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Labyrinths VI: Postmodern theory, the labyrinth and curation.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 23 Sep 2018, 18:12

Labyrinths VI: Postmodern theory, the labyrinth and curation. A passage from Paul O’Neill (2016) The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Cultures Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press. P.91f.                   

This just wants quoting and preserving from section called ‘The Exhibition as Form’. It reflects on all my other pieces and gives potential to deepen them:

'As well as being linguistic or semiotic, exhibitions are spatial. …They induce forms that migrate between fields of haptic, visual, and auditory relations. …

(On Lyotard’s 1985 exhibition “Les Immatériaux’)

Focusing on the exhibition’s labyrinthine quality, Lyotard declared it a phenomenological and spatial form. In this, … tested the concept of the exhibition as a sensorial experience with its own qualities and properties that collectively produce its own genre of art in which ideas, artworks, objects, and zones of interpretation intersect, sensorially, philosophically and spatially.’

Linked to this quotation (but written before seeing it) are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings .

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey (this one).


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A queer approach to: 7. Curating the Male Nude

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 23 Sep 2018, 20:25

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 7. Curating the Male Nude

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. This blog looks at some reflections on the curation of male nude art collections / assemblies.

This is timely because of the upcoming Royal Academy exhibition, at which the Guardian critic, Jonathan Jones, smiled, because of its aim ‘for “parity” of naked men and women’, raises the issue of how and why the nude is a hegemonic female or male form across various culture & societies. This question has been asked, hence for my first example of curation is a book (perhaps even the sneered-at form of the coffee-table book) from 1998 by the then ubiquitous, Edward Lucie-Smith, Adam.[1]

Lucie-Smith’s final chapter is about the nudes as ‘The Mirror of Homosexual Desire’ and uses the term ‘homosexual’ in a totally unproblematic way. He is aware of queer theory, in its birth-pangs, but sees it, I think rather problematically and dismissively for all involved as ‘an offshoot of feminism’ (174). But his position is more nuanced than this erroneous reading would suggest. Queer theory is based on a belief that the querying of norms in art – representational or otherwise – creates the kind of crisis in signification, even if momentarily and cumulatively, that produces change from beliefs that have become conventional ‘truths’ in the teeth and frame of those norms. i can empathise with the Lucie-Smith of 1998 because at that time gay male identity needed prideful bolstering in those early days of change in legislation and mores that yet has not come to completion. Yet in 2018 we are much nearer. There is weight in queer theory’s insistence that we spend far too long creating binary distinctions between straight and gay, male and female when the issue for all is the regulation of desire and belief

Lucie-Smith (1998:179) also points out the immaturity of our early positions as gay men who used nude images (sparingly) as an index of a desire that must be legitimated and justified. Of the ‘characteristic art of the rainbow coalition’ (the union of left, feminist and identity politics) he writes:

It does not offer opportunities for the creation of new images of the male figure. Where male imagery is present, as in some of the complex compositions of David Wojnarowicz (1954 – 82), it is employed largely for its shock value, and is usually lifted from another source, such as male pornographic magazines

Although the argument about Wojnarowicz does not hold water held next to that Artist’s achievements in what is quintessentially QUEER ART, his point is sound and made clearer through the chapter. We do not make the male nude usefully into a possession of the gay community. What he (187) sees as more hopeful (and I agree) than that aim is that the: ‘meaning of male imagery seems to be becoming more ambiguous,… the male nude as a subject for art is currently going through one of its periods of radical transition.” This is a description, whether he calls it this or not, of queer theory in praxis, much more so than some of his own appealing photographs (John and Richard 1997) that bothy eroticise and, concomitantly, emotionalise relationships to and between gay male nudes.

Where this book is still valuable is in its perception that male nudity becomes radical when it is contextualised outside the normative – alongside domesticity in Hockney for instance (142), or in relation to the proud nudity of males with a disability (126f) or where gender roles themselves are brought into question, without recourse simply to the substitutive conventions of drag (132f). How much more however is done by two books representing more recent exhibitions in Munich and Mexico City.

These modern exhibitions are represented by two books / catalogues of exhibitions (three if we account for the version of the second one that is written in French and dealing with the exhibition when its focus was much more purely European[2]): for the Leopold Museum in Vienna (2012) & the Museo Nacional de Arte (MUNAL) (2014)[3].


The Munich exhibition probably remains of the exhibition and exhibition-catalogue of most use for me if I go with this subject and I have already used it to talk about male nudes in Ingres and Etty in A843. Its curatorial focus however is strongly on literary-visual-political discourses of masculinity with a stress on essays on sources in metamorphic poetry (17ff), negotiated identity in space (27), sexual semantics (37f.) after Winckelmann (an excellent 2 chapters 57 – 76 being on that influential figure himself). It opens with issues of decency and ends with the sublimations that made the nude the model par excellence of Nazi statehood. This curation has an obvious intent – to cause introspection about the nature of German concern with the politics of the male body.

The French Cogeval exhibition is in part represented again in Mexico City but the contrasts between European and South American iconology of the male nude is something much more than an additive. Here masculinity is looked at in terms of construction of it in worker politics of revolution as well as nationalistic state appropriations of the nude (p. 44f followed by material on ‘the classical ideal nude’ – also appropriated by the European right in the twentieth century). Nevertheless, this is a very rich source for a consideration of the male nude as iconic image of embodied notions – nature (175f), heroism (93f) and ‘truth’ (139ff.) are obvious ones. But what of pain (207ff.) and desire (231ff.). Here other traditions are important – especially in Spain. So I await a visit to the Ribera exhibition this week in Dulwich. But Renaissance forms are also mighty. I’ve begun to reflect on these but the Royal Academy exhibition this year will help further. The Mexican book also includes material that makes me joyous (especially on Ron Mueck).

 All the best


[1] Lucie-Smith, E. (1998) Adam: The Male Figure in Art New York, Rizzoli International Publications Inc.

[2]Cogeval, G. et. al (2013) Masculin / Masculin: L’homme nu dans l’art de 1800 à nos jours Paris, Musée d’Orsay

[3] Natter, G. & Leopold, E. (Eds.) Nude Men: From 1800 to the Present Day Munich, Leopold Museum & Hirmer; AND Arteaga, A., Cogeval, G., Ferlier, O., Mantilla, A. & Rey, X. [trans Dodman, J., Huntington, T., Itzowitch, C. & Penwarden, C.) (2014) The Male Nude: Dimensions of Masculininty from the 19th Century and Beyond Mexico, Museo Nacional de Arte & Paris, Musée d’Orsay. 

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A queer approach: 6. Reflecting on Edward Burra through new material from Minton

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 21 Sep 2018, 19:29

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 6. Reflecting on Edward Burra through new material from Minton

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. This blog looks at some reflections on

Reading this by Minton pulled me up short:

I may never paint a picture that will survive for in it is that weakness, lack of incisiveness which characterises all the self expression of homosexuals, but to paint it is inescapable.[1] (p.9)

For that is at the heart of a problem to explore. For Minton, being a ‘homosexual’ was the cause of his failure to produce great art and is here made equivalent to the same kinds of reason to which his suicide is sometimes (wrongly, I believe) attributed. The question should not be one of identity but of labelling and of the constraints in self-definition and self-expression this involves. For Minton, language being what it is, this state of weakness was equated with the word ‘queer’ too, used as a word of labelling Abuse.

Queer theory attempts to look at ways in which destabilised norms (not just sexual ones) allows open up our assumptions about the normal and fracture the ideological glue that holds them together. It may be that, for Minton, holding notions of self that inbuilt weakness were precisely the source of his indecisive ambiguities, in that he saw them not as a strength that exposed the constructions of the symbolic world but as a characterisation of self as other, weak to its strong stability. That Minton could be a wonderful painter, worthy of survival is shown I think when he began to paint men of other cultures. Simon Faulkner (cited Martin 201b[2]:63) argues that these images succeed because of the painter’s ‘avoidance of the overt queering of the black male body’. In fact Minton did not overtly queer any other male bodies, although, of course Burra did do so with all the bodies in his early art. Minton’s is in producing images of desire that queer his entire picture – that stop us making easy assumptions about identity or relationship in his most successful (and some less so) male figures and opening up potential.

So perhaps we need to look briefly at Burra via Martin (2011)[3]. Although it is true that there is overt queering of the white and black body in Burra, it is not always straightforward in its picture of desire – nor do I think it makes a virtue of labelling its figures or overall meaning ‘homosexual’. His great picture The Straw Man (1963) surely shows this, in ways it would be difficult to explain in few words, so I’ll use that as an excuse to leave it there.

The Straw Man (1963) Pallant House Gallery (on loan from private collection). Available at: http://www.culture24.org.uk/art/painting-and-drawing/art366630

In less great pictures, there may be a case for seeing ‘overt queering’, often using very obvious stereotypes, such as the sailor (see Three Sailors at the Bar 1930 & Dockside Café 1929). Yet even here there are complexities in which turn some signs of homosexuality (such as rings or the colour ‘pink’ in the 1929 painting) in on themselves in my view. These points need arguing but this is not the point of the blog per se. That is, to say that the weakness of ‘queer’ figurative art and the association of its key figures with suicide are not symptoms of ‘homosexuality’ (whether that oppressive term is considered as a medical-disease terminology or not in any part of its recent history) but of the norms, whose power queer art at its most successful overturns – both in its mimetic representations and compositional character. Let’s say it, Straw Man is a picture about liminality – desire turned violent in which the aesthetic, the meanings and the limbs of figures are all queered by contradictions and uncertainties. I think this is true of the early art but also true of the later non-figurative landscapes in which boundaries take on liminality and no road is ever ‘straight’ nor its determination known. 

My first Burra painting (in terms of seeing an original) was the haunting Near Whitby, Yorkshire (1972), where meaning, shape and colour are all queered in ways in which destabilises (most gratifyingly) that most ideological of terminologies -  of ‘nature’ and the ‘natural’.  This is done too in in his 1971 pointing Snowdonia No.2 where forms themselves are liminal between mist and apparition too, but too obviously and pointedly. The Near Whitby painting just ‘haunts’ and is more successfully Gothic than any of his less satisfying (excluding his wonderful Don Quixote set sketches and theatre furniture) fantasies from the 1940s.

In truth, Burra too is about unpacking and then discarding the term ‘homosexual’. It is too queer to be about such a dangerous and endangering stereotype of self as ‘the homosexual’. Only the latter is on the side of suicide – the former is about creative relief from norms that fail to either offer mimesis or vital internally conflictual art forms.

All the best


[1] Martin, S. (2017a) ‘Introduction’ in Martin, S. & Spalding, F. (Eds.) John Minton: A Centenary Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, 7-9.

[2] Martin, S. (2017b) ‘An Expression of Self: Minton’s Self-Portraits and Objects of Desire’’ in Martin, S. & Spalding, F. (Eds.) John Minton: A Centenary Chichester, Pallant House Gallery, 69-88.

[3] Martin, S. [Ed.] (2011)) Edward Burra Farnham, Lund Humphries, 69-88.

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How do I represent ‘nation’ visually? A844 Exercise 1.5.3

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 21 Sep 2018, 16:43

How do I represent ‘nation’ visually? A844 Exercise 1.5.3

1 Return to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities  and read from p. 86 ‘The “naturalizations” of Europe’s dynasties …’ to p. 90 ‘… become an “English” language’.

As Anthony D. Smith has noted in analysing Anderson’s impact, ‘mass reading publics in vernacular administrative languages (a kind of “high culture”) were enabled to imagine themselves as sovereign, but finite, political communities, i.e. as nations, through the products of “print languages”. In other words, the boundaries of the nation came to coincide with those of a “print-community”’ (Smith, 1999, p. 49).

  1. ·        What, then, are the implications of this for us as historians of art, architecture, design and visual culture rather than the printed word?
  2. ·        Are those bodies tasked with saving art and built heritage for ‘the nation’ in fact dealing in easily recognised stereotypical constructions – and what are the implications of this for the use of public money to fund their activity?

1       The passage itself does not give clues to help in these rather difficult questions. However, a caveat is a good place to start. That is that visual nature of a medium does not distinguish it from language when it is written rather than spoken. That is because written (or typed, language has a visual form that allows for variability across a range of options: character of script or font, variations in character of script and font, contextualisation of the visual verbal sign (is it on a large high-street window, in a mirror, on a piece of paper, on a visible page of a book) etc. This is particularly important when we compare national-vernacular language communities with the cultures that preceded them with ‘a script language that embodied the TRUTH’ (see preparatory blog). The latter used language labels (see Byzantine Christian art in particular where WORD is flesh) as if it embodied the same truths as the visualised non-linguistic body. National art & architecture both can (buildings rarely don’t) bear linguistic labels, especially where that building ‘represents’ a NATION, SUCH AS a National gallery or Museum.

 That said language is part of the cognitive machinery with which viewers interpret visual material, Hence, the contextual discourse which surrounds the visual, including that introjected and projected into the viewer’s visual-interpretative processes will also be important.

 However perhaps there are other issues. Visual forms can also reflect processes such as Russification across an expanded Russian Empire (88) or Anglicisation across the Indian Raj. These forms manifest themselves in stereotyped clothing design with particular contexts, such as administration) in which the empire shows itself as ‘English/British’, whilst permitting a sphere of action (provided it is politically quiescent) that remains diverse. The important thing is that the imperial nation has a hold on hierarchies where real power is exerted. Hence in Scotland ‘Scottishness’ in dress/costume is invented in the nineteenth century because organs of power (law, commerce, government, administration etc.) remain firmly organised in English print that rules over those ‘folk’ forms. Even elements of architecture (such as the bungalow) can be taken, imitated in an English version from subaltern cultures such as that of old Bengal. Of course, it is very complicated.

However, certain landscapes can single also ‘national stereotypes’ as can stereotypes of climate and smell. I think though this is getting complicated. I’ll look at the ‘revealed discussion’ before going on with this and add a note if necessary.


2     I don’t think these bodies are dealing with forms that, like language, can be described as having evolved into a recognisable national form (although of course languages don’t really naturally evolve – they reflect power relationships just like any other human construction). Thus nations build a national visual culture often by adopting a bricolage of visual forms that take on national authority – In Britain the role of classical and some Baroque architecture - or by framing the visual in a certain formal setting into which its features are manipulated or composed. Thus art can be changed by the grandiosity of its framing, its placement at a height to which viewers raise their eyes, its context relationally with ‘other furniture’ in a gallery. It is removed from street culture or even native domestic culture or from practices that might be repugnant to a certain construction of ‘Britishness’. In a sense, we see Landseer doing this with Scottishness. We certainly see it in the Raj or in religious cultures which must succumb to an imperial-national stereotype, as Buddhist Nepal to China, or Mumbai to the Anglicised visual forms of Bombay.


In terms of Britain, art will be selected and displayed too in ways that subordinate local cultures or other forms of diversity brought about by class, ‘race’, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation in such a way that, though allowed to persist sometimes, they do not ‘challenge’ central orthodoxies. Again, as with above, I’ll reconsider after Revealed Discussion’ in an addendum.

