29 June 2015

Turner and perspective

A post here earlier this month covered the exhibition, David Hockney Painting and Photography, which explores his interest in perspective. Not long after, an appeal arrived from the Ashmolean Museum Oxford to secure for a national collection Turner’s painting, The High Street, Oxford (1810, below).

The Guardian website superimposed Turner’s painting and a photograph of the same scene taken recently by David Fisher (above). The webpage provides a dissolve between the two images and allows a comparison of the photographic perspective and the painter’s.

Please support the appeal!

Disqualified as a critic

The Guardian review published every Saturday is a strange beast, full of heavyweight articles by big names but somehow thrown together. Take the issue on 20 June, for example. Kathryn Hughes reviewed The Invisible Woman by Helen Walmsley-Johnson, a memoir of a life not without its ups and downs including having “landed the job of PA to the editor of the Guardian” and having to deal “with the shock of losing her innards: 20% of women are, like her, surgically relieved of their wombs by the age of 60.” At this point the print edition had the bizarre misprint “surg5ically”. How this can happen so long after the days when apprentices used to drop type on the floor, Grauniad only knows (or was it an in-joke?).

Odd too was the review front page which promised an article within: Howard Jacobson Art’s uncomfortable relationship with social media. However, to be found on page 16 was The art of distraction, with a banner above:
You can no more disagree with a painting than you can with a flower. Howard Jacobson on how artistic creation frees us from ‘right thinking’.
On the Guardian website the same article uses this last sentence as its title: Howard Jacobson: artistic creation frees us from ‘right thinking’, and is subheaded:
Art can’t be judged by pressing ‘like’ and ‘not like’ buttons, and it should stand outside of ideology. Let’s forget thou-shalt-nots and remember the necessity of play
Not to worry, in both cases the article turns out to be “an edited version of a speech delivered by Howard Jacobson at the Royal Academy”. Social media gets a brief mention at the start:
What a piece of work is man, how infinite in faculty, in apprehension how like a god, but the minute he tweets us what he thinks in 140 characters the god goes out of him …
Jacobson regards Twitter (and presumably by implication other social media) as a vehicle for “Periodical fits of morality”:
Convictions, nostrums, the censorious baggage of the doctrinaire – it is from such profanities against art that we need to be diverted.
and it is this tension between art and convention that the article is about rather than social media per se. Jacobson then relates that:
Once, to the consternation of reviewers, I published a novel in which the protagonist asserts that every man secretly longs to see the woman he loves in the arms of another man; not because this leaves him free to bugger off into the arms of another woman, but because of the vexed pleasure there is in jealousy.

This was a “take on the Candaules story”, as portrayed by William Etty’s Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed (1830, above, now in the Tate collection, linked on the website, not shown in print). Jacobson explains that it received mixed reviews, one or two of the critics
… reported taking straw polls among their friends to ascertain how many wanted to see their wives without their clothes on in the arms of other men. Whatever the reliability of the sample, none among those polled owned up to any such ambition, or succeeded in imagining its appeal to others. Indeed – ignorant of Othello and Leopold Bloom, to name but two – they doubted such men existed.
(A famous pun on the King James’ Bible by Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses: “Greater love than this, he said, no man hath that a man lay down his wife for his friend.”) But this sort of criticism missed the point:
Everything is allowable in literature, but what is not allowable in criticism is objection on the grounds of probability. Can a man really metamorphose into a cockroach? Whoever thinks that life, crude life, can verify so fine a thing as fiction – as though what is true is something that can be decided on before art makes it so – disqualifies himself as a critic. 
In art, where we play in order to discover, there is no “in advance”; no intentionality that will survive creation; no thou-shalt-nots advanced in the name of religious or social rectitude; no theme so important that it will of itself confer importance on a work, or so apparently trivial that it won’t; nothing – in the language of social media – to like or not like and press a button to show which; nothing, in online-speak, to agree or disagree with and tick a box – for you can no more disagree with a painting than you can a flower. No certainty other than the certainty that we can’t be certain of anything. 
No traveller ever sets out with so little idea of where he is going or how he is going to get there than an artist does. And no traveller ever gets to a more wonderful place. Not everyone is fortunate enough to earn their living playing. But what draws people to art and artists is a desire to enjoy the propinquity of play. For it is the very freedom of the imagination. And what else were we born to do, but imagine freely?
In posts here about films I am almost certainly guilty of having objected “on the grounds of probability” at times (possibly recently on Clouds of Sils Maria), so I took Jacobson’s assertion of consequently being disqualified as a critic to heart. But I’m dubious about the core of his argument. There is no probability of a man metamorphosing into a cockroach – it is an impossibility, as is René Magritte’s depiction of The Wonders of Nature (1953, below).

