Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Postwar Modern: New Art in Britain 1945 to 1965 @ the Barbican

Layout

The Barbican gallery is a big exhibition space, spread over two floors. On the ground floor, as you come in, there’s the ticket desk and shop, then you walk through a doorway on your right into the ground floor display space. This is divided into three successively larger ‘rooms’, the third and final one being a fairly big atrium. You then emerge from these into a corridor which runs back alongside the atrium spaces back to the shop, and off which are three alcove rooms or ‘bays’.

Back by the shop there are stairs up to the first floor gallery which runs round the walls and allows you to look down onto the atrium space you’ve just left, so you can see paintings and sculptures from above. You can walk right round this gallery but there are only alcoves or bays on along two sides of it, four bays on one side and four on the other. 3 + 3 + 4 + 4 = 14 distinct display spaces.

14 rooms, 14 themes

So when the curators set out to design this exhibition of post-war British art they had 14 spaces to play with and have come up with 14 topics or subject areas, accordingly. Starting in room 1, the visitor walks through 14 themed aspects of post-war British art, which are also arranged in a loosely chronological order, starting just after the end of the Second World War and ending in 1965.

‘Cyborg collages’: First Contact by John McHale (1958) Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York © Estate of John McHale

The new

The curators have made one key decision which defines the entire show: believing that post-war artists had to cope with the aftermath of ‘a cataclysmic war that called into question religion, ideology and humanity itself’, they have consciously chosen to focus on THE NEW ARTISTS of the period. They have ignored artists who’d come to prominence between the wars (so no Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, for example; no Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, no Stanley Spencer, Surrealists or Bloomsburyites).

Instead the curators have tried to catch the mood conveyed by The New Generation of young artists who emerged immediately after the war and set a new tone. The result is that, although the exhibition contains the huge number of 200 works of painting, sculpture and photography, by an overwhelming number of artists (48) it has a surprising unity of feel.

Leaving aside the (excellent) photographers, the paintings in particular demonstrate what you could call a kind of damaged abstraction. There’s a blurred, grey and brown, muddy quality to much of the work. There are lots of earth tones, earth grey, earth cream, earth browns.

West Indian waitresses by Eva Frankfurther (1955) Ben Uri collection, presented by the artist’s sister Beate Planskoy © the Estate of Eve Frankfurther

The war hadn’t pulverised a specific landscape, as in the images of the Western Front made famous during and after the First World War. It had ranged far more widely than that. Crucially, it had permanently damaged mankind’s view of itself.

It was hard to be optimistic about people or ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ after news of the concentration camps broke in May 1945, and then the atom bombs were dropped in August 1945. And then the H bombs and the start of the incredibly fearful and menacing Cold War. Many artists struggled to believe in anything positive and channelled their energies into devising novel ways to express their horror and despair.

With so many works by so many artists, there are some exceptions, but overall I’d say this is quite a grim, depressing exhibition, with much to be justifiably depressed about. If you put the (five) photographers to one side, then there’s hardly any figurative work, and when there is (Auerbach, Freud, Bacon, Bratby, Cooke, Souza) it is heavily stylised or deliberately distorted. There are certainly no landscapes. It is an accumulation of damaged psyches.

From murk to clarity

It occurred to me that you could arrange almost all the works along a spectrum from Murk to Clarity. Then you further could sub-divide these categories. What I mean is that the murky end of the spectrum could be divided into images which look like:

  • bodies melted in a nuclear blast (Eduardo Paolozzi, Peter King)
  • bodies eviscerated in some grotesque medical calamity (Magda Cordell)
  • people drowning in Holocaust concentration camp mud (Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff)
  • bodies blurring into hunks of meat (Francis Bacon)
  • bodies reimagined as abstract shapes, blots, drabs and dribbles of paint (Gillian Ayres)
  • bodies combined with inorganic materials such as metal to become ominous cyborgs (Lynn Chadwick’s semi-abstract sculpture of a demonic bird, John McHale’s robotic family, Elisabeth Frink’s menacingly humanoid Harbinger Birds and the St Sebastian sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi)

The murkiest of the murk

I’ve always heartily disliked the paintings of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff. Both applied unbelievable amounts of paint to their canvasses to create nightmare brown meringues of mud. They themselves in interviews claimed they were seeking to get at the essence of the subject or to capture the fleeting nature of reality or some such. They obsessively painted London scenes such as two big muddy paintings here, of the Shell building on the South Bank and Willesden railway junction.

But for me the key fact is that both were Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and, to me, all their paintings powerfully, oppressively convey the feel of the grim Polish winter mud in which so many of their fellow Jews were worked to death, starved to death and exterminated.

‘Drowning in the mud of the Holocaust’: Head of Gerda Boehm by Frank Auerbach (1964) Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts © The Artist

Clarity

At the other end of the spectrum is what I’ve called Clarity, which can be sub-divided into maybe three rooms or artists:

  • artists in the Concrete room
  • Lucian Freud
  • Surface / Vessel room

In the room called Concrete are a set of surprisingly calm, clean, crisp, white abstract images. Victor Pasmore was a celebrate figurative artist when, in the late 1940s, he underwent a conversion to abstraction. By 1951 Pasmore had established a circle of younger artists who were equally committed to the cause of geometric abstraction, which they referred to variously as ‘Concrete’, ‘Constructionist’ or ‘Constructivist’ art, artists including Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Anthony Hill, Robert Adams and Denis Williams.

Concrete is right next to the death camp vibe of the Auerbach room, Scars, and I really needed it. The white geometric shapes projecting from the canvas as Modernist friezes reminded me of Ben Nicholson (famous between the wars and so banned from this show).

Lucian Freud may seem an odd artist to group under the heading of clarity, but the exhibition features three of his earliest works which do, in fact feature this quality. Edgy, though. Distorted. The curators put it well when they say that ‘Freud’s forensic attention to small details suggests an uneasy vigilance, revealing anxieties just below the surface.’

‘Neurotic clarity’: Girl with Roses by Lucian Freud (1948) Courtesy of the British Council Collection © The Lucian Freud Archive/ Bridgeman Images, photograph

The third ‘calm’ room is titled Surface/Vessel. It features the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper. What they have in common is the withdrawal of all bright colours and a return to the colour of canvas and clay, textured surfaces and irregular forms. I might have liked them because 15 years later they set the tone for the kind of abstract prints you could buy at Habitat and Ikea and my parents decorated my childhood home with reproductions of these kind of gentle, cream and earth brown soothing shapes.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing two works by William Scott: Message Obscure I (1965) and Morning in Mykonos (1961)

Room guide

The themed rooms are:

1. Body and cosmos

The first three rooms are the three progressively bigger ones on the ground floor. Each is dominated by a big signature work. This first room is dominated by Full Stop by John Latham. This seems pretty meh in reproduction which doesn’t convey its size. It’s huge, monumental, 3.5 metres by 2.5 metres, a Mark Rothko of a painting, and a hypnotic image. Is it a solar eclipse, a black hole, an enormously magnified piece of typography. Something has ended – but what?

‘The death of colour’: Full Stop by John Latham (1961) Tate © the Estate of John Latham

Much smaller is the set of three prints by Eduardo Paolozzi, born in 1924 the son of Italian immigrants, so an impressionable teenager during the war. It’s impossible to make the prints out as heads because the images look eroded and decomposed as if by acid or, as wall label suggests, evaporated in the atomic blast so many around the world feared was coming.

2. Post atomic garden

The second room is bigger, contains more but is dominated by the mutant bird sculpture by Lynn Chadwick named The Fisheater (1951). It was commissioned for the 1951 Festival of Britain. It’s set on a slender tripod and aerial assembly, a slender outline of a bird made from thin metal rods and sheets of metal, looking a bit like the skeleton of Concorde, very slightly swaying in the ambient air, beakily looking down at us soft and vulnerable humans.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing The Fisheater by Lynn Chadwick (1951)

Fisheater epitomises the combination of light, modern industrial elements with unnerving menace which is one of the threads which runs through the show, as in the Paolozzi robots and the robot-humanoid nuclear family grimly depicted in John McHale’s First Contact (above).

3. Strange universe

The third ground floor space is the biggest, lined with huge paintings by a variety of artists, but it is dominated by a signature work, three metal sculptures, about man-size mutant cyborgs made out of complex metal and engineering detritus, welded together and melting at the edges as if they’re robots which have been brought to a halt and slightly melted in the ultimate nuclear apocalypse. They’re by Eduardo Poalozzi who, I think, has more pieces than anyone else in the exhibition and emerges as its presiding spirit.

‘Humanoid figures assembled from electrical scraps and castoffs’: Installation view of Postwar Modern showing Saint Sebastian by Eduardo Paolozzi (1957)

This room also features some enormous paintings by Magda Cordell which are splashed with red and orange and look like the freshly flayed and eviscerated carcass of a humanoid life form.

Figure 59 by Magda Cordell (1958)

4. Jean and John

The first of the bays off to the side of the ground floor corridor contains 8 or so paintings by the husband and wife artists Jean Cooke and John Bratby. Bratby’s stylised but basically figurative still lifes of their home, with boxes of cereals on the kitchen table, were nicknamed ‘Kitchen Sink’ art, presumably before kitchen sink drama came along. Although figurative and colourful, these paintings somehow bespeak the horrible, pokey domesticity of English life and it came as no surprise to learn that Bratby was jealous of his wife’s talent, destroyed much of her work and beat and abused her. See what I mean by grim?

5. Intimacy and aura

This is the room with the neurotic early paintings by Lucian Freud which I mentioned above.

But it also features the first of the photographers, Bill Brandt. Photography, with its figurative realism, comes as a big relief after four rooms loaded with paintings of bleakness, despair, mutant robots and huge abattoir paintings. But it is even more of a relief to discover that Brandt is represented here by a series of photos of female nudes. It’s not that they’re nude so much as that they’re studies of people who are young, fit and healthy. It is a sudden oasis in a desert of radioactive despair.

Apparently Brandt had been renowned in the 1930s for his photojournalism (thus breaking the curators’ self-imposed rule that no-one from between the wars has a place) but 1945 saw a radical shift in his practice as he began experimenting with nude studies indoors. Not only indoors, but in spare, spartan uncarpeted rooms. So, although fully realistic, these studies also have a strange, spooky, spectral mood. Arguably these photos, although entirely naturalistic, manage to share the same sense of nervy ominous as so many of the paintings and sculptures.

The Policeman’s Daughter, Hampstead, London 1945 by Bill Brandt © Bill Brandt Archive

6. Lush life

This room is a surprise. One entire wall is a hugely blown up photo of the interior of a new model home designed by the visionary architects Alison and Peter Smithson. It’s a photo of their stand at the 1956 Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition. It was titled ‘House of the Future’ and the furniture was created using plaster, plywood and paint masquerading as the moulded plastic they’d like to have used but couldn’t afford, the kind of new super-slimmed-down ideals for living designs which were being pioneered and mass produced in America and which featured in the Barbican exhibition about Charles and Ray Eames.

Installation view of Postwar Modern showing the wall-sized photo of Alison and Peter Smithson’s 1956 ‘House of the Future’, with just one yellow ‘egg chair’, made from moulded reinforced polyester, on the low dais.

The American theme is echoed in a series of humorous collages created by Eduardo Paolozzi (is he the most represented artist in the show?). It’s a series of A4 sized collages he created by cutting up images from glossy American consumer magazines, titling the series Bunk. Of course they’re meant to be ironic and subversive and whatnot, but what really comes over is the power and optimism of the original images. Particularly when set against the post-atomic, post-Holocaust nihilism of so much of the rest of the show.

Bunk! Evadne in Green Dimension by Eduardo Paolozzi (1952) Victoria and Albert Museum, © The Paolozzi Foundation

7. Scars

As described above, the Auerbach and Kossoff, drowning in mud, Holocaust despair room.

