2024 – welcome to the/a future(s)


Another year – and the actual name of the year itself gets ever stranger and more unlikely and exotically futuristic, if you grew up in the era when the film 2001: A Space Odyssey was still set in the future. And here’s the annual attempt to get something onto this site at the beginning of the year – just made it in the first week this time – and hopefully, to post more often. The goal is a minimum of once a month but I think goals are better than resolutions so that’s as far as I will go.

2023 was the usual mixed bag of things; I didn’t see any of the big movies of the year yet. I have watched half of Saltburn, which so far makes me think of the early books of Martin Amis, especially Dead Babies (1975) and Success (1978) – partly because I read them again after he died last year. They are both still good/nasty/funny, especially Success, but whereas I find that having no likeable characters in a book is one thing, and doesn’t stop the book from being entertaining, watching unlikeable characters in a film is different – more like spending time with actual unlikeable people, perhaps because – especially in a film like Saltburn – you can only guess at their motivations and inner life. So, the second half of Saltburn remains unwatched – but I liked it enough that I will watch it.

Grayson Perry – The Walthamstow Tapestry (detail)

I didn’t see many exhibitions last year but am very glad that I caught Grayson Perry’s Smash Hits in Edinburgh. I didn’t really plan to see it as assumed in advance I wouldn’t like it, but in fact I loved it and ended up having a new respect for GP that only partly evaporates whenever I see him on TV.

Kristin Hersh by Peter Mellekas

I can’t be bothered going in depth about my favourite music of the year because the year is over and I’ve written about most it elsewhere. Old teenage favourites came back strongly: Kristin Hersh’s superb run of albums continued with Clear Pond Road. I hadn’t thought a lot about Slowdive in years but I really liked Everything is Alive and was very pleased to see them get the kind of acclaim that mostly eluded them when I was buying their first album a million years ago. Teenage Fanclub’s Nothing Lasts Forever and Drop Nineteens’ Hard Light were good too, and The Girl is Crying in her Latte by Sparks was probably my favourite of theirs outside of their early 70s classics. There were some excellent black metal (or black metal-related) albums too; much as I don’t like to think of Immortal without Abbath, Demonaz did himself proud with War Against All. Niklas Kvarforth returned to form with the brilliant Shining and Skálmöld’s Ýdalir is as good as anything they’ve recorded. In less guitar-oriented genres, I loved Kid Koala’s Creatures of the Late Afternoon and the latest Czarface record but my favourite album of the year if I had to choose one was the loveably lo-fi and enigmatic compilation Gespensterland.

I read lots of good books in 2023 – I started keeping a list but forgot about it at some point – but the two that stand out in my memory as my favourites are both non-fiction. Lauren Elkin’s Art Monsters: Unruly Bodies in Feminist Art  is completely engrossing and full of exciting ways of really looking at pictures. I wrote at length about Elena Kostyuchenko’s I Love Russia here. Kostyuchenko introduced me to a country that I only knew via history and stereotypes and her book is an exercise in what good journalism should be – informative, interesting, compassionate and readable. Both of these books cut across a wide range of subjects and examine unfamiliar things but also analyse the familiar from unfamiliar points of view; you should read them, if you haven’t already.


It’s no great surprise to me that my favourite books of the year would be – like much of my favourite art – by women. Though I think the individual voice is crucial in all of the arts, individuals don’t grow in a vacuum and because female (and, more widely, non-male) voices and viewpoints have always been overlooked, excluded, marginalised and/or patronised, women and those outside of the standard, traditional male authority figures more generally, tend to have more interesting and insightful perspectives than the ‘industry standard’ artist or commentator does. The first time that thought really struck me was when I was a student, reading about Berlin Dada and finding that Hannah Höch was obviously a much more interesting and articulate artist than (though I love his work too) her partner Raoul Hausmann, but that Hausmann had always occupied a position of authority and a reputation as an innovator, where she had little-to-none. And the more you look the more you see examples of the same thing. In fact, because women occupied – and in many ways still occupy – more culturally precarious positions than men, that position informs their work – thinking for example of artists like Leonora Carrington, Kay Sage or – a bigger name now – Frida Kahlo – giving it layers of meaning inaccessible to – because unexperienced by – their male peers.

The fact that women know more about themselves but also more about men than men do – because they have always had to – gives their work an emotional and intellectual charge often missing from those who belong comfortably within a tradition. This is a pretty well-worn idea – it’s why outsiders like Van Gogh or dropouts like Gauguin’s work speaks to us more clearly than the academic, tradition-bound art that they grew up with. Anybody on the margins, in whatever sense, of “mainstream society” has to have a working knowledge of that society, just to exist. Society has far less need to understand or even notice those people. – therefore their points of view are likely to not only be more individual, but more acute when it comes to observing the world in which they live. Class, race, gender; all of these things are always fascinatingly central to art and art history and the gradual recognition of that fact is making art history ever more exciting and vibrant. For now at least; we live in a time of conservative backlashes which attempt to restore order to those with a comfortable position within yesterday’s world – there will probably be an art historical backlash at some point, and the reputations of the mainstream stars of art in Van Gogh and Gauguin’s day, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau will find their reputations restored.