2 With these questions in mind, look carefully at the following work by contemporary Scottish artist Calum Colvin: Anger (1993).


Figure 1.1 Calum Colvin, Anger, 1993, cibachrome, 37 x 46 cm. British Council Collection. Photo: Bridgeman Education.

·        What aspects of national identity or an ‘imagined community’ of Scottish (and/or British) nationhood are being interrogated here?

·        The reproduction is difficult to see and is not clear to me how much the visual elements are meant to be contra-distinguished or to merge. Thus the anachronistic elements, such as pictures of kilted battle set against Campbell’s soup tins and a McDonald’s printed logo may be intended to have relation to one visual scenario, or one (the older-fashioned one, may be overlaid on the other. The McDonalds logo may be on a painted flag that has been damaged in battle or may be a logo seen through damage done to a visual overlay of ideological Scottishness (fighting men in kilts) in an underlying set of images. But of course both McDonald and Campbell are important clan names in Scotland as well as global brands of a modern visual world. In fact here we have a complex setting of Americanised ‘Scottish names’ with a kitsch fiction of their origin in Scots as ‘tribal’ emblems. Is it that historical diversity in Scotland is being reduced here to the commodified standards of globalisation?

If there is a flag holding up the McDonalds logo, its pole is made of one of the many marks that scar the surface of the painting. Is it a pole or a scar on a picture surface or a terrestrial perceptual effect caught in static time? Are these marks shooting trails from bombs in modern warfare or again just damage done to the Scottish scene that has been painted? Even some visual elements seem to me ambiguous or liminal. Of course there is a bridge (a good boundary metaphor), river, loch and mountains, but is that a desirable built dwelling at the other side of the river bordering the loch or the forested mountain background I sometimes see it as.

 ·        Where, is it suggested, do challenges to/appropriations of this perception of the nation come from?

·        I think the answer I suggested above is probably what is wanted here. The appropriation of Scottish culture is by global USA culture which now uses English as its print-medium.

However there is an appropriation too of Scottishness by a very male myth of Scotland – the same that generated Braveheart. A very masculine aggression subverts all else at both sides of anachronisms we see here, involving too a kind of appetitive sexuality in which flesh becomes meat. I do not know what to make of the object, if such it is, in the bottom right of the picture. It seems organic and animal and has several layers of what look like teeth but could be stones, which advance on the fighting men. It has a queering effect on the picture – an effect that fails to allow us to find norms by which to interpret itself.

·        How are they presented in visual form?

·        I expect I will be totally off-key here. I think the issue here is that norms by which we interpret visual objects, such as outline forms, stereotyped colour relationships, visual proto-typicality (as a cognitivist might see it) are all compromised. That we cannot know for sure WHAT we are seeing, or that what we see changes as we take in diversities across a wide range of object-form, spatial-temporal, dimensional (depths versus surfaces) and tactile ambiguities and liminalities. There is even a play I would say between visual pleasure and disgust (that object I mention above with the potential to ‘teeth’). Of course what must happen is that form has become difficult to regulate. It is difficult to see how such a picture is ‘composed’ – its rhythms and  so on – and I suppose I feel before it a kind of radical discomposure in which images are uncertain to interpretation, and perhaps to recognition.

·        I have given a very driven interpretation of this. What shall I see in ‘Revealed Discussion’ (which makes it sound like the Revelation from the Gods – the breaking of the seals)? Let’s go and look.

·        In fact what is revealed goes much deeper than I did and is better because it knows and uses discourse about the materials used and compositional techniques. I have to say, that constituted real learning for me. I’m gratified. I* won’t add though so that other people, if they chance to see this, get the revelation from that discussion that I did.

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‘My own nation’ implications and a theory? A844 Exercise 1.5.1 - 2

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 20 Sep 2018, 10:32

What does the phrase ‘my own nation’ imply? A844 Exercise 1.5.1

This exercise seems to imply that there is an answer to the question ‘what is my nation?’ However, truthfully, the answer isn’t so clear to me. The OU uses nation to differentiate the constituent parts of the UK but I’m not sure I identify with the term ‘England’. Not that the problem is eased by thinking of myself as British or belonging to Great Britain or the United Kingdom. In the end the terms are remote from any sense of implied ownership, of me of their referents or of their referents of me. One resists such a sense of legalistic ownership, yet in the end we are caught up in such legalist categories of identity. These categories are not just cognitions: they exert their power, for me and on me, as documents which could govern any future choices I might want to make – of domicile,   work or income and so on. In a sense they represent certain determinations of ‘self’ whether I own them or not, they own me and fit me into a whole series of extant power relationships, and include some which could emerge from complex forces in relation to as yet unseen circumstances. The issue and experience of Brexit is a case in point.

Is there a point in looking for associations of the term ‘my nation’ then? I think perhaps there is.  Not all of those meanings will I want to own consciously as a representation of myself but they will remain in the background. They include notions of racial origin, although the terms themselves are already compromised by ‘tribal’ origins that I don’t own – such as Angles, Bretons (Great and Little Bretons) and which don’t equate with current geography or political status, Nevertheless the sense of ‘race, ‘ethnicity’ or ‘tribe’ is an association. This causes problems of course in relation to these complex notions and their boundary with notions such as statehood and culture, and the end of the relevance of the term  ‘tribe’ (except as a means of differentiating a supposed (from the Eurocentric perspective) of lesser rather than greater cultural and/or economic-political development. So with the provision that this will happen with all terms – that they will become complex and hard to own by anyone as a conceptual representation of self, try:

‘Race’, ethnicity

Community (which allows for the sense of multi-racial/ethnic but does not always imply a community of communities with some indistinct boundaries between them).

Tradition ‘folk concepts

The sense of a shared past and/or ‘culture’

Political Belonging (enabling and constraining)

Geographical belonging (ditto). Including internal distinctions of capital, regions, districts, ‘parishes’ (for some but not me).

Government and a network of implied power relationships of citizenship

Issues of common faith or common beliefs

Institutions that represent that sense of nationhood in title or form or implicit claims.

Physical forms – traditions again, building, street plans and types etc.

You realise you could go on – so I’m not going to consult Williams now.


Theoretical terms in understanding nationhood: Benedict Anderson? A844 Exercise 1.5.2

Refer to my pre-course Preparatory Reading Notes.

To these I’d note that the key issues of the chosen passages for the course seem to me:

1.      That the concept of the ‘imagined’ is essentially to any notion of ‘nation’ or ‘national community’ that emerges. These are not things imagined by individuals in the first instance but by cultural work by peoples in certain kinds of determinate relationships with each other. They are not cognitions for the individual until they have been prepared (and evidenced by products) of a socially imagined category. Imagination here is something that is shared – building of common images. These images are created, shared (in an interactive manner) and developed as a sense of past, present and future identity project – a project that involves inclusions (of images and image components) and exclusions – and hence boundaries (not all of which are considered to be crossed or crossable with any or at least complete freedom – ties to notion of ‘freedom of movement’. Its  features:

a.      Objectively a modern concept but only in as far as it allows for a subjective sens of communal antiquity of origin (myth of origin perhaps – but driven heavily into the remotest part)

b.      It is universal as a category. No-one exists without a rewlationship to this category and one of its forms.

2.      It is rich in meanings in relation to power / politics but there is poverty of deep philosophical (ontological & epistemological) back-up.

3.      its characteristics as a concept are summed up as being:

a.      imagined

b.      limited / boundaried

c.      based in community

4. That the social / institutional practices by which these imaginations are threefold. However all three institutions / practices are interactive and share common development and some boundaries:

a.      The Census. There is a historical move to racialize the categories used to nominate nation (164) to the disadvantage of religious or belief-based categories. With race there is no fractions (166).

b.      The Map. Creates units with ‘state’ boundaries, which are relational with other states but also stable. They have IMAGINED ‘VERTICAL INTERFACES’ (172). They are a type that can be reproduced in space/time (175) – concept of reproducibility is important. Map becomes a logo or emblem.

c.      The Museum. To an extent the whole state is a museum curated by natural government of sites. The depth of archaeological sites relates to the imagined past of the nation. Linked to birth in nineteenth century of ‘colonial archaeology’ (178f) and of scholar-officials (179 I think of Ernest Jones in the 18th century). Good phrases ‘profaning processes’ of nation building (de-religionising) and ‘infinite reproducibility’ (182) A country’s past is selectively imagined and curated as if by nature.

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Image or Object: Saving Mae West’s Lips for the Nation A844 EX 1.3 First Draft

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 18 Sep 2018, 16:02

Image or Object: Saving Mae West’s Lips for the Nation – or an example of 1930s interior design work A844 EX 1.3 First Draft

The next part of the exercise will involve OpenStudio. …

·        Conduct an image search for one of the works that you have identified as being ‘saved’ following a successful campaign.

·        The search took place on 18th September 2018 and started in the latest edition of Art Quarterly, to which I subscribe. A number of items attracted me but the most relevant to the discussion that is current in the relevant page was The Mae West Lips sofa from Monkton House (1938) by Salvador Dali (1904-1989) and his most important British patron, Edward James (1907-1984).

·        Go to OpenStudio and to My Exercises, Block 1, Section 1, Exercise 1.3, Saved for the nation.

·        This is a draft prior to access being given tro Open Studio because I like to be in control of my own learning to a high degree – more than the course specifies. Certain decisions will be made about what and how I submit to Open Studio. It may be:

    • An update of this
    • A new project slightly more off-beam that reflects either:
      • My own interests
      • Work towards a dissertation theme.

Dali's Lips - basic V&A image

·        Make this slot visible to your tutor group.

·        In final OS draft but already visible here (in OU blog) to them and can be accessed via my Twitter account.

·        Upload your image to the slot.

·        See above.

·        In the slot’s description briefly describe the campaign that ‘saved’ the image you have selected.

The ’campaign’ here is difficult to describe as such, although national newspapers used government press briefings which indicated that a temporary export bar was placed on its sale by the Arts Minister John Glen as a result of lobbying from cognoscenti near to the art establishment. These articles (see Guardian November 17th) express the probable loss of the item should the asking price for the item (over £497K including VAT) not be found before May 1918. The minister talked about the piece as ‘iconic’ and ‘unique’: the ‘single most important example of Surrealist furniture made in Britain’. The stress on the link to British manufacture was important. It is valued in terms of its representativeness as an image or icon at one level (at this level this sofa was not unique – there were 2 identical sofas at Monkton and one was already sold and 5 had originally been made, with variations according to identified sites of placement, for the commission for Edward James. Hence this was not the only sofa representing Dali’s conceptual image, which James had asked to be made from his knowledge of Dali’s conceptual print (now in the Chicago School of Art), Mae West's Face which May be Used as a Surrealist Apartment, 1934–35. There is a famous one in Dali’s theatre-home in Figueres, of course.

If this sofa was unique is that it was torn from its context and re-designed collaboratively by patron and artist such that features matched the interior furnishings of the drawing room of Monkton House, James’ residence. The black tassled embroidered fringe in particular (looking little like the embroidery upon the epaulettes of a picador … or matador, ’ was added to match the room designed by Lutyens in 1902 and containing by 1930 a mélange of Victorian, Edwardian and Surrealist ‘styles’. No doubt the Spaqish fantasy was a pleasing concoction of both makers. James’ participation involved too lengthening the lip to make for more functional seating.

Once the sofa was saved it was more common to see its uniqueness as a ‘fascinating piece of interior design history, …’, according to Christopher Wilks, keeper of V & A furniture and textiles. What strikes me is the way in which terms like ‘unique’ and ‘single’ and ‘famous’ can be applied loosely to the ‘great artist’ Dali’s icon of Mae West lips, when the originality eventually is to be found in its role in a object whose design and making was in fact a historically time and space limited collaborative adventure. The Article in Dezeen (27th June 2018) – the source of much of the above information – helps to clarify this more than I have space for here.

The most telling ‘campaign’ event – with some (rather manufactured) drama is the justification of the export ban based on the deliberations of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), administered by the Arts Council.The ‘drama’ is represented by the debate in the papers about whether the item met the Waverley criteria for considering the item worthy of being saved by the nation. These criteria are as follows:

 The Committee’s function is to consider whether an item referred to it is of national importance under any of the following criteria.

a) Is it so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?

b) Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?

c) Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?

The Applicant, whose interests are in selling the item to the highest (and therefore non-British) bidder answers ‘No’ to all these. The expert submissions counter all these objections in their submission. Issues of importance, in terms of the aesthetic and learning criteria of the piece’s significance relate to ‘provenance’ and the ‘circumstances of its creation’ (its history therefore), which take precedence over the mere object in assessing its value.

Its importance then is not because of the uniqueness of the object per se (there are documented ‘related extant versions’) or its date (it is relatively recent) is a reflection of the history of British interior design and the collaborations / amalgamations that involved.

However it is clear that the Committee was also influenced by the importance of the ‘image’ in the history of art and artistic genius, labelling it, at the end of their meeting minutes, ‘one of the most instantly recognisable pieces of furniture of the 20th century.’ It is ‘recognisable’ not because of features of its importance in interior design history but because the image is quintessentially attributed to Dali’s genius.

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A queer approach to: 5. John Craxton

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 13 Sep 2018, 19:11

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 5. John Craxton

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. This blog develops some ideas around the work of John Craxton.

Craxton did not paint nudes as part of his public, nor, as far as I know, private, subject matter in art. This may be significant. His young men are always clothed and follow certain ‘simple’ types, a kind of Continental version of ‘Shropshire Lads’, though characteristically shepherds, goatherds, sailors and young working men dancing in Greek tavernas. These have a kind of stereo-typicality about them, even when they could be said to be based on realisations of his fantasy life. He loved the bars frequented by sailors from Souda Bay, conveniently near Chania. He smiled when the supporters of the fascist colonels reported him as a spy because an educated Englishman who loved sailors’ bars was thought to be, of necessity, interested in military intelligence.

This suspicion by some Cretan neighbours led however to one of his rare politicised actions: abandoning Fascist Greece until the fall of the colonels. His favoured genre though was pastoral, and pastoral is only ever indirectly political and at the level of a generalised iconological practice. And pastoral represented his insistence on idealising – Greek males in particular, such that the violent family blood feuds he knew of in Crete never get even suggested in his art, the only threat posed by his subjects being their luxurious and irreversible eating up of what is good and which sustains – like the goats he shows picking the last fig leaf of an isolated tree in a beautiful landscape (my favourite being Goat, Sailor and Asphodels 1986, a consciously iconographic work).

Pastoral in Craxton is hopeless beautiful and hopelessly flawed. His young men are as radically unreal as is the island itself at the level of his wishes, and, in a favoured icon of young men thrashing octopi, with a ruthlessness in their passion:

An island where lemons grow and oranges melt in the mouth and goats snatch the last fig leaves off small trees the corn is yellow and russles (sic.) and the sea is harplike (sic.) on volcanic shores saw the marx (sic.) brothers in an open air cinema and the walls were made of honeysuckle

Craxton hated the novel (and film) Zorba the Greek as being too critical of Greek country people, sailors and their character.

