Friday, 17 December 2010

Christmas Films for the Disaffected

Father Frost

Here are some alternative seasonal suggestions for those who want to avoid the increasingly standardised staples of Christmas filmic fare.

Father Frost aka Morozko (1964) – A cat riding a literally pig-headed sled, a hero who checks his blue eyeshadow in a hand mirror, a very Pythonesque Baba Yaga crone who lives in her chicken-legged hut, and Father Frost himself, who possesses a magical staff which turns the landscape into a glittering white wonderland. A madcap Russian fairytale from director Aleksandr Rou, complete with balalaika propelled songs.

Dead of Night (1945) – The original British portmanteau horror film, this features a story in which a group of children have a Christmas party in an old dark house. A young girl finds the perfect place of concealment in a game of hide and seek: a ghost room with a long dead boy for company. You can hide here forever and ever…Michael Redgrave’s ventriloquist act would be a memorable booking for any children’s Christmas party, too.

Black Christmas – Bob Clark’s 1974 proto-slasher film, which is shot through with chill atmosphere and expertly-paced tension. Time is allowed for the development of rounded characters, so that you actually care about their fate. A good cast includes Margot Kidder, Olivia Hussey, and, returning from beyond the infinite and seemingly a little affected by the experience, Keir Dullea.

Ikiru (1952) – Tired of It’s A Wonderful Life? Then try Kurosawa’s Ikiru (Living) instead. Takashi Shimura’s loyal bureaucrat is a kind of anti-James Stewart, coming to the realisation, when faced with death, that his life has meant nothing at all, and made no impact on his surrounding environment. He decides to use the time remaining to him to change all that. The concluding scenes in which he sits alone on the child’s swing in the snowbound playground which he has single-handedly brought into existence, softly singing to himself, is the most quietly heartbreaking in all cinema.

Kwaidan (1964) – This beautiful collection of 4 Japanese ghost stories (or kwaidan) includes Yukionna, or the Woman of the Snow, a tale of a deathly spirit who visits two woodcutters in a hut as they shelter from a blizzard. Some gorgeous stage sets and Toru Takemitsu’s incredible score create a mesmerising atmosphere. A ghost story for Christmas Kabuki-style.

Christmas in July (1940) – An unseasonal burst of big-hearted consumer frenzy based on false credit as Dick Powell gives up the crooning for this affecting portrait of an ordinary Joe who believes he’s hit the jackpot with one of his lame entries to advertising slogan competitions. Preston Sturges orchestrates the ensuing chaos with a characteristically deft and occasionally pointed touch.

Quintet (1979) – Robert Altman goes all Euro existentialist, borrowing Bibi Andersson and Fernando Rey from Bergman and Bunuel for this bleak, snowbound post-apocalyptic tale. Paul Newman makes his way to a makeshift sheltered community huddled inside against the new ice age. They pass the time by playing a deadly game called quintet which echoes, on a smaller scale, the conflicts which have laid civilisation to waste in the first place. It may put that excruciatingly unending family game of Monopoly into perspective.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) – A complete bill of Christmas fare, with sleigh-rides, snowmen, warm inns with roaring fires, fairytale castles, pantomime blundering, elegant costumed balls, snow-capped vistas…oh, and vampires.

The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) – As wonderful as it is, the prospect of an enforced viewing of The Wizard of Oz at Christmas can induce groans. So why not watch The Singing Ringing Tree instead. It’s a colourful European fairy tale, in which an insufferable princess learns the value of hard work and humility, and her princely suitor learns how not to be an idiot, having spent some time transformed into a bear. The magic valley in which they find themselves stuck is presided over by a dwarf trickster, a Munchkin gone bad. When his spell is finally lifted, the valley becomes an oddly dull place, drained of its vivid colours. This suggests that the dwarf wasn’t such a bad sort after all, and really just wanted to be appreciated for his consummate artistry. I felt much the same about Alberich in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. The brattish and self-absorbed Siegfried showed no gratitude for his efforts, and deserved all that was coming to him. The princess should have stuck with the green hair, too. It was a much better look than that same old Aryan golden-haired coiffure that princesses unfailingly go for.

Don't let Santa into the house
Tales From The Crypt (1972) – An Amicus anthology film based on EC comics stories. In the first tale, ‘And All Through the House’, Joan Collins is menaced on Christmas Eve by a psycho in a Santa suit who lurks outside her home seeking ingress. Perhaps he’s a shopping centre Father Christmas who has cracked after one too many insistent requests for overpriced franchise tie-in tat from sulking consumer moppets. It’s a situation which is complicated by the fact that Joanie has just cracked her husband’s skull open with a fireside poker, spilling bright red, haemoglobin rich blood on the nice white carpets. Meanwhile, her daughter waits upstairs for Santa to arrive. She so much wants him to deliver her presents, so when she sees him outside, of course she lets him in…

Have a great Christmas, everybody.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Broadcast and Sound Poetry


This is a lovely version of In Here The Universe Begins from Broadcast’s recent show on 7th December at the HiFi Bar in Melbourne, Australia. Singer Trish Keenan paces lightly back and forth, casting expanding and retracting shadows over the coruscating patterns projected onto the screen. The whole show sounds magical, warm and relaxed, with an experimental and improvisatory flow which sounds natural and unforced. You can hear it thanks to someone who has generously put their recording up online. James Cargill’s analogue synth lines are burnished and glowing, as if his equipment has absorbed some of the Antipodean sunshine and released it in radiant melodic scales. Valerie, Lunch Hour Pops and In Here The Universe Begins have become languorous electronic lullabies, soothing the way to golden slumbers. Valerie in particular sounds gorgeous set against a gently humming and droning bed of sound. Even the as-yet unreleased song, with its chorus refrain of ‘what you want is not what you get’, which has become a standard performance finale, is slowed down to a mesmeric chant rather than the pounding one-chord kosmische drone thrashed out on what looks like some sort of two-stringed Mongolian lute which is its usual form. The crowd is effusive in its appreciation, and Keenan returns to sing a round with her own echo on You and Me in Time, a short and hauntingly poetic song from the Tender Buttons LP.

Earlier, Keenan had prefaced Black Cat with a babel of voices which suggested speaking in tongues before Cargill’s circular riff locked in. The song ended in a long looping fade-out over which those voices found articulation in her intoned lines of verse. This is indicative of a long-standing interest in the written word (she has had pieces published in a literary paper called High Horse) and the manipulation of language. This is entirely in keeping with their love of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which had a close involvement with the marriage of word and sound throughout its history.

The Workshop partly had its origins in a piece written for the radio by Samuel Beckett in 1957, All That Fall. Beckett had a particular interest in the sound environment for the play, and Desmond Briscoe was called in to provide the required atmospheres and effects. Later that year, he went on to work with Daphne Oram on Private Dreams and Public Nightmares, written by Frederick Bradnum and subtitled ‘A Radiophonic Poem’. This was the first use of the word ‘radiophonic’. Producer Donald McWhinnie explained that ‘by radiophonic effects, we mean something very near to what the French have labelled musique concrete – concrete music. Not music at all, really. It doesn’t necessarily come out of musical instruments and it can’t be written down. It’s simply sound, or patterns of sound, which are manufactured by technical processes’. A rather denigrating technician’s description which seems keen to downplay the considerable artistic potential unleashed by such new processes. The Private Dreams piece was written with accompanying sounds specifically outlined as an aural adjunct to the words. McWhinnie described it as being ‘an inextricable conception of word and special sound and an exploratory flight into a new territory of sound’, and warned engineers not to ‘attempt to alter anything that sounds strange – it’s deliberately meant to sound that way’.

Desmond and Daphne in the Workshop
The Radiophonic Workshop officially came into being shortly thereafter, with both Desmond Briscoe and Daphne Oram present as key founding members. It was situated in an old art nouveau building in Maida Vale which had previously seen service as a roller skating palace. The Workshop moved its equipment into room 13 and opened, appropriately enough, on the 1st April 1958. It continued to produce the combinations of word and sound, concrete poetry and atmospheric meditation from which it had originated. There was a collaboration with Brian Gysin in 1960, Minutes To Go, which featured his cut-ups (a technique which William Burroughs adopted in books such as Nova Express) and ‘permutated poems’ I Am That I Am, Rub Out the Word and Junk Isn’t Good Baby, which, with the help of the Workshop, subjected language to random realignments. Gysin declared his intention to ‘let the machines speak – even if they’re going wrong, they are still saying something’. Poet Lily Greenham created the piece Relativity with the Workshop in 1975, based around Einstein’s equation and the visible spectrum of colours. She talked about ‘how a sentence can be given shape and driven in a musical sense beyond its meaning’. Philip Oxman’s 1974 piece The Origins of Capital and the Descent of Power sounds like a rather grim slice of Marxist analysis centring on the story of a poor circus family who end up having to butcher their own performing animals. Malcolm Clarke (who wrested remarkable alien sounds from the ‘Delaware’ synthesiser for the Doctor Who story The Sea Devils) worked on this piece, and was described by a reviewer as having created ‘voices and sounds that loomed, struck, tottered out of darkness…one was less in a precise story than in a circle of images in words and electronic sound, very deliberately plotted, the relationship between sound and space designed to be as informative as the explicit dialogue’.

Barry Bermange's sketch for a Gothic altarpiece in sound
Perhaps the best known of the Radiophonic Workshop’s combinations of word and sound are Delia Derbyshire and Barry Bermange’s Inventions for Radio, and David Cain, Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill’s The Seasons. The Inventions for Radio were 4 programmes broadcast in 1964, mixing Delia Derbyshire’s atmospheric clouds of sound (which were effectively a precursor of ambient music) with recorded voices. For Amor Dei, Burmange sketched out a modest request that she create ‘the sound of a Gothic altar piece’, something which she duly built using the human voice as source material. Sadly, the only one of the Inventions which seems to be still extant is Dreams (although who knows what the Delia Derbyshire archive at Manchester University might turn up). Delia provides the rather ominous sonic medium within which people’s recalled dreams are embedded.

David Cain’s The Seasons was a BBC Drama Workshop LP from 1969, in which the poems of Ronald Duncan and Derek Bowskill, which evoke the moods of the months, progressing through the seasons of the year, are set to his electronic music. These moods could be ‘expressed’ by the schoolchildren who were the record’s intended audience. It’s been featured on a regular basis on Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service, his Radio 6 show, although he’s now completed a year’s cycle of seasons. Perhaps he could start up again next year with the astrological cycle of Mort Garson’s Zodiac Cosmic Sounds, although, given that it’s an afternoon show, this would make it rather difficult to comply with the LP cover’s instruction that it ‘must be played in the dark’.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Music of The Book


I listened recently to the original radio series of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I always regarded as the best realisation of Douglas Adams’ creation. Having not heard if for many a year, I was surprised to hear what a wealth and range of interesting music was used in the background, mainly to accompany Peter Jones’ inimitable readings from The Book. The fact that I now recognised many of the pieces used suggests that my youthful self, listening repeatedly to the cheap cassettes on which I’d recorded the series off the radio, was having his ears attuned to sounds which would spark an unconscious thrill of recognition when I came across them later in life. Alongside Doctor Who, it certainly seeded a fascination for electronic music which lasts to this day.

