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Group Biography? Reflecting on Sue Roe’s (2018) In Montparnasse.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 30 Jul 2018, 06:54

Group Biography? Are the stories it tells either valid contributions or good but deficient introductions to a knowledge of artistic movements? Reflecting on Sue Roe’s (2018) In Montparnasse.

Stimulated by reading Roe, S. (2018) In Montparnasse: The emergence of Surrealism in Paris from Duchamp to Dali London, Fig Tree/Penguin

Starting an Art-History qualification in your 60s, which I did last October, is a daunting process. You feel the need of props to very partial knowledge – particularly of the stuff covered by first degrees in the discipline. Hence I lapped up Sue Roe’s In Montmartre covering Parisian Modernism (mainly through Picasso and Matisse). When her third book of ‘group biography’ emerged this year, I thought that might help me in a similar way. I discovered I had missed Roe’s ‘group biography’ of the impressionists. I am reflecting now on why I don’t feel motivated to buy the latter, giving I enjoyed In Montparnasse but in a much more modified way.

I think the reason is that I feel more suspicious of the assumptions made that a ‘group biography’ can be written that illuminates beyond the barest introduction of an artistic movement. Biographies have distinct beginnings (birth and its genetic and social-psychological prequel) and ends (death and a sequel of after death interpretation) that are ideally suited to telling of one life. Since they appeared to be inextricably linked to stories of ‘individual genius, the pendulum turned against the idea of telling biographical stories of artists. It may be that the absence that this opened and the stress on the history of either or both artistic styles or themes opened a door for ‘group biography’. After all biographies are fun: they retell stories that have the value of being seen as ‘true’, however vaguely ‘unreal’. But nowhere is this concept of the ‘group biography’ really defined in a way that can be validated in reading. The two of Roe’s works I’ve read are ‘group’ biographies in as much as they focus, at least notionally, on one geographical place within Paris.

And these formal boundaries are helpful perhaps in limiting the range of our interest in such diverse personages as form our ‘groups’. But they don’t altogether work. Montparnasse is only partially the focus of the latter book, and much less so than Montmartre was in the earlier book. Dali’s life-story in particular (perhaps Gala Eluard/Dali too) strain the biographical limits set by the title, neither being defined by Montparnasse in same way as Picasso was by Montmartre.

So I found this book stimulating but was conscious of lots of gaps – not least in the ability to compare Roe’s descriptions of artworks with a visual reproduction thereof. The selected illustrations are sparse and tend not to be the ones she writes about with most interest as turning points. I found it too difficult to follow all of the artists with collections of reproductions by my side but found that invaluable with Max Ernst, about whom the Montparnasse book is, in my view, most interesting. However, I reflect that I perhaps found it more interesting because I followed up the reference to each picture – coming across works I hadn’t known that seem to me, as they do to Roe, really boundary-breaking. If not the greatest picture I felt this most strikingly about Ernst’s ‘Madonna Chastising the Infant Jesus in front of three witnesses’. Here a mix of a mock Madonna and a Pieta, told me much about the satiric take on both great Italian Art and the assumptions about the value of punishment in Catholicism. Christ seems to fall off of a capacious knee from the anticipated force of the Madonna’s oncoming spanking blow.


Otherwise I got too much rather racy story with all the limitations that involves. Given this is a group biography of artists in Montmartre who also saw the emergence and merging of Dada and surrealism, it is hard to justify telling the story of the short gay affair between Dali and Lorca (in Spain after all entirely) except for the frisson it allowed. If you are really to tell that story, you needed to do it by contextualising the role of ideas of gender and sexuality across the group, including the practiced homophobia of Breton into which Dali bought. It is all so much more complex – but that goes not only for individuals but also groups. Look to Whitney Chadwick’s (2017) book on ‘Women and Surrealism’ and you see the absences immediately especially of the feminist and lesbian-feminist and bisexual-feminist strand that gives the fuller picture, queered in a way that is less selective than Roe’s narrative[1].

Thus Chadwick tells us of Jacqueline Lambda Breton and her support of surrealism through a love-match (André Breton left behind) with Frida Kahlo. There is also the wonderful story of Claude Cahun and her anti-Nazi life-time female partner (the theme of a great novel this year by Rupert Thomson – a novel so good, it failed to even be glanced at by this year’s eccentric Booker judges) told by Chadwick. These stories get left to the specialist feminist art-historians, but Lorca’s does not (235ff). What is the effect? It is rather homophobic in itself in its rather witty denigration of Lorca’s feelings. Dali, referring to the end of their sexual encounters, tells Lorca to find, she says:

… Surrealism as the ‘one means of Escape’ and told him he should be concentrating on the escape from rational thinking, not the events of the previous summer. (Lorca, devastated, left Spain for New York where, dazzled by the ambience4 of the city, he spent three months writing his first plays.)’            

My own feeling is that we don’t need this except as yet another salacious story of oddity. Yet ‘oddities’ (well queerness in general) was abundant in Montparnasse had Roe looked seriously at Chadwick’s pioneering work on lesbian-feminism. It would have deepened and made less prurient I think the story underlying surrealism to include this stories, which, at least in part, touch on Montparnasse gatherings.

Of course biography is selective but in ‘group biography’ the effect of selectiveness is akin to a much wider bias in the account required of themselves by past ‘artistic movements’. What we need is a ‘queer art-history’ of surrealism – one that selectively undercuts joyful recreations of misogynistic stories about Breton, Eluard and Duchamp and that takes Breton’s interest in Marx and Freud seriously (and Dali’s almost fascistic rejection thereof). The role of Etienne de Beaumont might then be more than a colourful story of men who drag up.  

Roe’s version of why surrealism might be important to us now (254) is barely comprehensible, since it both seems to prefer the original surrealists to contemporary conceptual art and to rely on a far too vague rationalisation of what surrealism did – which is presumably to delve into the ‘unconscious’. We can’t use that term in the same way Dali and Breton did as Roe admits but contemporary artists now have the discoveries of neuropsychology to help them re-specify the ‘unconscious’ whilst enabling a re-evaluation of Freud (against those old-fashioned cognitive psychologists). They are not merely dependent as conceptual artists (art povera onwards) on the surrealist as pioneers - they have new contexts of thought and social being and should be treated as having such.

 [1] Chadwick, W. (2017) The Militant Muse: Love, War and the Women of Surrealism London, Thames & Hudson.

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Guiseppe Penone ‘A Tree in the Wood’. At Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 29 Jul 2018, 16:16

Guiseppe Penone ‘A Tree in the Wood’. At Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) Ignore my effusions but see it!

I could have had a better day to see this exhibition. Temperatures neared 30, with its accompanying UK humidity, in the Exhibition environs and, although I have been looking forward to this so much, we had to rigorously ensure, we gave no energy to anything other than the Penone exhibition (although I caught the nearby lovely Miro sculptures, it had to be en passant).

I knew nothing about Penone before going nor of the movement with which he was once associated, which Germano Celant (1969:6) calls art povera (poor art) (1). I bought Celant’s book at Ilkley Book Festival that I visited the next day – the day I write this - (also hot and stormy). Celant enigmatically describes his book on the movement as an object that:

… coagulates a fluid and continuously becoming state that is exactly that of the work of art.

I read this to say that art is both an object and the emergent state of consciousness it enables. The latter seems of uncertain – to me anyway - ontology but is probably equated with what art povera calls ‘reality’. That 'reality' continues after the object is left to its own fate. Art is both an object and an 'emergent state' but is incomplete unless it is both. However, it is also ungraspable in its existence as a 'mere state' with no to-be-present-at-sometime potentiated objective existence.

Personally I love these conundrums. However, it seems unsafe to equate the 'art povera' work of Penone with the larger pile of objects that is the artworks-of-Penone-to-date. This work, as we see it now at the YSP seems not even to be contained by that partial definition above.

Here is a conundrum I found. Much of the work seems – or is attributed as doing so in the descriptions in the YSP exhibition guide – to continually reference ecological, historical and mythical past(s). Indeed I felt that even in more innocent views of the art which I saw. They were innocent because, as it were, I saw the exhibition from the tail-end backwards uninstructed by the helpful guide or the diaspora of labels in the exhibition from the guide. Emerging groggy from the visitor centre, I pushed up the hill to the golden stricken tree at the top of the garden, therby missing the appointed route and the guiding labels. 

The first work that puzzled me only coalesced as a visual pattern as I passed it – and more as I moved in passing that when I stopped and gazed. It was Senerio 6 (Pathway 6). I look back to the guide and still cannot recreate what I saw and felt and what grew in this passing glance. This is perhaps because the photographs of the guide show the works in situ in their Italian venue, set against Renaissance garden walls in decay. What I saw almost immediately suggested metamorphosis – something of the feel of remembered but distorted Ovid and Bernini on the changing state of Daphne pursued by Apollo.

This fleeting perception is less than the whole of many viewings and perspectives but it does link very obviously (once I caught up with the commentary of the guide) of Respirare l’ombra (to breathe the shadow) 2008. The latter work refers, in what we can capture in the documents of Penone’s intention, to both Ovid and Bernini versions of Daphne and Apollo – although fragmented and dispersed and somewhat worn by their history as an object. For instance laid on a segmented wall of laurel leaves we are told that the reader smells the laurel leaves. Not so when I saw them in Yorkshire on a very hot humid day in July. No sense captured anything that might, in the form of a sense of smell, share life, any more than the Apollonian gold which catches the edges of the mask into which Penone has cast a careless impression of his face.

Not that this ‘spoils’ the work of art. It makes it even more inseparable from the mutable environments in which we sense it and that will change even after we are no longer able to sense it. In fact, it suggests that even what is captured through the organs of stored and containing memory and sense-perception (those very uncomfortable but nevertheless eternal bedfellows) as an intellectualised reading. My Ovidian metamorphic readings may be precisely that and weak for thyat reason. Yet the truth is that these readings are not necessary to the reality of what is seen in an emergent space in which no one viewer holds the right to stay forever. Art and death, art and life: these are the same thing surely for artist and viewer.

Do see these works and don’t concern yourself with what I or perhaps anyone else sees! You will see differently. That is undoubtable. One work (Patate 1977), I found difficult to see without the presence of small guided tours. Latterly was one by a group of infant children and their teacher. This work is literally a pile of potatoes but amidst it are potatoes (once ‘real’ potatoes) that were forced to grow against bronze casts of parts of Penone’s body and which took on their shape ‘naturally’ – only then to be cast in art-bronze and placed amidst the pile. What did those minds in formation see here? Of what impression will they take the cast? This thought so lost me, I had to leave.

When you visit, you will be told not to touch the objects, yet touch is very inviting here. Contact between the boundaries of ‘things’ as they assert and then perhaps even lose their ‘thingness’ (haeccitas perhaps in Joyce’s version of Aquinas) is of the very core of the experience of art here. 

Skins that become internal marks (as in a trees growth), bodies that impress on things soft and hard. The very hardness of the hard is even queried – in the use of both marble and gold (representing in part the ‘material’ of that elite past of the Italian Renaissance. The boundaries of smoke. All ‘material’ by virtue of being material has only a liminal ‘thisness’. To be harmed by a touch is the conclusion that rationales curatorial advice here and in other exhibits (I remember it being emphasised for similar reasons but dissimilar effect in the Baltic Bonvincini exhibition). It is a question asked by Bernini of Apollo and his Daphne, but also of the air we 'breathe in' (inspiring us) and that hardens into tree like structures in many sculptures. It is like the bark that loosens its sensitivity to growth and a harder and perhaps antagonistic exterior (perhaps even a bronze facsimile). Air, blood, water – veins, grooves, pores and channels. Are these things metaphors of each other or are these impressions of likeness actually more than that – an issued of shared nature. Tell us – art povera. If not, let’s anyway celebrate Penone’s achievement in moving the intellect, sense and emotion thus nearer.

Steve

(1) Celant, G. [Ed.] (1969) Art Povera: Conceptual, Actual or Impossible Art london, Studio Vista

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Wrestling with an Angel – Reflecting on Kauffman, J-P. (2003) [trans. Clancy, P.]

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 25 Jul 2018, 19:35

Wrestling with an Angel – Reflecting on Kauffman, J-P. (2003) [trans. Clancy, P.] Wrestling with the Angel: The mystery of Delacroix’s Mural London, Harvill Press.

Kauffman’s book is categorised as Art History and I went to it to widen my interest in the motif or icon of Jacob’s wrestle with the Angel. I found a book that certainly illuminates the creative process and justifies seeing it as a ‘trial’ in the life of an artist, but it matters more as an account of how and why artistic motifs attain their interest. Andrew Motion, reviewing the book in 2003, identified the wrestle, as interpreted by Kauffman’s mix of autobiography, research and reflection, with a dual self. One, by some form of emotional attachment, unites body and ideal ego whilst the other sees a struggle between them[1]. Although I would not claim that there is any necessity for spiritual ambiguity in any other reflective viewer of art in their attention to the struggle Kauffman finds in himself, there is I think much that is worth attention.

My own interest in the motif came from coming across a particular 13th Century (in the ‘Trebizon Empire’) Byzantine fresco (a lunette in the outward wall of the inner walls of the North Porch of Aghia Sophia) to which I was attracted by a book by Anthony Eastmond[2]. Eastmond argues that the tripartite icons of this lunette – including Jacob’s dream of the ladder, the wrestle with the Angel and Moses at the Burning Bush are all pre-figurative Old-Testament types in Byzantine thought of the Theokotos (that which bears God – the Virgin Mary).

I found lots of evidence for this but nothing to explain the particular composition of the lunette, particularly of the centrality in which the Angel’s head, face and halo is placed. Had the lunette been complete, it is likely that that face would be immediately under a representation of God the Father. I read a lot which showed that the classical features of that face are more to be expected in the thirteenth century when another return to classical Greek and Roman models was facilitated, particularly under the Comnenian rulers restored at Trebizond.

The beauty of the Angel’s face cannot be explained alone though by classical modelling. That scultural head belies a body that transfigures into the very landscape the figure slips behind, such that Jacob’s knee is pressing upon the representation of mountain (the porphyry rock of Christ and the Comneni) and river (the green which represents the flow of life). Yet our Angel if celestial and of earth is also viscerally embodied as he fights flesh to flesh, his hand seeking the thigh on which he will wound Jacob.


The hand seeking Jacob’s thigh has visibly pulled up the celestial blue dress of Jacob, enabling the show of classical folds in cloth that stress irregularity within regularity, another mark of classicism.

If the angel is or figures Christ, which some readings of the Greek Pentateuch allow (I won’t bore you with the evidence), then this might explain how love in the body is seen as double: as an agon (struggle against mere embodiment) and active seeking of closer attachment (that uses and shows itself in the contact of bodies).

But all of this is not offered as anything but speculation. What I wanted to illustrate is that Kauffmann will never be alone in finding mystery in the motif. He too explores the mix of antagonistic body and the erotic, something he explores by comparing Delacroix’s use of the motif with that of Rembrandt (121f.).


Yet whatever else comes from that comparison, and Kauffman brings out much, neither picture is composed in the same way as the lunette (as a compositional arrangement of iconic figures) nor as each other – Delacroix’s picture is, as Kauffman discovers as if a discovery, is really a picturing of trees that dwarf the human, even when it struggles with the divine, whilst Rembrandt’s central mix of bodies emphasise touch as tenderness when the world seems most antagonistic.

In Gauguin, struggle is the stuff of mere animal joy – a point I can’t fail to see when I compare the dancing cow with the beast of 4-legs made by the wrestlers. We needn’t see this as reductive. In Gauguin flesh takes wings. I sense something of this in more symbolist treatments of the motif, especially Odilon Redon.


I think I’d like to explore all this – but will I? I doubt it. To write here is merely to mark the joy just looking and reflecting allows – it’s a relief from the academic and shouldn’t be offered as anything other than playful struggle with the materials of art. But sometimes play feels so much more serious than art-history.

