Friday, 24 February 2012

David Rudkin: Penda's Fen, The Ash Tree and Artemis 81


David Rudkin
is a writer principally associated with the theatre, and particularly with the RSC. He has written a number of plays, for both stage and television, which conflate historical, mythological and psychological themes in complex, many-layered stories shot through with elements of the fantastic. The Stone Dance (1963) was his first work for TV, and anticipated some aspects of Penda’s Fen in its depiction of a young man, the son of an evangelical Welsh pastor, who is drawn to a stone circle near their new home in Cornwall, which he feels embodies his sexual difference. The power residing within the stones offers both an alternative to his father’s oppressive and puritanical religion and a warning of the ossifying psychological effect of his preaching through the local legend that they are the petrified forms of women who dared to dance on the Sabbath. The Sons of Light (written 1964-5 but only given its first performance in 1976) was an epic, modern mythical drama, again centring around a pastor and his sons who arrive at a remote Scottish island over which a hierarchical and deterministic religion holds sway, creating a climate of unquestioning acceptance. The bleak landscape, with its curtains of obscuring fog, forms the stage for a drama played out in a series of ritualistic encounters between characters with strange, antiquarian names suggestive of half-forgotten religions and beliefs (Dr Nebewohl, Miss Wemwood, Stephen Yescanab and Child Manatond) who take on the weight of archetypes, unconsciously engaged in the latest form of an eternal Manichean struggle between the forces of darkness and light. The barren landscape of the island covers an artificial underworld which blends big ‘white heat’ science with gothic horror in a manner drawing from German expressionist cinema. Here, Dr Nebewohl carries out Wellsian, Dr Moreau-style experiments in human debasement, both physical and psychological, creating a band of mutant Morlock slaves. The uncovering of the island’s secret programme leads to the deaths of the three ‘sons of light’ (the pastors ‘angels’), but the broken characters of the abused girl Child Manatond and the homosexual son of the Elder stonemason Stephen Yescanab emerge from the confrontation between darkness and light to tentatively offer an alternative to the horrors of psychological, political and scientific power and control which they have witnessed.

The Living Grave (1980) was a TV play retelling a case of hypnotic regression in which a Liverpudlian nurse from the twentieth century recalled the life of an eighteenth century maid, Kitty, a servant in the Dartmoor village of Manaton (the same village, with added d, from which Child Manatond’s name was taken). She was abused and ended up hanging herself rather than bearing the shame of her unborn and illegitimate child, and was buried beyond the village bounds by a fork in the road. The Saxon Shore (1986) blended history, myth and psychology ( both individual and national) once more in its tale of the members of a Germanic tribe, loyal to Rome, who are sent to an outpost of Empire. They live by Hadrian’s Wall, and at night unconsciously transform into werewolves, raiding the Celtic villages north of the border. Merlin Unchained (2008) resurrects the central mythic matter of Britain, telling the story of an aging and diminished Merlin who slowly regains his memory and power for one last task, which brings him into the modern world. Rudkin also adapted Mikhail Bulghakov’s phantasmagorical fable, The Master and Margharita, in which the devil and his assistants, including an urbane cat, walking upright on its hindlegs, pay a visit to Moscow and spread gleeful pandemonium in their wake.

King Penda regains his throne
Rudkin wrote two TV dramas which incorporated all of his abiding themes, and which were narratively dense, multi-faceted, poetically allusive and hugely ambitious – challenging viewing for the TV audiences of the 70s and early 80s. These were Penda’s Fen (1974), directed by Alan Clarke, and Artemis 81 (1981), directed by Alastair Reid. He also adapted MR James’ The Ash Tree (1976), which was the last of the Ghost Stories for Christmas directed for the BBC by Lawrence Gordon Clark. Penda’s Fen centred around the character of Stephen, another son of a religious man. in this case an Anglican vicar. He is a young man approaching the end of his schooldays in Worcestershire (where Rudkin himself had taught). He has deeply held conservative values, both in terms of a conventional Christian morality and a narrowly patriotic nationalism. Possessed of a precocious and rather precious intelligence, he is musically talented, revering Elgar (and in particular The Dream of Gerontius), and is well-read in the classics, which neatly line his shelves. His intellectual pride gives him an inbuilt sense of his own superiority and apartness from his fellow pupils. But as the story progresses, his certainties are undermined by a number of developments. He becomes increasingly aware of his own burgeoning sexuality, his attraction to men which marks him as different and ‘unworthy’ in his own terms. He discovers that he was adopted by the mother and father he has grown up with, and that his true parentage is mixed, and fails to accord with his view of what constitutes Englishness. Photographs of his mother and father depict them as ‘a Slavic looking man, a Latinish looking woman, possibly Breton or West Irish’, according to Rudkin’s script. He also uncovers the Pagan substrata of the local Worcestershire landscape, excavating, with the help of visionary prompts, the philological roots of the placename Pinvin (the village near which he lives), which he finds derives from Penda’s Fen, and thus learning of Penda, ‘the last Pagan king of England’. He discovers that his father, beneath his stable and stolid exterior, has a more controversial past, having espoused a radical and politically engaged form of Christianity, and written a revisionist theological exposition of it called The Buried Jesus, which resurrects a Christ who is a much more revolutionary figure, a challenge to the status quo.

Shadows of light - Watchful angels
Stephen also finds himself drawn to the local playwright Thomas Arne and his wife, whom he had previously dismissed as ‘unnatural’ for what he thought of as their unpatriotic radicalism and anti-establishment views. These upheavals in his life and worldview manifest themselves in visions of angels and demons (although he mostly only sees the demons), which battle for possession of his soul, and for that of the nation as a whole. This battle culminates in a confrontation on the high ridges of the Malvern Hills between the old Pagan king and the ‘father and mother of England’, a conservative Christian couple and Mary Whitehouse style campaigners whom Stephen had read about in a newspaper and held up as an ideal in a class debate. They now become the embodiments of a controlling force, who would destroy him rather than see him reject their prescriptive role for him as a ‘Child of Light’, an infantilised vessel for their own shrivelled and fearful ideals. They move towards him with tweedy and twinset menace and begin to burn an instamatic photograph, which will murder his newly found self-image as a creature who embraces contradiction, and he instinctively calls upon Penda for aid. The King appears and his imperiously pointing finger exterminates the couple in a flashing, magical conflagration. Stephen descends back into the world, full of a new and confident sense of self and of purpose, through which he can serve the country laid out below him by nurturing and cherishing the ‘sacred demon of ungovernableness’ (as Rudkin phrases it in his playscript).

Rudkin’s adaptation of MR James’ The Ash Tree draws out and makes explicit the hints of sexual revulsion and panic which some have found in his stories of ghosts and vengeful revenants. Richard Holmes in his 1974 essay MR James and Others, included in his collection Sidetracks, and Michael Chabon in his piece The Other James, which is in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, both highlight this aspect, designed to induce a shudder rather than a chill. The Ash Tree tells the story of two generations of the Fell family, as represented by Sir Matthew and his descendant Sir Richard, the squires of a country village who live in an old Elizabethan mansion. A deathly curse which Matthew incurs for presiding over the hanging of the supposed witch, Mistress Mothersole, is revisited on Richard, and seemingly originates in the ash tree which grows beyond the bedroom window, and across whose night-shadowed branches dark figures can be caught in the periphery of vision, scuttling swiftly back and forth. As an incidental and irrelevant (but hopefully interesting) aside, James places the hanging of Miss Mothersole in the year 1690, whereas we Exonians know that the last executions for witchcraft took place in the city of the Exeter, with the hanging of the three ‘Bideford Biddies’ in 1682.

