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

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

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

Questions about women and femininity

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

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

Ancient and modern

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

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

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

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

Treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five themes

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

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

The five themes are:

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

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

Creation and nature

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

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

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

Kali

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient and modern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History and art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilith

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

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

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

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

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

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

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

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

Lots of goddesses

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

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

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

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

Women and gender identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The curators speak

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

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

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

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

A word from our sponsor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For young readers

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


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe (2014)

Having read quite a lot about Rwanda and Congo, I felt I needed to read up on their neighbours, finding out about other African nations radiating out from the central core of the Congo. Trouble is that books about them are hard to find, for example, there don’t seem to be any books about Burundi’s civil war, 1993 to 2005. Either that, or the existing books are heavy academic works, often collections of essays, which weigh in at £30 or £40 and can’t be found second hand. Reading between the lines, no-one in Britain cares enough about these countries to write, publish or read books about them.

Daniel Metcalfe’s travelogue was one of the few paperbacks I could find about Angola and seemed like an affordable way of finding out about the recent history and current shape of Angola, Congo’s large nation to the south, and one of the participants in the Great War of Africa. I didn’t really take to the personality created in the text and found it a grim read whose occasional attempts at humour didn’t come off. Nonetheless, I’d recommend it as giving a very good overview of Angolan history, along with first hand accounts of the tremendous disparity between the oil super-rich and the majority of the population which remains dirt poor, and for the vivid descriptions of his excursions into the (generally very unattractive) interior. The net effect of the book is to make Angola sound like an awful place.

Angola historical overview

Angola is the seventh largest country in Africa (Wikipedia). It was first reached by Portuguese sailors in 1484 and the current capital city, São Paulo de Loanda (Luanda), was founded in 1575. (It was conquered by the Dutch in 1640 and briefly ruled by them till 1648, when the Portuguese resumed control.)

The Portuguese didn’t penetrate far inland, instead creating a series of coastal ports and trading entrepots. The main commodity was Africans as Angola became one of the main locations of the transatlantic slave trade, which was well established by 1600, with around 10,000 slaves a year transported. Most of them went to Portugal’s other vast colony, Brazil, a thousand miles across the stormy Atlantic.

Throughout the 18th century Portugal slowly conquered various tribes and kingdoms in the territory they claimed, and pulled natives into the global economy, forcing them to produce raw materials such foodstuffs and rubber. Brazil won its independence in 1822 and Portugal abolished the slave trade in 1836, illicit trading being policed by the anti-slavery Royal Navy. But generally Portugal still only had a very thin, coastal presence.

It was only at the time of the Berlin Congress of 1885 and the late nineteenth century Scramble for Africa that the Portuguese made sustained attempts to penetrate further inland, to explore, conquer and claim the territory of what was to become the modern territory of Angola.

Part and parcel of this late 19th century conquest was the widespread imposition of forced labour on the hapless natives, hard forced labour under the compulsion of the whip, to turn out agricultural goods to be shipped back to the motherland. (It was a Brit, Henry Woodd Nevinson, who exposed the extent of the exploitation in his book A Modern Slavery, published in 1908, the year King Leopold was forced to hand over his barbaric rule in the Congo over to the Belgium state.)

Soon afterwards Portugal entered a period of political turmoil triggered by a coup in 1910 which overthrew the Portuguese monarchy (the same year, as it happens, as the Mexican Revolution) to establish what became known as the First Republic. One of the republic’s many liberal reforms was ending forced labour in the colonies.

However, the First Republic suffered from chronic instability and was overthrown in 1926 with the advent of António de Oliveira Salazar, who established the so-called Estado Novo in the 1930s. This new regime came to be known as the Second Republic as Salazar established an authoritarian corporatist state in Portugal. As part of the ‘return to order’ the New Order reimposed brutal forced labour in its colonies.

Portugal stayed neutral throughout the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War while millions of Angolan natives slaved to produce agricultural products for Portuguese consumers and profits for Portuguese companies. Appalling conditions led to a high death rate among workers and a scandalously high infant mortality rate of 60%. Critics wrote reports calling for change in the 1940s and 50s but were ignored or imprisoned.

A workers’ protest starting in a cotton company in 1961 led to widespread rebellion across Angola which was suppressed with much bloodshed (p.114). This and the uprising of Bakongo in northern Angola are now seen as marking the start of the Portuguese Colonial War, which lasted from 1961 to 1974 and involved not just Angola but Portugal’s other colonies in Africa, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau.

The wars were as ruinous and futile as the Vietnam War and ended in the full independence of the three African countries involved, after elements in Portugal’s own army overthrew the authoritarian civilian government on 25 April 1974 in what came to be known as the Carnation Revolution (pages 71 and 135).

There was a year delay while the new regime established itself and while peace talks to end the colonial wars dragged on. The Alvor Agreement of January 1975 called for general elections and set the country’s independence date for 11 November 1975. Hooray!

Except that the country was almost immediately plunged into a civil war between the three main anti-colonial guerrilla movements: the communist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), and the anti-communist National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

The FNLA were eliminated in the first year but the conflict between the other two refused to be settled and dragged on for decades, becoming one of the leading proxy wars between the Cold War adversaries, the USA and the Soviet Union, with the Soviets and Cuba backing the communist MPLA government and the Americans funding and supplying the anti-communist UNITA.

UNITA developed some bases inside Zaire, to Angola’s north, with the support of Joseph Mobutu, Zaire’s western-backed dictator, but were mostly based in the south, enjoying support from the apartheid South African regime which was funneled through the state immediately south of Angola, Namibia, itself a colony of South Africa which was experiencing its own war of independence. (Namibia won independence from South Africa in March 1990.)

This being Africa there was also a strong tribal element in the civil war. The MPLA was primarily an urban-based movement in Luanda and its surrounding area and was largely composed of Mbundu people. UNITA was a predominantly rural movement mainly composed of Ovimbundu people from the Central highlands who make up about a third of the population (pages 123 and 133). Obviously there was overlap and complexities. There are many more tribal groupings in the country and allegiances and membership shifted and complexified over time.

The Angolan civil war raged from 1975 to 2002, 27 years of massacre and destruction which not only left an estimated 800,000 dead, but displaced over 4 million people and devastated the country’s infrastructure, leaving it one of the poorest in the world. In 2003 the UN estimated that 80% of Angolans lacked access to basic medical care, 60% lacked access to water, and 30% of Angolan children would die before the age of five, with an overall national life expectancy of less than 40 years of age. 70% of the population lives below the poverty line (p.70).

Whole families sat and begged on the rubbish-strewn streets [of Luanda] that stank of animal and human excrement. (p.49)

Metcalfe writes that the population of Luanda is 4 million, but a recent Guardian profile (see below) gives it as 7.8 million and that this number is set to double by 2030.

So from the start of the independence struggle in 1961 to the end of the civil war in 2002, Angola suffered 41 years of hurt and wasted lives.

Daniel Metcalfe

Daniel Metcalfe studied classics at Oxford then went to work in Iran and travelled around central Asia, material which he used for his first book, Out of Steppe: The Lost Peoples of Central Asia (2009). This is his second book, and is actually not so much one journey as an account of three journeys across Angola undertaken in (I think) 2010, with follow-up visits.

Right from the start Metcalfe describes himself as a financial journalist and his bio says he’s written for the Economist, Guardian, Financial Times, Foreign Policy and the Literary Review. In other words, he initially appears just the kind of pukka chap that has formed the backbone of English travel writing for the last hundred years, all of whom went to top private schools (Evelyn Waugh [Sherborne], Wilfred Thesiger [Eton], Eric Newby [St Paul’s], Colin Thubron [Eton], Bruce Chatwin [Marlborough], Jan Morris [Lancing]). So I was expecting references to tiffin and cricket, or a trip to the little known Luanda polo club or some such. Posh boy eccentricity.

I was wrong. Metcalfe doesn’t have the de haut en bas tone of the classic English chap abroad; quite the opposite, he’s keen to rub in what a man of the people he is, travelling with only a grubby backpack in the cheap and chaotic minivans ordinary Angolans use, cadging a night’s kip on the sofas or packed beds of all sorts of random acquaintances, and having at least two severe bouts of food poisoning.

But with the thought of the Great Tradition of English Travel Writing in mind I couldn’t help being struck by a sense of the text’s belatedness. What I mean is that earlier travel writers described to their readers distant and exotic lands a) which none of the readers had travelled to or knew much if anything about and b) which were largely ‘unspoilt’.

Metcalfe’s book arrives in the internet age when:

a) there is no ‘distance’ or ‘remoteness’ any more – any of us can Google articles about Angola and its history, geography, tourist features, festivals, national costume and so on and find out more or less everything contained in this book; and

b) Angola is definitely ‘spoilt’, ruined in fact, but in two senses of the word: i) the cities, towns and landscape are still recovering from 40 years of destruction, for example tourists are advised not to wander anywhere off the beaten track because the country is still covered in millions of unexploded mines; and ii) every conceivable tourist attraction has been photographed, thoroughly documented, posted on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and all the rest.

Metcalfe is therefore labouring in a genre which is almost obsolete. These days a travel writer has to work very hard to find anywhere that millions of Western tourists haven’t already trampled and photographed to death, and then has to work up in their prose a sense of enthusiasm for sights or experiences which bored locals experience every day and post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and so on.

The book’s structure

São Tomé and Príncipe then mainland Angola

In a bid to be quirky and original Metcalfe starts his journey by flying in to the Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, two archipelagos based round the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, which are themselves about 87 miles apart and about 150 miles off the northwestern coast of Gabon. This far from the mainland, they were uninhabited till the Portuguese discovered them and populated them with Africans. The islands became an important entrepot for the slave trade as well as slave plantations producing coffee and cocoa. The islands became independent alongside Portugal’s other colonies in 1975 and form the second-smallest African state after the Seychelles.