If that backlash comes, it will be from the academic equivalent of those figures who, in 2023 continued to dominate the cultural landscape. These are conservative (even if theoretically radical) people who pride themselves on their superior rational, unsentimental and “common sense” outlook, but whose views tend to have a surprising amount in common with some of the more wayward religious cults. Subscribing to shallowly Darwinist ideas, but only insofar as they reinforce one’s own prejudices and somehow never feeling the need to follow them to their logical conclusions is not new, but it’s very now. Underlying  ideas like the ‘survival of the fittest’, which then leads to the more malevolent idea of discouraging the “weak” in society by abolishing any kind of social structure that might support them is classic conservatism in an almost 19th century way, but somehow it’s not surprising to see these views gaining traction in the discourse of the apparently futuristic world of technology. In more that one way, these kinds of traditionalist, rigidly binary political and social philosophies work exactly like religious cults, with their apparently arbitrary cut off points for when it was that progress peaked/halted and civilisation turned bad. That point varies; but to believe things were once good but are now bad must always be problematic, because when, by any objective standards, was everything good, or were even most things good? For a certain class of British politician that point seems to have been World War Two, which kind of requires one to ignore actual World War Two. But the whole of history is infected by this kind of thinking – hence strange, disingenuous debates about how bad/how normal Empite, colonialism or slavery were; incidentially, you don’t even need to read the words of abolitionists or slaves themselves (though both would be good to read) to gain a perspective of whether or not slavery was  considered ‘normal’ or bad by the standards of the time. Just look at the lyrics to Britain’s most celebratory, triumphalist song of the 18th century, Rule Britannia. James Thomson didn’t write “Britons never, never, never shall be slaves; though there’s nothing inherently wrong with slavery.” They knew it was something shameful, something to be dreaded, even while celebrating it.

But anyways, the kind of avowedly forward-looking people we that are saddled with now, with their apparent concern for the future of the human species – especially the wellbeing of thus far non-existent future humans, as opposed to actual real living humans are, unlike the Amish, okay with progress, in the material sense of cars, computers, aircraft, spacecraft. But that only makes their core concern with traditional values and what is natural/unnatural even more nonsensical. If the defining thing about human beings is nature – men are like this, but not like that, women are like that, but not this; that nature dictates that compassion and medical science ate wasted on the weak and inferior, etc, then why draw the line at controlling gender and reproduction? Why get excited about the use of vaccines, or whether or not people “should” eat meat? If nature/”natural” really is the be all end all of human existence, why wear clothes, drive cars, cook food, use computers, build houses?  At what point does nature dictate what we do or can or should do? Isn’t everything humans do inherently natural because we have the capacity to do it and actually do do it?

Again, despite the supposed rationalism that fuels the superiority complexes of so many powerful people in whatever sector, their bullshit traditional ideas are dictated against – and always have been – by the lived experience of almost everyone in the world. If ‘real men’ are strong, rational and above all heterosexual, how come most of us will have met, throughout our lives, emotional, irrational men who can’t cope with pressure, who aren’t in control of themselves or their environment? How come homosexuality has existed since the beginning of recorded time and does not go away no matter how traditional or repressive society becomes or how much generation after generation insists that it is unnatural? If ‘real women’ are weak, gentle, sentimental, maternal, submissive and above all heterosexual, how come (etc, etc, etc, etc) Because of decadent western society? Well Western society is partly founded on the ideas of Ancient Greece, which though pretty misogynistic, famously did not have quite the same views on sexuality. And how come these people equally exist in every other society too? Could it be that traditional ideas of ‘human nature’ have nothing to do with actual nature but have always existed in western patriarchal societies simply to reinforce the status quo in the interests of those at the top of the hierarchical tree? From monarchies to oligarchies to modern democracies and communist states – all of which have their own ruling class, even when it is explicitly labelled otherwise – it’s been in the interest of those in charge to prevent anything which fundamentally changes the way things work.

For similar reasons, people in western society (perhaps elsewhere; I am no expert) who live unremarkable and mediocre lives within essentially complacent, and often apolitical circles are increasingly drawn to right rather than left wing extremism to gain prominence and (importantly) material success. Extremist views across the spectrum are entertainingly “edgy” and titillating to people who like to be entertained by controversy and/or shocked by outrageous behaviour, but right-wing views are far more acceptable within the media – and therefore are far more lucrative and rewarding – because they don’t threaten the financial basis that underpins the media and political structure.

So in short – only joking, this will be a long sentence (deep breath). If comedian or podcaster A) gains millions of followers who are excited about disruptive ideas that undermine the state by questioning the validity of the (sigh) mainstream media, by interrogating ideas of media ownership and the accumulation of wealth and power and so on, that represents a genuine threat to Rupert Murdoch, Viscount Rothermere, Meta and Elon Musk in a way that comedian or podcaster B), gaining millions of followers who lean towards ideas that disrupt society by attacking progressive, egalitarian or (sigh) “woke” culture does not. Regardless of the actual or avowed political beliefs of these media magnates, is comedian/podcaster A or comedian/podcaster B going to be the one they champion in order to tap into the zeitgeist (which media magnates have to do to survive)?

BUT ANYWAY, it would be nice to think that these things would be less central or at least more ignorable in 2024. It would also be nice if people in power could not enable the worst elements in society (where the two things are separable). It would be more than nice if the governments of the world would listen to people and end the butchering of helpless civilians. It’s important to remember that it is in the interests of governments – even relatively benign ones – that people in general feel powerless. But we’re not. If making resolutions works for you then make them, if not then don’t, if you have goals then aim for those and you may achieve something even if not everything you want to achieve. But if something is unacceptable to you, don’t accept it. You may have money, power, time or you may have little more than your own body and/or your own mind, but those are 100% yours and the most important things of all. Happy New Year and good luck!

chocolate eggs & bunnies & blood: happy Easter!

ceramic sculpture of a Moon Goddess and her rabbit partner, Mexico, c.700 AD

Imagine a culture so centred on wealth, property and power that it becomes scared of sex and  frets endlessly about what it sees as the misuses of sex. A culture that identifies breeding so closely with with money, wealth and status, and women so closely with breeding and therefore with sex that, when looking to replace traditional symbols of birth and regeneration it rejects sex and even nature and, in the end makes the embodiment of motherhood a virgin and the embodiment of rebirth a dead man. Unhealthy, you might think; misanthropic even – and yet here we are.