Gibbet Tor - Dartmoor hanging
The origins of the curse which is put on Matthew Fell and his ancestors by Mistress Mothersole is clearly located in the squire’s attraction to the young woman whom he accuses of witchcraft, and who is hung on his repeated, self-assuring statement of witness (‘what I have seen, I have seen’). It is a desire which his puritan notions of sensual pleasure as ungodly and wicked forces him to deny and suppress. The scene in which Miss Mothersole (who in Rudkin’s script is given a first name, Ann) is ‘tested’ is explicitly sexualised, with Matthew as a lurking onlooker. Strung up in an outlying stable of the mansion in a cruciform pose, she is a martyr of the old beliefs, sacrificed to the rigid and controlling ideology of the new, dominant religion. Whilst she is subjected to the crude interrogations of the travelling witchfinders, she holds Sir Matthew’s gaze, not allowing him to escape her regard for one moment as he circles her poor, tormented body. When he condemns her, he does so in full knowledge of what he is saying, and makes his damning statement under her direct gaze. There is no doubt about his personal culpability, nor of her knowledge of it and its true origins. Rudkin identifies repressed sexuality as the generating force both for cruelty and violence and for the emergence of the future horror which will emerge and invade the Fell’s bedchamber. Whereas James’ story has the Fells’ Elizabethan mansion inherited by two generations of offspring, in Rudkin’s adaptation, Richard Fell, the inheritor, is only an indirect relation, making reference to an uncle whom he barely knew. The barrenness of the family is part of the curse, a denial of fertility and fecundity (it also extends to livestock) which blows the aridity of their puritan Christian views back at them. Richard has none of the misdirected fervour and repressed judgementalism of his uncle, however. He is to be married to a lively young woman, Lady Augusta (played by Lalla Ward), and they appear relaxed and happy in each other’s company. As he imposes his own tastes and renovations upon the old house, servants are seen carrying in erotic works of art, and Lady Augusta humourously chides him for having the steamy novel Tom Jones in his library. The spirit of his uncle, which glowers down at him from a stern portrait above the stairs, seems to have been exorcised.

Dark shadows of ancestry
However, the spirit of place, and of his uncle’s time, seems to infect him in her absence, and Rudkin conveys his increasing disconnection from his old self through sudden, barely perceptible shifts between past and present, between Matthew and Richard (both played in a similar tenor by Edward Petherbridge). Richard begins to utter phrases which Matthew had spoken, and the drop of the witches from the gallows is interrupted by a sudden cut to Richard’s time, in which his glass slips from his fingers and falls to the floor. Matthew seems mesmerised by the draw of the past, and by the influence of his ancestry, the call of his blood. Even the walls of the mansion, with their growths of climbing, red-leaved plants, seem to be splashed with the guilty blood of his inheritance. He instructs the servants that he shall move to the room in which Matthew died, and which has been locked ever since, the room beyond whose window the branches of the ash tree spread, occasionally creaking and scraping against the panes. It’s as if he is inviting his fate to enter and reveal itself, or as if his will is no longer entirely his own. Mistress Mothersole’s vengeful curse takes the form of horrific baby-headed spiders, Odilon Redon lithographs come to life, which emit mewling, sucking cries. Emerging from the ash tree, they claim the lives of both Matthew and Richard as they lie alone in their bed, supping on their sleeping bodies and leaving them to be discovered in the morning, blackened and bloated. When the tree is burned down and dug up after Richard’s death, a skeleton with a gaping maw is uncovered, looking as if it is some ancient ancestor of humanity, now more twisting root than bone. Its legs are parted in a dying act of unholy birth, its final cries echoed by its hellish spawn. All of this is Rudkin translating James. None of the horror of birth and sex is present in such explicit and disturbing form in the story. The spiders emerge from the tree, but they do not possess the scrunched faces of babies. The skeleton is uncovered, but no detail is given of its attitude, its expression or the positioning of its limbs.

Artemis 81 was written just after Rudkin had produced a translation of Euripedes’ 5th century BC classical tragedy Hippolytus in a modern performing version for the stage. This epic 3 hour TV film is filled with the afterimages from that experience. In Euripedes’ play, Hippolytus worships the goddess Artemis, the embodiment of chasteness, the hunt and the wilderness (perhaps better known in her Roman form as Diana), her symbol the crescent moon. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and passion, is angered by Hippolytus’ withholding of tribute to her, and punishes him by inflaming his mother-in-law Phaedra (the wife of his father Theseus) with desire for him. She struggles with her feelings, but they are revealed through the ill-considered actions of her nurse. Hippolytus reacts by issuing a torrent of misogynistic abuse, deriding women and their emotional weakness with bitter invective. His mother cannot bear the shame, and hangs herself, spitefully withholding any explanation and writing a letter which seems to direct the blame towards her son in law. Hippolytus himself is unable to protest his innocence, as he has sworn an oath to the nurse not to reveal the truth about his mother’s passion. Theseus, the king, returns from his travels and concludes that Hippolytus is to blame for Phaedra’s death, having possibly assaulted her, and he mortally wounds him. Artemis appears at the end, just as Aphrodite had at the beginning, to reveal the truth to Theseus. She vows vengeance on the next mortal who finds favour with Aphrodite.

Alien classicism - mythological landscape with twin suns
Artemis 81 opens with the play’s landscape of a sandbar dividing saltwater lake from ocean, but the twin setting suns and pink sky indicate that we are not on Earth. Asrael and Helith (played by Roland Curram and Sting, in his first acting role), angels of dark and light, approach a twisted tree from opposite directions. Their cloaks, held together by circled and pinned clasps, suggest that we’re still on some version of the Saxon shore. They converge over a rock formation with a strangely figurative aspect. It is brought to life against the wishes of the angel of light, who claims that the time is not yet right, and that his brother merely wishes to bring destruction and chaos into the world. Meanwhile, in a museum in Denmark (this was to have been a Danish co-production) a raffishly attired classical musician with a Romantic, Liszt-like sweep of long white hair (played by Dan O’Herlihy, a veteran of films such as Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out, Orson Welles’ Macbeth, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life and the titular star of Luis Bunuel’s Robinson Crusoe) is admiring a small statue of a figure identified as Magog. Half human, half a fragment of volcanic regolith, it is the miniature twin of the terrible goddess we have seen emerging from its cracked geologic carapace on the alien world. He feels compelled to steal it, and on the ferry back home, breaks it up and smuggles the parts – limbs, head and torso – in the cars of random passengers. A woman on board, Gwen (Dinah Stabb), herself a would-be musician and composer, recognises the old man as von Drachenfels, a world famous organist. She raises the courage to approach him, and the two talk about music and art. He makes a profound impression on her, and he seems to like her, inviting her to visit him and bring along some of her music for him to look over.

Von Drachenfels - under the power of Magog
We follow the progress of various of the passengers into whose vehicles the dismembered parts of the statue have been distributed as they travel to the far corners of the British Isles – Northern Ireland, Birmingham, Devon and Wastwater in the Lake District. They are all overcome with an almost offhandedly nihilistic urge, and dispassionately kill themselves in various ways, as if mesmerically compelled to do so. Our main protagonist, the science fiction writer Gideon (Hywell Bennett), meets with Gwen, who clearly feels deeply for him. But he treats her with cool indifference, remaining at a safe distance from all human contact and closeness. She inveigles him into accompanying her to see von Drachenfels at his country home, where they find him in the adjoining church, its entrance bathed in demonic red light. Inside, he is attended by a man in a sharp, black suit, whom we recognise as Asrael, the dark angel from the opening scene. Gwen speaks with von Drachenfels in his organ ‘confessional’, behind a drawn red curtain. Having observed the nature of her relationship with Gideon, and questioned her about it, he tells her that he is in thrall to Artemis, ‘withdrawn, within beyond our reaching – a prisoner in his own nature’. He is critical of her playing and writing, discouraging her from pursuing any further artistic ambitions. Gideon, meanwhile, has been studying the stained glass, finding in it a representation of the hunched Magog figure with which we are familiar. Having shattered her hopes, her ‘thought of being another Gillian Weir’, von Drachenfels bids Gwen farewell with a parting ‘remember me’, echoing the fading cry of Hamlet’s father’s ghost, thus adding to the general gothic atmosphere. Gideon notes that the old man keeps Gwen’s rejected composition, slipping it into his bag. After they have left, von Drachenfels descends into the catacombs below his house, which are lit with a hellish red light, the magic fire music from Wagner’s Die Walkyrie booming out all around him. He emerges into a Frankensteinian chamber, a stone-walled lair filled with modern electronic equipment, at the centre of which his old love lies like Brunnhilde, in a semi-insensate state at the centre of medical monitors, waiting to be reawakened.

