Category Archives: art

The carvings of the stalls of St Katharine’s: Medieval iconography

Druce.Misericords_Page_01

This is quite a lovely pamphlet by George Claridge Druce, F.S.A. (Fellow of the Society of Antiquities) from 1917, unearthed by me years ago now (sweet Christmas, how many years ago?) while engaged in a bit of rooting through archives at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine. I’m returning to them now because I’m on holiday! And giving a bit of time to this sadly neglected blog and looking at the many things half written. I’m working on photographs as well, like the ones I took a few weeks ago at Salisbury Cathedral and full of wonder at them. Thought I’d polish this off instead of looking at the things on landscape I’ve half done as was the original intention…

Once upon a time for work I was reading a bit about misericords — like many people I so love the odd grotesqueness of much medieval carving. I was quite little the first time I saw Winchester Cathedral with all of its mysterious faces and monsters and many wonders, and remember how amazing I thought it all. Misericords are a bit harder to access, inside cathedrals and often behind ropes. It is tragic. The ones of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine in Limehouse are truly glorious.

So much was lost when the old liberty of St Katharine’s By the Tower was flooded to form St Katharine’s Docks in 1825-26. Some of the greatest treasures saved were a selection of the misericords and related carvings from the mid-14th century. This is from one of the books in our library, the Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain, by G.L. Remnant (1998).

In the modern chapel are fourteen stalls, thirteen with carved misericords. These misericords are in perfect condition owing to the fact that the hospital, then St. Katharine’s by the Tower, was under the patronage of successive Queens of England. Three stalls on each side are returned, and the corner-pieces are said to be faithful portraits of Edward III and Philippa, the latter closely resembling her effigy in Westminster Abbey, which was from a portrait by Liege in 1369.

Both sources I found in St Katharine’s archives argue that misericords tell us more than most things about the lives of medieval carvers — but from reading them it is obvious that they tell us in the most subjective manner possible. In fact, interpretations may tell you more about the person drawing such conclusions (and your own self, through your own reactions to the carvings and to what they say about them). In his essay included in Remnant’s A Catalogue of Misericords in Great Britain (1969) M.D. Anderson writes:

Misericords are a very humble form of medieval art and it is unlikely that the most distinguished carvers of any period were employed in making them. The names of the men who actually carved particular misericords are never recorded.’

Yet, at all levels of quality, these carvings reflect the minds of the men who made them, and, if we study misericords as we might turn the pages of painters’ sketchbooks, they may teach us much about English medieval craftsmen which is not recorded in any other form.

They were considered so lowly that usually they were not required to follow any scheme of iconography, so that craftsmen had much more freedom in what they carved…Because of the freedom the carver’s work is often amusing in a naive way, and sometimes includes subjects which are mysterious, because he has divorced one incident from the identifying context of the full story or has worked from his inaccurate memory of a picture he had seen but not fully understood.

In their way, these carvings are as much a record of the early life of St Katharine’s as the Ordinances of Queen Philippa. But they are the work of men whose names have been erased from history. Anderson continues:

Biblical themes are always in the minority, and, even where they do appear, seem to have been chosen at random. (xxiv)

The moral allegories which figured largely in other forms of church imagery seem to have had curiously little appeal to the carvers of misericords. (xxv)

‘Amusing in a naive way’ is annoying, the desire to escape biblical themes and moral imperatives in carving quite wonderful. Instead inspiration comes from the natural world as well as bestiaries and secular literature. I suppose it’s why I love them so much.

At the same time it must be remembered that medieval beliefs embraced a very different kind of iconography, Anderson continues:

Medieval teachers, such as Hugh of Saint Victor and Honorius of Autun, regarded almost every object in the visible world as reflecting some spiritual counterpart, and this use of metaphors drawn from daily life was popularized by the preaching friars…Both cosmic majesty and grotesque humour have their place in the great structure of medieval thought and art. (xxvi-xxvii)

So these two impulses blended perhaps, hybridised. Anderson states that we have discarded the romantic 19th century image of ‘medieval carvers delighting in their own creative powers, as wholly original designs took shape beneath their chisels‘ (xxvii). But what he means by that is curious, in that woodcarvers often seemed to be working from some knowledge of standard designs, which were repeated with free variations alongside carvings of their own invention. Others were copied from wall paintings, manuscript illuminations, and woodcut pictures — he speculates that carvers were given rough sketches or spoiled pages only, due to the high value of books. These designs are often shared by the team of men doing such carving.

The loveliest, most curious oldest carvings (apart from those at St Katharine of course) he says are found in Worcester and Lincoln, Chester and the Holy Trinity in Coventry, and then there are some stalls rescued from Roche Abbey, now in Loversal Church, Yorkshire. There is a side mention of the ‘sinister quality’ of the face of the green man found in both Lincoln and Coventry and again at Loversal, which makes it recognizable as the same artist. Amazing, I will find them.

