Monday, 12 April 2010

Beautiful Buttons and Camden Town Nights

Girl at a Window, Little Rachel 1907

We took a day trip to Cambridge during our Easter visit to the in-laws, and went to see a couple of exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam Museum. The first was a selection of paintings by Stanley Spencer, John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert. The first two don’t really interest me much, but I find Sickert’s offhand glimpses of interior London lives more engaging. These paintings could be seen as a kind of post-impressionism. Sickert was much influenced by Degas, whom he went to Paris to meet. Like him, he painted scenes of the Parisian stage, although he characteristically chose to focus on more popular entertainments like the music hall and the circus rather than Degas’ more decorous back-stage ballet subjects. If Sickert’s late nineteenth century music hall paintings and Edwardian Camden Town interiors are in any way post-impressionist, then it is in a peculiarly English fashion. Rather than the warm colours of the French painters, we are in a world of dull and muted tones. Light comes in weakly through grimy windows and faces are lit by gaslight or the harsher glare of theatrical limelight. It’s an urban impressionism for an island with a predominantly overcast climate, the momentary effects of light merely serving to further illuminate the surrounding drabness. These paintings are certainly impressionist in the sense of capturing a moment of lived life, however. Hints of colour take on an exaggerated importance, life asserting itself amidst the dull drudgery of poverty. The sun catching the red hair of the young girl Rachel Siderman whom Sickert painted several times in 1907 seems to illuminate her inner world in these contemplative portraits. The painting in the exhibition was actually Little Rachel at the Mirror rather than the picture above, and seemed to capture a bellow of smoke from a train passing by outside Sickert’s Mornington Crescent house, in this area enmeshed by railway lines.

The ghost of Marie Lloyd sings

The Old Bedford, 1894-5

Up in the gallery

Noctes Ambrosianae, 1906
James Mason returns to this area in 1967 in his role as the guide in the film The London Nobody Knows, based on Geoffrey Fletcher’s book. After an introductory glide past construction sites and half or freshly built high-rise office blocks, which indicates the new London which was being erected upon the ruins of the old, we first encounter the urbane Mason as he descends the steps of the Bedford Theatre. He reminisces about how this used to be the favourite venue of probably the greatest music hall star, Marie Lloyd. ‘Now it’s just a mess’, he observes, glancing at the crumbling cupids and drooping plaster rosettes around him. We hear a ghostly echo of ‘The Boy I Love is up in the Gallery’ as the camera dwells on the pitiful ruins which remain. It’s not even a good shelter for pigeons and tramps, Mason adds, because ‘there’s a bloody great hole in the roof’. This was the theatre where Sickert came to sketch scenes which he later turned into his paintings of performers isolated on the stage or audiences up in the galleries stretching over the balconies to get a better view. Mason relates with a certain grim relish how one Belle Elmore also sang here, before later becoming the victim of Dr Crippen, whom she had the misfortune to marry. Sickert himself became posthumously mired in one of the more implausible tributaries of the ever-widening catchment of Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories when Patricia Cornwell put him forward as a new suspect. He plays a small role in Alan Moore’s panaroma of Victorian society which centres around the Ripper murders, From Hell, but Moore (who is not interested in identifying the murderer, anyway) clearly has no truck with such tenuous speculations. Sickert’s paintings of the Bedford are largely of the theatre as it existed before it suffered extensive fire damage and was opened again as The New Bedford in 1899. The atmosphere of the ruins through which Mason ruefully picks, occasionally casting aside a bit of debris with his umbrella, must have been largely the same, though. Like much of the Victorian London whose last traces this film lovingly lingers over, it’s now gone. The bright lights of the White Heat of modernity banished the shadowy interiors of Sickert’s London.

Ashinaga and Tenaga
Also in the Fitzwilliam, there was an exhibition of Japanese Netsuke. These are tiny carvings which served the functional purpose of holding up the sashes from which pouches, boxes or personal items were suspended in traditional Japanese dress, which didn’t incorporate pockets. These grew from initially utilitarian designs into fantastic and beautifully carved items, works of art deriving from mere sartorially necessity. They were also a means of self-expression (and an indicator of prestige) within a dress code constrained by the dictates of the government bureaucracy (or Bakufu) of the Edo period, rather like a businessman or male newsreader wearing a colourful or extravagantly patterned tie. The contained explosion of the creative imagination which these objects embody gives the impression of an art which is almost surreptitious and furtive in its tiny scale. For those who sported them, it perhaps felt like a small act of rebellion against the overbearing strictures of a heavily formalised society; Something akin to wearing a brightly coloured badge on your school uniform.

Tenaga catches an octopus - comic business to ensue
Netsuke were generally carved from ivory, wood or antler and they embody a wide range of subjects, from animals and insects, through religious figures and noh masks, to mythical beasts, demons and gods. It’s lovely to see how funny and rambunctiously whimsical a lot of them are. One of my favourites was the twinned figures of Ashinaga, or long legs, and Tenaga, or long arms. These were two mythical characters, fishermen who lived by the shore, and combined their curious anatomical features to good, symbiotic effect. Ashinaga would wade out to sea with his long, spindly legs whilst Tenaga would ride on his back and reach down with his long arms to scoop up fish. They seemed to have regular problems with octopuses, though (ok, octopi, if you want to get picky), which, as Captain Beefheart observed (talking about squids, but the principle is the same) are fast and bulbous (even when not in a polyethylene bag). Such antics once more demonstrate the universal delight which people have always taken in simple and effective slapstick.

Giving a ride to a witch
Another of the netsuke on display depicted the warrior Omori Hikoshichi carrying what he believed to be a beautiful young woman across a river. On seeing her reflection in the water, however, he realises that he’s saddled himself in a rather literal sense with an evil witch. A strikingly similar scenario is played, but in reverse, in the 1967 Russian film Viy, which takes its story from a Ukrainian folk tale. Here, the feckless monk who is the film’s central character finds himself being ridden across the sky (with effects courtesy of Alexsandr Ptushko) by an ancient witch, only to find her transformed into a beautiful woman when he wakes from his trance upon landing. There is evidently a certain underlying universality which unites folk tales from widely differing cultures.

Drunken wasp
The observation of nature found in many of these netsuke is also astonishing. These are pieces which would rival the finest Victorian botanical illustrator or wildlife artist. Carvers seemed to take a particular interest in odd sea creatures such as turtles and octopuses (octopi!); natural enough for an island race surrounded by the ocean. Insects also seem a popular subject, their intricate form perhaps presenting a challenge to the artist. Or maybe just giving the opportunity to work to scale. The netsuke of a wasp eating a pear, which we can see is soft and overripe, is wonderful, and maybe plays to the Japanese love of evoking the atmosphere of a particular seasonal moment. These tiny carvings, whose details you have to lean close to take in, are a great example of how beauty can arise from the most mundanely utilitarian origins. The imagination really does take root and flower in some of the most unusual and unpromising places.

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