Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson (1988)

I’m discovering that the three novels of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl trilogy’ are more connected than I expected, featuring some of the same characters, themes and locations.

Like Count ZeroMona Lisa Overdrive opens with chapters explaining the set-up and situation of five different and apparently unconnected characters – so we straightaway realise that, as with Zero, part of the ‘interest’ of reading the book is going to be in finding out how these disparate personages are going to be woven together into one narrative.

But we also quickly realise that we’ve met some of these characters in the previous books and that this one represents a continuation of their stories, and so is a true sequel and not just set in the same fictional universe.

Kumiko

Kumiko Yanaka is the 13-year-old daughter of the head of a powerful corporation in Japan. The book opens in the confusing days after her mad (Danish) mother has committed suicide. Some kind of potentially violent infighting among the corporations is kicking off and her Dad has sent Kumiko to London to be out of the way of danger. She is met at Heathrow by a crop-headed, burly minder named, improbably enough, Petal, who drives her in a Jaguar along the M4 and to a safe house in Notting Hill, owned by one Roger Swain.

Her father gave her a device which, at a touch, projects a life-sized hologram of a chatty man named Colin who a) only Kumiko can see and b) has wide general knowledge, can access local computer and information systems, and so can give Kumiko advice. A cyber-guardian.

Next day she meets the owner of the house, Roger Swain, and an American woman with metallic lenses instead of eyes, named Sally Shears. Swain and Petal let Sally take Kumiko for a walk round the neighbourhood, in the falling snow, shopping and into a pub, where Sally explains that Kumiko is here because of an outbreak of infighting among the Yakuza (the Japanese mafia). So – her father is a senior member of a worldwide criminal consortium.

The device which projects Colin can also record. Colin tells Kumiko to hide it in Swain’s office and then reclaim it later in the day. They replay a conversation between Swain and Petal which mentions Angie Marshall. If I’m not mistaken it hints at plans to kidnap her. Who she?

Angela Marshall

Young Angie Marshall was the central figure in the previous novel, Count Zero. A gang of professional kidnappers was expecting to extract her father, the star scientist Chris Marshall, from the grip of a big multinational corporation, Maas Biolabs, and was surprised when she turned up instead, his teenage daughter.

It was later revealed that Marshall had a) put her into the ultralight designed for him to escape in from the Maas Biolab compound, and b) then cut his own throat. Head of the extraction gang, tall rangy Turner, then took Angie on a cross-country odyssey, fleeing from agents of the vengeful Maas (and also Hosaka, the corporation who hired Turner and suspected some kind of double cross when Mitchell didn’t arrive). During this road trip it had become clear that Angie was special because a) Mitchell had embedded some kind of substance in her brain, presumably an example of the advanced ‘biosoft’ technology he was working on, so that b) Angie was able to tune into cyberspace without using any devices – without touching a console or dermatrodes, she could simply… enter cyberspace. And because of this unique ability, c) Angie had powerful dreams and visions in which she was visited by traditional voodoo gods and goddesses.

Indeed, it eventually was hinted that Marshall had in fact been a pretty mediocre researcher but had stumbled across contact with the voodoo gods, who gave him the secrets of advanced tech (and thus made his career) in exchange for his daughter. What did they want with his daughter? That was hard to really make out, even by the end of the previous book.

Voodoo? Yes, these presences are powerful inside cyberspace but also capable of reaching out to speak through the minds and voices of humans outside cyberspace. At the end of the Count Zero it is explained that these entities are a legacy of the great Unification of Cyberspace which took place at the climax of Neuromancer, had then somehow fallen apart again into separate but related, super-powerful cyber-entities which had ranged over the whole history of human signs and symbols and discovered that the voodoo gods and goddesses of Haiti were the most convenient, appropriate guise in which to interface with human beings.

So much for the events in Count Zero. Now, in the opening chapters of this book, we cut to seven years later, years in which Angie has become a super-famous stimstim star (simstim being an advanced form of television in which people enter into the bodies and sensations of lead characters).

We learn that Angie has replaced Tally Isham, who was mentioned throughout the previous two novels as being the great simstim star of the age. But we also learn that the price of fame, and trying to deal with the occasional return of the voodoo voices in her head, has prompted a major league drug addiction, to a designer drug DMSO which helps suppress the voices and the memory of the traumatic events, including her father’s death, of seven years earlier.

Angie has been sent by her concerned superiors at the simstim corporation Sense/Net to a rehab clinic, but checked out after just a week and, as the novel opens, has arrived at a windy, abandoned, luxury house on the beach in California – Malibu to be precise.

Here she pads around the silent rooms, trying to get her head together, trying to resist the temptation to take a hit of the (futuristic) drug she was addicted to, all the while spied on by her boss, Hilton Swift, who makes regular phone calls to check she’s alright.

Count Zero

Then there’s a series of chapters which are written in a different, far more louche tone, as if from a sci fi comic or manga magazine.

Kid Afrika (who is black) is chauffeured across the crushed steel surface of ‘Dog Solitude’ in a Dodge hovercraft (reminiscent of the hovercraft in which Turner drives Angie in Count Zero) driven by a white girl named Cherry Chesterfield to ‘the Factory’, some kind of derelict building.

They’re spotted approaching by the retarded Little Bird who points the hovercraft out to Slick Henry, who is working on a huge sculpture titled ‘the Judge’. Got all that?

In the back of the hovercraft is a comatose body on a stretcher which Kid refers to as ‘the Count’. In a flash we realise this is Bobby Newmark, also known as Count Zero, a young computer hacker (or ‘hotdogger’) from the New Jersey slums, who gave the previous novel its title.

Kid Afrika has orders to hide Count Zero and wants Slick Henry to take him in. Henry is reluctant because he knows that the secretive Gentry, the man who first discovered the (abandoned) Factory and moved into it and, effectively, owns it, will not approve. Gentry hates people.

But the Kid reminds Slick Henry that he saved the latter’s life once and owes him a big favour. Reluctantly, Henry takes him in, accompanied by Cherry who will act as a sort of nurse to the comatose Count… leaving the reader wondering what happened to the Count and why he’s been sent here.

Mona

Mona is 16 and SINless i.e. does not have a Single Identitification Number and so is off the grid of social security etc.

She lives with her pimp, Eddy, in a shitty, flyblown squat in Florida where he’s brought her, from Cleveland where she used to do erotic dancing in a seedy bar, in hope of making more money. Florida turns out to be polluted and dirty. Eddy sends her out to do tricks, beats her if she disobeys or complains, takes her money and then makes her describe the encounters to him, to make him hard so he can fuck her.

The whole milieu is painted with grim and depressing conviction.

After a chapter or two to establish this sordid set-up, Eddy suddenly introduces Mona to a smartly dressed man named Prior. To her surprise they are taken to an airport, loaded into a private jet and fly to Atlanta. Here they are taken to a swish hotel and next thing Mona knows she is having a medical checkover by a man named Gerald. Gerald and Prior seem to be discussing Mona’s appropriateness for some task – the colour of her eyes, her dental records, her age all appear to be relevant.

Now there have been several clues as to what’s going on:

a) In an earlier passage where Mona had gone shopping, she’d spotted a poster of Angie Marshall and reflected that people sometimes remarked on her looking like the great simstim star. b) In the next chapter we are with Kumiko as she and Colin listen to a playback of the conversations they’d bugged between her ‘hosts’. They hear Swain discussing with Sally Shears an ‘extraction’ job, and talking about the way ‘the target’ is back in ‘the house on the coast.’

All this sounds like what we’ve learned about Angie Marshall as she potters about the big house in Malibu. Swain goes on to say that ‘they’ (the unspecified client) don’t want her extracted by any number of mercs they could hire, but specifically by Sally Shears. And, he adds, there’s a new instruction: the client wants to make it look as if she’d been killed in the kidnapping. The client will provide a body.

Recap

So, by page 100 of this 300-page book, the reader has grasped that it’s going to be about a gang of crims, somehow organised by London-based Swain, and featuring lens-eyed Sally Shears, who plan to kidnap simstim star Angie Marshall (for what reasons, we will presumably find out) and we can deduce that the lowlife hooker Mona has been shipped to a hotel and given a medical examination because ‘they’ plan to kill her and probably burn or mutilate her body enough to make investigators think it is Angie’s (an idea which seemed, to this reader, remarkably low-tech: don’t they have DNA forensics in this otherwise hi-tech future?)

Backgrounds

Threaded in between the storylines, we learn a lot more of the background to this futureworld, aspects which help shed light on the earlier two novels.

We learn what you might call conventional aspects of any sc-fi story set in Earth’s future, those hints and tips about future apocalypses which titillate the viewer’s taste for catastrophe. For example, we get a few more details about the ‘three week war’ which obliterated Bonn in a nuclear strike and resulted in clouds of radiation drifting west which led to food shortages in Britain. Petal shows Kumiko a hologram constructed from old footage of the Battle of Britain, created, he tells her, to commemorate the centenary i.e. 2040. Now since in an earlier novel we’d read about the ‘law of ’53’, presumably 2053, I’m guessing the action is set somewhere in the 2060s, maybe 2070s.

I couldn’t help feeling this third novel has, at least to begin with, a middle-aged feel: it doesn’t kick off at a furious headlong pace in a flood of amphetamine-fulled prose like Neuromancer, but takes its time and spreads.

Thus the book takes its time to give each of the characters a hefty backstory, even the hooker Mona, starting with her time back as a kid working on a crayfish farm and following through her sorry life to date, liberated from a crappy manual job by stylish confident Eddy, who turns out to be a pimp and beater.

We learn that Slick Henry committed a series of crimes – stealing cars apparently – he was caught and punished by having his memory permanently damaged via the technique of Induced Korsakov’s Syndrome. It flares up when he’s under pressure and he can only remember five minutes back…

Dog Solitude, we learn, is a vast landfill site full of toxic rubbish, somewhere beyond New Jersey. When it was finally full to overflowing rollers or something heavy were sent across its surface to crush and flatten the metal objects, resulting in the whole thing becoming an uneven but essentially flat surface of billions of tin cans and appliances and crushed cars. Nothing grows there, the rain collects in toxic puddles and, because of the unevenness, only hovercraft can cross it.

Slick Henry, for his own psychological reasons, is assembling vast sculptures, symbols of the authority figures who locked him up and stole his memory, while Gentry, the misanthropic owner of the Factory – a vast derelict building with flaps of waste plastic clumsily stapled over its long-smashed windows – is pursuing some quixotic quest into discovering the meaning and shape of the matrix of cyberspace.

And this rhymes, chimes and echoes Angie’s preoccupation with understanding the beings, the entities, which can enter, access and ‘ride’ her mind, what the two black men she met in Count Zero used Haitian voodoo terminology to refer to as loa.

So much for the characters’ backstories.

Tessier-Ashpool again

In among all these themes and stories, I was surprised at the way that for the third time the orbiting space station owned by the legendarily wealthy Tessier-Ashpool once again emerges as an idea and destination for the characters.

Tessier-Ashpool in Neuromancer

You will recall that in Neuromancer, the protagonists Case and Molly, helped by the cloned daughter of the billionaire Ashpool, 3Jane, fulfil the task set them of activating a codeword which allows the two separate parts, the two ‘lobes’ of the matrix – named Wintermute and Neuromancer – to unite. The rather visionary, transcendent result is that, right at the end of that novel, the matrix becomes self aware. All of this takes place in the orbiting space station, Freeside, created by the fabulously rich Tessier-Ashpool family.

Tessier-Ashpool in Count Zero

Count Zero is set 7 or 8 years later and brings Angie Marshall, smuggled out of Maas Biolabs’ clutches to freedom and brought to a nightclub in New York, where she meets some heavy-duty black guys who explain to her that, above and beyond its rational business content, cyberspace is also possessed by strange religious god-like entities called loas, who have the names of Haitian voodoo gods (for example Baron Samedi).

Count Zero climaxes when the young art expert, Marly, fulfils the commission given her by the world’s richest man, Josef Virek, to discover the creator of a strange and haunting artwork – a vitrine filled with seven or so random objects. She follows the trail out into space, to very same orbiting space station, Freeside, more specifically to the section of it which the Tessier-Ashpool family created as its own private fortress and which has, since the events of Neuromancer, been ‘sawn off’ from Freeside and placed into its own orbit.

