The Eclogues by Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English simply as Virgil (or Vergil), was the greatest Roman poet. He wrote three of the most famous poems in Latin literature: the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the epic poem, the Aeneid.

Historical background

Virgil was born in 70 BC, in the consulships of (the bitter rivals) Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaius Pompeius. When Virgil was 7, Cicero was consul and managing the Catiline conspiracy. When he was 10, the rivals Pompey and Crassus were reconciled by Julius Caesar who formed them into the behind-the-scenes alliance which later came to be called the First Triumvirate.

The 50s BC in Rome were characterised by the street violence of rival political gangs led by Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo. For most of the decade (58 to 50) Julius Caesar was racking up famous victories in his campaign to conquer all of Gaul. In 53 Crassus’s army was destroyed by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae and he was killed, ending the triumvirate.

At the end of the 50s, the 18 year old Virgil arrived in Rome to find a career. Throughout 50 BC the political crisis grew deeper and, eventually, in January 49, Caesar illegally led a legion of his Army of Gaul across the river Rubicon, thus triggering civil war with Pompey and the senate. Virgil was 21.

This civil war dragged on for 5 long years, dividing families, laying waste tracts of land which armies marched across despoiling, with a series of battles in which Romans killed Romans at locations around the Mediterranean, until Caesar’s final victory in Spain at the Battle of Munda in March 45.

Caesar returned to Rome and began administering the empire, briskly and efficiently. Soon after he had had himself made dictator for life, he was assassinated in March 44. Virgil was 26. But removing the dictator did not bring the moribund forms of the old Republic back to life, as the conspirators, led by Brutus and Cassius, had hoped. Instead it inaugurated another 13 years of political instability, with the arrival in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, Gaius Octavius, complicating an already fraught situation.

After initially fighting against Caesar’s former lieutenant, Marcus Antonius, Octavius made peace with him in November 43, inviting a third military leader, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to form what became known as the Second Triumvirate. Virgil was now 27.

In 42 BC the combined forces of Antony and Octavian defeated those of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (where the poet Horace led a legion on the losing side).

The second triumvirate lasted a long time, from 43 to 31 BC, although the partners often fell out, fiercely criticised each other and sometimes threatened open conflict. Antony assigned himself rule of the eastern Mediterranean in which capacity he a) embarked in 36 BC on an ill-fated attempt to invade the Parthian Empire, which ended in complete failure; and b) based himself in the capital of Egypt, Alexandria, where he famously had a long relationship with its queen, Cleopatra, fathering 2 children by her.

In 36 a war against Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus, who obstinately held the island of Sicily and was using his fleet to attack Roman ships, provided the pretext Octavius needed to accuse Lepidus of ineffectiveness and corruption and send him into internal exile in Italy. Virgil was 34.

The second triumvirate had become a duumvirate and very unstable, with Octavius using Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra to paint him as undignified, unroman, unpatriotic. Eventually Octavius declared open war on Antony, marching his forces to meet Antony’s legions in Greece, and defeating his fleet at the naval Battle of Actium, in September 31, after Cleopatra famously led her small contingent away from the battle, prompting the latter to follow her and abandon his own sailors to defeat.

The ill-fated couple returned to Alexandria and, when Octavius approached the city with his legions, both committed suicide.

Not only was Octavian now the only one of the triumvirate left but, after the long 18 years of almost continual civil war since Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he was the only figure with any authority left in Roman politics.

With astonishing assurance he proceeded to transform the constitution of the old Republic into the shape of what would become the Roman Empire, with him at its centre holding all the strings. Virgil was 39 when Octavius emerged as the strongest figure in Rome, and 43 when, 4 years later, the senate awarded him the title by which he is known to history, ‘Augustus’. His entire adult life had been lived against a backdrop of war, dispute and destruction.

The Oxford University Press edition

The 1930s poet Cecil Day Lewis made translations of The Georgics in 1940 and of The Eclogues in 1963. These (fairly dated) translations are still available in a nifty Oxford University Press paperback, with a 1983 introduction by academic R.O.A.M. Lyne (both, like most classicists, educated at private school and Oxbridge).

