The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

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Come and Go by Samuel Beckett (1965)

Come and Go is an example of the form Beckett came to call ‘dramaticules’ for the simple reason that they are very short. Come and Go consists of a set of very precise stage movements and just over 120 words of dialogue, and is about seven minutes long in performance. As with most of Beckett’s later works, the detailed stage directions are as long as the text of the ‘play’ itself.

Stage directions

Lights go up on a stage empty apart from a bench on which are sitting three women. The lighting is:

Soft, from above only and concentrated on playing area. Rest of stage as dark as possible.

Over the course of the seven minutes we will learn from the sparse dialogue that the women’s names are Ru, Vi and Flo. They are wearing full-length coats, buttoned high, a dull violet for Ru, dull red for Vi, dull yellow for Flo. They should be wearing:

Drab nondescript hats with enough brim to shade faces. Apart from colour differentiation three figures as
alike as possible. Light shoes with rubber soles. Hands made up to be as visible as possible. No rings apparent.

The seat? It must be:

Narrow benchlike seat, without back, just long enough to accommodate three figures almost touching. As little visible as possible. It should not be clear what they are sitting on.

When the women come and go:

They should disappear a few steps from lit area. If dark not sufficient to allow this, recourse should be had to screens or drapes as little visible as possible. Exits and entrances slow, without sound of feet.

Their voices should be:

As low as compatible with audibility. Colourless except for three ‘ohs’ and two lines following.

The women’s movements

The three women, Flo, Vi, Ru, are sitting on a bench. The central one, Vi, gets up and walks backstage, leaving Flo and Ru. The one on our left, Flo, shuffles over to the one on the right, Ru, and whispers in her ear and Ru gasps, ‘Oh’.

The one who had left, Vi, re-enters and takes up the vacant place on the left. The one in the middle, Flo, gets up and walks backstage. The one on the right, Ru, shuffles over to sit next to the one on the left, Vi, and whispers something in her ear. Vi gasps ‘Oh’. Flo reappears from backstage and takes the vacant place on the right.

The one now in the middle, Ru, gets up and walks backstage. The one on the left, Vi, shuffles across to be sitting next to the one on the right, Flo and whispers in her ear. Flo gasps, ‘Oh’.

Ru appears from backstage and takes up the vacant place on the left of the bench. All this is entirely in line with one of Beckett’s central attributes which is a fanatically precise attention to physical postures and movements. It’s quite possible that the prose works from this period (the mid-1960s) have their genesis in the various, precisely described, physical postures of the various protagonists. Certainly his plays had, for some time, not only become shorter, but more interested in the precise posture and movements of the protagonists than in what they say. So precise were his instructions that he drew a schematic of the women’s changing positions:

The changing positions of Flo, Vi and Ru on the bench in ‘Come and Go’

In the final minute of the play the three women join hands in a gesture designed, one suspects, purely for its agreeable geometric complexity. Beckett gives a detailed prose description of the movement:

[After a moment they join bands as follows: Vi’s right band with Ru ‘s right band. Vi’s left band with Flo ‘s left
hand, Flo’s right band with Ru’s left band, Vi’s arms being above Ru’s left arm and Flo’s right arm. The three
pairs of clasped bands rest on the three laps.]

And in case that’s not enough, Beckett also gives another schematic diagram:

Schematic of the arrangement of the three women’s hands at the end of ‘Come and Go’

The careful notation and the pattern of movements and gestures is reminiscent of many musical forms, most of which require the statement of a particular theme or cadence which is then repeated with variations.

The Beckett on Film version

What does all this look like in practice? Well, here is a very faithful production which fulfils Beckett’s instructions to the letter. It was part of the Beckett On Film project, and was directed by John Crow, featuring Anna Massey as Vi, Siân Phillips as Ru and Paola Dionisotti as Flo.

Performance art

Personally, I find this obsessive emphasis on the precise delineation and definition of every single element of the performance makes the piece more like a kind of living sculpture or piece of performance art than a ‘play’.

There are three individuals and they are given actual names (unlike M, W1 and W2 in Play, for example) and they do actually say things which make a sort of sense – but personally I can’t help thinking of the apparent content of the playlet i.e. what the characters say, as very, very secondary to the visualisation of the staging and the dogmatic precision with which Beckett polices it. In the same way that semi-abstract art may take its origin from some aspect of ‘the real world’ but the real interest is in how these elements are abstracted out into an overall design.

Content

It’s almost scary how much commentary critics and scholars have been able to spool out of this short playlet. The Wikipedia article about Come and Go is dismayingly long. Four elements stand out, for me:

1. Old ladies

The play depicts three old ladies nattering. I grew up in a village full of old people, in fact my parents ran the village shop and I started working in it when I was 12 or 13. Not only that, but across the road was a nunnery which had been converted into an old people’s home, staffed by very old nuns looking after even older ladies. My point is that my boyhood was dominated by different groups of old ladies meeting up in the shop or just outside and nattering on for hours. Old Miss Luck, Miss Grace, Miss Denis and Mrs Hobson are just four that spring to mind. So I take the play at face value as three old ladies sitting on a bench having a natter.

A possibly overlooked element of this ‘realistic’ interpretation is how boring and empty a lot of old people’s lives are. With no jobs to fill their days, with no children to bring up, lots of retired and elderly people find their lives very empty. Chatting with friends your own age, specially about children and grandchildren, or about the thousand aches and pains that flesh is heir to, fills the time. Specially for old women, who will more than likely outlive their husbands, often by decades.

2. Bad news

The notion that as soon as one of three old ladies departs the other two instantly fall to gossiping about her is as old as the human race. Modern young feminist scholars may dismiss it as sexist stereotyping but I’ve seen it happen, myself, so many hundreds of times that I consider it simple realism. What makes it even more realistic, to my mind, is that the two remainers instantly share some ‘shocking’ news about the woman who’s just left the stage. This news is whispered, but whispered quite loudly, in a showy, attention-pulling kind of way, to make the whisperer feel important. And it’s fairly obvious from the auditor’s response, that the two women are sharing the ‘secret’ that the one who is offstage at that moment, has some fatal illness but doesn’t know it.

This feature of the playlet manages to combine three elements: a pretty realistic aspect of old ladies gossiping, with the Beckett theme of doom-laden lives, impending death etc, with a third element, which is a multiple dramatic irony. Level one of dramatic irony is the way each pair of old ladies knows that the other one is dying of an incurable disease; level two is that we, the audience, know that they are all dying of an incurable disease.

Beckett is saying that we all like to reassure ourselves that we are alright and it is the others who are in a parlous plight. But you know what – in reality we are all in the same parlous plight, all of us are dying by degrees and doomed to the same fate.

3. Threes

VI: When did we three last meet?

The fact that it is three women lends itself to all kinds of symbolic interpretations, for example the three Graces, the three Fates of Greek mythology, the three Norns of Norse mythology, or the Trinity of Christian theology. Small essays can be written imposing these or any other triad you can think of onto the three women, but they don’t interest me much.

Three of anything is just a convenient number. 2,000 years ago Cicero pointed out that if you wanted to impress your listeners, your speeches should include sentences containing three clauses: blood, sweat and tears; earth, wind and fire; the good, the bad and the ugly; hands, face, space; if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again; the German proverb Alle guten Dinge sind drei; you wait ages for one bus, then three come along at once.

And of course that opening sentence has reminded every English student who ever read or heard it of the opening line of Macbeth with its three witches:

When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

In any context, three entities feels just the right number (to our ape minds, for whatever reason): two isn’t quite enough, four is too many, three is a perfect size.

4. Padding

I can’t find quite the right word to describe the fourth element, what you could call ‘filler material’ or ‘padding’, in the sense of ‘content produced to fill up gaps or holes’. What I’m getting at is that having assembled his three old ladies and conceived the ironic core of the action – the way each pair of them shares the secret of the other one’s fatal illness – all good so far, Beckett now has to, er pad the rest of the time out with something. But with what?

I think this is an easily identifiable aspect of most of Beckett’s work, whether prose or plays: there’s a basic structure often based on the position of a body or bodies; there’s a kind of geometric ideas about how bodies position themselves or move; a set of key words and phrases emerge which can be repeated to an intense degree… but there needs to be something else, some kind of distinct content which makes each piece unique.

Often it’s a name, thrown in almost at random to create the illusion of ‘content’, that the piece is referring to something the rest of us can relate to, to ‘characters’ who may then be given some attributes to pad them out. For me the standout example is the figure of ‘Woburn’ in Cascando. In that work Beckett had conceived of a kind of impresario who controls the contributions of the two abstract entities Voice and Music. Now Music is easy enough to create, and Beckett worked with composers who created it for him. But Voice, what can Voice say? It needed to be a story which is continually started but never finished and never told in quite the right way. The easiest solution was to think of a person undertaking an activity and so the finished piece has Voice repeatedly telling the ‘story’ of this figure Woburn, who he repeatedly describes getting out of bed, getting dressed, going downstairs, out the house, across the beach and trying to launch a dinghy into the sea.

My point is that what he does and his name, Woburn, are utterly irrelevant to the basic structure of the piece, but once they had been decided, then they become both strangely hypnotic in performance, and susceptible to any number of clever scholarly interpretations. But Woburn’s primary purpose is to pad out the structural skeleton, to provide the filler which gives it content.

Same here. Beckett adds a name and a factual reference, just one:

FLO: Just sit together as we used to, in the playground at Miss Wade’s.
RU: On the log.

Who is Miss Wade? What does the log symbolise? Ten thousand scholars have shed much ink investing this handful of words with multiple significances, and who knows, maybe they’re all right. Maybe it starts by meaning what it says at face value, namely the three old ladies are remembering when they were little girls back at Miss Wade’s nursery or school and used to sit on a log and hold hands. And scholars have indeed discovered that Beckett’s female cousins attended a school in Dublin run by three spinster sisters and commonly known Miss Wade’s. ‘Aha! Gotcha!’ This might be called the sentimental interpretation. Aah.

But looked at structurally, this is quite obviously a familiar Beckett strategy: he has created the skeleton, the frame of a work, and it is the skeleton – the bench, the three women, their carefully choreographed movements – which really interest him. Now he has to put some flesh on it to keep the punters happy. He needs a few touches of colour in an otherwise almost entirely white, abstract design.

Same sort of thing happens a few minutes later:

VI: May we not speak of the old days? [Silence. ] Of what came after? [Silence. ]

Beckett is dangling his familiar theme, the sense of loss and decay, hinting at some disaster or unmentionable incident, for the gossips in the audience and academy to speculate about. But it is almost over-familiar; we have heard Beckett characters make these kind of pseudo-profound statements so many times, they come as no surprise. But the characters have to say something.

And again, at the very end, the last words, after the three ladies have joined hands:

FLO: I can feel the rings. [Silence. ]

Well, you don’t have to be a genius to see how these words emphasise the circular shape of the play which ends where it began and consists of a series of repeated patterns within itself, and brings out the intertwining nature of the three women’s lives, or fates.

The bombastic among us might reference Wagner’s massive Ring series of operas. The sentimental might notice that none of the three are actually wearing rings (a detail emphasised by Beckett) and so Flo is referring to invisible and imagined rings, maybe the rings the three spinsters longed for all their lives and never attained. The literary (such as the editors of The Beckett Companion) may think of Henry Vaughan’s poem, Eternity:

I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light

Or those of us with small children might be prompted to think of the Circle of Life from that great philosophical work, The Lion King. I.e. it’s almost like these brief, pregnant phrases are consciously designed to trigger responses in the word and idea centres of the brain…

But, for me, the point is not the words, or the meanings the words conjure up – it is the silences. In fact, surely the most important thing about the verbal content of Come and Go – once you have processed the irony of the whispered secrets – is the long, looong silences which punctuate it. It is a play made up of silences. Just over 120 words, but how many silences? (I counted: the word ‘silence’ appears 12 times; 1 silence per ten words).

A complex ballet of movements. Three whispered revelations. The bare minimum of ‘affect’ or content. Long silences. It is amazing how dense and complex such a brief piece of drama can be.


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

Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard (1971)

All summer the cloud-sculptors would come from Vermilion Sands and sail their painted gliders above the coral towers that rose like white pagodas beside the highway to Lagoon West. The tallest of the towers was Coral D, and here the rising air above the sand-reefs was topped by swan-like clumps of fair-weather cumulus. Lifted on the shoulders of the air above the crown of Coral D, we would carve sea-horses and unicorns, the portraits of presidents and film-stars, lizards and exotic birds. As the crowd watched from their cars, a cool rain would fall on to the dusty roofs, weeping from the sculptured clouds as they sailed across the desert floor towards the sun.

Those who come looking for classic Ballard – all car crashes and multi-story car parks – will be disappointed. The nine stories Ballard wrote about Vermilion Sands are, for the most, part, among his earliest – in fact Prima Belladonna, the first story in the series, is also the first short story he ever had published – and they all reek of early period, fin-de-siecle-cum-surrealist dreams rather than the hard psychoses of the modern world which he became famous for later on.

The idea is that Vermilion Sands is a holiday resort of the very near future, but not a holiday resort as we know it in the real world of Ibiza or the Costas. For the most striking aspect of Vermilion Sands is that there is no sea. No sea, no beaches, no sunbathing and all that vulgar paraphernalia. Instead the town appears to be surrounded by a vista of endless rolling dunes, sand-lakes and quartz reefs, among which grow the mysterious ‘sound sculptures’ and out of whose dark grottos fly the ominous sand-rays.

Perfectly at home with this nearly other-planet-like landscape, the denizens of this alternative reality are all well educated and middle class, all seem to work in the arts (we meet an increasingly predictable series of artists, singers, film makers, architects, painters and fashion designers), and indulge strange dreamy fantasies which involve making singing sculptures, tending plants which emit music, selling houses which shape themselves to their owners’ moods and, in the most characteristic story, The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D, use gliders to carve faces and shapes out of clouds for the entertainment of the jaded inhabitants below.

The stories appear to take place in the present or near future:

  • in Venus Smiles the narrator references the Expo 75 and the Venice Biennale as contemporary events; later he tells us that the artist Lorraine Drexel hobnobbed with Giacommetti and John Cage (making her a very 1950s character)
  • in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista the architect who is shot dead is described as having hung out in the 1950s with Le Corbusier and Lloyd Wright, and then moved on to Vermilion Sands, ‘1970 shots of him, fitting into the movie colony like a shark into a goldfish bowl’, and since we know he was shot soon after arriving at the resort that sets his murder in the Seventies, and the story is being told some ten years after the trial (p.194)
  • in Say Goodbye To the Wind the lead female character Raine Channing, was a world famous model in the 1970s and the ‘now’ of the story is barely ten years later (p.132)

But the stories take place in a location which is not the same earth or the same present as the rest of us inhabit. Everyone is comfortably off and lazy. All the houses have balconies and verandas where the characters do a good deal of daydreaming and musing. Everyone takes the endless dunes, the singing sculptures, and the flying manta rays for granted.

