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.
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:
There is the Gokstad ship, found in 1880, built around 890 and buried around 900 with a full complement of shields. A warriors ship.
The third ship, the Tune ship from 910, is almost in ruins, only the base of it remaining preserved. Still beautiful.
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:
Soft leather boots:
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.
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 went to see Khadambi Asalache’s house today, and it was wondrous indeed. Poetry carved into wood, crafted into space. From the National Trust:
575 Wandsworth Road
This small, early nineteenth-century terraced house was the home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist and civil servant. In 1986, he began carving wooden fretwork to disguise a persistent damp problem in the basement dining room. He went on to embellish almost every wall, ceiling and door in the house with fretwork patterns and motifs which he hand-carved from reclaimed pine doors and floorboards found in skips. Over the course of a twenty year period he turned his home into a work of art.
He did not like for his friends to take pictures, because pictures mediate between you and the experience of place, and they also mediate your memories. Nothing could give you a true sense of what it means to be physically present in this house, so if you have the ability to come to London, to stand here, maybe stop reading now. Don’t look. But if you cannot get here, then a pale reflection can help you understand what follows.
I confess I liked being in this space without taking any photographs. But I also like these photographs from the website, for they frame and capture scenes in this place of almost overwhelming detail that allow you to isolate small portions and spend more time over them, to gain access to someone else’s framing of the space to see what others see.
A few things that struck me the most about this incredible place.
First the ways in which this incredible 20-year labour of detailed carving and fretworking and painting carved a space out of London that had nothing to do with London at all. Not an escape perhaps, but an alternate universe, a sidestep through a carved door into a place of beauty and safety and memory. Complete in itself, indifferent. It’s only the garden out the back that it calls on, its mimosa tree repeated and made soft, forever muted green in paint. Asalache created a completely different world of shadow and light and wood, maximised every last glimmer of sunshine in this often gray and gloomy place through glass and porcelain, through subtle and hidden touches of gold paint.
Our guides also mentioned how this house reflected Asalache’s philosophies as he carved a work that was beautiful, harmonious, forever unsymmetrical (though containing much symmetry) and forever incomplete. I think creating such intricacy across the whole of the house meant that not designing in a symmetrical way was more difficult — though this provoked laughter I am still a little hurt by. I don’t know why. But simply to mirror one half across another is easy, a mechanical operation that surely would have cut the time required (though of course to do it with machine like precision might not be). Instead, balance and harmony must emerge from some level of deeper awareness and attention as new forms are created to form a larger sense of wholeness that does not jar, that feels right and fitting in its difference rather than its sameness. This seems to me infinitely harder, worth a deeper appreciation.
He started in the kitchen, and he finished this room before moving to the next. There is an aspect to this house that made me initially think of obsession, made me think of the Watts Towers meticulously crafted over decades in a work that would never and could never be finished. There would always be more to do, more to add. The edges of things were all left rough, splintery, though they often incorporated smooth wood carvings rescued from jettisoned paneling and furniture in Lambeth’s great 1980s wave of gentrification and rebuilding. Almost all of the wood was found in skips, saved from this Georgian neighbourhood being gutted by money and development.
I love that Asalache could finish, and that part of that finishing was to leave sections unfinished. There is one shelf in particular in the dining room where fretwork adorns one half but not the other — left deliberately along with the other aspect of unfinishedness so as not to overwhelm his friends according to our guides. I stared at it…wanted to finish it myself. It is provocative, makes you think about this shelf as it fits into the room, fits into the house, fits into an ability to be incomplete, imperfect. The house is full of other examples, but none so marked as this one I think. A topic for discussion at dinner perhaps. I loved this long table, the conviviality it implied and memories it must hold of collective talk and laughter and breaking of bread together.
I loved how each room was different, loved the floors with patterns mirroring the rugs (the rugs were there first and the patterns painted in harmony with them), loved the doors decorated on only one side, loved the figures dancing, the multitudes of animals and birds carved and painted delicately on walls. Loved the beauty of the objects and the precision of their placement. Loved how this still feels like a space to be lived in, despite its beauty and fragility.
I loved this house. To be here on a tour of only six, guided slowly by people who love it too, who know it so well, who can point out the parrot with a looking glass, the ancient Egyptians with a telephone, the painting of a man falling that a friend had snuck upstairs to do. All wonderful. I hope to come back, this is a place you will always find something new.
I found some of his poems too, though his most famous novel, A Calabash of Life, is sadly long out of print despite his role in an important period of African literature in diaspora.
From Prometheus (found in African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 66):
The shadow of sadness gently rolled down his tears
for now, between him and heaven, nothing but clouds
the grey procession moving into the silent afternoon
following a chink of light to close the path of escape.
