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


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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, 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.

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.

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.

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, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works 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 was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists 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, the classic locus 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 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 subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the 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 way 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 eat and torture. 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 an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it 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 classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried 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. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he 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 I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas 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 bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a 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 absolutely all of them are 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.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of 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 of 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 lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he 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 as copies of 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 often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case 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 is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and 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. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but 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 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 sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/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. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses 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 the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to 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 way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be 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.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact 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 is just a cooked animal or something worse? 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 closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

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 is 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 Northern 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 and accurate 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.

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 – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… 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.

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 almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by 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 supposedly 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 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 or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or 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 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their 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. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually 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 nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering 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, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked 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 of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, 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, surprisingly, 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 he 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 the 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).

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.

‘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 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 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.

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)


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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

The promotional video


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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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Symbolism by Michael Gibson (1995)

The most striking characteristic of Symbolist artists is their withdrawal into the realm of the imagination. It is the solitude of the dreamer, of one who, marooned on a desert island, tells stories to himself. It is the solipsistic solitude of one who is sure of nothing outside himself. (p.35)

This is an enormous coffee-table book, some 31.5 cm tall and 25 cm wide. The hardback version I borrowed from the library would break your toes if you dropped it.

Its 227 pages of text contain a cornucopia of richly-coloured reproductions of symbolist paintings, famous and obscure, from right across the continent, with separate chapters focusing on France, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Scandinavia, the Slavic countries, the Mediterranean countries and so on.

The main body of the text is followed by eight pages giving potted biographies of the key symbolist artists, and a handy table of illustrations – all of this textual paraphernalia as well as the end-covers and the incidental pages are lavishly decorated with the evocative line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is a beautiful book to have and hold and flip through and relish.

Symbolism was a literary movement

So what is Symbolism? A big question which has stymied many art historians. Gibson approaches the problem from a number of angles. For a start Symbolism was a literary movement before it was an artistic one. The Symbolist manifesto published in 1886 was written by a poet, Jean Moreas, and referred to poets of the day such as Verlaine or the young Mallarmé. Moreas suggested that these writers were aiming ‘to clothe the idea in perceptible form.’ In looking for ways to illustrate this point he mentioned the similar aim in several contemporary artists, most notably Gustave Moreau.

What idea? Well, there were eventually hundreds of symbolist painters and, arguably, every single one of them had a different ‘idea’.

Symbolism against the modern world

Gibson takes a different tack and offers a sociological explanation. What they almost all had in common was a rejection of the scientific rationalism and the industrial pragmatism of the age (the late nineteenth century). These latter movements were represented by a writer like Émile Zola, who embraced the modern age in its dirt and squalor and poverty and drunkenness, developing an approach he called ‘Naturalism’.

The influential philosopher Auguste Comte preached a social philosophy called ‘Positivism’, which thought we could use scientific and technological advances to create a new society – a technocratic and utopian ideal which finds its fullest flood in the English-speaking world in the scientific utopias of H.G. Wells.

Symbolists hated all this. They thought it was killing off all the mystery and imagination in life. They went in search of the strange, the obscure, the irrational, the mysterious, the barely articulatable.

Symbolism a legacy of lapsed Catholicism

Gibson makes the profound point that symbolism flourished in a) Catholic countries b) that were affected by industralisation. So the strongly Catholic countries of the Mediterranean (Spain or Italy) were unaffected because they hadn’t suffered the upheavals of widespread industrialisation. Symbolism flourished in the northern Catholic regions of heavily industrialised France, Germany and Belgium.

He explains how the Industrial Revolution, coming later to these countries than to pioneering Britain, seriously disrupted the age-old beliefs, traditions and customs of Roman Catholicism. In particular, huge numbers of the peasant population left the land and flocked to the cities, to become a new industrial proletariat (or fled Europe altogether, emigrating to the United States). In the second half of the nineteenth century Europe saw social disruption and upheaval on an unprecedented scale.

Urban intellectuals in Catholic countries felt that the age-old sense of community and tradition embodied by continent-wide Catholicism had been ruptured and broken. Many lost their faith in the face of such huge social changes, or as a result of the intellectual impact of Darwinism, or the visible triumph of science and technology. But they regretted what they’d lost.

  • The Great Upheaval by Henry de Groux (1893) Gibson reads this confusingly cluttered painting as representing the disruption of traditional values in a society undergoing rapid change – note the broken crucifix in the middle of the composition.

Symbolism, to some extent, represents the mood right across northern Europe, of artists and intellectuals for whom traditional Catholicism has died, but who still dreamed of transcendental values, of a realm of mysteries and hints from ‘the beyond’. As Gibson eloquently puts it, Symbolism is:

the negative imprint of a bygone age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of an increasingly idealised past. (p.24)

Hence the widespread movement among intellectuals to set up clubs, new religious ‘orders’, hermetic societies, cabbalistic cults, to turn to spiritualism, clairvoyance, and a wide range of fin-de-siecle voodoo.

Mention of voodoo prompts the thought that, up till now I’ve made it sound like harmless replacement for lost religious certainties. I haven’t brought out the widespread sense of anxiety and nightmarish fear which also dominates much of Symbolist art.

Symbolism and the femme fatale

There’s a lot of threat in Symbolist paintings. In Monet women innocently walk through fields with parasols, in Renoir women are laughing partners in sunlit gardens. But in Symbolist paintings women tend to be depicted as extremes, either as muses dreaming of another world or as sexually threatening and voracious demons.

  • Salome (1909) by Julius Klinger The Biblical story of Salome who persuades King Herod to have John the Baptist beheaded, haunts the fin-de-siecle era. Wilde wrote a play about it, Strauss an opera, and there are scores of paintings. In most of them Salome represents the femme fatale, the woman who uses her sexual attraction to lure men into dangerous or fatal situations. Dr Freud of Vienna would have said the real terror lying hidden in these paintings was the male castration complex. Surely the idea was never made more explicit than in this painting by Julius Klinger which shows Salome carrying – not the traditional head of John – but a severed set of testicles and penis drooling blood, along with the blood-red knife with which she has just cut off a man’s penis.

Why this anxiety? Why, above all, did it present in sexual form?

Maybe because Symbolist artists were almost all men (there were several successful women Impressionists but no female Symbolists that I can see), and that they were dedicated to exploring the irrational aspects of human nature – and not much is more irrational than people’s sex lives, fantasies, desires and anxieties.

And so these men, psyched up to explore the strange, the fantastical, the edgy the socially taboo – projected onto the blank canvas of ‘woman’ a florid range of their own longings and fears. The ‘irrational’ is not the friend of feminism.

  • Sin (1893) by Franz von Stuck The alluring half-naked woman with her pink nipples and her mild smile almost distracts you from the enormous snake draped round her and ready to bite off your… your what? (‘Paging Dr Freud’ as they used to say in Hollywood screwball comedies.) A very Catholic image since, after all, the basis of Catholicism is the snake tempting Eve who in turn tempted Adam into the Fall. In this image Snake and Woman once again tempt the (male) viewer.

Symbolism and death

If Symbolist art often portrays Woman (with a capital W) as femme fatale, it just as often betrays anxieties about Death (with a capital D). But death not as we most of us will experience it (hooked up to beeping machines in a soulless hospital ward), instead encountered like a seductive figure in a folk tale, often handsome and alluring, often female, even sexy.

Symbolism and decadence

Fin-de-siecle art is often identified with ‘Decadence’, the cult of etiolated aristocrats reclining on velvet divans in an atmosphere heavy with incense and debauchery, as epitomised in the classic novel, Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

Gibson sheds light on this, too, by saying the Decadence wasn’t fuelled so much by a sense of decline, as by a resolute opposition to the doctrine of Progress, a subtly different idea. This artistically aristocratic sensibility refused to kow-tow to the vulgar jingoism and gimcrack technical advances of the age (telegraphs, telephones, electric lights, early cinema – how ghastly), remaining nostalgic for the imagined superiority of its ancestors in an imaginary, pre-scientific age.

There are always servants in Decadent literature. From a sociological point of view that is one of their most important features. In fact servants feature in the most famous line from the the ‘decadent’ dram Axël by French writer Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, where a typically aloof aristocrat drawls:

As to living, our servants will do that for us.

