Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Robinson Instute at the Tate Britain and Patrick Keiller's Robinson Films

Back in September, I went to see an exhibition in the Tate Britain which purported to be curated by the Robinson Institute, whose aims were to ‘promote political and economic change by developing the transformative potential of images of landscape’. The exhibition used the classically columned aisles running through the centre of the Tate building, with their temple-like grandeur, to house a jumbled assemblage of materials, turning the spaces into an ad-hoc blend of museum, gallery and library. Its slightly knocked together, church hall aspect, which worked against the professionalism and sanctity of the building in which it set up its stall, gave it the appearance of a collection of artefacts scavenged and gathered together after the fall – a reconfiguration of cultural matter in the wake of a cataclysmic crash aiming to provide a new way of seeing the world. The Robinson who lent his name to the institute was (or perhaps still is) an ‘itinerant scholar’; and like his shipwrecked and marooned namesake, a man adrift, isolated and at a remove from the dominant concerns of society. His name also links him with the Robinson of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s black novel Journey to the Centre of Night, who provides the bitter, anti-social narrative voice, full of fiercely intelligent misanthropy. Celine’s Robinson evolved into the titular character of Chris Petit’s novel, ringmaster of Soho’s night circus, would-be diviner of its secret heart, and witness to the apocalyptic deluge which turns its narrow streets into the canals of a new Venice.

The character of Robinson whose explorations the exhibition drew upon is the subject of three films by Patrick Keiller: London, Robinson In Space and Robinson In Ruins. A blend of fiction and documentary, they are structured around a narration which relates the journeys and reflections of Robinson (we never learn his first name), although he remains an off-camera presence throughout. The images presented to us are coolly, classically distanced, static observations of the atmospheres of place and time, season and weather. Robinson’s excursions are roughly planned, with vague scholarly ends in mind, but allow for diversions and chance happenings or revelations along the way. They are attempts to address ‘the problem of London’ and, in Robinson In Space, ‘the problem of England’. The first two films are narrated by a travelling companion (voiced by Paul Scofield) who is both close to and distanced from his guide (the distance which comes with the well-educated background the narrator’s accent suggests, and which is embodied in the public school use of surnames rather than Christian names as a mode of address); Close enough to be a sometime lover, but not really a friend. Robinson’s explorations take the form of short journeys in search of some particular connection, often of a literary or artistic nature, with place. The seven journeys in London (although the pattern set out at the beginning becomes a little diffuse as events proceed) begins with a pilgrimage to the sources of English Romanticism: Hugh Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill, the locale for his novel The Castle of Otranto, and the view over the Thames from the hill above Twickenham, the winding curve of the river across the plain still redolent of the pastoralism of Turner and Reynolds. Robinson is in essence a latterday Romantic (a term he describes in London as defining ‘a mode of feeling’), a man out of time in a materialist age. He also shares the Romantics’ yearning for a new Utopian society arising out of the ashes of some revolution or catastrophe. In Robinson In Space, in which he embarks on a further seven journeys suggested by Daniel Defoe’s Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, spiralling outwards from the centre point of Reading, he finally discovers it in the unlikely guise of Blackpool. This it the end point of his journey, a town whose economy is based almost entirely on the pursuit of pleasure. It’s also revealed as the town he came from before he moved to London (and perhaps not coincidentally, it is where Keiller grew up, too), giving his quest something of a Wizard of Oz ‘there’s no-place like home’ circularity.

Robinson In Space explores the strange hinterlands of England, linking the blank spaces of commerce (the container ports of Sheerness and Tilbury), justice and containment (the newly built and privately run prisons at Blakenhurst and Doncaster), self-contained mall worlds (Bluewater and Merry Hill), and military, communications and power installations (the Menwith Hills geodosic ‘golf ball’ tracking stations, DERA – the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency – at Malvern, the smoking cooling towers of Didcot Power Station and the monumental bunkers of Sellafield, and the Hiatt Works, with its historical links to the slave trade). Literary associations with land, place and memory are unearthed and followed up along the way: Paul Nash’s Wittenham Clumps; Daniel Defoe’s supposed meeting with Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe, at the Llandoger Trow wharfside pub in Bristol; and Shandy Hall, where Laurence Sterne set his labyrinthine cock and bull story Tristram Shandy. The final image, of lorries, trains and cars shuttling back and forth over adjacent bridges (the camera angle making it seem as if they are stacked one on top of the other in rising, Metropolis-style layers) spanning the Tyne in Newcastle, is choreographed to Allan Gray’s floating, whole-tone scaled music from Powell and Pressburger’s dream for a post-war Britain A Matter of Life and Death. These hypnotically arrayed bridges with their perpetual contrary motion portray an England caught between an industrial past and some new future configuration, in the meantime suspended in some indeterminate no-place, filling its uncelebrated midlands and obscure peripheries with deliberately faceless, inaccessible and secretive bases, enclosed complexes and depopulated compounds.

If Robinson In Space criss-crossed England observing the furtive landscape of its new service industrial base, then Robinson In Ruins concentrates on a more narrow radius surrounding the city of Oxford. Robinson, having, by the time of Robinson In Space, been dismissed from the teaching position we were told he held in London, has now, it is revealed, spent some time in prison. This may well have been an outcome of his investigations and reports in Robinson In Space. Paul Scofield’s narrator is, of necessity, gone (the actor having died in 2008), replaced by another ex-lover, this time female and voiced with calm authority by Vanessa Redgrave. Robinson In Ruins is presented as a specimen of the found footage genre, a device generally associated with verite-style horror movies. Its filmed content and the written comments read out by Redgrave purportedly derive from 11 film cans and a notebook found in a caravan in the corner of a field. From the beginning, Robinson states that he is ‘looking for somewhere to haunt’, plotting the course towards his conspicuous absence. The evidence he leaves suggests that he has succeeded in managing his disappearance (or has been ‘disappeared’), and is perhaps now dead. His journeys on foot through the villages and fields surrounding Oxford explore in microcosm the agricultural history of England and the current state of arable farming in relation to the wider condition (bad, in short) of the national and global economy.

Rocket sheds at Westcott
Robinson, true to his Romantic nature, seeks out the pastoral picturesque, the soul of a certain vision of Englishness (the kind which put the Hay Wain on hundreds of living room walls), believing that by framing such pictures ‘in the manner of Turner’ with his camera, he will dispel some ‘great Malady’ which has infected and possessed the spirit of place. He also visits SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest) and finds hope for the future (albeit not necessarily a human future) in nature, and plant life in particular. A certain strain of apocalyptic, Blakean mysticism becomes apparent in his usually empirically analytical and intuitively sceptical outlook. He dreams of building eco-villages in old, disused clay pits, ‘experimental settlements in spaces of extraordinary biomorphic architecture’ (spaces which Keiller, trained and practicing as an architect, has perhaps dreamed of too). He is attempting to imagine a new form of futurism, a new kind of science fiction vision to replace the old, now-tainted variety. This futurism past is represented by the old 50s hangars of the rocket testing site (or ‘Guided Projectile Establishment’) at Westcott, a site now occupied by a business park. Robinson’s mysticism extends outwards beyond the bounds of the Earth towards speculations about a cosmic connection linking meteorite falls and historical moments of seismic social and political change. He also believes that ‘he could communicate with a network of non-human intelligences’. These principally seem to take the alien-sounding form of Xanthoria Parietina, more commonly known as lichen. Seen in close up, they do indeed form extraordinary biomorphic florescences against the rigidly geometrical green tesseract patterning of the Newbury roadsign (a beautiful image which was reproduced as a large photograph in the exhibition). Exotic beliefs stemming from a science fiction imagination (frequently indistinguishable from reality in the bewilderingly swift and ceaseless flux of the present) were also voiced in Robinson In Space (hence the title, I suppose), in which Robinson ‘explained that life on Earth evolved after the arrival of Buckminsterfullerenes in meteorites. Buckminsterfullerenes are complex carbon-based molecules with a vaguely geodesic structure (hence the nod to Fuller and his geodesic domes), which do indeed, it has been deduced from studying meteorite impact craters, exist in space. Robinson had also visited Horsell Common (a SSSI) in the course of his travels, the site which HG Wells chose for the first landing of his Martian cylinders in War of the Worlds. In Robinson’s SF imagination, the boundaries of fiction and fact, of the metaphorical and the real, become indistinct, leading to his delusions of alien plant communication (unless Robinson In Ruins, which is after all itself a fiction, has crossed genres and become a science fiction movie).

The lichen which so fascinates Robinson is seen as a model for a new kind of co-operative social structure. It exemplifies a symbiosis, a conjunction which benefits both participants, actually comprising two different but interdependent species – a fungus and a green algae. Robinson’s belief that he can communicate with a fungal algae may present a strong case for his solitary wanderings and mental divagations having led him too far from reality (and sanity); But as a metaphor, it has a simple elegance, and in close up an unearthly beauty (the geometrical backdrop of the metallic sign being the human world, and the invading spread of the lichen the alien). Robinson’s biophilia (‘the love of life and living systems’, as the narrator helpfully informs us) is manifested through many shots of plants and flowers. These take the steady, statically framed gaze common to all the films to new, unhurried lengths, inviting a meditative absorption in the detail of movement and sound. A shot of a cluster of teasle heads, their spiky ovals blossoming in pink and green, boiled-sweet colours, is taken from ground level, with the blue sky as a speckless backdrop. It makes them look like some strange alien forest rising improbably into the summer haze. We watch them for what seems like several minutes, as butterflies flit on and off, and their occasional nodding motion makes manifest the light wafts of warm air. Another sequence invites us to observe a stand of foxgloves trembling and swaying in the wind, bending out of the shot from time to time before springing back into the frame. This movement makes them seem vigorously alive, and their flexibility in the face of the passing breezes offers an Aesopian fabular lesson, a variant on the tale of the oak and the reed. The static form and extended length of these vegetative takes (‘vaster than empires and more slow’ as Andrew Marvell might have put it) makes them look like photographs possessed with sudden motion, and reflects Keiller’s background in architectural photography. The exhibition contains a good number of photographs, including some by Keiller himself. The stills from the film work perfectly as carefully composed photos, as did those from Robinson In Space included alongside the published and annotated script. Other photographs in the exhibition include selections from Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series, and Bernd and Hiller Becker’s Coal Bunkers (1974), which captured vernacular and sculptural industrial architectural forms shortly before they were to become redundant. They were often in a state of disuse and disrepair, a kind of concrete gothic ruin which possesses its own desolate Romanticism.

