Thursday, 28 July 2011

I'll Be Your Mirror at Alexandra Palace


The I’ll Be Your Mirror festival at Alexandra Palace takes its name from a Velvet Underground song sung by Nico which formed the b-side to the All Tomorrow’s Parties single, and this is indeed an offshoot of the ATP weekends. This differed in that it was a non-accommodation, city-based event, with people attending on either or both days as they pleased. The I’ll Be Your Mirror title provided an apposite rubric, with the Warhol association pointing to the multiform nature of the weekend. Film and art complemented and combined with the music, and there was a strong visual element running through many of the performances. The silver balloons and fringed foil curtains, and the black and white chequered backdrop in the small Panorama Room (named on account of the stunning views over London which it afforded) were a nod to the style and party accessories of Warhol’s Factory. There were no violas present, but there were quite a few violins, cellos and double basses, often played in a minimalist droning style owing a debt to John Cale (and Tony Conrad). An alternative heading for the weekend could have been The Festival of Doom (even boasting a performer of that name). The predominant tone was dark, the bands and performers preoccupied with war and its fallout, the abuse of power (personal and political), desperate masculine posturing, depression and angst, the alchemical quest for base reality, and death. All of which was rather incongruous in the setting of a hall soaked with sunshine, which poured through the huge rose window at the end of the grand Great Hall, illuminating arches painted with pastel Romanesque décor. Even the black sound-baffle curtains couldn’t block out the light from the bright world beyond. You could also wander out into the surrounding parkland and sit amongst the families and friends of all backgrounds playing and lounging about in the balmy afternoon and early evening, thus precluding an unhealthy wallowing in gloom.

Having said which, the first act on Saturday in the medium-sized West Hall (which was shut off from the light) was The London Snorkelling Team, an enjoyable mix of highly accomplished jazz which mixed the music hall with the modern , and wilfully amateurish animations using an old overhead projector and cut out transparencies. This was the first indication of the multi-media aspect of performances which was to predominate over the weekend. The London Snorkelling Team, who were ‘supervised’ by a lab-coated boffin with lilting Irish brogue (they were all supposedly scientists of one sort or another), played within the fictional framework of a broadcast from an imaginary island, an absurdist locale conforming to its own self-contained anti-logic and seemingly governed by complete idiots. Mini narratives recreating Psycho or following a slapstick day in the life of a hapless Einstein were played out on the overhead projector with speech bubbles and cut outs pushed about as needed, all accompanied by a more or less frantic soundtrack. The humour was best when least forced, and when linking in to the music. Particularly effective was the shakily marker-penned sound-mix desk projected onto the screen, whose faders – pieces of paper pushed up and down by an intrusive pen - seemingly caused the instruments which they purported to control to grow louder or quieter. A live mix and a genuinely absorbing piece of comic conduction.

Helen Money, in the more intimate Panorama Room, performed an impressive set in which she attacked her cello as if it were an electric guitar, strafing it with plectrum power chords in a horizontal variant on Pete Townshend’s windmill thrash. Her gestures reminded me of the sawing swing made by Jacques Tati as a preparation to his tennis serves in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and produced similarly dynamic results. Also using heavy, abrasive bowing she used the full array of echo, looping and distortion effects to build up a layered mass of sound which had considerable force. It was a complete disruption of the instrument’s usual associations with wistful mournfulness (and often tragic femininity). I caught a small sample of the end of the DD/MM/YYYY set back in the West Hall, and sensed that a sample was probably a specimen of the whole, given the complexity of this one song. They played a stuttering, restless post-punk pop of constantly shifting surfaces whose sounds echoed the primitive electronic chirps and blips of old gaming arcades, with a similar feel of everything colliding, overlapping and clashing. The music was given visual form by the skipping, freezing and scrolling projections, which seemed to ape a poor quality or frequently viewed video broadcast.

Outside in the adjacent rose garden, DJ78 was spinning the discs on his twin decks, two vintage wind-up gramophones. He was a picture of urbanity in his formal evening attire, occasionally making an adjustment to his cufflinks and nodding along with a smile of contentment to the songs he played on his old 78s: vintage jazz, The Teddy Bears Picnic, Ellington, and Noel Coward singing Mad Dogs and Englishmen (although it was 3 o’clock and the sky was partly cloudy). BEAK>, the first act in the Great Hall, were also the first of several groups to feature a seated guitarist; an anti-rockist gesture which also indicated a concentration on musical precision, and perhaps taking a cue from the studious yet forceful fellow Westcountryman Robert Fripp. It was also the first sighting of one of the members of the weekend’s curators (a word which I use with a certain amount of self-consciousness, having just read Simon Reynolds’ Retromania) Portishead, in the form of Geoff Barrow, one third of the drum, bass and guitar/keyboard trio. This is one of a variety of things which he gets up to during the long lulls in activity at the Portishead base. One of the others is the running of the Invada record label, from which several of the other acts playing over the weekend were chosen. The bass player Billy Fuller, who confessed that they were more used to playing in front of a crowd of about 10 people, was unnecessarily self-effacing, assuring us that there would be better bands to follow. But they provided a series of sustained Krautrock grooves which were hypnotically absorbing, and refreshingly stringent in their avoidance of excessive gesture – like Can in their most single-minded moments. The occasional bit of heavy riffage provided broke the trance and got heads nodding if not banging.

Black Roots, back in the West Hall, continued the Bristol connection with some roots reggae out of St Pauls. They were a reminder of a more communal, spiritually based music, in contrast to the aggressive individualism of modern hip-hop. The group filled the stage, as would the similarly-minded Godspeed You Black Emperor the following day. Vocals were passed and shared around several singers, and the brass section, laying melodic lines over bass, drums and upstroked guitar, were effortlessly accomplished. Indeed, as with much reggae, the appearance of effortlessness belied the practiced cohesion of the whole. The messages of the songs may have been naïve (or just filled with old-fashioned idealism) but the music put them across with conviction. The mostly white audience swayed along and a few essayed strange ‘squatting’ dances. Sadly, I failed to get in to see Richard Ayoade introduce his hugely enjoyable debut film Submarine as no-one in the cinema from the previous screening seemed inclined to budge. I swapped one queue for another, waiting in line for 45 minutes for a Pieminister pie. I was confident that it would be worth it, however – these West Country pies are second to none. There was a definite effort to provide distinctive and lovingly made food, with a mixture of local producers and several who had come in from Bristol and its surrounds. The delay in the buying of the pie and its subsequent consumption (with mash and gravy – oh yes) meant that I missed the first half of The Books’ set. The remaining portion was very enjoyable, and was a performance for which the visual element was particularly essential. Music and image were in perfect, precision pre-timed synch. Deliberately ‘uncool’ found footage salvaged from defunct or outdated technology (primarily videos) was cut to the driving minimalist rhythms of the chamber string group of guitar, cello and bass. Their sound had some affinity with Arthur Russell, with its use of cello and blend of bright pop with experimental exploration and reiteration, and the cut up sound sampling also brought to mind Brian Eno and David Byrne’s My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. The projections ranged through everything from new age self help programmes, scenes of ritualised mass evangelism, bubbling mud and ranks of young Asian violin students to duck shooting enthusiasts, sparring siblings and cheerfully exercising old folks, all spliced and intercut to humorous and sometimes disturbing or moving effect. It formed an ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic sample of the huge variety of ordinary life, and the often bizarre forms it can adopt from the perspective of the outside observer.

In the Great Hall, PJ Harvey was on commanding form, calm and collected as she delivered the sombre suite of songs from Let England Shake. She was dressed in black, with the feathers her headdress protruding backwards like slipstreamed Hermes wings – a messenger of death. She stood aside from the band, caught in the spotlight against the black background as she approached the mike from the darkness into which she retreated after each song, initially playing a black autoharp. When she strapped on a white electric guitar, it made for a striking contrast, and was used to deliver more angry songs which sounded the defiant voice of life in the face of war and destruction. This reached a pitch of declamatory rage in The Last Living Rose, a song of disaffected romanticism and yearning for a diminished but still cherished England which is embodied in the line about the ‘Thames River, glistening like gold hastily sold for nothing’, the nothing reiterated with spitting disgust. There was little interaction with the audience; these were songs which demanded a certain detachment from the singer, although she was never aloof. Songs of war and its effect both on those who experience it directly and on the land which sends its young men to fight in it. Harvey handled the dramatic shift in register in On Battleship Hill, with its attendant intensification of emotional affect, with supreme majesty. The whoops and yells greeting each song seemed incongruous given that they offered images of ‘soldiers (who) fell like lumps of meat’, and answered the question ‘what is the glorious fruit of our land?’ with the reply ‘it’s fruit is deformed children’. Then again, what would be an appropriate response? Stunned silence? Weeping and moaning? Showing appreciation in the customary manner for a committed and intensely felt performance was only natural. A marvellous delivery of a powerful and resonant set of songs, which also reveal that political (and poetical) anger and emotion is not entirely absent from contemporary pop and rock.