After Tim Souster’s sonically enhanced arrangement of Journey of the Sorceror by The Eagles which gives the programme its memorable space banjo theme music, we are plunged straight into the dizzying world of 20th century Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti as Peter Jones puts the story into its cosmic context. I think the piece is Atmospheres, famous for its inclusion in Stanley Kubrick’s religiose SF survey of the aeons, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The use of music associated with that imposing film serves as an immediate indication of Adams’ intention to puncture the grandiosity of such high-minded science fiction with bathos at every possible turn and corner, although he also manages to retain the genre’s starry-eyed sense of wonder. Ligeti is used on various occasions throughout the series. His diffuse, tonally indeterminate ‘clouds’ of orchestral and choral sound are perfect for conveying a sense of terrified awe and disorientation in the face of the immense infinity of the universe and the bewilderingly alien experiences to be found within it. Indeed, it was his music which did much to lend 2001 its air of slightly frightening, transcendent mystery. The hovering, shifting swarm of melismatic voices in the Requiem, used in the moon monument sequence in 2001, here provide the heavenly choir which accompanies Arthur and Ford’s comedown from their first experience of the Infinite Improbability Drive which powers the spaceship Heart of Gold. It’s incongruously mixed with an organ on Southend Pier chirping out ‘I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside’.

Ligeti in Klaus Kinski mode
A crashing, rumbling explosion of a chord from Ligeti’s astonishing organ piece Volumina provides an over-the-top prelude to cliff-hanging pronouncements, as when the captain of the Vogon constructor fleet pauses before offering to Ford and Arthur his alternative to certain death in the vacuum of space. This is a good lead-in to a typical bit of Adams bathos; The implicitly horrific nature of an experience in the stead of which summary death seems an option open to serious consideration turns out to be an unpleasant but non-lethal subjection to a reading of excruciatingly bad poetry. Ligeti’s harpsichord piece Continuum, which requires the player’s hands to scurry unceasingly across the keyboard like a particularly workaholic cadre of ants, accompanies an entry from The Book on the rise and fall of the Galactic economy and the part which the luxury planet-building business of Magrathea plays in its fluctuating fortunes. Appropriately enough, it’s a piece of music which is scarcely credible to picture as the product of any human agency.

Such could also be said of the electronic sounds which comprise the bulk of the rest of the background musical radiation of the Hitchhiker’s universe. Electronic music has long been associated with science fiction and space, going back to its use in Bernard Herrmann’s theremin and electric guitar driven score for The Day The Earth Stood Still (recently heard in the BBC Concert Orchestra’s Electronica concert, broadcast on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago), and Louis and Bebe Barron’s ‘electronic modulations’ for Forbidden Planet. Perhaps the technological element of electronic soundmaking creates an association with the advanced technologies required to reach space in the first place. Or perhaps it’s just that these strange, alien sounds, which no longer have their origins in any familiar musical objects, are an effective aural analogue to the psychological experience of exploring entirely new worlds of the imagination. They’re equally adept at portraying states of mental disequilibrium, after all, as the theremin featured prominently in Miklos Rozsa’s scores for The Lost Weekend and Spellbound (also featured in the Electronica concert) demonstrates.

Terry Riley’s Rainbow in Curved Air is the most frequently used piece of electronic music here. His echo-delayed loops of burbling and cascading organ notes provide the sound of the selections from The Book’s teeming streams of digital information. There’s also a single use of an extract from the more sombre and stately Poppy Nogood and the Phantom Band, the second side of the Rainbow LP, with Riley’s sax snaking out shehnai-like lines into intertwining coils. The opening of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’s Wind on Water from the Evening Star LP breathes its shimmering breezes behind The Book’s ruminations on several occasions. It accompanies the description of the planet to which lost biros make their pilgrimage, there to join the wide variety of biroid lifeforms which inhabit it. The tentative opening triads of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene are used a couple of times, giving a poignant emphasis to Peter Jones’ summation of the fates of the newly created whale and instantly world (or universe?) weary bowl of petunias. Tomita’s synthesised arrangement of Debussy’s La Cathedrale Engloutie (The Drowned Cathedral) plays during the description of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. John Carpenter also wrote a synthesiser version of this piece, in collaboration with Alan Howarth, to add atmosphere to the scene in Escape From New York in which Kurt Russell’s grizzled adventurer negotiates the air corridors between the futuristic Manhattan’s deserted skyscrapers in his one-man glider.

Digging the Floyd
I distinctly remember that when I first heard the programme on the radio, Pink Floyd’s pacific held-chord meditation Shine On You Crazy Diamond heralded the spaceship Heart of Gold’s arrival on the planet of Magrathea, Arthur’s first sight of an alien world. It turns out to be the depressive robot Marvin humming. A comment on the Floyd’s less than joyful ‘concept’ of the world, perhaps. This scene has disappeared from the show in subsequently released recordings, the issue (or expense) of rights evidently having become a problem. Strange, since that Roger Waters always comes across as such a reasonable and accommodating chap. It’s funny that a radio programme from the year’s of punk’s ascendancy (it was first broadcast on 8th March 1978), which was supposed to have cleared away the dead weight of the 60’s increasingly bloated legacy, should feature Pink Floyd and the music of synth players with varying degrees of Prog-association. Apparently there’s even a track from one-record x Yes keyboard player Patrick Moraz’ solo LP in there somewhere, although I can’t claim to be familiar with it. His album with Yes was Relayer, by the way, and it's quite a good one, with a nice Roger Dean cover (gatefold, of course). Perhaps such musical choices are not so surprising, given that Ford and Zaphod are, essentially, a couple of interstellar hippies.

The Radiophonic Workshop played its part in the production, of course. Dick Mills created the ubiquitous sound-effects essential for evoking a space-based SF universe. Amongst these is a short piece which rivals his earlier magnum opus Major Bloodnok’s Stomach (created in 1959), a nine second eruption found on the 1975 Radiophonic Workshop LP, for complex creation put to the service of absurd humour. The apocalyptic roar of the universe’s destruction diminishes to a gurgle as it drains down some sort of cosmic plughole. Its can be heard in its full 30 second splendour on the BBC LP Science Fiction Sound Effects (no. 26). There’s also a brilliant piece of Radiophonic music resurrected from the archive to be used as the fanfare for the Magratheans’ automated non-welcoming message from the distant past. This is Delia Derbyshire’s Tutankhamun’s Egypt, in which the echoes of ancient trumpets seems to rise like sonic phantoms from the half-buried and sand-eroded ruins of empires long since faded into legend. You can hear it here. The Radiophonic Workshop would take over the music for the second series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, using the latest generations of synthesisers. Paddy Kingsland composed pleasantly melodic synth backgrounds, with prominent use of the whistling, flute-like sounds which also characterised the late Tom Baker and early Peter Davidson Doctor Who soundtracks to stories like The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva. He switched on his arpeggiator to provide the auditory sensation of the tickling of the brain’s pleasure centres (a reward from a teaching machine in a technologised schoolroom). Synth arpeggiators have always had a similar effect on my brain, so I’m very glad that they’ve recently featured to a significant extent on Oneohtrix Point Never’s sprawling collection of analogue electronic music, Rifts, a gorgeous paean to futures past.

The Magrathean story is also accompanied by some rhythmically enhanced Gregorian-style chant overlaid with Eastern-tinged sax. There is some similar music (minus the chant) playing during the pointless meeting of hairdressers, TV documentary producers and telephone sanitisation engineers (obviously bugbears of Adams’) to discuss their plans for life on the prehistoric Earth upon which they, along with Ford and Arthur, are stranded. This has the sound of a sprightly medieval dance. I thought it might be The Third Ear Band’s music for Roman Polanski’s film of Macbeth, or perhaps even a 70s early music troupe along the lines of David Munrow’s consort. But no, it is in fact a group who were called Gruppe Between, one of the more organic (ie acoustic) of the ‘krautrock’ bands of the period. Both of these pieces were taken from their 1971 LP Einstieg, which you can read about over at Julian Cope’s Head Heritage site. It’s appropriate that this record was released on the German WERGO label, better known for its recordings of modern classical music by the likes of Ligeti.

The radio show, like the TV series, goes out on a bittersweet note with Louis Armstrong singing What A Wonderful World. It’s a song which has, it seems, become synonymous with a wistful observation of what a wonderful world it isn’t, Armstrong’s warm tones becoming an insistent invocation of beauty in the face of all evidence to the contrary. Its fading out here unveils the melancholy at the heart of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and perhaps of Adams himself. In the end, there is no meaning behind it all, no answer to the great question of life, the universe and everything. It’s all just a cruel and hollow farce. Still, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

The Romantics at Tate Britain

Part Two - Inward Vision

William Blake - A Vision: The Inspiration of the Poet

Romanticism favoured the individual artist, attributing to them the power to see the world in a fresh and entirely unique fashion, to perceive the elemental nature which lay underneath surface appearances. They conveyed such insights in their own particular manner, which owed little or nothing to prevailing academic tastes and standards. The expression of subjective vision, rather than the mastery of an accepted style, was at the heart of Romanticism in the visual arts. The artist was now deemed to possess a special nature which set them apart from the common horde. Whether this was innate, cultivated or stoked aflame through artificial stimuli (opium being the chosen key to fevered dreams favoured by Coleridge and Thomas de Quincy), it left the mind open to dimensions beyond those readily perceptible to the senses. The imagination was all-important. Coleridge held it to be ‘the living power and prime Agent of all human Perception…A repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM’.