Gideon before the Dreyer wall
Gideon receives a call from his old friend Jed, and travels north to see him, sitting in on one of his film studies lectures. He’s talking about the climactic tower scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, in which James Stewart’s Scottie embraces the woman who he’s recreated as the dead Madeleine. Jed talks of the circling camera as a moral eye, consecrating their embrace. As the background is magically transformed behind them, he suggest that this camera eye ‘tells us we do right to dream, and for our sanity must learn to fall’. Hitchcock’s work, and Vertigo in particular, becomes another of the thematic strata running through the Rudkin’s script. Gideon returns with Jed to his home, the walls of which are bedecked with posters and stills from late Hitchcock films; not just Vertigo, but also The Birds, Torn Curtain and Family Plot. There are also stills from Carl Dreyer films, including a large one of the vampiric old man in Vampyr (a film about which Rudkin has authored a bfi classics guide), who bears a striking resemblance to von Drachenfels. Jed confesses to Gideon that he feels disconnected from himself and from others. He hears ‘my true self telling me Jed’s dead’. He shares Gideon’s morbid fascination with the pattern of the suicides from the Danish ferry, and they drive out to visit the site by Wastwater lake where the lorry driver had killed himself, sitting calmly in the refrigerated container until he was so much frozen meat. A small blue flower grows on this bleak site, which Jed stops Gideon from plucking. When they part, Gideon leaves with a glib farewell line – ‘give my love to Hitchcock’ – to which Jed answers with a heartfelt ‘take mine’, accompanied by a firm kiss on the forehead. Gideon merely retreats into the protective cocoon of his huge, blocklike motorhome – an armoured carapace in which he can travel the country whilst remaining completely separate from it.

The dream tower - planning a retreat
We learn that Gideon is planning to convert an old medieval tower into his dream home, a mix of the modern and the gothic which we have already seen in von Drachenfels’ house. The camera cuts from this site to its contemporary equivalent, the tower block, where Gideon is saying goodbye to Gwen, having borrowed her car as a more discrete vehicle in which to return secretly to von Drachenfels’ home. She gives him a gift of a sonic whistle which she has made, which will protect him against the vicious dog which roams the grounds, and which is identified with Asrael, a familiar or transformed aspect (another of the Saxon Shore’s werewolves?). Gideon finds and retrieves Gwen’s score, but von Drachenfels discovers him creeping around the grounds outside the church. He draws him aside and into the shadows so that he can’t be seen by Asrael, and Gideon comes to realise that he is somehow in his power. He finds that the score is dotted with strange symbols, seemingly an encoded attempt at communication. Sleeping in Gwen’s car on the hard shoulder that night, he discovers a small, basalt-like lump of rock, which he fails to identify as the head of Magog.

The Hitchcock blonde - Ingrid Pitt
Now fully engaged in his role as scholarly detective, Gideon travels to Oxford, entering an old library and quizzing a precocious young classical student (played by a fresh-faced Daniel Day-Lewis) about Artemis. He describes her aspects as being a seemingly contradictory blend of ‘virginity, castration and pregnancy’, represented in a picture he shows Gideon as ‘a tower headed mother’. Her symbol is the moon as ‘she hatches each new creature into being’, and she later develops into figures such as Mary, Morgan le Fay and Magog. Gideon is distracted from this enthusiastic scholar’s discourse, a learned exposition which the young man clearly relishes giving, by a woman who leaves him a note claiming that she can help him before retreating to the stacks in the stalls above. He follows her and discovers a classic Hitchcock blonde, a small but enjoyable turn from Ingrid Pitt, who defiantly smokes in this sacred space in order to maintain her femme fatale cool. Far from helping Gideon, she attempts to steal Gwen’s score, but is knocked down by a car outside the library, staining the covers with her blood. Gideon then travels to Devon, to a Dartmoor farmhouse, where he visits the wife of the film-maker Tristram Guise, one of the Danish ferry victims. She shows him various Tarot cards, re-interpreting them to remove their accumulated horror movie aura of gothic dread. Death as change, the Hanged Man as balance, The World as flux, the Moon as distance and female power, and the Tower as potential disaster and destruction. Outside, in the garden, a patch of the blue flowers Gideon and Jed had discovered by Wastwater is emerging from the earth as the snow melts. Back in his home, he discovers the secret to von Drachenfels’s code – the notations on the score are scientific symbols which have their alphabetical equivalents on his golf ball typewriter – and uncovers the story of his theft of Magog and smuggling of the broken up parts, and the link with the subsequent suicides. Gideon retreats to the Welsh coast at Ceg Uffern (Devil’s Mouth) in his motorhome, parking near the cliffs by the remains of an old cottage, which looks like a ruined medieval church, before which a red phone box is placed. He phones Gwen at work to excitedly tell her of his discoveries, filled with enthusiasm and more animated than we have thus far seen him. He sees these interconnected events as raw material for a new book (‘what a narrative scheme’). Gwen doesn’t share his excitement, which only now manifests itself remotely over a long distance. She is upset that he has left the gift which she gave him, the whistle, in the car, abandoning her talismanic protection and offering further symbolic and thoughtless rejection. Through the window behind her, the monumental tower of the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool rises, and at its base we see the dark figure of Asrael watching her.

Gwen - under the gaze of Asrael
Gideon sits in his motorhome, Arnold Bax’s symphonic tone poem Tintagel blasting out of his boombox as a soundtrack to the seascape framed in the window behind him. Using a large laminated map of Britain laid out before him, he triangulates the geographical points of the story he has pieced togother – the locations of the suicides and points of de- and embarkation – and connects them with ruled lines in various colours, intersecting and joining across the country. They form a pentagram, a perfect five sided star, an indication that some occult force has been asserting itself and remotely guiding events. Tracing its focal point, Gideon is startled to discover that it is his tower, his dream retreat, a fortress from which to hold the world at a distance. Meanwhile, in intercut scenes, edited with increasing speed to suggest a progression towards some sort of climax, we see the relatives of the suicide victims converging on the tower, to which Gwen has also travelled. They approach from all four points of the compass, herding and hemming her in, forcing her to become part of the pattern. Gideon, realising that she is in possession of the missing head of Magog and is thus in danger, rushes out to the phone box to try and warn her. Behind him, his motorhome, his mobile carapace and armour against the chaotic flux of the world, is destroyed in a violent explosion. He wakes up sprawled brokenly across the rocks of the cliff-face, bruised and bloody. An air sea rescue helicopter hovers above him, and a figure descends on a rope to lift him to safety. It is the angel of light, Helith, his head eclipsing the sun as he gets nearer so that his face is haloed with solar radiance. Gideon is taken up into the heavenly helicopter and flown away, Helith smiling and saying ‘Welcome, Gideon, aboard’, and telling him ‘you’re going to be out of action quite some while’.

Next – Artemis concluded and a look at Rudkin’s themes, influences and preoccupations.


Friday, 17 February 2012

Animated Exeter - Forkbeard Fantasy's Projections

Exeter Cathedral - the night screen
After the darkness the light. Last year’s projection by Tundra* onto the stone and stained glass screens of the cathedral as part of the Animated Exeter festival offered a sombre kaleidoscope of the city’s savage mythologies and deep, bloodsoaked history. This year, theatrical wizards Forkbeard Fantasy, fresh from their recent residency on London’s South Bank, presented an altogether more cheerful progression of images. The show, entitled EvoluMental, was nothing if not ambitious, encompassing creation, evolution and the development of modern civilisation, but the tone was humorously buffoonish throughout. The Forkbeard folks behind the curtain, or scaffolding, started off by lighting the Northern Norman tower in flickering reds and greens, as if renewing the gaudy daubs of the cathedral’s medieval heyday. We glimpsed a white coated figure prowling the arched length of the nave, passing from one pointed gothic window to the next, sometimes peering close up through the panes, sometimes dwindling into a distant shape in the shadowed interior. He erected step ladders to inspect the stained glass, and added the odd touch of colour here and there. As if one person wasn’t enough for the job, he effortlessly split off, forming a trinity, a jobbing deity in the materialist, no-nonsense mould of Richard Dawkins. Not so much the blind watchmaker as the painter and decorator on the clock.