In the Panorama Room, I was just in time to hear the final feedback wash of Though Forms, another group hailing from the West Country and appearing on the Invada label. This acted as a prolonged and reverberant dying fall for the preceding performance, and didn’t give much of an idea as to its character. But it was a good noise to briefly bathe in, anyway. Portishead played the first of their tow headlining sets in the Great Hall. Any remaining stereotypes surrounding their music and snarky associations with polite background sounds for dinner parties were definitively demolished by the distortion and fierce attack of their live performance, which would shatter wine glasses and bottle alike. I have a preference for the material from their relatively recent Third LP, which came across particularly strongly here. Perhaps inevitably, the loudest cheers of the ‘I recognise this one’ variety were reserved for old favourites such as Sour Times and Glory Box (this must be so galling for musicians who have done work of equal or greater merit since their initial hits). The visual element was very strong, unsurprisingly for a band who produced a film (1994’s To Kill a Dead Man) before they released any singles or LPs, and who have always included 60s and 70s soundtracks in their eclectic mix of influences. The projections were supervised by John Minton (no relation to the neo-romantic painter of the inter and post-war years, I assume) whose short documentaries also featured in the film programme. Machine Gun was given a blistering performance lent considerable additional force by the slow tracking shot through a bleak corridor of crumbling concrete in some lightless Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo sub-world, approaching a heavy metallic door across whose threshold we, perhaps thankfully, never cross. A hail of colourful phosphene circles peppers the screen in synch with the distorted drum shots, preceding the slow blossoming of an orange disc which rose above the backstage horizon – blurry sunrise or apocalyptic explosion? There were also strategically and discretely placed cameras which allowed for the projection of the members of the band, or narrowly focussed shots of their instruments as they were played, onto the large back or two small side screens. These were further mixed and blended with the particular visual style accompanying each song. Beth Gibbons face appeared in close-up as she sang, every angst ridden furrow on her forehead revealed, her hands clasping the mike stand in a characteristic blend of the prayerful, the desolate and the defiant. My favourite Portishead song, The Rip, sounded great, its rippling arpeggios developing from their skeletal origins into a circling minimalist figure with Krautrock overtones. It was strangely juxtaposed with an animation which resembled Bob Godfrey (the man behind Roobarb and Noah and Nelly) releasing his inner demons. It was good, but not really congruent with the song being sung, and therefore something of a distraction. On Threads, towards the end of the set, bars of bright orange light swept horizontally and vertically across the screen, expanding into a full colour field before contracting again. Beth Gibbons let loose with a few banshee howls on the final ‘tired and worn’ outro of the song, and whilst not quite going the whole Patty Waters (her rendition of Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair or a similar folk song in the Waters style would be something to hear), the resultant cries ricocheted around the hall, making themselves heard in every nook and cranny. The contortions of her face as she wrenched out such raw emotion was once more shown in merciless close-up, blending into schematic outline against the orange backdrop. They played the encore game, and returned for a couple of numbers (Roads and We Carry On), during the latter of which Beth descended for a bit of crowd hugging and hand clasping – a gesture towards human connection, belying her own reputation stand-offishness (ie not being keen on interviews) and countering the feeling of isolation and disconnection at the heart of so much of Portishead’s music. A great show in and for all senses.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Out of this World at the British Library

The first thing you encounter as you enter the Out of This World exhibition at the British Library is a plaster relief sculpture of an UFO crashing into a shelf of books. It stands as a symbol of a ram-raiding, disruptive force ploughing across the carefully ordered rows of literary respectability, an intrusive invasion which is impossible to ignore, but is entirely unwelcome. The blank colourlessness of this sculpture is also suggestive of the empty page. The flying saucer is one of the abiding clichés of pulp SF, one of its embarrassments really, as it serves as the perfect embodiment of the widespread apprehension that this is a genre which is the province of obsessives who have difficulty in distinguishing between the real and the imagined. The exhibition aims to colour in the UFO of SF, to suggest that its visitation is a good thing and hopefully to provids a corrective to its bastardisation and exile into the mutant haunted hinterlands by the literary establishment. The genre still has some of its own issues of low self-esteem to deal with too. The prominent words on the wall facing the entrance lobby come from Margaret Atwood, who weighs in with a quote worthy of an inspirational corporate byline: ‘If we can imagine it, we’ll be able to do it’. It seems that no matter how many times she rejects the label of SF and consigns it to the realms of sub-literature, she is still invited to participate in events such as this (and seems always to accept, too) in a needy bid on the part of SF enthusiasts for acceptance and recognition. Atwood turns up later in a filmed interview, scrupulously defining her novels Oryx and Crake and Year of the Flood as ‘end of the world literature’ and making sure that the s and f words never pass her lips when referring to her own work.

Other talking head figures are shown in this opening section attempting the notoriously difficult trick of summing up the manifold elements of the genre in one overarching definition. The winner of this years Arthur C.Clarke award, Lauren Beukes, is amongst them, as is the public face of British SF, China Mieville. Also lending their perspective on the genre as they see it are author Gwyneth Jones, the popular science writer John Gribbin, and Sumit Paul-Choudhury, the editor of New Scientist magazine, which recently published a special science fiction issue edited by Kim Stanley Robinson. Descending to the main area of the exhibition, we find a display focussing on some of the progenitors of SF, which gives the British Library the opportunity to showcase some of its venerable texts. These date back as far as the classical Greek writer Lucian of Samosata’s A True History of a Trip to the Moon from 2AD (here in a 1647 edition), a satirical tale which mocks the fantastic tales of his fellow countrymen. Further fantastic voyages are described by John Mandeville in his Travels from the 14th century (this edition dating from 1484), in which he encounters a wide variety of fabulous monsters (including men with heads below their shoulders), all of which are claimed to be authentic. An early example of the confusion between the real and imagined which derives from such rationalised fantasy. Thomas More’s Utopia of 1516, the first edition of which is presented here, is the progenitor of the politically minded strand of SF which seeks to define the ideal society, and the pitfall involved in realising it (utopia, of course, derives from Greek words, and means no-place, or nowehere). The wood cut map of the island (and maps or plans of other worlds would of course become commonplace in SF and fantasy literature) resembles the profile of a human head, suggesting that this is where such speculations should remain. There are trips to the moon described by Cyrano de Bergerac in his Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon and the Sun, a partial version of his satirical 1657 work. SF, with its ability to portray distortions of the known world whilst remaining in the same essential continuum, is an ideal vehicle for satire. The comic peregrinations and philosophical musings of Cyrano’s protagonist were evidently a little too close to the bone, since his work was only every published in extensively censored form. The illustration features splendid brass airships, a civilised mode of interplanetary travel. A slightly more farfetched means of transport is offered by Bishop Godwine in his Man in the Moon (1638), in which the lunar explorer rides a chariot drawn by a number of swans.

The exhibition is divided into sections covering particular themes and variations which have played throughout the genre’s history. The first we encounter are aliens, of course, the (green) lifeblood of SF and a great means through which the latter day Bosch-like imagination can be let loose, creating grotesque and fantastic forms. The range and diversity of SF literature becomes clear as we wander through displays centring on and orbiting around subjects such as space travel, parallel worlds and alternate histories (here linked together under the Moorcock-coined heading ‘multiverse’), Inner Space (the preoccupation of Ballard and the 60s new waves), space travel, dreamworlds and cyberpunk virtualities (gathered together under the title What is Reality?), the end of the world, alien invasion (and its precursor, Victorian tales of the invasion of England), imaginary worlds, future worlds, utopias and dystopias, time travel, and robots and artificial beings. Steampunk, the offshoot of cyberpunk which imagines Victorian and Edwardian futures past, is represented and included some of my favourite books and authors: Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates, James Blaylock’s Homonculus and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. All of these different themes and settings can be use with varying degrees of metaphor or genuine speculation – advanced science or none.

There are a good number of original author’s manuscripts here, drawn both from the British Library’s own collections and from those held by the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at Liverpool University, whose librarian, Andy Sawyer, played a major part in the curation of the exhibition. The Foundation holds the papers of Olaf Stapledon, and from these, some pages of the small, holed notebook paper on which he wrote Star Maker are on display. His writing is neat and rigidly straight even though the paper is unlined. There is also a fantastic future history time line for Last and First Men charted on graph paper and highlighted in various colours of felt tip. It’s the perfect amalgam of geometry and art, a good metaphor for SF in general. Other manuscripts here include Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, scrawled in biro on A4 paper (probably in the garden shed in which he works), with plentiful crossings out and arrows placing additional sentences or phrases. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann is written in ink pen on large paper with Japanese ‘kanji’ alphabetical pictograms on the front, relics of her time in the country. The sums scribbled on the first page suggest that this is re-used paper. Stars and numbers point the way to additional passages to be inserted, and crossings out are made in felt pen. There are examples of Victorian science fiction, with three pages of the manuscript for Richard Jeffries’ post catastrophe novel After London (1875), in which wild nature has reclaimed the home counties, and Edward (or Lord) Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race (1871), a hollow earth story of a hidden race of beings vastly superior to man. There is a playscript of Karel Capek’s RUR (1921) which was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval, as all plays had to be at the time. RUR stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots, and this was the first time the word was used (it derives from the Czech word robota, meaning statute labour). George Orwell’s preliminary notebook for 1984, meanwhile, contains lists in which he sketches out ideas and slogans, some of which are familiar from the final novel.

There is a typed page from a JG Ballard story dating from the Vermillion Sands period, which is apparently unpublished. Words are xxxxed out and others scribbled over with purple pen. It’s a very active manuscript page. Ballard makes reference to Francis Bacon on this page, an indication of the influence of surrealist and other modern art on his work. The other page of his here, from the 1965 novel The Drought, makes reference to Yves Tanguy, the surrealist whose planar perspectives are inhabited with strange, mercurially viscous or sharply shrapnel-like forms which, seen through an SF perspective, are alien in nature, and which are echoed in many of Ballard’s desert or concrete landscapes. This page again has extensive ink pen corrections. Ballard was clearly someone who worked hard to get the phrasing just right. One of the most interesting manuscripts here is the opening page of John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids. Except that it isn’t. This was a beginning which he ended up rejecting, and it’s fascinating to compare it with the novel’s opening as eventually published (the final text is available to read by the manuscript’s side). The original attempt reads ‘on the day when the great calamity put an end to the world I had known for almost 30 years, I happened to be in bed with a bandage all around my head and over my eyes. Just a matter of luck, like most survival’. It’s a rather prosaic introductory passage, hardly drawing the reader irresistibly in to the ensuing story. The final version does this much more compellingly, with one succinct and intriguing sentence which lets us know that time is out of joint and which creates a sense of mystery which we immediately want to find out more about: ‘When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere’.