Like I will find this — he describes that in Bristol a naked woman has been carved leading a pack of apes into the jaws of Hell. This illustrates the supposed fate of the woman who dies unmarried, to which Shakespeare refers in both The Taming of the Shrew (II i) and Much Ado About Nothing. The apes are the souls of unmarried men.

Anyway, to St Katharine’s incredible carvings, that I would often visit, particularly when work was hard. This one is my favourite:

They have returned to the East End from Regent’s street where Druce recorded them, and sit in a lovely modernised chapel. They came back under the radical Father Groser, who dedicated his life to improving conditions for the working classes and I imagine loved them also.

I. Bust of bearded man wearing striped cap and cloak clasped at neck, with trailing drapery, knotted at back. Supporters: Left and Right, winged monster with long tail.

2. Grotesque head surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

3. Man’s head with long, thick moustache and forked beard. He wears a flat round cap. Supporters: Left and Right, leaf

4. Man’s head, with flowing hair and full, forked beard. Supporters: Left and Right, rose.

5. Angel playing bagpipe. Supporters: Left and Right, lion-mask.

6. Lion leaping on amphisbaena. Supporters: Left and Right, snake-monster.

the amphisbaena is a winged serpent with a second head at the end of its tail. A symbol of deceit. While Anderson mentions that lions were popular due to their use in heraldry, the symbol of the apostle St Mark is often a lion, and they also often represent the resurrection. I love this one immensely.

The amphisbaena in its unmolested-by-a-lion form:

7. Wyvern, with outstretched wings. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

Dragons tend to be a ‘symbol of the Evil One‘, and the wyvern is simply the two-legged variety.

8. Pelican in her piety, with three chicks. Supporters: Left and Right, swan, with crown encircling its neck.

The Pelican is ‘always shown feeding its fledglings with blood from its own breast. Never represented naturalistically.’ Below is this lovely bird as it appears on one of the carved armrests.

Druce gives an illustration of just such a pelican in a medieval manuscript, from which these were likely copied

On the subject of our pelican, Druce quotes extensively from the bestiaries of the 12th and 13th centuries — early encyclopedias of animals that for contained both what was known of their natural history alongside myths and moral lessons they exemplified. Medieval carvers drew heavily upon these books and their drawings to decorate England’s churches and cathedrals.

It is a bird which lives in the deserts of the Nile and is exceedingly fond of its children. When they have begun to grow up they strike their parents in the face, and their parents, being angered, strike them back and kills them. And on the third day the mother, striking her breast opens her side, and bending over her young ones pours out her blood upon their bodies and brings them to life again. So too our Lord Jesus Christ the author and founder of every creature created us, and when we were not, he made us. We, however, struck him in the face when we served the creature rather than the Creator. For that reason he ascended on the Cross, and his side being pierced there came out blood and water for our Salvation and life Eternal.

On either side of the pelican and its young are two swans that at first glance are the same, but if you look closely you can see that the swan on the left has swallowed a crown, which marks its heraldic form. There is much legend surrounding the swan as well, Druce writes

It is called ” cignus” from its singing, because it pours forth the sweetness of its song in measured tones. They say also that it sings so sweetly, because it has a long and curved neck, and that its throbbing voice must pass by a long and tortuous way to render the different modulations. Among other items there is an interesting account, adopted from AElian (Bk. XI, ch. I), of how in Northern regions swans fly up in large numbers to people who play before them on the cythara, and sing in perfect harmony with them.

It continues (and these were the days when swans were often eaten, Druce notes of the Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ‘A fat swan loved he best of any rost’), that it sings

right sweetly when dying. Likewise when the proud man departs out of this life, he is still charmed by the sweetness of this present time, and what evil he has done comes back to his memory when dying. But when the swan is stripped of its white plumage, it is put upon a spit and is roasted at the fire; so, when the rich and proud man dies, he is stripped of his earthly glories, and descending to the flames of hell he will be tortured and tormented; and as he was accustomed when alive to desire food, so when going down into the pit he becomes food for fire.

9. Woman riding man-headed beast (perhaps head of Aristotle). Supporters: Left and Right, grotesque face with protruding tongue, in square-foliage design.