I see something of this in Kauffmann too – despite his greater scholarly depth than anything here – a need to play outside the prisons that confine us. In one of my favourite versions, that of Salvator Rosa, that prison is the inexorability of time and mutability itself


[1] Motion, A. (2003) ‘One day in the kingdom of darkness’ in The Guardian Sat. 1 March 2003. Available at:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/mar/01/highereducation.news (Accessed 25/07/18)

[2] Eastmond, A. (2004) Art and Identity in Thirteenth Century Byzantium: Hagia (sic.) Sophia and the Empire of Trebizond Aldershot & Burlington, USA, Ashgate Publishing.

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Approaching Pierre Bonnard through The Nabis: Reflecting on ‘artistic groups’.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 23 Jul 2018, 16:09

Approaching Pierre Bonnard through The Nabis: Reflecting on ‘artistic groups’.

I want to find a way of thinking about this topic and I’d welcome input from elsewhere. As I read up on Bonnard (not as much as I’d like – these books are so expensive), I’m developing more of a sense of the incredible differences that Bonnard introduced to painting and thinking of that as, in part, a benefit of his isolation from mainstream traditions and genius worship that forefront Matisse and Picasso in their different ways. It is clear that the Nabi group and an ‘Intimism’ movement (maybe no more than himself and Vuillard in practice) discovered different innovations that they synthesised. I’d like to look at the second in another blog.

As for the Nabis, even an old reliable source like Frèches-Thory & Terrasse (1990) shows that this group was in part short-lived because it could provide too little to its front-runners as long as it limited itself to a few precepts – notably the idea of the inescapability of flat 2-dimensional imagery in easel painting and compositional values that asserted unity. The latter could not last long – in as far as the movement relied on japonisme, it became increasingly clear that that source could not justify compositional unity particularly in the movement to de-centre the single focus perspective as the source of unity in pictures. The Nabis developed large mural and decorative works that had to learn from the multiple focus of Chinese scrollwork and even preferred ‘primitive’ pre-Raphaelite models in re-asserting the value of diptych and triptych – but on a domestic screen rather than an altarpiece. There were also political splits amongst Nabis – the sinister one for instance between Latin and Semite Nabis, a source for the later much more significant marking of anti-Semitism debates in art that culminated in the Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfus parties. Bonnard was of the former I’m glad to say.

According to Frèches-Thory & Terrasse (199012ff.), the key spark of the Nabis (a word from the Jewish tradition  - Nebiim - meaning ‘prophets’) was, adding to the Japonisme, launched by the 1868 Meiji restoration in Japan, one important work by Gauguin who was considered the mainspring of Nabiism – the God almost of whom Nabis were prophets. The painting that sparked this perception was The Vision After the Sermon (1888).


Because there is too much to reflect upon, I’m using this blog to look at features of Gauguin’s wonderful painting that led to early Nabi practice, although many of these were later over-turned in the best post-Nabi art of Bonnard and Vuillard.

1.      Seeing the canvas as a compositional whole which nevertheless invited compartmentalising of its sections, using devices thus to sectionalise (I believe this became the source of Bonnard’s interests in door, window, mirror, picture and other framing devices. These separate frames contained semi-discrete elements which reflected on each other formally and in meaning. In the Gauguin, this is shown in the almost satiric mirroring of the dancing cow and the four-legged creature formed by Jacob in full bodily contact with an angel.

2.      Perceptual tricks. The interesting play of the legs in the pair of wrestling males is mirrored in Gauguin’s ‘Children Wrestling’. 


The focus here is on the perceptual melding of bodies where the viewer struggles initially to find which leg belongs to which combatant – I find this of interest in Jacob iconography even in Byzantine examples.

3.      The use of delineated figures using repeated shapes that emphasise both regularity and freer irregularity.

4.      Distortional suggestive figures, objects and icons – trees and cows which are liminal for instance between nature and art (as angels are anyway liminal). As the priest, on the right, is liminal with Gauguin himself.

5.      The use of ‘unnatural’ colour to insist on such distortion in the interest of art (and perhaps expression) rather than nature.

This is as far as I’ve got.  Can anyone help?

Frèches-Thory, C. & Terrasse, A. (1990) The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard and their circle Paris, Flammarion

Steve

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Reflecting 'queerly' on Rauschenberg, especially 'Untitled' 1954, Man in a White Suit

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 20 Jul 2018, 19:00

Art, Life, and Relationships, and Meaning & Form: Reflecting on the play between words & conjunctions – on Rauschenberg as ‘made up’ by relationships and thoughts about them.

This is a somewhat playful reflection that stems from an unfulfilled desire to comprehend something about the art of Rauschenberg and the means we use to arrive at our understandings. It is playful because I sense that, in the end, all the understandings I have thus far about Rauschenberg reveal more about my own motivations and drive to know.

I became fascinated by the idea of Rauschenberg from an essay by the openly gay critic, Johnathan Katz, about the ways in which his ‘intimate partnership’ (in which ‘intimate’ almost here takes the meaning of ‘relatively secreted’) with Jasper Johns. [1] The essay (pioneering for the date of its original publication) uses the facts of the 6-year long relationship between the painters to link their work to some of the necessities of self-expression of ‘relationships’ that were still often marginal to social norms, covert (because illegal and/or considered socially shameful) and nevertheless urgent to be acknowledged. This leads to ‘coded’ patterns in Katz’s view that run through the work but in both cases, in his view, lose their urgency of self-revelation in both artists after their social divorce.

The latter point is I think very doubtful, particularly in the case of Rauschenberg, whose art is surely the product of multiple and often contradictory motivations and meanings. Indeed I think that may go for how the idea of ‘relationships’ were determined for him, even those between art and his life-choices, his formal innovations and the meanings which both synthesise and fragment within them. Yet I love Katz’s boldness. For here critique is also a political agenda which forces the meaning of gay relationship to the fore and queers conventional relationships between words and signs.

However, we need to be less married to secrecy as the drive to research in art with a gay theme and look to the more public issues that socially non-validated (and invalidated)  relationships bring to the  surface. For that (I dread to hear myself say it) we may still need good art history and, alongside it, better knowledge and use of that knowledge with regard to biography. As I read – I need to read more but I moved on to Bonnard now – I sense that locating the issue with Johns and the validation of couples is too easy and too tied to easy romantic paradigms. Better to step back to Rauschenberg’s first serious gay relationship and that which broke his marriage and family (severing him from his son, Christopher) was that with Cy Twombly. And we’ll see that this too was a relationship in which drive to art was synthesised with sexual and emotional and social reconfiguration in Rauschenberg’s life.

Good art historians cope with this. Krĉma (2016:14f.) shows how and why Rauschenerg’s art sometimes drives us to allegoric and/or symbolic clusters of meaning between the signs so apparently randomly arrayed in his art and other times fragments this meaning[2]. He ties this in particular to readings related to male sexuality but again rather tiredly ends up by relating this to the coupledom with Jasper Johns. Of course the preceding relationship with Cy Twombly never really added up to coupledom and that is why I think writers tend to focus on the former over the latter because the latter is less an already given pattern of social meaning.

However, my own feeling is that Rauschenberg’s dialogues with art and patterns of meaning precisely to figurate emotional and physical drives that aren’t easily patterned. I suspect that is why his major work will remain the 34 illustrations, gifted posthumously to MoMA, he did for Dante’s Inferno, since these query a large and influential authoritative source of allegoric practice that yearned (despite the implicit multiplicity of allegoric modes – saying something by narrating another thing) to unity. Here he could identify with the soul/sole of the foot-sore ‘sodomites’ in Canto XIV running forever over burning sand and mark his own appearance in the illustrations with an imprint (blood-red) of the sole of his own bare foot).

So the best reading I came across does read relationships more complexly in a way that shows that all relationships are ‘queer’ (meaning not easily codable in non-sentimental ways) such as father-son relationships and those in love and in art  and between love and art. And that is because he queers the relationship between reading form and meanings. This ‘best reading’ is in Chapter3 of Thomas Crow’s wonderful book on the origins and history of Pop Art.[3] It is of the wonderful sculptural art-object (Untitled c.1954), usually known as ‘The Man in a White Suit’ (Crow 2014 56ff, 68ff). 

View 1 (Untitled 1954)

Crow makes the point that Rauschenberg’s allegoric borrowings accrue meaning bi-temporally across his career. He sees this work as, with others, elaborating – as part of his disassociated armoury, the story of the Fall of Icarus, a story of art, love, hubris and fall. To me too it rings of the motif of the ‘gentleman-caller’ from Tennessee Williams (1944) The Glass-Menagerie, a story of ill-patterned and unfit codes of heterosexual and non-heterosexual desire. I won’t elaborate this here but happy to if asked.

As part of the images semi-associated with the theme are remnants of marks that became borrowed for this work under the rubric of ‘LOVE’ (see the detail) on 68f. that diagonally juxtaposes on either side of a found image of male despair, markings from a note to Rauschenberg from son Christopher (‘I hope you still like me Bob cause I love you. Please wright me Back love love Christopher’) and some typical scribble marks of Cy Twombly with their suggestive phallocentrism.

The reading is really rich and needs to be taken in the context given to it by Thomas Crow (a great art historian) and I can’t summarise its richness of content and analysis here (it goes over many pages in Crow’s chapter) but I do recommend it. It brings the art work into some kind of arena in which it can begin to be understood partly and appreciated more fully. It is the only thing I’ve read that has dome more than just intrigue me.

But of course, it has set off more interests. I’m looking at Cy Twombly but still working to know if and how if so one ‘understands’ the squiggles and free-flow drawings, the mix of textuality and visual form and the meaning of his classicism s link to photographic appropriation. But Bonnard calls. Now here is a really interesting painter, where there is much debate about what it is we see and feel when he paints!

All the best

Steve

[1] Katz, J. (1993 - 2018 Compact Ed.) ‘The Art of Code: Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg’ in Chadwick, W. & Courtivron, I. (eds.) Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate partnership London, Thames & Hudson, 182-200.

[2] Krĉma, E. (2016) Robert Rauschenberg: Tate Introductions London, Tate Publishing.

[3] Crow, T. (2014) The Long March of Pop: Art Music and Design 1930-1995 Yale University Press.

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Male Nudes – a problem in interpretation or style! A reflection on Caillebotte and art-historical evidence.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 18 Jul 2018, 19:42

Male Nudes – a problem in interpretation or style! A reflection on Caillebotte and art-historical evidence.

What kind of evidence is used to make claims about responses to art? How do commentators use such evidence and why? As I gear up for A844, I have been picking up on artists to whom I was newly introduced in last year’s course – my next venture is Bonnard but here I am, having read 2 works on Caillebotte, feeling intrigued by a male nude used in the discussion fora and the kinds of statements people made about it and how and why they thought that perspective legitimized by art-historical paradigms.

In order to make some notes on my reading, I’m developing a debate I find in these books in Caillebotte’s Man at His Bath (1884). 


What is clear from the responses I’ve read is that commentary on that painting often skirts around the effect of seeing male nudity and justifies this skirting by the desire to be seen as ‘objective’ and therefore unmoved by the presented sight, whether that to be desire, laughter or disgust. The best means of doing so is to see the painting as an exemplum of ‘naturalism’ in which our view is occluded at the same time as it is permitted by the notion of a fourth wall of the bathroom in which the man 'invisibly' stands. This view could be supported by Marrinan’s (2016:271ff.) reading[1]. According to him, Caillebotte’s painting is a naturalistic response to the complaints about contemporary male hygiene literature that he would have found reference to in a book by Flaubert that Caillebotte refers to in a letter of 1884, even if the reference is not to Flaubert’s comments on  hygiene literature but to a preceding passage in the same book. This convoluted logic is typical of art-historical evidence I think. Flaubert’s ‘manly’ disregard of advice that males engage in bathing comes from an old-fashioned belief that bathing feminised and softened men, making masturbation more likely. Against such feelings, Caillebotte is seen by Marrinan as reacting – thus the painter depicts vigorous body-rubbing in a way that remains private but is certainly not indulged in as a sensual activity. He shows that also operating but more complexly in the contemporaneous Man Drying His Leg (1884)


Despite the fact that many of Marrinan’s readings of domestic interiors by Caillebotte depends on what furniture from Caillebotte’s own Paris salon his identifiable ‘sitters’ sit upon, Merrinan is keen to show that the bathroom that other critics attribute to Caillebotte’s own home bathroom cannot possibly be imagined to represent that particular place. To him, sufficient evidence is found for that in the rustic nature of the chair painted in the bathroom, the lower-class boots and the careless abandonment of clothing to the floor. Why does Merrinan go to such lengths to disassociate the nude from any space that belonged to Caillebotte? We can but guess, although elsewhere Marrinan makes it plain that Caillebotte paints the space between the subjects of his paintings and himself as betokening the nature of a relationship between them. This is even the case in his reading of the early Floor Scrapers (1848).


In the early painting Marrinan notes the extremely high point of looking adopted by the painter. He interprets this as an attitude of dominance and ownership of those workers and their work on what Marrinan insists his Caillebotte’s own new apartment, paid for by his father before the latter’s death. We are also shown how distant are the bodies of the painters from the classical ideal that Winckelmann associated with the perfected style of the nude. They are described as undeveloped bodies, clearly those of working-class men, quite unlike the classical ideal appearing in the statuette of a male nude that appears in Caillebotte’s Interior of a Studio with Stove (1872): of course Caillebotte’s own artistic studio. This ‘evidence’ is used to show that there is no sexual charge to the gaze of the artist or viewer possible in this painting.

Strangely enough this latter argument is not used of Man at His Bath, though it could have been. The posture and body of the man vigorously self-towelling is far from that of the classical ideal too. However, this man is described (although no more muscular than the Floor-scrapers in the earlier painting) as an image promoting male full-body hygiene, ‘a vision of masculinity grounded in robust physicality and energetic movement’. If Caillebotte felt the full-force of an ideological belief in contesting the supposed feminising effects of bathing, one might have thought that he would give his imagined person (imagined to be of modest financial circumstances) a more rude health and athleticism – at least noticeably more than the Floor-Scrapers.

I wonder why these pieces of endlessly tortured evidence are used to remove any hint that there is (or could be) any erotic charge in these scenes of nude (or semi-nude) men except in the view of a non-valid subjective response? Next to them, Renoir’s female nude bathers are obviously presented as sexualised and as demonstrably so. My own view is that these uses of evidence, although clearly valid and, in the end, truly illuminating, can only be part of the story. But Marrinan does not want that to be the case. He believes that his evidence adds up to an objective truth. Yet such a conclusion depends on two central factors - that the objectively true account of a painting represents an intention of the artist themselves, that has been reconstructed from the circumstantial evidence, and that this intention is regulated as the only true reading by social norms – in this case the norms of heterosexual desire, heteronormativity in fact.

Marrinan is aware his reading can be challenged. He contributed to a set of essays in 2015 celebrating an exhibition at Washington and the Kimbell Art Museum. Here, other readings rub shoulders with the same evidence used by him to a different end. Morton & Shackleford (2015:181) say:

(Caillebotte’s) focus is on the man’s buttocks and the barest glimpse of scrotum between his legs. The almost life-sized scale of the painting seals its radical provocation.[2]

Guegan (2016:102)[3] goes further by tracing Caillebotte’s task in depicting the male nude to his under-advertised apprenticeship under Bonnat (see p. 100), who deliberately set out to represent the male nude in ways that were not justified by Winckelmann in the name of classical ‘style’ and reinforced by the academic practice of Ingres but looked to other decidedly less class-based as well as unclassical models. He quotes Bonnat in his dismissal of the importance of style: ‘the nobility of the lines and the magnitude of the shapes that elevate the soul’. Bonnat cites Velasquez’s nudes whose art shines through, though ‘his Mercury is the neighbourhood blacksmith who has taken off his shirt.’