Ballard is often heralded as the prophet of late-twentieth century urban psychoses but these stories really reveal the late Victorian in him, the man in thrall to a Tennysonian love of euphony, given to long lazy paragraphs describing pre-Raphaelite women who sleepwalk through the dunes under the shimmering moonlight, combined with an 1890s, decadent, Oscar Wilde intoxication with jewels (jeweled eyes, jeweled insects) and the uncanny attraction of the macabre. In these stories Ballard is more of a Symbolist than a modernist.

Standing with one hand on the cabin rail, the brass portholes forming halos at her feet, was a tall, narrow-hipped woman with blonde hair so pale she immediately reminded me of the Ancient Mariner’s Life-in-Death. Her eyes gazed at me like dark magnolias. Lifted by the wind, her opal hair, like antique silver, made a chasuble of the air.

In a short preface Ballard says the stories are his best guess at what ‘the future will actually be like’, a snapshot of ‘the day after tomorrow’ – but I think we can take that with a pinch of salt: the future will obviously look very much like the world of today, only more crowded and polluted; that’s certainly how the future has turned out for the last 40 years that I’ve been experiencing it.

In the 1970s they told us that by the year 2000 there’d be colonies on the moon or even Mars, and we’d all be living in the Leisure Society where the only challenge would be deciding whether to fill your spare time by being an artist or a poet. 40 years later the Space Age is over, everyone works harder than ever, and the world is just more crowded and polluted.

What the Vermilion Sands stories really are is a mental realm where Ballard could go to indulge the most rococo and whimsical of his decadent fantasies, untroubled by any constraints of realism or logic. He is closer to the mark when, later in the Preface, he says that the stories consciously celebrate ‘the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.’ They are exercises in the strange and the fantastical, the weird and surreal, all told in the calm, bejewelled prose of a latter-day Oscar Wilde.

Memories, caravels without sails, crossed the shadowy deserts of her burnt-out eyes. (p.21)

References in the text to Vermilion Sands

Vermilion Sands is my guess at what the future will actually be like.

Vermilion Sands is a place where I would be happy to live. I once described this overlit desert resort as an exotic suburb of my mind…

Vermilion Sands has more than its full share of dreams and illusions, fears and fantasies, but the frame for them is less confining. I like to think, too, that it celebrates the neglected virtues of the glossy, lurid and bizarre.

Where is Vermilion Sands? I suppose its spiritual home lies somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach, but in recent years I have been delighted to see it popping up elsewhere — above all, in sections of the 3,000-mile-long linear city that stretches from Gibraltar to Glyfada Beach along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, and where each summer Europe lies on its back in the sun. That posture, of course, is the hallmark of Vermilion Sands and, I hope, of the future — not merely that no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play, and play the ultimate work. (Preface)

‘tourist haunts like Vermilion Sands’ (The Singing Statues)

Ten years ago the colony ‘was still remembered as the one-time playground of movie stars, delinquent heiresses and eccentric cosmopolites…

All the houses in Vermilion Sands, it goes without saying, were psychotropic…

‘Darling, Vermilion Sands is Vermilion Sands. Don’t expect to find the suburban norms. People here were individualists.’ (Stellavista)

… to Vermilion Sands, to this bizarre, sand-bound resort with its lethargy, beach fatigue and shifting perspectives

The Recess is referred to in several places as a worldwide economic slump which reduced most people to working a few hours a day (Referred to in The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista and the Cloud Sculptors), but this is as airily vague and meaningless as everything else in the stories.

Vermilion

Prima Belladonna (1956)

Steve Parker keeps a shop of singing flowers, Parker’s Choro-Fauna. A lot of effort is put into explaining the complexity of singing plants and, in particular, the way they need tuning and Steve does this using the monstrous Khan-Arachnid orchid, a difficult bloom with a range of 24 octaves. When he’s not fussing about these rare and expensive musical plants, Steve hangs out with his pals Tony and Harry, drinking cool beers on his balcony.

What is maybe most characteristic about the story is the notion that it is set during ‘The Recess’, a decade of economic stasis. There’s no socio-economic explanation of this, it just reinforces the sense of slow, lazy, easy-going torpor which hangs over the story.

Into their relaxed, passive lives arrives the stunningly beautiful Jane Cyracylides, long and lean with golden skin and disconcerting eyes which seem like insects. The boys ogle her from their balcony and then one day she comes to the shop.

Tony gets to know here and discovers Jane’s astonishing singing ability, an ability which, if not restrained, badly upsets the flowers in his shop. She starts to make a living singing in nightclubs and becomes famous so Tony is thrilled when they become an item, cruising round together and hanging at the beach.

One day he is awoken by music from the shop, strange, it’s locked up and should be quiet. He goes in to discover the Khan-Arachnid orchid in mad tumescence, rearing up to over nine feet tall and sucking into its core the willing body of Jane Cyracylides. When he tries to pull her free she pushes him away. Later, when he re-enters the shop, the Khan-Arachnid has returned to its normal size and Jane is nowhere to be seen. Has it eaten her?!

Venus Smiles (1957)

A broadly comic story. The narrator – Mr Hamilton – is on a small committee which commissioned a sonic sculpture for the central square of Vermilion Sands and awarded the gig to Lorraine Drexel. Unfortunately the finished product looks like a radar aerial with a car radiator grill broken in two so the bars stick up like a big metal comb. And the sound it emits instead of being calm and reassuring is a high pitched whine, a sitar-like caterwauling. The crowd gathered to see the unveiling starts booing.

Quite quickly the statue is withdrawn and ends up in the narrator’s own front garden, and Lorraine Drexel leaves town, laughing. This is because she knows what’s coming next. Which is the statue starts growing, and sprouting more and more sound cores which start broadcasting various classical lollipops like Mendelsohn’s Italian Symphony or Grieg’s Piano Concerto.

Hamilton chops it up with a hacksaw but the parts only grow back. They call in an expert, a Dr Blackett, who spouts some typical half-plausible pseudo-scientific explanation about the sculpture extracting its new content from oxygen in the air and its metal core, creating a dynamic form of rust.

Hamilton wakes up to find the thing smashing through his bedroom window and stretching all over his garden, caterwauling umpteen different pieces of classical music. His colleague on the Art committee, Raymond, comes round with an oxy-acetylene kit and they spend a day chopping the monster singing sculpture up into thousands of tiny pieces. They pay a local contractor to take it away to a steel mill and get it all recycled.

But the sculptress Lorraine Drexel reads about it in the press and sues. The case spends months dragging through the courts and the final verdict is delivered in Vermilion Sands’s new courthouse. They lose the case because the judge doesn’t believe – despite the eye witness testimony – in a growing singing sculpture.

But as they leave the courthouse, Hamilton feels a vibration in his feet. He leans to the floor and hears music. He walks to a window and looks out at some of the unfinished parts of the courthouse. Yes, there are new struts and stanchions growing out from the building even as he watches and new ‘sonic cores’ forming, from which emits louder and louder music.

The sculpture! Its melted-down parts have been mixed with other metal and sent off to construction jobs all over the city. Not only buildings but cars and planes, all the artifacts of modern technology will start budding soundboxes and singing!

Studio 5, The Stars (1960)

Studio 5, the Stars is an address – studio 5 is a house half way along a road in Vermilion Sands called The Stars.

It’s a good-humoured joke that the narrator is Paul Ransom, editor of Wave IX, a poetry magazine all of whose works are produced by modern VT technology – punch in your requirements of stanza form, genre, style, metre and so on into an IBM machine and it coughs out as many lines as you like.

Into his life wafts a late-Victorian beauty, the mysterious figure of Aurora Day (much like the slender and mysterious beauties Leonora Chanel and Jane Ciracylades in the other stories), given to mysterious sleepwalking in her billowing white gown or feeding the white fish in her pond or stretching on her divan, her ‘beautiful body uncoiling like a python.’

She is a real poet in that she writes the old fashioned way, with a pen. Once she learns Ransom is editor of a poetry mag she sends her pink Cadillac round every morning so that the hunchback chauffeur can deliver her latest compositions, and in the evening the tapes on which she has written her texts comes roiling and blowing across the sand from her house across the dunes, Studio 5.

But this is just the start. When Ransom rejects her poems, she magically co-opts the entire issue he’s sent to the printers, deleting all the computer-generated poems and replacing them with hers. Far more dramatic, when Ransom gets over burning the tampered copies, he lifts his glass to find a quote of poetry engraved on it, and poetry engraved on the steps of his, and on the doors, and on the walls, and on the floors. Then he looks at his arms and realises they are live with hand-written verse and when he looks in the mirrors he sees that his face it is covered in poetry.

He vaults the balcony, lands on the sand and runs over to Aurora’s house. There she is lazily feeding her fish and asks him if he knows the Greek myth about Melander, goddess of poetry, and Melander, the only true poet of the day who kills himself to prove his devotion to the art of poetry. As she tells it him, Ransom realises there are paintings of the two characters all round the walls. Is she… is she the goddess Melander?

Quickly the plot develops. Ransom utterly gives in to Aurora’s demand that the next edition of his magazine be filled with original, hand-made poetry. But when he gets home he discovers his lovely IBM poetry-making computer has been trashed. He phones the other 23 poets in Vermilion Sands and same has happened to them. How the devil is he going to fill his magazine?

One alone among the other poets isn’t fazed, the good-looking youth Tristram Caldwell. He not only offers to submit some of his verse but comes over and introduces himself to Aurora. Over the next few days they become inseparable. He suggests they go on a sand-ray hunt, sand-rays being things like bats which fly about above the ‘reefs’ but have a sharp and fatal sting.

To cut a long passage short, Tristram fools Aurora into going into a mazy grotto of the reefs and there whipping the sand-rays into such a frenzy that they appear to attack and kill Tristram. Aurora runs off screaming and is driven away the goatish chauffeur who Ransom has, by now, realised must be a reincarnation of the Greek god Pan.

Ransom a) tries to follow them but their big Cadillac loses him b) drives to Aurora’s house only to find it empty, deserted and feeling as if it has never been inhabited (as in a thousand clichéd ghost stories) and c) gets home to find Tristram lazing on his divan. What!

It was a scam by Tristram. He learned how seriously Aurora took the Melander story and how she had cast him as the tragic devotee. So he staged the entire sand-ray hunt in order to fulfil her psychological need. Only he among the little hunting party knew that they are in the ‘off’ season for the rays, and so their blades aren’t poisonous.

And the punchline of the story? Ransom is still stressing about how to fill his next issue when he gets a call from one of the poets who, strange to say, has had a moment of inspiration and has knocked out quite a decent sonnet. And then another phone call. And another. Somehow, Aurora’s presence, or her (probably) commissioning the hunchback to smash up all the poetry computers, has had the desired effect. The poets have learned how to write again.

The Singing Statues (1961)

Another story about a beautiful willowy woman who enters the life of the male narrator and entrances him.

In this case he is Milton, an artist, a maker of sonic sculptures and she is Lunora Goalen (what, not the Lunora Goalen, yes!! the Lunora Goalen!!), rich patron of the arts with apartments in Venice, Paris, New York (funny how some things haven’t changed in 60 years), doyenne of the news magazines and celebrity columns and society pages.

Lunora has rented a luxury house in the resort. She has dropped into the art gallery where Milton was just adjusting his latest sound sculpture which looks like an enormous totem pole with wings at the top. Out of the wings come sounds. Milton happens to be inside when the rich client strolls his way and – knowing the musical range of his sculpture is actually pitifully thin – he grabs the microphone and as Ms Rich arrives in range, singes the Creole Love Call which is transmogrified by the computers into a haunting melody which enchants Lunora and she buys it on the spot, turning and walking out to climb back into her white Rolls Royce, leaving it for her sharp-eyed assistant Mme Charcot to make out the cheque to the flustered gallery owner.

Next day they get an angry call complaining that the sculpture only seems to emit a dull booming noise. Milton drives out to the luxury house (like ‘a Frank Lloyd Wright design for an experimental department store’) and pretends to be doing maintenance when he is in fact installing a tape of classical music. This should fix the problem for a day or two.

On successive nights he sneaks back across the dry lake climbs over the wall into the garden, sneaks up onto the unrailed terrace and instals a new tape. Then spends increasing amounts of time looking down to the ground floor where Lunora is sleeping on an open-air divan, topless.

On the climactic day he is rung up by Mma Charcot who insists he comes straight away. Lunora is distraught, her hair undone, dishevelled, crouching beside the sculpture. Milton crouches down beside her and takes her hands in his but Mme Charcot sniggers, it is not him she cares for – it isn’t even the sculpture – it is herself she is in love with.

Appalled, Milton turns and walks away. Next day Lunora, her secretary and chauffeur have gone, When he revisits the house it is cold and empty, the muted statuary standing around like corpses. Months later, in preparation to make a new statue, Milton goes out among the actual living sound sculptures, among the sand dunes and reefs of the desert, and there discovers the sculpture he had sold her, chopped up into pieces and scattered around the sand, some of the fragments still making a sad, whining lament.

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (1961)

Talbot and his wife Fay are looking for a house to rent in Vermilion Sands. The resort is now past its prime and these new buyers are aware of the history of movie stars and celebrities who populated it in its prime.

The story is based on the idea of Psychotropic Homes – these are homes built in a kind of bioplastic which respond to their owners’ moods and personalities. This immediately leads Ballard into a comic tour of totally unsuitable homes, such as the mock-Assyrian ziggurat whose previous owner had St Vitus dance and so which was still nervously jitterbugging even years after he’d left. Or the converted submarine pen which was the home of an alcoholic and whose vast concrete walls still reek of gloom and helplessness. You get the idea.

Anyway they finally take a nice house with a pool and it’s only when the estate agent ‘turns it on’ (you turn on psychotropic houses) that he reveals it was the home of 70s movie star Gloria Tremayne, who was the defendant at the Trial of the Century, accused of shooting dead her architect husband, Miles Vanden Starr. Now we learn that Talbot, who’d already told us he was a lawyer, was actually a junior defence lawyer on Gloria’s team. Lots of guff about how mysterious and aloof and Greta Garbo she was.

