Ted Hughes

Image after image. Image after image. As the vulture
Circled.
(Prometheus on his crag, Poem 20, by Ted Hughes)

This overview of Ted Hughes’s career is by way of preparing for a review of Ted Hughes’s volume of translation, Tales from Ovid, in the next blog post.

Ted Hughes (1930 to 1998) was one of Britain’s best poet-war poets. Born in 1930 in Mytholmroyd in Yorkshire, Hughes was a countryman through and through, brought up as a boy ranging over the rainswept moors and farms of his home region, coming across the bones of dead sheep or birds, ranging over a landscapes of ferns and thistles, bracken and broom, and harsh northern birds – crows, hawks – flinging themselves into the wind over his head.

Early career

Hughes went to Cambridge to study English but found its traditionalism stifling and switched to Anthropology and Archaeology, developing an interest in shamen and the supernatural which would last his career. He had the usual scattering of odd jobs until his first volume, The Hawk in The Rain, published in 1957, won prizes and his literary career was launched. There followed an infrequent but extraordinary series of volumes:

1957 The Hawk in the Rain
1960 Lupercal
1967 Wodwo
1970 Crow: From the Life and the Songs of the Crow
1975 Cave Birds
1977 Gaudete
1979 Remains of Elmet
1979 Moortown
1983 River
1986 Flowers and Insects
1989 Wolfwatching
1997 Tales from Ovid
1998 Birthday Letters

The early books are full of poems about otters, hawks, ferns, thistles, thrushes, pike, the kind of animals he grew up observing, fishing or hunting, all described with a feral brutality and supernatural ability to inhabit their lives, all glinting eyes and tearing talons:

As Wikipedia says, ‘The West Riding dialect of Hughes’s childhood remained a staple of his poetry, his lexicon lending a texture that is concrete, terse, emphatic, economical.’

Intermixed are other subjects, the Great War (Bayonet charge, Wilfred Owen’s photographs), animals in the zoo, like the Jaguar. The early poems in their concern for standard stanzas and his occasional bathetic lapses of subject matter, sometimes remind you that he wasn’t born fully formed but emerged from the very traditional 1950s, from John Osborne’s 1950s of angry young writers raging against the dead hand of the older generation. The early poems, trailing traces of traditionalism, often indicate the effort required to break free of black and white, provincial Englishness and find his voice.

Hence a poem describing a DH Lawrence-style argument between a miner and his wife or the poem taking the mickey out of a retired colonel or satirising a Famous Poet – these satires or kitchen sink dramas seem a bit, well, obvious and trite, placed next to the more mind-bending visionary poems. Somehow unworthy of his extraordinary gift.

The Great War

His obsession with the First World War apparently derived from the fact his father fought in it. Hence:

  • the three-part poem, Out, about his father’s wounds and ominous silence
  • or the sweaty terror of a bayonet charge
  • the last thoughts of a man shot through the head
  • the five anti-war poems in the sequence Scapegoats and Rabies
  • the dense Larkinesque poem about the photograph of a group of six young men from Hughes’s village who were all killed during the war
  • the inclusion in Crow of a battle scene, Crow’s account of the battle
  • reference to the Battle of the Somme in ‘Crow improvises’

But nevertheless the subject feels a little, well, obvious, compared to the visionary poems. And the anti-war sarcasm of Scapegoats and rabies feels, despite the fancy phrasing, straight out of Siegfried Sassoon. Old.

When he writes that war is sweat and terror it is what thousands of others have written; but nobody else had realised that November is ‘the month of the drowned dog’, that the attent, sleek thrushes on the lawn are terrifying in their single-minded obsession with bouncing and stabbing and dragging some writhing thing out of the wet earth; or that thistles are a fistful of splintered weapons thrusting out of the grave of a rotting Viking. This was, and remains, news from another dimension.

Books for children

In another mode it’s surprising, given his reputation for searing descriptions of the harshness of nature, how very sensitive some of the poems are, first dew on fresh cobwebs:

A reminder that alongside his harsh and symbolical works for adults, Hughes wrote no fewer than 16 books for children, some of them very successful, for example the tale of the Iron Man. But the delicacy of those two poems and a handful like them, when it appears is marvellous but is comparatively rare.

Extraordinary intensity of vision

The weakness of Hughes’s adult style was that he started off at such full throttle, with maximum brutality, animals killing each other, young men blown to smithereens in the Great War, God invoked as a helpless witness of the universal bloodshed, that is was hard to know where to go next. Right from the start the human mind (well, Hughes’s mind) is under relentless attack, assaulted by the bestial savagery of the natural world.

Dead and unborn are in God comfortable.
What a length of gut is growing and breathing –
This mute eater, biting through the mind’s
Nursery floor, with eel and hyena and vulture,
With creepy-crawly and the root,
With the sea-worm, entering its birthright.

In small doses, an individual Hughes poem is like an icepick to the imagination. Over any length, the relentless extremity becomes pretty wearing and, worse, begins to lose its impact. There is a staggering visionary power to his imagery and phrasing, again and again, which feel like they’ve been ripped out of the windswept landscape of the North:

The farms are oozing craters in
Sheer sides under the sodden moors…

Or see deeper into reality, expressing levels of perception most of us didn’t know existed:

The pig lay on a barrow dead.
It weighed, they said, as much as three men.
Its eyes closed, pink white eyelashes.
Its trotters stuck straight out.

Such weight and thick pink bulk
Set in death seemed not just dead.
It was less than lifeless, further off.
It was like a sack of wheat.

‘It was less than lifeless’, what a dynamite idea, what an insight. There are hundreds of moments like this in Hughes’s oeuvre, which take you beyond the horizon of your thinking, yanking together worlds of perception, brilliant.

His earliest poems in the 1950s followed traditional poetic forms, employed regular stanzas and rhymes and all, although always pushing at them with half rhymes and embedded rhymes and assonance. By 1967’s Wodwo he was using a lot more free verse, the individual line getting the space and impact its utterance deserved rather than following the same metre as all the other lines in the poem, some only one word long if that was what was required, others becoming very long indeed, all of them unfolding a science fiction, otherworldly intensity of vision:

I listened in emptiness on the moor ridge.
The curlew’s tear turned its edge on the silence.

Slowly detail leafed from the darkness. Then the sun
Orange, red, red erupted

Silently, and splitting to its core tore and flung cloud,
Shook the gulf open, showed blue,

And the big planets hanging—

‘Horizon’ is a favourite word in the early poems, the narrator’s spirit flying off over the edge of normal perception, spinning into the prophetic otherworld inhabited by his killer animals.

… He meant to stand naked
Awake in the pitch dark where the animal runs,
Where the insects couple as they murder each other,
Where the fish outwait the water.

I agree. As a Darwinian materialist I see a vast universe of complete indifference, on one tiny planet of which life forms have evolved through a never-ending cycle of relentless competition and mass murder. And we humans are unavoidably part of the choiceless animal kingdom – as portrayed over and over again in Hughes’s oeuvre, for example in Crow Tyrannosaurus, where Crow disgustedly sees all other life forms condemned to eat screaming victims, then finds himself unable to avoid doing the same.

Myth making

But, having established this territory of panic-stricken intensity, where was there to go next? Hughes’s answer was to double down on the anthropological aspect of his work, increasingly turning the animals he described with such staggering vividness in the early poems into heavyweight symbols in a symbolical mindscape:

The bear is digging
In his sleep.
Through the wall of the universe
With a man’s femur.

The bear is a well
Too deep to glitter
When your shout
Is being digested.

The bear is a river
Where people bending to drink
See their dead selves.

The bear sleeps
In a kingdom of walls.
In a web of rivers.

He is the ferryman
To dead land.