The exhibition is greatly indebted to John Clute's collection of science fiction first editions, which are scattered throughout, and whose covers will be familiar to anyone who has a copy of his Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. Iain Sinclair observes Clute amongst the trawlers of the old London street book markets in Skating On Thin Eyes, the first chapter in his book of walks through the capital, Lights Out For The Territory. There was ‘the science fiction and fantasy encyclopaedist John Clute – a pundit who virtually invented his own field of studies (and amassed an important 20,000 volume collection in the process)’. Having the results of his assiduous quests showcased in British Library displays must make those searches for the jewels amongst the mounds of moulding rubbish seem worthwhile. Philip K Dick’s Man in the High Castle has a strikingly simple design, placing the red Nazi and Japanese sunburst flags against a black background. The cover of Dick’s Ubik, with the title vertically displayed on a spray can, has never been bettered. Ballard’s The Crystal World uses Max Ernst’s After The Rain, which would certainly have met with the author’s approval (and which perhaps arose from his suggestion?) His High Rise has a photocollage, with the picture of the grey concrete flats ripped through at several points to reveal blue sky and clouds behind. John Christopher’s Death of Grass, George R Stewart’s Earth Abides and Brian Aldiss’ Greybeard offer a choice of catastrophes. Arthur C Clarke’s City and the Stars has a classic image of conceptual breakthrough on its cover (a similar image is to be found on the cover of the British Library brochure – this one a woodcut from Camille Flammarion’s L’Atmosphere: Meteorologie Populaire).

The 1968 anthology England Swings SF, edited by Judith Merril, has a pop art collage cover, a mix of photography, varied typography and bold shapes and squiggles. It offers ‘speculative’ rather than science fiction (the 60s saw attempts by several sf figures to shift genre definitions) and promises ‘a new kind of trip’. It leaves us in little doubt as to the period from which it emerged. Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) has a graphic design redolent of its times, with two translucent hands juggling a planet as if it is a plaything, with a corona of stars looking like the insignia of an interplanetary League of Nations. I was surprised to note that this first edition was in fact a paperback. Stapledon’s First and Last Men, presented here in its 1931 New York edition, has a very art deco cover, with a string of globes (representing the planets of the solar system to which mankind expands) floating in front of a row of elegant skyscrapers. It could be the backdrop for a Fred and Ginger number – tripping the light fantastic across vast gulfs of time and space. Finally, Hannes Bok’s cover for John W Campbell’s Who Goes There (the basis for Howard Hawks’ foray into SF, The Thing) is simply wonderful; a striking contrast of bluish grey and red with a strangely feminised monster filling up the space, squatting awkwardly as if still not fully formed. Its nails are varnished red, its three eyes circled with long lashes and a smeared paint swirl of red hair stiffly unfurls behind its head. Its mouth is a red gash punctured by vampiric teeth. It’s a grotesque image of terror and desire combined. Heady stuff for 1947.

There are a couple of listening posts at which you can hear music which has drawn on science fiction, although the exhibition itself is accompanied by everpresent, atmospheric drones of the sort employed to evoke interstellar drift. The obvious examples are present, including, of course, Space Oddity. Actually, Bowie’s perennial favourite is an interesting example, reflecting the disillusion with the space programme and the sense of alienation for which it stands as a metaphor which were recurrent themes in the fiction of the likes of JG Ballard and Barry Malzberg at the time. There is a good selection of less well known music here too, however. Peter Hammill’s Red Shift is one of a number of songs he wrote, either for his solo LPs or with Van der Graaf Generator, which make sophisticated use of science fiction ideas, or science as metaphor (which amounts to the same thing); others include Fog Walking, Man Erg, Pioneers Over C, Traintime, Breakthrough, the Clarke-quoting Childlike Faith in Childhood’s End, and that great end of the word epic After the Flood. New wave gets a look in with Spizzenergi’s increasingly desperate repetition of the question Where’s Captain Kirk? Robots are the protagonists and antagonists of Kraftwerk’s Robots and Flaming Lips’ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots (from an LP which ends with the splendidly and quintessentially science fictionally titled track Approaching Pavonis Mons by Balloon – Utopia Planitia). The space programme is represented by Brian Eno’s twinkling piece of ambience Under Stars from the Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks record, and Blur’s Beagle 2, which was composed as the call sign for the ill-fated Mars lander of that name. Sun Ra was a personal embodiment of everything science fictional, cloaking himself and his Arkestra in his own SF mythology (and often in an actual spangly and brightly coloured cloak, too). He is represented here by the lengthy invocational chant and free jazz number Space is the Place. The Comsat Angels score a double with their track Eye of the Lens, which references the excellent Langdon Jones story from New Worlds, whereas there name is derived from a JG Ballard of a similar vintage. Ballard has inspired a number of artists, and gets a display case all to himself, where you can hear The Normal’s Warm Leatherette (essentially Crash as electronic pop, later persuasively covered by Grace Jones) and The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, apparently inspired by the short story Sound Sweep.

Ballard can also be heard talking about his fiction and views on SF in general. He rejects the narrow definition of the genre created by Star Wars and Doctor Who (not sure I’d agree with him that Who is imaginatively constricted) and the American magazine tradition and draws attention to scientific romance and the ‘great river of imaginative fiction’ which has run through literature since time immemorial. The recording seems to be of a rather low sampling rate, which results in a strangely appropriate digital breakdown of the sound, creating an artificial, cybernetic feel to this version of Ballard. Not a great deal of attention is paid to the cinematic side of the genre, which is perfectly understandable in an exhibition taking place in the country’s largest and most venerable library. There is a full-sized Tardis here, however, in front of which you can pose for photos, and also a page of manuscript from a Who score. Unfortunately, it’s not some graphic depiction of a radiophonic workshop theme or the music for a Dudley Simpson soundtrack, but the rather less thrilling manuscript of Francis Chagrin’s score for the Dalek Invasion of Earth movie. There is also a lovely model of K-9 made by James Richardson-Brown in the brass, pipes and rivets steampunk style.

The visual side is represented not only by some fine book covers, but also by magazine and book illustrations such as Alvim-Correa’s depiction of the Martian war machines wreaking havoc with their death rays in a 1906 Belgian edition of The War of the Worlds (or La Guerre des Mondes in this case, of course). This powerful and quite brutal image (we see two smoking bodies lying in the garden of the cottages which are being destroyed) has been used in the British Library’s publicity for the exhibition, and you can see why. A stylised print from an 1899 Dutch edition is also very striking, with the machines, here made to look rather more anthropomorphic, towering in godlike fashion above hills and houses alike, casually tossing off swirls of lightning in their path. A 1931 edition of The Time Machine, meanwhile, has a fine 4 colour print illustration of the terminal, end of world beach which the traveller gazes over. Sidney Sime’s illustration for Lord Dunsany’s the Gods of Pegana is characteristically atmospheric, depicting a spectral figure emerging from a sepia tinted night forest whose trees seem to glow with a mysterious bioluminescence. Most enjoyable are the visions of futurity envisioned in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here we have a series of pictures from an 1874 Pall Mall magazine, in which the street lighting of a future city is suspended from floating balloons, and a series of 1914 Russian postcards imagining a magical Moscow, complete with the usual elevated monorail network threading between high-rise buildings. Albert Robida’s Le Vingtieme Siecle – La Vie Electrique from 1892 somewhat satirically shows a future in which Parisians have taken to the skyways in their flying cars, and must negotiate a thicket of intertwining telegraph cables, above which airship serenely glide. Fashions don’t seem to have changed a great deal, and gentlemen still take off their hats to a passing lady. Perhaps the most remarkable visual work on display here is Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphiniarus (1981). Serafini, an architect and designer, has created and illustrated an imaginary world complete with flora, fauna, inhabitants and an alien civilisation. As a sustained act of detailed imaginative invention, it is remarkable, and the images on display are remarkable; dream architecture merging with mountainous land and seascapes.

There are some surprising inclusions here, fully justifying the exhibition’s subtitle Science Fiction But Not As You Know It. Most startling (an probably particularly vexing to the dedicated literary snob) are the notebooks of the Bronte Sisters, in which they detail, in tiny, neat writing in small notebooks, their imaginary kingdoms of Angria and Gondal, vaguely located in Africa and the North Pacific. Another such imaginary land was created in great detail in the early twentieth century by the American legal teacher and scholar Austin Tappan Wright, who built up the world of Islandia over a period of many years, having originally dreamed of it as a boy. There was no apparent intention to publish the results, this was creation for its own sake. Other writers who would not normally be associated with SF are also included. Bertrand Russell’s late collection of stories Nightmares contains several science fiction tales, and Joseph Conrad’s The Inheritors (1901) imagines a superior race from the future, the Dimensionists. There are several examples of samizdat literature, illicitly published copies, from beyond the iron curtain, which focus on the great dystopian novels of the twentieth century. A Polish version of Zamyatin’s 1924 novel My (also known as We) dates from 1985, 3 years before its eventual official publication in the Soviet Union. There is also a 1985 samizdat copy of Brave New World. In such forms, dystopian fiction found an underground readership under conditions of dystopian reality, allowing people to compare and contrast. Further dytopian fiction comes in the form of the British government’s 1980 Protect and Survive booklet, which offers entirely useless tips as to what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. One such suggests that you can ‘lie flat in a ditch’, presumably to make it easier for the burial crews. One final book to note is the original 1895 US edition of The Time Machine, published in New York and prominently attributed on the cover to one H.S.Wells. Whatever happened to him? This is a great exhibition for the SF fan, and hopefully for the mildly curious, too. It demonstrates the widespread reach of the literary genre, and its ability to address the bewildering transformations of our technological age. It’s also colourful, imaginatively rich and damn good fun. It’s a space well worth exploring.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A


The latter part of the nineteenth century saw the rise of a new medium, photography, and this too was enthusiastically adopted by the Aesthetic movement, whose eclecticism readily absorbed anything which could be of use in creating their ideal world of beauty. The element of narcissism in Aestheticism also naturally responded to the allure of seeing itself reflected in the contrived mirror of the photographic portrait. The aesthetic photographic portrait was a popular and fashionable way of adopting the style for one immortalised moment. A temporary costume, a thoughtfully arranged pose and an appropriate backdrop served to put on the attitude; a bit of fancy dressing for fun, aping those for whom such details were the outward signs of a philosophy of life. Some of these are shown here, taken by such portrait photographers as David Wilkie Wynfield and Julia Margaret Cameron. Wynfield’s picture of the architect William Swinden Barber with a flower and a vaguely Eastern headdress, looking for all the world like a 1960s hippie, a Decadent Donovan. The part-time poseurs were exposed as bit part extras in comparison with the master of the self-publicising photographic portrait, however – Oscar Wilde. The series of twenty photos of Oscar taken by Napoleon Sarony in New York in January 1882 define the male Aesthetic look: the long hair, velvet smoking jacket, casual, lounging posture, and distanced gaze.