His eyes followed this gloom, the puzzling fate,
like a drunken moment bringing its dark face
to come lower, lower, a fulfillment of stored hate
coming down to crush the hand of
From Conversations with a Suicide (African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 67):
the mind’s vault is walled
like a lake that has frozen round its shore, looks
pure. This is the frozen heart of the crystal
and the wind that blows hardens on
its face, shadowless
like a row of empty chairs in a waiting room
when you arrive the blank face of the wall
look away to avoid your stare-if you stop
to hit back you see only yourself, a dream
if you were born under the sign of Neptune
the secret of your life is with stars
there is no answer for you here. Up
in the sky clouds gather to build
their own strength without fear moving
to make a search
And finally, just a curious little letter he wrote on the subject of ujamaa, which I am interested in from afar as a technique for collective liberation that parallels Freire’s popular education or what I learned about Friday in Denmarks Common Third, I find it curious that this is his reaction to it (written from a different house as you can see):
I have just been reading Messrs. Omindi and Mboya’s letters in your issue No. 11. Mr. Mboya’s article on African Socialism begins to be clearer. From afar mountains are misty. He must know what he says when he writes ‘these leaders . . . are those most likely to know what philosophy and principles underlie their policies?’ Many would take the point and feel suitably told off.
Once I thought Socialism was a political theory of society but now I hear the African brand is being adapted from our traditions of Ujamaa. Producing ‘African Socialism’ from Ujamaa is chasing a wild goose: poor wazee in the villages will no doubt be flattered when they are told that their humanity and friendliness arising from ujamaa is the ‘twentieth century African socialism.’
120 Hurlingharn Road,
London S. W.6.
Letters to the Editor
Lennard H. Okola, Gary Gappert, Khadambi Asalache and Jan Knappert Transition No. 13 (Mar. – Apr., 1964), pp. 5-7
The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space is amazing. Its very existence, its declaration of ongoing resistance against gentrification and displacement, and the many wonderful urban spaces to be found on the Lower East Side. A testament to all those who have fought to build community and to preserve it in that face of brutal development pressures driven by the commodification of land.
Ah, the Lower East Side…
For so long it was only known to me through Neil Smith’s work, his descriptions of the battles over Tompkins Square Park and a vibrancy in the squatting/camping/we-will-not-be-moved-from-these-spaces organising that I always found so inspiring.
I saw it on the map, saw this museum marked there and so we headed that way after the inspiration of Harlem — where better to go?
As a living history of urban activism, the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) chronicles the East Village community’s history of grassroots action. It celebrates the local activists who transformed abandoned spaces and vacant lots into vibrant community spaces and gardens. Many of these innovative, sustainable concepts and designs have since spread out to the rest of the city and beyond.
We wandered through the small museum staffed by volunteers — hardly a museum, a wonderful community space of two rooms, one ground floor and the basement where a video is running. The walls of both are lined with pictures and stories of the people who squatted these buildings to create and save housing, transformed vacant lots into vibrant gardens and community spaces, developed movements to push for political will in support of bicycles over cars, as well as cycling lanes, bike racks and respect. This building itself was squatted, which is how this place can exist at all. Every community should have such an accessible shopfront space telling such important stories, with people wandering in and out.
I got a birthday present there! The Architecture of Change , edited by Jerilou Hammett and Maggie Wrigley, an amazing collection of 36 articles from DESIGNER/builder magazine describing movement and struggle around space, design, art, architecture, education and justice (so far, I am only a quarter of the way through) around the country. I opened it up and within the first few pages found a picture of the Vilchis brothers lounging around Boyle heights which made me so happy.
I was less happy that the article failed to mention Union de Vecinos, co-founded by Leonardo and one of the grassroots organisations in LA that I love and admire most. Opportunity lost, they have so much to teach. Ah well.
Tompkins Square Park is still a cool public space full of life and people (though perhaps too much concrete), a very different one than Smith described if I remember rightly (but so much bigger than I was expecting! So maybe my memory is faulty…but still closes at midnight, so no one is welcome to sleep here). And look, Charlie Parker Place.
A public park alongside a medley of community gardens, they are everywhere, and I was truly smitten. Especially after reading the love and fierce resistance it took to first build and then keep them.
I wish we’d have had more time here to see some of the other radical spots here, but we were heading over to Williamsburg to meet my cousin. We had a quick walk to the metro — and a quick stop in Bluestockings bookstore on the way. I sent them a lot of emails in my PM Press days, and their amazing selection did not disappoint. Two of the books I’ve worked on under Postcolonial Fiction (!) by Gary Phillips and James Kilgore — seeing that is such a pleasure:
On the way — Joe Strummer saying know your rights:
Such cool city streets and a wealth of things to see and places to eat (omg the best pastrami sandwiches ever at Harry and Ida’s Meat & Supply Co), we loved this place:
And finally, a wonderful map of the radical spaces of the Lower East Side produce by the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space — I wish we had had more time to explore! Get the pdf here.
