Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (1974)

What can I tell him? Jason Taverner asked himself as he sat mutely facing the police general. The total reality as I know it? That is hard to do, he realised, because I really do not comprehend it myself. (p.119)

It is 1988 and Jason Taverner is the host of the immensely successful Jason Taverner Show which attracts 30 million viewers to its regular Tuesday evening slot. On this particular evening he’s featured guest star gorgeous, red-haired Heather Hart with whom he just happens to be having an affair, sharing his jet-set lifestyle, although she is impatient for him to actually marry her so they can settle down, have kids etc.

Part of their success is down to the fact that they are sixes. It is not explained, more hinted at in stray references, that sixes were genetically imprinted with superior genetic qualities, and that his happened at his birth, back in the 1940s (rather implausibly).

Jason and Heather complete another chart-topping show and are on board their Rolls Royce jet rocket (!) shooting up over Los Angeles when he gets a call from an ex, Marilyn Mason, a little flit of a thing who begged for help getting into show business, who he wangled a few auditions, and who he slept with him rather a lot before tiring of her. Heather is furious at the call, but Marilyn screeches down the phone that she’ll kill herself if he doesn’t visit her NOW, so Jason says we better go and check she’s OK.

Jason has barely got down into her flat before Marilyn, furious at having been dumped and ignored for six months, throws a bag at him containing ‘the gelatin-like Callisto cuddle sponge with its fifty feeding tubes’.

There’s no explanation of what this thing is or where it comes from, simply that the feeding tubes swiftly enter the human body and kill if not counter-acted. Jason has the presence of mind to grab a nearby bottle of alcohol and pour it onto the creature which falls off him, onto the floor, dead. But it leaves its feeding tubes inside him, and he passes out. He regains consciousness on a hospital gurney being rushed to an operating theatre with Heather peering over him, weeping, and then he blacks out.

The alternative world

All this happens in just the first chapter. In chapter two Jason wakes up and the world has changed. He awakens in a seedy motel room to discover that nobody knows who he is. In this world there is no Jason Taverner Show on TV, the motel manager has never heard of him, nobody has heard of him. When he phones his agent, then his producer, both say they’ve never heard of him and put the phone down.

He also has no ID cards and now, for the first time, we begin to learn about the world of 1988, namely it is some sort of military dictatorship. All across America identity checkpoints run by the national guard or the police pop up at random to check people’s ID cards. If you don’t have one or have a forged one, you are sent off to a Forced Labour Camp (FLC).

So, while he is still reeling from the fact that nobody recognises him, Jason is all-too-aware that down here, in the world of the ‘ordinary’ people, he needs ID cards fast. Luckily, he’s wearing the same clothes he had on when Marilyn attacked him which, conveniently enough, contained a big wad of cash. Now he bribes the desk clerk, Ed Pricem, to recommend a forger. The clerk (who, in a casual aside, mentions that he is a telepath – putting us in mind of the universe of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Ed the desk clerk takes Jason through darkened streets into Watts which was, when Dick was writing, a slum. In a darkened garage Ed introduces Jason to a very young woman, Kathy Nelson, maybe only 17 or 18 (she eventually tells us she’s 19), who takes him to her workshop and turns out to be a master forger.

Here commences the troubled relationship which last for the next third or so of the book, for Kathy has impressive mental problems. Initially the conversation is fairly rational and, while she’s making him the forged IDs (he needs half a dozen in this police state) they recap a bit of future history, namely how there was some kind of Insurrection led by sixes like Jason, but it was repressed and most of the sixes were rounded up and shot and the government became even more repressive.

(In what I presume is a humorous / paranoid reference to the student unrest of the time the book was written, the early 70s, the narrative informs us that all universities have prison walls round them. Any students or lecturers caught escaping are sent to forced labour camps. Later we are told that up to 10,000! students at Stanford were massacred in one particular police action back during the Insurrection.)

(In another throwaway reference, we learn that Congress passed a bill led by someone called Tidman to solve ‘the race problem’ by restricting black couples to only one child. Over the generations this will or has hugely reduced their numbers. So much so that black people are now endangered and it is a crime to hurt them, p.29.)

But Kathy is odd, very odd. She’s convinced that her husband, Jack, is in a forced labour camp but approves of her sleeping with other men, something they discuss at length. She confesses that she was placed in a mental hospital for eight weeks. She is convinced she met a number of famous celebrities there, and slept with them.

Then she reveals that she is a great forger but embeds electronic tagging devices into her forged documents and tips off the police about the customers. Why? Because the police have promised her that if she helps them catch enough criminals, they’ll release her husband, Jack. (Later, when we meet her police controller, McNulty, he tells Jason that all this is a delusion: Kathy’s husband is in fact dead, died in a car crash, but she hasn’t got over it.)

Kathy insists that Jason – tall, handsome, confident – sleeps with her, which he is initially cheerfully in favour of until he begins to grasp how nuts she is. This is forcibly demonstrated when he takes her to a (terrible) restaurant of her choosing and when she doesn’t get her way, falls off her chair onto the floor screaming at the top of her voice. Till the waiters throw them out.

Walking back to Kathy’s flat, Jason manages to give her the slip. He phones his partner back in ‘the real world’, Heather Hart, on her personal vidphone but of course she’s never heard of him. He pesters her with several calls despite her repeatedly hanging up, and freaks her out with his intimate knowledge of her anatomy (she has a false tooth she calls Andy, p.58) and all her phone numbers. But he has clearly erupted into a parallel universe in which he was never born, never existed. Nobody knows him.

Puzzling this over Jason almost immediately walks into a pop-up police checkpoint. Paranoia and fear while they check the papers Kathy just made him. But they pass. Grudgingly the ‘pols’ let him go. But the checkpoint has given Kathy time to catch up and find him and once again he finds himself, immensely reluctantly, walking back to her flat. Here is horrified to find Kathy’s ‘control’, Inspector McNulty waiting for both of them. McNulty, in the way of scary totalitarian cops in this kind of fiction, now becomes politely but firmly interested in Jason and asks him along to the station.

There he makes him wait while the cops search the (global) database for him. By mistake the machine spits out the details of a ‘Jason Taverner’ born about the same year, but in the mid-West to farmers, a very ugly redneck. Thinking on his feet, Jason claims to be the same guy and makes up a story about him running away from the farm and using his grandfather’s inheritance to get comprehensive plastic surgery.

Yeeeees, McNulty says, staring at him, not really believing it. After several false releases – being let go then called back for ‘a few more questions’, which ratchet up the pressure – Jason finally gets to walk away. He had to hand all of his ID papers over to  McNulty to be triple-checked, but the cops handed him a week-long total pass (a ‘pol-pass’) in exchange. So he has a week to figure out what the hell is going on, which gives the novel a sense of urgency and a clear timeframe.

Recap

So the first hundred pages of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said are set in an America of the future which has become a police state (what Jason calls ‘a betrayal state, p.58) in which a genetically engineered man has made himself a successful career as a rich and famous TV star. But, after a near-fatal experience, he wakes up in a parallel universe where he appears never to have existed, is thrown down among the plebs, the ‘ordinaries’, stripped of his wealth and fame, and experiences life on the run.

Part two

Part two introduces new characters, namely McNulty’s boss, Police General Felix Buckman. He scares and intimidates McNulty, who tells him about this Tavern guy they just picked up. By this stage McNulty has discovered that the mid-West story is a fake. What puzzles him is that ‘Taverner’ has no records of any kind.

‘Jason Taverner doesn’t exist.’ (p.82)

Buckman is intrigued but has to cope with his no-good, drug addict, bondage addict sister, Alys who has, yet again, got past the guards and into his office where he finds her sleeping off another dose of something.

He wakes he up and gives her a sound telling off for being an addict.We learn that she paid for the removal of the ‘responsibility’ parts of her brain, leaving her just the pleasure centres, which she stimulates by ‘diddling’ (presumably masturbating) all day long.

Jason, with a week to find out what the hell is going on, takes an air taxi to Las Vegas hoping to find a woman whose pad he can crash in, maybe a woman he knew in the other life. Sure enough he has barely settled himself at the bar of ‘the Nellie Melba room of the Drake’s Arms’ in Las Vegas (p.85) than he spies an old flame of his, Ruth Rae. Knowing her sex addiction, he finds it easy enough to chat her up and soon they head back to her place, first for championship sex, and then for a long discussion about love and, unexpectedly, the power of grief.

But then the police burst in, having detected Jason via the microtransmitter the slipped into his clothes.

He is transported in a police ‘quibble’ (Dick’s humorous word for car or transport) back to LA, to the 469th Precinct Police Station, where he is ushered into the rather luxurious room of General Buckman. Buckman is one of only a handful of police generals in the country. Clever, he proceeds to bluff Jason that he is a seven (Jason didn’t even know sevens existed, but Buckman knows enough about the head of the research programme which developed the sixes to bluff him), trying to get him to spill the beans about the plot or conspiracy which he is convinced Jason must be involved in.

Eventually Buckman comes to believe that Jason really doesn’t know what he’s doing in this dimension. He decides to let him go, but to tag and trail him. Next morning Jason walks free into the LA sunlight (and the thick traffic pollution).

Someone calls his name. It is Alys Buckman, six foot, dressed in leathers with a metal chain. Where’s the whip, Jason thinks. Clearly she is visually meant to look like a bondage dominatrix. Alys explains she’s Buckman’s twin sister. She hates him. She tells him he has a microtransmitter and – surreally – a minute nuclear bomb – embedded on his person. She removes both with a kit she has. She flies him in her quibble (these ascend vertically and, apparently, have rotor blades) to the general’s luxury mansion which she shares with him. On the way she says she knows who he is! She is a big fan! She has two of his long playing records in the back of the quibble!

My God! Maybe she knows how to get back to his own world.

But, immensely frustratingly, Alys refuses to answer any of his questions, instead politely offering him some mescaline (‘Harvey’s yellow Number One, imported from Switzerland’, p.134) and, as he begins to trip out, fills the time with what appears to be a series of inconsequential chatter. She shows him her brother’s rare and precious stamps, his collection of snuff boxes.

As Jason’s trip reaches extremes Alys realises he’s too far in and offers to go get some thorazine to counter the mescaline. Jason staggers to the record player and, through his hallucinations, manages to get one of his records out of its sleeve and turn on the record player and drop the needle with a bump onto the play-in groove, but…. there’s just static. There’s nothing on the records. They’re blank! (p.144)

Part three

Jason staggers upstairs, looking for Alys and then, to his horror, opens a bedroom and finds… her leather clothes and stilettoes on the floor and inside them, wearing them, a long, long-dead shrivelled corpse! Horrified, he blunders, half falls down the steps, across the lawn of the mansion and to the guard by the gate. His drugged slurred speech alerts the guard who runs inside – he hears a shout – and the guard comes running back after him, letting off a few shots from his laser gun, obviously thinking Jason murdered his employer, before running back inside.

This gives time for Jason to escape from the grounds and blunder into a young woman just getting into her ‘flipflap’. Yes, flipflap. Like Kurt Vonnegut, you have the strong feeling that Dick, by now, in the early 70s, has taken enough drugs, written enough fantasy sci-fi books, to realise that he can make up anything, say anything, the more ludicrous the better – and people just as stoned as him will lap it up!

So he begs for a lift in this young lady’s flipflap and, although reluctant, she (name: Mary Anne Dominic) lets him fly her downtown (so she can post the ceramic pots she makes for a living) then they go to a coffee shop.

Jason is trying to make sense of Alys’s fate. For a start how come she knew who he was, the only person in this world to do so? But then again, how come the records were blank?

While he’s thinking out loud the young woman he’s sort of kidnapped picks up on the fact that he thinks he’s a famous TV star and singer and says, ‘Shall I go see if they’ve got any of your songs on the jukebox?’

To his amazement they have, and she puts a coin in the machine to play it. What? And the people in the café start to recognise him, applaud when the song ends, and some shy kids come up asking for an autograph. It’s all coming back, the ‘normal’ world he lives in, bit by bit, faster and faster.

Jason says goodbye to Mary Anne (after she has insisted on giving him one of her most beautiful deep blue pots, carefully wrapped) and sets off to see Heather.

On the way he speculates darkly: maybe the reality is that he’s an unknown pauper living in a crappy motel and it’s the drug which Alys gave him which takes him out of that world and into the world of fame. Maybe the world of fame is the drug-induced fantasy, which he needs Alys to regularly supply him the drugs to experience?

Meanwhile we cut back to the cops back at the death scene of Alys. The LA police forensic scientist says Alys died from an experimental new drug. There follows a long pseudo-scientific explanation that the drug suspends the brain’s ability to distinguish between fixed blocs of time and space i.e. the ability to compartmentalise events into before and after, and to compartmentalise space into separate, well, spaces. In a bit of a leap, they claim the drug allows more than one reality to exist at once, and in a further leap, that this leads to multiple universes existing at the same time. Alys’s use of the drug created an alternative universe into which Jason was pulled.