The room also has a little TV on which is playing a film of a 1961 event carried out by another Jew (the curators emphasis the common ethnicity of these three artists), Gustav Metzger. Metzger pioneered an art of ‘auto-destruction’ in the late 1950s, staging works that enacted their own disintegration, mirroring the violence he felt in a world hell bent on its own destruction. In the grainy old film Metzger is wearing a gas mask, with St Paul’s in the background, while he sprays acid onto canvas which promptly shrivels and dissolves. ‘Happenings’ had been happening in America among beatnik audiences art colleges throughout the 1950s. This appears to be Metzger’s variation on the idea which – as so often in this exhibition – accentuates the negative.

8. Concrete

As described above, a roomful of works by Victor Pasmore and his fellow ‘Concrete’ artists. I especially enjoyed the small-scale, abstract sculptures by Robert Adams. Calm and healing.

Installation view of Postwar Modern at the Barbican showing works by Robert Adams, being: Divided form (1951), Rectangular bronze form number 7 (1955) and Balanced bronze forms (1955).

9. Choreography of the street

More photography, thank God. The black and white snaps of Nigel Henderson and Roger Mayne who specialised in capturing children at play in the gritty, ruin-infested post war streets. Mayne’s most famous body of work was created between 1956 and 1961, capturing the working-class community of Southam Street in North Kensington, west London. One of his photos was used for the cover Colin MacInnes’s novel, Absolute Beginners (1959), a copy of which is here in a glass case.

Street scene 1957 by Roger Mayne © Roger Mayne Archive / Mary Evans Picture Library

Reminds me a bit of the photo of young toughs in Finsbury Park, 1958, which marked the start of Don McCullin’s career.

The lovely and hugely evocative photos of kids playing in bomb sites are interspersed with a series of collages by Robyn Denny and Eduardo Paolozzi (surely Paolozzi is the most featured artist in the show?). And alongside these, collages and in the radical print designs created by Henderson and Paolozzi for their company Hammer Prints Ltd (1954 to 1962).

10. Two women

The two women in question are German refugee painter Eva Frankfurther and home-grown Mancunian photographer, Shirley Baker. Baker documented the changing face of Manchester in the 1950s and early 60s as the old slums were demolished and cleared for high rises and social housing. She walked the streets with a camera always in her bag, taking wonderfully evocative black and white photos of wretched slums and the old-style, working class inhabitants. In 1965 she started experimenting with colour photography and some of her colour photos are feature here.

I was lucky enough to go to the Shirley Baker exhibition at the Photographers Gallery a few years ago – none of the colour photos here are as good as her black and white ones. In a funny kind of way, colour shots of this kind of scene look oddly older, more technologically dated, than the pure black and white ones.

Anyway, the point is… look at the rubble! And in 1965! Twenty years after the war, large parts of England were still struggling to drag themselves into the modern age.

Hulme 1965 by Shirley Baker © Nan Levy for the Estate of Shirley Baker

11. Cruise

The wall label in this room informs us that:

Cruising, or looking for a casual sexual encounter in a public place, was central to the expression and exploration of male same-sex love and desire in the postwar years…

And so it is that one wall features a couple of early works by David Hockney, large browny-black background with all kinds of graffiti, words, lines and squiggles drawn across them:

The title My Brother is Only Seventeen (1962) was derived from graffiti that Hockney read on the toilet walls of Earl’s Court station, a popular cruising spot.

My Brother is only Seventeen by David Hockney (1962) © Royal College of Art

But the real revelation of this room is arguably the best thing in the exhibition. In 1954 Francis Bacon painted a series of seven huge paintings depicting a man in a dark suit sitting at the bar of a hotel, although the background has been stylised to become the slender bars of some kind of cage set against a very dark background. Three of the series are hung here, side by side.

Man in Blue I by Francis Bacon (1954) Collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam © The Estate of Francis Bacon

A photo like this doesn’t do the paintings any kind of justice. They are not only enormous but also, despite their stylised subject matter, have the depth and resonance of Old Master paintings. It took me a while to realise that, unlike all the other rooms in the show, the walls of this room are painted black, as if we are in a very old museum or gallery, and these three Man in Blue paintgins have the power and depth of Old Masters.

Black upon black, depths of blackness, inky impenetrability and ominousness. Possibly the best part of the entire exhibition was standing in front of these three enormous variations on a dark, baleful image and letting it soak right in to your soul.

12. Surface/vessel

As described above, a calming, peaceful room of the paintings by William Scott and ceramic vessels by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper.

13. Liberated form and space

Big colourful paintings by Gillian Ayres, Patrick Heron and Frank Bowling. From the reproductions I thought I’d like the Ayres, but in the flesh I found them a too big and I didn’t warm to her use of ‘dribbles, splashes and stains’ of paint, as the curators themselves describe her work.

‘A world of abstract shapes and dripping paint’: Break-off by Gillian Ayres (1961) Tate © the Estate of Gillian Ayres, courtesy of Marlborough Gallery, London

By the same token, I didn’t warm to the press release photos of paintings by Patrick Heron, but in the flesh found them to be some of the very few genuinely colourful, vibrant and life affirming paintings in the entire exhibition. The wall label explains that, like Pasmore and other post-war artists, when he moved from figurative to abstract painting Heron experienced a great sense of liberation.

June Horizon by Patrick Heron (1957) Wakefield Council Permanent Art Collection (The Hepworth Wakefield) © The Estate of Patrick Heron

14. Horizon

The exhibition ends on an oddity.

We met Gustav Metzger in the Scars room, represented by a film of one of his auto-destructive events. Here, at the end of the exhibition is a blacked out room with half a dozen film projectors projecting onto two walls a series of abstract swirling shapes, which were to become super familiar in the Psychedelic movement and subsequently in the lava lamps of millions of suburban bedrooms. Metzger had moved away from the ‘auto-destructive art’ of the 1950s and towards what he now titled ‘auto-creation’, in which the work of art takes on its own life. This immersive room, complete with bean bags (but no spliffs) is titled Liquid Crystal Environment and was created in 1965 using heat-sensitive chemicals sandwiched between rotating glass slides in a projector.

It’s an odd piece to end on because it seems so out of synch with the rest of the show. It feels like a little bit of the Psychedelic Sixties which has got lost in an exhibition which is overwhelmingly about the grim psychic damage, the anxieties and angst of the early Cold War, with the long memory of the Holocaust festering under the shadow of nuclear apocalypse.

Maybe it’s meant to feel cheerful but it doesn’t, which might explain why the two or three times I walked past I didn’t see anybody on the numerous beanbags.

Immigrants

An impressive number of the artists were refugees from Nazi Europe (Auerbach. Kossoff, Metzger, Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Eva Frankfurther, Magda Cordell). But the curators go out of their way to include artists from colonial backgrounds, non-white immigrants from what was still the British Empire. These include:

  • Francis Newton Souza (India), with his intimidating, highly stylised black Christs (1958) in the first room
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (Pakistan) with a series of Islam-inspired abstracts in the same room as Heron and Ayres
  • Kim Lim (Singapore Chinese) with her delicate abstract sculptures

The Barbican’s birthday show

The curators point out that the exhibition has been timed to coincide with the fortieth birthday of the Barbican’s opening, for it was in the grim post-war period that the Barbican Estate was first conceived, to occupy what was at the time an enormous bombsite in the heart of London.

The Barbican itself, a grim, forbidding, concrete bunker, on an oppressive grey, rainy day, was the perfect setting for an exhibition about the damaged lives, damaged psyches and damaged country which – despite occasional bursts of colour – is what comes over so powerfully in this show.


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Jean Dubuffet: Brutal Beauty @ Barbican

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intro

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

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

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

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

1940s

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

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

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

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

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

Exaltation du ciel by Jean Dubuffet (1952)

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

1950s

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

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

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

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

1960s

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

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

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

L’Hourloupe

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

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

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

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

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

1970s

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

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

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

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

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

1980s

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

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

Art brut

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

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

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

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

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

Laure Pigeon

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

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

Madge Gill

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

Faces*

Faces by Madge Gill (1947)

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

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


Related links

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And concerts

Nacht und Träume by Samuel Beckett (1983)

Nacht und Träume (German for Night and Dreams) is the last television play written and directed by Samuel Beckett. It was written in English in mid-1982 for the German TV channel Süddeutscher Rundfunk, recorded in October 1982 and broadcast on 19 May 1983.

Wordless

Beckett had run out of words, but all is not silence. Although for only a fraction of the time, although only intermittently, the viewer hears the sound of a male voice softly humming, then singing, the last seven bars of Franz Schubert’s song Nacht und Träume and a fragment of the song’s lyrics, ‘Holde Träume, kehret wieder!’ (‘Sweet dreams, come back’). Schubert was one of Beckett’s favourite composers, and this was one of Beckett’s favourite songs.

By this late stage of his career, Beckett aficionados knew that this kind late work would probably dispense with character, plot, realistic setting and all the other conventions of theatre or drama. Instead, it’s better to think about the production as composed from basic elements, or elements of stagecraft reduced to a bare minimum (like the spotlight on the talking mouth in Not I), to the bare minimum of lighting, movement and gesture.

In many respects the late plays or playlets (because they’re generally so short) are more like abstract modernist sculptures except sculptures which exist in time. In his last period Beckett was far more interested in the precision and timing of gestures, movements, lighting effects, than anything remotely resembling character or plot or psychology.

With no characters and no dialogue and no real action, the text for the production really consists of technical instructions. Beckett lists five elements: evening light, the dreamer (A), his dreamt self (B), a pair of dreamt hands and the last seven bars of Schubert’s lied (German for classical art song, pronounced leedt). In fact, they’re so short, why not share the entire text of the instructions?

Full text

Elements

Evening light.
Dreamer (A).
His dreamt self (B).
Dreamt hands R (right) and L (left).
Last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume.

  1. Fade up on a dark empty room lit only by evening light from a window set high in back wall.
    Left foreground, faintly lit, a man seated at a table.
    Right profile, head bowed, grey hair, hands resting on table.
    Clearly visible only head and hands and section of table on which they rest.
  2. Softly hummed, male voice, last 7 bars of Schubert’s Lied, Nacht und Träume
  3. Fade out evening light.
  4. Softly sung, with words, last 3 bars of Lied beginning ‘Holde Träume…’
  5. Fade down A as he bows his head further to rest on hands. Thus minimally lit he remains just visible throughout dream as first viewed.
  6. A dreams. Fade up on B on an invisible podium about 4 feet above floor level, middle ground, well right of centre. He is seated at a table in the same posture as A dreaming, bowed head resting on hands, but left profile faintly lit by kinder light than A’s.
  7. From dark beyond and above B’s head L appears and rests gently on it.
  8. B raises his head, L withdraws and disappears.
  9. From same dark R appears with a cup, conveys it gently to B’s lips. B drinks, R disappears.
  10. R reappears with a cloth, wipes gently B’s brow, disappears with cloth.
  11. B raises his head further to gaze up at invisible face.
  12. B raises his right hand, still gazing up , and holds it raised palm upward.
  13. R reappears and rests gently on B ‘s right hand, B still gazing up.
  14. B transfers gaze to joined hands.
  15. B raises his left hand and rests it on joined hands.
  16. Together hands sink to table and on them B’s head.
  17. L reappears and rests gently on B’s head.
  18. Fade out dream.
  19. Fade up A and evening light.
  20. A raises head to its opening position.
  21. Lied as before (2).
  22. Fade out evening light.
  23. Close of Lied as before (4).
  24. Fade down A as before (5).
  25. A dreams. Fade up on B as before (6).
  26. Move in slowly to close-up of B, losing A.
  27. Dream as before (7 to 16) in close-up and slower motion.
  28. Withdraw slowly to opening viewpoint, recovering A.
  29. Fade out dream.
  30. Fade out A.