Framing the landscape - the Wittenham Clumps (Robinson In Space)
The exhibition followed the form of the films, tidily compartmentalising itself into seven separate sections, reflecting the various stages of Robinson’s journey around Oxford in Robinson In Ruins and the themes and historical events it encompassed. The first part, entitled Robinsonism, (thereby granting the character immortality as a philosophical system), sets out the nature of the project, its basis in a reflection on and detailed framing of landscape, after the manner of the Romantics. Robinson, drifting towards a Blakean mysticism, was hoping that ‘if he looked at the landscape hard enough, it would reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events’. This is a transposition to a rural context of Robinson’s philosophy of urban observation which underpinned the film London, in which he put forward the similar belief that ‘if he looked at it hard enough he could cause the surface of the city to reveal to him the molecular basis of historical events’. The important difference between the two, learned through the travels and incarceration of the intervening years, lies in the removal of the active, causational element. This philosophical shift betokens a willingness to suspend the ego and become a part of the surroundings in order to understand it, rather than to impose oneself upon it. Robinson succeeds in this to the extent of eventually disappearing into the molecular grain of the landscape, becoming a part of its accumulated strata of history, fiction and myth. The introductory notice to this first part of the exhibition states that ‘the lnstitute continues his enquiry, with the aid of works by artists, writers, historians, geographers, cartographers and geologists, and a variety of other objects, that advance its exploration of unfinished histories in landscape’.

The architecture of New Babylon - Constant Nieuwenhuys
There are books which form a sample of the Institute’s imaginary library, some of which are available to read at a desk, chained to the display cabinets behind to prevent pilfering. These include Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, the locales in which are thought to have drawn upon the Otmoor landscape north east of Oxford, a central site in Robinson In Ruins; A book of Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon plans for an utopian future city from the 60s and 70s, based on a world in which land has become collectively owned, an influence on Robinson’s dreams of an ‘extraordinary biomorphic architecture’ and new social model; Eric Hobsbawm’s history of the Captain Swing agricultural riots of 1830; Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which Robinson had read whilst travelling around Oxford and its environs in Robinson In Space, the narrator remarking ‘I think we were never so happy as on the day of our pilgrimage to the memorials of Robert Burton’ (suggesting that Robinson was most content when in a state of pleasurable melancholia); Jorge Luis Borges stories collected in Labyrinths, for their penetration of the surface of things, their dismantling of the singular vision of history, the idea of the discrete and indivisible self, and the immutable materiality of the world – for revealing the molecular basis of perception and reality; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as an exemplar of the Romantic worldview which Robinson shares, and as a founding work of the science fiction imagination, which Brian Aldiss, in his history of the genre, characterises as being ‘in the Gothic or post-Gothic mode’.

The second section of the exhibition is entitled 1795, referring to the amendment to the Settlement Act made in that year, which allowed for much greater freedom of movement of the labour force, and is seen as key moment in the development of an industrialised economy. Robinson links this historical shift with a meteorite fall in Yorkshire, and a mineral specimen of space rock is duly displayed. A close-up of the Newbury roadsign with its blooming Xanthoria Parietina stain was also included, pointing the way from the fields to the urban centres, and through its symbiotic biological patina, to the possibility of alternate forms of social organisation (or to post-human futures). A quotation from Frederic Jameson’s The Seeds of Time (no relation to John Wyndham’s SF collection – or is there?), also included in the film, points to the vital importance of visionary art and fiction in offering new and different ways of seeing the world: ‘it seems to be easier’, he writes, ‘for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imaginations’.

GPSS signposts
The third section looks at Greenham Common, Aldermaston and the Government Pipeline System (GPSS), the landscape of militarised power. The GPSS traces the hidden circulatory system of the national body’s lifeblood. Its hidden subterranean presence undermines notions of an ineradicable English identity rooted in the rural landscape. It is a system which is linked to a longer pipeline heading East across Europe, a drip feed making Britain’s dependence on wider geopolitical forces apparent. Robinson also notes tributaries branching off to military bases and weapons research establishments, many owned or part-owned by the US government or American corporations. A map outlined this veinous web, and there was a model of one of the pipeline markers, looking like a homely, slope-roofed birdhouse, painted with cheerful yellow stripes. Robinson used these markers to follow the pipeline north to the village of Ipsden, near which he passed a field of opium poppies, grown for medical use. They had a hypnotic effect, wavering with a pink blurring of vision commensurate with their narcotising purpose. The idea of secret government power sources piped into bases from alien sources is illustrated in science-fictional form in Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass 2, those sources genuinely extra-planetary rather than merely extra-national in this case. This played on a small screen, with headphones for those who wanted to listen to the soundtrack. Unfortunately it was the 1957 Hammer film with Brian Donlevy in the title role, playing Professor Quatermass as an entirely inappropriate American tough guy, rather than the original 1955 BBC series. It was a cheaper and more concise choice, and served well enough to make the point.

Section 4was entitled the Non-Human, The Post-Human, and looked at Robinson’s biophilia, and his argument for the primacy of symbiotic relationships in nature. Included amongst the plant studies and Keiller’s own picture of foxgloves (a still taken from Robinson In Ruins) was one of Michael Landy’s etchings of hardy plants dismissed as weeds, the colonisers of post-industrial wastelands and urban cracks and patches of scrub – in this case, a study of herb robert. William Blake’s patron and follower John Linnell’s Study of A Tree from 1806 foregrounds the tree as a beautiful form in itself, rather than as just one element in a landscape. Philip Wilson Steer’s Elm Trees from 1922 remains as a record of a species now wiped out from the British Isles, a foretaste of the potential for mass extinctions.

The Agriculture sector, number five, included the note that ‘Robinson rarely saw anyone working in the fields, even during harvest’, the arable farming processes now being so heavily mechanised. In Robinson In Ruins, we watch huge combine harvesters slowly and inexorably eat their way through broad expanses of wheat, looking like unstoppable robotic mega locusts. Turner’s Harvest Home illustrates the older ways, with a celebratory gathering of farm hands in a huge barn, the golden glow of the evening landscape framed through its doors, the cavernous spaces waiting to be filled with the last wagons of hay just pulling up. James Ward’s 1808 painting Beef is a patriotic display of plenty, two hulking sides hanging up raw, bloody and dripping. Meanwhile, Andreas Gursky’s large scale photograph Chicago Trading Floor II, on which yellow and orange shirts blended in an almost abstract way with the blue of computer screens, indicated the kind of place where the fluctuating values of the wheat harvest and other farming produce was likely to be determined.

Satellite dishes on Enslow Hill
Stage six of the exhibition’s survey was based around the year 1930, a year of revolutions. The Captain Swing riots spread across the country, and in the seven towns surrounding Otmoor in Oxfordshire, there was active and recurrent resistance to attempts at enclosure and the diversion of the river. Robinson notes that it was also the year in which the Liverpool to Manchester Railway was opened, and that on the 15th of February, a meteorite landed in Launton near Bicester. The final section, Hanged, Drawn and Quartered, ventures further back in time while remaining geographically rooted in the Oxfordshire fields. 1596 marked the year in which the carpenter Barholomew Steer called for a rebellion against the local gentry who were enclosing the land, declaring his intention to tear down the fences they had put up and attack the manor house. In the end, only three other men turned up at his meeting point on Enslow Hill, and they failed to tear down any fences or make their proposed march on London to demand a change to the enclosure laws. He was said to have preached ‘the politics of Cockagne’, a vision of common ownership, plenty and creative leisure which would later be reflected in Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon some four hundred years later. The would be rebels were swiftly apprehended and taken to Newgate prison, where Steer undoubtedly died after torture. The surviving two members of the rebellion that never was were brought back to Enslow Hill, where they were hung, drawn and quartered. The site now looks down on an array of satellite dishes, relaying images and messages almost instantaneously around the globe, nestling in an old disused quarry. It is also an area rich in fossils (some of them on display in the exhibition), geological and historical planes of time intersecting with the invisible, intangible and transitory networks of contemporary information overload.

Hepworth and Hamilton
Various works of art from the Tate collections were displayed throughout to reflect Robinson’s multi-layered and –disciplined outlook on the world, his efforts to make connections. His approach was echoed in the Psychogeographical Guide to Paris produced by Situationist artist and prankster Guy Debord in 1957. Henry Moore’s Family Group, with its roughly formed bronze figures of mother and father holding a baby between them, draws on geological forms and suggests a connection between humanity and the landscape which it inhabits. It also, more prosaically, bears some resemblance to the piece of public art which Robinson films outside a LIDL supermarket on a retail estate. Barbara Hepworth’s Sun and Moon sets red and black discs, the latter intersecting with an open circle as if about to eclipse it, against a frottage background suggestive of a ploughed field. It gives semi-abstract, symbolic form to cyclical patterns of nature and the seasons, as does Richard Hamilton’s Microcosmos: Plant Cycle, with its watery sun cresting the horizon like the arc of a cranium. A Paul Nash sketch of the Wittenham Clumps in Oxfordshire, made in 1943-4 near the end of his life, echoes Robinson’s travels in investing these twinned hilltop stands of beech with a personal symbolism and meaning, and the sense of connection with a particular place through time. Robinson notes them during his wanderings across Oxfordshire in Robinson In Space. Nash’s Totes Meer has intimations of a bleak post-human world in its depiction of a wintry ocean whose waves are composed of the wreckage of crashed German bombers. Beyond its specific wartime context, it could be seen as a sea of industrial detritus, creaking and grinding as it washes up on the shore of the world. Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze bust Shattered Head and Nigel Henderson’s Head of a Man (which looks a bit like William Burroughs), both from 1956, look like they are either cracked and decayed, dug out of the ground after many years, or half-formed, golems made from the stuff of the earth – a modernist Gog and Magog.