But when that culture loses its religious imperative, what should be waiting? Those old symbols of fertility; rabbits and eggs. But whereas Christianity in its pure form found it hard to assimilate these symbols, preferring instead to just impose its own festival of rebirth on top of the pagan one,  capitalism, despite  being in so many ways compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition, is essentially uninterested in spiritual matters. So even though it’s mostly pretty okay with Christianity, which creates its own consumer-friendly occasions, it proves to be equally okay with paganism too, as long as it can sell us the pagan symbols back in a lucrative way.

Easter is, after all, a mess to begin with; its name is pagan (Ēostre or Ôstara, Goddess of the spring) and its Christian traditions, even when embodied in the tragic idea of a man being killed by being nailed to a cross was never entrenched enough to suppress the essentially celebratory, even frivolous feeling that spring traditionally brings. Okay, so Christ ascending to heaven is pretty celebratory without being frivolous; but as, in the UK at least, represented by a hot cross bun, with its cross on the top to represent the crucifix and even – to play up the morbid factor that is so central to Christianity – its spices that are supposed allude to the embalming of Christ’s dead body, it’s hardly solemn: it’s a bun.

On the other hand, birth, since the dawn of time and to the present day, is not just a simple cause for rejoicing and in that the Christian tradition, though it tries to remove the aspects that seem most central to birth to us: women, labour (the word presumably wasn’t chosen accidentally) and procreation, probably tells us more about the seriousness and jeopardy of childbirth than the Easter bunny does.

The patron (matron?) saint of childbirth is no help; St Margaret in herself has nothing to do with birth (although she was presumably born), but becomes its saint through the symbolic act of bursting out of the dragon who ate her – a strange analogy but one that reflects the hazardous nature of childbirth in medieval times, when mortality rates were high, not just for babies but for their mothers. Rabbits may represent – in ancient cultures across the world, from Europe to Mexico and beyond – fecundity, but it’s an animal idea of fertility for its own sake that has nothing to do with the practical or emotional aspects of producing new human beings.

St Margaret, “reborn” after being eaten by a dragon
Jan Van Eyck’s Eve (c.1432) from the Ghent Altarpiece

Pregnancy in Western art was a rarity until fairly recently; and even now, the puritanical ideas inherited from Victorian Christianity mean that the apparently pregnant Eve of Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (completed in 1432) is a subject of debate: Eve pregnant with humankind makes sense, and the 15th century was certainly more in touch with the realities of human life than the 19th and early 20th century men who codified the canon of Western art history – but maybe she is simply the medieval/gothic ideal of femininity as seen in illuminated manuscripts and carvings; small shoulders, small breasts, big hips and stomach – given an unusually realistic treatment.

Gustav Klimt – Hope I (1903)

As the nineteenth century gave way to the 20th, Gustav Klimt was able to bring the beauty and wonder of pregnancy and birth to art with Hope I, his beautiful female figure of hope and renewal glowing against a background of death and peril, but it’s only really when women begin painting that that the symbolic and magical aspects of motherhood are reconciled with the more sombre, earthly spirituality that Christianity preferred to represent in a dying man and with the fundamental animal nature of humankind, without that being a negative thing. A painting like Paula Modersohn-Becker’s Reclining Mother and Child II (1907) shows all of the human aspects that were embodied in the contorted Christian images of the Virgin Mary, crucifixion and Christ’s rebirth: human beings that are fragile, loving, vulnerable and dependent on each other, but also the things that were missing; biology and the bonds it creates. The magic of Klimt, but not represented in a titillating way, and depicted in concrete rather than symbolic terms.

Paula Modersohn-Becker – Reclining Mother & Child II (1906)

For the generation after Paula Modersohn-Becker, everything was seen through the fragmenting prism of World War One, and so Otto Dix, more cynical, less intimately involved, shows us the physical discomfort of pregnancy minus its magic. Dix, despite his famous claim, “I’m not that obsessed with making representations of ugliness. Everything I’ve seen is beautiful.” took a definite pride in shocking viewers with his art; as he also said; “All art is exorcism. I paint dreams and visions too; the dreams and visions of my time. Painting is the effort to produce order; order in yourself. There is much chaos in me, much chaos in our time.” By the time Dix painted these pictures he was a father himself, but although his paintings of his family reveal a more tender, if just as incisive, aspect to his art, here he paints as a pitiless observer, knowing that his work was challenging and confrontational to the generally conservative audience of his time; a time when, like ours, forces of intolerance and conservatism were closing in on the freedom embodied in art this truthful.

Otto Dix – Pregnant Woman (1931) & Gussy Hippold-Ahnert – Pregnant Woman (1932)


But despite his clinical eye and devotion to the ‘new objectivity’ (“The Neue Sachlichkeit – I invented it“) Dix’s truth is a dramatic, heightened kind, designed to penetrate the complacency of his era. Meanwhile, his pupil, Gussy Hippold-Ahnert tackled the same subject and almost certainly even the same model with a realism that is at first less striking but also far less dramatizing.  Gussy was of course a woman and is not showing us, as Dix seems to be, a faceless being representing the eternal, but rarely remarked on hardship involved in the joyous business of continuing the species. Instead, Hippold-Ahnert shows us a woman who happens to be pregnant; both paintings are realistic, both are objective and, as with the symbolic sacrifice of Christ and the eternally recurring bunny, both display different aspects of the truth.