Bonnat’s view of an inclusive male beauty irrespective of classical style (in the wonderful unclassical nudes of the The Barber of Suez 1876 and The Death of Abel 1861 cited ibid: 103) is as influential on the Floor-Scrapers I believe as Caillebotte’s bourgeois ownership of, and dominance, over the work done for him by the working-class in Floor-Scrapers or his views of hygiene for males at the end of the century in Man at His Bath. This is not to say that I believe that Caillebotte saw his male nudes as desirable or intended them to be so for others. The evidence seems to show that Caillebotte submitted and probably accepted heteronormativity without consciousness of any alternative. The point is not that but that intentions of an artist, nor assumptions about norms cannot sum up a work of art. It will necessarily fracture along the fault-lines of difference that captures it in the sight of many and diverse subjectivities. These multiple possibilities are truer than anyone’s claim to an objectivity that promises non-disturbing unitary interpretations.

And, indeed, I’d say the same of Cezanne – the painter of the most incredible male nudes of the nineteenth century. Of course the studious reading from evidence of Marrinan is not for nothing. What motivates a painting in the consciousness of a painter could well be: I’d like to show that full-body bathing is thoroughly masculine. However that motive or intention will rarely be able to claim to be the meaning of a work of art if it is to claim to be a work of art and not propaganda or merely second-rate art. I don’t think Caillebotte (at least in his pre-yacht-entrepreneur days) is second-rate!!!! His paintings exist in precisely the spaces identified by Sedgewick in her queer theory texts that Marrinan side-lines in his chapter on ‘Bodies’ and ‘Bachelors’.

I’d love any discussion on this. Can it be moved forward non-confrontationally?

All the best

Steve

[1] Marrinan, M. (2016) Gustave Caillebotte: Painting the Paris of Naturalism, 1872 – 1887. Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute.

[2] Morton, M. & Shackleford, G.T.M. (eds.) (2015) Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye Washington, National Gallery of Art

[3] Guegan, S. (2015) ‘Ecce Homo’ in Morton & Shackleford (2015, 99 - 108)

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Making Choices or having them made for you: Anuradha Roy (2018) All the Lives We Never Lived

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 17 Jul 2018, 10:23

Making Choices or having them made for you: Reviewing Anuradha Roy (2018) All the Lives We Never Lived London, Quercus, Maclehose Press

This novel deals almost entirely with the issue of ‘life-choices’ (in the glib contemporary language of half-thought). It queries whether we, any of us, ever make choices and the consequence of so doing – particularly of those roads not taken as well as ‘lives never lived’. But it is neither glib nor simple-minded about choice and its determination to follow through the effects of how a particular choice gets made – contingent upon accidents (the effect of being late from school on one particular day) determinations from the past, culture, effects like gender and, of course social power (not least that exerted by money) and so on – to its ends however mixed.

In this novel people who identify with the choices they make, even at the expense of chances to revise such choices and reliance on the fictions we tell ourselves about our intentions (to reconnect with one’s son for instance), are tragic figures who get bound into – imprisoned indeed - in these choices. To emphasise this Roy combines factional and fictional lives. The two central choosers respectively being Walter Spies and Gay are both imprisoned - both embrace that choice in almost existential self-determination. In both cases however, their fate is determined more by the power of how they are constructed by others and the power of those people’s fictionalising. The analysis of how Spies as a gay man became constructed and then punished as either a German spy (not possible) or a paedophile (a story still peddled on Wikipedia) is extremely moving but also subtle.

Readers will be divided I believe (between themselves and perhaps intrapersonally) by the scene in which Spies lies down with the narrator-hero as a very young boy, in which half-formed and inarticulate ideas of threat mingle with issues of belief and trust that are so endemic to an engaged reading of fiction.

The ‘non-fictional’ characters could not really have been believable in fiction one feels sometimes – Walter Spies (with that enigmatic second name), Margaret Mead, Beryl de Zoete, Arthur Wailey were all exceptional people – cushioned by power and a bourgeois background, they were brought up to believe in their right to choices that eventually narrows into stoic defiance of the conventional world as they age. I find Roy’s complex readings of that quite convincing. That is because these existential choices are often treated with irony – moments when the reader is asked to see that choice as somewhat tarnished by a lie, as when Walter takes a young very beautiful Indian young man on as an assistant in his research and sometimes has to ask him to stay overnight to complete his tasks. This is all so wittily done through the eyes of a 7 year old.

Gayatri is a wonderful character not least that she is examined through the eyes of, and thoughts about her son, whom she never quite tells the truth about. A key moment is her refusal of a frank offer from Spies to pay for his passage to her from India to Bali. Her refusal is given reasons but the book is as much about ‘the reasons we never gave’. For after all, with her son, Gayatri may never have become the autonomous young woman she was. But are there other reasons she refuses being bound to Walter in the matter of her son. They aren’t articulated but then so much isn’t in this novel – whose emergent complexity is that between what we can say and to whom and when. Sometimes we cannot say things even to ourselves, lest we contradict the most important things we want to believe about ourselves. Gayatri is a staunch articulator of faith in Spies being altogether a harmless person.

And Gay is deliberately tragically wrong about Indian politics, which can’t be mediated around her feelings about her husband, however inadequate we are shown this man of surface contradiction to be. Our narrator hero too is more than half-fiction. From the beginning he is constructed as Dostoevsky’s ‘idiot’, Myshkin and throughout referred to by this name. He is inevitably linked to Spies – in his interests in plants and insects, his blindness to a world of the mass-movement of peoples in wars and ‘Partitions’ – and, as in no other novel I have read, I have felt in this one both the longing to depoliticise the ways we see the world in the face of a too abstracted politics and the exposure of this longing, once it becomes a choice, exposed to the fact that to its maintenance as a ‘life-style’ choice is tragic. It is the choice of someone who stoically goes down with ship, encaged but singing, as Spies does. Beautiful though and maybe in the world of the tragic metaphysic of humanism that is enough.

In my view this is a monumental novel. No doubt though to be displaced from where it belongs on the Booker shortlist by some intelligent cognitively-led literary ragbag blockbuster from the States. But I hope not!

Steve

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Reflecting on writing about architecture: Plummer, Henry (2016) The Experience of Architecture

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 14 Jul 2018, 17:32

Reflecting on writing about architecture: Plummer, Henry (2016) The Experience of Architecture London, Thames and Hudson

I decided to reflect on architecture because it seems the most impossible of ‘subjects’ to talk about. Precisely how do we choose a sample of architectural examples to compare and contrast – indeed is it possible to compare the architecture of affordable housing to palaces or mansions, or institutional buildings (of the state or semi-public sector, such as universities) with commercial or manufacturing utilities. Does the same language apply to each? This is not just a matter of function alone since function will depend on the varying legitimacy of a set of functions for different users that any one building has. Does, for instance, someone who merely looks at a building have the right to  be called a ‘user’ of that building and the building’s capacity to meet the needs related to the use which it serves for them taken into account in any assessment. When we assess a dwelling-place do we assess it merely from the perspective of those that dwell in it? Although the answers to these questions may appear obvious, they kept emerging as problematic as I read and as I enjoyed what this book offers.

What is the meaning of the language, for instance, by which Plummer assesses Paul Rudolph’s residential penthouse attached to his architectural office? This is a moot point, since, although described as residential, it clearly has function of showcasing Rudolph as an architect. Yet how are we to understand the language that Plummer uses to assess this piece of architecture as ‘experience’:

… he transformed the given cellular structure into a multitude of half-open interflowing spaces. Each level forms a virtual room with its own slight enclosure and character, function and activity, while opening to other initiatives – a labyrinthine freedom that continues through glass walls and doors to a multistorey fringe of balconies and hanging gardens, making it impossible to grasp the building as a thing, and only as limitless vectors of experience (234f.).

What is the meaning of the language of ‘experience’ he uses here and how it maps itself onto the work done by architecture. The binaries used (openness (discovery) and the closed (enclosure), the graspable and ungraspable, boundaried and unboundaried, freedom and imprisonment (the contradiction of the labyrinth from myth)) have a poetic force but they beg questions. To whom do doors to and within this complex ‘open’, to whom does it represent something ‘free’ and unconditional? The tough answer is probably 'no-one' and the language may be suggestive of a language of illusion – where trompe l’oeil passes into fantasy and / or deception. Because this architecture is experienced primarily by the mediation of ownership – whether realised, imagined or fantasised. Only to an owner is this space readable as ‘limitless vectors of experience’.

Perhaps the situation is less stark when we consider building that house public utility, such as churches, but is it. There seems here something like a transcendental  subject wandering in and ‘experiencing’ space and therefore enabled to asses experience of it as again unlimited by institutionalised function and meanings, like ownership, or protocol – or, in this case liturgical matters that might vary between sections of a building like a cathedral (private chapels for instance own a certain amount of enclosure):

Putting aside their spiritual meaning and seeing them as deliberative space – a space just as valid for the non-believer as for the worshipper – their interiors supply a tremendous array of latent actions. (221)

It is not easy to imagine ‘deliberative space’ as a space for any range of ‘actions’ you might freely imagine. To do that other protocols than those in liturgy or even individual credo matter too, such as the restrictions on access to tourists or those unlicensed to wander according to institutional protocols and guidelines (to say nothing of internalised rule-systems). Plummer gives this away when he compares our apperception of action within Noyon cathedral to that imaginatively let loose in viewing Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione (222).

Likewise, in art galleries (about the architecture of which Plummer is most convincing), Plummer may stress successful search for meaning more than is warranted by what art galleries actually do, which is sometimes to shut down access to some meanings as fast as they open up glimpses towards uncovered secrets and unresolved mysteries (see p. 200).This he almost admits in a fine analysis of the use of distorting and reflective glass in the wonderful Glass Pavilion of Toledo Museum (178).

Without denying the beauty and usefulness of this book to art historians and learners, I think you have to be careful of the way in which art is sometimes ripped from even the most obvious contexts. Whilst that seems easily forgivable, since we are free to make of a cemetery what we will, short of not offending mourners by our merest acts of sightseeing and experiencing, regarding the lovely descriptions of Carlo Sarpa’s Brion Cemetery – check out the spooky access portal to the Water Pavilion (108), it may not be elsewhere. The excellent analyses of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work weave the architect’s American dream metaphors (‘shaping space into a “figure of freedom”’ 231), into his own. Yet the structures he talks about surely are about more than ‘’”fundamental realizations of freedom”’ in some transcendental sense. Fallingwaters, that dream house, is about claims to ownership and exclusion of the unprivileged from full experience of just as much as all the public buildings he talks about are also about the construction of boundaries and enclosures of freedom. This is a kind of transcendental depoliticised freedom for Plummer but it is only depoliticised ideologically and psychologically for some transcendental Subject. Let’s see how the meaning of this individual Subject’s ‘freedom’ is articulated. It is to use whatever power they can muster to keep themselves at the centre of things:

Power now is perpetually renewed from within himself, power appropriate to his new circumstances. (231)

This is the American Dream. Freedom to appropriate and defend – like the right to a property or the right to a ‘gun’ – only an enfolding American ideology of the triumph of capital can explain this type of ‘freedom’. In the end it has no more subtlety than the renaming of ‘French fries’ as ‘Freedom Fries’ in the build-up to the first Gulf War.

Plummer is however deeply sincere and grounds his thinking in a mix of good, and some suspect, psychology – wherein Fromm’s work is read as the equivalent of Bettelheim – to defend the role of play (or interplay between the built and the buildings users) in the formulation of architectural plans, so that they in-build the self-determining human subject (69ff). To tell truth he does (in passing) deal with those moments when that play is boundaried by exclusion from a participation (150) he also celebrates. For instances, despite his love of difficult steps in Chapter 1, he acknowledges the experience of people who are physically disabled by suchlike free-play of architecture (161), but it is only one reference to the problems of barriers to experience in architecture and nature. Indeed much of this book’s sensibility in relation to experience (citing Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space) lauds the necessity of secrecy and exclusion as the only means to an experience of freedom. About this paradox or contradiction, he is probably correct. Let’s sing then of: ‘common marginal zones (like) closets and cupboards, their voids concealed but also marked by the handles and outlines of doors’ (162). But remember too that many of these portals maintain, without the need for reason, a ‘KEEP OUT’ notice prominently displayed.

But read this book. It is very rewarding in its introduction to the widest range of what we might mean by architecture. Near its end (267), it also deals with how all this reflects on mass-housing in cities. Could that end promise a new beginning where some of the contradictions about power and freedom are opened up? Let’s see!

All the best

Steve

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Fables for the age: The ambition of Tim Winton’s (2018) The Shepherd’s Hut London, Picador.

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 11 Jul 2018, 07:42

Fables for the age: The ambition of Tim Winton’s (2018) The Shepherd’s Hut London, Picador.

I read every word of Tim Winton as it falls (in the UK) from the press. This novel reads like a fable addressed to the largest domain of meaning to which the novel can aspire. In form it is a bildungsroman in the voice, and perhaps the imagined pen, of Jaxie Clackton, and is set in a world in which authenticity and authority of identity has lost its meaning just as are Goethe’s Young Werther, or Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like both it utilises myth – here Ned Kelly. Like both characters the august meanings of names like ‘mother’ and ‘father’ have lost their meaning through failures to enact the role, either from active violence (as in Jaxie’s father) or failure of courage and autonomy (in his mother). This is not a context in which three central metaphysical questions can be answered: ‘Where was I?’, ‘Who was I?’ and ‘What was I?’ These questions can be posed and may even be answered, although deliberative not with cognitive but with a more embodied clarity, until near the novel’s end (264).

Jaxie ends the novel still seeking romantic validation of himself though his love for a girl who first showed love and sexual experience to him. For most readers, however, I suspect that this ongoing quest has little or no reality next to what he achieves though his relationship in the novel with the old man, who talks copiously to himself to distract from severe tinnitus, named Fintan. With him the slow process of trust-building, lest he might too be an abusive father (‘a pedo’), happens when he sets up home with him in a ‘shepherd’s hut’ through the most complex turns of circumstances in the narrative. ‘Father’ Fintan is a God-forsaken Irish priest, who is still searching for that event, that action, in which God might appear to him beyond the beautiful illusions offered by the air over a dried salt-lake. These remain mirages but become the metaphors that that help form the central moment of self-seeing in the novel. And the senses engaged are multiple – most noticeably ‘smell’ and its meaning.

What Fintan and Jaxie find (and eventually see) in the most pregnant and significant exchange of glances is the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ but it would spoil things for readers to say how or why in any detail, since this novel, like most symbolic allegories lives on many self-sufficient levels of meaning:

And then he caught my eye. Or maybe it was just a flash of sun off his busted up specs … then he began to sing. (263f.)

This novel reminds me most of Dirt Music but it is so much more haunting – as a story and not just in key passages of the most miraculous writing and contrasting generic shifts. The haunting presence of Australian history is felt through the shifting meanings, tied to mirage and ‘illusory’ visions of all kinds of the landscape around a salt-lake, a source of preservation for mere meat at one level (he goes there to seek a means of keeping his ‘kill’ of wildlife better) and at another the meanings given it by its native inhabitants in white Australian pre-history and the history of exploitation in mining thereafter. Modern Australia has no ‘dreamings’ like these – perhaps the latter are just the product of cannabis which plays its part in the history, as a sad version of how and why illusion must be sought whilst in the void of contemporary meaning where there is no God or substitute thereof. Yet the novel itself bears the weight of a second coming and a resurrection: where ‘you are in your beginning, and here am I near my end. (135)’

Meanwhile the ways in which that search for, and simultaneously conceal, meaning (in and out of books and Fintan is a reader) is conveyed – in the inquisitive looks of a ‘curious fella’ (128) that both throw at each other - are just as remarkably realised (and yet full of the everyday) in writing as it is possible to make them.