Here Marly discovers that someone has created a vast sphere with no gravity inside this space station, in which a cornucopia of rubbish and random objects floats slowly around, while a multi-armed robot device grabs random items as they float by, while other robot arms use lasers to shape and mould the objects, which are then placed in these vitrines. The whole thing is devoted to creating Damien Hirst-style artworks.

At the climax of the novel, the face of Josef Virek, the richest man in the world, who had given Marly her quest, appears on a monitor in this dome and tells her his people have followed her and are about to enter the dome. He thinks he is on the brink of getting his hands on a super-advanced technology which will give him immortality. I think what happens next is that we learn the dome, its robot artist and the haunting vitrines are all products of the loa, the self-aware entities within cyberspace. Marly’s quest was part of a scheme by the loa to lure Virek to his death and, sure enough, while logged into cyberspace in order to communicate with Marly, he is killed by the loa, thus freeing Marly from her quest.

Tessier-Ashpool in Mona Lisa Overdrive

Now, in this novel, Angie, on a very slender pretext, finds herself becoming obsessed with the Tessier-Ashpool family. She discovers that one of her simstim’s technical team had used the show’s recent break (while she was in the rehab clinic) to go ‘up the well’ (i.e. into space) to delve into the Tessier-Ashpool story. She asks for a copy of a recent documentary made into the mysterious fate of the Tessier-Ashpool family, which she watches several times, her viewings being opportunities for Gibson to feed us more bits of backstory.

Half way through Mona Lisa I had become a little bored of this Tessier-Ashpool theme. It seemed to me to close down the novel’s possibilities. It is a big world and, if you throw in space stations and extra-terrestrial travel, it is a very big world. It seemed oddly spastic for the stories to have to return to the same setting.

I thought Gibson is going to have to pull something pretty impressive out of the hat if he’s going to trump a) the climax of Neuromancer in which cyberspace becomes self aware! or b) the climax of Count Zero, with its hallucinatory vision of cyberspace being taken over by voudou gods!

Puzzles

This third of the Sprawl trilogy makes Gibson’s modus operandi clearer than ever. The main characteristic of the books is that they are deliberately confusing.

At the end of most thrillers there is some kind of explanation of what happened and often authors are considerate enough to tie up the loose ends. In Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive I was left more confused by the denouements than by the chase. I don’t think they can be summarised, really, because there are about ten named characters and all of them have shifting theories about what is actually going on, and the voices in the matrix themselves give changing interpretations of what is happening and why.

The result is a gathering sense of excitement, with a number of chases and battle confrontations all going off at the same time – but only a very confused sense of what is at stake. Something desperately important is at stake but, for most of the novel, it is hard to understand what.

For example, Kumiko escapes from the minder set to accompany her on a shopping trip around Portobello Road, and makes it across London to Brixton, to the scuzzy flat of the cockney console-cowboy Tick (real name, Terrance) who Sally Shears had introduced her to in a pub in Notting Hill early on.

Tick hands her some ‘trodes and takes her into cyberspace to show her a mystery which is puzzling the millions of other cyberjockeys around the world, which is the arrival of a huge new ‘building’ or artefact of gleaming data in the matrix. Why did Sally tell Kumiko to go to Tick’s? Who is Tick, really? What is the mystery of the shining artifact?

All that is relatively clear is that Swain’s men as well as the regular police will be out searching for Kumiko in force i.e. there is a strong sense of menace and paranoia.

Also, about a hundred pages we are explicitly told – if we hadn’t guessed it already – that ‘Sally Shears’ is none other than Molly Millions, the female lead in Neuromancer, characterised by her distinctive metallic lens implants where her eyes ought to be, and the 4-centimetre long retractable razor knives under her fingernails.

From various conversations Kumiko has overheard or we have witnessed, we realise she is a central part of the plan to kidnap Angie Mitchell, and that she is mighty unhappy about it. She says she’s only doing it because she’s being blackmailed and Swain says he’s only doing it because he’s being blackmailed, too, and I think – if I understood correctly – that they’re both being blackmailed into doing it by 3Jane, the mad daughter of Ashpool from Neuromancer, who is dead, but exists as an AI or ‘construct’.

More plot

Going back on the plan and abandoning Swain, Molly a) tells Kumiko to escape to the safety of Tick’s flat, while b) she, Molly, flees to America. First thing we know about her arrival is when she breaks into the clinic where Mona is having plastic surgery done on her to make her look like Angie Mitchell. The clinic door explodes as the minder, Prior, comes flying through it, followed by rough, tough Molly. She grabs Mona and escapes with her. (This is possible because she’s been tipped off about the surgery by the plastic surgeon, Gerald [did he do her lens-eyes, the reader idly wonders?])

Molly takes Mona off in a car and drives to New York, where she parks atop a multi-story car park and disappears, telling Mona to stay put.

Then we cut to Angie. In the intervening chapters she has more or less ‘recovered’ and agreed with her boss that she is ready to return to broadcasting. Her technical crew arrive, including hair stylists, make-up and so on, and then she flies back to New York, arriving by swanky corporate helicopter at the city’s smartest hotel, whose the top floors are permanently rented by her employers. Sense/Net. Remember, she is the most famous and highest paid simstim star in the world.

But Angie’s chopper has barely landed before Molly forces open the door, shoots Angie’s smooth gay black minder, Porphyre, with a stun dart, commandeers and flies the chopper over to the car park where she’d left Mona, and bundles Angie out of the chopper and into the back of the car.

Here, scared teenage Mona, doctored to look like Angie, meets her heroine, and Angie reacts with movie star aplomb to coming face to face with a clone of herself. Meanwhile, tough Molly is driving them off at speed, in fact, driving the car up the ramp into a nearby empty hovercraft which she proceeds to steal.

Meanwhile, in the derelict factory in the waste land beyond New Jersey, Gentry has become resigned to the presence of the comatose Count Zero at the Factory, because he’s jacked into the Count’s mind and realised that the Count, like him (Gentry), is on a mission, on a quest, to understand what’s happened to the matrix.

They both know that at some point, 14 years earlier, something changed in cyberspace. In their different ways they have pieced together the story told in Neuromancer, namely that Case and Molly oversaw the unification of the two lobes of an AI so enormous it effectively became cyberspace.

What is genuinely puzzling to this reader is the way Neuromancer climaxes with the matrix becoming self-aware at the climax of a thrilling, scary novel, but then the threat of the entire digital realm becoming self-aware is frittered away in the subsequent books.

At the very end of Neuromancer I thought it was going to become like the terrifying moment in the Terminator story, where the newly self-aware world computer declares war on its human creators.

But no. Nothing like that happens. Instead that-which-had-become-one appears to disintegrate again into a number of different entities and this fundamental oddity is compounded in Count Zero when we learn that these fragments have taken the shape and names and behaviour of the gods of voudou.

These are the Horsemen which dominated Angie’s mind in Count Zero and become increasingly present to her as Mona Lisa progresses:

And there they were, the Horsemen, the loa: Pappa Legba bright and fluid as mercury; Ezili Freda who is mother and queen; Samedi, the Baron Cimetiere, moss on corroded bone; Similor; Madame Travaux; many others… They fill the hollow that is Grande Brigitte. The rushing of their voices is the sound of wind, running water… (p.262)

We learn as the novel proceeds that this is why Angie became addicted to the drugs, because the drugs stopped her dreaming about the voudou horsemen.

But when the voices come through – the voice of Mamman Brigitte in particular being the dominant one in this novel – their explanations are even more confusing than in Zero.

They speak in highly mystical language: the loa came out of Africa but not as we (modern Caucasians) know them; Legba-ati-Bon – who rode Angie seven years ago at the climax of Zero – has also yet to come into existence i.e. he is and yet is not.

They confirm that the events at the climax of Neuromancer did indeed give rise to The One, but there was also an ‘other’. Then the centre failed and every fragment rushed away, each fragment seeking a form. Brigitte explains that, of all the signs and symbologies created by humanity, ‘the paradigms of voudou proved most appropriate’ (p.264).

But even if you’ve managed to process this, it is still not clear, even by the end of the book, what she is on about: more appropriate for what? For what purpose?

Brigitte confirms that it was the loa who approached Angie’s father, Chris Mitchell, star scientist of Maas Biolabs and offered him secrets; in return for this knowledge, he implanted biochemical programmes in Angie’s brain which made it easier for her to see the loa without jacking into cyberspace.

OK. But why?

And, as the novel progresses, Angie also realises that she has been seeing 3Jane’s dreams, memories of events which took place inside the Tessier-Ashpool fortress – but why? How is that possible and what does it mean?

My point is that – beneath the speed-driven, slangy, tech-jargon prose, and beneath the thriller motifs of gangsters and criminal cartels, and beneath the genuinely gripping, real world situations of kidnaps, and high speed chases, and getaways, and firefights – and even beneath the neon grid vision of cyberspace into which the characters pop with just enough regularity to remind us that depicting cyberspace is Gibson’s métier and USP – at the heart of all three novels in the Sprawl trilogy is a surprisingly mystical, non-rational and deeply confusing core.

If they were about money or drugs or gold or smuggling or guns or espionage or any of the other common thriller tropes, it would be one thing. But all three novels end up being about strange, mystical changes within cyberspace which all the books’ characters themselves don’t understand.

On balance this is a plus. It makes them rereadable. Usually at the end of a thriller the game is given away and we know whodunnit and why. Not in these books. They have all the structure and many of the trappings of conventional thrillers, plus all the hi-tech, lowlife drug paraphernalia thrown in. But at heart they remain oddly, eerily unknowable.

The last battle

The novel heads towards a climax at the Factory.

While we’ve been following the convergence of Angie and Molly and Mona in New York, things have hotted up at the Factory, namely bad guys have arrived. Using a loudhailer they demand the comatose body of Count Zero. Foolishly, Little Bird fires pretty much the only gun in the place at the tough mercs outside, at which point they announce they are going to storm the place.

The real world conflict is matched when Slick Henry jacks into Count Zero’s mind and discovers all kinds of wonders. Bobby’s consciousness exists in a tranquil paradise while he explores the mysteries of the new artifact in cyberspace. When Henry explains the situation, Bobby uses his control of cyberspace to reroute a passing automated cargo helicopter and make it drop its heavy loads onto the hovercraft and men approaching from outside.

Nonetheless, the mercs are just starting to fight their way into the Factory when out of nowhere the hovercraft driven by Molly erupts through the Factory walls. What follows next is largely seen through the eyes of 16-year-old Molly, who has found a stash of drugs and taken some, with the result that most of it is described in a stoned, dreamy, half-understood way.

Molly fights off the mercenaries aided by Slick Henry’s sculptures which, although they were built for his own psychological therapy, also happen to contain flame throwers and lasers and clutching claws and so on, all of which turn out to be handy in fighting off an attacking force of mercenaries.

While all this is going on, Angie makes her way up to the high-level ‘loft’ where Bobby’s stretcher is laid out and there, amid Slick Henry and Cherry, she embraces him. During the fight his weak body has finally expired. Angie puts on a spare set of ‘trodes, embraces his body, and she too disappears into cyberspace. Her body too expires, but we follow her into cyberspace where she imagines she is walking, being guided towards a wedding.

Back in the real world Molly has finished wiping out the mercs just as Angie’s boss, head of the Sense/Net simstim broadcasts, Hilton Swift arrives. His people had realised Angie had been kidnapped back at the hotel, identified the hovercraft she’d been driven off in, and it’s taken them this long to follow Angie out to the Factory.

Now Hilton and his people walk in at more or less the same time that Molly’s battered old hovercraft screeches off through a big gap in the Factory wall, taking with her Slick Henry and Cherry, who have forged some kind of bond in these last few hectic hours.

Tying up loose ends

As Hilton walks into the Factory he is confronted by just stoned Mona who, of course, is the spitting image of Angie, albeit twenty years younger. Entranced, Hilton and Porphyre (Angie’s minder) decide on the spot they will simply replace the dead Angie with Mona.