The Romantics sought inspiration in nature, particularly in its wilder and more overwhelming forms (as mentioned in part one). This was partly an attempt to distance themselves from the ordered boundaries of civilisation, centred on the built-up surrounds of towns and cities. The love of the sublime landscape, the embrace of its dangerous allure, with its potential for engulfing those who gaze upon it, represented the Romantic imagination pushing at the limits of the outer world, pressing against the boundaries of physical being. In confronting the immensity of the sublime, the mountains, abysses and teeming waterfalls, the Romantic sought to see beyond, to catch a glimpse of the infinite. The solitude found in such settings, be they the Alps or the Lake District, also induced a contemplative state of mind which directed the imaginative gaze inward, down towards the depths of what would come to be known as the subconscious. Unpredictable, chaotic nature was a reflection of the irrational self. Alone in the wild places of the world, the Romantics saw themselves as part of the environment in which they stood. The inner landscape of the human mind contained immensities as sublime and mysterious as those which surrounded them. The philosophers and artists of The Enlightenment, the age of reason, believed that human nature could be understood through rational study (and, incidentally, could be moulded and directed as a result). The poet Alexander Pope provided a summary epigraph for the rationalist outlook with the line, from his ‘An Essay on Man’, stating that ‘The proper study of Mankind is Man’ (although the poem goes on to point out the meagre extent of true scientific knowledge). For the Romantics, reason was not the natural human state. They welcomed the ‘Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d’, to which Pope referred, even if it did occasionally create the conditions for a descent into madness. The mind, for them, was a realm of unfathomable mystery rather a seat of reason, an undiscovered country which they set out to explore.

William Blake - The Man Who Taught Blake Painting in his Dreams
William Blake provided an unlikely figurehead for those who looked to chart the inner worlds of the Romantic imagination. If the artist was seen as possessing a special vision inherent in his or her nature, rather than being a conduit for divine inspiration, then he provided a rather contradictory example. He did believe himself to be receptive to direct inspiration from the spiritual emanations of inhuman beings. Reality as perceived by the senses was a material diminution of a higher and more unified level of creation from which these emanations descended, allowing him a glimpse into immaterial dimensions. Such visitations are acknowledged in several works displayed in the exhibition. The Man Who Taught Blake Painting In His Dreams portrays a man with a noble and benevolent face which seemingly divides into chitinous cranial plates. He looks rather like an uncharacteristically cheerful Klingon. The Inspiration of the Poet shows an open-ended room contained, like a huge hearthplace, at very rear end of a much larger and completely featureless room. Within this recessed sub-room, the poet sits writing at his desk, a single lamp providing a globe of illumination above his head. A white-robed figure stands at his side, pointing to his book as if dictating, or guiding his pen. The tiny room within a larger room can easily be seen as representing the deeper level of the mind to which Blake and the Romantics sought ingress. The Bard is a more specifically British expression of the spirit of inspiration. The poet of ancient days rests in the forest, the light of creative vision showering down upon him from the radiant figures, who hover above, illuminating the dark oak branches.

Blake may have believed that he received his inspiration from external sources, but they could also be regarded as reflecting inner states, externalised projections of the divided aspects of the soul, or psyche. He developed a personal mythological system of great complexity over the course of his lifetime, which centred on the divided state of man and creation, its fall from an original state of unity. The origins of this Gnostic worldview are drawn in The Book of Urizen, pages of which feature prominently here. Remarkably, these were discovered in the 1970s by someone who had bought an old railway timetable, and discovered eight Blake prints inserted between the pages, having perhaps been used as bookmarks for particularly interesting branch lines. As with all versions of Blake’s illuminated books, they are unique, each engraving having been hand-coloured. The illuminated books were completely integrated works of art, words and pictures intertwining and combining on the page to give a visionary cosmogony detail and concrete form. These particular pages also have Blake’s own titles for the pictures added as handwritten sub-headings in their lower margins. Urizen is his version of the Old Testament God, an aged, white-bearded figure who, tired of life, imposes the limitations of order, division and law upon the world. Within the divine unity of the universe, he fashions his own tomb of imprisoning matter. His fiery, creative aspect is sheared off and becomes the figure of Los, the embodiment of Energy and imagination. Urizen is left with the cold comfort of naked Reason, a detached rationalism with which he measures and bounds his new sub-creation.

William Blake - The Book of Urizen. Everything is an attempt to be Human
Plate 6 is subtitled ‘I sought pleasure and found a prison’, and depicts the moment of this first painful division. Los screams with round mouthed and eyed horror, clutching himself as if seeking comfort, or trying to cover the raw nakedness of his newborn self-awareness. He is surrounded by flames, matching his hair, which rise into the words of the poem. ‘Los wept howling round the dark Demon/And cursing his lot for in anguish/Urizen was rent from his side’. Plate 10 is subtitled ‘Everything is an attempt to be human’. A half-formed skeletal figure looks to the sky in anguish as it endures the pain of coming into being. A pair of manacles await at its bony feet, ready to tether it to the earth. These are the ‘mind-forged manacles’ familiar from Blake’s well-known poem The Tyger. This skeleton is the framework for the physical self into which Urizen is painfully condensing himself. Los lies dislocated to his side, a mirror-figure, sundered and frozen in shock. Los is the creative side of the spirit, the imagination abstracted, his emblem a hammer, tool of both artist and artisan. He appears here like a statue sculpted with the distorted features of horror and despair. It’s easy to see the influence of the gothic carvings and tomb effigies which Blake had sketched in Westminster Abbey in his youth. The tendrils of vines curl up amongst the lines of the poem, as if bearing words as fruit. They describe the growth of the body and the awakening of the senses in terms of landscape. ‘From the caverns of his jointed spine/Down sunk with fright a red/Round globe hot burning deep/Deep down into the Abyss’.

The Book of Urizen - The floods overwhelmed me
Plate 11 is subtitled ‘the floods overwhelmed me’. The picture stands alone on the page, with no accompanying verse. Urizen hangs in the void, suspended in emptiness as if he is floating in the middle of an ocean, with no sight of land on the horizon. His beard splays out around him, and his arms are spread out wide in passive surrender. He is like Christ or Odin, hung between heaven and earth (which has yet to be created). His eyes, nose and mouth, the new sensory organs which have just formed, are dead, blank holes. Blake describes him as being ‘In ghostly torment sick,/Hanging upon the wind,/Two nostrils bent down to the deep’. Plate 15 is again a picture with no accompanying words. It is subtitled ‘Vegetating in Fibres of Blood’. This is a remarkable vision of this new subcreation, which Urizen and, inadvertently, Los are forging, as an inseperable part of the human body. Los’ feelings of pity for Urizen cause further corporeal division and the distillation of a system of planetary bodies. The raw fibres of emotion pour off his back and join with the tumbling streams of his hair, hanging downward and covering the head which he holds despairingly between his hands. Los’ body, like that of Urizen, is depicted in terms of the Romantic landscape; inner and outer topography conjoined. ‘Life in cataracts poured down his cliffs/The void shrunk lymph into Nerves/Wandring wide on the bosom of night/And left a round globe of blood/Trembling upon the void’. A bloody planet ‘conglobes’ from the deliquescing matter of Los’ body; it could be a depiction of the early, roiling, red-hot days of the earth’s formation as the solar system was being drawn together. It’s an amazing blend of science fiction and mythology, reminding me of the way in which Roger Zelazny blended genre material with tales from the Hindu scriptures in his 1967 novel Lord of Light. Blake describes how ‘The globe of lifeblood trembled/Branching out into roots:/Fibrous, writhing upon the winds:/Fibres of blood, milk and tears’. This planetary body becomes the first female form, known as Enitharmon.

Plate 17 is subtitled ‘In the female death became new life’. The first woman is formed from the matter of Los’ pity, the new planetary body given human form. The verses on this plate are in the bottom half with stalks and vines rising to flower into the figures of Los and Enitharmon. There is a division between the coppery fire (a reflection, perhaps, of the copper plates in which the outlines of these images were etched) from which Enitharmon rises and the darkness in which Los curls in exhaustion and womb-like retreat. Los comforts Enitharmon, refusing to abandon her having brought her into existence. Blake describes how ‘Los saw the Female and pitied./He embraced her, she wept she refused/In perverse and cruel delight/She fled from his arms, yet he followd’. Further division ensues as they give birth to a child which will become Orc, the spirit of human energy, rebellion and revolution in Blake’s mythological scheme. The flames from which Enitharmon is retreating are from the forge of creation. They anticipate ‘the birth of the Human shadow’. It is not a joyful birth, however, as the downturned cast of her mouth and anguished eyes make plain.

Blake’s singular example of the unification of word, artisanal technique and visionary image was essentially inimitable, and his works were little understood or appreciated in his lifetime. His insistence on the validity of his own imaginative worlds in the face of indifference or derision made him a huge influence on ensuing Romantic artists, even if he was at odds with the Romantic temperament himself. His self-created mythology was an act of world-building which finds a place in the long and continuing tradition of the fantastic in the arts. It was out of kilter with the rationalist philosophy of the age, against which Blake’s work was partly a reaction. Perhaps it means more in the modern age, in which the idea of the fantastic is once more an accepted aspect of art and literature, and for which it offers a countervailing worldview to the all-pervasive culture of materialism.

Henry Fuseli - Titania and Bottom
Blake’s contemporary, friend and sometime collaborator Henry Fuseli made a far greater impact in his time, achieving considerable recognition and critical approval. He explored the creative possibilities of nightmares, mining deeply into his morbid imagination. Something of his self-image can be seen in his Self-Portrait As A Faun. Leering with a sensuous, full-lipped mouth, it is a self-conscious depiction of an inner self which revelled in its own licentiousness, uninhibited by any sense of conventional moral limitations. It’s an image, and implied philosophy, which anticipates the spirit of Surrealism. Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, from 1781, has become a defining and much imitated image of the terrors of dark dreams, and the murky layers of the subconscious from which they emerge. The painting on display her, Titania and Bottom, depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was a favourite with the Romantics. The central figures, including Bottom with his transfigured donkey’s head, are surrounded by the deep darkness of the forest at night, from which a proliferating horde of grotesque creatures emerge. Fuseli lets his imagination fly in creating demonic transformations of the human form, hybrids spliced together in the laboratory of the mind. His night creatures are genuinely menacing, hoodlum homunculi with wicked grins, intent on malicious mayhem. One sullen old miniaturised fellow is kept on a leash, as if he is too frightful to be let loose even amongst this mob. Or perhaps he is an ageing changeling, grown wizened and stunted from his time in fairyland, and kept now as a grudgeful and spite-filled pet. Across the central hallway of the Tate, in the Art and the Sublime display (which has now ended, I belatedly note) which acts as an adjunct to this exhibition, can be found Fuseli’s Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers, from 1812. This shows the scene in which Macbeth emerges from the murder of King Duncan, and is met by Lady Macbeth. The blood on the daggers and on his clothes provides the only primary colour in the picture. Macbeth and his Lady are depicted as pallid ghosts, outlined in spectral white against the darkness, doomed forever to re-enact their bloody acts.