And that’s it. For the longest bloody time, that’s all. After a while the smell of the roasting meat gets going but nothing else happens. He just sits there. Reading his bastard book with that poochy, puckered look on his face. Like it’s a hello funny book or he’s just happy he’s got a hunk of goat in the oven. …

So I don’t know what to think.’ (103)

Sharing of looks alone can reveal and conceal meaning. Once a meaning is recovered (as it is in the novel), we know it may not last. However, what we do know is that Jaxie holds onto Fintan’s books. Hence the fabulous nature of this novel. A metaphysic of deep and central meanings is merely hinted by exchanges of looks, smells, touch (but rarely touch) and sound – remains elusive except that the reader help build it too (as in all of the best writing?

Over to you!

‘Whatsay?’ You’ll find this quotation at lots of lovely places.

All the best

Steve

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Reflections of Historical Narrative and Values in Art-History: Reading Hyman, T. (2016) The World New Made

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Tuesday, 10 Jul 2018, 10:31

Reflections of Historical Narrative and Values in Art-History: Reading Hyman, T. (2016) The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century London, Thames & Hudson.

I cannot judge the ultimate significance of this book as either a re-evaluation of artistic values nor of a reformulation of art-history, specifically in the now completed twentieth-century. Nevertheless in one way, my liking for much of this book also matches my amazement that it is still necessary to assert that a rewriting of the role of the figurative in art from the nineteenth-century is essential. It becomes increasingly clear to everyone now that the hubris of ‘abstraction’ in its claim that it was the teleological meaning of twentieth century art-history is totally wrong-headed, just as the we begin to see the odd role of the CIA in promoting it (alongside making America great again paradoxically by promoting the hagiography of Jackson Pollock) in the 1950s as more than the joke we thought it was. In particular, as Hyman says, the attempts to make both Matisse & Picasso ‘stepping-stones to abstraction’ (239) now seem absolutely blind to the art produced by both over their long and continual self-rejuvenating careers. Had I known about this book, I would have wrote more cogently about the work of Tom McGuinness, the miner-artist from Bishop Auckland, on my A843 course essay.

Let’s get the limitations of the book clear first though. My feeling is that it fails to understand the importance of constant re-evaluations of the body during the twentieth century and that this is the book’s main weakness. It is clear that you can get late Lucian Freud’s innovative importance wrong without some way of accommodating twenty-first century artists such as Jenny Savile. The negative judgements on Lucian Freud (‘numb realism’ 110) are probably symptomatic of these doubts.

 However, as a starting point for re-evaluating the constructed conventional historiographical accounts of specifically twentieth-century art, this book is intellectually refreshing, whilst being likeably readable and full of vitality. It correctly repositions R.B. Kitaj as one-in-the-eye for a largely anti-Semitic establishment. Moreover, artists that were not on my map now are – such as Marsden Hartley and Bhupen Khakar as significant voices in queer painting now are. Now I have finished the book, I feel I need to read more on the fate of German Expressionism and its deliberate marginalisation from the late 1970s, which might be read from the strange fate of the judgements made about Oscar Kokoschka, after his the peak of his fame then.

Hyman’s book makes some startlingly fresh juxtapositions across political divides that were once impossible to make. Artists with fascist sympathies such as Mario Sironi and Emil Nolde are now considered as using figuration in relation to similar metaphysical problems facing art across the twentieth-century. I would once have thought that unforgiveable but it now seems a necessity of understanding the history of the twentieth-century more holistically. Often those artists attracted to Fascism became its enemies – Nolde was to become as ‘degenerate’ as left sympathisers like Kurt Schwitters in Hitler’s eyes. Hyman’s shorthand for that problem is that so often repeated by his artists – the ‘Void’ created by the death of God, as perceived by Nietzsche (10ff.).

This rehabilitation of once-fascists is a price we pay for inclusiveness in history of art and its up-side is the valuable ways in which the art of the politically marginalised is re-positioned in the historical account. Whilst the role of figurative queer art is important to me, Hyman’s book makes it clear that the truly marginalised vision in conventional art-historiography is that of people experiencing mental disorder. Acknowledged and surviving figurative artists almost certainly made this marginalisation more potent – peopling the Void is after all more urgent in mental diatress and figurative artists interested in distortion often had to differentiate themselves from accusations of mental degeneracy – even outside the Fascist states. So artists such as Ida Applebroog (228ff) and Ken Kiff (184ff.) become more central to the history-of-art than we thought before and the notion of ‘illusionism’ (as in commentary on Kentridge 231ff.) less a judgement that belittles significance. We can also see the true importance of Max Beckmann (152ff.) in this light and can also re-evaluate Jack Yeats (174ff) and Stanley Spencer (138ff). I find it harder to come to terms with the centralising of Henry Darger (176ff.) and I longed for some of the sense of the problems raised here – as explored by Olivia Laing in The Lonely City (2016) – but what would you expect from an ex-social worker like myself.

My own feeling is that judgements that refuse to focus on ego-centred cognition (I believe neuro-psychology allows a return to Freudian shorthand)  will gather force and become the convention of art-historiography as the importance of neurological findings about the nature of brain connectivity become more well known popularly and the deficiencies of moral-cognitive perspectives in the psycho-perceptual realm diminish. However, for now, we have Hyman’s brave re-evaluations and their truth can be embraced from experience rather than what seems the clearly cognitive-ideological judgements of a Kraus or a Greenberg. Only then, I think we will see again, what links Frank Auerbach to Howard Hodgkin as truly figurative artists, if difficult ones.

I think the main reflection I am left with is that we must refuse to accept the inflated self-importance, that still emerges in the academy but that seems – to most contemporary artists – absurd, of ‘abstraction’ and of the ‘flatness’ and ‘objectivity’ of the canvas. The ‘medium’ was never only exogenous materials, like canvas, tools and marking-material,  but at the same-time included interaction with the our most materialist basis for all sensual perception and sense-meaning, the complex emergent complexity of the ‘material’ brain and body (for artist and viewer of art). Only with this perception will materialism again be recognised as a usable metaphysical base for judgement.

All the best

Steve

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Rough translation: reviewing Leila Aboulela (2018) Elsewhere Home

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 7 Jul 2018, 07:56

Rough translation: reviewing Leila Aboulela (2018) Elsewhere Home London, Telegram

In ‘Pages of Fruit’, the last story in this collection, Aboulela’s narrator goes to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to meet an author of whom she is an avid reader and fan-letter writer. The result is disappointment: ‘You’ve never read a single word I’ve written.’ (203).

This examination of the relations of power and relative empathy of reader and writer – not always to the advantage of the ‘writer’, in as much as this is an adopted persona or role – is very central to this most sensitive of writers about the role of written text in the interactions between people. Reading is an activity in which her characters engage very fully and which become part of their development. Although the same can be said of Austen and Flaubert, in both reading is the source of error – a way of over-interpreting the world writing represents in favour of a more sober reality to which readers become subjected – of a power beyond the reader to which the latter cannot aspire. Not so Aboulela, whose fiction has championed sensitive reading as an access portal to the world sometimes more reliable than that won by writers. This is the theme of her wonderful early novel, The Translator, in which the control of idiom is very much in the hands of a reader who inhabits text, sometimes more fully than an author. Seeking validation to stay with the writer she translates, her narrator …:

learnt then, the, the meaning of his kindness. That he knew she was heavy with other loyalties, full to the brim with distant places, voices in a language that was not his own.

The world of the reader in ‘Pages of Fruit’ too is a fuller world than its bearer acknowledges and richer in meanings than the ‘writer’ is capable of appreciating: “‘This is the Authors Tent’, you said moving away not to join a group or to be claimed by someone else.” (203)

I am reading Aboulela’s current short story collection as a self-preparation of myself to visit the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Although I don’t intend to copy the  enthusiasm of the character above and to press into the ‘Authors  Tent’ uninvited, I wonder if Aboulela had witnessed the scene she recounts at Edinburgh and the view of authors as self-enclosed units it betrays in that persona at its worst as one contemptuous of the readers who make the authorship possible: like the children who presented later to this author, now a children’s writer, ‘all over the place, pretty noisy, shoving their books under your nose, elbowing each other out of the way.’ (211) This can be a pretty accurate description even of we adult readers in the book-signing queues at Edinburgh but Aboulela’s delight in that perception shines through.

But Aboulela holds readers in honour nevertheless, as do all true great contemporary writers (one thinks immediately of Ali Smith). The relationship between reader and writer in Aboulela is very like that between lovers or partners or married couples – full of dissonance and difference at the very moment they interact and co-develop either towards a fuller relationship or to complete co-severance. This theme is at its most beautiful in Lyrics Alley, a favourite novel but lies throughout these lovely stories, even the early ones like ‘Coloured Lights’. But my favourite amongst her stories is that most deep of examinations of what it means to be able to read: ‘Farida’s Eyes:’

It started with the writing on the blackboard becoming hazy and crumbly, eventually just a tangle of white threads. … Farida could not read them. (50)

As Ali Smith also demonstrates in her great novels, readers are the stuff of authorship and it truly belongs only in those moments when common humanity ‘reads ’ each other for better or worse, whatever the difference of languages, contextual reference, or translating interpretation, hence her empathy for short or partially sighted readers – people whose inner lives we find it difficult to understand and harder to write or author, like ‘The Ostrich’ who memorises Andalusian Islamic poetry, in this volume, or the kebab-shop  boy’s inner life (132) which we no more penetrate than we would think of intruding upon him when he is ‘sitting on the loo’ (132) or Hamid’s blindness (‘he couldn’t see her properly because he didn’t have his glasses on’) to his convert Scottish wife’s desire to read Islamic texts in Arabic (114).

The most beautiful moments of cross-reading error in this volume concern the dilemma of migration, in which there are variant ways to misunderstand not only comparative cultures but also changes in these cultures over time. Locked in response to a racism they are not meant to notice (93), some of Aboulela’s Egyptian migrants fail to see the value of their lost culture or even more interestingly that that lost culture changes more quickly than their view of it frozen in whatever form it takes in resistance to racism. Look at that beautifully sensitive reading for instance of class as a barrier to reading in, ‘The Aromatherapist’s Husband’.

Thank you Leila Aboulela. I promise not to intrude into the Authors Tent in August though.

Steve

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Who cares about Alcibiades? Reviewing Stuttard, D. (2018) Nemesis

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 6 Jul 2018, 17:08

Who cares about Alcibiades? Stuttard, D. (2018) Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.

I’m trying to work out why, in the middle of a MA in Art History and as a teacher of psychology and mental health, I want to read about Alcibiades? As a person who thinks (not very often) about what history means, I couldn’t be further than seeing that discipline as the combined set of narratives of great and important individual lives. I love Greek drama (mainly in translation) but prefer the tragedies to the comedies of Aristophanes where the dread and yet warm image of Alcibiades looms large.

But there is the Symposium of Plato. Perhaps, that’s it – a disquisition on love in which Alcibiades praises (and teases) Socrates’ behaviour as a lover: Perhaps that is where we start? That is as important a theme to me as it was to E.M. Forster’s eponymous hero in Maurice, being told in his Cambridge seminar – whilst reading Symposium, to ‘omit the reference to the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’.

At a party following Agathon’s victory in dramatic competition, Agathon welcomes the drunken latecomer, Alcibiades and asks him to sit between him and another on one couch. Agathon was a known masculine beauty well as dramatist and is mocked in plays by Aristophanes as effeminate. Alcibiades notices the other between whom he must squeeze to sit next to Agathon is Socrates. Camp humour follows from Alcibiades:

By Heracles, he said, what is this? here is Socrates always lying in wait for me, and always, as his way is, coming out at all sorts of unsuspected places: and now, what have you to say for yourself, and why are you lying here, where I perceive that you have contrived to find a place, not by a joker or lover of jokes, like Aristophanes, but by the fairest of the company?[1]

 I remember reading that whilst in the sixth form in the late 1960s and being amazed at how men might joke with each other about finding one of their number beautiful and, more challenging still to a heavily closeted underground-gay working-class grammar school boy, attractive.

Stuttard argues that Plato recounts Alcibiades’ presence here to bothy acknowledge the latter’s awareness of Socrates but to speak of the distance between Socrates and Alcibiades highly controversial political life (136-9) but nevertheless for me what was important in this discourse was Alcibiades persona – an acknowledged beautiful and charismatic male who found someone to love in another man, even though the latter was acknowledged as quite ugly. This was a dream I wanted to believe in – because it discoursed about male love as a meaning of ‘love’ not of sex, while in Alcibiades’ or Agathon’s person not denying the power of the latter.

Thereafter, whilst studying a course (with the OU) on Greek drama, I came across other random references to Alcibiades – as a destroyer of religious icons (knocking the phalli off ‘herms’) or the restorer of the practices of the Eleusinan mysteries, as an aristocratic denier of the value of Greek democracy, as (paradoxically) the hero of Greek democracy against the rule of the 30 despots – Sophocles being on the latter’s ‘side’, as a traitor leading armies by Sparta against Athens and then of Syrians against both Sparta and Athens, as a louche male tart – whom Aristophanes (never to mince words) called ‘gape-arsed’ and a lover of (and beloved by) powerful women (being even the imputed father of the legitimate heir to the throne of Sparta).

It is the multiplicity of the man that attracts me as a reader and the sheer mass of contradictions he embodies: a mad, ‘bad’, arrogant man one can’t help but feel attracted to (like a bisexual version of Heathcliff or Rochester). But maybe there is something else – more worthy of intellectual interest – in all this.

Maybe the truth of Alcibiades is not that he was or had the embodied multiplicity of Proteus (as Stuttard muses (1)) but that he was in part the product of various discourses in which he was made by various writers and orators to stand variously as a positive or negative ideal (or perhaps both at once). There is no doubt that the political, military, socio-cultural and sexual-political life of classical Athens was highly complex – each domain intermixed with each other and containing extremely dichotomous positions about issues like the city-state (‘polis’), freedom, the family, love and the ‘people’ to name but a few. Alcibiades is the focus of quite a number of even the most contradictory of this discourses, not least that of the ‘polis’: an ideal of the diversity of Greek citizenship (always excluding slaves and most of the time, women) he could also be an exemplum of the worst kind of aristocratic and oligarchic elitism. We cannot get over the sheer success of the man though – who even does the excessive ‘sensuous luxury’ of the Eastern potentate better (189) than many others just as easily as he takes on ‘Spartan’ habits of self-denial and bodily excellence (175). He may be of the horse – an exclusively aristocratic trait, but is also able to excel in a trireme (even, it is suggested) build from scratch – or at least partake therein – a Spartan navy in a polis that was land-locked geographically and in mind-set.

And though Stuttard pours on the effect of his charm, it is a charm of many different facets that makes social capital even out of a ‘speech impediment’ (60) in speeches that were knowledgeable and pertinent (spoke to the time and the varying hegemonic audiences thereof) of which we get even a taste. These speeches may remind us of his contact with Gorgias – especially the rhetorical figures and exempla in the Symposium – but also recall Pericles as recorded by Thucydides. And to read of him is to read of the wider political geography of the time (as he settles in in high social positions (for a little time in some) in cultures as different as Athens, Sparta, Sicily, Byzantium, Melissa  and Thrace – there are excellent maps p. ixff.).

This book will not follow the line I hint at above (although this line is that I stand upon) but it makes it available. For Stuttard, telling history is nothing if you do not know or will not guess what it may have felt like to welcome Alcibiades back to Athens as a citizen lining the long walls from Piraeus to the city or walking with him to re-initiate the temple of rebirth at Eleusis (267f.). Of course it’s the wildest kind of subjective guess-work but isn’t it readable!

All the best

Steve

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Le Mystere Picasso: Un Film de Henri-Georges Clouzot (1958) Restored version (2018)

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Friday, 6 Jul 2018, 07:00

Le Mystere Picasso: Un Film de Henri-Georges Clouzot (1958) Restored version (2018) with subtitles in English Arrow Academy Films Ltd.