The action

The action begins with a dreamer sitting alone in a dark empty room, his hands resting on the table before him. He is on the left of the screen and we see his right profile. A male voice hums the last seven bars of the Schubert lied. Then, as we hear the same section sung again, the man rests his head on his hands and the light fades until the words ‘Holde Träume’ at which point the light fades up on the man’s dreamt self who is seated on an invisible podium four feet higher and well to the right of him. We see the dreamed man’s left profile, a mirror image of his waking self. The dreamed self is shown in what the directions describe as a ‘kinder light’. The dreamer is still faintly visible throughout though.

A left hand appears out of the darkness and gently rests on B. As the man raises his head it withdraws. The right hand appears with a cup from which B drinks. The right hand vanishes and then reappears to gently wipe the dreamed man’s brow with a cloth. Then it disappears again.

B raises his head to gaze upon the invisible face and holds out his right hand, palm upward. The bodiless right hand returns and rests on B’s right hand. He looks at the two hands together and adds his left hand. Together the three hands sink to the table and B rests his head on them. Finally the left hand comes out of the darkness and rests gently on B’s head.

The dream fades as A awakens but, as in so many Beckett plays, the entire sequence is then repeated – the music is replayed and the sequence recurs, only this time ‘in close-up and slower motion’.

After this repeat, the camera pulls back, leaving us with the image of A ‘recovering’ before the two visual zones fade out, first the dream space on the right, and then the original image of A at his table.

Themes

A number of things are obvious.

1. Wordless It is wordless, and so linked to Beckett’s several mimes from the 1960s. Lacking character, plot or dialogue the ‘play’ relies entirely upon the visual effects and, to a lesser extent, on the few moments of fragmentary music…

2. Personless A and B are almost the last in a long line of Beckett personages who have been deprived of names or identities and reduced to letters, literally to cyphers, algebraic notations rather than people, since at least Rough For Theatre I and II (c.1960) which both feature characters labelled simply A and B, or Play (1963) which features personages referred to simply as M, W1 and W2.

3. Moving It is sad and sombre and moving. A is an old man, moving in slow motion, requiring care. Having read the Beckett biography I know that he spent a lot of time caring for his ailing mother in her last years, and then being with his elder brother Frank during his final illness. Beckett had done a lot of lifting cups to weak lips, stroking the hair of the ill, resting hands together.

4. Repetition Repetition is Beckett’s key strategy at a meta level many of his pieces take place in a first part, and then are repeated, generally with deterioration, in the second. Classic examples are Waiting For Godot and Happy Days, but also the less well-known Play and Quad, part two of the latter, in particular, repeating part one only more slowly and in black and white. Same here. Life is repetition, over and over, while we wait for the end.

5. Old Master Painting I mentioned sculpture earlier, which is one way of thinking about the late pieces, but probably a more obvious analogy is painting. The two images, A at his table, B in his separate space, at numerous points appear like Old Master paintings. Biographer James Knowlson made the link with Beckett’s fascination with Albrecht Dürer’s famous etching of praying hands, a reproduction of which hung in his room at Cooldrinagh as a child (as it did in one of my school corridors). Then again, Beckett was a lifelong devotee of Dutch seventeenth century painting with its immaculate depictions of calm, motionless interiors, and something of the almost complete stillness of the simple domestic scene possibly invokes them…

6. Consolation Freud wrote in a letter that he was unable to give his patients the one thing which, deep down, they all wanted, which was consolation. Similarly, Beckett made a career out of depicting a comfortless universe or, more precisely, the inside of minds which have collapsed, which can barely sustain a narrative of any kind let alone one which provides any kind of comfort.

But all that said, the helping hands which are offered to B, well they are very powerful images of comfort and consolation. When the three hands are conjoined and B lays his head on them, well, there could hardly be a more moving image of support and basic human comfort.

7. Christian imagery The way the figure of A appears behind a screen, the notion of a screen itself, recalls countless big Christian paintings from the Western tradition, and the image of a chalice, cloth and comforting hand are core Christian iconography. Astonishingly, the English cameraman who worked on the German TV production, Jim Lewis, said that:

…at the moment when the drops of perspiration are wiped from the brow of the character, Beckett simply said that the cloth alluded to the veil that Veronica used to wipe the brow of Jesus on the Way of the Cross. The imprint of Christ’s face remains on the cloth.

Wow. This is an astonishing reversion on Beckett’s part to the core Christian iconography of his boyhood in a God-fearing, church attending Protestant household. Why? Well, one interpretation is that it lay to hand. The Wikipedia article on the play quotes Beckett telling actor Colin Duckworth:

Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar, so I naturally use it.

The artist works with what he or she has to hand. In theory, this doesn’t mean he or she endorses, the narrative structures, iconography and imagery provide raw materials to work with, clay to be shaped, metal fragments to be arranged into post-modern abstract sculpture.

Yes, but despite all that, it still feels mighty religious, doesn’t it? It feels like an image of hope.

But then again, the way the music appears only as fragments, lost forlorn fragments of an abandoned or ruined civilisation, and the way the action is mechanically repeated with a strong suggestion of steady entropy and decay, those are emphatically not images of hope.

Therefore, we can observe a simple tension between the structure of degradation and decay, against which silent images of consolation are set. A dynamic tension or interaction.

TV production

As far as I can tell, this is the original German TV production. Haunting, though, as so much late Beckett is haunting, is a matter of ghosts and ghostly memories.

Thoughts

Once again I am struck by the contrast, or contradiction, between the way Beckett has evolved a highly avant-garde, experimental, out-on-the-edge approach to a theatrical production, to creating productions which aren’t really plays in any meaningful sense – and the way that what content you can make out is surprisingly old fashioned, conservative. Schubert and Christian imagery, both have been twisted and mashed into something utterly weird and strange, and yet Schubert and Durer are almost as traditional and old school as you can imagine.

As it happens I’ve recently been reading cyberpunk novels by William Gibson, and Gibson’s work just seems to come from another world, a world where there is absolutely no concern or acknowledgement of Western culture, or Christianity, or the classics or icons of either, an internationalised consumer world of shiny chrome surfaces and hi-tech digital gadgets.

The comparison really brings out how Beckett, for all his hyper-modernism, for all his ostensible rejection of it, nonetheless, at his core, derives from an old, conservative, deeply Christian, highly traditional view of Western culture – a slow, sombre, reverential, poignant quality that Nacht und Träume, probably more than any other of his works, feels soaked in.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Narziss and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse (1930)

He drew himself, as a wanderer, a lover, a fugitive, with reaping death hard at his heels…
(Narziss and Goldmund, page 228)

‘Narziss’ is a direct transliteration of the name in original German title, Narziß und Goldmund, but the word also translates as Narcissus, which is why some modern editions are titled Narcissus and Goldmund. Goldmund translates literally as ‘gold mouth’, though you can see why this wouldn’t work so well as a title. Narcissus and Gold Mouth might begin to sound too much like a fairy tale.

Narziss and Goldmund is longer than its predecessor novel, Steppenwolf (300 pages in the Penguin edition compared to Steppenwolf’s 250 pages). And it’s far more integrated and coherent than Steppenwolf, which is built up from a number of different texts, echoing the fragmented nature of the protagonist’s divided mind. By contrast, Narziss and Goldmund maintains a calm, lyrical and mellifluous sonority throughout, leading some critics to call it Hesse’s ‘most lyrical’ novel.

Narziss and Goldmund is set in the Middle Ages and both narrative and dialogue are couched in an unobtrusive but persistent cod-medieval style which might irritate some modern readers.

‘Mistress Lisbeth,’ he said, in a friendly voice. ‘I am not come to ask you for work. I wanted to give you greeting – you, and the Master. It irks me sore to have to hear you. I can see you have had much sorrow. If your father’s thankful apprentice can do you a service – name it – it would be my recompense.’ (p.224)

But, as mentioned, it is this low-key but persistent ‘medieval’ style which gives the book its distinctive flavour and tone.

Two opposites

The two central figures are ‘types’ – of the dry intellectual, the analyser and categoriser (Narziss) and the passionate lover of life, wine and women (Goldmund).

The first fifty or so pages describe in some detail how the pair first meet, as young novitiates at the ancient monastery of Mariabronn somewhere in North Germany. Narziss is himself a junior monk but already skilled and educated enough to be put in charge of the monastery school. One day young Goldmund is dropped off by  his father, a knight, who asks the monks to educate him. He never sees his father again. It slowly emerges that he’s never known his mother who, his father told him, was a wanton hussy who ran off when Goldmund was a baby.

This will turn out to be centrally important because there is a sense, in everything that follows, right up until his death, that this missing mother, the search for the Absent Mother, is central to his psyche.

Goldmund goes a wandering

Initially Goldmund is a good scholar. He is ragged by the other boys in fights and taunts which are presumably meant to reflect the bullying of schoolboys everywhere, in all times, but he fights back and establishes a place for himself in the hierarchy. There’s a naughty excursion from the monastery when a bunch of older boys sneak out of the premises to a nearby village, where they drink wine and chat up a peasant’s pretty daughter. She takes a shine to Goldmund, who is fiercely attracted to her and fiercely tries to repress the impulse.

Narziss and Goldmund forge a special bond based on Narziss’s uncanny insight into other people. They have many intense conversations. In one of them Narziss dwells on Goldmund’s absent mother and it comes as a revelation to Goldmund that there is this great hole in the centre of his life, and he breaks down in tears. It is that kind of very intense psychological bonding between the pair which gives the book its title.

But fate is fate, or biology is biology, and Goldmund goes out walking, picking flowers and marvelling at the beauty of the world. He falls asleep and is woken in a half-dream, by a beautiful gypsy girl, Lisa, waking in her lap, as she leans down to kiss him and, to cut a long story short, she takes his virginity, which is described in flowery euphemisms appropriate for 1930.

It is a revelation. Goldmund realises he is never going to be a monk, he’s not even that good a scholar. Goldmund returns to the cloister to tell Narziss he’s leaving, there and then. He packs his bags and leaves. He finds Lisa again the next day, but this time she is scared and runs back to the husband who beats her.

Now commences the long central section of the book where Goldmund goes on the tramp, vagabonding across northern Germany, and – this may be the slightly hard bit for a modern reader to swallow – everywhere he goes he is ‘desired and appeased by women’ (p.98). With his blonde hair, good looks and slim figure, Goldmund is a ladykiller, a babe magnet.

He quickly, comprehensively and intuitively becomes an expert at sex, a connoisseur, ready and able to give every woman what she wants, whether hard and fast, or slow and sensual, responding to all moods and needs. If you’d expected a spiritual classic, it certainly has a lot of deep psychology about life and destiny, but you’ll be surprised by the amount highly sensual, soft porn writing.

Drawn and clasped to one another, they lost themselves within the scented night, saw the white, shimmering secrets of its flowers, plucking its fruits, for which they thirsted, with gentle, ever-grateful, hands. Never before had spielmann struck such a lute, or lute known fingers so strong and cunning. (p.234)

The knight and his daughters

Pages 100 to 122 describe his adventures at a castle. He is taken in by an ageing knight who, when he discovers Goldmund is a scholar, hires him to write the life’s long adventurous life story in Latin. But the knight has two daughters, Lydia and Julia, and they are soon competing for his favours. It takes a bit longer than usual but Goldmund persuades Lydia into his bed where, however, she strips and kisses a little but, irritatingly, refuses to give him what so many other gypsy girls and peasant girls and farmers’ wives have already given him.

Worse, they’re lying there one night when the door opens and in comes the jealous younger sister Julia. Lydia is panicking when Goldmund overrides her and invites Julia to join them in bed. There follows a passage where Goldmund is kissing older, stiff Lydia on one side while with his hand he strokes and then begins to masturbate young Julia on his other side, who begins to make moans of pleasure.