Metcalfe visits the capital cities of each island and is shown round a rotting old plantation house. He learns about the semi-fictional slave king who led a Spartacus-style slave rebellion, ‘Rei Amador. He tells us it has the smallest economy in Africa, 80% of which is contributed by foreign donors ie it’s not really a viable state at all.

But the main story is that oil has been located near the islands, which are therefore teetering on the brink of becoming very wealthy, but there is general anxiety that, as with every other ‘petrostate’ (like in nearby Nigeria), the money will end up funneled into the hands of a tiny super-rich elite while the rest of the islanders continue living in poverty.

Then he flies to mainland Angola where he makes three journeys, carefully indicated on the book’s one and only map. A throwaway remark reveals he seems to have made at least two trips to the country: he tells us he first visited Angola in 2010, then two years later, in 2012 (p.83).

Anyway, it’s not really a journey into Angola but maybe five distinct journeys:

  • down the coast from Luanda to Benguela
  • from Benguela inland to Huambo and then to the remote town of Cuito Cuanavale
  • then, after returning to Luanda, from Luanda directly inland to Malange and then Saurimo
  • then north up the coast into Zaire province, to the heartland of the old Kongo kingdom, M’banza-Kongo, to the oil town of Soto
  • then flying into the enclave of Cabinda which is part of Angola but separated by the mouth of the river Congo which is inside the Democratic Republic of Congo

A well-ruined country

The bottom line about Angola seems to be that it has been ruined at least three times over. First by the brutality of Portuguese rule which enforced harsh forced labour on most of the population well into the 1960s, doing little to create a decent infrastructure such as roads and schools, or to foster an educated middle class. Second, by the 40 years of warfare, first for independence, then the terrible, futile and ruinous civil war.

But what really strikes Metcalfe is the ruin brought since the civil war ended by the arrival of OIL. The Angola he flies into is now a ‘petrostate’ with a huge gulf between the overclass of politicians and businessmen who have made themselves fabulously rich on the proceeds of oil, drive huge four by fours, live in gated mansions, stay in gleaming hotels – and the great majority of the population (of 33 million) who scrape a living off the land (periodically stepping on one of the millions of abandoned landmines) or make a living by working the utterly corrupt life of the cities. Thus despite the billions of dollars pouring into the treasury from oil revenue, Angolan life expectancy is among the lowest in the world, while infant mortality is among the highest. A third of the population can’t read or write.

José Eduardo dos Santos, the leader of the MPLA, once, back in the olden days, a ‘Marxist’ party, was Angola’s president for almost four decades. During the oil boom his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, was ‘awarded’ numerous lucrative contracts, thus becoming Africa’s richest woman. She is nicknamed ‘the Princess’ and at the time this book was written, was said to be a billionaire. So much for Marxism. Interestingly, she attended the elite fee-paying St Paul’s School for Girls in London before going on to become a billionaire.

London, where you can launder your drug or organised crime money through any number of willing banks, invest in shiny new riverfront developments, pick up some multi-million dollar artworks for your portfolio, and drop in to see your son or daughter being educated at one of its elite private schools. Convenient for oligarchs and kleptocrats from all nations.

Angola is a country divided between a small, super-rich, oil-rich elite, and the rest which helps to explain why everything is diabolically expensive, even the most basic food and drink. Luanda is routinely voted the most expensive capital city in the world (p.45). This is apparently because the agricultural sector is in such a state that almost everything has to be expensively imported. Even the most basic hotels and restaurants are beyond his budget. This isn’t a tropical paradise where you lounge in cheap cafes enjoying the streetlife. Luanda is a city where he trudges along busy with his backpack while shiny four by fours roar past on their way to hotels, cocktail bars and restaurants which are wildly beyond his reach.

Author’s persona

I felt vulnerable, exposed and ill equipped. (p.44)

Right from the start Metcalfe presents himself as a down-at-heel traveller with a backpack, ‘an unaffiliated writer’ (p.68), himself slightly confused about his motives for going, blessed with some contacts but relying on wit to busk a lot of the journey.

This pose would have been cool in the 1960s or 70s but in the age of the internet and modern, luxury, all-expenses-paid travel journalism, it comes over as a bit forced and contrived. I did the backpacking thing back in the day. In the 1970s I hitch-hiked round Europe and then round America because I was 18 and genuinely didn’t have any money or ‘contacts.

But it seems to me that worldview, that cultural possibility, has gone. A few short years later friends with their first jobs in the City were flying Club Class to New York or Sydney. In the 1990s the barely employed could afford to fly to Ibiza or Phuket. Hitching with a backpack was no longer at the cutting edge of anything. As airplane tickets and travel costs, generally, plummeted in the 1980s and 90s, ‘roughing it’ became a quaint throwback to a simpler age.

And as the internet has given access to every hotel and every restaurant and almost every person anywhere in the world, there’s no excuse not to have rung ahead, booked and organised everything.

I arrived at Saurimo at midnight, with not a clue where to stay. (p.225)

For a journalist who’s written for the Financial Times and the Economist, who mentions elsewhere that he looked up contacts and had names and addresses of businesspeople, NGOs, charities and various other contacts before he left London, to reduce himself to this impoverished state seemed a bit contrived.

It’s a running gag that Metcalfe’s backpack gets put on the wrong plane and flown to the other side of the world by mistake and it takes a week or so for it to be returned to Luanda airport for him to collect. In another age, and in another writer’s hands, this might be funny, but here it comes over as pathetic.

On not one but two occasions he manages to get food poisoning – once from eating the in-flight sandwich on the plane from Sao Tome to Luanda, once from eating prawns at an all-day party in Luanda – and we are treated to descriptions of him lying on a sofa moaning for days on end punctuated by sudden dashes to the shared toilet. Possibly this is meant to be comic but it comes over as squalid.

Because he can’t afford to stay in the ruinously expensive hotels, he cadges beds for the night on the sofas of strangers. As I say, in another age and in the hands of a more stylish writer, this might come over as cool or funny, but in this account it comes over as shabby, and wilful, a choice to do things the most difficult, dirty and sordid way. The impatient reader thinks, ‘Enough with the backpacker chic, already. You should have just negotiated a better advance from your publishers or with the FT Travel section or with any number of upmarket travel mags. Then you could have stayed in all those gleaming hotels and we wouldn’t have had to read about you roughing it on the sofas of hospitable Luandans who barely know you.’

When Metcalfe sticks to the fact he is very interesting indeed. He gives solidly researched, thorough and authoritative accounts of a wide range of historical issues from the first founding of the country, the slave trade, the ups and downs of 20th century Portugal. He is especially good on the history of the long bloody civil war, which he cuts up into passages which are deployed throughout the book at appropriate moments or in the relevant towns where key battles occurred.

A good example is his trip to the remote town of Cuito Canavale in the south-east of the country, where a 6 month long ‘battle‘ brought together all the combatants in the war for a confrontation whose ending can now, in retrospect, be seen as a turning point not only in the Angolan war but for the wider region (leading Cuba to withdraw its forces and South Africa to grant Namibia its independence).

His encounters with numerous people like businessmen and entrepreneurs, staff at NGOs like the HALO mine-clearing charity or Save The Children, passengers on numerous coaches, cafe owners and academics, geologists and ‘oilies’, street rappers and hawkers, manic minibus drivers and drunk taxi drivers, miserable bar owners and fierce museum keepers, Congo kings and holy men, each shed factual information on Angola’s past and present and are uniformly interesting.

But when he tells anecdotes about the travelling itself, they come over as strangely limp and dead. This is a really good factual primer for Angola (albeit ten years out of date) but when he writes about himself and his ‘adventures’, Metcalfe is a peculiarly charmless writer. Maybe part of this is because so many of the people he meets are depressed, defeated and downbeat and their negative mood affects the author and, thus, the reader, too. Angola does sound like a grim place.

  • We sat down, exhausted and somehow a bit sad. (p.211)
  • Living in Luanda seemed to drive him to despair. (p.215)
  • The king was playing his part but I couldn’t help feeling it was all a bit sad. (p.238)
  • I sat, by now stained and a bit depressed, pondering my destination, unaware of how bad the next eighteen hours would be. (p.286)

I wasn’t surprised when the tough son of the household where Metcalfe dosses in Luanda, Roque, reveals that he tried to commit suicide a few years previously (p.258). Somehow it’s that kind of book. There are flickering attempts at humour, but for the most part it’s pretty downbeat.

One of the saddest things about Angola is the decimation of the wildlife. Most of the wild mammals have been exterminated. He has a passage about the last few remnants of the once flourishing giant sable or palanca negra gigante and meets a worn-down conservationist who is trying to save it from extinction (pages 214 to 219). Despair and sadness. Metcalfe even travels through a region where there are no birds. The skies are empty. Everything is dead.

Anti-tourism

The book amply demonstrates why Angola is on no-one’s tourist trail.

There is really no tourism here. There is nothing to visit in Luanda, except for one or two clapped-out museums that are invariably closed. Walking is pretty much out, due to the threat of muggings, not to mention the polluted and pungent streets. There are no taxis… Excursions into the country are generally a no-go. The few eccentric tour leaders who do venture into the empty national parks explain that most of the game has been shot and eaten and numbers haven’t recovered yet. Hiking or bush-walking is definitely not an option, due to the millions of landmines and unexploded ordnance, most of them unmapped. And there are diseases, lots of them: yellow fever, dengue fever, sleeping sickness, typhoid, rabies and rampant falciparum malaria (that’s the worst kind)…

In short, Angola is an anti-tourist destination, and certainly no place for a backpacker. The only sane kind of visit is brief and on business, with someone to meet you, lodge you and cover your laughable expenses, before you are gratefully shuttled out on a non-Angolan liner. (p.46)

Then there are the police, ‘feared for their erratic behaviour and drunken extortion of passersby’ (p.47). And the absurd expense of everything. And the street crime. And the dedicated stonewalling obstructive Soviet-style bureaucracy you face every step of every process designed to wear down and crush any applicant for anything, as he finds out when he tries to get his visa extended or goes the labyrinthine process required to apply for an audience with king Muatchissengue Watembo of the Chokwe people (pages 232 to 239).