John Berger once tried to see the bare feet that characterise these young men as a hint of political realism, a subtle politics, but they equally act as an emblem of the naked essence of the men. They are often focused upon at the cost of massive distortions of the figure and its place in the landscape, or patterned as the emblem of masculine togetherness in dance. The examples are complex and not clear icons of attraction, though they approach that. Examples are Figure in a Grey Landscape 1945, Greek Fisherman 1946, Galatas 1947, Pastoral for PW 1948, The Dancer, & Two Greek Dancers 1951, Shepherds near Knossos 1947, Boy on Wall 1958, Workman III 1961, Voskos II 1984, Two Figures And Setting Sun 1952-67.

Craxton was a painter of queer pictures but I think he, unlike other case studies here, could be comfortable with the category of the homosexual which he could equate with Orpheus at the mythic level and the sexologists’ category. It did not stop him seeking marriage with Margot Fonteyn (but it didn’t get far) but it did stop him from using his privileged position to facilitate a gay lifestyle in a Britain that became increasingly oppressive for many of the unprivileged. Arcadia was gay and it lived in Greece, and latterly just in Crete. But his shepherds have complex desires. Collins (2018:181)[1] traces them all to a common type made up of complex private iconographic meanings but focused on friendship and George Psychoundakis the Cretan shepherd and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Runner and dear friend, the ties with whom were not remotely sexual. Yet, despite this, using Craxton’s biography would go none of the way to understanding his art. Let’s take Still Life with Three Sailors, which he worked on (with variation) from 1980 – 1985.

Craxton’s friend, Patrick Leigh Fermor, traces the roots of the painting (cited Collins 2011:151) [2] to Byzantine icons of the visit of three angels to the house of Abraham. The largest version (ibid: 153) focuses on an empty chair at the picture plane occupied by the sailors’ caps, one labelled for the Greek Navy ship, Kriti (Crete). This empty chair is provocative – it is occupied but inviting (perhaps I get that from the way the abandoned fork lies in what looks like a plate of stuffed peppers). Craxton may be semi-present here, not least in the untipped cigarettes packet, labelled with his own name in Greek characters. In the last version it is part of what Leigh Fermor calls a pattern of wandering red in the picture – more prominent and modulated in this version than others by virtue of pink light patterns on the floor. In the trio the youngest sailor seems picked out from the rest, his arm spanning the table and his face lost in green shadow. He alone might look up to see the viewer and is the only one not given entirely to drink and thought.

Whatever it might mean, its iconography is private but it clearly focuses on desire, memory (a nostos painting to Leigh Fermor) and appetite. And there is the menace of the warning to the sailors to avoid breakages in any onset of post-prandial plate-smashing. It is most delicate, though tough and in it lies, I believe but I have not got there yet, something that is not ‘homosexual’ but is queer, a desire and appetite that momentarily floats free. This needs more work but it would unite it with the complex of appetites in numerous paintings of cats, trees and birds and their patterned, and labyrinthine, connections to each other.

All the best


[1] Collins, Ian (2018) ‘The Later Years: John Craxton’ in Arapoglu, E.. (Ed. trans. Cox, G. & Johnston, P.) Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor: Charmed Lives in Greece, 3rd Ed. Nicosia, A.G. Leventis Gallery, 179 -186.

[2] Collins, Ian (2011) John Craxton London, Lund Humphries

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A queer approach to : 4. The Two Roberts (Colquhoun and McBryde)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 12 Sep 2018, 08:40

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 4. The Two Roberts (Colquhoun and McBryde)

For contemporary footage, as well as access to the companion exhibition curated by Patrick Elliott see this wonderful short video

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes (or not in this case) in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. My probable choice of artist at this stage is probably Keith Vaughan, hence this blog is a start in a later reading project. This blog covers two men, often thought of as a unit and sometimes as a trio. It is critical thought based on reading Elliot et. al. (2014)[1].

First of it is important to see that the work considered here includes no extant male nudes and that moreover clothed figures are often labelled (although not always) older lower-class (or peasant) women, although both women and men have an androgynous look. Many see self-portraits in pictures, especially by Colquhoun, of duos. I do not see the gender boundary-crossing here as either defensive (avoiding identification of a gay subject-matter) nor as mere transposition. Instead, it is clear that gender identity is throughout presented under a cultural sign of acting, masking and performance. In that sense, the two Roberts are nearer to queer and performance theory than any artist I have looked at. Their lives however intersected closely at times with both Minton and Vaughan.

But I also think that the Two Roberts cannot be used as the stuff of rescued homosexual icons. Their relationship to discourses of homosexuality is less evident, if there at all, than in Vaughan or Minton, and other, more political identifications present, however abstracted in their form and activity in their lives, based on their working class and Scottish origins. The two Roberts were known to Hugh MacDiarmid (if only as the ‘wild Scottish artists’ in The Company I Kept) for instances and had defined views of Scottish nationalism and politics on the left, with regard in particular to dispossession and loss. 

It seems to me too that their imagery, especially in as far as it relates to the ‘mask’ is under-researched. I am particularly interested in the difference in facial masks between the two, which seem to me adverted to in the theme of Colquhoun’s wonderful monotype, Mother and Son (1948).

There is too much here for a useful summary blog. However, here is art that would respond to queer theory. Far from trying to derive a narrative of the two Roberts from the pictures, it would be useful to look at how they produce images that queer relationships between figures that forefront acts of representation (mimetic and symbolic) themselves and their assumptions. My feeling is they do this with thought about shadows, reflections and framing – perhaps even framing. An influence here could be Hogg. When we deal with Scottish art - expect that difference!

The blog has done for me what I required for myself – opened up some questions, so I’ll stop there.

All the best


[1] Elliot, P., Clark, A. & Brown, D. [Eds.] (2014) The Two Roberts: Robert Colquhoun & Robert MacBryde Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland.

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Reviewing Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:18

Labyrinths V: Farewell via Broks, Paul (2018) The Darker the Night, the Brighter the stars: A Neuropsychologist’s Odyssey. London, Allen Lane (Penguin)

Let’s start near the end of this rewarding book:

The universal fascination with the image of the labyrinth suggests some psychological significance, that perhaps it holds some fundamental psychological significance, that perhaps it holds the power to captivate and transform the mind some way. …Nicolas Humphrey speculates that the recurrence of spiral imagery in pre-historic art signifies … the arrival of souls on the scene. Human beings were not only sentient (like other animals are) but aware they were aware. They had come to understand the interiority, the inviolable privacy, of mental life. (291f.)

Broks seems to me a fine writer operating sequentially, but sometimes simultaneously in near lyric prose, in different domains of writing:

1.      the clear explication of neuropsychology and its links to the philosophy of identity (via Derek Parfit) and theories of consciousness,

2.      The role of neurobiology and ‘brain-mush’ in the question of ‘what matters’,

3.      expositor and blender of myths from various spatial-temporal locations to everyday experience including dreams and waking experiences where the normative gets questioned by the queer happening,

4.      narrator of case-histories and his own reflective ‘spiritual’ autobiography.

At its heart though is the ‘labyrinth’ holding in its core a mythical animal, who later transfigures into a ‘fat drunk’ who rhythmically intersperses the narrative with urgent, even sentient, questions of life, death, determination and choice. This is not a book for anyone with their mind made up, even though it is as atheist in its presumptions as Dawkins. Its grasp of uncertainty aligns not with the spiritual but scientific ones as propounded by Einstein attempting to summarise ’quantum theory’, which his thinking had made possible, reminding him:

… a little of the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoic, concocted of incoherent elements of thought. (Einstein cited 279)

What Einstein call paranoia, we should call psychosis: but only with the proviso that psychosis itself is understood as on a continuum of internal processes of cognition. This is how Broks blends day-dreams, fantasising, night-dreams and speculative thought and feeling with the everyday. Labyrinths challenge our assurance and comfort with a patterned world because they themselves are patterned but patterned in order to be unknowable – and sometimes, should we encounter a very rough Minotaur (as Picasso’s models nearly always did, for instance) potentially destructive or disabling (225).

When Broks looks at his own intellectual contribution it is to mourn the demise of a world for whose murder he fells at least, in part, responsible (185). One of the finest sections for me is his blending of narratives, including modern as well as older myths about the ‘rape of the moon’. There was new information here for me from the story of Armstrong, Aldrin and Mitchell, as well as fascinating transposition of these with ancient Persian views of the moon as mirror (195) and Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers (198). But for the sake of this blog series, I think you could do worse to get a flavour of this wonderful book than read the full-telling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, from genetic prequels to endless and multiple sequels, one of which is the foundation of Athenian thought on the basis of such labyrinthine temporal and spatial narrative meandering. At the end of which stands Butler’s question of questions in the genesis of a psychology and philosophy of identity, sameness, difference and uncertainty, the Paradox of the Ship of Theseus (221-229). It goes to show that all stories of multiple potential to meaning may come at least one which queries where the3 story has any coherence at all. After all, Theseus, Minos, Arachne and all may belong to stories in which that which variously transports as no identity with itself, having changed in the process – even if by the replacement of only one plank (or even one nail holding a plank to the mainframe).

Of course, for some there must be nothing new here and some tricks, such as the use of Shepard’s ‘Table-top Illusion’ to introduce gently the theme of discrepancy between a simple reality that we wish for and the illusions/psychosis on which normative perceptions depend (59). However, the discussion of Freud, for instance, is so incredibly fair, and places him and others in a continuum in which histories change the subjects of which they speak as they speak of them. If Freud was nonsense to a history told from the vantage-point of the cognitive revolution, it is far from that following the revaluation of the role of body and affect in later psychology. A beginning psychologist could learn a lot here about the caveats needed in reading the ‘history of psychology’ – the main one being that there can only be ‘histories’ of psychology, who speak  the police in different voices.

As for art, there are the wonderful (and labyrinthine) illustrations here of Garry Kennard. But, at the bottom, this book suggests, if it does not say, that imagining that we can study an art (say visual art) in isolation for other arts, and science, but not least neuro-science, is a fantasy we and the most conservative education system in the world (that in the UK) need to break. I loved this book and want to read it again – and perhaps again.

Linked to this review are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings .

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey (this one).


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The way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:11

Labyrinth IV: The way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

This is a later addition to the labyrinth blogs (listed below) that comes from following up an interest (not yet matured into a driving and motivating surety with the work) in Anselm Kiefer. I first came across Kiefer in reading (Schama’s Landscape & Memory) for A844 preparation. I say that the motivation for studying Anselm Kiefer has not matured fully because I am still in some ways in a kind of puzzlement about him. I see this blog as a progress report on a journey into his work, so far added to by a reading (that was in parts less substantive than I like) of a good monograph and viewing Sophie Fiennes (2010) Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.[1] If you read this, it might be worth looking briefly at the film’s excellent ‘trailer’[2]

What struck me about both works, which I started after working on Labyrinths I-III was the importance of the labyrinth trope as a means of expurgating Kiefer’s approach to the production and reception of the meaning of art or even as a description of some of its sub-forms (such as the tunnel system at Barjac which opens Fiennes’ Film). However, as Fiennes makes clear there is no one way into or out of the problem of seeking meaning in Kiefer. Whilst invoking many systems of meaning (such as the Kabala, ‘correspondence’ theory in Robert Fludd or later, alchemy, Jung, Ovidian metamorphosis and Neo-Platonic readings thereof) he rejects all of them as having a monopoly on what the art either intends or what will be anyway received from it. These are his books of lead – which allow access to no living meaning whilst promising to be its repository.

I’ll concentrate on Fiennes great film which I saw both in its original shown form and in the version on DVD with commentary. The film was shot during the period in which Kiefer was moving his vast stock of art from the labyrinthine structures he created out of his studio and grounds at Barjac to Paris. This move was itself part of the unfinished work of art that was constructed / destroyed over the ruins of a silk factory site and buildings. Kiefer’s art cannot be described easily as ‘creation without invoking the ‘decreation’ that is simultaneously part of artistic process for Kiefer. In Kiefer to ‘make’ is also to destroy, to construct is also to excavate. Fiennes opens her film showing an underground lead-lined cell space, allowing her camera to go both down into underground excavations and up to the most collapsible constructions of towers or stairways that lead up or down and maybe to nowhere. Thus for the vertical plan. Horizontally the tunnel labyrinths fork but produce dead ends (as in all good mazes). Light to see art is present or absented, natural or synthetic. Keifer’s tunnel journeys in the film opening emphasise the appearance of the ocular of what as well as that by which we see – the scene often appearing like an open eye with a round pupil.

Underground spaces are created crypts but the method of ‘construction’ is as much excavation and destruction quite literally. Kiefer and his small team make well-like holes which are filled with concrete. This creates hard pillars within the earth. He then excavates the underground space around these pillars. These pillars create the only support for the roof of these underground spaces such as emptying out the spaces between them feels full of the danger of fall or collapse. This is true too of structures which rise vertically from the ground which are built only by being placed such that the forces which might make them either maintain their stance or fall are equal. For how long we cannot tell. Kiefer feels the collapse of his towers to be part of their career as a work oft and perhaps that is why, having built them, he abandons them to time to help finish the job of creation / destruction, which he interprets through the story of Lillith from the Kabala, who lived alone in abandoned cities, over which grass will grow’ (whether we, or any other Creator intended that or not).

Kiefer uses labyrinths as his model because he can forever extend their limits and boundaries as a space/time to be travelled that continually offers movement on but of which many of its pathways stop in a state of frustrated ending or incompletion without easing thee means of decryption (back to crypts) The labyrinth is also the search for meaning. Many tracks (and systems for interpretation) are offered. None are entirely satisfactory and we are instead, typically, lost in the processing of following meanings – getting nowhere but progressing nevertheless. His labyrinths move vertically, horizontally (and by staircases diagonally) in either direction. Destinations abound but most look unattainable. Objects and spaces do not look to us as either ancient or modern (or even of an imaginable or unimaginable future) but all of these. 

Thus, tunnel systems and crypts recall both forests, Nazi gas-chambers and ancient Eastern structures whose purpose may only be guessable. Sunflowers may derive from Robert Fludd or Van Gogh or explore the distance between these – being often rendered metallic. Fiennes believes that this is the darkest part of Kiefer’s thinking. A sculpture recalls Gaza, Abu Ghraib or the Holocaust, bombed London or Coventry (or even Dresden). The theme according to Fiennes is that ‘Nothing changes – whether we vary historical time, place or person'. After all there is a moral equivalence between the ‘sides’ of a war sometimes (think of ‘Dresden’ and the Atomic Bomb, all dropped when war was already won). Such pain is part of the creative process. Seeing Kiefer walk in open-toed sandals through glass he smashes in the processes of making a sculpture Fiennes says she tries to capture his ‘immediate pleasure in this destruction.’

I think this invocation of art in which one must travel distances of space/time (he insists the huge Barjac site is ‘a whole piece’ of art which may not yet be finished) only to find similar themes of making AND destroying emerging at every destination. Art like this offers no ‘safe place’, no ‘hortus conclusus’ – only a labyrinth that opens doors so it can cunningly reseal them or defer them. In his work, we will find icons like Daedalus – the master creator of puzzle and Icarus – the victim of belief in a transcendent way out. As both of these, Kiefer himself could have instanced his influence, Gordon Matta-Clark, who destroyed architecture to find no end of its meanings and died of the asbestos-poisoning his t involved.