I bought this DVD in London, in the National Gallery I think, on my visit this year but have only just got around to viewing it. Sometimes a film is what it says it is – a ‘mystery displayed’. This film not only shows different versions of creative process in action as it were but critically interrogates them – mainly through (especially in the reading of the film by Maya Picasso, his daughter (also on this disc)) the intervention of Picasso himself. The film used a transparent paper on which Picasso (unseen during the drawing) drew from behind the paper and thus drawing in verso. Each simple picture grows, develops, transforms – going through different stages of semi-completion until Picasso decides on a finished version. Sometimes as you watch, you feel he is moving into error only to be surprised by what is produced – not the same but somehow developed from what went before not only in style and form but meaning.

Before the end Picasso emerges from behind the screen to say that the process is superficial and the film changes into a different mode – Cinemascope – and shows the growth of painted canvases as Picasso ‘does them at home’ in his own words. The same process of development occurs – this time using paint, collage, line and colour as each phase transforms another – icons develop and mutate like the ones of the dying bull – cubist method is tried and displaced and colour enters – sometimes guided by drawn lines and other times devouring such defined forms in a major painterly decision. Now it’s a picture – says Picasso.

What a great learning experience this film is!

This version also contains Haesaerts 1949 Visit to Picasso, which illuminates the relationship of iconography, meaning and style by some stunning filming (but not as excitingly as Clouzot with Picasso was to do) and a home movie by Man Ray of a holiday with the Picassos and Paul Eluard near Antibes. No evidence of Man Ray’s mastery survives – although there are some surreal versions of what it is like to be on holiday.

One feels as though this disc allows one access – repeatable if you own a copy – to something that is indeed ‘mysterious’ but also deeply educative – even to those like me who do not aspire to paint themselves but to learn how to see again and how seeing, feeling, shape and meaning come together and can by rearrangement be metamorphosed.

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'Crudo: A Novel' Olivia Laing (2018) London, Picador: a great book!

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 4 Jul 2018, 17:29

Crudo: A Novel Olivia Laing (2018) London, Picador

Fans have been waiting for a novel by Olivia Laing a long time, whilst being more than satisfied with getting all that a novel gives from her hybrid biographical – reflective writing. That writing took people, landscapes and reflection of lived interior and exterior experience and their interactions and made them into something like great writing, whose only forebear might be Sebald.

Virginia Woolf’s story is combined with that of the river in which she drowned herself, lonely male writers like Cheever with the alcohol which substituted for their river of life-and-death and the human alienation at the source of the value of even the cruellest artistic lives-in-the-alienated-city.

Since this novel bases itself and its narrative voice on the persona and life of Kathy Acker it too relates to (auto)biography. Its narrator continually asserts that it, I, has an anachronistic relation to life (just as Acker did in fact when she really lived) that might also allow Laing to inhabit both the ‘I’ and the events of ‘its life’ momentarily. This is indeed what happens more subliminally in her ‘(auto)biographical reflections’ but here the problematic term is ‘I’: what it is that one can ‘mean’ by using that complex term.

Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane …. Kathy had written several books – Great Expectations, Blood and Guts in High School, I expect you’ve heard of them. The man with whom she was sleeping had not written any books. Kathy was angry. I mean I. I was angry. And then I got married (1f.).

I’m sure we are meant to read this knowing that Acker is dead and part of a literary tradition – that of the fictional autobiography. Acker did write Great Expectations but at the end of the novel, in the eyes of her 100% husband, her 'I' becomes she and then the hero of another great fictional autobiography, the Pip of Dicken’s Great Expectations: ‘Pip, he said, My Pip.’ (131)

These acts of literary and cognitive anachronism are common in this novel, that questions identity in relation to its ontology in time and place as well as the epistemology of its meaning(s) in terms of society, history and geography. This is not least the case in the character’s reports of ‘her world’, in which the language of Donald Trump vies with that of Acker:

Some sort of cord between action and consequence has been severed. Things still happened, but not in any sensible order, it was hard to talk about truth because some bits were hidden, the result or maybe the cause, and anyway but the space between them was full of misleading data, nonsense and lies. … Had decisions once led plainly to things happening you could report on? She remembered it but distantly? (62f.)

This describes reflexively the relation of narrative voice to the plot or events of a novel in a thoroughly dislocated way, which may also be the condition of the post-Trump-and-Brexit narrator, neither American nor English, neither man nor woman, straight nor gay, bi- nor mono-sexual, neither character nor narrator, reader or read about, active or passive in their own life. Note this doubly ironic riff on the cause of Acker’s actual death, breast cancer (it is an amazing and innovative form of writing):

The best thing about breast cancer was the double mastectomy, lop them both off she’d said, I always hated them. Hair cropped, skinny, flat-chested, she was a lovely dickless boy, a wrinkling Dorian Gray, fondling her jewels… No one Kathy actually liked had a stable gender identity, not really. Transitioning, she loved the word, with its sense of constant emergence and zero arrival. She was indeterminate and oversexed, a hot chrysalis, if she’d had a dick you better believe it would be perfect, at least as good as David Bowie’s.

An important marriage is the one consequential narrative-event of the novel that matters. But this ‘marriage’ isn’t either of Acker’s early marriages or her final heterosexual partnership in London. Is it Laing’s marriage and the learning about loving that involves? Who is to know? As with all great fictional autobiography events are happily, whether they be result or cause of something else in someone’s ‘life’ or not, in a space ‘full of misleading data, nonsense, and lies.’ This is at its finest in a beautiful passage I’ve quoted already on page 131 (read it yourself!)  where ‘she’ is no longer ‘the first person’ (of course she also means ‘I’ by ‘the first person’) because she is purely what ‘she’ is – a third-person writer, whom might become anything, including the seed of all consequence (the original ‘pip’), but also a character so lost they might be actually in the kitchen not the bed but found by her loving reader and which ‘hold’ her in their eye.

This is fine hybrid writing even more revealing and daringly lost –in-itself than Laing’s earlier books, where her characters have had the good grace to already have died for her. It is literary theory, literary criticism, reflective and reflexive phenomenological philosophy, comment on life and history including comparisons of sameness and difference in events and personae. It is too good! Will it then be recognised as such by Booker readers? I hope so, because it can work very differently for different readers. 

This is a writer who has undergone a long apprenticeship – just as Goethe and Dickens and Woolf did – of learning to ‘be’ other and self simultaneously (‘Writing, she can be anyone.’ (125). It bears all this in one of its more obvious features – its play with the theme of literary borrowings (that are ‘something borrowed’ (135ff.) for the wedding of ideal versions of her writer and reader) and plagiarism. An important event in Acker’s life involved accusations of plagiarism from Harold Robbins, her admission thereof, and Robbins’ refusal to press charges because (I intuit) he believed that that was what writing was - a play and symphony of ‘borrowings’, where cone can be either the sneak or ‘snake’ in your own life (120) but which painfully keeps waking up in a nightmare that calls itself contemporary history – sometimes in the very words of a Trump tweet (88f.). She calls it elsewhere (and it is Trump of Doom for the world): ‘nastiness in small private places and out in the open, flagrant and stately (51).’

This is the best and most innovative novel, outside the wonderfully under-rated ones of Ali Smith that I have read for a really LONG time.

Steve

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Tosh very much alive: Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow to Aug 14th 2018

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Monday, 2 Jul 2018, 17:48

Tosh very much alive: Charles Rennie Mackintosh in Glasgow

You only have to the 14th August to see this fateful exhibition. It is fateful because during its run, the Glasgow School of Art on Sauciehall Street burned down and is currently being demolished following the result of heavy damage.

Yet the School of Art remains the star of this great show. There are two films on continuous loop showing many of the artist’s great architectural achievements but the one on The School of Art is particularly moving. The method in these films is to make a comprehensive selection of views of each architectural piece – interiors and exteriors – using drones for previously inaccessible features and aerial overviews. That the building we are shown so comprehensively no longer existed when I saw this film moved me considerably – but not all those feelings expressed loss since the record of the school, as a result of this show, lasts forever and in this show could be compared with other ways in which the architecture has been recorded and these records preserved – such as original ground-plans and exterior elevations – even perspective drawings. It makes the material that learners in art-history require to know how to read the evidence that represents a ‘building’ more fully. The show is full of strong and good case studies, including some minor reconstruction with original decoration and furnishings reproduced (it made me run straight afterwards to view the Mackintosh house in the Hunterian Gallery at Glasgow University) rather than wait for the time I’d allotted on my visit to Rembrandt’s wonderful ‘Entombment’ (still worth a longer and more curious gaze than I had then time to give it).

But the examination of glorious buildings (interior & exterior) is only a little of what is on show here. The subtitle of the exhibition: ‘Making the Glasgow Style’, pays ample attention to the artistic forebears in Aestheticism, collaborators of Tosh, not least Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh, his wife, whose May Queen (1900) remains one other star of this glittering show. This work seems pregnant with a deeply ‘womanly’ understanding of the meanings, perils and pleasures of using female figures in display – stronger than Klimt with whom in the 8th Vienna Secession Show she could have been compared – since more explicitly able to use abstract form in a manner critical of such figuration (in my view at least) and the subjection of woman to male gaze in Klimt’s versions. Jessie M. King makes a strong appearance not least because she was the peer of Tosh in book and illustrative design.

Detail of 'The May Queen' (1900) Available at: https://farm1.staticflickr.com/899/41066545742_68d41c6e51_b.jpg

May Queen - Central top detail

The catalogue is cheap (£9.99) and a worthy representation of the richness of thematic, architectural, biographical, pedagogic and style issues, as well as paying (this is Scotland after all, remember) due attention to issues of social inequality (p.6). One feature that struck me especially was the careful attention to the precise cultural links and exchanges of persons, work-practices and ‘styles’ with Japan shortly after the Meiji restoration in 1868 and how these help us to view the aesthetic innovations of the Glasgow movement including Tosh. Seeing these helped me to see that the normal dismissal of the flattened designs of the Glasgow style as merely decorative and formal is a huge misrepresentation. There seem to be links not only with imagery but with the use of text as both collaborative, and in in itself one of, the images it works with as in Japanese woodblock portraits of both men and women. Iconography from the East (much of each admittedly correctly labelled as ‘Orientalism’) sometimes works harder than a superficial look suggests (see for instance the play between female figure and the enigmas of the design into which she becomes another rather than merely ‘other’ in Part Seen, Part Imagined 1986 (p. 28 of catalogue).

Do not delay. This exhibition is a prize. Plan to spend a long time. If you can’t go, go on the website and buy one of the modest but very beautiful catalogues. If like me, you are going into, A844 next year with the Open University (subject to success in A843) then this helps with so much that seems promised in this course in terms of examinations of ‘the image’ and of architecture and how to read it.

 

Steve


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Truth-telling in Art-History Reviewing Kemp, Martin (2018) Living with Leonardo

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Truth-telling in Art-History

Reviewing Kemp, Martin (2018) Living with Leonardo: Fifty years of Sanity and Insanity in the Art World and Beyond London, Thames & Hudson.

I can’t get over the feeling that this is an ‘old-fashioned’ book. After a year on a MA in Art History however I believe that to be a great compliment. It is a great tonic not least in Kemp’s sincere wish to stand, at least sometimes, on the ‘outside’ of art-history and to query the claims and arguments that this discipline standing alone feels able to support. It has an autobiographical aspect but that very much feels to me like a means of showing how and why success within scholarly disciplines should not be mistaken as badges of identity and 'expertise'. There is something truly refreshing in the ‘truth-telling’ this includes. I first became aware of this trait in Kemp as a result of the warm appreciation of Kemp by David Hockney and Martin Gayford in their last book on 'pictures'. Both (one an art-journalist the other even though he be a celebrated artist) are often treated as outsiders by the art-history elites. Kemp alone, they report, was prepared to take seriously their evidence about the early use of the camera obscura as a drawing tool and the consequences of that theory.

For Kemp, coming from an early educational background in the natural sciences, a background outside the charmed circle of the upper middle-classes, and taking on art-history for the first time as a post-graduate student allows him to show, totally without false embarrasment, how he caught up on the limited knowledge of languages, especially Italian, and the iconic texts of a Western culture background, not offered to him by his ‘background’. Moreover, he makes it clear that his meteoric rise had much to do with the role played by Anthony Blunt in mediating with the establishment. Telling the truth about one’s education and social background allows Kemp to indicate how and why he sometimes felt like an outsider in the rarefied and sometimes frankly nepotistic social atmosphere of the fine arts of the late twentieth century.

Forget the fact that the book hints at having something to say about mental ill-health though (I hope these hints are more traceable to an agent or publisher’s sense of what will sell a book than to the author). However, Kemp clearly is prepared to see the Leonardo industry (‘inflated art-world egos … Major scholars and authors, collectors, and curators…) as being well stocked with ‘Leonardo loonies’. I personally see this name-calling (whatever the provocation) as a deficit in the thinking in the book and an (unintended) insult to those with living with mental-health problems.

However, what really matters in Kemp’s great book is a rigorous sense that telling the truth is not a matter of merely imposing one’s social and cultural or ‘establishment’ authority, in the manner of Blunt say, but of testing the evidence which supports truth claims or counter-claims. That this feels old-fashioned may tell us more about the state of art-publishing – Kemp utilises direct critical examination of a range of evidence using well-established tools such as ‘falsifiability’ of hypotheses and ‘the law of parsimony’ in scientific explanation (228).

The narrowness of the class and educational access routes to art-history in the past formed a strong ‘established’ identity, equated with the kind of ‘establishment’ expertise that even Wittgenstein was prepared to champion as something beyond language, that they named ‘connoisseurship’. Kemp tries to preserve what is good about that the judgements of trained observers of art by championing its renaming as ‘judgement by eye’ (226). He goes as far as blaming scientist-wanderers into art-history as not being aware that such trained judgements of ocular evidence are demanded by even the ‘hardest’ of evidence used by scientific commentators on art – in judging, for instance, what exactly we are seeing in a an IR-reflectogram. All of this is examined in the crucial (as I see it) chapter 8 on ‘Science and Seeing’.

Yet the importance of Kemp’s insistence on evidence is in fact as well shown by his wonderful chapter on the cultural meanings about art used cavalierly in Dan Brown’s novels of ‘symbology’. The myth perpetrated by such novels (and their versions as movies) is easy to uncover – that true knowledge is having appropriate and trained awareness of the ‘hidden’ meanings lying behind coded images.  That knowledge is presented as a matter of mastery of ‘codes’ is named by Kemp ‘secretology’: roughly a belief that all true knowledge is secreted behind codes, the key to which is known only to the few. Yet he makes it clear that this is a version of an assumption based on the validation that experts on images and imagery may ‘read-in’ the true, if secreted meaning of works. This critique is applied not only to the Dan Brown mythology but also to Freud (296) or to those obsessed by the meanings hidden under Neo-Platonic-idealist or magical mathematics that lurks in ideas like the ‘golden section or Fibonacci sequence (300).

I’m not sure Kemp says so explicitly but I believe that the very structure of his book tells us that such ‘codswallop’ was often the result of art-history divorced from rigorous use of multiple types of evidence and even more rigorous critical scrutiny of that evidence. Indeed art-history based on inadequate evidence-base and evidence analytics is no better than is the fictional ‘symbology’ of Dan Brown or inadequate rigour in reading reflectograms. The problem with art is that we may see what we want or what we expect to see because we have an ‘interest’ in seeing it thus. That interest can be monetary or reputational. It could be an interest in keeping alive a mystique about the value and values of professions – such as those in both art-dealing and sometimes (note Blunt) art-scholarship and which can be seen clearly in the case of ‘mistaken identity’ posed by the challenge to the Louvre’s version of the painting by the Isleworth Mona Lisa (92). But note that Kemp’s attack on self-interest as a key biasing factor in the perception of links the kind of refusal of evidence also common to other fictional ‘secretologies’ (92). Art-history, says Kemp, right at the offset can sometimes be:

A messy and sometimes turbulent tangle of wishful thinking, prejudice, vested interests, national characteristics, and rigged arguments. Tottering piles of hypotheses can be constructed to prop up cherished theories. An emphasis on connoisseurship can prevent sufficient attention being paid to ‘difficult’ scientific evidence (11).

