Friday, 20 April 2012

Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

PART TWO


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.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

The Freakier Zone Children's Music Special


What a wonderful edition of the Freakier Zone it was last Saturday. This is a Radio 6 show presented by Stuart Maconie which acts as a sort of supplement to the lengthier Freak Zone on Sunday’s (now from 8 til 10 in the evening), and often devotes much of its hour long span to a particular theme in the company of an enthusiastic guest. This week Stuart himself presented his selection of children’s music, however, and much of it evidently meant a great deal to him. He started off with a couple of pieces by the Radiophonic Workshop composer John Baker, Time and Tune and Boys and Girls, both of which appear on the ‘pink’ Radiophonic Workshop LP of 1968. Created from meticulous and painstaking tape splices, with found sounds used in a percussive manner, a string of sprightly blips and boings. These pieces both demonstrate Baker’s assured sense of light, springy rhythm, which partly derived from his love of jazz; Volume Two of the John Baker Tapes on Trunk Records features a couple of recordings of him playing airily swinging versions of All the Things You Are and Get Happy on the piano.

Next up were a couple of pieces from Vernon Elliott’s music for the Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin animated series Ivor the Engine and Pogle’s Wood, also released on Trunk Records. Elliott himself played the Bassoon and its low voice, alternately darkly mysterious, comically cheerful and melancholically reflective is at the heart of his compositions. Forming a trio together with the clarinet and piano, this is chamber music which, in its easy transition between different moods and bright melodicism, bears some resemblance to the kind of sound characteristic of the early twentieth century French composers grouped together by Jean Cocteau and known as Les Six: Georges Auric (who wrote the scores for Cocteau’s film La Belle et La Bete), Francis Poulenc, Darius Milhaud, Germaine Tailleferre, Louis Durey and Arthur Honegger. The North Sea Radio Orchestra played their own arrangement of a piece from Ivor the Engine in a Freak Zone session a while back, and have become champions of Elliott’s music, playing it in concerts too. Maconie expresses his love for Elliott’s music, describing it with unabashed emotion as gorgeous and delicious, and he’s absolutely right; It’s wonderful. Hopefully Mr Trunk will release Elliott’s music for Postgate and Firmin’s Noggin the Nog sometime in the future, which is a shade darker than the Ivor, Clangers and Pogles Wood soundtracks.



Philip Glass is a composer who I grew impatient with some time ago as he settled into a comfortable and utterly predictable style. But here was a piece from 1979 which was commissioned by the makers of Sesame Street to accompany a series of animations called The Geometry of Circles. It’s very much in the mould of Koyaanisqatski, with wordless, undulating vocals and swirling, spinning carousel organ. It’s the kind of thing which I imagine children would love, as it is itself full of childlike delight, and offers plentiful opportunities for twirling around until you feel dizzy and sick. Following on from this was Sidney Sager’s incredible music for Children of the Stones, long a favourite of mine. Stuart commented that it reminded him of Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, and it certainly does have the air of the formless but approachable avant garde music of the 60s and 70s. George Crumb’s ritualistic music also springs to mind, as does Stockhausen’s vocal piece Stimmung. The programme’s producer apparently heard a piece by Penderecki whilst driving towards Avebury, the setting for the story, and asked Sager for something similar. He duly obliged. The combination of the music with the strange resonance of the ancient megalithic landscape made for an unforgettable viewing experience for any child growing up in the 70s. the unworldly vocals were produced by the Ambrosian Singers, a very diverse vocal group who were capable of acting as a chorus on operatic recordings, acting as backing singers on pop records, and doing work on soundtracks by the likes of Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone (they appear on his Chariots of Fire score). Sager was involved in a number of HTV children’s serials of the 70s, which often included an element of the fantastic. I’ve just finished watching The Clifton House Mystery, for which he was musical supervisor. His job there was mainly selecting the classical piano pieces which were used (the father in the story is a professional musician), but he does provide a naggingly insistent music box theme whose repetitions lodge in the mind, and which serve to summon one of the house’s restless spirits. His discordant theme for King of the Castle, in which the nursery rhyme in sung in a subtly unsettling off-key choral arrangement with gothic organ accompaniment, concluding with a tearing concrete crash, is also memorable. This children’s series was disturbing enough to rate a 12 certificate when it was released by Network on dvd.

More 70s music came in the form of the haunted music box swirl of the Picture Box theme, originally a piece by the French musicians of Structure Sonores (or is that Lasry-Bachet, I’m never quite sure) called Manege. They play the musical sculptures which they created to produce the resonant, metallic sounds – something of a cross between a steel band and a calliope. Like the Philip Glass piece, it’s music to circle around to in a swirling waltz, although its bewitching quality suggests it might be difficult to stop, particularly when the tune takes that downward turn into a tumbling, fragmented minor key ostinato. This was followed with immaculate thematic programming by Donovan’s Picture Book from his HMS Donovan LP, a gentle children’s song sung in his mellowest style. The Stark Reality were a 70s American group who fused jazz, rock, soul, funk and anything else which caught their attention. They recorded an LP of Hoagy Carmichael’s children’s songs, which he’d written late in his life, which was released in 1970 as The Stark Reality Discovers Hoagy Carmichael’s Music Shop. According to the album cover, the music was taken from a WGBG classroom TV series. If so, those must have been some interesting lessons. Junkman’s Song is a wild piece of driving soul, with raw r&b tenor sax, which has a touch of Albert Ayler about its rough-burred edges, percussive electric piano and fuzzed up lead guitar. It all ends in an extended collision of free jazz or rock noise worthy of Sonic Youth or Peter Brotzmann. As Stuart comments, what child wouldn’t like that – noisy chaos in the classroom. More American TV fare comes in the form of the late 60s/early 70s show featuring large puppets HR Pufnstuf. Jack Wild, who had played the Artful Dodger in both the stage and film versions of Lionel Bart’s musical Oliver, sings the title song, a bright and cheerful piece of sunshine pop which conjures up the rainbow poster and album cover art of the period. This was followed up by Thomas Moore’s strange therapeutic singalong ditty I Get Mad from his album The Family, which seems to be about how to endure getting hit by everyone you come across in life without responding with a whirlwind of violent, fist-flying rage.



