Friday, 20 April 2012

Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge


Tiepolo’s Two Magicians and Two Boys (1740), taken from his Scherzi series of engravings, is a delicately outlined fantasy in which he explores a world of superstition, deviltry and primitive magic which is quite removed from the extravagant and grandiose baroque concoctions of his paintings and frescoes. This was one of the prints which inspired Brian Aldiss to write his fine baroque fantasy The Malacia Tapestry, which is set in a city state suspended in a glittering bubble of changeless time. Some of Tiepolo’s prints are reproduced in its pages, although not very well in the copy I have. A science fiction paperback isn’t really the ideal medium for fine art reproductions, I suppose. Aldiss writes of his fascination for Tiepolo’s late etchings, and their central mystery, in his autobiography The Twinkling of an Eye. ‘Even Italian scholars seem puzzled by what the great Gianbattista Tiepolo intended by the delicate Cappricci and Scherzi etched towards the end of his life’, he writes. ‘They depict a world of magic played out in dusty sunshine, shaded by stricken pines, where serpents burn on altars dedicated to unknown gods. I tried to re-create Tiepolo’s mysterious place in prose’. In Two Magicians and Two Boys, the two elderly, bearded and toothless magi perch upon what may well be a sarcophagus, wicked smiles upon their wrinkled faces. One leans on his semi-caduceus, the single coiled snake of which appears alarmingly lifelike. The other cradles a cracked urn, which is emitting some foul, dark vapour. They both look towards a young boy who is heaving a huge, slab-like tome over for them. Another boy lounges on the ground, his elbow resting on a human skull. The old man is writing something on a rock with his bare finger. The slaughtered sheep lying at his feet suggest that his ink may be blood, which is perhaps what fills his urn and gives off such sickening fumes. The seated boy looks up at the beginnings of his script with nervous alarm, as if he is just waking up after dozing off in the somnolent afternoon air. The boys would seem to be pupils or apprentices of the old men, but the look on their teachers’ faces suggests that what they are about to learn will not be to their benefit, and may not bode well for their future prospects. Hungry old age is plotting against trusty and respectful youth. Behind this diabolical classroom scene, a studious, goatheaded satyr bends over his books, a cloven hoof guiding his eyes along the lines of text. He may be required in a ceremony soon to be enacted, but meanwhile, he’s getting his horned head down and trying to better himself. All around them, the crumbling walls of the catacombs and sarcophagi rise, and architecture of ruin and death.

The museum’s first edition copy of Goya’s Los Caprichos (1799) is laid open at one plate depicting a gathering of old crones. Caprichos is the Spanish for caprices, playful fancies, although Goya’s fancies can be very dark indeed – humour at its blackest. Fancy here is aligned with fantasy, with the free exercise of the imagination. Tiepolo also made a series of Capricii etchings at about the same time as his Scherzi, which also featured magicians and demonic satyrs. Goya’s focus is more on witchcraft and the superstitious beliefs and terrors which still surrounded it in the Spain of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. There seems to be something about the print form which makes it particularly open to the creation of fantastic and grotesque forms. The variable shades of black and white lend themselves to the nightside of human fears and dark fancies, to conjuring beasts and bogies from the inky blackness. Goya’s Caprichos use this quality of the black and white print to satirise human folly, superstition and gullibility, as well as the exploitation of power and influence. The famous plate The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters stands as a manifesto for the ethos of the series as a whole, with its dozing writer at his desk beset by swarms of monstrous bats, owls and cats. Reason and sense must stand against demons from the nightside of the mind, as well as against folly and abusive power. The plates of the Caprichos range widely in subject matter, mercilessly dissecting power, marriage, sex, education (in a series featuring anthropomorphised asses), class, old age and youth, and the clergy. They each have their own tersely sardonic title, along with wry accompanying commentaries. But about a quarter of the prints in the Caprichos centre around witchcraft. As Robert Hughes points out in his book on Goya, the fact that so many of the plates represent ‘witches at work and, so to speak, at play does not necessarily mean that Goya was a true believer in witchcraft. But it does imply that he knew very well what power the image of the witch had over the Spanish imagination in his time’. Goya’s often horrific images of witchcraft in practice are certainly not intended as documentation of real practices, but more as a mockery of superstition and the fear and sublimated desire which drives it, and an exaggerated look at the currents of power and influence which exist within human relationships. They are also, as the title suggests, a vehicle for the free play of the darker side of the human imagination.

