The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

Painting With Light @ Tate Britain

This exhibition has the feel of a very interesting lecture or documentary about the interplay between photography and photographers and art and artists in Britain, from 1840 to around 1910. During this period photography went through a swift succession of technical innovations, and Art itself evolved through a whole series of movements, so that the exhibition contains two distinct and complex histories intertwined, and also features many interesting biographical stories about individual photographers and artists. All very enjoyable.

As usual I’m struck by how long ago photography was invented. William Henry Fox Talbot announced details of his ‘salted paper’ process to the Royal Society in 1839 (referring back to the oldest photographic negative, taken in 1835). In the same year Louis Daguerre announced his invention of the daguerreotype.

Enough photographers were at work a decade later for the Photographic Society of London to be established in 1853 and come under royal patronage the next year. It continues to this day as the Royal Photographic Society.

The most obvious impact of photography was to capture exactly what is there – the truth of landscapes, bodily poses and all the details to be seen within the frame. The human eye selects and focuses, and paintings and drawings even more so select and highlight. Photographs show everything within the field of composition and preserve it as a record, to be studied indefinitely. As soon as it became available, artists began taking photographs to use as models for paintings in all genres – urban vistas and landscapes, people and poses, buildings.

The core of this exhibition is the scores of fascinating examples where the curators have placed a photograph and the work which it led to side by side, allowing us to compare and contrast the function and effect of the two media – sometimes exact copies, sometimes more a capturing of the spirit of place or person.

Photography > painting

Some of the many examples of photographs providing the basis for paintings include:

In 1843 Robert Adamson established a photographic studio in Edinburgh where he was joined by the painter David Octavius Hill. They took more than 4,000 photos of Edinburgh until Adamson died at just 26. Among them was a photographic portrait of the artist William Etty which Etty then used to directly compose his Self-portrait, after a photograph by David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (1846). It’s interesting the way Etty has got rid of all the details of the folds of his jacket, especially the left arm: it has become an undifferentiated block of black which has the effect of focusing our attention on the pale face, concentrating on thought and inspiration.

Daguerrotypes are small precise images made onto polished silver plates. The artist and art critic John Ruskin was quick to take to photography, having his valet John Hobbs experiment with them. The show includes a striking contrast between Ruskin’s watercolour painting of the North-West Angle of the Facade of St Mark’s, Venice with a daguerrotype Hobbs made of the same view in 1850. Ruskin defined art as paying attention to what is actually there:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. (Modern Painters 4, 1856)

This was the basis for Ruskin’s famous defence of the Pre-Raphaelite painters (William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti) when they started exhibiting in 1848. Although they shocked many Victorians with the ungainliness and ugliness of their paintings, Ruskin defended the PRBs’ fanatical attention to detail. Both were, by temperament, attracted to the similar recording of detail found in photography.

Ruskin used photography as a record of detail as in this photo of the courtyard of a late Gothic wooden house in Abbeville, 1868 and used them as teaching aids in his public lectures and then at the art school he set up.

Abroad In 1854 the pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt and the photographer James Graham toured the Holy Land. Graham took a series of photographs of Nazareth, which Hunt used as an aide memoire when he came to make this watercolour of the scene. The commentary points out that the photograph doesn’t fade away into the distant haze traditionally found in landscape painting, but continues to show the detail of the landscape with its tracks and terracing. Hunt copied this to create a continuity of detail extending right to the back of the painting, one of the PRB’s signature effects.

Hunt painted a number of seascapes, often with light effects from the sun or moon, and in his essay on photography the critic Philip Hamerton contrasted the depth and variety of colour possible in a watercolour like Fishing Boats By Moonlight (1869) with the light effects of the celebrated French photographer, Gustave le Gray, such as this Ciel Chargé (1857). In fact, in this instance, the photo seems to me much the superior image for its crispness and clarity.

Tourism In 1864 A.W. Bennett published a volume titled Our English Lakes, Mountains and Waterfalls as seen by William Wordsworth with thirteen albumen photographs by Thomas Ogle including one of the Bowder Stone, Borrowdale, the subject of an 1868 painting by Leeds-born artist John Atkinson Grimshaw.