. Out of all of the people who flit through these pages, Ernst Gombrich comes out of examination very well. In my view that is because he was prepared not just to ‘be’ the pontiff of art-history but to get down and dirty with the evidence (40f.).

I loved this book. It can stay by my side whilst I read more art-history



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A844 - Preparatory Reading Boswell, D. & Evans, J. (Eds.) (1999) Representing The Nation

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Thursday, 19 Jul 2018, 15:38

A844 - Preparatory Reading

Book:

Boswell, D. & Evans, J. (Eds.) (1999) Representing The Nation: A Reader Oxford, Routledge

DEALING WITH THIS ANTHOLOGY AS PREPARATION.

What are the books key themes and narratives?

I think reading the complete set of essays within this would not be a good means of preparation.

1.      It is the Reader of a Cultural and Media Studies OU MA course from 1999.

2.      Whilst obviously full of great stuff, the best preparation I felt was just to have a nodding acquaintance with the content titles and have read the Introduction & section introductions, since this carries the kind of master narrative of the course from which it derives. This master narrative will not necessarily be that of A844 but I wanted to be aware of it.

3.      The key themes are in the section titles:

4.      They are:

a.      Culture, community, nation p. 9ff.

b.      Representing the past as heritage and consuming that heritage 109ff.

c.      Museums as classificatory systems & their prehistories 233ff.

d.      Museums and cultural management 363ff.

How does it reflect on A843 themes?

Section 4c & d rehearse, even with some of the same voices (Duncan & Wallach, Clifford) the Block material on institutions, although there is more about links to monumentalism and nation in dealing with museums and some greater awareness of class fears related to display and exhibition. Education is a focused theme based on taxonomies. The 2nd section looks as though it points us to the use of museums as places of co-operative and collaborative learning (‘intercultural encounter 369) rather than top-down varieties. Some of the ‘geographies material in Block 4 would be consumed in 4a & b.

How do I predict that it might foreshadow A844 themes?

The master narrative of the book is reliant on Benedict Anderson – see link below (1, 13) and it may (sob!) be the case that the coverage of this is a sufficient knowledge of that book. However, some key terms are interpreted usefully. The nation is analysed as ‘a symbolic community’ (hence ‘imagined’). The job of meaning-making that transforms nation and community into meanings is ‘culture’ (1, 2). Culture is reduced to ‘images’ and narratives (2). Hence there is a link here to images section of A844. There is a concern with making-meaning by creating ‘myths of origin’ (4) as in Schama.

There is a discussion of art-history that locates it as an academic discourse limited by its histories and taxonomies (especially periodisation & style) in line with the ideological limitations of other bourgeois academic discourses (7).

The danger of such myths is their unified perspective and teleological direction. The answer in these essays is I believe hinted to be seeing ‘histories’ (including of art) as multiple not unitary (13, 113). The fear of mass or subaltern interest in museums is their potential alternative reading of history (turned into fear of display) and this is manifest in class and race bias (237 exhibitionary complex & 237 racism of the Chicago Exposition).

How does the book relate to the analysis of art and architecture?

Any other points!

Through key terms which bridge those discussions – nation, monumentalism, notion of heroism, art as national policy (365) and changing role of market in state function (368).

 

The key message is that meanings (images and narratives) potentially taken away from the art gallery will not assume the hegemony of one meaning imposed by enculturation in a discipline such as art history (369) and this will need to be confronted as a debate still with us – though this book derives from 1999.

 

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (click to see in new window)

Lewis Mumford The City in History (click to see in new window)

Schama Landscape & Memory (click to see in new window)

Conway & Roenisch Understanding Architecture (click to see in new window)   

Elkins & Naef (Eds.) What is an Image? (click to see in new window)

Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time: The Image in History (click to see in new window)

Aynsley & Grant (Eds.) Imagined Interiors (click to see in new window)

Boswell & Evans (eds.) Representing the Nation (click to see in new window)

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A844 - Preparatory Reading - Aynsley, J. & Grant, C. (Eds.) (2006) imagined interiors

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 24 Jun 2018, 19:21

A844 - Preparatory Reading

Book:

Aynsley, J. & Grant, C. (Eds.) (2006) imagined interiors: representing the domestic interior since the Renaissance London, V & A Publications

Basic Description of Contents:

# What are the books key themes and narratives?

This book is about BOTH literary and visual (iconic) representations of the inside of the homes and the relationship between the literary or iconic image. It explores the link of domestic interiors to a notion of psychological interiority throughout the chosen period of history. It deals with:

Period

Countries or Country

Foci

15-16th Century

Italy, Netherlands

Religious art, The role of birthing rooms & beds–in-rooms (virgin), family, death and sexuality, Classical lit., , Morality lit., The concept of boundaries – walls (and absent ones), doors to other rooms, inside/outsides, fantasy interiors  (440

16th-17th Century

England (London)

Eizabethan & Jacobean theatre & drama mainly focused on Shakespeare, settings in theatre (Garrick in 18th 60), domestic advice lit (68), prints (70)

17th Century

Netherlands

Domestic interiors in painting: e.g. de Witts, Steen, Maes, Metsu, de Hooch, Rembrandt, Vermeer. Inventories as evidence (98)

18th Century

England

Writing and pictures of interiors – letters & epistolary novel, Hogarth morality & satirical sets, domestic items – plates, Private space and intrusion in that & other matters. Devis, Zoffany, Collins, Rowlandson. Divisions between concerns of lit. & visual art (127). Plans as evidence 128. Furniture and privacy (130) erotic  (132)

18th – 19th Century

England (a little USA)

Hogarth compared to Turner – inward turn (137), Richardson’s & Defoe’s novels, Highmore, Redgrave: Austen, Dickens & Eliot. Cottage genre (154) cabinet house (156) Temperance & Cruikshank (158).

19th Century

France

This essay by Francesca Berry is for me the star of the show as a model for the analysis of images and a justification of using images semi-independently of language-based approaches (including literature) - 166. Also very much my themes: Theoretical approach via limitations of Benjamin (160) and over-simple early feminist ‘separate spheres analysis169f. Psych: ‘psychic unrest of the bourgeois interior’ for Degas (163) and identification of genres – at the table, at the window (167), [Ernst too 161] Excellent on the role of Haussmann (180) innovations and apartment living – 169 and use of Zola. Best analyses of Caillebotte & others – men inside (173-179 and on the variation of interiority trope between men and women (175-9). Nuanced on same in Vuillard (182).

Evidence- domestic advice books 184

Use in advertising 185

19th – 20th century

Europe & USA

Great exhibitions (190f.), reform of design 195f. – Arts & Crafts, Modernism 205f. poverty 212.

Evidence: children’s’ books 216

Photographs 218

20th Century

Modernism – Loos on 220ff, Use of plans & models and their ability to change meanings (223ff), children & interiors 225ff. Humans v. or in ‘space’ (227ff) – its quality as space – cited 233. Abstraction 234f. & Nature235ff

Evidence: Citizen Kane 240

Retail catalogues 242

1930s-40s

USA  & GB

Film as Evidence – Love On the Dole (244f.) Hitchcock (247f.), Ealing comedy 251ff.

Evidence: migrant home 256

20th Century

UK

DIY, TV & makeovers (starts 258): (not my bag but interesting). Llewelyn-Bowen etc.  (269f.) & intrusion into privacy

Evidence: ethnography 274

Holidays 276

How does it reflect on A843 themes?

With Elkins & Naef, it joins – much more practically - some of discussions on the relative importance of language and its absence in the role of images in representation & meaning-making (as in A843 Section 3) See 127, 166.

 

However, it is also important (overtly or by implication) on authorship, iconology, forma & style, and geographies/institutions. One of the good features of the book are the very many bits of evidence (and the representational issues that come with them) it brings to attention if we focus on a theme like interiority: visual forms & genres [including prints (30, ) plans (38ff,223f, models 224 ) & pictures (38, 76ff., 135ff., 137, 146ff), 163ff., 167, 173ff- 182), satire (169, 211), ], objects & furniture (32, 74ff, 115ff, 193, ), (in)visible boundaries & portals beyond (deeper – or shallower, to further inside to outside (35, 82ff voorhuis, ), ideas of privacy & hygiene (92f. ), inventories (98f.), literature (121ff, 147ff., 169 Zola, ), sociology (124ff., 212f, 256f.), self-help, 184f., photographs (189f, 205ff, 218f., 221ff., 228f), museums  (199f., magazines (200ff., children’s’ books 216f,226f. , cinema (240f., 244ff.) TV (258ff).

How do I predict that it might foreshadow A844 themes?

Looking for an essay theme: Gender, class, sexuality, family & change – the role of written & visual imagery. My own interest probably best represented by Francesca Berry chapter on French painting, especially on Caillebotte. This nuanced argument leads me to issue of ‘alternative interiors and queer theory (Reed, C. 2004 Bloomsbury Rooms).

 

Of course contribute to discussion of images section and how to research practically then. Some issues for nationality and city themes various throughout. Probably too much in detail to pick up here.

How does the book relate to the analysis of art and architecture?

Around issue of how to read and use plans and other evidence for artistic form, meaning & their interaction, especially in relation to the use (and extent of use) of literary material of popular or non-popular form.

Vital for issues of privacy and public functions in art and how these are reconciled at many levels, especially in relation to a nuanced (in Berry at least) view of gender, nation & migrancy, class, sanitation, sexuality etc.

Any other points!

A rich book with lots of great ideas about evidence used in arguments (whether long or short arguments) within a thesis and how to bring different evidence together (and re-differentiate them where necessary).

 

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (click to see in new window)

Lewis Mumford The City in History (click to see in new window)

Schama Landscape & Memory (click to see in new window)

Conway & Roenisch Understanding Architecture (click to see in new window)   

Elkins & Naef (Eds.) What is an Image? (click to see in new window)

Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time: The Image in History (click to see in new window)

Aynsley & Grant (Eds.) Imagined Interiors (click to see in new window)

Boswell & Evans (eds.) Representing the Nation (click to see in new window)

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A844 - Preparatory Reading Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time:

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 24 Jun 2018, 19:21

A844 - Preparatory Reading

Book:

Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time: The Image in History Durham & London, Duke University Press. (actually read by me during 2017 in preparation for a TMA)

How does it reflect on A843 themes?

It really helped last year in understanding the role of history in contemporary art-history since it starts by attacking some effects of Wölflinn’s historiography:  not ‘fitting artist into pre-established historical and geographical plot.’ (27f.). Insisting that contemporary art-history starts with the work rather than a stereotypical and perhaps teleological historical framework (31), it also no longer insists on looking for or finding ‘stylistic unity’ in pictures (40). It can glory in the fact that a picture is an ‘anachronism’ because chronology is no longer definitive (in any geographical place). The painting no longer looks to recreate a Panofskian past in which the meaning of iconography can be sought and iconologically synthesised. It has ‘presence’ (Belting) in wherever or whenever it is seen. When we place in language or discourse, it is language that describes ‘thinking about a picture’ in Baxandall’s terms. The characterisation of Panofsky’s elitist focus on knowledge about the past as if it were the only access to the present meaning of painting is described, 154f. He illustrates this by reading Breughel in ‘period’ and dialectically (90).

How do I predict that it might foreshadow A844 themes?

It will help in Block 1 in identify the use of national pasts to instantiate and objectify national and international ‘heritage’ in art works and in challenging the role of ekphrasis in the display of pictures (95). This will blend over to Block 2, especially in relation to images and ideology, since Panofsky, for instance is read (rightly I think) as pre-eminently an ideological ‘liberal-humanist’ (90). In this section too the fate of images in time-frames can be understood, especially in terms of ‘heterochronicity’ (that time is experienced primarily through cultural mediation and that this makes otiose some cross-cultural & cross-national comparisons of relative modernity (42). Moxey writes one of the ‘Assessments’ in Elkins & Naef (2011) and we will find lots of stuff here about the nature of the image – what it is and what it is not (see 95). An image is not confined within a picture frame but can be co-created by ekphrasis (95). Moreover linguistic paradigms can shape our conceptualisation of imagery if we are an artist (Cranach 129).

What are the books key themes and narratives? & How does the book relate to the analysis of art and architecture?

Essentially it is a book about paradigms that are and should be guiding art-history. Some such paradigms in-build postcolonial comparisons that, without overt marginalisation, characterise the ‘other’ as inferior and / or chronologically backward or lacking in terms of a Western conception of modernity (15). We can believe that we make objective comparisons of Western and non-western art that are in fact ignorant of the drivers appropriate to heterochronicity of artistic productions across the world. This was also focused upon in Geographies & Institutions’ in A843.  Like Elkins and Naef, and sometimes using the thinkers from those seminars, it queries what is meant by the “iconic” or “pictorial” turn in Art-history (77). Its issues do not cover architecture much of course

Any other points!

The use of cross-temporal contrasts is of course one of the triumphs of the book and could be helpful – especially when comparing genres across time and media (the contrast between Holbein and Thomas Demand’s photographs is very interesting (108f.).

 

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (click to see in new window)

Lewis Mumford The City in History (click to see in new window)

Schama Landscape & Memory (click to see in new window)

Conway & Roenisch Understanding Architecture (click to see in new window)   

Elkins & Naef (Eds.) What is an Image? (click to see in new window)

Boswell & Evans (eds.) Representing the Nation (click to see in new window)

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A844 - Preparatory Reading Elkins, J & Naef, M. (Eds.) (2011) 'What Is an Image?'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 24 Jun 2018, 19:22

A844 - Preparatory Reading

Book:

Elkins, J & Naef, M. (Eds.) (2011) What Is an Image? Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press.

CAVEAT & ENABLER (perhaps)

I was rather shocked by this book that was liked and hated in equal measure by its contributing authors, as Peri hints (205), and presumably all other unseen and unknown readers.

 I think we have to see how and why it differs from your expectations of what a book does and how it does it to get the point here and forewarned might be forearmed with tools and strategies to make the best of this book one can.

 It is not just that it is ‘dialogic’ as Peri mentions but that it is reflexively multi-dialogic and multi-directional in its form. How can this be described more clearly:

The core of the book is an edited transcribed discussion between mainly philosophers and art historians about the question ‘What is an Image?’ introduced by art-historian James Elkins (12) as an ‘encounter’ or ‘collaborative conversation’. He warns us here that such a conversation will not lead to concord but to a series of ‘dissonances’ that never get resolved focused on positive or negative responses to the requirement of an image’s conceptualization of other disciplines or discourses: politics, theology, rationality, irrationality or linguistics.

 And that is what we find – a lot of dissonance and failure to follow through an argument or point before it is disputed, sometimes amicably but sometimes not. I began to be able to read this section of the book (called ‘The Seminars’) when I read them as dramas in which the readable character and their situation within the conversation (in terms of power, gender, discipline, frustration) of the speaker was  seen as an enjoyable aspect of reading. This section is followed by one named ‘Assessments’ written by people (only some of whom were present at the Seminars) who were responding to reading the transcripts we read and who variously characterise them: ‘meanderings (Baumeister 131), as unrepresentative and exclusive voices – especially excluding scientific disciplines (Kesner 193ff. – a wonderful contribution which discusses the use of fMRI scanned imagery). Describing it as just plainly ‘annoying’, Singh (143ff.) pictures a place ‘where ideas are invoked but never fully developed … this theater (sic.) of dominant and submissive voices.’   It seems too that these Assessments were also read by the contributors of other assessments making the whole process doubly reflexive. Finally it is capped off by an Afterword that is really only comprehensible to a Wittgenstein scholar and really offers no more sense of a coherent debate.