To cut to the chase, Talbot and Fay find themselves beginning to act out the characters of its previous inhabitants. In particular, we learn from Fay’s comments to him, that Talbot has become obsessive, vengeful, permanently angry. One day the house tries to kill her by melting and bending down the ceiling in the living room where she’s sleeping to crush her onto the sofa. Her screams waken Talbot who comes running in to save her.

Next day she’s gone, a note on the memogram saying she’s gone to stay with her sister. Two months later she demands a divorce. Talbot goes on a bender, drinks too much, raves the car back across the lawn, smashing into the automatic garage, throws his coat in the swimming pool, necks a bottle of whiskey and wakes up sprawled across his bed to witness a strange sight.

A pressure zone enters the doorway, but no person, The pressure zone crosses the bedroom towards the bed, there’s a pause, then a convulsion in the air and the house goes into spasm, has a fit. The room he’s in starts to contract, within moments the door and control panel are covered in melting blob, huge veins stand out on the walls. Luckily his lighter is in his pocket and Talbot holds it up to the ceiling which starts to fizz and melt apart and he’s able to pull himself up into the from above, though that is melting and bending, the swimming pool has been upturned and draining.

He realises the house is reliving the moment Gloria Tremayne went into his bedroom to shoot Starr. The spasm was the house re-enacting Starr’s death spasm, the contraction was his lungs and heart ceasing to work, his life force contracting as the room contracted around Talbot.

Talbot makes it to the control panel and turns the house off. Hours later the police leave deciding there’s nothing they can do to prosecute a house for murder. The estate agent looks in horror at the wrecked, erupted shell of the desirable property he sold Talbot only a few months previously, then leaves.

For the time being Starr will remain. He can’t afford to move and the house is turned off. But one day… one day, he will turn it back on… the threat being that he will subsume himself in the damaged psyche of the murderess.

The Screen Game (1962)

Paul Golding is an artist, well, an artist in the Vermilion Sands sense, meaning he rarely actually paints anything. He’s co-opted by his friend Tony Sapphire into painting the sets for an avant-garde movie being produced by the millionaire playboy Charles van Stratten (two ex-wives and a controlling mother who mysteriously died in an ‘accident’) who owns a massive house out across the sand lakes.

There’s a cast of distractions including the outrageous director, but the point of the story is to introduce us to the beautiful, slender and (inevitably) troubled young woman at the heart of it. Emerelda Garland used to be a famous actress, darlings, but had a breakdown after her mother died. Now van Stratten (who is, of course, devoted to her) has organised the filming solely to recreate the milieu of her glory years and try and effect a cure.

As an typically eerie and oblique aspect of this cure the narrator is tasked with building a series of twelve enormous screens, which are painted with the signs of the zodiac and are to be moved around what seems to be an enormous chessboard on a terrace below the producer’s summer house.

As the story progresses, Golding produces many more screens than are required and he and his friends develop a strange complicated ‘game’ of moving them around, creating strange patterns and mazes.

Emerelda does indeed find walking among their ever-changing patterns and mazes somehow consoling, although Golding finds it disconcerting that she is followed everywhere or surrounded by an eerie troop of scorpions and spiders with jewels embedded in their heads, jewelled insects which foreshadow the jewelled world created in The Crystal World. (Leonora Chanel is referred to on almost page of her story as having ‘jewelled eyes’, which, we eventually realise, means small decorative jewels stuck around her eyes.)

The climax comes one morning when Charles himself deigns to come down from the summer house and play ‘the screen game’, by now a complex process using the 40 huge screens Paul has painted. But suddenly an abandoned sonic sculpture down on the empty beach sets up a wailing and they realise something is wrong.

Charles starts tearing apart the screens which form the protective carapace the mad Emerelda has made for himself. But when he penetrates to the core and strips away the screens shielding her, exposing her to the harsh sunlight, her entourage of jewelled insects, scorpions and spiders, protects her by leaping onto Charles’s body and covering his face, and stinging him to death as he runs away down the sand embankment screaming in time to the sonic sculpture’s mournful wail.

Cry Hope, Cry Fury! (1966)

The first-person narrator, Robert Melville, goes sailing on his sand-yacht across the bone-dry dunes of the sand-sea, in hunt of the eerie sand-rays which fly just out of reach. When one of the tyres of his sand yacht gets a puncture he sets off on foot but the razor sharp sand cuts his feet. Back at the yacht an enormous ray flies overhead till he shoots it dead and it falls out of the sky wrecking his sails and knocking him unconscious.

When he comes to he is being rescued by a much larger sand-yacht under the command of the windswept beauty, Hope Cunard, who tends him in her cabin as they cruise over the smooth dry sand lakes towards her luxury home on the bone dry Lizard Key. Here Melville meets Hope’s small and characteristically troubled entourage, namely her pockmarked half-brother, Foyle, and her secretary Barbara Quimby.

Hope is, of course, a painter, she paints portraits. In a nod to his sci-fi audience Ballard invents a kind of paint which, once you’ve set the basic parameters, you leave out on the canvas in front of the subject and it automatically takes the shape of whatever you intend to paint – similar to the computer programs for making poems in Studio 5, The Stars.

The subject of painting does two things. One, it brings out a profusion of references to artists, including Monet, Renoir, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Balthus, Gustave Moreau, the surrealists as a group and ‘the last demented landscapes of Van Gogh’, as well as literary references to Coleridge’s poem The Ancient Mariner and one of the Surrealists’ holy books, Maldoror. Two, it triggers a glut of sensuous, decadent description, of the desert, the gleaming sand, the  sand-rays wheeling above the rock spires and so on. And, of course, the human body as a junction or meeting point of the organic and the crystalline.

Sometimes at night, as she lay beside me in the cabin, the reflected light of the quartz veins moving over her breasts like necklaces, she would talk to me as if completely unaware p.103

It emerges that Hope had a tempestuous affair (underneath the psychological flim-flam there’s quite a lot of Mills and Boon about a Ballard story) with a tall dark stranger who is identified in the story with the Flying Dutchman. He even left a jacket behind with a tell-tale bullet hole in the chest.

Hope lets a portrait of herself and Melville be painted but over the following days it twists and distorts into the macabre figure of a skull-faced woman in a blonde wig and a pig-faced mannequin. The narrator thinks this is a reflection on the weird psychic processes at work in the isolated house, but at the climax of the story we learn that the two other occupants – Foyle and Barbara – have been dressing up in costumes and standing in front of the self-painting paintings, nothing weird and psychic about it at all, it’s a twisted attempt at humour and control.

The climax come when the Flying Dutchman or some such young man does indeed arrive, but Hope has been driven into a state of hysteria and fires a pistol at him, wounding him in the wrist and he and Melville both make their escape, running across the piazza and onto the man’s sand-schooner.

The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D (1966)

This might be the best, the most representative of the stories. Major Raymond Parker has been invalided out of the air force after an accident, hence the crutches. He is building gliders in a disused garage. two freaks pass by, the hunchback Petit Manuel and tall artist Nolan. They’re joined by playboy Charles van Eyck and form the cloud-sculptors of Coral D. a) Coral D is the fourth and largest of the four large coral towers outside vermilion Sands b) cloud sculptors glide among the clouds and release scythes of silver iodide to carve and sculpt them into the shapes of celebrities, presidents and actresses.

Till the day when beautiful reclusive heiress Leonora Chanel (daughter of one of the world’s leading financiers) is driven up in her white Rolls Royce, accompanied by her secretary Beatrice Lafferty (it does feel as if Ballard is writing the same story again and again and again).

As we get to know her we realise Leonora is a monster of egotism. She puts on a massive party at her huge villa and invites the cloud sculptors to perform. Van Eyck and Nolan are vying for her attention and outdo each other. Parker quickly starts an affair with Miss Lafferty and they jointly observe what happens next which is

1. That night there is some kind of argument or fight up on the terrace and Nolan goes running off into the night. We learn that he has in fact already had an affair with Leonora and painted a very unflattering portrait of her. Out of the shadows emerges smooth playboy Van Eyck who now tries his chances with Leonora.

2. Next day there is another party (easy to get the fact there are two, a bit confused) and this time the clouds darken into a storm. First Manuel begs to go up, in order to impress Leonora who had not tried to hide her revulsion at the hunchback. He goes up and his glider is smashed to bits in a storm cloud. Parker and Lafferty go and recover his body which means they are out in the desert when the storm turns into a real tornado and – apparently driven by the vengeful Nolan in his glider -heads straight for Leonora’s villa, where it wreaks tremendous damage.

Emerging from their hidey-hole, Parker and Lafferty tour the ruined, devastated villa, with its wreckage of party chairs, marquee and smashed champagne glasses. They find Leonora dead among her peacock feathers, her face covered by shreds of the many portraits of herself she’d commissioned over the years. And Van Eyck hanging strangled in the wires of the party lights.

Say Goodbye to the Wind (1966)

The narrator, Mr Samson, keeps a fashion boutique jokily called ‘Topless in Gaza’, the snazzy sci-fi angle being that the clothes are all bio-clothes, animated clothes, which shape and mould themselves around the owner and are also prone to hysterical fits (much like the sensitive plants and the sensitive houses and the sensitive musical sculptures).

One day a glamorous former supermodel, Raine Channing, turns up at the shop (just as Lunora Goalen turns up at Milton’s art gallery and Jane Cyracylides turns up at Tony Parker’s flower shop) and buys a carful of clothes. This is paid for by her secretary Mme Fournier (same figure as the Mme Charcot who handles everything for Lunora) and has an aggressive chauffeur (as did Lunora and Aurora Day).

Basically, Raine was used and moulded by her svengali, fashion designer Gavin Kaiser. Now she imagines he is coming back to get her and her behaviour becomes increasingly unhinged, particularly her habit of wafting from her hotel room through the empty streets to the abandoned nightclub and dancing by herself to the one record left on the old-fashioned gramophone.

At the climax of the novel the narrator is watching her, when someone creeps up behind him and biffs him on the head. When he regains consciousness he is in a hand-tailored biomorphic golden suit which almost immediately starts contracting and strangling him to death. there’s a couple of sentences of over-the-top description of this Poe-esque fate before strong hands grip him and a macho man cuts open the constricting fabric. It is none other than Jason Kaiser, brother of the dead Gavin Kaiser who has rescued him for obscure reasons.

Five miles away they watch the headlights of Miss Channing’s chauffeur-driven car as it disappears into the night, just like all the other psycho-goddesses in every other one of these stories, disappears back into the shadows of Ballard’s obsessive psyche.


Ballard’s goddesses

Hope Cunard stepped through the open window, her white gown shivering around her naked body like a tremulous wraith. (p.102)

Into all this Emerelda Garland had now emerged, like a beautiful but nervous wraith. (p.65)

Almost all the stories rotate around women of a particular type. Each of Ballard’s narrators meets and falls under the intoxicating influence of glamorous female figures with golden skin and mysterious pasts, former movie stars, reborn goddesses, alluring divas from myth, beguiling heiresses, elusive millionairesses:

  • Jane Ciracylades – mysterious and sexy woman who has a superhuman singing ability
  • Aurora Day – a witch with magic powers who can project poetry quotations into solid objects and onto human skin and murders (she thinks) her lover
  • Leonora Chanel – ‘this beautiful but insane woman’, millionairess who inspires the cloud sculptors, spurring them on to death and destruction
  • Gloria Tremayne – former actress who shot her husband and went mad
  • Emerelda Garland – former actress who had a collapse after her mother died and ends up trying to shoot her lover
  • Hope Cunard – millionaire heiress owner of mansion on Lizard Key who tries to shoot the narrator and her former lover
  • Lunora Goalen – neurotically self-obsessed millionaire art collector who has a breakdown by a sculpture
  • Raine Channing – former teenage supermodel who tries to kill the narrator by dressing him in constricting bio-fabric

These femmes fatales involve the narrator in their strange and dreamlike psychodramas which spiral up towards some kind of often violent climax before they abruptly disappear. He uses the stock phrase – ‘I never saw XX again’ – in so many of these stories it becomes a trademark, a cliché. ‘Of course I never saw her again’ (Gloria); ‘That was the last I saw of Aurora Day’ (p.180) and so on. They come; they entrance and beguile; they disappear – like women in a (very male) dream.

In fact the basic structure – glamorous woman enters life of man with an interesting speciality (animated clothes, musical plants, cloud-carving gliders, computer-generated poetry), after some fencing they ‘fall in love’ i.e. go to bed, before the plot moves to some kind of climax to which she is central and then the woman disappears as abruptly as she arrived – reminds me of the basic template of the James Bond stories (Bond’s interesting speciality being that he is the sexiest spy in the world). The Bond books began appearing only a few years before Ballard’s (first Bond novel 1953, first Ballard short story 1956).

There’s another point worth making: almost all the women are topless or scantily clad at some point; there are quite a few bare bosoms about. Lunora Goalen sleeps topless every night out on the desert terrace where Milton the sound sculptor spends hours watching her. When you see the contemporary illustrations for Ballard’s stories in contemporary sci-fi magazines, you see why coming up with a steady supply of nubile, slender and topless or diaphanously dressed women was required to keep the fans happy.

Cover of the October 1963 issue of Fantastic Stories showing an illustration of The Screen Game – jewelled insects, moveable screens painted with signs of the zodiac and – of course – a slender, half-naked young woman

Some of this – the recurrence of film stars and the entire story about making an avant-garde movie (The Screen Game) – sheds light on Ballard’s later obsession with real-life movie stars like Greta Garbo, Jayne Mansfield and especially Elizabeth Taylor in Atrocity and Crash.

These later texts are usually read as deconstructions of the mediascape in a consumer capitalist society, of the way Hollywood iconography and huge advertising hoardings mediate, focus and exploit primal human longings (for sex, for a better, perfect life) for profit. But a simpler interpretation is that Ballard himself had a deep devotion to the figure of the goddess, the muse, the Perfect Woman, which has more to do with Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites than the hectic commercial world of the 1960s.

It’s characteristic that even though some of his male narrators sleep with these other-worldly muse figures – as Steve Parker does with Jane Cyracylides and Robert Melville with Hope Cunard – little if anything is made of the sex, as such. It is more important as a symbol of the often oblique psychological bond between the narrator and the goddess-figure.