Carl Orff’s Schulwerk, or Musica Poetica as it became known in its recorded version, was a great favourite of the group Broadcast. It’s a five volume collection of short pieces written to be played by groups of children, and designed to include an inbuilt but not overly didactive instructional element. This was akin to Paul Hindemith’s concept of Gebrauchmusik (utility music), which was intended for adaptable use by non-professional performing groups, thus connecting the role of the composer with wider world beyond the concert hall. Orff’s Schulwerk was designed to introduce children to music making at an early age, and to develop their musical sense and instincts in an intuitive way, guiding them towards finding their own voice. The loose spacious structure and rhythmic nature of the pieces allowed for a significant degree of improvisatory exploration. There was definitely no place for the classical composer’s ego, the imposition of authorial control in this music. Such an approach would have entirely undermined the whole philosophy of what is above all a flexible learning programme. The simplicity resulting from Orff’s writing for children gives the music a spare and spacious quality of clarity and purity, and makes it instinctively affecting. The title Musica Poetica refers to a form of musical instruction book prevalent in the 16th and 17th centuries. Orff’s educational music, much of it written in collaboration with Gunild Keetman, has an air of antiquity about it, similar to that which underpinned his ubiquitous and much (over) recorded Carmina Burana suite. As Stuart pointed out, that work has been tainted through its co-option by the Nazis, not to mention by advertisers and bombastic film-makers (although it was quite effective in John Boorman’s Excalibur, accompanying the elderly knights riding out for the final battle beneath newly blossoming orchards). The Schulwerk maintains its aura of innocence, however. Its blend of tuned percussion (xylophones and glockenspiels), children’s chanting voices and groups of recorders evokes both the school and the medieval hall. The exploration of various modes beyond the usual tempered scales also draws the music back to a pre-classical age. The piece Stuart played, Gassenhauer (or Street Song), was played on a number of xylophones and other percussive instruments, with recorders coming in later. It is a set of variations on a lute piece written in 1536 by a composer called Hans Newidler. According to the notes in the booklet of my RCA Victor Red Seal version of the Schulwerk, ‘this piece shows the individual character of the subdominant, and in combination with the dominant demonstrates the relationships of the elementary form’. So there you go. I think that means the first, fourth and fifth chords. It was used to great effect, along with an arrangement of Eric Satie’s piece Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire (parts of the Schulwerk share a great affinity with some of Satie’s more tonally ambiguous music), in Terence Malick’s debut film of 1973, Badlands. It evokes the Eden of tainted innocence to which the young protagonists, played by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen, temporarily retreat.



In a neat xylophone segue, we then move onto a remarkable 1957 medley of lullabies sung by Julie Andrew (and Martin Harris) with accompaniments written by Moondog. It’s a collaboration about as unlikely as Captain Beefheart duetting with Cilla Black, or…well, come up with your own. Moondog gained a reputation as an ‘outsider’ artist, partly because of the period that he spent performing on the streets of New York. These arrangements show that he was far from being a ‘naïve’ composer, however, as he provides a professional yet charming and bright backdrop for the pure vocals of a pre-My Fair Lady, Sound of Music and Mary Poppins Julie Andrews, twinkling percussion evoking the starlight, starbright night of which she sings. Next were two pieces of library music which ended up being used in and indelibly associated with the eccentric children’s series Vision On, which ostensibly aimed at those with hearing difficulties, but was enjoyed by all. This featured the oddball likes of Wilf Lunn and Sylvester McCoy goofing around in a sometimes baffling manner whilst the wonderful Pat Keysell and Tony Hart got on with the sensible and arty stuff. Accroche-toi Caroline by Claude Vasori was one of several tracks taken from the de Wolfe library label and used on the show. It’s a crisp bit of vocal jazz in a post-Swingle Singers style, with a tinkling, swinging harpsichord solo in the middle which could have been lifted from an episode of the Avengers, and points to the mid-sixties fixation with the idea of elegant antiquity. Stuart eschewed Wayne Hill’s Left Bank Two, known to all as The Gallery music, as it would have been a little too obvious, marvellous though it undoubtedly is. Instead he played Merry Occarina by Pierre Arvay (also from de Wolfe), which combines the oval clay flute with a glockenspiel to create an amiably plodding tune which, as he observed, would be more familiar to people of a certain age as the Humphrey the Tortoise theme.



