Atget’s people

July 13, 2014 § 2 Comments

Eugène Atget, Coin rue de Seine, 1924

Eugène Atget, Coin rue de Seine, c. 1900

I was staying at my aunt and uncle’s house near Saint-Malo last week and, as is par for the course in Brittany, it was raining – on and off but so frequently that going for a walk or to the beach was out of the question. Luckily, their house is well stocked with books, and the first one I happened upon was a Taschen edition of Eugène Atget’s photos.

Several pages in, I noticed something I never had before, despite having spent hours over the years poring over Atget’s work.

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There are people in Atget’s photos. That sounds blindingly obvious, but I don’t mean the tradesmen and women he photographed for his Petits Métiers, or the prostitutes lounging in doorways or skulking on corners or the waiters or policemen or idlers gazing at adverts on Morris columns.

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No, what I mean is the diaphanous grey blurs and smudges that very occasionally appear in otherwise empty streets, the seemingly deserted spaces that look like stage sets waiting for the actors to appear, that Walter Benjamin famously likened to crime scenes. They’re so small and slight that it would be easy to mistake them for a shadow, or perhaps a smudge on the lens, or a darkroom accident. I probably have made the same mistake myself up to now, if indeed I ever noticed them at all.

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But they’re none of the above. They’re people, hurrying along the street, that Atget’s long exposures couldn’t pin down before they vanished. All they left on the glass plates were traces of themselves, records of movement rather than of tangible existence. Or ghosts, perhaps? This was, after all, the age of Spiritualism and séances. But Atget’s camera was more powerful than the tricks of any nineteenth-century medium.

Eugène Carrière, Place Clichy, Night, c. 1899-1900

Eugène Carrière, Place Clichy, Night, c. 1899-1900

Gazing at these ectoplasmic blurs reminded me of the work of a contemporary of Atget’s, who by neat coincidence shared his name – Eugène Carrière. Although he’s best known for his dark, vaporous portraits of women and children (which prompted Degas to snipe, ‘Someone has been smoking in the nursery’) one of his most extraordinary canvases is a view of the Place Clichy at night, with the passersby rendered as mere shadows, less substantial even than the glow of the streetlamps.

Were both Eugènes aware of each other’s work? Fairly likely, I’d guess. Even if not, it’s fair to say that I’ll never again assume that Atget’s deserted streets are so unpeopled without looking carefully to see whether he captured a ghost crossing his lens, some anonymous, ordinary Parisian who unwittingly, poignantly, left a trace on history.

Florilegium

June 19, 2014 § 2 Comments

hydrangea

A few weekends ago I signed up for a photography workshop. The subject was macro lenses, and we were meant to try them out at the Chelsea Physic Garden. Unfortunately, the workshop organiser hadn’t thought to check whether the garden is open on Saturdays… so an idyllic day in one of London’s greenest corners turned into a rather grittier, but still enjoyable, wander around Soho in search of flowers. It was my first attempt at still life, after many rolls of landscape, and although I could certainly do with more practice the results weren’t bad for a beginner.

So here is a little florilegium (in the most literal sense of the word) of Soho in early June…

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geranium 1geranium 2le parc c'était mieux

(Okay, that’s obviously not a flower. I was just mystified as to why someone slapped a sticker protesting the current state of Paris-St Germain and the Parc des Princes on the side of a building in Soho. Not exactly preaching to the converted, is it?)

peony 1peony 2poppyfoxgloverose

Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, 55mm wide-angle/close-up lens, colour slide 200 film (cross-processed)

Grey gardens

June 12, 2014 § 2 Comments

No, not THAT Grey Gardens, just a roll of film I shot at Kew Gardens several months ago and didn’t get round to developing until last week. I went there with a roll of black and white film and my wide-angle lens, hoping to capture some of the strangeness of the shape of the Palm House. I’ve always had a soft spot for late-19th-century iron and glass architecture and was hoping that this particular combination of film and lens would bring out its melancholy and strangeness, making it look like a lost and stranded spaceship from Planet Victoria…

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I think I still have a good deal to learn about this particular film – to wit, very few of my interior shots came out. I would blame it all on the cloudy weather, but I have a horrible sinking feeling that I may have used the wrong aperture setting.