 S, is it worth reading? I think it is providing you have strategies to stop you being merely ‘annoyed’ like Singh or overwhelmed. Even Stjernfelt who says it is evidence that ‘image theory is a mess’ finds an ‘astonishing amount of good ideas and observations’ (209). These powerful academics throw ideas around like water but some issues make that water look very like ‘light’ shed on the topic of what it is we must work with as learners of art history and the different ways that working material can be conceptualised. But don’t make it the first book in your preparatory reading. Otherwise you end up like Vigneron saying that maybe all we need is a ‘working understanding’ of what an image is (doxa rather than episteme he calls it) which means really that the book is a waste of time since completing art history postgraduates still ‘make wonderfully original uses of what remains mostly untheorized’ (119).

How does it reflect on A843 themes?

Of course the answer is ‘a lot’. 

However, the most pertinent link is to the discussion of the 'pictorial turn' or 'iconic turn' in Section 3. The underlying theme is whether 'literary' approaches to the image and its meaning - in iconology  or elsewhere - are appropriate to understanding visual phenomena or whether images communicate in their own terms - whether images have 'meaning' without their translation or reference to the linguistic world of descriptions, narratives or analytic discourses. (I've just added this paragraph - 23/06/18 - because I just neglected to say it earlier - typical of me!

Lichtenstein (as others) helps you to see the importance of ideas of the materiality of paint and the body in her rather unpopular contributions to the seminars (85). Nevertheless these help make sense of the invocation of phenomenological approaches in Block 3 and their antipathy to a more cognitive Panofskian iconology (84ff.). Other issues illuminated might be: the notion of ‘presence’ in the pre-Renaissance image (93), the meaning of ‘close looking’ in reading an image (80f.), political contextual as against aesthetic formal issues (71f.), similarly with ‘history’ (40),  phenomenology and anthropological replacements of Panofsky (72-4), relativism of imagery (Moxey 124). I liked the treatment of whether art was a ‘public’ or ‘private’ experience (71, and loved Holly’s piece about the place where we find the ‘image:’ first sentences of his piece on p. 114).

How do I predict that it might foreshadow A844 themes?

I think this is difficult. It could be used to characterise the state of discourses of research in art history, especially in relation to the contribution from multi-disciplinary domains. Strangely enough, most contributors of Assessments that I liked were rather scathing about how successfully art historians can, on their own, invoke multi-disciplinary thinking even in areas they are used to ‘occupying’, like philosophy. For me Manghani’s assessment rather subtly makes it clear that most of the discussion of Wittgenstein is based on a mistranslation of the latter, especially translating vorstellung as ‘image’ rather than ‘imagining’ (126).

 

Likewise Egenhofer (186ff.) makes me believe that much of the theorising about ‘ontology’ (and I would say ‘epistemology too) is rather built an unnecessary confusion about what the discipline of ontology (knowing that something exists and has being) in philosophy is and how it differs from ‘epistemology’ (knowing things about something) and a kind of odd distaste (and ignorance) about what metaphysics might be.

 

But the point is even greater when we realise that the art historians, many who talk about images in scientific discourse) did not really invite enough scientists, or even psychologists (soft scientists) or other discipline gurus. Kesner makes the point about exclusion (193ff.) as well as being brilliant on why multi-disciplinarity needs to be realisable even if difficult (instancing the import of neuro-imaging).  More surprising is the lack of any decent consultation of cognitive science and computer modelling and its contribution to the idea of imaging in the mind, in networks or elsewhere (Krois on brains and seeing 199), Alloa on the role of categorization in image storage (149f.) and the meaning of ‘perceptual inference’ in the mental reconstruction of imagery and even Gibson’s influential though about vision and its ‘affordances’ (178).

 

I expect it to be used in Block 2 especially – the ‘image & its publics’ and perhaps Block 3 on ‘inhabiting space’. Is space an image or a non-image, for instance?

What are the books key themes and narratives?

This is impossible to answer for reasons I’ve suggested (at least for me). I think the best bet is to stick with the useful characterisation of the whole from Elkins’ introduction (at the end – 12). I summarise that above as: ‘‘dissonances’ that never get resolved focused on positive or negative responses to the requirement of an image’s conceptualization of other disciplines or discourses: politics, theology, rationality, irrationality or linguistics.’ However, how the course will employ this I can’t guess – although it certainly has a lot to say about the role of ‘theory’ in art history – its limitations as well as strengths.

How does the book relate to the analysis of art and architecture?

Of course, as some contributors and assessors say, the panel is dominated by art historians. As Kesner says, he came to the event, ‘expecting that non-art images would feature prominently … our talks seldom strayed from the territory of artistic, religious and media images.’ (193). There are only two ‘images’ (if we assume for a moment that we know what these are) reproduced in this book – neither of which are discussed and this speaks volumes of about a discipline that uses a lot of words to talk about wordless images. Lichtenstein talks a lot about Cezanne (85) as read by Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology without really referring to anything specific. Elkins tells her this is the usual kind of art historian’s reduction of art to something ‘inside the horizon given us by phenomenology’ (87).

Any other points!

Our name is legion, says the devils in the possessed, and so are the themes in this book. Some of us may love it, all of us will hate it a bit. Most will hate it a LOT! (Another prediction).

 

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (click to see in new window)

Lewis Mumford The City in History (click to see in new window)

Schama Landscape & Memory (click to see in new window)

Conway & Roenisch Understanding Architecture (click to see in new window)

Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time: The Image in History (click to see in new window)

Aynsley & Grant (Eds.) Imagined Interiors (click to see in new window)

Boswell & Evans (eds.) Representing the Nation (click to see in new window)

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A844 - Preparatory Reading Conway, H. & Roenisch, R. (2005) 2nd Ed. Understanding architecture

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 24 Jun 2018, 19:23

A844 - Preparatory Reading

Book:

Conway, H. & Roenisch, R. (2005) 2nd Ed. Understanding architecture: An Introduction to architecture and architectural history London, Routledge.

How does it reflect on A843 themes?

Architecture is virtually absent in A843, except for a little on Chiswick House. But some of the introductory concepts can be refreshed with an eye to architecture alone:

         i          Authorship can be aligned with the discussion of the conventional historiographical approach of architectural history through ‘masters’ or  notions of genius (15f. on ‘heroic’ and monumental, 38) or modes of analysis located in ethnocentric or sexist principles (39-41).

       ii          Style & ‘periodisation’ (8) have their own chapter and the links to treatments in A843 are useful. Thus Wölfflin’s comparative method is mirrored in Banister Fletcher’s stylistic analyses perhaps (39, 168ff.) and style as aesthetic feature (15 role of the architect’s studio) is discussed against style as in itself interactive with contextual matters (180, especially social functions 59 on Edinburgh, 61, 155 on Le Corbusier) and choices and/or competition (21). This is wary of how ‘style’ is used too and there is a warning against (like Pevsner) using it as a period marker (179, 189, 191 on ‘Victorian’ as a ‘false title’). The treatment of transitional phases is also great and telling (50f. 57, 80-1).

     iii          The iconographical or analysis of features as ‘meaningful’ icons is there – in a wide sense in the treatments of scale, proportion (65), size (62), as well as height and the relationship of insides and outsides of buildings to their meaning (69ff, 80f.) or the ‘open’ v. the closed 58 – In Japan for instance. Of course functions in interpretation often veer into issues of social reflection (28) and functionality – especially which of ‘communication’ (71) in relation to status – the construction of master –servant relations for instance.

      iv          This veers onto geography and institutions – nice on Fergusson, which excellent treatment of national issues (39-41). The treatment of process / service issues internal to the building’s self-care is good (78, 80f.) as well as being less prejudiced about ‘high-rise’ that Mumford (126 – who they like 19). The role of law touched on well here – ‘air rights’ 199, safety 155.

How do I predict that it might foreshadow A844 themes?

The key issues are I think:

a.      Planning and evidence-building for arguments that has transferable elements to non-architectural subjects: Chs. 3, 10. Likewise Ch 5. On ‘drawings and models’ has all kinds of interesting uses – architectural drawing as ‘art’ for instance – issues of perspective and function. The issue of different projections and viewpoints. How to talk about materials and combine multi-disciplinary perspectives.

b.      The analysis of space in relation to function, interior/exterior, rights and law, the role of boundaries and appearance – ideological v. service functions and so on. This is clearly focused in A844. Townscapes and landscapes – the relation of building to materials and issues of sustainability, gender, class, disability etc. Great vocabulary to discuss urban space too – density & grain (203).

c.      The nation and monumental architecture. Some examples around Baroque. The discussion of the marginalisation of the vernacular and why it happens.

d.      Ideology and imagery within architecture (Soanes)

What are the books key themes and narratives?

I think this is covered above and in the Contents page of this book. I felt the issue about architectural teams and the difference they make in terms of roles and relationships in the production of work could be more pointedly isolated, since it is obviously there. What for instance of the relative roles of architect and structural engineer (Built Agrawal, R. 2018).

How does the book relate to the analysis of art and architecture?

It is:

       I.          Introductory and therefore always a companion for architecture.

     II.          Focuses on how meanings relate to constructional, material, social, political and economic factors.

    III.          Decidedly international and/or a glocal approach to the issues which is excellent.

Any other points!

This is a very ambitious book and would perhaps be more honestly entitled ‘Introducing the Understanding of Architecture’, since, as the Foreword says it is conducted in ‘a masterly way, albeit at an introductory level’. There are moments when the characteristic comprehensive of the introduction appears far too simplistic (as in the introduction to CAD, 109). However, for me, it is ideal since I lack the confidence to start higher than this and this book is a brilliant companion to study, should I need it for TMAs or later, even though it may be designed for A-level, first-degree, auto-didact learners (I wish in this respect I’d come across it MUCH sooner). The features that appeal are:

1.      The brilliant glossary and the way this interacts with the text (necessary glossary words are asterisked*) to fill out understanding of basic concepts, ideas and architectural features. The book advises purchase of a dictionary and I got the Penguin one from a 2nd-hand shop, only to find some references in the latter missing or inadequate – especially if they related to Eastern traditions like geomancy or to phenomena not always classed as ‘architecture’ (and this book even covers the structures that used to be used by homeless people in the 1970s-80s when I was a student in London (128)).

2.      The fine Chapter 10 which examines the range of sources used as evidence in building arguments about a piece of architecture or architectural or land-planning phenomena across a wider range. This doesn’t need reading now just saving for later use.

3.      The simplicity of the language and structure of the books. Even each chapter has an appealing sub-structure of headings which mean that any aspect can be refreshed before looking further into issues such as the ‘scale’ of architectural pieces (147ff.) or ‘proportion’ as a spatial issue (64ff.). I will keep this book by me.

4.      The little bits of analytic practice that are modelled are brief but very instructive and feel strong in themselves, at least as a starting-point: Georgian compared to Baroque for instance (23f.).

One that appeals much less is the textbook character of the work. My guess is that was based on the introductory level course for beginners at De Montfort University. Hence it attitude to different perspectives and theories tends to be bland – multiplicity adds to the ‘richness’ of the subject

 

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (click to see in new window)

Lewis Mumford The City in History (click to see in new window)

Schama Landscape & Memory (click to see in new window)

Elkins & Naef (Eds.) What is an Image? (click to see in new window)

Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time: The Image in History (click to see in new window)

Aynsley & Grant (Eds.) Imagined Interiors (click to see in new window)

Boswell & Evans (eds.) Representing the Nation (click to see in new window)

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A844 Preparatory Reading Notes - Schama 'Landscape & Memory'

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Sunday, 24 Jun 2018, 19:23

A844 - Preparatory Reading

Book:

Schama, S. (2004) Landscape and Memory London, Harper Perrenial

How does it reflect on A843 themes?

In a book so wide, it reflects on all, much more than its title suggests – this is about so much more than the meaning of ‘landscape’ (defined etymologically 10) in painting, sculpture, architecture and land planning (urban, rural or suburban). To me it is best read as a book about myths and mythology (575) that define, delimit and understand the nature of ‘space’ and ‘spaces’ as concepts, phenomena (in art and experience) and life (gardens and homes widely understood such that it includes Thoreau’s Walden).

 

Pressed, I’d name two: the nature of ‘place’ as an encultured space (geography and institutions), and iconography.

 

1.      Starting with iconography, for me it is important that no art historian is given more total credence as a teller of explanatory stories than any other kind of sage. I was fascinated by the treatment of Warburg, for instance, since it locates his thought biographically – in his experience of mental ill-health- as well as socially and historically - and yet uses it purposefully and well (17f. 210). The same goes for others from other disciplines – Fraser (208f.), Schlegel, 236 and perhaps less sympathetically Jung (209 – I also find it difficult to explain away the latter’s collaboration with the Nazis and his undoubted anti-Semitism). Iconography in Schama cannot be explained, as it is  so often, solely according to Neo-Platonic models and their medieval inheritors (these are after all often iconologies used to justify absolutism and/or elitism – the superior intellection and understanding of an initiated person, class or clerisy (300) ). Meanings shift with history and the reflection of power dynamics in ideas and meanings – this includes the Neo-Platonists but not exclusively as in some uses of iconology to determine final and authoritative meanings of works of art.

2.      There is too much to say about places as enculturated spaces (spaces designed into the ideas and terminologies of privileged or sacral spaces) – it runs throughout the book whether in explicating Kew Gardens, Versailles, a Bernini fountain (302c.), the ’origin’ of architecture in the Gothic (228ff) or other ‘sacral space’ (7ff.) where sacral is understood in the widest sense as a place imbued with meaning and the sources of emotive attachment – forests, rivers or mountains, or groves of sequoia (189).

How do I predict that it might foreshadow A844 themes?

I can’t see it as having a role as a source of ‘theory’ as such since Schama is so pragmatic in his interpretative methodologies. The connection of the idea of ‘sacral space’ to culturally shaped and re-shaped ‘memory’ (of persons or nations) will be invaluable in Block 1 & 2. However, it might help in understanding how issues of conservation and heritage are understood and critiqued (Block 1), as well as the nature of myths of national origin or teleology. It will very much allow for work on how images and ‘narratives’ intersect and interact, whether in the analysis of Anselm Kiefer, Turner (359ff, 461) or suburban spatial planning (c. 573). Of course the key role will be in Block 3 together with Benedict Anderson & Mumford – but here on ‘landscape design’

What are the books key themes and narratives?

It claims its meaning is about the ways in which the boundaries of internal cognition and external shaped and to-be-shaped forms interact (574) but I haven’t got my head round that yet.

For me, it will be useful as a book about the importance of ‘awareness-of-mythologies’ as a means of understanding ideas that animate form, content and their interaction in art or place-making / space-shaping, whether on canvas or in other worlds where tangible phenomena matter (institutions, architecture, land interventions and so on).

The key metaphors are:

1.      Appropriations of wood and trees in spatial definitions, and conceptions of form and design – the idea of roots and links even perhaps (working on that). The acculturation of wildness and wildernesses in gardens, landscapes, painting etc.

2.      Appropriation of fluid metamorphoses between water, blood, creation and destruction (257ff) into mythologies of ‘circulation’ (258) in, for instance, church liturgy (baptism 264), searching origins (275) and fluid connections (275, 338 – Baroque). As a model of personal development & historical progression – flow 365, 359-362 – wonderful on Turner.

3.      The importance of heights, depths (profundity in culture 450) and the idea of the sublime before (Salvator Rosa 453) and after Burke. Appropriation of the idea of chasms to understand the relationship between effects of visual arts and psychology – 424, Leonardo, 474ff  Cozens, 508 Ruskin)

 

How does the book relate to the analysis of art and architecture?

Schama does not separate art from other expressions and articulations of the human story and so this may here be an empty question. Of course, it is such a huge book it has ideas applicable to individual artists or groups of artists or motifs in art (Arminius, Hannibal). For me it was most useful in understanding broad differentiations of art between cultures (Chinese mountain painting & space 408, pagan v. Christian 215), the changing perception of landscape through mythologies even in one artist – Sandby drawing Rannoch moor c. 467. The Catholic nature of the understanding of artist is a delight so that acknowledge ‘masters’  are mixed with ones less acknowledge – merely because the tell a story about a motif differently (Cozens again – whom I want to know more about 474-7)

Any other points!