More white-coated loons - Vision On
This divine technician emerged enlarged, blown up on the outer buttressed walls, and lumbered to the tower with a pot of paint in hand. He proceeded to sketchily brush out a corrugated series of steps, graduated in gravity defying Escher angles, which formed a neat visual rhyme with the crenellated rim of the tower. Having created the stairway to heaven, he ascended it in bent-kneed strides. At this point, visions of Vision On inescapably sprung to mind. Memories of Tony Hart’s large instant landscapes and figures, created with a few lines and curves and drawn with football touchline markers; and the madcap, backwards antics of Sylvester McCoy, Wilf Lunn and David Cleveland. The whole show had the scrawled, hand drawn look of something created instantaneously, in the moment, with whatever material or tool (crayon, marker pen, splashy poster paint) came to hand, in the inspirational manner of the late, great Mr Hart. The music, with its playful moogy blurts and squelchy rhythms furthered the associations, and acted as a further contrast to last year’s moody, broken stepped dirge by Beth Gibbons.

Happy head - a benign manifestation of the green man
Once our white-coated, rationalist Creator had reached the heavenly heights, we were treated to a potted evolutionary parade; the balloon forms of paramecia and amoebae pulsing and dividing, ferns and bromeliads climbing up the stones, across which crawled, swam or flew cartoon worms, snails, pterodactyls, gumby dinosaurs and villainously snarling sharks, devouring and morphing into one another in a vibrant Bob Godfrey manner. With a neat bit of incidental serendipity, the shadow of a woman walking her dog joined the parade, fitting in perfectly. It all culminated in the appearance of a rather goofy looking Adam and Eve, who shook their fig leaves in an Edenic boogie on either side of the square tower. This innocent couple was replaced by a Green Man, a reference to the many foliate heads to be found inside the cathedral (at the expense of a cricked neck), which last year’s projections also drew on. This model was more akin to the dim ogres found in Terry Gilliam film, however, grunting with slow, dim-witted befuddlement, chronic and everpresent indigestion suggested by moog sounds at their most flatulent.

Roger Livesey's Blimp - writ large
The hand of our Creator appeared from the top of the tower and pushed this creation down into the clay from which it had emerged, and from which it might one day rise once more. In its place was raised a walrus-moustached, blustering Colonel Blimp character, like Roger Livesey as we first see him in Powell and Pressburger’s film. He harrumphs, harraws and hops about, his elaborately whiskered phizz replaced by various gurning gargoyle heads from the cathedral’s gutters. None of these prove satisfactory, however, and the hand of the Creator once again emerges to discard his unsuccessful experiment, crushing him down like an empty coke can. Civilisation blossoms like lichen across the walls, ranks of buildings creating geometrical mazes through which Wacky Races cars carom, crashing in jagged, starred speech bubbles haloing the word ‘boom’. After the smoke clears from this autogeddon, the Creator climbs back over the crenellations (a word you can’t use too much), trips and tumbles ignobly down his graffitied staircase and falls flat on his arse. He picks himself up, dusts himself down and musters a little ruffled dignity for his final bow, tagging the words ‘The End’ on the ancient walls. Good show sirs and madams. And one which will be repeated over the weekend.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Light Years Away

I remembered this film like a dream from my early teens. I had no recollection of its title, or of who directed it, but knew it starred Mick Ford and Trevor Howard, and that it involved the unconventional apprenticeship of a young to a half mad, half visionary old dreamer, who believed he could fly, in the remote outreaches of the sparsely populated Irish heartlands. It remained lodged in my subconscious to surface every now and again, offering tantalising images and fragments of story. Ford standing shivering beside an old petrol pump in the middle of nowhere, by a road narrowly winding across moors and between mountains. And Howard curtly rapping out commands and questions with a barking patrician rudeness, hair wildly tufted and eyes staring with unblinking fixity. The idea of an ancient, hubristic fable played out in the modern day obviously proved lastingly resonant for me. Seeing it again after so many years, I was surprised at how accurately my partial memories of the landscape and the two central characters had proved to be.

Urban drifter - Mick Ford as Jonas
The film was directed by Alain Tanner, a French filmmaker better known for his realist dramas, generally adopting a left wing view of the world. Light Years Away was released in 1981 and titled Les Anees Lumiere in French. The Mick Ford character was called Jonas, a name which had been used in Tanner’s 1976 film Jonas, Qui Aura 25 Ans En l’An 2000 (Jonas, Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000). This was set in 1968, and centred around the lives of a group of men and women living in a rural commune. The young child Jonas provided the focus for their ideological hopes for the future, for the then magical prospect of the turning millennium. If we can assume a link between the two films, and take Ford’s Jonas to be the communally raised child of 60s hopes and dreams, then the year is now 2000, and the utopian ideals of the era have failed to cohere and take root. To confuse the issue, Tanner went on to make a further film about the grown up Jonas, this time on the actual cusp of the millennium: Jonas et Lila, A Demain (1999), which has no relation whatsoever to Les Annees Lumiere, but is explicitly a sequel to Jonas, Qui Aura 25 Ans En l’An 2000.

Getting off to a bad start - Trevor Howard as Yoshka Poliakoff
Trevor Howard was in the twilight of his career at this point in time, and his character in Light Years Away was one of a series of mad, irascible eccentrics which he played with relish. He was perfectly cast the previous year as the title character in the film adaptation of Vivian Stanshall’s Sir Henry At Rawlinson End radio monologues, ranting and bawling at his unfortunate servants, Mrs E and the ‘wrinkled retainer’ Scrotum from the hallways of the crumbling ancestral pile. His character Yoshka in Light Years Away is a little more restrained, although still tyrannical and not visibly exhibiting conspicuous signs of sanity. He also lives amongst ruin and squalor, with the decaying remnants of a former life all around him, but he has no servants (until Jonas turns up). His manor is now much reduced, an old garage which has long since ceased to function as such, stranded by a bypassed country road. It’s a brave performance by Howard in a largely unsympathetic role, for which he has to strip down to the waist and stand covered in blood and feathers, and maintain a level of dishevelment and physical disregard mixed with absolute self-conviction throughout.

Punk shelter
Mick Ford seemed to embody the British post punk spririt on TV in the late 70s and early 80s. In Light Years, we see him waking from a night spent in a concrete bus shelter, the words Punk and Sex Pistols graffitied like protective charms above his huddled form. In Jack Rosenthal’s play The Knowledge, he even gets to sing the punk pop title song (‘you’ve been to umpteen colleges, but don’t know what the knowledge is’). His characters were young working class men who exhibited a curiosity about the world and its workings, and a determination not to be press-ganged into lives of soul-destroying conformity. In The Knowledge, he is one of several would be London cabbies. He begins as a rather hapless and clueless innocent, lacking in any sense of worth or self-belief, and is guided into action by his wiser, more forthright girlfriend. The hard won lessons of the knowledge (the memorisation of every London street and public building) provide the path towards wisdom, an urban form of enlightenment. In Alan Clarke’s borstal drama Scum, initially banned as a TV play, he was the philosophising non-conformist, refusing to bow to attempts at institutional depersonalisation. He remained defiantly and heroically cheerful, and openly questioned the brutality of the regime, thus ensuring that this brutality would be more intensively directed at him.

Landscape with Red Van
In Light Years Away, he plays Jonas, whom we first encounter disconsolately working in the dingy hole of a Dublin bar. Here he has a brief exchange with Trevor Howard’s character, Yoshka Poliakoff (a nod perhaps to the writer and director Stephen Poliakoff, whose film Caught on a Train, based around an encounter on a trans-European journey, had been broadcast in the BBC2 Playhouse slot the previous year). With his Eastern European name and Jonas’ South London accent, these are two people who have clearly wandered from their places of origin. Jonas’ transient job and accommodation suggest that he is unsettled, just drifting through. The large bronze samovar squatting on the table in Yoshka’s small room abutting the garage’s hangar shed points towards Russian or Eastern European heritage, transported from the continent. His bright red breakdown van, which has provided a splash of vivid primary colour against the browns of the rocky scrubland and the dark greys of the skies through and under which he has travelled to reach the city, looks like it would be more at home as part of a circus caravan, rather than parked by the ruined and rusting garage from which we saw him head out at the start of the film. It’s a further signifier of his difference, his alien, outsider status. He mingles with the grimly taciturn and self-absorbed daytime drinkers and asks Jonas whether he likes it there. Jonas answers noncommittally, but it is evident from his slump-shouldered body language and dead eyed dullness that he detests it.