Henderson and Paolozzi
How much sense any of this would have made to those unfamiliar with Keiller’s Robinson films is uncertain. The Institute’s assemblage would have seemed a merely random gathering of objects and artistic works. But they may well have been intriguing enough to make the viewer want to make the connections between the apparently disparate elements and seek out the source. Which would have been well worth their while.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

John Cassavetes' Husbands

John Cassevetes’ 1970 film Husbands, re-released in a new digital restoration, showed at the Exeter Picture House last week, and I wasn’t about to miss such a rare cinematic screening for one of my favourite directors. I sat in the auditorium with the two other people who’d come along, one of whom lost patience with the film’s rambling longueurs and walked, leaving just myself and one other to see the picture to its abrupt and creditless finale. An abrupt cut and the screen goes black, the house lights fading up. Cassavetes had crammed all the credits into two opening title cards so that he could fit as much of the considerable amount of film he’d shot into the running time the studio were insisting upon as possible. The early exit and minimal audience are perhaps understandable (and this was the mid-week matinee timeslot into which the Picture House shoves the bfi touring re-releases it seems reluctantly obliged to screen). It certainly is a difficult film, offering little concession to the viewer in terms of narrative progression, sympathetic characterisation, conventional cinematic technique and professional gloss, or brisk pacing and editorial concision. But it does strive for an emotional intensity in its revelation of the inner lives of its three middle aged, middle class American protagonists, confronting a moment of existential crisis in their lives which they struggle to articulate and understand. Cassavetes himself plays Gus, with his friends and frequent subsequent collaborators Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara playing Archie and Harry respectively. Cassavetes, Falk and Gazzara aim for a level of truth in their depictions of their characters which steers clear of easy sentiment or rote habits or tics. It’s very much an actor’s film, and furthers Cassavetes’ sense of life as a performance, which his films all explore in one way or another.

The film begins with a montage of photographs, snapshots of four friends larking about by the side of the pool, showing off their muscles and their beer bellies (the latter much the more impressive), their families looking on from the sidelines, the bassline of a rollicking tune providing the memory track for these glimpses of good times. We then jarringly cut to the silence of a parade of black funeral cars, Archie, Gus and Harry weaving their way through the throng of mourners to hear the eulogy to their friend Stuart, one of the quartet in the photos, who has died suddenly and unexpectedly. It is a bitterly cold New York day, and the men look stunned, lost and bewildered. The heat from the cars creates a shimmering haze in the wintry air, adding to their sense of the unreality of what is happening. The frozen chill of the day acts as a metaphor for the frozen state of their lives, their numbed sensibilities, which their shock and their inability to find an adequate response to it forces them to confront. Travelling in the back seat of one of the cars after the funeral, they review the minister’s summary of their friend’s life as if talking about a film they’d just seen. They all agree not to go home, heading instead to the city, where we find them late at night in a boozy, street singing state of wobbly, inebriate camaraderie. The next day, they engage in strenuous physical activity, playing basketball and having a swimming race, as if to prove that they still possess some of the athleticism of their youth. Then it’s back to the bar for an epic night of drinking, during which they keep the beer flowing in order to persuade the resident habitués to join in a round of competive singing. The three friends act as a reviewing panel, encouraging or goading the participants, vicariously trying to connect with an authentic expression of feeling, of something which arises from genuine experience. We never see the denouement, or find out who’s adjudged to have won, Cassavetes typically plunging us straight into the middle of a scene and abruptly cutting before it’s reached any definite conclusion.

Into the black - bog as existential void
We find the three in a black, existential void of a toilet (an expressionistic reflection of their inner states) where Archie and Gus give direct, visceral expression to their own feelings in a loud, echoing bout of vomiting and farting. It’s an emetic purging in physical form of the emotions which they are unable to express verbally. Harry is roundly mocked for not being able to vomit, to show how he feels, and notice his increasing marginalisation in this scene, Stuart’s death having upset some dynamic balance which prevailed in the friendship between the four men. In the worst insult imaginable in the universe of Cassavetes’ films, he is accused of being a ‘phoney’, a charge to which he reacts violently. We see further evidence of his violent temper the following morning when he smashes up the phone booth in the bar having failed to get through to his wife. Harry sentimentally declares his love for his friends, drawing them both close to him and declaring them to be more important to him than his wife.

The hollow routine - Harry at work
Gus and Archie return with Harry to his suburban home, where he has a violent confrontation with his wife and her mother. Restrained from further assault by Gus and Archie, who rush in from the street outside, where they’ve been waiting for him to emerge, he effectively brings his marriage dramatically crashing down around him. He leaves having forced his wife to make a declaration of love which is so patently made under duress that even his insensitive soul has to acknowledge its falsity. Harry decides to go to work, as if his life is still proceeding along its normal track. We see him in his office at the ad agency where he works, going through the motions, trying to avoid encountering anyone, but putting on the hollow charm which he can don with such ease when he bumps into a client. He sits at a draughtsman’s desk, which suggests he may once have had some creative inclinations. The advertising world he works in is presented with its usual associations of selling out and prostituting creativity for trivial commercial ends. Harry’s weary manner, beneath the surface veneer of charm, suggests that he is as sick of his working routine as he is of his domestic life. Gus also goes to work in his dentist’s surgery, even though he is still dishevelled and unshaven, having still not made it back home. He sees a patient who is so nervous she can’t stop giggling, so that he can’t even begin to examine her teeth. All the time, Archie keeps hovering at his shoulder, trying to articulate in his slow and hesitant way some nagging sense of unease, of emotions still not resolved. The two leave together and go to seek out Harry, sensing he may need their help. He has also fled from his office, and meets them on the street outside. Having picked up his passport from home before his tempestuous encounter with his wife, he impulsively declares that he is going to fly to London. Archie and Gus decide that they should accompany him, if only to tuck him in safely when he arrives before returning home. ‘We’re all jerks here’, as Gus observes, fools requiring each other’s company more than ever at this time. We see them on the plane, the exhilaration of their impulsive trip already wearing off. Archie in particular looks anxious and uneasy, knocking back the scotches to allay his nerves. It seems evident that by this stage they are following Harry out of a feeling of loyalty, sensing that he needs to be looked after and possibly protected from his own worst impulses.

Awkward intimacies - Archie and Julie
When they arrive in England, it is teeming it down, and the rain doesn’t relent for their entire stay, confining them indoors throughout. They find a hotel, where they take adjoining rooms with connecting doors, and gather together in the bathroom (a bit more salubrious than the black toilets in the New York bar). They go out gambling at a fancy casino, where they play a noisy game of craps (apologising for being loud and American) and quickly lose their stake. They agree to try and pick up some women, and we witness the cringeworthy ineptitude of their efforts in unflinching detail. Nevertheless, they do manage to bring three sceptical and wary partners back to the hotel: Archie a young Chinese woman, played by Noelle Kao, who doesn’t appear to speak English (indeed, she doesn’t appear to speak at all) but who we later learn is called Julie; Gus a tall, elegant but nervous and sensitive woman called Mary, played by Jenny Runacre in her first major role; and Harry a well bred Chelsea girl called Pearl, played by Jenny Lee Wright. Again, it’s characteristic of Cassavetes’ approach that he focuses on the most awkward moments of the three men’s introductory approaches and rusty chat up lines and never gets to the point at which their crude seductions meet with unlikely success. Having retreated to their separate rooms, we follow Gus’ fumbling tussles with Mary and Archie’s stilted, painful attempts at communication with the mutely passive Julie in extreme close-up. Peter Falk’s nose appears to fill the entire screen at one point, and the cameraman does his best to keep pace with Cassavetes’ and Runacre’s vigorous wrestling and horseplay. Harry breaks down in tears before being led off by Pearl, and we find her consoling him as he confesses his feelings of confusion, his sense of being adrift.

Guilt offerings - Gus and Archie come home
The next morning, Archie and Gus see off their partners, both Mary and Julie leaving in a state of considerable ill-will. The women get soaked in the relentless rain, a drenching which symbolises the shabby and unchivalrous way in which they have been used. Runacre’s character slips on the pavement and falls flat on her backside in a moment (evidently authentic) which really makes you feel for her, and loathe Gus for his offhand dismissal of her feelings. The two friends declare themselves to be in love, but it’s a self-serving feeling, a revival of the romantic impulsiveness of youth, the excitement of which will soon fade. They decide it’s time to go home and face up to their responsibilities, refreshed by their adventures. They find Harry with a new set of ‘friends’, however, a surrogate family he has picked up with an older woman and her two teenage daughters, who are sharing a bottle of champagne which he has ordered. He tells Archie and Gus that he’s going to stay, and dances with the older woman whilst singing a lonely, desolate and broken version of Dancing In The Dark, whilst the others sip the champagne which is evidently the price of his their continued presence. If he were taking part in the drunken singing contest which he and his friends instigated earlier, he would no doubt have won, although not necessarily for reasons he would have immediately comprehended. He doesn’t realise the extent to which he’s baring his soul, and this morning after parting is a sad affair, a desperate attempt on Harry’s part to prolong a moment which has already faded, to keep the party going well beyond the point at which its energy has been spent. It’s symptomatic of a desire to maintain a permanent state of carefree adolescence, free from care and the weight of accumulated responsibilities. The three friends say their goodbyes, and Gus and Archie return to America. When they disembark at the airport lounge, they stock up on toys and gifts, filling large paper sacks which they heave up under their arms, bulging and spilling over the edge with guilt offerings. They go back to their neighbouring homes and we follow Gus up his drive, where he is greeted first by his young daughter (in fact Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands' daughter Alexandra), who bursts into tears (very convincingly), and then by his son (Nick Cassavetes, who would go on to be a filmaker in his own right), who shakes his head and tells him ‘boy, are you in trouble’. As he walks around the corner to the back door, the scene cuts and the screen goes dark. Harry’s house apart, we never get to see the homes from which these men have taken flight, never meet the wives whose confidences they have never sought over their loss. Cassavetes would go on to explore the female psyche in similarly unflinching detail in the films he made starring his wife Gena Rowlands in the 70s and 80s: Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night and Love Streams. But Husbands is a film about men and their intimate friendships, and as such, women remain by and large peripheral or unseen presences.