But, as you can tell, I am not nearly there yet with this obviously great artist. But I will make progress – this dark tunnel I’m in with him currently can’t last forever. Can it?

All the best


Linked to this review are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings .

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out. (this one)

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey.

All the best


[1] - Arrasse, Daniel (2001) (trans. Whittal, M.) Anselm Kiefer London, Thames & Hudson

- Fiennes, Sophie (2010 – DVD 2011) Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow: A film of the Work of Anselm Kiefer Amoeba Film, Kasander, Sciapode Production, DVD London, Artificial Eye

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Reviewing Pat Barker (2018) 'The Silence of the Girls'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 7 Sep 2018, 20:05

Pat Barker (2018) The Silence of the Girls London, Hamish Hamilton.

I saw Pat Barker at the Edinburgh Literary Festival on the 26 August where she launched this remarkable book. To tell truth, I had become a rather tired fan of Barker’s work – loving her early novels which showed slices of marginalised lives in the North, and, to my particular delight, focusing on people across a range of age, gender and sexual preference. The Century’s Daughter (now re-named but not for me) remains a personal favourite and, of course, this favoured novelist could only be more loved when she turned to the same range of characters but especially to the discovery of male sexualities: contrasting the refined agonies of Owen and Sassoon with the harder journey of Billy Prior. After the Regeneration Trilogy, I read each novel as they came out but found myself finding those more worthy than exploratory or exciting – perhaps raising my interests in art-history more than in themselves. So I went to this event, the novel unread because still embargoed by the publisher with mixed feeling.

But here was Pat Barker returned to form. She seemed more assured than when I’d seen her before and able to put a blow or two towards some of her less observant reviewers: ‘Some of them say the novel is full of anachronisms – as if I didn’t know or had not intended this’. How did these reviewers read such episodes as this if they thought it to be (in their sniffy classical manner) merely an unintended anachronism – not what either Homer says or ’as it was’ in the ‘real’ Trojan Wars:


He whispers the name, so the men around him won’t hear, and somehow just saying the word hardens suspicion into fact. Instant rage. ‘How the bloody hell, did you get in?’ (256)

Asked also if her novel reflected the ‘Me Too’ movement, she said, ‘I hate the thought of going back to representing women as victims.’ In a novel as full of awareness of the need to recognise and enable female voices and with lots of women falling into victim-status, this was a rich comment.

Now having read the novel I have to applaud the treatment of female voices, from individuals and groups as truly fine. Her female groups use their choric knowledge of maleness and male sexuality as well as some very refined awareness of the strategies of voices operating under limited power to enjoy femaleness and femininity, in a way some readers (perhaps mainly men) will not recognise. But again she manages to do this whilst writing about men and masculinity itself as if she saw it from both outside and inside. And the First World War themes arise in the celebration of male smut and even male sexism, in the trench, battle (and near-football battle) songs.

For me, the delight of this novel that it, like all her novels, has a most refined approach to sexual preference that aligns itself to queer theory rather than to identity politics. It is important in this novel that Barker comes, unlike Agamemnon and some others – if not the meat-for-brains but loving comrade Ajax –to no conclusion that idealises the ‘homosexual’ relationship of Achilles and Patroclus. These men sleep together, know each other’s’ bodies better than they know those of female ‘bed-slaves’ but are never sexually labelled. What we see is a complex love relationship that, mediated by power, personality and other (perhaps some being mythical or visionary) differentials, is the most beautiful relationship of the book.

This is in part in in its co-construction between a third-person narrative which accesses even the voices in Achilles’ head and the complex interplay of distances in Briseis’ slave narrative. We see the relationship grow in this way, even in its reflection in the voice of someone whose loyalties must by necessity shift. But it is also in the prose that characterises the relationship descriptively – both from the men’s own (Chapters 27-28 are pivotal), and the narrator’s voice as they inhabit the liminal space between three domains of consciousness (each of limited facticity). It is the romantic novel queered (as a thing of double-selves and mirror-stages):

Staring at his reflection, Patroclus lowered the helmet gingerly on to his head, adjusted the cheek irons and only then turned away from the mirror to face Achilles. …

… Achilles knew his voice sounded shaky. Turning aside, he looked down at the remaining armour: …. He pretended to find a speck of dirt on one of the greaves and started rubbing it with a soft cloth, pulling back to inspect the area, then breathing on it and rubbing again. With each sweep of the cloth, his face reappeared, features brutalized by the curve of the metal. ‘Do you want my spear?’

To an unsympathetic reader that might feel cloying, but I find it quite beautiful. Of course, you’ll find those contrasts of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ even in a Mill and Boon romance but here they queer the pitch, so that the passage is full of the ‘unsaid’ without it ever being clear that you know what should or could have been said in its place. I don’t sense ‘repressed homosexuality’, I sense something that neither participant has a name for but which belongs solidly to the intercourse of their whole lives:  though nevertheless to simplistic binary thinkers disturbing.

I loved this book and want to read it again – and perhaps again. This is Pat Barker back at her strongest.


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A queer approach to 3. Christopher Wood

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 6 Sep 2018, 08:49

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 3. Christopher Wood

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. My probable choice of artist at this stage is probably Keith Vaughan, hence this blog is a start in a later reading project. This blog goes back in time to examine Christopher Wood (1901-1930), one of Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Fatal Englishmen’.

I first discovered Christopher Wood’s now classic ‘Nude Boy in a Bathroom’ on visiting the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art[1] where it forms part of the permanent collection. Only since working on Wood, have I discovered that there are at least two preliminary studies or companion pieces. In the one not shown, which I have never seen reproduced, the model stands facing the viewer frontally (Cariou & Tooby 1997: 53)[2].

However, before looking at these pictures, completed in the year of his possible violent suicide, it’s important to see how and why Wood’s case is particularly suited to a queer theory approach. Extant criticism known to me plays games with labels – dubbing Wood ‘conveniently bisexual’ (whatever that means, it was said by novelist Anthony Powell cited Norris 2016:28[3]), mainly homosocial if sometimes homosexual, repressed gay man or an innocent perverted by a rich European homosexual clique or even the Parisian art-scene (perhaps especially Cocteau)).  All of these labels come with some peculiarly nasty imposed value sets which reduce Wood to something lesser and stop us looking at his intriguing but very queer painted surfaces (even ones apparently not so such as Dancing Sailors, Brittany (1930)). Wood painted some very sensual female nudes and had several sexually consummated love affairs with women and he idealised the married love of Ben & Winifred Nicolson, although its bitter end was in sight before he died.

However, he also created some images that are inescapably 'gay', although I do not include his last male nudes in this number. Compare, for instance, Exercises (1925) and his portrait of Constant Lambert, Composer (1927), a gay icon of the period working with Diaghilev, helping to produce performances which revelled in the male body.

These pictures need no comment. They both record, and perhaps, in the case of Exercises comment, on the issue of homo-eroticism in ways that also participate in it at the ocular level. In as far as art sublimates desire in these pictures, it does so at a very shallow level (the composer’s pen and violin being conveniently phallic and placed in a way that advertises the substitution being made).

But next to these in this short career we could place images that appear to create a heterosexual fairy-story (such as The Bather (c. 1925-6) which bristles with phallic symbols surrounding the female semi-nude) or the more sentimental pictures of family deriving from Wood’s experience of the Nicholson marriage at St. Ives (the lovely The Fisherman’s Farewell (1928) for instance).

Queer theory sees no point in ‘seeking the homosexual’ but rather sees the various performances of diverse sexualities as to be expected and in no way in direct relation to an artist’s essential being. Wood then is its ideal subject. We can stop now trying to see if his relationship to the diplomat, J.A. Gandillaras, was predominantly homosexual or homosocial

In my view the Nude Boy in a Bedroom (1930) is best examined using queer theory. It is, of course, probably necessary to report that it is usually thought that the nude boy is a portrait of Francis Rose (about 21 at the time), friend of Gertrude Stein and Toklas (the latter’s Cookbook illustrator) and, at this time, visiting Brittany alongside Wood and gossip says ‘a noted homosexual’[4].  It is set in what we believe to be Wood’s hotel room. But that aside, it is not a ‘sexualised’ scene. The ginger-headed boy at his morning ablutions (we can see by the strength of the penetrating sun it is morning) turns from his sink and towel (the latter still in his hand) to gaze at a picture of a Breton maiden. On the bed lie three Tarot cards – the same  ones appear in Calvary at Douarnez (1930)  and predict, Norris (2016:153) argues, ‘financial and romantic insecurity, as well as alluding to danger.’ Nothing in the picture makes us conscious that the ‘boy’ is aware of being seen. This picture bears nothing of the portrait of Lambert above. It cannot be described as homoerotic (although it is, I would say, homosomatic).

Yet if not ‘homosexual’ in orientation it is definitely queerly homosocial. A man gazing at a woman is being gazed at. There is kind of liminal sensuality about the bedroom and we notice the soft edges of this body, defined only in the display of the right buttock. The room is partially darkened by shades but where it is not dark, where the boy isn’t, a queerly distorted chair is on display and brandishing Wood’s favourite ‘yellow’ (a colour he felt only great artists handled well). This boy is neither ready for nor certain that he wants the light of day to make himself known by. And the feminine shapes of the metal balcony and the bed show a boy who may find it difficult to step up to be a ‘man’. All this unsettles – is this boy’s nudity innocent or erotic or neither? Is he unwilling to take a seat or to stand in the light? Are we tantalised by that, whatever our own sexuality or gender-position as viewers? The smeary browns in which the boy stands disturb and clash with the pastel shades of white, green and purple (on the walls). We wonder at the half-open shades. Has he stood there to partly open them? Whose view does he disturb?

As you can see, I am a long way from getting past open questions on this one, but Wood disturbed Minton and Vaughan too, I am sure. And this is very suggestive about the open-endedness of the male nude to queered vision.

All the best


[2] Cariou, A. & Tooby, M. (1997) Christopher Wood: A Painter Between Two Cornwalls (text by Steel-Coquet, F.), London, Tate Gallery Publishing (for Tate St. Ives)

[3] Norris, K. (2016) Christopher Wood London, Lund Humphries & Chichester, Pallant House Gallery

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A queer approach to: 2. Keith Vaughan, artist

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 3 Sep 2018, 17:32

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 2. Keith Vaughan

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. My probable choice of artist at this stage is probably Keith Vaughan, hence this blog is a start in a later reading project.

Frances Spalding’s (2005:3) biography of Minton is not a fair basis of comparison with Vaughan and that partly because her biography is apparently aiming for an ‘understanding of homosexuality’. Malcolm Yorke’s (1990) excellent biography of Vaughan makes no such claims and merely charts the artistic, social and sexual life of Vaughan (and the impact upon that life of contemporary constructions of homosexuality, including those which Vaughan intermittently internalised). It is less motivated by attempts to ‘understand’ on the basis of a limited case-study and a belief that the term ‘homosexual’ is ontologically valid. In short, here, the essence of what the ‘homosexual’ might be is neither defined nor imposed as a definition of a part of an assumed reality. Indeed I don’t think the term is validated. In this respect Vaughan’s book makes a much easier step towards a queer reading of mind-twentieth century reception of ‘scientific’ and medicalised discourse on homosexuality. Such a reading needs to explain the methods of his public art as well as his private erotica, such as The Leaping Figure here.

Vaughan himself, like Minton, felt ambivalence about ‘homosexuals’, which he projected as an ambivalence about other gay men (together with an ability to exploit and diminish those he came into sexual or social contact) and introjected as a, in his case, almost virulent self-hatred. Vaughan’s campaigning journals show a tendency to prefer a sexuality which crossed more than normative sexual practice boundaries, exploring the potential of sex as an onanistic science dependent on machines and inanimate objects. When people were involved, he chose even more obviously less powerful personalities as his partners whom he could belittle and hate (although often only privately in his journals as his partner, – as near as he ever got - Ramsay McClure, found to his cost). But he also romanticised and loved these same people in the moment, without any necessary recourse to ever seeing their personhood, often using their marginalised status (and often their poverty as in the case of his young Mexican lover) as the basis of such Romanticism. Eminent amongst these was Johnny Walsh (166f.). And herein lies a conundrum. Unlike Bacon, who seemed to feel no great visible responsibility to working (and criminal and indigent) class – I’m not sure the distinction was ever made in these haute bourgeois English artists – partners such as George Dyer, Vaughan also attempted to become paedagogos (for a time) to Walsh, whom he often characterised as a kouros.

These dynamic relationships of projection of the lesser and introjection of the ideal in the end allowed Vaughan to see himself as unlike other ‘homosexuals (not camp like Isherwood and Minton) but ‘special, unique (47).’

These contradictions do not exemplify, as it was sometimes thought at the time (by E.M. Forster for instance right into a privileged old age) homosexual love, they are (I would argue) distortions caused by the ways in which heteronormative values assumed the qualities of the ‘natural’ ideal of sexual life. Hence the liberation involved in ‘queer theory’ which looks at how that which lies outside the supposed and ideological norm (often practices in real life that are silent or silenced by ideology) survive nevertheless. Looked at from this perspective, Vaughan’s queerness looks very like that that of Picasso – both based on giving primacy of artistic solutions to problems experienced in the human sphere of activity, especially those of sexual love.

Vaughan theorised homosexuality obsessively (even to the extent of a totally forensically objective definition of the material ‘symptoms’ of love as a kind of necessary psychosis (234). I think he was correct to see ‘homosexuality’, as it was defined in the theory of the time as a category tied to constraining and marginalising social roles, the ‘other’ to heteronormativity. What he failed to see (unsurprisingly for the time when his sexual life may have led to long-term imprisonment or chemical castration) was its socially-constructed nature. He lived long enough to despise ‘Gay Lib’ for ‘flaunting itself in the face of the public (cited 254)’ (as if what is public were only heteronormative). He tended to use the distortions of Freudian theory (which he contacted mainly through secondary texts) to see even his own ‘homosexuality’ – if not his sexuality as a whole - as a form of immaturity, one that he had not achieved on the route to heteronormativity: ‘I have regressed even from the immaturity of homosexuality to an almost pre-natal infantilism (cited 237).’

Of course there is much to say here that I want to leave in silence (for now) because its importance for me at the moment is the way in which a queer approach to Vaughan’s art rescues the artist from the time-bound and limited thinker of the journals. That mass of contradictions (the Journals and Vaughan as a biography) matters and helps with the art but does not show his importance. For me this comes from his rethinking of the traditions embodied in the male nude trope – one that Vaughan saw has predictable from his homosexuality (197) but as essentially contributory to a  breakthrough in artistic technique (technique he taught at Slade as before (198) in terms of the primacy of painterly composition and pioneered in art in the practice of ‘assembly’ paintings (200) – as in the Ninth Assembly of Figures here, which he saw as classical in form if both classical and romantic in subject. He was devastated when he discovered that the basic invisibility of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling male nudes (which he thought validated those fusions) could not be ‘seen’ from the chapel floor and therefore could not have (he felt then) created a tradition (230).