Wilde became a celebrated aesthete long before he produced artistic work of any great significance, although the construction of his persona could in itself be considered a sustained work of art, and a very successful one at that. He was also very generous and energetic in praising and promoting the art and artists which he admired, and the outlook of the Aesthetic Movement in general. His lecture tour of America and Canada in 1882 was a heroic odyssey in which he spread the gospel of beauty well beyond the usual metropolitan centres, venturing to the heartlands of Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Omaha, and to the Southern states of Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray amounted to a manifesto for Aestheticism, whilst also, with its central conceit of the artistic portrait which absorbs the repugnance of the protagonist’s moral corruption, containing a warning about the dangers of self-absorption and disconnection from humanity in the pursuit of beauty and sensation. All of which suggests that Wilde was possessed of a healthy degree of self-awareness and an ability to face the inherent fatuity of the dazzling demi-monde in which he shone with such stellar fusion. The novel begins with a series of epigrammatic declarations, which brook no refutation and which articulate the Aesthetic creed: ‘the artist is the creator of beautiful things’; ‘those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For them there is hope’. He dismisses the ‘fleshly school’ attacks by stating that ‘no artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything’. He shows solidarity with Whistler’s combinatory ideal by positing that ‘from the point of view of form, the type of all the arts is the art of the musician’, and, perhaps considering himself and the importance of his personality to his art, ‘from the point of view of feeling, the actor’s craft is the type’. Finally, after noting that ‘the only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely’, he concludes that ‘all art is quite useless’.

Sarah Bernhardt
Wilde achieved his greatest artistic success in the theatre in the 90s, with comedies of serious intent such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance. The theatre enjoyed a huge upsurge in popularity in this period, and undoubtedly the hugest star of the stage was Sarah Bernhardt, who rose to an almost mythical ascendancy, at first in Paris and then throughout the Western world. She was the Garbo or Dietrich of her day. The divine Sarah was another embodiment of Aestheticism, pale and thin, a lover of both men and women, and a mistress of the extravagant gesture. She was photographed lying supine in an open coffin, sipping from a skull, and used to surround herself with lilies. Wilde cast an armful of lilies at her feet as a gesture of supplication when she arrived in England in 1879. The French decadent writer Jean Lorrain summoned up her dangerous allure (drawn from a certain degree of personal experience) in his poem Le Sang des Dieux (The Blood of the Gods): ‘When she roamed abroad like a young goddess,/Irritating Paris with her loud laugh,/Golden chains flashed from her eyes/And her bare feet trampled the bruised bodies of her lovers.’ Wilde simply called her ‘that serpent of old Nile’. Bernhardt often played male roles on stage (she played Hamlet in a French translation), or parts such as the lead in Dame aux Camellias, which projected an exaggerated femininity. In modern terms, her persona would be considered camp. She was keen to play Salome in Wilde’s play, and the two discussed the production, whose stage design was to have been influenced by the jewelled mythological fantasies of Gustave Moreau. The play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain, however, and never reached the stage. Bernhardt influenced many writers and artists of the fin de siecle period, notably Alfonse Mucha, who designed a number of posters for her theatrical appearances and helped to consolidate her image. These became signature works of art nouveau, which was in many ways a development from the Decadent and Aesthetic movements. A striking theatrical poster on display here, designed by Fred Walker, advertises an 1871 stage adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ novel of Victorian gothic The Woman In White. Its dramatic composition is similar to Whistler’s ‘symphonies’ in its use of tonal variation within a limited palette, but uses the bolder outlines of a print. Its depiction of a figure approaching the dark threshold of the night is reminiscent both of GF Watts’ Love and Death and William Blake’s Los Entering the Grave, the frontspiece to his visionary epic Jerusalem.

A George du Maurier Punch satire
Aesthetic figures like Wilde and Bernhardt were characters of such self-created exaggeration, whose every gesture and utterance were part of a sustained performance, that they became easy targets for satire. George du Maurier’s cartoons in Punch were particularly popular and effective, and exhibited a keen insight into the spirit of Aestheticism. This was unsurprising, given that du Maurier had lived with Whistler whilst he was a young art student in Paris. Du Maurier’s satirical portraits centred around two characters whom he invented; the poet Maudle and the painter Jellaby Postlethwaite. Variants on Wilde regularly made an appearance, too, which didn’t bother him, since the caricatures were never vicious. Being the regular subject of satire was a compliment in its own way. It was a testament to how widely recognised he had become. He was wise to the mechanics of maintaining celebrity and realised that any publicity was good publicity (although the universal applicability of such an equation would later prove to be disastrously unfounded). In 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan produced their comic opera Patience, a satire of the Aesthetic movement based around two sparring Aesthetes, Reginald Bunthorne and Archibald Grosvenor. Wilde asked if he might reserve a box for the opening night, and wrote ‘I am looking forward to being greatly amused’. Elsewhere in the exhibition we find Alfred Concanen’s cartoon of a swooning Aesthete on the cover of the sheet music to a comedy song entitled ‘Quite Too Utterly Utter’. Perhaps most amusingly, however, there is an 1881 Royal Worcester teapot in the form of a fey Aesthete, his crooked arm forming the handle, and gesturing, limp-wristed arm the spout. It’s interesting to note how far back the limp-wristed stereotype goes. No doubt it predates this period, reaching back to the courts of Louis and Charles and probably further.

Aubrey Beardsley - The Climax
The latter stages of the exhibition include a particular focus on literature and the arts of book illustration and design. The central figure here is Aubrey Beardsley, another artist who owed his success to the patronage and promotion of Wilde. He was also someone who was quite capable of producing his own unflattering, pre-emptive caricatures of himself as an enervated, swooning and painfully thin figure (he was never in good health and died young from the tuberculosis which had afflicted him from an early age). He described his 18 year old self in 1890 as possessing ‘a vile constitution, a sallow face and sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop’. This element of self-loathing perhaps fed into the grotesque nature of many of his creations. His illustrations for the published version of Salome were not to Wilde’s taste, but they have come to define and possibly even eclipse the play itself. The Toilet of Salome, included here, has Beardsley’s characteristic bold, flowing outlines with areas blocked in black, along with stippled lines lightly evoking lace or frills. There is a small collection of books stacked below Salome’s dressing table whose titles can be traced along the spines (if you look closely) and which offer a decadent’s reading list of literary inspiration; de Sade, Manon Lescault, Nana by Zola and the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the satirical second century tale of a boy transformed into an ass, which also includes a telling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche – undoubtedly of relevance to Wilde’s play. The Climax is perhaps Beardsley’s best-known illustration, an intensely expressionist depiction of the culmination of the play. Salome seems to hover in ecstatic flight above the ground, the sinuous tendrils of her hair echoing the unfurling shoot coiling into life beneath her bent knees (the germinating seed of her morbid seduction). The baptist’s disembodied head sheds an almost continuous ribbon of blood, which resembles a stalk upon which it rests like a flower or seed head. Salome is held within a circling, bubbling, cloudlike envelope, and stares with mad intensity into the eyes of the severed head which she is about to kiss. It rivals Munch’s The Scream in terms of a composition in which everything is an emanation of the disturbed psychological state of the central figure.

Aubrey Beardsley - The Abbe
The Abbe is an illustration for Beardsley’s own Romantic novel Under the Hill, published in volumes 1 and 2 of the Savoy Magazine, and is a work of baroque fecundity. The diminutive face and miniscule hand of the eighteenth century dandy at its centre are wholly engulfed not just by the stippled, choking bowed cravatte, tightly furled and many layered muff and voluminous, op-art lined cloak but also by the thick, exotic, long-stemmed flowers which rise above him on either side and the dark woodlands which press against him from behind. He holds a foil, which looks more like a decorative pin, between fragile thumb and forefinger, and the insectile head of some strange stringed instrument peers from behind his shoulder, its body invisible, strapped to his back. A narrow break in the treeline allows the man moon to tentatively emerge and illuminate a fairy which is more moth than human in form. Perhaps that pin foil will be necessary after all. Beardsley’s illustration to Siegfried, first published in The Studio magazine in 1893, is an intricate weave of lines of fantastic complexity, whose curlicued arabesques form both the river winding towards the distant mountains, the profusion of twining trees and flowering undergrowth, and the figure of Siegfried himself, resting in languorous repose above the dragon which he has just slain. The whole composition looks as if it has grown out from several pen point planted on the paper’s seedbed surface. It’s influence on future fantasy artwork and magazine illustration is profound.