The Moomins was a Polish animated series created in the late 70s and early 80s which adapted Tove Jansson’s perennially popular tales of strange Nordic creatures, who seem to exist in a world untroubled by human interference. The theme tune, played here, was composed by Graeme Miller and Steve Shill and combines the synth sounds of the period with light, piping folk flutes to charming effect. It all ends with The Residents, with a track from their 1978 Nursery Rhyme EP, a disturbing enough concept in itself. This can now be found on the Duck Stab/Buster and Glen release. This song was a kind of farmer’s mix, mangling Old McDonald Had a Farm, Baa Baa Blacksheep and Mary Had a Little Lamb in a ground and processed blend of treated voices. It was music from an experimental factory farm secretly breeding nightmarish mutant hybrids. Goodnight children, everywhere. Sweet dreams.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

PART ONE

George Shaw - Twelve Short Walks

Two exhibitions currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge offer a wide ranging survey of various prints, ranging across the centuries and ending with two contemporary British artists who are well aware of the history which shores up their work. In the lowlit, air-conditioned chamber of the Shiba Room, with its heavy glass doors which instantly swoosh shut to seal you into the hushed space, prints by George Shaw and Michael Landy were mounted behind the glass wall cabinets and layed out in the standing display cases in an exhibition entitled Edgelands. This set-up, redolent of natural history or geology museums, was particularly appropriate for Landy’s prints, which were detailed line etchings of plants. The specimens which he’d chosen were all gathered from his inner London environs, and are all generally regarded as weeds. Shepherd’s purse, annual wall rocket, common toadflax, herb Robert and creeping buttercup. Generally ignored, if they attract any attention whatsoever it is in order to be dug up and burnt or thrown on the compost heap. Landy reproduces them in fine detail, down to the tiny hairs on the stems, the folds and curls of the leaves, the unprepossessing but individually defined flowers, and the delicate, intricate tangle of the roots. He nurtured the plants, keeping them alive once he’d uprooted them, hence the title of the series, Nourishment. This also acknowledges the fact that several of these plants are edible, pointing towards an idea of self-sufficient city dwelling. Landy reproduced the plants he’d found and identified as accurately as possible and to exact scale. This lends them a permanence at odds with their transitory and provisional nature. Clearly there is an element of symbolism at work here. In lavishing such fine art attention and skill on flora considered disposable and of no intrinsic worth, if not as actively disruptive and invasive, he seeks to draw attention to qualities which are not readily perceptible. Laid out flat on the paper and etched in thin, fine lines, these plants look like dead specimens, ready for dissection and study. But they are hardy, those gossamer roots ready to find purchase once more in the most unpromising of environments, having been unceremoniously uprooted. As with plants, so with people, the underlying message would seem to be. But the prints exist as their own justification, beyond any added symbolic or metaphorical meaning – a record of hardy urban nature. Also included is Landy’s index of objects from his famous 2001 exhibition or installation Break Down, which immediately preceded the production of this series. Break Down involved the cataloguing and subsequent destruction of everything which Landy owned, which trundled before his eyes on a conveyor belt set up in a temporarily empty shop premises in Oxford Street before tumbling into an industrial shredder and crusher. The book records the material components of a life, and the ritualised destruction suggests how inessential they really are. The page to which it is opened indicates that several plant recognition books were amongst the objects consigned to oblivion, showing that Landy was already contemplating this series. Break Down shares something of the idea of being uprooted and starting over which is inherent in Nourishment – apparent erasure concealing essential continuity. As such, these could almost be considered sacred works, looking beyond the concern with surface appearances and self-definition through materialism characteristic of the age and seeking something deeper beyond.

Michael Landy - Nourishment - Creeping Buttercup
George Shaw’s prints depict the hinterlands of the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry in which he grew up and around which he went on numerous exploratory childhood expeditions. These are neglected no-place locations which children would have colonised at the time and made their own. Rough but rich soil for the imagination, setting readymade for mental realignment as backdrops to ongoing fantastic adventures. The paths circling the estate walls, the pitted and potholed road alongside the garage doors (and what secrets lie behind each one?), the scrubby ‘recreation’ area and the narrow canyons between the blank-faced ends of houses. Shaw has painted such scenes with bright, glossy enamels of the sort once used to decorate Airfix model kits. If these versions, some of which were displayed at the recent British Art Show 7 touring exhibition at Plymouth and elsewhere, offer a preternaturally clear-eyed and colourful take on memories of childhood geographies, the black and white prints present their penumbral side. The contrasts between areas of light and deep shadow which can be emphasised in black and white prints here shade the remembered settings of youth with a sinister and ominous ambience. Someone or something waits in the darkness beneath the underpass, lurks in the garages or stands around the corner of the path sunk between steep grass banks. Shaw renders his estate pictures blurred and hazy, rejecting the sharp and well-defined lines which etching can produce (as Landy’s prints show), as if the memories are a little out of focus. Perhaps less than happy events are being kept from manifesting themselves by an effort of will, conscious or subconscious. In many of the prints, stands of trees abut the built environment, an incursion of the remnants of wilderness into the borderlands of human civilisation. Hence the overall title of the exhibition – Edgelands. In Playtime, a tree rises in dark and solid outline in the centre foreground of the composition on a small area of fenced off grass, the buildings of the estate clustering in the background. A straight and sturdy branch juts out at right angles, a piece of rope looped around it, with frayed ends dangling just below like Spanish moss. It’s obviously the remains of a makeshift swing, but it can’t help but look like a natural gibbet, the rope the evidence of a lynching or suicide. A fearful boundary marker which warns the unwary that they are entering a zone in which rules must be obeyed and justice will be swift and merciless. In The Birthday, the white, sunlit buildings of estate flats are once more in the background. In the foreground is a nondescript shed or outbuilding of some description, around which the columns of white trees are gathered, dappled in areas of light and shade. They seem on the verge of movement, limb-like branches poised to creak into barely perceptible motion which will take them a little nearer to the flats. In the background, the woods thicken and accumulate solid shadow. The idea of the dark woods abutting and making slow incursions into the built-up environment suggests both the grimmer, submerged aspects of childhood fairytales and the repressed subconscious forces which they express creeping towards the edges of the everyday.

