds, and it is an American civil war, it is not mine.

And here’s my point – an exhibition which defines ‘masculinity’ very heavily through the lens of such an unhealthy, sick and decadent society is giving a wildly twisted, biased, partial and inaccurate impression of what the word ‘masculine’ even means because it is deriving it very heavily from a culture which is tearing itself apart. We are not all American footballers or New York gay pioneers.

So although only half the exhibition is made up of American photographers and American subjects, nonetheless the poisonous rhetoric of the American cultural civil war (‘toxic masculinity’, ‘white rage’, ‘the male gaze’) infects the conception, selection and discourse of the exhibition so thoroughly from start to finish, that it helps explain why the vast majority of much more humdrum, down-to-earth types of non-American, everyday masculinity – the kinds you or I encounter among our families and friends and at work, the kind I experience when I help Nigel plant the daffodil bulbs in the waste ground at the end of our road – are so utterly absent from this blinkered and biased exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne @ the British Museum

The British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings

The Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum contains the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world and home to around 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

French Impressions

This is a lovely FREE selection of prints from the age of the French Impressionists, a wide ranging selection of nearly 80 key works by artists including Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s a golden opportunity to view rarely seen artworks by some of France’s most famous artists.

Divan Japonais by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1893) showing the dancer Jane Avril seated next to the critic Édouard Dujardin watching the singer Yvette Guilbert perform on stage, wearing her trademark long black gloves © The Trustees of the British Museum

But the exhibition is more than just a selection of images: it presents a fascinating and authoritative history of print making and distribution in 19th century France.

Print production The exhibition explains how prints – and in particular etchings – became markedly more popular in the 1860s among France’s growing middle classes, people with money but without the means to afford large oil paintings. At the same time artists became more interested in the expressive possibilities of print-making, a quicker, a more affordable, and a reproducible medium.

Prints reached a wider audience than ever before through the proliferation of illustrated journals and specialist magazines, as well as in portfolios commissioned and financed by enterprising print publishers such as Ambroise Vollard.

Manet After some explanation about the difference between lithography, etching, woodcut and engraving, the exhibition settles into a tour of characteristic prints by the forty or so artists featured, starting with Manet. He is represented not only by several prints but also by a copy of the enormous illustrated volume devoted to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s talismanic poem, The Raven, which was produced in a limited edition illustrated with Manet’s striking black and white images, and signed by the artists.

Berthe Morisot Next to Manet are works by two woman artists, Berthe Morisot (who Manet knew and often painted – there are two portraits of her by him) and Mary Cassatt. Cassatt was American and moved to Paris in 1874. In 1891 she went to see an exhibition of Japanese prints at the Musêe des Beaux-Arts which had a profound effect on her. She immediately started making a set of ten colour aquatints which combine thin but distinct lines and delicate washes of pale colour and flattened areas of decoration.

The coiffure – fourth and final state by Mary Cassatt (1891) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Japonisme Which brings us to the influence of Japanese prints on French. As Japan opened up to the West as part of the Meiji Restoration, brightly coloured woodcut prints began appearing on the western market from the end of the 1850s. In 1872 the critic Philipe Burty coined the term ‘Japonisme’, meaning

understanding Japanese art, culture and life solely through contact with the art of Japan

The Japonisme section of the exhibition features a print of a crayfish, fishes and prawns by Utagawa Hiroshige from 1832, next to an earthenware platter decorated with a lobster by Félix Bracquemonde who made a series of 25 prints for the crockery service all based on Japanese designs.

Henri Rivière Nearby is one of the treats of the show. Artist and designer Henri Rivière was best known for his shadow theatre performances at Le Chat Noir nightclub (as recently covered in the Barbican’s big exhibition about arty nightclubs).

Hokusai He’s here because in the 1880s he conceived the idea of taking Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji as the starting point for his own series of views of the Eiffel Tower, as it was being constructed. Here’s the Hokusai print the curators have selected:

Tea house at Koishikawa. The morning after a snowfall by Katsushika Hokusai (circa 1830)

And here’s the Rivière: spot the influence! The Eiffel Tower prints chart the slow construction of the tower in thirty-six scenes, in all weathers including, as here, in heavy snow.

The Eiffel Tower under Construction, seen from the Trocadéro (1902) by Henri Rivière

You can see all thirty-six prints on this website:

Toulouse-Lautrec If they’d been popular earlier in the century, prints underwent an explosion of popularity in the 1890s. Advances in colour printing paved the way for the brilliant designs of Henri Tolouse-Lautrec among many others. Lautrec made a living by producing illustrations for the proliferation of publications in the 1890s which sought to capture the glamour and glitz of the capital, as well as for the explosion of nightclubs which Paris witnessed.

La Revue Blanche One of the most influential magazines of the period was La Revue Blanche founded and edited by Alfred Natanson, remembered mostly for its connection with literature, but it also included prints and illustrations, including the ones on display here by József Rippl-Rónai, Paul Ranson, Felix Vallotton and Maurice Denis.