The trouble with this kind of writing, innovative, mind-opening, astonishing as it first appeared in the 1960s, is that it can quickly come to seem too easy, too glib. Replace ‘bear’ with any other big mammal you can think of, tiger, bison, rhino, whatever. I admit it does make a bit of difference, but not enough. And Hughes wrote scores of poems like it, outlandish, fluent, increasingly pretentious but, worst of all, with whole stanzas or passages which were interchangeable. Identikit. Rentamyth.

Somewhere Al Alvarez commented that Hughes’s poems rarely present an argument but leap from one dazzling image to the next, and you can see it in action in ‘The Bear’. Each of those little sections isn’t a stanza in the traditional sense of a unit with a predictable number of lines, with a predictable metre and system of rhyme – they’re more like items on a list, each little unit a miniature parable clustered round one of Alvarez’s dazzling images, each one lasting exactly as long as it takes to express that image.

Too much pretentious abstraction

You can trace this runaway fluency in Hughes’s increasingly casual use of the word ‘God’. To begin with it has some vestige of Christian meaning and therefore feels transgressively powerful when mentioned in the early, pagan beast poems. However, the term soon becomes something more like an anthropological abstraction, as much a part of the merciless world as the howling wind and biting rain, equally as driven and powerless. And then, as Hughes became more prolific and apocalyptic and symbolical, the word ‘God’ is thrown around with increasing abandon, losing some of its poetic charge with each iteration.

When Hughes ended his poem about the terrifying crabs which emerge clattering from the sea at night by calling them ‘God’s only toys’, it is not as powerful as it ought to be because of so many other animals or experiences which have, by now, been associated with this ‘God’. Ultimately, the word becomes somewhat cartoony.

When I was a young man bursting with hormones, ‘A childish prank’ struck me as a profound insight into the bittersweet world of sex. Now it strikes me as on a level with a roadrunner cartoon. Too often in the mythological poems everything is everywhere all the time – terms like the universe, infinity, God, Death become increasingly empty counters. His mythological character Crow:

peered out through the portholes at Creation
And saw the stars millions of miles away
And saw the future and the universe

And:

The body lay on the gravel
Of the abandoned world
Among abandoned utilities
Exposed to infinity forever

And:

Crow looked at the world, mountainously heaped.
He looked at the heavens, littering away
Beyond every limit

And:

There was this terrific battle.
The noise was as much
As the limits of possible noise could take

And:

So the survivors stayed.
And the earth and the sky stayed.
Everything took the blame.
Not a leaf flinched, nobody smiled.

And:

Crow roasted the earth to a clinker, he charged into space –
Where is the Black Beast?
The silences of space decamped, space flitted in every direction.

And:

He sees everything in the Universe
Is a track of numbers racing towards an answer.

And:

People were running with bandages
But the world was a draughty gap
The whole creation
Was just a broken gutter pipe.

And:

Without a goodbye
Faces and eyes evaporate.
Brains evaporate.
Hands arms legs feet head and neck
Chest and belly vanish
With all the rubbish of the earth.
And the flame fills all space.

The same kind of extremity and exorbitance, the same kind of phraseology about ‘the universe’ and ‘space’ and ‘Death’ in every poem. Gets a bit boring.

The same could go for the word ‘crucifixion’. When it first appeared in one of the 1950s poems it had a shocking impact appropriate to an era when the Church of England was still a power in the land. It crops up more and more regularly as Hughes moved into the 60s. And by the time of Crow (1970) it had become just one more of his pseudo-mythological reference points, appearing on pages 35, 36, 63, 68, 77, 82 of the book. It had become routine. ‘God’, ‘crucifixion’, ‘space’, ‘Death’, ‘infinity’ – all became steadily overused.

Having invented a searingly intense new way of seeing the world, perhaps it was inevitable that Hughes would go on to flog them to death and, in doing so, turn his dazzling insights into a new set of stereotypes and clichés.

(The way Hughes burst on the scene with a radically violent and personal vision, tinged with unhinged psychosis, in the late 1950s, flowered in the 60s, decayed in the 70s and then became a prolix echo of himself from the 1980s onwards, is strongly reminiscent of the identical career arc of the visionary novelist, J.G. Ballard, born in the same year, 1930.)

Crow

1970’s Crow saw Hughes give full throttle to his anthropological interests. It consists of 89 pages of poems devoted to the figure of ‘Crow’ seen as a nature god, a shamanistic figure who caws and pecks his way through a series of bleakly powerful fables and parables. A disenchanted, non-human observer of the disasters of Creation. The creation of a new mythic character, and the abstract flinty style of the cosmic parables, is an extraordinary achievement,

But from a technical point of view, even if, as a poet, you reject conventional forms and stanzas, you still have to find some way organise your lines on a page and it turns out one of the most basic ways to do that is with repetition, the basic forms of incantations, spells and liturgies. Look at the obsessive use of repeated phrases in these poems from Crow:

Even simpler than variations on the question and answer format, the easiest way to create a poem is simply to line up a sequence of images and just put ‘And’ at the start of each of them:

When the owl sailed clear of tomorrow’s conscience
And the sparrow preened himself of yesterday’s promise
And the heron laboured clear of the Bessemer upglare
And the bluetit zipped clear of lace panties
And the woodpecker drummed clear of the rotovator and the rose-farm
And the peewit tumbled clear of the laundromat

This isn’t ‘about’ anything: it feels like a dazzle of images. It may be aiming for the fake sonority of an Old Testament genealogy, but it is just a glorified list with smart variations. And once you get started with this kind of thing, it proves difficult to stop. The ‘and’ thing becomes addictive, leading to a fluency which starts off impressive but ends up becoming steadily more meaningless:

While the bullfinch plumped in the apple bud
And the goldfinch bulbed in the sun
And the wryneck crooked in the moon
And the dipper peered from the dewball

Wodwo

1967’s Wodwo had expanded the notion of a collection of verse by including a set of short stories and a play wedged between two suites of poems i.e. as soon as he could, Hughes was interested in experimenting with other forms. Crow is a collection of invented folk tales or parables. 1975’s Cave Birds continued this interest in playing with forms, Hughes himself describing it as ‘an alchemical drama’.

Gaudete

1977’s Gaudete took this a step further, creating a innovative hybrid form of narrative, a sort of novella told entirely in highly charged poetic prose, or in lines of verse so free they range from one-word lines to lines which contain entire paragraphs.

Gaudete is a deeply weird book. The plot, such as it is, concerns an Anglican clergyman named Lumb (with his ‘long-jowled monkish visage,’ p.87) who is abducted by spirits and replaced by an identical copy of himself. This changeling is driven like a machine to tup every woman in their little village, maybe in a bid to conceive the next Messiah (at least that is the explanation given by Evans the blacksmith’s girlfriend on page 113).

The 200-page text describes the last day of fake Lumb’s existence in the village as he drives from manor, to farmhouse, to open field, in order to service women who are all mindlessly infatuated with him, gagging for abandoned sex.

In the second half their various husbands and boyfriends all tumble to the fact that their women are being tupped by this relentless shagger (helped by 18-year-old poacher Joe Garten who take incriminating photos of couples in the act or, at the very least, of Lumb’s distinctive blue Austen van outside everyone’s houses while the husbands are away).

The cuckolded men meet to drum up Dutch courage in the local pub and decide to confront Lumb at that evening’s women’s meeting in the church, which is in fact some kind of black magic coven wherein the women strip naked, take magic mushrooms, wrap themselves in dead animals skins and lose themselves in primitive drum music, before performing The Ritual.

It’s like The Archers remade by the director of Emmanuelle, except in a tone of relentless hysteria – part 70s soft porn, part Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. The key words are ‘scream’ and ‘skull’, ‘dead’ and terror’. Blood and guts spill across every page:

But already hands grip his head,
And the clamp of tightness, which has not shifted,
Is a calf-clamp on his body.
He can hear her whole body bellowing.
His own body is being twisted and he hears her scream out.

He feels bones give. He feels himself slide.
He fights in hot liquid.
He imagines he has been torn in two at the waist and this is his own blood everywhere.