Yet tradition there was – one, though I’m still working on it, I would call a queer tradition that amalgamated various sources that were not equitable with homosexuality nor with any directly intended expression of male desire for ocular evidence of other male bodies (sexual or not): this tradition included the academic tradition of the male nude and the male nude considered as emblematic of idealised proportions of form and style. Both owed something to Winckelmann’s readings of the classical and Renaissance tradition (including Raphael and Michelangelo), to Neo-Classicism and the function of the Academies in Europe (including Britain, in the work of William Etty in the nineteenth-century) which also fed off Winckelmann, although now mixed with its apparent opposite, Goethean romanticism. However, the most formidable model, especially for the reformulation of a notion of what we might mean by the classical nude is Cezanne, Vaughan’s key model for his male nudes in public painting. Yorke (1990:40f) summarises thus how Vaughan felt he honoured the classical forms in Cezanne in his own painting, something with which I fully concur:

Structure was imposed on the teeming chaos of reality by eliminating unnecessary detail, simplifying trees to masses …, suppressing any individuality in bathers’ faces or bodies, and simultaneously making every part of the picture conform to an underlying geometrical structure, distorting forms to this end if necessary. (And more)

I too hope to say more of Cezanne’s male nudes when I write in earnest, since their reception has historically been mediated through a thick varnish of homophobia which refuses to see desire in them lest it taint an ideal Cezanne. Cezanne did not need to be ‘homosexual’ to reinvent the male nude as both classical form and romantic icon, I’ll argue. Moreover, we need to take this classicising even of the most romantic and desire-imbued forms seriously in Vaughan. If his public paintings became impervious to gay male desire in favour of some other sublimation (I think he possibly saw it in those Freudian terms), it is not just because this would ‘give him away’ in the deeply homophobic British twentieth-century up to the 1980s but because he felt there was a difference between the artist (even the queer artist’s) conception of the male nude in art to that serving purposes of sexual excitation (as explored by Lucie-Smith in different terms (1991:8). Indeed I think Vaughan drew male nudes in 3 different arenas and for 3 different functions, becoming more aestheticized as they moved away from extremely secreted pornography on the first level (Hastings 2017), semi-private eroticism in subjective inter-relationships (Vaughan 1966, Graham & Boyd 1991) and ‘fine art’. The latter had no obvious sexual organs, a number of means of erasure being followed very consciously.

In the latter category bodies are as he intended them following Cezanne’s example (and a reading of trans-historical painterly classicism) such as they example queer art but not art confined to categories like ‘homosexual’ or even ‘gay’ art. It was queer because it still included a formulation of desire in composition, and, at times, Vaughan believed, in ways that could not escape contradictions that exposed art to eruptions of personal desire and which made him see even his art, perhaps all great art, as an expression of ‘homosexuality’ rather than the queerness of desire, which is now visible as nearer to the truth. He wrote in his journals in the 1960s (Yorke 1991:197):

… pages of speculation about how the majority of the great painters of the male nude were homosexual: … how the previous night he, like the Virgin in Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s, had held a youth called Mike naked in his arms in the exact pose  of the Christ.

 We need to see, more clearly than Vaughan here, what queers the representation of the male nude, probably trans-historically, without silly identifications of gayness or homosexuality before those terms had meaning.

Looking at say the 1970 male nude below, I’d assert that Vaughan’s public art is better than Lucie-Smith (1991) asserts, blaming as he does the heteronormativity and homophobia of the times, and that it was not marred by repressed instincts (to fuller sexual expression) but dug deeper into what the male nude represented homosocial (rather than just homosexual) meanings. Hence his interests in male archetypes: Kouroi, Crucifixions, warriors and noble assemblies. His male figures sometimes emerge from an early set of his photographs from Pagham Beach and there are real similarities between our last mentioned illustration and this one from Pagham.

Pagham pictures included young men whom he related to very differently, including his beautiful (and heterosexual) brother, Dick (an unfortunate name sometimes). We need to see Vaughan though as artist not as repressed homosexual – queer theory allows that – and we then see that these male nudes are very complex icons, or at least that is what I’d like later to assert.

 All the best


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A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history:1. John Minton

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 30 Aug 2018, 17:09

A queer approach to sexual preference labelling in art-history: looking at case studies in British mid-twentieth century art: 1. John Minton

The aim of this group of blogs is to look critically at some of the publications relating to gay male artists in the mid-twentieth century. This is in part to begin trawling for a dissertation topic for my MA in Art History. My initial thoughts relate to focusing on one of these artists, although their contexts include each other, their treatment of male nudes in relation to the iconographic, contextual and stylistic features which propose such a subject for art (for some of the choices this will include photography as well as painting) and ‘queer theory’. This will look at the issue of labelling of course, particularly at the important terminology of ‘homosexuality’, which dominated the period. My hypothesis will probably be that such a term was, and remains, a means of marginalising, even to the point of negation, of such art. My probable choice of artist at this stage is probably Keith Vaughan, although my reading has just begun. My interest though was sparked by Mark Gattis’ splendid programme on John Minton shown recently on the BBC.

Frances Spalding re-issued, with ‘revisions’, her 1991 book on Minton in 2005[1], counting as most significant of the advances made in the literature since 1991 Hyman’s book on figurative art. However, unlike Gattis, she does not revise the terminology of her first edition with regard to sexual categories and the categorisation of sexual personae, which in 2005 (the year gay marriage was – from December only first made legal) meant that her statements on the subject again relied on her 1991 ‘Introduction’. This gives a taste:

… his fascination lies not only in his gaiety, generosity, creativity and wit, but also in the melancholy, disaffection, and despair that at times showed so clearly in his face. To reduce this man to an untroubled symbol would be manipulative and demeaning. It would also do little to increase the understanding of homosexuality.’ (3)

Whilst well-meaning, it is clear that it is difficult not to equate ‘homosexuality’ with the aetiology of a negative mind-set. It is clear too, in the whole book at least, that Spalding sees the ‘homosexual’ as the ‘subject of discourse’, where discourse is neither owned, controlled (even as a participant in discourse) by the ‘homosexual’. At one point she even characterises the difference between bisexuals (and self-defining heterosexual men willing to give it a go like Alf Sparkes) by naming Minton by the old-fashioned (even in 1991) but no less objectifying and marginalising term ‘invert’. The category of the ‘homosexual’ is defined external to persons, as a ‘subject’ that has the universality that Cartesian discourse itself allows it as an element in discourse. We need to ‘understand it’ but the subject that understands it remains a non-specified and non-particularised ‘subject’ that pretends to be neither male nor female, gay nor straight. It did not need Foucault to show us that such a subject was in fact constituted through power with the ability to define the difference between norm and ‘other-than-the-norm’ as part of that understanding.

We need to puzzle over some of the ways Minton’s cognitive-emotional-sexual life is presented to us. He did not ‘like’ homosexuals we are told (an issue that will arise again with Vaughan). He wanted the love of a ‘real’ man. These are not idiocies – I remember feeling them with all the pain they involved but they are prime examples where, as Paolo Freire shows, the ‘subject of discourse’ is ‘subjected’ to the power of norms that are actually the product of multiple other structures of power: majority status, ownership of cultural symbols, or enhanced visibility through symbols, for instance. They enforce that splitting of the person from which no gay man or lesbian was immune, whatever the claims made – often blowzily (‘I Am What I Am, and What I AM Needs No Excuses). If I am what I am, I am myself and other.

That is how Minton fed his self-loathing, projected onto other gay men and his preference for an extreme and aggressive maleness in his lovers, even to the point of invited violence (223). Of course, not that gay men and lesbians needed to ‘invite’ violence: it came uninvited as a means of people differentiating their normality from that which is (self-evidently it seemed) different and ‘odd’. I have no doubt that it is these structures of feeling, fed by structures of societal and ideological power, that exclaim Minton’s divided self in relationships, his ambivalence to the maleness in his lovers that he encouraged, even to the ‘provision’ of ‘women’ for them (when one of his lovers Kevin Maybury took on an older male lover, Minton went into a deep depression (236). We can infer that this was because this circumstance broke the tragic paradigm which explained ‘homosexual’ relationships to him and was thence unprepared for by the myth of the ‘homosexual’ (Maybury was the only one of his lovers who was predominantly gay and though a carpenter, was one who worked on stage in a theatre). It also explains his, and other middle-class gay males preference for lovers who were evidently less socially, intellectually ‘valued’ than they themselves were. It justified treating these young men (the ubiquitous sailors and guardsmen (and, it has to be said, students) in Minton’s life) as objects and predicted him finding them lesser than his normative self. We see this in E.M. Forster too but he seemed to find intelligence in his working-class lovers (the policeman Bob Buckingham for instance) as he aged.

But none of this is that clear to Spalding, who nevertheless clearly heaps maternal love on the poor boy of her biographical treatment. It feels to me that she therefore fails to understand the relationship (as artists and gay men) between Minton and Keith Vaughan, who became housemates. Their relationship was built on very different constructions of the relationship of art to homosexuality and the homosexual they were persuaded to see and distance themselves from in themselves: the former focused on necessitated but spiritualised tragic loneliness, the latter on a kind of Dionysian uniqueness, that enjoyed persecuting the vulnerable bit of the self just as social mores seemed to do. Both committed suicide but the differences therein also illustrate differences in their construction of their queer selves, the one based on a romantic (see Sleeping Figure (1941) & Landscape with Figure (1944) both of which remind me of David Jones as well as John Craxton) and the other on objectified visions of the male body that do male figures which, even more radically, Picasso does to female figures like Marie-Therese. But more on this in the Vaughan summary.

Minton might under different tutelage (had for instance he succeeded in splitting up the Two Roberts and involved himself with Robert Colquhoun as his aching heart longed for (since Colquhoun mastered extreme male roles as a gay man).

Yet I like both great paintings of Norman Bowler very much (Plates 18-19 in this book: Painter and Model (1953) and Portrait of Norman Bowler (1952)), which feel to me to have learned from Bonnard how to use painter and model with full consciousness of the role of both framing subjects in complex multiple contexts and the use of perspective to focus on what is meant by the sexual male. Gattis’s view that these techniques over-emphasise the domain of the male groin is, I think, only part of the story because at the same time embodied sexuality is cast from the foci of that domain by the fore-fronting (almost to the picture plane) of naked hands and feet. Minton’s men are more men when, in his great illustrations they form idealised working (and often working-class bodies).

If I am correct about this use of framing, this backs up in part Spalding’s reading of that wonderful Portrait of Kevin Maybury (1956)[2] in which she picks up the role of stage-setting tools, as well as easels and floorboards as ‘trapping’ Maybury (220). For me he is trapped but also the artist’s model framed in the act of manipulating the frames in which he is held by manipulation of the folding ‘ruler’ that governs all built frames – the architectures of stage and painting. Stage carpenters do that anyway. Isn’t this a wonderful picture though? One I would say is genuinely queer – escaping the constraint of the medicalised and marginalising label ‘homosexual’.

All the best


[1] Spalding, F. (2005) John Minton: Dance Till the Stars Come Down revised 1991 edition, Aldershot, Lund Humphries.

[2]  Tate Gallery website – John Minton page https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/john-minton-1644

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Labyrinthine Artistry: Andy Cumming Adam Linklater: Mythopaedia Maritime Lane Collective, Leith; Edinburgh Art Festival 2018.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:12

Labyrinths III: Andy Cumming Adam Linklater: Mythopaedia Maritime Lane Collective, Leith; Edinburgh Art Festival 2018. Labyrinthine Artistry

For internet site visit: http://www.andycummingsite.com/about/

For excerpts of video see: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-2Ml1qbSdWp-JwuCuR50sw

For selected images see: https://www.pintaram.com/u/adamlinklateroccultartist

Images from the installation:

I visited Cumming’s exhibition on Wednesday 22 August and and then attended his presentation of the work the same evening. The work comprises an installation with a 27-minute video and a collection of works (including large colour photographs) attributed to Adam Linklater that also, largely appear in the film. Adam Linklater, Cummings tells us, is an ‘avatar’ of himself, the artist but also a kind of ‘double’, whose paranoia and psychosis Cummings admits he can get dangerously near to. On his website Cumming says:

“My work deals with many different themes from the origins of creativity with the understanding of inherent and embedded knowledge, to the study of human behaviour and the social sciences. I am also interested on the effect that the internet is having on our learning. Having unlimited access to knowledge on every possible subject is an amazing thing but it also opens us up to false and or conflicting information, adding to an ever increasing mistrust of our governments and the education we are taught at school. I find interest in many things but I also enjoy the process of allowing the chance mark inspire the form/idea. I tend to start my work with no particular theme but through the process of play and random markmaking a theme starts to come to fruition. I very much allow my tacit knowledge to take over whilst I make art.”

Andy Cumming 2017

Cumming’s insistence that ‘tacit knowledge’ constitutes an alternative identity that like the traditional doppleganger can ‘take over’ a more conscious self, goes a long way to explaining the origins of Adam (the first man) Linklater (a man of belated networks). His theory here sounds a lot like that of the Dadaists’ practice of automatic writing or creation – such practices try to go underneath the layers of convention that we call our conscious selves to something we call either ‘primitive’, ‘tacit’ or unconscious. At one point in video, the artist’s search for clues to Linklater’s quest for knowledge, and the control he believes inheres in that knowledge, is labelled firs I.D. (at one level identity) and later ‘id’ (the ‘It’ which is the name Freud actually gave to the unconscious).

The search Linklater, and Cummings – sometime with his girlfriend – after him, undergo, involves a descent to an underworld – such as we find in archetypes like Orpheus, Odysseus in Homer, Aeneas in Virgil, Satan in Milton. But underground caves also recall that fearful palace of art made by Daedalus, the Labyrinth.  One section of the video is named ‘labyrinth’ and shows Andy and girlfriend penetrating a cellar and finding within evidence of earlier occupation by Linklater.

Strangely, when I asked Cumming, at his presentation, why he did not talk about labyrinths, he prevaricated but later said that the labyrinth was a kind of emotional-cognitive space (my term) in which he experienced feelings of self-loss, and which prompted him to ‘disappear’ his Linklater avatar. Artists have to move on. That labyrinths are a symbol of the artist is clear in the Daedalus story. That master of art (techne in Greek) made marvellous monuments but they became prey to the uses to made of them by tyrants like Minos and dangerous for neophytes, like his son Icarus who died in the attempt to escape the labyrinth by getting too near a more pure Apollonian knowledge.

But Cummings work is an excellent translation of the labyrinth trope to the nature of what we naturally call ‘the web’ (a classic analogy to the labyrinth). It associates with Cumming’s use of maps and links later made upon them (as in Rosicrucian thinking), and to the ubiquitousness of mind-mapping as a means of charting mental operations in modern education. Hence many of the works are mind-maps, charts of the mind that allow for labyrinthine following of links and connections, some of which fall into a dead-end. Of these Cumming makes for rather interesting art. Ultimately these networks are also neural networks, which too can be labyrinthine and sometimes dangerous link hungry. For Cumming some of this relates to the aetiology of what he calls paranoia and which I’d prefer to call more widely psychosis – in which patterns and meanings get over-perceived, although not necessarily therefore becoming delusions (at least not always).