Harry leaves home
Cassavetes had been considering a film based around three friends throwing aside the established pattern of their lives and heading off on a wild and impulsive binge for some time. He originally approached Lee Marvin and Anthony Quinn, both of whom he knew well, with the idea of a story in which the three of them would travel across America at a point of mid-life crisis, hitting bars in various towns along the way and trying to figure out where it had all gone wrong (or indeed if it had at all). Each might have been interested individually, but conspicuously failed to get on, and the prospect of spending a considerable amount of time in each other’s company was not one they found appealing. Cassavetes presented the basic idea to Falk and Gazzara on separate occasions, both more or less casual meetings at which he asked them whether they wanted to be in his movie: Falk at a Laker’s basketball game and Gazzara in a shouted exchange as he was leaving the Universal Studios car park and more coherently over lunch at a restaurant. He knew neither of them personally at the time, but they all became very close whilst making the film, and a lifelong friendship was forged. They would both go on to feature in further Cassavetes films; Falk co-starring with Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence, and Gazzara taking the lead role in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

Cassavetes has an erroneous reputation as an improvising director, filming performances which are spontaneously arrived at in front of the camera. It’s partly his own fault, since he ended his first film Shadows with a credit which read ‘the film you have just seen was an improvisation’. It wasn’t, and neither was Husbands. Both were closely scripted, and the script adhered to, by and large. The jazz milieu of Shadows (and its Charles Mingus soundtrack), its reputation as being a ‘Beat’ movie, and Cassavetes’ own role as a jazz piano playing gumshoe in Johnny Staccato probably added to this general impression of compositional looseness. I’ve just started watching Staccato (as it was first known) again for the first time since it was shown as the opening part of a musical TV strand on the BBC presented by Charlie Gillett many years ago, which introduced me to Cassavetes. It’s enjoyably noirish fare, with an interesting if hackneyed jazz club backdrop (including real musicians such as Barney Kessel and Red Norvo), and several episodes were directed by Cassavetes himself, at his own insistence. Gena Rowlands co-stars in one episode, and the inserted scenes shot on the streets of New York echo those in Shadows (which he was in the process of editing at the time he was making Staccato) and in Husbands (including the hilarious walking race scene with Falk, apparently based on real challenges issued by the highly competitive Cassavetes). As with the performances in Mike Leigh’s films, the appearance of spontaneity is hard won. There is a great deal of improvisation, but it doesn’t take place in front of the camera, but in the many rehearsals and intense discussions in which characters are explored, and the things they might say or do discussed. The results of such sessions were incorporated into the endless revisions Cassavetes made to his ever-evolving script, along with any chance happenings, ‘accidents’ or incidental observations which made an impact along the way.

Jazz gumshoe - Johnny Staccato
He encouraged Falk and Gazzara to draw on their own personalities and experiences and to analyse their feelings and beliefs in an uninhibited and unselfconscious way in order to build and understand their characters. He also allowed them to choose their own names for their characters, to give them a sense of owning and inhabiting them. Gazzara’s Harry is loud and voluble, capable of displaying great warmth and charm but also a bullying aggression. Falk’s Archie is reserved and ponderous, very slow and deliberate in his manner, but also funny in an inquisitive and perceptive way. Cassavetes’ Gus is antic, quixotic and a little devious and calculating, disguising (or perhaps at times communicating) his feelings through humour. He’s also an arch provocateur, observing and listening to others and prodding them towards certain reactions – much like a film director, in fact. The film was also a very personal one for Cassavetes, almost an expression and exorcism of his own fears and regrets and a recognition of his demonic side. The scene in which the friends play basketball is a recognition of the faded sporting dreams of his youth (and he does look pretty useful on the court). He had also recently mourned the loss of his elder brother, so the sense of shock at losing someone who dies suddenly and unexpectedly in the prime of their life was very real to him. Falk and Gazzara were very divergent in their acting styles, and it was Gazzara who was better suited to Cassavetes’ directorial approach. As a product of the Method acting school, having studied at the Dramatic Workshop and the Actors Studio where the Method originated, he was used to looking inside, to tap his own feelings and memories in order to build up a detailed and emotionally rounded character. Falk, however, was a more traditional type, and felt the need for definite and explicit direction. This caused a certain amount of tension since Cassavetes had no intention of providing it. He wanted Falk to find his own way towards understanding Archie. In the end, Falk’s uneasiness about this approach (an unease which he never dispelled in working with Cassavetes) actually contributed to his performance (as it did in A Woman Under the Influence, particularly during Gena Rowlands’ electrifying breakdown scene), with Archie’s confusion, hesitancy and bewilderment a dominant, defining element of his character. The scene in which he badgers Gus in the dentist’s surgery could well be an echo of Falk’s own efforts to get Cassavetes to tell him just exactly what he should be saying and doing, and why.

Court jesters - past athleticism
Cassavetes had no truck with conventional cinematographical techniques and set ups, and he fired his cameraman on Husbands, Aldo Tonti, shortly after they began shooting, partly because he was too ‘professional’, and he felt he was likely to want to do things his way and impose his own style on the material. To replace, the relatively inexperienced Vic Kemper was promoted director of photography, his first big break. Cassavetes favoured long, uninterrupted takes, often shot several times, and used up a lot of film in the process. This gave the actors space and time to get into the rhythm and feel of a scene without constant disruptions breaking their concentration, and ensured that the moments in which their performances really came to life would be captured. It also meant that there was a great deal to do when the film was in the can and it came to the editing stage. It was in the editing that an element of improvisatory composition might be said to have come into play, with the sounding out of different combinations, variations and alternative rhythms. Cassavetes spent a huge amount of time editing Husbands, almost the entirety of 1970, during which he searched through the footage and tried out different combinations in an attempt to get something of what he was searching for. What that was might not even have been all that clear to him, but he hoped to discover it in the creative forge of the cutting room. He produced a rough cut of about four hours, which was further whittled down by editor Peter Tanner and producer Al Ruban to just under 3 hours. This version was apparently a very effective, wild and crazy comedy, justifying the film’s subtitle ‘A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom’, which appears darkly ironic in the finally released cut. Any comedy by that time is in the mordant observation of flagrant folly, flailing desparation and epic feats of self-delusion. Cassavetes declared Tanner’s cut to be ‘too entertaining’, fired him and took on the editing himself. He seemed perversely displeased by the extent to which people had enjoyed the film, and set out to make sure the audience would have a harder time. He intended to make an anti-romantic picture, the obverse of a Hollywood idea of a buddy movie, and had repeatedly said on set that he wanted ‘no cute. Nothing cute’. He wanted his film to be an unsentimental portrayal of male friendship and behaviour, with all its attendant evasions, rituals and obligations.

Lost - Archie and Gus at the funeral
Cassavetes became completely lost in the editing, as if he were mesmerised by the footage of the characters he, Falk and Gazzara had created, and produced at least five separate versions of the film. Some of these put the focus more exclusively on Archie or Harry, making it Falk’s or Gazzara’s picture. He even dictated a novelisation (never published) which took the form of cross-cutting internal monologues, which would have given the reader (not to mention Falk) an intimate and detailed understanding of each of the characters and their backgrounds. This level of obsessiveness and the reluctance to let the whole thing go shows just how important Husbands was to Cassavetes, how much of himself he had invested in it. A 154 minute version was finally shown at the San Francisco Film Festival before an audience of cinephiles who were, in line with the times, radically-minded and political. It received a volubly negative reaction. Cassavetes and Falk appeared to take questions after the screening, and was asked whether the characters reflected his, Falk’s and Gazzara’s own lives. He replied that yes, they’re us, and Falk gave an affirmative nod. The hostility levels in the theatre rose appreciably. This was a period in which the feminist movement was burgeoning and growing in confidence, making an increasing impact on the wider public consciousness. Husbands seemed to embody many of the brutish behaviours and complacent assumptions which feminism was taking a stand against. The three married men go off carousing together, leaving their wives at home to look after the children, and pick up other women whom they then casually dump the next day; they all gang together to bully and abuse a woman in a bar; and one of them assaults his wife and her mother. In equating himself with his character onscreen, it was almost as if Cassavetes was going out of his way to make the audience hate him. It’s probably a good job that Gazzara wasn’t there, since his character Harry is probably the least sympathetic of all three.

Sidewalk racing - shooting on the streets
It was in Cassavetes’ nature to want to provoke a strong reaction. Any authentic expression of feeling was good, even if it was one of hostility and burning rage. In an oddly self-defeating attempt to define what he was doing with these characters, who he himself described as acting like bastards, he said ‘we try to prove that selfishness is important, a way to stay sensitive’. Far from being a statement of some odious Ayn Randian axiom, he seems to be suggesting that a certain amount of self-regard is necessary to an awareness of what you really feel, to find out what you really want in life, as opposed to merely following social or familial expectations. Made suddenly and shockingly aware of their own mortality, the three friends set out deliberately to tear up the rules of social politesse in order to stir up some sense of what they really want, what is important to them. Cassavetes went on to make what could be seen as his response to feminism in his 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, and his 1980 picture Gloria was effectively a feminist riposte to the macho posturing and dick-waving gunplay of the Hollywood gangster movie. So he made reparations in the end, and maybe won back the approval of the San Francisco audience.

Barroom bullies - prolonging the agony
Columbia Studios, to which Husbands had been sold, demanded further cuts be made to bring the running time down, and a 142 minute version was produced for release, a re-edit which led to a falling out between Cassavetes and his long-suffering (but he always came back for more) producer Al Ruban. Once the film was in the cinemas, they then went ahead and trimmed a further five minutes or so, without Cassavetes approval. He was naturally pretty livid. These cuts were made in the two scenes which the studio had always strongly objected to: the toilet vomiting scene and the bar singing competition scene which precedes it. The vomiting scenes in the black void toilets may be seedy and rank, with the sound mixed to a level which foregrounds what is happening behind the cubicle door, refusing to allow us to ignore it; but it is a pivotal moment in that it marks the point at which Gus and Archie fully acknowledge the loss of their friend, their own fragile mortality and the inevitability of their physical decline. To edit it out completely (there’s only the barest hint of it in this print) is to lose something important. The cuts to the barroom scene involve a significant shortening of the trials the three men put the tartan cap wearing woman played by Leola Harlow through in their attempts to make her invest her song (‘it was just a little love affair’) with the authentic feeling they adjudge her performance to lack. This may seem like a blessing. The prolonged nature of the men’s boorish bullying is designed to make the audience feel ill at ease (although Peter Falk’s striptease is undeniably amusing) and to shortcircuit any natural sympathy they might feel for these characters over the loss of their friend. But again, it’s a scene which is central to the overall conceit of life as performance, performance as life, and of the need to express something genuine and real in that performance. We also lose the affecting rendition of Brother, Can You Spare a Dime sung by John Kullers’ careworn old man, which was a particular favourite moment of Cassavetes’. The version which has been restored and sent on the rounds of the regional cinemas is this shorter, Columbia approved cut, so we were deprived of the full digital eruption of ceramic bowl-amplified retching. The longer version, with the above cuts intact, is widely available on dvd, released by Columbia, so it’s perplexing that this non-director’s cut should be given the archival seal of authenticity. However, it’s great to have it back in the cinemas at any length, and to see it on the big screen in all its awkward, messy and bloody-minded (ie human) glory.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Gravenhurst, Mary Epworth and Ed Wood Jr. in Exeter