This begs the question, WTAF, but I love it immensely also…

10. Large leaf design. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf

11. Hawk pouncing on duck. Supporters: Left and Right, stiffleaf.

Images of hunting are common, Druce gives another manuscript example:

While hawks could symbolise cruelty, there is a more interesting interpretation also emerging from the bestiaries Druce is drawing from:

The hawk is a type of the holy man or monk “who lays hold of the Kingdom of God,” and the passage in Job xxxix, 26, is introduced to illustrate that as the hawk moults its old feathers and gains new plumage, so the religious man has thrown off the burdens of his old way of living and has put on the new wings of virtue. The hawk’s quarters , which it says should be enclosed and warm, is the cloister. As the bird, when let out, comes to the hand to be flown, so the monk, leaving his cell for good works, when sent out seeks to raise himself to the things of heaven. As it is held on the left hand and flies to the right, so it is a type of men who care for the good things of this world and the things of eternity respectively, and when it captures the dove, it is the man who, being changed for the better, receives the grace of the Holy Spirit.

12. Elephant and castle, surmounted by crowned head and surrounded by foliage. Supporters: Left and Right, beast with man’s head, one bearded, the other hooded.

‘As described in the Physiologus, the elephant sometimes represents Christ, and in medieval times was always drawn with a tower on its back as the manuscript describes how eastern warriors fought from wooden towers on their backs.’

The tower is really the only thing identifying this as an elephant, really the stars of the show are the man-headed beasts.

It was most likely at some point drawn from a manuscript like this one…

A great bestiary quote about the elephant:

…the Greeks think it got its name because the form of its body resembled a mountain. For in Greek a mountain is called Eliphio. No bigger animal is to be seen, and the Persians and Indians, stationed in wooden towers placed on them, fight with darts as if from a wall. They break what they roll up in their trunks, and what they tread upon is crushed as it were like a house falling down.

If the elephant falls down, it cannot get up, for it has no joints in its knees. It sleeps, therefore, leaning against a tree, but the hunter, aware of this habit, cuts a slit in the tree, so that the elephant when it leans against it may fall down with it. But as it falls it calls out loudly, and at once a great elephant comes, but is not able to lift it up. Then both of them cry out and there come twelve elephants, but neither are they able to raise it up. Thereupon they all cry out, and immediately there comes a little elephant which places its mouth with its trunk under the big elephant and lifts it up…When the elephant was fallen, that is man, there came the great elephant, that is the law, and did not raise him up, as the priest did not raise up him that fell among thieves. Neither could the twelve elephants, that is, the prophets, as neither did the Levite him that was wounded; but the wise elephant, Jesus Christ, since he is greater than all, is made the smallest of all, because he humbled himself and became obedient unto death that he might raise mankind…

13. Winged devil eavesdropping over two busts of women. Supporters: Left, recording demon holding parchment. Right, centaur-like figure, with club and shield. (I had to do a bit of work to find this one, it sits least easily I think with our current conceptions of High Anglican tradition).

On Centaurs: ‘The man typifies Christ, the horse His vengeance on those who betrayed him.’ That’s pretty awesome.

The carvings on the armrests are also splendid, a whole collection of beast curled upon themselves

And then there is this about owls:

The Bestiaries, following Pliny, give particulars of three different kinds of owls, viz., Noctua or Nicticorax, Bubo, and Ulula, but neither in MSS. nor carvings can they be distinguished with any certainty, except that it is Bubo that is teased by other birds. This scene is illustrated in Harl. 4751 and Bodi. 764. It is a bird of ill-omen, and its slothful and dirty habits are described and made use of to denote the various misdeeds of wicked men.

These night birds are also used as a type of those who study the stars at night time and the shadowy realms of spirits, who believe that they can see to the very topmost height of heaven, describing the world by a circle. But they cannot see the light, which is Christ, nor faith in him which is close to them, because they are blind and leaders of the blind.

Yet my favourite carving is I think an owl, and he hardly seems of ill-omen. but he might not be an owl at all.

There is obviously much outdated scholarship on these lovely creatures and so much more to explore about them (the woman on the beast with Artistotle’s head? So much more to explore there…), but I enjoyed the musings of antiquity.

Tiles of Lisbon

Lisbon is a beautiful city…

Zaragoza Graffiti: For the Women Who Gave Their Lives…

Penultimate post on this short holiday that already feels so so far away. I’ve finished a report, an executive summary for a second report, and edits on two short articles since then. So sad. Unlike the awesomeness of Zaragoza’s graffiti scene, which brought me immense happiness. This says:

En recuerdo de todas las mujeres que dieron su vida por la libertad y las ideas anarquistas | In memory of all the women who gave their lives for liberty and anarchist ideas

On this wall, with its many small fishes eating the large one, and long incredible figures almost disappearing into plaster:

There was so much that was brilliant, I miss this.

A half-hearted look at a biography of Albrecht Dürer

We’re going to Germany! Nuremburg. The great keynote tour begins (not mine, you understand, I just tag along). And I found time somehow to read one solitary thing to prepare, and sadly very sadly it was this.I’ve already read Albert Speer, long ago, I am prepared for the massive architecture of awe and power. I’m more excited about Albrecht Dürer, still I’m sad to find there is a whole industry around him. I know I should have re-read Arendt, but instead…

A few fun facts about Nuremburg first.

Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, said upon visiting Nuremberg in 1444 in the Imperial train:

What a splendid sight this city presents! What brilliance, what lavish views, what beauties, what culture, what admirable government! … what clean streets, what elegant houses! (6)

Luther called it ‘Germany’s eye and ear.’ I’m not entirely sure I know what that means. But it is the middle point of Europe, at the centre of European trade — amber, furs, salt fish from the Baltic; gold, silver copper, horses from Hungary and Bohemia; spices, silks, luxury goods from Venice, woolen cloth from the Netherlands. I love these ancient lists, the sense of distance and far away lands and precious things. Nuremberg itself made scientific instruments and metalwares — rather a splendid trade for a town.

This was a principal town of the Holy Roman Empire for a while, the city at the foot of the medieval fortress, a ‘free’ city directly under the emperor, the Emperors rarely there though — it wasn’t so comfortable the castle, especially in winter even though the Imperial coronation regalia was kept there. So effectively it was a City State, run by its own city council, and had reciprocal toll-free trade with seventy cities despite a lack of most things needed for a succesful city.

Albrecht Dürer was born here in 1471, his father a goldsmith, his godfather also. Anton Koberger though he shortly became a publisher, the most important in Germany with 24 presses.

At 13 Dürer created this in silverpoint — a process of chemical etching in which nothing can be erased:

I have little sense, though, am failing to understand Dürer here. Maybe because there are sentences like these”

Dürer’s sypathetic portrayal of his father, and his largely positive memories of his childhood are in remarkable contrast to Martin Luther’s recital of brutal beatings at home and at school…There can be little doubt that Albrecht Dürer must have been a more agreeable child that then great Reformer… (21)

We all know children are only beaten because they are not agreeable, they bring it on themselves really. Dürer instead seems a bit spoiled, possibly because almost all of his many siblings have died (and will die). Still, in 1490, his dad sends him off on what the author calls ‘a bachelor’s journey’. She tries to trace his movements, he may have been apprenticed, it is detailed guessing.

He did this, one of my favourite self portraits of all, in Paris. Albrecht Dürer with a pillow, age 22.

From the Met’s description:

Among the masterpieces of European draftsmanship, this iconic self-portrait study evokes the awakening artistic consciousness of the twenty-two-year-old German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. Probably produced with the aid of a mirror, the head and the hand were preparatory for his painted Self-Portrait of 1493 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), considered one of the earliest independent self-portraits in Western painting. Durer’s exploration of self-portraiture in several drawings and paintings is characterized by an arresting directness that was highly unusual at the time. The artist’s calligraphic precision and expressiveness of line is also found in the study of a pillow at the bottom of the sheet, a subject that he continued to explore on the reverse.

It was preparatory for this:

But what the author writes is how it is is:

showing the first tentative half-dozen hairs of what was soon to become Europe’s most famous and anachronistic beard. (Beards were not normally worn by young, or even by middle-age men in Dürer’s day–even the majority of elderly men, as Mark Zucker has shown, were clean-shaven.) (39)

I’m glad that’s been documented. Ever since Mark won my heart with the Engels’ moustache letters I have had a bit of a thing for historical facial hair. Still. I hoped for more.

On his marriage?

Neither the bride nor the groom had a great deal to say about their marriage, which was arranged, as was proper in the fifteenth century, by the two sets of parents to suit their own purposes. Such businesslike arrangements may often have been loveless, at least to begin with, but were in the long run at least as satisfactory in most respects, and a good deal more permanent, than those contracted by modern methods. (40)

No fear feminism will get in the way of the story here, then.

His fatherin-law was Hans Frey:

reported to have been a clever and charming man and the best harp player in town, as well as a good singer, had formerly been the city’s official gauger of honey and nuts. (40)

Within two months of the marriage, Dürer was off again, to Italy this time. Was he called by the Renaissance? Was it the marriage? Was it the plague, that had broken out in 1494? She asks but does not answer, maybe someone who read a different book might have a better idea.

I can’t imagine the plague, I feel like it fills all of his work. Death always seems close, no? Even when it’s not staring at you as a skull or a starving man or the horsemen of the apocalypse. Even then.

But back to the book. It doesn’t really go there.

She  goes on about the guilds, whose provision of increased security could limit an artist’s intellectual and social aspirations…we wouldn’t get on I don’t think, me and this author. Something tells me.