At the book festival I saw some similar connections made by very good contemporary poets in poems about descent to undergrounds. Those were Sean Borodale (clearly a very great poet in the making) and Ruth Padel.

 Linked to this review are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings (this).

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey.

All the best


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Lucy Skaer, with Fiona Connor, H.D., Will Holder, Nashashibi/Skaer & Hanneline Visnes) The Green Man Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University AS LABYRINTH

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:13

Labyrinths II: Lucy Skaer, with Fiona Connor, H.D., Will Holder, Nashashibi/Skaer & Hanneline Visnes) The Green Man Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University).

It is possibly true to say that I am imposing on curational and creative work of Skaer and others, one of whom is the dead poet, H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) the trope of the labyrinth. In this I’m encouraged by the transformation of the Vatican Museum (133f.) in Higgin’s labyrinth book to a puzzling Troy of corridors that recalls to her the labyrinth poem she favours (and reproduces in translation in an appendix), Catullus’ Peliaco quondam.

However, the labyrinth as a puzzle or riddle to solve runs throughout Higgins’ book even In Arthur Evan’s, cited as an epigram, characterisation of Knossos as a ‘labyrinth’ to which the key is his ‘handbook’. It helps the perplexed ‘visitor who wishes to explore its full circuit’ who ‘still needs the guidance that of old was provided by Ariadne’s clewe’. That ‘clewe’ is the ‘red thread’ of the Higgins’ title – which serves in fiction too as a thread that can be ‘read’ as well as ‘red’.

This seems to be the reason for invoking H.D. into the curation by Will Holder. Amongst the finds lying about the place in the exhibition are copies of a limited (to 500 copies) edition of HD’s Palimpsest, which can be picked up lurking on the catalogue shelves at the end of the exhibition and taken away for free. H.D. took from Freud the image of the palimpsest as a writing surface on which everything written on it throughout its history leaves a trace, including traces of its partial or full erasure, like the unconscious (Ucs.). The synonyms for labyrinth make easy meat of attempts to see how palimpsests include many mazes and tangles, unclear paths that force decisions about meaning. The published Palimpsest in this exhibition has on its back cover a quotation from one of Doolittle’s letter that makes this even more evident:

‘I want to clear up an old tangle. Well, I do not put my personal self into my poems. But my personal self [Hilda Doolittle} has got between me and my real self, my real artist personality [H.D.}. And in order to clear the ground, I have tried to write things down – in order to think straight. I have endeavoured to write straight.

… in the novel I am working through a wood, a tangle of bushes and bracken out to a clearing, where I may see clear again.

I am reading this book currently. I expect, perhaps though even intend, to find evidence of labyrinthine process at the level of meaning and form as I do, but the ‘wood’ and ‘tangle’ are already labyrinths in Higgins.

Another coincidental link of exhibition (and its handbook – available for pdf download on the exhibition site) is the use in the latter of an installation based on the text and images of Le Livre du Chasse (1387-89) by Gaston Phébus. Although with important differences, I see herein some similar unintended similarities with Higgins’ use of Paulo Uccello’s The Hunt in the Forest (c. 1465-70) and its effect on C.S. Lewis (164f). But this is by the by.

In describing the exhibition as a labyrinth, I speak of my impression and those expressions I read in the faces of other visitors. There are no labels in this exhibition. One is forced to look at the guide (handed out on entry) for such information as there is, using its charts and maps as clues to the objects and collections of objects found. The initial installation, arranged on the gallery floor and to be revisited again from a high vantage point from a created balcony in the gallery on the next floor up is to be interpreted as a forest scene in which represented objects partake of the qualities of their sculptural medium or material (a theme which will resonate throughout) to invoke boundary-crossing themes between life and death, free and bound, animal and human, animate or still life. The hunt emerges in the next room through collections of horns which are used to call or represent signs of warning (a fog horn for instance), intent or collaborative plan (as in a hunt) or even signs that we accept as meaning art (musical horns). The trick of the signifier – horn originates from a zoological form – its use metonymically is zoomorphic – does not pass you by.

But we are used to doors between rooms as signifiers of liminality between spaces containing differences of meaning. Skaers has made both labyrinth and palimpsest of her exhibition by altering the museum space itself – lowering floors from the original, building windows to and from the outside and ambient light therefrom where there were previously none – and the signs of that erasure being made clear. The best example is a door from the original building now set on the wall where it used to function as a door in its original space, but (now), the floor underneath it having been lowered, exists only as a (door)-framed artwork.

And Skaer has utilised former staircases used for administration of the gallery only into public staircases, although some lead (as in any good maze) to nowhere. Upstairs there is a darkened space you enter with trepidation to find a three-seat sofa and a film on loop. This film uses inhabitants of the same South Sea island Gauguin represents in Why Are you Angry? (1896), with contemporary Tahitian women both creating tableaux of various other Gauguin pictures. These women also use words and, together with documentary imagery, they show why they and their ancestors in Gauguin’s time might be angry at colonial status and the attempts of Western art to naturalise them as ‘primitive’ and passive peoples.

Beyond this are designs of different kinds that focus on built environments for the arts, especially those that might be conceptually appropriate housing of an art piece such as Moore’s Fallen warrior – a model of which is created in miniature.

We enter the upper balconies (once unavailable to visitors) of the Georgian Gallery, via the Dermatome Man from the Anatomy Museum’s collection. This figure illustrates the relation of skin and exterior body surfaces to sections of the spinal column of the nervous system, with its remnant of the human tail showing. It opens a dialogue about the art involved in scientific representations, including collections of organic plant material. A collection of mounted ferns that emphasise issues of space, framing and the effect of creating object forms from animate material. Meanwhile we look down to an installation on the floor of the Georgian Gallery. Before we get there, we cannot help but explore the corridors of the upper balconies, especially those opened to us that lead to dead ends marked (sometimes) by ’Staff Only’ signs. On seats there lie copies of Palimpsest that advertise their availability at the end of the exhibition.

Descending the spiral staircases to the Georgian Gallery, we encounter an installation based on the continual reproduction of an original found object that has been crafted as art. Elements of these reproductions change in their sequence of composition – partly because of the nature of the different materials from which the apparently same form is crafted. We see here transformations as materials and memory of the last model enforce variations small and large, in the margins of the object, its fissures and slots. We leave via a catalogue library where a copy of Palimpsest can be obtained but isn’t always – indeed when I visited – it was rarely (over an observed 20-minute period).

This account is neither critically nor descriptively other than very limited. What I wanted to show was the almost overwhelming range and puzzling (riddling) sequence of the puzzles and riddles objects in a museum collection might pose if arranged with a difference. The handbook summarises this aim as an ‘exploration of irrationality in collections’. We are denied the conventions of the universal museum – a kind of comforting script that explains away difference and makes strange transitions normal. It shows that collecting and curation are now high and collaborative art where responses such as being overwhelmed, lost and puzzled are legitimated rather than suppressed or made signs of limitation in visitors of education (and/or class).

This exhibition should be seen – again and again. Not so that repletion habituates but that it allows differences in the ‘parts’ of collections to become more articulate and mutually challenging. See it if you can. Three cheers to Edinburgh University for such brave investment in art and art collection development. It can cause in the visitor, and reader of Palimpsest, a reaction described by Higgins, in describing the effect on her of Rome (that museum of a city:

Perhaps it is Rome’s shameless airing of all its histories, massed together in a state of wreckage and stubborn survival, that can make it a particularly forceful backdrop to the consideration of oneself, one’s own history and ruined pasts (118).’

Thus, too the labyrinth – being lost and puzzled in a work of art (and Daedalus is he master-artist) can be a force of reconfiguration for not only selves but also societies.

Linked to this review are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others (this).

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings.

3.       An introduction through Charlotte Higgins’s new book.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey.

All the best


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Charlotte Higgins 'Red Thread: On Mazes & Labyrinths': The truth within being Lost and Amazed

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018, 17:13

Labyrinths I: The truth within being Lost and Amazed (Charlotte Higgins Red Thread: On Mazes & Labyrinths London, Jonathan Cape).

There is a fine tradition of taking themes and tracing them in literature and art both diachronically and synchronically. In the latter case we often evoke Baxandall’s ‘period eye’ to look at how a trope, such as the hortus conclusus, is looked at within the distinct limits of a historical period. Schama in Landscape and Memory deals with both synchronic and diachronic overview of three great tropes in looking, for instance at the trope of the forest in Germanic art – looking at its how its meanings change from the breakup of the Roman Empire to its colonisation as a myth of the Arian Germanic by Hitler and the remnant effect of that in the more contemporary art of Anselm Kiefer.

There is some suspicion of such approaches from some older art-historical traditions, such as Panofsky’s supposedly scientific iconological methodologies. Such approaches, based on a fear of subjective interpretation, create paradigmatic stages of interpretative procedure to keep subjectivity in check. Art history, even where it is not based on iconographical reading, has still maintained this distrust of the subjective of which strict ‘period eye’ approaches are the most typical. These insist that that there is a small range of meanings in any one period for any one trope – and hence reserve interpretation for academic elites.

Not so Charlotte Higgins, who allows meanings to cross periods – to change, mutate but also co-exist as in some transhistorical palimpsest. Moreover, these readings allow ‘moderns’ to see ancient art through their own eyes such that whatever a trop means will be layered by history diachronically and networked synchronically and diachronically to associate meanings and even the domain of other tropes – for instance the relation of labyrinths to tropes such as webs, weaving and woods. Her most fascinating reading ties Freud’s love of Michelangelo’s Moses to the riddle involved in how knots appear in Moses’ beard as a reflex of emotion, thought and the birth of psychological machinery for evaluation (56ff.)

I have a great liking for this approach which embraces subjective interpretation (as sometimes does Schama) such that those versions of the trope that emerge in developmental self-stories such as those Higgins tells – of her experience in Crete as both a child and adult and through her correspondence with a Greek teacher and auto-didact she met as a child as a guide in Heraklion museum and concerning Knossos. But the star is her exposure of why ‘Troy Town’ emerges as an English place name – at Saffron Walden for instance - (83ff.) or the labyrinth is used by scientists to describe the ear (107) or became the source for the most memorable pieces of land art – Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (104).

Labyrinths are not just mazes but also palaces, woods and transcendental spaces (and sometimes all of these in, say, Homer, Virgil, Dante and Milton) – they are external and internal, underground and over-ground, physical or mental, umbrageous or just interminably obscure or puzzles that merely need clarity of insight to see them clearly. They are associated with spiders and snakes, evil and divine (if inscrutable) good and with complex fictional or social narratives and networked webs. They are all of these we see in Eliot’s Middlemarch – as descriptions of Rome’s geography or Casaubon’s mind. They are that and more in Borges’ model of fiction, and in any riddling narrative such as James’ The Turn of the Screw.

They are at their most social in the myths that emerge from historical archaeology – especially the early exploration of Minoan culture by Arthur Evans – but from thence in the weaving of fictions or transcendent myths, such as the Laocoon and the art that sprung from it – in Michelangelo and Titian. Through Minotauromachie (179), we emerge into the wonderful art of Picasso. However, one of the most fascinating revelations to me was their use in Gothic cathedrals such as Chartres (65).

I loved this book. I read it while on holiday in Edinburgh and the Festival has produced many experiences of which I want to write with Higgin’s discoveries (in something less and yet more than the limited meaning implied by that word in academic research) in mind.

They are:

1.       The exhibition The Green Man in and of the Talbot Rice Gallery, Edinburgh University collated and curated by Lucy Skaer and others.

2.       An art installation on Maritime Lane, Leith Adam Linklater: Mythopoeia by Andy Cummings.

3.       This introduction.

4.       An addendum: the way in to Anselm Kiefer - a labyrinth with no end has, of course, no way out.

5.       A second addendum - Paul Broks: the labyrinth in the Neuropsycholgist's Odyssey.

All the best


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Steve’s 2018 Booker Longlist: Guy Gunaratne 'In Our Mad and Furious City'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 26 Aug 2018, 21:44

Steve’s 2018 Booker Longlist: Guy Gunaratne In Our Mad and Furious City London, Tinder Press.

After a drear time with fair but uninspiring novels, that I couldn’t praise so leave alone, from this year’s longlist, I turned to this debut novel. What a difference have we here:

This novelist lives in and with the shadows of a highly socialised tradition in literature: one that attends to themes of social justice and the emotions that swell and subside within that realm. Here is an analogue from Aeschylus:

But heavily my wrath

Shall on his land fling forth the drops that blast and burn.

Venom of vengeance, that shall work such scathe

As I have suffered; where that dew shall fall,

Shall leafless blight arise,

Wasting Earth's offspring, -- Justice, hear my call! --

And thorough all the land in deadly wise

Shall scatter venom, to exude again

In pestilence of men.

What cry avails me now, what deed of blood,

Unto this land what dark despite?


In Ardan’s Irish heroic rap this becomes:

Cuh’ for me to battle you is a fucking honour killing (169)

So, at least for the Furies in Aeschylus Eumenides, the last of his Oresteia, justify their role in the affairs of humans and their social arrangements, at least before Athena soothes them into accepting a blessed role in a new and blessed city (polis) of Athens, beloved of gods and democracy. The city in Gunaratne is London, a city (mad and furious and no polis) that has become home to something like Aeschylus’ Furies, ready constantly to ‘scatter venom, to exude again in pestilence’.

The imagery of Fury and the furious in this debut novel could come straight from the Oresteia and homes itself in the appeal of justice by vengeance in the same way. And the roots of such thinking are various in London: the temporary death of a just Islam, in the person of Jusuf’s father and its replacement by a vengeful Mujahedeen; from Belfast and the laws of the factions ‘governing’ it in the 1960s, in Caroline’s story, and its inheritance by Ardan; and, in the repeated story from father to son in Nelson from the Windrush generation, that moves from riot to vengeful riot in an apparently unstoppable circle. Except for the hero of this novel, Sevlon! At the head of a scarred multicultural mates, Sevlon remains for, after one reading only, a puzzle but a marvellous and attractive one. There does seem to be some attempt to see in Sevlon a focus of possible redemption, but I haven’t got my head round that yet. Except that he, like Orestes, ends as a ‘runner’ but one who runs until he might find justice not just for himself but for ‘him’, the wronged Ardan and Yusuf (276).

This is an exciting novel – full of literal and metaphorical fire and fury but located in a politics whose dispersed roots come into a multicultural whole in London. At its heart is a multicultural positive – a group of mates, who, at the end of the novel, become the subjects of fury but whose meanings live on I think in the readers’ hopes.

I don’t want to say more – too many spoilers would come but this is a wonderful novel and would be a worthy winner if it gets there! Let’s hope at least for the shortlist!