The Salon de la Rose+Croix

In 1891 the Symbolist Salon de la Rose+Croix published a manifesto in which they declared that Symbolist artists were forbidden to practice history, patriotic and military painting, all representation of contemporary life, portrait painting, rural scenes, seascapes, orientalism, ‘all animals either domestic or connected with sport’, flowers or fruit. On the plus side, they welcomed mystic ecstasy and the Catholic ideal, any work based on legend, myth, allegory or dream (p.56).

It’s an accurate enough snapshot of the Symbolist mentality.

This sensibility locks itself away from the world, cloistered (a Catholic image) in an ivory tower, waking only at night (Symbolism is as fascinated by night, by shades of darkness, as Impressionism is by sunlight and daytime). Rejecting science, the exoteric (obvious), and everyday banality, it retreats into esoteric studies of the past, into alchemy, into the artificial recreation of medieval ‘orders’ (the more artificial, the more delicious), into mesmeric incantations about sin and death and damnation (overlooking the rather more mundane positive elements of Catholicism – charity, good works and so on).

The vast range of Symbolism

The great success of this book is in bringing together a really vast range of works from right across Europe to show how this mood, this urge, this wish for another, stranger, irrational world, took so many weird and wonderful forms, in the paintings of hundreds of European artists.

And it also investigates the shifting borders of Symbolism, where the impulse to ‘clothe the Idea’ shaded off into other schools or movements – of post-Impressionist abstraction, or Expressionist Angst, into Art Nouveau decorativeness, or just into something weird, unique and one-off.

The more I read on and the more examples I saw, the more I began to wonder in particular about the border between Symbolism and ‘the Fantastic’. Despite Gibson’s inclusivity, some of the paintings reproduced here look more like illustrations for fantasy novels than grand gestures towards a solemn mystery world. It’s a tricky business, trying to navigate through such a varied plethora of images.

Here, from the hundreds on offer, are the paintings which stood out for me:

Symbolists against nature

Numerous symbolist writers and artists argued that the world of art is radically separate from the so-called ‘real world’. They thought that the Impressionists (who they heartily disliked) were simply striving for a better type of naturalism. Symbolists, on the contrary, wanted next to nothing to do with the yukky real world. As Gibson puts it:

No longer was nature to be studied in the attempt to decipher its divine message. Instead, the artist sought subjects uncanny enough to emancipate imagination from the familiar world and give a voice to neurosis, a form to anxiety, a face, unsettling as it might be to the profoundest dreams. And not the dreams of an individual, but of the community as a whole, the dreams of a culture whose structure was riddled with subterranean fissures. (p.27)

Symbolists found the idea of the total autonomy of the work of art

No following of nature, then, but, in various manifestos, essays, poems and paintings, the Symbolists claimed the total autonomy of art, accountable to no-one but the artist and the imagination of their reader or viewer. Gibson argues that these claims for the complete autonomy of art lie at the root, provide the foundation of, all the later movements of Modernism.

Maybe.

Symbolism ended by the Great War

What is certain is that the strange otherworlds of Symbolism tended to come to a grinding halt with the Great War, which tore apart the community of Europe more violently than the Industrial Revolution. The movements which emerged just before and during it – the absurdist Dadaists, the violent Futurists, the avant-garde cubists – all tended to despise wishy-washy spiritualism, all guff about another world.

However the irrational mood, the imperative to reject the business-like bourgeois world, was revived by the Surrealists (founded in 1924) and it’s easy to identify a continuity of fantastical imagery from the later symbolists through to the Surrealists.

But the Surrealists’ great secret wasn’t other-worldly, it was other-mindly. Their worldview wasn’t underpinned by lapsed Catholic notions of the divine and the demonic. The Surrealists were students of Freud who thought that if they brought the creatures of the unconscious out into the open – via automatic writings and artfully bizarre imagery – they would somehow liberate the world, or at least themselves, from bourgeois constraints.

But in practice some of the art from the 1920s, and even 1930s, is not that distinguishable from the weirder visions of the 1880s and 1890s.

The conservatism of Symbolism

Reading steadily through the book made me have a thought which Gibson doesn’t articulate, which is that almost all of this art was oddly conservative in technique.

It is overwhelmingly realistic and figurative, in that it portrays human beings (or angels of death or satanic women or whatever), generally painted in a very traditional academic way. There are (as the Rose+Croix wanted) on the whole no landscapes, still lives or history scenes featuring crowds. Instead you get one or two people caught in moments of sombre meaningfulness.

And hardly any of it is experimental in form. Not much of it invokes the scattered brush work of a Monet or the unfinished sketchiness of a Degas or the interest in geometric forms of a Cézanne. Nothing in the book is as outrageous as the colour-slashed paintings by the Fauves, by Derain or Vlaminck.

This art of the strange and the other-worldly was peculiarly conservative. I guess that chimes with the way the belief almost all these artists shared in some kind of otherworld, some meaning or presence deeper than our everyday existence, was profoundly conservative, a nostalgic hearkening back to an imagined era of intellectual and spiritual completeness.

The twentieth century was to blow away both these things – both the belief in some vaporous, misty otherworld, and the traditional 19th century naturalist style which (on the whole) had been used to convey it.

Cars and planes, tanks and bombs, were to obliterate both fields of poppies and séances and spiritualism.


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The Post-Impressionists by Belinda Thompson (2nd edition 1990)

Impressionist artists paint what they see; post-Impressionist artists paint what they feel

Post-Impressionism

The most important thing about ‘post-Impressionism’ is that the expression was coined in 1910, by an English art critic (Roger Fry), well after the painters it referred to were all dead. It is generally used to describe the principal French painters of the 1880s and 1890s, specifically Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, along with lesser artists of the period – but is an entirely invented, post hoc expression.

This large format book (30 cm tall x 23 cm wide) includes 180 illustrations (80 in dazzling full colour) so that, even without reading the text, just flicking through it is a good introduction to the visual world of the era.

The Impressionist legacy

Essentially, the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s had broken with the constraints of the style of academic painting which was required to gain entry to the annual exhibitions at the official Paris Art Salon – thus also breaking with the traditional career path to establishing a professional livelihood through sales to traditional ‘bourgeois’ patrons.

The Impressionists saw themselves as a group of ‘independents’ or ‘intransigents’ who broke various rules of traditional painting, such as:

  • the requirement that a painting depict grand historical or mythological subjects – the Impressionists preferred to depict subjects and scenes from everyday life
  • the requirement for each painting to be as realistic as possible a window onto an imagined scene by concealing brushstrokes – whereas the Impressionists foregrounded highly visible dabs and brushstrokes
  • the requirement to bring each painting to a peak of completion, with a high finish – whereas the Impressionists often let raw canvas show through, deliberately creating an air of rapid improvisation in pursuit of their stated aim to capture ‘the fleeting moment’

The Impressionists also established the idea of organising group exhibitions independent of the Salon, a new and provocative idea which placed them very firmly outside the official establishment. The history of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886, is complex and multi-layered.

Meanwhile, their great patron, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, developed the idea of holding one-artist shows organised in such a way as to show each artist’s evolving style and subject matter, itself a novel idea at the time.

And lastly, the Impressionists garnered from their various writerly supporters a range of manifestos, pamphlets and articles defending them and explaining their artistic principles.

These, then, were the achievements and strategies which the post-Impressionists inherited and took full use of.

The weakness of post-Impressionism as an art history term

Thompson’s book from start to finish shows the problematic nature of the term ‘post-Impressionism’ almost as soon as you try to apply it. Sure, many of the ‘post-Impressionists’ exhibited together at a series of exhibitions in the 1880s and 90s – but they were never a self-conscious group, never had manifestos like the Impressionists.

Far from it, during the 1880s Gauguin, who developed into a ‘leader’ of many of the younger artists, expressed a violent dislike of the so-called ‘neo-Impressionist’ group which developed in the 1890s and which was virulently reciprocated. Yet, despite hating each other, they are both now usually gathered under the one umbrella term, post-Impressionism.

The new young artists of the 1880s and 1890s worked amid a great swirl of artistic movements, which included Symbolism (Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau) and the would-be scientific neo-Impressionism (often identified with Pointillism) of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, as well as the influence of non-French artists such as Ferdinand Holder (Swiss) or James Ensor (Belgian) and, of course, of the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh. All of these came from different traditions and weren’t so in thrall to the essentially French Impressionist legacy.

Again and again consideration of the term post-Impressionism breaks down into the task of tracking the individual careers and visions of distinct artists – with the dominating personalities being Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, but with lesser contemporaries including Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Eduard Vuillard also contributing.