See what I mean about a certain soft-porn 1970s feel? That’s one way of looking at it. The other is to see all these sexy passages as extraordinarily open, candid, honest descriptions of sex for their time (1930), and to place them in the wider context of the books and their serious concerns with human psychology and spirituality. In other words to see that Hesse’s books address the entirety of the human condition, sex and death and bereavement and loss and abandonment and friendship and love and art, and that the lyrically porny sequences are just an unashamed, honest inclusion of the role sex does play in many people’s lives.

This soft porn sequence is, alas, interrupted when the older sister leaps out of bed and threatens to tell their father. Both girls go. But Lydia goes to the knight and tells him everything. Goldmund is rudely awakened the next morning by the knight who is too angry to speak, who grabs his stuff in a bundle and marches him half a mile to the bounds of his land and then tells him never to return on pain of death. It is snowing. Goldmund sets off into the freezing cold.

An hour later, Hans a servant rides after him and delivers gifts from Julia – one golden ducat, an undershirt she has woven, and a side of bacon. Well, it’s something.

Goldmund comes to a village where he begs food and then is conscripted to assist as a villager gives birth, quite a traumatic experience for a young, sensitive mind. Typically what strikes Goldmund is the way the sounds of pain are so close to the sounds of a woman’s ecstasy, which triggers characteristic philosophical meditations. He dallies in the village a while i.e. has a brief ‘affair’ with a brawny village wife, Christine.

Murders Victor the vagabond

In this village he meets another vagabond, Victor. Victor is a seasoned, wily survivor, full of impressive stories of life on the road and Goldmund is taken under his spell. They travel on together for a few days but late one night in the forest, Goldmund wakes up to find Victor stealthily rifling through his clothes looking for the precious gold ducat Goldmund had told him about. When he resists, Victor starts to strangle him, in earnest, so Goldmund finds himself with his last breaths fumbling for the small knife he keeps mainly to cut up bread and cheese, and in a final paroxysm, stabbing Victor again and again and again until the grip round his neck loosens, and the man falls away from him, bleeding profusely from multiple wounds and there and then, in the dark early hours, in a forest in winter, Victor breathes his last, leaving Goldmund staggered and appalled. (p.127)

(And this reader thinking, yet again, that these German novels have a special affinity for knife murder.)

Master Nicholas and the nature of art

Goldmund comes to a nearby city, referred to as the Bishop’s City. On the outskirts he had come across an isolated chapel and been entranced by a sculpture inside it of the Mother of God.

In the city he makes enquiries as to who carved it and discovers it is a certain Master Nicholas the sculptor. To cut a long story short, Goldmund asks to be his apprentice. Nicholas tells him to draw something, anything, on a piece of paper he gives him and the result impresses him enough to take him on.

There follow extended passages meditating on the nature of art, on the meaning of reproducing the world and God’s creatures.

Goldmund realises he has within him the faces and personalities of all the women he’s encountered and realises he must make a particular carving, bringing the essence of all these women together to create a Mother of God.

Goldmund stays with Master Nicholas for two years while he works on this figure. During that period he has many many women – the tradesman’s wives and daughters – including the serving wench in a butcher’s house, Katherine, who he calls his ‘pork and sausage maid’ (p.179).

All through this period he is tormented by the contradictions in art between the soul and the physical, despising little people who are happy with decorations, driven by a striving for the unseeable essence of the subject.

Many lengthy discussions of the nature of true art. Goldmund ponders why Master Nicholas is a master sculptor, all right, but also a journeyman craftsman and that ability, facility, doesn’t interest Goldmund. Goldmund sits by the river and realises it is those endless flashes, light off the ripples, sudden glimpses of pebbles on the riverbed, the light through a butterfly’s wings – all the art in the world can’t compete with the beauty of the actual world.

Meanwhile, Master Nicholas has been thinking and offers to make Goldmund his heir, bring him into his workshop and to marry him to his daughter, Lisbeth. Unfortunately he makes Goldmund this offer at just about the moment Goldmund has realised he doesn’t want to be a journeyman like Nicholas. Nicholas goes white with anger when Goldmund embarrassedly turns down his offer, and makes it plain he must leave immediately.

Rather as he was ordered by the angry knight to leave the castle.

So Goldmund sets off on his rambles again, despite there being so many women in the city of whom he might have taken his leave (p.184). Last, and barely noticed, is the 15-year-old lame daughter of the burghers he’s been rooming with him. As he leaves the city, she offers him a drink of fresh milk and a crust of bread and, out of politeness, he leans down and kisses her. She closes her eyes in bliss. She has had a teenage crush on him all this time but, as in an American magazine romance, Goldmund doesn’t know or care. Then he is back on the road.

The plague

Goldmund hooks up with timid young Robert, a younger tramp. We learn it is ten years since Goldmund left the monastery (p.204). He now has a blonde beard (p.209).

The pair come to a plague village, whose villagers aggressively warn them away. But Goldmund goes in and finds a family dead in their beds, prompting characteristic Hesse reflections about Death. And the artist in Goldmund is attracted by their postures and positions…

As they walk on they discover that the whole countryside is ravaged, abandoned. Coming to an empty town, Goldmund notices a beautiful young woman (of course) leaning out a window and, as usual, picks her up. Her name is Lene (p.198) and she succumbs to Goldmund’s invitation to come with them, packs a small bag and off they go. She is ‘a sweet mistress… shy and young and full of love’ (p.201)

After much wandering they come across abandoned farm buildings, decide to settle there, fix them up and make a life, rounding up stray abandoned animals.

One day Lene and Goldmund go hunting, get separated, he hears her screaming, runs and finds her being raped, grab the scrawny rapist, strangles him and dashes his head to a pulp against rocks.

Goldmund carries Lene home, washes her breast where it has been scratched and bitten so hard it is bleeding. But, somewhat inevitably, Lene gets the plague and dies in a matter of days. Robert refuses to come near the hut she’s in, then runs off never to return.

Goldmund tends Lene till she dies and then, characteristically, studies the face of death. Then he sets fire to the hut, as a funeral pyre and to cleanse it, and hits the road again, wandering through a landscape of horror where the deserted villages and towns are surrounded by plague pits, passing processions of flagellants, watching the lynching of people scapegoated for the disaster, not least the burning alive of Jews in their houses in one town. Horror. The Kingdom of Bones (p.212)

But he watches it all with fascination, soaking up the suffering and despair, never tiring of watching the Grim Reaper at work.

Goldmund stumbles across a beautiful young Jewess (isn’t he lucky to come across so many beautiful young women) weeping beside a big burnt-out fire and discovers this is where 15 Jews from the nearby town were murdered and burned to death, including her father.

Goldmund is touched and offers to take her with him and protect her but can’t stop himself also trying to seduce her with honeyed worlds. Well, for once it doesn’t work. Unsurprisingly, she is disgusted, says all Christians are alike, murderers and hypocrites (and she might well have thrown in the accusation that all men are alike) and runs off.

Goldmund’s head is full of all the images he has seen, a medieval panorama. With increasing urgency he wants to return to ‘the Bishop’s city’ where he lived and worked for Master Nicholas. When he finally arrives back there he is overwhelmed by happy nostalgia of re-seeing all the familiar sights, the old churches, the market square, the clear purling river.

But, inevitably, Master Nicholas is dead of the plague… and his beautiful, haughty daughter, Lisbeth? She is now yellow-faced, gaunt and shrivelled. He offers help but Lisbeth (and the raddled old servant Margret) scorn him.

Wandering the town’s streets Goldmund bumps into lame Marie, who had a teenage crush on him, and she invites him modestly back to her parents’ house. They are honestly glad to see him. Inspired, Goldmund starts drawing hundreds of pictures of everything he’s seen in the Landscape of Death.

Lady Agnes

One day Goldmund is struck by the sight of a haughty beautiful rich woman riding by on a horse. He must have her. It is a challenge. He places himself at the town gates every morning as she goes a-riding. He appears under the trees near where she stops the horse for her daily rest.

After a few days she deigns to talk to him. She gives him a token, a gold necklace, which gives him admittance to the castle. He goes there that evening, claiming to have found the lady’s necklace and wanting to return it. He is allowed into the busy castle courtyard, full of horses and bustle.

The lady’s maid takes him up to her ladyship’s luxury rooms and there, amid the fur and incense, on a rich white bed, he strips and makes love to her, as – inevitably – ‘she has never been loved before’!

If you let yourself go along with this mood, it is a scene of exquisite sensitivity; if you are a little more jaded, it is like an extended Flake advert.

But the next very evening, when he returns for some more soft-focus erotic goings-on, he is trapped and caught by the jealous husband, Count Heinrich.

As the big angry knight opens the bedchamber door, Lady Agnes pushes Goldmund into her closet. Here the knight discovers him but Goldmund is quick witted enough to pretend he is a thief who has broken in to steal the precious dresses and furs.

The count believes him and says he will be hanged in the morning. Goldmund’s wrists are tied and he is led down to a pitch-black dungeon and thrown in. As the churls are unlocking the door to the dungeon, two priests visiting the castle pass by, and one stops to ask if the prisoner is to be confessed and shriven, then tells the guards he will come at dawn to perform this service.

Goldmund spends the night trying to reconcile his soul to death, to never more see the sun or feel the wind or hear the birds. He also spends the whole night freeing his wrists from their tight cords, cutting himself badly in the process. When dawn comes, the door opens and a cowled monk descends the stairs into his cell.

Goldmund is fully prepared to whip up hi stool, dash the monk’s brains out, steal his habit and make a getaway. Imagine his amazement when the monk pushes back his cope and reveals the face of… his old, old, deepest friend, Narziss, now thin and gaunt with asceticism and the responsibilities of command. For Narziss has now become the abbot at Mariabronn.

Narziss raises Goldmund to his feet and says he spent a lot of effort the night before pleading with the angry knight for his life. Result: Goldmund will not hang. Instead the other monks dress his wounds, pack their bags, mount their horses, and ride out of the castle courtyard. Even at this late stage, and despite having learned his lesson, Goldmund still looks up at the windows overlooking the courtyard, hoping the beautiful Lady Agnes will be looking out of one at him. But no.

Goldmund rejoices as his horse carries him through the scenery of all his adventures, he reviews them, the many women, murdering Victor, the cold nights lying in the forest and so on.

Then they reach the old monastery and Goldmund is overcome with memories of his youth. Here he is kindly invited to stay as a guest, with no demands on him to become a lay brother let alone a monk, by his wise old friend.

After a spell of feeling a bit lost and bewildered, Goldmund decides on a plan, which is to work as a carver again, and create a wooden relief spiralling up the steps to a lectern where monks read texts to each other in the refectory.

This penultimate section of the book allows for:

  1. an emotional reunion of Narziss and Goldmund and a series of conversations during which they revive their friendship and remember the old times, the old abbot et al
  2. a series of debates between them about the nature of the scholarly intellectual mind and the artistic creative mind. Goldmund comes to realise he has led a chaotic and disorderly life, but when he tells Narziss how much he admires the other’s purity and devotion, Narziss says that’s only because he knows nothing of his (Narziss’s) intellectual doubts and uncertainties. Both envy the other his clarity and conviction, while both reveal they are, in fact, riven by doubts and uncertainties.

Womanising

Almost all of the long middle section of the book describing Goldmund’s wandering is, in my opinion, a little undermined by his endless womanising.

I take the point that it’s designed to show Goldmund’s immersion in ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and so point up the basic dichotomy between the Worldly Personality and the Scholarly, Secluded Personality. My criticism is that these worldly scenes describe the same schoolboy fascination with seducing and stripping nubile young women without any attempt to explore the deeper levels a heterosexual relationship can go to, let alone the complicated problems relationships often develop.