And so, after some extensive physical cleaning up and neural cleansing, it does indeed come to pass that Mona steps straight into Angie’s simstim shoes – and is even more of a hit than the original, returning to the world’s simstim screens new and refreshed after her detox break.

It had been explained, sort of, that Molly fled London and Swain because she had cut her own deal with (I think) 3Jane: this is what motivated her to bring Angie to the Count in his dying moments (though exactly why 3Jane wanted this to happen, I don’t understand). Anyway, in return for keeping her side of the bargain, all Molly’s criminal records are wiped clean, and she is a free woman.

It is confirmed that Swain, supposedly working for Kumiko’s dad, had in fact double-crossed him by selling out to 3Jane, partly due to her threat to expose all his criminal activities. But right at the end of the book we learn that Swain has been killed and replaced by the burly, crop-haired and rather fatherly Petal. Tick and Petal had taken a video call from Kumiko’s father explaining that the ‘difficulty’ he had been experiencing is now over. When Kumiko asks her father about his role in her mother’s suicide, he shows genuine remorse and repentance and Kumiko finds herself forgiving him. At which point there’s a knock on the door of Tick’s crappy flat and it is Petal who – to my relief – doesn’t just machine gun everyone inside – as happens in so many Yank movies – but instead kindly explains the situation and says he is taking Kumiko back into his guardianship under instructions from her father. Aaah.

The ‘other’

Despite rereading the ending I never understood why 3Jane’s dreams or thoughts appeared with such pressure and urgency to Angie. What I did understand is that all’s well that ends well.

Virtual Angie and virtual Bobby are shown living in a wonderful, luxury and very peaceful French chateau which he has constructed in cyberspace. Fragments of other minds drift in and out – tentative sad 3Jane, other players they’ve known such as Colin the smooth-talking cyber-guardian of Kumiko back in the early chapters, and in particular the foul-mouthed Finn, a character who has appeared in all the novels as a particularly wise and ancient cyber cowboy.

And then, one day, a limousine turns up and Bobby and the Finn, with Colin in attendance, lead Angie out and into it. They explain that on that day, 14 years earlier, when the matrix became one, it immediately sensed the presence of an ‘other’. Now they are taking her to meet that other. But cyberspace contains all human data, Angie protests. Sure, replies the Finn. But the ‘other’ isn’t human.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said. ‘If cyberspace consists of the sum total of data in the human system…’
‘Yeah,’ the Finn said, turning out onto the long straight empty highway ahead, ‘but nobody’s talking human, see?’
‘the other one was somewhere else,’ Bobby said.
‘Centauri,’ said Colin.
Can they be teasing? Is this some joke of Bobby’s?
‘So it’s kinda hard to explain why the matrix split up into all those hoodoos ‘n’ shit, when it met this other one,’ said the Finn, ‘but when we get there, yo’ll sorta get the feeling…’
‘My own feeling,’ said Colin, ‘is that it’s all so much more amusing this way…’
‘Are you telling the truth?’
‘Be there in a New York minute,’ said the Finn, ‘no shit.’

So a) it ends as many sci fi stories do, on the brink of the first encounter with intelligent life from another world b) I’m glad to see that even right at the end, there is no rational explanation for the One created at the end of Neuromancer is then discovered to have relapsed back into many fragments in the subsequent books, and not only that, but fragments which take the identities of voodoo gods.

Even right at the end where everything else is explained, this remains unexplained.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

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

Count Zero by William Gibson (1986)

He drank off the black bitter coffee. It seemed to him, just for a second, that he could feel the whole Sprawl breathing, and its breath was old and sick and tired, all up and down the stations from Boston to Atlanta…’ (p.286)

The setting

This is the second novel in what came to be known as Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy (because there ended up being three of them: his debut, Neuromancer, and the third novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.)

It is the future. Vast urban sprawls cover half of America, housing estates and huge malls under enormous geodesic domes blocking out the sky. Japanese culture and cuisine is widespread and everyone uses the New Yen as currency. Computers and digital technology, chips and disks, fuel a digital economy. Oil appears to have run out – possibly because Russia took control of the global supply after a brief war which America and the West lost – to be replaced by hydrogen cells. Electricity is generated by the Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority whose well-protected gleaming towers of data can be seen by hackers in cyberspace. The real power in the world lies with vast multinational corporations known as zaibatsus. At the other end of the food chain, down on the littered streets, cheap bars and derelict spaces are full of veterans from the war, damaged physically or psychologically, many of whom turn up as protagonists in the Sprawl novels and in some of the Sprawl-related short stories collected in Burning Chrome (1986) published at the same time as the novels.

‘Sprawltown’s a twisty place, my man.Things are seldom what they seem.’ (Lucas, p.205)

This setting – ‘the street’ – is characterised by two things:

  1. a Raymond Chandler film noir sensibility in which the world is entirely made up of crime and gangs –  especially the terrifying Yakuza gangs
  2. drugs, lots of drugs, everyone is on one type of drug or another, the hero of Neuromancer is off his face a lot of the time, and the drugs range from cheap street drugs like amphetamine (known on the street as ‘wiz’) to new, biochemically-engineered mind-enhancing substances (like ‘the most expensive designer drugs’ which the character named The Wig devotes himself to taking, p.173)

The result is a prose style which combines the basic mood of a thriller – the permanent edginess of protagonists on the run from threatening crime lords or criminal organisations or the cops or someone  – but soaked in slangy, hip, knowing references to the ho-tech, drug-soaked, street gang components of this louche futureworld.

The feel

All that said, Count Zero immediately feels much broader and lighter than Neuromancer. That debut novel was set mostly at night, in often claustrophobic settings, bars, clubs, hotel rooms, dingy back alleys. Also the prose was extremely dense, studded with references to arcane technology or drugs or street gangs. There was barely a run-of-the-mill sentence in the whole book.

Count Zero is much more relaxed and diffused in several ways: its prose style is a lot less hectic – there are plenty of straightforward, factual sentences in it – but also the settings are more varied, and some of them even take place in daylight!

In fact whereas Neuromancer stuck pretty closely to the adventures of its computer hacker hero, Case, Count Zero is a complicated and canny weaving together of what start out as several completely distinct plotlines, featuring completely freestanding characters. Only as the story progresses do we slowly discover how they are linked.

Turner

Turner is an experienced kidnapper of top scientists. In the future this is a recognised profession. The huge scientific multinational corporations which control the world are prepared to pay kidnappers like Turner to poach the star scientists of the rival corporations.

‘You took Chauvet from IBM for Mitsu and they say you took Semenov out of Tomsky.’ (0.68)

Turner is – like the protagonist of every thriller ever written – an outsider, a rebel, the man who doesn’t fit in. Oh how we all wish we could be like him!

Turner himself was incapable of meshing with the intensely tribal world of the zaibatsumen, the lifers. He was a permanent outsider, a rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics. (p.128)

‘A rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of intercorporate politics’ – cool!

Strikingly, the novel opens with a chapter describing how Turner was blown to pieces by an assassin’s bomb in India, and expensively fitted back together using future technology bythe clients who find him useful. Recuperating in Mexico, he hooks up with a pretty woman he meets in a bar and they have an idyllic romance, with sex on the beach, and sex in the bedroom.

Then – as with half the protagonists in the Burning Chrome stories and in Neuromancer – she walks away, leaving him devastated.

Turns out she was a therapist hired by the client to get Turner back into shape. The client now shows up and tells him this. Turner, super-tough guy that he is, accepts it without a flicker. (This opening reminded me of the idyllic Third World setting at the start of the second Jason Bourne movie, where Jason and his true love are enjoying idyllic times in a beach-front shack in India, till she is killed by mistake by an assassin sent to terminate Jason.)

These are rock solid, straight down-the-line, Hollywood-level, tough guy thriller clichés, and you can see the appeal.

  1. Every timid, shy, boring salaryman and commuter (like myself) thrills to the adventures of people like Turner – young (he is 24, p.131), super-fit, super-alert, super-trained, no-nonsense, super-brave, possessor of ‘a ropey, muscular poise’ (p.129): faces down men bigger and harder than him, immediately wins over the tough bitch in the team, wow, what a man! (it was, apparently, in a review of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service published in the Sunday Times in 1963 that the critic Raymond Mortimer wrote, ‘James Bond is what every man would like to be, and what every woman would like between her sheets.’ Nothing has changed in 56 years.)
  2. And yet, just as predictably, it turns out this tough guy has a heart of soppy mush — for the right woman he can be a perfect gent, picnics on the beach and cunnilingus in the bedroom. What a guy!

We follow as Turner is hired for a new job by his former partner, Conroy. He is to be in charge of setting up a base in the desert with a ragtag bunch of fellow mercs, ready to receive the absconding scientist, Christopher Mitchell, who will be escaping from Maas Biolabs’ high security research base in Arizona. Mitchell is a star science researcher who had developed the ‘hybridoma techniques’ on which much contemporary technology is based (p.127). A very important guy. the client is Hosaka Corp who want his brains and expertise. It’s a major assignment. You won’t be surprised to learn that things go disastrously wrong,

Marly

The Turner chapters are intercut with chapters following Marly Krushkhova, the pretty, rather naive ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’. She promoted a painting which turned out to be a forgery, so she was fired by the shareholders. Now she’s going for a job interview with a business owned by Josef Virek, rumoured to be the richest man in the world.

Marly is disconcerted to discover that Virek is not present in person, but that she is transported to a life-size hologram of a street in Barcelona, where she sits next to a hologram of him on a park bench and they chat.

In fact, the hologram tells her, the actual ‘Virek’ exists only as a disembodied brain kept alive in a vat in a him security compound in Stockholm.

He doesn’t want to hire her for some straightforward gallery job. Virek wants Marly to track down the artist who created a particular artwork which he once saw and was taken with – a Damian Hirst-style vivarium full of a random collection of detritus.

Virek will authorise money for her use to hire an apartment, planes, whatever she needs in her quest. ‘How long do I have?’ she asks. ‘The rest of your life,’ he replies. It takes a while for her to really understand that he is giving her an unlimited supply of money, over an unlimited period of time, to use all her contacts in the art world to track down the artist who made this one piece.

And, once she has staggered out of the hologram room to be met by Virek’s smooth-talking assistants and given the first instalment of money, she begins to realise that she is being followed and monitored at every step, not least by a suave Spanish man, Paco, who keeps appearing in the background whenever she meets contacts and begins her investigation.

This Quest will turn out to be the central driving force of the narrative, but the fact that Virek is so obscenely rich also gives Gibson plenty of opportunity to reflect on the nature of money, lots of money, super-money, and the effect it has on its owners and on those around them. In this futureworld where people routinely alter their consciousness either with mind-bending drugs or by encountering 3-D holograms or by entering the dizzying world of cyberspace, the rich can quite literally bend reality to their wishes.

‘The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit…’ (p.27)

How could she have imagined that it would be possible to live, to move, in the unnatural field of Virek’s wealth without suffering distortion? Virek had taken her up, in all her misery, and had rotated her through the monstrous, invisible stresses of his money, and she had been changed. (p.107)

Virek’s money was a sort of universal solvent, dissolving barriers to his will… (p.2420

Count Zero

Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’, still lives with his mom in a crappy apartment in the vast area of cheap, high-rise housing known as Barrytown, New Jersey. He is an apprentice computer hacker, a cowboy of cyberspace, a ‘hotdogger’, hanging round the estate’s chrome-lined bars, trying to be fit in with the local gang members, but keenly aware that he is only a beginner with only a basic, entry-level hacker’s view of cyberspace.

He was like a kid who’d grown up beside an ocean, taking it as much for granted as he took the sky, but knowing nothing of currents, shipping routes of the ins and outs of weather. He’d used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn’t space, mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the matrix cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline. (p.62)

A local crime boss, Two-A-Day, hands Bobby a state-of-the-art console and asks him to hack into the financial records of some company. Things are going OK when Bobby suddenly experiences an enormous counter-surge of energy directed against him which stops his heart in the real world. Bobby starts to die, when some other undefined force leans in to cyberspace, releases him, and he regains consciousness on his mom’s carpet throwing up.

What the…?

He goes looking for Two-A-Day at the local crappy bar, Leon’s, where Gibson gives us florid descriptions of the drug-selling, computer-game-playing lowlifes. On the TV news he sees that his mum’s flat, indeed the entire row of apartments on that block, have been destroyed by a bomb. Christ! They’re after him.