Hope filled arrival
Later, Yoshka visits him in his squalid, decrepit squat in a row of condemned housing as he lies in bed. He enters only to leave him a book, which we have earlier seen him annotating, underlining certain passages. Jonas fails to turn up for work, and the following day he finds it impossible to muster a decent excuse, instead telling the landlord what he really thinks of him and his establishment. Having thus cut himself adrift, he fixes on the address which Yoshka had written in the book, and decides to interpret it as an invitation. He sets off to find him, hitching and hiking into the middle of the wild and mountainous Irish moorlands, finally taking directions from a barman in a tiny village, who tells him that the old man is completely mad. Walking the narrow, open country road to the garage, he finds it to be a dilapidated semi-ruin, little better than the slum he left behind. A tide of scrap from wrecked cars is shored against a large weathered and rusting shed, with a couple of small attached offices converted into provisional living space. Yoshka is not at home, so Jonas takes shelter in an old caravan and, weary from his travels, falls asleep. He is woken by the old man, who is abrupt and dismissive, berating him for sleeping whilst waiting for him, and mocking his attempts at explaining himself, belittling him at every turn. He denies that the book was meant as any form of invitation, tells him that he is of no use, and turfs him out. Jonas is not so easily dissuaded from his instinctive quest, however, and makes his way to an isolated cottage some miles away. Here he meets Betty (Bernice Stegers), and asks her if he can buy food and a present for Yoshka, telling her that he lives with him. She looks at him with an appraising eye. She evidently knows the old man, and views him with a familiar contempt, not lacking in a certain warmth, and suggests that a pig would be an appropriate offering. Jonas cradles the squealing creature as he trudges back to the garage. It will become his closest companion in the coming days, a comforting, living presence to ward off loneliness and despair. Yoshka greets his return with curt interrogations, asking ‘what do you want with me’, and parroting his ‘I don’t know’ response back at him with brusque disdain. He asks ‘what can you do?’, to which Jonas self-effacingly replies ‘nothing special, but I can learn’. He is allowed to stay, squatting in the caravan.

Surveying the wreckage
The relationship develops along the lines of a Zen master instructing his pupil, leading him towards understanding and enlightenment. The pupil has to meekly accept all the rudeness, physical privations and seemingly pointless tasks to which he is subjected. Jonas senses something about Yoshka, some magical quality or enigmatic, hidden wisdom which makes all of this worth enduring, even though he periodically resists, and bursts with barely restrained rage and frustration at various points. He initially sets himself to clearing the mountain of scrap, the world’s detritus, uncovering the more or less intact cars beneath, in order to impress Yoshka with what he can do. Subsequently, the old man sets him a series of pointlessly arduous or aimless tasks, which seem more tests of endurance and will than purposeful action. He shows scant gratitude, but offers small rewards as a result – food and invitations into his meagre living rooms. Jonas has to sort the scrap out into separate piles, bringing a semblance of order to chaos, even though Yoshka has no intention of doing anything with it. He cleans up the filthy petrol pump, and is obliged to stand by it in all weathers, waiting for cars which seldom pass and never stop. When a van does eventually pull up, he discovers that the pump has been empty all along, and the driver has merely stopped to mock him. Yoshka relates a dream in which all the cars in the scrap yard gleam in the sunlight, goading Jonas into polishing them over an exhausting period of three days. He then picks out the one hopelessly decayed hulk amongst them, which is nothing but a brittle carapace of rust, and launches into a tirade, telling him that he has failed and must return them all to their previous corroded condition. This proves too much for Jonas, who tips over into madness, setting the whole lot on fire, with himself at the centre of the conflagration.

He first makes a real connection with Yoshka earlier on when the old man excitedly tells him that he’s heard that a storm is approaching. The two sit in the cab of the breakdown van as it rages above them, passing a bottle of vodka between them and watching through the rainwashed windscreen, exhilarated at such elemental violence. Jonas also strikes up a friendship with Betty, and they take solace in each other’s physical company. She had also lived with Yoshka, but he had thrown her out after she had grown too inquisitive about what he was up to in his shed, and sought to discover his secrets. Yoshka acknowledges their past when he sees her with Jonas, but denies that he threw her out, and warns him that he will have to leave if he sees him with her again. We have brief glimpses of what goes on in the sacred, forbidden place to which Betty had tried to gain access, and from which the sounds of screeching birds can be heard outside. We see Yoshka feeding and talking to a vulture and an owl, a solitary old man in a holed cardigan whose only friends are the birds. When he emerges, scratched and bloody, from the shed, he waves away Jonas’ concern, and gets him to dig a hole in the garden. Here he is planted for three days and nights, his head sticking above the topsoil like an anthropomorphised cabbage, blithely oblivious to the world about him. When he cries out to be dug up, Jonas is astonished to discover that his wounds have healed. Jonas, meanwhile, talks to his pig, with which he seems to have a natural affinity. One day, it goes missing however, and he is horrified to discover that Yoshka has slaughtered and roasted it. He is invited inside to join in the feast, and accepts, perhaps thinking that this is the old man’s way of getting him to cast away his own piggish nature, and to turn his thoughts to higher things - to aim for the sky rather than root about in the earth.

Guarding the cursed pump
After he has burned himself in the car wreck conflagration, Yoshka brings Jonas inside to recuperate in his bed, and gives him a book on eagles to read. ‘The birds are my teachers’, he confides. When he is well, and filled with his new knowledge, Jonas is sent off to find an eagle, the one key bird which Yoshka’s wild menagerie lacks, and one which holds key secrets. He travels across the country until he is guided to a mountain, where a poacher has his hideout. They stalk a golden eagle together, and net it, and Jonas takes it back in a thick sack, chloroformed into passivity. When he arrives, he finds Yoshka sitting motionless, staring unblinkingly into space. For a moment, he thinks he’s dead, but he has fallen into a trancelike state, his consciousness having retreated into blank stillness until he has almost become part of the landscape – halfway to transforming into a suggestively shaped outcrop of rock. Jonas later relates his own moment of enlightenment, when he felt dawn rising and ran out to the fields, and felt the brilliance of light filling them, and the shadow beneath, all sense of self emptied away as he felt himself a part of the world and the universe beyond. But the sense of ecstatic connection fades as his mind starts whirring again. At another moment, he tells Yoshka ‘suddenly I understood why you’d knocked on my door and why I’d come here’. But when Yoshka asks him to elaborate, he smiles and says ‘I couldn’t tell you’. The two have reached a rare level of intimacy, and Jonas is now beginning to move beyond his teacher.

With his quest for the eagle successfully carried out, Yoshka now invites Jonas into his shed to share his secrets and help realise his dreams of flight. He has built a large pair of Leonardo-like wings, brown canvas stretched across a light steel frame. When the weather forecast predicts another stormy night, he prepares for take off. Jonas is horrified to discover him in his hangar, stripped to his waist and covered in the blood and feathers of his birds. He has killed them and smeared himself with their torn innards in a ritualistic attempt to absorb their spirit, to bathe in their souls. It is a horrific act of obscene barbarity, a violation of nature. His hubristic obsession with taking to the air and becoming like a bird has led to him attempting to force his will upon the natural world, through mechanical and occult means. The eagle, however, has escaped his murderous attentions and flown out into the wilderness beyond. Yoshka straps on his wings, and covers his face with a woollen balaclava, walks through the hangar doors, opened at last, and launches himself onto the winds. He flies off into the night, with Jonas watching his departure from below. The next day, the police call at the garage, and take him to the point several miles away where the old man has crashed. His eyes have been pecked out, and Jonas sees the eagle watching from a nearby outcrop. He has paid for his attempt to claim dominion over wild forces.

