April 21, 2014 § 2 Comments
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.
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…
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.
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)
April 4, 2014 § 6 Comments
I went to Paris last weekend for the Salon du Dessin, as I’ve done every year for the last four years, but I must confess I was much more excited about seeing an exhibition at the Orangerie called Les archives du rêve (The dream archives – come to think of it, that would have made an excellent alternative name for this blog). An exhibition of more than 150 drawings from the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, it was selected by eminent art historian Werner Spies, who was given carte blanche as to a theme. Perhaps not surprisingly (given that he’s a specialist in Surrealism) he chose Dream.
Saying that it was an exhibition with my name written all over it is the understatement of the year. There were drawings and pastels and watercolours by Odilon Redon:
and Léon Spilliaert:
and by Seurat, whose drawings have always seemed to me the visual form of a pregnant silence, and by my beloved Degouve de Nuncques and a veritable roll-call of Symbolists and other artists who placed dreams at the heart of their work.
Yet peppered among them were drawings by artists I would never have thought to put in this oneiric company – Degas, Renoir, Jean-François Millet. At first this pulled me up short, but the longer I spent in their company, the less odd the juxtaposition became.
I hadn’t ever truly realised how dreamlike and strange these ostensibly ‘realist’ drawings are. Proof, perhaps, of Walter Benjamin’s conception of the entire nineteenth century as one vast collective dream?
Les archives du rêve runs to 30 June 2014.
March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
The weekend before last I went to Maastricht for the European Fine Art Fair (TEFAF). I think I can now – just! – call myself a veteran, as it was my third year going, and by this time I know how to navigate the dizzying riches of the nearly 300 stands without inducing Stendhal Syndrome (divide and conquer) and actually be able to come away with a respectable number of works of art surviving with surprising clarity in my memory.
I had been planning to write a post about one of my highlights from TEFAF, and although I could tell you about the amazing rare colour aquatint by Munch or the Rembrandt etching plate (yes, I was actually even more excited about the plate than by the print itself – what does that say about me?) or the marvellous late Samuel Palmer watercolour, but the object I became so enamoured of that I kept returning to it at every available opportunity was the work of a now-obscure French Neoclassical sculptor, something utterly unlike anything I’d ever encountered before.
Jacques-Edmé Dumont (1761-1844) was part of a dynasty of sculptors that first arose in the seventeenth century. He had the good fortune to not only survive the Revolution but to find favour with Napoleon, and his work is now dotted around Paris (on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and on the Louvre itself).
Like virtually all of his contemporaries he followed the time-honoured practice of working out his initial ideas on a small scale in an inexpensive material – terra cotta, in his case. I imagine he would have kept them around his studio while he worked on larger and more finished iterations of the figures. What’s extraordinary is the manner in which they’ve been preserved. For Jacques-Edmé was one of the last of the Dumont sculptors, and a branch of his descendants went into the printing business. One of them must one day have seized on the no doubt expedient, but also brilliant, idea of preserving his or her famous uncle’s or grandfather’s maquettes… by storing them in a typesetter’s box.
What a strange and fascinating assemblage it is, like a Joseph Cornell box made before Cornell drew breath. Whoever slotted the maquettes into the compartments (I’d like to think the original arrangement has been preserved) obviously did so with great care and aesthetic sense. At the same time there’s an unshakeable poignancy about the whole thing. Dumont’s finished sculptures tend to be forbiddingly grand and impersonal, like much Neoclassical sculpture (which is why I’ve never been able to warm to it). But on such a small scale (the largest measure only seven centimetres) they feel fragile and deeply personal. My first thought on seeing them was that they resemble toys or game pieces, put away by a child and frozen in time.
In the time since I’ve returned from Maastricht I’ve realised maybe this isn’t the most apt metaphor. Many sculptors draw on paper, but many others consider these maquettes to be their sketches, their notes for future projects. By assembling them thus, Dumont’s unnamed relation created and preserved a sculptor’s sketchbook and gave us a glimpse into his mind.