Richard Dadd - A Bacchanalian Scene
The opening of inner worlds has its inherent dangers. Journey too far and too thoroughly inward and pre-existent fractures can be widened, precipitating mental dissolution. Richard Dadd stands as an exemplar of such a fate, succumbing to a psychotic breakdown which resulted in the murder of his father and his spending the rest of his life in the asylum at Bedlam, and later Broadmoor. Angela Carter’s radio play Come Unto These Yellow Sands mixes a mock-critical assessment of his life and paintings with a biographical depiction of the way in which the worlds of the imagination can overwhelm the artist who leaves him or herself open to their influence. Dadd’s most famous picture, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, which he painted over many years in Bedlam (finally finishing it in 1864), is included here, alongside his Bacchanalian Scene from 1862. The latter is like a close-up of some of the spectators of the Fairy Feller’s incipient blow. Curving and spiralling twists of grass in the foreground give an idea of the miniaturised scale, a jungle in the greensward. The figures sipping from the bacchanalian cup and peering sideways out at us have strangely compressed features, with almond, slightly oriental eyes. Perhaps these reflected some of the people he had come across his travels in the Near and Middle East, during which he had begun to lose his mind. The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke is packed with similarly compressed figures, all gathered amongst the grasses, lichens and daisies. The more closely you look, the more creatures emerge, all either engaged in their own activities or watching to see the Fairy Feller wield his axe. In the upper left hand corner, a daddy long-legs blows a long, spindly trumpet, a fanfare for the blow which will split the carefully placed sweet chestnut in two. The compression of Dadd’s fairy creatures suggest a delicate airiness which feels the weight of gravity pressing heavily down upon them, as well as the pressure of the artist’s over-fertile imagination on his own head.

Dadd’s paintings tend to be very compact in size, whilst at the same time containing a wealth of painstaking detail. This is at the opposite end to the grand scale of the Romantic sublime, which revels in great and overwhelming scale, the subject matter sometimes extending to he size of the painting itself. This can be immediately seen as you enter the gallery in which the Art and the Sublime exhibition is hung, and your eye is immediately drawn to the huge canvases of James Wards’ Gordale Scar and John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings. These depictions of outer and inner worlds exist at opposite ends of the spectrum, but both contain immensities, stretching the limits of human perception by staring at the great and the small and seeking to break through to what lies beyond. Looking hard enough in both directions, outward and inward, it becomes evident that both are contained one within the other, as John Crowley suggests in his modern novel of fairy worlds intersecting with the real, Little Big; A self-reflecting recession of images caught between two mirrors.

Samuel Palmer - Evening
Another painter who tended to work on a very small scale was Samuel Palmer. He was greatly influenced by William Blake, whom he knew towards the end of his life. Palmer created a dream of an Arcadian Albion, a rural paradise which he drew from his imaginative recasting of the Darenth Valley around Shoreham, in Kent. This is an area I know well, having been frequently driven there as a child. It’s within easy reach of the South London suburbs, and like much of the ‘garden’ of Kent, is now enmeshed in a gridwork of busy transport links rushing towards the capital. Thankfully, a proposed motorway development which would have plunged through the heart of the valley was fought off, but the insect hum of traffic along its alternate ridgeway route is now a permanent background drone, along with the regular dervish whoosh of passing Eurostar trains. Palmer’s landscapes are often bathed in the glow of a burnished autumnal light, or illuminated by a full and round waxing moon. They are usually set during harvest time. Having said which, the painting displayed here, A Dream In the Apennines (1864), is on a relatively large scale, and is taken from his travels on the continent. It does have a similarly calm, bucolic air, however. Palmer didn’t seek the grandiose spectacle of the sublime when he went abroad. The figures here are perfectly at home in this landscape. Rome is a distant dream on the plain down below, a series of shadows beneath the pastel colours of the sunset sky. Grapes and goats replace wheat and sheep, but otherwise the atmosphere is much the same as it is in the Shoreham pictures. The mezzotint Evening, from 1834, is more typical, with its depiction of a shepherd dozing beside his obedient flock, recumbent beneath a sickle moon.

Palmer created a reverie of a golden age which never really existed outside of his imagination. A drowsy and dreamlike countryside expunged of poverty and starvation, mud and rain, and the back-breaking round of hard labour. His Shoreham was a pocket paradise, akin to what John Clute, in the Encylopedia of Fantasy, calls a polder. This is a word which derives from Dutch and indicates a low lying area of land reclaimed from surrounding water and maintained against further encroachment with ditches and dykes. Clute adopts it to describe those enchanted valleys or villages which are protected from the corrosive effects of the world which surrounds them. His definition, in terms of fantastic art and literature, describes ‘an active microcosm, armed against the potential wrongness of that which surrounds it, an anachronism consciously opposed to wrong time’. Samuel Palmer turned Shoreham into a polder of the mind, which he elucidated in his paintings, and into which he attempted to escape, a disappearing act which became increasingly difficult at the Victorian age built up a head of steam. The autumnal atmosphere and preference for late afternoon or sunset hues which colour his vision of an earthly paradise suggests that Palmer conceded his dream world was not eternal, and would soon pass.

I have drawn comparison elsewhere between Palmer’s paintings and the similarly contained and deliberately artificial stage-set world of the film A Company of Wolves, which was scripted by Angela Carter from her original recasting of the matter of fairy tales. Its forest setting is created from the imagination of an adolescent girl, and is another dreamworld which seems fragile and subject to disintegration upon waking. The film is an indication of how Palmer’s vision of an English paradise has proven intoxicating enough to endure, however. It proved to be a major influence on the Neo-romantics, the artists who emerged between the wars in the twentieth century, and revived the traditions of Romanticism in a new form. Their debt to Palmer is most explicitly acknowledged here in Graham Sutherland’s Cray Fields, which is a pastiche of the style of his engravings. The sun shines with a brilliant radiance through a copse of hop poles which stands on the edge of a wheat field, in which two men are working, bent under heavy loads. A star hangs above, visible even in daylight, keeping watch over this blessed landscape. Sutherland’s landscapes would become much more violent and less cultivated over time. He, like the other Neo-romantics, incorporated elements of modernism, recasting the Romantic vision in a twentieth century context. Figures were depicted in more geometrical forms, landscapes moved more towards a semi-abstraction, and the whole was subjected to Cubist fracture and the suggestive juxtaposition of unrelated objects favoured by the Surrealists.

Graham Sutherland - Entrance to a Lane
Sutherland’s Green Tree Form:Interior of Woods is a gnarled head of twisted protuberances, covered in lichenous green and set on a long grey tubular body. It could be a grotesque, barnacle encrusted creature of the deeps. His Entrance to a Lane is an abstracted landscape whose elements are jumbled up, and whose horizontal plane seems to be curling back up and over towards the viewer like a crashing wave. The grey of the road, with its white line, is like a tongue leading towards the maw of the thicketed wood. There seems to be a disembodied bicycle wheel beside the road, just in front of this portal, but of the cyclist, there is no sign. Welsh Landscape with Roads is a similarly unforgiving depiction of an elemental and indifferent nature, with a distended, blood-red sun hanging on the horizon like an unfriendly UFO. A figure is running down the mustard yellow road, arms thrown up in apparent fear. There are what seem to be the shapes of corn ricks, upon which the red sun casts its baleful light, in one circular field, although they could equally be the preparations for some ritual, the enactment of which the figure is attempting to flee. The ominous, ritualistic feel of the landscape is completed by the jagged sheep’s skull which lies in the bottom left corner. It looks like it could be a remnant of some far off Mesozoic age, whose atmosphere this land still exudes. The Black Landscape is again inspired by the Welsh landscape. A tarry and black mountain, redolent of the coal which lies beneath it, looms under a pink sky (lit by a pink moon?) In the foreground, fractured (possibly mined) gray fields of slate reflect the sky. A fistful of hardy plants are outlined on the horizon of the hill to the left. The mountain reaches a sharply clawed hand towards them. The whole landscape looks like a beast on the verge of rising with a devouring hunger.

Paul Nash - Pillar and Moon
Paul Nash (who I wrote about a while back) is represented by several paintings here. Totes Meer is one of his well-known pictures from the Second World War, and indicates his affinity with Surrealism. A dead sea of airplane wreckage sluggishly washes up on a sandy shore, piling up into a jagged tideline. It’s a bleak, wintry scene, lit by a cold moon. You can almost hear the grind and rasp of rusting metal, the harsh wartime replacement for the soothing rhythms of waves breaking and receding. The Flight of the Magnolia, from 1944, is another Surrealist work, in which the white petals of the blossom float hugely in the sky, the floral equivalent of one of Magritte’s apples or boulders. It harks back to Constable’s cloud studies or Turner’s hazy blurring of built-up horizon and sky. The flower merges with or emerges from the clouds, which themselves are scarcely distinguishable from the ocean waves. It seems almost to be crushing the distended, egg-like shape of the moon, which appears like a petal which has been torn off. The blossom also resembles the unfolding petals of a parachute. It is an emblem of life during wartime, a transient and fleeting thing which feels all the more precious as a result. The flower of the imagination is given free, if temporary, flight. Pillar and Moon is more typical of Nash’s evocation of the spirit of place of the English landscape, and of his imbuing of it with a deeply personal solar and lunar symbolism. Here, the stone globe atop the pillar is linked by the elevated runway of the treeline to the rocky sphere of the moon, a branch line to the heavens. The row of trees recedes in diminishing perspective before curving to the right, dividing sky from earth. The trees cast moonshadows which spread out to connect with the grey stone wall, the pillar itself standing like a geometrical treeshadow. There is a sense of yearning conveyed by the picture, a gulf which will never be bridged. The pillar becomes almost like one of Caspar David Friedrich’s figures, gazing out to sea. The pillar and trees also stand in for the megaliths of Avebury and the twin hills of the Wittenham Clumps which were the signature features of Nash’s most powerful landscape paintings, but which are absent from this exhibition.

John Piper - Seaton Delaval
John Piper’s Seaton Delaval, from 1941, is a picture of a ruined castle in Northumberland designed by John Vanbrugh in the 18th century. Piper was commissioned to draw numerous pieces of England’s architectural heritage during the war, to create a record in the event of their destruction. Seaton Delaval had already been destroyed by fire in 1822, and its state served as a premonition of the fate which might befall other grand country seats. The bland façade of the building looks like a theatrical flat propped up against a painted backdrop. It is boldly outlined, and smudged with the colours of firelit nightime. The pink, red and orange over the door look like they have been blended from carefully aimed theatrical spotlights. Perhaps they are cast by the flames of a November bonfire, or by the conflagration of a bombing raid. The idea of the Romantic ruin is now the prospect of the war damaged rubble after an air raid.

