Archive for the ‘art’ category

Language as the Medium of Being

June 13, 2014

In the most recent London Review of Books there’s an article by TJ Clark on the exhibition at the Tate Modern in London of Matisse’s cut-outs entitled The Urge to Strangle, the title being a reference to the making of art, Matisse having said in later life something like ‘that in order to begin painting at all he needed to feel the urge to strangle someone, or to lance an abscess in his psyche.’

In the article Clark writes,

‘Crowds gather at the heart of [the exhibition] drawn to an artless home movie showing the master at work. He looks, and was, unwell. Not even a rakish straw hat, part cowboy part Maurice Chevalier, can divest the scene of its pathos. There is a spot of time in the movie, after Matisse has finished his fierce fast cutting of the usual vegetable-flower-seaweed-jellyfish shapes … when the speed suddenly slackens and the old man holds the limp paper in his hands as if reluctant to let go. He fusses with it a little, prodding and twisting the fronds in space, maybe trying to thread the shapes together, buckling them, letting them be carried for a second as they might be by a breeze or coronet. He seems to be waiting for the cut-outs to occupy space – to make space … I thought, looking at the film sequence that I could hear the paper shapes rustle. And the word – the imagined sound – sent me back to a wonderful essay by Roland Barthes called The Rustle of Language, and especially to its last two sentences:

“I imagine myself today something like the ancient Greek as Hegel describes him: he interrogated, Hegel says, passionately, uninterruptedly, the rustle of branches, of springs, of winds, in short, the shudder of Nature, in order to perceive in it the design of an intelligence. And I – it is the shudder of meaning I interrogate, listening to the rustle of language, that language which for me, modern man, is my Nature.”’













I was struck by this because it gives me a glimpse of an understanding of what people talk about when they talk about us being immersed in language, being made up of it. I know such an understanding should seem axiomatic to someone like myself, who writes, but it never really has.

Interestingly enough I recently read something else which pertains to exactly this. There’s been a whole hullaballoo surrounding Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writer of the six volume, My Struggle, which I’ve avoided dipping into for reasons that I’ve not analysed too closely – not wanting to be part of a fad as much as anything else I guess – but in the end I came across a copy of the first volume while wandering around the wonderful Foyle’s bookshop in London (on the same day as we saw the exhibition of Matisse as it happened, and, gosh, I wish I’d read the essay by TJ Clark before I saw it) and picked it up out of curiosity and found myself reading six pages right there in the store. I couldn’t help but buy it. Unfortunately it became, in the end, my struggle, and I haven’t finished even this first volume. There are, however, amongst the tens of thousands of words of, quite possibly, unnecessary and irksome detail, some remarkable pieces of writing. I’m going to post one of them below. It’s five or six pages, so be warned, but I think it’s worth it. And having read it maybe you can be excused reading the other 389 pages; or maybe it’ll make you want to. I’m not sure it’s possible to say whatever it is he’s saying in less words than this, although TJ Clark hints at it. Anyway, here it is, pages 195-202 from A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett.

“Twenty minutes later I was in my office. I hung my coat and scarf on the hook, put my shoes on the mat, made a cup of coffee, connected my computer and sat drinking coffee and looking at the title page until the screen saver kicked in and filled the screen with a myriad of bright dots.

The America of the Soul. That was the title.



Lucien Freud in London

June 13, 2012

In early March of this year I went to Europe to see my father who, at 94, had decided he could no longer live alone and was moving into a home with full-time care. I flew into Paris and spent two days walking in that bitterly cold city before catching trains to London and on to Glasgow. I wrote this piece while looking out of the window as the train hurtled up the middle of England.

London was uninspiring, raining and cold, puddles on the broken pavements. It didn’t seem very easy to find anything. I hadn’t minded getting lost in Paris, that had seemed fair enough, part of the pleasure of the thing, but in London just trying to find my way out of the Tube seemed to present untold difficulties, never mind that it cost seven pounds for a return fare of only four stops. It was Sunday and the entire Victoria line was closed for repairs. Every few minutes a polite woman’s voice would warn us of delays here or there in tones with the ring of death to them. This is what I imagine the announcements would sound like in a concentration camp. No yelling, spitting, cursing, just implacable, immutable, interminable; drilling down mercilessly. Nothing on the other end.