Virgil the poet

Let Athena dwell in the cities she has founded. For me the woodlands.
(Eclogue 1, line 62)

Between 42 and 39 Virgil wrote ten short poems known as the Eclogues. In the introduction to this OUP volume, R.O.A.M. Lyne explains that Virgil’s explicit model was the Greek poet Theocritus (300 to 260 BC). Theocritus wrote a variety of poems but is famous for his idylls and bucolics. The word idyll is Greek and originally meant simply ‘little scene’ or ‘vignette’. In Theocritus’s hands, an idyll became a short poem describing an idealised view of country life among peasants, farmers and especially shepherds. A bucolic is a similar form, describing idealised peasant life in the country.

Theocritus helped establish the long literary tradition whereby apparently artless depictions of idealised country life turn out to be the opposite of naive and simple-minded but often the most sophisticated verse of all. Theocritus’s shepherds display a surprising ability to quote previous poets or refer to Greek legend and seem to spend far more time reciting beautifully formed verse to each other than tending their flocks.

Theocritus stands at the start of that tradition that pretending to rural simplicity is nearly always associated with sophisticated and aristocratic audiences who like to take a break from their more serious urban responsibilities with fantasies of country living. Look at the elaborate form and demandingly allegorical content of Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the 18th century’s endless paintings of shepherds and swains. Vide Marie Antoinette’s fondness for dressing up as a shepherdess.

Virgil takes the already sophisticated form Theocritus had developed and adds a whole new range of subterranean depths to it. His stretching of the form he inherited is indicated by the very first eclogue in the set. This deals, albeit tangentially, with a controversial aspect of contemporary Roman policy (see below). Other poems address the turmoil of romantic love with a disruptive intensity not found in Theocritus.

An indication of his difference is that Virgil didn’t use Theocritus’s term, idyll, but called his poems eclogues, eclogue in Latin meaning ‘draft’, ‘selection’ or ‘reckoning’. By the Middle Ages the terms idyllbucolic and eclogue had become almost synonymous.

Eclogue 1

A dialogue between Tityrus and Meliboeus. Tityrus describes having been up to Rome to petition ‘the young prince’ to keep his family land. The prince grants his petition and so Meliboeus is a ‘fortunate old man’, whereas Tityrus laments that he and many like him will be dispersed to Scythia, ‘bone-dry Africa’, even to Britain, ‘that place cut off at the world’s end (line 66).

This poem was probably written in 41 BC, when Octavian was arranging the demobilisation and settlement around Italy of soldiers who had fought for him and Antony in the campaign to defeat the assassins of Julius Caesar, which climaxed in the Battle of Philippi (October 42 BC). Antony went on to sort out the East while Octavian was given the unwelcome task of settling the demobbed veterans. He carried out the very unpopular policy of dispossessing current farmers from their land in order to assign it to veterans (who often had no clue about running a farm, something Meliboeus bitterly points out in this poem):

To think of some godless soldier owning my well-farmed fallow,
A foreigner reaping these crops!

And laments that this is what the civil wars have brought them to:

…To such a pass has civil
Dissensions brought us: for people like these have we sown our fields.

So the first eclogue may be cast as a Theocritan idyll, and feature descriptions of idealised country scenery and farming practices – but it makes no bones about dealing with very contemporary politics, unfair state policy, unfairness and bitterness.

Eclogue 2

By contrast the second eclogue consists of the soliloquy or monologue of the shepherd Corydon who burns with love for the ‘handsome boy’, Alexis. Corydon boasts of his ability with the Pan pipes, the fertility of his flocks, and the idyllicness of the lives they could live together…but to no avail.

And, again, although the poem is deceptively dressed in rural imagery, the feeling is intense:

Yet love still scorches me – love has no lull, no limit. (line 68)

It’s worth pointing out that this is an explicitly homosexual poem, which did Virgil no harm at all with his patron, Maecenas nor his emperor.