But even that is not quite accurate, because there is actually little if any psychology in a Ballard novel. Or, to put it another way, Ballard’s novels are full of psychology but it is Ballard’s psychology – the characters are little more than ciphers in the strange trance-worlds Ballard creates, as their generally anonymous names clearly signal – Ransom, Golding, Milton, Talbot, Melville, they’re all dream figures acting out Ballard’s compulsive scenarios, again and again and in Vermilion Sands it’s striking how many of these obsessions are more or less the same one – being entranced by a beautiful, sexy, but mad and dangerous young woman.

As a footnote, they all arrive in very nice cars, and they all have chauffeurs:

  • Leonora Chanel – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.11)
  • Lunor Goalen – white Rolls Royce, chauffeur and secretary (p.75)
  • Aurora Day – pink cadillac and chauffeur (p.154)

Once I’d noticed this, I couldn’t help thinking about Lady Penelope, driven about in her pink six-wheeled Rolls Royce by the faithful Parker in Thunderbirds (which was broadcast 1965-66).

Ballard’s buzzwords

There’s a lot of detail and imagination in all of the stories – a lot of sci-fi gags, like the houses which change shape or the mutant plants which can make music or the eerie sand sculptures and so on – but, in the end, I found it a struggle to read the book right to the end. The atmosphere, which starts off as dreamy symbolism, ends up becoming too one-dimensional, the effects too shrill and tinny.

I began to notice the way he throws around the adjective ‘insane’ a lot – insane wishes, insane people, insane ideas, insane landscape, insane logic,

  • fighting the insane air, Manuel piloted the glider downward…
  • For a moment the ambiguous nature of my role, and the questionable morality of abducting a beautiful but insane woman, made me hesitate. (p.67)
  • Convinced at the time of this insane logic, I drove my fists through the canvas… (p.105)
  • I raised my hands to my face, in horror saw that the surface of my skin was interlaced by a thousand tattoos, writhing and coiling across my hands and arms like insane serpents. (p.163)
  • The fragments of Aurora Day’s insane poems caught the dying desert light as they dissolved about my feet… (p.181)
  • I stood up, wondering what insane crisis this psychotropic grand mal duplicated. (p.205)
  • ‘The place must have been insane.’ (p.207)
  • There’s a subtle charm about the house even in its distorted form, like the ambiguous smile of a beautiful but insane woman. (p.208)

And bizarre:

  • the portraits recapitulated in reverse, like some bizarre embryo, a complete phylogeny of modern art… (p.98)
  • a character’s shirt makes him look like ‘some bizarre harlequin’ (104)
  • She seemed to be concealed in this living play-nest like a bizarre infant Venus (p.134)

And demented:

  • We barely noticed the strange landscape we were crossing, the great gargoyles of red basalt that uncoiled themselves into the air like the spires of demented cathedrals. (p.52)
  • In the wardrobe the racks of gowns hung in restive files, colours pulsing like demented suns. (p.136)
  • I woke on Raine’s bed in the deserted villa, the white moonlight like a waiting shroud across the terrace. Around me the shadows of the demented shapes seethed along the walls, the deformed inmates of some nightmare aviary. (p.141)

Yes, nightmare:

  • What had begun as a pleasant divertimento… had degenerated into a macabre charade, transforming the terrace into the exercise area of a nightmare. (p.69)
  • Kicking back the door I had a full glimpse of these nightmare figures. (p.106)
  • The macabre spectacle of the strange grave-flora springing from cracked tombs, like the nightmare collection of some Quant or Dior of the netherworld… (p.130)
  • The cloud if insects returned to the summer house, where Dr Gruber’s black-suited figure was silhouetted against the sky, poised on the white ledge like some minatory bird of nightmare. (p.71)

And macabre. And grotesque. And hell.

  • The livid colours of Hope’s pus-filled face ran like putrefying flesh. Beside her the pig-faced priest in my own image presided over her body like a procurator in hell. (p.107)
  • I remembered the clothes I had seen on a woman killed in a car crash at Vermilion Sands, blooming out of the wreckage like a monstrous flower of hell, and the demented wardrobe offered to me by the family of an heiress who had committed suicide. (p.137)
  • Three nights later, tired of conducting my courtship of Emerelda Garland within a painted maze, I drove out to Lagoon West, climbing through the darkened hills whose contorted forms reared in the swinging headlights like the smoke clouds of some sunken hell. (p.67)

And nightmares. And Bosch.

  • My pig-snouted face resembled a nightmare visage from the black landscapes of Hieronymus Bosch. (p.105)
  • With his beaked face and insane eyes, his hunched figure hung about with the nets of writhing rays, he looked like a figure from Hieronymus Bosch. (p.177)

There’s a tired business mantra that if everything’s a priority then nothing’s a priority. Same here. If everything is ‘insane’ and a ‘landscape from hell’ then, eventually, nothing is.

My point is that it’s too easy and glib to chuck around extreme adjectives like that. It devalues them and they quickly lose their evocative affect.

The obsessive repetition of the same basic structure – mysterious glamorous woman entrances naive male protagonists against the backdrop of the endless dunes, sand reefs and sonic sculptures – gets pretty boring after the fourth or fifth iteration. The details of things like the psychotropic houses and the moments when the house tries to kill Fay, then the narrator, are weird and hallucinatory, the details of the gliders flying among the clouds and sculpting them into shapes and faces is wonderful, but:

  1. the human plots which he concocts amid the sand-seas and reefs of quartz are often shallow and disappointing
  2. Ballard’s language is too often cranked up to maximum all the way through; there’s little light or shade, the whole thing does indeed become ‘glossy, lurid and bizarre’ to such an extent that, in the end, it runs the risk of ceasing to register or matter

Maybe literature is something to do with restraint, and the reason Ballard is hard to take seriously as a literary figure is because, although his novels are brilliant (the three disaster novels are breath-taking and Atrocity and Crash are all outstanding visions), nonetheless Ballard’s writing – considered solely as written prose – is so ridiculously over the top.

In the silence of the villa I listened to [the shadows of the demented shapes] tearing themselves to pieces like condemned creatures tormenting themselves on their gibbets. (p. 141)

Edgar Allen Poe on acid.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

1930s
1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the most sweeping vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds, an the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

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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Edvard Munch: love and angst @ the British Museum

The fin-de-siecle

The last decade of the 19th century is famous for its fin-de-siecle, decadent, dark imagery. In Imperial Britain this was epitomised by the decadent sexuality associated with the notorious trial of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book magazine and the pornographic prints of Aubrey Beardsley. In France there was a reaction against Impressionism which took many forms including the urban posters of Toulouse-Lautrec and the swarthy nudes of Paul Gauguin down in the South Seas. All were well-known and public artists, working in cosmopolitan cities which were the capitals of far-flung empires – London, Paris. They were famous and playing on large stages.

In the other countries of northern Europe, however, one of the most powerful artistic currents was Symbolism.

As the exhibition notes:

Symbolism was a literary and artistic movement that rejected representations of the external world for those of imagination and myth. Symbolists looked inwards in order to represent emotions and ideas.

In Belgium, north Germany and the Scandinavian countries, artists developed a wide range of techniques and styles, but tended to fixate on a handful of themes, namely sex and death. Death awaits with his scythe. Empty boats arrive at forbidding islands. Youths waste away from frustrated love. Beautiful young women turn out to be vampires.

Sex and death and anguish and despair, these are all much more personal, introverted, emotions. Wilde was a flamboyant public personality, Beardsley’s art was defiantly clear and elegant, both were immensely sophisticated and urban and cosmopolitan, confident doyens of the largest, richest city in the world.

Whereas much of the fin-de-siecle art from Belgium, Germany, Scandinavia was much darker, more personal. Of course they produced urban and sophisticated art as well – the 1890s is characterised by an explosion of diverse art movements – but there was also a big strand of empty lakes and immense dark pine forests and brooding skies and agonised artist-heroes.

Edvard Munch

Munch is slap bang in the middle of this social and cultural movement. His most famous work is The Scream, which was first made as a painting in 1893 and then turned into a lithograph in 1895 which was reproduced in French and British and American magazines and made his reputation.

The Scream is probably among the top ten most famous images produced by any artist anywhere, and has been parodied and lampooned and reproduced in every medium imaginable (pillow slips and duvet covers, posters, bags, t-shirts). It featured in an episode of The Simpsons, clinching its status as one of the world’s best known art icons. It’s up there with the Mona Lisa.

The Scream (1895) by Edvard Munch. Private Collection, Norway. Photo by Thomas Widerberg

Why? Why is it so powerful? Well:

  1. It is highly stylised and simplified – it barely looks like a human being at all, more like some kind of ghost or spirit of the woods.
  2. The rest of the landscape is drawn with harsh single lines, whose waviness seems to echo the long O of the protagonist’s mouth.
  3. Thus ‘primitiveness’ of the technique of wood carving – with its thick, heavy ‘crude’ lines – somehow echoes the primalness of the emotional state being described.

The exhibition

This exhibition brings together nearly 50 prints from Norway’s Munch Museum, making this the largest exhibition of Munch’s prints seen in the UK for 45 years.

It also includes sketches, photos and a few oil paintings, not least a big haunting portrait – The Sick Child – of his favourite sister, Johanne Sophie, who died of tuberculosis when she was just 13. These are set alongside works by French and German contemporaries, to present a powerful overview of Munch’s troubled personality, the artistic milieu he moved in, and his extraordinary ability to turn it into powerful images conveying intense, primal, human emotions.

Vampire II (1896) by Edvard Munch. The Savings Bank Foundation DNB, on loan to Henie Onstad Kunstsenter, Oslo

Claustrophobic

The exhibition is up in the top gallery in the Rotunda, a relatively small space, which was divided into smallish sections or rooms, the prints hung quite close together on the walls, and the place was packed, rammed, with silver-haired old ladies and gentleman. It was hard to move around. More than once I went to move on from studying a print and found I couldn’t move, with people studying the next-door prints blocking me to left and right and a shuffle of pedestrians blocking any backward movement. Imagine the Tube at rush hour. It was like that.

Possibly, in fact, a good atmosphere to savour Munch’s work. Trapped, claustrophobic, slightly hysterical. it forced me to look up at the quotes from his letters or diaries which have been liberally printed up on the exhibition walls. Just reading these immediately gives you a sense of where Munch was coming from, his personality and the motivation for his art.

For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. (1908)

I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted – and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there, trembling with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature. (22 January 1892)

The angels of fear, sorrow, and death stood by my side since the day I was born.

All art, like music, must be created with one’s lifeblood – Art is one’s lifeblood. (1890)

I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe it.

We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want… an art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.

Sexual anxiety

There’s plenty more where this came from. The exhibition gives a lot of biographical detail about his early life, describing the Norwegian capital of Kristiana, how it was connected to the rest of Europe by sea routes, how it was a small provincial town whose every aspect was dominated by the stiflingly respectable Lutheran church, but how young Edvard was attracted to its small bohemian, artistic set of poets and writers and artists, how he conceived a massive sequence of works about love and sex and death which he titled The Frieze of Life –

The Frieze is intended as a poem about life, about love and about death. (1918)

How he travelled to Paris and to Berlin and scandalised respectable opinion with the exhibitions he held there, but created a stir and won admirers for the stark, elemental quality of his woodcuts and prints. (The exhibition includes a map of Europe showing Munch’s extensive travels during the 1890s and 1900s, along with a selection of Munch’s personal postcards and maps.)

We are told Munch was born and brought up in a fiercely religious and conservative bourgeois family which was horrified when he fell in with Kristiania’s bohemian layabouts. These bohos practiced sexual promiscuousness, had numerous affairs, and so were plagued by jealousy and infidelity and fights – all exacerbated by the way they drank too much, far too much.

It seemed obvious to me that Munch’s anxiety was caused by the crashing conflict between his extremely repressed bourgeois upbringing and the chaotic and promiscuous circles he moved in as a young man. On the one hand was a young man’s desire and lust, on the other were all the authority figures in his culture (and inside his head) saying even looking at a woman with lust in his heart would lead to instant damnation.

The scores of images he made of women as vampires and weird gothic presences and looming succubi emerging from the shadows, represent a repeated attempt to confront the epicentre of that clash – sex, embodied – for a heterosexual young man – by sexualised young women. They attracted him like a drug, like heroin – but all these compulsive thoughts about them triggered the terror of physical disease – the appalling ravages of syphilis for which there was no cure – along with the certainty of eternal damnation – and all these led to anxious, almost hysterical thoughts, about the only way out, the only way to resolve the endless nightmare of anxiety – and that was release and escape into death, the death which he had seen at such close quarters in the deaths of his beloved mother and sister from tuberculosis.

The obsessiveness of his sexual thoughts, and their violent clash with orthodox Christianity, is most evident in the hugely controversial Madonna, an obviously erotic image to which he blasphemously misapplies the title of the chaste Mother of God. And, when you look closely, you realise that those are sperm swimming round the outside of the frame, and a miserable looking foetus squatting at the bottom left. Sex versus Religion! It’s amazing he wasn’t arrested for blasphemy and public indecency. In fact his 1892 exhibition in Berlin so scandalised respectable opinion that it was shut down after just a week.

Madonna (1895/1902) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

So Munch’s vampire women aren’t real women, of course they’re not. They are depictions of male anxiety about women, namely the irreconcilable conflict between the demanding, drug-addiction-level lust many young, testosterone-fueled men experience, whether they want to or not – and the multiplicity of feelings of shame about having such strong pornographic feelings and experiences, and regret at handling relationships with women badly, and anxiety that you are a failure, as a man and as a decent human being, and terror that – if there is a God – you are going straight to hell for all eternity.

Plus, as the wall labels indicate, there really was a lot of heavy drinking in his circle and by him personally, which led to chaotic lifestyles among the bohemian set, and Munch became a clinical alcoholic. And this addiction – to alcohol – will, of course, have exacerbated all the psychological problems described above.

Exposure to so many of Munch’s prints – alongside detailed explanations of how he made them, the Norwegian and north European tradition they stem from, and so on – really rubs in the fact that he was a great master of the form. It’s not just the Scream. Lots of the other prints have the same archetypal, primitive power, and the exhibition brings it out by setting Munch’s work beside prime examples by other leading printmakers of the time, in France and Germany (many of which are themselves worth paying the price of admission to see).

The subtle prints

It tends to be the extreme images we are attracted to – the Scream, the Madonna, the numerous vampire women, the worrying image of a pubescent girl sitting on a bed. But some decades ago we crossed a threshold into being able to accept all kinds of erotic and extreme images, so these no longer scandalise and thrill us in the same way they did their initial viewers, although they still provide powerful visual experiences.