There are some uncomfortable passages on the expulsion of the Jews from Nuremburg in 1499, where Pirkheimer — patron and friend to Dürer, hired an armed escort. She notes it was to protect them as they left but could also be argued it was to ensure they were leaving. People did, of course, benefit from their leaving. Houses suddenly empty and that kind of thing.

Not that there aren’t interesting facts that deserve to be simple asides never to be explored further (unlike the explulsion of a large portion of the city population, the fear, the mob response, the plague). Like the fact that Pirkheimer had to leave law school BEFORE he won his degree, so he could remain eligible for the Nuremburg City Council. Like the fact that he opened a School for Poets, which lasted from 1498-1509. She writes:

Albrecht Dürer’s own authorship of quite a large quantity of truly dreadful poetry, all written in the years 1509-1510, he may perhaps have begun to attend this ill-fated institution, which was the distant ancestor of the more famous Nuremburg School for Poets of the seventeenth century. (55)

She does print some here, and for once we agree, it is truly terrible.

Still, you can see that it’s a bit hard to understand from all this where exactly the four horsemen came from between 1496 and 1498, though she does note some believed 1500 would usher in the end of the world:

The 1496 Prodigal son returning to kneel among the swine.

And look at those buildings… she makes the point that German architecture made these prints exotic in Italy and France, giving them cache on top of the incredible skill and splendour of the art itself. But surely there is more here.

I’d rather just look at his work…he loved his paintings and colours. Me, I confess I love the prints the most. He carried copies of them with him everywhere to sell in the markets, as did his wife. Imagine.

But I think I am going to stop here, because I couldn’t find what I wanted in this particular book. Not like Caravaggio. Maybe one day I’ll have time to read another, maybe the great book remains to be written on Albrecht Dürer. I don’t usually choose so badly. I confess, though, some of those terrible passage are rather enjoyable. Her apoplexies on his dirty letters to Pirkheimer are pretty awesome, but I am too tired to keep going…

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre, Glasgow

Marvelously mechanical, haunting carvings incorporated into scrap wheels and cogs and machines that are beautiful in their stillness. We were able to take pictures of that, but not when they come alive…

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

From the website.

Eduard Bersudsky (b. 1939, St.Petersburg, Russia – then Leningrad, USSR) is a self-taught visionary artist. He started carving in his late 20-s, while making a modest living as a metal worker, electrician, skipper on the barge, night guard and a boiler man, and got his education in museums, libraries, exhibitions, and evening classes for drawing and sculpture.

In 1974-80 Bersudsky took part in some exhibitions of “non-conformist art” – a movement of artists who wanted to avoid the control of the official Soviet ideology.

In 1974 he found a job in the park department to carve giant figures out of fallen trees for children playgrounds. At the same time in his only room in a communal flat he began producing the kinemats – kinetic sculptures driven by electrical motors and controlled by sophisticated electro mechanical devices, incorporating pieces of old furniture, metal scrap and grotesque carved figures. Until 1989 his kinemats could be seen only by few friends and acquaintances.

In the centre of their new Glasgow home, a space roughly the same size as this room in St Petersberg and the kinemats that once filled it

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

We didn’t time it right to see the evening show when these were set in motion.

In 1988 his met Tatyana Jakovskaya (b.1947), a theatre critic and director. Together they founded Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre (opened in St.Petersburg in 1990). A mechanical movement of kinemats has been supported with music, light and shadow play. The third member of team – Sergey Jakovsky (born 1980) – joined Sharmanka at the age of 13 and gradually became responsible for light/sound design as well as technical management.

It is the combination of all of these things that make these so entirely magical.

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

The shadows alone, so beautiful.

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

The bittersweetness of each sculpture, like the Rag’n’Bone Man above, most dedicated to friends who made art, who stood with integrity. The Master and Margarita. Below the Titanic, and the dissemination of forbidden books.

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

And the tongue and cheekiness. Like the Aurora, Battleship of the Revolution:

Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

Words fail in description, so go there. I love that it is in the very same building as the Britannia Panopticon, another wonder of Glasgow that I thought I had blogged but did not…how? An old music hall full of wonder, Stan Laurel started here. These are from 2014:

Britannia Panopticon

Britannia Panopticon

I hope that just a little of the love and ingenuity and brilliance of this carry on through our own year and its many endeavors that feel so daunting now.

The Maps (and other awesome art) of Grayson Perry (Arnolfini: Bristol)

A quick break from writing and reading and writing to think for a minute about Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! at Bristol’s Arnolfini. It started life in the Serpentine down in London I believe, and was so nice to see something like this outside of the capitol — I loved the Arnolfini focusing on one exhibition as well, it really opened up the space, made it feel larger than I remember it being. The official description of the exhibit:

[The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!] tackles one of the artist’s primary concerns: how contemporary art can best address a diverse cross section of society. On show for the first time outside of London, the exhibition is central to the autumn season at Arnolfini and a programme of events inspired by Perry’s irreverent take on contemporary culture.