Bobby goes and hides down a back alley by a dumpster which turns out be a bad idea because someone savagely mugs him. Whoever it is, slashes his chest open and also steals the console Two-A-Day gave him.

When Bobby comes round he is being sewn up using futuristic technology, and then delivered to Two-A-Day’s vast penthouse apartment where he meets a couple of soft-spoken, nattily-dressed and terrifying black men, Beauvoir and Lucas.

Beauvoir explains what’s happened: Two-A-Day had been given some new, high-powered anti-ice (ice being security software devised by corporations to protect their digital assets in cyberspace) program to by unnamed powerful agents. Unwilling to risk anything himself, Two-A-Day had sub-contracted the thing to Bobby – the idea being that, if it’s booby-trapped or dangerous it’ll only be worthless Bobby who gets wasted.

Well, something bad certainly happened to Bobby when he tried to use it. 1. Was that a failure of the program, or was it booby-trapped, or did it trigger a prepared defence mechanism in the corporation Bobby tried to hack?

But 2. and more importantly, whoever mugged him stole the console with the software inside. Now the very High-Ups who sub-contracted testing it to Two-A-Day are pissed off with him… and he is pissed off with Bobby, who needs to get it back.

Three mysteries

These are the three storylines which we follow in short, alternating chapters of Gibson’s over-heated, amphetamine-fuelled prose.

As the night came on, Turner found the edge again. It seemed like a long time since he’d been there, but when it clicked in, it was like he’d never left. It was that superhuman synchromesh flow that stimulants only approximated. (p.126)

All the characters hover on the edge of mind-altering psychotropic drug highs, or mind-expanding plug-ins to the dizzying landscape of cyberspace, or are involved in terror-inducing chases by cops or all-powerful threatening powers. With the result that the prose, and even more the plot, has you permanently on edge. It is a fantastically thrilling, gripping and exciting novel but which can also, partly because of the permanent obscurity Gibson maintains around some of the key motivators of the plot, become quite wearing and draining.

Basically, the narrative hangs around three cliffhanging challenges:

  1. Will Turner’s handling of the defection of the high-level scientist work out as planned?
  2. Who made the artwork that Virek hired Marly to track down, and why is Virek so obsessed by it?
  3. Will Bobby ‘Count Zero’ manage to find the people who mugged him and stole his console, and what is the truth about the new super-program inside it?

Continuities with Neuromancer

I thought the book would be part of the Sprawl trilogy because set in the same futureworld, I hadn’t realised it would literally follow on from the first book, referencing many of the characters and incidents mentioned in Neuromancer and taking them further.

For example, you will remember that the climax of Neuromancer is set on a space station orbiting the earth, only much more than a space station, more like a miniature town set inside a vast offworld which rotates to give it gravity and includes luxury hotels, swimming pools and pleasure gardens. One whole end of this was sealed off and the home of the legendary Tessier-Ashpool family which are the richest in the world and built it.

The Quest in Neuromancer is that Case and the ferocious Molly Millions, she with the 4-centimetry retractable razor blades under each fingernail are hired to co-ordinate an attack on the heart of the Tessier-Ashpool stronghold – Molly has to kidnap the daughter of old man Ashpool, named 3Jane because the wicked old man has manufactured clones of his daughters, and drag her to a jewel-studded head, there to utter the codeword which activates it, at the same time as Case the hacker has hacked into the Tessier-Ashpool security system and disabled it.

Straightforward as this may sound the novel kind of crumbles or disintegrates into increasingly visionary prose as the goal of the Quest is reached and we learn, through welters of mystical-cum-hi-tech prose, that two separate artificial intelligences crafted by 3Jane’s mother, are, at the mention of the codeword, allowed to unite thus creating a sort of super-intelligence which, at that moment, becomes identical with all of cyberspace. In a sort of apocalyptic vision the matrix becomes self-aware, and although it doesn’t affect the material reality of humans out in the real world, it is a transformative event in the collective consensual hallucination of all the world’s data which we call ‘cyberspace’.

‘It’s just a tailored hallucination we all agree to have, cyberspace…’ (the Finn, p.170)

What happens in Count Zero is this story continues. It is seven years after the events of the first novel (p.177) and the sharp-dressed spades Bobby has met are privy to what’s happened to cyberspace since that seismic event, namely that the One has split into a variety of entities which share the names of traditional voodoo gods and goddesses. Yes, voodoo. The latter half of the book is coloured by what Beauvoir and Lucas tell Bobby about the presence in cyberspace of these gods who represent primeval forces, though it is very hard to understand whether they existed before cyberspace, since the dawn of time and have infiltrated it, or are entirely man-made constructions, or what.

‘Jackie is a mambo, a priestess, the horse of Danbala…Danbala rides her, Danbala Wedo, the snake. Other times she is the horse of Aida Wedo, his wife…’ (p.122)

Beauvoir brings Bobby to a bar, Jammer’s, on the 14th floor of a high-rise block in New York.

The most important event in the Turner plotline is that, when the ultralite arrives at the reception site prepared by Turner and the other mercs, it is carrying not Mitchell, but his teenage daughter Angie. Even as she arrives a ferocious firestorm breaks out, presumably Maas Biolabs’ security people having followed its course and now attacking. Turner unstraps the girl from the ultralite and runs with her to a small, high-powered, self-steering jet which takes off at terrific speed just as Turner watches the campment and all the mercs manning it – who we have spent half the book getting to know – vaporised in some kind of semi-nuclear blast.

Bloodied and half conscious Turner steers to plane to crash land near the ranch of his long lost brother, Rudy, and his partner, Sally. Here they fix up the girl, whose name is Angie and have a couple of scenes reminiscing about the old days, about mom and pa and huntin’ and fishin’ in the unspoilt countryside.

This is precisely the kind of low-key interlude you get in Hollywood thrillers, a break after an over-tense fight/crash/conflict sequence. Then it is time to load up into a spare hovercraft (yes, hovercraft are a popular form of transport in this futureworld) and head off, with a vague plan of hiding out in the Sprawl, the name given to the vast urban conurbation stretching from Boston to Florida.

Meanwhile Marly’s investigations keep turning up the name of Tessier-Ashpool and her quest leads her to buy a ticket to the off-world satellite, named Freeside – exactly the place where Neuromancer climaxed. Now, though, the entire section of the satellite which contained the Tessier-Ashpool compound has been hacked off and set into a separate orbit.

Here Marly discovers a mad old cyberhacker, Wigan Ludgate known as The Wig hiding out, guarded by a young crook on the run, Jones (‘me, I came here runnin” p.274) – both of them protective of the core of the complex which is a vast space in which great clusters of waste objects and detritus float in zero gravity. ‘The dome of the Boxmaker’ (p.312)

Attached to a wall is a multi-armed computer-driven robot which uses its arms to grab passing flotsam, cut and shape them with a laser, and then place them in vivariums. This is the robotic creator of the work of art which so entranced Virek.

But along the way, being sent messages from Virek in cyberspace, when she jacks into simstim, by couriers and agents, she’s slowly come to realise that the artist is in danger. Virek doesn’t just want an art work. And now, here in this gravityless dome, a screen flickers into life and his face appears, explaining.

He explains that for some time he’s known that a Christopher Mitchell working at Maas Biolabs has been fed information from some source in cyberspace, this being the real source of Mitchell’s astonishing tech breakthroughs. And his numerous agents and researches have led him to believe that the source of this information, the superbrain behind it, also made the vitrines he set her to track down. Now she has found the source, and is agents, having followed her all the way, are at the doors of the Tessier-Ashpool satellite.

Meanwhile, in the Jammers bar in New York, Bobby and his minder Beauvoir are joined by Angie and Turner. On his long journey – interspersed by attacks from various unnamed opponents (Maas? Hosaka? Conroy?) – Turner has had plenty of opportunity to learn that Angie’s brain has been laced with some kind of physical entity (‘a biosoft modification has been inserted in his daughter’s brain’). This may or may not explain her ability to see visions. While asleep she dreams of voodoo gods and talks to them and, sometimes, they speak through her mouth, as one possessed. At one point she retales to Turner the events at the climax of Neuromancer which we recognise though mean nothing to him.

By the time Turner and Angie meet up with Beauvoir and Bobby in the New York bar, all these characters have had quite a few conversations about what is going on in cyberspace, what the voodoo gods represent, and how they’re linked to the events in the Tessier-Ashpool offworld compound (which, of course, most of them only know about from confused rumour).

The result, for the reader, is to be in a state of sort of permanently confused tension. Turner is chased and attacked, the girl Angie has premonitions of disaster, Bobby is mugged and then on the run from Two-A-Day and whoever his bosses are, the New York nightclub is surrounded by threatening mobs who are under someone’s control, when they open the door laser guns are fired through it.

Only right at the end is Turner contacted by the man who hired him, Conroy, who explains at least part of the plot. According to him, Josef Virek, the world’s richest man, has heard about a new form of biosoft developed by Mitchell and his investigators were all over Mitchell’s attempt to escape Maas. But when he sent his daughter out instead – her head actually laced with the new biosoft invention) Maas’s own men pursued Turner and Angie, observed by Virek’s men, and complicated by the fact the corporation who was paying for Mitchell to be extracted, Hosaka, thought they’d been double crossed and were also tracking Turner.

By the end of the book I think that one of Beauvoir’s speculations may be close to the truth, that The One created at the end of Neuromancer has, for reasons unknown, split into multiple lesser entities and that these, having ranged through all mankind’s systems of signs and symbols, have settled on the voodoo gods as appropriate interfaces with mankind that humans will understand. The least incomprehensible, anyway.

In Jammer’s Bobby jacks into the matrix to find out why the club is surrounded and how to get rid of the mob and the attackers, when a series of things happens. He is sucked into a powerful programme and suddenly is sitting in the same park on the same bench next to Josef Virek as Marly had early in the novel. But the women he jacked in with, one of Beauvoir’s black associates, was killed almost immediately. Virek has no idea who Bobby is and orders his sidekick, Paco to shoot him but, just as Paco lines up a gun, another far bigger program and presence erupts out of the flower beds and chases Virek’s screaming figure down the path and obliterates him.

It is Baron Samedi, one of the voodoo presences and he is taking his revenge for one of their number being killed by a Virek programme. In his vat in Stockholm Virek’s life support fails. He is dead with the result that a) up in the dome of the Boxmaker his face suddenly disappears from the screen where Marly had been listening to his orders and b) outside Jammer’s the assassins and mercs who had assembled to grab Angie – which was the goal of them surrounding the place – are abruptly called off.

Conroy, the menacing merc who had hired Turner for the extraction job and who appears on a videocall right at the end explaining to Turner the combination of forces who’ve been pursuing him, well in the attack on the merc’s camp back at the moment when Angie’s ultralight touched down and which killed all the other mercs Turner had assembled – one of them (Ramirez) had a girlfriend, Jaylene Slide, a mean bitch who is plenty angry at Conroy.

‘I’m Slide,’ the figure said, hand on its hips. ‘Jaylene. You don’t fuck with me. Nobody in LA,’ and she gestured, a window suddenly snapped into existence behind her,’ fucks with me.’ (p.292)

Turns out she has been tracking him down to his current location in a hotel in New York, Park Avenue to be precise. And, as we and Turner are watching Conroy’s face on the screen, we hear her order her buddies to blow up the entire floor of the building where Conroy and his team are based. Conroy hesitates a moment and then there’s a loud bang then the picture flickers off.

Before being blown up Conroy had told Turner that Hosaka and Maas, the two giant corporations had reached a settlement about Mitchell’s death, a discreet payout with no publicity in the way of giant corporations.

And so, in the space of a few pages, all the baddies who have been chasing our heroes and fuelling the nail-biting narrative, disappear! Turner, Angie, Bobby – suddenly they’re all safe.

Loose ends

So once again, as in Neuromancer, the novel’s climax is an odd mix of the entirely worldly thriller element (Slide’s revenge against Conroy) and typical corporate cynicism (Maas and Hosaka making up) with a strangely mystical and difficult to understand element (the voodoo gods who destroy Virek). And I think that is a deliberate point – the point that the complexity of cyberspace has produced entities which are literally beyond human comprehension and with goals and aims of their own which interact and overlap with human motivations but are extra to them.