Eastern bloc-style obstructionism which is reflected in the hyper-suspicions of the police who stop him and demand to see his papers countless times, with or without then bullying him into giving them a bribe to let him go on his way (the Angolan police being ‘renowned for’ their demands for gasosa, p.230). Far from being relaxed and casual like Congo, Angola has overtones of being a police state. ‘Basic education, sanitation and health care are all awful’ (p.45).

Basically, Don’t go.

Highlights

Marxist capitalism

Metcalfe is good at explaining the hypocrisy of the so-called ‘Marxist’ MPLA government. Even as it bought communist textbooks printed in Moscow and Havana to indoctrinate generations of schoolchildren against the capitalist enemy, it set up a massive corporation, Sonangol, which functioned on purely capitalist lines. When the first oil was found in the 1970s the franchise and money was handled by Sonangol who, over the following decades, developed into a huge corporation with interests in every aspect of the economy, almost a parallel economy in its own right.

At its heart was MPLA leader and president José Eduardo dos Santos, known as ‘the magician’ for his skill at keeping all political factions onside by the skilful doling out of contracts and backhanders. The elite surrounding him were known as ‘the Futunguistas’ after one of the many presidential palaces. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the MPLA made a smooth transition to capitalism because they had, in fact, for years, already been practising it (pages 72 to 75). These former Marxists now have their noses ‘deep in the trough’ of the purest capitalism. Mobutu only with oil. Transparency International ranks the country as almost bottom of the league table of corruption.

The ruling class of Angola has misplaced, disappeared, embezzled and creamed off tens of billions of dollars for themselves, leaving most of their compatriots in abject poverty. Why on earth should Western governments give them loans and Western aid agencies step in to treat the poor and ill when more than enough money exists in the government system but Angola’s leadership refuses to use it for good, preferring to loot their own country?

Slavery and degredados

He gives a good brief history of the slave trade, pages 100 to 106. The academic he interviews, Fernando Gamboa, makes the familiar point that slavery was already a well-established practice among African tribes before the Europeans arrived, but they massively increased its scale and ‘efficiency’ as a business (p.198).

I was more intrigued to learn that a) Angola’s second city, Benguela, was founded in 1615 in totally unsuitable location near a swamp which resulted in the earliest settlers dying like flies (very like the early English settlements in Virginia at the same period); and b) that, like Australia, it was forcibly settled by transported convicts or degredados. Unlike the convicts Britain sent to Australia, who were often guilty of relatively minor offences such as stealing a loaf of bread, these degredados were hard core villains, mostly murderers. Being hard core urban villains they were unsuited to agriculture but took to the slave trade like ducks to water, and also ensured the city had a ‘hellish reputation well into the nineteenth century’ (p.100).

The Salazar regime (1932 to 1968)

What comes over about Salazar’s Estado Novo regime is its dusty, down-at-heel backwardness, its narrow-minded closedness, its petty bureaucracy and inefficiency. Visiting diplomats, especially Americans, thought he lived in a parallel universe. This helps to explain his response to the rebellions of 1961 which was total refusal to accept reality, negotiate or relinquish the colonies, and instead his insistence on fighting on to the bitter end which meant that, long after Europe’s other imperial nations had bitten the bullet and given their colonies independence, Portugal continued fighting its bitter wars to retain them (pages 114 to 118).

White flight

As the scale of the civil war became clear, between 1975 and 1976 pretty much the entire white population of about 300,000 left, flying back to Portugal in what Metcalfe refers to as ‘the great airlift’ (p.124). That included all the administrators, civil servants, the police, engineers, designers, builders, architects, managers of the education and health systems, doctors and teachers, everyone who ran everything left the relatively unskilled, untrained Angolans to figure out how to run a modern country in the middle of a brutal civil war. The result: services ceased to function, education and health ceased, ministries shut down, the rubbish piled up in the streets, no-one knew what to do (pages 72 and 136).

The irony is that once the civil war had ended and the oil boom began in the Noughties, lots of Portuguese flocked back to the country for its boomtown opportunities and, by a spooky coincidence, there are, once again, about 300,000 expatriate Portuguese in Angola.

Sex trade

Oxfam’s regional director Gabriel de Barros explains how girls as young as 12 are traded by families to rich men in return for financial support, the resulting rise in teen pregnancies, STDs and AIDS (pages 108 to 111).

Huambo

Originally named Nova Lisboa, Huambo is the capital of the fertile highlands and was beautifully laid out by Portuguese planners to become the new centre of their empire in the 1920s and 30s. Unfortunately, it then became an epicentre of the civil war, the landscape around ravaged by war, littered with mines, and the town fought over again and again, climaxing in a 55-day-long siege in 1993 which eviscerated it. The government enforced a press blackout and in 1993 international journalists were busy in Somalia and Yugoslavia so the world never got to hear about it.

Landmines

The countryside is littered with millions of mines, anywhere between 6 and 20 million, no-one knows. Never stray off the path, don’t climb rocks or walk round a bridge. Any prominent or beautiful natural feature was targeted. For the foreseeable future they must all remain off limits (p.124).

Queen Njinga

An extended passage giving the life of the remarkable Nzingha Mbande (1583 to 1663) who rose to be Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo and Matamba in present-day northern Angola. She fought for 30 years to maintain the independence of her kingdoms against the encroaching Portuguese and to later generations became a symbol of resistance. The most notable things to emerge from the account are that she supported the slave trade, but insisted it be carried out according to the old customs; and the stories that she dressed as a man, insisted on being called a man, dressed her guard of women as men, and made her many male lovers dress as women if, that is, these later stories are true (pages 198 to 206).

Chockwe art

Metcalfe visits Chockwe country and even manages a (bizarre) audience with the old but still revered Chockwe king. The Chokwe people once ran an empire which covered parts of modern-day Angola, southwestern Congo and northwestern parts of Zambia. There are about 1.3 million people living across that territory. The Chockwe are famous for their sculpture art, which fetches high prices in the West.

Wooden statuette of a Chockwe princess

The role of Cuba in the civil war 1975 to 2000

Castro’s communist Cuba saved the Marxist MPLA government. In 1975 as Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA took more and more territory and advanced on the capital, Cuba flew in thousands of soldiers who stabilised the situation then reversed UNITA’s advance. Cuba’s involvement in Angola was deep and long. Between 1975 and 1988 over 300,000 Cubans served in Angola (p.212). Rejected in most of South America, snubbed by the North Vietnamese, unable to get a purchase in Mobutu’s Congo, Angola provided an opportunity for Castro to dream of spreading his revolution around the developing world. Now all that sacrifice seems utterly pointless. You could say that the 300,000 Cubans who fought to keep the MPLA in power ended up helping Isabel dos Santos to become the richest woman in Africa. Thus, as Shakespeare put it, does the whirligig of Time bring in his revenges.

The last phase

The last phase of the civil war from 1999 to 2002 was the most brutal. Metcalfe dwells on the character of the larger-than-life, brutal, charming, paranoid UNITA leader, Jonas Savimbi. Like president Habyarimana of Rwanda, like Mobutu and Kabila of Zaire and the Congo, Savimbi genuinely believed in black magic, spirits and witches.

By the 1990s there were frequent burnings of dissidents and accusations of witchcraft in UNITA areas. In one case, Savimbi himself ‘discovered’ a woman spying on him by flying over his house at night. Suspected women and children would be dragged to a stadium and set alight. Anyone who dared to speak against o mais velho risked execution, including any woman who refused his advances. (p.246)

Lovely to see the old traditions being kept alive. Jeane Kirkpatrick, America’s representative to the United Nations, called Savimbi ‘one of the authentic heroes of our time.’ Hundreds of thousands of rural inhabitants were terrorised by UNITA, press-ganged into working as porters, cooks or prostitutes. The MPLA government rounded up entire regions and confined them in camps. In the final months of the war as many as 4 million people were displaced, a third of the entire population.

M’banza Kongo

On his third journey, Metcalfe cadges a lift north in a battered Land Rover with the staff from a Save The Children refuge in the town of M’banza Kongo in the north-west of Angola. Back in the 1480s when the Portuguese discovered the river, the Kongo empire stretched for hundreds of miles north and south of the river mouth and far inland. Metcalfe retells the sorry saga of how initial optimism on both sides of the cultural contact quickly deteriorated as the Portuguese realised the potential of the Kongo people as slaves. In Metcalfe’s account it was the discovery of Brazil in 1500 and the quick realisation that it had great potential for sugar plantations but lacked manpower, which transformed the situation.

500 years later Metcalfe visits the homes and refuges in M’banza Kongo which house the large number of children who are thrown out of their families every year for being evil spirits. Belief in witchcraft, spirits, kindoki (a kind of witchcraft or possession by evil spirits) and the power of fetishes is universal and when any ill luck befalls a family its most vulnerable members – children and to a lesser extent the elderly – are blamed.

Update

Metcalf’s book was published in 2013. Apparently, since then, some of the gloss has gone off the oil boom so that the planes and top hotels are no longer as busy as they were. But the structural divide between super-rich elite and everyone else remains, as evidenced in this photo essay published in the Guardian.

MCK

Protest song by anti-government rapper MCK who Metcalfe interviews (pages 83 to 88).

Portuguese terms

Recurring words and ideas include:

  • assimiliado = African who, according to the Portuguese colonial system, had reached an approved level of civilisation; comparable to the évolués in francophone colonies
  • bom dia = good morning
  • candongueiro = mini bus
  • confusão = a metaphysical state of chaos and confusion before which mere humans are helpless
  • contratado = Portuguese form of forced labour
  • empregada = home help /servant
  • feitiço = fetish or the spell is controls
  • garimpeiro = unofficial diamond miner
  • mestiço = mixed race
  • musseques = shanty town
  • pula = slang for white person
  • roça = plantation-type farm run on forced labour
  • soba = official

Fluffs

The book is generally well proof-read and typeset, but I did spot a couple of errors which humorously point towards a new use of language:

  • As she flocked cigarette ash out of the window… (p.27)
  • I felt huge a sense of excitement. (p.54)
  • There are railroads totally some ten thousand miles. (p.124)
  • They grew rich on commerce between the Zanzibar and the Atlantic… (p.229)
  • A strange period ensued when neither war nor peace reined… (p.243)

The title of the book is explained on page 144.