Obsequio al maestro (‘Homage to the Master’), the plate on display here, depicts a coven of crones gathered around a central figure, who by implication is their leader. She grasps a tiny baby in her gnarled and bony fingers, which is as stiff and straight as an iced lolly, and she looks on it with a slack-lipped hunger which clearly indicates that she intends to eat it. The faces of the women around her run the gamut of human emotions, from hatred, greed and self-pitying sorrow to obsequiousness, dopey indifference and feigned aloofness. The element of horror is almost secondary to this study of human hierarchies. As Robert Hughes points out, there is also an element of clerical satire here, with ‘the supplicant’s gesture (reminding) one of a grovelling postulant kissing the cardinal’s ring’. The commentary runs ‘this is quite fair, they would be ungrateful disciples who failed to visit their professor, to whom they owe everything they know about their diabolical faculties’. Goya had to be careful and discreetly indirect when it came to satirising the church however. The Inquisition may have been relatively dormant at this time, but it was still perfectly capable of re-awakening and meting out terrible punishments at the dictates of circumstance or caprice. There are several Inquisition prints in the Caprichos, which emphasise the pitiful humiliations suffered by its victims, with their corozas, or dunce’s caps, perched on their heads and mocking crowds looking on. One of them, plate 24 ‘There was no remedy’, shows a woman whom we can assume has been convicted of witchraft, being led on an ass to her execution, the mob braying and cheering around her. Her look of weary exhaustion and despair is very far from the gleefully wicked women which the fevered imaginings of a hidden female world of witchcraft and secret sorcery conjure up. Goya would later produce an Inquisition Album, with plates detailing some of its tortures and punishments, still one of the most powerful indictments of the spiritual sickness of repressive totalitarian power. This, rather than the imaginary rituals and magical practices of witches, is where the true horror lies.

Open next to the Caprichos is one of the French Symbolist artist Odilon Redon’s books of lithographs, La Nuit (1886). Redon had been producing these collections of nightside images since Dans le Reve (In the Dream) in 1879, a title which could aptly be applied to all of them. They preoccupied him for much of the 1880s, and their dark charcoal shadows contrast strikingly with the intensely coloured pastels of his later years. He was clearly influenced by Goya’s Caprichos and others of the Spanish master’s prints, and inspiration which he made explicit in the title of his 1885 collection Homage a Goya. He also provided allusive and suggestive titles for his often ambiguously strange images, with further poetic commentaries alongside (Redon was always a very literary artist). He was, together with Gustave Moreau, the quintessential artist as far as des Esseintes, the protagonist of JK Huysman’s novel A Rebours (Against Nature), was concerned. Des Esseintes himself was a character who provided an immaculate model of Decadent tastes for many, and the popularity of the novel elevated Redon into the fin de siecle aesthete’s canon. Huysmans, in detailing the various rooms in des Esseintes exquisitely appointed house, comes to ‘the vestibule...(in which) other prints, other weird drawings hung in rows along the walls’. Those which he stood in front of most frequently ‘were all signed Odilon Redon’. Having detailed the strange nature of these prints, he concludes that ‘these drawings defied classification, most of them exceeding the bounds of pictorial art and creating a new type of fantasy, born of sickness and delirium’. The lithograph on display here, La Chimere Regarda Avec Affroi Toutes Choses (The Chimera Gazed At All Things With Fear), shows what appears to be an undersea creature, with curled and coiling seahorse tail, spiny-ridged back, and fan like fins. A large, semi-human head sits awkwardly on top of the serpentine body, huge, finned ears, large staring eyes and a flat, bull-like nose giving it an appearance both gawky and strange. Its massive pupils seem accustomed to darkness, and it stares into the near distance with wide-eyed, nervy alertness. It is like a clumsily grafted specimen in a Victorian cabinet of curiosities come to life, the look of startlement and anxiety on its face perhaps reflecting a permanent state of astonishment and vague revulsion at its own unlikely existence. Whilst it looks like it should scull its way through the obscure waters of some lost Sargasso Sea, the tenebrous, crosshatched background from which it emerges has nothing of the oceanic about it. Rather than floating in a liquid medium, it seems that, despite lacking any aerodynamic qualities, this creature is hovering and squirming in mid-air. This is no doubt the sort of thing which des Esseintes observes ‘seemed to be borrowed from the nightmares of science, to go back to prehistoric times’.