I.e it was all her fault. Jason’s entire experience of being pulled into this alternative universe in which he was never born – is solely the result of Alys’s trip on a new experimental drug.

I admit to being disappointed. I thought it was going to be something to do with toxins release by ‘the Callisto cuddle sponge’. Remember that, back at the start?

Now a newly confident Jason phones up Heather and – she recognises him! Darling where have you been, I’ve been so worried etc. But when he flies to her flat to meet her neither of them refer to the incident with Marilyn Mason. What? Last thing we saw in that universe, he was being rushed into surgery with Heather crying her eyes out? Did it not happen? Or has Dick now got bored of it and not bothered to link it to how his narrative has ended up?

To me the complete lack of follow-up to the Caliisto sponge scene doesn’t say anything about Dick’s clever manipulation of reality, it says everything about how he and his tripped-out readers don’t really care about logic or consequences or coherence,as long as the narrative contains loads of gee whizz references to drugs and the police state.

In a nutshell Alys took an entirely new, made-up drug, and this had the entirely made-up effect of dragging Jason (and Buckminster and everyone else around her) into her fantasy in which Jason had never existed. Until she died – at which point the ‘real’ world started flooding back. I still don’t understand this. Why him, why Jason? What is the meaning of the records which won’t play?

Anyway, now a completely new plotline kicks off. Backat police headquarters Buckman’s Machiavellian adviser points out that Alys’s suicide will make the gutter press snoop around, and that Buckman’s incestuous relationship with her is bound to come out, and that this will give his enemies and rivals among the four or so other Police Generals the opportunity to get him demoted or sacked.

Instead, Buckman had better get his retaliation in first, by concocting a scandalous story which somehow implicates them – the other generals. What they need to do is present Alys’s death as a murder resulting from some great conspiracy into which he can drag his rivals, ideally involving some high level, public figure who will divert attention away from the incest.

And it is at just this moment that the latest file on Jason Taverner is placed on Buckman’s desk. The perfect fall guy! They’ll say Taverner was driven mad with jealousy when he discovered that Alys had been having a lesbian love affair with his own long-term partner, Heather Hart, went round and murdered her. The security cop saw him at the scene. The police coroner can be ordered to change the evidence to do whatever it takes to incriminate Taverner.

They agree this plan and make a public announcement they’re seeking Taverner on a warrant for murder. Taverner has just arrived at Heather’s empty apartment feeling mighty happy to have his old life back when Heather storms in waving the newspaper with its front page headline about her and Alys (they did in fact have a lesbian affair) and the cops wanting to arrest them both. Jason and Heather argue and have tantrums and then realise there’s nothing to be done but hand themselves in.

Passivity

Having read four Dick novels in a row, one of the subtler threads or similarities between them is how passive his protagonists are. Frank Frink just accepts it when he’s arrested. Juliana shrugs when she finds out she’s living in a parallel universe. Rick Deckard undergoes mad experiences including inexplicable hallucinations, but ends up chatting sensibly with his wife. Joe Chin has moments of panic in Ubik but by and large functions efficiently and logically, despite finding out he has died and is being kept in cryogenic storage.

Similarly, at every moment when the cops confront him Jason Taverner… just gives up and goes meekly. There’s something very underpowered about Dick’s protagonists. They passively submit to weird hallucinations, mad revelations and terrifying time travel parallel universes.

Maybe the central protagonist has to remain calm and rational, in order to allow the weirdness to really come out.

Coda

I’ve also noticed that Dick’s books tend to get to what is definitely the end of the story… and then have an extra bit tacked on afterwards.

On paper (and in the movie) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? should end when Deckard ‘retires’ the last of the six androids he has been tasking with killing. Sure enough he goes home to see his wife. But then there is an extra and completely unnecessary chapter where he flies north into the radioactive wilderness and finds himself climbing the hill and somehow changing into Wilbur Mercer. And then a further extra bit, when Deckard finds the live toad and takes it home to his wife.

Same here. Having made the reasonably rational decision to frame Taverner for his sister’s death, Buckman then flies home. Job done, game over, right? But in the event he finds himself crying, torn by an impulse to go back and rescind the arrest warrant for Taverner.

Instead he pull up (i.e. descends to) an automated gas station in the middle of nowhere. One other quibble is there, its owner a smartly dressed black guy, pacing up and down as he waits for his quibble to be topped up with gas. On impulse Buckman takes a piece of police notepaper and draws a heart with an arrow through it and gives it to the black man. The black man looks at it, looks at Buckman, looks at the paper again, then lets it drop and blow away. Buckman gets back into his quibble and flies off.

OK, so far so far out, man. There’s still ten or so pages of text left so you’d expect to return to the plot, right?

But no. Buckman cries more tears, veers his quibble round and goes back to the gas station. Black guy is still there. This time they talk, and the black guy turns out to be remarkably perceptive, realising Buckman is in a weird emotional state, sympathises, gives him his card, says ‘Call me sometime’. Buckman gets back in his quibble and this time does fly back to his fine home.

What was that about? Is Dick playing with the format of the novel by consistently adding these overspill sections (rather as he plays with various conventions in this novel by dropping characters and forgetting loose ends – e.g. ‘the gelatin-like Callisto cuddle sponge with its fifty feeding tubes’)? Is he screwing with our heads, man?

Drugs

The four novels of Dick’s I’ve read all feature drugs as a common-or-garden, accepted element in the societies he describes.

Even in The Man in the High Castle, supposedly set in a parallel 1962, not only do some of the the characters (Frank Frink) smoke marijuana cigarettes, but these are commercially available i.e. not illegal.

In Ubik the owner of the half-life moratorium casually offers Runciter amphetamines when he looks like he needs pepping up, not as some illicit substance but as a perfectly ordinary element of polite society.

In this novel the cops not only smoke weed but offer Jason a joint after they arrest him. McNulty’s boss mentions that he should take some amphetamine.

And then there’s Dick’s prolonged portrayal of a mescaline trip at the police general’s mansion.

At the time (the late 1960s, man) I think this familiarity with drugs, drug paraphernalia and experiences and risks, gained Dick a vast audience among students and dropouts, and a reputation as a prophet of the alternative culture. So cool, man.

45 years later America is hooked on opioids which result in 122,000 deaths in 2015, not to mention the massive worldwide organised crime associated with heroin and cocaine trafficking. Only the relatively young and naive can any more think that any form of drugs is cool.

Sex

Sex doesn’t have the centrality in Dick’s work that it does in many other writers. It comes across as more of a plot device than an end in itself, designed to amplify the more important ideas around it such as fractured identity, altered mental states, parallel universes, and the general unreliability of ‘reality’ – whatever that is.

What’s interesting is the way the sexual element becomes more overt as you track these novels from the early 1960s through to the mid-1970s.

Following the trend, sex plays a bigger role in this story than all previous ones. The fact that he’s had sex with so many different women marks Jason as a product of the Hugh Hefner Playboy era. The introduction of Alys in particular, the leather-clad bondage girl, reminds me of all the leatherclad cartoon women from the 1950s.

But Dick piles on the perversion by having Alys and Buckman (whose name, if you replace the B with an F, would become more counter-cultural and, like, subversive,man) be not only twins but incestuous. really incestuous. So incestuous that they have had a son, Barney, who they’s packed off to boarding school in Florida. Weird enough for you, man?

And it is Alys who introduces Jason to the idea that there is a matrix or ‘grid’ of people who all go online to make mass phone calls at the same time, during which they live out their sexual fantasies. Alys explains that this can quickly become an addiction and that you can tell the people who are addicted to it by the way they look aged and drained. Nowadays, of course, we call this the internet.

Although the story is meant to be about a parallel world brought about by someone’s fantasies, it would not be hard to do an entry-level feminist critique of the narrative to bring out the way it is a picaresque story in which a tall, handsome rich man encounters a whole succession of women who represent different female stereotypes:

  • mature girlfriend Heather who wants to marry and have his babies
  • psychotic 19-year-old Kathy, with her undeveloped body (she laments her lack of bust) and paranoid possessiveness
  • Alys the six-foot, bondage lesbian
  • Mary Anne Domenico, the plain, sensitive, ‘artistic’ virgin

When Jason gets to Heather’s flat at the end, after what we can all agree has been a very trying two days, she’s out and he finds her faithful maid, Susie, at work. So he sidles up, slips his arm around her and grips ‘her firm right boob’ (p.178), behaviour which would see him arrested and sent to prison these days.

Dick fans may see Flow My Tears as a highly artful exploration of themes of identity, reality and mental illness. #metoo activists might not be wrong to see Jason Taverner as a forerunner of Harvey Weinstein.

Swearing

In the same way as sex becomes a more dominant theme, over these four novels I’ve noticed the way Dick’s characters swear more and more.  I’m not sure anyone swears in The Man in the High Castle (1962), whereas only 12 years later pretty much everyone is saying ‘fuck’.

  • ‘Do you think I’m a CF, a celebrity fucker?’ (Kathy, p.55)
  • ‘Don’t use that “I don’t give a fuck” tone with me.’ (Jason, p.58)
  • ‘Fuck off,’ said Ruth Rae (p.101)
  • ‘In what fucking way?’ he said, harshly. (Jason, p.104)
  • Isn’t it possible they’ll fuck up all down the line? (Jason thinking about the cops, p.107)
  • Her face glowed hotly and she said, ‘That motherfucker!’ (Alys, p.135)
  • ‘Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up’ (Jason’s most recent hit, p.155)
  • ‘We’ll kill you in the end, you miserable murdering motherfucker.’ (General Buckman, p.188)

Not just ‘fuck’, but a lot of the character use the cool groovy slang of the late 60s, early 70s.

  • ‘Can you lay a joint on this brother?’ (a Jesus-freak cop, p. 114)
  • a freak thing (Ruth Rae p.103)
  • ‘If you dig what I mean’ (Ruth Rae p.104)
  • ‘If you split now…’ (Ruth Rae p.106)
  • ‘Can’t you hold your hit, man?’ (Alys, p.140)
  • ‘Please don’t freak, I won’t hurt you.’ (Jason, p.152)
  • ‘You’re really far out,’ Mary Anne said enthusiastically.’ (p.156)
  • ‘Let’s get it on’, he said. (p.178)
  • ‘It’s OK. I can dig it.’ (the unnamed black guy, p.197)

Yeah baby, lay some skin on me, let’s stick it the Man, tell it like it is, right on sister.

It’s tricky to know whether Dick thought he was just updating his prose style and dialogue to reflect the way people were speaking in 1973 – or whether he was satirising the way people were speaking in 1973.

He’s certainly satirising the shallowness of TV and and the mind-boggling inanity of pop music – like the pretty crude joke that Jason’s most recent hit song, the one which Mary Anne puts on in the café as ‘his’ reality starts to flood back, is titled ‘Nowhere Nuthin’ Fuck-Up’. But then, what modern writer doesn’t satirise TV for its inanity? It’s a cliché of 20th century post-war fiction.

Either way, whatever the motivation, it’s another of the attitudes which – along with the glamorising of drugs and the hero’s casual expectation that he can sleep with any woman he wants to – make the novel seem such a period piece.

This sense – that a lot of the plot and comment is dated late-60s, early-70s satire – was hugely confirmed for me when, in a minor scene, the cops go to Ruth Rae’s apartment building to arrest Jason but break into the wrong room. Before they discover this they tiptoe across a wall-to-wall carpet depicting Richard M. Nixon’s ascent into heaven as God’s Second Begotten Son (p.108)

Over-excited satire of Richard Nixon belongs to a specific time and place which most people alive do not now remember or understand (he resigned the presidency in August 1974, presumably a little after this novel was published, and a long, long 45 years ago.) This really gross satire reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson’s obsession with Nixon in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) and the way Thompson devoted an entire book to Nixon’s re-election campaign, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

This detail made me realise how much Dick was writing for a very specific audience, addressing the pressing social, cultural and political issues of his day which seemed to be caught up in a really seismic crisis – and therefore how, at least on the level of his attitudes to politics, sex and drugs, his books are not prescient and prophetic but rather backward-looking and dated. Can you dig it, man?


Related links

Philip K. Dick reviews

  • The Man in the High Castle (1962) In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns Japanese officials the Germans are planning a surprise attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) n 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
  • Ubik (1969) In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974) America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading the human giants to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet trailing gasses through earth’s atmosphere brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke – a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of quicksand-like moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke – panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman transformed into a galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis (1945)

‘A conscious being is either obeying God or disobeying Him.’ Dr Dimble

That Hideous Strength is the third and final volume in C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy. As is so often the case in concluding volumes, it is significantly longer than the previous members of the series (Out of The Silent Planet 58,715 words, Perelandra 85,376 words, That Hideous Strength 156,719 words, double its predecessor, nearly three times as long as the first story) and it really feels like it.