Keith Vaughan - Cain and Abel
Two other Neo-Romantic artists featured here focus on the human form rather than the landscape. Michael Ayrton tackles the Biblical subject of The Temptation of St Anthony, which had stirred the imaginations of Matthias Grunewald in the 16th century, and Max Ernst in the twentieth to lurid heights of delirious grotesquerie. Ayrton’s tableau is considerably more restrained, and a lot less explicit in its violence. St Anthony is still twisted in agonised contortions, but there is a sense that his pain is located more in his head than in any mortifications meted out on his flesh. His tormentors are more recognisably human than the sharp fanged and clawed devils who attack Grunewald and Ernst’s St Anthony. The man and woman who stand on either side of him are in starkly contrasting states of health, he bony and emaciated, she plumply voluptuous. A figure in the foreground, his cranium distended into a bulbous balloon, seems to have snatched the cruciform staff from the saint’s hands, and is kneeling in mock supplication. These are the demons of Anthony’s mind. Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, from 1946, depicts the brothers as stark, granitic figures, like sculptural forms. Cain cradles Abel in his arms, the jawbone with which he has killed him still clutched in his right hand. It is an archetypally powerful image. They are isolated against a featureless volcanic landscape, which resembles the location used by Pasolini in the primal episodes featuring speechless cannibal bandits in Pigsty (Porcile). The beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey also comes to mind. Or they could be characters in a Samuel Beckett play, marooned in the externalised desert of their inner landscape. For a painting created just after the end of the war, it has an obvious resonance with the age.

A contemporary reflection on the legacy of Romanticism is found in a collection of modern photography gathered under the title British Landscape: Photography After the Picturesque. I have to say, in all honesty, that the purpose of these pictures completely passed me by, and I was in all likelihood suffering from gallery fatigue by this time anyway. Who know, to the receptive viewer they might prove revelatory. The exhibition as a whole brings together a disparate selection of the Tate’s collection, and makes it clear what a sustained influence the idea of Romanticism has had on the artistic imagination (and on the general notion of what an artist is). It’s an idea which has become so all-pervasive that it no longer really needs a label. Maybe Chatterton didn’t die in vain after all.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Ingrid Pitt


I was sad to read of the passing of Ingrid Pitt last week. Headline writers no doubt reached for the nearest cliché on the shelf and posthumously crowned her Hammer’s Scream Queen. In fact, she only appeared in two Hammer films, and didn’t scream, unless it was in horror at glimpsing a reflection of her own instantaneously aging visage in Countess Dracula. Her brief membership of the Hammer family came after its golden period, when it was beginning to enter its decadent phase (in both senses of the word). Neither of her films could be said to be amongst the studio’s finest, but they are far from being its worst. I’ve not seen The Vampire Lovers, Hammer’s take on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, although I have had the misfortune of watching tis follow up, Lust For A Vampire. Pitt’s portrayal of the female vampire did much to earn the former film its generally accepted place in the canon of creditable later Hammer films, whereas her absence in the latter was just one of the elements which made it one of the studio’s biggest embarrassments.

Ingrid Imperious
Her Hammer roles cast her as the seductive monster, who somehow retained an element of audience sympathy despite the trail of pallid young innocents she left drained and lifeless in her wake. Her performance in Countess Dracula certainly turned what could have been an inadvertently absurd farce (complete with disguises which have to be rapidly changed behind the scenes) into a dark fairy tale which carries a powerful archetypal charge. The story was based on the figure of the Hungarian Countess Elisabeth Bathory, a bloodbathing aristocratic monster whose name became a blend of history and myth. For some reason, her name is here changed to Countess Elisabeth Nadasdy. The rejuvenating qualities of virginal blood which the Countess discovers create an ever accelerating rate of decrepitude once the effects wear off, resulting in a progressively grotesque appearance which maps the stages of the character’s moral disintegration in a manner akin to Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Her assumption of her daughter’s persona (her unfortunate offspring’s incarceration in a gurning peasant’s hut is a recurrent piece of narrative dead weight which the film could have done without) is a transposition into female form of the oedipal drama played out between kings and male heirs, the ruler’s fear of losing power and potency and being usurped by their progeny. It’s the kind of story which Angela Carter would have relished. Indeed, her radio play Vampira made reference to Elisabeth Bathory. Pitt was very enthusiastic about the part, and lobbied Hammer head James Carreras to get it, winning out over director Peter Sasdy’s first choice, Diana Rigg. She put particular effort into getting her accent right, drawing on her mother’s East European inflections. She was therefore absolutely furious (‘post-apocalyptic’, as she put it) when Sasdy (himself of Hungarian descent) replaced her dialogue with a dubbed recording by another actress (conveniently ‘losing’ her original voice track). He apparently had decided that the Countess, being royalty, should speak the queen’s English.

Pitt doesn’t say an awful lot about her Hammer films in her autobiography, even though its title, Life’s A Scream, plays on her reputation as one of the studio’s defining figures. It’s a tribute to her talents that she should have created such a lasting impact with just those two films. Her anecdote about repeatedly losing her loose-fitting fangs down Kate O’Mara’s capacious cleavage whilst filming an intimate moment in The Vampire Lovers, and having to cadge a stick of chewing gum from one of the studio crew in order to fix them in is very amusing, and indicative of her refusal to take herself too seriously. She was always very proud of her horror films, however, and was only too pleased to attend conventions and answer fans’ questions. You can see some great footage of her at one such event over at this Guardian collection of clips. Her website is entitled Pitt of Horror, which hardly suggests that she was chary of her reputation as a genre figure. It’s a good site, too, and contains some of her writing on horror, including a lengthy piece on Hammer.

Ingrid in The House That Dripped Blood
The picture of her which is used most frequently in articles comes not from either Hammer film, but from her Amicus outing, The House That Dripped Blood. It’s a publicity shot which shows her projecting a buxom, full-fanged vampire hiss at the camera. I watched the story from this portmanteau film in which she appears the other night. It’s a diverting and enjoyable comic squib, with Pitt having no trouble playing the cool actress opposite Jon Pertwee’s pompous and self-important horror star, whose insistence on authenticity might be a little dig at Christopher Lee’s repeated pleas to return to the source material of Bram Stoker’s novel for the next Dracula script. Pertwee’s character, in stating his preference for classic horror, mentions Dracula, but adds that he is referring, of course, to Lugosi, ‘not this new fellow’. The new fellow, Lee, appears in an earlier story in the film. Pertwee digs up a real vampire’s cloak in one of those ill-frequented antique shops, generally open only after dark and cluttered with grotesque and occult artefacts, which feature in Amicus films. He finds the authenticity he was seeking, but at a price. Pitt, who playfully dons the cloak at the end, turns out to have been indulging in an advanced form of method acting herself, having been a vampire all along. She clearly has a lot of fun, rising and flapping towards the petrified Pertwee, who mugs and gurns in comical terror for all he’s worth. Pitt looks fabulous throughout in a series of seventies outfits topped off with large floppy brimmed hats, taking languorous puffs on cigarettes attached to the end of a holder which rivals Audrey Hepburn’s in Breakfast at Tiffany’s for absurd length.

Pitt went on to work with Jon Pertwee in the Doctor Who episode The Time Monster, broadcast in 1972. She played the extravagantly coiffured queen of Atlantis, who is wooed, for his own nefarious ends, by the Master. This was Roger Delgado’s last appearance in the role before his untimely death in a car crash. She appeared in a later Who story from the Peter Davison era, Warriors of the Deep (broadcast in 1984), in which she, along with the rest of the supporting cast, adopt a post New Romantic look. Unfortunately, this is Doctor Who at its very worst, a woeful attempt to revive both the Silurians and the Sea Devils, who had been dormant since the early Pertwee period. Ingrid does get to show off her karate chops, however (she was a black belt). It’s as good a way as any to tackle a would-be sea leviathan, the Sea Devil’s purportedly deadly pet the Myrka. It’s a monster which would shame a parish hall pantomime (or an episode from the William Hartnell years), and makes the giant rat hand puppet in The Talons of Weng-Chiang look like a masterpiece of terrifyingly authentic design. She went on to write a Who script herself, in collaboration with her husband. It used the mystery surrounding the supposed ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ carried out by the US Navy as its background. It never made it into production at the time, but has now emerged as an audio adventure, The Macros, in the Lost Stories series. Having made her Hammer and Amicus films, and appeared in The Wicker Man, Pitt went off to Switzerland to make the children’s TV series Ski Boy, a complete contrast to her previous roles. She also wrote a children’s book herself, Bertie the Bus, which falls squarely into the anthropomorphised vehicle category.

I also listened to Pitt’s audiobook recording of her autobiography Life’s A Scream. It’s an extraordinary story and a hugely affecting reading, in which she relives painful and horrific events from her wartime childhood. It must have been hard enough to write about these things, let alone to speak them aloud. The turbulent currents of emotion stirred up by such recollections are quite audible in her voice. The book opens with a trip to LA for a publicity event to promote the opening of the film Where Eagles Dare, in which she played the subsidiary (and this being an Alistair Maclean adaptation, all women’s roles would be subsidiary) but significant part of Heidi. Her description of the tawdry daylit world of LA, disguised I the neon-lit glamour of its nightside, and her clear-eyed appraisal of the movie industry’s sexism, as embodied in the new MGM head Bo Poke’s view of women as objects paraded to sell product, indicate from the outset that she’s not out to write a starstruck showbiz memoir. When the stereotypically crass Poke comes out with a crack about the Nazis being the biggest source of entertainment since Nero burned down Rome, a comment which turns out to be the cue for a ‘comedy’ Nazi in SS uniform and Hitler moustache to burst in and march about the room, Pitt stands up and walks out. The story of her childhood which follows shows just why (aside from her temperamental inability to defer to the power of moronic moguls or boneheaded bullies of any description) she was not prepared to put up with such a dismally distasteful display.

She had been born Ingrid Petrov in 1937 on a train which had crossed over the German border into Germany. Her parents were trying to flee the Nazi regime and make their way to England, where her father had lived for many years. Her father was German, of Russian descent, and a scientist wanted by the government to assist with work on military projects. Her mother was Polish, of Lithuanian Jewish descent, and therefore in considerable danger. Ingrid’s arrival was ill-timed, and meant that they were unable to get out of the country. They stayed with her mother’s parents in Bialystock, but the Nazis caught up with them in the end. They were herded into the trucks of a train bound for the concentration camp at Stutthof, where Ingrid and her mother were parted from her father. They were to spend the next three years in the camp, until the war came to an end in Poland with the advance of the Russian army. Ingrid’s detailing of the constant immediacy of death and abuse which they witnessed and suffered makes for a harrowing documentation of the experience of the camps. It is both personal and particular, and stands in for the suffering of so many which went unrecorded. Her reading in the audiobook adds a reference (absent from the book) to Primo Levi’s quote about the good ones having died in the camps, with the survivors being left with their guilt. She makes it clear at the end of the book that her survival was a matter of sheer chance. ‘I survived the hell,’ she wrote, ‘but hardly any one else did. Surviving doesn’t make one special – but it does make one extraordinarily lucky’. Her account of life in the camp comes partly from her own childhood recollections, but also from the memories which came pouring from her mother’s mind as it became dislocated from the present at the end of her (thankfully long-lived) life. She had never liked to talk about her experiences beforehand.