But having had a first go around the exhibition taking in these greatest hits, I slowly came to realise there was another layer or area of his work, which is – in a word – more subtle. If the most obvious and impactful of his images are about stress and anxiety mounting to open hysteria – there were also plenty of images which were far more restrained. In which – to point out an obvious difference – the women are wearing clothes.

Instead of vampire women whose kisses are turning into bites, these tend to be of fully dressed, utterly ‘respectable’ late-nineteenth century types, set outdoors, in open air situations where… somehow, through the placing and composition of the figures, a more subtle sense of aloneness and isolation is conveyed. They capture the mood of a couple who are, for some reason, not communicating, each isolated in their brooding thoughts.

The Lonely Ones (1899) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Like the complex ways relationships between the sexes fail, become blocked and painful in the plays of Munch’s fellow Norwegian, Henrik Ibsen. (Munch, as a leading artist of the day, was acquainted with both Ibsen and the younger playwright, Strindberg. It crosses my mind that if Munch’s more hysterical images can be compared to the highly strung characters in a Strindberg play, the more subdued and unhappy images in some way parallel Ibsen’s couples.)

Having processed the extreme images of vampire women, sex and death in my first go round, on this second pass I warmed to these less blatant images.

I noticed that the naked women images are almost always indoors (as, I suppose, naked women mostly had to be, in his day). But that the more ‘respectable’ and subtle images were all set outside, and often by primal landscapes – namely The Lake and the Forest – the kind of primeval landscape we all associate with Scandinavia and which really was available right on Kristiana’s doorstep.

The exhibition ends with a set of prints which perform variations on his characteristically hunched, half-abstract human figures – characteristically, showing one man and one woman – but in this series hauntingly isolated, leaning on each other – or against each other – in something which doesn’t look at all sensual but more like the survival techniques of characters from a play by Samuel Becket.

Towards the Forest II (1897/1915) by Edvard Munch. Munchmuseet

Less striking than the vampires and naked women and girls, I thought these strange, half-abstract, ‘lost souls in the landscape’ images had a kind of purity and haunting quality all their own.

Breakdown and rebirth

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1908 Munch had a nervous breakdown. His anxiety, compounded by excessive drinking and sometimes fighting, had become acute, and he was experiencing hallucinations and persecution mania. He entered a clinic and underwent a comprehensive detoxification which lasted nearly eight months.

When he left, he was a new man. Well, new-ish. His work became more colourful and less pessimistic and the wider public of Kristiania for the first time began to appreciate his work. Critics were supportive. His paintings sold. Museums started to buy his back catalogue. His life improved in all measurable ways. But in a textbook case of the artist who needs his anxieties and neuroses to produce great works, everything he carved and painted from then on – portraits of rich friends, of the farm he bought, murals for factories – lacked the intensity and archetypal power of his early years.

Years later all that storm and stress and hysteria seemed so distant as almost to be inexplicable.It is typical that, decades later, he told the story of how his famous painting, Vampire II, got its title. He himself had simply titled it Love and Pain. Pretty boring, eh? But Munch’s friend, the critic Stanisław Przybyszewski, and clearly a man with a flair for publicity, described it as ‘a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire’s face.’ And, looking back, Munch comments:

It was the time of Ibsen, and if people were really bent on revelling in symbolist eeriness and calling the idyll ‘Vampire’ – why not?

A man in remission from alcoholism and mental illness, the older Munch can be forgiven for not wanting to revive unhappy memories, and for wanting to palm off the idea for lurid titles onto his friends. But the prints themselves, and all his early writings, don’t lie. The later work is interesting and decorative – but it is the unhappy period covered by this exhibition which produced the intense and troubled works which seem to take you right into the heart of the tortured human condition.

Older, wiser and sober – Munch among his paintings at the end of his life

The promotional video


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The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful full scale and in the flesh.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness at all.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

And it is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other. There are some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together pieces from across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure had been covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is documenting the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists from the period handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, probably the locus classicus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be hoped for or feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of of other subjects which provided an opportunity for nudity, such as Christ being scourged or crucified, or the large number of Last Judgements with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the entire show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The Fall of The Damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the fact that the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to torture and even eat. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was a well-established intellectual practice by the early 1500s.

Initially, humanism focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of the classical mythology which informed them. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. It’s relatively small, but this little drawing is among the most ravishing works in the exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round the exhibition, I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ do not appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, which began to seem increasingly odd to me because some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of naked human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

It may come over as a bit paranoid but looking closely at picture after picture which are obviously about sex, which display sexy young people cavorting sexily, and yet listening to the audioguide and reading all the wall labels, you can’t help noticing the complete absence of the blunt Anglo-Saxon word ‘sex’ in any form.You get the strong impression that it is banned, swept under the carpet. You get the equally strong impression that art scholars prefer to use the vague and willowy term ‘desire’, and you also get the strong impression that ‘same-sex desire’ is the optimum form of this, especially when it comes to men, presumably it is ‘desire’ not targeted at women who have, in recent years, become increasingly touchy about being seen in any kind of sexy context.

Eventually, the banishment of the term ‘sex’ and the failure to point out the sexiness of pretty obviously sexy images led me to believe that male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Not just in this exhibition, but in any other you attend nowadays, any way in which a straight man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but I was struck how they are all banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history. Do you see how the sexy or horny male has been quietly and subtly elided from the picture.

I don’t even really disagree with this view, as such; fine for empowering women, bully for same-sex male desire! It’s more the narrowness of perception I’m complaining about, the sheer tedium of having the same narrow interpretations and carefully limited vocabulary crop up in every art exhibition. For me art opens up, expands broadens my perceptions and ideas and emotions. The repetitive use of just a handful of approved ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters for the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men, often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich sugar daddy? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and Bronzino’s show-off depiction of the red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made by Renaissance artists copying newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and sometimes dismissed as rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artists’ workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion created by Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy (in the example below, of a man’s shoulder).

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated. The founding motif in this subject in the Western tradition is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with a spear as per the Gospel accounts of his interrogation, torture and execution.

There is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. If you can ignore the half naked man being scourged within an inch of his life at the centre, the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were (according to Christian legend) executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on ‘desire’ and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s desire or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives which exist out here in the real world. The universal use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses for the same kind of thing, is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and whippings on display in this room. They were crystallised by this image, which was the first one to make me really disagree with the curators’ interpretations.

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned into the unlikely context of even this dark image.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

Anyway, the curators’ interpretation is so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one

Is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed. The fact that the curators completely miss the religious threat and complexities of the picture in order to focus on the ‘power’ of naked women typifies everything about the shallowness , body obsession and unimaginativeness of their worldview.

Number two

The nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. Surely the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is it just a cooked animal or something worse (i.e. a human body part)? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of smothering investigation and analysis under a blanket of tired clichés and corporate buzz words.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them was a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Netherlandish painter, Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons or bulging musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back towards the little bridge.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti, you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – in my opinion – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming, but I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are. There is something a bit rotten about the Italian paintings, they have the official dullness of those packs of Medici Christmas cards you get in charity shops. Sterile. Dead.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity: they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography, the way the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross was deliberately echoed in depictions of the almost-nudity of countless saints who are shown being tortured to death.

The curators discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (often the belovèd of the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel that it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning – and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy – and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony – and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story – but also key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity – but also incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age – and celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men… or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs… or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400 to 1530.

The opposite: by the end the exhibition has suggested that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and significances which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their many-minded patrons, and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.
  • In fact one of the several medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress a bit to reveal some of her thighs. That’s not nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not, in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between total nudity and the various forms of dress and bodily covering to be found in the pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, each of these statuses drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and their requirement to assert that this period saw The Rise of the Daring Naughty Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world (in its iconography) which often achieved a lovely delicacy and innocence.

This late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny, illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, we learn, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way the artist shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in these books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Yes but note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses as they fall down her back.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of a classic Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists’ workshops, the kind of thing you can nowadays find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker. I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull. The triumph of soulless perfectionism.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

The Beardsley Generation @ the Heath Robinson Museum

This small but entrancing exhibition explores the impact that a radical new photographic means of reproduction (process engraving) had on the art of illustration at the end of the 19th century.

Through 50 or so drawings and 20 or so illustrated books and magazines, the exhibition brings together a treasure trove of images from what many consider the golden age of illustration which lasted from around 1890 to the early 1900s.

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

The Pilgrim stretched both of his hands up towards Heaven by Charles Robinson (1900)

Informative

As always the exhibition is in just the one room at the Heath Robinson Museum and looks small, but there are now fewer than 20 wall panels, some quite lengthy and packed with technical, historical and biographical information, so that reading all of them almost feels like reading a small book.

A brief history of Victorian illustration techniques

In the early Victorian era, book illustrations were mostly produced from steel engravings. Artists such as George Cruikshank (some of whose prints I was looking at earlier this week, in the Guildhall Art Gallery) and Hablot Browne were expert at etching on steel. However the process was expensive, requiring the illustrations to be printed on different paper separate from the text and then bound in with the rest of the book.

By the 1850s publishers preferred to use wood engravings, with the result that master wood-engravers developed large workshops which employed many engravers. The artist presented his picture on paper or on a whitened woodblock and would hand it over to the skilled engraver. The engraver then converted the picture into a woodcut, carving away the areas that were to appear white on the final print, leaving the raised lines which would take the ink, be applied to paper, and produce the print.

Thus the engraver played a major role in interpreting the artist’s work, sketch or intention, often superimposing his own character and style on the image.

Still, it did mean you could make illustrations without having to be a skilled etcher and among the first artists to take advantage of the new medium were the pre-Raphaelites, led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais.

They were followed by a second school of artists, sometimes called the ‘Idyllic School’, which included G.J. Pinwell and Arthur Boyd Houghton, who infused their essentially realistic works with intensity and emotion.

Job's Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

Job’s Comforters by Arthur Boyd Houghton (c.1865)

There followed in the 1870s and ’80s what the curators call ‘a period of dull realism’ which is not dwelt on. It was at the end of the 1880s that the technical innovation which the exhibition is concerned with came in, and transformed the look of British illustrations.

Process engraving

In the late 1880s process engraving replaced wood engraving. An artist’s drawing was transferred to a sheet of zinc so that areas to be printed in black were given an acid-resistant coating and white areas left exposed. The plate was then dipped in acid so that the white areas were eaten away. The plate was then attached to a block of wood which could be inserted into the block holding the type, so that illustration and text were generated together by the same printing process.

This new process required that the artist’s image be in pure blacks and whites without the kind of fine lines which had flourished in etching on steel or in wood engraving. Moreover, the artist could be confident that the line he drew would be exactly what would be presented to the reader, without the involvement of a wood engraver to enhance or (possibly) detract from it.

At a stroke, the older generation of artists who had relied on master wood-engravers to work up their rough sketches for publication was swept away and replaced by a new young generation of penmen who relished the clarity of line and space encouraged by the new technique.

The most dramatic proponent of the new look, who exploded onto the art scene like a small atom bomb, was Aubrey Beardsley (b.1872)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d'Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

How La Beale Isoud Wrote to Sir Tristram from the Morte d’Arthur by Aubrey Beardsley (1892)

Beardsley was an illustrator of genius who had created an entirely new and personal visual world by the incredibly young age of 20. There are four prints and two drawings by him here, plus three book covers and books laid open to show his illustrations in situ. What a genius.

Having explained this major new development in print technology, the exhibition also explains several other influences which were swirling round at the time and contributed to the development of the ‘new look’. These included:

  • Japanese art
  • European Symbolism
  • Venetian and Renaissance art
  • with a dash of Dürer thrown in

Japanese

After the Harris Treaty of 1858 reopened trade links between the West and Japan, one of the many consequences was a flood onto the Western art market of Japanese woodblock prints.

Known in Japan as ukiyo-e or ‘pictures of the floating world’, the Japanese style was notable for not using perspective to add depth, or light and shade to create a sense of volume and space in the images. Instead the Japanese used ‘dramatic boundary lines’, i.e. clear, distinct, black lines – to create images – and then used colour, again not to create depth, but decoratively, filling in the shapes created by the lines with plain washes.

Japanese art had a profound influence on Western artists at a time when they were looking for ways to revive what had become tired traditions and to combat the rising challenge of photography.

Setting a Japanese print (in this case Nakamura Shikan II as Benkai by Utagawa Kunisada) next to the works by Beardsley allows you to immediately see the liberating impact that the Japanese habit of stylising the image has had for the European – allowing him to abandon almost all conventions of perspective and depth.

Actor Nakamura Utaemon Iii As Mitsugi’s Aunt Omine by Utagawa Kunisada (1814)

Beardsley’s best images float in an indeterminate space, bounded by extremely precise and clear lines which give his best images a wonderful clarity and dynamism. But Beardsley wasn’t alone. A greater or lesser element of simplification and stylisation characterises most of the artists working in the ‘new look’.

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

The last fancy of the contemporary buck for Pall Mall magazine by Edmund J. Sullivan (1900)

Symbolism

Symbolism was an art movement which swept northern Europe in the 1880s and, although its techniques remained largely realistic, in some case hyper-realistic, it applied these approaches to subject matter which was infused with obscure and semi-religious feelings.

Symbolism took images of death, yearning, loss and mystery, and showed them, no longer in the bright light of nineteenth century rationalism and optimism, but brooded over by a more modern sensibility and psychology. A drawing of Salomé by Gustave Moreau is used to exemplify the Symbolist effect.

Its influence can be seen in an illustration like this one by Charles Ricketts, which takes the well-worn subject of Oedipus and the Sphinx but drenches it in arcane symbolism – inexplicable figures and flowers adding to the sensual, erotic yet mysterious atmosphere.

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Oedipus and the Sphinx (1891) by Charles Ricketts

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

The exhibition lists and explores other influences including the impact of a classic printed book from Venice titled Hypnerotomachia Poliphili or The Strife of Love in a Dream, published by Albertus Manutius in 1499, and regarded as a masterpiece of typography and design by collectors.

A Garden Scene from 'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili' attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

A Garden Scene from ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’ attributed to Francesco Colonna (c.1499)

Copies of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili became available in England in 1888 and influenced Edward Burne-Jones, Walter Crane, Charles Ricketts, Aubrey Beardsley and Robert Anning Bell.