My favourite bunny in art: detail from Piero di Cosimo’s Venus, Mars & Cupid (1505)

But anyway; enjoy your chocolate.


forget my fate: saints and sex workers; the art of violence & martyrdom

In a way, this article concerns religious art, though the person who wrote it has no religious beliefs whatsoever. But when people really, passionately, even if unconsciously, believe – in a religion, a philosophy, an idea – that belief imbues the works they create with the power of human feeling. Art, music, architecture, literature, objects; that power that is retained whether or not the observer accepts or understands the ideas that are living within those things. That’s my opinion anyway; I may not believe in the supernatural, but I do believe the ‘natural’ contains magic of its own.

Adam Elsheimer – The Stoning of St Stephen, 1603 (detail)

So anyway; when, in Purcell’s 1688 opera Dido and Aeneas, the dying Queen of Carthage sings Nahum Tate’s beautiful words, “Remember me, but forget my fate”, she is articulating something that was then becoming, and to some extent remains a kind of ideal as humanity tried, perhaps pointlessly, to distance itself from death. Caught in a pincer movement between the Reformation, which had eliminated much of the rich mythology of religion in its determination to reduce the clutter and distance between human beings and their God, and the dawning of what would become the age of reason, which sought to cast off the shadow of crude medieval brutality and superstition, death, once an unavoidable and largely accepted part of daily life, had become something akin to what it is today. That is, entirely acceptable – even celebrated, in fiction and entertainment, in real life it’s preferably kept out of sight and out of mind as far as is possible. But although the impulse to distance oneself from the more viscerally negative aspects of life is understandable, it’s almost the opposite of the way that people, for a couple of centuries at least, related to saints.

Saints have remained celebrated through the years to some extent, but still, since their medieval heyday they have found themselves playing a gradually diminishing role in Western European society. Interestingly though, while Christianity lost much of its cast of characters and stories through the ages, what it never lost in the Reformation – quite the opposite in fact – is that key idea which saints’ lives so often embodied: misery now, rewards later. And it was this, despite the apparent opposition of the two ideologies, which made Christianity and all of the Abrahamic religions such successful facilitators, or carriers (in the pharmaceutical sense) of capitalism. But, while saints faded from the vital figures of the middle ages into their current, more modest position, they remained venerated, if not worshipped, even in the Protestant faith, and still played a vital role in Catholic countries. That being so, plenty of the somewhat harrowing and graphic art generated in their names in earlier years survives; and rightly so.

Take for example Adam Elseheimer’s 1603 Stoning of St Stephen. As a German artist working in Catholic Rome, Elseheimer’s position may have been anomalous, but no faith of any kind is required to understand and empathise with the young saint’s fate. We may not (or we may) share his implied, rather than shown, exultation at the parting of the clouds and the glimpse of heaven beyond, but we can recognise his pain, fear and loneliness. We’ve seen it many times, not only in cinema and in literature, but even more in news reports and photographs or, if we are unlucky, as eyewitnesses to (or victims of) real events. This painting make me think of the harrowing footage, a few years back, of prisoners being beheaded by Islamic State fighters, but they have echoes too, in those everyday acts of violence in which there are, thankfully, usually no deaths – but rarely any obvious sign of divine intervention either.

detail of St Sebastian being clubbed to death by Master WB (probably Wolfgang Beurer, c.1500)

One of the most strikingly contemporary-feeling examples of the art of martyrdom is the series of Scenes from the life of St Sebastian in the Cathedral Museum, Mainz, painted by Master WB (probably the Middle Rhenish painter and engraver Wolfgang Beurer). St Sebastian is one of the most often-painted of saints, usually shown as a kind of surrogate Jesus, young and beautiful, but pierced by (sometimes a lot of) arrows. But the whole point of that part of his legend, is that the arrows didn’t kill him. Tended by St Irene of Rome (in the baroque era the healing of St Sebastian was painted quite often; there are some very beautiful and moving pictures, like the famous Georges de la Tour painting from 1650, and my favourite, by Hendrick Ter Brugghen, from a little earlier) he recovered, and went about his saintly business.

Unusually though, Beurer’s cycle of paintings takes the story past the Christ-like recovery of Sebastian and through to his eventual death, after he journeyed to see the Emperor Diocletian and scold him about his sinful life. This time, the young saint was clubbed to death and didn’t recover. This is a very different death from the ceremonial, iconic execution by arrows. There’s a sense of solemnity, of procedural, if dubious, legality that affords the victim of a firing squad a kind of Christ-like dignity – in paintings at least. There’s no way to make a clubbing to death look dignified though, and Beurer/Master WB doesn’t try. Instead he shows the by now pitifully uncomposed figure of the saint being beset by three cheerfully brutish soldiers with beautifully painted lead clubs.

Hendrik Ter Brugghen -St Sebastian tended by St Irene, 1625
Sebastiano del Piombo’s Martyrdom of St Agatha 1520 (technically doesn’t feature her martyrdom)

St Agatha, like Sebastian, is unusual in that her actual martyrdom – technically, she died in prison at some unspecified time later, after being healed by St Peter – is never pictured. Instead what is shown, essentially for titillating reasons, as horrendous as that is, is not even her torture, where her body was torn with hooks, but only the specific detail of her breasts being cut or torn off.
But although her death seems rarely to have been depicted, there are paintings of the healing of St Agatha in prison by St Peter. Partly this might be because of the two-saints-for-the-price-of-one nature of the image, but perhaps more importantly it afforded the artist another opportunity to show female nudity without fearing religious censure.

detail of St Agatha healed by St Peter in prison by an unknown Neapolitan painter of the early 17th century

Although these paintings – Heinrich Vogtherr’s Martyrdom of St Erasmus (1516) is another great example – are full of religious feeling, it’s far easier as a secular person (or as this secular person) to respond emotionally to a painting of a martyrdom than it is to the ultimate martyrdom of the crucifixion of Christ. Jesus is of course something more than a human being, and though we are supposed to respond to his suffering in a human way, he’s still god after all; he presumably planned it and he can take it. Saints though, are different. The point may be the same – suffering holy people, relating to Christ as their father, in the same way that Christ related to god/himself as his – but these are just human beings. They may be idealised by artists, as they were in their official hagiographies, but they are supposed to be relatable for ordinary, unsaintly people.