I was particularly excited to find a copy of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) on display, open at page 4, the plate headed The Voice of the Devil. It opens with the lines ‘All Bibles as sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors’. Considering that this was published in the same decade as Goya’s Caprichos leads us to realise the wide gulf between the England and Spain at the time. Goya wouldn’t have dared to make such a boldly heretical statement, which would soon have led to the Inquisition knocking at his door. Blake’s book offers the first examples in the exhibition of prints inked in washes of colour. Here, the intense elemental tones of red flame, sunset orange sky and blue ocean are rendered in watercolours give rich, burning texture by the acid etching and pressing processes. The sky shimmers with heat and the flames flicker outwards and upwards with almost palpable motion. The image of the chained devil reaching out from its cradle of fire towards the child, held firmly in the arms of an angel which treads lightly and swiftly over the waters is familiar from a later, full-page Blake print produced separately from any of the illuminated books: The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child, a copy of which is owned by the Tate Gallery (although it’s not currently on display). It also forms the cover of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Blake. The lettering of the text which takes up the bulk of the Voice of the Devil page is printed in gold, as if burnt in lines of liquid light. In between, hieroglyphic stick figures gather and move, as if the words themselves are coming to vibrant life. Some fly, some huddle in intense conversation. One walks a dog, another rides a chariot, one walks with a stick, another runs in desperate pursuit of someone or something, arms imploringly outstretched. The ‘l’ of the world life sprouts into a sinuous stem from which a figure is diving. The endpoint of the ‘e’ in age extends itself and forms an ear of wheat towards which a grasshopper springs. The ‘d’ in sacred shoots and sprouts two small leaves, language as a cutting propagating new life. The top of the page is washed in pale sky blue, with further word growth of spiralling vine and curling leaf providing foliate decoration which brackets the title (The Voice of the Devil), which is trumpeted by two angelic heralds. Language itself is given artistic shape, words formed with expressive visual flair, the ideas and mental pictures they embody flourishing before our eyes .This page elucidates one of the central ideas of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: that the body and soul are not separate, and that ‘energy’ (or instinct and vision) and reason are similarly not divided. Energy is often mistake for Evil in Blake’s mythology, and is the characteristic of the Devil (later embodied in the figure of Los in his personal pantheon), the figure reaching out from the flames which emanate from its shackled form. Perhaps the child might be better off if it were able to reach it. All of these qualities and states (body and soul, energy and reason) are inherent in the physical nature of being, which Blake celebrates in the teeming life of his words. The overflowing imagination of this and other plates give visual form to the summary lines of The Voice of the Devil: ‘energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight’. Blake is most definitely of the Devil’s part.

Whistler’s The Doorway (1879-80) is one of a number of etchings he produced in Venice after his ignominious and penurious retreat from England in the wake of the debacle of his libel trial against John Ruskin (the ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’ affair). He’d technically (and possibly morally) won the case, but given the derisory nature of the compensation offered and the crippling legal costs he had to bear, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory. He returned to London to exhibit 12 of his Venice etchings in December 1880 at the Arts Society. The sepia print here depicts an open doorway through which we glimpse a dim, shady interior. A woman stands at the threshold and peers sleepily down at the water. The scene has a blurry early morning or lazy afternoon feel, languid and drowsy. The roundly arched windows on either side are intricately patterned with diamond panes, and the broad, semi-circular fanlight is gridded in a manner which makes it look like a portcullis. The dimly perceived interior is transformed in the reflective surface of the amorphous waters into a black, thumbprint smudge. The way in which the doorway opens directly, via a couple of shallow, slab-like steps, onto the liquid streets of the canal sums up the strange, fantastic atmosphere of the city state. Whistler was renowned (or infamous) for his semi-abstract nocturnes blurrily depicting London riverside scenes. He’d also made etchings and paintings of Thameside views from his rooms in Wapping way back in 1859, when he first came to London, and his ‘Thames Set’ of prints was published in 1871, at around the same time that he started painting his watery nocturnes. He was clearly drawn to urban waterside scenes. There was something about the reflection of artificial light in water, perhaps, or the liquid diffusion and diffraction of solid form and definite shape in its surface which allowed him to concentrate on the colour harmonies which he favoured above other compositional elements.