In the studio Samuel Butler studied at Mr Heatherley’s Art School in the mid-1860s. He took this photograph of Mr Heatherley and then used it as the centre of his oil painting Mr Heatherley’s Holiday (1874). What makes these old photos feel so, so rich and evocative? Is it the use of sepia, the use of brown instead of black as the dark shade?

Orientalism Roger Fenton trained as a painter but switched to photography and became the first secretary of the Photography Society. In 1855 he was in the Crimea making a historic set of photos of the British Army fighting in the Crimean War. In 1859 he exhibited a sequence of ‘orientalist scenes’ including this Nubian Water Carrier. The exhibition shows how the same pose is reworked in The Song of the Nubian Slave by Frederick Goodall, who went on to have a successful career as a painter of Near Eastern subjects.

In 1862 Walter Crane exhibited his version of The Lady of Shalott, based on the extremely popular Tennyson poem of the same name. Critics weren’t slow to point out the extraordinary similarities with the photograph of the same scene created by Henry Peach Robinson a year earlier, nor to point out that the photograph was in every respect superior to the painting.

Painting > photography

Of course the influence could work the other way. If some artists used photos as the basis of paintings, some photographers used famous paintings as the basis for photographs.

Stereoscopy In 1859 James Robinson used the new technique of ‘stereoscopy’ ie juxtaposing two photos of the same scene to be viewed through special spectacles, to reconstruct the pose of Henry Wallis’s famous 1856 painting, Chatterton. This led to legal proceedings by printmakers, who usually enjoyed a monopoly on producing and selling copies of popular works and so stood to lose out with the arrival of this new invention.

Mention of ‘stereoscopy’ and ‘stereographs’ feels to me like the borderline of what you could call ‘art’. Mention of Dr Brian May’s historic collection in this area makes me feel we’re crossing the border into the realm of collecting and collectibility – Antiques Roadshow territory – close to collections of cigarette cards or period comics or historic magazines, and the like. This is a problem photography faces when asking to be considered as an art form: right from the start a large number of people have been able to do it and produce very passable results, and nowadays everyone in the world owns a camera-phone so that the number of these ‘art works’ increases by tens of millions every day.

Julia Margaret Cameron is the famously well-connected woman photographer who was good friends with Alfred Lord Tennyson and  his circle, and enjoyed dressing up her subjects in fake medieval costumes to mirror the poet laureate’s sensually Gothic poems. The exhibition contrasts her posing of models for The Passing of Arthur (1875) with a possible source in Daniel Maclise’s Morte d’Arthur illustration for the same Tennyson poem in an illustrated 1857 edition.

Cameron’s photographs are much closer to the sitter, framed and cropped to emphasise psychological acuity, at the same time exposed slightly longer to achieve a fuzziness of focus. Precise poses of the earlier period were replaced by ‘draped postures and dreamy expressions’, photographic versions of the new emphasis on Aestheticism, on a kind of spiritual intimacy which was the new thing in the 1870s, which would develop into Art for Art’s Sake in the 1880s and 90s.

Cameron had a specially close relationship with George Frederick Watts – Watts painted her, she photographed him. (I think Watts was a dreadful artist; JMC’s photograph is infinitely more artistic – better composed, framed and finished than anything Watts could manage). They discussed their respective arts and even shared sitters: May Prinsep by G.F. Watts (1867) – May Prinsep by J.M. Cameron (1870).

Dressing up for the camera An unknown photographer was commissioned to photograph the family of Prince Alfred, the Duke of Edinburgh, in poses based on the romantic paintings of the popular late Victorian artist Marcus Stone. The exhibition brings together the photo and the painting of Two’s Company, Three’s None (1893) indicating, along the way, the depth of the Victorian fondness for amateur theatricals and dressing up.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti began Beata Beatrix in 1864 but set it aside when the model, his wife, died. Julia Margaret Cameron poses her friend Mary Hiller as Tennyson’s heroine Elaine dying of love for Lancelot in Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die (1870), possibly basing the pose on the Beata and when Rossetti took up and completed his painting in 1870 the smoky chiaroscuro of the JMC photo may have influenced him.

Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Tate.