But no one would object to this picture or other surrealist masterpieces on grounds of probability. It is a marvellous exercise in imagination, ‘play’ if you like, as is Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland for that matter, or Judith Kerr’s The Tiger who came to tea. Perhaps that is acceptable in literature where, at least according to Jacobson, everything is allowable. Michael Rosen, in two recent posts on his blog on the subject of The Tiger who came to tea, takes this a stage further, although Kerr says the Tiger is just a tiger:
Yet, it has to be said, at some level, any of us who write things don't actually know what our characters, motifs, and scenes represent and symbolise. We don't fully know ourselves so why would we or should we fully know what the images we create represent? 
So this is a 'book tiger', not a tiger…the kind of tiger that it's OK to find in art and literature. Surrealist if you like. So, that's yet another reason why we can ask, 'what does this tiger represent?' We can speculate about what it might represent for Judith Kerr….and we can investigate ourselves to discuss and wonder what it might mean to us and to our children. Two separate things that may or may not overlap. And whatever it means to Judith, may or may not have bearing on what we make of it. That's up to us to decide.
So I just have to admit that when a film which, ostensibly is not a fantasy, and purports to be about the lives of adults, resorts to magic, it jars with me, however imaginatively done, and I will say so.

21 June 2015

The Bayeux Tapestry

When I worked in London, overseas visitors would sometimes ask what I thought they should visit. One recommendation was the Crown Jewels: after all, just because something is obvious, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, queuing considerations apart. So I wanted to find out whether the same applies to the Bayeux Tapestry, more properly, given its location, La Tapisserie de Bayeux. Just in case someone reading this does not know, according to Wikipedia the Tapestry is:
… an embroidered cloth nearly 70 metres (230 ft) long and 50 centimetres (20 in) tall, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy, and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings.
Or, more particularly, a fight between Norman and Danish (Anglo-Saxon) aristocrats as to who should take over the English throne.

There are about 50 scenes with brief Latin descriptions running along the the cloth, complemented by a decorative border which includes some interesting vignettes of peasant life:
Scenes 10a (upper) and 13
One famous scene shows Halley’s Comet, as seen in England in March 1066 – a bad omen for Harold:
Scene 32
Another scene of the disembarkation of the invading Norman forces at Pevensey in Kent seems particularly apt in Bayeux, a few kilometres from the D-Day beaches:
Scene 39
Once ashore, the top brass have a good breakfast:
Scene 43a (with detail)
before battle commences and the Poor Bloody Infantry have to confront Norman cavalry and archers, unsuccessfully as it turns out:
Scenes 52a (upper) and 54
 Harold dies:
Scene 57
and as a consequence Duke William becomes William the Conqueror.

Subsequently, William would expropriate English property holdings and enrich his Norman followers, as well as constructing Winchester Cathedral, the Tower of London (present day home of the Crown Jewels) and other notable buildings. The English language started to develop as a complex mix of Old English (Germanic) and Old French (Romance) with a marked social divide, as described in this interesting recent post on the OxfordWords blog by Adrastos Omissi.

The Tapestry is now carefully conserved (low light, humidity, temperature) by the Bayeux Museum, with an accompanying exhibition and, of course, a shop. To avoid queuing, go during the sacrosanct French lunch period (13:00 to 14:00). And to answer my question: although obvious, it is definitely worth seeing.


The origins of the Tapestry are argued about by scholars but it is thought likely to have been made in Canterbury on the other side of Le Manche in the 1070s. However, given the modern French obsession with BDs (BD, bande dessinée, comic book), its current location seems quite appropriate.

14 June 2015

Strawberry Hill House

The adjective ‘iconic’ is over-used, so much so that it probably ought to be avoided. Nonetheless, sometimes the subject is one which actually meets the definition of being “regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration”. For anyone interested in architecture, Strawberry Hill House in Twickenham, South West London, certainly is iconic, being the mid-eighteenth century birthplace of the style later known as Strawberry Hill Gothic. It is generally regarded as the starting point for the revival of Gothic architecture for new buildings in the following century.