I was on my way to see the Lucien Freud retrospective at the National Gallery, it was a large part of the reason why I’d come this way. I had arranged a four hour stopover and by some stroke of fortune, despite my ineptness in failing to book, there were still tickets to the twelve midday entry. To kill time I went over to the always reliable Pret a Manger for a sandwich and a coffee, then took a damp stroll down to look at Nelson’s Monument in Trafalgar Square, that wonderful spire with its four enormous brass lions at the base, promising a national strength which seems, in this age, both misguided and quaint. In one portion of the square someone had built a sharp-sided aluminium structure, like a cast-off from a transformers movie which was, in fact, a three-dimensional realisation of the weirdly complex and incomprehensible Olympic logo, with digital countdowns all over it. This piece of tat was beside the fourth plinth which for several years now has been home to all sorts of expressions of art. Today it was carrying a golden boy riding a cut-out rocking horse that seemed obscure at best, aligned in some way to the clumsiness of the logo.

I was there to see the Freud, though, and once in front of the paintings all the despair that grips me when I return to Britain in winter fell away. Here were works from the 1940s right through to last year when he died. The grasp of the man everywhere evident, the early promise that is almost precocious giving way to these strange paintings in their earth tones that dominate the work for the rest of his life. In the 1950s he did a couple of nudes of the same model, ‘Naked woman’ and ‘Naked woman sleeping’ which had been hung side by side. The skin tones, as always with Freud, are curious, unattractive even, but they work to express the emotions beneath the surface, so that in the first – the young woman awake and exposed to the artist’s eye – there is revealed without any apparent device her fear of how she looks, I mean she is splayed out there on the bed, but there is a taughtness around the belly or the chest which gives it away, whereas in the next one, when she is asleep, her body is delivered up to the artist without restraint.

naked girl 1966

naked girl asleep 2 1968

In a picture a little further along the wall the woman’s breasts are palpable in the most honest sense of the word, they are physically there, the nipple promiscuous, almost pornographic, though the pose is so much more demure than for many of the others. In these early paintings the paint is laid flat on the canvas, which is to say Freud is happy for us to see the brushstrokes but the pictures remain defiantly two-dimensional – which, I suppose, heightens their paradoxical fleshiness. In the later paintings he began to use more and more physical paint, including a kind of stippling which, when viewed close up, appears like a kind of eczema on the subjects’ skin (Freud is never interested, it seems, in painting beauty, it is something else about the human condition he wants to capture). In these later pictures the paint sits out from the canvas, built up and up on layers that seem to have been applied like plaster. if you go close to the massive ‘Benefits Supervisor Resting’ (from the famous series of the fat lady Sue Tilly; the painting is enormous, as is its subject) you can see the way the paint has been built up around her hands and her thighs. It seems doubtful, from this close, that it could look like anything, but back away across the room and there she is in all her glory.

man with feather (self-portrait) 1943

Strangely, there is, also, in the earlier paintings, a juxtaposition between the subject and the background. On the sitters’ faces this remarkable level of expressiveness is granted with apparently simple broad brush strokes, what might almost be lines carved with a palette knife, whereas their clothes or a chair are painted with exquisite detail, every curlicue of the Paisley pattern rendered. In the picture of ‘Two Irishmen, W11,’ there are the men, one standing, one sitting, both in suits, in an empty room, but the whole left hand top side of the painting gives us the view out of the window of, clearly, London W11, painted with photographic detail. Later, reading about this painting I discover that Freud insisted his models remain standing the whole time he painted the background, otherwise, he said, there would be no balance.

Many of the pictures are self-portraits. He is no kinder to himself than any of his other subjects and it’s curious to watch how his depiction of himself changes as he grows older, and to compare that to the photographs which show a man of frightening aspect, glowering eyebrows, working in a paint-and-rag-strewn room – I mean literally, the brush-cleanings of decades pasted on the walls. This is the problem with catalogue books, the final self-portrait is one of the smaller paintings in the exhibition and yet it is displayed in the book the same size as Sue Tilly. This last self-portrait an extreme example of the stippling I mentioned before, the bridge of his nose a coruscation of tiny stabs of paint, an attack on his own image.

self-portrait, reflection 2002

I should probably mention that the exhibition was more than simply crowded, fifty to one hundred people allowed in every half hour, it was difficult to get a clear view of anything. I kept wondering what the women  looking at these paintings thought about the way the subjects were rendered, their painful vulnerability, the uncomfortable colours so remote from the normal depiction of women in our culture, but then, in the later pictures, there are lots of men also, equally naked and revealed, with their penises as carefully portrayed as any parts of the women, and it doesn’t disturb me… what did happen, though, was that, on the tube back to Euston, no longer complaining about Britain, I started to notice how honest the paintings are, what had seemed often grotesque in Freud was actually just representative.