This uncanny atmosphere is heightened by the fact that all of Shaw’s scenes are devoid of human presence. This gives them an air of imminence, a feeling that something is about to happen, or perhaps has just taken place. The Other Side once more looks onto the boundaries of the estate from the perspective of a muddy path running alongside an area of woodland. The backs of houses can be seen beyond a hedge on one side of the path, whilst the trees loom on the other. One tree has strayed into the centre of the path, like a sentinel presaging a more general shift across the divide. At the top left hand corner of the composition, jagged black outlines of branches in the foreground appear to reach over to rake the roof of a nearby house in the background with menacing, clutching twigs. It’s like the arm of an Arthur Rackham tree. In the centre foreground, again in the middle of the path, there are the blackened remains of a bonfire. Another straying tree reduced to ashes, or a ritual offering to propitiate the hungry spirits of the woods?

George Shaw - The Other Side
Further prints form a series called 12 Short Walks. These offer a fragmented guided walk through the estates dead places. Again, they are all marked by absence and an air of suspended time, a held breath before the motion of the world begins once more. In one, a wall beside a neglected path acts as an object lesson in perspective. In the foreground individual bricks are initially carefully delineated, but as it recedes, the detail of their patterning and arrangement devolves into single lines narrowing towards a vanishing point. It is as if our gaze is being ushered along to the juncture at which we will be transported to the next site. The sense of gliding motion is continued through the following pictures, a mystery tour leading us towards unknown destinations. Paths direct us down a slope towards an underpass or arc us between grass banks around the next bend, finally pulling up at a tree-lined cul-de-sac identified as the end of a bus route, although there is no sign of any houses or shops. We are thus instantaneously teleported from one site to another in the blink of an eye, a smooth, barely noticeable transition between states. There is a sense of circularity to these short walks, all of which are linked together in one chain (like South London’s Green Chain walks). On one level, this represents a kind of beating of the bounds, a proprietorial marking out of personal territory. On another, they could be scenes observed in a kind of internal system of security cameras: projected slides of unfocussed memory seeking to prompt clearer recollection of past events which unfolded within their indeterminate but suggestive frames. A soundtrack of woozy electronica from Boards of Canada or one of the Ghost Box artists would be an appropriate accompaniment.

Durer - The Four Horsemen
Bursting through the heavy doors and emerging into the Dutch and Flemish masters, it’s a few short strides before you come to an open doorway leading into another windowless room. The sensitive nature of the inks used in prints, requiring them to be shielded from bright light, means that they tend to be housed in such small, enclosed spaces, like the side chapels in cathedrals. This gives the impression that you should approach with some reverence and contemplative seriousness. The marshalling within siderooms, and the covering of some prints or books with heavy drapes, gives them a secretive, almost furtive aspect. There’s a feeling that this is work which is an adjunct to an artist’s main body of work, a necessarily small scale diversion from grander paintings. All of this is refuted by the pictures and illustrations on display in the exhibition here, entitled Designed to Impress: Highlights from the Print Collection, which seeks to show off the historical range of the museum’s impressive holdings, and which includes some of the finest examples of the art. Durer is represented by two prints, an engraving and a woodcut, from the turn of the 15th century. The engraving Nemesis (1501-2) depicts the Greek goddess of retribution as a heavily built figure balancing implausibly on a small globe, like a circus elephant perching on a coloured ball. The clouds below her are formed from the spreading folds of the material gathered around her plump, winged form. Above is nothing but emptiness, a blank area of paper representing the void. Beneath her hovering mass, Durer has built a detailed landscape, with houses and castles clustering around a river in the lee of jagged mountain slopes. All of these signs of life, the mills and the livestock and the cultivated fields, seem fragile and vulnerable from the elevated perspective of the goddess. It is all utterly at her mercy. She could descend and crush it at any moment, leaving the splintered fragments to be washed away in the mountain waters. Durer’s woodcut The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1498) envisages the apocalypse in action. The four heralds of the end of all things thunder across the canvas with intensely felt motion. They are all in contemporary dress, apart from Death, whose rags are indistinguishable, and they carry bow, sword, scales and a pitchfork, as prescribed. As they ride through the sky, they trample on those in their path below, no matter what their station in life. A richly dressed man with the crown of a king is being swallowed headfirst by a large-mawed and sharp-toothed beast who appears on the borders of the picture, sweeping up in the wake of the apocalyptic horsemen.