We went to see Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter today at Bristol’s RWA — I love Angela Carter, one of the true greats. Her amazing words snake round you, drag you in so it is impossible to emerge from the spectacular quality of the worlds she builds and the strangeness of the images that she gives you. No one is whole, no one normal. The struggle of the surreal, the damaged, the hybrid, the brilliant linger long after the novel is done.
She has always filled me with wonder, love and extreme envy in equal measure. Ah, to write like that.
It is hard to imagine what could do justice to her, but this exhibition came close, it was such a pleasure to be in such an evocative space, to encounter these wondrous things. was curated by Dr Marie Mulvey-Roberts of UWE, and the artist and writer Fiona Robinson of the RWA. Friday evening we’d been to an event at the Arnolfini — a talk about Ken Adam by Christopher Frayling and then a showing of Dr Strangelove, which Adam had worked as set designer on. We then had a lovely night of it over dinner and drinks with Marie and a few others. It felt like serendipity to come to this today.
A major exhibition that celebrates the life, work and influences of Angela Carter twenty five years after her death.
In bringing together art and literature, Strange Worlds: The Vision of Angela Carter explores the enormous impact of author and journalist Angela Carter – one of the most distinctive literary voices of the last 100 years.
Echoing Carter’s recurring themes of feminism, mysticism, sexuality and fantasy, the exhibition includes historically significant works by Marc Chagall, William Holman Hunt, Paula Rego, Dame Laura Knight, Leonora Carrington and John Bellany, on loan from major national collections.
One large room is full of art influenced by Angela Carter, some of it recently commissioned. I confess this was my favourite room because rarely have I loved so much so deeply. It makes me long for disposable income as few things do.
A few of my favourite pieces. Like Sarah Woodfine‘s ‘Untitled‘ (Forest).
She had three pieces in the exhibit — I always feel a bit constrained in taking pictures, so I am missing the other two, but loved them equally. I would buy anything she did.
Also included were two of her exquisite linocuts. I would buy any of them too. Then there was this extraordinary mobile, called ‘The Forest Assassins‘ by Tessa Farmer. The label reads that it is created of banksia seed pods, crab claws, crab eyes, wormshells, birds’ legs, fish jaws, insects, plant roots, crocodile skulls, bird skulls, snake ribs,snake teetch, mouse bones, taxidermy birds, Portugues man ‘o’ war plyps, hedgehog and porcupine spines, whelk egg cases. There is more going on here. Everything is manned by tiny winged figures and ants.
Off there to the right there on the wall is ‘The Follower‘ by Simon Garden. Amazing. One of our other favourite paintings in the room, and on his website, well, I love all of his work.
Then there was these illustrations by Juli Haas, with windows to open on other worlds…
There was Lisa Wright’s ‘After the Masked Visitor‘, which is the featured image here, and Eileen Cooper’s ‘Tail of the Tiger’:
Then there was the amazing Ana Maria Pacheco, particularly ‘The Banquet‘, a massive sculptural installation, which appears incredibly and terrifyingly surprising as you open a dark curtain:
I am leaving people off this list not because they were not brilliant, but because my mind is full to bursting. Because after leaving the great room of art inspired by Angela Carter, you continue on to a second room of art that inspired Angela Carter. Like Marc Chagall, ‘The Blue Circus‘:
The “Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” (1846) by Joseph Noel Paton, that only became interesting when you look quite closely:
Some Leona Carrington — my favourite ‘The Amateur of Velocipedes‘
Then there was still more and even more — another room of illustrations and covers for Angela Carter’s own books. From the presentation as written on the wall:
Angela Carter was a writer who proclaimed to ‘think first in images, and then grope for the words’, embracing the complex relationship between words and images — art and literature.
I loved Eva Tatcheva‘s cover artwork for Sea Cat and Dragon King.
This very cool collection of posters produced in a contest:
It has been a long time since I enjoyed an exhibition this much — and it was particularly exciting to have so many artists still working that I now know to watch out for. And so many of them women. This fails to do it justice and to name all the necessary names, but there is a book available to you.
Walking up the great hill we stopped in the remainder store, and I just happened to buy Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘The World’s Wife‘. The first poem in it is Little Red Cap, and I read it waiting for our post-gallery cake and coffee and what another piece of serendipity, because it brought poetry to the prose and to the art we had just been drinking it. I felt lucky to read it for the first time like this.