Heinrich Vogtherr – the Martyrdom of St Erasmus, 1516 (detail)

Many artists captured the loneliness of Christ on the cross, but the loneliness of Christ, even alone in the dark, is qualitatively different from that of the martyr saints. In their last moments, the saints are usually closely surrounded by their enemies, who are of course also their fellow, imperfect human beings. The pain of Christ, too, tends, for the most part, to be a remote and rarefied thing; it’s familiar to everyone, in an almost neutralised way, from living the cultural landscape of western society. But the pain of the saints is something we recognise in a more direct way. It’s unlikely, I hope, that many people reading this, have first-hand experience of fatal stonings, mutilations, disembowelings or bludgeonings, but these saints, with their looks of glazed shock and their vividly painted blood, are a figures we have become used to in other, secular contexts.

Francisco de Zurbarán St Agatha, c.1630-33 (detail)

It’s fair to assume that these saints wanted to be remembered. But would they – and there are many, many more of them in addition to the few I’ve shown; from the big names like St Matthew and St John the Baptist (beheaded), to St Peter and St Andrew (crucified) to the more obscure, like Saints Cosmas and Damian (beheaded by pagans) and St Ursula (shot with an arrow by the Huns) to the theatrically horrific, like St Bartholomew (flayed and beheaded) and St Erasmus (intestines pulled out with a spindle) –  have wanted to be remembered for the nature of their deaths? Even divorced from these kind of narrative paintings, the saints were rarely depicted without their sometimes bizarre attributes, the strangest ones that spring to mind being the aforementioned Agatha, in a more serene setting, bearing her severed breasts on a plate, or Saint Peter of Verona, normally depicted with the cleaver still embedded in his skull.

After the Age of Enlightenment, these explicit, visceral images more or less disappeared from western art for a couple of centuries, despite the occasional politically-motivated flashback like Jaques-Louis David’s Death of Marat (1793). Unexpectedly, they returned in a slightly altered and ideologically almost opposite, and certainly far more secular form in interwar Germany, made vivid by the horrors of World War One. But although a comparison with the Lustmord (sex murder) paintings of the Weimar Republic seems like, and possibly is, a flippant and/or blasphemous one, it feels valid, especially in relation to the paintings of St Agatha with their uncomfortably conflicting motives and coolly horrific imagery.

Paintings like George Grosz’s John the Sex Murderer (1918) and Otto Dix’s horrific Lustmord (especially the lost 1922 painting that exists only in black and white photos) have parallels with St Agatha, the painting I want to briefly talk about is less blatantly sensationalist and to my eyes at least has something of the heartbreaking empathy of Wolfgang Beurer’s St Stephen. Like Dix’s but less confrontational, Lustmord (1930) by the great Neue Sachlichkeit painter and photographer Karl Hubbuch, shows only the aftermath of the murder, rather than the act itself. But rather than losing force because of its relative restraint, Hubbuch’s image is imbued with all of the loneliness, fear, isolation and fragility seen in the face of Elseheimer’s St Stephen and the pitiful battered corpse of Beurer’s.

Karl Hubbuch – The Sex Murder (1930)

In the end, whatever the means or motivation for these pictures, what we are left with is the pictures themselves; and if they should survive beyond their meanings and attributions, people will, perhaps sadly, always be able to see what they represent. This is the opposite of art for art’s sake; but then, to appreciate the form of – for example – Wilfred Owen’s war poetry and study that form and its mechanics without taking into account what that apparatus is for is to miss the point. Likewise, the skill of a painter like Beurer, whose intention was to make the holy real and relatable, or of Elseheimer, or Sebastiano del Piombo, or even Karl Hubbuch, wasn’t there solely in an effort to amaze the viewer with the painter’s skill or advertise their technical ability.

Lorenzo Lotto – St Peter of Verona (1549)

It may be that these sex workers and saints would have preferred, like Purcell and Tate’s Dido of Carthage, to be remembered, but to have their fates forgotten – but instead forget that you know the titles and subjects of these pictures. These people were, as many people still are, tortured, killed and disposed of without sympathy or ceremony. It would be nice if they were all remembered.


the cult of maimed perfection

*firstly, may change this title as it possibly sounds like I’m saying the opposite of what I’m saying*

That western culture¹ has issues with womens’ bodies² is not a new observation. But it feels like the issues are getting stranger. Recently there have been, both on TV (where the time of showing is important) and online (where it isn’t), cancer awareness campaigns where women who have had mastectomies are shown topless (in the daytime). This is definitely progress – but it also seems to simultaneously say two different things with very different implications.
On the one hand it’s – I would say obviously – very positive; it is of course normal to have a life-changing (or life saving) operation and the scars that come with it, and it can only be helpful to minimise the fear surrounding what is a daunting and scary prospect for millions of people. Normalising in the media things that are already within the normal experience of people – especially when those things have tended to be burdened with taboos – is generally the right thing to do. These scars, after all are nothing to be ashamed of or that should be glossed over or hidden from view. I hope not many people would argue with that. But at the same time isn’t it also saying, ‘yes it’s completely normal and fine for a woman to be seen topless on daytime TV, or on popular social media sites, as long as she’s had her breasts³ cut off?’ That seems less positive.