Eclogue 3

The third eclogue feels different, again. It features rough and tumble squabbling between Menalcas and Damoetas, which leads up to Damoetas suggesting they hold a singing contest to decide who’s best.

At which point the poem turns from consisting of Virgil’s standard hexameters into alternating series of four-line, four-beat stanzas which have much shorter lines, a lyric format which Day-Lewis captures by making them rhyme.

The wolf is cruel to the sheep,
Cruel a storm to orchard tree,
Cruel is rain to ripened crops,
Amaryllis’ rage is cruel to me.

Eclogue 4

A dramatic departure from the stereotypical idea of an easy-going chat between shepherds, this eclogue is an extremely intense, visionary poem prophesying the birth of a divine baby who will usher in a Golden Age, peace on earth and describes a new age of peace and plenty when farm animals mind themselves and there is enough for all.

Later, Christian, commentators took this to be a prediction of the birth of Christ (about 40 years after the poem was written) and this was part of the mystique that grew up around Virgil in the Middle Ages, one reason why Dante chose him to be his guide through Hell in his long poem, the Divine Comedy.

Chances are, however, that Virgil had a much more mundane practical event in mind. The alliance between Octavian and Antony following Caesar’s assassination was very ropey indeed, and kept needing patching up. One such occasion was the Pact of Brundisium, agreed in 40 BC, whereby, among other provisions, Antony agreed to marry Octavian’s sister, Octavia (a betrothal portrayed in Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra). According to this interpretation, the ‘saviour child’ of this poem is the son everybody hoped would be born of this union, who would usher in a post-civil war era of peace and plenty.

In the event, the alliance wore very thin before Octavius eventually declared war on Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, leading to their naval defeat at the Battle of Actium and their double suicide soon thereafter. Thus, the cynical reader may conclude, all hyperbolic expectations of a New Age tend to be brutally disappointed by real world politics.

Eclogue 5

In a completely different mood, back in the land of idylls, shepherds Menalcas and Mopsus bump into each other and decide to have a singing contest, taking turns to sing poems they have written about the lovely Daphnis.

Eclogue 6

Two naughty shepherds (Cromis and Mnasyllus) come across the old drunk, Silenus, in a cave and tie him up, but he insists on singing a series of strophes absolutely packed with references to Greek mythology, a kind of 2-page summary of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Eclogue 7

Goatherd Meliboeus relates how Daphnis called him over to listen to a singing competition between Corydon and Thyrsis, who proceed to take turns singing 12 4-line rhyming stanzas.

More sweet than thyme, more fair than pale ivy,
More white to swans you are to me:
Come soon, when the bulls through the meadows are homing,
Come soon, if you love me, my nymph of the sea!
(lines 37 to 40)

Eclogue 8

Another singing competition, this time between Damon and Alphesiboeus, and this time, instead of alternating short verse, each takes it in turn to sing a page-long poem made of longer, rhyming stanzas, each ending with the same line repeated as a refrain. Damon’s verses go like this:

A child you were when I first beheld you –
Our orchard fruit was chilled with dew –
You and your mother both apple gathering:
Just twelve I was, but I took charge of you.
On tiptoe reaching the laden branches,
One glance I gave you and utterly
My heard was ravished, my reason banished –
O flute of Maenalus, come, play with me!

Alphesiboeus’s verse is more interesting: it describes the magic, witchcraft, incantations and magic objects the narrator creates and casts in order to get his beloved, Daphnis, to return to him:

These keepsakes he left with me once, faithless man:
They are things that he wore – the most precious I own.
Mother earth, now I dig by my door and consign
Them to you – the dear keepsakes that pledge his return.
Make Daphnis come home from the city, my spells!

This also appears to be an explicitly gay poem, a man keening for his male lover.

Eclogue 9

This is another poem lamenting the unfair and divisive policy of land sequestration. Two out of the ten poems are on this subject. Sad Moeris complains to Lycidas that an outsider has taken over his farm and made him a servant on his old land and that’s why he is now driving his (the new owners’) goats to market.