A couple of links

June 6, 2012

Simon Schubert folds paper

you can see more of his work here

Simon Beck walks in the snow

you can see more of his work here

What’s art for?

June 9, 2010

This question came up in the context of writing a cultural plan. Most people probably don’t even know what a cultural plan is, or could care less, but suffice to say most levels of government have one. *

For my sins I have recently read a few of these documents from various regions around the country. One thing I couldn’t help but notice was that, even though they were to do with culture, Art tended to be somewhat marginalised. Art, or ‘the Arts’ existed as an embellishment, the aesthetic coating over the more sober activities of general life.

I brought this up with a friend who straight away said, ‘as soon as art becomes commodifed it loses its force, it becomes no more than another aspect of commerce.’

A statement which led us, of course, to ask what art had been before it was commodified, which proved to be by no means simple to define. Clearly ritual was in there somewhere. But we also couldn’t avoid revisiting Neanderthal man sitting around the campfire after a day hunting the woolly mammoth. It has been a successful day. The beast has been felled, there is meat in the hands of the clan. Not satisfied, however, to simply fall asleep after the meal, one of the tribal members feels obliged to get up and replay the events of the day, to mime the hunt, to dance the events out, to retell. This replaying so engages the others that they demand the performance be repeated again and again.

If indeed the beginning of Art happened like that (paintings on walls both after, and before the hunt, are another example) then we would have to posit that it is this process of retelling which makes us different from the other animals; not just an awareness of our own mortality but a need to talk about it. I’m not claiming it makes us better or that it gives meaning or even makes sense of anything, only that for some reason we, as human beings, seem to need to do it and this defines us as different. In the retelling we change ourselves and our experience of the world, and there has been a lot of retelling since the last woolly mammoth was killed.

The point of all this was to say that when we marginalise art, when we make it just another aspect of our commerce we lose something essential. I, like most people in history, do not know what art is for, only that when we marginalise it we, in effect, take ourselves back to some sort of base line of existence in which all we do is reproduce, consume and excrete. We stop remaking the world.

* This business of cultural plans brings me to a curious aside: it seems that in this present age, in which we plan for every eventuality, local government both sets itself and then operates according to precise codes. These codes are presented in the form of a series of ‘plans.’ For example, an Environmental Plan, which, when it has been passed by a regional government, imposes on any future planning for that jurisdiction the regulations or even aspirations that are in the document.
Perhaps I need to make myself more clear here: these are not planning documents per se, in which a decision is made about the width of a path or the height of a ceiling, they are broader in their remit, intended to state, as it were, a ‘position’ on certain issues.
What I find worthy of note, even perhaps philosophically interesting, is that these documents are designed to ‘talk up or down to each other,’ by which I mean they exist in an hierarchical structure – a community plan might sit above a corporate plan (or the other way around) which in turn sits above a health and lifestyle plan or, in this case, a cultural plan, which, in turn sits above a whole raft of other ones.
In the field of law this has, of course, been operating for hundreds of years, under the principle of precedent. International treaties, too, operate in a similar way, whereby a country will agree to conditions which then have a bearing on their activities. But this is another level of documentation beyond that. In overarching local government plans the words themselves are often quite amorphous, leaning towards motherhood statements, and yet still have actual force, controlling the way our cities and towns shift and change.
Is this a good or a bad thing? I can’t, at this point answer that; certainly it is better that government be giving thought to its process of governance and not operating in an ad hoc manner; it just seems a curious metaphor, these documents talking up and down to each other, staking out fences, presenting imperatives; particularly in a time where personal responsibility for decisions seems to have devolved, where everyone acts within prescribed frameworks.

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