It feels like Lewis has stuffed the book as full of his thoughts about Christian belief, angels, prayer, about the nature of obedience, charity and love on the one hand – and on the other, produced a huge gallery of characters, organisations, beliefs and behaviours which he thinks plague modern life and which all stem, at bottom, from a loss of faith in God.

The plot

That Hideous Strength opens like a campus novel, with squabbles among amusingly depicted caricatures of stuffy old male dons, at a place called Bracton College, one of the supposed three colleges which comprise the fictional little university of Edgestow, somewhere in the Midlands.

We are introduced to the usual cast of senile, pompous, ambitious, sly, snide and slimy academics, but the main protagonist is Mark Studdock, a Sociologist who has just been elected to a teaching post. Lewis takes us back into Mark’s childhood and boyhood to show how he has always been an outsider who wanted to be in with the smart set, at school, at university and now, here, at Bracton.

The smart set here calls itself the ‘progressive element’ and is plotting schemes. To be precise we watch as they manoeuvre the board of dons into selling off a plot of land centring on ancient and legendary Bracton wood to a new, go-ahead organisation, the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments or the N.I.C.E.

Mark is taken up by the progressive element, but it then turns out the leaders of this as in fact working for the N.I.C.E., and he is offered a place within that secretive organisation. For hundreds of pages we watch how Mark’s frailties, his lack of confidence, his wish to be accepted and part of a clique, leads him deeper and deeper into the heart of the N.I.C.E.

Where he finds horror. At first he discovers that the scientist at its heart, one Dr Filostrato, is experimenting with reviving the heads of dead men, with a view to creating a new race of disembodied intelligences who will transcend mere mortals with their silly perishable bodies.

In the so-called Blood Transfusion Office at Belbury, where the nucleus of the N.I.C.E. had taken up its temporary abode, Mark is taken to see the floating head which Mark is taken to see, the head of a criminal recently guillotined in France, and now suspended from a bracket in a laboratory, with all kinds of tubes and cables running into it, which drools and then – horror of horrors – speaks.

This takes a while to build up to, to show to Mark, and for the full horrific implications to sink in – that the N.I.C.E. is working to abolish mankind as we currently know it.

But that turns out not to be the inner truth. In fact Wither and Frost are using Filostrato, and keeping all the other inner circle of the N.I.C.E. in ignorance of the secret plan, known only to them. This is that they are in touch with dark forces larger and older than man – what they call macrobes – and the N.I.C.E. is preparing the way for them to supercede mankind as rulers of the earth.

Throughout all the long sequences to do with the N.I.C.E. I was continually reminded of the Dr Who episodes from my youth. My Dr Who was Jon Pertwee, whose Tardis had broken leaving him stuck here on earth to help Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the forces of U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce). Each week they discovered a fiendish conspiracy to invade and take over earth. More often than not these conspiracies were launched from the shiny offices of gleaming modern corporations which ran a mining operation or massive chemical works or suchlike, which turned out to be an elaborate front for creating some matter poisonous to humans or a front for allowing aliens to invade or for kidnapping humans and turning them into zombies.

Well, that’s what the N.I.C.E. are doing. Lewis builds in an analogy with the totalitarian nations England was fighting as he wrote the book by having the N.I.C.E. run its own police department. Directors of the N.I.C.E. orchestrate incidents and then riots with the local townspeople and then, using their contacts in parliament and among the authorities, get a ‘state of emergency’ declared in Edgestow such that the N.I.C.E. police take over running the town and, as you might expect, turn out to be a very unpleasant paramilitary force. People are beaten up, many carted off to the new prison cells the N.I.C.E. is building, there is mention of at least one rape and beating to death.

All this is supervised by a big domineering leering woman, Miss Hardcastle, who is portrayed as a lascivious, Robert Crumb-like, dominating lesbian, dressed in leather, who surrounds herself with fluffy young women she can bully, and enjoys going down to the N.I.C.E. cells to torture people.

Sleepy little Edgestow turns, before our eyes, into a fascist statelet combined with the shiny new buildings of a modern new town-cum-industrial complex. Filostrato tells Mark they are aiming to abolish all organic life, trees, plants, animals: all the chemicals they produce for the air, all the food they produce can be made much more efficiently in factories. Frost, a man who has talked himself out of any emotions or feelings, tells Mark they are aiming for ‘efficiency’, they aim to become so efficient that they will supersede humanity altogether.

The good guys

Lewis makes no bones that the book is a kind of fairy story, maybe a morality tale as well. So it’s no surprise to discover that all these bad guys are mirrored by a gang of good guys. Specifically, the book opens with Mark’s wife, Jane. She is bored and lonely at home, trying to concentrate on her academic PhD i.e. when the book opens her and Mark’s marriage is failing due to mutual incomprehension, lack of trust, lack of candour, lack of love. Mark is far too busy trying to brown-nose his way into the ‘progressive element’ in his college, and then trying to wangle a job at the N.I.C.E., to listen to Jane.

As the N.I.C.E. take over Edgestow she discovers that her kindly tutor, Dr Dimple and his wife, are being kicked out of the college house they live in, as is her cleaner, the working class Ivy Maggs. She takes pity on them and discovers they are going to stay in the big old house up on St Anne’s Hill.

But the important thing about Jane is her dreams. She has terrifying dreams which turn out to be true, to be visions of things which have really taken place. She dreams of a middle aged man in prison, another comes into the cell and twists off his head. This refers to the guillotining of a criminal in France which is in the next day’s news. Her friends, the Dennistons, suggest she goes to see an ‘analyst’ about the dreams, one Grace Ironwood who also lives up on St Anne’s Hill.

What emerges or develops, over several chapters, is that Janes slowly accepts that her dreams are in fact visions of real events; and she too is forced to take refuge up in the big house on the hill. Here she discovers quite a menage, Doctor Dimble (who had been Jane’s supervisor) and his wife, a bustling older woman who everyone called ‘Mother’ Dimble, Mr and Camilla Denniston, Ivy Maggs the cleaning lady, and a sceptical Scot named MacPhee – along with a menagerie of animals which includes Baron Corvo the crow and – preposterously but fittingly for a fairy tale – a tame bear named Mr Bultitude.

But overseeing the house at St Anne’s is a figure she is at first told is named Mr Fisher-King. The second I read this I thought it was too direct a reference to the role of the Fisher King in T.S. Eliot’s famous poem, The Waste Land, itself borrowed (according to Eliot’s notorious notes) from The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, the compendious study of mythology and religion by the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer.

He is called this until Jane is actually presented to him at which point we realise that Mr Fisher-King is none other than Elwin Ransom, protagonist of the first two novels in the series. Wonderfully well-preserved and youthful looking, due to his stay on Venus (described in the second book) Ransom is nonetheless in pain due to the bite he received there from the evil Weston, possessed by a demon.

Each of these revelations – Mark’s step-by-step induction into the college’s progressive element, then into the conspiracy to sell the old college wood to the N.I.C.E., then into the ‘true’ purpose of the N.I.C.E. in Dr Filostrato’s version (to create a new race of superhuman heads or intelligences), then into the level above that – into Wither and Frost’s true knowledge that even the head experiment is a front for raising much darker forces, is prefaced by much suspense – is accompanied by shock on the part of the initiate – and then a world of doubts and fears and uncertainties.

Same goes for Jane. We follow her journey from unhappy ‘modern’ woman, sceptic and feminist, frustrated by her marriage and stalled career. We follow her anxious response to her dreams, and her seeking help from Grace Ironwood. Then her realisation that dark forces are taking over Edgestow – which includes her being arrested by N.I.C.E police during a riot, and tortured by the sadistic pervert Miss Hardcastle (by having a lighted cheroot stubbed out on her skin). Her flight to the house at St Anne’s. Her introduction to the household and the way she has to overcome her middle class snobbery about consorting with her ‘cleaning lady’, Mrs Maggs. Her introduction to Mr Fisher-King where her modern sceptical mind reels at everything he tells her about dark forces.

And so on. Step by step Mark goes deeper into the darkness, and Lewis paints the doubts, anxieties and inferiority complex which drives him, making him a very human figure, explaining how easy it would be for us, the reader, to do likewise.

And step by step Jane climbs out of Edgestow, ascends out of the real and actual fog the N.I.C.E have projected over the town, up into the sunlit hilltop of St Anne’s, where she is inducted into a successive circle of secrets concerning Ransom.

Merlin

Slowly the narrative focuses onto the reason the N.I.C.E bought the college wood in the first place. There was a hoary old legend that Merlin lived and died there. Now Jane is afflicted by dreams of an underground cavern and an ancient figure lying on a raised altar. Surely, Ransom and his advisers think, this must be Merlin. And the Dark Side is seeking the exact location of the burial chamber in order to waken him, and recruit him and his ancient magic to their plan.

Meanwhile, in the Mark chapters, the men who have emerged as leaders of the Dark Side – Wither and Frost – know about Jane’s dreams but not exactly what they mean. Thus they put Mark under pressure to get his wife to join him – and he realises it’s because they want to use her – and for the first time he begins to see how wicked these dried-up old husks of men are. And it dawns on him that, in a way, he has always used her, for sex, for comfort, because having a wife is respectable – but he has never really listened to her or respected her.

Anyway, the waking of Merlin is the turning point of the novel and, I couldn’t help feeling, in a way it is all downhill from here.

there is a genuinely scary (in the way a children’s story can be genuinely scary) chapter where Jane guides Denniston and Dimble to the grotto where she thinks she saw in a dream a figure who might have been Merlin, and as they circle towards a a fire burning in a glen in the pouring rain there is a real sense of suspense and terror. But nobody is there.

Instead Merlin turns up at the house on the hill, banging the door open, riding a wild horse, rearing in the weird light of the rainy evening. This image promised all kinds of mayhem and Lewis surrounds it with multiple examples of his scholarly knowledge of ancient myths, fairies, elves, woodwos and so on.

But, alas, when Merlin is dressed and shown up to the Director (i.e. Ransom’s) room, he is quickly tamed. Merlin wants to unleash the earth, the trees and other organic forces against the bad guys, but Ransom refuses, tells him no. And now Ransom reveals that he is the legitimate king or Pendragon of the nation of Logres, the heir of King Arthur, having been handed the crown by a dying man in remote Cumberland (chapter 17, section 4).

There is a great deal of background information explaining how two forces have always vied on these islands – Logres, the small league of mystical powers, against ‘Britain’, the humdrum and prosaic.

The triumph of the N.I.C.E. is the triumph of the prosaic; the scientific, technocratic, managerial worldview which is so concerned for ‘efficiency’ that it would sweep away all traditions and customs, all chivalry and courtesy, all kindness and charity, in fact all organic life itself, reducing life on earth to chemical processes supervised by a handful of super-brains.

Logres stands for the opposite, and Ransom – Fisher-King – Pendragon – is its head.

What happens then is that Ransom calls down the tutelary spirits of the planets of the solar system – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn – and each in turn a) infects the whole household with their qualities (when Mercury appears everyone becomes talkative and gay, when Mars appears everyone starts quarreling), and infuse their powers into Merlin.

The climax

The ending is disappointing for a number of reasons. I haven’t mentioned that, at the same time that Merlin burst into St Anne’s house, the N.I.C.E. police force were out looking for him and did, indeed find someone, a rough looking big man who couldn’t talk. He is brought to Wither and frost who put him in the same prison cells as Mark – who is refusing to go and get Jane for them. In  a broadly comic scene Mark tumbles to the fact that the scruffy old geezer is just a common or garden tramp but he’s not going to let the two heads of N.I.C.E. know that.

What happens then is that the cell door is unlocked and a big unwieldy curate is ushered in by Wither and Frost. Unbeknown to Mark it is the real Merlin in disguise. He hypnotises the tramp and makes him speak gibberish which he then ‘interprets’ back to Wither and Frost. The ‘curate’ claims that ‘Merlin’ is demanding a tour of the facilities, so off they go, rather reluctantly.

This demand coincides, very inconveniently, with a visit from the man who Wither and Frost had long ago persuaded to be the official figurehead of the N.I.C.E., a superannuated novelist and popular science writer ‘Horace Jules’. I think this a fairly broad caricature of H.G. Wells (who died in the same year this novel was published, 1945). He is rather cruelly depicted as a short, stocky, vulgar Cockney, who got his ideas from Thomas Huxley 50 years ago, and had never learned anything new since.

The climax of the entire novel – with its themes of God versus the devil, faith versus scientific modernism, of ancient Logres versus technocratic Britain, of charity versus ruthlessness, of the superlunary powers of the planets versus the dark forces of earth – all this comes to a grand climax in…. a college dining hall.