List of artists in the exhibitions

The exhibition includes works by all of those illustrators and more. I counted:

  • Aubrey Beardsley – 4 prints, 2 drawings and three book and magazine covers or pages
  • Alice B. Woodward – 2 drawings
  • Louis Fairfax Muckley – 1
  • Herbert Granville Fell – 2 drawings and a watercolour
  • Alfred Garth Jones – 2
  • Thomas Sturge Moore – 1
  • Laurence Housman – 5
  • Charles de Sousy Ricketts – 2
  • Paul Vincent Woodroffe – 1
  • H.A. Eves – 1
  • Harold Edward Hughes Nelson – 1
  • Byam Shaw – 1
  • Edgar Wilson – 1
  • Cyril Goldie – 1
  • Henry Ospovat – 1
  • Robert Anning Bell – 2
  • Philip Connard – 1
  • Jessie Marion King – 3
  • James Joshua Guthrie – 2
  • Edmund Joseph Sullivan – 2
  • Charles Robinson – 3
  • William Heath Robinson – 3
  • Arthur Boyd Houghton – 1
  • Walter Crane – 1

Books on display

  • Le Morte d’Arthur illustrated by Beardsley
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • The Kelmscott Chaucer ill. by Burne-Jones
  • Poems of Edgar Allen Poe ill. by William Heath Robinson
  • Poems of John Keats ill. by Robert Anning Bell
  • Poems of John Milton ill. by Garth Jones
  • The Faerie Queene ill. by Walter Crane
  • plus illustrated versions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the Book of Job, the Yellow Book, and more

All the works were worth looking at closely, studying and mulling in order to enjoy the play of line and form. Many of the prints are wonderfully drawn and warmly evocative. Every one is accompanied by a wall label, and the twelve or so most important artists merit bigger wall labels which give you their full biography along with influences and major works to set them in context.

These biographical notes help you to make connections between different artists linked by having a common publisher, or working on a common publication or magazine, or who knew each other and encouraged, helped or shared ideas. The exhibition really does give you a sense of an entire generation excitedly inventing a whole new style of art.

Nostalgia

I think at least in part I respond so warmly to so many of the images is because, as a boy growing up in the 1960s, lots of the old books in my local library and the children’s books which my parents bought for me, contained just this kind of late-Victorian / Edwardian illustrations.

Looking at almost any of them creates a warm bath of half-forgotten memories of curling up in a corner and totally immersing myself in thrilling stories of Greek heroes and mermaids and pirates and pilgrims.

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

Tailpiece by Edgar Wilson (date unknown)

This is another wonderful, heart-warming and highly informative exhibition from the Heath Robinson Museum.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Seen and Heard: Victorian Children in the Frame @ Guildhall Art Gallery

This is an exhibition of artworks on a subject which is so straightforward, so hidden in plain sight, that it is easily overlooked – children.

To be precise, children in Victorian art.

Victorian Children in the Frame

Guildhall Art Gallery has brought together nearly fifty paintings from the long nineteenth century – approximately 1810 to 1910 – which demonstrate some of the ways in which children were depicted by artists during this long period of tumultuous social change.

The exhibition space consists of two large rooms divided into ‘alcoves’ or sections, each devoted to a different aspect of the painted imagery of children 1810-1910. At the start there is a timeline showing the major legal and educational reforms which affected children through the nineteenth century.

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Timeline for Seen and Heard at the Guildhall

Introduction

Before the 19th century children were depicted in art works as miniature adults. By the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837 children were being depicted more realistically, shown playing with toys or pets. Childhood began to be seen as a distinct and particularly valuable period of life, and children – middle and upper-class children, anyway – as needing coddling and protecting.

It should be mentioned early on that the majority of the 46 or so paintings on display are of a quite mind-boggling soppy sentimentality. The commentary doesn’t mention it but the Cult of Sentiment which had arisen in aristocratic circles in the late 18th century carried on and came to full bloom in some extraordinarily sickly paintings during the 19th century. Chocolate box doesn’t begin to describe them. They may be too sickly sweet for many modern tastes.

That said the exhibition includes a large number of artists, most of whom will be unknown and, since every picture has a useful and informative label, reading them all gives you a good sense of the range and diversity (or lack of it) during the period.

And it’s really interesting to see what inhabitants of distant historical periods liked, commissioned and paid for. Sharpens your sense of the enormous cultural changes which took place during this period, and which separate us from that distant time.

This first section includes:

  • John Strange and Sarah Ann Williams (1830) by John R. Wildman
  • The Artist’s son (1820) by Martin Archer Shee
  • Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn
Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn

Boy and Rabbit (1814) by Sir Henry Raeburn © the Royal Academy

Children in poverty

There is a slight disconnect in the exhibition between its wall labels and the actual content. The labels emphasise that throughout the period tens of thousands of children suffered from malnutrition, illness, abuse and overwork. And right at the start of the show there is a big display panel listing the major legislation passed during the 19th century with the twin aims of:

  1. protecting protect children from exploitation and
  2. educating them

This explains that free state education for the under-10s wasn’t available until 1870, while it was only in 1874 that children under the age of ten were forbidden from working in factories. These and other basic historical facts make for startling reading.

However, when you turn from the information texts to the pictures you discover that the exhibition itself has almost no paintings of working children, apart from a handful showing romanticised road sweeps and shoe polishers.

There is no depiction whatsoever of children working in coalmines or in any of the hundreds of thousands of factories which sprang up across the land, in any trades or of the thousands of under-age girls who worked as prostitutes.

There’s no depiction of the kind of workhouse described in Oliver Twist or the bullying junior schools shown in Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield.

Instead this section contains some more chocolate-boxy images:

  • Cottage children (1804) by William Owen
  • The Pet Lamb (1813) by William Collins
  • Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

Orphans (1885) by Thomas Benjamin Kennington © Tate

Compare this painting by Thomas Kennington with the Raeburn above. It is interesting to observe the difference in technique between the early and later part of the century (Raeburn 1814, Kennington 1885), the way a Thomas Lawrence-type softness has given way to a style more roughly painted and with more realistic details (the ragged trousers, the hole in the floor).

But it’s still desperately sentimental, though, isn’t it? Still the same rosy red cheeks and catchlights in the eyes.

Children and animals

The commentary suggests that the British public was sentimental about animals long before it cared about poor children, pointing out that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in England in 1824, whereas the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children wasn’t founded till 1884.

The commentary claims that children and animals became increasingly associated as the sentimental Victorian era progressed, but I personally wasn’t convinced of that. One of my all time favourite paintings is Gainsborough’s depiction of his two daughters with a cat, on show at the National Portrait Gallery’s recent exhibition of Gainsborough portraits – and this dates from 1760.

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist's daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Mary and Margaret Gainsborough, the artist’s daughter, with a cat by Thomas Gainsborough (1760-61) © The National Gallery, London

Maybe it would be more accurate to say that the association of sweet little children and sweet little animals became more mass produced, a shameless catering to the sentimentalism of the new Victorian mass public. In this show it is exemplified in Millais’s couple of paintings, My First Sermon and My Second Sermon, showing the sweetest of innocent little Victorian girls sitting in her smart Sunday best. This was a madly successful painting which was widely distributed in the form of prints and reproductions.

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

My First Sermon (1863) oil on canvas by John Everett Millais (1829-1896) Courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Also in this section are:

  • The First Leap (1829) by Sir Edwin Landseer
  • Portrait of a Young Girl (1891) by William Powell Frith
  • The Music Lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton
  • Sun and Moonflowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie
  • Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere
Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere

Sympathy (1878) by Briton Riviere © Tate

Children at play

What more nostalgic and anodyne image could you conceive than the innocent children of unspoilt crofters fishing by a clear crystal stream or playing harmless games in a rural garden, as depicted here.

But as the century progressed the notion of ‘play’ became commercialised and integrated into a capitalist economy. Playrooms were built in posh houses, playgrounds were built in new housing developments, the Bank Holidays Act of 1871 gave parents special days to spend with their children.

A further development was the invention of seaside resorts, in the first half of the century only for the rich but leading to the development of increasingly popular resorts like Blackpool, Scarborough and Brighton. The paintings in this section capture all phases of this development but with the emphasis mostly on some really cheesy scenes of innocent rural play.

  • The Nutting Party (1831) by William Collins
  • Borrowdale, Cumbria (1821) by William Collins
  • the Kitten Deceived (1816) by William Collins
  • Try This Pair (1864) by Frederick Daniel Hardy
  • Gran’s Treasures (1866) by George Bernard O’Neill
  • The Playground (1852) by Thomas Webster
  • The Swing (1865) by Myles Birket Foster
  • The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Foster was a skilled watercolourist who painted scenery around his Surrey home of Witley. Looks wonderfully idyllic, doesn’t it, but not much to do with the themes of the commercialisation of holidays and recreation time mentioned in the wall labels.

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

The Hillside (gathering foxgloves) by Myles Birket Foster

Children of city, country and coast

The commentary points out the population explosion which characterised the 19th century, and that most of it took place in new towns and cities. This big increase in population gave rise to hair-raising infant mortality statistics as newborns and toddlers fell prey to the diseases of humans crushed together in cramped, insanitary conditions – typhoid, cholera and the like.

However – counter-intuitively – instead of showing paintings of this squalor and disease, the commentary uses these facts to explain a section depicting children at the seaside, including:

  • Children at the Seaside (1910) by Frank Gascoigne Heath
  • John, Everard and Cecil Baring (1872) by James Sant
  • 3rd Lord Evelstoke as a Boy (1871) by E. Tayleur
  • The Bonxie, Shetland (1873) by James Clarke Hook
  • Word fromt he Missing (1877) by James Clarke Hook
  • Shrimp Boys at Cromer (1815) by William Collins
  • Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Georgie and Richard Fouracre (1889) by Henry Scott Tuke
  • Two Children on Deck (1894) Henry Scott Tuke

This latter trio of works makes Tuke, a leading member of the Newlyn School, with his strongly homoerotic portrayals of teenage boys, possibly the most represented artist here.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite was one of the handful of paintings here which really stood out as serious masterpieces which hold their own today. But then it is debatable whether it is about childhood at all. The naked boys are no longer toddlers but on the verge of manhood and that, surely, is part of its appeal.

Pondering the difference between childhood and adolescence made me realise that the exhibition doesn’t actually give a working definition of ‘childhood’ which is, in fact, a problematic category. There is a vast difference between 6 and 16.

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke

Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke © City of London Corporation

I was really struck by this work, An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne, an artist who studied in France in the 1870s and 1880s and brought the plein air approach back to Britain. 

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne

An October Morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Really looking at this painting I realised that what it has in common with the Tuke painting is that both have a matt finish, very unlike the shiny and slickly finished super-gloss finish of a Millais or Riviere.

This alone helps to account for the mournful atmosphere of the painting, although it is obviously also due the artfully sombre palettes of browns and greys. In its own way it may be Victorian chocolate box, but I felt it had more soul than most of the other paintings on display.

One-offs

Off to one side, not part of any particular topic, are a couple of monster large paintings including the beautiful landscape titled The Thames From Richmond Hill, London (1905) by Ernest Albert Waterlow. This appeared to be in the exhibition chiefly here because it has been subjected to recent restoration, which is thoroughly explained by a lengthy wall label.

Nearby was an altogether darker and morbid painting, The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue.

 The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue

The Man with the Scythe (1896) by Henry Herbert La Thangue © Tate

La Thangue was, apparently, famous for the realism of his late-Victorian rustic scenes, mostly of workaday life. This one has an unusual symbolism about it. It’s not easy to see in this reproduction, and was hard to see in the lowered light of the gallery, but at the end of the path, on the right, is a man with a scythe, and the assumption is that the little girl in the chair has just died.

The emphasis on death and the whiteness of the girl’s dress and pillow link it with a number of European Symbolist painters of the time.

Children at school

In 1851 fewer than 50% of children in Britain attended school. In fact the provision of education was incredibly haphazard until the end of the century. Until then there was no system, instead each region had highly localised and overlapping education facilities which might include factory schools (which provided two hours a day education but only after the end of the eight-hour working day), Dame Schools run by spinster women, Ragged schools for the very poorest which taught survival-level writing and reading, private day schools with low fees and notoriously low standards, and a wide range of schools run by local charities, by the Church of England, the Quakers and so on.

Only the middle and upper classes bothered to educate their children beyond the age of 11 and were able to afford the fees for governesses or private tutors, grammar schools, preparatory and public schools. In Victorian society, the well educated were, then, in a tiny majority.

Only with the Education Act of 1870 were local authorities finally put under the obligation to provide free education for every child under 10. Only in 1880 was attendance at school between the ages of five and 13 made compulsory, and it was not until 1891 that education was provided free for all.

Fascinating stuff but, once again, the paintings which ‘illustrate’ these facts are mawkishly twee and sentimental.

  • A Dame’s School (1845) by Daniel Webster
  • Alone (1902) by Theophile Duverger
  • Two Children at Drawing Lessons (1850s) by Daniel Pasmore
  • The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster
  • The Frown (1841) by Thomas Webster

In the first of this pair of paintings the children are happily smiling and pleasing their teacher. The second shows the same row of little tinkers in various stages of frowning and looking unhappy. Aaaah. Sweet.

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

The Smile (1841) by Thomas Webster

Children at work

Though the birth rate declined during the 19th century as a result of improvements in medicine and education, nonetheless at one point about a third of the population was under the age of 15.

Victorian England was the first developing country. In the early part of the Industrial Revolution children as young as five were sent to work in city streets, country fields, docks, factories and mines. Legislation slowly raised the age at which children could be put to work and limited their working hours, but it’s still a shock to learn how slowly this came about. In 1842 the Mines Act banned the use of boys under the age of ten down coalmines. So 11-year-olds could go, then. It wasn’t until 1878 that children under the age of 10 were forbidden to work in factories.

But regardless of legislation, city street were full of street Arabs, homeless waifs and strays scraping a living. Henry Mayhew’s astonishing multi-volumed enquiry into the lives and work and economics of street labour, London Labour and the London Poor, revealed to middle-class Victorians an astonishing proliferation of street employment and the precise demarcations and hierarchies among, for example, coster-mongers (who sold fresh fruit), mud larks (who searched for valuable scraps in the Thames mud) match girls (who sold match boxes at pitiful rates), and crossing sweepers, who swept the mud and horse poo out of the way of gentleman and ladies who wished to cross the road, for a penny a go.