Ingrid spent a good deal of time in the kinderschuppen, or children’s hut. SS officers would come in from time to time and round up potential candidates for being raised in good Nazi households. She would appear to have been an ideal choice, being a pretty blonde-haired girl. But there had been an infestation of lice in the dormitory hut where she and her mother slept, and she had scratched her head until it was a tectonic landscape of scabs. The SS inspectors, noting such imperfection on closer inspection, turned to someone else instead. Ingrid came very close to death having caught an infection which caused a swelling on the side of her neck. Of course, no medical treatment was on offer in the camp. She was saved by a man named Peter Steiner, who had been a shoemaker before the war. He kept a knife hidden about his person, and used it to lance her wound. He later carved her a wooden Cossack doll with the knife. He was one of those unsung heroes of the war, who did their best to preserve life where they could. Such acts of selfless kindness would unquestionably have led to his death had they been discovered by the camp authorities. Later in the war, as reports of the Red Army’s advance began to filter through, the SS began to systematically round up the prisoners, hut by hut, to take to the gas chambers. Steiner once again rescued Ingrid, smuggling her out of the children’s hut when he received information that it was going to be the next to be ‘cleared’. Of course, very few had such brave and resourceful guardians to watch over them.



Eventually, the SS came to the hut where Ingrid and her mother awaited their fate. But instead of pushing them towards the gas chamber they marched them out of the camp and along the road outside. Those exhausted souls who were unable to keep up and fell by the wayside were shot where they lay. After a while, a plane flew low overhead and strafed this straggling line of guards and prisoners. Ingrid’s mother fell into a ditch by the side of the road, dragging her daughter down with her and lying atop her. She played dead, convincingly enough to persuade the SS guard who nudged her with the side of his boot that she had fallen victim to the plane’s bullets. They lay there for some time before escaping into the forest. Here, they came upon a couple of foraging partisans who agreed, reluctantly at first, to allow them to join their encampment, which was hidden in the heart of the woods. Ingrid recalls this period with a great deal of fondness as a time of romantic adventure, the woodland setting allowing her imagination to roam free. She became inseparable from a boy called Yuri, who joined her in her games and came to play a willing part in her imaginary world. ‘Forests for me will always mean Yuri and the partisans’, she later recalled. ‘Surely it was the best part of my childhood. The only time I remember without pain’. She had recently been working on an animated impression of her life in the forest with Bill Plympton, which hopefully should see the light next year, as you can see above.

After the war ended, Ingrid and her mother trudged across Europe on foot, from one displaced persons camp to another, trying to find any news of her father’s fate. They discovered that her grandparents, with whom they had found shelter in Bialystock, had perished in the camp at Treblinka. Finally, after much tribulation and near fatal illness, they made it to Berlin and the remains of their old house. They did have an emotional reunion with Ingrid’s father, whom they tracked down to an old college friend’s place. He too had spent the war in a camp, having refused to assist in developing new weapon systems. He had made his way back to Berlin at the end of the war, but had collapsed and found himself unable to remember his address. Worn out and physically diminished, he lived on for a further five years before passing away. During this precious remaining time, he took the young Ingrid to the cinema on many occasions, and she got it into her head that she wanted to be an actress.

Having been rejected at every turn and corner in her initial attempts to reach the stage, she decided to try the prestigious Berliner Ensemble, which had been set up after the war by Bertolt Brecht, and was now run by his widow, Helene Weigel. To her surprise, she was accepted. Weigel was perhaps won over by her brazen chutzpah, or maybe by her personal interpretation of Chekhov (she had grown up reading the Russian classics). Never one to keep her opinions to herself, Ingrid found herself in trouble with the volkspolizei, the East German police force which doubled as an ideological enforcement army. Having narrowly escaped their clutches once, thanks to Weigel’s timely intervention and plea of mental instability on her behalf, she was informed that they were after her once more. She was waiting to go on stage for her first major role with the Ensemble at the time, playing Kattrin in Brecht’s Mother Courage. The police were sitting in the front row to enjoy her performance before arresting her. Casting aside her big moment, she fled in full-skirted theatrical costume. She was soon cornered by the police in the streets outside, and made a desperate dive through an adjacent hedge. This turned out to be bordering a steep slope which sent her tumbling down into the icy waters of the River Spree. She was swept along by the currents and struggled to stay afloat, managing to summon a last surge of energy and kick her way to the concrete shore. She lacked the strength to pull herself out of the river, but an American GI happened upon her and reached down to pull her out. He and a friend took her to recuperate in a local brothel, where the prostitutes treated her with great solicitude. A few days later, her rescuer came to visit her at her mother’s flat, and not long thereafter, they were married. He was lieutenant Pitt, and so she became Ingrid Pitt.

There is much further incident in the book, all of it involving and well-observed. Pitt writes well, and did indeed publish a number of novels in her lifetime. She also wrote scripts, articles and magazine columns. Her East European Jewish roots show through in her fondness for the Yiddish word ‘schlep’ (as in ‘I schlepped my suitcase up the stairs’). Her familiarity with English idioms (she lived in England for the greater part of her adult life) comes through in her use of such phrases as ‘shanks’ pony’. The earlier half of the book is undoubtedly the most powerful, however. As, given the events it relates, it could hardly fail to be.

Ingrid and the boys (and Mary Ure)
There are small passages of film star anecdotage scattered throughout. Richard Burton comes on to her, arousing the catty ire of Elizabeth Taylor. John Wayne irritates her by calling her ‘little lady’, making her mad enough to join the poker game in which he is engaged with some buddies. This is a particularly ill-informed decision since she has very little money and even less expertise in a game whose rules she has only been shown a few weeks before. Orson Welles proves to be a huge disappointment, treating her with contemptuous rudeness after she has expressed her genuine admiration for his work, and making a slobbering, drunken advance. She learns karate with the teacher who is instructing Elvis, and has a few practice bouts with the King. Peter Cushing provides the most touching story, dating from the time when he was starring alongside her in The Vampire Lovers. He had discovered that it would have been her father’s 100th birthday (she had brought champagne onto the set to toast him). He and his wife Helen invited her out for an evening meal. After they had finished, a cake was brought out with the words ‘For Ingrid’s Papa’ written on top. Such a lovely gesture of simple kindness. Ingrid found out that Helen knew Russian, and they used to write short letters to each other in the language. Alas, their friendship was cut short by Helen’s premature death, which so utterly devastated poor Peter.

Ingrid also fell into an ill-starred relationship with George Pinches, a very powerful man in the British film industry. He was the booker for the Rank cinema chain, which was then dominant in the country. Finding herself in trouble over obtaining a work permit, and facing possible deportation in the near future, she accepted his apparently sincere offer of a marriage of convenience. This would allow her to stay in the country, and him to have a companion to accompany him to film premieres and other gala events which a man in his position was expected to attend. Outside of these obligations, they would lead entirely separate lives. He proved to be considerably less amenable once the certificates were signed, and became extremely possessive. He seems to have been one of those people who embodied the overlapping of the networks of the post war British film industry and the criminal underworld. They were close in more terms than just their physical proximity along the narrow alleyways of Soho. He appears to have been a genuinely unpleasant man (although admittedly Pitt may not be the most objective of judges here), who nobody liked but all feared. He made good on his promise to wreck her career should she stand up to him. She lost many film roles as a result.

But the book is not about showbiz stories, and indeed, most of these are comfortably excised from the audiobook abridgement. At its heart are her enduring love for her mother (and father, in the brief time she was able to spend with him), her daughter Steffanie (or Steffka), and later, her husband Anthony Rudkin (whom she insists on Latinizing as Tonio). The rest is just set dressing. It is through them, and through her own fortitude, that she is able to partially overcome the mental scars of a childhood in which she was classed as one of the untermenschen, or non-people. The book ends, after she has come through a second bout of cancer (her attitude to which was ‘the Nazi’s didn’t get me and a bunch of fucking cancer cells wouldn’t either’), with an uplifting affirmation of life as constant blessing. ‘I love every day’, she wrote. ‘But then I always have done. The sun or the rain, cold or stifling heat. I love the moon and the stars, the dark nights with wind blowing around the house, telling tales of goblins and gnomes and demons and elves rushing through the park – just like that Polish forest, lifetimes ago’. I hope that she sustained such a feeling of joy until the end.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Lee Miller

Part Two - The War and After

n.b. Lee Miller's photographs are under copyright, but many of those discussed here can be found online at the Lee Miller Archive

After the invasion of Normandy, Withers sent an eager Miller to report for Vogue on the progress of the war on the continent (she had been accredited as an US army war correspondent in 1942). Her war coverage would prove to be an apotheosis for Lee, both professionally and personally. Her photos act both as documentation and as a revealing view of the effect of conflict on the individual. The camera is not a shield, so these images marked her as they passed through the lens and were developed and magnified in the mind’s eye. She also accompanied her photos with her own reportage, writing from the frontline, which combined her sharp eye for detail with a good deal of highly perceptive analysis of what she saw around her. This included a frank account of her own emotional responses, which gave her pieces an intense and personally revealing charge. She began in the field hospitals of Normandy, focussing on the work of nurses and doctors in the medical tents, and the patients whom they were treating. One of the earliest pictures is of a soldier how had suffered extensive burn injuries. He looks strangely and inappropriately jolly, black slits for eyes and nose, and a cartoon smile for a mouth in the round balloon of bandages which inflates his head, and which turns his hands into soft boxing paws. She reported that ‘a bad burns case asked me to take his picture as he wanted to see how funny he looked’. She added ‘it was pretty grim and I didn’t focus too good’. He died shortly thereafter. The blurred focus acts as an expression of her shock, of the sudden sense of dizzy disjuncture felt upon being plunged into a zone of conflict.