If you can make any generalisations about the ‘post-Impressionists’ it is around their use of very bright, harsh garish colours (compared with the Impressionists’ more muted tones) and their departure from, their flying free from, the constraints of a ‘naturalistic’ ideology of painting ‘reality’.

In summary

Thompson’s book is an excellent and thought-provoking account of the complex of commercial pressures, individual initiatives and shifting allegiances, characters, theories, mutual competition, individual entrepreneurship and changing loyalties which undermine any notion of a clear discernible pattern or movement in the period – but which makes for an absorbing read.


Four key exhibitions

The first half of the book gives a detailed account of a series of key exhibitions, which she uses to bring out:

a) the differences between so many of the artists
b) their changing ideas and allegiances

The Eighth Impressionist Exhibition (1886)

Of the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition we learn that only Degas, Pissarro, Guillamin and Berthe Morisot of the original group exhibited, Renoir and Monet having cried off, partly hoping still to exhibit at the Salon. Degas created a lot of ructions by insisting that the show take place during the same weeks as the official Salon’s big annual exhibition – a deliberately provocative gesture – and insisting that a number of his figure-painting friends take part, though they had little real affinity with Impressionism (namely Mary Cassatt, Forain, Zandomeneghi and the completely unrelated Odilon Redon).

It is useful to learn that the pointillists Seurat and Signac, along with the old-timer Pissarro and his son Lucien (who were both experimenting with pointillism), were given a room of their own. This explains why they gave such a strong vibe of being a new and distinct movement and so prompted the critic Félix Fénéon to give them the name ‘Neo-Impressionists’.

As mentioned above, Gauguin had a falling-out with Signac which led the followers of both to crystallise into opposing camps.

The Volpini Exhibition (1889) – ‘Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste’

To mark the centenary of the Great Revolution of 1789, the French government sponsored a huge Universal Exhibition, to be held in buildings erected in the grounds around the newly opened Eiffel Tower.

As part of the Exhibition the Salon/Academie of Beaux-Arts staged a big show designed to tell the story of French painting over the previous century, which included some but not many of the Impressionists, and then only of their early works.

Gauguin organised a rival show at the Cafe Volpini in the nearby Champs de Mars made up of artists he had met painting in Brittany, including Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Léon Fauché and Louis Roy. Later historians credit this show with the launch of a ‘Pont-Aven’ school (named after the French town where Gauguin had developed his style) but Thompson shows how varied in look and style these artists were, which tends to undermine that claim.

Notable were the absentees: Toulouse-Lautrec was considered for the Volpini show but eventually debarred because he’d been exhibiting at a private club, and van Gogh, who desperately wanted to be included, was prevented from doing so by his art dealer brother, Theo, who thought it was a tacky alternative to the official Exhibition.

To the untrained eye the pieces shown here:

  • have gone completely beyond the Impressionist concern for the delicate depiction of light and shadow into a completely new world of vibrant colours and stylised forms – The Buckwheat Harvest by Émile Bernard
  • and, if they are depicting ‘modern life’, they do so with – instead of dashes and daubs of light – very strong black outlines and sinewy lines, very much in line with Lautrec’s work and the feel of Art NouveauAvenue de Clichy, Five O’Clock in the Evening by Louis Anquetin

The word ‘synthétiste’ appeared, applied to Anquetin’s work, and meaning the combination of heavy dark outlines with areas of flat, unshadowed, uninflected colour.

The art critic Fénéon wrote an insightful review of the exhibition in which he singled out Gauguin as having found a new route past Impressionism which was also completely opposite to the pseudo-scientific approach of the pointillists, a style in which Gauguin:

rejects all illusionistic effects, even atmospheric ones, simplifies and exaggerates lines

giving the areas created by the outlines vibrant, often non-naturalistic colouring. – Breton Calvary, the Green Christ (1889).

During the late 1880s a young painter named Paul Sérusier, studying at the Academie Julian, had gathered a number of devotees who called themselves the ‘Nabis’ or prophets, and they decided that Gauguin was the vanguard of a new painting and set off to Brittany to meet and copy the Master.

Gauguin was also at the core of an essay written by the painter and critic Maurice Denis – ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionism’ – which claimed that:

  • Gauguin was a master of a new style which emphasised that a painting is first and foremost an arrangement of colour on a flat surface
  • therefore, it is futile trying to achieve illusionistic naturalism
  • and that the neo-traditionists (as he called them), having realised this, were returning to the function of art before the High Renaissance misled it, namely to create an art which is essentially decorative – which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is

The Fourth Le Barc de Boutteville Exhibition of Impressionists and Symbolists (1893)

This exhibition featured 146 works by 24 artists and displayed a bewildering variety, including as it did Impressionists like Pissarro, neo-Impressionists like Signac, the independent Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘school of Pont-Aven’ followers of Gauguin, and ‘Nabis’ like Bonnard and Vuillard. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is confusing.

The explanation for it being such a rag-tag of different artists and styles is that it was one of a series put together by the thrusting new art dealer, Le Barc de Boutteville. The main beneficiaries were the ‘Nabis’ who fitted in well with the contemporary literary movement of symbolism. – Nabi landscape by Paul Ranson (1890).

Thompson brings out the political differences between the pointillists – generally left-wing anarchists – and the Nabis – from generally well-off background and quickly popular with established symbolist poets and critics.

The Cézanne One-Man Show (1895)

Cézanne acquired the reputation of being a difficult curmudgeon. In the early 1880s he abandoned the Paris art world and went back to self-imposed exile in his home town of Aix-en-Provence. When his rich father died in 1886, Cézanne married his long-standing partner, Hortense, moving into his father’s large house and estate. To young artists back in Paris he became a legendary figure, a demanding perfectionist who never exhibited his work.

The 1895 show was the first ever devoted to Cézanne, organised by the up-and-coming gallery owner and dealer, Ambroise Vollard. The 150 works on display highlighted Cézanne’s mature technique of:

  • creating a painting by deploying blocks of heavily hatched colour built up with numerous parallel brushstrokes
  • his experiments with perspective i.e. incorporating multiple perspectives, messing with the picture plane
  • his obsessive reworkings of the same subject (countless still lives of apples and oranges or the view of nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire)

The one-man show marked a major revaluation of Cézanne’s entire career and even prompted some critics to rethink Gauguin’s previously dominant position, demoting him as leader of the post-Impressionists and repositioning him as the heir to a ‘tradition’ of Cézanne, placing the latter now as a kind of source of the new style.

You can certainly see in this Vollard portrait something of the mask-like faces of early Matisse, and the angular browns of Cubism (Picasso was to paint Vollard’s portrait in cubist style just 11 years later), even (maybe) the angularities of Futurism. It all seems to be here in embryonic form.

Thompson’s analysis of these four exhibitions (chosen from many) provides snapshots of the changing tastes of the period, but also underlines the sheer diversity of artists working in the 1880s and 1890s, and even the way ‘traditions’ and allegiances kept shifting and being redefined (she quotes several artists – Bernard, Denis – who started the 1890s revering Gauguin and ended it claiming that Cézanne had always been their master).

Themes and topics

In the second half of the book Thompson looks in more detail at specific themes and ideas of the two decades in question.

From Naturalism to Symbolism

If one overarching trend marks the shifting aesthetic outlooks from 1880 to 1900 it is a move from Naturalism to Symbolism. In 1880 artists and critics alike still spoke about capturing the natural world. Symbolism was launched as a formal movement in 1886 with its emphasis on the mysterious and obscure. By the end of the 1880s and the early 1890s artists and critics were talking about capturing ‘hidden meanings’, ‘subtle harmonies’, ‘penetrating the veils of nature’ to something more meaningful beneath.

Thus although Monet and Cézanne continued in their different ways to investigate the human perception of nature, the way their works were interpreted – by critics and fellow artists – shifted around them, influenced by the rise of an increasing flock of new art movements.

Thompson vividly demonstrates this shift – the evolution in worldviews from Naturalism to Symbolism – by the juxtaposition of Women Gleaning (1889)  by Camille Pissarro and Avril (1892) by Maurice Denis just a few years later.

The difference is obviously one of vision, style and technique, but it is also not unconnected with their political differences. Pissarro was a life-long left-winger with a strong feel for working people: his oeuvre from start to finish has a rugged ‘honesty’ of subject and technique. Denis, by contrast, was a committed Catholic mystic who spent his career working out a private system of religious symbols, a personal way of depicting the great ‘mysteries’ of the Catholic religion.