The paintings on display here completely fail to capture the real misery of poverty and homelessness. Instead the painters are generally hypnotised by the sentimental notion of solitary or abandoned children, and the paintings are vehicles for tear-jerking sentiment. They may be well-intentioned but all-too-often have all the depth of a Christmas card.

  • The Crossing Sweeper (1858) by William Powell Frith
  • Shaftesbury, Lost and Found (1862) by William MacDuff
  • The General Post Office, one minute to six (1860) by George Elgar Hicks
  • A Crossing Sweeper and a Flower Girl (1884) by Augustus E. Mulready
  • Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready
Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready

Remembering Joys that Have Passed Away (1873) by Augustus E. Mulready © Guildhall Art Gallery

Drawings and prints

Off to one side of the main two exhibition rooms is a space obviously set aside for children and school visits, with tiny tables and chair set with paper and crayons and colouring pens.

But what struck me about this space was that it didn’t have any paintings in, it had prints. And the interesting thing about the prints is that they were vastly more realistic than any of the paintings in the main exhibition. Maybe realistic isn’t exactly the word, since since several of them were the cartoon-style illustrations of George Cruickshank, who illustrated Charles Dickens’s early novels.

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

Field Lane Ragged School, London, c1850 by George Cruikshank

What I mean is that, although quite a few of the wall labels in the main exhibition described at length the awful conditions for children in the cramped, crowded, filthy squalid new cities thrown up by the Industrial Revolution, none of the paintings really show this, none of them show children working in factories, down the mines, up chimneys etc.

Presumably this is because Art, Fine Art, the Fine Art of Painting, was required by Victorian critics and theorists to show morally and spiritually and religiously uplifting scenes. Hence the glut of happy children in idyllic rural scenes and, even when a painting does show street sweepers, it’s under a melancholy moon on the empty Blackfriars bridge with a view of the romantic Thames in the background i.e. sweetened and sentimentalised.

So it was left to the illustrators and lithographers and print-makers, the cartoonists and illustrators, of Dickens and numerous other mid-Victorian novelists, to actually show what conditions were like in the crowded streets, in bare attics and crowded workhouses and schools which permanently bordered on bedlam, as in the Cruikshank illustration above.

Conclusion

In other words, it was only when I’d finished going round the exhibition a couple of times, and examined the prints in the children’s activity room a few times, that it dawned on me that paintings might not be a very good medium in which to explore the social history of children during the Victorian era.

In fact, society and critics’ and artists’ views about a) what childhood ought to be and b) what a good painting ought to be, actively prevented painting from being an accurate record of the times.

It is a good record of the (to us, largely false and sentimental) taste of the Victorians. But as to what conditions were actually like for the working poor, it may well be that the illustrators tell us more than any painter ever could.

Meditations in Monmouth Street (1839) by George Cruikshank

Meditations in Monmouth Street, 1839, by George Cruikshank

For me these prints linked directly to the acute depictions of London’s street children made by the woman artist Edith Farmiloe nearly sixty years later, and as recently featured in a fascinating exhibition at the Heath Robinson Museum. Prints and illustrations – that’s where the social historian should be looking, rather than at sickly sweet paintings.

A Make believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe

A Make-Believe Margate by Edith Farmiloe (1902)


Related links

Other guildhall reviews

Elizabethan Treasures @ the National Portrait Gallery

This exhibition transports us back into the Elizabethan Age, the age of Shakespeare and Spenser, of pointy beards and intricate ruffs, to the soundtrack of exquisite lute music.

Lute music was one of the art forms Elizabethan England was recognised for across the Continent, its chief exponent, John Dowland, being poached by the king of Denmark to entertain his court in 1598.

The other art form which flourished in Elizabethan England was the very distinctive one of portrait miniatures, brought to a peak of perfection by two specialists, Nicholas Hilliard (1547? – 1619) and French-born Isaac Oliver (c.1565 – 1617).

This exhibition – Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures by Hilliard and Oliver – brings together some 85 masterpieces by both men, making it the first major exhibition of Tudor and Jacobean portrait miniatures to be held in the UK for over 35 years. And what a delight it is!

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (Raleigh) by Nicholas Hilliard c. 1585 © National Portrait Gallery, London

These miniature portraits were termed ‘limnings’ at the time, the intricate detailing of their style deriving, ultimately, from medieval manuscript illumination, but the shape and format clearly owing something to the artwork for coins and medals.

Miniatures were prized by monarchs, courtiers and the rising middle classes as a way of demonstrating favour, showing loyalty and expressing close relationships. They could be set into ornate jewelled cases or worn around the neck, could be pinned to clothing or secretly concealed as part of elaborate processes of friendship, love, patronage and diplomacy.

Variety

Having studied the literature of the Elizabethan period, and being a fan of lute music, I thought I knew what to expect – 60 or 70 exquisitely painted miniature portraits – but the most surprising thing about the exhibition is the variety of works it includes (miniatures, oil paintings, sketches, coins, manuscripts) and the presentation and context surrounding the portraits, which make it feel much more like an immersion in the broader culture and history of the time.

How to limn

For example, early on in the exhibition there is a display case showing the dozen or more implements which were required to create and paint miniatures, including a mortar and pestle to grind the colour, sea shells to mix the pigment with water or gum, the vellum surfaces the miniatures were painted onto, which were themselves worked flat using a paintbrush-style stick with a smooth tooth (!) at the end to create a supersmooth and even surface.

Above the case is a video showing every stage in the preparation and painting. Very informative.

Manuscript illumination

I was fascinated to be told that the tradition of these miniatures stems directly from manuscript illumination, and from the very finely drawn illustrations often found in later medieval manuscripts. To demonstrate how close the link was the exhibition includes a surviving manuscript, the charter marking the establishment of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1583, illustrated by Nicholas Hilliard himself.

Queen Elizabeth

You expect the patrons of these fine artists to have been the richest people in the land, the Queen and her courtiers and there is, indeed, a section devoted to the images of Queen Elizabeth I produced by Hilliard and Oliver. Hilliard, the older man by 18 years, established a monopoly of producing her portraits in miniature. He went on to design seals and illuminated legal documents and medals for the Crown, and became a salaried royal employee in 1599.

To be honest I found the miniatures of Elizabeth on display here less striking than the many full-length portraits of her which exist (and can be seen upstairs at the National Portrait Gallery, for example the stunning ‘Ditchley’ portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger). But I was struck by one very unexpected picture, an image from 1580 of Queen Elizabeth playing the lute. Do you think she took requests?

Elizabeth I Playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I playing the Lute c. 1580 by Nicholas Hilliard

Symbols and secrets

Elizabethan culture was packed with signs and symbols. Images and words had multiple meanings, some public and openly acknowledged, others to do with families, family trees and mottos and coats of arms, others deeply personal and private. The miniatures on display reveal a complicated combination of all three.

So, for example, much of the symbolism surrounding he Queen was straightforward enough, beginning with the Tudor rose symbolising her family lineage and including flowers or jewels which symbolised constancy and virtue. No surprises there.

But what are we to make of an image like this, of a young man, not wearing a ruff, with his doublet casually open, set against a backdrop of roaring flames?

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

Unknown man against a background of flames by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1600) © Victoria & Albert Museum

The commentary says we can be confident that this symbolises ‘burning love’. Fair enough, but what comes over in the section devoted to symbolism, allegory and secret meanings is just how much we don’t know – just how much of the carefully worked symbolism in these paintings has been lost forever. Even of this image, the commentary is forced to speculate:

The man, dressed only in his undone shirt, holds a jewel. This is perhaps a miniature case containing an image of his love, who was presumably the intended recipient of this portrait.

Perhaps. Presumably. Next to it is a weird image of a young man clasping a hand apparently emerging from a cloud in the sky above.

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Young Man holding a Hand From a Cloud by Nicholas Hiliard. Courtesy of Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Because the Latin inscription written either side of his head translates as ‘Because of Athenian love’ the commentary says that the whole image may imply male homosexual love, which was associated with ancient Greece. May. Despite the fact that sodomy was punishable by death under Elizabethan law, so you’d have thought it was not something you’d leave incriminating evidence about, let alone commission the Queen’s own artist to publicise.

Next to it is a portrait of an unknown man, whose meaning, the commentary records, ‘is now obscure, as the identity of the man and the context of the miniature are lost’.

My point being that encountering a steady succession of images of unknown men or unknown women, with obscure or ambiguous mottos, clasping jewels or flowers which presumably had some meaning for them – but reading time and again how their identities and meanings are now long lost – creates a cumulative sense of mystery and uncertainty. Which is all rather wonderful and charming.

The images are so fantastically precise and perfect – and yet their meanings escape us. In some ways that’s frustrating. But in others it’s rather liberating.

Leicester and Essex

One section brings out the age gap between the two artists by comparing their patrons.

Hilliard b.1547, was patronised by Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), Elizabeth’s favourite in the early part of her reign. Hilliard’s portrait of Leicester from 1576 was one of my favourite three or four works from the show. What it lacks in strict anatomical accuracy, it more than makes up for in the tremendous sense of character and personality which it conveys. And, the closer you look, the more unbelievable the detailed painting of the great man’s fine white ruff becomes. This object is only about three inches in diameter. The fineness of the detailing is quite staggering.

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1576

By contrast, Oliver, born 18 years after Hilliard, in 1565, was taken up by the great court favourite of the second half of Elizabeth’s career, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex. Oliver painted Essex, his friend the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and others in their circle including Southampton’s cousins, the Browne brothers, examples of which are here.

Full-length portraits

Expecting only to see face portraits, I was surprised to discover the exhibition included a whole section devoted to full-length portraits, mostly of a very particular type.

From the late 1580s, both Hilliard and Oliver, like other artists of their day, produced a number of portraits of men listlessly leaning, sitting or reclining in gardens, or in wilder landscapes. Common poses included the head resting on one hand or the arms crossed. These images would have been read by their contemporaries as depictions of the fashionable ‘complaint’ of Melancholy.

One of the most famous of these (possibly because I’ve seen it on the covers of half a dozen different book editions of Elizabethan sonnets and so forth) is Hilliard’s depiction of a noble youth, posed full length and leaning moodily against a tree.

Young Man Among Roses' by Nicholas Hilliard

Young Man Among Roses’ by Nicholas Hilliard (c.1588)

Obviously enough, the figure is surrounded by elaborately painted rose bushes alive with thorns. Presumably these represent the thorns and snares of earthly love and so – presumably – would have had a significant personal meaning for the subject and, presumably, commissioner of the work. But then the commentary points out:

The symbolism of the roses, combining beautiful flowers and sharp thorns, and the Latin motto, suggest that its subject is the pain associated with loyalty to someone who has fallen from favour. It has been suggested that the miniature depicts the young Earl of Essex pining for the loss of the queen’s favour, but the context of the poem from which the motto is taken suggests a political affiliation gone wrong.

As so often, we don’t know and so the entire image becomes a prompt for all kinds of pleasantly romantic speculation.

Oliver branches out

If I was slightly surprised by the full-length portraits, I was astonished when the exhibition went on into a section describing the artistic diversity of the younger man, Oliver, who was far more experimental than Hilliard.

For a start, Oliver tackled overtly religious subjects, something Hilliard doesn’t seem to have done, and we are shown a portrait of Christ he did.

Even more surprisingly, the painting is done using stippling i.e. there are no direct lines defining the image, the whole thing is built up solely through the application of brief impressions of paint. The result is that it looks completely unlike anything else in the show, and resembles more the large paintings of contemporary Italian Renaissance artists such as Correggio and Federico Barocci. Soft and blurry, unlike any other of the images here.

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Jesus Christ by Isaac Oliver (1610)

Also distinctive to Oliver was sketching and drawing. The exhibition shows two A4-size pencil drawings, one of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. Maybe Oliver’s French origins connected him culturally to the European Catholic tradition. There are no religious paintings by Hilliard.

Most surprising of all is this large-scale work, sometimes titled An Allegory, sometimes A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love, by Oliver.

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

A Party in the Open Air: An Allegory on Conjugal Love by Isaac Oliver (1590-95) © National Gallery of Denmark

As so often we are not completely sure, but experts think that this picture shows an allegory of virtuous and immoral love.

On the left, a soberly dressed group of middle-class women, accompanied by a man, walk through woodland. To the right, richly and colourfully dressed women, probably prostitutes, are gathered around a reclining man. Behind these figures a number of other couples embrace in the woodland, and three different types of hunting are taking place: hawking, boar-hunting and shooting ducks. The miniature displays Oliver’s extraordinary skill, at a relatively early stage in his career, in creating a complex, crowded scene, convincing spatial recession and a sense of movement.

Maybe. Perhaps.

James I

The Stuart royal family

A separate room explores aspects of the change which came over the arts when Elizabeth died in 1601 and was succeeded by James VI of Scotland, who was crowned James I of Britain. Unlike Elizabeth, James was married with children and thus the need for accurate portraits was greatly multiplied, and they were of a different type. While Elizabeth had to appear stern and aloof, many of the Stuart portraits feel softer and more intimate, as if to be shared among an extended family circle.

While James continued to patronise ‘our well-beloved servant Nicholas Hillyard’, in 1605 the more artistically adventurous queen consort Anne of Denmark appointed Isaac Oliver her ‘Painter for the art of limning’ for the same salary as Hilliard, £40 a year.

The result is a series of miniatures of king, queen and their three children, Henry, Prince of Wales, Princess Elizabeth and Charles, Duke of York. The exhibition shows us portraits by Hilliard and Oliver of the same royals, allowing us to compare their styles.

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Anne of Denmark by Isaac Oliver, c. 1612 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Maybe I was subliminally influenced by the extraordinary ‘softness’ of the Jesus portrait, but I thought I detected a general softening of outlines in these Stuart portraits, especially by Oliver.

The level of detail – the hair styling, ruffs and jewels – is the same as the Elizabethan portraits but – maybe it was just me, but – I thought somehow the overall effect of the images was less sharp and precise and, somehow, more gentle.

One thing which definitely changes is the use of red velvet curtains as a background. The Elizabethan images tended to be set against an abstract colour wash, often blue. Now the royals are standing in front of a luxurious red backdrop implying wealth and grandeur of a more baroque and continental style.

Masques

James’s court saw the rise in popularity of masques, elaborate entertainments expensively staged with generally allegorical or classical subjects, words provided by the poet laureate Ben Jonson and sets and costumes by Inigo Jones. Masques were:

hugely expensive and elaborate court entertainments involving music, dance, poetry and sometimes prose. They were performed by courtiers and members of the royal family. Some took place in the Inns of Court and at courtiers’ homes, but the most spectacular were staged at royal palaces, and involved magnificent costumes and sets.