March 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
As with Frans Pannekoek, I’ve been meaning to write about Erik Desmazières for some time. In a way they make a neat pair, and not only because their preferred medium is etching. It’s more of a pairing of opposites: where Pannekoek’s work draws much of its magic from flaws and happy accidents, Desmazières’s is all iron precision and control. There are no mistakes or chance occurrences in his world.
I can’t recall exactly when I first encountered his work, but I do know it was in an auction catalogue, and I remember my surprise at finding in the ‘contemporary prints’ section prints that were so wilfully, defiantly old-fashioned. I don’t just mean because they’re figurative. There’s an obvious pride in craft and skill honed over decades that harkens back to another age. There’s also Desmazières’s markedly backward-looking (and I don’t mean that as an insult in this context) choice of subject matter. His early work is dominated by fantastical, often nightmarish landscapes and cityscapes that earn frequent comparisons with the work of Escher and Piranesi, but to my mind his most interesting prints are inspired by the cabinets of curiosities – the ancestors of the modern museum – that first emerged in the sixteenth century.
The objects in these printed Wunderkammers seem to have been petrified or transformed into sculptures (a reverse Pygmalion effect?) by the passage of time, or by Desmazières’s etching needle. But the longer I’ve looked at these strange images, the more paradoxically alive the objects appear.
Comparing Desmazières to Piranesi and Escher is straightforward, but there’s another, far more obscure artist with whom his work seems to have affinities – the Belgian Symbolist Xavier Mellery. Mellery wrote passionately about l’âme des choses (the souls of things) and his eerie, foreboding drawings of ordinary interiors (including his own house) give form to his words.
Whether artfully arranged in a cabinet of curiosity or scattered haphazardly in the interior of an antique shop or a printer’s atelier, I think it’s fair to say that the objects in Desmazières’s world have souls, too.
March 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
We all have lists of things we’d like to do once in a lifetime, and one of the more unusual items on mine is being an extra in a period film. Why? Well, I have a serious weakness for period films (and, let’s be honest, period costume), and as I haven’t a shred of acting ability (oh… wait, that hasn’t stopped a lot of people) it is the only way I’m ever likely to be part of the making of one.
So when, last week, I stumbled across a call for extras for a banquet scene to be filmed in Ely Cathedral for the upcoming version of Macbeth, I was pinching myself with delighted disbelief. Here was a film that ticked every conceivable box on my wish list.
Set in one of the most awe-inspiring Gothic edifices on this fair isle? Check.
Shakespeare (and one of my favourite plays at that)? Check.
Medieval setting (important for practical as well as aesthetic reasons – no corsetry or towering wigs)? Check.
…oh yes, and the small matter of Macbeth being played by none other than Michael Fassbender? Check!
(In fairness I should also note that Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth, but… sorry Marion, you do happen to be one of my absolute favourite actresses, but I don’t have a massive crush on you.)
So without further ado, I clicked the link to the casting company’s website and that’s where things started to go downhill, fast. They wanted Caucasian men and women between the ages of 16-80 (okay, so far so good), and then I came to the fatal words: ‘Women should have very long hair as it will be worn in plaits.’
My hair, no matter how you look at it, could never be considered ‘very long’. In its natural state (curly) it’s shoulder-length. Straighten it and it falls to the middle of my back. I occasionally wear it in a single plait that only just makes it round my head. In short, about as far as imaginable from those dramatic knee-length tresses Ellen Terry sports in Sargent’s portrait of her as Lady Macbeth.
I weighed up my options. A wig? (Expensive, hideous and after all, the casting agents were asking for a headshot with the application, so unlikely to fool them.) Pouring Miracle-Grow on my head and waiting ten seconds for luxuriant Rapunzel-like growth? (Only works in cartoons.) Sitting in a corner and railing at the injustice of the casting requirements, as men are merely required to have full beards, which even a clean-shaven one can generally achieve in a few weeks? (Pointless.) Or…
What about extensions? They worked for David Tennant, after all (albeit not very flatteringly) so why not me?