Anyway, most of the human characters survive and in a couple of pages at the end of the main narrative we are given a little of their subsequent careers. The teenager Angie, bloodied by some of her experiences, but unbowed, uses her access to the voodoo gods to establish a career as a simstim star for the global entertainment corp, Sense/Net.

If you remember, right back when Bobby jacked into Two-A-Day’s console and was being killed, it was she who stepped in to save him. Thereafter, for the rest of the book, they have a close psychic ink which neither can quite explain and becomes more important as Bobby jacks in in subsequent sequences. The upshot is that Angie hires Bobby as her ‘bodyguard’ in the new life she carves out for herself in California.

Marly returns to Paris unscathed by her adventures and ends up curating one of the largest art galleries in the city.

Turner returns to the ranch where he had briefly holed up with Rudy and Sally earlier in the book. It’s typical of the plot’s complexities that during those brief few days he managed to fall in love with Sally (his brother’s partner) and impregnate her (p.194). Rudy himself was, with the inevitability of a Hollywood thriller, killed by Turner’s pursuers when they tracked the crashed jet to their ranch – but they let Sally live and she gave birth to Turner’s child nine months later. He’s quit the kidnapping business.

But behind all this is the uneasy knowledge that the matrix of cyberspace has, apparently, become home to sentient beings, who take the shape of voodoo gods and can intervene in human affairs. Should we be worried? Is this all going to lead to some Terminator-style apocalypse? You have to read the third in the trilogy to find out.

P.S. the Finn

I should add that Beauvoir at one stage takes Count Zero to see the Finn, an outrageously foul-mouthed, dirty and senior hacker who, it turns out, was the man who passed on the dodgy console to Two-A-Day. It’s only right at the end of the book, and after reading the ending a couple of times, that I think I worked out that the console is one of many objects made by the machine in the Dome of the Boxmaker, which Wigan Ludgate, in his madness, sends off to an unnamed fence back on earth, who I think we are meant to deduce is the Finn. So the program inside the workaday-looking console is in fact an advanced product made by the voodoo AIs. And which explains why Angie, who is a separate creation of the voodoo AIs via her father, Mitchell, was able to lean into it when it began to overpower and kill the Count back in the early pages of the novel.

I mention all this a) because it ties up a loose thread, b) because it gives you a sense of the complexity – and the wacky characters – which the narrative delights in c) because the Finn will turn up in the next novel, Mona Lisa Overdrive.

Credit

Count Zero by William Gibson was published by Victor Gollancz Ltd in 1986. All references are to the 1993 Grafton paperback edition.


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

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

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

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

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

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1957 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle – a vast cloud of gas heads into the solar system, blocking out heat and light from the sun with cataclysmic consequences on Earth, until a small band of maverick astronomers discovers that the cloud contains intelligence and can be communicated with
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1963 Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle French journalist Ulysse Mérou accompanies Professor Antelle on a two-year space flight to the star Betelgeuse, where they land on an earth-like plane to discover that humans and apes have evolved here, but the apes are the intelligent, technology-controlling species while the humans are mute beasts
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War has become an authoritarian state. The story concerns popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world in which he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The story of William Mandella who is recruited into special forces fighting the Taurans, a hostile species who attack Earth outposts, successive tours of duty requiring interstellar journeys during which centuries pass on Earth, so that each of his return visits to the home planet show us society’s massive transformations over the course of the thousand years the war lasts.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – burnt-out cyberspace cowboy Case is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

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

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Other posts about American history

Every room in the Courtauld Gallery

The aim of doing all the rooms in a gallery isn’t necessarily to look at every exhibit in the place. It is to:

  • discover the out-of-the-way corners where treasures are sometimes hidden
  • get a feel for the complete geography of a place, to understand how it fits together as a building
  • and understand how the works exhibited in it fit together to tell a story (or multiple stories)

Background

The Courtauld Gallery houses the art collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art, a self-governing college of the University of London specialising in the study of the history of art.

The Courtauld collection was formed largely through donations and bequests and includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and other works from medieval to modern times. It’s a kind of miniature National Gallery, following the same story of Western art through a much smaller selection of, in many ways more exquisite, pieces. It’s best known for its French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings; those rooms are always packed.

In total, the collection contains some 530 paintings and over 26,000 drawings and prints, displayed in 12 rooms over three floors reached via the charming old stone circular staircase.

The rooms

Room one: 13th-15th century 30 paintings and altar pieces, a big statue of the crowned Virgin Mary, 12 exquisite little ivory carvings, five caskets, a marriage chest and 12 pieces of Islamic metalwork. I liked:

  • The ivory Virgin and child with a chaffinch. I understand the symbolism, having seen the same subject at the V&A ie the chaffinch was thought to eat seeds from thorny plants, thus prefiguring the crown of thorns which the little baby Jesus was destined to wear 33 years later.
  • An ivory depicting ‘Scenes from the life of Jesus’, with an Ascension scene where the crowd are, Monty Python-style, looking up at a tunic and pair of sandals disappearing out of the frame (top left section).
  • What I liked about the medieval ivories is that the figures are cramped and packed into the composition, yet important ones, the Virgin in particular, are still willowy and sinuous; it’s the combination of cramped with willowy which is one of their appeals.
  • I discovered I like Robert Campin at the National Gallery: here, I liked his Seilern Triptych (1425). The most obvious thing is how dark it is; he uses an intense black to create variety or drama across the picture plane. On a separate level, I also liked the use of the grapes motif in the gilt background. And homely details like the handmade hedge in the bottom right.
  • Compare, in terms of light, with the nearby Coronation of the Virgin by Lorenzo Monaco, amazingly sumptuous and golden, but without the extremes of black, the density and drama of the Campin.
  • I realised at the National Gallery that I like northern European medieval and Renaissance painting for its concern for individuals. A good example here is the portrait of Guillaume Fillastre from the workshop of Roger van der Weyden (1430s)
  • Ugliest baby award went to Virgin and Child with angels by Quentin Massys

Mezzanine room: ‘Panorama’ Half-way up the stairs to the first floor is a small room which holds changing displays of prints. Currently it houses 14 drawings or prints on the theme of ‘the panoramic view’, including Canaletto, two Turners, a Towne etc. The wall label said the panorama derives from Dutch interest in landscapes, confirming my view of northern Europe as being humanist, interested in individuals and places, as opposed to Italy and Spain, home to countless images of the simpering Madonna, weeping saints and the limp corpse of Jesus, all set in rocky, barren deserts.

Room two: 16th century Renaissance Europe 19 paintings and some painted marriage chests, objects whose long narrow front panels are well suited to paintings depicting processions or battle scenes. There are also 23 Renaissance ceramics in an exhibition case, but the room is dominated by Botticelli’s Trinity with saints. As I discovered in the National Gallery, I like Botticelli as a cartoonist but not as a serious painter of the human condition.

Room three: 17th century Rubens and the Baroque 18 paintings, 11 of them Rubens, and a chest. My favourites were:

  • Cranach Adam and Eve (1526) for the medieval feel, the sumptuous northern flora, and the symbolic animals. Although it’s a well known story, the painting has a strange mysterious air, as if pregnant with additional, hidden meanings.
  • Hans Mielich Portrait of Anna Reitnor (1539) A typically north European, humanistic and individualistic portrait of a specific person. Compare and contrast with…
  • Rubens Cain killing Abel The wall label can go on about what Rubens had learned from his visit to Italy and his debt to Michelangelo – this still seems to me an over-muscled, deformed account of the human body, glorifying in a kind of murder porn.
  • Similarly, I disliked the nine sketches by Tiepolo, typified by St Aloysius Gonzaga. Words can’t convey the kitsch nastiness of this Catholic propaganda.

Room four: 18th century Enlightenment As at the National Gallery, it is a great relief to walk from rooms full of tortured saints, crucified Christs and weeping Maries into the common sense, calmness and reason of the English Enlightenment. This rooms contains a pleasant selection of comfortable, bourgeois paintings by Romney, Ramsay, Gainsborough and display cases full of silver plate, cups and so on. I liked:

Room five: 19th century Early Impressionism And now for something completely different, the rooms the Courtauld is famous for, this one holding 6 paintings, 2 sculptures. I liked:

  • Degas Two dancers on stage (1874) He did hundreds of studies and oils of this subject, this one is good.
  • Renoir La Loge (1874) When I went to see the Inventing Impressionism show at the National Gallery, Renoir emerged for me as the most consistent of the Impressionists, finding his style early and sticking to it, in paintings that look more consistently finished than his colleagues’ ones.
  • Monet Autumn effect at Argenteuil (1873) Exactly the kind of Monet which looks better compacted onto a computer screen or chocolate box, than how it appears here, in the flesh, where it is much larger, much blurrier and wispier.
  • Compare and contrast with Manet’s Banks of the Seine at Argenteuil (1874). The wall label says this is the most impressionist painting Manet ever did, made while he was staying at Monet’s house at Argenteuil. Although using the same short dabs of paint and showing the same hazy disregard for detail, as his friend, the striking thing is the quality of the black in the painting, a really deep, intense, black black, there in the boat but especially the woman’s hat, and giving the other colours, especially the blue, a darker hue. This gives the whole painting a greater intensity. It kind of roots it into a starker world, a firmer world, than anything in the pink and yellow creations of Monet’s which are hanging near it.

Room six :19th century Impressionism and post-impressionism

  • Manet The bar at the Folies Bergers (1880) This isn’t a very good reproduction, but again it highlights the importance of black in Manet’s compositions.
  • Cézanne The card players (1896) The stylisation of the human form is completely convincing.
  • Cézanne Mont St Victoire (1887) Characteristic deployment of the blocks and rectangles of colour which anticipate cubism.
  • Gauguin Te Rerioa (1897) I didn’t like Gauguin when I was young. I think exposure to lots and lots of tribal and native art has helped me ‘read’ him better, so that now I just accept and enjoy the whole composition.
  • Gauguin Nevermore (1897)

Room seven: 19th century Post-impressionism Just seven paintings, the standout specimen being Self-portrait with a bandaged ear by Vincent van Gogh. I like the strong back lines and the forceful, not necessarily realistic colouring.

Room eight: An exhibition room this is currently dedicated to Bridget Riley: learning from Seurat.

Room nine: 20th century French painting 12 paintings and statues by among others Derain, Braque, early Matisse, Vlaminck.

Room ten: 20th century French painting 1905-20 12 paintings, including specimens by Dufy, Bonnard, Picasso, Léger, all dominated by the Modigliani.

  • Modigliani Female nude (1916) Perfectly and completely itself.

Room eleven a: Late 19th-early 20th century painting 8 paintings.

  • Cézanne Route tournante (1905) a) Unfinished, so I like it. b) Even more of Cézanne’s characteristic cubes and blocks of paint, creating a powerfully dynamic image.
  • Degas Woman at a window Unfinished and with strong black lines, a wonderful visionary image.

Room eleven b: 19th century Seurat sketches. A small room with 8 tiny paintings by Seurat (died 1891)

Room 12: 20th century German Expressionists A bit of a relief to emerge from the fuzziness of France into the bright, barbarian virility of strident German expressionism. 12 big bold crude paintings.

Room 13: 20th century British painting Half a dozen big horrible paintings by Leon Kossof and Frank Auerbach, with an early Lucien Freud to brighten the gloom.

Rooms 14 and 15 are devoted to temporary exhibitions – earlier in the year Goya’s Witches and Old Women Album, currently the wonderful show of Peter Lanyon’s gliding paintings.

Conclusions

If I didn’t know before, spending three hours walking slowly through these wonderful rooms packed with treasures, made me realise a few simple things about my taste:

  • I like unfinished paintings, sketches and cartoons, where the image/work/composition is struggling to emerge, struggling to create order and beauty from the chaos of perception, or has the pathos and fragility of incompletion
  • I like firm lines which define the subject, especially the human subject, as in Degas or van Gogh
  • I like works which contain black blacks: for some reason its presence makes the entire work seem deeper, as if the spectrum from a really deep black to the light which reveals the object is wider, the experience of the colours on the canvas or wood, deeper and richer.