Marcantonio Raimondi - The Dream of Raphael
Durer showed that prints could combine fine detail in terms of landscape and figure with the realisation of the wildest imaginings. Both are present in two sixteenth century prints, Marcantonio Raimondi’s The Dream of Raphael (1507-10) and Giorgio Ghisi’s Allegory of Life (1561). Raimondi’s dream has two classical, Raphaelesque nudes sleeping in awkward positions on a dark shore. Bosch-like creatures are scuttling up the beach towards their vulnerable forms, eliciting a shudder of disgust at the thought that they might soon be touching naked flesh. There’s very phallic bug, a flaccid lizard with long, spiny claws which would seem more at home on a sea anemone, a bizarre duck-like creature with a long, wiry, segmented neck which doesn’t look capable of supporting its head, and fused concatenation of shells with eyes poking out at a disconcertingly impractical point. On the opposite shore, some cataclysm is in the process of destroying a strangely ill-defined city. An MC Escheresque architectural conglomeration of block and cylinder buildings and towers joined by steps and walkways is engulfed in flames. Black and white outline figures are climbing, diving into the sea, hauling each other up and generally attempting to flee the destruction. Black billows of ominous stormclouds amass in the background, casting everything in a sombre, doomy light. The whole thing looks remarkably modern. The blocky, simplified representation of the city, the abstracted outlines of figures, the cartoon-like spears of light and explosive dazzle, and the juxtaposition with the classical figures who like they’ve strayed from an entirely separate picture, together with the gleeful grotesquerie of the nightmare shore creatures, make it look like it could be the blown up panel of a comic.

Giorgio Ghisi - Allegory of Life
Ghisi’s Allegory of Life is absolutely packed with extraordinary detail, as if he wanted to fit in everything his imagination could come up with. It is divided between day and night sides. On the darker left hand side, a tired old man leans against a blasted tree which is blasted, bloated and warty with scars where dead branches have broken off. It is a deformed thing of the wasteland, with a plump owl and a crow sitting in its upper reaches, a bat hovering about the old man’s head. Above rises a mountain which appears to have been hollowed out to contain a vast colosseum. From its outer corridor waters pour, falling in a great torrent to form a river on the plains below, which winds its way down to the sea which fills the centre foreground of the picture. A large, scallop-shaped ship has run aground on the rocks in this tempestuous ocean, which is filled with all manner of serpents, leviathans, behemoths and crocodiles. Perhaps the skeleton which is floating in the waters, the last remains of its eyes being pecked out by a crow, was one of the crew. To the left of the picture, snow is falling over a dark coniferous forest, and a spectral hunter is darting from its dark spaces to fire his bow at a stag just beyond its borders. Maybe the old man has just emerged from this wild, benighted region. Just behind where he is now standing, a key lies at the bottom of a straight and narrow tree trunk, glowing with an intense radiance which sends a winding filament of light threading through the snowflakes to the starry firmament above. The old man seems to be reaching out to the figure in the right foreground of the compostition, a goddess who floats through a stand of sunlit palm trees, a swarm of cherubs and summer birds flocking above her. She carries a spear which might offer him protection, but they are separated by the ocean and by a plain which is crawling with an exobiological bestiary of fantastic and deadly creatures: cockatrices, leopards, warthogs, griffins, wyverns and manticores. In the distance, beyond the colosseum-crowned mountain and monster-filled plain, a rainbow casts its benevolent arc over a land filled with golden cities and palaces. Noble creatures roam around, including a centaur, who rears on its hind legs, as if to get a better view of the old man’s progress. This would seem to be the golden land which is the ultimate destination of his wearisome quest. I can’t help feeling he should have picked up the shining key, however.

Rembrandt - The Three Crosses
Rembrandt’s etching the Three Crosses (1635) is presented in two very different impressions. The first shows beams of light diagonally shafting down, illuminating Christ and the ‘good’ thief in their final moments, along with the prostrate centurion and the Marys. The third crucified man is left enveloped in darkness. The crucifixion seems like it is taking place in some huge, overarching cavern, the light penetrating its Stygian gloom through a small opening far above. Around the central, illuminated area, all is shadow and darkness. The figures on the edges of the central gathering are shuffling away into the obscure depths, their backs turned to the agonies of the executed men. They are engaged in their own affairs, the drama unfolding behind them an everyday occurrence of no great moment. The transcendent moment, the sacrificial transference of original sin, a rebalancing of universal forces, goes unnoticed. The other version on display here is far darker, both in its surface composition and in its overall mood. This is the fourth impression, and the plate on which the scene was first etched has been further scored, scratched and scraped, a visual palimpsest which erases extensive elements of previous versions. Diagonal swathes of cross-hatched lines cast veils of obliterating darkness which occlude the figure of the good thief on the cross and Christ’s mother, as well as the centurion. Figures in contemporary dress sat on horses gather at the foot of the cross like disaster tourists, time-travellers dispassionately observing the human reality of a legendary sacred event. They don’t bother to dismount, eager to ride on to the next spectacle. The figure of Christ is wracked with pain, his eyes clenched shut and his mouth agape. This is the moment of doubt, when he feels abandoned by God, and perhaps even has the horrific thought that he might have been mad all along, the divine voice merely an empty echo in hemispheric canyons. It’s the instant when, according to Matthew 27:46, he cries ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ In its emphasis on texture, shade and tone as opposed to clear form and composition, the print feels ahead of its time; a kind of dark impressionism, or a monochromatic Turner.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Kafka: The Musical


Radio 3 gave a repeat airing of Murray Gold’s award-winning play Kafka: The Musical last Sunday, following on from its initial broadcast in April 2011. Gold is probably best known as the composer of the music for the revivified Doctor Who, which he has also conducted in the Albert Hall at several Proms concerts. He's clearly a man of many talents and impressive energy, and naturally writes and plays the music here, too. The Doctor Who connection is further strengthened by the casting of David Tennant as Franz Kafka, shortly after his departure from the role of the tenth incarnation of the errant time lord, to which he brought such style, humour, conviction and élan. Having also played Hamlet with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he evidently does a good sideline in brooding, self-doubting, reluctant protagonists. His Kafka is a hesitant, shy and self-effacing soul, and brings out Tennant’s tender and quietly intense style. A little like the first half of the Family of Blood Who story, where the Doctor temporarily forgot that he was the increasingly god-like being of Russell T Davies’ invention, and became a simple, dedicated teacher at an Edwardian boy’s school. This subtle, unshowy and beautifully balanced performance gives a good insight into his range, and offers an ideal opportunity to witness what a good actor he is away from the big, defining role which changed the public’s perception of him for ever.