In the exhibition, Perry continues to explore many of the themes and concerns that recur in his practice, drawing from his own childhood and life as a transvestite, as well as wider social issues and his abiding interest in his audience. The works in the exhibition examine masculinity, class, politics, sex, religion, popularity and art, as well as contemporary issues such as Brexit and ‘Divided Britain’.

My favourite piece was this I think, Red Carpet. I love everything about it. I love that it is a tapestry, love fabric, love the rich textures of it that fit so well the highrise buildings that form its backdrop. I love its squiggly lines, its noting of the many boundaries and main thoroughfares, how it reflects back at the nation its own maps of us and them inscribed upon hearts and minds — safe and dangerous places, useful places, places marked in different ways by class and culture and kind of dwelling and our reception there. I love how this map resembles the kinds of maps Kevin Lynch uncovered in trying to understand how people visualised and understood and traveled through their everyday cities. It is such a beautiful object, yet does not make the discourse (and what it says about Britain in this particular time) all that beautiful, as it isn’t beautiful at all.

 

Grayson Perry himself describes it thus:

The title evokes the most formal and reverent of welcomes and the style is influenced by some of my favourite material culture – Afghan war rugs. This is a map of British society as evocative and inaccurate as a geographical one made by a medieval scholar. The distortions partly reflect the density of population rather than the lie of the land. It is covered in words and buzz phrases that I felt typified the national discourse in 2016. The background weave is made from photographs of tower blocks.’

The second map is no thing of beauty, which…perhaps if he had spoken to other people on the estate it might have been, but this rings pretty true for young men. Here we have the Digmoor Tapestry.

Grayson Perry writes:

This work is my reaction after talking to a group of young men from Skelmersdale, Lancashire. They are the victims of poverty, chaotic parenting, bad role models and disrupted education. They hung around street corners selling weed, riding motorbikes around parks and getting into fights with rival groups. They were at an age when a hormonal need to assert their masculinity was at its freshest. Deprived of acceptable badges of status, job, money, education, power and family, they exercised their masculinity in a way that seemed to echo back to the dawn of humanity – they defended territory. That territory was the Digmoor estate, a quadrant of a 1970s new town bounded by dual carriageways. They seemed prepared to kill for it. The Digmoor Tapestry is a map of the state the defended. The style was inspired by traditional African fabrics and the graffiti is taken directly from the boys’ environment. On seeing it one of them commented, ‘It looks like it’s been used to wrap up a body’.’

There is ‘Animal Spirit’, a different kind of mapping, very different elements, and oil everywhere oil. A foretelling of our own destruction and the death of our future in the entrails as the Greeks used to do…

He writes:

”Animal Spirit’ was a phrase that cropped up quite a lot during the commentaries after the financial crash of 2008. It seemed to be used as a way of offloading responsibility for the human chaos of the meltdown onto some mystical force, when in fact the men controlling the market are prone to irrational behaviour as anyone. Some of the symbolism within the image of Animal Spirit – the abandoned baby, the three black crowns and the hanging man – come from the names of the traditional patterns in Japanese candlestick graphs used by traders in the city.’

Maps…I so love maps. He has a map of days, a map of nowhere, a map of an englishman… I long to see them. Someday.

He loves shrines as much as I do! Though I prefer mine in the wild. There were bikes! And there were ceramics. This one evoked both phallic symbol and skyscraper and banking district, here we have Object in Foreground which provoked this headline from the Evening Standard: ‘Artist Grayson Perry has created a huge glazed ceramic penis he says is inspired by the City of London’s bankers and traders’. Funny that I too have always thought of them as giant penises. His description was quite provocative:

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of masculinity to examine was its pervasive effect on the power structures and unconscious bias within the City of London financial industry. Men working there are well-educated, confident and operate in a culture of their own making, so it was difficult to pick out the dominant threads of masculinity from the dense and perfect weave of their business. Object in Foreground was inspired by the bland lobbies of their corporate towers. The decor expresses imperial neutrality, but I saw them as bachelor pads write large.

My favourite though, was this one: ‘Luxury Brands for Social Justice’

Grayson Perry Arnolfini

Because it felt so good to be so angry and yet be able to laugh at this shit all at the same time:

Grayson Perry Arnolfini

Grayson Perry ArnolfiniEnjoyed this exhibition a great deal.

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Impossible Presence: On Art and Photography

It’s so interesting to read a book that is for the most part so far outside my area of expertise — Impossible Presence is a collection of essays and art criticism that overlaps

The intro is from editor Terry Smith, full of questions I have never before asked myself….

why is it that the visual image continues — according to an inscrutable but seemingly invisible geometry — to become more and more powerful, proliferative and pervasive at every level of public and private life, promising more and more openness…while at the same time its power to communicate concentrated meaning seems to decline…?