Interestingly, Lycidas says he’d heard that the intercession of the poet Menalcus had prevented the land appropriation going ahead. Not so, replies bitter Moeris. But the interesting point is: is this a reference to Virgil’s attempts to moderate the land confiscation policy by appealing to Augustus? And a sad reflection on his failure?

MOERIS:… But poems
Stand no more chance, where the claims of soldiers are involved,
Than do the prophetic doves if the eagle swoops upon them.

This touches on the broader point of Virgil’s ambiguity: his verse is very finely balanced between political allegory, factual description and poetic fantasia. It hovers and shimmers between different layers of meaning.

Meanwhile, the two characters manage to get over their initial bitterness and swap fragments of poems they themselves have written or other people’s lines which they remember. Lycidas points out that the wind has dropped, the lake waters are still. It’s a golden opportunity to stop their trudge to the market town and recite to each other their favourite old songs. At which point the poem ends.

Complex effects. Although the rural setting and the simple names and many of the homely details about goats and plants and whatnot frankly derive from his Greek model, the emotion or psychological effect is more complex and multiflavoured than Theocritus.

Eclogue 10

A poem dedicated to Virgil’s friend, Caius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet. He wrote elegies devoted to a fictional female figure, Lycoris who, the note tells us, is probably a code name for the courtesan Cytheris, also Mark Antony’s lover. (Shades of Catullus’s beloved Lesbia, being the code name of Clodia, lover of umpteen other young Roman men. Roman poets and their aristocratic affairs).

The translation

I liked Day Lewis’s translation well enough, it is light and clear, as the examples I’ve quoted demonstrate. I suppose you could quibble about the slight unevenness of register: some of his phrasing uses the vague, rather stagey diction of so much translationese:

Let us honour the pastoral muse of Damon and Alphesiboeus,
Whose singing, when they competed together, left the lynxes
Dumbfounded, caused a heifer to pause in her grazing, spellbound,
And so entranced the rivers that they checked their onward flow.
(Eclogue 8, opening lines)

It’s clear enough but not really what any actual modern poet would write. Anyway, my point is that this slightly stiff style comes a cropper in the many places where Day Lewis attempts a more demotic, matey note:

I’m driven from my home place but you can take it easy…

I have two roes which I found in a dangerous combe…
Thestylis has been begging for ages to take them off me…

‘Bumpkin! As if Alexis care twopence for your offerings!’

I wonder when the last time was that any English speaker used the word ‘bumpkin’ in a literal, serious sense? Or:

‘Watch it! What right do you have to lecture a chap!’

‘You desperado, while his mongrel was barking his head off!’

‘Strike up if you have a song to sing, I’ll not be backward…’

‘I’ll not be backward’ – of course I understand the meaning, I just kept being brought up short by Day Lewis’s well-meaning 1950s slang. Maybe it’s in the original: maybe the Virgil has a variety of tones, from the tragically lovelorn to the banter of farm workers. But this unevenness is definitely a feature of the Day Lewis translation.

Scansion

Scansion means the method of determining the metrical pattern of a line of verse. Latin (and French and Italian) verse uses patterns based on the number of syllables in a line and the different ‘lengths’ of each syllable. English poetry, rather more crudely, is based on the number of beats in each line. In English poetry each beat is at the heart of a ‘foot’, and each foot can have 1, 2 or 3 other unstressed syllables either before or after the beat. Thus a iambic pentameter is a line made up of five beats and so five ‘feet’, with each ‘foot’ made up of two syllables, the beat falling on the second one, di dum. A ‘foot’ with two syllables with the stress falling on the second one was called, by the ancient Greeks, a iamb, and so a iambic pentameter is a five-beat line, consisting of five feet, all of them in the form di dum.