The retired naval commander Estridge’s daughter, Janet, hangs herself when his other daughter, Jennifer, tells her that she, too, is in love with Lumb and is carrying his child. Dr Westlake, tipsy after a pub lunch, confronts Lumb in his wife’s bedroom and tries to shoot him with a shotgun. The young architect, Dunworth, discovers Lumb in flagrante with his wife and, after failing to shoot either of them with his handgun, puts it into his own mouth but also fails to pull the trigger, and is left a broken shell of a man as Lumb drives off and his wife ignores him. Young poacher Joe Garten spies Lumb tupping Betty the barmaid from the local pub (the Bridge Inn) among the bluebells, and gets home to find his mum adjusting the rabbit cages which she has upset during her just-completed coition with Lumb – at which point he sets out to gather as much incriminating evidence against the vicar as he can. Maud gets fucked, Felicity gets fucked, Mrs Holroyd too, in a delirious merry-go-round of rural rumpy-pumpy.

It sounds ridiculous and it ought to be, but the whole thing is told in fast-moving 1-, 2- or 3- page sections of extraordinary, hallucinatorily intense prose poetry.

It is a very long poem on acid (in fact, in the climactic black magic scene in the crypt of the church, the women are dosed with magic mushrooms, p.140). But no drugs are needed for most of the characters to be continually in the grip of wildly extreme emotions, and the poetic prose to be off-the-scale in over-vivid intensity.

Commander Estridge’s arrival at the Bridge Inn could have been described in a matter-of-fact, realistic style, whereas Hughes gives us a charged, symbolical description of how triggers psychological impact on the other men already gathered and grumbling.

His arrival
Is like permission: it flings open all limits.
His ferocity, concentrated in that bulbous hawk’s eye,
Delegates, as in a battle,
A legitimate madness to each member. (p.143)

Although the characters go about often recognisable activities – poaching, shopping in town, sunbathing, idling away the afternoon looking through a telescope – and there is more than enough precisely observed detail to fill a novel, yet the inflamed prose poetry conveys a continual sense of unreality and weirdness.

All over her body the nerves of her skin smoulder.
The cream suit is an agony.
A lump of boiling electricity swells under her chest.
Wild cravings twist through her
To plunge to the floor
As if into a winter sea
And scour her whole body’s length with writhings. (p.38)

As a student I read it in one all-night sitting, too terrified to get out of bed to go for a pee or put it down. I distinctly remember the moment when Lumb is driving his blue Austen van round the curve of a hillside when out of nowhere two hairy arms reach over his shoulders, grab the wheel and wrench it to the side, sending his van tumbling down the hillside and hurling Lumb into another of the terrifying Samuel Beckett-type nightmares which punctuate the main narrative. (He has a vision of all the women he’s tupping buried up to their necks in mud and screaming in terror as some underground monster approaches to tear and shred their trapped bodies. The muddiness of this mud world reminded me very powerfully of Samuel Beckett’s 1964 text, ‘How It Is’, depicting a man out of his mind crawling through a world of mud).

Now, rereading it 30 years later, I noticed two things:

1. That in such a long book, effectively a novel in poetic prose, there isn’t a scrap of dialogue. Odd. Eeerily so. Some of the characters, especially towards the end as the husbands band together, are described as talking, but we never hear any actual dialogue. I think this was a deliberate choice because nothing anyone could say could match the delirious intensity of the narrative voice.

2. Second thing: it is a very great relief to be out of Hughes’s head. Ok, so all the character experience life in a very Hughesian way, drowning in extreme emotions, are shaken with terror, clutching their skulls and silently screaming etc. But actually a) there is a range of human characters unprecedented in his oeuvre, and b) there is more effort than in any other Hughes work to differentiate between the characters, in terms of names, professions, activities, descriptions of their homes, their attitudes and experiences.

[Mrs Davies having sex p.93, Mrs Walsall having sex p.96.]

Sylvia?

After the main narrative is over, if you have any mental energy left, Gaudete presents 20 pages of short fragmented poems, supposedly from the notebook of the real Reverend Lumb, supposedly addressed to some kind of female deity, but which are obviously fragments which have no place in the main story.

Only one of them made any impression on me, but really stood out. I wondered if it was a veiled memory of Sylvia Plath. Here it is in its entirety:

Once I said lightly
Even if the worst happens
We can’t fall off the earth.

And again I said
No matter what fire cooks us
We shall be still in the pan forever.

And words twice as stupid.
Truly hell heard me.

She fell into the earth
And I was devoured.

Moortown

Like a lot of creative people who took things to the limit and beyond in the 1960s and on into the long hangover of the 1970s, it feels like Hughes eventually exhausted the vein of his own weirdness, burst the bubble of mythographic pretentiousness, and reverted to a more sober, factual style. Up to a point, anyway.

Thus 1979’s Moortown contains a sequence of 34 poems describing his work on a sheep farm in Devon. They have his characteristic brutal honesty about the blundering cruelty of nature – the poem about the bloody process of dehorning cows is particularly stomach turning, in fact it is such a traumatic procedure that he had already spent a couple of pages of Gaudete describing it in unnecessary detail – but are nonetheless a reversion back to the more naturalistic subject matter of his early period (albeit with cosmic burps). It opens with a brilliantly vivid description of rain in the countryside.

Mist-rain off-world. Hills wallowing
In and out of a grey or silvery dissolution. A farm gleaming,
Then all dull in the near drumming. At field-corners
Brown water backing and brimming in grass.
Toads hop across rain-hammered roads.

The recurring descriptions of the bloody process of cows or sheep giving birth and the many calves or lambs which are born dead or get stuck halfway and strangled so their heads have to be sawn off etc are grimly, sadistically naturalistic, and often deliberately repellent. With the result that my favourite poem is the one about a tractor frozen in the deep winter.

The tractor stands frozen – an agony
To think of. All night
Snow packed its open entrails.

I love that when they finally get the frozen tractor to start, it abruptly bursts:

with superhuman well-being and abandon
Shouting Where Where?

‘Where Where?’ Even Hughes’s most ‘adult’ poems often come perilously close to his children’s poems in their wide-eyedness.

Reading ‘Moortown’ made me realise Hughes is not such a Darwinian materialist as I had thought. In fact he’s more like a Platonist. His poetry believes there are huge primeval forces, universal abstract forces, continually at work in the world and that individual entities – foxes, hawks, cows, ewes, humans – are pathetic tatters which get caught up in the maelstrom of these forces, treated like puppets, tortured, thrown away once they’re used up.

Animals, and especially people, are only really interesting for Hughes insofar as they embody or trigger these eternal forces – in humans the embodiment coming via the primal experiences of sex, death, rage, despair and so on.

And the landscape only appears to be made up of trees and fields and hedges because beneath it all Hughes’s imagination sees archetypal science fiction forces, ‘the earth’s furnace’, the snow is ‘star dust’, ‘space’ is continually entering the woods or pressing onto the grass, the sun is eating the moon, the moon drinks the sea, the wood disappears over the edge of the world, and so on.

In this vein Hughes uses the term ‘radioactive’ twice in the sequence, not because there is any radioactivity anywhere but as a 1970s symbol for the enduring, invisible, science fiction forces which underpin the mess of living and dying things.

Orf

The poem ‘Orf’ maybe demonstrates the four levels of Hughes’s cosmology. Level one is naturalistic descriptions of nature, in this case a sickening description of the illness and sores which plague a lamb and refuse to get better (which I won’t trouble you with). So Hughes shoots the lamb in the head, at which point we get level 2, a kind of detached and carefully alienated vision of what follows, observation of nature as by a robot, by someone completely outside the normal frame of human and humane reference. He shoots the lamb and then:

He lay down.
His machinery adjusted itself
And his blood escaped, without any loyalty.