Nick Talbot’s band Gravenhurst played at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Exeter on Saturday as part of a triple bill alongside Ed Wood Jr and Mary Epworth. Ed Wood Jr, a French drums and guitar/keyboards duo, kicked off proceedings in fiery style. Sharing nothing of their namesake’s shambolic amateurism, but something of his tendency to mix together wildly incongruous elements to form a weirdly compelling fusion, they produced a complex and extremely disciplined noise of a kaleidoscopic, ever-shifting nature. Sounding a little like Battles at times, particularly in the opening number, with its pounding glam drum pulse, they negotiated knotty time-signatures and lightning rococo riffs with effortless ease. There was an element of nonchalant prog virtuosity in the way the guitarist hammered on melodic runs whilst simultaneously playing keyboard lines with his right hand. All that was missing was a modern indie variant on the Rick Wakeman glittering cape to provide a suitably superheroic costume. The drummer played with agility and military marching band precision, and the unison passages between the musicians were a thrilling conjunction of melodic bursts and rolling rhythmic cells. Though mostly an instrumental band, there was a smattering of vocals, mostly accompanying some pummelling hardcore guitar. I didn’t catch the lyrics, but the growling tone and aggressive intensity of the sound suggested that they probably weren’t about a pleasant picnic on a sunny summer’s afternoon. Effects pedals filled out the sound and left us at the end with a loop of a recorded voice blending with delayed guitar and keyboard noise fading to silence after the instruments had been laid down and the musicians bade us thankyou and goodnight.

Mary Epworth
Mary Epworth played in a duo with a drummer, alternating between a handsome hollow-bodied guitar and an electric autoharp, with tone control knobs and all. Her music encompassed a variety of styles, from a 70s style bluesy soul through country rock, early PJ Harvey style rock primitivism and raucous folk singalongs. Saddle Song was an infectious shanty style number, with swaying deckside rhythm and sturdy phase-swelled autoharp strumming. Other songs incorporated some fine close harmonising with the drummer, which brought to mind Gillian Welch’s singing with musical partner David Rawlings. Epworth’s guitar playing didn’t extend beyond providing full downstruck chords, but combined with the powerful drumming, this gave the music an uncluttered, driving forcefulness. At the centre of everything, however, was the deep and rich resonance of her voice, which has a classically soulful quality without ever resorting to showy dynamics. A fine instrument used with taste and restraint. She let us know about her weekend activities in between songs in what she said was like a mini-holiday. Going to see owls and eagles at a bird sanctuary (she is obsessed by wildlife, she said, as her songs Black Doe testifies), eating a quality scotch egg, and, the day after the concert, going to see a theatrical adaptation of a M.R.James ghost story. I must say, it sounds like a fine time. She ended by putting down her instruments and handing her guitar to the drummer, who climbed out from behind his kit. She then sang a gospel-tinged song, accompanied by a guitar treated to provide additional church organ organ shades. A fine piece of testifying with which to conclude.

Nick Talbot
Gravenhurst turned out to be Nick Talbot doing a solo act. I must confess to being a little disappointed by this turn of events, since there was nothing to indicate this whittled down incarnation in the publicity leaflets and posters for the evening. Yes, I could have checked the Gravenhurst website, but for me they are a band, with all the different timbres and dynamics which a band brings to the material at hand. The worldview of Talbot’s music is nothing if not downbeat, focussing on isolation, emotional numbness, mental illness, urban angst, romantic betrayal (‘black romance’ as he sang on Nicole), political repression and simmering violence. Bleak is his favourite colour. The subjects of his songs stand on the brink of an empty grave, gazing into the beckoning void and contemplating whether to allow themselves to fall in. With Talbot standing alone in the spotlight playing unadorned guitar (acoustic first, hollow-bodied electric later), the bleakness dials were turned up to maximum. The songs sounded here like they were in delicate demo form, rough sketches waiting to be inked in and coloured. They seldom stray from the minor key, although subtle and unexpected harmonic turns often feature, hinting at shifts in the quality of light, if not quite a sudden shaft of illuminating light breaking through the overcast skies. There were none of the additional textures provided by synthesisers and electronics on the albums, no hidden fx pedals, compact synths or samplers; nor was there any of the exhilarating energy of the louder rock numbers. There was certainly nothing of the magisterial arrangement found on The Prize on the new LP The Ghost in Daylight, which boasts strings by the marvellously named Algernon Blackwood Memorial Ensemble. Perhaps wisely, The Prize was left off the set list, which was a shame, however, since it’s a great song, one of the best Gravenhurst have ever recorded. There was a risk that such relentlessly bleak and minor key material might prove wearying in such austerely unadorned settings. Or that the absence of any leavening humour might result in a response of perverse hilarity, a kind of heroically positive resistance to such cumulative doomsaying. The lack of tonal variety, which might have made for a more pleasurable sort of melancholia, a depressive music which you could move to, Joy Division style, instead made for a difficult listening experience requiring a concentrated stillness. Talbot’s rather diffident stage manner didn’t help, with a fair amount of fiddly fine-tuning between songs providing mood-breaking silences. Perhaps a little end of tour weariness had crept in (this was the final date), but you sensed that he wasn’t one for accommodating an audience, adopting an ascetic, anti-entertainment take-it-or-leave it stance. A dismissively contemptuous response to a song request (to be fair, he’d already played) certainly suggested that he had no truck with traditional niceties. In the end, the performance probably went on for an optimum amount of time (just under an hour). It was about as much as the spirit could take before beginning to wilt. But for the time he was on stage, Talbot played with rapt intensity, and the extra attention required was well rewarded.

The solo nature of the show drew attention to Talbot’s accomplished folk fingerpicking style, and the strong element of traditional folk which underpins his music. Richard Thompson would seem to be an influence (his Fairport song Farewell, Farewell was covered on the Gravenhurst album The Western Lands), with Richard and Linda songs like End of the Rainbow and The Great Valerio setting the pattern for stark, unrelenting, clear-eyed pessimism and poetic allusiveness, as well as an underlying compassion for the human condition at its most desperate. When asked to pick songs for a Guardian podcast, Talbot chose Thompson’s Has He Got A Friend For Me, along with Sandy Denny singing Reynardine, and Broadcast’s Black Cat, the latter two by some of my absolute favourites, which naturally suggests that I’d have an affinity with his music. I love the Thompson of Fairport and the 70s albums with Linda Thompson too. The Lou Reed of Berlin would also seem to be a point of reference, the song Damage II (played tonight) beginning with the line ‘Emily said’; an homage, perhaps. The set began with I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor from the 2003 LP Flashlight Seasons, a more or less solo effort. He naturally drew more from the quieter, more austere side of his output, and there were a couple more songs from Flashlight Seasons, Bluebeard and Damage II, both dealing in a more or less direct way with mental disintegration. A memorable line in the latter, talking about ‘climbing the stairs in the dark’ points to the sepulchral gothic ambience of much of the music. This quality comes through even more on record, with the shadows of organ drones and whispering electronics added, but is still present here in songs like Cities Beneath the Sea, with its hauntingly beautiful imagery of buried or submerged worlds from which ‘the dead see through the eyes of the living’. The memorial strings on The Ghost in Daylight suggest that Algernon Blackwood is an inspiration, but Cities Beneath the Sea and others of Talbot’s city songs are perhaps also a reflection of his reading of Iain Sinclair, whom he mentions in an interview in The Quietus. The influences on his songwriting come from literary sources musical as much as, or perhaps even more than, musical ones. The Western Lands, the title of his 2007 LP, may be a mythologizing allusion to his westcountry homeland (he lives in Bristol), or it may be a nod to William Burroughs and his late novel of that name. Or indeed both at once.

Grand Union Canal was ‘another song about urban angst’, as he announced with apologetic self-deprecation, a sketch (in heavily cross-hatched charcoal) of the city as maze in which the protagonist has ‘walked every street’ but ‘can’t find a way out’, retreating to his cell of a room. Several songs deal with the insidious attraction of violence, a perennial theme for Talbot. He indirectly acknowledges its dangerous allure, whilst never offering prurient descriptions, but also shows a moral repugnance at its casual expression and use in personal or political control and subjugation. As he bluntly puts it in I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor (possibly in response to the endless gangster ‘comedies’ being churned out in post-millenial Britain), ‘the East End rogue you so admire is a murdering fuckhead’. The almost biblical image of casting stones (a metaphor for personal culpability for violent acts and their outcomes) recurs in I Turn My Face to the Forest Floor (something of an ur-song for Talbot) and Black Holes in the Sand (from the similarly titled 2004 mini-album, which I handily found in Oxfam the other week), voiced in the latter as a tongue-tripping cause and effect chorus confessing ‘held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city’. Thankfully, he didn’t sing any of the songs he has written about serial killers, the one aspect of his work which I unequivocally dislike, adding as it does to the tawdry modern tendency to mythologise and lend a repugnant ubermensch aura to such pathetic sociopaths. The sense of a deep and easily tapped aquifer of violence in the human soul (and perhaps particularly in the soul of men) is conveyed all the more chillingly through being sung in Talbot’s hushed and softly mellifluous tones. It’s a voice which seems to express an abiding sadness at the fallen state of the world, and at the shrunken souls of the wretched which it dissects. It will probably never attempt a happy song, but the sad songs it sang on this evening, crafted in such carefully chosen words, cast their own simple and unadorned spell.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Jonathan Harvey