Oh well, nothing for it but to go back another time and try again…

Frank: The fine line between genius and madness

June 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Frank (dir. Lenny Abrahamson, 2014)

Warning: Here be spoilers. If you haven’t seen Frank, don’t read on. If you have, go ahead… « Read the rest of this entry »

Miss Pogany’s thoughts

May 19, 2014 § 2 Comments

Brancusi display - MoMA

I am in New York for work, so naturally, on one of my free days, I headed straight to… a museum. The Museum of Modern Art, to be exact. I went to see Gauguin: Metamorphoses, which was extraordinary (and on which more, perhaps, in another post) but decided to go for a wander afterward in the permanent collection galleries.

I was drawn toward the Brancusi display as if I had a magnet in my forehead pointing toward true north. I’ve loved his sculptures since I was a child (the Art Institute of Chicago has an excellent collection of them) but if pressed to choose one favourite, I would, with very little hesitation, choose Mademoiselle Pogany.

Constantin Brancusi, Mlle Pogany, 1913

Constantin Brancusi, Mademoiselle Pogany, 1913

Quite apart from its innate beauty, I think what draws me to it is how it gives physical form to that most inward of character traits – extreme shyness. Of course I could be projecting, but I’ve always felt her to be a kindred spirit for that very reason. The story goes that the model – a young Hungarian art student named Margit Pogany – sat to Brancusi multiple times and he ended up destroying all the clay studies, before carving the first version (in marble) from memory after she returned to Hungary. Memory and the imaginative distortion of her features – the huge, blank eyes that, despite the way they project from beneath the fine arches of the brows, seem to gaze in rather than out; the tiny mouth; the hands like a pair of doves – seemed to capture her personality (or Brancusi’s idea of it?) better than hours of close study.

There are numerous versions of Mademoiselle Pogany in different materials – white marble, coloured marbles, and bronze. Looking at the bronze version at MoMA two days ago, I noticed for the first time the reflections of the nearby paintings and other visitors rippling across her smooth forehead. I’ve no idea if this was Brancusi’s intention, but it seemed to me as if I was watching thoughts pass through Mlle Pogany’s mind – fleeting and intangible and ever-changing.

I did something I seldom do in a museum. I took out my camera, stepped forward and captured myself, one more thought passing through Mlle Pogany’s brain, before I too disappeared from the gallery.

A question of scale

May 6, 2014 § 2 Comments

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jane Morris (1857)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Jane Morris (1857)

This past weekend – after about ten years’ worth of failed attempts – I finally got into Kelmscott Manor. I’ve written before about the family curse my cousins (who live nearby) and I seem to be under with regard to the place – we’ve turned up on days it was closed, about to shut, or, worst of all, flooded – but perhaps because I made the effort to visit both of William Morris’s London houses last year, the gods finally smiled on us.

The house and gardens were so beautiful that I was ready to move in, draughts and damp be damned, but there was one object in it that sticks in my mind still, above all the chairs and tapestries and metalwork. Ironically, it isn’t by Morris himself, but by his friend and eventual rival in love.

In the china closet on the ground floor is a small group of drawings of Jane Morris by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The majority of them are all of a muchness if you’re familiar with this strand of Rossetti’s work, but one of them stands out a mile.

It’s the first portrait he ever drew of her, in 1857, a mere ten days after they first met in a theatre in Oxford. I had seen it reproduced in numerous books, but nothing prepared me for its size (and unfortunately the size can’t be conveyed any better on a computer screen than it can in a book). Jane’s head – huge hooded eyes, heavy mass of crinkled hair, curled mouth and all – is drawn about one and a half times life size. On that scale her features – especially her eyelids – take on a quality both sculptural and unreal. She looks carved from marble and at the same time disconcertingly fleshly, despite the fact that it is only (only?) a pencil drawing. I’ve seen her depicted numerous times as a goddess (Proserpina, Astarte) but this was the first time I actually felt I’d stumbled into the presence of one.