Related links

Other museums and galleries

Every room in Tate Britain (part one)

Tate Britain is dedicated to exhibiting British art from 1500 to the present day.

It is housed in a beautiful neo-classical building facing onto the river Thames. To the left a ramp and steps lead to the lower floor with a large exhibition space (currently showing Artist and Empire). To the right of the main building is the Clore Galleries (opened 1987), nine rooms on the ground floor housing the gallery’s big collection of JMW Turner paintings, watercolours, sketches etc, along with a room of Constable and, upstairs, a room of pre-Raphaelite drawings/paintings, and a room of William Blake engravings and paintings.

If you enter up the grand steps through the main entrance you arrive at a long central hall, home to changing displays and currently housing Susan Philipsz’ War Damaged Musical Instruments, an entirely audio display, tannoy speakers emitting the mournful sound of brass music played by instruments damaged in war, which she has rescued and refurbished. Sweet haunting sounds drift through the galleries as you saunter through the history of British art.

The west wing contains ten rooms covering British art from 1540 to 1910. Then you cross the entrance hall to the east wing and pick up the story in 1930, walk through another ten rooms containing the twentieth century exhibits.

Off to the side of these chronological sequences are single rooms dedicated to ad hoc displays of art ancient or bang up to date.

The rooms

1540

  • Full length portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Steven van der Meulen. I like the still-medieval feel, the flatness, the compaction, and the gorgeousness of the detail, the tremendously patterned gold background to the left, but also the idealised plants, flowers and fruit to the right.
  • Sir Peter Lely Two Ladies of the Lake Family (c.1660) I love the stylised round-cheeked cherub look of all Lely’s women. He was Dutch and emigrated here to become the principal portrait-painter at the court of Charles II, filling the position Sir Anthony van Dyck held for Charles I.

1730

  • Samuel Richardson, the Novelist, Seated, Surrounded by his Second Family 1740–1 by Francis Hayman. This isn’t a particularly good painting, I’m just surprised to learn of its existence. Richardson was a printer whose long epistolary novel about a 15-year-old serving girl named Pamela who writes letters to her parents about fighting off the ‘attentions’ of her country landowner master, Mr B, became the first bestseller and prompted a flood of merchandising and imitations. I enjoyed the attention paid to the silk of the dresses and the detail of the leaves on the trees.
  • William Hogarth The Painter and his Pug (1745) embodying a certain kind of pugnacious bully-boy philistinism. I’ve always enjoyed his O the Roast Beef of Old England (‘The Gate of Calais’) which is a pictorial list of reasons why the French are rubbish.
  • Hogarth’s crudity is highlighted by comparison with Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Three Ladies Adorning a Term of Hymen (1773). Here the focus not now on the depiction of static fabric, as in the Hayman painting of 30 years earlier, but on the effect of the overall composition, the diagonal made by the three women, and the softening effect of light and shade on the numerous decorative details, flowers, rug, plinth, jug and so on.
  • Sir William Beechey Portrait of Sir Francis Ford’s Children Giving a Coin to a Beggar Boy (exhibited 1793) reflecting the later 18th century fashion for ‘sentiment’, for subjects depicting finer feelings.
  • Henry Fuseli Titania and Bottom (c.1790) stands out from the other 18th century works, mainly portraits in the country, for its dark fantasy, note the tiny old man with the long white beard at the end of a lady’s leash in the bottom right.

Foreign painters in England

À propos Fuseli, it’s worth pointing out how many of these ‘British’ painters are foreign. Not featured at all here is the great Hans Holbein (German Swiss painter to the court of Henry VIII), but other foreign painters ‘incorporated’ into the British tradition include van Dyck (Flemish), Rubens (Flemish), Lely (Dutch), Fuseli (Swiss), James Tissot (French), Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (Netherlands), John Singer Sergeant (American), Percy Wyndham Lewis (Canadian).

  • I liked George Stubbs’ Reapers (1785) rather than the several dramatic horse pictures on display because it is unusual and it shows a very human, almost Dutch landscape-type scene.
  • Next to Reynolds the other great genius of the 18th century is of course Thomas Gainsborough, represented here by half a dozen enormous portraits and a few landscapes. I liked Henry Bate-Dudley: it is not a magnificent picture, the opposite, it has a quiet, a calm superiority or confidence. Note Gainsborough’s distinctively loose brushstrokes on coat, silver birch bark and among the leaves, but somehow coinciding with precise detail.

Looking back down the long 1780 room to compare them, you can see that Gainsborough is dainty and Reynolds is stately.

No religion

After five rooms I noticed a striking contrast with the National Gallery with its in-depth collection of European paintings from the same period – the lack of religious paintings. Overwhelmingly, the works here are portraits, with some landscapes. I counted only two religious paintings in these rooms:

  • Henry Thomson The Raising of Jairus’ Daughter (exhibited 1820) with the stagey Poussinesque figures to the right but the rather haunting central figure of the dead daughter.
  • William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (c.1827–30) a sport, a freak, a careful pastiche of a Raphael painting and completely unlike anything else being painted at the time.

Our British tradition of painting may be thin until the time of Reynolds (1770s) but I think it is typical of the national culture that it focuses on real people and places, and very often on touching and moving personal stories, rather than the tearful Maries and crucified Jesuses of the continental tradition.

All of that, the heavy earnestness of the Baroque tradition of languishing saints, weeping Madonnas and annunciating angels, is completely absent from these displays. For me the religion is in the attention to ordinary life, the valuing of people and their feelings, the same emphasis on psychology and the human scale which saw the English pioneer the novel, the art form which more than any other penetrates the human mind. This sensitivity and refinement of everyday human feeling is exemplified in:

  • George Romney Mrs Johnstone and her Son (?) (c.1775–80) Sure they’re rich, sure it’s partly to show off the sumptuousness of the fabric. But it also shows real love.
  • It’s actually at the National Gallery, but Gainsborough’s unfinished portrait of his young daughters, The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat (1761) epitomises the English ability to capture love and affection, not Holy Love for a Martyred Saint, but real human love, and childishness and innocence and intimacy and aliveness.

Even when we do intense and visionary, rather than angels floating round the heads of saints, it is embodied in people and real landscapes:

  • Take Samuel Palmer’s paintings strange, vivid, jewelled depictions of the landscape around Shoreham in Kent, eg The Gleaning Field (c.1833)
  • And striking because it is so unlike Constable and Turner and his other contemporaries is William Etty’s Standing Female Nude (c.1835–40), very modern in its frankness, not trying to be Greek or statuesque.

The Turner Collection

There is so much Turner. Enough to fill eight good size rooms in the Clore Gallery off to the east of the main building, and this is only a small selection of what Tate owns. Turner’s history paintings, Turner’s classical landscapes, Turner’s mountains, Turner’s figures, Turner’s watercolours. And in all states of finish, from vast formal commissions to sketches to unfinished canvases to the wispiest watercolours. Despite trying hard I find Turner difficult to really like, and the task is not helped by the sheer volume of material. There is a room here dedicated to ‘Turner and the human figure’ which proves conclusively how bad he was at it:

He went on the Grand Tour and I find the resulting huge Roman landscapes strained, pretentious, overblown, bad in a number of ways:

Senses blunted by the vast Roman landscapes, I perked up when I saw the much more modest, and therefore impactful:

All in all, I preferred the one room dedicated to Constable, which is hidden away in a corner of the Clore Gallery, to the eight preceding Turner rooms:

  • Fen Lane, East Bergholt (?1817) Like gently sloping farmland I’ve seen in my walks around Kent.
  • Glebe Farm (c.1830) the church nestling among trees, the solitary cow at the pond, the thoughtful little girl, all artfully composed to create a stock feeling, but a feeling I like.

Pre-Raphaelite Works on Paper

In the far corner of the Clore gallery is stairs up to the smallish room displaying pre-Raphaelite works on paper, lots of sketches but some oils as well. A wall label reminds me that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) only lasted from 1848 to 1853. I liked the strange, visionary, angular, amateurish but atmospheric work of early Rossetti, like Arthur’s Tomb (1860). Technically not as innovatory as Constable or Turner, but these small works convey an experimental psychology, using medieval motifs for very modern reasons, to convey the troubled inter-personal relationships of the Brotherhood and their various muses, anticipating the tensions of, say, the Viennese Expressionists fifty years later.

But there are also examples of Rossetti in his smooth, glowing, bosomy phase: Monna Pomona (1864). I liked the wall label’s description of the medievalising tendency in PRB work, its use of: ‘shallow space, tight interlocking composition and rich colour of medieval manuscripts’. A handy description of what I like about medieval art.

I liked Ford Madox Brown’s Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet (1852–6) the oddities of composition riffing off medieval ideas of space to create a very modern psychology.

The glory years

Although the earlier rooms contain many good paintings, in my opinion British art explodes into a glory of masterpieces between the mid 1880s and the Great War, the period which saw Victorian academic art reach its height of verisimilitude before being swept away by the exhilarating eruption of the new Modernism. Rooms 1840, 1890 and 1900 contain painting after painting of pure visual pleasure, greatest hits which make everything before them pale by comparison.

  • James Tissot The Ball on Shipboard (c.1874) Illustration of a Trollope novel.
  • John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885–6) Barely a century after Reynolds, and how far not only painting, but the understanding of mood and psychology, has expanded and deepened.
  • John William Waterhouse Saint Eulalia (exhibited 1885) Exotic realism.
  • William Logsdail St Martin-in-the-Fields (1888) The figures, hmm, but the depiction of the church itself is amazing, conveying the cold and drizzle…
  • John William Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott (1888) Late Victorian Arthurianism.
  • Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Silent Greeting (1889) A fantasy of the classical world.
  • Stanhope Alexander Forbes The Health of the Bride (1889) Illustration for a Tomas Hardy novel.
  • Anna Lea Merritt Love Locked Out (1890)
  • Sir George Clausen Brown Eyes (1891) Haunting the way strangers glimpsed in a crowd sometimes are.
  • Henry Scott Tuke August Blue (1893–4) Why is it always naked women? Why not some beautiful boys for a change?
  • Thomas Cooper Gotch Alleluia (exhibited 1896) Peculiar, odd, immaculate in some ways, but look at their lips.
  • John Singer Sargent Ena and Betty, Daughters of Asher and Mrs Wertheimer (1901) The figures are impressive but it’s the vase that takes my breath away. Close up to the painting in the flesh you can see the casual mastery of oil with which it’s done.

And then, suddenly, bang! It is the Modernists with their Futurism and Vorticism and Fauvism and fancy European ways:

In the 1910 room are works for well after the Great War, like Eric Gill sculptures or Stanley Spencer or Alfred Wallis, but I’ll leave them for part two.

One-off rooms

  • One room contains three big bright double portraits by David Hockney. Hockney’s art has always seemed to me bright and empty, and also badly drawn, but I know I am in a minority.
  • Jo Spence Feminist artist-activist in the 1970s and 80s, member of the Hackney Flashers who spent a lot of time interrogating traditions, exploring issues, situating their practices. This seemed to involve quite a few photos of herself naked or topless, especially after being diagnosed with breast cancer. No doubt making serious feminist points, but also a treat for admirers of the larger woman.
  • Art and Alcohol Half a dozen historical paintings on the subject of the English and alcohol, one wall dominated by Cruickshank’s famous panorama of a pissed society (at one stage place in a room by itself with lengthy commentary). The highlight is the series of b&w photos Gilbert and George took in the 1970s of them and others getting pissed in a pub in the East End, the photos treated with various effects, blurring and distortion conveying a sense of the evening degenerating.
  • Anwar Jalal Shemza (1928–1985) Never heard of him, a leading artist, novelist, playwright and poet born in north-west India, which then became Pakistan, where he made a reputation before moving to England in 1962 – presumably he’s represented here because Tate bought his works thereafter. The wall label explained that he used Islamic texts as the basis for his abstract-looking paintings, but I was caught by some of the images which reminded me powerfully of Paul Klee, one of my heroes.

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Other museums

Rubens and his Legacy @ The Royal Academy

This is a large exhibition in terms of number of items, but a vast one in terms of scope. It sets out to track the legacy of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), one of the most influential of all western artists, and makes large claims for his impact on a wide range of genres and painters in every European country.