This is a brilliant mentation of the act of dying, only a little undermined by the fact that this trope, of comparing a living thing to a machine, is a very common Hughes tactic; it occurs throughout Hughes’s oeuvre. Just a few pages later, here’s a newborn calf learning to suckle at the udder:

He got going finally, all his new
Machinery learning suddenly.

Anyway, back to ‘Orf’, Hughes then moves the narrative to level 3, to the shaman-pagan plane, as he imagines the dead lamb’s soul standing up in front of him and asking permission to be dismissed.

But the lamb-life in my care
Left him where he lay, and stood up in front of me
Asking to be banished.

OK. I get this as a transformation of the lamb into a mythological figure. Because I’ve read the visionary weirdnesses of Crow and Gaudete this doesn’t surprise me as much as it might someone new to Hughes.

And so, finally, to level 4: ‘Orf’ is useful because it is a little more explicit than most of the poems about where all this is taking place i.e inside Hughes’s deeply fevered imagination. It happens:

Inside my head
In the radioactive space
From which the meteorite had removed his body.

Thousands of lyric poets talk about their feelings, go on at great length about their feelings, about their lady love or a Grecian Urn or Tintern Abbey or whatever. Not many poets describe their own minds as ‘a radioactive space’ which has been hit by a meteorite. I find this brain damage aspect of Hughes’s verse is often overlooked. Critics analyse the obvious subject matter but overlook the obvious fact that the poet frequently refers to himself as deranged.

Hughes’s science fiction vibe

Also: surfing the internet for essays and reviews and notes on Hughes, I’ve come across plenty of critics who point to his interest in black magic, the Kabbala and whatnot. This is a relatively easy subject to discuss because a) Hughes himself frequently mentioned it, b) it’s at the centre of Gaudete and other works, and c) magic it has its own texts for critics to plunder and quote and juxtapose with similar passages by Hughes. Essays on a plate. By contrast, I haven’t seen anyone pointing out the persistent theme of science fiction imagery in his poetry. Sure, the sun and the moon might be interpreted as basic symbols found in primitive writing around the world or pagan religions etc. But not radiation or meteorites.

Prometheus on his crag

Next to the vivid descriptions of the farm poems, the ‘mythological’ sequences ‘Prometheus on his crag’ (21 poems) and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’ (12 poems) seem like a throwback to the Crow period but without the cocky swagger of Crow; they come over as forced and pretentious.

‘Prometheus’ is all babies being dragged out of wombs, exploded heavens, screaming entrails, insane laughter, the sea retching bile and so on – so hyperbolical and inordinate it’s quite an effort to take seriously or care. (And includes a few more references which support my science fiction thesis: Hughes mentions ‘one nuclear syllable’ (17) and ‘atomic law’ (20), and the buzzword ‘space’ has a little splurge in poem 19:

So speech starts hopefully to hold
Pieces of the wordy earth together
But pops to space-silence and space-cold

Emptied by words
Scattered and gone.
And the mouth shuts
Savagely on a mouthful

Of space-fright which makes the ears ring.)

The sequence titled ‘Orts’ contains 22 poems, none of which meant very much to me, which I skimmed because they all sound the same.

Adam and the Sacred Nine

But for me the utter nadir of meaninglessness, the point at which Hughes’s endlessly repeated schtick of screaming universes reached absolute rock bottom, was in poem 8 of ‘Adam and the Sacred Nine’.

The nine in question turn out, rather disappointingly, to be common or garden English birds.

There’s a poem about the wren which I thought was rubbish; I have a jenny wren nesting in my garden that I love to watch flitting about among the ivy and and bushes, and Hughes’s cosmic bullshit completely failed to capture the look and feel and activity of an actual wren, at all.

But the rock bottom of his cosmic style arrives in the poem about the owl. Here it is in its entirety:

And Owl

Floats. A masked soul listening for death.
Death listening for a soul.
Small mouths and their recriminations are suspended.
Only the centre moves.

Constellations stand in awe. And the trees very still, the fields very still
As the Owl becalms deeper
To stillness.
Two eyes, fixed in the heart of heaven.

Nothing is neglected, in the Owl’s stare.
The womb opens and the cry comes
And the shadow of the creature
Circumscribes its fate. And the Owl

Screams, again ripping the bandages off
Because of the shape of its throat, as if it were a torture
Because of the shape of its face, as if it were a prison
Because of the shape of its talons, as if they were inescapable

Heaven screams. Earth screams. Heaven eats. Earth is eaten.

And earth eats and heaven is eaten.

For me, by this stage, Hughes had destroyed his own gift. He had turned his style into a cupboard of clichés – the same ludicrously hyperbolic cosmic vision, the same handful of key words (universe, scream, torture, death, birth, heaven, earth, blah blah blah) repeated with minor variations, everything turned into everything else which is probably having its womb ripped open or its skull staved in, blood weltering, with lots of screaming all round. The one good line:

Nothing is neglected in the Owl’s stare

tells you how crisp and precise his writing had once but it’s in fact a repetition of lines and attitude first and best expressed in ‘Hawk roosting’ from 1960:

The sun is behind me.
Nothing has changed since I began.
My eye has permitted no change.
I am going to keep things like this.

Some of the same brilliant intensity is here, obviously, but a) it’s a repetition of something he did better 30 years earlier and then b) it collapses into the ludicrous morass of overblown tripe of the poem’s final lines.

Depression and confessional poetry

There’s a case to be made that Hughes’s entire oeuvre amounts to the author struggling with depression and worse, with recurrent feelings of howling despair, or whatever the technical term is for a continual, hallucinatory over-intensity of perception and feeling directed in an unremittingly negative, death-obsessed direction.

The 1960s saw an increasing number of artists in all media letting it all hang out. The phrase ‘confessional poetry’ was coined in 1959 and applied to a number of American poets (notably Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton) and to Hughes’s ill-fated wife, Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide in 1963).

You could argue that his most memorable poems are the ones which maintain a precarious balance – containing his violent feelings and endless visions of pain, screaming skulls, flames crashing through space etc within a framework of detailed real-world observation. Certainly that’s why I love the early poems about the pike, otter, thistles, pig, bull, hawk, thrushes and so on – the dominant element is the wonderfully observed real-world imagery, behind which the shamanistic, universal anthropological vibe provides the fuel, supercharging the details, making them luminescent.

In the increasingly anthropological poems of the 1960s Hughes doesn’t exactly bare his soul – he rarely if ever speaks in his own character, rarely if ever about his own emotions per se. But he uses his animals to convey very strong emotions indeed, murder, rape, sexual disgust, despair. I thought Crow was the peak of this process, a great primal scream of a book, for example:

  • in ‘Crow’s account of St George’, which is a horrifying bad acid trip nightmare description of a man hacking his wife and children to pieces
  • ‘Criminal ballad’, where the man looks at his children playing in the garden and can’t hear them for machine guns and screaming
  • A bedtime story about a man who can never manage to do or be complete

But in retrospect a lot of the Crow poems still maintain a kind of balance, a sort of restraint and so command respect, because the mad intensity is contained within the form of parables or fables or lessons.

Similarly, hundreds and hundreds of lines in Gaudete although they contain a relentless bombardiment of hysterical extremity are, nonetheless, contained and controlled by the requirement of telling a narrative, the need to describe actual real-world incidents and to depict the large cast of actual human characters. This serves to rein in Hughes’s derangement and limit and focus his hysteria.

By contrast, the other sequences contained in Moortown (beside the title series which is avowedly naturalistic in intent) abandon any restraint, like a fat man taking off his belt, and the result is the great splurge of cosmic diarrhoea which characterise ‘Prometheus on his crag’ and ‘Adam and the sacred nine’.

I thought these poems were so drainingly absurd, such repetitive drivel, that I gave up buying new Ted Hughes books after Moortown. I thought his appointment as poet laureate in 1984 was a bizarre decision and read his laureate poems with dismay, as he struggled to reconcile his mythological blah with the modern world of tiaras and royal receptions.