What has been the fate of the image in modernity, modern art, popular visual cultures, in postmodern art and in postmodernity? Has the procession of the simulacrum reached the point of purity, of unconditionality? Or has the real returned to those intersections where abject aficionados of post-humanism that what we must, again, call presence remains powerfully present in the art of this time, just in its persistence despite its putative impossibility? It does so, I would argue… (1)

I like pondering such questions so far outside my normal range of questions that I am not entirely sure what all of them are questioning.

Literally returning to more solid ground, there is a wonderful quote from Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, on the First Photograph.

No hint here that this is the first quiet note of … an unstoppable torrent of pictures … haunting and unforgettable, hideous and beautiful, pornographic and revelatory, pictures that will create the very idea of the Modern, that will overpower language itself, and cover and distort and define the earth, like water, like gossip, like democracy.

And who knew Heidegger had characterized modernity as the ‘age of the world picture’? Probably lots of people, I know. But not me. My inability to avoid Heidegger in all of his phenomenologyist splendour continues.

I like this idea of ‘presence’ — being new to all this it fascinates me to find this long history of its discussion. Smith writes:

I wish to interpret ‘presence’ here in a way different from its previous lives in art-critical and art-historical discourse, where it stood, in the 1960s, for the implacable physicality of materials, and in the 1970s, when it signaled an ethics of social commitment. (7)

I’m such a 70s girl. Smith links

‘presence’ to ‘impossibility,’ not in a spirit of defeat but of possibility. Presence despite apparent impossibility, tangibility against the prosthetics of cyberbeing, or, as Heidegger would put it, authentic Being against the grain of seeing/knowing — the eye — of an age which can only see itself for its own loss of being. (8)

I don’t know, I find the first two much more intriguing. He continues.

Presence, for the kind of modernism I value, is a quality of insistence. It insists differently at different times.

It insists against empty space, white noise, dematerialisation, infinite replay.

Interesting.

Marshall Berman is in here! ‘Too Much is Not Enough: Metamorphoses of Times Square.’ Lovely. He writes, having discovered this through his criticisms of the criticisms of others around New York’s Times Square:

I’m a partisan of happiness. I believe more joy will give people more power to change the world for the better. My vision of the good life includes both bright lights and critical thought; it demands a critical thought that knows how to love the bright lights. (41)

Yes.

He describes how the authors and poets of the city know and celebrate its contradictions, the way it drains and yields energy. Non-fictional authors? Only a few — he names Georg Simmel, Lewis Mumford, Paul and Percival Goodman, Jane Jacobs. The Goodmans? Never heard of them, that is always exciting. Berman then goes on to describe Times Square through the imagery of the whore of Babylon from Revelations, and as he always does, inspires in me a tremendous desire to read another classic text — The Persian Letters by Montesquieu. Balzac said this book taught him everything about urban life. My god. I have not read it.

For Berman, it creates a vocabulary for understanding the city, explores the value of the urban to

nourish personal authenticity, mutual opennesss, intercourse and communication between people. Out in the street people can feel free, can imagine new ways to live, can experience the joy of mutual recognition. (50)

He moves to Engels writing about how people move quickly and stay to their right in Manchester, shows wonderful saucy old postcards. As a side note he describes a process where immigration has transformed the face of the US just enough to make people a little more comfortable in city centres like Time Square, to make it marketable to try and reclaim them. The irony.

This is my territory. A brief stop and on to the rest of the book — all new. I loved Tom Gunning’s piece on early photography and the role of amateurs in ‘New Thresholds of Vision: Instantaneous Photography and the Early Cinema of Lumiere’. This must be one of the best things I’ve seen, embodying the mystery within the everyday, the mischievous natures captured in these photographs from the early days of film as it was transitioning into new processes that did not require long exposures:

 

 

 

There was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, whose photographs

display the era’s fascination with freezing a moment and capturing motion in full flight, as well as a youthful mischief and delight in the often ungainly bodily postures the instantaneous camera could discover, bodies filled with mobile vitality and a sense of fun. Indeed, the image of the small boy armed with a camera capturing moments of indiscretion became a staple of the comic narrative revolving around the “bad boys” in this period… using it to unmask the order of the adult world. (92)

There was a new knowledge that Zola was a photography enthusiast. Ah Zola. I will look that up.

An essay on Benjamin — I always prefer Benjamin to essays about him or using him, but I loved this photograph from Atget.