Jonathan Harvey, who died on Tuesday, was a composer who embraced the post-war currents of musical modernism whilst rejecting its sometimes aggressive and doctrinaire materialism. Rather than reducing it to a dryly academic matter of structures and notational calculi, plotted out process and form, he was interested in furthering the age-old use of music to evoke spiritual states, and to express the intangible, using sound to hint at what might lie beyond the readily perceptible surface of things. This mystical vision put him in the lineage of Messiaen and Stockhausen and, further back and on native ground, of the Gustav Holst of the Hymns from the Rig Veda, Savitri and the Apocryphally derived Hymn of Jesus. His use of electronics to summon up a feeling of otherness, either of evanescent immateriality or of overpoweringly dense mass, also connects him with the French composer Eliane Radigue. Whereas Radigue conjured Buddhist dronescapes from her analogue ARP synthesiser, Harvey favoured exploring new digital soundworlds from the late 70s onwards, and was pioneering in his use of computer technology. His residency at IRCAM (the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique), the centre for electronic music set up by Pierre Boulez in 1977, in the 80s allowed him access to the latest facilities and led to the creation of several electronic or electro-acoustic works. One such was Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco, probably still his best-known piece. It uses the sounds of the great bell in Winchester Cathedral and the treble voice of a young boy (actually Harvey’s son) and manipulates them with the aid of a computer to create what amounts to an English version of Stockhausen’s classic electronic piece Gesang der Junglinge. It begins with the tolling of the bell, with glassy splinters of the fundamental sound shivering above with a brittle, frosty glint. Bell and boy’s voice are shifted in pitch, blending and parting, and Harvey draws out the sound spectra in both. Sometimes he surround them with a coronal overtone shimmer, sometimes draws them out into ascending and descending arcs of whistling sound, like short wave radio signals. The bell’s deep sonority is transformed into light, glittering chimes, and given throbbing, pulsating rhythmic life – the bell as heart. The boy’s voice is cut up and re-edited into stuttering fragments at one point, emphasising the vulnerable physical form from which it comes. Spatial dimensions are also created, which must be great in a concert hall with proper sound distribution, voices appearing to be coming from a great distance and moving across some inner dimension. The title of the piece comes from the Latin inscription on the bell, which means I toll for the dead, I call the living. The form of the music embodies this description beautifully, the voice of youth, of tender, newly growing life contrasting with the rigidly-cast mass of the bell, solid and eternal. Through the manipulations he subjects both sound sources to, Harvey draws them together, blending them and occasionally making them indistinguishable one from the other, creating a sense of unity, a continuity in the essence of sound and, by extension, of matter and being. In the end, the voices are chorused against the booming toll of the bell, which grows louder and more forceful, emphatically re-iterating its message until its motion ceases and the soundwaves recede into silence.

Harvey’s early debt to Stockhausen was recognised in the short book he wrote on him in 1975. There are echoes in Harvey’s work of Stockhausen’s music from the 60s and 70s; of grand, synthesing pieces such as Hymnen and Telemusic; Spiral and Kurzwellen, with their mixing of instrumental and orchestral sounds with live electronics; and Mantra and Kontakte, in which the spectra of sounds, and their contrasting colours and masses are explored. Stockhausen’s interest in world religions, and his increasingly mystical approach to sound, was also hugely influential, although Harvey thankfully never followed his example in creating cranky personal belief systems. Messiaen was another touchstone, for similar reasons, with the Turangalila Symphony providing the example of a piece which incorporated electronic sounds, world music (gamelan and Indian rhythmic structures) and a mystical vision of creation. Tombeau de Messiaen (1994), its title drawing on the memorial tradition which Ravel revived and pastiched in his 1919 piece Tombeau de Couperin, was a tribute to the composer, written in the wake of his death in 1992. It uses the pianistic language Messiaen used in his Catalogue d’Oiseaux pieces and shadows it with a pre-recorded tape, a ghost accompaniment in which the piano sounds are manipulated to give them a reverberant, watery sound, as if played beside a cavern lake, occasionally illuminations of sparkling quartz reflected in a high, tinkling spray of percussive, pitch-shifted high notes. Harvey’s 2003 piece Bird Concerto with Pianosong also inevitably conjures up Messiaen’s spirit in its use of birdsong as musical material. The birds are present through recordings made whilst Harvey was teaching in California (so we hear orioles and orchard buntings rather that blackbirds and goldcrests), which are initially imitated by imitative trilling high on the piano keyboard. Bright, glittering percussion at the start of the piece suggests the first signs of the dawn sunrise. The orchestra erupts into the occasional sudden flurry of flocking sound during the half hour piece, and swoops and glides in strings and woodwinds suggest flights and landings. The birdsong recordings are manipulated, slowed down or sped up, their sound moulded and shaped like any other instrumental texture. In this, they resemble the similar use of recorded bird sound in Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1972 Concerto for Birds and Orchestra Cantus Arcticus (with the affecting melancholy of its second movement created through slowing down the keening song of the shore lark), and in Chris Hughes’ gorgeous revelation of the complex beauty of the blackbird’s song in the self-explanatorily titled Slowed Down Blackbird. Harvey’s Bird Concerto ends with Messiaen-style circling and descending block chords, with the birdsong also descending in plummeting arcs, suggesting a general settling in to roost as the shadows of evening begin to encroach.

Messiaen’s spirituality, wide-ranging and open though it was, remained firmly rooted in the Catholic church and its liturgical rituals, however, which formed the basis of much of his work. Harvey was less bounded by doctrine, and seemed to share the view expounded by Aldous Huxley in The Perennial Philosophy, that there is a divine ground connecting all religions, a connecting thread found in the writings and teachings of the great mystics. His music drew on many religious traditions and ideas: Hinduism in works such as Bhakti (1984) and Nataraja (1983), Christianity in his church ‘opera’ Passion and Resurrection (1981) and Madonna of Winter and Spring (1986), and the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner in the Inner Light pieces from the mid-70s. It was Buddhism which held the greatest attraction for him, however, and he tried to follow its precepts as best he could. This philosophical and spiritual underpinning creates another connection with Eliane Radigue, whose adherence to the ideas of Tibetan Buddhist informs almost all of her music. Buddhism influenced many of Harvey’s works, including pieces such as Wheel of Emptiness (1997), …towards the Pure Land (2005) and Body Mandala (2006). The deep, braying brass which emerges as an underlying rumble in Ricercare una Melodia (1984) and other pieces draws on the world-trembling horns of Tibetan mountain temples. Harvey’s music shares little in common with the contemplative quietism of the ‘holy minimalists’ such as John Tavener and Arvo Part, with their becalmed and tranquillising spirtitual balms. There may be hushed passages, but this is maximalist music, incorporating the noise of the world, voicing the cosmos in its chaotic as well as its pacific aspects. His work was a great example of the way in which art can be modern and challenging, but still retain a sense of purpose and meaning beyond the abstract (not that abstraction can’t be an aesthetic end in itself, of course), using new forms to realise a particular vision (and finding that these forms express it better than anything else). Harvey was trying to sound the inexpressible in a way that only music can, using the latest technological means to reveal the whole hidden spectrum of sound and expand upon the traditional orchestral palette. His work, with its reflections of the noisy flux of the cosmos and its glimpses into the eternal, has universal appeal and will endure.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

British Art Up North - Leeds, Wakefield, Manchester and Birmingham


William Hogarth - The Distressed Poet

An ill-travelled Southerner, I recently headed up North to Leeds, Manchester and Wakefield, with a short subsequent jaunt to the Midlands and Birmingham (which is still North from here, anyroad). This gave me the opportunity to visit the local galleries and see the excellent collections of British art which they hold from the Victorian and early to mid-twentieth century periods, and come across works by favourite artists which I’d not encountered before in the sense of standing before the actual painting (an experience which no reproduction, no matter how expertly photographed and reproduced, can replace). The Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham museums and galleries are all housed in imposingly monumental buildings reflecting the sense of civic pride in these newly emergent cities of the industrial revolution. Given the neoclassical Victorian facades of all these buildings, it’s unsurprising to discover that they all have impressive collections of nineteenth century British art, with Manchester and Birmingham having particularly fine displays of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. There are works by earlier favourites, too: Hogarth, Blake and Samuel Palmer. The original oil painting of Hogarth’s The Distressed Poet (1733-5) in Birmingham, which was subsequently reproduced in several versions as a print, vividly portrays the poverty and despair of a Grub Street writer (the precursor of the modern day hack). Hogarth depicts his jobbing wordsmith as more exploited than exploitative. The garret room is unadorned and bare (as is the food cupboard) and the ceiling plaster is crumbling, exposing the joists beneath. The writer, still in his nightshirt and dressing gown sits at his desk, his chair the end of the bed, desperately rubbing his head beneath his wig as if to prompt the circulation of new ideas. The detritus of crumpled and discarded papers below indicates that they are refusing to emerge to order. Meanwhile, his wife sews his worn trousers and attempts to deal with the demands of the milkmaid, who proffers the full board of unpaid bills. Only the cat seems comfortable, curled up on the writer’s coat, which is cast down on the floor. His comfort may be shortlived, however, since it seems unlikely that he’ll be getting any more milk. It’s a scene which had a bitter personal resonance for Hogarth. His father, Richard, came down to London in the late 1680s, with dreams of becoming a writer and teacher, and settled in the Bartholomew Close in the Smithfield area, adjacent to Grub Street, where William was born. But he found the learned life to be a hard struggle, and failed to make a name for himself, his proposals for a dictionary and literary coffee house never realised. The only books for which he did find a publisher were a children’s introduction to Latin, Greek and English and a few school texts. The manuscript of the dictionary and encylopaedia, his grand work, was later lost. In 1709, when young William was 12 years old, he found himself in the Fleet debtor’s prison, where he remained until 1713. His incarceration would have been more extended had it not been for a new parliamentary bill offering relief for low-level debtors.

Samuel Palmer - The Bright Cloud
There were a couple of William Blake paintings in Manchester, delicately sculptural renderings in tempera of literary ‘heads’, busts of the Spanish poet Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga and the French enlightenment essayist Voltaire. Relatively conventional and lacking in his customary visceral visionary intensity, these date from around the year 1800, when he also submitted two biblical paintings in tempera (The Last Supper and The Loaves and Fishes) for exhibition at the Royal Academy. It would seem that this was a period in which he was making one last bid for artistic respectability. Blake’s follower Samuel Palmer has his painting The Bright Cloud (1833-4) in Manchester. It’s not the only picture he did with this title, and the billowing masses of cumulus cloud form a secondary landscape in the background. It’s one of his depictions of a golden and russet coloured autumnal idyll, a Kentish Eden in the Darenth Valley, where he lived in the village of Shoreham. The sleepily rural scene, with placid cattle idling on the hillside beneath oak and beech, is given a sacred resonance by the figures walking past, baskets on their heads presumably containing apples from an adjacent orchard. They are led by a figure in a blood-red headscarf (echoing the autumnal reds on the hill) on a donkey, who guides them in a processional line into the valley, like Christ riding into Jerusalem; the prelude to an English pastoral Passion.