Jonas travels back to the city, where he discovers from Yoshka’s will that he is to inherit the garage. He meets a dancer in a bar, and tries to persuade her to come with him, to share this new life with him. She’s having none of it, though. She has her own life to live, she tells him, disabusing him of his tendency towards impulsive romanticism. But unlike Yoshka, he feels the need for female company, and has no need to hide his secrets, to guard them as if they will be stolen, some essence vampirically drained off. He shares the stipulations of Yoshka’s will with the dancer, and they both delight in its strange, cryptic instructions. The will offers a programme of mental exercises couched in terms poetically vague enough to suggest a guiding intelligence whilst actually directing the individual towards bringing their own imaginative and creative resources into play. It’s rather like some of the text based compositions created by Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and the musical branch of the Fluxus movement. These left the music open to the improvisational interpretation of the performer, whilst continuing, in typical classical terms, to insist on the primacy of the composer as the controlling force. Stockhausen offers prompts in his Aus Den Sieben Tagen compositions of 1968 such as ‘play a sound, play it for so long until you feel that you should stop’, ‘play a vibration in the rhythm of your molecules’, ‘play a sound with the certainty that you have an infinite amount of time and space’, and ‘slowly move your tone until you arrive at complete harmony and the whole sound turns to gold, to pure, gently shimmering fire’ (an invocation of synaesthetic vision). Yoshka leaves Jonas with such inward directives as ‘penetrate the sound of your own name’, ‘in the forest one tree is yours, find it’, and ‘swallow the light’ – all of which lead to the ultimate revelation that ‘truly, truly everybody is the universe’. The dancer, having heard Jonas’ half-amused reading of these epigrammatic enigmas, and his subsequent ruminative reminiscences, remarks ‘he’s a strange one, but he’s got magic’.

A man's best friend - fellow piggish spirits
Jonas returns to the garage and hauls open the shed hangar doors. The shadowed interior is still an avian charnel house, with scurrying rats feasting on the rotting remains. Jonas turns on a large fan (a wind machine for testing Yoshka’s wings) at the back to blow out the putrid air and clear the carpet of feathers away. He has a momentary glimpse of Yoshka, a spectral vision looking on with benign approval. But he’s gone in the flash of an eye. Jonas is overcome with a sudden surge of joy, and runs outside to somersault onto the ground and roll in the mud. He is happy to remain rooted to the earth, identifying with his pig’s happy, simple spirit rather than with the savage, aloof birds of prey and carrion whose essence Yoshka had attempted to absorb. The pig was not such a base creature after all – and Jonas’ attachment was not necessarily something which he had to progress beyond. He will not fall into the same hubristic trap to which Yoshka was prey, attempting to master natural forces and violently mould them to his own ends. He will not become another in the lineage of Icarus.

Civilisation and wild nature - the petrol pump plinth
Jonas rises from his joyful roll in the mud, and looks about him, intuiting an observing presence. ‘I see you’, he shouts, and the camera slowly pans across the mountainous tide of scrap, past the corroded, corrugated iron shed, drawing to a halt at the petrol pump. The eagle perches on top of it, sharply alert and with wings spread, ready for flight. It is a creature of the wilderness at its wildest, posed in talismanic glory atop the metallic plinth which stands in symbolic representation of the modern industrialised world and all its dependencies. It is the empty shrine besides which Jonas had stood in watchful attendance for so long. The eagle has now replaced the Shell sign, the facsimile of natural form. The garage has become a threshold place, an outpost filled with the signs of mechanised automotive culture, now wrecked and useless, rising at the edge of wide expanses of moor and mountain. It is on the borderland of wilderness and civilisation, between outer and inner worlds. Jonas can now stay and become its resident attendant, guardian and potential guide, or he can move back out into the world with a renewed sense of his self and his connection with it. The choice is his. The eagle waits and watches to see what he will do.

Enlightenment - under the gaze of the eagle

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Into the Light at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has re-opened after four years of extensive refurbishment, the space inside considerably opened out and expanded, revealing old iron columns and incorporating one of the old outer walls as an internal feature – a piece of architectural history in itself. The first art exhibition in the new galleries to the rear is Into The Light: French and British Painting from Impressionism to the Early 1920s, which gathers together a wide range of artists who were associated with Impressionism and post-Impressionism, and who drew inspiration from it. The exhibition mainly focuses on the impressionist landscape, and there are two major themes around which it revolves, both in fitting with the rural nature of the area: seascapes and riverside scenes, and rural landscapes.

Monet - the Church at Vetheuil
The sea pictures begin with Eugene Boudin’s The Beach At Deauville from 1863. In fact, this is as much a study of sky and clouds, with the horizon line set low. The horse and cart in the foreground indicated that this is a working environment rather than a tourist destination. Boudin bridged the old and new artistic worlds, being acquainted with Courbet and Millet in his youth, and later becoming friends with Monet, with whom he took part in the first Impressionist exhibition in 1874. He was an influential progenitor of the Impressionist ideal of working outdoors in order to capture the effects of natural light, and encouraged the young Monet to do so, and to accompany him on his painting excursions. Whilst he provided enormous inspiration and encouragement to the Impressionist artists in their formative years, his own works tended to persist with a more traditional approach. Renoir’s Moulin Hoet Bay, Guernsey comes from a later period of Impressionism when he was using warm colours veering towards the red end of the spectrum. The rocks are blurred and fiery, as if they are about to combust, and the sky is strangely fleshy. This is a very corporeal seascape, flushed and sensual in a rather suffocating way. His painting of St Tropez from 1898-90 tones down the colours a little and conveys a sense of hazy heat. There’s a spectral atmosphere hanging over the scene. A transparent figure sketched in white hovers on the water, and the headland and cliffs across the bay rise up like a vision revealing itself in the clouds, a glimpse of a paradisical realm, a Shangri La with fantastic, golden domed buildings clinging to its sheer slopes. Monet’s The Church At Vetheuil (1880) divides the canvas along the centre, the elevated church and the white-walled buildings of the village clustered around it reproduced in a series of short, dabbed strokes of colour as rippling, upended reflections in the river’s water which fills the bottom half of the painting. The contrast between the solidity of the upper half and the transitory, flickering quality of the lower could almost stand for the division between the old styles of painting and the new impressionist styles. His The Museum at Le Havre (1883) sets the turquoise, light blue and marine green strokes blending to create the reflective waters of the harbour against the angular, intersecting planes of boat sails, the solid blocks of the buildings, and the swirling greys and whites of the overcast sky.

The Beach at Walberswick - Philip Wilson Steer
Philip Wilson Steer was a founder member and guiding figure within the New English Art Club, which was created in 1886, and which offered Walter Sickert his first opportunity to exhibit his work in 1888. Steer’s The Beach at Walberswick (1889) is one of several paintings depicting this Suffolk stretch of the south coast. It’s soft and blurred, composed of soothing ochre reds and turquoise blues. The acute curve of the vermillion sands, with its splayed out terminus, could almost be the single bold, arcing sweep of a large brush. This curve of beach resembles some of Munch’s similarly rounded and edgeless depictions of the Nordic coastline, albeit on a smaller scale. The white dresses of the three women on the left of the painting echo the white sails of the boats in the upper right, and the red of their bonnets and bows add splashes of vivid life, contrasting with the subdued, drifting haze of the seascape in which they are positioned, and sets them slightly apart from its dreamy ambience. Stanope Forbes was born in Dublin, but established himself in England, founding and becoming the leading figure of the Newlyn School of painting in Cornwall. Just as Boudin’s painting was more sky than sea, Forbes’ A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach (1885) concentrates more on the beach as a working environment. In this context, it’s a marketplace, with glistening fish laid out for inspection by pensive-looking fishwives. Where this picture is large and richly peopled, his Beach Scene St Ives (1886) concentrates more on the quality of the beach itself, the scratchily painted surface seemingly attempting to emulate the particulate grain of the sand, glaring white in the sun. beach huts and a cluster of people in the middle distance break up the broad stripes of sand, sea and sky. Forbes, in what could be seen as a philosophically punning gesture, has scratched his name and the date of the painting on the bottom right, written in sand.