Some historians I’ve read detect in the popularity of masques among the royal court, a movement away from the sunlit, open-air progressions, tournaments and hunts favoured by Queen Elizabeth. The old queen spent a lot of time travelling round the country, imposing on her aristocratic hosts and asking for large entertainments to be staged, in order to make herself known to her subjects and celebrated as the nexus of national power.

In sharp contrast the masque was a form of entertainment which was held indoors, often at night amid candlelight, and was highly exclusive, restricted to close courtly circles.

Puritans, the more radically Protestant wing of the Church of England, saw in these masques and in their pagan, classical subject matter, a form of blasphemy. The way they were held in private gave rise to dark rumours of immorality, an accusation supported by one of the miniatures here, a portrait of an aristocratic lady dressed as the Roman goddess Flora and wearing a surprisingly diaphanous blouse.

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Portrait of a lady, masqued as Flora by Isaac Oliver

Take a magnifying glass

A contemporary wrote of these miniatures that ‘the art of the master and the imitation of nature are so great … that the largest magnifying glass only calls out new beauties’ and he raises an important point.

Almost all the works on display in this exhibition are very, very small.

Luckily (vitally), the National Portrait Gallery is handing out free magnifying glasses for visitors (you hand them back at the end) and I found I had to combine the magnifying glass and my own glasses to get a really clear, close-up, in-focus view of each picture.

Summary

This is an absorbing and fascinating exhibition. Being forced to look so very closely at the faces and the finely written mottos, and the astonishingly detailed ruffs and jewels and hairdos of so many of these figures, famous or anonymous, from royalty to dashing adventurers like Walter Raleigh, can’t help giving you the feeling you’re getting really close to these people, looking right into their eyes, rubbing right up against the mystery of their images and dress and symbols.

And when you guess at the meanings of the often unknown symbols, and wonder about the purposes of the pictures (as love tokens, gifts to spouses, favours from royalty or aristocratic patrons), you feel that you, too, are becoming part of the dance of meanings which wove in and out of late Elizabethan and early Stuart courtly culture. This is a wonderfully evocative and beautifully staged exhibition.

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Walter Ralegh (detail) by Nicholas Hilliard © National Portrait Gallery, London

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Opera: Passion, Power and Politics @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

The V&A have spent £55 million on a vast new underground exhibition space, named the Exhibition Road Quarter because you enter it from Exhibition Road. It opened in July 2017.

The angled courtyard you walk across is no great shakes, but once inside you go down white steps between sheer, polished black walls to arrive at the huge new, open exhibition space, all 1,100 square metres of it (‘one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe’), which is currently hosting a wonderfully enjoyable exhibition on the history of opera.

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea

Installation view showing paintings, wall text, books and pamphlets and a large wall illustration relating to Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642)

Opera and me

In my 20s and 30s I developed a passion for opera and, in total, saw about 100 productions, at the Royal Opera House, the Colosseum, at other theatres around the country, at a few experimental venues, and twice at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

In my late 20s I was commissioned to write a libretto, an adaptation of the famous Oscar Wilde novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which was set to music by the composer Ron McAllister and performed as part of the Huddersfield classical music festival.

So I have a reasonably good feel for opera, its history and possibilities.

Passion, Power and Politics

400 years of a Europe-wide art form is a big subject to tackle. The curators have taken the neat, practical step of focusing on seven epoch-making or representative works. The huge exhibition space is divided into temporary ‘rooms’ whose walls are plastered with information about the year and city of their premieres, investigating how each one crystallised the history, culture, technology, ideologies and, of course, the music of their times.

Before we get to the specific operas it’s necessary to say something about the layout & content of the show.

The audioguide

First and foremost, all visitors are given a free audioguide which plays wonderful soaring music from each of the featured operas.

As you walk between the ‘rooms’ or sections devoted to each opera, the audioguide automatically senses where you are and changes the music accordingly. It not only plays a popular aria or overture or passage from each opera but also snippets of behind-the-scenes moments from real productions, with orchestras tuning up, the floor manager counting down to curtain up and so on, all of which gives the listener a real sense of being at the theatre.

I think it’s the best use of an audioguide I’ve ever experienced. Not many exhibitions have given me as much pure pleasure as listening to music from Handel’s Rinaldo while looking at paintings showing the London of Handel’s day, or listening to the Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser while watching a video installation showing how different directors have staged ‘erotic’ ballets to accompany this deeply sensual music.

Objects, dresses and accessories

Secondly, each section is stuffed with wonderful, rare, precious and evocative objects from each era. Period musical instruments include viols, lutes and cornets from Monteverdi’s time (the 1600s), the very piano Mozart performed on in Prague and a beautifully made pedal harp from the court of Marie Antoinette (both from the 1780s). The Venice section features 400-year-old combs and mirrors used by the city’s courtesans during the annual carnival, and so on.

Each section also features paintings which portray the city or the opera house, the composer, or actual performances. Some of these are really top quality, making it an interesting exhibition of painting in its own right, with works by artists from the late Baroque, some Impressionists (Degas), some of Die Brücke group of German Expressionists and, in the final room, a suite of dynamic Agitprop posters and designs from the early experimental era of the Soviet Union.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) from the Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence bpk.

The Viola da Gamba Musician by Bernardo Strozzi (1630-40) The Gemaldegalerie, Dresden, Germany © 2017 Photo Scala, Florence

As you might expect from the V&A, there are also sumptuous costumes from each of the key periods, with a luxury hand-sewn coat, waistcoat and breeches from Mozart’s day, a beautiful white dress to be worn by he character of Violetta in La Traviata.

Right at the start there is a risqué courtesan outfit from Venice, made of thick red velvet in the shape of a leotard i.e. only just covering the loins. This was designed to be worn under a long red skirt, split in the middle which could be teasingly parted to reveal… the 18-inch-high chopines or stylised shoes which the city’s better class courtesans wore. Almost impossible to walk in, the wearer had to lean heavily on a consort or male escort. There are tiaras and top hats from the premier of Tannhauser in Paris in 1861.

If you like historic costumes, there are plenty hear to savour and enjoy.

Rooms like sets

Because this huge exhibition space has no formal ‘rooms’, the designers have been free to create room-shaped ‘spaces’ for each period, and to design as they wish, with the result that the spaces sometimes incorporate large elements which help make the spaces themselves seem like stage sets.

The most obvious example is the Handel section, where they have recreated a scale version of the actual stage set of the first production of Handel’s Rinaldo. Visitors are invited to sit on a bench in front of it, listening to the glorious music, and watch the stage magic of the early 18th century – namely the way several tiers of wooden waves are made to move across the stage, while a small model ship bobs among them, representing the journey of the hero to exotic foreign lands.

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel's Rinaldo (1711)

Installation view showing the mocked-up 18th century theatre set for Handel’s Rinaldo (1711)

This is the most splendid example, but later ‘rooms’ feature an Italian flag, bust and props from Verdi’s time, and an enormous red hammer and sickle dominating the Soviet section.

Referring specifically to the operas and their productions, the show includes original autograph scores, along with stage directions, libretti, set models and costume designs for each of them.

Altogether there are over 300 objects to savour, marvel at, learn about, ponder and enjoy, all the time your head filled with some of the greatest music ever written.

Among these is a new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco recorded specially for the exhibition. Just – wow!

The operas

1. Venice L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642) by Claudio Monteverdi. Venice was a Renaissance centre of trade and commerce, famous for its glassware and the colourfulness of its textiles and paintings. Unsurprisingly, it was also a centre for entertainment, gambling and disguise, especially at the time of the annual carnival. The earliest operas were staged in the private houses of the very rich.

Monteverdi mostly wrote church music but he composed a few of the very first ‘operas’, basing them on classical stories. L’incoronazione di Poppea is about the notorious Roman Emperor Nero, his wife and mistress. Poppea premiered in Venice’s Carnival season of 1642-3 and represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

2. London Rinaldo by George Frideric Handel was premiered in London in 1711, one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, just as Britain was emerging as one of the leading empires in Europe.

It is fascinating to read contemporary criticism by conservatives like the artist William Hogarth and the editors of the Spectator magazine, who heartily condemned this importation of a decadent and foreign art form into good old Blighty.

The paintings of early 18th century London on show here are almost as fascinating as the spectacular stage set, and the Handel music emerged as, I think, my favourite of all that on the audioguide – stately, elegant, refined, other-worldly in its elegance.

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

George Frideric Handel by Louis Francois Roubiliac (1702-62) © Fitzwilliam Museum Bridgeman Images

3. Vienna Le nozze di Figaro (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was premiered in 1786 in Vienna, which had become one of the centres of the European Enlightenment under its liberal Emperor Joseph II.

After the Handel, the Mozart music seemed infinitely more dramatic, concerning itself with recognisably real people and passions: Le nozze di Figaro being a comic story about mismatched love between the classes.

The excerpt on the audioguide synchs up with a scene projected onto an enormous screen on the wall, an aria sung by the pageboy Cherubino who is just coming into adolescence and finds himself flushing and confused among attractive adult women.

On display are a piano Mozart played in Prague, fashionable dresses that would have been worn by the opera’s aristocratic characters, and displays explaining the relationship between the opera’s source – a play by the French playwright Beaumarchais – and the contemporary beliefs of Enlightenment Europe.

4. Milan Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was premiered in Milan in 1842. Verdi’s operas developed the importance of the chorus, which is often given his most rousing tunes. Verdi was closely identified with the Risorgimento, the political movement to kick out the foreign powers which occupied various parts of Italy (notably Austria) and create a united country.

Hence the big Italian flag draped over this section, the patriotic bust of Verdi, and the choice of the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) from Nabucco, which became a sort of unofficial national anthem for Italian nationalists.

5. Paris Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner premiered in Paris in 1861. Paris was fast becoming the intellectual and artistic capital of Europe.

Modernists loved the opera with its radical technical innovations: Wagner hated Italian opera which broke the music up into set-piece arias and choruses – by contrast, in a Wagner opera the music flows seamlessly from start to finish in one great engulfing flow. It also shocked because of its daring subject matter, a story about the temptations of sensuality to the high-minded musician of the title. The progressive poet Charles Baudelaire praised it profusely.

The information panels tell us that it was traditional for French composers to arrange a short ballet to start the second or third act. This was because the more aristocratic patrons generally didn’t arrive till after the interval, and mostly came to see pretty girls dancing (many of whom were their mistresses). In a deliberate act of defiance Wagner placed the ballet number right at the start of act one.

6. Dresden The Biblical story of Salome, the sensual step-daughter of King Herod, who dances a strip-tease for him in order to get him to behead St John the Baptist, was a central obsession of the Symbolist movement in all the arts at the end of the 19th century, combining heavy sensuality, perversion, death and the exotic.

Oscar Wilde wrote a play about Salome (in French) for which the wonderful fin-de-siecle artist Aubrey Beardsley created his matchlessly sinuous line illustrations.

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

Illustration for Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)

In 1905 Dresden saw the premiere of a heavily sensual and violent opera based on Wilde’s play composed by Richard Strauss. It was the era of Expressionism in the arts, and the exhibition features not only a selection of Beardsley’s illustrations (and Strauss’s copy of Wilde’s play, with Strauss’s own hand-written notes and underlinings) but also a selection of powerful woodcuts and paintings by artists from the German art movement, Die Brücke).

There are two large posters on the same subject by Parisian poster designers, including La Loïe Fuller Dans Sa Création Nouvelle, Salomé by Georges de Feure.

Dominating this ‘room’ is a huge screen displaying an excerpt from a modern production of the opera, showing the climax of the action where Salome, in a slip covered in blood, sings an aria to John the Baptist’s severed head, before gruesomely kissing it.

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

Nadja Michael as Salome at the Royal Opera House, London, 2008 © Robbie Jack Corbis/Getty Images

7. St Petersburg The blood-soaked theme is continued in the final choice, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk  by Dmitri Shostakovich, which premiered in Leningrad in 1934.

This final section is dominated by a huge model of a red hammer and sickle. Next to it is a blow-up of a woman’s face from a Soviet agitprop poster (the full poster can be seen at the excellent exhibition of Soviet art and posters currently at Tate Modern).

To one side is a mock-up of Shostakovich’s study with writing table and chair. Behind it is projected a clip from a Soviet publicity film showing the great man knocking out a composition at the piano. The walls are decked with fabulously stylish Soviet posters and art works.

Installation view of the Shostakovitch section of Opera - Passion, Power and Politics

Installation view of the Shostakovich section of Opera – Passion, Power and Politics

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is based on a 19th century novel about a woman who is unfaithful to her husband, has an affair with one of his farm workers, poisons her father-in-law, and much more in the same vein.

Unfortunately, the opera premiered just as Stalin consolidated his grip on the Soviet Union and his cultural commissar Zhdanov promulgated the new doctrine of Socialist realism, i.e. that all art works should be optimistic, readily understandable to the proletariat, and show the new Soviet society in an upbeat, positive way.

Very obviously Shostakovich’s opera did the exact opposite and in 1936 was savagely criticised in a threatening article in Pravda which most contemporaries thought had been written by Stalin himself. The production was hurriedly cancelled and Shostakovich not only suppressed it but also cancelled preparations for his huge dissonant Fourth Symphony. He quickly turned to writing more ‘inspiring’ music – specifically the moving Fifth Symphony which was ostentatiously sub-titled ‘a Soviet artist’s creative response to justified criticism’. The opera wasn’t performed again in the USSR until 1961.

In other words, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk not only represents a nexus of violence, lust, revenge and class conflict in its plotline, but stands at a key cultural moment in the development of the twentieth century’s most important event, the Russian Revolution and the Great Communist Experiment. The threat to Shostakovich was in effect a threat to an entire generation of artists and composers.

Opera around the world

Only here at the end do you realise that the exhibition rooms are arranged in a circle around a big empty central area. This big space contains half a dozen huge screens onto which are projected excerpts from 20th century and contemporary operas such as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, all making the point that opera is as alive and kicking as ever.

Summary

This is an enormous, ground-breaking, genuinely innovative exhibition which manages to convincingly cover its enormous subject, shedding light not only on opera and music, but the other arts and the broader history of Europe across an immense sweep of time.

So big, so many beautiful objects, so much inspiring music, that it probably merits being visited more than once to really soak up all the stories, all the passion and all the beauty on display (I’ve been twice and might go again before it closes).


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