Atkinson Grimshaw - Reflections on the Thames, Westminster (1880)
Leeds Art Gallery honours its native son, Atkinson Grimshaw (he was born in Back Park Street on 6th September 1836) with a number of his works from their extensive collection on display. Probably best known is his fairy painting Iris, which also acts as a study in autumnal colours and atmospheres. The titular fairy, hovering above a woodland pool with a certain aerodynamic implausibility, has a fiery halo forming a coronal crown about her head, the light from which reflects on the spectral translucence of her dragonfly wings, which in turn refract in beams and phosopherescent spatters of radiant light. This sprays out into the twilight shadows of the autumn woodland, bringing out and making hallucinatorily vivid their orange, red, caramel and mossy green colours. Iris was the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology, connecting heaven and earth, the divine and the human, and was associated with the rainbow, which similarly connected those realms. Here, Grimshaw brings the Greek goddess into a very English environment, linking the old Mediterranean myths with the more native fairy tale tradition, with its northern European roots. She becomes the spirit of autumn, highlighting the beauty of the season which Grimshaw would repeatedly depict to such atmospheric effect. Iris is, in effect, his muse. Grimshaw was also known for his nocturnes, evocations of nightime atmospheres, either in reflective, rain-slicked city streets or in tree lined suburban streets, with eerie, shadowy figures hovering in the middle distance. On display here was his London picture Reflections on the Thames, Westminster, in which the curve of the Embankment leads to Westminster Bridge, lit by doubled rows of gaslit lamps, and the clockface of Big Ben smoulders with a baleful orange glow. A woman looks longingly over the water, silvered by the full moon which shines through dappled cloud, thinking who knows what. Perhaps she is considering how inviting the waters look. Her dog looks at the oncoming night strollers, intent on protecting her from any unwanted attentions. The lunar light creates a moody green luminescence which is an instantly recognisable characteristic of Grimshaw’s nocturnes. His nights are always tinted with a copper-green patina. A small, late work from 1892-3 is also on display, Snow and Mist (Caprice in Yellow Minor). A departure from his signature style, the musically allusive title makes clear his debt to Whistler, his fellow nocturniste. Its snowbound landscape is featureless noplace, daringly stripped of recognisable landmarks or any sign of human habitation. The lady with a shawl carrying her small basket on her concealed arm is walking into a blank void. It’s a study in off-whites, approaching abstract colour composition in the manner of Turner. It’s a brave turn towards experiment, an exploration of new styles and techniques in what was to be the last year of his life. He died in the year of its completion, 1893, and was buried in Woodhouse Cemetery in Leeds.

Ford Madox Brown - Work (1852-65)
Ford Madox Brown’s Work, in Manchester, is one of the key works of Victorian art, in which the Pre-Raphaelite medieval dreaming or pious religiosity was set aside for a moment in order to represent the world around them as they saw it. Just as much of a dream, perhaps, but a fascinating insight into the Victorian mindset. And, thanks to the detailed photographic realism of the Pre-Raphaelite style, with its invisible brushstrokes, a real snapshot of Victorian life in all its colour and grime. The view is from the raised footpath above Heath Street in Hampstead, and is still recognisable today, although the road is now habitually choked with traffic heading up the hill towards the heath and over into Golders Green and points north, or down towards the centre of the ‘village’ and on through Archway into the dense heart of the city beyond. As usual with Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the composition is cluttered with symbolic detail, every carefully placed object and figure freighted with some more or less obscure meaning. I find it best, having taken note of the different meanings, to ignore them and just enjoy the painting on its own pictorial merits. Here, Brown crams all the tiers of Victorian society within his small, overarching gold frame: the industrious navvies digging up the pavement; the well-dressed ladies leisurely taking the air; the marchers with their sandwich board surplices, perhaps advertising their temperance sentiments; the dishevelled, bare-footed flower-seller, miserable with poverty; and the unruly and unsupervised urchins in the foreground, antecedents of the ‘chavs’ of modern-day parlance (these maybe having a more direct linguistic correspondence, gypsies coming down from the fairs on the heath). Overlooking the whole teeming parade with a surveying stance of analytical detachment are portrait figures of the Reverend F.D.Maurice, a man of the cloth with a bent for social reform, and the social philosopher Thomas Carlyle. With their air of casual repose, they represent a less physically arduous kind of work, the labour of the mind. They stand in for the observer of the picture, implicitly inviting a unifying overview which draws all the elements together into a socially representative whole. Carlyle was a difficult model, too impatient and restless to stand still long enough for his portrait to be accurately painted. His likeness was instead worked up from a photograph, the new medium which allowed for a realistic reproduction of nature to be created within the comfortable confines of the studio.

John Everett Millais - Autumn Leaves (1856)
Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd, also in Manchester, is another of the best-known of Pre-Raphaelite works. This moves out of the city to a more characteristic rural and, in this case, agricultural setting. Again, the symbolism, with straying sheep and tempting apples, can be comfortably ignored, leaving us with an enjoyable portrayal of rosy-cheeked rustic lust against a beautifully realised farmland backdrop, one part pasture, one part golden-sheaved arable. This background is painted with the meticulous Pre-Raphaelite attention to the detail of the natural world, to the shape, texture and colour gradations of leaf, grass-blade and corn-stalk. Such attention to natural form can also be found in Arthur Hughes’ 1859 painting The Long Engagement, in which fern and ivy, tree-bark and moss are rendered with such exquisite care that you can almost smell the loamy woodland aroma. They draw the attention as much as the trysting figures chastely meeting behind the tree trunk. John Millais’ Autumn Leaves, in Manchester, is a more evanescent evocation of nature, a beautiful depiction of twilight gloaming. Its warm, after-sunset colours contrast with encroaching shadow in what amounts to an autumnal English impressionism, catching the quality of evening light. A few curls of smoke send exploratory tendrils into the frame from the left, and the painting exudes a taint of smoky atmosphere from neighbouring bonfires and chimneys, synaesthetically extending its sensory range beyond the visual to the olfactory. The pile of dead leaves raked up by the young girls, their cheeks rosy with the cold and faces aglow with the light from the implied bonfire placed beyond the frame, about where the viewer is standing, at which they stare, are clearly intended to reflect the seasons of life, foretelling their own inevitable aging. I prefer once more to put such sentimental and overstuffed Victorian symbolism to one side and revel in the melancholic glow of this magical autumn evening.

John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shallott (1894)
John William Waterhouse’s Lady of Shallott, in Leeds, represents the wistfully yearning Arthurian dreaming of the Pre-Raphaelites, mainly (as in this case) deriving from Tennyson. Here, the lady, forever isolated in her river island tower, weaves the threads of her own binding fate, not yet aware of the figure of Lancelot riding across the meadow beyond. The same subject was painted by William Holman Hunt, a picture I first came across on the cover of the post-New Worlds SF and fantasy anthology the Savoy Book, published out by the Manchester Savoy Press in 1978. It was his last work, completed with the help of Edward Robert Hughes in 1905, and now resides in the suitably castellated building of the Wadsworth Athenium in Connecticut. Waterhouse’s smaller painting is not to be confused with his much-loved, large scale work entitled The Lady of Shallott, which happened to be on display in Birmingham at this time as part of an exhibition of Victorian paintings on loan from the Tate, entitled Love and Death. This transports us to the final stages of Tennyson’s poem, with the lady leaving her protecting tower to float downstream towards Camelot. It’s a journey which fulfils her foretold fate, her mysterious, funereal arrival at the castle presaging the fall of Arthur’s court. The frail, fey figure of the Lady reveals, as did Millais’ Ophelia, the Victorian gentleman’s tendency to view women as fragile creatures in need of sheltering and protection, and their attraction to tragic and mournfully sentimental presentations of femininity. The popularity of the Pre-Raphaelites in the late 60s and 70, particularly in their Arthurian mode, also made Waterhouse’s Lady the model for many a wispy flower child or myth-soaked folkie.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti - Proserpine (1874)
The decadent phase of late Victorian art, as embodied by Aesthetics like Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Whistler, favoured a more openly sensual approach, full-bloodedly seductive or exquisitely refined, and pious religiosity or finickety symbolism tended to get left behind. There are a number of Rossetti paintings in the museums, as well as Holman Hunt’s memorial portrait of his friend, painted in 1882 from an 1853 sketch. It captures him as a wide-eyed 22 year old romantic, a remembrance of better days. Beata Beatrix, in Birmingham, posthumously casts Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal as Dante’s dead love. The poppy which the descending dove brings to her in its beak, as well as the ecstatic, dreamily self-absorbed look on her face, alludes to Lizzie’s laudanum habit and the overdose from which she died. It’s a portrait of someone who had already effectively left him before she died. This particular painting was one of five copies he made of the composition, and Ford Maddox Brown took it upon himself to complete it in as close an approximation of his friend’s style as he could manage. Bower Meadow, in Manchester, is a more Pre-Raphaelite style watercolour, with fey, dreamy women gazing into some unspecified distance, possibly an interior one. They pluck absently on their instruments, producing what we can imagine as suspended, Debussyesque melodies, to which their doubles turn floating steps in each other’s arms in the middle distance. Unusually for Rossetti, there is also a tree-lined landscape in the background, like something from a medieval tapestry. This was taken from sketches he made at Knole Park near Sevenoaks some 22 years earlier. The woman on the right, with the copper hair and full features, is Alexa Wilding, one of the women Rossetti picked up from the streets to use as a model. She featured in a great many of his paintings from the mid-1860s onwards, although her presence tends to be overshadowed by that of Lizzie Siddal and Jane Morris, given the fact that she led a fairly self-contained and respectable life and had little to do with the tangled romantic lives of Rossetti and his circle. La Donna della Fiesta, in Birmingham, which dates from 1881 (the year preceding his death), and Proserpine (a variant name for Persephone, hence her biting into a pomegranate) are two of his later sensual portraits of mythological sirens which use Jane Morris as the model. Janey was the great love and muse of his life after Siddal had died. It was a love which was complicated by the fact that she was married to his friend and sometime artistic collaborator William Morris. Rossetti, perhaps more beholden to the mores of the time than he would have liked to admit, and undoubtedly sensitive to Jane and William’s feelings, kept the affair within the bounds of passionate friendship, although their relationship seemed to many to be closer than that between husband and wife. Rossetti’s feelings for her come through in the paintings, and in the roles in which he casts her. In his artistic renditions of her, he enjoyed dressing her up in theatrical finery, and imaginatively changing her appearance. In some versions of La Donna he dies her black hair golden, and in the Proserpine on display in Birmingham in the Love and Death exhibition it becomes auburn.