As it is setting out to demonstrate his impact and legacy, the majority of the pictures (and sketches and engravings) in the exhibition are not by Rubens; in some of the rooms it feels like only 3 or 4 out of 20 items are by Peter Paul (PP). Most of them are by the contemporaries or later artists who followed in his footsteps. It might be possible to misread the posters and publicity and feel a bit cheated…

Nonetheless, as the exhibition proceeds, its curators’ intentions are to some extent fulfilled, insofar as you do start to genuinely see Rubens’s influence – in composition and colour and treatment – in a growing number of the paintings by other artists. You begin to have an intimidating sense of the breadth and depth of his legacy. (And, from the enjoyment point of view, many of the works by other artists are masterpieces in their own right, a pleasure to see whatever the context.)

The audioguide (26 items, 50 minutes) claims that without Rubens, no rococo, no romanticism, no impressionism. Bold claim: is it justified?

Poetry

The exhibition is divided into six themes. By ‘poetry’, the curators mean landscape. Early on the commentary makes an amusing statement of national stereotypes. Apparently, English painters took from Rubens his techniques in landscape, the French were interested in his treatment of love and eroticism, the Spanish copied his Counter-Reformation religious drama, and Germans liked the virility and pathos of his paintings. Each conforming to type, then.

The exhibition starts with ‘the English theme’, Rubens’s treatment of landscape. We are shown a Rubens landscape with carters and are told that the left side of the picture is in moonlight, the right side in sunlight, impossible in reality, but adding drama to an otherwise mundane scene. Near it the curators hang similar subjects by the English landscapists Gainsborough, Constable and Turner, among others – notably Constable’s full-size oil sketch for The Haywain. Rubens dramatised landscape, the moonlight-sunlight being an example. Another popular one was showing a landscape just after a rainstorm has ended, leaving a brilliant rainbow behind. There’s a Rubens showing just such a post-storm rainbow – and then a number of examples showing how English artists copied him. Constable, in particular, explicitly praised Rubens composition and colour in his notebooks. (Apparently Constable is famous for his use of red and the commentary says he copied this from Rubens). The section on Constable reinforced the impression gained from the recent Constable exhibition of how artful and calculating an artist he was.

Rubens to one side, I enjoyed many of the works by other artists on show in this room, including a wonderful sketch by Gainsborough, The Harvest Wagon, notable for its handling of the human figures, a cartoon, Daumier-like precision of shape and line and action. Also – very English – for its modesty.

The Garden of Love

Like many of Rubens’ larger paintings, the hugely influential Garden of Love is drenched in allegory and classical models: the elaborate architecture, the flying putti, the statue of Jove, queen of the gods, squeezing water from her ample breasts. Beneath them, in their shade and protection, these flirting mortals are featuring in one of the first ever scenes of contemporary people enjoying leisure time outdoors. Previously it was gods or military heroes or landscapes with peasants. Here are real people – albeit well-off people – but still real contemporaries, wearing contemporary costume, flirting and partying in the open air.

Peter Paul Rubens  The Garden of Love, c. 1633  Oil on canvas, 199 x 286 cm  Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid  Photo c. Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Peter Paul Rubens, The Garden of Love, c. 1633
Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid

This painting bewitched the French painter Jean-Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) who went on to develop his own style of light-hearted love scenes set outdoors. The argument goes: Rubens invented Watteau who invented the fetes galantes, inaugurating the age of rococo art in France.

More examples of Rubens, such as Chateau In A Park, are set against numerous sketches and oil paintings by Watteau, including the wonderful La Surprise, as well as works by other 18th century rococo painters such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Jean-Antoine Watteau  La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, 1718-19  Oil on panel, 36.3 x 28.2 cm  Private Collection  Photo: Private Collection

Jean-Antoine Watteau
La Surprise: A Couple Embracing While a Figure Dressed as mezzetin Tunes a Guitar, (1718-19)
Private Collection

Elegance

By which the curators mean portraiture. Rubens spent four years in Genoa (then a city made rich by trade in silks and fabrics) painting the wives of the richest bankers and merchants. The largest example of this period is the portrait of Marchesa Maria Grimaldi, and Her Dwarf – an ugly painting but, wow, the detailing of the gold cloth of her dress is amazing and lustrous in reality (reproductions completely fail to capture it). Note the classical columns (aren’t I classy) and the rich velvet curtain (aren’t I rich) and the bounding little dog (aren’t I sensitive).

The most direct influence of Rubens’s portrait style was on Anthony van Dyck, child prodigy and Rubens’s pupil, working directly under him in Antwerp before himself travelling to Genoa to make money. Van Dyck toned Rubens down, his portraits are cooler, more detached. In the Genoese Noblewoman and her Son, we have the classical architecture in the background and the luxury curtain (aren’t I cultured and rich) but the sitter is side on to the viewer, that much more self-contained, less revealing (aren’t I aloof). The boy is staring at us with the look of command and authority he is destined to grow into, and the dog is looking up at his future master. The thing is dripping with multiple layers of power and authority.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck  A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626  Oil on canvas, 191.5 x 139.5 cm  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection, 1942.9.91  Photo Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Sir Anthony Van Dyck
A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son, c. 1626
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection

Van Dyck came to the court of Charles I (generally thought to have been the most genuinely cultivated of all British monarchs and who was rewarded for it by having his head cut off) and was knighted for his services to the crown and aristocracy. Van Dyck forged an image of Charles as the tall (he was short), wise (he was stupid), and authoritative (he alienated everyone who ever served him) ruler that he wasn’t.

The commentary made the striking claim that van Dyck invented the English gentleman which, if you’re familiar with his portraits of the English aristocracy, is at least plausible.

Back with PP, the exhibition is making the claim that Rubens is the father of the grand British portrait, and sets off to prove it by placing his huge portrait with dwarf opposite a selection of equally imposing portraits of rich people by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, portraitists to the British upper classes from the 1770s to the 1830s. The examples here – say, Elizabeth Lamb Viscountess Melbourne with her son – are very large like the Rubens originals, they keep an architectural frame and a drape, but they are less sumptuous and rich, the colour is drabber, and the background is, in line with the English fondness for landscape, a realistic slice of countryside, presumably the estate of this rich woman.

Or take Thomas Lawrence’s Portrait of Mrs Arthur Annesley, a big slab of classical architecture, but with quite an extensive view over the estate on the right, and the painting dominated by sweet little darling children, appropriate to the Age of Sentiment.

Power

The previous rooms feel like they’ve been warming us up for the heart of the exhibition, two rooms dedicated to Rubens’s work as a propagandist of genius. It is staggering to be reminded all over again of his achievements completely outside the realm of art, for Rubens was also a diplomat, a spy and an antiquarian – a figure famous across Europe. Rather as with The Garden of Love, mentioned above, his achievement in political painting was to integrate classical mythology with everday reality, in this case with accurate depictions of living contemporary rulers, and to set both in a convincing space and tableau.

His masterpiece is the series of massive 24 paintings showing the career of Marie de Medicis and her husband, King Henri IV of France. A room is dedicated to a small selection of the numerous preparatory sketches Rubens made, and to an enormous screen projecting a video compilation of the finished paintings which currently hang in the Louvre. They are overwhelming, brilliant, vast, powerful in conception and in their myriad of details

Peter Paul Rubens  The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630  Oil on panel, 49.5 x 83.5 cm  Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187) Photo c. 2013. Image copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Art Resource / Scala, Florence

Peter Paul Rubens
The Triumph of Henri IV, 1630
Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942 (42.187)

Also in the same room and given the same treatment is the immense roof of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, London, which can still be seen today. It is covered in its entirety by scenes painted by Rubens and commissioned by Charles I to depict the power and glory of his father, King James I of Britain. It, also, is a commanding series of images, though less overwhelming than the Medici ones – and its impact slightly spoiled for anyone who knows that the paintings were still not complete when Charles I was led from that very room onto a scaffold built along the first floor of the building, to be beheaded. Absolute Monarchy, English style.

Hundreds of painters copied the example Rubens set of lending mythological force and dramatic mises-en-scenes to the depiction of contemporary rulers, from the Sun King to Hitler. The results are splendid but may be the most antipathetic to English taste…

Compassion

Or at least that’s what I thought till I entered the 5th room, which is about religion. Rubens was a devout Catholic and painter to the Counter-Reformation authorities. Ah. The largest Rubens in the room is the altarpiece Christ On the Straw, in which I found all the faults I dislike about most Christian art (and which I loathed in the recent Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery) – sentimental, lachrymose, stagey, inauthentic and banal.

There were lots of copies of this image, or something like it, by numerous subsequent artists, from David Wilkie doing the Grand Tour to Vincent van Gogh (!). Maybe the only one I liked was another sketch by Gainsborough, Descent from the Cross (after Sir Peter Paul Rubens). Seems to me Gainsborough expresses compassion in the shape and flow of the composition – the agony is implied, unlike the Rubens original where the white operatic faces are white with extreme emotion, the eyes drenched with tears and turned imploringly up to an angel-infested heaven.

Violence

Hell Along with the sentimentalism it evokes around the story of the crucifixion, Christianity is also famous for the extreme violence of much of its imagery of revenge, and the weakest room in the exhibition is devoted to these images which take their cue from Rubens’ large and vividly imagined Fall of The Damned. Shame we couldn’t see the original, which is in a church in Germany to terrify the faithful. The engravings and copies here show the delight in a multitude of grisly physical tortures which always tickle the Christian imagination (Dante’s Inferno) but not the sense of falling into the picture and joining the devilish throng which the original was presumably designed to make you feel.

Rape The violence of the religious imagination is set by the curators next to the popular of myths and legends about the rape or abduction of women in classical mythology, which Rubens depicted repeatedly, along with his copiers and devotees – The Rape of Proserpina, The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus. These compositions are stagey, operatic, full of carefully arranged violence, at the centre of which are plump women with their clothes falling off. Various reviews mention how uncomfortable the British have been with elements of Rubens’s legacy, and I personally dislike this and the religious iconography, both, for shamelessly exploiting the viewer. With a landscape I feel my aesthetic sense is being appealed to. With a painting of Mary bursting into tears or scantily clad women being abducted by musclemen in armour I feel much baser emotions are being aimed at.

The Hunt Another room was dominated by Rubens’s very big painting of a Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt (1617) and around it hung works showing the way this scene – the full drama of the capture of a large, exotic, wild animal – was repeated with variations by painters like Eugène Delacroix and the Englishman Sir Edwin Landseer. It was Delacroix, apparently, who said: ‘Be inspired by Rubens, copy Rubens, look at Rubens.’

Lust

We arrive, exhausted with sensual overload, at the final room which has numerous paintings of scantily clad women being leered at, or just about to be seized by, a satyr. The women are notable for their large thighs, buttocks and bellies and relatively small breasts, as in the Pan and Syrinx of 1617.

Peter Paul Rubens  Pan and Syrinx, 1617  Oil on panel, 40 x 61 cm  Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel  Photo: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister/Ute Brunzel

Peter Paul Rubens
Pan and Syrinx, 1617
Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel

The women are always painted as pink and light-skinned, symbolising their purity and innocence. The pans or satyrs are super-muscular figures, their sunburnt skins darkening towards their crotch, wherein lies the source of lust and the hellish pleasures which will buy their owners a one-way ticket to the Fall of Damned, mentioned above.

It was interesting to learn how Rubens used a variety of tints to create the appearance of flesh, including the use of blue or green tints to imply shadowed skin, next to unshadowed pink or white.

And it was interesting to see a roomful of works depicting the same subject by Watteau, Boucher, Renoir and Picasso – but whether this is due to Rubens’ influence or to the abiding interest in revealing the naked female body to the male artist’s male patrons and buyers, to the male gaze generally – is open to debate.

Certainly a room full of predatory, half-bestial men caught in the act of preying on exaggeratedly innocent, wide-eyed maidens left me feeling queasy and was maybe not the best final image to have of Rubens.

But this exhibition, exhaustive and exhausting, succeeds, and then some, in convincing you that Rubens was one of the most important and influential painters in western art.