Pierre Bonnard There’s a selection of prints from Pierre Bonnard’s first series of twelve prints commissioned by Vollard in 1899 and some really evocative colour prints by Édouard Vuillard. They’re simple Paris street scenes but half abstracted into pleasing designs and patterns. It’s not Impressionism and not Abstraction, but a pleasingly decorative half way house between the two.

La Pâtisserie by Édouard Vuillard (1899) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a whole wall of French artistic heavy hitters: in quick succession you can see prints by Degas, van Gogh, Pissarro, Puvis de Chavannes, Renoir and Cézanne.

Cézanne The Cézanne is interesting: it is of Les Baigneurs, one of only eight prints ever made by the artist and a recreation of on his best-known paintings. In fact, the wall label tells us that Cézanne made at least 200 images of bathers, an obsession which is interesting in its own right.

Les Baigneurs (grande planche) by Paul Cézanne (c.1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

I feel ambivalent Paul Cézanne. I loved him as a boy but the recent National Portrait Gallery exhibition of his portraits put me right off him, and I’m not sure I really like this image, no matter how famous it is. Maybe it’s because it feels like an image designed for another medium (oil paint) which the impresario Vollard had to persuade Cézanne to make, unlike the Vuillard which feels like an image which has been conceived and produced with the medium of print in mind.

Richard Ranft In a different way, the image below is obviously designed to take advantage of the defined lines and vivid colours enabled by 1890s print technology. What’s not to like about this scene from the circus by the less well-known artist Richard Ranft?

L’Ecuyere by Richard Ranft (1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

A Swiss artist and former student of Gustave Courbet, Ranft produced many images depicting the daily lives and diversions of fin-de-siecle Parisian society. He was also a painter and illustrator, contributing popular images to many of the new journals and magazines. The acrobatic circus horseback rider was a popular subject, and Ranft’s version of it appeared in L’Estampe Moderne, a series of print portfolios, in 1898.

Gauguin There’s a brilliant double portrait by Gauguin – in the contrary experience to Cézanne, the recent big Gauguin exhibition at the National Gallery made me love him more and want to explore much more of his work.

Whistler But I’ll end on a figure who is a little apart from all the other artists on display insofar that he was not only not French, he wasn’t even European. It’s easy to walk by the three black and white prints by the American James McNeill Whistler on your way to the more brightly colours Toulouse-Lautrec or Ranft posters, but these relatively small prints from Whistlers series of pictures of late Victorian Venice, are wonderful.

Whistler was, according to the curator, ‘the supreme master of etching and a key figure in nineteenth-century printmaking. Declared bankrupt in 1879, Whistler accepted the offer from the Fine Art Society to produce twelve prints of Venice over a three month period. A year later Whistler returned and made a further 50 etchings, hence the existence of a Venice Set from 1880 and The Second Venice Set of 1886.

This is from the second set and the delicate streaking of the ink in the upper and lower parts convey the shimmering reflection of the buildings by a typically Venetian canal, making it seem as if the sky is as liquid and luminous as the water.

Nocturne: Palaces 1880 by James McNeill Whistler (1886)

Reflecting on the Whistler’s subtlety and sophistication leads you to compare it with the highly stylised works of Toulouse-Lautrec, the fine art works of people like Gauguin or Cézanne, with the deliberately bright and popular art of Richard Ranft , with the dreamy and mysterious works of Nabis like Félix Vallotton, or the intimate scenes of half-naked women bathing and drying themselves by Cassatt or Degas. Wow. What a brilliant, exciting and enjoyable array of the best prints of some of the greatest artists who’ve ever lived, as well as a fascinating selection of works by less well-known figures which are equally and sometimes more beautiful.

Had you heard of Paul Helleu or Jacques Villon or Armand Séguin or Suzanne Valadon or Charles Maurin or Ker-Xavier Roussel or Angelo Jank before? Me neither, but all of them are good, and some of them are surprisingly vivid and modern.

Angelo Jank This print is a startling image by Angelo Jank (1868-1940), a German animal painter, illustrator and member of the Munich Secession. He specialized in scenes with horses and riders.

It’s an illustration for Léo Desmarais’ work Les Miroirs, which is so obscure I can’t find anything about it on the internet. It’s a plate from the magazine L’Estampe Moderne which appeared in 1897-1899 as a series of 24 monthly instalments, each containing four original lithographs, like this striking one of a woman with a brilliant green parrot.

What is going on? Who is the blonde woman? Why is she holding an apple? And why is a brilliantly green parrot looming down at her?

La Femme au Perroquet by Angelo Jank (1898) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Strangely unlike anything else in the show and deceptively modern, it might be from the 1960s. The exhibition is like this, full of unexpected treats and treasures. And it’s FREE!

Curator

Jennifer Ramkalawon, Curator of prints and drawings, British Museum


Related links

Other Impressionist reviews

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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