Credit

Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola by Daniel Metcalfe was published by Hutchinson books in 2013. All references are to the 2014 Arrow Books paperback edition.

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The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki (1911)

The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth… (The Unbearable Bassington)

In 1908, Hector Hugh Munro gave up foreign reporting and returned to London. Throughout his career as a foreign correspondent he had also been publishing short fictional squibs under the pen-name Saki, sometimes rising to the level of ‘short stories’, often little more than humorous anecdotes or dialogues set among London’s upper classes. From time to time they were brought together in book form.

The Chronicles of Clovis was Saki’s third such collection of very short stories and scenes. As the title suggests, most (though not all) of the stories feature the character of Clovis Sangrail, a world-weary, spoiled, selfish and cynical upper-class young man with a malicious sense of humour.

Clovis rearranged several cushions to his personal solace and satisfaction; he knew that the Baroness liked her guests to be comfortable, and he thought it right to respect her wishes in that particular.

Clovis, and his friend Reginald, who we know from Saki’s previous stories, are young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in shocking their conventional, stuffy elders. In fact the pair are interchangeable and Clovis performs precisely the same role of sardonic chorus or witty interlocutor to an older, conventional lady, easily shocked by his cynical quips, that Reginald did in the earlier texts. Clovis’s favourite interlocutor is named ‘the Baroness’. Another recurring character is a minor foil or confidante named Bertie van Tahn.

Clovis and Reginald take the upper-class arrogance, privilege and entitlement which has drummed into them at expensive public schools and to turn it against the older generation which had put them through the ordeal, delighting in shocking them not so much with deeds – for our heroes rarely lower themselves to actually doing anything – but with outré and unconventional attitudes, with their extreme cynicism or modish insouciance.

The stories portray a society which put a premium on decorum and good manners, on ‘good breeding’, but which bridled at too much intelligence or cleverness – all of whose boundaries and borders Saki relished driving a coach and horses through.

Mind you, it is inaccurate to say that it’s only Clovis and Reginald who bait their straightlaced peers, because the narrator does too. In fact Clovis appears in fewer than half the stories and it is the narrator who most of the time makes the cruellest jibes and weaves the most extended insults:

Lady Isobel was seen everywhere with a fawn-coloured collie at a time when everyone else kept nothing but Pekinese, and she had once eaten four green apples at an afternoon tea in the Botanical Gardens, so she was widely credited with a rather unpleasant wit. The censorious said she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her family denied both stories.

The joke is not so much at Lady Isobel’s expense but at that of her family and, more generally, at the kind of society she moves in. It is partly the implication that ‘understanding’ Yeats’s poems is as eccentric as sleeping in a hammock. It is partly the comic notion that it is so exceptional that a denial has to be issued by the family. There are multiple levels of mockery in just that one sentence.

(In the story The Quest Clovis himself is portrayed as lazing in a hammock and it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect what an utterly suitable piece of household furniture a hammock is for Clovis and his character of drawling, ironic inactivity.)

Some people think that satire changes things, in which case you might say that Saki’s stories were designed to ‘satirise’ and ‘scandalise’ Edwardian high society. But I think it’s nearer the mark to start from the opposite premise – that satire changes nothing but merely amuses those being satirised. Compare and contrast the immensely popular Alex cartoon strip which started in 1987 and mocks the greed and heartlessness of City bankers and is… immensely popular with City bankers. In the same way Saki’s stories have been immensely popular from his day to ours because people enjoy recognising themselves, or a part of themselves, or a part of themselves they wish they had. Everyone always thinks it’s someone else who is being mocked.

Saki’s attitude as revealed in ‘Wratislaw’

In the story Wratislaw, two very upper-class European ladies, the shrewd Gräfin and the rather dim Baroness Sophie, are in conversation, exchanging the expected bon mots and cynical witticisms:

‘Haven’t you noticed that women with a really perfect profile like mine are seldom even moderately agreeable?’

The Gräfin is trying to marry off her objectionable son, Wratlislav, to the Baroness’s dim daughter, Elsa, a proposal to which the Baroness says:

‘I don’t want Wratislav. My poor Elsa would be miserable with him.’
‘A little misery wouldn’t matter very much with her; it would go so well with the way she does her hair, and if she couldn’t get on with Wratislav she could always go and do good among the poor.’

From this little exchange we can extract several of the premises which underlie Saki’s humour:

1. Nobody in this pampered upper class is ‘miserable’; or if they are, nobody else understands the concept because everyone is basically sorted for all their earthly needs. Extremes of want or emotion are unheard of and so are little more than conversational toys, empty words.

2. In any case, one of the key markers of being an aristocrat is not to take anything seriously: remember the general sitting astride a horse close to the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo? There was an approaching rumble, a loud bang and the general remarked: ‘By Jove, Sir, I believe they’ve shot my leg orf.’ The Duke of Wellington looks over and remarks: ‘By Jove, Sir, so they have.’ This was the attitude of sublime and lofty nonchalance which characterised the English upper classes from the 18th century through to the public schoolboys I met at university.

3. And the extremest way of demonstrating one’s aristocratic nonchalance (like insouciance, a French word) is to take what servants and earnest middle-class types think of as ‘serious’ emotions, conditions and attitudes and to pointedly equate them with the lightest, most frivolous subjects imaginable, generally ‘female’ subjects such as fashion, clothes and, in this instance, hairdo. The utter inability to take anything seriously is demonstrated by the deliberately casual, mocking equation of lifelong emotional misery with someone’s hair colour. Exactly the same attitude recurs in The Story of St. Vespaluus:

Vespaluus…was the best looking, and the best horseman and javelin- thrower, and had that priceless princely gift of being able to walk past a supplicant with an air of not having seen him, but would certainly have given something if he had. My mother has that gift to a certain extent; she can go smilingly and financially unscathed through a charity bazaar, and meet the organisers next day with a solicitous ‘had I but known you were in need of funds’ air that is really rather a triumph in audacity.

‘The poor? Oh, I didn’t notice them.’

4. So the central aspect of the lofty insouciance which Saki both epitomises and satirises is to mock anyone who is ever serious about anything. This attitude had been brought to a pitch of perfection by Oscar Wilde a generation earlier:

  • ‘Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.’ (Lord Darlington in The Importance of Being Earnest)
  • ‘We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ (Letter to Robert Ross)

Therefore, the notion that an unhappy Elsa might compensate for her unhappy marriage by ‘doing good among the poor’ is a) designed to show how absurd the very notion of someone from her class ‘doing good among the poor’ is; and therefore b) how charity can can only possibly be explained as a harmless diversion for unhappy, upper-class women.

Camp and homosexuality

This extravagantly, ostentatiously, teasingly and mockingly anti-serious attitude, the valorising of the trivial, the mocking dismissal of anything earnest or serious, would evolve, by the 1960s, into the quality known as ‘camp’, heavily associated with a certain type of homosexuality. (See Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp).

In this regard, it might be worth noting, here, the series of descriptions of improbably beautiful young men, all svelte and soignés, who trail through these stories. Here’s Vespaluus:

‘He was quite the best-looking boy at Court; he had an elegant, well-knit figure, a healthy complexion, eyes the colour of very ripe mulberries, and dark hair, smooth and very well cared for.’
‘It sounds like a description of what you imagine yourself to have been like at the age of sixteen,’ said the Baroness.

And Pan:

Across a thick tangle of undergrowth a boy’s face was scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes.

Here’s the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest:

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness.

Naked and wet, asprawl in the sun. Pretty sexy, eh? Critics from Saki’s day to ours have wondered whether not only the male sensuality but also the extra element of malice, and the occasional turn to the macabre in Saki’s stories, in some way derives from Munro’s (necessarily repressed) homosexuality.

All that said, this stylised mockery of anything serious was also, of course, celebrated by many entirely ‘straight’ authors, from P.G. Wodehouse to Evelyn Waugh, in the name alone of Lord Peter Wimsy, in the tone of detached ironic humour which characterises the books of Jerome K Jerome. Is it, I wonder, a particularly English quality?

Childhood unhappiness

Personally, I don’t think Saki’s sexuality is that important. Personally, I think the key fact in Munro’s biography is that he was sent away from his parents at a young age, sent from a warm and loving home in British Burma all the way back to cold and miserable England where he was looked after by strict and stern guardians while he attended a series of miserable boarding schools.

Kipling underwent a similarly miserable childhood and the result was a lifetime of works marked by often very unpleasant sadism. (On one level, Kipling’s notorious ‘racism’ is merely a sub-set of his larger, more out-of-control anger against all kinds of people.)

Same here. I think the grimmer and more macabre Saki stories are Munro’s revenge on the cruel world which gave him such a miserable childhood. Hence the air of malice around ‘aunts’, all of them avatars of the strict, Bible-thumping governess who looked after young Hector. The same repressed anger, arguably comes out, in a displaced kind of way, in the misfortunes of the children in so many of the stories, who are routinely eaten or blown up.

The atmosphere of lonely, solitary childhood tyrannised by a punitive guardian portrayed in the story Sredni Vashtar seems to me the clue to all his works (that is, if you look for clues, if you are interested in biographical keys). Or you could just enjoy the stories’ sly elegance and outrageous storylines.


The stories

1. Esmé (features Clovis)

The Baroness tells Clovis about the time she was out hunting to hounds with Constance Broddle when they got lost but, hearing some hounds barking, discovered they’d got separated from the main pack and were now surrounding a creature at bay which, when the women held the hounds back, turned out to be a hyena! A hyena? Yes, it has escaped from the menagerie of Lord Pabham, whose grounds are nearby.