 

 

 

Two essays on Warhol in here — I have come to appreciate him more. I liked Baudrillard, liked this:

Warhol was the first to introduce into modern fetishism — transaesthetic fetishism — the fetishism of an image without qualities, of a presence without desire. (184)

I liked Silverman’s essay on Warhol, and it taught me the word ‘chiasmatic’. Relating to the intersection of the optic nerve fibres at the bottom of the brain.

Elizabeth Grosz wrote a fucking splendid essay on nakedness and orchids and desire and all sorts called ‘naked’. She describes the difference between facing nakedness in person and in ‘art’.

One is, in Levinasaian terms, called, called upon by the open giving up of a certain vulnerability that the other offers to us as naked. It is this that we are protected against in observing the work of art. We are not called to protect, or to bare ourselves to, this other that we observe. Our observation is given free range. We are liberated from the impulse towards reciprocity. (218)

What I really loved though, was her skilled debunking of definitions of the gaze, its suppressed anger and intelligence of the kind I most admire have given me a bit of an author crush.

We don’t just have two modes of looking, on that illuminates the soul (art) and one that is salacious and perverse (pornography)

How fucking limiting that would be.

What is needed instead is a typology of looking, a mode of thinking of spectatorship that does not rely on the vast apparatus of projection, identification, fetishism and unconscious processes that psychoanalysis has offered to film theory and that theorists of the visual arts have borrowed as their primary model of spectatorship. Voyeurism is not the only modality of looking: seeing has many particular forms, well beyond the purview of the gaze, which is, in psychoanalytic terms, necessarily aligned with sadism, the desire for mastery and the masculine privileging of the phallus. (218-19)

I imagine her punching Zizek in the stomach, mostly because he makes me angrier than most people drawing on psychoanalytic theory (admittedly, a field I have so far mostly stayed away from apart from Fromm, who is the antithesis to this). But she doesn’t need to punch anyone physically, that sentence does it all.

I would suggest that seeing needs to be retrieved by feminists, and that vision needs to be freed from the constrictions imposed on it by the apparatus of the gaze. (219)

I would like to be part of that, I hope she does so, this is so useful for thinking about art and photography, particularly in activism and studying the ‘urban’. I am about to read much more of what she has written. There is more in the volume, the other to stand out was on aboriginal art — a really fascinating interdisciplinary change of pace which is perhaps what I most like about this book. But of course, I know I am blinkered by the things I am working on now, this will richly repay a visit.

Smith, Terry (ed) Impossible Presence: surface and Screen in the Photogenic Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Viking Ships

The Viking Ship Museum — incredible. Despite hordes of elderly French tourists in colourful anoraks and sensible shoes fresh off the coach, following a diminutive tour guide in a bright yellow jacket who propelled her footstool through the crowds, leapt upon it, declaimed, and moved on to the next-notable-thing. They followed her at speed, seemed to linger longest in the gift shop — but that’s probably prejudice speaking as I was transfixed and not really paying attention.

The wonder of these ships. To be built with such care, to be eminently practical yet also crafted and made most beautiful, from their great curves and curls to their meticulous carvings. To be buried in honour of certain members of the community. The most beautiful, the most decorated ship carried two women to their afterlife and with them their weaving tools — multiple looms, weaving tablets, yarns, precious cloth. Agricultural tools were found here too, plowshares, sickles, scythes — at least the wooden handles. If only there had been more, they could have joined my collection of medieval illustrations/ implements still used in everyday life.

Two women and their weavings. In this.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

What love and honour shown to them. The Oseburg ship, build around AD 820 and in use before the women were buried in 834. 22 metres long, 5 metres wide, could reach a speed of over 10 knots under sail. The most lavishly decorated ship yet found.

A picture of its excavation:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

There is the Gokstad ship, found in 1880, built around 890 and buried around 900 with a full complement of shields. A warriors ship.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

The third ship, the Tune ship from 910, is almost in ruins, only the base of it remaining preserved. Still beautiful.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

The only hint of humour here — the remains of a peacock were found — ‘It may have been a gift from some foreign dignitary or perhaps a ‘souvenir’ brought back…’

Also within the Oseberg ship this cart:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

Carved bedstead:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

Soft leather boots:

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

five amazing carved animal heads, four in the burial chamber, they seem to have been meant to be mounted or carried with a thong passed behind their teeth, their purpose unknown.

Oslo - Viking Shop Museum

I would have loved to have been here quiet and alone, but amongst these objects so weighted with beauty and an entirely different way of viewing the world and living within it, those coachloads didn’t matter quite so much. But we got there early before the real deluge started I think. It would have been intolerable with a few more coachloads by the time we left.

We also took the ferry, which meant we were able to continue our tradition of disappointing boat rides in European cities. A picture of the Akershus fortress from the water:

Oslo

It emphasizes the importance of sturdy boats. But the Vikings built beautiful ones.

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