All the best


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Emil Nolde: 'Colour is Life' National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh

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Emil Nolde: Colour is Life National Gallery of Modern Art in Scotland, Edinburgh

I prepared myself for this exhibition by reading an introductory art-text (one with lots of background, plenty of large-scale reproductions) on German expressionism. Why, I ask myself? I think it is to clear myself from any interest in Nolde himself – who remained constant to the ideology of National Socialism and the kind of ‘heimat’ structure of feeling that based itself on virulent anti-Semitism even up to the very end of the Nazi period and the absorption of his own ‘heimat’ into Denmark. This even though Hitler himself appears to have seen Nolde as the prime example of ‘degenerate art’ (a category that could include multiple ideologies and not only those of natural enemies of Nazism).

When you see this exhibition, you must look away (whilst remembering why, in disgust, you do so) from the central painting of his Christian epic, Martyrdom (1921), in which the lower-half of Christ is sandwiched between the most anti-Semitic caricatures you can possibly have ever seen – so much so that the Gallery’s introductory film, avoids showing the bottom half of Martyrdom II. But this apart, the fear of Nolde’s almost certainly sincere Nazism seems much less important than the potential meanings of most of his other art, such as the more mature take on South-Sea island resistance to colonisation that makes Gauguin seem the more racist because the latter is more unable to see the ‘other’ as anything but his possession. There is too Nolde’s very fine and absolutely horrifying anti-war work in the First World War, especially Battlefield (1913).

He great paintings have a kind of restlessness and dynamism, produced by energetic impasto brushwork and the fusion (especially at their supposed boundaries) of colours) such that they speak energy and make Matisse seem tame (perhaps over-civilized). The greatest of all of these are the seascapes, especially the ecstatically sublime and destructive The Sea B (1930).

The Sea B (1930)

Standing in front of this painting inevitably releases a kind of feeling of danger and instability (the very opposite of the homely stability associated with heimat and nationalist self-satisfaction). Indeed, the other great picture in my view is that very early one inspired by Ensor, Still Life of Masks (1911). Here the use of very thick red impasto for the lips of the masks (Nolde’s lips fascinate throughout – there is a dissertation there somewhere) allow the background pale blues to shine through in a more frightening view of the post-Nietzsche ‘void’ than anything even in his Nolde’s highly paranoiac Christian paintings. Where there is not restlessness and fear of dissolution, I sense there is only the void in this great painter.

One might not want to think of that looking at his equally great flower and garden paintings (especially Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red) (1942) which are almost a discussion on the meanings of ‘red’ that it will take Rothko to challenge in quality. Of course, this exhibition will be remembered for featuring the great ‘unpainted paintings’ of the 1930s and 40s. I feel there was not enough time in my day to take these as seriously as they should be taken (even an apparently simple single example such as Skater).

His society paintings are as good as Kirchner, perhaps (I think) better and his Cabaret set take us into and beyond the world of Sally Bowles.

This must be seen. No reproduction does Nolde justice – what we see is paint in action (paint as embodied motion) but only in these originals.

All the best


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Queer theory and Rupert Thomson’s 'Never Anyone But You'

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Queer theory and Rupert Thomson’s Never Anyone But You, London, Corsair Books

Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. 'Queer' then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative.[1]


By this definition, Thomson, one of our finest British novelists, has always been a writer of queer novels. His subject-matter and incidents (where for instance a nun might eat a repast that is loaded onto (and sometimes smeared on sexual organs) the naked body of a man who has been kidnapped and chained in a sinister room in The Insult) have always held him back from mainstream appreciation, although seen (by David Bowie for instance) as somewhat of a one-person cult.

The decision to base a novel on the true life-stories of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore is strangely normative in comparison. Both women, who became, almost by accident, half-sisters and by design, lovers and life-long partners[2], play many roles – some in secrecy, others quite openly and some in a way that can only be called involuntary or automatic. Hence the underlying theme of female madness, suicide and the role of the asylum, which orchestrates the novel, even in its the histories of major characters like Schwob’s mother, and background characters, such as the former owner of the House with No Name. This is not a story that can be corralled into the LGBT identity novel, with much of what we experience of human sexuality being an experience of questioning uncertainty where statements are hardly ever statements but puzzles. Look for instance at this resumé of the marital history of the ‘real’ character, Georgette, where duration is not at all equated with stability of social or personal arrangement:

She had lived with Maurice Maeterlinck for almost twenty years – she had inspired many of his plays – but in the end he found her attitude to sexuality quite bewildering. It was known, for instance, that she went to bed with other men – with women too – and that she considered such behaviour quite normal. In those days, in Paris, it sometimes seemed that women were more powerful than men (121).

That last sentence is determinedly ‘queer’. It is an axiom of sexism that women hare seen as more powerful than men, disguising the overdetermined structural power inequalities in most societies. In this context, though, that statement wears its quality as a mask of an unstated reality: one of deep uncertainty about ‘norms’. What attracted Thomson to Cahun, as it attracted Marcel to her, even when the former is holding a cold knife to the other’s throat, is the remoteness of identity in self or other when persons interact:

‘Don’t move,’ she said.

Her face was stiff, her eyes glittered through peepholes in her skin. What had she written once? Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all the masks. The ceiling above her tilted at an angle, like a ship’s deck in heavy seas (280).

The metaphor here is born from a contingent action, where a ceiling seen from below only appears to tilt as Claude’s knife pushes back Marcel’s head. It is subsequently Marcel’s own perception of that tilt as an instance of a moment in an apparently endless circular motion that is merely projected onto it.  Are we witnessing then actions that determine reactions or purely contingent associative perceptions and interpretations that merely create an appearance of determinant action and motion? The italicised words, of course, are Cahun’s, and what we see here is a character resurrecting another character’s earlier printed words to interpret the present personal situation. But her interpretation uses a metaphor of the swell of seas that has been Marcel’s from the beginning when Claude’s body meets hers:

I longed to go further, but didn’t dare. Instead, I drew the smell of her skin into my lungs. I breathed her in. My heart rocked like a small boat caught in the wake of a larger one (18).

The dangerous destabilisation of the world is the essence of these elemental metaphors. That destabilisation occurs where masks become more than masks and take in a dangerous life of their own as in the lovers’ resistance-games played with the occupying Nazi forces. The Soldier with No Name like the House with No Name become forces even though they are difficult to imagine – names being the means by which we normatively imagine. Marcel hints at this when she compares her choice of a life with Claude to one with a man:

The nervousness or apprehension I was feeling didn’t have anything to do with the life Patrice could have offered me. I knew that life. It had been all around me when I was growing up, and it was still here, … . No, it was the life I was living that unnerved me. The path I had chosen was the one I could not imagine (72).

That all this is mediated through Marcel is even more interesting. Claude may be different and often uncategorizable, but Marcel is ‘hard to read’ (216). She presents as the shifting focus of thoughts, feelings and embodied responses that may not even be readable as is revealed in metaphors such as these: ‘There was a flutter in my stomach, like the pages of a book turned over by a gust of wind (72).’ Beautiful and disturbing!

Being ‘hard to read’ is part of a constant birth, exchange and death of social roles in a play that makes up lives in this wonderful novel, with perhaps the wonderful and sad Max in his attempt to be a lover when he can no longer be just an actor (97).

That all of this is enacted against the background of surrealism is important too, but the oddness of Dali (and his sexual voyeurism), Gala, Breton and others is hardly the centre of this novel’s queerness. In a sense, it merely adds a contrast with a more easily graspable kind of queerness. What is ungraspable are the sometimes-comic interplay between people, their relationships and their absurd representations in types that don’t match them – like the wonderful affair between Claude and the rigid Robert Steel (59f.), whom she nevertheless represents to herself as Antinous and Rimbaud (queer archetypes that have nothing at all to do with Bob).

There are too many beauties in this novel. Why, was it not chosen for the Booker given some of the dross that was?

All the best


[1] David Halperin (1997:62), Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] For photographs of Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore) and Lucie Schwob (Claude Cahun) see : https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2016/09/surrealist-sisters-artistic-resistance.html

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Victoria Crowe exhibition National Portrait Gallery of Scotland

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 19 Aug 2018, 08:29

Victoria Crowe
This exhibition is described in the following website: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/victoria-crowe-beyond-likeness.

I visited on 16th August whilst at the Edinburgh Festival. It wasn’t an exhibition I intended to go to – being so busy and already overloaded with events. But since my tickets for the Emil Nolde exhibition were for next week and I wanted to meet the requirement of a A843-A844 Bridging Course exercise before the end of this week, I called in here.

And was I grateful. I didn’t know Victoria Crowe’s work previously, but I found it moving and exciting. So, here’s my exhibition experience.

Let’s start with the shows sub-title: ‘Beyond Likeness’. Portraits, I had thought, usually involve contexts outside the ‘likeness’ of their subject to a sitter at some specifiable point in space and time: they are tied to dynastic, national, family, professional & company affiliations – they capture a social role often and are representative of that role and its institutional icons. Otherwise, thought I, why a ‘National Portrait’ Gallery. Undeniably over-simple that thought and I have had to rethink this after this exhibition.

Crowe’s portraits tell not only of people in a social role – although they are that. There is a range of intellectuals, artists (of various kinds) and politicians to name just a few but the portraits of them deliberately go beyond that role. There is something so personal and relational – as if the person in the portrait were in the process of not only characteristic activity but of actively making a relationship between themselves, the viewer and the sometimes abstract and sometimes very material entities which made up the boundary between their internal and external self.

Sometimes, a device is used to do that, as in the use of an inner-frame to contain images of an inner and past life of the poet Katherine Raine. The frame is a ‘real one’ – it belongs to a mirror gifted to the sitter by the artist Winifred Nicolson. In it words (from Raine’s poetry) and semi-liminal related (and sometimes non-relating) images occupy the space making it feel over-constraining. These then are pictures of ideas and emotions and have agency in the communication of thought and feeling that both links viewer and sitter – showing what is like and what is unlike.

The most moving instances of that are those private pictures of her son, Ben, becoming an undergraduate and those following his loss – liminal self-portraits of a mother in a mirror frame – in the margin of a painting dominated by a lily of mourning. This feels too terrible to describe. Note though how the curation of the exhibition reserves the private life of Crowe’s family to a space at the end of the exhibition – a space in which pictures of Ben, Gemma and Michael can be seen as we congregate in a narrow corridor holding these pictures – both mounted vertically and in a showcase and thus seen on a horizontal plane. These pictures crowd in on one – represented by the log-jam of visitors at this endpoint.

They force the extremely personal to confront the extremely public – love as emotional space struggling to exist in a very public place.

I thought I’d concentrate though on one picture which has public and personal meaning for me but which were less painful in their message – a pictures of the great psychologist and socio-political icon, R.D. Laing.

Laing was a controversial figure since his dissection of the some of the psycho-social effects showed these to be sometimes as toxic as ideology and denial of painful emotion makes them seem cosy and of a unitary goodness. Let others see what they can in the portrait of Ronnie. Crowe spoke of their interaction as extremely socially uncomfortable in the first stages (some of which appear in photographs on show) until fuelled by excess drink and a deeper level of communication. In the portrait, the depths of Laing’s meaning to Crowe emerge in part from objects that surround him – a Byzantine icon and a metronome but also in the bottom left hand corner the cover of Laing’s The Politics of Experience in which the frame of a head holds icons of both conflict and insight. But that Laing was closely guarded himself seems communicated in his closed square and in the woven defences that surround him and somewhat enclose, occlude (in darkness) and hide him – even the thickly woven wood in the window-frame to his left. The studies shown in the exhibition concentrated on Crowe’s attempt to get right the very closely woven and thick cardigan in which colours are trapped by a dominant repetive motif of black squares. The cardigan covers a roll-top jumper. I tend not to see this picture of a man struggling to keep warm as insignificant to the emotional relationships in this painting.

But go and see it and decide for yourselves. There is much much more.

All the best

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The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (exhibition): Rembrandt: Britain’s Rediscovery of the Master

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 12 Aug 2018, 19:49

The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (exhibition): Rembrandt: Britain’s Rediscovery of the Master

The reviews of this exhibition sometimes play the ‘great master’ game: The Guardian’s reviewer says of the use of Glenn Brown, in the introductory curator’s film and on show with paintings based on Rembrandt works:

Who cares what Brown thinks about Rembrandt once you’ve seen his glib postmodernist exercises near to some of the most profound works of art ever created? Where Rembrandt used oil paint to probe the deepest recesses of existence, Brown creates self-conscious, fussy parodies full of perverse arabesques that stay steadfastly on the surface.[1]

Whether this be true or not, it hardly seems to get the point that this is a show not about Rembrandt but about him and his reception by audiences, including influential opinion builders like artists and collectors. The reviewer reserves his barb for Glenn Brown we note rather than confront the more numerously represented Frank Auerbach, who is harder to target. However, currently in the Laing Gallery in Newcastle, Brown is curating through his experimental art-objects the reception of the entire Laing collection, including some fine Auerbach’s and Bomberg’s.

This review is a ‘self-conscious, fussy parody’ that refuses to re-see a Master without insisting on that being entirely by their own skill and unaided insight, even via the open eyes of historical reception. Hence it may miss the point, even of Reynold’s touching up some of these masters. Fortunately, some of us try to see Rembrandt but accept views of him from elsewhere – whether by plagiarism, imitation, competition or, as in Auerbach’s case, sheer admiration of someone who has solved some of the problems raised by the problems of painting:

When I was young I felt like I was in the ring with (him) … Now I just need (his) help.’[2]

You can do worse than contemplate what Auerbach does with Rembrandt, including one modest drawing of Three Trees in this exhibition.

Yet the Guardian reviewer is correct in one respect. To see these rare Rembrandts, some not seen for many decades or at all, as well as great icons like Belshazzar’s Feast and The Mill, is to see something unbelievably marvellous. I don’t feel I need to prove though that I am sensitive to this by rubbishing Glenn Brown.

In the end, what compels is the mastery of what understanding the aging and change-through-time process conveys to Rembrandt and how he delivers that competence as a master of a style appropriate for a great subject. I could have stayed for ages in front of the tiny and lesser-known Head of an Old Man (1659) without needing to see less in A Man in Oriental Costume (1639) or the wonderful illuminations of An Old Woman Reading (1655) or the Falstaffian Portrait of an Elderly Man (1659). Of Rembrandt himself I hesitate to say more. I still feel overwhelmed.

However, reception studies of artists tell us a lot about what is seen in certain historical circumstances and how and why, if we are prepared to reflect in this way and not revert to the judgements of the ego and its pretence to ‘objectivity’. I have not before in an exhibition been so moved to feel I must review my thoughts of a painter as I have from seeing one rather wonderful Augustus John portrait inspired by Rembrandt. Rembrandt it is not, but neither is it what I though Augustus John was. Elliot (2018:51) kindly quotes John’s conclusion from seeing Rembrandt in the flesh:

‘the scales of aesthetic romanticism fell from my eyes, disclosing a new and far more wonderful world.’

All the best


Seifert, T. (Ed.) (2018) Rembrandt: Britain’s Rediscovery of the Master Edinburgh, National Galleries of Scotland

[2] Elliott, P. (2018) ‘Rembrandt and Britain: The Modern Era’ in Seifert, T (Ed) op.cit. cites this.