The Baroness liberates it from the hounds and they ride off to try and find the road home, with the hyena trotting faithfully behind. On an upper-class whim the Baroness names the hyena Esmé. They come across a gypsy waif playing in the path, pass by, the hyena drops back, then they hear a cry and see the hyena has the child in its jaws. They scold and shout and try to whip it and the Baroness throws her sandwich box, to no avail. The hyena drops behind the trotting women, there’s a crescendo and screaming and then an ominous silence and the hyena reappears with a satisfied smile on its face. The Baroness’s companion is horrified as they emerge into a road and make their way home.

It is dark and there is the sound of a motor car roaring up, a thud and a yell and when they catch up, a motorist has hit and killed the hyena. He is a jolly pukka young chap and he apologises most sincerely to the ladies and calls his chauffeur to fetch a spade and they bury the beast, under the impression it is a dog. With admirable sang-froid, the Baroness claims it is indeed a prize pedigree hound. She gives the driver her address. Some time later he sends her a brooch with the name of the ‘dog’ engraved on it.

What then clinches the utter heartlessness and amoral insouciance of the character, is that she sells the brooch for a tidy profit. Nothing means anything to these people except the game of ‘appearances’ and ‘manners’.

2. The Match-Maker (Clovis)

Not a story, more a meandering scene with Clovis arriving at the supper table, polishing off some oysters while waxing lyrical about their selflessness to his host, then segueing into a discussion of his mother’s two previous marriages and how he rustled up an old Empire Johnny to be her third husband.

3. Tobermory (C)

At Lady Blemley’s house-party at ‘the Towers’, rather boring Mr. Cornelius Appin turns out to have made the stupefying achievement of teaching the house cat, Tobermory, how to talk. Not only that but Tobermory drawls, with the exaggerated languid tones of the effete upper classes. That’s satire 1.

Satire 2 is that the cat immediately starts spilling the beans about the ‘goings on’ among the humans and, more viciously, repeating exactly what they say about each other behind each others’ backs which is, of course, often malicious and wounding. General panic.

Tobermory spots the neighbours’ cat out the window and scarpers after it. Sir Wilfred and Lady Blemley agree the cat must immediately be put down. Dinner is a tense affair, as is breakfast, but spirits lift when Tobermory’s corpse is found in a flowerbed. As to Mr Cornelius Appin, some weeks later he is reported gored to death by an elephant at Dresden Zoo which he had been teaching German irregular verbs.

4. Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger (C)

Mrs Packletide’s life is dominated by rivalry with Loona Bimberton. Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, so Mrs Packletide decides she is going to bag herself a tiger!

I think she must already be in India because she pays the headman of a local village to tether a goat in order to lure a rather elderly and ailing tiger for her to shoot. Mrs P hides in a tree with her paid companion, Miss Mebbin, and soon enough the tiger shows up. A single gunshot rings out and the tiger rolls over dead but, on closer inspection, it appears it was the harmless the goat which was shot and the tiger simply died of a heart attack at the loud noise!

The natives take their 1,000 rupees and swear to silence and thus Mrs Packletide returns to London in triumph, makes the tigerskin the centre of her Curzon Street apartment, gives endless parties where it is the centre of conversation, sends a tiger claw brooch to her rival, Loona Bimberton, even has a wild animal fancy dress party, where Clovis makes a fleeting appearance.

Until, that is, her ‘companion’, penny-conscious Miss Mebbin, blackmails her, threatening to reveal the truth (the old tiger died of a heart attack) unless Mrs Packletide buys her a nice little cottage near Dorking.

Mrs. Packletide indulges in no more big-game shooting. ‘The incidental expenses are so heavy,’ she confides to inquiring friends.

Saki is full of sly details. The thing that made me smile most in this story was that Miss Mebbin names her country cottage ‘Les Fauves’, a jokey reference to the recent French art movement which was given that name in 1905, so quite a modish reference at that.

5. The Stampeding of Lady Bastable (C)

Clovis and his mother, Mrs Sangrail, are staying with Lady Bastaple. Mrs S asks Lady Bastaple if she can keep Clovis on for a further 6 days while she, Mrs S, travels north to stay with the MacGregors. She offers to let Mrs Bastaple off her bridge debt of 49 shillings.

6. The Background (C)

A delirious and bizarre story about a modest commercial traveller, Henri Deplis, who comes into a legacy and decides to spend 600 francs on having a massive picture of the Fall of Icarus tattooed on his back by the premier tattooist in Italy, Andreas Pincini. Pincini dies and Deplis thinks he is let off payment but Pincini’s widow pursues him by which point Deplis no longer has 600 francs left to pay her. After some bad-tempered haggling, the widow donates the picture to the municipality of Bergamo, thus making Deplis’ back into state property. The result is that he is unable, as a state property, to leave Italy, an unusual legal situation which is worked through in delirious detail.

7. Hermann the Irascible — A Story of the Great Weep

A satire on the Suffragettes. It is set in a hypothetical future, in the second decade of the twentieth century after a Great Plague has devastated England, and Hermann the Irascible, nicknamed the Wise, sits on the British throne. One of the recurrent problems he faces is the vociferous and violent Votes For Women movement. Hermann comes up with a comic solution. He suggests a bill to make voting for women compulsory with a £10 fine for failing to vote, and then adds a long list of elections and elected officials which women are now compelled to vote in:

Every woman between the ages of twenty-one and seventy will be obliged to vote, not only at elections for Parliament, county councils, district boards, parish councils, and municipalities, but for coroners, school inspectors, churchwardens, curators of museums, sanitary authorities, police-court interpreters, swimming-bath instructors, contractors, choir-masters, market superintendents, art-school teachers, cathedral vergers, and other local functionaries whose names I will add as they occur to me. All these offices will become elective, and failure to vote at any election falling within her area of residence will involve the female elector in a penalty of £10. Absence, unsupported by an adequate medical certificate, will not be accepted as an excuse.

Of course this transforms voting into an intolerable burden for most women: working women are spending half the week traipsing to and from voting booths, while rich women find their holiday plans wrecked as they are continually being called back to vote for their local cathedral verger or what not, and quickly run up fines of multiples of £10.

Eventually the burden of voting becomes so extreme that it gives rise to a No-Votes-For-Women League  to which Saki maliciously and hilariously attributes all the self-righteousness, inflammatory rhetoric and violence of the original Suffragette Movement. The No-Votes-For-Women League goes one better and invents ‘the Great Weep’ being the systematic crying by women at gatherings large and small.

Eventually, making a great show of making a great concession, Hermann the Wise signs into law a bill depriving women of the right to vote and everyone is happy. And greatly amused.

8. The Unrest-Cure (C)

This is one of Saki’s most famous stories because it is so compact and fluent and beautifully designed. On the train down to be guest at a house party, Clovis overhears two friends chatting, one lamenting that he has got very set in his ways, the other recommending that he shake his life up a bit and have what he calls ‘an unrest-cure’. Clovis’s ears prick up, he makes a note of the conventional man’s name and address (J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.”

He then sends this man a telegram saying ‘the bishop’ is coming to stay, preceded by his private secretary – this is of course Clovis, who proceeds to shock and amaze timid Mr Huffle by announcing that the bishop and a general who will be joining him are planning to round up all the Jews in the neighbourhood and massacre them! Mr Huddle is speechless, his sister responds with a migraine:

It was not her day for having a headache, but she felt that the circumstances excused her, and retired to her room to have as much headache as was possible before the Bishop’s arrival.

The ‘plan’ which Clovis unfolds becomes steadily more outrageous. He explains they are going to invite all the Jews from the neighbourhood and murder them one by one. He explains the house is now surrounded by a hidden ring of boy scouts who will shoot anyone who leaves! Indeed an eminent Jew arrives soon after in his motor car and is hustled quickly upstairs by the terrified brother and sister. Things go on like this for a bit while Clovis lounges in Huddle’s library smoking one of his excellent cigars, before quietly slipping away. None of it was true. It was an entire fiction.

9. The Jesting of Arlington Stringham (C)

Stringham is a politician. He makes a joke in Parliament which enlivens a boring debate. His wife disapproves. He’s never made a joke before. She comments to her mother. Stringham makes another joke, which his wife doesn’t get. Over the next few weeks Stringham makes several more. Then a catty ‘friend’, Gertrude Upton, points out that these are all well-known quips by Lady Isobel, the implication being that Stringham is seeing quite a lot of Lady Isobel.

So far so gently mocking the boringness of politicians, the straightlacedness of their families and so on. So it comes as a shock when the last few lines tell us that Eleanor Stringham killed herself with an overdose of chloral. Does he… does Saki mean that she killed herself because the jokes implied her husband was having an affair?

10. Sredni Vashtar

Conradin is a sickly boy looked after by his disapproving cousin and guardian in a strict and tedious house which has driven him mad with resentment and frustration, which makes him sick ‘under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom’.

Mrs. de Ropp was the ground-plan on which he based and detested all respectability.

One day the local butcher boy brings him a large polecat-ferret in return for all the silver Conradin has saved up and he hides his cage in the garden shed and develops a private religion based round the fierce animal which he gives the made-up name of Sredni Vashtar.

More and more mystified by Conradin’s regular visits to the shed, Mrs de Ropp one day ransacks his bedroom for the key, orders Conradin to stay in his bedroom, from whose window he watches her go to the shed, unlock it, and enter in. He fervently prays to his god, prays for death and destruction. The minutes pass and the dread witch doesn’t return. Then, with wonder, he sees his god slink out of the shed with dark red strains round its jaws, undulate down to the stream, take a drink, and disappear into the undergrowth. Conradin’s dream has come true. His god has answered his prayers. No more repressive aunt.

11. Adrian (C)

Adrian is a working class lad from Bethnal Green where his mum is a laundress.