I checked the website of my hairdresser’s salon. They didn’t do them. Nor did the posh salon round the corner from work, nor any of the more upmarket chains. Even Charles Worthington, which proudly proclaimed its status as the official salon of the BAFTAs, didn’t do them. Clearly it was a job for a specialist.
One Google search later I landed on Hair Extensions by Tatiana. This was when I began to realise that the world of hair extensions is a very alarming place indeed. Apparently the most desirable type of extension is ‘Russian Virgin’. Tatiana boasted of ‘personally sourcing’ the hair from a number of villages in deepest rural Russia. I had visions of a place on the steppes where the world of The Rite of Spring still exists, where every year the village elders sacrifice a chosen maiden by making her dance herself to death and then… sell her hair to the mysterious Tatiana.
Do I really want that on my head? I think you can guess the answer to that.
Even putting my overactive imagination aside (the other, cheaper, option was ‘European Virgin’, which, sans the Rite of Spring associations, somehow sounded slightly less gruesome), there was also the matter of the cost. All right, it’s an incredibly laborious and finicky undertaking – you are, after all, asking someone to glue a strand of hair to each of yours, one at a time – but the least expensive option for a full head of extensions was nearly £700.
I found myself imagining the conversation I would have with my landlord.
Me: I’m very sorry sir, but I can’t pay my rent this month. I had to put the money toward getting hair extensions so that I could be an extra in Macbeth.
Him: ’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.* Don’t worry about the money. Your devotion to our national poet is far more important.
Him: Out, damned tenant! Out, I say! (Aside) Now I can finally raise the rent…
…Right, back to the drawing board. How about DIY hair extensions? I could ring up my hairdresser, ask him to save all his cuttings, and then attempt to stick them on myself. That sounds like a fine plan. I might end up looking like something the cat dragged in, but given that most people in the UK associate the Middle Ages with plague, rain, mud and potatoes** I should look period-appropriate.
This hurdle cleared, the only other caveat is that, as shooting starts at 6 am, you should either live in Ely or have your own transport. I don’t live in Ely, I don’t have a car (more to the point, I belong to that bizarre and extremely rare subspecies, the American who doesn’t know how to drive) and the first train from London to Ely would get me there too late.
I suppose I could… I don’t know, get there the night before and sleep in the cathedral? That would be fine as long as the caretaker or a member of the film crew didn’t stumble across me, curled up in a corner under my coat, with my homemade hair extensions, looking, no doubt, even madder than Lady Macbeth. (Or maybe I’d be mistaken for one of the witches.)
At this point I have to admit that I’m insane to be considering doing any of the above, especially given that 1. I’m not even guaranteed to be selected and 2. even then, chances are that the shots I’d be in wouldn’t make the final cut.
My career as a film extra is over before it even began. And I’m okay with that. I’m sure I’ll feel a little wistful when I eventually watch Macbeth, but as its protagonist learns (the very hard way), sometimes what you want isn’t worth the sacrifice it requires.
I’ll still keep an eye out for period films in need of extras, though… ones that take place after 1800!
*Yes, I know that’s Hamlet!
**The results of a survey conducted by the V&A during the planning stages of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries. Let’s not dwell too long on the fact that potatoes were unknown in Europe in the Middle Ages…
February 18, 2014 § 3 Comments
Three years ago I was in Paris for the Salon du Dessin, and as many of the museums and exhibition venues cleverly time shows of drawings and prints to coincide with the Salon, I went off in search of as many as I could find. My route took me to the Fondation Custodia, in whose basement galleries was an exhibition of etchings by a Dutch artist I’d never come across before: Frans Pannekoek.
My initial amusement at his surname (pannekoek is, as you’ll probably have guessed, Dutch for pancake) was soon replaced by a sense of quiet enchantment. He works on a small scale, with a fine, nervous line and a tremendous sensitivity both to the power of the reserve (the areas of paper left bare of ink) and to finely modulated blacks. There’s a sense of desolation, of the uncanny or the macabre rooted both his subject matter and his treatment of it – desolate landscapes dwarfed by skies that, even on such a diminutive scale, feel infinite; abandoned ships and gliders aloft over unpopulated hills; dead birds and live insects. (I’ll spare you images of the latter in case you’re sensitive, but if you’re not, they’re worth seeking out.)