The multi-talented Murray Gold
It’s fairly evident from the start of the play that we are hearing Kafka in his last moments. In a way, the play can be heard as the dying fantasy of a man gathering together the strands of his life and work. The play soon takes on its own Kafkaesque form, however, with Franz finding himself in the bewildering position faced by his own characters. His father pushes him towards taking his art in a more commercial direction by arranging a meeting with a Herr Grossmann, a successful theatrical manager and producer. Grossmann proves an impossible man to encounter, however, although others make it clear that he is constantly watching over events. Grossmann is the big man, who may even be God. Kafka never does get to see his face, although he does witness him undergoing the tortures described in his story In The Penal Colony (a favourite of Frank Zappa’s, apparently). Kafka finds himself swept up in a musical based on his stories, and on his own life, a script of which appears to have magically manifested itself without any knowledge of its authorship on his part. The idea of a Kafka musical is an absurdist jape in itself. The darkly humorous worldview of Kafka, in which the individual is invariably powerless and at the mercy of forces which he barely comprehends, co-opted by the musical form, with its relentless cheerfulness, optimism and sense of personal empowerment. It’s also a cruelly inappropriate arena for the talents of an inward, self-conscious and emotionally reserved man, who also suffers from a tuberculosis which has afflicted his throat and makes breathing and speech difficult. And yet here he is expected to step into the spotlight and belt out an uplifting, emotive final number, making an open-armed declaration of his love for Dora in the pouring rain. Kafka comments that ‘everything needs its quiet corner to exist in’, yet here he is being inveigled into starring in his own show under the direction of other, unknown people.

The musical is the kind of direct, big-time entertainment which his father would recognise as constituting proper success. His fractious relationship with his father, in whose shadow he always felt belittled, a hopeless failure, is represented here in a very English way. Herrmann Kafka is played by David Fleeshman as a no-nonsense Yorkshireman, surly, bluff and unyielding – the kind of character for which Brian Glover would once have been the natural choice. It reminds me of the inverted relationship in the Monty Python sketch, in which Graham Chapman’s hardworking playwright on the paperface of Hampstead berates his son for having dreams beyond his station and ‘poncing off to Barnsley’ to work in the pits. Herrmann admits to having read one of his son’s stories, Metamorphosis, which he found ‘cut price’ in a bookshop he was passing. He tells him that he must have got the idea from the names he playfully used when he was young, calling him ‘cockroach’. The women in Kafka’s life also appear as part of the theatrical environment. Milena is a writer working for Grossmann, confident and assertive, Felice an assistant at the theatre with a London accent, and Dora the object of his romantic love. He is told that Grossmann wants to turn his life into an uplifting story about the search for love, with Dora as the grail discovered at last. Even Kafka falls for the myth of true love which the grand denouement he envisages enshrines. It’s about 50 minutes into the play before we get to hear any songs, which are presented as if they are in the process of rehearsal. Strangers subjects elements from The Trial, Metamorphosis and The Castle to the parodic reductions of musical theatre adaptation. Gold’s tense synthesised arpeggios ably conjure up an air of paranoia and fear whilst retaining the necessary jauntiness of the musical number. Further fragments of song are scattered throughout, and act as parodies of various well-worn aspects of the typical musical. Dora’s number is the sad ‘soliloquy’ song of the faithful female companion of the title character – like Nancy’s ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ in Oliver. The sinister policemen who burst into Kafka’s room sing a snarling song in the stage Cockney manner of David Essex (or Essex-imitators, David being the genuine article, of course). Kafka’s father gets to sing an ‘explication of character’ song, which provides facile justification for his overbearing manner. And the doctor has a brief burst of villainous explication, barking out fascist, book-burning sentiments. The play has the odd bit of historical contextualisation, with mention of hyper-inflation and the absurd cost of simple, everyday items. But it avoids the temptation of seeing in Kafka’s work presentiments of events to come. ‘I’m not a prophet, I’m a retired insurance clerk’, he points out himself, precluding any further hints at darkness to come.