Frederick Sandys - Morgan le Fay (1862-3)
Like Rossetti with Alexa Wilding and later Fanny Cornforth (and to a degree Jane Morris, whom he first saw in a theatre box when she was still Jane Burden and then bumped into again in the streets of Oxford), Frederick Sandys cast a model from the streets, gypsy called Keomi, who took on the dramatic role of Morgan-le-Fay in his 1862-3 painting, in Birmingham. The sorceress’ room is imagined with a fantastic richness of detail, from the jewelled safe box with its phial and scroll in the bottom left and the coloured wool discarded on the floor, to the loom, which doubles as an owl perch, the flaming crucible and the straw scattered on the grain of the wooden floorboards. There is a similarly heady mix of textiles in different colours, with Morgan draped in folds of green, yellow and purple, a black cloak with colourful Celtic symbols hanging on the wall, and a red, green and gold tapestry covering the back wall. This Morgan is evidently very well-travelled: she wears a leopard-hide tied about her waist, holds what looks like some Assyrian relic, has a statue of the Buddha on her safe box, and a book at her feet with a painting of an Egyptian figure, as well as depictions of the Egyptian gods Bes, Horus, Set and Ra on her large tapestry wall covering. There’s a tiny landscape seen through the small window in the upper right hand corner, through the threads on the loom, the burnished after sunset colours of the sky reflected in a curve of river, suggesting that this is a room high up in a castle tower (a hidden corner of Camelot, perhaps).

Simeon Solomon - A Saint of the Eastern Church (1867-8)
Simeon Solomon, several of whose paintings are in the Birmingham collection, offered a more homoerotic perspective on Aesthetic sensuality. His paintings A Deacon (1863), A Saint of the Eastern Church (1867-8) and The Child Jeremiah (1862, privately owned but on display here) present beautiful young men dressed in fine garments, posed holding various sacramental objects within provocatively religiose compositions. The young Jeremiah has his lyre slung casually over his shoulder, an ancient Hebraic Dylan, whilst the deacon and saint hold their urns, censers and blossoming branches with an absent looseness, their inward gaze indicating that their attention is directed elsewhere. They are the kind of sexy priests, saints and prophets who might appear in the knowingly kitsch and romantically decadent photographic tableaux of Pierre et Gilles. Solomon was a friend of Rossetti and a member of his artistic circle (being particularly close with the poet Algernon Swinburne). Most of these friends and acquaintances moved to distance themselves from him after he was arrested in 1873 for picking up men in a toilet just off Oxford Street. One of the few who stood up for him was Edward Burne-Jones, on the surface a more sober and ‘respectable’ man, with none of Rossetti or Swinburne’s wildness, whose acceptance of a baronetcy towards the end of his life seemed to seal his establishment status.

Edward Burne-Jones - Star of Bethlehem (1885-90)
Burne-Jones has a whole room dedicated to his work in the Birmingham Art Gallery, an acknowledgement of his birth (in 1855) in nearby Bennetts Hill in what is now the centre of the city. The huge annunciation painting Star of Bethlehem was indeed commissioned by the Corporation of Birmingham late in Burne-Jones’s life, in 1889, its impressive yardage presumably a badge of profligate prestige. It was a copy, in watercolours, of a tapestry which he’d designed for Exeter College, Oxford in 1887, the fact that he was being asked at this stage to make copies of pre-existing works an indication of his well-established popularity and fame. Greybearded Joseph, standing just outside the stable, little more than a straw-roofed rain shelter held up by silver birch trunks, looks more like a druid than a carpenter in his blue-grey robes with a bundle of twigs under his arm and an axe at his foot. Mary sits on straw in her bower, whose wicker walls are threaded through with wild roses, contrasting with the blue speedwell and white celandine dotting the lush green grass beyond. They are quite the match for the jewels in the crown laid at the feet of one of the three kings who have just arrived. The angel who greets them, and who nurtures a warm glowing globe of light within its prayerfully uplifted hands, hovers just above the earth, indicating its separateness from the mortal realm. Its downturned feet are perfectly posed to show off the glittering straps of its golden sandals, and it casts a radiant shadow on the rush-bordered puddle beneath its weightless form. The African king seems to have a robe brought directly from Morris and Co, with Burne-Jones designs along the bottom hem. The dark shadows of the wildwood on the hills beyond the gathered group locate this scene more in the northern lands of Grimm fairy tales than in Biblical times and climates. It’s of a piece with Burne-Jones’ Arthurian paintings, part of a continuum with his mythological dreamworlds. Also in the room are large scale cartoons of The Last Judgement, created as models for stained glass windows produced by Morris and Co. for Easthampstead church in Berkshire from 1874-80. Working as murals in their own right, they indicate how prolifically hard-working Burne-Jones was, here effectively doubling the effort of creation to produce the finished glass-work. A late portrait of 1893-5 of Lady Windsor finds him painting in an uncharacteristically Whistler-like style. It is as much a subdued study in greys as it is a society portrait, and might as well have been given one of Whistler’s musical titles. The fact that he was, at this point in his career, sought after to paint society portraits, even though it was hardly what he was known for, indicates the degree to which Burne-Jones had been embraced by the art-loving establishment. His upwardly mobile drift, whilst it was not something he ever actively pursued, put a strain on his long term and very close friendship with William Morris, who was at the same time moving in the opposite direction, towards radical socialist engagement.

Walter Crane - At Home: A Portrait (1872)
Walter Crane was another artist, illustrator and designer working in the Arts and Crafts style who embraced socialist ideals, having initially been influenced in this direction by William Morris. This is not something you’d readily detect from his 1872 picture of domestic calm At Home: A Portrait, which is in the Leeds Gallery. This is an immaculate assemblage of Aesthetic interior furnishings: there’s the blue and white china vase; blue and white fireplace tiles, illustrated with various unusual creatures, including bats, salamanders and dolphins; a Rossetti style medievalist Pre-Raphaelite wall tapestry; a decorative blue and green carpet; and a Japanese fan neglectfully held between the thumb and forefinger of a woman in a state of easeful repose. This is Crane’s wife Mary, to whom he was devotedly married for 44 years, before she was tragically killed by a train in December 1914. Here, she is more modestly dressed than most Aesthetic models, the typical loosely draped garments restricted to a white shawl falling from her shoulders. She doesn’t have the enervated slump found in many Aesthetic portraits of women, too. Instead, she leans lightly on the mantelpiece and intently reads the book she is holding. Its covers are yellow, but it’s a little too early for it to be the Yellow Book, not quite close enough to the fin de siecle. A tabby sits regally by the fire, warming its back against the crackling flames. The relaxed presence of Mrs Crane and cat (the obvious choice of pet for an Aesthetic, Rossetti’s wombats aside) make this a genuinely homely scene, rather than just an ostentatious display of exquisite taste. It’s a portrayal of quiet beauty and intelligence, a record of the artist’s own love for his wife.

Gwen John - Interior (1915-16)
Gwen John was the master of contemplative domestic interiors with calm female subjects in the early 20th century. There were several of her sensitive portraits in the galleries, all displaying the subdued use of clay-like colours, thinly applied to give the pictures the look of roughly fired earthenware pottery. The bloom in Woman Holding A Flower adds a drop of red at the bottom of the frame to the palette. The woman herself has a sad and inward look which fails to reflect this intrusion of primary colour, however. The flower is drooping in her hand, and already wilting memory, perhaps echoing the melancholic turn of her thoughts. It may have been a variant of the expressions she wore whilst modelling for August Rodin, who was also her lover at this time, but who never returned her love with the same intensity of feeling which she exhibited. The model for the Woman Holding A Flower was Chloe Boughton-Leigh, with whom John became friends in 1907, and for whom she also sat as a model. The Convalescent, in Manchester, is one of her pictures of women reading, making it a good follow-up to the Walter Crane portrait. John’s reading women, like Crane’s wife in At Home, are a study in calm, concentrated repose as they focus in on the page, and on the inward thoughts which it promotes. Here, it is a letter rather than a book which the young woman reads as she sits in her wicker chair, back propped up on a pillow and loosely clenched hand resting in her lap. The overall pallor of the background and the furniture make the teapot, highlighted with glints of reflected light, stand out with preternatural clarity, as if it contained the medicinal stuff of life (as well it might). In another such portrait, The Student, also in Manchester, John’s friend Dorelia McNeil is posed in a standing position, looking down at a well-thumbed French paperback book, La Russie (a Russian dictionary?), a notebook grasped in one hand, the other leaning on the back of a simple chair. Her face is lit by a lamp somewhere beyond the frame, and she casts a shadow on the wall behind her in what is clearly, from the proximity of the ceiling above her head, a very modestly proportioned room. The glow cast on her face could easily be seen in symbolic terms, the radiance emanating from an active and intellectually engaged mind. McNeil, who was later to have an affair with Gwen’s more extrovert and licentious brother Augustus, was a junior secretary in a solicitors office. A woman from a humble background, she nevertheless had a passion for art, and went to evening classes at the Westminster School of Art. She had a winning personality, and was soon frequenting artistic circles, where she met and became friends with Gwen. They set out in 1903 on a spontaneously arranged and barely planned continental adventure, their intention to walk from Bordeaux to Rome. In the end, they got distracted and diverted along the way, and the journey was re-routed to take them eventually to Paris. John was to make her home there for many years, too many of them spent in the vain hope that Rodin, now an elderly man, might return her romantic feelings. Interior, in Manchester, depicts her room in the Rue Terre Neuve in Meudon, just outside Paris. Like the similar A Corner of the Artist’s Room in Paris, it is haunted by her absence, a depiction of a space from which she has vanished, leaving behind strangely affecting everyday artefacts betokening recent presence. A set of tea cups and accessories and another brown teapot, standing out with talismanic solidity against the spectrally pale backround – perhaps still warm.