This book is very wide in its scope and perhaps neither consistently pursues one thesis nor sustains the full coherence outlined at its conclusion (574,577). There are sections it is possible to pass-over quickly that don’t feel totally ‘necessary’ (at least for the moment of reading) and that makes it feel like a looser rag-bag than a sustained intellectual achievement (such as you feel in Mumford). Nevertheless with that there are parts that sweep you along both in terms of their narrative and their intellectual fruitfulness and promise. For me this illustrates what I believe to be Schama’s characteristic belief in history as a set of human stories in which we are shaped and which we shape that no one grand theory will ever e4xplain satisfactorily, whether the explanation be Neo-Platonic (272, 274-8, 300) , Hebraic or Christian redemptive, or Marxist (260f). As I see it, the most stimulating discussion is in the first section (on Forests) where its true intellectual heart lies – in its opposition to myths that set out to be all-explaining, whether from the perspective of religion, ‘science’ (as contemporaneously understood at different points in history), folklore or world-theory and that covers in particular ‘myths of origin’ or SOURCE (81, 85, 267, 275, 288) as well as any allied teleological theories.  All theories are welcome and additive to the narratives that form history in Schama (whether at the level of myth, biography or national destiny – most frighteningly in Hitler’s ‘vengeance’ against the Jews).

PS. I understand why Schama is sometimes called perverse. He allows camp humour to overcome him into sharing anti-gay jokes (as always – should go down well on this course – about Walpole), a Whig who liked to have, ‘a silk-eared sycophantic “Tory” in his lap.’ 448 (Tory was Walpole’s little dog). Feminine men always get the slap!

Other Preparatory Reading

Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities (click to see in new window)

Lewis Mumford The City in History (click to see in new window)

Conway & Roenisch Understanding Architecture (click to see in new window)

Elkins & Naef (Eds.) What is an Image? (click to see in new window)

Moxey, K. (2013) Visual Time: The Image in History (click to see in new window)

Aynsley & Grant (Eds.) Imagined Interiors (click to see in new window)

Boswell & Evans (eds.) Representing the Nation (click to see in new window)

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MoMA Photography MOOC Assessment Stezacker Surfing the Ocean of Images

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Saturday, 16 Jun 2018, 09:39

1. Describe which module resonated with you the most and why. What are some of the issues, ideas, or themes that particularly interested you, and how did they change or complicate your understanding of photography? Please connect your argument to specific artists and images addressed in your selected module.

I’m choosing Module 6 because it is in some ways a summation of my experience of the whole collection. Elcott (2015:318) summarises a world where innovative images are those which expose a world that has already turned into a simulacrum of itself –presented to us as a sea of photographic images, it must be treated and known as a photographic object in itself rather than a means to know a world beyond it, the ‘veridical trace of reality’. Elcott underlines this by seeing photographs as autonomous from the world as a ‘world of its own’.

Hence we have to read photographs in the light of their own manufacture, through all of the processes by which they are ‘made’. As Slifkin (2015:192) makes clear, this was always so in that view-finding, focusing and editing a photograph has always been the source of both the photograph as art, in Ansel Adams, or as a documentary manipulation of reality, in Atget. However, contemporary photographers utilise more radical manipulations, ‘created daily by the mass media’ including collage or ‘cut-and-paste, or through fragmentation and selection from the normative processes of taking an image (as in camera-less images in which objects are exposed directly to light-sensitive photographic film (as in Heinecken’s Are You Rea, 1964-8) or even when found .jpeg images are enlarged beyond their ability to show or access the illusion of an apparently undistorted world (as in Ruff’s jpeg msh01,2004).

Horvitz’s images begin from a photograph of a man role-playing (posing) as ‘depressed’ but by inviting normative internet processes through which images get re-used, and otherwise metamorphosed by context or more actively ‘edited’ in scale, colouration, orientation or admixture of other imagery, for instance, so that it does not just circulate but, as Horvitz calls it ‘propagates’. Such strategies expose the ‘deception’ or ‘artfulness’ (in its negative sense of duplicity) at the base of all photography – perhaps even the family snap, where various means are given to ‘make’ a photograph pleasing to others or self.

More intriguing still are Kruithof’s inkjet prints of empty, other than for the remnant of photo-mounting stickers, of photographs of pages of an old photograph album.  Mounted under layers of coloured glass everyday phenomena such as the reflection of viewers on their surface emphasise that images are open to contextual accidents that might determine their interpretation differently each time they are seen. Moreover, bearing the flash-bursts that expose they are photographs themselves, the associations of albums with past events such as travelling abroad or on holiday, allows these burst, which eliminate space to represent absences or gaps in memory that photograph albums always to some extent inspire and more so, in the context of their use by someone with an early dementia.

Proliferation when used to emphasise the role of art as the source of a world experienced iun endless reproductive copies can make art itself that comments on what art might, in fact, be, as in Gaenssler’s Bauhaus Staircase,2015. Here a ‘real’ staircase emulating Bauhaus design leads to a fragmented set of reproduced collages using a reproduction of an ‘original’ Bauhaus staircase in Dessau cut-and-paste with reproduced paintings of the staircase with figures by Schlemmer and Lichenstein respectively. What ‘price’ real? Indeed what is arts’s relationship to both the worlds of photography and assumptions of what is the ‘real world’. We are in already in therefore the existential phenomenological crisis of all moments of decision – what is this world on which I am intervening? Fascinating!

2. Select a photograph or a series of photographs made by an artist (someone that you don't personally know): ideally these will be prints you can view at a local museum or gallery, but if this isn’t possible you can choose a reproduction from a newspaper, magazine, or other publication. Indicate which module(s) the photograph(s) relate to. Explain why and how your choice of photograph(s) reflects key ideas from the module(s) you selected. Be sure to describe your image(s), why you selected them, and cite your sources, including the name of the person who took the photograph, date, and where you found the image.

I have selected Portrait V, 2015 © John Stezaker. Courtesy York Art Gallery and The Approach, London. Photo FXP Photography. Available at: https://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/exhibition/paul-nash-and-the-uncanny-landscape/ (Accessed 15/06/2018). Viewed by myself first at York in 2017.


Stezaker’s work swims in ‘the ceaseless flow…that has been a consequence of mechanical reproduction, mass media and popular culture.’ (Bracewell 2010:8) However, just as Kurt Schwitters employed objects he found in his rambles and incorporated into collage, architectural or sculptural work, Stezaker (cited Stezaker et.al. 2013:110) insists the objects come to him by accident, ‘as if they had been lying in wait for me.’

Stezaker’s images are rescued from ephemeral genres: film-stills from popular-cinema and post-cards, which bear no monetary (or any other) value to any potential ‘owner’ of them in the present-day. He identifies them as ‘orphans’ (ibid.) in want of someone whose role it is especially to see and develop value within them. From acquisition and over long periods these images are developed using collage that plays with similitudes and differences between the genre and content of each image source, such that they both are manipulated to nearly-match but yet, in seeking continuity between their boundaries, merely emphasise ‘distances’ between them. This is achieved in Portrait-V by the misalignment of the female’s shoulder and absent head with substitute figures that mimic absent shapes expected by the viewer. The shoulders and neck become the lines of the steep river bank edge. The head is perceptible in the arch of the bridge through which shows foliage above a chalk bank (for hair) and the bridge coping (as hat) perhaps. Yet the images have different borders, emphasised by trees stretching upwards on the side-frames of the postcard and which emphasises that no cutting of the image has been allowed to facilitate the illusion of the woman’s pictured head. Other obvious intended discrepancies (half of the thumb on the picture’s left is occluded) emphasise edges that deliberately don’t ‘marry’ as Stezacker puts it of another image (ibid:108).

This promotes the viewer’s self-identification:

·        As agent in making the whole picture legible, where it is, and:

·        With disturbed reflections about their collusion in this act of meaning-making.

Stezacker explains these effects as ‘hesitations or reflective confrontations of this implied beholder’ (ibid). Thus, I remember recognising the implication here that this female head is represented by absence, by pictured empty space between the bridge’s sides.

Recognising that I colluding in building an image of the stereotype of the ‘airhead’ woman – even when the originals are dated, was a shock to me. It caused me to hesitate and reflect on myself emotionally and cognitively since, although the materials are dated, the collusive reconstruction is contemporary and personal and does not match my self-perception as a gay-male committed to female empowerment. This ability to include the viewer in the deceptive manipulations of self-and-other presentation is described by Stezacker (ibid.) as his images’ in-built third-person: a ‘double’ or mirror-image of the viewer (ibid.).

Bracewell (2010:8) argues that Stezacker’s images emphasise relationships between visual projection (the active imposition from within of meanings and visible signs outwards upon the perceived object) and occlusion (which looks under barriers to vision for the ‘hidden’). Hadar (2013:127f.) further identifies disturbances in self-reflection in the viewer’s inability to escape collusion in meanings they might otherwise disavow as potential within themselves.

This hints that Stezaker reinvents some of the authorial role of the photographer. Hence, Stezaker isn’t, as some photographers in Module-6 are, just emphasising formally the artifice that goes into making meaning in the world but seeing in that process a deeper concern with the nature of the subjective world we all uncomfortably inhabit. Portrait-V queries ‘vision’ itself by absenting the returned gaze of the portrayed, indeed replacing it with a potential mirror of emptiness: Stezacker says, ‘the mask is a meeting with death in the midst of the life. It is also an inscription of interior space onto the exterior, the space of the face, whilst at the same time, it hides those clues of facial expression from which we recognize the interior life of another. (Stezaker et.al 2013:101)’

 

Bracewell, M. (2010) ‘The Space Between’ in Stezaker, J. Tabula Rasa London, Ridinghouse in association with ‘The Approach’ Gallery, London.

Elcott, N.M. (2015) “From Darkroom to Laptop.” In Photography at MoMA: 1960–Now. The Museum of Modern Art, 2015, 316-319. Available from: https://www.coursera.org/learn/photography/supplement/sKBEX/6-10-required-readings-additional-resources (Accessed 15/06/2018)

Hadar, I. (2013) ‘Arresting Resistance’ in Landau (ed.) John Stezaker: One on One London, Ridinghouse in association with Tel Aviv Museum of Art. 120-115 (note pages in sequence run from back to front in this text)

Slifkin, R. (2015) “Reality Testing.” In Photography at MoMA: 1960–Now. The Museum of Modern Art, 2015, 192-195. Available from: https://www.coursera.org/learn/photography/supplement/sKBEX/6-10-required-readings-additional-resources (Accessed 15/06/2018)

Stezaker, J., Gallois, C. & Herrmann, D.F. (2013) ‘The Third Meaning’ in Landau (ed.) John Stezaker: One on One London, Ridinghouse in association with Tel Aviv Museum of Art. 114 – 95 (note pages in sequence run from back to front in this text)


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MoMA Course Ex 6.11 Photographs and Manipulation

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How does our constant exposure to images affect our understanding of their content and meaning?

I would expect this to have the effect of creating a stereotypic perceptual record of the image based on key features that may be less to do with what is ‘in’ the image itself than in the common cultural meanings of the image to which it has been reduced. This will ‘deaden’ us to the image, although it may help us to see areas in which manipulations beyond the everyday are made. It certainly deadens us to the fact that photographic images are already manipulations (of the viewfinder, focusing technologies and later cropping or reproductive ‘tricks – accidental or intended during processing, where that is possible). Do we really see a ‘strawberry’ or only the mentally-stored ‘type’ of one? Are we inured to violence in wars by relating it to stored war-image typology (hence the value of Martha Roslin’s manipulations).

Photographs are not reality but constantly seeing or identifying an ‘object’ through its photograph will cause us to make that mistake. Some artists manipulate in order to ensure that we see the photograph itself as an object about something, rather than ‘of something’.

In what ways have digital cameras and software programs such as Photoshop changed photography?

They enable more manipulation top occur after the photograph is initially made and normalise our expectation that photographs are deceptive manipulations – a kind of modern theatrical trompe l’oeil. This makes us wary of news imagery and advertising imagery where aesthetic and functional (sales or propaganda) purposes play fast and loose with each other.

How has the circulation of images online affected the way we think about who we credit for making images?

No image is seen as original or ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ but rather as purposive. Moreover that image is the base for further manipulations – of scale, placement, colouration, and context etc.. Hence, Horvitz prefers to say images ‘propagate’ rather than circulate because from one image derives many only loosely related to the original by the end its non-intentional progress to ongoing multiplicity ends (if it ever does). The idea of unified authorship or of a work having a unified vice (univocality in Bakhtin) is destroyed and not even expected by contemporary audiences for images.


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Challenging Histories & Narratives- Week 5 MoMA Photography course

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Edited by Steve Bamlett, Wednesday, 13 Jun 2018, 07:23

How can multiple photographs construct a narrative that shapes our understanding of the subject matter?

Images that are juxtaposed and/or sequenced invite narrative interpretation and may suppress some of the issues connected to their relative emplacement. This can be observed even in the most ‘amateur’ arrangements, where both common ideas about the ‘subject of the photographs (perhaps ‘myself’) are conflated with selection of episodes from the life and/or images that comment upon that life, as in the example from ‘unknown photographer’ in MoMA gifted by P. Cohen.

The elements that vary the story and its emphases are also seen (more consciously intended perhaps) in art photography such as Albers storyboard on Oscar Schlemmer. The setting may range from a page or sheet of paper to a wall (Tillmans) to a book and so on. These too change meanings. Is an ‘album’ neutral? The variants include (episode refers to one photograph):

·        Relative size of the episodes;

·        Placing of episodes – top, bottom, left, right, centre, marginal, orientation of photographs (none of the examples use slanting), alignment vertically and horizontally, size of relative spaces between episodes,

·        Commonalities in episodes (Walid Raad)

·        Role of writing/text on or around images (or on back of cp. Japanese photographic postcards during Meiji period), role of multimodal images – cartoons. Including captions in museum pieces (Fletcher photographs of museum photos in Vietnam placed in USA museums). The test-case of ‘removed’ text (Willis Thomas Unbranded)

·        Number of subjects in episode. Are these animal, human, mechanical pieces, tools etc. or mixed?

·        Identifiability of background in episode – especially if no figures.

·        Disjunctions between image technique (as in Harry Callahan’s Eleanor)

·        Use of colouration – homogenous or not for a set of episodes (Mae Weems).

·        Role of fictional or roleplay elements in creation of characters (Cindy Sherman) or setting (Demand Room)

 

How do choices concerning the presentation of a photograph or series of photographs influence its meaning?

We could look at all of the above. What happens in each is made up complex interactions between contexts at different levels of the understanding of that word. This includes interactions between space, boundaries and other modalities of representation, including architectural ones but also the occult meanings of alignment against disorder in arrangement. All of these relationships carry unstable codes of meaning. Their instability means that the meaning received from the images in contexts may be planned but not necessarily determinative on what the images mean to the viewer. Will Sherman’s female types mean the same across all audiences irrespective of gender, ethnicity, class etc.?

The obviousness of the use of artifice (more obvious in Callahan than Demand - since in the latter we may have to search or accidentally alight on cues of such manipulations whereas double exposures in the former are obvious artifice).

The influence on meanings (I’d insist on the plural here) is not only unstable, it is also a means of linking narrative images to the aims of art in form and content, especially where our responses requires us to tap into multi-modal contexts (the meaning of advertisements, film stills, headline banners or script). I don’t feel you can be dogmatic here about effects except in that it inspires exchanges about meaning in its audiences.

One important effect however is, perhaps because of the above, to challenge stereotypical narratives about the lives of the socially marginalised or disempowered. This week they have been about ethnicity, ‘race’ and gender but sexual orientation, class and different embodiments are also implied.

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