Instead it’s just one woman after another, just as in a porn film.

Anyway, this passage at the end of the book discards all the womanising and sensual rhetoric, and returns to much more abstract discussions between the two friends about art and religion.

There’s a lovely passage where, after a good long time of working on it (with a young boy assistant he’s been given, Erich) Goldmund shows his carving to Narziss, and it prompts the older man to a wonderfully insightful speculation about the intellectual and the artistic routes to God.

He mulls over how the intellectual personality strains to clear away all the clutter of the world in order to strive for the simplest, purest, most fundamental truths – while the artist throws him or herself into the things of the world, precisely into all the clutter, and, by dint of his or her passion, reveals beneath it the pattern underlying the world’s profusion.

‘I see you by the opposite way, the way which leads through the sense, reach as deep a knowledge as any that most thinkers achieve, of the essence and secret of our being, and a far more living mode of setting it forth.’ (Narziss addressing Goldmund, p.280)

This passage is worth rereading and savouring, as many passages of the book are, for example the couple of pages where Goldmund sits by the river, watching its ever-changing surface and pondering the nature of manmade beauty contrasted with the ever-fleeting beauty of the natural world.

Briefer but just as full of juice and wisdom is the passage where Narziss instructs Goldmund how to pray.

But, says the younger man, my mind is overwhelmed with doubts, about whether my prayers can ever be heard by a God who probably doesn’t exist and, even if he does, probably doesn’t hear them.

To which Narziss replies, imagine you’re singing a song. You don’t let yourself get swamped with doubts about whether you’re doing a good rendition or whether the composer would be upset by your voice or whether anyone’s listening properly and so on. You abandon yourself to the song. You give it your best shot. Singing is its own justification. Same with prayer.

I can see why Hesse inspires such loyalty among his devotees. He discusses serious problems with seriousness, he isn’t patronising or ironic, and his characters discuss ideas which occur to any educated person clearly and simply, and sometimes, with a depth of feeling or insight which clearly derive from the author’s lifelong engagement with these ideas.

And the depth and seriousness leave their mark on the reader. Some of these passages are really stirring.

Goldmund hits the road again

But all good things come to an end. It takes Goldmund two years to carve the wooden relief and when it is finally done, and installed on the steps and pulpit, he returns to his workshop and feels empty and spent.

He begins another work, a statue of the Mother of God, but goes absent for long walks in the country, feeling increasingly restless. He encounters a young peasant woman, Francisca, but is struck that, although he uses all his old tricks and tells her romantic tales of life on the road etc, she listens politely as to an old man, as to her father. Ah. He is old.

Back in the monastery, Goldmund realises he has grey in his hair and wrinkles round his eyes but more than that, he feels old.

So he leaves the monastery. With Narziss’s blessing he departs, leaving the narrative to describe Narziss’s sudden sense of emptiness. Narziss admires the way Goldmund’s wastrel, vagabond life has made him capable of creating such exquisite carvings which will bespeak the glory of God and his creation long after Narziss and his dry, scholarly theology is forgotten.

Goldmund returns, a broken man

Inevitably, Goldmund returns, in the autumn of the same year, but much changed, transfigured. Now he is an ill old man and Erich his assistant is appalled to see him, help him back into the workshop and put him to bed. After some days, Narziss comes to see him and is also appalled. Now Goldmund is grey-haired and sick, he has broken ribs and internal injuries.

As his health fails, Goldmund tells Narziss what happened. Turns out his real motivation to leave was not a general romantic urge to hit the road, but that he’d heard that Lady Agnes was in the area with Count Heinrich. Improbably, Goldmund had managed to secure an audience with her, but the Lady told him to his face that he is no longer the golden youth, the blonde sex god, that he was – and she turns away, uninterested.

Heartbroken, Goldmund rides off and doesn’t mind when his horse stumbles and throws him down into a gulley. He lands hard in a stream, breaks some ribs and lies all night in the freezing mountain water. Next day he staggers up and on and eventually is found and placed in a hospice, where he stays for months, sells the horse, uses up the money Narziss gave him and eventually realises he had to stagger back to Mariabronn.

Here Goldmund dies. On his deathbed, he says he is not afraid of death. In what we now realise was the great defining conversation of their youths, when Narziss had identified the central pillar of his personality as being the absence of his mother. Goldmund says that Narziss had given back his mother, restored the image of his mother to the central place in his life.

Now the pains in his chest feel not like the broken ribs and infections, but as if his mother, his beloved mother, the earth mother Eve, is putting her fingers between his ribs and pulling out his heart, taking it to her. For only with a mother can you die. ‘How can anyone love without a mother, and how can we die without a mother?’

And on these last words and their rather shocking image, Goldmund dies, leaving Narziss distraught.


I’m caught between two views, as I am with all the Hesse I’ve read.

Against

With my hard hat on, I know it is romantic twaddle. By that I mean that every scene is lit with a sentimental romantic light, and profoundly unrealistic.

1. Painless vagabonding Take the way he survives as a vagabond, with no food or money, and travelling across north Europe in the winter, for not weeks, or months, but years on end. I know people did do this, but a lot of them died of starvation and exposure. After a week sleeping rough in a forest, with no food and no blankets or bedding you would be in very poor shape, more a J.G. Ballard character at the end of their tether than a handsome swain.

2. Women everywhere Whereas Goldmund is always in such tip-top condition that, wherever he goes, every woman that he meets – virgin or housewife – throws themselves at him, and he ploughs his way through hundreds and hundreds of women.

3. The dialogue And then there’s the diction, the sub-Tennysonian melliflous fake medievalism, all palfreys and pilgrims, varlets and churls, like scenes from a thousand pre-Raphaelite paintings. As a tiny instance take the moment when Goldmund speaks to the haughty, high-born lady by the ivy-covered town wall, and offers his devotion:

‘Oh’, he replied, ‘I would as lief make you a gift as take one. It is myself I would offer you fair woman, and then you shall do as you will with me.’ (p.231)

It is all written in this style.

4. Lucky And the way he keeps landing on his feet – in the castle of the knight who needs a Latin scholar, in the household of the Master artist Nicholas – is more like a fable or fairy tale than an adult narrative.

5. Sex And the way there always just happens to be a nubile and beautiful young woman in the offing for him to seduce, fondle, strip and make love to… is more like a 1970s soft porn movie than reality.

Gently he unclasped the white fur at her neck and unsheathed her body. (p.234)

Indeed, the entirety of Goldmund’s adventures could be devastatingly critiqued as a sustained example of male wish-fulfilment, as the most basic sexist fantasy that more or less every women you meet is ready and willing to have sex with you, at no more than a smile and a wink.

None of the women appear to have periods or any other medical problems or difficulties. And nobody in this dreamworld appears to have a sexually transmitted disease.

6. Death as romantic And take the fundamentally romantic notion that Death is somehow romantic, seductive and sensual, a warm loving mother luring you into her bosomy embrace – an image which emerges in the plague scenes and recurs at the end.

‘I’m curious to die because it’s still my belief, or my dream, that I’m on my way back to my mother; because I hope my death will be a great happiness – as great as I had of my first woman. I can never rid myself of the thought that, instead of death with his sickle, it will be my mother who takes me into herself again, and leads me back into nothingness and innocence.’ (Goldmund, p.297)

Twaddle. Having seen death up close, I found absolutely nothing redeeming or good about it at all. It is the grief-stricken cessation of life. The sensual penumbra Hesse casts over it is late-romantic, 1890s sentimentality.

For

On the other hand… although the plots which deliver them up may be questionable, the intensity with which Hesse describes the emotional and sexual entanglements, especially the menage a trois at the knight’s castle, are conceived and described with an intense sensuality which really goes home to your imagination, reminding you of the best and most sensual experiences in your own life.

Similarly, the vagabonding is to be taken with a pinch of salt: it’s a narrative framework, a scaffolding, an age-old narrative trope designed to deliver a steady stream of situations which allow Goldmund/Hesse to meditate on the meaning of life, and death, of art and suffering, as he encounters and observes them.

And although he may not have anything blindingly original to say about these subjects, nonetheless reading a Hesse book means that you engage with these questions in a sustained and serious way for several days, through the medium of his lyrical and measured prose. And this can turn out to be a very moving and thought-provoking experience.

And because the characters in the books cover quite a range of topics, chances are that some, at least, of the subjects will touch a chord. For me it was the entire sequence with the Master carver and in particular the scene where Goldmund sits by the river and mulls over why some art may be technically finished and immaculate but doesn’t move you, whereas other, less finished works, for some reason touch your soul.

Conclusion

The hokiness of the plot, and the often sentimental romanticism of the worldview, and the questionable womanising, are all forgiveable because the book delivers a steady stream of deeply pondered thinking on a range of perennial topics.

Credit

Narziß und Goldmund by Hermann Hesse was published in 1930. It was translated into English by Geoffrey Dunlop in an edition which appeared in 1932, titled Death and the Lover. Penguin Modern Classics republished this translation in 1971, with the different title of Narziss and Goldmund. All references are to this 1971 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

20th century German literature

  • The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959)

The Weimar Republic

German history

Mushrooms: The art, design and future of fungi @ Somerset House

Without fungi all ecosystems would fail.

If you enter Somerset House from the terrace facing the River Thames, then immediately on your right is a set of three long consecutive rooms which Somerset House uses to house left-field and intriguing exhibitions. In the past I’ve come to see exhibitions about Tintin, Beards, and Mary Sibald here.

Continuing this tradition is the current exhibition, three long rooms packed with Victorian, 20th century, and contemporary art works all on the theme of mushrooms and fungi.

The show brings together the work of over 40 leading artists, designers and musicians to present an overview of fungi’s colourful cultural legacy, as well as some optimistic ideas about our fungus future.

Mindful Mushroom by Seana Gavin

Fungus facts

Printed around the walls are some of the fungus facts which we all need to know:

  • It was fungi that allowed plants to colonise the earth by mining rocks for mineral nourishment, slowly turning them into what would become soil
  • 90% of living plant species depend on fungi to provide basic nutrients through their roots
  • the largest organism on earth is Armillaria ostoyae which covers 2,385 acres and is at least 2,400 years old
  • mushrooms have hundreds of ‘sexes’ and reproduce by fusing together

Victorians and fungus

Lewis Carroll was partly reflecting the Victorian growth in interest in the natural world, with decades of collectors having amassed mountains of information about the natural world, here in the British Isles and all around the Empire. In Alice In Wonderland Carroll has Alice encounter a caterpillar sitting smoking an elaborate waterpipe on a fly agaric mushroom. He tells her that eating one side of it will make her grow, while eating the other side will make her shrink. And so the exhibition contains a display case showing volumes of Alice open at this scene and illustrated by different illustrators including the original by Sir John Tenniel and a slender Edwardian Alice by Arthur Rackham.

Alice and the caterpillar by Arthur Rackham (1907)

When his intrepid explorers landed in the moon, H.G. Wells had them discover that it was covered in fast-growing fungi. A whole wall is devoted to a dozen or so watercolours of fungi made by children’s author Beatrix Potter, who painted more than 300 watercolours of fungi between 1888 and 1897.

Hygrophorus puniceus by Beatrix Potter (1894)

Twentieth century fungus

The twentieth century is represented by a wall of collages by American artist Cy Twombly – to be precise, No.I – No.X 91974), combining images from the human world with mushroom images, random crayon marks, bits of print and so on. I’ve never liked Cy Twombly.

In a display case is a record of John Cage’s mushroom music and a rare copy of the limited edition Mushroom Book made by the avant-garde composer, John Cage, who was also a dedicated and serious mycologist. The label tells us that Cage helped found the New York Mycological Society with artist Lois Long, and made a living partly by selling luxury mushrooms which he foraged in upstate New York to the city’s top restaurants.