Hughes seemed to be sinking into irrelevance until the sudden publication, right at the end of his life, of Tales from Ovid (1997) and Birthday Letters (1998), which changed everyone’s perception of what had come before.


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Notes on William Congreve

This short post consists of the interesting points from the introduction to the 1985 Penguin edition of Congreve’s plays, introduced and edited by Eric S. Rump. (I’m afraid I find it funny that a man who edited a book full of smutty jokes was called Rump.)

Congreve was born in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1670. His family moved to Ireland where he was educated at Kilkenny College – where he met fellow student Jonathan Swift, b.1667 – and at Trinity College in Dublin.

Aged 19, in 1689, Congreve left Ireland to travel to London and make his fortune as a wit. Aged 22 he published a novel titled Incognita: or, Love and Duty reconcil’d, whose title sounds like a play.

He befriended John Dryden, the leading literary figure of the age, who supported him through the rest of his career, writing rave reviews and introductions to his plays.

A year later his first comedy, The Old Bachelor, was performed. In all, Congreve write just four comedies, and in a relatively short career of seven years. They are:

  • The Old Bachelor (1693)
  • The Double Dealer (1693)
  • Love for Love (1695)
  • The Way of the World (1700)

And one tragedy:

  • The Mourning Bride (1697)

Congreve abandoned the stage for good in 1700, just as he turned 30.

A ‘good’ run for a play in those days was fourteen nights. Thus The Old Bachelor was a runaway success and played for… fourteen nights! A failure ran for three nights, the bare minimum required to cover its costs, a fact referred to in several of the plays themselves. William Wycherley’s second play, Love In A Wood, was not a success, ran for just 6 nights, and was never revived in his lifetime.

The Old Bachelor is, according to Rump, ‘a play in which a young, talented writer is content to re-explore the comic territory earlier mapped out by writers such as Etherege and Wycherley, but in doing so, is able to bring to the material’. It has freshness and distinctiveness.

It is also notable for the skill with which Congreve gives each character their own speech rhythms. Some critics claim you could be given any bit of dialogue from any of his four plays and be able to identify the character solely from their speech rhythms and idiolect. Rump thinks that’s pushing it a bit, but the fact people suggest this shows the care Congreve took to give each character their own distinctive speech patterns.

Congreve’s fourth and final play, the Way of The World, followed a gap of five years and was much-anticipated. It opened to great expectation and was presented by an all-star cast – but it was a relative failure. Why?

Well, it was by 1700 twelve years since the Glorious Revolution had swept away the Stuart kings and their world of carefree aristocratic hedonism. The new queen, Mary II, was more like Queen Victoria. She was not amused by the stage’s persistent attacks on marriage and conventional morality.

The times had changed. The overthrow of James II in 1688 represented not just a change in monarch but the triumph of the new mercantile class over the libertine aristocrats of Charles’s court.

Did Congreve intend to cease writing for the stage after The Way of the World bombed? He was certainly stung by the criticism of his plays included in the detailed critique of the stage written by Jeremy Collier (A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage), so much so that he wrote a long reply, Amendments of Mr. Collier’s False and Imperfect Citations.

But Collier was merely reflecting what many people felt by the late 1690s. The Society for the Reformation of Manners had been founded in 1692 and began to bring lawsuits against playwrights for outraging public morality. So did Congreve abandon the stage with an aristocratic flourish of disdain? No.

The record shows that Congreve continued his association with the stage after The Way. He shared with Vanbrugh the management of the new Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket; he wrote the libretto for an opera, Semele, set first by Eccles and a lot later by Handel. He translated the works of Molière, and produced over the next ten years a trickle of poetry and translations of Latin classics for various collections – in other words he continued to be active in the theatre and in literature and letters. But he never again wrote a play.

In 1714, on the accession of the Whig Hanoverian King George, Congreve was given financial security with the award of a sinecure, Secretary to the island of Jamaica. He never married but had dalliances with several aristocratic ladies, most notably Henrietta Godolphin, second Duchess of Marlborough, daughter of the famous general, John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. They probably met some time before 1703 and the duchess subsequently had a daughter, Mary, who was believed to be his child. Upon his death, Congreve left his entire fortune to the Duchess of Marlborough.

William Congreve died in London in January 1729 and was buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


Reviews of William Congreve

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Laura Knight RA: A Working Life @ the Royal Academy

Laura Knight was the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy of Arts (in 1936) and the first woman to receive a large retrospective exhibition at the Academy, in 1965. She was awarded a Damehood in 1929.

Born in 1877, Knight had a long life (passing away in 1970) and a long and successful career, working in oils, watercolours, etching, engraving and drypoint until well into the 1960s.

She never departed from the figurative, realist tradition of her youth and was, for this reason, in her heyday, one of the most popular painters in Britain.

Portrait of Joan Rhodes by Laura Knight (1955) © The estate of Dame Laura Knight. Photo credit: Royal Academy of Arts

Given Knight’s mid-century fame, and her role as a pioneering woman artist, it is a little surprising that this FREE display of some of her work is a) so small and b) tucked away in a dingy room through a doorway off of the main first floor landing. There was no signage, I had to ask an RA staffer where it was hidden.

If you google Knight or look at her Wikipedia article, you immediately see a series of highly realistic and vivid oil paintings, starting with the cracking Self Portrait with Nude of 1913, and including the evocative paintings she did during the Second World War (she became an official war artist at the outbreak of war, and her portrait of Ruby Loftus operating industrial machinery was picture of the year at the Academy’s 1943 summer exhibition).

As you explore further online you come across lots and lots of oil paintings of chocolate box scenes of the countryside, especially of the Cornish coast, featuring soulful looking ladies with parasols (before the First War) or in flapper style dresses and chapeaux (after the First War).

In this little display there are only three oil paintings on display here, although they include the very striking portrait of Joan Rhodes (above) and an equally realistic and sensual double nude, Dawn. (It is hard not to be struck by the firm pink bosoms in this painting, though maybe I am meant to be paying attention to the women’s soulful gazes…)

Dawn by Dame Laura Knight (1932-33) © The Artist’s Estate. Photo by John Hammond

No, the bulk of this display is made up of display cases of Knight’s drawings and sketchbooks of which the Academy holds a substantial collection – small, monochrome, often unfinished sketches, which are – to be frank – of variable quality and finish, some were very appealing, some seemed, well, a bit scrappy.

The works are grouped into three distinct themes from Knight’s long working life – the countryside, the nude and scenes from the theatre, ballet and circus.

Countryside

Knight had several spells of living in the countryside – in the 1890s she moved to the Yorkshire fishing village of Staithes and painted scenes of the coast and life among the fishermen and their wives. In 1907 Knight and her husband moved to Cornwall and became central figures in the artists’ colony known as the Newlyn School. In the 1930s she and her husband settled in the Malvern Hills, where she remained for the rest of her life.

Thus the exhibition includes sketches she did of Mousehole in Cornwall, alongside sketches of a ploughed field, trees beside a river, Richmond Park, Bodmin Moor, two land girls in a field, seeding potatoes, and so on.

Mousehole Harbour, Cornwall, with Figures in Foreground by Laura Knight (mid-1920s or early 1930s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

It was only later, when I googled her many finished paintings of Mousehole and other Cornish scenes that I realised where these sketches were heading, and what I was missing. I wish the exhibition had included at least one finished painting of this kind of scene alongside the sketches, to help you understand the process better, and the purpose of the sketches.

Nude

We’ve already met the two dramatic nude women in Dawn. There are a small number of other nude sketches and studies on display, which I thought were a bit so-so. Like the countryside sketches, they strongly suggest that the ‘magic’ of Knight’s paintings was precisely in the painting, in her skill at creating an airy, light and luminous finish with oil paints.