Di dum di dum di dum di dum di dum.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

But I struggled to figure out the metre of many of Day Lewis’s verses. First off, the eclogues are not all written in the same style. Day Lewis varies the verse forms a lot. There appears to be a long form line for the basic narrative sections, which he varies when the various shepherds and goatherds go into their singing competitions. But I found it difficult to scan even his basic form. Take the opening of Eclogue 4:

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

This seems to me a regular iambic heptameter i.e. seven beats.

Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme.

But the next two lines throw me:

Shrubberies or meek tamarisks are not for all: but if it’s
Forests I sing, may the forest be worthy of a consul.

If the first line is intended to have only 7 beats in it, surely it would end on ‘if’. Not only do these lines not have 7 beats but the beat is difficult to assign. Is it shrub-be-ries or shrub-ries? Either way that appears to be a trochee i.e. a foot which starts with the beat instead of having it second.

Maybe it’s deliberate. Maybe Day Lewis writes a loose long line which occasionally falls into the regularity of a heptameter but just as often skips round it. Maybe it’s designed to shimmer round regularity just as Virgil’s allegories and political meanings shimmer into view then disappear again.

At the start of the book Day Lewis writes a brief note about his approach to translation, which mentions that in some of the singing competitions between shepherds he uses ‘rhythms of English and Irish folk song’. This explains the stimulating variety of verse forms found throughout the book. Some of them have a regularity I enjoyed, but I found others puzzling and a bit irritating:

The fields are dry, a blight’s in the weather,
No vine leaves grow – the Wine-god is sour

So far I read these as having four beats per line (and so tetrameters), with variation in the feet i.e. they’re not all strict iambs. But having got into that swing, the next 2 lines (and there are only four; this is a quatrain) threw me by having five beats, but beats which don’t occur in any neat way:

Shading our uplands – but when my Phyllis comes here,
Green shall the woodlands be, and many the shower.

I wondered whether he was using the Latin technique of literally counting the syllables in each line and ignoring the beats, but I don’t think it’s that, since the first line has 10 syllables, the second 9, the third 12 and the fourth 12. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but I found this lack of regularity in Day Lewis’s verse irksome and distracting.

Competition

All the histories I’ve read of the period describe the escalation of once-sensible rivalry between Rome’s leading men into increasingly violent, bitter and unforgiving conflict. It becomes almost an obsession of Tom Holland’s account, which blames out-of-control, toxic political rivalry for the Republic’s collapse.

That was my first thought when I realised that, far from idyllic peace and tranquility half of the poems describe and enact poetic competitions. Now I know that the competing goatherds aren’t bribing the voters and having each other’s supporters beaten up in the streets, as in the chaotic final decades of the Republic, nothing like that, the competitions are presented as amiable, good-hearted exercises (Eclogues 7 and 8). Still. Its presence in these would-be idyllic poems suggests that competition was a fundamental category which informs / underpins / infects absolutely every aspect of Roman existence.


Credit

The Eclogues by Virgil were translated into English by Cecil Day Lewis in 1963. I read them in the 1999 Oxford University Press paperback edition.

Roman reviews

BP Portrait Award 2019 @ the National Portrait Gallery

According to the press release: ‘The BP Portrait Award is the most prestigious portrait painting competition in the world and represents the very best in contemporary portrait painting.’

With a first prize of £35,000, and a total prize fund of £74,000, it attracts entries from all over the world. This year there were 2,538 entries from which the judges selected a short list of forty-four and, back in June, selected a first, second and third prize winner, as well as a BP Young Artist Award and a BP Travel Award.

The competition has been taking place every summer for forty years (thirty under the sponsorship of BP) and is a fixture in the London art calendar. Certainly, I’ve been going every year for a while.

Installation view of the BP Portrait Award 2019 exhibition with a characteristic sprinkling of gallery goers – older, white, and mostly female

Four quick and obvious points:

1. In previous years the short-listed works have been displayed in rooms at the back of the gallery, which feel big and airy. This year they’re all in the small gallery which you enter from the landing (the exhibition is, incidentally, FREE) and this space somehow made it feel pokier and smaller…

2. As I’ve mentioned in my reviews of previous shows, no-one is smiling let alone laughing. Everyone looks stony-faced and serious, which makes for an oddly downbeat experience.