Politically, thematically, stylistically, they epitomise the shifting currents, especially of the 1890s.

‘Synthesis’

Synthesis/synthetism was a common buzzword of the Symbolists. It means the conscious simplification of drawing, of composition and the harmonisation of colour. Included in this general trend were the taste for Japanese art (liked by everyone from the 1870s onwards), the symbolist fashion for ancient art e.g. from Egypt, and for ‘primitive’ European art i.e. the Italian 14th century.

(This growing taste for exotica and the non-European obviously sets the scene for the taste for Oceanic and African art which was to come in in the early years of the 20th century.)

Interestingly, Thompson shows how this same line of interpretation – simplification, strong outline, unmediated colour – can be applied both to Seurat’s highly academic pointillist paintings and, in a different way, to the violently subjective works of Gauguin. On the face of it completely different, they can be interpreted as following the same, very basic, movement in perception.

Portraiture

Cézanne’s portrait of Achille Emperaire (1868) was contemptuously rejected by the judges at the Salon. 20 years later, hung at the back of the collector Père Tanguy’s shop, it was a subject of pilgrimage and inspiration to the new generation – to the likes of Gauguin, van Gogh, Bernard and Denis.

Thompson explores the differing approach to portraits of more marginal figures like Redon, van Rysselberghe and Laval, but the centre of the chapter compares and contrasts Gauguin’s virile ‘synthetic’ self-portraits with van Gogh’s quite stunning self-portraits.

The examples Thompson chooses show both artists as head and shoulders above their peers, with van Gogh achieving a kind of god-like transcendence.

Gay Paree

Thompson makes the interesting point that ‘Gay Paree’ was largely a PR, press and tourist office invention of the last decades of the 19th century, capitalising on the proliferation of bars, circuses and cabarets, epitomised by the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889, and marketed through the expanding medium of posters and adverts in new, large-format newspapers and magazines.

Yet by the 1890s this had become a darker vision, a night-time vision. Thompson compares the lovely sun-dappled idylls of Renoir, who painted working class revellers at the Moulin de Galette cafe in Montmartre in the 1870s – with the much darker, sometimes elegant-sometimes grotesque visions of the dwarfish aristocrat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Moulin Rouge (1892). The 1890s were a darker decade.

Politics

In the last few chapters Thompson brings in an increasing amount of politics. The chapter on Gay Paree had already brought out how life for the average working class Parisian, despite the tourist posters, still involved harsh, long hours at poor pay (and she throws emphasis in particular on the exploitation of women – as laundry women, washerwomen, shop assistants, and the huge army of prostitutes).

This is all set against the increasing political turmoil in Paris, which saw a number of anarchist bombings in the 1880s and 1890s leading up to the assassination of President Carnot in 1894, who was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist. In the backlash, some art critics were arrested for their left-wing sympathies and left-wing artists (Pissarro and most of the pointillists) kept their heads down.

Later the same year – 1894 – saw the beginning of the long, scandalous Dreyfus Affair, which started with the arrest of a Jewish army captain for supposedly leaking military secrets to the Germans. He was tried and found guilty on very shaky evidence then, after a long campaign to free him, another trial was held, which found him guilty again and sentenced him to hard labour on Devil’s Island.

(Although it’s a fiction book, Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy gives the most detailed account of the evidence and the successive trials which I’ve read.)

The affair dragged on for over a decade, driving a great wedge between supporters of the Establishment, of the law and justice system, of la patrie and of Catholicism – and liberal and left-wing politicians and sympathisers, who saw the whole thing as an embarrassing stitch-up, as the symbol of a fossilised reactionary order which needed to be overthrown.

The Affair also brought out a virulent strain of anti-Semiticism among anti-Dreyfusards, who used his supposed guilt to implicate the whole world of cosmopolitan culture, corruption, decadent art, sexual perversion and all the usual suspects for right-wing ire.

And the Affair divided the art world. Degas, in particular, comes off very badly. As a conservative anti-Dreyfusard, he severed ties with all Jews of his acquaintance (including his old Impressionist colleague, Pissarro). Shameful.

The Dreyfus Affair brought into focus a movement on the right, known as le Ralliement, which attempted to bring all the forces of ‘order’ into one unified movement in order to combat the perceived growth of working class and socialist movements.

Suffice to say that the artistic developments of the 1890s took place against a darker, more intense social background than that of the 1880s.

Thompson shows how this shifting political backdrop can be read into the art of the 1890s, with Catholic artists like Denis producing works full of Christian imagery, while the perfectly balanced and idealised visions of the neo-Impressionists (given that most of them were well-known left-wingers) can be interpreted as the depiction of a perfect socialist world of justice and equality.

In this more heavily politicised setting, the apparently carefree caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec gain a harsher significance, gain force as biting satire against a polarised society. (Certainly, the grotesqueness of some of the faces in some of the examples given here reminded me of the bitter satirical paintings of post-war Weimar Germany, found in Otto Dix and George Grosz.)

Meanwhile, many other artists ‘took refuge in’ or were seeking, more personal and individual kinds of spirituality.

This is the sense in which to understand Thompson’s notion that if there is one overarching movement or direction of travel in the art of the period it is out of Naturalism and into Symbolism.

At its simplest Symbolism can be defined as a search for the idea and the ideal beneath appearances. Appearances alone made up more than enough of a subject for the Impressionists. But the post-Impressionists were searching for something more, some kind of meaning.

In their wildly different ways, this sense of a personal quest – which generated all kinds of personal symbols and imagery – can be used to describe Cézanne (with his obsessive visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire), Gauguin’s odyssey to the South Seas where he found a treasure trove of imagery, Van Gogh’s development of a very personal symbolism (sunflowers, stars) and even use of colours (his favourite colour was yellow, colour of the sun and of life), as well as the journeys of other fin-de-siecle artists such as the deeply symbolic Edvard Munch from Norway – who Thompson brings in towards the end of the book.

Landscape

In the chapter on landscapes Thompson is led (once again) back to the masterpieces by those two very different artists, van Gogh and Gauguin. Deploying the new, politicised frame of reference which she has explained so well, Thompson judges the success or failure of various artists of the day to get back to nature, specifically to live with peasants and express peasant life.

Judged from this point of view, Gauguin comes in for criticism as a poseur, who didn’t really share the peasant superstitions of the people he lived among in Brittany any more than he really assimilated the non-European beliefs of the peoples of Tahiti where he went to live in 1895.

He is contrasted with the more modest lifestyle of Pissarro, who lived in relative poverty among farmers outside Paris more or less as one of them, keeping his own village plot, growing vegetables, keeping chickens.

Or with van Gogh, who had a self-appointed mission to convey, and so somehow redeem, the life of the poor.

Conclusion

This is an excellent introduction to a complicated and potentially confusing period of art history. Not only does it give a good chronological feel for events, but the chapters on themes and topics then explore in some detail the way the various movements, artists, styles and approaches played out across a range of subjects and themes.

Paradoxically, the book is given strength by what Thompson leaves out. She doesn’t mention the Vienna Secession of 1897, doesn’t really explore the Decadence (the deliberately corrupt and elitist art of drugs and sexual perversion which flourished in the boudoirs and private editions of the rich), she mentions Art Nouveau (named after an art gallery founded in 1895) once or twice, but doesn’t explore it in any detail.

Mention of these other movements makes you realise that post-Impressionism, narrowly defined as the reaction of leading French artists of the 1880s and 1890s to the Impressionist legacy, was itself only part of a great swirl and explosion of new styles and looks in the 1890s.

It may be pretty dubious as an art history phrase, but ‘post-Impressionism’ will probably endure, in all its unsatisfactoriness, because it helps mark out the three or four main lines of descent from Impressionism in France – neo-Impressionism, neo-Traditionism, and specifically the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Seurat – from the host of other, related but distinct, movements of the day.

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

Eye imagery in ‘The High Window’ and ‘The Little Sister’ by Raymond Chandler

Chandler’s characters are all acting

All Raymond Chandler’s novels dwell on the way the cops, crooks and dames in his mythical noir Los Angeles landscape are more or less consciously acting a part.