July Sun - Henry Scott Tuke
Laura Knight also spent some time in Newlyn in the early twentieth century, living there or in Lamorna from 1908-18, and returning regularly thereafter. Her The Beach (1908) is also richly peopled, this time by holidaymakers and people just enjoying the sun. Children are to the forefront, tentatively dipping toes in the waters of a pit they have dug in the sand. It’s all rather cluttered, and detracts from the sweep of shoreline and beach behind. Henry Scott Tuke was another painter who based himself in Cornwall for lengthy periods of time, in his case in Falmouth. His July Sun (1913) depicts a young male nude, seen from the back, sitting on the rocks by the seashore. Tukes uses sensuous and sinuous strokes for his back, catching the glints of light across the shoulders, and using patches of lichenous green of the sort which aroused official opprobrium when Renoir used them in his 1876 painting Study: Torso Sunlight Effect. This echoes the green of the sea, whilst the tousle of brown hair is set against the brown of the rocks just beyond the inlet. Tukes painted many young male nudes, often seen from the back, or half turned away from the observer’s perspective, kept at a discrete distance. Tuke became acquinted with Oscar Wilde and the Uranian artistic circles in London in the 1880, and the beatific, understated homoeroticism of his Cornish pictures has led to his rediscovery in the wake of the gay liberation of the 70s and the subsequent interest in unearthing hidden currents of homosexual history and culture.

Boats at Royan - Samuel John Peploe
Walter Sickert and James Abbot McNeill Whistler were both city dwellers, and associated with city scenes. Sickert had been Whistler’s assistant and pupil in his early days as an aspiring artist, and the two both travelled down to Cornwall to paint. Sickert’s Clodgy Point, Cornwall (1883-4) and Whistler’s Cliffs and Breakers, St Ives (1884), are both small sketches rather than completed works, and are rather overwhelmed by the broad gilt frames in which they are displayed, their later renown granting their merest daubs instant reverence. Whistler’s later Bathing Posts, Britanny (1893) is the most interesting of these studies, its few restrained brushstrokes approximating, in miniature, the qualities of his semi-abstract London nocturnes. The colours in all three of these sketches is subdued and full of murk and shadow rather than light. Such can certainly not be said of the two small paintings by John Duncan Ferguson and Samuel John Peploe, both associated with the Scottish Colourists group. They admired Matisse and the Fauvists, with their strong sense of bright colour liberally applied to broadly outlined and blocked off areas, creating compositions full of dazzling contrasts – the world as a pulsating rainbow. They both travelled to the south of France to take advantage of its bright Mediterraenean sun (not too much of that in Scotland), and the two pictures here were both painted in Royen on the west coast, near Bordeaux, in 1910. Ferguson’s Twilight, Royan sets heavily outlined figures and sailing boats, flecked with deep red and bright green, against a blue grey sea, its liquid surface suggested by a series of separate brush strokes, much broader, rougher and sparser than those employed by the Impresionists. Peploe’s Boats at Royan uses brighter fauvist colours to evoke the daylight glare. Strong outlines once more delineate the boats, with broad and long strokes used throughout. The glistening gloss of the oil paints suggests the dazzle of the sun, and smeared, serpentine squiggles of orange and green the shimmering reflections of masts and hulls in the water.

Vanessa Bell was part of the Bloomsbury set in the early years of the twentieth century, sister of Virginia Woolf, wife of the influential art critic Clive Bell, and close friends with and later lifelong partner and companion of fellow English post-impressionist Duncan Grant. Her painting Studland Beach (1912) is divided into three wide areas, each with their own singular colour or tone: the dunes, the beach and the deep blue sea. Both these and the figures and objects within them are broadly outlined with rough strokes, the lines sometimes left broken, allowing the marks of the original gestures to remain. The painting within these outlines is also rough and imprecise, with the blocked off areas filled in a seemingly haphazard and instinctive fashion. The spatial perspective is flattened, the surface heraldic or like a design in stained glass, on a piece of pottery or for a mural. This all adds to the powerful ritualistic air of the painting, its sense of immediacy and pending revelation. It was included as part of the recent exhibition of Bell and Grant’s work at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Radical Bloomsbury: here’s what I said about it in that context: “A mixture of the formal and representational can be seen in careful balance in Vanessa Bell’s Studland Beach (1912). Areas of bold and clearly distinguished colour are contained with heavily outlined and simplified shapes. There is a very mysterious and almost ritualistic atmosphere to this painting, which makes it much more than a simple beachside holiday scene. All the figures are facing away from us. The two in the foreground, sitting in the dune area, are distinguished by their dark reddish dresses (the red of life?) and the straw coloured hats which take the place of heads and further set them apart from the beach area. A clear expanse of bone-white sand separates them from the other group, who cluster around the bathing tent which breaks the transverse sweep of the lines of dune, beach and sea. Four figures huddle as if in obeisance around a fifth, who stands in front of the tent as if on the threshold of some portal. She wears a simple blue dress, the blue of the ocean into which she is just about to plunge. But there is a sense of finality to the scene, as if she is not likely to return once she has passed through the white doorway. This is a scene of farewell and departure. The whole picture is suffused with an air of dream and memory, landscapes and people recollected and used as the stage for an interior psychodrama, a sense enhanced by the formal simplification of the composition. In this sense, the beach looks forward to the flat, desert-like planes and city squares populated with dream objects by Dali, de Chirico and Tanguy. The picture is filled with a quiet sense of loss, unsurprisingly so given that Bell had lost her mother when she was six, her half-sister Stella Hills when she was 18, and her father when she was 25. Her sister Virginia would make her first suicide attempt a year later. All of which makes the picture hugely affecting and filled with a premonitory mystery, presaging a passage into the great blue beyond which has swallowed the sky and now forms a universal and all-embracing element”.

Louveciennes - Camille Pissarro
The other strand of painting in the exhibition consists of various kinds of rural subjects and landscapes. There are several depicting village scenes. Camille Pisarro’s Louveciennes (1870) was painted in the village to the west of Paris, now swallowed up in its modern conurbations, in which he had settled with his family in 1869. The end of a row of terraced houses on the left border of the picture seems to demarcate the boundary of the village, with the trees filling the right hand border indicating the beginning of the natural world beyond. In between, two figures stand with their backs to us, gazing down over the plains below the ridge, either setting off on or returning from a promenade. The calmness of the picture, its balancing of buildings, trees, figures and clouds, belies the chaos which was to overwhelm France that year, with the onset of the brief Franco-Prussian war, which would drive Pisarro and his family to seek peace in England. Alfred Sisley also lived in Louveciennes, which was where his La Petite Place (La Rue du Village) of 1874 was painted. It’s a study in greys and greyish blues, with the cobbles of the road, the bricks of the walls and the slates of the roofs standing against the more graduated, chaotic patchwork of the overcast sky. His later Bords de Riviere, ou Les Oies (1897) is a simpler, almost cartoonish work, a printed lithograph. Its simply outlined landscape, geese and figures, ovoid clouds and pale colours take it well beyond the characteristics of Impressionism, looking more like an illustration from a children’s book. Gauguin’s Landscape at Pont Aven (1888) was painted a couple of years after he moved to the small town near the Breton coast. Its dizzying foreground is created with serried rows of single short brushstrokes which gradually change direction across the canvas, making the ground look as if it shifting in a billowing sweep – following the passage of a gust of wind through the grass, perhaps. The technique bears the hallmarks of Van Gogh, whom Gauguin had met in 1886, and with whom he would share his ill-fated tenancy later in 1888. The upright spike of the church spire anchors the solid sky, painted with rigidly parallel slanting strokes, against this unstable earth. Its pointed triangularity contrasts with the curving and forking irregularity or the blossoming spring tree, whose branches cut across its surface.