¹I’m sure western culture isn’t alone in this, but ‘write about what you know’ (not always good advice, but still). I’m also aware that this whole article could be seen as a plea for more nudity. I’m not sure that’s what I mean

² might as well say it, this article deals mainly with old fashioned binary distinctions, but misogyny applies equally to trans women and I think what I say about men probably applies equally to trans men. 

³ or her nipples, on social media

Raphael – The Three Graces (1505) nudity acceptable due to classical context

Looked at this way, this positive and enlightened development seems to be (inadvertently?) reaffirming ancient and (surely!) redundant arguments, but in a completely confused way. Non-sexual nudity, whatever that means, has always been okay with the establishment(s) in some circumstances. Now, one could argue from the context (cancer awareness campaign) that the nudity is desexualised, and I think that’s why it is allowed to be aired at any time of day. (In fact, the Ofcom (UK TV regulating authority)’s rules on nudity – which are aimed at ‘protecting the under 18s’ from nudity, as strange a concept as it’s always been*, are pretty simple:


1.21: Nudity before the watershed [9 pm in the UK], or when content is likely to be accessed by children (in the case of BBC ODPS), must be justified by the context.

*Interestingly, Ofcom’s rules about nudity are listed between their rules about Sexual behaviour and their rules about Exorcism, the occult and the paranormal

So presumably, Ofcom (rightly) considers this context to be justified, because the naked body is not being presented in a sexual context. But, at the same time, one thing the cancer awareness film demonstrates – and which it seems it’s at least in part supposed to demonstrate – is that there’s nothing undesirable about the female body post-mastectomy. (admittedly it’s entirely possible that this is just me, projecting the notorious male gaze onto the subject, as if that’s the determining factor in what attractiveness is or isn’t*) . But then, the people that devised and created the film are not the same people that determine what can be shown on TV or online and when.

But even accepting that it’s permitted to show a topless woman on TV during the daytime because it’s de-sexualised nudity, why is that better? Two opposing arguments, a puritanical/right-wing one and a feminist one might both be skeptical (*rightly? see above) of me, as a heterosexual male writing about this. But if the price of women being regarded equally, or taken seriously, or not being somehow reduced by the male gaze (but also the child’s gaze, since on TV at least, nudity tends to be fine after children’s standard bedtimes and on the internet is theoretically policed by child locks) is to de-sexualise them, then that is no less problematic – and in a way really not that different – from the traditional, paternalistic Western view which sees the Virgin Mary as the ultimate exemplar of female-kind. And if sex or desire is itself the problem then not allowing female nudity is also, typically, reducing the visibility of women for what is in essence a problem of male behaviour.

Sebastiano del Piombo – The Martyrdom of St Agatha (1520)

It’s worth looking at the fact that nudity is even an issue in the first place, considering that we all privately live with it, or in it, every day of our lives. In many world cultures of course, it isn’t and never has been a problem, unless/until Westerners have interfered with and poisoned those cultures, but it’s widespread enough elsewhere too, to be a human, rather than purely western quirk. It possibly has a little to do with climate, but it definitely has a lot to do with religion.

But the fact is that, in Western culture, even before the era of the Impressionists and their selectively nude women or the (as it now looks, very selectively) permissive society of the 1960s, female nudity has been perfectly acceptable to depict for hundreds of years; as long as the nude female is either mutilated (say, a virtuous martyr like the Roman suicide Lucretia), the victim of alien (non-Christian) assailants (various saints*) or, turning the tables, if she is a heathen herself (various classical figures, plus Biblical villains like Salome; a favourite subject with the same kind of sex & violence frisson as Lucretia)

*I didn’t realise when I posted this article that today (5th February) is the Feast day of St Agatha, the patron saint of – among other things – breast cancer. I’m not a believer in supernatural or supreme beings, but that’s nice.

Even in Reformation Germany – surely one of the least frisky periods in all of western civilisation – in the private chambers of the privileged male viewer, nudity – especially female nudity – was there in abundance, providing it came with various kinds of extenuating nonsense; dressed up (or rather, not dressed up) in the trappings of classical antiquity. Okay, so maybe a woman can’t be flawless like Christ, but she can be nude and beautiful too, as long as she is being murdered, or stabbing herself to preserve her virtue, or is sentenced to everlasting damnation.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Lucretia (1528)

Men, of course could, in art, and can on TV or anywhere else, be more or less naked (admittedly with a fig-leaf or something similar) at any time because – I assume – of Jesus. Otherwise how to explain it? The male chest is arguably less aesthetically pleasing than the female one, and certainly less utilitarian in the raising of infants, but in deciding that it is less sexual, our culture makes lots of assumptions or directives that come from religious, patriarchal roots.

The dissonance between the ways that female and male nudity are treated in our culture has its roots in Christianity and its iconography and although in the UK we’re technically the children of the Reformation, what’s striking is how little difference there really was between the way nudity was treated in the Catholic renaissance and the Protestant one.

In both Catholic and Protestant cultures, the art that was not solely designed for the private, (adult) ‘male gaze’ was almost entirely religious. Popes and Puritans both found themselves in the same odd position; Jesus must be perfect and preferably therefore beautiful, whatever that meant at the time – but more than that, it would be blasphemous – literally criminal – not to portray Christ as beautiful. But in addition to being perfect, he must, crucially, be human. Understandably, but ironically, it seemed the obvious way to depict human beauty and perfection was without the burden of clothes. The human aspect is after all how the people of the Renaissance could (and I presume people still can) identify with Christ, in a way that they never do with God in other contexts, where that identification would be as blasphemous as a deliberately ugly Christ.