Standing Nude with Her Arms Behind her Head by Laura Knight (mid-1950s) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

Theatre, ballet and circus

This broad subject area contains the largest number of sketches and drawings. Knight sketched ballet dancers, and circus performers, there are drawings of boxing matches held among soldiers training during World War One, and ice skaters and trapeze artists and many other performers. The wall labels tell us that she even spent some months travelling with famous circuses of the Edwardian era, drawing and sketching every day.

Trapeze Artists by Laura Knight (1925) © The Estate of Dame Laura Knight. All Rights Reserved

They’re all competent. Some of them piqued my interest. But none of them seemed to me as vivid as the drawings of, say Edward Ardizzone, who had a comparable sketching style, using multitudes of loosely drawn lines to build up form and composition.

The Lion Tamer by Edward Ardizzone (1948)

Maybe I’m mixing up fine art (Knight) with book illustration (Ardizzone) and maybe I’m giving away my failings of taste in saying so, but I much prefer the Ardizzone. It’s more vivid, more evocative, more physically pleasing (more tactile), more fun.

Also, as with the nudes and landscapes, a quick search online reveals that Knight converted her sketches into scores and scores of paintings of the circus, and I immediately found the paintings much more pleasurable than the sketches – a little cheesy and old-fashioned, like vintage Christmas cards, but much more finished and complete than the sketches.

Grievance

The introductory panel and all the wall labels exude what you could call the standard feminist spirit of grievance and offence. The curators point out that Knight, despite her success with the public, was only granted membership of the Royal Academy in 1936! That she was the first woman to achieve this accolade (why so late Royal Academy)! But that, even then, she wasn’t invited to Academicians’ Annual Dinner until 1967! We are told that, as a woman art student before the Great War, she was forbidden to paint or sketch from real naked models, but had to work from sculptures and statues! It was only in the 1930s in Newlyn that she paid local people to pose nude for her! And so a work like Dawn was an act of defiance against a male-dominated art world! Down with the patriarchy! #MeToo! Time’s Up!

Well, I’m sure all of this and much more along the same lines, is true and scandalous and we should all be up in arms about it. But, seen from another perspective, all this righteous indignation amounts to a skillful evasion of asking the rather obvious question, which is whether Knight’s art is any good – or is of anything other than antiquarian interest designed to bolster the outrage of righteous young feminists.

This tricky question is not addressed anywhere in the (very informative) wall labels, but, when you think about it, is amply answered by 1. the Academy’s choice of location for this little ‘exhibition’ – tucked away in a dark and dingy side-room – and 2. by the fact that it is more of a ‘display’ of half a dozen notebooks, three paintings and a poster, than a full-blooded exhibition.

If Laura Knight is so eminent and so worthy of consideration, why didn’t the Academy give her a larger exhibition in a more prominent space?

Ironically, the curators who complain that Knight was overlooked and patronised in her own time, have done quite a good job of repeating the gesture – displaying only a small and not very persuasive part of her output, and even that in a side room which nobody in a hurry to see the blockbuster shows on Anthony Gormley or Helena Schjerfbeck or Félix Vallotton is in too much danger of actually stumbling across.

Suggestion

In all seriousness, why not give Laura Knight a much bigger exhibition? If you look at the paintings embedded in the Wikipedia article or all across Google, it’s clear that she painted absolutely brilliantly, but in a straightforward naturalistic style which was completely outdated and provincial by the 1930s, let alone the 40s or 50s – in a style which carried on its Edwardian naturalism into the atomic age as if the rest of modern art had never existed.

But despite that – or more likely, because of it – Knight was very popular and successful with the public. Her paintings of Edwardian children playing on the beach or soulful ladies standing on clifftops sold by the dozen and – from a Google search of them – look immensely pleasing and reassuring in a lovely, airy, chocolate-box kind of way. And her wartime paintings perfectly capture the earnest heroism of the conflict, and of the social realism, the committedness, of the wartime artists.

To me this all suggests a whole area of investigation, an enquiry into why British artistic taste remained so isolated and uncosmopolitan for so long, which would reference:

  • the way the director of Tate in the 1930s could proudly say that Tate would only buy work by the young whippersnapper Henry Moore ‘over his dead body’
  • or Sir Alfred Munnings, the horse-painting president of the Royal Academy, addressing the academy’s 1949 annual banquet, delivered a drunken rant against all modern art and invoked the support of Winston Churchill (sitting next to him) who he claimed, had once asked him: ‘Alfred, if you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his … something, something?’ ‘And I said ‘Yes, sir! Yes I would!’

A big exhibition of Knight’s work would:

  1. put to the test any claims about her importance and relevance
  2. be very popular among the sizeable audience, who still like their art extremely traditional (think of the sales of prints and other merchandise!)
  3. allow the curators to explore and analyse the long-lasting appeal and influence of the anti-continental, anti-modernist, anti-avant-garde tradition in 20th century English art of which, for all her skill and ability, Laura Knight appears to have been a leading example

This – the philistinism of English art, the determined rejection of all 20th century, contemporary and modern trends in art and literature in preference for the tried and tested and traditional – is something you rarely hear discussed or explained, maybe because it’s too big a subject, or too vague a subject, or too shameful a subject. But it’s something I’d love someone better educated and more knowledgeable in art history to explain to me. And I’d really enjoy seeing more of Laura Knight’s lovely airy innocent paintings in the flesh. Why not combine the two?

For once mount an exhibition which is not about a pioneer or explorer or breaker of new ground, but about a highly capable painter of extremely traditional and patriotic and reassuring paintings, and explain how and why the taste which informed her and her audience remained so institutionally and economically and culturally powerful in Britain for so long.


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David Hockney @ Tate Britain

This is a comprehensive and awe-inspiring 13-room overview of David Hockney’s 60-year-long career, starting with works created while he was still an art student at the Royal College of Art in 1960 and concluding with depictions of his California home which he was still working on as the exhibition was being finalised.

Hockney – arguably England’s greatest living artist, certainly its most popular, and recognised by the Establishment as a member of the Order of Merit, a Companion of Honour, a Royal Academician – will be 80 this July (he was born 9 July 1937), and he still hasn’t finished – both creating and commenting insightfully and humorously on his own work.

Sometimes curators can arrange an artist’s work by theme, but in Hockney’s case it makes more sense to arrange it in bog standard chronological order, because the different experiments and ways of making occur very much at certain times and are best understood a) when taken together, so you can savour his experiments with a new look b) when viewed in sequence since you can see the underlying continuities and the ways ongoing interests and ideas recur in new ways, new investigations.

There are hundreds of books and essays about the man, including the many he’s written himself, several biographies, numerous documentaries and countless charming interviews; there is no shortage of comment and analysis on Hockney’s career, so I’ll try to keep my summary of his oeuvre as displayed by this exhibition, brief.