At childhood’s end, the houses petered out
Into playing fields, the factory, allotments
Kept, like mistresses, by kneeling married men
The silent railway line, the hermit’s caravan
Till you came at last to the edge of the woods
It was there that I first clapped eyes on the wolf
He stood in a clearing, reading his verse out loud
In his wolfy drawl, a paperback in his hairy paw
Red wine staining his bearded jaw. What big ears
He had! What big eyes he had! What teeth!
In the interval, I made quite sure he spotted me
Sweet sixteen, never been, babe, waif, and bought me a drink
My first. You might ask why. Here’s why. Poetry
The wolf, I knew, would lead me deep into the woods
Away from home, to a dark tangled thorny place
Lit by the eyes of owls. I crawled in his wake
My stockings ripped to shreds, scraps of red from my blazer
Snagged on twig and branch, murder clues. I lost both shoes
But got there, wolf’s lair, better beware. Lesson one that night
Breath of the wolf in my ear, was the love poem
I clung till dawn to his thrashing fur, for
What little girl doesn’t dearly love a wolf?1
Then I slid from between his heavy matted paws
And went in search of a living bird – white dove –
Which flew, straight, from my hands to his open mouth
One bite, dead. How nice, breakfast in bed, he said
Licking his chops. As soon as he slept, I crept to the back
Of the lair, where a whole wall was crimson, gold, aglow with books
Words, words were truly alive on the tongue, in the head
Warm, beating, frantic, winged; music and blood
But then I was young – and it took ten years
In the woods to tell that a mushroom
Stoppers the mouth of a buried corpse, that birds
Are the uttered thought of trees, that a greying wolf
Howls the same old song at the moon, year in, year out
Season after season, same rhyme, same reason. I took an axe
To a willow to see how it wept. I took an axe to a salmon
To see how it leapt. I took an axe to the wolf
As he slept, one chop, scrotum to throat, and saw
The glistening, virgin white of my grandmother’s bones
I filled his old belly with stones. I stitched him up
Out of the forest I come with my flowers, singing, all alone
Beyond Caravaggio – a wonderful exhibition, though I wanted more paintings by Caravaggio and more, and more. Because it was incredible to see this after having just read Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane.
To see Caravaggio’s work, the paintings themselves… They are stunning, the brushwork is invisible creating pieces so luminous they almost glow. They are bigger than I had expected them, so when I stepped forward everything shifted. The figures emerged from the darkness, fingers stretched towards me from the canvas. The scenes enveloped me. Jostling crowds behind me could almost be forgotten (and I may have to beg their forgiveness, but I never was so rude to stand right in front). I realised too, that these paintings must have been even more wondrous in that first decade of the 17th Century, imagine them candlelit, and without the bloating I sometimes feel of having all art immediately available at the search of the internet to create a jostle of periods and wonders so that novelty is hard to come by.
No wonder Caravaggio had the impact that he did, no wonder that so many copied his style – this exhibition was full of truly inspired examples of that. Orazio Gentileschi, his daughter Artemisia, my other favourite Jusepe de Ribera.
Caravaggio remains apart from the wealth of talent that innovated with his use of darkness and light, not just for the power and skill of his work, but for the common faces bearing their lives in the lines of their skin, the stances that reveal their character, the gestures and the spaces they create that invite you into the paintings. The rips in the sleeves — I wanted to reach out to trace the torn fabric in Supper at Emmaus, itching for a needle and thread. There is also the extraordinary beauty of the object, the crystal glasses and decanters, the baskets of fruit that are incredible perfection of detail. They were unexpected, despite having read of them, seen the reproductions.
The poverty, the dirt encrusted around fingernails and into hands. Caravaggio’s own hand, none too clean, appears in the Taking of Christ, thrusting the lantern above the grouping, his face staring a bit wildly, beetled brows and he has done himself no favours – but impossible to guess at his emotion beyond curiosity. Seeing this as a picture on the screen hides the way that details leap out at you, how much you can see emerging from the darkness…
Caravaggio’s commissions were so often religious, he had little choice in his subjects, yet he clearly felt deeply that these men and women surrounding Christ were poor, old, sick, faltering, doubtful, poor. Their feet bare and tired.
Caravaggio was also a painter of intense violence, matter-of-factly inflicted here upon John the Baptist, a curious, complex expression of Salome’s.
There was one enormous surprise – Cecco. Also from the town of Caravaggio, and Caravaggio’s model, housemate, probably lover, the one who stayed with him until that last flight to Malta (and I imagine that scene of farewells, driven undoubtedly by Caravaggio’s ambitions for a knighthood and the unwillingness of the Colonnas to sponsor him alongside Caravaggio into the very closed society of the Knights of Malta). Nowhere does Graham-Dixon mention, I am almost certain, that Cecco too was a gifted painter. Suddenly their relationship shifted, a collegiality and a greater touch of equality shapes it.