But how was one supposed to regard the nearly nude, technically beautiful body of Christ? With reverence, of course. But revering and worshipping the naked beautiful body of a perfect human being is not something that a misanthropic (or if that’s too strong, homo-skeptic5) religion can do lightly. Helpfully, the part of Christianity that puts the (nearly) naked figure at the centre of our attention is the human sacrifice ritual of the crucifixion and its aftermath.  That bloody, pain-filled ritual allows the viewer to look at Jesus with pity and empathy and tempers (one would hope; but who knows?) the quality of desire that the naked beautiful body of a perfect human being might be expected to engender. And to that Renaissance audience, the reason for that desire was another, but far more ambiguous subject for artists; Adam and Eve.

4 There are special cases though, see below re Grunewald

5 Doesn’t Alan Partridge call himself homoskeptic at some point? But what I mean is – and I’m sure many Christians would take serious issue with this – that Christianity/the Christian God is in theory all-accepting of humans and their frailties, but somehow humans as they are are never quite good enough to escape negative judgement. Not just for things like murder or adultery that are within their power to not do, but things that are in their nature. And then, making a human being who must be killed for the things that other human beings have done or will by their nature do seems on the one hand not very different from an imaginary pagan blood sacrifice cult in a horror movie and on the other, kind of misanthropic

Hans Baldung Grien’s slightly diabolical looking Adam & Eve (1531)

Adam and Eve were a gift to the Renaissance man seeking pervy thrills from his art collection because they are supposed to be sexy. Here are the first humans, made, like Christ, in God’s image and therefore outwardly perfect; and, to begin with, happily nude. But in almost immediately sullying the human body, Adam and Eve are fallible where Christ is not. But how to depict the people that brought us the concept of desire except as desirable? Because they are not only not our saviours, but the opposite, their nudity can afford to be alluring, as long as the lurking threat of that attraction is acknowledged.

Alongside the problems of the iconography in art came the practical problems of making it; and I think that one of the reasons that, of the main ‘Turtles’ of the Italian Renaissance,6 Raphael was elevated to the status he enjoyed for centuries, is that his nude women suggested that he might actually have seen some nude women. For all their athletic/aesthetic beauty, figures like Michelangelo’s Night (see below) and his Sistine Chapel Sibyls are the product of someone who found that the church’s strictures on female nudity (no nude models) happened to strike a chord with his own ideas of aesthetic perfection. Likewise,  Leonardo’s odd hybrid woman, the so-called Monna Vanna (possibly posed for by one of his male assistants) seems to demonstrate an uncharacteristic lack of curiosity on the artist’s part.

6 childish 

Michelangelo – Night, Basilica di San Lorenzo in Florence (1526-31) and Leonardo(?) Monna Vanna (c.1500)

One way around the problem of naked human beauty was – as it seems still to be – to mutilate the body. Paintings like Mattias Grünewald’s agonised, diseased-looking Jesus (perhaps the most moving depiction of Christ, designed to give comfort and empathy to sufferers of skin diseases) and, on (mostly) a slightly shallower level, the myriad Italian paintings of the martyrdom of St Sebastian, do much the same as those Lucretias and St Agathas; they show the ideal of the body as god intended it, while punishing its perfection so we can look at it without guilt.

This feels, for all its beauty, like the art of sickness. What kind of response these St Sebastians are supposed to evoke can only be guessed at; and the guesses are rarely ones the original owners of the paintings would have liked. Empathy with and reverence for the martyred saint, obviously; but while Grunewald’s Christ reflects and gives back this sense of shared humanity with the weight of his tortured body and his human suffering, St Sebastian gives us, what? Hope? Various kinds of spiritual (it’s in the eyes) and earthly (relaxed pose and suggestive loincloth) desire?

Grunewald’s agonised Christ from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515) and one of Pietro Perugino’s fairly comfortable-with-his-situation St Sebstians (1495)

There are lots of fascinating themes and sub-themes her, but for now, there you have it; Christ may have, spiritually, redeemed all of humankind, but aesthetically speaking, women remain (as Narnians would say) ‘daughters of Eve’.

Nowadays, tired presumably of the restrictions on their lives, men have liberated themselves enough that we don’t even need St Sebastian’s spiritual gaze, or a hint of damnation, to justify our nudity. In what remains an essentially patriarchal society, just advertising a razor, or underwear, or perfume, or chocolate, or taking part in a swimming event, or even just being outside on a warm day is enough to justify our bodies, as long as they don’t veer too far from that Christlike ideal, and as long as they aren’t visibly excited. But even now, women – who can look like our mother Eve, but not our reborn father Christ – can be more or less naked too, at any time of day they like (on TV or online at least); just as long as they are mutilated.

inside the doll’s house

Thomas Braithwaite of Ambleside making his will (1607, artist unknown)

The dying man glows with sickness in his mildewy-looking bed, the light seeming to emanate from where he sits, crammed into the airless, box-like room. He signs his will while his friend looks on intently with concern and restrained grief.