For it is here that the fellows of Bracton College (by the time you get to the end of the novel it’s difficult to remember that it all began on the campus of a fictional college) assemble and Jules rises to give his speech to discover… that he is talking gibberish. The audience starts tittering. Wither rises to interrupt him and take control, but he talks gibberish. the audience start laughing then talking among themselves and discover that everyone is talking gibberish.

At that point a tiger appears in the dining hall and starts attacking people. Then a snake. Then an elephant breaks down the doors into the dining hall and proceeds to stomp all over the assembled dons as a peasant woman stamps down the grapes. Miss Hardcastle shoots Jules dead before herself being torn to shreds by the tiger.

These animals – we realise – were just some of the animals which the N.I.C.E were conducting vivisection experiments on. Still it comes as a complete surprise when this happens and seems utterly random.

Some of the bad guys escape. Wither and Straik force the injured Filostrato along to the laboratory which contains the head. The head makes them bow down and worship it. then it demands another head. Wither and Straik manhandle Filotrato over to the guillotine and behead him, offering the Head this new head and chanting to him. Then at the same moment they both realise the Head will ask for another head, and attack each other. Straik flees but Wither kills him with a knife and is just contemplating his body when a bear walks into the laboratory, reared up on its two hind legs, inflamed by the smell of blood, and kills him.

Frost makes his way to the laboratory, discovers the three corpses there and – his mind suddenly taken over by some force – finds himself locking himself in, pouring petrol everywhere and burning to death.

Some of the baddies escape further, namely Lord Feverstone, a slimy politicking member of the college, who also had a seat in the House of Lords and so helped to secure the state of emergency which allowed the N.I.C.E. to take over Edgestow.

But now there is an earthquake, all the land surrounding Edgestow turns into the cone of a volcano and all the buildings, roads, cars and people trying to flee – including Featherstone – are tipped tumbling down into the inferno.

Aftermath

Ransom / the Director / Pendragon, assembles his team – Dr and Mrs Dimble, Mr and Mrs Denniston, Ivy (now reunited with her husband, who had been doing time in prison), Jane and sceptical old MacPhee.

He delivers the last of the explanations which are required i.e. a long account of how he came to be the Pendragon, having inherited it from the old man in Cumberland, and what Logres means and why it is always at odds with ‘Britain’.

And he says goodbye one by one to his ‘disciples’ touching their heads and blessing them. He is leaving. He is returning to Perelandra where he gained his wound and where it will be healed.

And the book ends where it began: with Mark and Jane Studdock. I haven’t had space to mention it, but at the point where Wither and Frost began clamouring for Mark to bring Jane to them, he had realised something was wrong. Not just with the N.I.C.E. but with him, and his whole life, and his whole attitude to life. He had been undergoing training to join the really inner circle of Wither and Frost, a training in abnormality, a training designed to burn out of him any morality, normality and decency. But when it came to spitting and treading on the helpless figure of Christ, on a big crucifix laid on the floor of the training room, he refused, he rebelled and from that moment hardened his heart against the N.I.C.E. and all its works, and began to repent.

Thus, in the confusion of the escaping animals, the massacre of dons, and then the fire which starts in the Laboratory and quickly spreads, he escapes, makes it up out of the earthquake zone and finds himself trudging towards St Anne’s, miserable, humbled, willing to apologise.

And, when ransom dismisses Jane, he sends her to the cottage in the big house’s grounds, where Venus appears to her in a vision. She also has been chastened and humbled. She has learned that the beginning of wisdom is to realise other people are as important as you, that there are powers above you, that egotism always turns in on itself, whereas charity expands the soul and obedience, paradoxically, leads to a wonderful freedom.

And so the chastened young couple enter the cottage and proceed to a new marriage bed, based on mutual respect and understanding.

Quite a story, eh?


Comment

Where to start with what is really an enormous hodge-podge of a book?

I’ll start with the disappointing elements.

1. The prophecy that doesn’t arrive At the end of the previous novel in the sequence, the great spirit presiding over Perelandra had made the following prophecy regarding the ‘final battle’:

‘We shall fall upon your moon, wherein there is a secret evil, and which is as the shield of the Dark Lord of Thulcandra – scarred with many a blow. We shall break her. Her light shall be put out. Her fragments shall fall into your world and the seas and the smoke shall arise so that the dwellers in Thulcandra will no longer see the light of Arbol. And as Maleldil Himself draws near, the evil things in your world shall show themselves stripped of disguise so that plagues and horrors shall cover your lands and seas. But in the end all shall be cleansed, and even the memory of your Black Oyarsa blotted out, and your world shall be fair and sweet and reunited to the field of Arbol and its true name shall be heard again.’

Nothing like this happens. The moon isn’t smashed into fragments which fall into the sea creating a fog which blots out the sky, plagues and horrors do not cover the land, the Black Oyarsa doesn’t come into it, and there is no sense at all of the world swept clean.

The opposite. Towards the end Doc Dimble – who seems to know a surprising amount about Logres and so on – explains to the others i.e. Jane, MacPhee and the ladies, that the tension between ‘Britain’ and ‘Logres’ is a permanent state of affairs on these islands, in England, in Albion. I.e there is never a final anything. Conflict between the ancient and the modern technocratic vision will be permanent.

2. The silly massacre Instead of this world-shattering prophecy, what we get is a massacre in a college dining hall. Lewis tries to jive it up by saying that in the days leading up to the climax a thick fog settles over Edgestow, a small town in the Midlands. But that’s not quite the same as the moon being shattered into pieces and falling into the oceans, is it? Fog over small town in the Midlands is not headline-grabbing news. But nothing can hide the fact that the massacre in the dining hall falls far short of what the build-up had led us to expect, in lots of ways.

a) Farce It is treated more as farce than tragedy, beginning as it does with an entirely comical caricature of H.G. Wells and his pompous lecturing of the fawning dons. The way that he, and then everyone in the hall, starts speaking gibberish is a very small piece of magic, for such a mighty magician as Merlin to perform. It seems more like a parlour trick.

b) The animals’ revenge And then the way they are massacred by wild beasts is just not properly built-up to. Sure, we’d been told a few times that part of the N.I.C.E.’s experimental work involved vivisection, but it was never a central part of the novel at all. Using it as the central instrument of revenge feels random and contrived.

3. Merlin The central part of the novel deepens the mystical significance of events by invoking all manner of medieval and pre-medieval beliefs, by taking us – very atmospherically – back to the darkest of the dark ages after the Romans left and all kinds of pagan spirits reasserted their presence, and both Dimble and Ransom hint that Merlin’s powers in fact stretch far back before that, to the earliest days of humankind.

Jane’s creams of Merlin in  his chamber, and Ransom and Dimble’s accounts of his deep ancestral magic are very evocative and a bit scary. It is, then, a profound disappointment that Merlin’s main role is to be chastened by Ransom, to be told he can’t use any of his old magic, to be told he has to act within the framework which Ransom dictates.

It is a fundamental failure of the book that the rip-roaring ancient magic which we had been led to expect does not then arrive. Instead, Merlin is persuaded to dress up as a curate, inveigle his way into the N.I.C.E. masquerading as a priest who knows arcane old languages and so may be able to speak to the old man they’ve brought in (who Mark and the reader knows to be a harmless old tramp just after a warm place to kip and some decent grub).

Instead of being big, mighty and transformative, this scene is small, paltry and silly, more reminiscent of a French farce. Merlin in disguise hypnotises the tramp into speaking gibberish which Merlin then translates to Wither and Frost as a wish to see the facilities. Once touring round them Merlin a) casts the spell which makes everyone at the dinner speak gibberish b) sets the animals free.

That’s it. Very anti-climactic.

4. The gods Now Lewis tries to juice up Merlin’s role by having the tutelary spirits, the oyarsa, of the planets of the solar system appear one by one and infuse Merlin with their powers. This is a highly symbolic and schematic scene – one where we are meant to recognise and enjoy the depiction of the attributes of each planet, which could almost be a scene from Chaucer or Spenser, and yet… in the end…. What does Merlin do with all this mighty extra-terrestrial power? Put a spell on some doddery old academics and let the animals out of their cages. Hardly needed spirits from the solar system come down to help him do that.

5. The devil I was led to believe the devil was going to appear, the ‘bent’ oyarsa or darkarchon who rules this world – and that he would be overthrown and everything wiped clean. This doesn’t happen. Ransom disappears off to Perelandra at the end, and Mark and Jane go to bed together, for the first time to make love with courtesy and respect – which is all very nice – but what happened to the Dark Archon? Is the world still in his control? Has the new era prophesied at the end of Perelandra come about?

Emphatically not.

It doesn’t gel

They don’t mesh. The prophecy and expectation built up by the first two books of an Last Battle and global cleansing – the sense that the future of all mankind is at stake – the yoking in of Merlin and Logres – and setting it all in the broadly comic setting of the senior common room of a dusty old college or in a nice English country house – it is too much to manage, to pull together, and Lewis fails to deliver on all fronts.

Of the three novels, Perelandra is much the best, because its setting on another planet allowed Lewis’s imagination absolute free rein to dazzle us with his imagination, and to create from nothing a magnificent setting which truly dramatised the themes he was dealing with (the nature of evil, the fall, the nature of faith).

Some issues

The original version of That Hideous Strength was, as I’ve pointed out, nearly three times as long as the first book in the trilogy. Lewis clearly threw everything into it, creating an unstoppable outpouring of rambunctious ideas and social criticism.

While the main narrative of the book alternates between Mark’s adventures and Jane’s adventures, hardly an incident occurs which he doesn’t use to promote his view that the modern world with its blind belief in science and technology and efficiency and materialism has led modern man to a cliff edge, is destroying age-old values of courtesy and chivalry and charity and love and, above all, belief in something outside ourselves, something bigger than our individual selves, which made the world and deserves our respect and gratitude and obedience.

The experience of reading the book is to be almost continually lectured, either by the Dark Side characters lecturing Mark about everything from how to manipulate committees, how to write propaganda, how to manage the media, how to create talking heads, how to promote efficiency to such a degree that you end up abolishing mankind altogether – or, on the Light Side, Ransom’s explanations to innocent Jane of everything we learned in the first two books about the spirits of the universe, the oyarsa which rule each planet, and Dimble’s lengthy lectures about Merlin and Logres.

Somewhere the American novelist Saul Bellow laments that, these days, everyone is an expert, everyone is ‘a reality instructor’. Well, almost all the characters in this book seem to be lecturing each other about something or other. Here is Dr Dimble lecturing the sceptical MacPhee who is used as a butt for his and Ransom’s arguments.

‘You see, MacPhee, if one is thinking simply of goodness in the abstract, one soon reaches the fatal idea of something standardised – some common kind of life to which all nations ought to progress. Of course there are universal rules to which all goodness must conform. But that’s only the grammar of virtue. It’s not there that the sap is. He doesn’t make two blades of grass the same: how much less two saints, two nations, two angels. The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every real people, and different in each.’

Here is Lord Feverstone (who I only realised, half way through, is the same slimy, selfish adventurer who helped kidnap Ransom and transport him to Mars in the very first novel) who has got himself made a lord and is now a mover and shaker at Bracton college, here he is early on explaining things to naive young Mark:

‘Man has got to take charge of man. That means, remember, that some men have got to take charge of the rest – which is another reason for cashing in on it as soon as one can. You and I want to be the people who do the taking charge, not the ones who are taken charge of. Quite.’

‘What sort of thing have you in mind?’

‘Quite simple and obvious things, at first – sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don’t want any dead weights), selective breeding. Then real education, including pre-natal education. By real education I mean one that has no ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ nonsense. A real education makes the patient what it wants infallibly: whatever he or his parents try to do about it. Of course, it’ll have to be mainly psychological at first. But we’ll get on to biochemical conditioning in the end and direct manipulation of the brain.’

You can see why Mark is taken aback, Sterilisation, liquidation? Oh yes old chap, drawls Feverstone, all in the name of progress, doncha know. Elsewhere Filostrato opens up the possibility that the two world wars they’d lived through are just the start of a sequence of wars which will all but wipe humanity out.

Throughout the book Lewis conflates modern management techniques in big organisations with special constables, underground cells, torture, liquidation. There are hundreds and hundreds of digs at the entire vocabulary of modern social services. there’s a section where Feverstone explains that the N.I.C.E. have persuaded the government to let them undertake the ‘rehabilitation’ of prisoners (as opposed to what Lewis clearly sees as the more honest, traditional view of punishment) but that this rehabilitation actually means a license to carry out experiments and torture.

Mr Straik is a clergyman who has gone profoundly wrong, whose theology has become so other-worldly that he has lost all touch with human life in all its imperfection. He tells Mark why he has joined the N.I.C.E.