The infamous Yellow Book (1894), with its Beardsley cover, is one of several such journals which served to propogate the fervid fin de siecle growth of decadent art and literature. Of these, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon’s The Dial is also included here, with a cover illustration by Ricketts himself. The Yellow Book caused an outburst of heated fulmination in the Westminster Gazette, which called, in a rather Father Ted-ish way, for parliamentary action ‘to make this sort of thing illegal’. It and other magazines gave access to and displayed the influence of the literature of the French decadents, and their intoxicating essence pervaded the Aesthetic Movement in the 90s. As Lord Henry opines in The Picture of Dorian Gray when faced with the prospect of progress and ‘development’, ‘decay fascinates me more’. This chimed perfectly with the fin de siecle sense of the sunset of an era; of some things dying and other waiting to be born. The magazines also created a thriving market for short stories, and as Elaine Showalter points out in the collection Daughters of Decadence (with inevitable Beardsley cover) which she edited, over a third of the contributors were women. These were writers such as: George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne), Charlotte Perkins Gilman (whose The Yellow Wallpaper is a classic of psychological horror), and Charlotte Mew, whose A White Night Showalter describes as ‘a feminist counterpart of Conrad’s A Heart of Darkness’. Other book illustrators represented here include Kate Greenaway and Walter Crane, well known for their pictures for children’s books. Crane produced the illustrations for Wilde’s The Happy Prince. There are also books which are works of art in themselves, bookmaking being one of the fine crafts ennobled by Morris. Aubrey Beardsley’s Morte D’Arthur was certainly influenced by the publications of Morris’ Kelsmscott Press, and even though he disapproved of the mechanical means of its reproduction, it is a thing of exquisite beauty.

Rossetti - Daydream
The final gallery takes us into the last, late evening blooming of the Aesthetic Movement, now fully into its decadent phase, which it embraced with self-immolating fervour. Here we encounter one final Rossetti Goddess in his portrait of Jane Morris as ‘Monna Primvera’ in The Day Dream (1880). Janey is depicted as the sad-eyed spirit of Spring, sitting amongst the branches of a tree in her iridescent green dress, the buds bursting into leaf around her. She seems rather heavyset in this picture, her neck stretching out of proportion to her face, her fingers crooked and distended. She certainly seems too massive for the thin branches on which she sits. These seem almost to be emerging from her body at several points, leaving the impression that she is some sort of dryad, a wood spirit which is growing with and out of the tree, becoming more (or less) than human, the green of her eyes shading into the fresh green of the new leaves in the upper canopy. Lord Leighton’s Garden of the Hesperides also seems to depict a sort of ecstatic union with the non-human world, with its classical figures happily reclining in the coils of the serpent which binds them to the apple tree, clearly feeling no urgency to free themselves. It is a painting which reminds me of the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, in which Marlowe first enters the louche, hothouse atmosphere of the Sternwood house and observes ‘a broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn’t have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair. The knight had pushed the vizor of his helmet back to be sociable, and he was fiddling with the knots on the ropes that tied the lady to the tree and not getting anywhere. I stood there and thought that if I lived in the house, I would sooner or later have to climb up there and help him. He didn’t seem to be really trying’. No decadent Aesthete, Marlowe.

Time for tea
The final room has the visitor circulating around the cast for a sculpture which has been seen by a far greater number of people than any other work in the exhibition: Alfred Gilbert’s Eros. Made as a memorial for Lord Shaftesbury, this created a stir of controversy when its form was revealed, the naked figure with its flaccid bow having evidently just loosed its arrows of love considered to amount to an advertisement and signpost for the prostitutes who gathered to ply their trade in the area. Its permanence and recognition as one of the major London landmarks is in its own way a testament to the lingering appeal of Aestheticism, a lasting memorial to the spirit of the movement as much to the philanthropy of Lord Shaftesbury. The turn of the century and the bright dawn of the brief, practically-minded Edwardian era saw the dissipation of the Aesthetic dream, which was so much associated with an eschatological end of Empire glow, an embracing of the impending end of things. As Dorian Gray says in Wilde’s novel, ‘I wish it were fin du globe…life is a great disappointment’. Wilde’s trial and imprisonment marked a reassertion of establishment power and values. The Empire didn’t crumble, and as it geared up for conflict once more, it became less inclined to tolerate ‘unmanly’ qualities which be of no use in keeping the Boers or Germans at bay. One final sculpture from the early twentieth century serves to sum up its decline into ineffectual mannerism. Charles Ricketts had collaborated with Wilde on potential set designs for Salome, illustrated his collection of children’s stories A House of Pomegranites, produced and illustrated his own magazine The Dial, and set up the Vale press in 1896. But his 1905 sculpture Silence (intended as a memorial to Oscar Wilde) is little more than a trinket; an enervated angel, hand held to its mouth in a camp gesture, half-regretful, half-amused at some minor mishap or misdeed. Jacob Epstein’s Paris Pere Lachaise tomb, with its move towards art deco and modernism, is a far more fitting monument. Ricketts’ statuette is more Frank Spencer or Charles Hawtrey than divine messenger, hapless rather than heavenly. It as an appropriate figure to usher us out of this lush end of the century dreamworld and back into the contemporary wasteland (literally in terms of the roadworks currently engulfing Exhibition Road), in which people retreat into digital dreamworlds. Fortunately, it is but a short walk through the sculpture galleries (Buddhist and nineteenth century European, as I recall, possibly incorrectly) to the museum’s gorgeous William Morris tea rooms, a glorious setting for a more than decent cuppa, and a tasty scone.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Dartington Ways With Words Festival

At the Ways With Words literary festival at Dartington Hall last week, all three of Mervyn Peake’s children, Clare, Fabian and Sebastian, appeared together to talk about their memories of their father and feelings about his work in this his centenary year. As the mediator of the talk observed, the large medieval hall with its faded tapestried banners and hefty oak roof beams was the ideal setting in which to talk about the creator of Gormenghast’s stone labyrinth. He was remembered with evident warmth as a man for whom family was paramount, and in no way an obstacle to work. Fabian pointed out that his studio or work room was always open, and they were free to wander in and look at whatever he might be engaged upon at the time. He recalled seeing his father working on the illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Treasure Island, and noted how he would erase unwanted lines by physically scraping away the surface of the paper with a razor blade. The final illustration would thus be a rough and chaotically textured thing, but this wouldn’t come through in the reproduction. Sebastian remembered posing on the table of their house in Sark for the figure of Jim in Treasure Island. The house had no heating save for a meagre portable affair, and he remembers grimly steeling himself against the winter cold as his father pleaded for him to just hold on for one more sketch. To this day, he has no great affection for the character, but can now gain a certain pride from looking back at his young self immortalised as the innocent boy caught up in a world of piratical devilry.

Asked about how their father was able to separate the intense and frequently dark worlds of the imagination peopled with striking grotesques in which he immersed himself from the everyday demands of family life, they said it was just something he was intuitively able to manage. He seemed to find the ordinary world a place of magic and delight anyway, as numerous anecdotes attested. Perhaps his fantastic turn of mind (and the fantastic imagination always finds delight in the grotesque and macabre) was not such a bad attribute when it came to raising inquisitive children who delighted in their own imaginations. The recently published Sunday Books memorialise the stories Peake would tell his children on Sark, accompanying them with spontaneous sketches and drawings. The stories were never written down, but the illustrations remain, and Michael Moorcock, a friend of Mervyn and his wife Maeve’s, has added his own accompanying tales. These Sunday stories show how integral his art was to his family life, and vice versa, something also evident from his innumerable sketches of Sebastian, Fabian and Maeve. As a result, all three children have grown up to be creative in their own particular way. Sebastian edged around the question of the influence of the family on the creation of the Gormenghast books by emphasising the primary importance of his childhood experiences in China on its imaginative construction. Fabian added that, like all artists, he drew from every element of his life, from the deeply felt to the casually observed. They conceded that there was a lot of Maeve in both Fuschia and Gertrude, and Sebastian was the model for the infant Titus (sketches of him adorn the manuscript of Titus Groan). Maeve was remembered by her children as a warmly generous woman who somehow managed to combine the bohemian lifestyle with classic glamour. Other children on Sark would shout out as she was approaching in her Givenchy or Dior-style ‘new look’ dresses, and Sebastian and Fabian would hide behind a hedge. In his memoir A Child of Bliss, Sebastian recalls that she liked to dance to flamenco music on top of the table at the end of her parties, and would always encourage other people to dance.

Mervyn was full of life and vitality, always goofing about and indulging in practical jokes, and his dark, romantic good looks (deriving from his Welsh ancestry, no doubt) and easy charm made him very popular with women. Sebastian recalled his persistent pursuit of a music student at the Royal College of Music whom he sat opposite on the train and wanted to sketch. She demurred and got off at the next stop, but he was not to be deterred. He would turn up at her rehearsals at the College and draw her from the stalls. When she mentioned this to her husband later in life, he commented ‘well, he always did have an eye for the grotesque’. Asked how Maeve felt about such dalliances and his eye for the female form, they said it was accepted with equanimity. Sebastian told the above anecdote with the command of someone who has become expert at public speaking. He above all has been the one who has tirelessly promoted his father’s work over the years. He talks of a moment which defined his father in his eyes. Again, it returns us to Sark, the spiritual centre of the family’s life. Mervyn got the young Sebastian to close his eyes and placed a piece of topaz in his palm. He knew that his father would have had to have climbed down the dangerous cliff-face descending to the sea on the sheer sides of the Coupee, the narrow arête joining the two halves of the island, where deposits of the mineral were to be found. He was also prone to performing daredevil stunts on his bicycle as he raced along the narrow Coupee path. This was what made his father a hero to him, Sebastian said.