Lee then moved on to join the battalion HQ of the 83rd Infantry at St Malo, which had reportedly been liberated. This proved not to be the case. There were still pockets of German soldiers defending the town. She was now reporting from the frontline of a war in progress. With her photograph of billowing masses of smoke enveloping the town across the bay like a volcanic ash cloud, darkly framed through an upstairs window, she had inadvertently captured an image of one of the first ever uses of napalm bombs. In St Malo, she met up with David Scherman, who was there as a photographer for Life Magazine. They would continue to meet and journey together across the chaos of Europe throughout the rest of the war. As they progressed through Rennes, she witnessed the humiliation meted out to those judged to have been collaborators. Her picture and description of the event display a pitiless distance from the young women involved and a ruthless objectivity in pursuit of capturing the image. ‘In Rennes today’, she wrote in a letter to Audrey Withers, ‘I went to a chastisement of French collaborators – the girls had their hair shaved although the interrogation had merely confirmed that there was evidence enough for their trial later on. They were stupid little girls – not intelligent enough to feel ashamed’. Her photo of them shows their faces fixed in blank masks of stoical endurance as the crowds hustle and jeer them along. It’s difficult not to feel some pity for them. Even if Miller, caught up in the heightened (or deadened) emotional responses of wartime, would deny them any compassion, her objective eye offers the possibility of such a response from the viewer, even with the knowledge of their actions.

Lee arrived in Paris to record scenes of wild celebration following its liberation. She looked up old friends to check that they were still alive and well, and took their pictures to testify to their endurance. Jean Cocteau looks dapper and relaxed, leaning against the wall amongst the barred shadows of the Palais Royal Arcade. In another picture, Jean Marais leans out of the window of the apartment he shared with Cocteau, flashing a winning smile at a cluster of young female admirers. Miller visited Colette in a neighbouring apartment in the Palais Royal and wrote a characterful profile to accompany her pictures. She also photographed Maurice Chevalier, elegant and unruffled on the balcony of Louis Aragon’s flat, freshly cleared of all accusations of collaboration. She had an emotional re-union with Picasso, who was portrayed standing amongst his paintings in his studio. Marlene Dietrich is shown seated on the floor, her stylish evening coat pooled in artfully disarrayed folds around her. Miller also took a series of pictures for an article entitled Paris Under Snow. These brought her surrealist eye into focus once more, showing statues given new contours and features by their mantles of snow. Her bawdy sense of humour comes out in her picture of an outdoor lavatory, with offputting public information posters about syphilis posted to its entrance. There’s also a shot of her own balcony outside the room at the Hotel Scribe in which she was based. Champagne bottles and jerry cans are stood in incongruous juxtaposition against the iron grillwork. There is a jerry can shaped declivity in the snow. Lee may have taken command of the one which she kept filled with a try-it-and-see cocktail of whatever alcohol had been ‘liberated’ from cellars along the way. Fuel for the road.

Her impressions and feelings whilst travelling through Luxembourg go towards making up one of her most profoundly insightful Vogue articles on the psychology of war, which was published under the title Patterns of Liberation. In this piece she attempts to describe the difficulties of adjusting to liberty, of starting the shift away from what had become ingrained patterns of thought and behaviour. She wrote to Audrey Withers, describing her assessment of the mental state of those she came across. Her conclusions might indicate that the shock of war was causing her to delve into her own psyche and conjure up some long dormant demons. ‘There were no visible signs or changes in manner’, she wrote, ‘but none the less they are ill – some kind of hidden and devitalizing microbe. The mental malnutrition of the last four years has sapped their strength’. In her article, she makes the point that liberation does not provide an instant solution to ongoing problems, and may indeed resurrect old, or create entirely new ones. ‘The pattern of liberation is not decorative’, she observes. ‘There are the gay squiggles of wine and song. There is the beautiful overall colour of freedom but there is ruin and destruction. There are problems and mistakes, disappointed hopes and broken promises. There is wishful thinking and inefficiency. There is Military Expediency. There is grogginess like after a siesta, a sleeping-beauty lethargy’. She notices the way in which language becomes expedient and adaptable during such inbetween times, hearing one of the American soldiers, upon seeing a medieval ruin, ask ‘well, I wonder who liberated that!’ This leads her to the realisation that ‘the word was bound to degenerate. Now we liberate a church when we wreck it, we liberate a bottle of brandy when we beat down a mercenary publican, we liberate a girl when we detach her from her chaperon. We liberate like we win or swipe a packet of cigarettes, or my field glasses, for instance. I got liberated last night, means I went on a particularly super drunk’.

The photograph Young Evacuee perfectly sums up the stunned confusion following the ending of occupation and the sudden cessation of conflict. A small boy with a satchel on his back sits on a pile of sacks and packing cases, as if he is just another piece of luggage. Temporary signs, quickly knocked up, point in each direction behind him. This makes him look even more lost, stuck at a junction with no idea of which way to go. His face wears an expression of weary anxiety which has a look of habitual fixity. Miller moved on from this area of uneasy liberated stasis awaiting new signs towards a more certain future. She marched with the army through the bleak wintry landscape of Alsace, icy, snow-slushed roads winding through bare woodland and the wreckage of towns. A picture of the bombed out ruins of a church, amongst the rubbled mounds of which ‘a small group of nuns clawed…searching for their padre’, is a particularly powerful depiction of the fresh destruction and accompanying human loss and confusion which she came across.

Lee received clearance to continue into Germany. From here on, her reports began to become increasingly anti-German in tone. As the Life photographer John Phillips, whom she met later in Hungary put it, ‘she hated the fascists – we were all anti-Nazi, but the strength of her hatred was unusual’. There is a barely suppressed fury, a violent rage expressed through visceral loathing (and no doubt voiced at the time with the wider vocabulary of profanity in which she was well versed and with which she could let loose outside the constraints of magazine publishing), which makes her pieces convey a powerful sense of immediacy to this day. She begins her first article from Germany by describing it as ‘a beautiful landscape dotted with jewel-like villages, blotched with ruined cities, and inhabited by schizophrenics’. As she travelled through the ruins of Cologne and Frankfurt, she continued to frame startling images of ruin. The iron grillwork of the Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne forms a pattern of geometrical order which belies the fact that its central span lies in a collapsed tangle in the river beyond. In the bombed chemical plant of Ludwigshaven, the dislodged storage tanks lie cradled amongst the jagged tangle of pipes and gantries as if they themselves were the missiles which had wrought such destruction.

But it is Miller’s pictures of people from this period which are some of the defining images of the end days of the war. She records the suicides of the family of the Burgomaster of Leipzig, all looking peaceful, as if they had posed themselves for just such a post-mortem photo. These portraits of easeful, almost ecstatic death represent a perversion of German Romanticism. The soul has turned inwards and become infected with a corrupting morbidity, more in love with death than life. Miller’s fascination with the ruins of gothic churches and cathedrals make up a further composite allegorical portrait of the wreckage of the German romantic soul. In her article accompanying this tableau of death, Lee memorably describes the daughter: ‘leaning back on the sofa is a girl with extraordinarily pretty teeth, waxen and dusty. Her nurse’s uniform is sprinkled with plaster from the battle for the city hall which raged outside after their deaths’. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of some of Man Ray’s photographs of Lee herself sleeping. She arrived in Buchenwald some days after it had been liberated. The inmates here had been granted no such decorous and pictorial ends. She photographed an SS guard who had tried to disguise himself as a prisoner. He had been recognised and beaten. He stares directly into Lee’s lense, his face bloody, wide-eyed and blank with animal fear. You almost feel as if she has added a few blows herself. Another guard is shown hanging from a radiator. She remarks that ‘he was taken out on a stretcher, stripped and thrown on a heap of bony cadavers where he looked shockingly big, the well fed bastard’. Such savage feelings, no matter how immediate, honest and well justified, feel like they might also be reaching back into the past, to memories of abuse, and spitting out long accumulated reserves of bile. It’s invidious to think of war in terms of personal therapy, but any extreme experience is liable to shake the elements of an individual’s psyche into new kaleidoscopic configurations.

Miller joined up with David Scherman again as US forces met with the Red Army at Torgau. They travelled together to Dachau, where Miller confronted the full horrors of the camp there, which were more evident than they had been at Buchenwald since it had been liberated only the previous day. She pictured the bodies piled up in the long stationary train stretching towards the camp with an artistic, ordering eye which some have found inappropriate. But these were the first time many people were confronted with these images, and such an imposition of visual order and language made them more readily comprehensible. Her carefully composed shots have nothing of the blurred sense of shock found in her earlier picture of the burns victim. These pictures place soldiers as witnesses to these appalling scenes of amassed dead bodies, standing in for the stunned viewer. Miller realised the importance of creating an indisputable record of scenes which would be scarcely believable back in the USA. The article in the US edition of Vogue in which they appeared featured her subtitle, in bold lettering, Believe It! The UK edition, focussed on victory, didn’t publish these pictures, including only one close-up of skeletal bodies stacked atop one another in Buchenwald, filling the entire frame as if part of a mountainous slope.

Lee and David went on to Munich, where Hitler’s former home was now the command post of a US regiment. It was here that Scherman took an astonishing and genuinely iconic picture which is filled with immense symbolic power, Lee Miller in Hitler’s Bathtub. She sits looking wearily out, to the side rather than directly at the camera, looking lost in thought. A small portrait of Hitler rests on the rim of the tub, and a commonplace nude statuette on the bathside table opposite. Its pose echoes her own in a photo Man Ray had taken of her a decade or so previously. She looks at it as if realising this and contemplating its meaning. She represents the life force set against the death impulse which has infected the German soul. Sitting in the bath in Hitler’s house (and water is traditionally viewed as an archetypally female element), she has occupied the inner sanctum of the country, its hidden core. Here she sits, a female presence at the heart of the masculine endeavour of war. The picture, taken by her sometime lover David Scherman, is a celebration of the body in the face of its desecration and systematic decimation. Lee’s presence, exhausted but unbowed, is a symbolic gesture of defiance in the face of the repression and self-hatred inherent in the urge towards fascism. Such conventional notions of femininity represented by the nude are counterbalanced by the heavy combat boots, in which Lee had trudged across Europe, standing on the bath mat beneath her bare arched back. The mat is filthy, as if she had wiped them thoroughly on it before taking them off. As she put it in a later interview, ‘I even washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub’. Lee also looked around Eva Braun’s apartment, noting the objects and décor which reflected a life ended in suicide mere days previously. They both went to Berchtesharden, where they witnessed the burning of Hitler’s cabin, set aflame by SS guards who then fled into the surrounding mountains. They both took their pick of memorabilia, the personal effects which she referred to in her article as Hitleriana. Lee took a fancy silver tray etched with the initials AH.