He still remains the laughing boy of Caravaggio’s lighter paintings in my mind — not part of the exhibition sadly, though Mario Minniti appears in Boy Bitten By a Lizard. But here Cecco is the model for a youthful John the Baptist:
Not so surprising as Cecco’s paintings were that the luminous works which draw on Caravaggio’s influence from Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, almost all use the chiaroscuro but with rich cloth, wealthy patrons. Many of them copied his two paintings of cheating – the card shark and the gypsy. I was sad they were unable to bring these paintings by Caravaggio to be part of this temporary exhibition. But the small touches seemed absent from the paintings inspired by Caravaggio’s. The humanity, the necessity, the feeling that the next meal requires winning.
Perhaps this is why Jusepe’s work stood out so much to me, though his works were all religious in nature. This one was extraordinary
As was this beautiful painting of Susana and the Elders from Artemisia Gentileschi
I loved the exhibition. I will end on one of the more beautiful of Caravaggio’s paintings, one of a series of John the Baptist in the wilderness. It lingers with you as you leave the final room for the hum of the National Gallery
Caravaggio had, at Graham-Dixon’s guess, set his eyes on rehabilitation and a return to Rome in triumph through a rather curious route — becoming a Knight (read part one of this post on Caravaggio here). Whether this was his goal at the start or not, he was soon on his way after his exile and time in Naples, and through the help of his oldest patron, Costanza Colonna. The process for getting to Malta has changed just a bit since his day:
Malta was not, however, a place where someone could simply turn up unannounced. The whole island was a fortress, and security was tight. No one was allowed in from the mainland without a passport and papers prepared by the order’s network of receivers.
Permission was granted only by the approval of the Grand Master of the Hospitallers himself. The Colonna’ had to have brokered this for Caravaggio, fleeing justice as he was.
A description of the Valleta that Caravaggio approached:
An entirely new city, built of honey-coloured limestone that glowed pink in the sun. Valletta had been constructed at breakneck speed in just forty years. After the turmoil of the Great Siege [by the Turks], the knights realized that they had to fortify the narrow headland known as the Xiberras Promontory, which connected the island’s two principal harbours. The construction of the new capital by an army of slaves, on the steepest incline of the headland had been an immense undertaking… It was named in honour of Jean de la Valette, Grand Master during the siege. The pope’s best military engineer, Francesco Laparelli, was responsible for the plan. The sheer stone fortifications of the citadel rose directly from the craggy outcrop of the island itself…
An army of slaves. They remain otherwise invisible to us, but I had no idea Valletta was built in only forty years, a planned city.
Within its walls, Valletta was laid out on the Renaissance model of the ideal city. The principal architect responsible for the buildings was Girolamo Cassar, who was from Malta but had studied in Rome. His palaces and churches were designed to reflect the knights’ ideals of Christian sobriety and military discipline, with long, sever facades of rusticated stone. The streets were laid out in a grid, with nine thoroughfares running across the peninsula and twelve running from top to bottom. Their strict geometry was softened by gardens and fountains.
It was a steep slog from the harbour to the centre — and everywhere in between. Graham-Dixon notes Byron’s farewell to Malta:
adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs.
I am quoting prolific about the city, but I find this heady stuff…
Approaching Malta for the first time, Caravaggio was surrounded by symbols of the island’s fierce rule of law. On the first promontory on the left of the harbour was the forbidding spectacle of a gallows. Within the harbour itself, prominent on the left-hand side, was the Castel Sant’Angelo, where many of the most famous events of the siege had taken place… it had become a prison for disorderly knights.
At the end of the the sixteenth century, a visitor, Hieronymus Megiser, noted gore still visible on some of the rocks and pointed out by his guides.
A ‘remote and harsh place, rocky and sun-parched’, yet famed for the sweetness of its honey, quantity of almonds, olives, figs, dates, the quality of its cotton. Cicero had his clothes made there.
I have failed to find English translations of Hieronymus Megiser’s descriptions of Malta, so shall quote what Graham-Dixon has gleaned from them.
As Megiser notes, the island encompassed two utterly distinct societies. ‘Malta Africana’ and ‘Malta Europeana’. The world of the indigenous islanders had remained unchanged for centuries. Its people were dark-skinned, spoke a language incomprehensible to Europeans and lived in humble settlements much like the tribal villages of nearby coastal Africa. Cosmopolitan Valletta was utterly different, a flammable blend of extreme Christian piety, simmering military aggression and barely contained sexual dissipation.