Periods and styles

  • Art school scrappy – very early 1960s – deliberately scratchy, dark and cranky like the English weather. Right from the start his works are BIG but I find the early stuff unappealing and very art school studenty.
    • Play within a play (1963) The commentary goes on about playing with perspective so the tassles at the bottom of the screen, along with the chair and the floorboards are meant to indicate perspective and vanishing point i.e. artifice, while the handprint is of a real hand pressed against the glass Hockney wanted to cover the whole painting with. Fair enough, but it’s not nice to look at.
    • Flight into Italy (1962) Note the combination of Pop-style use of a geological diagram for the silhouette Alps, with the blurred semi-skull heads in the manner of Francis Bacon. Bacon’s horror smears are a big and unpleasant presence in the first few rooms.
  • 1962 Hockney’s work appeared in the Young Contemporaries exhibition – and you can see in it all the influences of the time – Abstract Expressionism with hints of Pop Art, suggestions of Francis Bacon. It was followed by a 1963 show, named with deliberate fake naivety, Paintings with people in:
    • Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) In Hockney’s own words, this is the closest he got to Pop, an object-shaped canvas portrayal of a commercial product (a box of Typhoo tea) – but note the insertion of the blurred humanoid into it, like a Francis Bacon figure trapped in a cage, as if he feels the product itself wouldn’t be enough, that it needs some kind of extra layer of meaning – unlike Warhol’s sublime confidence.
    • The First Marriage, (A Marriage of Styles I) (1962) This is a mysterious image which the commentary deflates by explaining that Hockney was in a museum looking at the Egyptian objects when his friend came and stood by an ancient statue wearing a modern suit. the main features are the big sandy hessian canvas, and the deliberately scrappy badly drawn figures. Image the possibilities for sensuous play here, imagine the look of actual Egyptian statues, their smoothness and infinite depth. Here everything is scratchy and cack-handed, the amateurishness is the ethos.
  • 1964 Hockney moves to Santa Monica, Los Angeles, inaugurating the era of the classic swimming pool paintings and depictions of lots of fit young naked men. The commentary, rather banally, says that to young David, Hollywood represented ‘the land of dreams’ and, well, it turned out to be ‘the land of dreams’. More importantly, the move signifies a transition in his work to a more conventional use of perspective and more traditional compositions of actual scenes.
    • Medical Building (1966) This reproduction doesn’t do justice to the size of the image, and its cartoon simplicity. He liked the clean lines of the buildings against the clear Californian sky, as thousands had before him.
    • Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964) The scrappiness of the human figure – a consistent approach or vision, is contrasted with the almost mathematical precision of the tiles and the brightness of the curtain, the pink carpet, the shiny chairs in the background. Note the shower curtain. The commentary makes much of the frequent inclusion of curtains in many of these early paintings to indicate ‘the artifice of theatre’.
    • A Bigger Splash (1967) Bright colours, geometrically straight lines, subverted or complimented by a spurt of curves or sudden scratchiness. Hockney’s many images of Los Angeles swimming pools are maybe his signature image.
    • Sunbather (1966) Pop colours, simple human figure, wiggly lines capturing the play of water.
    • Peter Getting out of Nick’s Pool (1966)
  • From the mid-60s Hockney began using photography to help composition. In the later 1960s Hockney used his new figurative style to create some massive double portraits and the guide shows many of the still photos he took first to help him create these enormous compositions.
  • The exhibition then shows a room of Hockney’s generally very persuasive drawings from the late 60s and 70s. I liked these ones:
  • The commentary very usefully explains that by the end of the 1970s Hockney felt a little trapped by the restrictions of conventional perspective and figuration. It came as a great liberation when he stumbled on the idea of creating works composed of multiple Polaroid photos of the same scene, but often capturing the same detail numerous times and even in different states, assembled in what could loosely be called a cubist style. He first arranged many of these in mathematical grids, but then went one step further to arrange the Polaroids in shapes which themselves captured the action, the subject. He called this second series the ‘Joiners’. Both capture in a static flat image what are both multiple points of view, and multiple moments of time. Quite a huge amount of discourse can be woven out of this experiment by skilled curators and art critics and the images themselves are very effective, imaginative and well made but somehow, I didn’t find compelling.
    • Kasmin (1982) Example of a grid.
    • Pearlblossom Highway (1986) A more overlapping affect.
    • The Scrabble Game (1983) Maybe the best example of capturing multiple perspective and events in one static image. I found it clever, well-made, interesting, thought provoking, but… but… lacking the oomph, the shattering radicalness the commentary claims for it.
  • In the 1980s Hockney moved to a house up the windy road of Mulholland Drive overlooking Los Angeles, and was commissioned to design sets for a series of opera productions. He found the size and boldness required by theatre design to be another liberation. The scale and high colour of the sets fed back into his paintings, which now display a newly bold, thick and saturated palette, completely different from the deliberate airiness of his 1970s paintings.
    • Large interior, Los Angeles (1988) How different from the flat geometry of the pool paintings, this picture explodes in multiple perspectives, as well as a new much richer palette, and the transformation of so many previously realistically depicted objects into semi-abstract decorative elements. Compare the mad cartoon chairs with what now look like the very restrained chairs in the backdrop of Man in a shower.
    • Small Santa Monica – The Bay From The Mountains (1990) It is as if he’s been introduced to a whole new set of colours.
    • Nichols Canyon (1990) The airless geometry and very tight flat finish of the 1970s has been completely abandoned in favour of a super-bright, deliberately slapdash, and curved, organic shapes of these works.
  • From 1992 onwards Hockney took the new colours and the curves and lines he’d been playing with to a new level in a set of works which are entirely abstract, or in which only the ghost of a possible landscape remains underpinning images of a surreal, neo-Romantic, almost science fiction world. With characteristic understatement he titled these the Very New Paintings:
  • A room is devoted to works from the late 1990s, mixing depictions of Yorkshire and with big paintings of the Grand Canyon. These works are often made from an assemblage of separate canvases, in the words of the commentary to ’emphasise the articifiality of art’ (in case you were at risk of thinking you had stepped through a space-time portal from rainy Pimlico onto the brink of the actual Grand Canyon). What comes over is the super intense brightness of the colours and the almost deliberately childish simplicity of the detail. Looked at one way, some aspects of them could be illustrations from children’s books. Elsewhere in Tate Britain, the big retrospective of Paul Nash is still on, and for me there seem to be obvious similarities in the way a love of landscape has met the will to abstraction.
  • In 2006 Hockney returned from the States to live in Yorkshire full time, in order to be near a close friend who was dying in York. Now he bedded down to apply the super-bright and naive style he’d been developing over the previous decade, to an extended series of works depicting his native Yorkshire landscape. Many of these paintings are enormous and up close, have a very unfinished, childlike quality to them. Some people love them because they capture the often bleak English countryside in an immensely happy brightly coloured way; some critics think they’re appallingly simple-minded. Whatever your opinion, there are masses of them.
  • In 2010 Hockney fixed nine video cameras all facing forward to his Land Rover and drove slowly along a road at Woldgate near Bridlington. The resulting videos were projected onto nine screens arranged in a grid (reminiscent of the more gridlike Polaroids or the grids of canvases to make, for example, the larger Grand Canyon paintings). He made one film for each of the four seasons. The exhibition screens them onto the four walls of one darkened room, producing ‘an immersive environment’, ‘an exploration of the way a subject is seen over time’ and ‘a celebration of the miracle of the seasons’.

  • In the penultimate room is a sequence of 25 lovely charcoal drawings celebrating the arrival of spring at five locations along a single-track road running between Bridlington and Kilham, the kind of thing you might find in a provincial art shop, accurate but simple, lacking depth or resonance.
  • In 2010 Hockney began drawing in colour on the new iPad device. The beauty, the uniqueness of this medium is that the iPad records the process, and so we can watch what are in effect films following each work line by line as it proceeds from outline to sketch, watching every detail being added in, all the way through to completion. The exhibition includes a dozen or so screens showing quite a few of the colour drawings he made this way (as he tells us, often from the comfort of his bed in the family home in Yorkshire). According to the commentary, Hockney ‘collapses time and space by emailing images to friends and family, removing distance between the pictures, its means of creation and its distribution.’
    • Sample iPad paintings Bright and skilful, the main thing about these is their sheer number. They seem to take five minutes or so to make and so there are hundreds, possibly thousands of them.

Thoughts

There’s no doubting Hockney is a major artist: to maintain such a turnover of inventiveness, and be so prolific of so many striking images, over such a long period, is an amazing achievement. Each of the periods and styles (London Pop, LA swimming, portraits, Polaroids, opera sets, new paintings, Yorkshire landscapes, videos, iPad art) could well be analysed in terms of its own distinct origins and performance. It is immensely useful and interesting to be able to review such an extraordinary oeuvre and come to understand the continuities but also the enormous breaks in style and approach.