As Kafka gets drawn further into the production of his life, it begins to take on a ‘the show must go on’ aspect. His illness becomes increasingly apparent and debilitating, but he is now determined to continue. The musical is a simplification of life, a determined effort to present it in its sunniest aspect, and to admit of the possibility that its problems can be solved through a good soul-baring song. It allows Kafka to externalise his fears and self-doubts and find a last possibility of happiness and fulfilment. He gets his final moment of love with Dora, with the rain hissing in the background. This final scene is extraordinarily affecting, and is beautifully played by Tennant and Emerald O’Hanrahan as Dora. If I might dare say it, it’s infinitely more moving than the prolonged farewell which Tennant’s Doctor was indulgently permitted at the end of his Who tenure. Jack, the Silent Doorman, a character in the play which is being put on, is always on the sidelines, dressed all in black. But finally, Kafka gets to meet him, alone on the stage, and it becomes clear what his true role in the story is. ‘Everything has a reasonable explanation, doesn’t it Jack?’, Kafka asks, before realising the absurdity of such an expectation, and quietly replying to his own rhetorical question with a calmly accepting ‘well, perhaps not’. He is allowed one final bliss-filled moment of transcendence in the rain, though, the kind of generosity and optimism of spirit which musicals permit (and which has been given a medical explanation, as a side-effect of the final stages of tubercular illness). In a way, it’s reminiscent of the end of the Vincent and the Doctor episode of Doctor Who, in which Van Gogh, who similarly believed himself to be a useless failure, is allowed a glimpse into the future to witness his artistic immortality. Here, Kafka is given a peaceful end, with a sense of personal and artistic fulfilment, of life confronted and embraced at all its tortuous turns. In its musical form, he sees his life as being a self-contained thing, with no need for perpetuation beyond its end – hence his request, made to Dora as he expires in her arms, that his friend Max Brod destroy all his work (‘it’s best that way’). He sings his last song, ‘give me one more day’, a happy/sad number which admits of the value he has discovered in life. As it dies away, we are given the biographical details which snatch us away from the fantasy of life. Kafka died on 3rd June 1924 in a humble sanatorium near Vienna. Dora never got over his death, we are told, and died in London in 1952. Milena died in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, having joined the Czech underground and helped Jewish refugees to escape. Kafka’s three sisters also died in the concentration camps. These stark historical facts show us the dark heart of the twentieth century, which Kafka’s fiction is often said to mirror. But he always insisted that there was a great deal of humour in his books, and this is present in the play as well. When surrounded by darkness, it becomes even more important to search for the light. In Gold’s play, the dying Kafka finds salvation and a hint of happiness in the musicals. It’s as plausible a place as any other to start looking.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Garry Fabian Miller at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter


Garry Fabian Miller, whose new exhibition Home Dartmoor has just opened at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, makes photographic artworks without the use of film or digital reproduction. He achieves this by focussing light through coloured glass, often containing water, onto a type of paper known as Cibachrome. In fact, it’s now known as Ilfochrome, after the Ilford company who brought the rights, but many seem to prefer the original name, taken from the Swiss corporation who initially developed it. Cibachrome paper is layered with sealed-in dyes, which are bleached away when exposed to light. This dye destruction, as its known, can be controlled according to the density, duration and colour of the light projected onto it. It’s been used, amongst other things, for the direct creation of prints from photographic slides. Miller uses the paper creatively and poetically, the quality of light particular to different seasons directly connecting his work to the cycles of the year, and to the atmosphere or spirit of a particular place. In his case, this is Dartmoor, where he lives and has his studio. The title of the work Exposure (five hours of light) gives an indication of the lengthy periods involved, which means that the pictures are imbued with a sense of time as well as place.

The works are inspired by the natural landscape of Dartmoor, and Miller’s explorations within it, but they are not directly representational or even abstracted landscape pictures. They open out into a more universal perspective. Indeed, there is something very cosmological about the photographs on display in the main room. For a start, they are made on a very large scale. Seven of them serve to fill the room. They all take the form of circles, the paper pressed behind glass and attached within a black frame in which it seems to float freely, as if the liquid through which the light shone has been somehow contained and hung in impossible vertical suspension. These circles resemble planetary or solar discs set against the black depths of space – an expansion of imaginative vision enabled by the dark night skies above Dartmoor’s elevated and sparsely populated spaces, perhaps. Such associations are encouraged by titles such as The Night Cell and Black Sun. The latter features a deep, black central circle (these shapes created using cut out blinds or silhouettes to blank out light) around which a fiery red corona sends out burning molten eruptions. The Night Cell is a circle of deep cerulean blue pierced by white specks of white luminescence. It looks like a stargazer’s chart, which flattens the dome of the night sky within a circular form. The points of white light, on closer inspection, become less singular, dispersing into small clusters and nebular clouds. The title The Night Cell brings to mind a painting by Cecil Collins, another sometime resident of Devon (he was born in Plymouth and lived for a while in Dartington), The Cells of the Night (1934), which has a similar sense of the continuum between the micro and macroscopic. The blurred edges and lack of sharp definition of the great circle and the smaller ones within suggest a magnified, enlarged vision. The circle could be the circumscribed by the eyepiece either of a telescope or a microscope, looking out into the cosmos or peering into the heart of matter, and finding points of connection and similarity in both.

These two pictures illustrate the division between red and blue in the gallery, which could be seen to represent the balancing forces of night and day, sun and moon, heat and cold, or fire and water. They face each other on opposite walls, heightening the contrast. Of the red works, Forming Enclosure has a black disc set against a dark burgundy background, its bottom half striated with horizontally streaked bands, like a planetary gas giant. These have the quality of searing light shining through cracks in a wall or the gaps in a window shutter, smearing in a blinding blur around the lines of intense luminescence. The disc looks like it’s on the brink of roaring combustion, the gas giant turning into a new sun. Exposure (five hours of light) has a small circle contained within a larger torus, each composed of a myriad points of red light, clustered in areas of greater or lesser density. There is a sense of motion and growth contained within both circles. You can imagine it as a still from a film in which darting phosphor dot activity dances in perpetual motion. The central ‘iris’ seems to pulse out from its solid, central core, which we sense would be composed of further particulate dots if we could magnify it further. At its edges, spiny, regularly spaced cilia probe outwards. The picture is divided by a grid, which centres the inner circle within its own rectilinear frame. This grid makes the glass resemble a giant slide, on which we’re examining a microscopic life form. Perhaps a cross section of a lichen colony scraped from an outcrop of Dartmoor granite. Then again, it could be an exploding star core, a shattering supernova flinging fiery matter across space.