‘The feeblest of these people here has the tragic sense of life, the ruthlessness, the total commitment, the readiness to sacrifice all merely human values, which I could not find amid all the nauseating cant of the organised religions.’

Dr Filostrato is the ‘scientist’ masterminding the bringing back to life of the head of the guillotined criminal Alcasar. During a college dinner early on, he explains to Mark that, having seen a metal tree made as a work of art in an art gallery, he realised, why stop at one? Why not replace all real trees with metal trees?

‘Why one or two? At present, I allow, we must have forest for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then, why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.’

‘Do you mean,’ put in a man called Gould, ‘that we are to have no vegetation at all?’

‘Exactly. You shave your face: even, in the English fashion, you shave him every day. One day we shave the planet.’

‘I wonder what the birds will make of it?’

‘I would not have any birds either. On the art tree I would have the art birds all singing when you press a switch inside the house. When you are tired of the singing you switch them off. Consider again the improvement. No feathers dropped about, no nests, no eggs, no dirt.’

‘It sounds,’ said Mark, ‘like abolishing pretty well all organic life.’

‘And why not? It is simple hygiene.’

It is no accident that Mark’s academic subject is Sociology. Lewis obviously loathes Sociology. It sums up everything which is wrong with the modern world, which is regarding people as numbers and units instead of rich, complex human beings. Mark’s

education had had the curious effect of making things that he read and wrote more real to him than things he saw. Statistics about agricultural labourers were the substance: any real ditcher, ploughman, or farmer’s boy, was the shadow. Though he had never noticed it himself, he had a great reluctance, in his work, ever to use such words as ‘man’ or ‘woman’. He preferred to write about ‘vocational group’, ‘elements’, ‘classes’, and ‘populations’: for, in his own way, he believed as firmly as any mystic in the superior reality of the things that are not seen.

Early on, one of the dons who disapproves of the N.I.C.E., Bill Hingest, makes a telling point to Mark:

‘I happen to believe that you can’t study men, you can only get to know them.;

Good idea, good thought. For his opposition to the N.I.C.E. his car is flagged down in a dark country lane and he is beaten to death by N.I.C.E. goons.

Ancient versus modern

Wither witters on in interminable and obscure sentences designed to confuse his listeners, and also ensure they never know where they stand. He is obfuscation versus Lewis’s ideal of the simple autoritative clarity with which Ransom speaks. Here is Wither:

‘Good morning, good morning, Mr. Studdock,’ he said. ‘It is with the greatest regret that I–er–in short, I would not have kept you from your breakfast unless I had felt that in your own interests you should be placed in full possession of the facts at the earliest possible moment. You will of course regard all that I am about to say as strictly confidential. The matter is a distressing or at least an embarrassing one. I feel sure that as the conversation proceeds (pray be seated, Mr. Studdock) you will realise in your present situation how very wise we have been in securing from the outset a police force–to give it that rather unfortunate name–of our own.’

Here is Ransom:

‘I am the Director,’ said Ransom, smiling. ‘Do you think I would claim the authority I do if the relation between us depended either on your choice or mine? You never chose me. I never chose you. Even the great Oyéresu whom I serve never chose me. I came into their worlds by what seemed, at first, a chance; as you came to me–as the very animals in this house first came to it. You and I have not started or devised this: it has descended on us–sucked us into itself, if you like. It is, no doubt, an organisation: but we are not the organisers. And that is why I have no authority to give any one of you permission to leave my household.’

Light versus dark. Clarity versus obscurity. Good faith versus deliberate uncertainty. Sunlight versus fog. Love versus fear. Openness and permission contrasted with a paramilitary police and torture cells. Country versus city. Rural landscape versus industry. Tradition versus novelty. People versus statistics. Muddling through versus inhuman ‘efficiency’.

Filostrato wants to  abolish all organic life from the planet. In sharp contrast Ransom is shown going out of his way to be courteous and loving to animals, to the unexpected bear Mr Bultitude, but also to a covey of mice who he rings a bell to summons to eat the crumbs left over by the humans, his pets Baron Corvo the jackdaw and Mr Pinch the cat.

Ransom’s is a supra-human vision which encompasses all life forms.

The cosmic view

‘Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.’ (Grace Ironwood)

Merlin

Lewis writes wonderfully evocatively of the Dark Ages whose literature he knew so well.

And suddenly all that Britain which had been so long familiar to him as a scholar rose up like a solid thing. He could see it all. Little dwindling cities where the light of Rome still rested – little Christian sites, Camalodunum, Kaerleon, Glastonbury – a church, a villa or two, a huddle of houses, an earthwork. And then, beginning scarcely a stone’s-throw beyond the gates, the wet, tangled, endless woods, silted with the accumulated decay of autumns that had been dropping leaves since before Britain was an island; wolves slinking, beavers building, wide shallow marshes, dim horns and drummings, eyes in the thickets, eyes of men not only Pre-Roman but Pre-British, ancient creatures, unhappy and dispossessed, who became the elves and ogres and wood-wooses of the later tradition. But worse than the forests, the clearings. Little strongholds with unheard-of kings. Little colleges and covines of Druids. Houses whose mortar had been ritually mixed with babies’ blood.

And the figure of Merlin is, at least initially, presented with a powerful sense of the old pagan beliefs.

his great mass stood as if it had been planted like a tree, and he seemed in no hurry. And the voice, too, was such as one might imagine to be the voice of a tree, large and slow and patient, drawn up through roots and clay and gravel from the depths of the Earth.

And Lewis gives Merlin some great speeches, commenting on what, to him, are the peculiarities of 20th century life.

‘I cannot, indeed, understand the way you live, and your house is strange to me. You give me a bath such as the Emperor himself might envy, but no one attends me to it: a bed softer than sleep itself, but when I rise from it I find I must put on my own clothes with my own hands as if I were a peasant. I lie in a room with windows of pure crystal so that you can see the sky as clearly when they are shut as when they are open, and there is not wind enough within the room to blow out an unguarded taper; but I lie in it alone, with no more honour than a prisoner in a dungeon. Your people eat dry and tasteless flesh, but it is off plates as smooth as ivory and as round as the sun. In all the house there is warmth and softness and silence that might put a man in mind of paradise terrestrial; but no hangings, no beautified pavements, no musicians, no perfumes, no high seats, not a gleam of gold, not a hawk, not a hound. You seem to me to live neither like a rich man nor a poor one: neither like a lord nor a hermit.’

Compared to the thrilling power of his own days.

Merlin saw in memory the wintry grass on Badon Hill, the long banner of the Virgin fluttering above the heavy British-Roman cataphracts, the yellow-haired barbarians. He heard the snap of the bows, the click-click of steel points in wooden shields, the cheers, the howling, the ringing of struck mail. He remembered also the evening, fires twinkling along the hill, frost making the gashes smart, starlight on a pool fouled with blood, eagles crowding together in the pale sky.

Wow! Such a shame that this primal force then has to be tamed and neutered by Ransom.

The choice

What the books brings out is that both Jane and Mark are brought to the point of having to make a choice. Which side are you on?

In his normal condition, explanations that laid on impersonal forces outside himself the responsibility for all this life of dust and broken bottles would have occurred at once to his mind and been at once accepted. It would have been “the system” or “an inferiority complex” due to his parents, or the peculiarities of the age. None of these things occurred to him now. His “scientific” outlook had never been a real philosophy believed with blood and heart. It had lived only in his brain, and was a part of that public self which was now falling off him. He was aware, without even having to think of it, that it was he himself–nothing else in the whole universe–that had chosen the dust and broken bottles, the heap of old tin cans, the dry and choking places.

Even realising that you have a choice, even realising that we must all take responsibility for our own lives is presented by Lewis, as almost a lost knowledge, as a basic prerequisite for being human which modern society does everything it can to obscure. Mark:

became able to know (and simultaneously refused the knowledge) that he had been wrong from the beginning, that souls and personal responsibility existed.

Feminism

There is a massive amount to be written about Lewis’s depiction of the female characters. I imagine modern women students will want to throw the book in the nearest fire when they read the howlingly stereotyped characterisation of Miss Hardcastle, the leather-clad lesbian chief of police and torturer – although I enjoyed her character on an entirely cartoon level.

But central to the book is the way both Mark and Jane have to be cured of their modern scepticism and atheism and brought to see that there are people outside them a world outside them, powers outside them, that they are really very small and have to smother their egotism and learn to love others, and to love their Creator.

Jane is a moderately complex figure, in some ways the most sympathetic character in the book (Mark is depicted as an unrelentingly selfish fool in a hurry to suck up to anyone who’s in a position of power). Feminists might sympathise with the opening where Jane is depicted as frustrated by married life and excluded from an academic career, and by her later comments about sexism.

For a moment she looked on Mr. Denniston with real dislike. She saw him, and Mark, and the Fisher-King man and this preposterous Indian fakir simply as men – complacent, patriarchal figures making arrangements for women as if women were children or bartering them like cattle. (‘And so the king promised that if anyone killed the dragon he would give him his daughter in marriage.’) She was very angry.

But feminists presumably wouldn’t like the sections where she has to overcome these feminist views, in order to progress to the next level, the level Lewis depicts as to do with very ancient symbols of gender, of male and female coming together in rituals and ceremonies celebrating fertility and, at the end of the story, in a traditional marriage bed – cleansed and healed from their modern angry scepticism. Brought to realise that they should both be humble, forgiving and charitable.

Continually, throughout the book, the good things evoke whole systems of personal and folk memory, so that this generation is seen as repeating, echoing, and confirming the wisdom of the ages.

It woke in Jane vague memories of helping at Christmas or Easter decorations in church when she had been a small child. But it also suggested to her literary memory all sorts of things out of sixteenth-century epithalamions – age-old superstitions, jokes, and sentimentalities about bridal beds and marriage bowers, with omens at the threshold and fairies upon the hearth.

Maybe much of this can be critiqued as outrageously sexist, patriarchal and patronising, bit I, for one, can see where Lewis is coming from in invoking folk traditions, religious traditions, pagan traditions, pre-Christian traditions, and non-Western traditions, all of which see humans as aspiring to literally superhuman ideals of masculinity and femininity – ideals none of us may be able to attain, but which are guides to behaviour.

Or we can do what many people are doing in our day and age, try to rewrite our understanding of human nature and gender from scratch. But even if they’re not true, even if they are not exactly a guide for modern living, I – like Lewis – love and reverence the old literature, the old traditions and the old magic.

In Perelandra the theme and the treatment have a unity which completely transport the reader and make you accept all kinds of stately, ceremonial behaviour, at bottom based on gender norms and traditional views of fertility and procreation.

But when he tries to set the same ideas in the ‘modern’ age (well, 1940s England) they, along with much else in this mad gallimaufrey of a story, fall to really cohere or convince.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde @ the Barbican

This is an extraordinarily packed, dense and demanding exhibition.

The basic idea is deceptively simple. The show looks at over 40 artistic couples who were pioneers of early 20th century avant-garde art, photography, design and literature, and explores the stories of their sexual, emotional and artistic relationships, liberally illustrating the narratives with photos and art works, books and pamphlets, fabrics and ceramics, chairs and bookshelves, which one or other or both of them produced.

Women first

One central aim of the exhibition is to show that, more often than not, the women in these artistic relationships were as, if not more, important and influential (and creative in their own right) than the male artists and male critics of their time – and ever since – have acknowledged.

So, in a small but telling detail, in all the displays of couples, it is the woman who is presented first, the woman’s name which appears first and the woman’s work and contribution which is most explored.

Thus in the opening room we are told that the model Camille Claudel played a larger role in the career of sculptor Auguste Rodin than is usually credited, as well as being an interesting sculptor in her own right, with samples of her work to prove it.

The same goes for Maria Martens, who enjoyed a long and passionate working relationship with the more-famous Marcel Duchamp, but was a notable artist in her own right.

Later on we learn that Gustav Klimt’s lifelong soul-mate, and the model for some of his most famous paintings – Emilie Flöge – was more than just a muse and model, but a talented fashion designer who ran her own very successful couture house, the Schwestern Flöge (1904–1938), in Vienna.

Emilie Flöge and dress designs c.1900

Emilie Flöge and some of her dress designs c.1900

The exhibition works through scores of other examples, in each case showing that the women in each famous couple were often notable artists, sculptors, designers and business people in their own right, as well as contributing ideas, designs and artworks to what would nowadays be seen more as collaborative relationships than the old-fashioned story of an active Male Artist and a passive Female Muse.

Natalia Goncharova, the Russian Futurist artist, painter, costume designer, writer, illustrator, and set designer was every bit as innovative as her lifelong partner and founder of Rayonism, Mikhail Larionov.

Frida Kahlo, during the 1930s overshadowed by her husband, the famous mural painter Diego Rivera, has subsequently emerged as a powerful artistic figure in her own right.