Sandro Botticelli, Ideal portrait of Simonetta Vespucci (c. 1480)

Sandro Botticelli, Ideal portrait of Simonetta Vespucci (c. 1480)

I had a similarly disconcerting encounter with another over-life-size portrait two years ago, in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. The painting I most looked forward to seeing, and immediately sought out, was Botticelli’s portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, which I’d seen in reproduction countless times. Again, I’d had no idea of the scale of the painting, and had assumed that a Quattrocento female bust portrait would be no more than life size, possibly a bit smaller. Yet there, suddenly, was Simonetta in all her lofty beauty looming above me on the wall.

Rossetti barely knew Jane Morris (or Burden, as she was then) when he drew that first portrait. How well Botticelli knew Simonetta Vespucci is the subject of ongoing (and probably unsolvable) debate, but it’s thought unlikely that she actually sat to him for the Städel portrait. (For that matter, a later portrait of her by Botticelli is known to have been painted after she died.) I mention this because they both fall into the category of ideal portraits. It’s generally easier to idealise someone you either know little or not at all than someone you know well. Not a problem for Botticelli, whose muse remained distant or absent, but in Rossetti’s later portraits of Jane there’s a noticeable loss. He never recaptured the strange power of that first drawing. It seems reductive to put it down to the decrease in scale. And yet…

I’ve seen Rossetti’s paintings of Jane full-length, both portraits and in the guise of goddesses and literary figures. They do have an overwhelming physical presence. Yet they are all put in the shade by a modest pencil drawing tucked away in a corner of a tiny room in Kelmscott Manor, larger than life in every sense.

What will survive of us

April 21, 2014 § 4 Comments

The Arundel tomb (monument to Richard and Eleanor Fitzalan, late 14th c.), Chichester Cathedral

The Arundel tomb (monument to Richard and Eleanor Fitzalan, late 14th c.), Chichester Cathedral

 

Several days ago I visited Chichester – a first for me, which is slightly shameful given a. how close it is to London (well, to someone who still has a somewhat American conception of distances) and b. it has both a great cathedral and a very fine art gallery.

What I was most excited about seeing in the cathedral, however, was something I had known about for years, but from a poem rather than a photograph – the Arundel tomb. And while I wouldn’t dream of trying to outdo Larkin’s verse with a humble blog post, I will say that I was floored by the spark of recognition I felt when I happened upon the tomb in a chapel halfway up the north side of the nave – despite never having seen an image of it I felt as if I’d known it forever. No exaggeration to say that I spent longer with that tomb than with all the other monuments in the cathedral combined.

The Arundel tomb

I’ve been wondering since then wherein the tomb’s power lies. Perhaps it’s only that I’ve been preconditioned by Larkin to have my heartstrings pulled by the knight and his lady holding hands for eternity, but I think that might be an oversimplification. I think, actually, that it has something to do with the quality of the sculpture – or the lack thereof.

The Arundel tomb isn’t a great piece of sculpture. Medievalists can be pretty snobby about it (step forward, Ian Nairn). They’re not wrong: I’ve seen far more elegant gisants at St-Denis and the cathedrals of Tours and Alcobaça, masterpieces of the sculptor’s art. It’s pedestrian and very much the worse for age – the features of both figures softened to stolid anonymity, the limbs rigid and stylised, more like those of lay figures than of humans. And yet…

Arundel tomb - hands

And yet…

Would those three seemingly casual but all-important details – the cant of the lady’s hip as she turns toward her husband, the discarded gauntlet in his left hand, and the clasped hands – retain such piercing poignancy if the sculptures were more finely detailed and gracefully made?

I very much doubt it.

Arundel tomb - hands

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone finality
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

(Philip Larkin, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, 1964)

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