The texts regularly describe almost all the characters as playing up to roles they’ve set themselves, or modelling their behaviour on the actors they’ve seen up on the silver screen:

The blonde sobbed in rather a theatrical manner and showed me an open mouth twisted with misery and ham-acting. (The High Window, Chapter 10)

Morny lifted his cigarette away from his lips and narrowed his eyes to look at the tip. Every motion, every gesture, right out of the catalogue. (THW, Ch. 18)

Silence. Then the sound of a blow. The woman wailed. She was hurt, terribly hurt. Hurt in the depths of her soul. She made it rather good. ‘Look, angel,’ Morny snarled. ‘Don’t feed me the ham. I’ve been in pictures. I’m a connoisseur of ham. Skip it.’ (THW, Ch. 30)

Even the highly self-conscious, first-person narrator, Philip Marlowe is aware that he is performing routines, that all the world’s a stage:

I killed my cigarette and got another one out and went through all the slow futile face-saving motions of lighting it, getting rid of the match, blowing smoke off to one side, inhaling deeply as though that scrubby little office was a hilltop overlooking the bouncing ocean – all the tired clichéd mannerisms of my trade. (Ch. 11)

Marlowe humorously notes the way the tough guys he encounters ceaselessly model themselves – their mannerisms and attitude and wisecracking style – on the protagonists of Hollywood crime movies in what seems to be a widespread outbreak of reality copying fiction.

Thus Raymond Chandler’s novels are fictions in which fictitious characters criticise each other for modelling themselves on other fictitious characters.)

‘All those boys have been to picture shows and know how night-club bosses are supposed to act.’ (THW. Ch. 4)

Why are eyes so important?

Throughout the novels, I’ve been struck by the ingenuity Chandler expends on his descriptions of eyes and the numerous ways he finds to describe looks, glances, stares etc, and wondering why he takes so much trouble on what amounts almost to a mini-genre within his writings.

Finally, I think I realise how these two prominent themes – the acting, and the seeing – are interconnected.

Eyes are mechanisms of concealment and revelation

A detective is trying to get at a hidden truth which many, if not all, the other characters are trying to conceal from him.

Most if not all of the characters are lying. He himself is lying a lot of the time, or spinning different versions of events to watch their affect on his listeners. So, in a detective novel, what people say – words alone – are a poor guide to what is going on, to what people really mean, to what people’s intentions really are.

Given that, in this Universe of Liars, most of what most people say is baloney, it follows that everyone is judging everyone else not so much by their words, but by their actions.

They are, in other words, watching everyone else very closely and everyone is aware that they are being watched. They are watching how each other act, sizing up how successfully or not all the other characters are playing their roles play a part. They are watching themselves play their parts, and watching how others watch them play the part, in the long series of deceptions which make up the ‘plot’.

And one of the hardest things to fake, to pull off, is acting with your EYES.

People’s looks and glances can, potentially, say much more than people’s words and, inadvertently, give away all kinds of meanings and intentions which words alone conceal.

Thus, in Chandler’s texts, time and again, quick unguarded looks and regards give people away, reveal depths or meanings or truths which they are trying to conceal. In the following I categorise and try to define the various ways Chandler uses eye imagery.

1. Eyes as concealers – and revealers – of others’ intentions

The descriptions of eyes are a kind of fulcrum on which the pursuit of concealed truths balances and moves.

Chandler’s attention to the eyes of his characters and his often wonderfully inventive and vivid descriptions of eyes and looks aren’t an accident of style or a pretty habit: they are a crucial part of the structure of concealment and revelation which makes up ‘the detective story’.

As an old proverb has it, the eyes are windows into the soul and, in cynical 1940s Los Angeles, the eyes are windows which their owners are doing everything in their power to shutter and curtain, to cover with ‘blinds’.

But the eyes’ owners are all too often weak, and their eyes continually reveal things which the studied mannerisms of the body, the careful lies of the mouth, the calculated exchange of money and wounds, are at such pains to conceal.

She stared at me and said nothing. I thought that an idea was stirring at the back of her eyes, but if so it didn’t come out. (THW, Ch. 19)

She stared out of her own eyes for a brief instant before the act dropped over her again. (TLS, Ch. 12)

Her mouth twitched as if she was going to laugh. But there was no laughter in her eyes. (TLS, Ch. 19)

Her eyes widened a little too innocently. Her laugh was a little too silvery. (TLS, Ch. 19)

‘4 P 327,’ I said, watching his eyes. Nothing flicked in them. No trace of derision or concealment. (TLS, Ch. 11)

Murdock lifted his eyes. He tried to make them blank with astonishment. He only made them dull and shocked. (THW, Ch. 34)

I looked hard at him. It didn’t buy me a way into his soul. He was quiet, dark and shattered and all the misery of life was in his eyes. (TLS, Ch. 21)

Her cheeks were a little flushed. But behind her eyes things watched and waited. (Ch. 27)

She dabbed at her eyes. She watched me around the handkerchief. Once in a while she made a nice little appealing sob in her throat. (TLS, Ch. 33)

In other words, paying close attention to people’s eyes can be one of the quickest routes to insight and knowledge available to the seeker for truth in this fallen world, this ‘cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right’ (TLS Ch 13) – but that attention is continually foiled and deceived by others’ attempts at concealment.

People’s eyes, looks and regards become a kind of battlefield of concealment and revelation.

2. Eyes as enquirers into the narrator’s mind

But of course it works both ways: the other characters’ eyes not only reveal the inner state of the would-be liars to us (through the eyes of the narrator, Marlowe), they are also the searchlights which those third-person liars themselves use to probe into the narrator’s acts and thoughts.

They are not only the means other people use for acting and lying to us; they are also the device those other people use to assess whether the narrator is are acting and lying to them.

Toad studied me carefully with narrow eyes… ‘I heard you were kind of hard-boiled,’ Toad said slowly, his eyes cool and watchful.
‘You heard wrong. I’m a very sensitive guy. I go all to pieces over nothing.’
‘Yeah. I understand.’
He stared at me a long time without speaking. (TLS, Ch. 14)

The neat-appearing young man gave me a searching glance as I exchanged the check and some money for an envelope… He didn’t say anything, but the way he looked at me gave me the impression that he remembered I was not the man who had left the negative. (TLS, Ch. 16)

His sharp black eyes didn’t miss anything in my face. (THW, Ch. 7)

Finally he nodded yes, green eyes, watching me carefully… (THW, Ch. 9)

Breeze nodded and chewed his lips and explored my face with his eyes. (THW, Ch. 15)

He lifted his eyes and ran them lazily over my face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

Lieutenant Moses Maglashan took the carpenter’s pencil out of his mouth and looked at the teeth marks in the fat octangular pencil butt. Then he looked at me. His eyes went over me, slowly exploring me, noting me, cataloguing me. He said nothing. He put the pencil back in his mouth. (TLS, Ch. 24)

‘I don’t believe you,’ she said, and her eyes watched me like a cat watching a mousehole. (TLS, Ch. 33)

Marlowe looks at people’s eyes very closely for two reasons: to try and see into their souls, to see the true state of their feelings and intentions; and to assess how shrewdly they are looking into his soul and figuring out his motivations and purposes. Often this ballet of the looks, this interplay of eyes, is enacted in the prose:

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (TLS, Ch. 28)

Fascination and exuberance

And hence Marlowe and Chandler’s fascination with eyes and looks. Every encounter with another human being is the occasion for weighing up and judging others, using our eyes: using our eyes to assess their eyes and using our eyes to assess their eyes assessing our eyes. No wonder he has scores of striking descriptions of what people’s eyes look like and how they use them, the affect of their looks, glances, gleams and stares.

And the subject becomes an opportunity for Chandler to show off, to take the language for a walk, rejoicing in the exuberance of his almost Shakespearian gift for vivid phrase-making:

She had pewter-coloured hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. (THW, Ch. 2)

A dangerous-looking redhead sat languidly at an Adam desk… I went over and she put a couple of cold blue pellets into me with her eyes… (TLS, Ch. 17)

Another cop in a tilted back chair nodded to him, and looked me over with that dead grey expression that grows on them like scum on a watertank. (TLS, Ch. 19)

3. Mirrors

There is a third category of ‘eye-awareness’, one that crops up fairly regularly: which is when Marlowe sees his own eyes in a mirror and, for a fleeting moment, applies his usual level of penetrating insight to himself.

I got up and went to the built-in wardrobe and looked at my face in the flawed mirror. It was me all right. I had a strained look. I’d been living too fast. (TLS, Ch. 20)

Of course, this trope is generally used to emphasise the jaded world-weariness which is Marlowe’s schtick, the exhausted knight toughing it out in a fallen world, which is how Marlowe likes to see himself, or how Chandler likes to see Marlowe.