Leonora Carrington has traditionally been seen as a ‘muse’ for the Surrealist artist, Max Ernst, during the three intense years of their relationship, 1937-40, but she was a sculptor and painter in her own right, as well as the author of a harrowing account of her experience of mental illness, Into the Abyss.

Early in their relationship Georgia O’Keeffe was the junior partner to her husband, the famous New York photographer Alfred Stieglitz, but her career as a painter would go on to eclipse his reputation.

And so on.

In fact, the show at moments suggests that it was sometimes the men who were the muse figures for a woman artist, for example in the section on Picasso and how his image was crafted and shaped by his lover Dora Maar, in her own photographs and sculptures.

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

Picasso en Minotaure, Mougins, 1937 by Dora Maar © ADAGP, Paris. Photo © Centre Pompidou

So, on one level, this exhibition is a massive, encyclopedic review of twentieth century avant-garde art as retold from the women artists’ perspectives. Redressing a balance. Restoring, or creating, a new feminist interpretation of many artistic relationships, from the super-famous to the sometimes relatively obscure.

Collaborations

But this theme – rediscovering and rethinking the importance of the women collaborators vis-avis often more famous male artists – is not the only one. It is complemented by explorations of the diverse meanings of the very ideas of ‘working relationships’ and ‘collaborations’.

Take homosexual partnerships. Alongside the long sequence of heterosexual couples, there are rooms devoted to gay, lesbian or bisexual couples, for example the passionate same-sex relationship between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West which inspired Woolf’s novel, Orlando. Or the room devoted to the long-lasting artistic relationship between transgender couple Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Other rooms expand the notion of ‘relationship’ beyond the idea of a simple binary couple, for example the relationship of the three Magic Realist painters – Paul Cadmus, Jared French and Margaret Hoening French – who worked together so closely that they attributed their works to a joint pseudonym made up from the first two letters of their first names – the PaJaMa collective.

Other rooms move beyond threesomes to explore larger groups of artists who collaborated and worked together during this exuberant period. Thus one room focuses on the community of lesbian writers and artists in 1920s Paris, while another explores the Surrealist idea of the ‘Chance Encounter’ in a room which brings together some ten or so artists, male and female, who collaborated together in loose and shifting networks of co-operation.

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

Paul Cadmus and Jared French (1937) photographed by George Platt Lynes © 2018 Estate of George Platt Lynes

In other words, the exhibition starts off by exploring the notion of modernist artistic couples but quite quickly deconstructs, reconfigures, explores and rethinks what working artistic relationships actually meant in practice for a wide variety of artists.

It may begin with women who challenged conventional notions of female behaviour and the role of ‘the wife’ or ‘the mistress’ or ‘the muse’, but soon becomes an investigation of a number of types of artistic working relationships, between not only heterosexual and same-sex couples, but among larger and more fluid groupings.

Is Modernism about Love or the Machine Age?

But alongside the notion of the couple, the collaboration and the group, the curators make a bold assertion which I find hard to agree with, namely that artistic modernism was coterminous with ‘modern love’. To quote the introductory wall label at the start of the exhibition:

Modern art. Modern love. From the 1890s through to just after the Second World War, these two phenomena were interwoven and indelibly linked. Side-by-side, artist couples forged new ways of making art and of living and loving.

And in the scores and scores of wall labels which follow, there is much, much more along the same lines. All of the artists are given thumbnail biographies and these tend to focus as much on their love lives, on their bohemian rejection of bourgeois conventions around love, marriage, sexuality and so on, as on their actual artistic achievements.

Central to the exhibition is the claim that Modernism, or the 20th century avant-garde, was about love and sex and desire. Or, as the curators put it:

‘Modern Couples’ roots Modernism in the field of desire.

This claim, or assertion, allows the curators to present a coherent and persuasive narrative. Modern Art is about love and desire. 20th century women artists and authors invariably depicted love and desire. Therefore women artists are central to Modern Art.

Or: If love and desire are the core subject of Modernism, then women artists, who focused on love and desire, must be central to Modernism.

It is a circular, self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing argument.

Having established this axiom, the show can then settle down to ticking off a familiar checklist of feminist art concerns, demonstrating how these radical women artists ‘subverted’ traditional ‘patriarchal’ ideas of ‘gender stereotyping’ and explored ‘transgressive’ sexuality i.e. by having numerous lovers or by being lesbians.

By selecting love and ‘desire’ as the central theme of Modernism, the curators are able to pull together:

  • the heterosexual and homosexual relationships of women artists
  • women artists’ ambivalent roles as sexual objects and muses to men
  • women artists’ own sexual feelings and needs, expressed in infidelities, affairs and multiple partners
  • the fact that women artists sometimes got pregnant and gave birth
  • the way women artists explored and mythologised the condition of femininity and fertility
  • alongside the legion of lesbian artists, seen as social and political pioneers in the way they explored man-free notions of same-sex desire

All of these multifarious activities and interests can be pulled together as if they make up a single coherent movement, all saying the same thing, all addressing the same handful of ‘issues’, all united in the same aim.

And the way the same theme and subject – love, sex and the (generally female) body – is repeated on all the wall labels and is exemplified again and again in the artworks also contributes to this sense of a huge transcontinental network of artists, sculptors and writers all inspired by the same theme. Reinforcing the curators’ premise that ‘modern art’ is coterminous with ‘modern love’.

This strikes me as being very neat, very convenient and not completely true, for one very big reason.

At university I was taught that the huge array of new artistic and literary strategies which we call ‘Modernism’ was, at least in part, a reaction to the ongoing dominance of the Machine in modern life, and a response to the hectic pace of technological change which accelerated from the 1890s onwards.

Electric lights, bicycles, skyscrapers with electric elevators, motor cars and airplanes, the cinema and portable cameras, were just a few of the technologies which didn’t exist in 1890, were only just being developed in 1900, and which had become almost commonplace by 1910, in a few decades of dizzying technical and engineering change.

I was taught that T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land and James Joyce in Ulysses and Alfred Döblin in Berlin Alexanderplatz and John Dos Passos in U.S.A. use techniques of collage, parody and fragmentation to convey the disorientating experience of life in modern, fast-moving cities and the way it had uprooted sensitive people from their cultural and communal identities, producing a blizzard of fragmented experiences.

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

The City of Ambitions (1910) by Alfred Stieglitz. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

Same with the photomontages of Alexander Rodchenko and the Russian Constructivists, or the zealous machine-worship of the Futurists, or the angularities of the Vorticists, or the geometric forms of Fernand Léger, or the Suprematism of Kazimir Malevich, or the shock close-ups and split screens and montages of Sergei Eisenstein, or the grid pictures of Piet Mondrian which began life as attempts to capture the energy of fast-moving traffic around modern city blocks.

I was taught that all of these undeniably ‘modernist’ books and artworks were first and foremost responses to what many artists felt was the disruptive impact of a host of new technologies on modern life. They have nothing – visually or intellectually – to do with love and desire.

So it’s a surprise to realise that this indisputably key element of Modernism – the hectic, alienating, urban, machine-riddled aspect of the Modernist movement – is largely absent from this exhibition. If it’s mentioned at all it is only to be quickly downplayed.

Thus when the exhibition describes the Futurist poet and provocateur, Marinetti it does so mainly in order to prove that his partner, Benedetta, was a pioneering artist in her own right, who feistily stood up to Marinetti’s misogynist rhetoric and co-wrote a lot of his most famous works.

Fair enough, but this perspective downplays Marinetti’s importance as (half-crazed) apostle of The Machine – of the new age of fast cars, planes and trains, a mania which influenced the Surrealists in Paris and the Vorticists in London.

Room 20, devoted to Russian Modernism, describes the artistic output of Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, Lilya Brk and Osip Brik, and Vladimir Mayakovsky mainly in terms of their fluid relationships and collaborations i.e. in order to justify the curators’ central premise.

What is underplayed is the crucial importance of The Machine Age to their development of new styles of photography and photomontage, design, experimental film and so on – radical responses to the impact of new technologies on human life which were so acute and perceptive that many of them still influence us to this day.

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926) a very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

A. Rodchenko and V. Stepanova descending from an airplane in a still for the film The General Line by Sergei Eisenstein (1926). A very rare appearance of a machine in an exhibition overwhelmingly devoted to bodies and desire. Courtesy Rodchenko and Stepanova Archives, Moscow

Some of the exhibition wall labels do refer to the new experience of the modern city, a bit, where absolutely necessary, reluctantly – but overall the exhibition systematically downplays or ignores it in order to focus on its core concern – with relationships, love, ‘desire’ and the female body.

For me, this is simply to ignore, underplay and obscure a vital element in early 20th century avant-garde modernist art and literature.

Moreover, if you think about it, the curators’ unrelenting focus on love, sex and (generally) women’s bodies leads to a deep irony.

By choosing to equate Modernism exclusively with love and desire, an exhibition which sets out to reject sexist stereotypes of women in a subtle way ends up limiting women to – the realm of the emotions, of love and desire.

An exhibition which ostensibly sets out to tell us that women were interested in more than just the stereotypical concerns of love and sex (they were also successful businesswomen and designers), paradoxically goes to great lengths to tell us in sometimes embarrassing detail about the love lives, partners and sensuality and eroticism of these same women.

Which tends to have the cumulative affect of confirming the stereotypical prejudice that women, at the end of the day, aren’t interested in wider ideas, social change, technology, science and engineering, in designing better engines, cars, planes and trains.

No, with a handful of exceptions, most of the women in this exhibition are described as being predominantly interested – in their lives and art and writing – in love and sex. The lesbians, gays and transgender people, too, are defined, categorised and interpreted in the light of their sexual preferences, not in any wider social or intellectual concerns.

[At a more remote level, for people who don’t give a damn about art or artists (90+% of the population), this exhibition confirms every philistine prejudice they’ve ever held about the art world, namely that it’s a Sodom and Gomorrah of sexual perversion, infidelity, adultery and pornography. (There is quite a lot of nudity on display, as you’d expect in an exhibition about desire and the body, lots of bare boobs and one or two naked penises. Visitors are warned that the room about the Surrealists’ ‘Chance Encounter’ has so much explicit content that it might not be suitable for under-16s. Oooh er.)]

Meanwhile, beyond the artists’ studios and bedrooms in the 1910s and 20s, there was an immense and exciting world – the world of motorbikes and racing cars and fast trains and ocean liners and skyscrapers and high speed elevators and escalators and department stores and cinemas and world wars and machine guns and tanks and airplanes, the world where people tested themselves against machines, climbed mountains, did solo flights across the Atlantic.

But all this is ignored, left out, omitted, elided and glossed over, in the curators’ keenness to assert that the essence of Modernism was… love and desire, marriages and mistresses, ‘transgressive sexuality’, ‘the queer citizen’, ‘women’s liberation’, ‘same-sex acceptance’ and so on.

It is difficult to read every word of all the wall labels, not only because there are so many of them, but also because so many of them end up saying the same thing. The circumstantial details of each artist and their relationships maybe be distinct and individual but so many of the labels take us to the same destination – explaining that so and so made ‘the body’ the centre of their practice or ‘the site of transgressive desire’ or an epitome of ‘queer citizenship’, and so on.

The explosively diverse and often fascinating works of many of these artists are time after time reduced, interpreted via the same handful of ideas which rotate obsessively around sex, ‘desire’, the body, and transgressing gender stereotypes.

It is, in my opinion, both a narrow view of Modern Art, and a very narrow view of the female, lesbian and gay achievement of the time, both in the art world and beyond.

A tsunami of information

So much for the core ideas of the exhibition, and my issue with some of them.

The actual experience of visiting Modern Couples is to be completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of names and stories. The two floors of the Barbican Gallery have been divided up into some 23 small rooms, into most of which have been crammed displays about at least two sets of couples, with each couple introduced and explained by sometimes lengthy texts on the wall, as well as scores and scores of key quotes from the respective artists and authors.

It’s a lot to take in – to read the explanation of each couple, and then try and match the quotes to what you’ve just read about their lives – and then to find the energy to look at the actual art works.

To give you a sense of the scale and the deluge of information, here’s the list of the Artist Couples:

  • Aino and Alvar Aalto
  • Vanessa Bell and Roger Fry
  • Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant
  • Lilya Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky
  • Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore
  • Benedetta and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti
  • Leonora Carrington and Max Ernst
  • Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin
  • Nancy Cunard and Henry Crowder
  • Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay
  • Lili Elbe And Gerda Wegener
  • Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt
  • Federico García Lorca and Salvador Dalí
  • Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov
  • Eileen Gray and Jean Badovici
  • Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson
  • Hannah Höch and Til Brugman
  • Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann
  • Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera
  • Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso
  • Alma Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka
  • Alma Mahler and Gustav Mahler
  • Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp
  • Margrethe Mather and Edward Weston
  • Lee Miller and Man Ray
  • Lee Miller and Roland Penrose
  • Tina Modotti and Edward Weston
  • Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy
  • Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky
  • Winifred Nicholson and Ben Nicholson
  • Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz
  • PaJaMa: Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret French
  • George Platt Lynes, Monroe Wheeler and Glenway Wescott
  • Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt
  • Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko
  • Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp
  • Toyen and Jindrich Štyrský
  • Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky
  • Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West
  • Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf
  • Unica Zürn and Hans Bellmer

That’s a lot of biographies to read and digest, that’s a lot of names to remember.