I am fascinated by this duality, but there is no more to be found here about it. George Sandys was an English traveler — quoted liberally throughout the volume, and his descriptions of Malta are fascinating. But I have found those, and will read them as they look amazing.
It is not known where Caravaggio lived during his time on the island. Prospective knights on their first tours of duty were given accommodation in the auberge belonging to their particular Langue, or country. Altogether there were eight Langues, of Italy, Provence, Auvergne, England, France, Aragon, Castille and Germany.
Langue meaning language more like? Because Italy was not yet a country, nor was France or Germany in the shape we know them.But Caravaggio probably lodged with the Colonnas anyway, they were the only one’s who knew he was there and of his plans to become a knight — this was not brokered until the winter of 1607.
To become a knight he painted… there is the incredible Beheading of St John
I get to see this. So exciting, Caravaggio’s largest altar-piece still sitting in the place for which it was painted.
The novices of the Order of St John [of whom Caravaggio was one] listened to sermons and received instruction in the oratory for which Caravaggio’s painting was destined. The place was both a school for the martyrs of the future and a burial ground for the martyrs of the past — the bones of the knights who had died at the Great Siege were interred beneath its stone-flagged floor. … Caravaggio’s altarpiece was designed to make sure that they [the novices] could be under no illusions about what that might mean.
Not that I am at all keen on martyrs, particularly not crusaders. But nor, I think, was Caravaggio. He did, however, paint a wonderful portrait of Alof da Wignacourt (c1607-1608), the Master of the Knights. Caravaggio was pretty determined to get a knighthood, and this was a man of fairly absolute power.
And yet Caravaggio still ensures that his page rather steals the show. He still rebels I think.
While there he became friends (if that is possible to guess at) with WIgnacourt’s secretary Francesco Dell’Antella. Graham-Dixon notes he was a gifted draughtsman and produced a detailed drawing of Valletta — which I have found. This is the ‘Map of the medieval town of Valletta, with Senglea and Vitoriosa at the Great Port. Map of Malta and Gozo’ from [BOISSAT, Pierre de / BOSIO, Giacomo]. Histoire des Chevaliers de l’Orde de S. Jean de Hierusalem, contenant leur admirable Institution & Police…, Paris, Jacques d’Allin, MDCLIX [=1659].
To return to Caravaggio. Alof de Wignacourt loved his paintings to such a degree he gave him (and this is Graham-Dixon quoting Bellori)
as a reward, besides the honour of the Cross, the Grand Master put a gold chain around Caravaggio’s neck and made him a gift of two slaves…
‘Finally,’ Graham-Dixon writes, ‘Caravaggio had got his own gold chain.’ I forgot to mention the animosity raised in Rome when a rival received such a chain — the one about whom the scurrilous verses had been written.
There is no context given for the slaves. Slavery remains only part of the background throughout, which kills me.
Still, Caravaggio got his Knighthood, with approval of the Pope. He was thus above the law for the murder he had committed, could return to Rome with new rank. Graham-Dixon notes that in this whole scheme to elevate himself, perhaps Caravaggio had not realised that as a knight, he had to have Wignacourt’s permission to leave Malta. A permission unlikely to be granted for some time, if ever — in Wignacourt’s petition to the Pope to be allowed to confer the knighthood, he noted the purpose of it was ‘to keep’ Caravaggio. Ominous.
Graham-Dixon argues the dawning realisation that he was trapped, as much as his unruly habits, explains the end of Caravaggio’s time on Malta.
The ceremony on the ‘feast of the Decollato’ where the unveiling of The Beheading of St John was to take place was a complete disaster — Caravaggio was not present. He was in prison for kicking down the door of the church’s organist, Fra Prospero Coppini, with several others, leaving the organist severely wounded. On top of that
The musicians were unhappy about their pay and most of them went on strike, so that on the feast day itself neither Vespers nor the solemn Mass was sung in the oratory before Caravaggio’s picture.
I confess, of everything that went wrong, only the strike was unexpected to me. I confess I find the existence of musicians willing to strike in Valletta absolutely extraordinary — and a happy fact. The rest though…
Carvaggio escaped from prison. Fled Malta. Was stripped of his knighthood in December of 1608. Graham-Dixon gives an illustration from Wolfgang Kilian of the mid-seventeenth century as an example of what this ceremony might have looked like in the very same oratory of St John where his painting sat (look, you can see it there in the background!):
This happened in Caravaggio’s absence of course.
He, in the meanwhile, had fled to Sicily, meeting up with an old friend and painter Mario Minnitti (also the model for Boy Bitten by a Lizard and others) and traveling through Southern Italy. Caravaggio believed he was being followed, and that his life was in danger. His routes were most circuitous.