On the way out I had another look at the face in the mirror. I looked as if I had made up my mind to drive off a cliff. (TLS, Ch. 20)

I pulled away from the door and pulled it open and went back through the hall into the living-room. A face in the mirror looked at me. A strained, leering face. I turned away from it quickly… (THW, Ch. 8)

‘That’s a nice sharp pencil you have there,’ I told him.
He looked up, surprised. The girls at the pinball machine looked at me, surprised. I went over and looked at myself in the mirror behind the counter. I looked surprised. (THW, Ch. 13)

Passing the open door of the wash cabinet I saw a stiff excited face in the glass. (THW, Ch. 26)

I got out a handkerchief and wiped the palms of my hands. I went over to the wash-basin and washed my hands and face. I sloshed cold water on my face and dried it off hard with the towel and looked at it in the mirror. ‘You drove off a cliff all right,’ I said to the face. (TLS, Ch. 24)

You can see from these examples how the mirror motif is generally associated with tough guy posing. Hell, I look tired. Hell, I’m a jaded tough guy private dick. The self-referentiality of his gaze is linked to the acute self-consciousness of all the characters, all playing parts.

4. Sun glasses

There’s another minor category of eye imagery, which is when the eyes are covered – by sunglasses or, sometimes, the glinting surface of normal glasses.

I don’t know how widely used shades were in late 1930s California, but they crop up surprisingly rarely in the novels. When they do it’s clear what their function is – to conceal the wearer’s eyes which, in the light of above, is an elementary, physical way of protecting or concealing the wearer’s motives and thoughts.

Sunglasses make the face significantly more impenetrable. Maybe this is why people wearing shades feel ‘cool’ i.e. less open to scrutiny, to having their expression searched and comprehended – and therefore more distant and detached from everyone else, including people they speak and interact with.

And why we feel a little threatened when dealing with people (especially the police) wearing shades. It is because, not being able to ‘read’ their mood or tone in their eyes, we feel adrift, uncertain, wrong-footed. At a disadvantage.

An attitude of supposed invulnerability which Marlowe mocks in one his few allusions to them:

The man in the brown suit posted himself at the end of the bar and drank coca-colas and looked bored… He had his dark glasses on again. That made him invisible. (THW, Ch. 4)

‘You may have noticed a certain atmosphere and strain about this house. Even with those silly mirror glasses on. Which you may now remove. They don’t make you look the least like Cary Grant.’ (TLS, Ch. 21)

Othertimes, as already noted, the shades are there, but the mockery is implicit. They are, quite simply, more opportunities for Chandler to display his virtuoso way with phrase making.

He had a pair of green sun-glasses on his nose… The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (THW, Ch. 22)

The small head jerked up. The light glinted on the glasses. There were no eyes behind them. (TLS, Ch. 33)

5. Neutrals

There’s another type of eyes – neutral eyes, belonging to people whose eyes are neither attacking or defending, people who are outside of the game of deception and search the main characters are playing. Take the old guy who mans the elevator in the dilapidated Belfont Building in The High Window.

The same old plough-horse sat in the elevator on his piece of folded burlap, looking straight in front of him, almost gathered to history. (THW, Ch. 14)

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a pair of eyes are just a pair of eyes. Or are they? The irony is that this old geezer – named Grandy – despite his dead, watery, old-man’s eyes, has in fact been observing the goings-on in the key building and is able to provide Marlowe with key information.

Maybe there are no innocent eyes anywhere in the stories.

6. Eyes of the dead

Of course there is a state in which eyes are there but no longer playing an active part in proceedings, namely when their owners are dead. No longer looking or concealing, they are hors du combat. For them the long war of human inter-judging is over.

His eyes were half open as such eyes usually are. They stared at a point in the corner of the ceiling. (Ch. 28)

The eye imagery reaches a kind of crescendo on the very last page of the The Little Sister, when Dr Lagardie murders Gonzalez in what appears to be a drugged-up state. And both of them are defined by the state of their eyes.

The doctor is so stoned he can’t see, he doesn’t seem able to see i.e. to understand, what he has done – seeing and perceiving are over for him and so he isn’t worth either talking to or judging. He is not in the game.

But this is even more true of the murdered nymphomaniac. The final sentence of the book describes the attending medic closing her dead eyes.

For this text, for the time being, the endless war of eyes against eyes is over. The last word of the novel is ‘eyes’, the last action the closing of eyes, the ending of perception, the last thing to go, the most important thing, the attribute which – I am arguing – is one of the central and defining activities of Chandler’s novels.

He glanced across at Dr Lagardie who saw nothing and heard nothing, if you could judge by his face. ‘I guess somebody lost a dream,’ the intern said. He bent over and closed her eyes. (Ch. 34)

7. Marginal eyes

And some final, minor examples of eye-sensitivity in the texts. They demonstrate that even to achieve small effects, to give the quickest snapshots of characters or their emotions, for Chandler the state of the character’s eyes is a crucial element, a talisman, the key indicator.

Mad

Except for her face she would have looked all right. In the first place her eyes were quite mad. There was white showing all around the iris and they had a sort of fixed look. When they moved the movement was so stiff that you could almost hear something creak. (Ch. 27)

Blind

A great long gallows of a man with a ravaged face and a haggard frozen right eye that had a clotted iris and the steady look of blindness. (Ch. 18)

Dying

He had eyes an eighth of an inch deep, pale grey-blue, wide open. They looked at me but didn’t see me. (TLS, Ch. 22)

Marlow is a ‘private eye’

Finally, and staring us in the face, is the fact that Marlowe is a Private EYE. What an odd phrase. Why does someone hire an ‘eye’?

Of all the parts of the body why is the private detective reduced by synechdoche to this one part of the anatomy? It is as if the job title recognises the importance of seeing above every other human ability, more important than any other aspect of a person which can be hired.

And it is as if the client’s two eyes just aren’t enough to interpret and understand – he must hire another pair. One pair of eyes isn’t enough in the war of eyes. The client needs to hire mercenary eyes.

Obviously the main point of the private eye is that they are unknown to whoever they’re tasked with investigating and spying on.

But that reinforces my point: watching, looking, spying, observing – and assessing, measuring, judging and interpreting – all these actions take place in Raymond Chandler’s novels predominantly through the eyes.

And hence, in the Chandler world, all references to eyes become loaded with phenomenal meaning and significance.


Appendix

a) Eyes in The High Window

All Chandler’s novels throng with sentences describing the look and action of eyes, ranging from the run-of-the-mill, through the contrived, to the inspired. It is the sheer variety, and the variety with which he describes such an apparently everyday business – looking and seeing – which is awe-inspiring.

Her eyes were as hard as the bricks in the front walk. I shrugged the stare off… (Ch. 2)

She watched me come into the room with the stiff, half-silly expression of a self-conscious person posing for a snapshot. (Ch. 2)

He leaned back again and brooded at me with pale eyes. (Ch. 3)

His eyes glinted, but he kept his smooth manner pretty well in place. (Ch. 3)

He eyed me over. ‘You ain’t working for him, are you?’ (Ch. 5)

He looked me up and down, brilliant black eyes sweeping slowly and the silky fringes of long eyelashes following them. (Ch. 5)

Vannier moved his hot angry eyes over to me and snapped. (Ch. 5)

The blonde giggled and petted his face with her eyes. (Ch. 5)

‘I think you could tell me yourself, if you wanted to.’
‘How are you going to make me want to?’ Her eyes were inviting. (Ch. 5)

His black eyes were sharp and blank at the same time, like a snake’s. (Ch. 5)

I looked at the blonde. Her eyes were bright and her mouth looked sensual and eager, watching us. (Ch. 5)

His face came all smooth again and his eyes opened, black and sharp and shrewd. (Ch. 7)

When the car stopped and I got out he didn’t speak or look at me again. He just sat there blank-eyed, hunched on the burlap and the wooden stool. (Ch. 14)

A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pyjamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins. (Ch. 17)

Prue let the front legs of the chair down on the carpet very quietly and looked at me. His good eye had a sleepy expression I didn’t like. (Ch. 18)

He raised his eyes on the last words and stared at me. I stared back and waited. (Ch. 18)

She moved her eyes over my face. We stared at each other. (Ch. 19)

I put my hay on the floor, just yesterday, and Mrs Murdock gave me the same hard level stare. (Ch. 20)

I waited, thinking she would tell me some story about how the coin had been returned, but she just stared at me bleakly over the wineglass… Her bleak eyes went up to the ceiling. (Ch. 20)