One can discourage too much history in one’s family, but one cannot always prevent geography.

He is taken up by the hugely posh Lucas who treats him to dinner at places like the Ritz or Carlton. His aunt Mrs Mebberley hears about this protege and decides to take him off on a tour of Europe.

‘I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.’

She takes him to an Alpine resort. Here he flourishes but not in the way expected. He turns out to be quite a wild youth. Where he grew up breaking any cutlery was a crime. Among posh people he discovers that, done at the right time and place, it wins kudos.

Lucas hears about Adrian’s increasingly outrageous exploits via the pen of Clovis who is ‘moving as a satellite in the Mebberley constellation.’ One is that Adrian abducts the ugly Grobmayer child and dressed it as a pig in an evening’s drama performance till it wailed, revealed its identity and the parents were furious. But his masterpiece was swapping all the room numbers on an entire landing and especially affixing the ‘Bathroom’ sign to the door of old Frau Hofrath Schilling who was thereupon terrified out of her wits by a succession of half-dressed visitors.

12. The Chaplet (C)

It was a gala evening at the Grand Sybaris Hotel, and a special dinner was being served in the Amethyst dining-hall. The great chef Monsieur Aristide Saucourt has slaved over his masterpiece dish, Canetons à la mode d’Amblève. But just as it is served to the foreign philistine guests, the very average orchestra strikes up the strains of the dull and obvious tune, The Chaplet and, in their relief at recognising a tune amid a lot of other rather more ‘modern’ music, many of the diners stop to listen, to applaud, tinkering with the famous dish or letting it grow cold! So M. Saucourt in a fury seizes the conductor and plunges him head first into a large tureen of boiling soup!

13. The Quest (C)

Clovis is staying at the Villa Elsinore when there is a disaster: Mrs Momeby misplaces little diddums baby Erik. The household is in an uproar. Only Clovis lazing in a hammock is more concerned about which sauce cook is preparing to accompany the asparagus while outraging everyone with his calm suggestion that maybe the little darling has been eaten by an escaped hyena.

A neighbour calls, Rose-Marie Gilpet who is a devout Christian Scientist and therefore believes there is no such thing as illness and also that we all think positively the lost child will appear. She goes to search the road again and lo and behold finds an abandoned baby there who she restores to the bosom of her family amid tears and celebrations. Which makes it embarrassing when the real Erik is discovered hiding in the garden roller. So who is the imposter? Then arrives the nursemaid from the Villa Charlottenburg across the way to reclaim darling little Percy who had gone missing. Mystery solved and Clovis is off to see the cook about the asparagus sauce.

14. Wratislav (C)

(Described above.)

15. The Easter Egg

What you might call a ‘grim’ story, like the apparent suicide of Eleanor Stringham. In this one Lady Barbara has a son who is a pusillanimous coward, Lester Slaggby. They go to say in a small Germanic resort, learn from the local Burgomeister that the Prince is paying a visit, a local couple suggest that a touching gesture would be for their little 4-year-old to be dressed up and give the Prince the gift of an Easter egg filled with his favourite food, plovers’ eggs. Lester helps to train the little mite and on the big day is gesturing the child towards the Prince sat on his dais when, looking round for the proud parents, he sees them stepping hastily into a cab and, in a flash, realises the egg is filled with a bomb. Lester does the one great brave deed of his life and runs to catch up with the child, grabs the egg planning to throw it far, yells to everyone the one word ‘Bomb!’ but is astonished when the little brat holds onto it with obsessive grip. Then it blows up. The story cuts to some time later and makes the simple point that Lady Barbara is now blind.

So it had been sort of funny up till that point and then becomes bitterly tragic. The note of languid insouciance I mentioned earlier, the Oscar Wilde tone of whimsical detachment, doesn’t apply here. Possibly a conductor being drowned in a tureen of soup is sort of funny. But a woman committing suicide from profound misery or being blinded… not so funny.

16. Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped (C)

Mark Spayley is a commercial artist, he creates advertising posters and is on a piddling £200 per annum. He nervously asks for the hand in marriage of Leonore, the daughter of the vastly successful businessman, Duncan Dullamy, ‘the great company inflator’. What neither he nor anyone else knows is Dullamy’s business empire is about to crash, which is why he accepts Spayley’s offer and suggests a surprisingly quick wedding. Dullamy doesn’t reveal about the looming crash but does lament that his new product, Pipenta, has been a failure. Now he’s his son-in-law to be, Mark offers to help out. In short order he has changed the product’s name to Filboid Studge and created a vast poster showing lost souls in hell clamouring for an opportunity to eat the delicious food, with a big strapline: a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.”

This campaign is surprisingly successful and Filboid Studge becomes a runaway success, which the narrator describes with a few waspish asides about the power of advertising (this was 1908). Dullamy’s fortune is restored and he, of course, breaks off his daughter’s engagement to Spayley and sells her to a much more appropriate beau.

17. The Music on the Hill

Clever Sylvia Seltoun has not only inveigled Mortimer Seltoun into marriage, but to abandon ‘Town’ with its delights and friends, a relocate to his country seat, Yessney.

She looked on the country as something excellent and wholesome in its way, which was apt to become troublesome if you encouraged it overmuch

Here she becomes aware of some kind of presence in the woods, a fleeting golden thing, and is oppressed by a feeling of being watched in among the desolate farm buildings. Boring Mortimer astonishes her by revealing that he believes in the great god Pan and for warning her when she takes some grapes which had been left to a beautiful statuette of the god in a remote clearing. In revenge, the laughing, malicious youth diverts a hunted stag so that it gores Sylvia to death. Maybe a life in Town wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

The title refers to the several occasions on which Sylvia heard remote and eerie music, ‘a low, fitful piping, as of some reedy flute’, coming from somewhere on the hills around her husband’s manor house.

This story takes its place alongside other Edwardian invocations of Pan, to be found in Peter Pan, the Piper at the gates of dawn chapter in Wind In The Willows and The Story of a Panic by E.M. Foster to name only the most obvious. (Pan in popular culture.) Why? The end of the 19th century saw a kind of rarefied, aestheticised classicism, the paintings of the Olympians, and this seems to have overlapped with the florescence of the children’s story during the Edwardian decade. Pan represents a melding of the two.

18. The Story of St. Vespaluus (C)

Clovis tells ‘the Baroness’ a long cock and bull story set in the early Middle Ages when ‘when a third of the people were Pagan, and a third Christian, and the biggest third of all just followed whichever religion the Court happened to profess’.

Bad-tempered King Hkrikros has no children but a number of nephews among whom his favourite is elegant, sporty young Vespaluus. The king wants to nominate him as his heir but then discovers that Vespaluus is a Christian. Damn. The king is a fervent pagan who devotedly maintains ‘the sacred serpents, who lived in a hallowed grove on a hill near the royal palace.’

The king hires the Royal Librarian, who has time on his hands, to go cut branches and switches from the woods and give young Vespaluus a sound thrashing. Doesn’t change his mind. Then he has the boy locked up in a tower without food and water though the guards take pity on him and sneak in grub.

But when he’s released in time for the great summer games Vespaluus refuses to take part in the ritual worship of the sacred snakes and the king’s patience snaps. He arranges him to be stung to death by the royal bees. However, the bee-keeper loves Vespaluus (everyone does) and so spends a laboursome night before the scheduled punishment pulling out all the bee stings. So that when crowds of pagans assemble to watch the ritual stinging-to-death of Vespaluus everyone is astonished to see him covered in bees and writhing yet emerging unscathed. It is a miracle! He must be a saint!

The furious king berates his librarian but before he can do any more harm himself dies of an apoplectic fit. At which point Vespaluus is crowned king and, assuming his Christian faith, the entire Court sets about getting itself baptised, neighbouring Christian powers make approaches, the pagan rites begin to be deprecated.

But the punchline is that Vespaluus isn’t a Christian at all. He is a devout pagan and worships the same sacred snakes as the king. Then why on earth, the Chamberlain asks him, did he pose as a Christian and cause himself and everyone else so much bother?

‘I used to pretend to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for nothing.’

He is a classic Wildean fop, loving pranks and mocking the earnest.

19. The Way to the Dairy (C)

The Baroness and Clovis again. As usual Clovis tells her a bitchy or spiteful or droll anecdote. This time it’s about an aunt who unexpectedly comes into some money, at which point she is drooled over by her nieces, the Brimley Bomefields, namely Christine, Veronique and another. The nieces are horrified when they learn that the aunt, getting on in years, proposes to leave her fortune to a nephew of hers, named Roger. So Veronique comes up with a cunning plan which is to catch Roger out, gambling or somehow frittering his money away. Every year he goes on holiday to northern France so the nieces persuade the aunt to go on holiday to Dieppe. But, in a comic reversal, while they’re waiting to catch Roger at the tables it is the aunt who has a casual flutter (on the old mechanical game named Les Petits Chevaux) gets bitten by the gambling bug, and turns into a gambling addict, while Roger bumps into them from time to time says, knowingly, that he realises the aunt is just a front for the nieces, who are running a gambling syndicate. Infuriatingly, they eventually give up and straggle home with a reputation for headaches and a permanently depressed look. Which is how Clovis and the Baroness saw them in ‘the Park’ and which prompted the anecdote in the first place.

20. The Peace Offering (C)

Clovis and the Baroness again. She asks him to help with a theatrical production to soothe her local county society who have been rather ruptured by a bitterly contested election. As satire, Clovis suggests they write a Greek tragedy on the theme of the Return of Agamemnon and then proceeds to explain who all the characters are to the Baroness who is cheerfully ignorant and philistine.