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Nude with Poppies (1916) by Vanessa Bell. Swindon Art Gallery

Here are the names, careers, art and writing of the ‘Sapphists’ featured in just one room, the one dedicated to ‘The Temple of Friendship’ i.e. the lesbian writers and artists of 1920s Paris:

  • Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Romaine Brooks
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Rémy de Gourmont
  • Natalie Clifford-Barney and Liane de Pougy
  • Natalie Clifford Barney and Renée Vivien
  • Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier
  • Luisa Casati
  • Radclyffe Hall and Una Troubridge
  • Tamara de Lempicka
  • Ida Rubinstein
  • Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

And that’s before you get to the artists featured in the Surrealist ‘Chance Encounter’ room, namely:

  • Eileen Agar and Joseph Bard
  • Eileen Agar and Paul Nash
  • Marcel Duchamp as Rrose Sélavy
  • Leonor Fini and André Pieyre de Mandiargues
  • Gala and Salvador Dalí
  • Gala, Paul Éluard and Max Ernst
  • Valentine Hugo and André Breton
  • Jacqueline Lamba and André Breton
  • Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray
  • Nadja and André Breton
  • Nusch and Paul Éluard
  • Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff
  • Valentine Penrose and Alice Rahon
  • Valentine Penrose and Roland Penrose
  • Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst
Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Dorothea Tanning and Max Ernst with his sculpture, Capricorn, 1947 © John Kasnetsis

Not only must the visitor assimilate this tsunami of names, relationships and diversity of artistic and literary practices, but every visitor to the exhibition is given a free handout, a ‘glossary’, which includes even more themes to think about.

For when the curators had collated this much information about this many people and assembled this many works all in one place – it turns to be an interesting exercise to detect all kinds of further links and connections between the huge diversity of artists, activities or artworks on show.

Thus the free handout suggests that, as you walk round the exhibition, you look out for the following themes:

  • Activism
  • Agency – ‘Feminism, agency and the desire for independence underpins much of the work by women artists in the avant-garde period.’
  • Breaking up
  • Businesswomen – Emilie Flöge, Sonia Delaunay, Aino Aalto
  • Chance encounter
  • Chloe liked Olivia – quote from Virginia Woolf epitomising ‘the new queer citizen of the 20th century’
  • Clandestine
  • Co-authored – or collaboration, one of the show’s central themes.
  • Communicating vessels – ‘Two different bodies, rubbed against one another, attain, through the spark, their supreme unity in fire’ – André Breton, 1932.
  • Collage
  • Daring – ‘What have I dared embark upon by entering your life?’ Dora Maar to Picasso, 1936.
  • Desire
  • Elegy – ‘Butterflies represent a scene of your life in which the dawn awakens on your lips. A star takes shape according to your design.’ Jean Arp remembering Sophie Taeuber-Arp after her death.
  • Escape to the country
  • Feminism – ‘We will be better than the wife, the mother or the sister of a man, we will be the female brother of the man’ – Natalie Clifford Barney
  • Gift
  • Homoeroticism – ‘The work that came out of Monroe Wheeler, Glenway Wescott and George Platt Lynes’s at times uneasy polyamorous relationship opened up a queer utopian space, away from 1930s American conservatism, in which the male subject could be liberated.’
  • Intimacy
  • Liberation – sexual liberation, liberation from Victorian clothing and Victorian morality, liberation from constricting fabrics and dull designs, liberation from boring interiors, liberation from artistic naturalism and even from language
  • Love
  • Mad love
  • Mirroring – ‘I am one, you are the other. Or the opposite. Our desires meet one another.’ Claude Cohun, 1930.
  • Muse – Dora Maar took photos of her lover Picasso in ‘a turnaround of gender expectations‘.
  • Mythology
  • Nest
  • Non-binary – ‘Gender fluidity, sexual empowerment, awakening, and the fight for safe spaces of becoming, were part of the avant-garde currency.’
  • Play
  • Printed word – ‘It could be a political text, a perfect branding platform, a token of love, a site of artistic collaboration or a platform for transgressive or erotic content.’
  • Procreation
  • Publishing – Many modernists experimented with setting up their own publishing company, most notably the Hogarth Press of Leonard and Virginia Woolf.
  • Pygmalion
  • Radical abstraction
  • Reinvention – The importance of the portrait, in art and literature. Claude Cohun and Marcel Moore, life partners for 45 years, and produced a huge body of work playing with ‘gender politics‘.
  • Revolution – Alexander Rodchenko and partner Varvara Stepanova’s revulsion for the West’s cult of ‘Woman as object’ and determination to embrace ‘gender equality‘.
  • Selfie
  • Sidelined – women sidelined by men, obviously
  • Total work of art
  • Triadic
  • Two-people movements – Rayism invented by Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, the Mask Dancer movement of Lavinia Schultz and Walter Holdt, the Tactilism of Benedetta and Filippo Marinetti, the Orphism of Sonia and Robert Delaunay.
  • Utopia
  • War
  • X-rated – ‘Many artists in this exhibition used eroticism in their art as a way of fighting bourgeois conformity, propaganda and artistic censorship.’

Is that enough to think about yet?

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

A self-portrait by Claude Cahun, subverting gender stereotypes. Courtesy of Jersey Heritage Collections

This is what the exhibition is like. Overflowing with texts, quotes, references, biographical data, artistic theory and, underpinning it all, emerging sooner or later in every wall label for every artist – the axioms of modern identity politics and feminism – gender politics, the body, gender fluidity, transgressive art, gender equality, and so on.

Numbers

I counted a total of 103 paragraphs of wall text – sometimes very long, densely factual paragraphs. It would take at least an hour just to read them, and that’s before the 50 or so quotes from artists’ letters, diaries and so on.

There are over 40 couples, but many more ‘couples-plus’ – groups and movements of artists and writers to get a handle on – with the result that the exhibition features more than 80 writers and artists in total.

And there are a staggering 600 objects on display, including paintings, sculptures, models, furniture, personal photographs, love letters, gifts, books – 35 first editions from Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press – magazines, rare archival material and much, much more!

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve

Les deux amies (1923) by Tamara de Lempicka. Association des Amis du Petit Palais, Geneve. A portrait of two naked women painted by a woman!

In the event, this was simply too much for me to take in. I started off dutifully reading every wall text but quickly got tired, saturated, full up – I started skimming some and then just ignored others. I went round about five times, each time reading at new bits of text, toying with quotes here and there – above all, trying to let the actual art fight its way through the jungle of biography and interpretation and bitty quotations and make its impact.

I came to roughly two conclusions.

1. One is that, if you’re a student or have an educational motivation, this is a spectacular opportunity to see works great and small, by artists famous and obscure, by men, women, gays, lesbians and trans people, from what feels like all the most important art movements of the early 20th century.

(In fact it’s far from being a complete overview of early 20th century art – that would fill ten Barbican galleries – but it is an impressive stab at conveying a really comprehensive overview of important modern art as retold with women, gays and lesbians to the fore.)

2. The second point is that among the 600 paintings, books, photos and furniture on display there are some real masterpieces, many on loan from abroad, and so a rare opportunity to see many beautiful things in the flesh.

Small is not necessarily beautiful

In this respect – my response to the art – I found the smaller, more cramped rooms to be unconducive to aesthetic enjoyment.

For example, the small first room which is shared by the story of Camille Claudel and Auguste Rodin, and the story of Maria Martins and Marcel Duchamp, included some plaster busts and faces by the former pair, and some bronze casts of Maria’s body parts (her buttocks and vagina) made by Duchamp. But it was so small, cramped and crowded that it felt more like a reading and learning space, than an art space.

The reduction ad absurdum of this shoehorn approach was the way that the no doubt complex and interesting working relationship between modernist designer Lilly Reich and her long-term partner and collaborator, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was explained via one chrome and black leather chair and three paragraphs of text plonked at the bottom of the stairs to the first floor.

He claimed to be the sole designer of this classic and hugely influential chair. Only decades later did it emerge that she had as least as much input as he did into the design. What a beast!

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe (1929)

Interesting story, but blink and you might miss it altogether.

The show is co-curated by Emma Lavigne, Director of the Centre Pompidou in Metz. The French connection made me think of some of the smaller displays as types of ‘bonnes bouches’ or ‘tasty bites’ – fleeting treats designed to add to the overall argument, but whose main function would be to inspire you to go away and find out more.

Big rooms where art can breathe

By contrast, I only really felt comfortable – and that I was really getting an aesthetic kick (as opposed to processing large amounts of biographical and art information) – in some of the larger rooms. There were plenty of other highlights, but I would single out rooms 14, 15 and 17.

Room 17 displayed the work of two and a half couples: of the English artist Ben Nicholson, who 1. enjoyed a close working relationship with Winifred Nicholson (whom he married) in the early 1930s before 2. then partnering with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The wall labels quote letters they exchanged in which they spoke of becoming, literally, one person, with one taste and one artistic motivation.

In this same room, on the opposite wall, was a suite of work by Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp. I found the juxtaposition of the sculptural abstractions of Nicholson and Hepworth with the playful abstracts of Arp really interesting.

But I was transfixed by the four or five 18-inch-high marionettes made by Sophie Taeuber-Arp for a puppet production of a folk tale about King Stagg. These possessed something almost nothing else in the exhibition did – which was charm and humour.

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Marionettes by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1918)

Room 15 is a rare example of a room devoted to just one couple, in this case the wife-and-husband partnership between Sonia and Robert Delaunay (who were married from 1910 to Robert’s death in 1941). This married couple developed a movement variously titled Simultanism and then Orphism, in which different patterns of colours are set against each other to create disruptive effects.

The Delaunay room benefited immensely from being just about them, with no other couple squeezed in. It had more than twenty works hung around the walls, most of them – from what I could see – the calm, restful abstract designs by Sonia, mostly for fabrics and dresses. This made for a really absorbing and beautiful space.

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

Design B53 (1924) by Sonia Delaunay

But the room I found it literally hard to leave and, even when I’d left it, found myself walking round the entire ground floor in order to visit again with a renewed frisson of delight, was room 14 devoted to the overlapping artistic partnerships of Gabriele Münter and Wassily Kandinsky, and Marianne von Werefkin and Alexej von Jawlensky.

This foursome produced German Expressionist paintings of wonderful colour and vivid design at their self-styled artist colony at Murnau in Bavaria, in the years just before the Great War. Wow.

I liked lots of other things in the exhibition (the enormous painting of naked lesbians by Tamara de Lempicka, the thrilling Constructivist photos of Varvara Stepanova and Alexander Rodchenko, the dazzling photos of Lee Miller done by Man Ray, the couple of small but wonderful paintings by Gustav Klimt, some of the abstract paintings produced by Roger Grant and Vanessa Bell’s Omega Workshop, the wonderfully aloof portraits painted by Romaine Brooks), but for sheer visual pleasure, nothing beat this room of hyper-bright, vivid brushstrokes, bold childlike designs, and colour-drenched splashes and flourishes by this German foursome.

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Improvisation III by Wassily Kandinsky (1909)

Probably I should have been reading up on how their work ‘subverted’ this or that tradition, and ‘challenged gender stereotypes’, or how the two women definitely contributed as much or more to their commune as the men.

But I switched off all that curatorial chatter, and just stood in awe of these wonderful, beautiful, transcendent works of art. No reproductions can do justice to the shiny vibrancy of the real thing in the flesh. Go and see them for yourself.

Conclusion

It must have taken an immense amount of effort by the four co-curators to bring together such an epic collection of objects and art works and to bring order, coherence and meaning to the multiple stories behind them.

If you are a feminist I can see how this exhibition of feminist artists lovingly assembled by feminist curators with scores of texts by feminist scholars would thunderingly confirm all your feminist beliefs. That’s what it’s designed to do.

And I wondered, as I left, whether this exhibition now and in the future, might be seen as a landmark show, a really massive rethinking of early 20th century modern art which reinstates women’s stories in all these important relationships, and often rehabilitates them as being as, if not more, creative than their male partners.

And also for the way it explores the idea that modern art was characterised, more than any previous type of art, by its collaborative nature, by the way it was produced by partnerships, by trios or quartets, by small groups working, thinking and making together.

It is a strong, well-argued, illuminating and very thought-provoking show.