He stopped talking and looked up at me to see how I was taking it. Mrs Murdock had her eyes on my face, practically puttied there. The little girl was looking at Murdock with her lips parted and an expression of suffering on her face. (Ch. 21)

He stopped talking and wiped his face again. The little girl’s eyes moved up and down with the motions of his hand… The little girl tore her eyes away from his face and looked at me… The little girl stood up and smiled at her with shining eyes. (Ch. 21)

She drew her hand away swiftly and her eyes looked shocked… She jumped about three feet and her eyes blazed with panic… Her eyes melted with panic… Panic still twitched in the depths of her eyes, behind the tears. (Ch. 22)

The dim movement of his eyes was visible behind the green lenses, fish moving in a deep pool. (Ch. 22)

He waited, with his mouth a little open and the cigar in front of it, held up by a hard freckled hand, and his pale blue eyes full of dim satisfaction. (Ch. 23)

Spangler looked at me sideways along glistening eyes. (Ch. 23)

His cold black eyes looked over me silently. (Ch. 24)

She nodded. Her eyes stayed on my face. (Ch. 32)

A sort of panic twitched in the depths of her eyes, but very far back, very dim, and somehow as though it had been there for a long time and had just peeped out at me for a second. (Ch. 32)

She lifted her eyes slowly and gave me a long level gaze… Our eyes locked hard and held locked for a moment.  (Ch. 32)

His eyes had almost disappeared into the back of his head. They were doomed eyes. (Ch. 34)

b) Eyes in The Little Sister

She hesitated and there was something behind her eyes she tried not to have there. (Ch. 2)

Perhaps it was the  spring too. And something in her eyes that was much older than Manhattan, Kansas. (Ch. 2)

He gave me a narrow, thoughtful eye, then shovelled the money into a shabby brief-case. (Ch. 3)

He nodded, satisfied. The glare went out of his eyes. (Ch. 4)

He picked his cigar out of the green glass ash-tray and blew a little smoke. Through it he gave me the cold grey eye. (Ch. 4)

I gave him a shady leer. (Ch. 4)

She took half a step back, almost stumbled, and I reached an arm around her by pure instinct. Her eyes widened and she put her hands against my chest and pushed. (Ch. 7)

I saw Orfamay Quest’s face without the glasses, and polished and painted and with blonde hair piled up high on the forehead… And bedroom eyes. They all have to have bedroom eyes. (Ch. 7)

The girl behind the counter was a straw blonde with a long neck and tired eyes. (Ch. 8)

The floor carpet was new and had a hard look, like the room clerk. (Ch. 8)

I brought my eyes down and gave Flack a thick leaden stare. (Ch. 11)

Flack’s eyes flicked up at me and dropped all in one motion. (Ch. 11)

I did some more staring into his eyes. But I knew he was licked now. (Ch. 11)

Her eyes look enormous and black and the whites showed under them. (Ch. 12)

Her eyes were empty, her lips contemptuous. (Ch. 12)

The Gonzales looked back at her slowly, levelly, and with a knife in her eyes. (Ch. 12)

She stood her ground, one hand still reaching for the door-knob, her eyes full of dark-blue rage. (Ch. 12)

A peculiar stillness came over his face. A peculiar fixed look in his silent black eyes. (Ch. 12)

The creature with him was a weedy number with red eyes and sniffles. (Ch. 14)

Alfred’s eyes crawled sideways watching him, then jerked to the money on the desk. (Ch. 14)

Her hand reached automatically for the money. Her eyes behind the cheaters were round and wondering… She nodded her little chin half an inch. Her eyes were melting. ‘Take my glasses off,’ she whispered. (Ch. 14)

Spink gave me a narrow glare of hate. (Ch. 18)

[Torrance, the movie director] had hot black eyes, but there was no heat in his voice. (Ch. 19)

At the door she turned and looked around carefully. Then she fixed her lovely blue eyes on my face. (Ch. 19)

She looked at me a long and steady moment before she dropped her eyes… She stared at the photograph. Her eyes came up again slowly, slowly… She reached the photo out from somewhere and stared at it, biting her lip. Her eyes came up without her head moving…. Her eyes snapped down to the picture again. (Ch. 19)

He raised his head slowly and stared at me with fixed contempt. (Ch. 21)

She held this doohickey in a black gauntleted glove and stared at me out of depthless black eyes that had no laughter in them now… Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

The cops don’t like you to be wearing a gun in their territory… They like you to come in properly humble, with your hat in your hand, and your voice low and polite, and your eyes full of nothing. (Ch. 23)

Her eyes filled with glare. She made a spitting sound. (Ch. 23)

There were large lumps of muscle at the corners of his jaws. His eyes had a reddish glare behind them… Maglashan clamped his teeth tight and the line of his jaw showed white. His eyes narrowed and glistened. (Ch. 24)

The cops just sat there and looked back at me… They had the calm weathered faces of healthy men in hard condition. They had the eyes they always have, cloudy and grey like freezing water. The firm set mouth, the hard little wrinkles at the corners of the eyes, the hard hollow meaningless stare, not quite cruel and a thousand miles from kind. (Ch. 24)

The light flaring in her face seemed to be swallowed up by her depthless black eyes. (Ch. 26)

I watched her for a minute, biting at the end of my lip. She watched me. I saw no change of expression. Then I started prowling the room with my eyes. (Ch. 28)

I stared hard at French. He looked at me as if I was the wallpaper. His eyes didn’t seem to see me at all. (Ch. 29)

He stared at me with hard morose eyes. I was back in cop-town again. (Ch. 30)

One of them was from the jail, in denim, with a guard. A white-faced kid built like a tackle, with sick, empty eyes. (Ch. 32)

She looked innocently surprised. Then her eyes glowed… She leaned back. There was a vague worry behind her eyes, but she smiled. (Ch. 33)

Her tooth came down on the outer edge of her lower lip and something flared in her eyes and very slowly died away. (Ch. 33)

P.S.

And finally, even the eyes of non-humans can be admitted into this realm of conflict, their animal devotion a respite from the endless inquisitor which is the human eye, but still not entirely innocent. No eye in Chandler ever is.

‘The eyes of your dog,’ Oppenheimer mused. ‘The most unforgettable thing in the world.’ (TLS, Ch. 19)


Other Raymond Chandler reviews

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)

Heart of Darkness was published in three monthly instalments in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in February, March and April of 1899. (The Victorian Web has an essay describing the other articles which Heart of Darkness appeared among.) The final text was still divided into three equal sections when it was published in book form in 1902.

Heart of Darkness is a masterpiece and as such can be approached from scores of different angles, interpreted in countless ways.

In line with my earlier comments about Conrad, I think its success is partly because, in the horrific facts of the Belgian Congo which he experienced on his 1890 trip up the river, Conrad found external realities which, for once, justified the extremity of his nihilistic worldview and the exorbitance of his style.

The Congo really was a vast immensity of suffering and pain. When he uses his almost hysterical language about Almayer’s daughter abandoning him, or Willems’s native mistress seeing through him, or Hervey’s wife leaving him, Conrad’s lexicon and syntax seem overwrought, hyperbolic. In King Leopold’s Congo there really was a subject which justified the obsessive use of words like ‘horror’, ‘suffering’, ‘immense anguish’ and so on.

Frame device

In Youth Conrad invents the frame device of the group of five mature men of the world sitting around smoking after-dinner cigars while one of them, Marlow, sets off to tell a long yarn.

Having come across this device in Youth Conrad immediately reused it for House of Darkness. Precisely the same five good fellows who we met in Youth are aboard the yacht Nellie, moored in the Thames at dusk, as Marlow recounts the story of his trip up the  Congo.

So the book has two narrators: the anonymous one who describes the ‘we’, the five chaps; and then, via his narrative, we hear Marlow’s story – a story within a story.

Matching the tale to the teller, and creating subtle ironies between the actual events and the way they are told, are devices as old as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decameron, older. Thus, once Marlow finishes his story, the narrator returns for the concluding paragraphs, to describe the haunting final vision of the darkness of the Thames after sunset, when the full repercussions of Marlow’s story sink in.

The frame device:

  • guarantees a happy ending – we know that Marlow returned alive
  • guarantees a kind of sanity – periodically, when Marlow’s story rises to heights of absurdity or psychological stress, the narrator reminds us of the calm, bourgeois, urban setting the tale is being told in:

There was a pause of profound stillness, then a match flared, and Marlow’s lean face appeared, worn, hollow, with downward folds and dropped eyelids, with an aspect of concentrated attention; and as he took vigorous draws at his pipe, it seemed to retreat and advance out of the night in the regular flicker of the tiny flame.