Max Klinger was a German artist who is best known for a sequence of etchings titled Paraphrase on the Discovery of a Glove (1881). This semi-narrative progression anticipates the surrealist collage stories of Max Ernst. It details the travails of the elegant evening glove, which strays from one strange setting to another, with a steadily escalating element of the absurd and the weird pervading them all. It is initially picked up by a gentleman on a roller skating rink circled by people in neat formal dress, fished out of a raging sea by a figure in a one-man sailing boat, taken for a ride over the waves in a seashell chariot pulled by cresting horses, placed on a pedestal table in a room curtained with its draped brethren from behind which the snout of a crocodile prods out, eying it beadily, stolen by a pterodactyl, and contemplated by a fairy which could easily fit inside its now crumpled and creased interior. The print on display here is equally playful and strange. Bear and Fairy (1881) depicts a teasing spright perching in the flimsy upper branches of a tree. It tickles the bear who clings on below it with a long, leaf-tipped stem. The bear can go no higher, having reached the last branch which will carry its weight. But the fairy goads it onward, hoping that it will continue climbing, providing the amusing spectacle of an ignominious, panicked crash and fall. Far below them, a long, sandy beach gently curves, mountains rising behind it, suggesting that we are on a tropical island. It’s a vertiginous perspective, and a long, long way to plummet.

Edvard Munch’s Desire (Begier) of 1898 is a black and white print which is more black than white. From the pervading darkness emerges the head of a woman, her hair spread out around her, suggesting that she is floating on the surface of a body of water, or on some depthless void. She resembles the demiurge Urizen in William Blake’s Book of Urizen, staring lifelessly upward with his beard floating out around him upon the formless waters. She may be drifting, or she may be drowning. Her expression suggests a state of lifeless anomie and blank dissociation. Above her float the semi-transparent visages of three men who look down on her voyeuristically, their faces full of the furtive, guilty desire familiar in Munch’s male figures. Moving into the twentieth century, Picasso’s Blind Minotaur Led By A Little Girl In The Night (1934) is part of his Vollard Suite, a series of prints he produced after his relationship with the young Marie-Therese Walter came out into the open, following the break-up of his marriage to Olga Koklova. They were named after the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, who commissioned them, and who had supported Picasso since way back in 1901, when he was still an anonymous, impoverished Spanish artist in Paris. Many of the series were line drawings, unshaded outline pictures. Many were of an erotic nature, reflecting the energy his new relationship had filled him with, and he cast himself as the figure of the Minotaur. The print on display here is different from these, however, being an aquatint, a black and white ink and watercolour picture with the slightly old-fashioned look of a mezzotint. The immensely powerful Minotaur, all bulging muscle, broad shoulders and bullish neck, is being guided along the shore by the young girl, one hand upon her shoulder, the other grasping a staff with which it probes the ground ahead. The girl, her face turned around towards the Minotaur and seen in flat profile (with a prominent, high-bridged nose) holds a white dove in her arms, symbolising her innocence and purity. She is framed between the Minotaur’s torso, his upraised arm and his staff. He could easily crush and devour her, but there is a relationship of trust here. He needs her to lead him, and she is protected within that frame of flesh and staff. Around them, sailors lounge languorously about, looking on with worldly indifference. The stars above are hazy blurs of light, and the Minotaur seems to raising his head to bray up at them. There’s something a little Cocteau-esque about the picture, both in its representation of classical archetypes in boldly outlined form, and in its expression of a personal mythology.

So, from Durer to Picasso, from Nemesis and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to the Minotaur and a small girl with a dove. There’s certainly no lack of variety in the range of prints on display here, but the element of mythology and the fantastic seems to be a consistent underlying thread throughout. There are many more in addition to those which I’ve focussed on, too. The exhibition runs in the Charrington Print Room until 7th October 2012, and the Edgelands exhibition (see part one) in the Shiba Room until 23rd September 2012.

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