Cochlea Brick Tuft by Hamish Pearch

A dominant theme of this, the second room, is DRUGS, namely the hallucinogenic effects of the chemical psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms.

There’s a display case of various literary and counter-culture books and magazines which register the growing interest in mind-altering drugs through the 1950s and into the psychedelic 60s, sparked off by Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, through Timothy Leary, and on into other pop culture references.

As well as these pop culture references, the exhibition tells us that:

  • psilocybin evolved in mushrooms 10 to 20 million years ago, apparently as a way to dampen insect appetites – it is a defence mechanism

Contemporary mushroom art

This is the core of the exhibition, a large number of artworks by over 20 contemporary artists on the subject of fungi, which include paintings, collage, assemblies, installations, video, films, clothes and household ornaments about, with or made from fungi.

Take the jokey film, Fly Amanita by David Fenster, in which he dresses up as a mushroom and shares the thoughts of an Amanita muscaria (also known as Fly Agaric or Fly Amanita) mushroom on his species’ relationship with humans.

British artist Simon Popper has been collecting postage stamps from around the world which depict mushrooms. The result is a large collection of sheets of paper to which the stamps are pinned and titled Mycology Philately.

There’s a video by Egyptian video artist Adham Faramawy showing him and two others doing contemporary dance in a room coloured green with superimposed graphic mushrooms appearing in various corners symbolising, apparently, a break through cultural boundaries’.

There’s a Mushroom Suitcase by Carsten Höller, who trained as a scientist before becoming an artist and plays with the intersection of games, mind tricks, scientific experiments, and scientific research.

Pilzkoffer (Mushroom Suitcase) 2008 by Carsten Holler. Photo by Mark Blower

There are some wall cases containing amazingly realistic, life-sized sculptures of various fungi, done with utter scientific accuracy even down to the trailing roots at the bottom, actually made of silk but designed to look as if each one has been freshly pulled from the soil.

Mushroom sculptures by Amanda Cobbett

Artist Alex Morrison combines arts and crafts patterning with colours and layouts inspired by graffiti found in his native Vancouver.  The result is a mildly subversive trippy wallpaper.

Mushroom motif, black and ochre by Alex Morrison (2017)

I liked the work of Laurence Owen who:

draws parallels between humanly-constructed grid systems and modes of connectivity within fungal network systems… [exploring] the innate need within both human and fungal organisms to co-exist and thrive.

In practice this amounted to three large-ish (two foot across) ceramic works hung on the wall which looked like fungus-inspired futuristic cities.

Network by Laurence Owen. Photo © Laurence Owen

And they are hung to quite a few other exhibits by many more contemporary artists, including:

  • Hannah Collins
  • Cody Hudson
  • Jae Rhim Lee
  • Graham Little
  • Mae-ling Lokko
  • Perks and Mini
  • Haroon Mirza
  • Takashi Murakami
  • Hamish Pearch
  • Annie Ratti

Fungi futures

As to the fungi futures, it is estimated that there may be as many as five million fungi species in the world of which we have identified as little as 1%. Considering that penicillin was an accidental discovery made from fungi and has gone on to save more human lives than any other discovery in history, it’s reasonable to wonder how many other wonder-drugs and super-substances may be out there in the Mycological Kingdom.

Some fungi are already used to combat pollution and waste, in rehabilitating oil spills and recolonising the sites of radioactive accidents. And so the third and final room of the exhibition displays examples of the ways fungus material may be turned into more sustainable products that metal and oil-based artefacts. Thus:

  • Sebastian Cox and Ninela Ivanova have produced a series of lamp shades made of mycelium (“Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae.”)
  • Mae-Ling Lokko works on the upcycling of agro-waste and biopolymer materials into building materials, including blocks built from mycelium
  • there’s a life size ‘burial suit’ by Korean-American artist Jae Rhim Lee, made of biomaterials including mushroom, and designed to prevent the more toxic chemicals from human bodies leeching into the soil
  • another film, this one by Australian director Jason Evans, documenting foragers of the Pacific North-West collecting matsutake mushrooms which only grow in human-disturbed forest.

And clothes. There’s a display case containing a t-shirt, a handbag and what looks like a bra made out of fungus material, the obvious idea being these are more sustainable and less polluting materials than most traditional fabrics let alone plastics.

And some works by Belgian footwear designer Kristel Peters who now focuses on sustainable shoe design. Her focus is on the use of mycelium as a material with little or no environmental impact, so that the samples of her ‘mycoshoes’ on display here demonstrate experiments at the intersection of bio-technology and fashion.

Mycoshoen by Kristel Peters

Curator

The exhibition was curated by writer and curator of contemporary art Francesca Gavin.

This may explain why, after Alice and Beatrix displays, the show cruises briskly through the twentieth century (Cage and Twombly) before arriving very firmly in the absolute present: most of the artworks on display here are bang up to date, with a number of the pieces dating from as recently as 2019.

With the result that, by the end, you realise that this isn’t an exhibition about mushrooms or fungi: an exhibition like that would have to include vastly more botany and science in it, explaining how fungi have evolved, grow, spore, reproduce, exactly how they break down organic waste, and are vital in helping almost all plants and trees to survive.

As an example, there were several references in the wall labels to fungi’s ability to create vast fibrous underground networks and to communicate along them somehow, along with speculation that these networks could be developed in the future to a) transmit electricity b) to form some kind of artificial intelligence network. But then there was no further explanation of any of these mind-blowing notions. I wanted more.

No, this is an exhibition of contemporary art – an impressive selection of videos, installations, clothes and household goods, ceramics, collages and paintings – which happens to be on the subject of fungi. You learn a few factoids about fungi (some of which the average interested person might well already have known), but what is undeniably new and distinctive is the cross-section of little-known contemporary artists which Gavin has assembled.

Taken as an exhibition about fungi, this show is disappointing.

Taken as a wide-ranging exhibition of contemporary art which just happens to have chosen fungi as a subject, this show is a fascinating insight into the contemporary art scene.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Troy: Myth and Reality @ the British Museum

What Troy means to me

For me the Iliad will always be the greatest story ever told. The Christian story is hugely more rich and complicated and influential and subtle, but the tale of Troy is, for me, more true.

It is, for me, a description and investigation and celebration and commiseration of masculinity. It starts with two men fighting over a woman (Agamemnon and Achilles fall out over who should possess the slave girl Briseis, captured in a small Greek raid on an outlying Trojan temple), it climaxes in two tragic, avoidable deaths (Patroclus of the Greeks, Hector of the Trojans), and leads up to the most moving scene in all literature, when King Priam of Troy sneaks by night into the Greek camp and confronts Achilles in his tent, falling to his knees and weepingly imploring the mightiest warrior of the age to give him back the battered body of his dead son (Hector). And instead of slaughtering him on the spot and bringing the war to a swift end, Achilles also falls to his knees and both men weep unappeasable anguish at the loss of their beloved ones.

From a thousand years BC right up to the present day, how many parents and lovers have wept unassuageable tears of grief and anguish over the pointless deaths of their loved ones in pointless wars. That agony has been repeated over and over again hundreds of millions of times.

For me Achilles’ great scream of anguish when he learns that his lover Patroclus is dead and that it was he, Achilles, who sent him to his death, his huge superhuman cry of pain which rings out over the battlefield and brings the fighting to a terrified halt, is the cry of all men against a cruel, uncaring universe, the agony of realising we are our own worst enemies, the tormented howl of someone who has understood human nature to its bitterest depths.

The Iliad is truer than the Christian story because there is no redemption and no comfort anywhere. The human condition is endless conflict and the relentless death of the people we love most. Men are compelled to fight, they don’t know why, and then bewail the devastation they have caused and the lives they have pointlessly destroyed. Nothing changes and no-one can be saved. Syria. Yemen. Libya. Myanmar. Congo.

Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora (530 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition

1. Long gallery of ancient artifacts

This epic blockbuster exhibition at the British Museum brings together over 300 objects to give a comprehensive overview of the myths and legends and long legacy surrounding the siege of Troy. It is, like most recent BM exhibitions, beautifully staged, with the wall of the long gallery painted black and evocatively decorated with archaic Greek patterns, while half way along the gallery the wooden ribs of enormous horse arch up over the visitor, obviously referencing the famous wooden horse.

Although it’s divided into lots of sections, Troy is essentially in two halves. The first, long narrow gallery displays umpteen red-figure vases, statues, sarcophagi, carved reliefs and so on from the era of the Athenian empire (5th century BC) onwards including and later Roman efforts, depicting numerous episodes from the long series of myths and legends connected with the epic story.

Roman sarcophagus lid including detail of the Trojan horse (late 2nd century AD) Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

The curators increase the size of their subject matter by including the legends surrounding Odysseus and his ten-year-long journey back from the war to be reunited with his brave long-suffering wife Penelope. Homer’s Odyssey is very different in tone and subject matter from the Iliad. It is more full of fairy stories and legends about the Sirens or Calypso or the one-eyed Cyclops or Scylla and Charybdis.

And they also devote some sections to Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which follows the adventures of Aeneas, a minor character in the Iliad, who is promoted by Virgil to become a semi-Odysseus in his own right, fleeing burning Troy to wander the Mediterranean, have a long love affair with Dido Queen of Carthage, before being compelled to fulfil his duty which is to sail to Italy and found the precursor of Rome.

Including Odysseus, Virgil and all their related stories in the exhibition gives the curators more subject matter but, in my purist eyes, weakens the impact of the Iliad material, the material solely about the war, which focuses on battle, conflict, male anger and destruction only.

There are informative sections about the Greek gods, the geography of the Homeric world, how the Romans co-opted the Greek legends for their own purposes, if you didn’t already know.

And then the first gallery comes to an end and you turn the corner and come back on yourself along a narrow gallery running parallel to the first one.

2. Archaeology and Schliemann

At this turning point is a section devoted to the excavations carried out on the coast of modern-day Turkey by a series of Victorian archaeologists, which climaxed in the German excavator Heinrich Schliemann who loudly claimed to have uncovered the true site of Troy in 1873.

Display of objects found by Schliemann at Troy along with books describing his excavations. Photo by the author

3. Troy in European art

And when you progress beyond Schliemann and turn the corner you discover that the second long corridor is – rather surprisingly – an art gallery.

If the first half of the exhibition shows how the legends of Troy were depicted in ancient Greek art and sculpture, this second gallery shows how the same legends were depicted by European artists from the Middle Ages onwards.

I enjoyed this second half more, partly because it was so unexpected. So, for example, there’s a section devoted to European literature on Troy which contains some marvellous medieval illuminated books. We see a copy of John Lydgate’s Troy Book (1420), learn that the first book printed in England by William Caxton was a translation of a French account of Troy. There are first editions of Chapman’s complete translation of Homer (1616), Dryden’s translation of the Aeneid (1697) and Pope’s translation of The Iliad (1715-20).

A page of a 1485 manuscript of Virgil’s works showing the wooden horse being taken into Troy, and Aeneas carrying his father on his back

But most of the space in the gallery is devoted to paintings, drawings and a handful of sculptures, of which the standout example is this masterpiece of sensuality by Filippo Albacini, a portrait of the wounded Achilles (apparently, the gilded arrow in the heel of this sculpture has been restored especially for this exhibition).

The Wounded Achilles (1825) by Filippo Albacini. Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth

But the main impression is of a long, narrow gallery space hung with lots of paintings and drawings and prints.

As well as surprise, another reason for enjoying this part of the exhibition more was that it was far less crowded: I arrived fifteen minutes after opening time but already the first, more archaeological half of the exhibition was packed with crowds of people shuffling very slowly past each red-figure vase and fragment of stone relief – and because the exhibit labels were at knee height almost all of them were completely unreadable, concealed by people packed as tight as commuters on a tube train.