Yellow Landscape - Roderic O'Connor
Other paintings depict farmed or cultivated landscapes, or lovingly tended paradise gardens. Charles Conder’s Apple Blossom of 1893 paints an orchard in light, soft colours, olive greens and pink-tinged whites. Conder was associated with the Aesthetic movement, with Whistler and the Yellow Book, and lived at Cheyne Walk, Chelsea in London, a locale which embodied the spirit of the artistic times, having played host at various times to both Whistler, Rossetti and Swinburne. Armand Guillaumin’s Les Pommiers a Damiette (1893) is another orchard scene, this one limning its trees with strong outlines, and casting dark green nets of shadow behind them. The colours are dazzlingly bright yellows, greens and blues, and the style, both in terms of the vivid palette, the wavering forms of the trees and the application of the paint, draws from Van Gogh and Gauguin. Irish artist Roderic O’Connor’s Yellow Landscape (1892), painted at Pont Aven, takes these influences and tunes them to a hallucinatory pitch. It’s fields are thickly painted in defiantly non-naturalistic colours, with mustard yellow plough furrows. The skies are striated with streaks of mint green, and the shadows are striped patches of red and blue. In fact, the whole composition is made up of stripes. This is a boiled sweet landscape, thickly laid on with oils packed with e-numbers. It’s the kind of landscape depicted in manic adverts for children’s sweets or flavour-enhanced and sugar-saturated drinks, or in Lennon’s lyrics for Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. A picture which can send you into spasms of manic energy if you gaze at it too long. You can calm yourself down by looking at Wynford Dewhurst’s Summer Mist (1919), painted in the valley of La Creuse, a landscape in softly blurred lavender and lilac. It would be perfect on the cover of a romance novel, an accompaniment to purple Mills and Boon prose. What appears to be the shape of a ruined castle tower in the distance adds to its air of dreamy romanticism.

Apple Blossom, Riverbridge Farm, Blackpool - Lucien Pissarro
George Clausen’s Winter Work (1883-4) offers a de-glamourised, naturalistic view of rural life, an anti-pastoral vision of hard labour in a muddy and cold landscape. There’s certainly nothing romantic about the beets which are being hauled up by hand from the earth. They’re not even intended for human consumption, but are animal feed. Figures loom large in Clausen’s composition, the working aspect of the landscape foregrounded. The ‘studied impartiality’ to which Clausen aspired in his naturalistic work stands as a contrasting approach to the more expressionistic and painterly direction taken by the post-Impressionists. It’s more akin to the social realism which would be favoured in the later stages of post-revolutionary Russia and Eastern Europe, albeit without the propagandistic elements. There is nothing heroic or noble about these workers. Camille Pissarro’s A Corner of the Meadow at Eragny (1902) offers a contrasting view of a paradise garden, a small space set apart from worldly concerns. This is the garden of Pissarro’s house in what was then a small village to the north west of Paris. A woman in a blue dress with a basket on her arm tends to the borders in this calm oasis, contained within high, protective walls. Similar scenes are depicted by Lucien Pissarro and Walter Sickert. Lucien Pissarro was Camille’s son, who came to live in London in 1890. He knew Sickert and was friends with Spencer Gore, exerting an influence on his Neo-Impressionist style and becoming a founder member of the Camden Town group. His Apple Blossom, Riverbridge Farm, Blackpool (1921) depicts a scene in the South Devon coastal village. The bulbous massing of pink clouds above the arcing curves of the hills and the stepped outlines of the ascending treeline echo the stippled sprays of spring blossom on the orchard trees, behind which the solid, angular geometry of the farmhouse provides a central focus for the composition. Walter Sickert’s Rushford Mill, Chagford (1916) is another scene painted in a Devon village (Chagford is just west of Exeter), from a period when he was living in Bath. Its colours are darker and more subdued than Pissarro’s, but it is nevertheless a significant departure from his Camden Town interiors and theatre scenes, with their drab browns and dark olive greens, and their general aura of smoke and grime. Even this inveterate city dweller liked to get out to the country now and again.

Devonshire Valley No.1 - Robert Bevan
Sickert was a great influence on the London artists who would found the Camden Town Group of urban neo-impressionists in 1911. This emerged from Sickert’s Fitzroy Street Group, and later expanded into the London Group. Paintings by three members of the Camden Town school are included here, and indicate that they weren’t bounded by the limits of the city’s sprawl. Charles Ginner’s Clayhidon (1913) depicts the buildings and surrounding farm fields of the East Devon village in the Blackdown Hills with thickly laid on paint, outlined with heavy ridges of black. This gives it the look of leaded stained glass or decorative cloisonné enamel, lending it a memorial solidity, a fixing of place and time. Robert Bevan also painted in the Blackdown Hills, which straddle the Somerset and Devon border, and lived there from 1912-13, and again from 1916-19, before moving to the Devon village of Lippitt. He had met Gauguin in Pont Aven in 1893-4, became part of Sickert’s Fitzroy Street group, and met Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman in 1908. He was particularly influenced by Gore’s Letchworth paintings. His The Chestnut Tree (1916-19) uses muted greens and browns and divides the landscapes into blocks and planes, very much in the manner of Cezanne, but with pigs. Green Devon (1919) similarly builds trees and hedgerows from a small, angular coloured pieces, which lock together like the elements of a marquetry design. Devonshire Valley No.1 (1913) uses non-naturalistic colours – bright purples, pinks and greens – and favours curves rather than angular blocks to depict its trees and hedgerows. It’s a soft landscape in which even the cottages and farmhouses lack definite edges or sharp corners. It was always popular and frequently on display in the Royal Albert Museum before its lengthy closure for refurbishment.

The Beanfield, Letchworth - Spencer Gore
Spencer Gore was also a member of the Fitzroy Street Group and a founding presence in the Camden Town Group. In 1912, he went to stay at fellow Camden Town artist Harold Gilman’s house in Letchworth, a garden city in Hertfordshire founded in 1903 as a pioneering planned new town. Gore painted a number of pictures during his stay, in which he combined post-impressionism styles and colours with new elements of modernism, which pointed the way to wholly new directions. Sadly, he was not able fully to explore these directions himself, since he died of influenza in 1914, but his work was to prove highly influential on other artists. The Beanfield, Letchworth has the look of a newly woven tapestry, the bottom border a zig-zag of coloured stripes representing subsoil strata. The whole is composed of simple forms and contrasting layers of colour. Gore may have drawn from his experience of designing murals for the underground London night club The Cave of the Golden Calf, which opened just off Regent Street in 1912. Non-naturalistic post-impressionist colours predominate, with royal blue and aquamarine green trees, and a yellow sky like later LA smog sunsets. Clouds and trees are reduced to blocky outlines, monotoned shapes. The factory chimneys on the horizon emit puffs of smoke which look like the progressive phases of the moon. They could almost be fuzzy felt shapes stuck on to a fabric canvas. The Cinder Path uses more of the ochres, purples and blues familiar from his Camden Town paintings, the ochres for the clodded soil and the bricks of the buildings in the distance. The left of the painting shades into greens and yellows, with small areas of blue and two lines of vivid scarlet. The upright line of the signpost to the right of the path is replaced by slanting fence posts and spindly trees to the left, lending this side a more unstable, chaotic feel. The upper part of the sky is yellow, like that in the Beanfield, but the dark treeline on the horizon is surmounted by massive grey ranges of cloud, largely undelineated, save for a few inlaid lines of darker grey within and lighter deposits on top. It is like a lowering mass of rock, like the sides of the slate mines above Blauenau Ffestioniog. These cloud cliffs are echoed in the cinder path itself, both in colour and form. The path is a jagged rift of coal dust grey, a crevasse tearing through the centre of the landscape composition, destabilising it and causing the slippage to the left. The precision with which Gore laid out the formal patterning of the painting can be seen in an accompanying preparatory sketch, in which he has drawn a geometrical grid upon which the elements are plotted.

This is an absorbing and diverse exhibition with which to open the transformed Royal Albert Memorial Museum’s new galleries, and marks the welcome and much needed return of this institution to Exeter. I’ve certainly been dropping in regularly in the course of daily chores to see odd paintings or artefacts, and it affords the citizens of Exeter a fine opportunity to step aside from the commercial concerns which preoccupy the rest of the city and find something to spark off the imagination. The exhibition continues until 11th March.