The Night Cell

This red eye stares across the gallery at its calmer blue counterpart, a glowing white torus set against a deep blue background, which exudes a cool, nocturnal radiance. The white circle is surrounded by a lighter, azure blue halo, which slowly hazes into a deeper blue. Edges are blurred and colours seem to gradually transmute into one another in a softly radiant shimmer. This is also seen in the other three blue works. The Night Cell I’ve already mentioned. There is also one which is a soft, hazy azure disc, an aqueous, oceanic world akin to that imagined by Drexciya. Another radiates with a pearlescent, lunar radiance, and is surrounded by a royal blue halo against a night black background, a thin blur of atmosphere like that which limns the curve of the Earth seen from space. Miller talks about the boundaries where two colours meet creating a third colour. This transcendent use of colour echoes that of Rothko’s large scale paintings, pointing also to the very painterly nature of Miller’s photography. He replaces Rothko’s lozenges of contrasting colour with circles, however. Miller has also produced works using rectangles of colour contained one within another. In the short film made to accompany an exhibition at the V&A, Shadow Catchers, of which he was a part, he suggests that for him, the circle represents nature, whereas the square embodies thought – the natural, edgeless form suggestive of recurrence and cyclical pattern against the constructed, containing box which would seek, as in the Exposure picture, and the photographic frames in general, to understand and encompass those circles. One of these rectangular works hangs in the space which serves as an adjunct to the main exhibition, and suffers a little in comparison with the grander works from which it is screened off. It is also seen in the bright light (given a sunny day) of the outside world admitted through the museum’s airy windows and skylights, contrasting with the low, reverent lighting conditions prevailing beyond. A division between the sacred and the rational, perhaps.

The low light in the main room allows the large circle pictures to glow with their own radiance. They almost appear as if they are subtly backlit by some hidden light source located behind the glass. But it is the luminosity of the colours themselves which radiates outwards and draws the viewer’s eye in. Again, Rothko’s paintings come to mind here, with their luminous colours and nebulous, edgeless quality similarly drawing the viewer inexorably inward. The large scale of the work also contributes to this slightly vertiginous sense of falling or being pulled in, beyond the surface. Miller talks of the circles as being transitory spaces, places of disappearing and emergence in which people can lose themselves. They are like huge irises and pupils, reflecting and holding our gaze until we enter a state of rapt mesmerism. The idea of losing oneself in such a work could even encompass the slight problem of the reflectivity of the glass surfaces. With their dark background, the blue pictures in particular tend to mirror the spectator, as well as absorbing other works on opposite walls. This can actually create interesting effects if you choose your angle of vision well. It would be good to be able to judge whether the exhibition would be better served with about half the spotlights turned off, however.

The light-filled room beside the main exhibition space (a kind of anteroom, in a way) has several of Millers smaller-scale works in which he creates photographic impressions of plants. He places them onto a photo-enlarger, and once again shines light through onto Cibachrome paper, creating a direct image through selective dye erosion. The series here date from 2011, the first time he’s used this technique for quite a while. He said that he had been inspired to return to this earlier phase of his work by the beauty (and presumably unseasonable warmth) of recent Springs. He gathered a small selection of bramble stalks from Hayne Downe, and arranged in them with cruciform symmetry. This series of Bramble Crosses is an appropriate sequence for Easter, and reflects a sense of the sacred in nature. The curved blades of thorns radiating out from the stems add further Christian symbolism, as do the small, twinned pairs of pale green leaves sending out new shoots of growth at the base of the torn off branch. The transparent tail of the cutting is like an ectoplasmic skein of the original stem, a ghostly scab of shed skin. But this in turn can provide new growth if planted and nurtured correctly – a form of rebirth. The colours of the bramble crosses are a translucent blend of light greens and umbrous reds, the red tinting the green as if pumping it with the blood of life (although of course the green of chlorophyll is the stuff of life here). These are resonant images, blending Christianity with a Pagan sense of the sacredness of the natural world, and thus perhaps connecting the former with its lost roots. They further reflect Miller’s sense of place with a vegetative emulation of the stone crosses which are an emblem of the Moor’s ancient trackways (and you can see one elsewhere in the museum). Further context to the local specificity of Miller’s work is given by a cabinet containing some of the museum’s collection of flints, gathered and sorted together in a contiguous pile like some stone age jigsaw. This gives a sense of the deep history of man’s habitation on the Moor, and of his interaction with its geology and natural flora and fauna. They were collected by Captain Oscar Grieg in the early to mid-twentieth century, and there are also examples of his annotated plant collections here. Two layers of time placed in close proximity, alongside human time. The geological, shards of rock adapted for use by prehistoric man; and the botanical, plants gathered and studied by a man alive two or three generations ago. Set against the connection of the spirit of place with microscopic and cosmological scales in Miller’s work, it all combines to locate the universal in the here and now, and provides rich stimulation for the imagination and the senses.