But, that said, it’s hard to imagine that a lot of these artists and their stories won’t already be well known to the average gallery goer – the stories of Picasso and Dora, Frida and Diego, Virginia and Vita and the names of Dali, Ernst, Man Ray, Klimt, Marinetti, Nicholson and Hepworth are hardly unknown, and the notion that, ‘behind every great man there’s a great woman’, is hardly a radical thought – as indicated by the fact that there’s a centuries-old proverb on the subject.

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine that the fact that there were lesbian writers in the 1920s or gay photographers in the 1930s, will come as a great surprise to the average gallery goer. Homosexuality is not really news to most people. Most of the people the exhibition is targeted at will, I suspect, have heard of Virginia Woolf before, and will know she had a lesbian affair with Vita Sackville-West.

My position, after forty years of studying twentieth century art, literature and history, is that the Century of Catastrophes is too diverse and complex to be reduced to any one narrative or interpretation. From about the 1890s onwards there was (and still is) too much going on in an interconnected world of billions of human beings for any one narrative or story to hope to tell any kind of definitive ‘truth’.

For example, this is an exhibition, at bottom, about European and American white women, often very wealthy women (Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney). You can immediately see that focusing on these often very privileged people tends to omit the stories of working class people of both genders in those continents. You could be forgiven for not realising there were things called the First World War and the Russian Revolution during the period the exhibition covers. Not enough ‘same sex desire’ to merit inclusion.

Similarly, there is precious little (surprisingly) about the black experience of modernity (there is one black person in the exhibition, the jazz musician Henry Crowder, who is included because of his influence over the immensely wealthy patron of the arts and writer, Nancy Cunard).

In fact, now I think about it, jazz is a crashingly obvious and central element of Modernism, from Stravinsky to Eliot, and is depicted in countless modernist art works. But it doesn’t fit with the curators’ insistence that Modernism be defined by couples, love and relationships, sex and partners and gender and desire and so… it isn’t here.

My view is that the ‘Modern’ experience of humanity, the bewildering catalogue of technological, scientific and cultural change which overwhelmed Homo sapiens in the early twentieth century – is too vast and multiform for any one narrative to encompass.

The curators make a powerful and persuasive case that Modernism was characterised above all by new thinking about love, eroticism, desire and relationships, much of which promoted the liberation of women (and trans people and gays).

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose © Roland Penrose

Lee Miller with a cast of her torso, Downshire Hill, London, England 1940 by Roland Penrose
© Roland Penrose

I accept all their points as valid, and the body of evidence they’ve assembled is pulverisingly persuasive. And yet I still think that an equal if not more important element of Modernism was artists’ reaction to the revolution in everyday life caused by new technologies. And everyone’s world was turned upside down by the Great War. And the entire intellectual world was galvanised by the radicalism of the Russian Revolution. And I haven’t mentioned the famously disruptive discoveries of Einstein and others, undermining the static view of the forces of nature held since Newton. Too much was happening. No wonder the art from this period is so excited and effervescent.

Alternative interpretations

But I’m well aware that my own interpretation can itself be trumped by other competing narratives. That there are numerous ways of looking at this period of cultural history.

For example, arguably the most important aspect of the era was the collapse of the old European empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. The entire art of the period could be interpreted in terms of the breakdown of the ideologies, laws and customs which supported them, of which conventions about relations between the sexes are just a small sub-set.

Or there’s a Marxist interpretation which suggests that the era was characterised by unprecedented wealth derived from the West’s imperialist domination of the rest of the world – wealth which gave rise to a new class of super-rich collectors and connoisseurs who patronised ‘modern’ art and literature and experimented with new ‘decadent’ lifestyles. (Vide Nancy Cunard, Natalie Barney and the numerous other rich American women who populate the 1920s lesbian room).

Or there’s a strong post-colonial interpretation which says that the decisive impetus for Modernism and its revolutionary overthrow of 400 years of realistic art came from the cultural appropriation of the African masks and Oceanic art looted by imperial collectors, which were enthusiastically copied by Picasso and Matisse, and which had a transformative effect on everyone who followed them.

To give just a few of the most obvious interpretations of the art of the period.

This exhibition is an impressive and stimulating attempt to write one particular story about early twentieth century art. But it is only one interpretation among a sea of alternative stories.

The promotional video

P.S. What does ‘modern’ mean?

When I told my wife I was off to see an exhibition titled ‘Modern Couples’ she thought it would be a V&A-style celebration of contemporary celebrity pairs like Elton John and David Furnish, the Beckhams, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, and so on.

No, I explained. When art and literary critics say ‘modern’ what they mean is art from the 1900s, 1910s and 20s. They mean art and literature which is over a hundred years old. That’s what they mean by ‘modern’.

And even as I explained it, I realised how odd this use of the word ‘modern’ is. Eventually this stuff is going to be 150 years old. Will we still be describing it as ‘modern’ in 2050? At what point will someone have to come up with a better name? Or will Modernist art remain ‘modern’ forever?


Related links

Women in art

Reviews of artists featured in this exhibition

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Agnes Martin @ Tate Modern

Potted biography

I’d never heard of Agnes Martin – knowing nothing about an artist being the best reason to go to an exhibition of their work. Turns out she was an American abstract painter who lived from 1912 to 2004, a long life. She was originally from Canada, went south to the States and took to painting late, not completing her Master of Arts degree till she was 30. Her early work shows the influence of all the contemporary currents (surrealism, Picasso and so on) in paintings of biomorphic loops and striking abstract sculptures. She moved to New York in the early 1950s just as the Abstract Expressionists were taking off – grouped together in a cheap area of south Manhattan were living and working Jasper Johns, Barnett Newman and a lot of other guys inventing a distinctly American form of painting.

She always lived frugally and at one point in the later 1960s packed in art altogether to go traveling for five years. She finally settled in New Mexico where she built her own adobe house and studio, living in primitive simplicity (no electricity, no running water) and she died there, far from the bright lights and the big city, full of years, fame and the praise of her contemporaries.

[Her biography is amply told in the Wikipedia and Tate web pages, listed below]

Potted career

The exhibition, in 11 big rooms, starts with Martin’s early zoomorphic work, along with some striking abstract sculptures, but it was in the later 1950s that she abandoned all figurative art to work in the repeated patterns, the mathematical grids, which were to become her trademark. In the early 1960s she found her voice, creating a series of grid patterns in square canvases 72 inches by 72 inches. The size would vary, but the addiction to grids of straight lines lasted the rest of her life.

Over time her colour palette became more muted. By the 1970s it was very pale pastels. The show has one room devoted to massive grids coloured only with grey. Another room has one of her few ‘series’ – 12 big square canvases painted white with such faint pencil lines creating rectangles and squares, that you can’t see them from across the room. The net effect is very relaxing. In fact the exhibition as a whole is very calming, muting, slowing, meditative. I heartily (no, I quietly) recommend it.

1963

Agnes Martin, Friendship 1963 Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Friendship (1963)
Museum of Modern Art, New York
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1973

Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day (1973) Parasol Press, Ltd. © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, On a Clear Day (1973)
Parasol Press, Ltd.
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1974

Agnes Martin, Untitled #3 (1974) Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled #3 (1974)
Des Moines Art Center, Iowa, USA
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1977

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977) Private collection Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled (1977)
Private collection
Photograph courtesy of Pace Gallery
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

1999

Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday (1999) Tate / National Galleries of Scotland © estate of Agnes Martin

Agnes Martin, Happy Holiday (1999)
Tate / National Galleries of Scotland
© estate of Agnes Martin

2003 – Just at the end of her very long life, Martin returned to non-grids, albeit still mathematical shapes, but more colourful and non-griddy than anything she’d done for 50 years.

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (2003) Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris © 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin, Untitled #1 (2003)
Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris
© 2015 Agnes Martin / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Interpretations

Tate have made a short film featuring Martin herself and curators commenting.

Her dealer, Arne Gimcher, suggests a good approach when he says the paintings reflect the viewer (Art is in the eye of the beholder, sure, but rather more than usually for Martin). As I walked around these big white rooms hung with abstract grids and patterns in pastel colours or no colours at all, I could feel my heart beat slowing down and my thoughts wandering. The commentary/guide labels on the wall suggested different phases of her work and mentioned aspects of her biography. These were enough to plant seeds of thought, interpretation, speculation, idly flowing, projecting onto her empty canvases…

Lesbian

She was, apparently, a lesbian, though she never, apparently, formed a permanent relationship [Wikipedia: ‘She lived alone all her adult life.’]. Her gender, possibly, explains the absence of forcefulness, or drive, of tiresome grandstanding and showing off, which you find in many male artists of the mid-century, from Picasso to Pollock.

But insofar as she didn’t seem to form any private attachments – with no husband or lovers or children, with no ties of any sort – Martin was free to follow her private vision. And her art is a kind of logic set free: rows and columns and lines and rectangles silently inhabiting their own space, with no distractions.

Zen Buddhism

At Columbia University where she studied art, Zen Buddhism was taught by scholars and professors and becoming better known. She was interested in it for a while. As far as I can tell she didn’t become a devotee or practitioner, but you could argue that her entire oeuvre is an invitation to sit in silence and meditate.

This is especially true of the series she titled The Islands, twelve large square paintings in white acrylic paint and graphite, each with a unique use of horizontal lines to divide the surface, but so pale as to be barely visible from across a room. They’re there, but not there. They appear as you move forward, vanish as you retreat. They are what you make of them…

Schizophrenic

‘Throughout adulthood, Martin suffered from schizophrenia.’ This striking piece of information is revealed in room 5, and can’t help influencing the viewer. Were these tremendously ordered grids a way of controlling and managing a troubled mind? There is absolutely none of the stormy angst of a Jackson Pollock – the extreme reverse, emotionally flat surfaces laced with an orderly, patterned serenity.

In the film about her, Martin says we experience all kinds of emotions which we don’t express. Do these paintings express any emotion at all? I found the opposite: they are orderly empty spaces into which we project what we want.

Nature

The most misleading interpretations offered by various commentators seemed to me the several artists and colleagues who think Martin’s work captures ‘Nature’. For example, artist Ann Wilson is quoted from 1974 saying, ‘The colour in Agnes Martin’s work can be like the colour in rock at dawn, at noon, at sunset, depending on where your perceptions are when you see.’

Of course the colour of some of the pale reds in some of the grids may be the colour of sunset light on rock. Or a newborn baby. Or a weak Bloody Mary. But I find the griddiness of the grids outweighs any reference to nature. Nothing in nature is like this. Martin’s paintings have a purity, a mathematical fixity which is entirely unnatural, a unique product of the human mind.

Techno 1960s

As it happens I went for a walk in the countryside around Milton Keynes last weekend, the archetype of a planned urban environment, which was designated a ‘new town’ in January 1967. I was struck, like any visitor, by the preciseness of the geometric grid the central streets are laid out in, an obsession with squares, rectangles, right angles, grids and matrices reflected not only in the street layout but in the design of almost every building, whether brutalist concrete, or 60s and 70s office blocks, or the shiny facade of the long glass-fronted train station itself, built in 1982, and which extends down to the decorative detail of mosaics, air conditioning extractors, ducts and grilles and vents and vast areas of rectangular paving stone.

The 1960s was the decade of technological innovation – in England this took the form of Harold Wilson’s rather laughable ‘white heat of technology’, of the Post Office Tower and Concorde – in America of the space programme, and an explosion of ‘space age’ gadgets – and all around the world new towns, cities and capitals were being created in rational, mathematical grid layouts, visions of a brave new, rational, liberated society.

To what extent were Martin’s grids a reflection of this broader culture vision, specifically of the optimistic rational architecture, of the 1960s? And, if not directly influenced by contemporary grid-like thinking, to what extent did her work become successful because it replicated in oil and canvas the architecture of the day?

And did the transition from the bright grids of the 1960s to the quieter – and eventually colourless, grey – grids of the 1970s reflect the transition from the psychedelic 60s to the more internalised 1970s, the Me Decade, obsessed with self-improvement, cults, fads and self-expression?

Computers

Like most modern people, a lot of my time is spent sitting in front of a computer (as I am now), and I happen to deal with the obvious programs, Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoint, Word, Microsoft Project. Could the modern world be any more griddy?

If you take the worldwide web as an archetype of a network or matrix, would it be true to say we live in an Agnes Martin world now? (Another way in which, I think, her vision is the opposite of ‘natural’ or organic).

Pencil

Last point: the grids weren’t created by machine or computer. She used a metal rule and masking tape and graphite pencils to draw her lines herself. All very manual and personal. Seen close up, really close up, you can see the imperfections, the wobbles, nubs and bumps of the pencil over uneven canvas. This most mathematical and abstract of painters is, paradoxically, when seen close up, touchingly imperfect, subject to happenstance and contingency, wonderfully human.

This is a great, a liberating, calming, stimulating, refreshing show.

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