3. Also, as I’ve pointed out before, almost all the subjects are friends of, partners of, daughters or sons or fathers or mothers of, the artist — which, after a while, gives anyone reading all the wall labels a slightly claustrophobic sense of being in a small, incestuous world of like-minded liberals and bien-pensant artists, their friends and families. A small and very passive, inactive world. A world where people sit still with unchanging expressions…

Conservative and traditional

4. And this brings me to the fourth, and most directly art-related point, which is… how very very conservative almost all the art on display is. Of the forty-four images only about three departed in any way from conventional figurative oil painting. There was one collage, a sort of photographic negative… um. In fact a list of the ‘modernist’ works would amount to:

A few had a cartoon-like simple-mindedness, which I sort of liked (Davetta by Natalie Voelker, Passion Fruit by Luis Ruocco) and most of the rest were good, sometimes very good – but almost all straight-down-the line, easy and accessible figurative oil paintings.

Here is a portrait of Ezra Pound done by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska in 1917, just over one hundred years ago.

Drawing of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1917)

It was a quick sketch done from life and represents everything I love about the first heroic era of Modernism about the time of the Great War, which is its tremendous energy and confidence. What a blaze of personality is captured in a handful of brushstrokes! I don’t know why this image popped into my head as I walked around the BP gallery but, once it had, I couldn’t help feeling that this one drawing contains more energy and life than all forty-four entries in this display put together.

Here is an online gallery of the 44 paintings in the exhibition.

A personal selection

You can surf the gallery and select whichever works light your candle or pull your daisy. My own opinion changed as I strolled between them, liking now this now that work, in a lazy summer Saturday kind of way, but three I grew to particularly like are:

Jenne by Manu Kaur Saluja

Jenne by Manu Kaur Saluja © Manu Kaur Saluja

Hyper-realistic it may be but, looking at it for a while, I became more and more beguiled by the use of turquoise – always a favourite colour of mine – in the tiles behind the sitter, and in her face, under her left eye, on her neck. The more I looked, the more I liked the very complicated play of colour Saluja uses to create what many people mistake for ‘white’ skin, which is, in fact, nothing of the kind.

Rumination by Frances Bell

Rumination by Frances Bell © Frances Bell

Fantastically traditional in style, this reminded me of the exhibition of Russian art from the end of the 19th century which the NPG held three years ago. It could be a young Tolstoy with his shirt off after a hard day pretending to be a peasant. Instead it is Edd, a friend of the artist’s, admirably skinny and bearded and with an impressive arm tattoo.

Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide

Ninety Years by Miguel Angel Oyarbide © Miguel Angel Oyarbide

Like all Western nations, we have an ageing population (I am aging as I write this, are you aging as you read it?) – a fact which is rarely reflected in art or the intersection of art and music and advertising and fashion, all of which fetishise youth.

I grew up in a village which was full of old people, in the village shop where they came to congregate and chat each day, itself opposite a Victorian priory which had been converted into an old people’s home and us kids were regularly dragged off to visit some of the bed-ridden old ladies our mum had got to know.

I have seen so many Hollywood movies and adverts and TV shows where sexy young things get their kit off, allowing the camera to linger on their smooth burnished curves or muscular torsos. It is, quite simply, a relief from the oppressive world of photoshopped youth, to come to this painting and admire an extremely skilful depiction of age. Look at the light on the side of her face, and the liver spots on her forehead, and the dense wrinkling of her hand (she still uses nail polish). The narrow shoulders and the amazing way the artist has captured the fabric of the subject’s cardigan.

Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of me to claim to admire dashing modernist works and yet to end up choosing three very conventional pieces as my favourites? No. My point is precisely that there is hardly anything ‘modern’ available in this selection, and that what there is struck me as echoes of modernist approaches which were done much better, generations ago. You don’t order steak at a vegan restaurant. I chose what I liked from what was on offer.

Which ones do you like?


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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