All three Peakes gave brief readings. Clare read a passage from her recent memoir Under A Canvas Sky, in which she recalled her father taking her for walks down the Kings Road, near their Chelsea studio flat. He would buy her a Chelsea bun from the baker’s (the Kings Road still had such things in those days), commenting that they were in Chelsea, so they might as well have one; a throwaway remark which would become a running joke between them. They would look in art shops and pick up the tubes of paint, but not the canvasses, which her father couldn’t afford. The evocative names of the paints, the cobalt blues, rose madders, burnt umbers and yellow ochres cast a magical spell, and the studio in which Mervyn worked was a place of warmth and comfort for her. So much so that the smell of turps still has an odd emotional resonance for her.

Fabian, himself a poet and artist, read one of his father’s poems, Love, I Had Thought It Rocklike, written around 1946 and included in the recent Collected Poems volume. It depicts love become evanescent and fragile where once it had seemed so solid and firmly rooted. ‘I had thought it founded like a city of stone’, Peake wrote, ‘but it was thistledown/Or the touch of a wand’. This was one of several poems written at the time (Love’s House, Swans Die and a Tower Falls and Forever Through Love’s Weather Wandering being others) in which Peake seems to articulate a dissociation from his feelings for Maeve. This was perhaps caused by the shock of war and in particular his observation of the horrors of the camp at Belsen. These poems seem to express an inner loneliness, a crisis over the purpose and value of his art. This despair was kept in check to a great extent. It’s certainly not a quality his children remember in him. Sebastian (the oldest of the three children) remembers in his memoir A Child of Bliss that there was a change in his father coming back from the war. He attributes this directly to his experiences in Belsen, asking ‘how can his experience of the camp not have created an eternal helplessness of the soul?’ Indeed, Sebastian became obsessed with the camps himself for a period of time, trying to gain an understanding of just what it was that had wrought such a change in his father.

Mervyn was able to rediscover his love for Maeve (perhaps after a spiritually restorative return to Sark) as the 1948 poem Out of the Chaos of My Doubt makes plain: ‘Out of the chaos of my doubt/And the chaos of my art/I turn to you inevitably/As the needle to the pole’. Fabian interpreted the poem he read in a far less personal way, viewing it as a declaration that the small and fragile can be, in its own way, as strong and vital as the solid and monumental. Drawing an artistic analogy, he said that the thin pencil line can be as forcefully expressive as the thick brush stroke. He sees his father’s approach to poetry as being primarily emotional and instinctive, with technique and structure being applied to subsequently shape such rawly felt material.

Sebastian ended the session with a reading from Titus Awakes, the recently published manuscript of Maeve’s discovered in an old box in his attic. It was her attempt to draw from the skeletal notes made by Mervyn in his declining years outlining ideas for the development of the Titus books and bring his story to a conclusion. But it was also her personal search for the husband who had been taken away from her by the cruel fate of degenerative illness leading to early death. Sebastian reads the final pages, in which Sark once more becomes the magnetic island, drawing Titus to his final place of rest, the endpoint of his quest. As he draws near to the shore, he sees the artist for whom he’s been searching, two boys by his side and a young girl hoisted onto his shoulders. It’s a deeply moving conclusion, both to the book and to the talk, for the artist is clearly Mervyn Peake, and the children Sebastian, Fabian and Clare. Titus is Maeve, returning to Sark one final time, a personal Avalon and blessed isle.

The next day we went to see the wonderful Rabbi Lionel Blue, whose open, liberal approach to religion emphasising kindness and compassion as the values which create a preview of heaven on earth is a welcome corrective to the more judgemental forms which seem prevalent in the modern world. The Rabbi is a little shake and slow on his feet these days after the onset of Parkinson’s disease (and the simple effect of age) but as soon as he sat down he settled into an effortless flow of autobiographical reminiscence, wry observation, modestly offered wisdom and, most of all, jokes. Jewish culture is blessed with one of the richest veins of humour in the world, as documented in Leo Rosten’s excellent dictionary/cultural guide/philosophical treatise and jokebook The Joys of Yiddish. Blue noted how his family and those who lived around them in the Whitechapel area of the East End coped with hardship through humour. He likened this to religion in providing a perspective which allowed people to turn a situation inside out, to view it from a completely different angle. He’s candid about his own struggles with faith, politics and sexuality, an openness which makes him all the better able to empathise with and help those who come to him for advice and spiritual guidance. His view of religion is simple and practical; asked why he is religious and became a Rabbi, he says ‘because it worked for me’. He recalls how horrified his mother was when he announced that he intended to become a Rabbi. She felt that he was turning around and heading straight back into the ghetto from which they’d escaped. It was only when he declared that he was going to seek out a holy man in the Himalayas that she stopped threatening to kill herself and gave him her blessing (the monastic retreat gambit had failed to make the necessary impact). He doesn’t give any easy answers to the complex questions which people bring to him, refusing to supply the magical solutions which some people require of religion. His radical uncertainty (perhaps a healthy development from the radical over-certainty of his youth), his willingness to admit to cluelessness, is refreshing and a sign of unforced wisdom. He says he has no idea what the afterlife will be like, since death involves a cessation of both time and space, the measures by which experience is quantified, but that we can create a preview of heaven through acts of kindness to our fellow creatures.

Along with the jokes, Rabbi Blue also gives us a few lines from some of his favourite songs, in response to a question about what his desert island discs would be (it turns out that he has actually taken part in the programme – twice). He sings a couple of verses of that sentimental old weepie My Yiddishe Momme, guaranteed to have any good Jewish boy weeping within seconds. He also essayed Falling In Love Again, revealing his love of Marlene Dietrich, who, he remarked with a certain amount of fellow feeling, just kept on going, even if they had to glue her elbow to the bar table before the curtains rose. He commented that he tended to listen more these days, in particular to the new female Rabbis (he would have had an opportunity at this festival, as Rabbi Julia Neuberger was also speaking) and was less inclined to immediately leap in with his own opinions. This was presumably an observation of his own division of life into three stages: taking, giving and giving up. He admitted to finding the latter particularly hard to accept. Let’s hope that he continues to resist for a good time yet. The world really needs a gay, ex-Marxist (with remaining tendencies) East End liberal Rabbi right now.

On the Saturday, we went to see Dominic Sandbrook, whose histories of the Macmillan and (first) Wilson eras, Never Had It So Good and White Heat, I enjoyed immensely. These have now been followed up by State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain 1970-74, and it was these years which he talked about. He is always keen to separate the myths which accumulate around particular periods with the actuality, and to differentiate the world as seen from a political perspective from actual lived experience. He includes a couple of ‘stealth quotes’ which highlight the complexity of the era, its irreducibility to simplistic divisions. He follows a mention of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch in the context of the rise of a new wave of feminism at the time with a quote which turns out not to be from the book, although its rhetoric makes us believe that it could be. It is in fact taken from a speech by Margaret Thatcher. Similarly, a piece of firebrand revolutionary rhetoric, firmly demarcating the divisions of the class struggle, is made by one Robert Kilroy-Silk. The government of Heath was a hapless and ill-starred enterprise, stumbling from one crisis to the next, but Sandbrook makes it clear that for almost everybody in the country, the material standards of living were higher than at any time before. He begins by setting the scene for the royal wedding of Princess Anne and Mark Phillips in 1973, and imagines what a time traveller from the previous royal wedding (of the Queen) in 1953 would make of the world they found. He concluded that they would be amazed by how well off everyone was, and by the sheer modernity of the period. An interesting observation given the perception of the early 70s as being somehow backward and technologically primitive. For the time traveller looking back from the present (and Sandbrook makes reference to Life on Mars in this context) inequalities were still very much in place in terms of race, gender and sexuality, although feminist and gay rights movements were beginning to make a real impact. Much popular culture still revelled in contemptuous stereotypes which reflected (or partly created) general and largely unchallenged prejudices. Enoch Powell was repeatedly voted the public’s favourite politician at this time.

Sandbrook has a particularly ready and wide-ranging grasp of popular culture, which is what makes his books such excellent evocations of era as experienced by ordinary folk. I suspected from his previous books that he was something of a Doctor Who fan, as he used several quotes, identified as coming from particular episodes, which were perfectly matched to the social and political themes he was addressing. I was able to ask him about this afterwards, and he confirmed that he was indeed a big enthusiast. This would have been pretty self-evident had I had the most cursory browse through State of Emergency, which I bought later from the independent Totnes Bookshop. His chapter on the development of the sixties counterculture and the emergence of the environmental movement, and general turning away from Wilson’s white heat technological optimism, is entitled The Green Death, for a start. He talks of this story’s opposition by the hippyish Wholewheel scientific commune, who join forces with the Doctor, Jo, the Brigadier and Captain Yates, to the sinister Global Chemicals corporation which is directed by the BOSS supercomputer, an artificial intelligence. He quotes James Chapman’s interesting observation that the Earthbound monsters of the Pertwee era tend to be more ‘organic’ in appearance (Silurians, Sea Devils, Axons, Ogrons and, indeed, giant maggots) than the more shiny, metallic and technological creatures of the 60s, and that scientists tend to be villains and destroyers. The Invasion of the Dinosaurs is also mentioned in an ecological context, with its Operation Golden Age, a scientific conspiracy in which the idealistic Mike Yates becomes involved, representing an extreme version of the dream of a return to a pre-technological age. The Doctor defeats its fanatical scheme to return a select section of humanity to a distant past from which it can start again, but is not unsympathetic to its motivating philosophy. Sandbrook also refers to Doomwatch, The Changes, The Survivors and John Christopher’s post-apocalyptic pastoral trilogy The Prince In Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands and The Sword of the Spirits in this chapter, all of which seem to return to the vision of a reversion to a medieval England imagined by William Morris in News from Nowhere.