They then cast the play with local worthies, each stupider than the next. But the crux is the rivalry which breaks out between the Baroness, playing Clytemnestra and Clovis, who gives himself the minor but beautifully costumed role of the charioteer. When the Baroness pinches some of his best lines, Clovis plots his revenge. He coaches the dimwit playing Cassandra in a special speech and, on the grand night, with all of local county society assembled, when Clytemnestra goes off to make a costume change, Cassandra steps forward and delivers the speech Clovis has written for her… denouncing the great and the good in the audience as ‘corrupt, self-seeking, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians[who] continue to infest and poison our local council…’ By the time the Baroness returns onstage it is to find everyone calling for their coach and leaving.

In a way the Baroness did succeed in healing local divisions… by uniting everyone who was anyone in condemning her ‘outrageously bad taste and tactlessness’.

21. The Peace of Mowsle Barton

Crefton Lockyer has gone for a rest cure and break from hectic city life by renting a room in an isolated farm. Little does he expect to discover that is the epicentre of a bitter rival between two local witches who cast spells on each other. These aren’t the florid witches of Hollywood, but uncanny and ancient crones and the spells in question amount to little more than preventing the kettle in the farm from boiling and rendering the ducks which in the hated rival’s little pool from being able to swim.

So, small stakes but this is one of the longer of the stories in the collection and the interest is in the spooky and threatening atmosphere which Saki conjures. It’s interesting because Rudyard Kipling, in his Sussex phase, wrote similar stories about village crones.

22. The Talking-Out of Tarrington (C)

Clovis is with his aunt when the latter spots a tiresome young man approaching who she is at pains to avoid because he’s probably heard she’s arranging a luncheon with ‘the Princess’ and will cling leechlike till he’s invited. The aunt makes a run for it leaving Clovis to deal with the young man who introduces himself as Tarrington. Unfortunately Clovis has determined to reply to every question and conversation gambit with irrelevancies and supercilious twitting, until the poor young man, defeated, beats a hasty retreat.

23. The Hounds of Fate

A tragedy, something like a ghost story or a rural tragedy slightly in the manner of Thomas Hardy. Martin Stoner has failed in everything and is down to his last few coins, tramping through muddy country lanes towards the sea with the vague purpose of throwing himself in, as night draws in and it starts to rain and he sees the lights of a farmhouse, he finds himself walking up the path and knocking on the door.

To his amazement the door opens and he is welcomed in by the old retained as ‘Master Tom’, back from Australia. He is given food and then shelter for the night, and given his old room, and his horse is saddled for him, all the time Stoner carries on the masquerade of impersonating this ‘Master Tom’. Slowly it emerges that Tom fled to Australia after some local scandal but try as he might, he can’t get the old retainer (named George) to spell it out.

Then one day old George hurries to find him and tells Stoner that Michael Ley is back in the village and bound on taking his revenge. At a guess, I speculate that Tom ravished Ley’s sister, who killed herself and that’s why he fled and Ley is now determined to take revenge. Old George gives Stoner three sovereigns and tells him to go hide out in the nearest town till Ley has gone away, when he’ll be able to return.

Three sovereigns is a lot of money for a former beggar, and Stoner goes his way rejoicing to have brass in pocket, reconciling himself to moving on from the Tom persona as easily as he adopted it. Easy come, easy go. But at that point Michael Ley steps out from the shadow of an old oak tree, a shotgun in his hand and implacable hatred in his eyes.

24. The Recessional (C)

Clovis is in a Turkish bath with his buddy, Bertie van Tahn, but equipped with a fountain pen and notebook. What is he doing? Well, Mrs. Packletide’s great enemy and rival Loona Bimberton has just had a Coronation Ode accepted by the ‘New Infancy’ magazine and Mrs P is spitting blood. Since she has helped him out so many times, financially, Clovis offers to compose a rival poem, and here he is, composing away like mad. The result is dire:

‘The tawny tigress ‘mid the tangled teak
Drags to her purring cubs’ enraptured ears
The harsh death-rattle in the pea-fowl’s beak,
A jungle lullaby of blood and tears.'”

25. A Matter of Sentiment (C)

Lady Susan is holding a house party and the guests are betting on the big race. Trouble is Lady Susan sternly disapproves of everything, especially horse racing. The guests have to retreat to the far end of the garden where they discovery that Motkin, Lady Susan’s butler, has a second cousin who was head stable-lad at a neighbouring racing establishment, and usually gifted with much inside information as to private form and possibilities. The butler goes off to see this relation and that evening, over dinner, secretively passes on the name of the top tip to each of the guests as he circulates with the sherry.

However, the hot favourite loses, as all the guests assembled in the hall the next morning discover when a telegram arrives, and Lady Susan is delighted because, for the first time in her life she has bet on a race, and her bet won!

26. The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope (C)

Mrs Riversedge is hosting guests including Clovis and his aunt, Mrs Troyle. Mrs Troyle announces that another guest, meek and shy Septimus Brope, appears to be wooing her maid, Florinda. She has overheard him chanting her name (‘I love you Florrie’) and the other day picked up a piece of paper he had dropped with a note to meet him down by the old yew tree. Mrs Troyle wouldn’t mind but her maid is the only person on earth who understands her hair.

The other ladies are scandalised and also surprised, as mild-mannered Mr Brope scratches a living editing the ‘Cathedral Monthly and being enormously learned about memorial brasses and transepts and the influence of Byzantine worship on modern liturgy.

Clovis is the one who solves the mystery when the two men are left alone in the smoking room after dinner. He discovers that Brope makes money on the side by writing the lyrics for trashy popular songs, and is struggling to write one for a hypothetical subject named Florrie. Nothing whatsoever to do with Mrs Troyle’s maid (who is actually named Florinda).

Clovis promises to not only keep his secret but help him writing his ditties. In fact he proposes a characteristically Clovisian twist: why not try lyrics which slam the woman in question. And sure enough a month later a new song is taking the music halls by storm in which the singer threatens to throw his Florrie into a quarry!

All Clovis requires in return is to accompany Brope on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Continent.

27. ‘Ministers of Grace’

The Duke of Scaw is religious but not quite in the traditional sense. He is discussing politics and social reform with his friend, Belturbet, speculating how easy it would be to replace the existing bunch of disappointing politicians with something more malleable. Why not with angels? Don’t be silly, says his friend. Piqued, the Duke replies:

‘I shall summon angelic forces to take over some of the more troublesome personalities of our public life, and I shall send the ousted originals into temporary retirement in suitable animal organisms.’

And this he does. The rest of the story describes how he converts various leading politicians, the archbishop of Canterbury and top industrialists into various animals and creates their doppelgangers from angels. Suddenly politicians agree and businessmen adopt caring policies. Imagine the confusion of the country, but that is as nothing to the confusion of their wives!

The conceit is developed at some length with very thinly veiled, jokey references to contemporary politicians including David Lloyd-George, Lord Rosebery and so on. Eventually one of the animals the Duke of Scaw has consigned the soul of one of these politicians to, a bad-tempered black swan, grabs Scaw as he is walking through St James Park, drags him into the lake and drowns him. Whereupon the angel-politicians disappear, replaced by their human counterparts, and business resumes as usual.

28. The Remoulding of Groby Lington

This is an eerie story about a man whose personality changes to reflect that of his pets. It opens with him being beaky-nosed and repetitive as his parrot. His brother brings him a pet monkey and he swiftly becomes as malicious and disruptive as his pet. When that dies, his brother buys him a tortoise and now Groby Lington potters slowly around his garden in slow motion. It has many comic details but the overall impression is of the tale’s strangeness.


Themes

Mocking the British Empire

Remember that Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab (now Sittwe), British Burma, which was then part of British India, and that Saki was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and his wife, Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of a Rear Admiral  – and that he then himself went on to serve in the Indian Police Force. He was steeped, in other words, in the traditions and discourse of the British Empire. So what must his parents have made of his determined ridiculing of it and its stiff-upper-lipped maintainers?

He’d spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads and relieving famines and minimising earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women.

The Recessional sounds as if it’s going to be a parody or skit on Kipling’s famous poem of the same name but is nothing of the sort. Saki cannot write verse. Still, the thought was there.

Studied heartlessness

Specially regarding children who are either revealed as heartless brutes (The Strategist) or discussed with utter heartlessness by their parents (The Baker’s Dozen) or are eaten (Ernest-Gabriel and Esmé) or blown to smithereens (The Easter Egg).

Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often.

It is not the attitudes as such which are reprehensible, they are fictional, they can be taken in the reader’s stride. It is the shallowness and lack of feeling which Saki is mocking.

Christianity

It almost goes without saying that everyone in these stories has been brought up to treat Christianity as the accepted ‘thing’. Saki’s satire aims at the way none of these conventional Christians show any understanding or putting into practice of its moral teachings. Wherever possible members of the cloth are mocked (as they were in so many 18th century novels, through Trollope, Waugh, every chaplain in every public school in fiction).

More than that, Christianity offers a massive opportunity for satire whereby the manners of the gentleman can be contrasted with Christian morality, with the satirical intention that, in Victorian and Edwardian society, manners and appearance were more important than conventional Christian morality. It is a central part of the macabre comedy of The Unrest Cure that the person said to be panning the massacre of the Jews is the local bishop, whose character Saki then delights in twisting into his own style of gruesome amorality.

‘The Bishop is sorry to hear that Miss Huddle has a headache. He is issuing orders that as far as possible no firearms shall be used near the house; any killing that is necessary on the premises will be done with cold steel. The Bishop does not see why a man should not be a gentleman as well as a Christian.’ (The Unrest Cure)

Culture

Rather like Christianity, most of these upper-class types profess an interest in culture without actually understanding it at all. Painting and music are the two areas Saki picks on, with Reginald making the standard joke that the purpose of the Royal Academy is not to look at the pictures but to look at, and mingle with, other high society types. It is a recurring joke that the English understand a work of art so long as there is a good descriptive title to aid their understanding.

In the same spirit the British upper classes are portrayed as nervously philistine when it comes to music.