The history of Strawberry Hill House’s ownership is complex. After Horace Walpole, its creator, died in 1797 it passed into the hands of his family, an arrangement which unfortunately led to the sale in 1842 of the contents, several thousand items of art and antiquities which he had chosen. After being used for educational purposes for most of the twentieth century, the building is now on a long lease to the Strawberry Hill Trust which has undertaken extensive restoration. Since March 2015 it has been possible to visit rooms which had never previously been open to the public. Anyone intending to visit should be aware that the rooms are to a large extent empty of contents, but are handsomely redecorated in the style Walpole chose. He coined the term ‘gloomth’ to describe the parts of the house which were intentionally poorly lit (even more so than the Hall, below) and redolent of The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, which he wrote at Strawberry Hill.

The handsome Library perhaps conveys more of the original character than most rooms:

The Gallery, although empty, is very striking:

and the House is full of photogenic features:

Where possible the Strawberry Hill Trust hopes to restore the contents of the House prior to 1842 and already has in place some loan and reproduction items. The Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University has a database of Walpole’s collection. The second floor Dressing Room currently has a display about the printing press set up by Walpole in 1757, one of the earliest private presses in England, on which The Castle of Otranto was printed. Curiously, in Richmond upon Thames, only a few kilometres away, Virginia and Leonard Woolf would set up the Hogarth Press in 1917.

Well worth visiting, the House's website should be consulted for opening times. National Art Pass holders and National Trust members are offered a 50% discount on the normal ticket price.

11 June 2015

David Hockney Painting and Photography

David Hockney has been fascinated for a long time by the relationship between painting and optical and photographic technologies. In the 1980s he made collages of multiple Polaroid images (“joiners”) for portraits and landscapes. In 2001 the first edition of his Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters was published. The second edition, following in 2006, developed further his conjectures about the way Renaissance artists may have used mirrors and lenses to generate two-dimensional images. The exhibition A Bigger Picture (at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in 2012) included enlarged prints of his iPad drawings made with the Brushes app. Now some of his latest ideas can be seen at Annely Juda Fine Art in London in David Hockney Painting and Photography:
The show is an exploration of David Hockney’s interest in perspective and features a series of group portraits, including those of card players, and other portraits and scenes painted in his Los Angeles studio in 2014 and 2015. 
David Hockney’s comment on the paintings and photographs said: 
“Painters have always known there is something wrong with perspective. 
The problem is the foreground and the vanishing point. The reason we have perspective with a vanishing point, is that it came from optics. I am sure that that’s what Brunelleschi did. He used a five inch diameter concave mirror to project the Baptistry onto his panel. This gives automatically a perspective picture, just like a camera would. This is why there is always a void between you and the photograph. I am taking this void away, to put you in the picture. 
I made the paintings of the card players first. That helped me work out how to photograph them. Everything in the photographs is taken very close. The heads the jackets and shirt and shoes are all photographed up close. Each photograph has a vanishing point, so instead of just one I get many vanishing points. It is this that I think gives them an almost 3D effect without the glasses. I think this opens up photography into something new. 
If you really think about it, I know the single photograph cannot be seen as the ultimate realist picture. Well not now. Digital photography can free us from a chemically imposed perspective that has lasted for 180 years.”
One of the first pictures in this exhibition is The Chair (2015, below top). It seemed to me that one way of explaining Hockney’s point about perspective is to consider the left and right parts of this picture separately (below lower):

On a different scale, Card Players #3 (2014, Acrylic on canvas, below):

evolves into The Card Players (2015, Photographic drawing printed on paper, below):

though examining the photographic drawing close up reveals joints. Another photographic drawing, Perspective Should Be Reversed (2014, below) spells it out:

In the background to this drawing and another, Two Chairs with People (2014, below):

were some paintings of dancers (detail, below):

which apparently were on show at PACE Gallery’s David Hockney Some New Painting (and Photography), in New York earlier this year, together with some of the work at Annely Juda, but these paintings didn’t make it to London. The image above lower left looks to be The Dancers IV, 14 August – 15 September (2014, below), stalwart next to Matisse’s last month:

The London show seems to offer more portraits than the one in New York, noteworthy I thought were Jonathan Mills, 30-31 July (2014, below top), ubiquitous in the exhibition pictures, Bing McGilvray, 20-21 December (2014, below lower left), and Benedikt Taschen, 9-11 December (2013, below lower right) – to whom we should all be grateful for making art books affordable. On which note it is perhaps appropriate that these portraits seem more attractive in reproduction than in full size reality.

David Hockney Painting and Photography continues in London until 27 June and will be at L.A. Louver, Venice, California from 15 July to 19 September.