Elsewhere, Sandbrook’s introductory example in his chapter on feminism refers to Elizabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane taking over from Jo Grant as the Doctor’s companion, with a much more assertive manner and a refusal to be reduced to a tea-making role. Liz Shaw was the real equal companion in the Pertwee era, however, a scientist fully capable of keeping up with even the wildest of the Doctor’s theories and offering suggestions herself. Sandbrook also notes how the programme addressed the issues of joining the Common Market in The Curse of Peladon (1972) and the divisions of the miners’ strike in The Monster of Peladon (1974). In both cases, the Doctor opts for the progressive, more radical solution. Sandbrook also points out that Heath’s policy review unit known as The Think Tank was parodied in Tom Baker’s 1974 Who debut story Robot, in which the National Institute for Advanced Scientific Research (inevitably a front for a semi-fascistic scientific conspiracy) is also nicknamed the think tank. Noting the preponderance of rats in 70s popular culture (he must surely be the only prominent historian who would make reference to James Herbert’s novel The Rats, and also notes their appearance in Doomwatch and The New Avengers) he refers to the giant specimen encountered in the sewers in The Talons of Weng Chiang, and makes the reasonable observation that it is ‘one of the worst-realized monsters not merely in the show’s history, but in the history of human entertainment’. Fair enough, although, as is the contradictory way with Doctor Who, it is also one of the series’ finest stories.

Sandbrook makes further reference to fantastic literature and film throughout, suggesting both that he is an enthusiast for the genre, and that this was a particularly fertile period. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffmann and The Passion of New Eve are discussed, and Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry and JG Ballard’s High Rise mentioned. SF writer Edmund Cooper is cited for his wildly sexist views, broadcast not only in his novels (one of which, Who Needs Men? lends its title to the chapter on feminism and reactionary responses to) but in a 1975 Science Fiction Monthly interview from which Sandbrook quotes. Bagpuss is aptly summed up as being ‘gloriously melancholy’. I would take issue with his dismissal of the late 60s and early 70s output of Hammer, however. Some of its was indeed shoddy, exploitation fare (and not even very full-blooded exploitation at that). But there are some fascinating films amongst the studio’s latterday efforts, some of which genuinely attempt to play new variations on the old formulae, and a very few of which really succeed. And Dracula AD 1972 is hugely enjoyable to watch now, as I noted here. But Sandbrook is generally spot on, and his histories are both insightful and hugely enjoyable, as indeed was his talk. You can see a video of another such on his website and blog, over here, where you can also find extracts of his comments from the extras on the dvd release of the Hartnell Who story The Ark.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The Cult of Beauty at the V&A

The Grosvenor Gallery, 1877

The exhibition moves towards the apogee of the Aesthetic Movements influence (and notoriety) in the 1870s and 80s as we pass into the area signposted with Whistler and the critic Walter Pater’s assertion of Art For Art’s Sake. The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 was a major step forward, and a bold declaration of intent. It was to become the focal point for the display of Aesthetic painting and sculpture. The opening itself was a significant event which caused much excitement and signalled the movement’s increasing fashionability. Whistler had decorated the ceiling with a design depicting the moon cycling through its phases across a blue background. The walls were painted in the signature Aesthetic tones of green and gold, and were hung with drapes of green damask. Oscar Wilde was there, resplendent in a coat which had been specially designed for the occasion. Based on a dream he’d had in which a man resembled a cello, it was cut and shaped so that Oscar himself, when viewed from certain angles, became an ambulatory instrument. It was a gesture worthy of later Surrealist exhibitions, and he certainly carried it off with a great deal more élan than Dali’s botched diving suit stunt. His review of the opening was his first published work, although he was as much a part of the exhibition as an observer. It was largely positive, singling out Burne-Jones and GF Watts for particular praise, although Wilde, like others, was at a loss as to what to make of Whistler’s Nocturne In Black And Gold: The Falling Rocket, one of his semi-abstract colour arrangements. He covered his temporary uncertainty (he later came to admire such works) with a quip, remarking ‘it is worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute’. The painting was to sustain much more serious and damaging attacks than Wilde’s airily amusing dismissal, which Whistler took in good part.

Whistler - Nocturne in Black and Gold
The Grosvenor was partly set up in opposition to the Royal Academy, and was much concerned with giving paintings adequate space to stand out as individual works, and setting them within a sympathetic environment. Whistler viewed exhibitions as ‘installations’ in which all elements, including the gallery setting and décor, combined to create a singular overall effect. The V&A honours this by bathing the walls of its exhibition in projected green and purple light against which outlined peacock feather and lily designs float. Whistler began to give his own paintings titles which synaesthetically suggested a musical quality. There were Nocturnes, Variations and Symphonies, and these ‘compositions’ were regarded in terms of the expressive qualities of their limited colour palettes as much as their subject matter, which almost became incidental. Paintings such as Symphony in White No.1: The White Girl, on display here, are tonally restrained, using pallid, cool and understated colours – whites, greys and pinks, and few if any primaries. His Nocturne in Black and Gold, mentioned above, was one of number of semi-abstract riverscapes, and prompted the pre-eminent critic John Ruskin to ask, on the occasion of the Grosvenor’s opening in 1877, why Whistler felt free to ask for money ‘for flinging a pot of paint in the face of the public’. There may have been a certain amount of public politicking behind such a remark. Ruskin was still a man of the Royal Academy, and felt obliged to uphold its values particularly in the face of such an arrogantly self-assertive man as Whistler. There was no particular artistic reason why he should have displayed such hostility towards Whistler’s paintings. He had, after all, championed Turner, who produced work which matched Whistler’s Nocturnes in terms of vaporous formlessness. Whistler, who was highly self-critical but unlikely to accept adverse opinion from anyone other than himself, and who, as an immaculate dandy, may have objected to Ruskin’s referring to him as ‘a coxcomb’, sued for libel. As his friend in rivalry Oscar Wilde was to discover in a later decade, bringing grievances and feuds into the establishment arena of the Courts was a grave mistake for someone who went so extravagantly against the grain. He won the case, but was granted a derisory award of a farthing in damages, and was left to pay ruinous fees for the case.

The Arab Hall in Leighton House
Whistler also extended his concern with the composition of the perfect gallery installation to the design of his own house, which he worked out with Edward William Godwin. All aspects of living were to be arranged aesthetically. Appropriately, his near-neighbour in Tite Street, Chelsea, where his White House was built, was Oscar Wilde. They weren’t to enjoy each other’s proximity for long, however, since Whistler’s extravagant spending (a necessary adjunct to his through-composed existence) combined with the financial fall-out from the court case left him bankrupt by 1879, and he had to escape to Europe. Perhaps it was a good thing that Wilde and Whistler became geographically distant. Two such carefully constructed mirror-image personae living so near to each other day in and day out might finally have resulted in some matter/anti-matter explosion, albeit a radiantly beautiful and radiantly witty one. From now on, this was Wilde’s manor, and society London was his to charm into submission. Other artists also took to guiding the design of their homes and the furnishings which filled them. Godwin designed vases, the one included here decorated with the outlines of cranes, and there is also a Japanese-style chair designed by Alma-Tadema on display. But it was Lord Leighton who took the Aesthetic house to new heights of feverish extravagance enabled by the wealth accruing from the immense success of his art and his prominent position as head of the Royal Academy. Leighton House, to the south of Holland Park, is a dream palace to match any of his own classical or oriental fantasias. Its most celebrated room is the Arab Hall, with its central pool and fountain and walls lined not only by his own collection of Arabic tiles, but also with a mosaic frieze by Walter Crane.

Burne-Jones - The Beguiling of Merlin
Burne-Jones came into his own with the opening of the Grosvenor Gallery, achieving huge success and widespread recognition after having retreated from public view for some years, hurt by the criticism associated with the ‘fleshly school’ attack. Huge is certainly the word, as his and other artists’ canvasses seemed to expand exponentially. His The Beguiling of Merlin demonstrates something of Whistler’s concern with creating on a limited and subdued palette, in this instance bluish greys. Nimue pauses in her reading of a book which looks reamed by dampness, as if it has been left out in the forest, and looks down upon the resentfully entranced Merlin. Her hair is constrained within an odd serpentine weave of a headpiece which gives her the look of a medieval Medusa. The twisting interlace of the tangled tree branches echo the strands of her hair and arch over to coil around Merlin’s prone body, trapping him within their blossoming and shooting embrace. The figures have the distanced look of all Burne-Jones’ subjects, male or female; pallid, hollow-eyed, half lost in some opiated reverie. The French decadent writer Octave Mirbeau suggested that the shadows under their eyes were the result of masturbation, which probably reveals more about his own very French preoccupations. A later painting, The Golden Stairs (1880), familiar from the Tate Britain, from which it is on loan, offers a fashion parade of angels, all descending a winding stair, holding a variety of instruments. It looks like a backstage scene after the successful performance of some Heavenly symphony. Burne-Jones tries to vary the expressions of the figures in this group composition, but his attempts to give some of the angels a more animated, vivacious look seem strained. Notably, the angel playing the medieval fiddle who breaks the otherwise unbroken line of figures and faces more directly outwards at the viewer wears the more familiar look of wistful, self-contained sadness.