By contrast, for the hour or more that I was there, the second half, the long gallery of paintings, stayed almost empty, with only a dozen or so people drifting through it – which meant that you could enjoy the paintings (or prints or drawings) and read the wall labels, at your leisure. Works on display include:

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

It’s amazing to learn that this is the first full-scale exhibition about Troy ever held in the UK. Among other treasures it features, at the very end, the gold jewelry Schliemann found buried deep in the ruins of the city he excavated on the Turkish coast and which he declared to the world must be the jewelry of Helen herself, a preposterous claim he sought to back up by getting his wife to pose for photos wearing them.

Sophia Schliemann wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ excavated by her husband, Heinrich Schliemann, in Hisarlik (photograph taken c. 1874)

Modern art interpretations

Right at the start of the show visitors are surprised by two big artifacts which are not at all historic, a vast painting, Vengeance of Achilles (1962) by American artist Cy Twombly and an assemblage of forty or so objects by British sculptor Anthony Caro which he titled The Trojan War.

Dominating the section about medieval manuscripts of Troy, rather jarringly some might feel, is a video screen showing an adaptation of Euripides’ play The Trojan Women acted by Syrian refugee women, whose wailing voices can be heard echoing across the second half of the exhibition.

And the show ends with a spectacular wall-sized creation of fluorescent tubes radiating out from a central point and named The Shield of Achilles by British artist Spencer Finch.

The Shield of Achilles by Spencer Finch (2019)

My point being that this is a very wide-ranging idea of what an exhibition about Troy should look and feel like, spilling out from the narrow fields of archaeology and ancient artifacts to encompass scores of works of European art, and even – as indicated here – up-to-the-minute contemporary art.

Feminist interpretations

The people who wrote the press release have just discovered that there are women (yes, women!) in this 3,000-year-old story, and are breathlessly excited to share this new discovery with us:

The cause of the Trojan War was a woman, Helen who was taken to Troy by Paris, This exhibition presents a chance to re-examine Helen, not just as a beautiful victim or a feared seductress, but as her own woman.

Artist Eleanor Antin (b. 1935) explores history and its characters as a way to examine issues in the present. In 2007 Antin created the photographic series Helen’s Odyssey. Here, Helen of Troy is allowed to speak for herself in a series of imagined scenes from her life. This exhibition will feature Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) – Dark Helen from this series, where Helen is pictured looking unhappy to be used as a bribe, prompting visitors to re-examine the representations of Helen that have gone before.

Judgement of Paris (after Reubens) – Dark/Light Helen by Eleanor Antin (2007)

And the wall label introducing the section on ‘Women of the Trojan War’ shares their discovery that:

Helen and other women play central roles in the story of Troy.

Helen is a pawn in a divine quarrel. Iphigeneia is sacrificed for a fair wind to Troy. Cassandra and the other surviving Trojan women are enslaved when Troy falls. Queen Clytemnestra acts fearlessly in taking revenge on Agamemnon, but pays for it with her life.

Unusual in having a happier ending, Helen has fascinated artists through the ages. Many have attempted to capture her irresistible beauty, while questioning whether she is an innocent victim or knowing seductress.

It’s no surprise that the curators disapprove of the whole idea of the Judgement of Paris, the first ever beauty parade. As the introduction to the feminist section laconically points out:

Even the powerful goddesses are subject to male judgement.

Yes, but you could also point out that the goddesses murder and doom men for their sport. But that central element of the story doesn’t fit the feminist women-are-always-victims paradigm and so is glossed over in preference for yet another condemnation of the male gaze. If only all men were blinded like Oedipus, what a better place the world would be for feminist academics 🙂

BP

Meanwhile, the exhibition is sponsored by BP, one of the world’s biggest producers and refiners of fossil fuels, the burning of which is propelling the earth and all its life forms towards a global warming disaster.

To me it is typical and symptomatic that a handful of fine art paintings of an ancient Greek myth get feminist curators and artists hot and bothered enough to criticise them and parody them – but destroying the planet and exterminating all the life forms on it… they’re happy to go along with that. After all, the profits from poisoning the planet pay their wages and sponsor their exhibitions.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Lina Iris Viktor @ Autograph

Lina Iris Viktor was born in 1987, in Britain, to parents from Liberia, West Africa. She now lives and works in New York.

This wonderful FREE exhibition of her stunning art at the Autograph gallery in Shoreditch is Viktor’s first major solo show in the UK, with more than 60 works on display.

It’s in two parts, the downstairs gallery and the upstairs gallery.

Downstairs – Dark Continent

First, they have created a special atmosphere by painting the walls white and installing an elaborate metal grilled partition, designed as the outlines of zoomorphic shapes. In fact it is titled The Black Ark and its latticed, modular design is inspired by the nets of Liberian fishermen. Beside it is dotted metallic tropical foliage which appears in her Dark Continent paintings, transformed into sculptures (and titled Black Botanica).

In and out of this installation you wander as you take in the half dozen or so massive paintings and the 50 or so wonderful prints.

Installation view of Lina Iris Viktor at Autograph showing The Black Ark latticework. Photo by the author

Both the large pictures and the normal-sized prints begin with striking photos Viktor has taken of herself nude. But not au naturel. She has painted her naked body the deepest darkest shade of black possible.

She adopts a pose (lying down, sitting towards us, sideways-on, yawning, apparently moaning or sleeping or reaching out – there are over 50 different poses) and the prints the resulting large digital photo onto canvas. But the photo is only the start of a long and arduous process. Viktor then paints in:

  • a deep jet black background
  • an orange-golden head-dress (and a sly touch of gold at her loins, sometimes visible sometimes not)
  • a burnished beaten golden sun image
  • in the foreground a flutter of short flowers and grasses painted in whitish-grey

II. For Some Are Born to Endless Night. Dark Matter from the series Dark Continent: The Seven (2015-9) by Lina Iris Viktor. Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

The black really is deep jet black. Viktor’s work explores the notion and fact of blackness: as colour, as material and as political statement. Viktor is quoted as calling black ‘the proverbial materia prima: the source, the dark matter that birthed everything’.

Upstairs – The Blue Void

The room upstairs is painted a solid, opulent ultramarine blue (emulating the ‘Blue Room’ in Viktor’s New York studio). In it hang four massive paintings, except that ‘painting’ doesn’t do justice to the immensely ornate, decorated, raised surfaces of these highly ornamented artifacts.

Installation view of Syzygy by Lina Iris Viktor at Autograph. Photo by the author

Only by going up close to the paintings can you see the extraordinary care and attention which has gone into creating and raised and embossed surfaces. Those patterns on the cloak or kaftan she’s wearing in the painting above have been created by arranging hundreds of individual tiny balls into shapes and patterns, and then painting them silver.

Take this work, from the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred and titled Eleventh. The words embossed across the surface of the work refer to tribes in Liberia, the sinuous golden lines refer to maps and tribal borders, and so the whole thing can be interpreted in a political or sociological way as a comment on the creation and tribulations of the free slave state of Liberia.

Eleventh from the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred by Lina Iris Viktor (2018) Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

In the words of the wall label:

The A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred. works reinterpret the Libyan Sybil, a prophetess from antiquity invoked by eighteenth-century abolitionists as a mythical oracle who foresaw the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

But the real artistic point (for me, at any rate) is the incredible detailing of the raised surfaces. The big golden pillar behind the woman’s head looks as if it has been beaten and hammered into elaborate shapes and reliefs. And the golden lines aren’t painted flat – they are raised lines, as if created out of clay or plasticine, and then carefully gilded.

Detail from Eleventh from the series A Haven. A Hell. A Dream Deferred by Lina Iris Viktor (2018) Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery. Photo by the author

In fact these shapes are formed of copolymer resin which has been used to build up all manner of relief surfaces across the work, from the waving lines, to the outlines of the flowers, or the wording, as you can see from this close-up detail. The whole surface is incredibly elaborately constructed, built up from a mind-bogglingly three-dimensional elements.

It’s almost always true that it’s better to see works of art in the flesh rather than as reproductions, precisely because of the added excitement, interest and dynamism conveyed by big three-dimensional objects, but it is especially true of Viktor’s work.

As a man I openly admit that the initial ‘hit’ from most of the Dark Continent pieces is the impression of an attractive naked woman in a variety of poses – but get beyond that first impression and you are free to respond to the dazzlingly complex, strange, mysterious and entrancing symbols and motifs which Viktor has surrounded herself with, the shimmering lines and spirals and triangles and whorls picked out in thick 24-karat gold, gleaming and shimmering against the primal blackness.

It creates a rich and deep and wonderful visual experience. Go and see.

Materia Prima II by Lina Iris Viktor (2015) Courtesy of the artist and Mariane Ibrahim Gallery

Video

In this interview Viktor explains the importance to her art of 24-karat gold leaf (and ultramarine blue and black and white).


Related links

Reviews of other Autograph shows

Gauguin Portraits @ the National Gallery

This is a spectacular exhibition, bringing together a range of masterpieces by Gauguin from collections around the world to give you a really deep, rich sense of his boundary-breaking artistic attitude and achievement.

The exhibition is beautifully staged and arranged, with a generous free booklet giving a paragraph or two of informative explanation about each of the show’s 55 exhibits, many of which are mind-blowingly beautiful – the whole thing only slightly spoiled by the nagging political correctness of the audioguide.

Portraits and self portraits

For a start there are two categories: self portraits and portraits of others, which can themselves further be divided into paintings and sculptures.

Gauguin painted a lot of self portraits and it is clear that right from the start he dramatised himself, creating and embroidering various strands of self-mythology. This took several forms. He played on the fact that, as a child, he had been taken to live in South America, and thereafter claimed to have Incan or Peruvian blood, being especially proud of his strong hook nose. In the later 1880s, he also took to deliberately comparing himself to Christ, as a victim, martyr and outsider – as in the extraordinarily strange and vivid Christ in the Garden of Olives (1889).

What appeals to me in all these paintings is his use of paint, the heavy visibly brushstrokes reminiscent of Cézanne, the strong black outlines a bit reminiscent of Degas, and the counter-intuitive use of stark colours (blue trees, red hair) which anticipates the Fauves.

Christ in the Garden of Olives by Paul Gauguin (1889) © Norton Museum of Art

Gauguin’s careful nurturing of the image of himself as outsider, primitive and ‘savage’ went into overdrive as a result of his two trips to French Polynesia (1891-1893, and 1895 till his death in 1903). Reporting back by letter, or arriving back in Paris 1893-5 he justifiably presented himself as a man with a unique knowledge of, and identification with, the more backward ‘primitive’ natives, and yet…

It’s a striking fact that during both his South Sea stays it seems that Gauguin stopped painting self portraits, striking evidence that the numerous self-portraits he made in Europe were made for social reasons:

  • as gifts to other artists
  • as calling cards to dealers and potential buyers
  • and to fashion an image of himself, to create a brand with which to position himself within the Paris art market

Props

And what vivid and effective branding he created. Haunting images of the hook-nosed outsider, an image we see again and again in this exhibition.

Self Portrait with Yellow Christ by Paul Gauguin (1890-1891) © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / René-Gabriel Ojéda

But this time, look at the background.  Once you look, you see the backdrop isn’t just a room or wallpaper, but is entirely filled with two artifacts. On our left as we look, is the yellow Christ, itself bizarrely coloured. And on our right what looks to be a version of the primitive-style ceramic pot in the shape of a face which is also included in the exhibition.

The point is that, above and beyond the image of himself, Gauguin is using props – and not casual props, but extremely significant and meaningful props. Here is the artist caught between Europe and Christianity and the savage and primitive. Even more simply, between light on the left, and dark on the right.

You or I are free to interpret their precise meaning at our leisure, but there is no doubting the intention that the chosen objects charge the painting.