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The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (exhibition): Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 12 Aug 2018, 19:53

The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (exhibition): Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat

To have no screen between the part he play’d

And him he play’d it for, …

(The Tempest cited Dean (2018) – and placed in the mouth of The Actor as part of his script)

Art is what makes life more interesting than art

(Dean (2018) – and placed in the mouth of The Actor as part of his script)

Having missed three major exhibitions of Dean’s work in London this year, I thought a self-consciously focused and small exhibition of her work during my Festival visit would be no substitute. I cannot know if that is correct, but I do know that this exhibition needs no comparison with any other and that Dean’s work repays massively any interest you take in it. The Fruitmarket’s exhibition is superbly and sensitively curated and need take second place to no other because of this.

At its heart is a 50-minute film piece called ‘Event for a Stage’, from which the two quotations above derive. They are sufficiently indicative that Dean’s reputation is based on deep reflection of the materials, media and modes of contemporary art and their reflection in pre-contemporary aesthetic thought. Of the latter there is the late play on by Shakespeare. ‘Lie there, my art’ is another quotation from the same play containing themes pregnant of the role of rest from self-consciousness, fiction and a search for the authentic behind artifice engraved on the still When I First Raised the Tempest (2016). The neglected Romantic playwright and marionettes’ script-writer, Heinrich von Kleist, is another.

As Dean makes clear, you can only value art when it explores the paradoxes that make it both like and unlike, perhaps even essentially so, life. Art is both itself, its prescription and its ‘post-scription’. Her stills The Russian Ending (2001) toy with this idea, in making problematic the role of text and image in photogravure. Text both prescribes and critically comments as an afterthought, and it is difficult here to know which act it represents as you read it and with necessity integrate that reading into your visual experience – capturing how meaning is planned and determined in the art in the first place or revised in the second. The still of Sheffield really haunted me for that reason – almost because it dares the visuals it marks to be feel different than that which they appear to be for us and to radically resist such revision.

Many pieces are about the process of making art and meaning in life. Some are about looking for an artist to give one meaning – a lovely short film in which the only script is Ben Wishaw calling on ‘Anne’ (the playwright-poet-classicist Anne Carson) who is framed in an entirely different space to recognise and validate him. She doesn’t and can’t. He is locked in an entirely different framework of script.

But if ‘art’ in effect is to make ‘life more interesting than art’, then art needs to be constantly challenged to include and work with and against its own limitations. Shakespeare knew he was playing games by asking actors to talk about the ‘parts’ they play. He couldn’t have, but Dean can, play the same game with the varying meanings of ‘screen’ in the Shakespeare quotation above. A screen is one of the membranes ‘Event for a Stage’ sets between actors and audiences, actors and their own lives. Dean emphasises that ‘screen’ remediates her ‘event for a stage’ by splicing it from at least three different live events in which the same actor plats the same part but in different wigs (including no wig), make-up and clothing. The contact with being mediated is all we have. If mediation screens us from the things that hurt in life, is also, like all membranes, bears the fragile limit of its own ability to protect or ‘screen’ us from harm. At one point – another pun – screen is described as a ‘film of protection’.

One point where this impinges is in the constant duplicating of the role of audiences. We are the audience not only of an actor but an audience and our role as audience is itself exposed to rupture. We watch the audience assemble as we assembled. We see them seen as they feel themselves to be unseen (and un-see-able behind a film of protection). How will they / we react to the actor leaving the theatre – refusing his role, or even not knowing what it is.

And thus, the artist.

This is just my unrestrained, uncontrolled thoughts. See it for yourself. Have your own.

All the be


Dean, T. (2018) Tacita Dean: Woman with a Red Hat Edinburgh, The Fruitmarket Gallery.

Publication contains the script of ‘Event for a Stage’ as well as samples from the major stills and film work in the exhibition.

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Pain and Pleasure in the reception of the violent nude male: Reflecting on Nethersole, Scott (2018) Art and Violence

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 10 Aug 2018, 18:17

Pain and Pleasure in the reception of the violent nude male: Reflecting on Nethersole, Scott (2018) Art and Violence: In Early Renaissance Florence New Haven & London, Yale university Press.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo Battle of the Nude Men (probably late 1470s) engraving 42.4 x 60.9 cm, Cleveland, Museum of Art[1]

I seriously think that books based on PhDs are very difficult to enjoy, though intensely instructive. Hence, I don’t want to describe the book here but to use some ideas from its richly complex and nuanced arguments to develop my own interests. My own interests stemmed from thinking about the elision of the classical male nude by Winckelmann with a concept of an achieved style that he characterised as the sine qua non of true art and as absent when:

Manly beauties had ceased to be an object of regard, that people no longer knew how to prize them, then this very disregard may be considered as one cause of the decline of art at that time.[2]

Nethersole (2018:191f.) makes the key observation that the sources of pleasure in art as known to Winckelmann are not those that necessary motivated the use of classical male nudes in the art of the Florentine Renaissance, that whereas the former’s aesthetic and erotic engagement places us as viewers in a distance and lost past, represented by antiquarianism, scholarship and aesthetics, the latter relates to it as a ‘vital, living force’. It does this by identifying the male nude in the act of inspired or received violence from other (usually male) aggressors.

Nethersole shows that such aggression in 15th Century Florence was anticipative, caught in the moment just before a stroke was delivered or bruise / body-marking made. In fact, probably the most contentious of his readings is that art of this period, soon to be brought to an end by Savonarola, art was precisely that moment when the artist engaged the viewer collaboratively within the violence of the creative process. Thus, just as creative invention can be conceived as a violence, so is the viewer’s ability to anticipate the pains just to be inflicted on an, as yet, virgin body. The key trope for this, according to Nethersole (op.cit. : 100f.) is the aestheticisation of the scenes of Christ’s flagellation to be found in versions, for instance, by Francesco Bottocini, Bartolomeo di Giovanni and Fra Angelico. These examples place Christ frontally before a pillar, rather than behind and facing it, and avoid showing any marks (as yet) on the flesh. The role of the reader in anticipating these wounds and blood flow is to recreate the sin in the viewer for which Christ died – in effect, viewing such art is becoming Christ’s torturer.

The argument is of course more complex and guarded but ends, using Aristotle’s notion of catharsis, in suggesting that the viewers creative participation with artist is violent for both collaborators. And our pleasure lies therefore in recognition of the depth and truth of the representation of unsullied beauty and the human male’s potential to be that which sullies, mars or destroys that beauty in the beaten-up Christ or gladiator they create through expectations based on their visual memories  in the current viewing process. The argument depends somewhat on the creation of a ‘period eye’, and hence on Baxandall, but it achieves quite a novel end – almost a new theory of art in the making. To recreate that process would be to try to recreate the entire book and why it needs, to establish its final argument, to instance the Florentine Renaissance attraction to topics like Christian flagellation, social punishment, bestiality, the centaur as symbol of violence and artistic form and why and how these topics link in the mind of the period.

It was though good to be left with some ideas that about the instance from Antonio del Pollaiuolo that he chooses (see above). This shows how far from Winckelmann is the Florentine take on the nude male, with our interest not in body as such but the poses and gestures that anticipate giving and receiving violence. Nethersole’s (ibid: 177ff.) discussion of it is excellent but I feel that it suffers from understatement, as PhDs should.

This picture though captures a moment of stasis before the most horrible and catastrophic consequences occur on the bodies of these men but yet anticipates that moment quite wonderfully, even in anticipative facial gestures of pain to-be-felt. But the marvel is the link of this pre-violent (imaginatively realised as violent) to artistic pose both in the complex contrapposto stances and their shapely designed interaction. There is pattern and dance throughout – not only in bodies but weapons. These both create beautiful forms that network the whole, just as the background millet forest is networked by complex growths. These are mirrored in the chain in the centre of the picture that snakes violently but also links the two central men about to complement each other in their mutual deaths. The issue seems to be: see my excellent disegno, adore my invenzione. Nethersole quite complexly argues that invenzione became for Florence in the Renaissance, equated with scenes of classical battle.

A very satisfying argument in a book that is a little uneven and sometimes feels hard to hold together in one’s head. I’m still thinking about how to use these readings in my own work. What work? Still working on that too.              


[1] Sourced from: By Antonio del Pollaiuolo - Own work Sailko Taken on 4 February 2014, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39480508

[2] Winckelmann, J.J. (1849:274,170) trans. Lodge, G.H.  The History of Ancient Art Vol. II. Cambridge, Mass. (Kindle Ed.: nos. are Location nos.).

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Social Class, Classifying and Descriptions in Art - Paul Klee to start with!

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 9 Aug 2018, 16:24

Classifying or ‘classing’ the metaphors of a Painter’s Relationship to their Canvas: Reflecting on Düchting, H. (2002) Paul Klee: Painting Music Munich, Prestel Verlag.       

Düchting’s work is a scholarly examination of the varied uses of references to music as a metaphor for art in both the act of painting and in reading painting. It should be clearer perhaps in themed monographs on individual artists how and why we are using music to describe painting: whether it is as process or product for instance. In most cases, music is used as means of ekphrasis - a description of a paintings effect and affect in relation to some ideal viewer. For instance Düchting’s discussion of the wonderful and huge work (Ad Parnassum 1932 100 x 125 cm) by Klee discusses the picture in terms of the images it models from landscape and architecture before summarising why the expressive means of music (and here specifically ‘polyphonic harmony’) might also describe these.[1]

Klee saw polyphonic painting as superior to all other arts, because he felt that spatial and temporal dimensions can be given visual expression in a two-dimensional representation as overlapping and intersecting planes. … The origins of the title [of Ad Parnassum 1932] derive from a famous treatise on music entitled Gradus ad Parnassum (1725) by Johann Josef Fux, which taught generations of musicians the technique of polyphonic harmony.[2]

There is ambiguity here of course. Are we talking about Klee adopting a ‘technique’ of painting process as musical learners adopted Fux or are we talking about a metaphor for what a painting as product achieves in the eyes of ideal beholders, which we might equate here – if rather sloppily – with the intention of the painter. I think this is deliberately unclear. An effect on the viewer is not, after all, a technique, although the artist’s painting techniques may contribute to this effect. The ambiguity remains to stop us asking the question: are not the descriptions of painting in musical terms not merely vehicles of an otherwise indescribable tenor (to use the constituent terms of metaphor) rather than descriptive of anything technical action or perceptible entity. In effect painting by Klee is no more ‘music’ in its form or content than is a Gainsborough portrait.

Let’s see the painting in a possibly unreliable form – colours reproduction is not usually wonderful or reliable.[3]

Nowhere does the sense of multiple voices actually describe what we see here for me as a viewer – other than, for me at least, the suggestion of the reproduction of a complex set for Verdi’s Egyptian opera. Indeed the theatrical ‘metaphor’ (and it is no more than that helps me more, almost organising the picture into the ‘overlapping and intersecting planes’ mention in the quotation above. This metaphor makes sense of the architectural and landscape elements that haunt this picture, including the ‘warm circle’ nominated by Klee that many prefer to see as an evening sun. There is a pyramid and an arch. Note in the latter that the arch is not only created by the black line outline but the malformation of the otherwise more regular ‘grid of dense dots of contrasting colours’ that was Klee’s version of Seurat’s ‘divisionism’ to make the shape of a supporting arch structure, including the fact that they underscore the black curve, losing their grid-like potential partially, and in doing so suggesting depth of field.[4]

Whilst most commentary identifies the triangle in the top section with Mount Parnassus, prompted by the title, there is for me the need to see this as a shape suggestive of more overt human intervention, as a construction not a ‘found’ reality represented, even if but as an idealised fantasy. Düchting admits that Klee’s ‘graphical elements … do not lend themselves to an unambiguous interpretation’.[5] I feel moreover that this is their strength, in that they resist final ekphrasis in any one narrative, as much as one from music as well as mine of ‘theatre’.

What remains then is a set of shapes, some of which have regular geometry and many of which are quantifiably ‘measurable’ as well as qualitatively interpretable[6]. In a sense that is, for me why music works as a metaphor since it too uses measurable intervals in intersection, especially in polyphony (and opera is a good example). Yet the ‘measure’ that is music is also qualitatively ambiguous.

This is the case I believe even when Klee uses musical notation, such as a clef or fermata. One absorbed into the painting, they become visually very ambiguous.[7]

Now I have gone to a lot of trouble here to show how and why I think music is used to describe Klee’s painting. Of course Düchting also, frankly, does not rely on musical descriptive terms, and like myself, invokes architecture and landscape (I think I’d take them further than Düchting does). But in art-historical tradition it is fine to use such metaphors. This is in part a reflection of the terms that new movements in art struggle to find to describe their innovations. Both Klee and Kandinsky used music as a means to describe how and why they turned to abstraction, even in developing their art in its more figural avatars.

Yet what if we were to take another human endeavour to describe painting. When we make our choice we become immediately aware of socialised repertoires of acceptable fields of metaphor – notably those covered by bourgeois professional types associate with notions of high art. Kandinsky used music to describe his 1922 White Zigzags.

Now when I used this painting in a Masters course to describe how Kandinsky’s triangles assert energy and motion and are associated with rhythm, I compared them to more hidden background abstractions in Tom McGuinness’ The Hewer (1994), which I presented in a schematic thus:

My aim was to suggest (just that in so short an essay) how Bauhaus features in painting technique – the use of triangles in particular picked up in Kandinsky – had been potentially imported from the Bauhaus from people who influenced McGuinness in the working-class movements where, in part, he learned painting, especially Jos Thain who experienced the Bauhaus.

My aim was (it was only a 3000 word essay – but I never let that stop me) to show that McGuinness used underground working contexts as a potential metaphor for painting, not least the experienced of opposed and tensile forces against which the miner works being comparable to an artist’s relationship to canvas and paint.

Of course, it was a hopeless ambitious desire that I perhaps should have been punished more for – this is after all a 3000 word essay. If I analyse myself, I sense that I was resistant to being assessed this way in an MA Year 1 of 2 final project. Yet what concerned me was the commentary on my desire to draw metaphoric comparisons between mining work and painting. It is not that mining is not considered as art, least of all ‘high art’, but that somehow presenting it even as a possibility is considered ‘farfetched’. My feedback included this:

The comparison with Kandinsky was, however, less successful (it is not clear why this figurative painting should be seen as belonging to the history of ‘global and universal abstraction’); the analogy between painting and mining is also somewhat farfetched.

Now I don’t dispute that my argument was too sparse, and hence less successful, but I do question whether it is good enough to say the ‘analogy’ is ‘somewhat farfetched’. In effect, what I try to say (far too implicitly) here was that all such metaphors, even in the form of ‘analogy’ had I in fact proposed this, are ‘somewhat farfetched’. They try to describe the indescribable.

My suspicion about art-history is that its class origins as a discipline make it more receptive to metaphors from music, architecture and landscape formations than to mining. I may well be wrong, but I have a very strong feeling.

By the way, if anyone is interested in why I see ‘underscape’ as a domain of the abstract – not really explained in this essay, I’m happy to talk. In fact it would be great to write to talk to anyone interested in the subject and not just the task of essay-writing.


 [1] Düchting (2002:76ff.)

[2] Ibid:78

[4] Düchting (2002:69)

[5] Ibid:76

[6] Compare ibid:35

[7] Ibid: 29.

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