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Late Turner @ Tate Britain

Contemporaries thought Turner had gone mad. Even his biggest fan, art critic John Ruskin, wasn’t keen on the paintings from his last 5 years up till his death in 1851. However, we – 160 years later and after the Impressionists and so many other weird art movements, after Art has been delcared dead and risen from its death-bed so many times – we look back with nostalgia on the idyllic landscapes you can just about discern in many of his paintings and the simple yet endlessly surprising pleasures of oil paintings.

The main challenges to enjoying Turner’s art isn’t, then, the treatment, which is old hat for a 21st century viewer. It’s the opposite, it’s the over-familiarity of his paintings. His greatest hits like The Fighting Temeraire or Rain, Wind and Speed are very familiar from posters and the ‘Turner Affect’, the blurring of sunlight through fog or mist or steam or rain obliterating the line between sea or land and sky to create a great yellow-white fantasia, has been done thousands of ways since. He himself began its over-exposure by doing the same trick again and again in the paintings here.

J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844. Copyright The National Gallery, London

J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844. Copyright The National Gallery, London

And this is the other challenge – the sheer volume, the scale of Turner’s output. The audio guide explains that he left over 30,000 sketches in his sketchbooks, not counting all the watercolours and a huge number of preparatory and finished oil paintings.

He left everything to the nation and the collection eventually found its way to the museum which became Tate Britain. From one perspective, then, this wasn’t a very challenging exhibition to mount: the curators just had to move the paintings from the Clore Gallery to the Exhibition rooms. They then organised it by subject matter: travels scenes from Europe; historic and mythological subjects; sea and whaling etc. (The audioguide highlights the considerable effort which as in fact gone into curating the show, including the restoration of many pieces and the discovery of new sketches.)

The challenge to the viewer is trying to establish some rules of thumb to help you survive the bombardment of paintings, so many of which display the Turner Affect, but very few of which really gel or work. Why not? Why do the ones which work work?

Rule 1 – Forget almost everything with human figures in Turner was rubbish at painting people. Almost all the historical and mythological paintings by definition feature human figures. Without exception your eye goes to them, realises they are poorly defined with blobs for faces and wonky eyes, and the effect is ruined. Our 21st century culture is saturated with images of human beings and I’ve watched hundreds of hours of films of people moving, not to mention all the movies featuring CGI where the audience is invited to assess the realistic movement or not of the thousands of little human figures (Titanic, Lord of The Rings). Bringing this hypercritical awareness of every nuance of the human figure to bear on Turner’s history and myth paintings ruins them at a stroke.

Regulus, 1837, epitomises this. There’s the Turner Light Effect alright, but your eye is drawn to the figures at bottom right (and left) and they are poor and that undermines the work’s integrity.

JMW Turner, Regulus 1837. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Regulus 1837. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

The same could be said for:

Rule 2 – Only a small percentage of the oil paintings work Even dismissing everything with a human figure in it leaves hundreds and hundreds of landscapes, some of urban settings like Venice, others of mountains in the Alps etc, others of seascapes. An exhibition like this makes you realise quite quickly that a lot don’t work. Given such a large number to choose for I was looking for ones where the Affect is unblemished by imperfections and imbalances. For example, I don’t really like the famous Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway 1844 because I don’t like the finish of the engine, or the brick paling of the bridge, or the other, white bridge over to the left – the detailing of all of them seem to me imperfect. By contrast my favourite paintings were:

JMW Turner, Peace - Burial at Sea 1842. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

JMW Turner, Peace – Burial at Sea 1842. Tate. Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Rule 3 – the sketches are better than the paintings Maybe my taste is against the enormous bombast of the paintings but, as with the Constable exhibition, I found the sketches had a free, uncontrived, fresh and sometimes quite magical impact. Whereas you could quite easily walk past vast oil canvases, rather ham-fisted portrayals of grand historical vistas which just don’t float my boat, I found myself lingering and coming back to re-view tiny 6-inch high sketches which captured a feeling and mood with breath-taking skill. There was a series of sketches taken of Mount Rigi at different times of day which were quite wonderful.

JMW Turner, The Blue Rigi 1841-2

JMW Turner, The Blue Rigi 1841-2

There are people in these sketches but he takes a completely different approach – instead of attempting complete depictions which fail and look clumsy – as in the historical paintings – Turner is content to hint at the human figure with silhouettes and slivers of paint. Compare the light and playful hints of figures in Boats off Margate pier with the melodramatic, overdone but unconvincing figures in Regulus.

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Ruin Lust @ Tate Britain

A disappointing mish-mash.

Confused

Six rooms displaying a confused and confusing ragbag of paintings, watercolours, sketches and notebooks, photos, postcards and films about – in the end – a very small selection of parochial subjects: ruined abbeys, knackered old London, one or two postcards from WWI, a few paintings from WWII, a tower block being demolished.

Small range

Is that it? With the whole world of human endeavour, of civilisations which have risen and fallen, the vast range of man-made catastrophes to range over, why is the selection of images so sparse, so narrow, so flat?

The selection here felt very small and heavily weighted towards the random items which happen to be in Tate’s collection already. With a whole world to pick from there were too many mediocre paintings by John Piper or Graham Sutherland or Paul Nash, sets of photos of places which weren’t even of ruins – for goodness’ sake, a few clicks on the internet takes you to images as stunning as this – the most spectacular abandoned places in the world.

So, for example, the first room contains just three big images: one of John Martin’s end-of-the-world paintings (not strictly a ruin), a mediocre oil painting by John Constable of a ruin (poor), and the standout image of the whole show – the photo of a ruined World War II German coastal bunker by Jane and Louise Wilson. No surprise it’s the big feature of the first room and the image selected for the poster. But the disparity of these images sets the very uneven tone of the exhibition.

Photo of a ruined WW2 concrete bunker

Azeville 2006 by Jane and Louise Wilson. Copyright Jane and Louise Wilson. Tate.

No ideas

There was little attempt in the commentary to give insight into the psychological attraction of ruins: why do we like them? What pleasure(s) do we get from visiting ruins or seeing them depicted? Why did the ruin become an aesthetic category – it wasn’t in the 17th century; it was by the end of the 18th century? what changed and why? Once ruin-fancying had taken hold, what was the aesthetic difference between the ruined abbeys and monasteries of the Middle Ages which tourists could see here in Britain, and the ruins of Rome which countless aristocrats and artists were compelled to go see for themselves on the ‘Grand Tour’, which gets up and running in the second half of the 18th century and is still a requirement for characters in Henry James and EM Forster in 1900?

Why?

And how did reception of the ruin change during the Victorian era, the era of industrialisation and the creation of monstrous cities? In the 18th century it was something to do with The Sublime, as articulated by Edmund Burke: gazing on ruins gave us a pleasing sense of the Immensity of Time, the transitoriness of human glory, and of our own insignificance.

But for the Victorians, ruins came to represent calm and peace away from the hellish industrialised cities, and so became part of their cult of Nature; ruins covered in ivy and lichen were part of the Wordsworthian sanctuary they sought sanctuary in away from the Golgothas they had built and, for many (John Ruskin, William Morris) medieval ruins in particular spoke of an age when architecture and the rhythm of life ran at a human pace, on a human scale.

And then how was the whole aesthetic appeal of ruins transformed by the epic devastation of the Great War? Did the ruin of so many towns and cities, of entire landscapes, haunt artists (and civilians) after the War, who hallucinated ruination wherever they looked (as with Paul Nash’s surreal landscapes of the 1930s)? Ruins, which had provided sublimity to the Enlightenment and escape for the Victorians, now press in on our dreams, provide a menacing vision of what might industrialised warfare might do to our countryside.

And then the further devastation of the Second World War cemented the sense that everything can be ruined at any moment, that ruins are potentially all around us. Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden – any city could be utterly destroyed in a night, an intuition made even more horrific by the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Why were there no images of any of this in the exhibition? Surely the nightmare of nuclear devastation hung like a suffocating shroud over much of post-1945 culture, well into the 1990s, and innumerable artists throughout the Cold War envisioned the destruction of the entire world in a nuclear apocalypse: to take just their most obvious, popular, cinematic form, in movies from Dr Strangelove to the Terminator series.

A chronological survey, no matter how basic, might have a) established the fundamental psychological and aesthetic appeal of the ruin b) shown how these developed and became more sophisticated over time.

Quotes on the wall

The most insight I got was from a series of quotes painted on the wall outside the exhibition which I only stumbled upon by accident: one from the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem, The Ruin, bespeaks the melancholy tone of so much Anglo-Saxon poetry (cf The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood, Beowulf) – always the perfect world was in the past and we live in its shadow, in fallen times. There is no irony or distance, the poet’s lament is literal and heartfelt.

Wondrous is this wall-stead, wasted by fate.
Battlements broken, giant’s work shattered.
Roofs are in ruin, towers destroyed,
Broken the barred gate, rime on the plaster,
walls gape, torn up, destroyed,
consumed by age. Earth-grip holds
the proud builders, departed, long lost,
and the hard grasp of the grave, until a hundred generations
of people have passed.

Another quote is from Denis Diderot writing in the 1700s, pretty much 1,000 years after the Anglo-Saxon poet, in which the enlightened Frenchman sees walking in the ruins of Rome as an exquisite pleasure, conveying multiple sensations to the Man of Taste, namely:

  • that every step is placed where Caesar and Augustus walked – the thrill of sharing the same space with Great Men
  • the sense of the immensity of Time, the thrilling sense of the vastness of the ages and, by extension, our own insect-like insignificance which, in some moods, can be pleasurable – what are all my woes and troubles? Nothing compared to the great ages which have passed.

For this characteristic Enlightenment philosophe ruins can be consoling and comforting and/or offer glimpses of the sublime.

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

Tintern Abbey: The Crossing and Chancel, Looking towards the East Window by JMW Turner (1794). Tate

But why was there such a glaring gap where there should have been quotes from the Victorian era?

And of the twentieth century, the Century of Disasters, why only a casual mention late on in the show of JG Ballard saying Modernist architecture contains the premonition of its own destruction – a typically brilliant insight: the disaster, the apocalypse already built-in to the design of modern buildings. But surely a few people had something to say about twentieth century ruins?

When the camera floats over Manhattan in Koyanisqaatsi it is not to celebrate these soaring achievements of man’s ingenuity (as it might have been in the 1940s and 50s) but to give a foreboding sense that these absurdly priapic buildings are unnatural, the mushroom outgrowth of a culture which is destroying itself.

The Modernist notion that through technology and design we can build a better world (which, very roughly, fuelled so much art, politics and architecture from the 1920s to the 1970s) has expired, and we live in a post-Modernist age, among not just the physical ruins, but the intellectual and cultural ruins of those high hopes.

We now know we are destroying the world, the future will be worse than the past, the environment is being degraded at an escalating rate, our children will have worse lives than us and live in a world in far worse shape: no coral reefs; no fish; the vengeful sea rushing in to engulf our flood-plains.

Selected highlights

Apparently William Gilpin‘s writings about ruins from the 1740s onwards helped define ‘the picturesque’ and inspired artists and poets to seek out ruins. This ‘ruin lust’ became a standard part of the Grand Tour of Europe which every cultured man was expected to take throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, building to a climax amid the ruins of Rome.

Of course there are good things to enjoy in the show:

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Coggeshall Church, Essex 1940 by John Armstrong. Tate

Modern modern art ie since the 1960s:

The show includes too much that isn’t even about ruins:

  • Paul Nash’s surrealist photos from the 1930s – which I greatly liked but these included nice photos of tree stumps and logs in fields – not ruins at all: why were they here?
  • Laura Oldfield Ford works based on the crappy brutalist Ferrier Estate ie paintings or photos themselves covered in scrawled graffiti – damaged but not ruins…
  • Paul Graham’s photos of roads in Ulster; buildings bombed during the Troubles I would have understood, but these are photos of just roads – evocative, but not ruins…
  • John Tillson’s portrait-shaped frames containing a tryptich of images: a fish, a Celtic cross, some text – nice enough but nothing to do with ruins…
  • Jon Savage, the chronicler of punk, took photos of London in the 1970s: these were desperately disappointing. I remember a landscape of deprivation and destruction, these anodyne images of flyovers didn’t capture it at all, nowhere near as bleak and shabby as I remember.

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