GF Watts - Love and Death
GF Watts was another painter who came fully into his own at this time, earning his own exhibition at the Grosvenor in 1881 and becoming one of the pre-eminent and well-regarded artists of the age. He, along with Burne-Jones, was also much admired by the French, an interesting observation given the general consensus that anything interesting happening in late nineteenth century art occurred across the Channel. JK Huysman’s character Des Esseintes, the very model of the French decadent aesthete who is the central (indeed, pretty much only) protagonist of that handbook of decadent taste A Rebours (Against Nature), expresses his own admiration for the ‘weirdly coloured pictures by Watts, speckled with gamboges and indigo, and looking as if they had been sketched by an ailing Gustave Moreau, painted in by an anaemic Michelangelo, and retouched by a romantic Raphael…the strange, mysterious amalgam of these three masters was informed by the personality, at once coarse and refined, of a dreamy, scholarly Englishman afflicted with a predilection for hideous hues’. Watts maintained a steady fidelity to classical models and Academy traditions, and was also a notable portraitist. His painting of Algernon Swinburne sets him against a background of Rembrandt-like gloom in his dark jacket, which serves to make his red hair and beard and flushed, warm-toned face stand out all the more. He looks a great deal more sober and respectable here than the wild youth of William Bell Scott’s portrait. The allegorical strand of his work came to the fore at this time, and like Burne-Jones, he tended to paint on a grand scale in terms of the physical size of his pictures. His Love and Death (exhibited at the 1877 Grosvenor opening) depicts a naked youth standing amongst blooming flowers seeking to hold back the robed figure of death, who ascends stone steps with her back to us, treading over cut, withered blossoms towards a dark entrance above. Choosing, an earlier picture from 1864, is like a more chaste version of one of Rossetti’s sensuous, late portraits. Here, a young woman smells a red camellia, a bunch of violets tightly clutched in her other hand. She wears a green dress whose ruffled sleeves blend in with the dark foliage, her red lips the same colour as the flowers, which she seems almost to be kissing as much as smelling (camellias have no scent). Unlike Rossetti’s women, who look straight out at the viewer from the canvas, she is viewed in profile, her eyes half-closed and downcast. The model was the actress Ellen Terry, whom Watts had married in the year of the painting’s composition. She was 16 years old at the time, he 47. Always possessed of a strongly moralising turn of mind, which tended to turn everything into an universal struggle in which the opposing archetypes were clearly demarcated. He believed he was saving her from ‘the temptations and abominations of the stage’. She soon realised that these were what she craved more than anything. The marriage was, unsurprisingly, a brief affair, and they parted in the following year.

Albert Moore - Reading Aloud
More dreamy women are found in the paintings of Albert Moore. His Reading Aloud (1883-4) is an exemplary Aesthetic painting, an artful arrangement of vases, fabrics, carpets, bedside furniture and books – the complete Aesthetic collection. His women have rather more colour in their cheeks than Burne-Jones’, although they are draped around the bed with a similar listless languor. The Art For Art’s Sake galleries focus on the applied arts as much as they do the fine arts, demonstrating the extent to which Aestheticism sought to extend its reach beyond the galleries and into the daily settings and styles of life. There are some gorgeous clothes here. The women’s dresses are notably looser in line than the suffocatingly constricted fashions of the day. This was a move towards the ‘rational’ dress associated (negatively or positively according to your outlook) with the bohemian and artistic life in much the same way as it would be down the years. Some of these fashions seem to hark back to the empire line dresses of the early 19th century, with the material cinched below the bust and flowing freely beneath. For the gents, there’s an elegant silk smoking jacket with tassel and braid ‘frogging’, and accompanying embroidered velvet smoking cap. A small blue silk purse designed and made by Jane Morris in 1870 offers a hint of the real Janey behind the passively posed photographs an cautiously penned letters. The celebrity status which the major Aesthetic artists, writers and designers enjoyed in the 80s and 90s is intriguingly embodied in an autograph fan, on the bamboo spokes of which signatures and brief messages have been written. An ideally Aesthetic object upon which to accumulate such names. It shows the extent to which it was the artists as much as the art who fascinated the public (a fascination fed by the increasing popularity and circulation of newspapers). This idea of the artist as celebrity has a particularly modern ring to it. Another fan included here is painted in dark, night tones and decorated with a moon around which bats flitter. It would be a perfect accessory for the modern day Goth, ideal as a sun shade.

Whistler and Godwin's White House in Tite Street
There are plans and designs for ideal Aesthetic homes, the descendants of Philip Webb’s Red House, which reflected the particular fantasies and personal fancies of the individuals who dreamed them. Whistler worked very closely with Edward William Godwin on the design of his ‘White House’ in Tite Street, neat, watercoloured plans of the front elevation of which are on display here. Its clean and simple elegance of line and proportion and lack of obfuscatory ornamention failed to meet with the favour of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and Godwin was obliged to make its exterior more decorous in order for it to be realised in more than ideal form. Godwin shared Whistler’s desire to create a unified environment in which every element contributed to an overall effect. He collaborated with him on the exhibition stall for the William Watt furnishing company at the Paris Exposition of 1878, an installation (for this was more than a mere sales display) which was given the title Decorative Harmony in Yellow and Gold. Godwin also designed furniture, and was one of the chief progenitors of the Japanese style, which favoured straight lines and rectilinear angles and planes. The wood was generally black, and lacquered or inlaid designs were incorporated around the edges or on the panels. Japanese style was hugely influential, and this influence can be seen reflected in furniture (including screens), book illustration, ceramics and pottery, and clothing (there is kimono included amongst the costumes on display). This preoccupation prompts some strikingly modern designs, as well as some incongruous juxtapositions of Eastern and Western concerns. Lewis Foreman Day’s clock (1879) has intersecting planes of black wood in which is embedded a dark clock face with golden hands. Phases of the moon and hovering classical figures are etched in white against the black background. The whole things looks as if it is intended to complement a similarly designed desk or cabinet. Christopher Dresser’s nickel-plated silver teapot and claret jug from 1879 are designed with utilitarian simplicity, and their angular, flat planes look remarkably modernist. They could almost have been produced at the Bauhaus some 40 years later

Whistler - Harmony in Blue and Gold:Peacock Room
Japanese style certainly influenced the most famous Aesthetic interior, Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876), or as he preferred to call it, Harmony in Blue and Gold. This was designed, in his absence, for the Liverpool ship owner Frederick Leyland, a man of considerable wealth. Whistler covered every available space with peacock designs in blue and gold (using a forest of gold leaf) to create a sumptuously gilded and glittering setting for one of his own paintings, La Princesse du Pays de la Porcelaine (1863-4). This is a work which is itself an exemplar of Japanese influence, with its screens, patterned carpet, blue vase, decorative fans and the female figure draped in a loose kimono-like robe, leaning slightly backwards to create the sinuous curvature of representations of women in Japanese woodblock prints. The whole room was bought, after Leyland’s death, by Charles Lang Freer in 1904, taken to pieces and shipped over to America, where it graced his Detroit Mansion. After Freer’s death in 1919, it was deconstructed once more and put together again in the Freer Gallery in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, where it remains to this day. It is projected here onto the walls of a circular wooden enclosure which has been knocked up for the occasion, and which aims to give a super-cinerama surround screen experience. Unfortunately, the image is far from sharp, and the effect is more akin to looking at a CCTV recording of the room (offering more voyeurism, paralleling the peep show view of Rossetti’s room. The main result of this installation is to place an ugly silo of hardboard in the middle of the gallery; an act of sacrilege in the eyes of an Aesthete. Whistler was also let loose to paint his unrestrained interior designs on the walls and ceilings of the house which Oscar Wilde shared with Constance Lloyd after their marriage in 1884. This time, the peacock feathers were a less opulent white, and were included in the drawing room ceiling décor.

Walter Crane - Solidarity of Labour
Patterned wallpaper and hangings were also an essential component of the Aesthetic home. William Morris is well known as the pre-eminent designer in this area; so much so, indeed, that he put his socialist principles temporarily to one side in order to design the wallpaper for Queen Victoria’s residence in Balmoral. But there is also a lovely wallpaper design on display here by Walter Crane, made for Jeffrey and Co. in 1874. This was intended for a nursery, and features swans, drawn in a heavily outlined style familiar from his fairytale illustrations. The swan, with its white feathers, effortless glide and long sinuous neck is an ideal subject for Aesthetic design. Crane, like Morris, developed strong socialist beliefs towards the end of the century, and created some of the most famous works of art associated with the movement at this period, including his Solidarity of Labour prints. For Crane and Morris, the diversity of media and methods associated with the Aesthetic movement, its refusal to make qualitative distinctions between the ‘fine arts’ of painting and sculpture and the applied or decorative arts was a recognition of the artistry of craftsmanlike labour. Those involved in the manufacturing industries were, in their own way, artists; and artists, conversely, were to an extent artisanal labourers. The vital element of inspiration could be found in the work of the best of both. The rise of mass factory production disrupted this equation, turning labour into a deadening experience devoid of any creativity, which was one reason why Morris, Crane and others associated with the Arts and Crafts movement were so vehemently opposed to it.

Walter Crane - At Home
The Aesthetic portrait was also a fashionable prospect at this time, and many patrons and associates are captured in paint, carefully posed in artfully arranged interiors. Amongst these, we find Crane’s portrait of his wife, standing by the fireplace in front of which their tabby cat sits in tranquil, easeful repose. Many of the elements of the Aesthetic movement are here displayed: The blue and white ceramic tiles bordering the fireplace; the patterned, handwoven carpet; the medieval tapestry; the peacock feather which Crane’s wife absently holds in her hand; and her relaxed, languorous stance. And, for that matter, the cat itself, for cats, rather than dogs, are definitely the Aesthetic pet of choice (Rossetti’s more impractical zoological eccentricities notwithstanding). Crane’s painting has a greater simplicity then the portraits amongst which it hangs. Its interior is light and airy, as opposed to the dark, enclosed interiors within which most of the other important Aesthetic personages and patrons are portrayed. It is less like a shadowed retreat from the world, more like a home which remains open to it.