In 1608 he painted the Burial of St Lucy in Syracuse
And the Raising of St Lazarus in Messina. Graham-Dixon notes that the Lazzari family had originally wanted a picture whose proposed title would have been ‘The Madonna, St John the Baptist and Other Saints, but Caravaggio negotiated with them to paint this instead.
In Rome at the height of the Renaissance it had not been unknown for a famous artist to alter the terms of a commission. Michelangelo had famously plucked up the courage … But in the provincial artistic milieu of Messina, Caravaggio’s assertion of independence was still being talked about a hundred years later.
In 1609, also in Messina, the wonderful Adoration of the Shepards.
By September of 1609 he had returned to Naples, and the protection once again of the Colonnas, both Bellori and Baglione mention the enemies chasing him. Graham-Dixon argues that this return to the Colonna fold means that both his patrons had forgiven him for his escapades on Malta, but also that they had negotiated a truce with the knights there.
His fear was well-founded, he was severely wounded in an attempt on his life as he emerged from the Cerriglio — a rather famous brothel, his face disfigured — sfregiato, an injury inflicted to avenge an insult to reputation. Probably by Rodomonte Roero, the Conte della Vezza, who had indeed, almost certainly, been tracking him.
Caravaggio never really recovered. In Naples he painted the Martyrdom of St Ursula (1610), thought to be his last picture.
He traveled to Rome, with either a pardon in hand or on its way, and the lack of clarity surrounding his death seems characteristic of most of his life. He was arrested when he disembarked from his boat at Palo, a fort manned by the Spanish. Something went wrong and he was arrested, thus his belongings and the three paintings he had brought with him made the rest of the boat’s journey to the Porto Ecole. Bellori has him running from Palo to Porto Ecole and dying on his arrival from heat and exhaustion — but it was days on foot between the two.
He did die in Porto Ecole, however, of fever, in July of 1610. Then the feeding frenzy was on over the paintings he had left behind him.
This is one, an uncommissioned painting of melancholy treating a subject he had painted several times before. To me it embodies both his queerness (which I know I don’t look at enough here) and his regret and suffering.
A life that as I say, troubles me and sits with me.
Writing this I found that there is a show on at The National Gallery, Beyond Caravaggio, and I am looking forward to seeing it immensely. Graham-Dixon notes only a few of his influences — Ribera and Zurbaran in particular, through his work in Naples. Another wonderful story about the Madonna of the Rosary, which was brought to Antwerp through a joint effort spearheaded by Rubens, and involving Bruegel, Van Bael and Cooymans. But of course, I will be seeing more about this…
Andrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.
It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.
A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:
Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.
He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:
Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.
This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.
As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.
Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:
Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…
Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.
After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts, apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.
One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)
It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches — like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.
More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:
We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.
Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.
A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:
Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.
Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes
The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.
Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.
Here she is again as St Catharine of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.
There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.
Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.
This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):
Another one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)
Graham-Dixon writes that:
The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.
The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:
In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.
Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.
When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.
It was very different from the rising countercurrent of
a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.
Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).
Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:
They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.
It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.
Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.
WWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.
The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:
His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).
And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.
It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate…
That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):
By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.
Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.
On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.
The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:
The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.
That, actually, was just funny.
More on the particularities of the papal state.
Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.
Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:
There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …
Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:
Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.
They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.
It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints.
This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.
No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.
Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:
…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.
Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.
And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:
I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.
He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.
It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.
Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.
Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.
This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:
…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.
A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.
And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.
Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:
Pictures such as the Seven Acts and TheFlagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.
But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.
Last night at Bristol’s Watershed we went to see The Fabulous Nicholas Brothers:
Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at Film Forum in New York, presents a unique compilation tribute to the greatest dancers of the 20th century the Nicholas Brothers, featuring a collage of rarely seen home movies, photographs and film clips.
It was — the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers were — amazing. I perhaps use that adjective too much, my enthusiasms lace my writing with ‘I loved’ and ‘brilliant’ and other such encomiums so that perhaps they lose some meaning. But little I have ever experienced compares to the feeling of pure joy that dance can grant, particularly as embodied by Fayard and Harold Lloyd Nicholas. Before Bruce Goldstein began, they started with this clip, ‘Lucky Number’ (1936):
Throughout their career, in addition to the jaw-dropping virtuosity of their movements, there is a joy in dance and in dancing with each other that is a gift to watch. It fills you up as you watch it, together with awe that such things might be done.