Several themes emerged for me from the show as a whole:

Size Most of the works here are big, very big, many are enormous, whether it’s the early Typhoo work which is 6 or 7 feet tall, to the vast double portraits like Isherwood and Bachardy, from the imposing swimming pools of the 60s to the huge video screens of The Four Seasons.

Emptiness A lot of this space is empty. This is most obvious in the room of double portraits – static figures with big, often heavily pregnant spaces between them. But it’s also there in the room of smaller-scale, curiously vacant portrait drawings – none of them have any expression or are doing anything. And in the paintings of the Grand Canyon or the Yorkshire Wolds. Space. Emptiness. Blank.

a) As I noticed it, it crossed my mind that this absence of passion or even feeling, maybe explains the calming, restful quality of much of Hockney’s work and why it translates so well into posters. (In the exhibition shop you can buy one of the Los Angeles swimming pool images turned into a print, a poster, a mug, a towel, a t-shirt, a tray, a fridge magnet, and every other format devised by marketeers.) There’s a curiously static, undynamic quality to many of his images. All the portraits, the big landscapes, the empty Grand Canyon and – really brought to the fore in the slow-motion Four Seasons videos – are very calm, still, empty.

b) Into this space curators and art critics are tempted to insert hefty doses of critical discourse. All the way through we are told that Hockney likes to play with ideas of reality and illusion, that the motif of the curtain found in so many works indicates the theatricality of a composition, that he ‘interrogates’ how a two dimensional object can convey a three dimensional scene, that his principal obsession is ‘with the challenge of representation’, that the works are ‘playing with representation and artifice’ or highlight how:

‘all art depends on artificial devices, illusionary tools and conventions that the viewer and artist conspire to accept as descriptive of something real’.

‘Conspire’ is a typical piece of art critical bombast. When you look at a photo in a newspaper, are you aware that you and the newspaper editors are ‘conspiring’ to accept the convention that something not there is being read as if it was there? Or ‘conspiring’ to see a 3-D image on what is in fact a 2-D surface? When you watch TV or a movie, did you realise you are part of an exciting ‘conspiracy’ to accept a 2-D surface as portraying 3-D events? No. Acceptance of flat images is universal, it’s hardly something Hockney has invented or is the first to play with.

Banality What struck me about many of these critical comments is how simple-minded they are. The ‘artificiality of art’ has been the subject of conversations about art ever since we’ve had art: Plato was upset by figurative art and so is the Koran; the Renaissance is an explosion of self-conscious tricks and experiments with the 2-D/3-D game.

But there is also something unnervingly banal about the art itself. This is brought out by the disarmingly homely nature of many of Hockney’s own comments in the (excellent) audio-commentary.

  • For the portrait of his parents, he tells us that his mum sat very dignified but his dad got fidgety very quickly, which is why he ended up depicting him bending over a book. On the bookshelf between them, Hockney thought he needed something to add a bit of detail and there was something he liked about the word ‘Chardin’ so he painted that on the spine of one of the books. Fair enough but it’s so… prosaic.
  • Commenting on the early Typhoo painting he explains that he’s always drunk a lot of tea and there were lots of old Typhoo packs lying around the studio in among all the paint. So he decided to paint one. OK. But it’s crushingly banal and inconsequential.
  • You might expect the early painting The Hypnotist to have some kind of recondite or hidden meaning but no: it is based on a scene from a Vincent Price movie, The Raven, which Hockney liked. That’s it.
  • As explanation for the explosion of super-colourful paintings of Mulholland Drive in the 1980s Hockney explains that his house was at the top of the Drive while his studio was down in the valley and so every day he had drove the windy road between the two, sometimes several times a day. It was a very ‘wiggly’ road and so the daily commute got him interested in ‘wiggly lines’. Up to that point his LA paintings had had very straight lines, reflecting the gridlike layout of the city and its rectangular office blocks, not to mention the beautifully rectangular swimming pools and rectilinear architecture of the poolside houses. But this new commute made him think again about ‘wiggly lines’ and so he started to put more ‘wiggly lines’ into his paintings. That simple.
  • In 1992 Hockney made a deliberate decision to paint in a new very brightly coloured and much more abstract style than previously and he called the resulting series ‘Very New Paintings’. The titles of  his work have generally been very flat and deliberately unimaginative. The 1963 exhibition, Paintings with people in them kind of sets the low expectations.
  • Hockney read somewhere that the Grand Canyon was ‘impossible to paint’, took that as a challenge and so set out to paint it. Which he did in a number of oil paintings composed of separated canvases placed in grids. It’s almost like doing it for a bet. Maybe this explains the effective, big bright but curiously disengaged impact of the result.
  • One critic commented that the Four Seasons videos shot from the point of view of a car rumbling very slowly along a country lane in Yorkshire created an art work benefiting from a ‘hi-def post-cubist’ vision of the world. Maybe. But the room showing them has a nice comfy bench to sit on which, when I was there, was packed grey-haired old-age-pensioners watching in effect a really relaxing, slow motion travelogue through beautiful English countryside. It felt about as radical or challenging as BBC’s Springwatch programme.
  • Talking about his experiments with iPad art from 2010, Hockney explained that it was easy to create the works, especially the depictions of dawn, while lying in bed at his mother’s house. (The comments about the bed-bound nature of composition explain the number of window frames, curtains and vases of flowers which occur in these iPad works). It so happened that the sun came up on his bedroom’s side of the house first, which leads him to the insight that sunrise is ‘a rather beautiful thing’.
  • At the very end of the audioguide, the curators asked Hockney what he hoped visitors would get out of the exhibition and – admittedly put on the spot about defining a lifetime of work – Hockney says he hopes his art will bring visitors ‘some joy’… because ‘I do enjoy looking’.

I’m not intending to criticise. I’m just pointing out that the more we heard from the man himself the more mundane, domestic, homely and banal the inspiration, creation and naming of so many of the works were revealed to be.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1971) by David Hockney © David Hockney

Change and experiment

The exhibition blurb makes much of Hockney’s ‘restless experimentalism’ and enthusiastic ’embracing of new technologies’. Well, yes and no. I remember the press coverage when he exhibited the works made from collages of Polaroid photos back in the 1980s. Then the revelation of his iPad works at the 2012 Royal Academy exhibition, along with the stunningly high quality Four Seasons video.

But this keeping up-to-date seems, to me, always done in the name of a very conservative vision, a very tame and simplified view of the world. Thus the huge paintings of the Yorkshire landscape which dominated the 2012 Royal Academy show are stunning and striking, bold and simplified and colourful but – in their way – profoundly conservative and reassuring. It’s Britain with everything 21st century taken out – refugee crisis, Islamic terrorism, urban blight, housing crisis – all politics – even other art or cultural movements – all are weirdly absent from these big, confident, colourful and yet somehow strangely blank works.

Art doesn’t have to have anything to do with politics or anything the artist doesn’t want it to, and most of the work here is of a very high order of imaginativeness and execution, and the consistent reinvention over such a long period is impressive, awesome even. But for me much of Hockney’s work seems homely and decorative – depictions of his family and friends, his house, his drive to work, his boyhood landscape – lots of memorable, confident and stylish images – but it almost all lacks the urgency, excitement and dynamism which is what I most value and enjoy in art.

In the room devoted to drawings, in a corner, was my favourite image from the show. It is a typically relaxed and nicely executed detail from Hockney’s world, a very peaceful, modest world of friends and family, homes and pools and woods and fields, a very sedate, unthreatening essentially picturesque world. But how he captures it! With what a casually brilliant eye!

Videos

There are, of course, several videos promoting the show.

//players.brightcove.net/1854890877/4811b2e3-75b4-4489-b1a5-21a18a61075e_default/index.html

In their way as affable, well-mannered, reasonable and breezy as the work itself.

//players.brightcove.net/1854890877/4811b2e3-75b4-4489-b1a5-21a18a61075e_default/index.html

I also enjoyed this brief and enthusiastic critical overview.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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