Thither [to the Amethyst dining-hall] came in shoals the intensely musical and the almost intensely musical, who are very many, and in still greater numbers the merely musical, who know how Tchaikowsky’s name is pronounced and can recognise several of Chopin’s nocturnes if you give them due warning; these eat in the nervous, detached manner of roebuck feeding in the open, and keep anxious ears cocked towards the orchestra for the first hint of a recognisable melody.

‘Ah, yes, Pagliacci,’ they murmur, as the opening strains follow hot upon the soup, and if no contradiction is forthcoming from any better-informed quarter they break forth into subdued humming by way of supplementing the efforts of the musicians. Sometimes the melody starts on level terms with the soup, in which case the banqueters contrive somehow to hum between the spoonfuls; the facial expression of enthusiasts who are punctuating potage St. Germain with Pagliacci is not beautiful, but it should be seen by those who are bent on observing all sides of life. One cannot discount the unpleasant things of this world merely by looking the other way.

And:

‘Hark!’ said most of the diners, ‘he is playing “The Chaplet.”‘ They knew it was “The Chaplet” because they had heard it played at luncheon and afternoon tea, and at supper the night before, and had not had time to forget.

Money / greed

Saki is funny about the miserly such as Laploshka or the paid companion, Miss Mebbin, in Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger, who resents even centimes unnecessarily spent, or Lady Bastaple (‘Lady Bastable loved shillings with a great, strong love.’)

Aunts

Tell me about the Brimley Bomefields.’
‘Well,’ said Clovis, ‘the beginning of their tragedy was that they found an aunt.’


Related links

Saki’s works

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

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

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fall of The Damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

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

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Sebastian

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Artistic theory and practice

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

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

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

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

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

4. Beyond the ideal nude

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

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

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

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

Number one

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

Number two

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

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

5. Personalising the nude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

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

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

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

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

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

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

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

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

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

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

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

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

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

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

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

When is a nude not a nude?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curators

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


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Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album @ The Courtauld Gallery

In my opinion Goya is not a great artist in terms of technique: his portraits of the Spanish royal family or our own sainted Duke of Wellington are pretty flawed, are not figurative painting of the first order. His large body of work is very uneven.

What he does undoubtedly have is an extraordinary intensity of vision. This is why he is more remembered for the famous Disasters of War series than any of his ‘official’ works – they have an intensity and inwardness, a sympathy with the grotesque and horrifying, an obsession with experiences at the border and over the edge of what it means to be human, which have echoed down the ages to our own violent times.

Regozijo (Mirth) byFrancisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 4 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink with traces of red chalk and scraping. New York, The Hispanic Society of America, A 3308

Regozijo (Mirth) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 4 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink with traces of red chalk and scraping. New York, The Hispanic Society of America, A 3308

Potted biography

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes lived from 1746 to 1828 ie a long life, dying aged 82. Professionally, he was a great success, rising to become official Painter to the Spanish Court in 1790, aged 43.

In 1793 he suffered an unknown illness from which he recovered but which left him profoundly deaf. In his convalesence he began to paint small pictures for himself, exercises of the fantasy and invention which could find no outlet in the formal portraits he was commissioned to make. He also began to create albums of drawings, small intensely-felt images of people, which he was to keep up for the rest of his life. We know about eight of them. Rather than conventional sketchbooks which might contain quick sketches of things observed for later use, angles and aspects of the world, the albums explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and fantasies in fully-finished images.

The Witches and Old Women album was the last one he made, between 1819 and 1823, when he was aged 73 to 77. An old man. After his death, the albums were cut up and the images filed into larger books, before being sold off in job lots by his descendants and scattered to the winds.

This is the first time all known 23 images from the Witches and Old Women album have been gathered in one place; in fact, it’s the first time the complete contents of any of the eight albums have been reunited for 150 years. It is a triumph for the patience and scholarliness of the curators involved.

There are just two rooms in this small exhibition.

Room one sets the scene, using 20 or so images from other albums and sources, images of nightmare and fantasy including Goya’s greatest hit, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters from the album Los Caprichos, to give context to the Witches.

The second room contains the 22 images from the Witches album, complete with page numbers and titles written in by Goya himself – alongside another dozen or so images from other albums, and lithographs from other sources, to give ongoing context.

The Witches and Old Women album

For a start they aren’t all witches or old women, there are a number of old men too and a number of figures who could be either sex. The title was given to the images well after Goya’s death and, I think, restricts ways of responding to works which are much more varied and strange than it suggests.

A large amount of scholarship has gone into analysing the album and the individual images, evident in the notes to each image and in the exhaustive book of the exhibition. As an amateur trying to make sense of what I saw in front of me, I divided the 23 images into four groups:

  • Visionary (people flying)
  • Humane (the pity of old age)
  • Types (stereotypical types eg the miser, the crone, the madman)
  • Horror (eating babies)

My view

For me the dynamic flying figures are best. They convey a ballet of grotesques, visions of dynamically interlinked flying human forms. Goya is great at depicting the human figure in movement and your eye is drawn to the attractive patterns and shapes of moving bodies (as in number 4, above, or number 1, below) – to their energy and strange grotesque enthusiasm.

Bajan riñendo, (They descend quarrelling) by Francisco de Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 1 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Private Collection

Bajan riñendo (They descend quarrelling) by Francisco de Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 1 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Private Collection

Conversely, the more static the image is, the more it reveals Goya’s shortcomings as a draughtsman, especially as a depicter of human faces. I’d rank number 15, below, as one of the three or four ‘Horror’ images, in which babies are being taken away to be sacrificed, tortured or eaten (we know this because other images show an old woman preparing to eat a baby).

Obviously the image is gruesome and macabre – my point is that it’s also a bit cack-handed. Look at the woman(?)’s face, typical of a range of badly drawn faces throughout the exhibition.

Sueno de buena echizera (Dream of a good witch) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 15 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer, Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, kdz 4396

Sueno de buena echizera (Dream of a good witch) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 15 c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. Berlin, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin Preussischer, Kulturbesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, kdz 4396

Look at all the faces in the half dozen images in this review: they are very hit and miss, but I think they miss most often in the static images where the poses are simpler, boring almost, and therefore you look for human expression and human meaning in them, which they often don’t provide.

Sexy?

In one or two places the commentary on the wall labels by each image seemed to me to incongruously and inappropriately raise the issue of sex.

In one image two figures are shaking tambourines, one of them with a dark blotch in the middle, maybe string or dirt or simple damage. The commentary says: ‘The hole in the tambourine may allude to sexual penetration.’ Really?

In image 20 an old woman seems to be carrying two skinny old men entangled on her shoulders. It strikes me as another variation of Goya’s obsessive theme of poor, decrepit humanity contorted into bizarre shapes of suffering or torture. Images which are deeply personal expressions of his unknowable but obviously bleak and comfortless thoughts and feelings. The commentary surprised me with another sexual interpretation: ‘This unwieldy tower evokes a circus act but the figures’ energy may also suggest lasting sexual vitality.’ Hmm.

Pesadilla (Nightmare) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 20. c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 19.27

Pesadilla (Nightmare) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 20. c. 1819-23. Brush, black and grey ink. New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 19.27

Similarly, number 3 is a strange image of an ugly middle-aged-looking woman playing a guitar and howling while levitating over another figure, an old woman. Strange, grotesque and – in my opinion – badly done, not one of the ‘good’ images. Anyway, the old lady on the ground is looking up and holding her nose. I would have thought this is because of the awful smell emanating from under the levitating woman’s skirts – a rare outbreak of human reality in a ‘work of art’ and quite a comic image in a Chaucerian vein.

The commentary says: ‘The object on the ground might be a bowl with a spoon, implying that the woman’s levitation is caused by magic. It could also refer to a mortar and pestle, underlining the sexual dimension of the upward gaze.’ Is that the main thing going on here?

Cantar y Bailar (Singing and dancing) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women Album' (D), page 3. c. 1819-23. Brush and black and grey ink with scraping. London, The Courtauld Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust, D. 1978, PG256

Cantar y Bailar (Singing and dancing) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women Album’ (D), page 3. c. 1819-23. Brush and black and grey ink with scraping. London, The Courtauld Gallery, Samuel Courtauld Trust, D. 1978, PG256

Unless you’ve spent time caring for elderly relatives or working among the very old it is maybe difficult to grasp the misery and shame of being doubly incontinent, impotent, paralysed – the horror of being trapped in an utterly derelict, malfunctioning body.

Literary theory, certainly, and art theory, maybe, are saturated with psychological or psychoanalytical interpretations which dwell on sex, images of sex, wishes about sex, denials of sex, unconscious revelations of sex, as well as plenty of biographical scandal about the artist’s sex lives, all of which are immediate and present issues to the people in their prime who are the leading academics in these fields.

But being 70 years old in the 1820s must have meant something a lot different and a lot worse than being 70 in 2015, and Goya knew it and felt it and depicts it in these images.

No doubt there is much interesting interpretation to be written about the stereotyping of old women or about the long lineage of the way the figure of ‘the witch’ was used to define, control and demonise old women – and, from another angle, the album certainly also includes images of horror which are direct descendants of the famous Disasters of War and speak to us about man’s inhumanity to man.

But this time round, on this viewing, I was:

  • delighted by the half dozen images of figures flying, falling, twisting and dancing through the air (as in Regozijo and Bajan riñendo, above), which I found uplifting
  • and moved by the stoic images of poor suffering humanity, which I found humbling

Does the final plate, number 23, depict an old woman or a man? Surely it doesn’t matter. Surely the point is that it’s a deeply sympathetic image of old, old age and the burden and weight and frailty and pathos of suffering humanity. A burden more people in my generation are going to experience than any previous generation in history…

No puede ya con los 98 anos (Just can't go on at the age of 98) by Francisco Goya. 'Witches and Old Women' Album (D), page 23. c. 1819-23 Brush, black and grey ink. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GA.646

No puede ya con los 98 anos (Just can’t go on at the age of 98) by Francisco Goya. ‘Witches and Old Women’ Album (D), page 23. c. 1819-23
Brush, black and grey ink. Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.GA.646


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