Beata Beatrix (c. 1864-70) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Tate.

Jane Morris In the summer of 1865 Rossetti commissioned John Parsons to take a series of photos of Jane Morris in his garden in London. It was done in a specially erected tent to make the background close to the sitter, and also to diffuse the bright summer sunlight. The photographs capture the extraordinary power of her features, the sensuous lips contrasted with the strong curving jawline, as well as the folds of the rich dress. This was the model of feminine beauty which Rossetti used for paintings like Mariana (1870).

Working life In 1885 the painter Thomas Goodall collaborated with the photographer Peter Henry Emerson on a book titled Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads which showed common folk in everyday activities. The second print was titled The Bow Net and the next year Goodall exhibited his painting The Bow Net. Discuss. Unlike the Watts/Cameron images, the painting seems to me easily the better image.

Sir George Clausen studied French realist painting in Paris before settling in England. From 1881 to 1884 he lived in rural Hertfordshire depicting the often hard lives of working people. He used a small camera to catch images and the exhibition shows several of the photos which he then worked up into finished paintings like Winter Work (1883).

I was surprised to learn that John Atkinson Grimshaw, remembered for his paintings of urban scenes by moonlight, often painted oil directly onto photographs of the scenes he was depicting. Apparently that’s the technique he used to create this amazingly realistic image of Pall Mall (1880s).

Diversity and diffusion

There are several more rooms devoted to the relationship between photos and paintings of landscape, of urban scenes, of Venice – and a sequence about the fashion for Japanese art at the end of the century, linking photos of models posing in Japanese clothes and parasols with paintings of similar scenes. In all of these I felt the connections between the photos and the art works were becoming increasingly tenuous.

By 1900 photography was old enough to have not only an established royal society and a tradition of ‘old masters’ which were published in expensive volumes, as well as a panoply of diverse techniques and approaches, but a number of breakaway ‘revolutionary’ societies promising to do radical new things with the form, as well as hundreds of photography clubs all round the country who held scores of competitions and exhibitions, with work flooding in from America, France, from all the industrialised nations. If it was an art form it was also a mass practice as well.

By the 1890s the overlaps between art and photography seem increasingly coincidental. They are both simply depicting the world around them. When the show sets the impressionistic ‘nocturne’ paintings of J.M. Whistler alongside the works of contemporary photographers from the 1890s who were experimenting with how to capture the new phenomena of electric lights, with soft-focus night scenes of London and so on, you realise the similarity between some of the paintings and some of the photos might simply be because, by 1890, lots of people were interested in the same looks and styles.

I think it was in the Quai d’Orsay museum I read that the 1890s was ‘the decade of isms’, and it might well be the decade when the sheer number of artists, designers and photographers, and the range of media they’re working in, and the sheer volume of product they’re producing, becomes unmanageable under any one heading.

Certainly the show is wise to end on the brink of the twentieth century when posters, adverts, newspapers, magazines, hoardings – not forgetting the new ‘art’ form of cinema, with its accompanying posters and still photos of the stars – will create a world saturated with photographic and graphic images, artworks, brands and logos, designs and patterns – a profusion which makes the easy analysis of the relationship between ‘art’ and ‘photography’ which characterised the earlier part of the exhibition no longer possible.

P.S. Elizabeth Eastlake

After Robert Adamson died young, his collaborator David Octavius Hill prepared a memoriam volume of his work and presented it to the President of the Royal Academy, Charles Eastlake. As it happens, Eastlake would go on to marry one of the models featured in it, Elizabeth Rigby, Hill’s friend, model and herself an art critic who wrote one of the earliest essays on photography.

The exhibition includes a copy of the memorial volume, open to a page showing this image of Eastlake, one of the 20 or so they took of her. Her turned-away posture, added to the knowledge of Adamson’s early death, and the feel of long ago costumes and people, charge it with great poignancy.

By the end of the exhibition I felt like I’d seen hundreds of photos and paintings of women, but this early one still felt special. Maybe part of the appeal of the earliest photographs is they somehow carry a sense of their scarcity, their relative uniqueness, which gives them a poise and a charge lacking from later pictures as the flood of popular photography turned into an all-encompassing tsunami.

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