Pannekoek has been working quietly but, it seems, prolifically since the 1960s. He’s mostly self-taught. He seems to have schooled himself by looking intensely at the work of his predecessors. His most obvious influence seems to be Rembrandt (indeed the exhibition I saw in Paris originated at the Rembrandthuis) but the longer I looked, the more I saw traces of more recent etchers – Whistler, Bresdin, Redon, Bracquemond.
I’ve been intending to write about Frans Pannekoek’s prints ever since I started this blog. (It looks like the old saw about the road to hell and good intentions is true in this case. Although I’ve always maintained that the road to hell is paved not with good intentions but by the same guys who pave all the roads in Chicago…) But in some ways I’m glad I waited this long – for one, because it meant that I had a chance to try my own hand at etching. And now, looking at Pannekoek’s etchings with the benefit of practical experience, what strikes me is how cleverly he turns imperfections and accidents in his plates, the etching process, even the inking and printing to his advantage.
The scratches in a too-zealously cleaned plate become swirling storm clouds.
Foul biting (areas where the acid has eaten into the plate through cracks in the ground) becomes rain, hail, a distant flock of birds.
Even the jagged edges of a damaged plate can become a startling echo to the ruined buildings they enclose.
I know now from personal experience that such mistakes can either ruin a print or be the happy accident that makes it unique and oddly perfect. Pannekoek has a marvellous way of finding virtue in imperfection.
February 10, 2014 § 2 Comments
I’ve begun working on my next exhibition, and although most of the objects going into it I know quite well, one is a new discovery (well, to me at least): a book that, more than three centuries before Mallarmé or choose-your-own-adventure, could exist in endless different configurations depending on the whim of the owner.
Antoine Lafréry was one of the leading print publishers in Renaissance Rome, a Frenchman from Besançon whose bread and butter was engravings of the monuments and antiquities of his adopted city. His shop became an essential stop for travellers and collectors who wanted a memento of their visit to pore over years later. (He would probably turn in his grave if he knew that the descendants of his prints are the postcards and souvenir guides with their gaudy, badly registered colours for sale on every corner in the Centro Storico.)
In 1573 Lafréry published a title page for a work called the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae (Mirror of Rome’s Magnificence). The twist was that it wasn’t for a book in the conventional sense – a set of pages bound in one set order. No, Lafréry’s customers could come to his shop, make their selection from his huge stock of prints, and have them bound in whatever order they desired, with the title page at the front. There are Specula surviving in libraries, museums and private collections the world over, but no two are the same.
Is each Speculum as much a mirror of its owner’s tastes and interests as it is a mirror of Rome? Hard to say, as many of those that survive have been altered over the centuries – prints removed or added, sometimes two or more bound together as a single book. Sometimes the prints added have nothing to do with Lafréry or the original Speculum, apart from their Roman subjects. The largest one known today, at the University of Chicago, contains nearly a thousand prints. (The one I’m working with has a more modest 153.)
Even so, it’s possible to come away with a sense – however muddled or fractured – of the person who originally compiled each Speculum. The first owner of mine, for example, seems to have been primarily interested in architecture, and he (I think we can fairly safely assume it was a man) liked to look at it reconstructed, pristine – apart from one plate showing the Colosseum as a weed-sprouting ruin, there are few of the images of dereliction that other collectors prized. (I can’t help being slightly disappointed that mine doesn’t include the garden full of crumbling sculptures that features in others.) There are others where sculpture dominates, or where present-day Rome (St Peter’s, the Castel Sant’ Angelo) has a greater presence.
Hundreds of these must have existed once, records of their owners’ journeys – whether physical or psychological – through Rome. (Was Lafréry an accidental psychogeographer, hundreds of years before the term was coined?) Today’s guidebooks are neater, cheaper, smaller and easier to carry, but, gingerly turning the enormous pages of my Speculum, I can’t help but feel that we’ve lost something…