  • above all, it replaces suspense – what happened? – with reflection – what does it mean? It legitimises the way Marlow frequently stops the tale to ponder the meaning of his experiences, or stops to tell his audience how he’s struggling to convey the feelings he experienced – something that would be harder for an omniscient narrator to do.

Plot

Marlow takes a commission from a Belgian company to captain a steamboat up the Congo to find one Mr Kurtz, a prize ivory trader. Before he’s even set foot in Africa he sees signs of the greed and folly of the European imperial mission to Africa – ta lone warship pointlessly firing cannon randomly into the jungle – and as soon as he arrives at the first station up-river he finds the building of the so-called railway a shambles where Africans are chained like slaves and worked to death.

When Marlow reaches the legendary Kurtz he finds he has sunk into horrific barbarity, savagely marauding through neighbouring country, killing natives and stealing their ivory, his campong lined by stakes on which are impaled human heads.

The young idealist Kurtz had written an eloquent pamphlet on how to bring ‘civilisation’ to the natives. Across the bottom the older, degraded Kurtz has scrawled, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’

Kurtz is a symbol of the hypocritical cruelty and absurd folly of imperial enterprises. Marlow gets his native bearers to carry the sick and dying Kurtz onto his steamer, turns around and heads for the coast. Kurtz dies onboard and his last words – ‘The horror, the horror’ – have become classic, referenced by T.S. Eliot, the climax of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 movie adaptation, ‘Apocalypse Now‘, I’ve seen them on t-shirts.

Not British

Although Conrad doesn’t name the colonial power, he gives broad enough hints that it was Belgium. The Congo was the personal possession of King Leopold of Belgium, who modern historians nowadays place alongside Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot as one of the great modern mass murderers of all time, with an estimated 8-10 million Africans dying in the Congo as a direct result of the slavery he instituted during his reign (1885-1908).

But the point is – it isn’t British. This genocidal regime wasn’t British. Conrad was anxious about how his blistering critique of Imperialism would be received in his new home, the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

Later the same year Heart of Darkness was published, in October 1899, the Boer War broke out and whipped the country into a furore of Imperialist jingoism. Conrad knew it was impossible to criticise the British Empire, and he certainly goes out of his way in the opening pages to emphasise that he is NOT talking about the British Empire, and that the British Empire is qualitatively different from the imperial folly he attributes to Belgium.

‘On one end a large shining map, marked with all the colors of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red – good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there…’

What’s more, the opening pages contain a great and deliberate hymn to the history and integrity of the British Empire.

I wonder what obligation Conrad felt under to clarify that, although he appeared to be saying that all empires are hypocritical, rapacious follies… he in fact meant, all empires except your empire of course, chaps.

‘The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowded with memories of men and ships it had borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea. It had known and served all the men of whom the nation is proud, from Sir Francis Drake to Sir John Franklin, knights all, titled and untitled—the great knights-errant of the sea. It had borne all the ships whose names are like jewels flashing in the night of time, from the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure, to be visited by the Queen’s Highness and thus pass out of the gigantic tale, to the Erebus and Terror, bound on other conquests—and that never returned. It had known the ships and the men. They had sailed from Deptford, from Greenwich, from Erith—the adventurers and the settlers; kings’ ships and the ships of men on ‘Change; captains, admirals, the dark “interlopers” of the Eastern trade, and the commissioned “generals” of East India fleets. Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream, bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.’

Furthermore, at a few key moments in the story, the English auditors interrupt the story to object to Marlow’s tone and implications.

These interruptions mark the boundaries, indicating not so much to the fictional audience but to us, the readers, that even Marlow’s overflowing style and withering irony has limits, is safely contained. That Conrad knows where the borders of taste are and is policing them:

‘I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for –  what is it? half-a-crown a tumble – ‘
‘”Try to be civil, Marlow,” growled a voice, and I knew there was at least one listener awake besides myself.
‘”I beg your pardon,” [said Marlow]

Style

Because the bulk of the narration is meant to be spoken by Marlow, an Englishman telling his story to other Englishmen, Conrad is forced to rein in his style.

Much more of the narrative deals with facts, factually conveyed, than in his earlier texts such as the lyrical Youth, the first Marlow text.

Coming fresh from reading Almayer’s Folly, An Outcast of the Islands and Karain, the style of Darkness seems mercifully sober and controlled.

But coming from outside Conradworld, to most ordinary readers the style will still seem extraordinarily florid, with long descriptive passages larded with lush adjectives, and Marlow’s comments on his experiences forever tending to the same nihilism and fatalism which drenched the narratives of Almayer, Outcast, Karain, Lagoon and The Return.

There include the liberal use of triplets –

‘all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.’

The long sentences which use multiple sub-clauses to repeat and amplify the message of despair.

Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.

And the endlessly creative ways he finds to express the same underlying mood of despair:

…my isolation amongst all these men with whom I had no point of contact, the oily and languid sea, the uniform somberness of the coast, seemed to keep me away from the truth of things, within the toil of a mournful and senseless delusion.

…in and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.

A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse.

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

…a gesture that took in the forest, the creek, the mud, the river, – seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.

The pattern itself

There are insights to be had about the role of women – about the contrast between the savage woman of the jungle and the white purity of Kurtz’s Intended who Marlow visits back in Brussels and whose innocent, naive love for Kurtz he is compelled to preserve.

There’s also a lot to write about the concept of the Voice – Marlow experiences Kurtz as predominantly a fluent, deep, authoritative voice – but then Marlow himself becomes nothing but a voice on the deck of the unlit yawl – the two are ironically yoked together.

Books can and have been written about Conrad’s racism, his fundamentally insulting opinion of Africans or ‘savages’ etc.

In all three ‘issues’ or themes or motifs (and in a host of others) Conrad deliberately creates multiple ironies, multiple systems of comparison and contrast. But however easily these patterns can be reduced to feminist or post-colonial or post-structuralist formulas, rewritten to support early 21st century political correctness, I also regard the patterning of the text as almost abstract, as an end in itself which can be enjoyed for itself.

The repetition of key words and phrases – the repetition of leading motifs – the multiple ironies i.e. the ubiquitous techniques of doubling and comparison – because they are expressed in words are susceptible of logical interpretation. But I suggest they can also be seen as abstract designs, comparable to the Japanese designs so appreciated by contemporary Aesthetes – or to the new languid style of Art Nouveau, the delicate intertwining of tracery meant to be enjoyed for its own sake and nothing more.

I think of the turn to patterning of a painter like Edward Burne-Jones who, in his final years, acquired a symbolist depth. His later paintings are full of grey-eyed women in increasingly abstract patterns or designs.

Symbolist poetry and painting was the new thing in the 1890s, paintings and poetry full of shimmering surfaces to be appreciated for their own beauty, without any straining after meaning. Like the intricate line drawings of Aubrey Beardsley where the style is much more important than the ‘subject matter’; or the ‘impressionist’ music of Claude Debussy.

Conrad hints as much in an oft-quoted passage right at the start, where the anonymous narrator is setting the scene and introducing Marlow:

The yarns of seamen have a direct simplicity, the whole meaning of which lies within the shell of a cracked nut. But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

In 1917 Conrad wrote prefaces to a new edition of his works, and wrote the following about Heart of Darkness, explicitly comparing it not to a tract, a fiction, even to a painting, but to music:

Heart of Darkness is experience, too; but it is experience pushed a little (and only a little) beyond the actual facts of the case for the perfectly legitimate, I believe, purpose of bringing it home to the minds and bosoms of the readers. There it was no longer a matter of sincere colouring. It was like another art altogether. That sombre tone had to be given a sinister resonance, a tonality of its own, a continued vibration that, I hoped, would hang in the air and dwell on the ear after the last note had been struck.

In my opinion, you can write whole books about Conrad and Women, Conrad and Empire, Conrad and Race, and these will be interesting investigations, but all these approaches can (should?) be subsumed by a sensitive, receptive appreciation of the multiply-layered phrasing, of the styling and patterning of motifs and rhythms, tones and colours, words and clauses, sentences and paragraphs, of his grandiloquent and haunted prose style.

To appreciate it like a work of art or the intricate patterning of an exquisite piece of music. To penetrate to a deeper appreciation of the sheer sensual pleasure of this extraordinary text.


Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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