Symbolism

Gauguin’s habit or tendency or aim in placing and positioning props and (quite often) text into his paintings, is part of the reason he’s sometimes seen as a forebear of Symbolism, the movement in art and poetry and prose which aimed to hint or suggest at deeper and, generally, hidden meanings.

It’s at work in even his earliest paintings. Take this apparently innocent painting of his son, Clovis, asleep. Innocent until you really start looking at it — at which point you notice three things.

Clovis Asleep by Paul Gauguin (1884) Private collection © Photo courtesy of the owner

One: the post-impressionist use of very broad, highly visible brushstrokes, laid on in rows, and using vivid colours.

Two: the tankard. The longer you look at it the more you realise how grotesquely over-large it is, as if it is growing, looming, almost threatening.

Three: the swirling patterns on the vivid blue wallpaper. What are they, birds, fish? Or… are they creatures emerging from Clovis’s dreams? Are they dream animals playing on the wall?

Tahitian meanings

This brings us to the numerous paintings he made on his two stays in the Pacific, where this technique of symbolic props and writing come into their own.

Every aspect of this painting is eerie with meaning. For a start it is surreal to see a Tahitian woman dressed in the ankle to neck dresses forced on them by the French Christian missionaries. Especially when you connect the covered woman with the painting of the naked woman apparently on some kind of frieze in the background – the women in the foreground is not only totally covered but unnaturally still, sitting in a missionary-approved polite posture; while the woman in the frieze is not only mostly naked but has her arms raised as if in some meaningful gesture, and appears to be interacting with at least two other figures we can glimpse. And all of that is going on before you begin to interpret what look like golden letters on the upper wall, and smaller black letters written at the bottom left.

The Ancestors of Tehamana or Tehamana Has Many Parents (Merahi metua no Tehamana) by Paul Gauguin (1893) © The Art Institute of Chicago

In other words, like many of his self portraits, this painting is brimful of meanings, overflowing with significant poses, prose and props.

So one of the immense pleasures of the exhibition is being able to walk between the paintings and see how Gauguin develops this visual language of symbolic props.

The commentary goes heavy on how his travels to the South Seas were in pursuit of ‘authenticity’, in quest of a more simple, pure and unsullied form of life. Unfortunately, as any cynic might have told him, by the time he arrived the early ‘unspoilt’ life of the natives was destroyed by Christian missionaries, by European laws and trade and money and capital.

But I suggest we see his travels to Tahiti and then on to the Marquesa Islands as a quest in search of more props and meanings. It’s as if he had created a vivid, unnaturalistic post-impressionist style, a style of vivid powerful primary colours and people drawn in blocky outlines but now… he needed to find a society which suited his style more than boring, commercial Paris.

They tell us he went in search of Paradise. But I think he also went in search of a society and culture which was somehow answerable to, adequate to, appropriate to, the visual style he had forged for himself.

Portraits without people

The curators pick up on the tremendous meaning Gauguin was able to pack into his paintings through the use of props, and in particular the use of other works of art, or his own works of art, in the background — by devoting an entire room to portraits without people.

For if a person’s personality or character can be indicated by the props you place around them (and around yourself) then why couldn’t you indicate a person via props alone? Have nothing but props in a picture to convey the person you’re depicting?

This is the rationale for the exhibition having a roomful of still lives of flowers which, in greater or lesser measure, portray people, people who just happen to be absent from the picture. My favourite among these was a wonderfully vivid vase of colourful flowers behind which, if you looked hard enough, you can see a vague grey portrait of Gauguin’s lifelong friend Meyer de Haan. Once you’ve noticed it you realise its presence suffuses the image.

Even more comprehensive is the still lifes Gauguin painted of sunflowers. In 1888 Gauguin spent a famously intense and tumultuous nine weeks staying with Vincent van Gogh at the latter’s Yellow House in Arles in the South of France. It ended badly with Gauguin storming out but the working, painterly and psychological relationship went so deep that years after van Gogh’s death, in 1890, Gauguin sent a letter from Tahiti asking a friend to send him packets of French flower seeds, including sunflowers, for him to grow in his garden And as late as 1901 and 1902 Gauguin painted a series of still lifes with sunflowers which can be taken as a very moving tribute to his wonderful friend. But note the use of props – the painting in the top left is Hope by Puvis de Chavannes, and the bowl the flowers are in appears to be a hand-carved Tahitian bowl with two carved figures. Vincent is here by default, but so are various other threads and themes in a tangle of meanings.

Still Life with ‘Hope’ by Paul Gauguin (1901) Private collection – Milano, Italy © Photo courtesy of the owner

Carvings and ceramics

There’s a lot more to be said about the paintings, about how he did portraits of useful and important people in the Paris artworld, or what the portraits he did alongside van Gogh show about their respective approaches, or how the images of good friends changed over the years, let alone the world of ideas and issues, from comparative religion to under-age sex which are thrown up by the brilliant South Sea paintings.

but the revelation of the exhibition for me was what an absolute genius sculptor Gauguin was. I was shattered by this massive and chunkily carved portrait of his friend, the Dutch painter Jacob Meyer de Haan. Apparently Gauguin carved it out of a piece of waste wood he found lying around, part of which still shows burn marks, which makes it ten times more attractive to me, as I love art made from waste or industrial products. But, for me, it is quite simply one of the most electrifying and brilliant sculptures I have ever seen.

Bust of Meyer de Haan by Paul Gauguin (1889) © National Gallery of Canada

The exhibition includes several ceramics, including a terrific ‘portrait vase’ of the wife of Gauguin’s friend, Émile Schuffnecker, as well as bronze casts of plaster faces he made of Tahitian friends or lovers which show Gauguin’s restless and experimental side.

But it was the carvings which came as a complete surprise to me and blew my mind. Here’s a carving in a different style, on a polished wood, using a ‘primitive’ style to portray the characters from the the poem by Stephane Mallarmé, Symbolist poet and supporter of Gauguin, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which the artist brought back from the Pacific in 1893 and gave to the poet in person.

L’Apres-midi d’un faune by Paul Gauguin (1892)

There were half a dozen other wood carvings, including a haunting portrait of his young ‘wife’, the fourteen-year-old Teha’amana, and several casts of ‘savage’ masks. But it was my first real introduction to the fact that wood carving, woodcuts and ceramics took at least as much of his energy in his last decade as painting, and it made me want to see a lot, lot more of all of them.

Conclusion

A wonderful bringing-together of rare works of art from collections around the world, which really bring out what an innovator, and what a restless creative force Gauguin was. Huge and enormous pleasure from all parts of his career, in a surprising range of media, including not only oil paintings, but drawings, prints, ceramics and wood carvings, which also allow really penetrating and interesting discussions of what a portrait is, what a portrait is for, and how Gauguin deliberately burst open all kinds of traditional constraints on the genre, to create something utterly new and thrilling.

Tehura (Teha’amana) by Paul Gauguin (1891-1893) Coloured wooden mask © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Gérard Blot


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Mary Sibande @ Somerset House

Mary Sibande (b.1982) is one of South Africa’s most notable contemporary artists, which makes it all the more surprising that this is her first solo exhibition in the UK.

Sibande calls herself a sculptor but she is also a very good photographer. In fact she mainly works with fabric, sewing her own fabric-based sculpture, and the friend I visited the exhibition with described her as a fabulous seamstress – hence, presumably, the show’s title, I Came Apart at the Seams.

For Sibande hit upon an idea early on in her career and has been producing variations on it for over a decade. The idea was to create life-size mannequins of herself, except

  1. imagined as an alter-ego or avatar, who she named Sophie
  2. to pose these sculptures in striking postures and activities
  3. and to dress them in elaborate, sometimes fantastical, almost science-fiction garments

Over the years she’s used this simple-sounding idea to produce some quite simply staggering works of art. I’m amazed she’s not better known and hasn’t been snapped up by one of the major galleries. This is a FREE exhibition at Somerset House so if you’re passing along the Embankment or through Covent Garden it’s well worth making a detour to visit.

Blue

Long Live The Dead Queen (2008-13) was the series in which we first met Sibande’s avatar, Sophie, conceived as a domestic servant – as Sibande’s mother and grandmother were before her. In various iterations Sophie is seen either as a sculpture or in enormous crystal-clear digital photos, transforming her servant costume (in one iteration she is embroidering the Superman logo onto it) in a series of dreams of escaping her lowly status and gender.

I Put A Spell On Me by Mary Sibande (2009)

Purple

Sibande’s next series was titled The Purple Shall Govern (2013-17). In these Sophie is embodied as ‘The Purple Figure’.

The title is a play on words, making two references, mashing up the opening principle of the 1955 Freedom Charter of the African National Congress stated that ‘The People Shall Govern!’ – with the 1989 anti-apartheid Purple Rain protests.

During these, thousands of anti-apartheid protesters marched on the parliament building in Cape Town and the police sprayed the protesters with water cannon marked with purple dye so that they could be identified and arrested later. However, some of the marchers got their hands on the water cannon and turned it back onto the police and authorities, spraying them and thus symbolically equalising everyone.

Anyway, in Sibande’s hands the colour purple is the inspiration for a series of absolutely wild photos and fabric-sculptures, in which the Sophie figure is transfigured into a force of nature out of whose body and clothes and hair, wild dreadlocks or roots or tendrils cascade and explode in a twirling confusion.

A Terrible Beauty is Born (Long Live The Dead Queen series) by Mary Sibande (2013) Copyright the artist

The above is an enormous digital print which is a) of wonderful clarity and precision b) printed onto fabric not paper and hung across one whole wall and c) is totally wild.

The po-faced seriousness of the political commentary on her works – the references to apartheid and this or that protest – in no way prepares you for the wild, crazed, science fiction pullulation of her imaginings.

It is extravagant, operatic – dreams, nightmares or visions on an epic scale and all the more weird and compelling for having been made, created, carefully and time-consumingly sewn out of fabric.

One entire room in the show consists of an absolutely amazing piece of sculpture – the black woman Sophie wrapped in purple fabric, while her hair appears to be exploding backwards into a huge tangled skein which is itself intertwining to form something like the roots of a tree. It is as if the human being is metamorphosing into an awesome, phantasmagorical force of nature.

It’s one of the weirdest and most powerful works of art I’ve ever seen.

A Reversed Retrogress Scene 2 by Mary Sibande (2013)

Red

Sibande’s latest series is titled In The Midst of Chaos There Is Also Opportunity (2017-). In these Sophie has transformed into ‘The Red Figure’ – red to express the collective disillusionment and anger of many South Africans at the enduring poverty in post-apartheid South Africa.

So blood-red is for anger, but also the power to heal and restore – there’s something of the priestess and healer in the Red Figure. She is sad, she is angry – but she is also empowered by the legacy and memory of all those who gave their lives to overthrow apartheid.

Come, you spirits of the land and the skies by Mary Sibande (2019)

As I say, the commentators, the curators, and Sibande herself, are happy to describe her art in terms of South Africa’s apartheid and post-apartheid history, the struggle for liberation and the long disappointment that came afterwards, and so on.

Maybe that’s where her art starts. But in my opinion where it goes to is somewhere altogether different, somewhere weird, strange and entrancing, to a zone which is disturbing, upsetting, amazing and supremely memorable.

Look closely and you’ll see that Sophie’s eyes, in all her reincarnations, are always closed: she is dreaming, according to the curators, dreaming of freedom and equality etc.

But the way I read it, Sophie is having dreams far bigger than paltry ones about politics and justice – dreams which are far more disruptive and uncontrolled and weird and enthralling, about human nature itself.

A Terrible Beauty and A Reversed Retrogress show humanity morphing into something much bigger and more cosmic than petty concerns about this or that cause or country –  in them the purple and red figures are becoming cosmic, entwining with the natural world, seizing power and going beyond the human into an extraordinary new realm of the imagination.


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