I will also note that this format, of talk interspersed with clips, from someone as knowledgeable and personable as Bruce Goldstein who knew the brothers personally, was awesome. He had loads of footage from the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers’ own home videos including some of their unique film of the Cotton Club performances, which rendered it incredible. You are sorry you missed it.
Anyway. You take all of this, the very best and the most beautiful of talent, and you set it in Jim Crow America. This ensures the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers are billed most of their lives as a ‘specialty act’ (though usually at the top of the bill). I think for all I have read, watched, wrestled with, this exposed an entirely new view of how damaging Jim Crow was. How crazy it was.
Absolutely batshit crazy.
There’s Pie Pie Blackbird. Crazy. Immense talent to be found singing and dancing about the master’s ‘blackbird pie’.
As a reference to master sleeping with his slaves, it hardly seems veiled at all. And so it is that here, the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 debut get called little pickinninies.
Wonderful without reservations is their appearance in the 1935 All Coloured Vaudeville Movie — and look at that city background, this is really an urban art after all, not one tied to the plantation south, but to Harlem, to Chicago, to the places that beckoned towards freedom and equality (though still have yet to grant it). Fayard is performing in his characteristic three piece suit — he wore it at almost all times (there’s home footage of him wearing it at the tennis courts, on the beach), a fashion statement against the indignities and disrespect of Jim Crow, and I love him for it:
Yet so many of these clips make me feel Jim Crow viscerally. After a rather saccharine display of white doo-wop and the (rather good don’t you know) Glen Miller band, there is the joy and virtuosity of the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers and the equally fabulous Dorothy Dandridge (who married Harold, how did I not know?). Carefully orchestrated so the whole section is separate from the white musicians, able to be cut entirely for Southern audiences — a prime reason the Nicholas Brothers would always perform self-contained ‘numbers’ rather than roles.
I found this separateness physically painful to watch, which sat strangely beside the absolute joy of the performance itself. But more bewildering were these two clips, the first the 1934 ‘Minstrel Man’ from Kid Millions
Apart from it being cool that Lucille Ball is in this, I sat wondering in what insane ideological space the whole of America was in to make such a musical number possible, such plunging necklines and singing about loving a minstrel man when Black men were being lynched in the South for even looking the wrong way at a white woman.
Their number from Tin Pan Alley (1940) is even crazier:
I couldn’t stop thinking about Emmet Till through the whole of this damn number. What the actual fuck. Never in a million years could I have imagined such a thing in 1940. In struggling to make sense of it, I think a partial answer is that the category of youth allowed Harold Nicholas to be non-threatening enough for ‘Minstrel Man’, and the category of ‘performing slave’ to be non-threatening enough for Tin Pan Alley (and the absence of sexual innuendo or physical contact). And yet. It doesn’t really explain it to my satisfaction.
Nothing does. Think of Billie Holiday singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939: Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees. The two performances together somehow make white power and violence even more terrifying in ways I am unable to understand. Perhaps it is the impossibility of reconciling these two things that is the most terrifying, how do you fight what is impossible to understand?
World War II would start to move change along again, Fayard would be drafted into the Jim Crow Army’s laundry brigade.
The Pirate (1948), with Gene Kelley, was the first film where Black and white dancers interacted together, as something like equals (where Gene Kelley, who is a superb dancer, is struggling to keep up in fact).
Still the brothers’ speaking roles were cut from the final film, they remained listed as a specialty act.
Bruce Goldstein writes of all those they influenced:
The dancer’s dancers, their fans have included Gene Kelly, who teamed up with them in The Pirate; Bob Fosse and Gregory Hines, whose first acts were modelled on them; ballet legends George Balanchine and Mikhail Baryshnikov; Michael Jackson, who once had Fayard as a dance coach; and Fred Astaire, who named their Stormy Weather ‘staircase’ number the greatest of all musical sequences.
Yet watching this talk I was struck by how much better all of those dancers and all of their performances could have been in a world without racism, where the Fabulous Nicholas Brothers could have found a rightful respect and a rightful place in musicals and movies. The leading roles they deserved. The space to further develop their art. Instead they moved to Paris. After four years Fayard moved home, because home is home, you know? No one should have to leave home to feel like a human being. No one should have to choose between performing with his brother or being treated like a human being. Harold had to, chose the second for a time. Remained in Paris. Ended up coming home to be with his brother.
Here they are reunited at the Hollywood Palace in 1965. Fayard is 51.
How wonderful they are. How angry I remain at this larger context and history.
Finally to end, and to end on the wonderful just as the talk did, the most wonderful routine of all (of all!) from Stormy Weather, which we are lucky enough to have tickets to see on the big screen on Sunday!
I am going to learn to tap dance. I will not be good, but perhaps I might come to express some of my joy with my feet in such a way…
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.