Miller continued to travel through Europe after the war was over, observing the continuing chaos, the course of justice, and the opportunistic profiteering and political manoeuvring which was played out amongst the ruins. She was present for the trial of Marshal Petain, the head of Vichy France, in Paris. Her picture of an emaciated child, a tiny figure amongst the white folds of a Viennese hospital bed, is a heartwrenching image, a depiction of the true effects of war. As she wrote to Audrey Withers, ‘there was nothing to do. In this beautiful children’s hospital with its nursery-rhymed walls and screenless windows, with its clean white beds, its brilliant surgical instruments and empty drug cupboards there was nothing to do but watch him die’. Her photograph of the dying child inspired (if that’s the right word) Graham Greene as he was writing the screenplay for The Third Man. This is the human face of the tiny dots which the blackmarket profiteer Harry Lime points out from the top of the carousel, the face from which he and those whom he represents found it all too easy to distance themselves. Miller’s picture of the soprano Irmgard Seefried posed in dramatic silhouette against the wreckage of the Vienna Opera House as she sings an aria from Madame Butterfly is an image of the human spirit continuing to find a voice. Art offering some hope for renewal.

Miller travelled on through Hungary and Romania, photographing peasants and nobility alike. She took a dramatic picture of the execution of Laszlo Bardossy, the ex-prime minister of Hungary. He stands up straight against a neatly stacked wall of sandbags on a roadside pavement, the rifles of the four man firing squad pointing in at him just a few feet away. To the side, a priest and a small crowd of craning faces bear witness to his death in the early dawn light. She also visited King Michael of Romania, who had acted as the head of the anti-Nazi coalition which had ousted General Antonescu’s fascist government in 1944. She photographed his mother, Helen, leaning on the balcony of the summer palace. With its dark and mysterious spaces, twisting wrough-iron starircases, baroque weaves of balconies and balustrades, and sculpted heads looking on from all directions, this could be the interior of the beast’s castle from Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, a timeless world unto itself. It was a huge place, expansive enough for King Michael, no respecter of hallowed tradition, to drive his jeep down the stairs. Naturally, Lee got on with him, and with his resourceful mother too.

In Bucharest, she met once again with Maritza Lataretu, a Gypsy singer whom she had met on previous travels. The gypsies had returned to the cities once more, now that the fascists were no longer in power. Lee availed herself of one of their unique services, a bear massage. As she wrote, ‘the bear knew her business. She walked up and down my back on all fours as gently as if on eggs’. It was a mark of the fearlessness of this bold adventuress that she actively sought out a form of relaxation which involved being sat upon by a bear. The adventures were about to be brought to a halt, however, as she received a letter from Roland Penrose which was couched in the form of an ultimatum. Having given her the freedom to do as she wished within their relationship, he had now decided that enough was enough. He was currently living with a young art restorer by the name of Gigi, and intimated that this might be turning into a permanent arrangement in her continued absence. Needing some sense of underlying stability, she decided to return to England and attempt to patch things up. For a time, this involved living alongside Gigi in the house at Hampstead. Penrose seemed to find this an amenable set up, but Gigi eventually decided that it would be better if she left.

The work for Vogue continued, but Miller no longer felt any real involvement in it. The resumption of fashion and celebrity shots couldn’t seem like anything other than an anti-climax, a retreat into distracting triviality. She continued to produce some fine personal portraits of artistic friends however, such as those of Max Ernst and his wife, the surrealist artist Dorothea Tanning, and Man Ray and his wife, the dancer Juliet Browner, in their new homes in America. In 1947 she became pregnant, and she and Penrose married, Aziz having granted her an instant and unquestioning divorce. Before she went into hospital to have a caesarean birth, she wrote a letter which amounted to summation of her attitude to life, set down in the event of her death. ‘I keep saying to everyone, I didn’t waste a minute, all my life – I had a wonderful time, but I know, myself, now, that if I had it over again I’d be even more free with my ideas, with my body and my affection. Above all, I’d try to find some way of breaking down, through the silence which imposes itself on me in matters of sentiment’. She gave birth to a boy, Antony. It couldn’t be said that she was a natural mother. It wasn’t a role to which she was ideally suited. When she fell pregnant, she had written in no uncertain terms ‘my work room is not going to be a nursery’. Antony would remember his nanny Patsy Murray as a closer presence during his childhood than his mother (or, for that matter, his father).

Roland Penrose, meanwhile, was busy making a steady ascent towards the pinnacle of the art world hierarchy. He established the ICA (the Institute for Contemporary Arts) in Fitzroy Street (it would move to its current premises in The Mall at a later date) in 1948. The following year, he realised another dream, that of becoming a gentleman farmer, moving to a big country house from which he could take on a leading role in the local squirearchy. He chose a place called Farley Farm, near the village of Chiddingly in Sussex, a short drive from Lewes and therefore within easy reach of London. Lee’s attitude to the prospect of a rural lifestyle was pithily summed up in her remark ‘fuck living in the country’. She went along with him, nevertheless. In the years to come, she would appear to many to be little more than an adjunct to his ambitions. A lot of the fight seemed to have gone out of her. Not that she wasn’t capable of raising sheer hell at home.

She found work increasingly difficult and felt aimless and depressed, a state of mind which led to her taking solace in the bottle. Penrose didn’t seem to care. She never told him about her experiences at Buchenwald or Dachau, just as she never told him about her childhood abuse. Perhaps he just never took the trouble to find out. He was frequently more occupied with a series of young lovers. He was a post-war art world Ronnie Wood or Rod Stewart, clinging on to an endlessly prolonged bohemian adolescence, refusing to accept any personal responsibility. A high culture sugar daddy inviting a succession of impressionable young women to come up and see his Picassos. At one point, he fell for a Parisian trapeze artist named Diane Deriaz (you really couldn’t make it up) and tried to get her to marry him, but she was having none of it. Farley Farm was thrown open to all their artistic friends, with Lee expected to play host. Penrose had no patience with her mood swings, and no notion that there might be serious emotional troubles causing such turbulent behaviour. He even wrote to Audrey Withers at Vogue asking her not to offer her any more work. ‘I implore you’, he implored, ‘please do not ask Lee to write again. The suffering it causes her and those around her is unbearable’. He was effectively trying to draw the curtain down on her career. His surreptitious intervention also effectively put an end to a close and long-lasting personal and professional relationship. Withers let Miller know that there would always be an opening for her at the magazine whilst she was in charge, however. Unsurprisingly, Miller was absolutely furious when she discovered what her husband had done. She realised that she was effectively being put in her place. But she no longer had the energy to resist with anything more permanent than a display of foul temper. Her last article for Vogue was published in July 1953. Entitled Working Guests, it showcased photographs she had taken of various renowned artists and prominent figures in the artistic establishment, all of whom had been put to work doing tasks of manual labour around the farm. Lee made no distinction between the visitors to the farm as regarded their social status, treating all as equals, whether they were the local gardeners or the head of some national artistic institution. In the last photo, she herself was shown enjoying a nap inside on the sofa.

Roland Penrose rose steadily in the ranks of the English establishment, as befitted the scion of a rich banking family, dalliance with revolutionary artistic credos notwithstanding. He was awarded a CBE in 1961, and in 1966 became a knight of the realm. Miller therefore became a lady to his sir. She viewed the whole thing with great amusement and refused to take it seriously, insisting that she be known as Lady Lee. In 1960, Penrose curated a Picasso exhibition at the Tate Gallery, for which a fund-raising Picasso Party was held at the ICA. Miller wrote an article for the accompanying brochure entitled Picasso Himself, which drew on personal insights gained from her longstanding friendship with the artist. She sat next to Prince Philip at the party, with whom she apparently got on very well. Blunt speakers both. She wasn’t invited to the Tate opening, however, since it was feared she might say something inappropriate to Her Majesty. A shame, since she could have given her a showing to really remember.

Back at the farm, Penrose filled the house with his art collection and works of his own, with sculptures scattered around the garden. Lee’s pictures and negatives gathered dust in boxes in the attic. Denied artistic outlets, she threw herself into the running of the house, and in particular to the creative environs of the kitchen. Her highly individual dishes sometimes displayed a provocative side which expressed her irrepressible character. She reacted to one guest’s snobbery about everyday American food by whipping up a marsmallow and coca-cola ice-cream, the ingredients of which she revealed to him after he had declared how much he’d enjoyed it (a generous apportionment of rum may have helped). You can find the recipe for it at the back of Carolyn Burke’s biography of Miller. Another dish was known as Muddle Green Green Chicken, which was indeed green, thanks to its heavy concentrations of celery, parsley and leeks. The kitchen became a warm haven for some of the genuinely unconventional guests at Farley Farm, such as the artist John Craxton. He joined her in her culinary explorations, and became a good friend. She still took photographs ofv visitors for personal pleasure. Her picture of the New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg seeming to have just finished sketching the Long Man of Wilmington on the Sussex Downs is especially witty and inventive. She always got her camera out when Picasso was visiting, and her pictures of him form a fine informal record of this most famous of twentieth century artists through the years.

Lee conquered her dependence on alcohol and continued to travel the world in her later years, although she resolutely refused to explore the countryside around the farm, sticking firmly to her initial dictum. She always favoured more exotic climes, and was more a creature of the city. It seems strange that she became stranded in the confines of the Sussex Downs, in damp and chilly England, for the latter part of her life. She died in 1977. Her son, Antony, discovered more about her after her death than he had known during her lifetime. He sorted through her long-unseen photographs and worked towards producing the biographical volume The Live of Lee Miller, enjoying the benefits of a close consultation with David Scherman. Antony Penrose did much to resurrect his mother’s reputation. It could be said that this now eclipses that of her husband, Roland Penrose, much as Gwen John’s reputation posthumously eclipsed that of her brother Augustus John. Penrose now regularly conducts tours of Farley Farm, which now features Miller’s work hanging prominently alongside her husband’s, and holding its own amongst the illustrious company of his collection of twentieth century art. David Scherman wrote the introduction to the volume of war photography and reportage which Antony Penrose edited, Lee Miller’s War. His final sentence provides his own personal and heartfelt summation of a life well-lived: ‘She was the nearest thing I knew to a mid-20th century renaissance woman. In the less grandiose but perhaps more appropriate pop culture patois of her native land, she was a mensch’.

There are a number of good books about Lee Miller which are available in Exeter library, if you happen to live in Devon (and remember, you can always use the inter-library loan system). Or maybe they’re in your own libraries if you live elsewhere.
I’ve got out (but will soon be returning):
The Live of Lee Miller by Antony Penrose
Lee Miller: Portraits From a Life by Richard Calvocoressi
Lee Miller by Carolyn Burke
Lee Miller’s War edited by Antony Penrose with a foreword by David Scherman
The Home of the Surrealists: Lee Miller, Roland Penrose and their Circle at Farley Farm by Antony Penrose