The artist who painted Thomas Braithwaite of Ambleside making his will in 1607 may not have been considered important enough as an artist, (still a person of relatively low social status in northern Europe, though this was starting to change with painters like Rubens and his pupil Anthony Van Dyck) to warrant signing the picture or having their name recorded at all, except perhaps in the household accounts – but they were important as a witness, and the painting is itself a kind of legal document, although it’s more than that too. The great enemy of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages wasn’t death, with which most adults would have been on very familiar terms,  but disorder and chaos*; and this, despite its tragic appearance, is a painting devoted to the age’s great virtue; order. Both the dying lord (an inscription records the date of his death (Thomas Braithwaite of gentry stock, died 22 December, 1607, aged 31) and his friend George Preston of Holker are identifiable to those who knew them by their likenesses and to those who didn’t, by their coats-of-arms. Biblical texts tell us that Thomas Braithwaite was a virtuous man, but so does the painting itself; this is a man who, even while he lay dying, took care of his business. His passing is tragic, but, he reassures us, it will cause only grief and not inconvenience.

*see EMW Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, Pelican Books, 1972, p.24

We talk about religious faith now as a kind of choice as much as a belief system, but for all its paranoia about atheism –and all the subsequent romanticism about that era’s new spirit of humanism – the Tudor and Stewart ages had inherited a world view in which the existence, not only of God and Heaven and Hell, but the essential hierarchy of existence, was more or less taken for granted. We may differentiate arbitrarily now between religion and superstition, but for the people in these cramped and airless paintings there was no real contradiction between, say Christianity and astrology, because in accepting without exception the primacy of god the creator, it all works out in the end – everything that has ever existed and everything that will ever exist, already exists. Perhaps human beings aren’t supposed to divine the future, but God has written it and the signs – comets, unseasonal weather, the movement of the stars and the behaviour of animals – are there to be read and interpreted by anyone with the nerve to do so.


John Souch – Sir Thomas Aston at his Wife’s Deathbed (1635)

In an off-kilter, vertigo-inducing room that seems almost to unfurl outwards from the skull at its centre, an illogical space hung with black velvet, a man and his son, looking outwards, but not at us, stand by the deathbed of their wife and mother, while a glamorous young woman meets our gaze from where she sits, apparently on the floor at the foot of the bed.

There’s virtue in this painting too, but mostly this one really is about death. It’s there at the centre, where the lord’s hand sits on a skull, recalling the kind of drama which was then passing out of fashion, just as this kind of painting was. The skull, like the black-draped cradle (with its inscription that reads He who sows in flesh reaps bones), acts as a vanitas motif, focussing the viewer’s attention on the shortness of life, but also recalls the enthusiastically morbid writing of men like John Webster and Thomas Middleton. Sir Thomas and his wife had grown up in an England where plays like Middleton’s Revenger’s Tragedy often featured soliloquies over the remains of loved ones. Sir Thomas Aston is not being consumed by a desire for revenge, but his hand on the skull can’t help recalling Hamlet, or even more so, anti-heroes like Middleton’s Vindice, who opens The Revenger’s Tragedy contemplating the skull of his fiancée;

My study’s ornament, thou shell of death/once the bright face of my betrothed lady/When life and beauty naturally fill’d out/these ragged imperfections,/when two heaven-pointed diamonds were set/ in those unsightly rings – then t’was a face/so far beyond the artificial shine/of any woman’s bought complexion
The Revenger’s Tragedy, Act1 Sc 1, in Thomas Middleton, Five Plays ed. Bryan Loughrey & Neil Taylor, Penguin Books, 1988 p.73

Sir Thomas, unlike Vindice, displays the correct behaviour for a grieving man with an orphaned young son – not, the deadpan ‘stiff upper lip’ restraint of later generations of British gentlemen – though he is a dignified figure, but the kind of behaviour noted in books of etiquette like the anonymous Bachelor’s Banquet of 1603, which states that if

in the midst of this their mutual love and solace, it chanceth she dies, whereat he grieves so extremely, that he is almost beside himself with sorrow: he mourns, not only in his apparel for a show, but unfeignedly, in his very heart, and that so much, that he shuns all places of pleasure, and all company, lives solitary, and spends the time in daily complaints and moans, and bitterly bewailing the loss of so good a wife, wherein no man can justly blame him, for it is a loss worthy to be lamented.

The Bachelor’s Banquet in The Laurel Masterpieces of World Literature – Elizbethan Age, ed. Harry T. Moore, Dell Books, 1965,  p.324)

It is perhaps this behaviour we should read in Sir Thomas’s sideways glance, not the hauteur of the nobleman but the remoteness of the recently bereaved. His black sash is adorned with a death’s head brooch; he and his young son (also Thomas) are to be considered men of the world; to their left a globe sits on a tapestry decorated with elephants. But all their worldly knowledge and faith is no help here; the two Astons grasp a cross staff bearing the inscription, The seas can be defined, the earth can be measured, grief is immeasurable. Given this display of intense, but restrained grief, the smiling girl – the only person who makes eye contact with us – is a strange figure, despite her beautiful mourning clothes, and it may be that she is the lady in the bed, as she looked in happier times, there to show us, and remind father and son, of what they are missing.

David Des Granges – The Saltonstall Family c.1636-7

On what looks like a shallow stage opening onto a bed in a cupboard, a strangely-scaled set of figures pose stiffly, only the older child meeting our eye with a knowing smirk, although the strangely capsule-like baby seems aware of us too.

As in the Souch painting, the father figure dominates, just as they dominated their households; the household being a microcosm of the state, the state itself a microcosm of the universe.* Mr Saltonstall, despite being at the apex of a pyramid of hierarchy that allowed absolute power, does not look devoid of compassion or warmth – indeed, he has had himself depicted holding the hand of his son, who himself mirrors (in, it has to be said, a less benign-looking way) this gesture of casual mastery, holding his little sister’s wrist, demonstrating just how the links in this chain of family work. And the family is inside the kind of house familiar nowadays to the heritage tourist as a mirror of the world that produced it; mansions like overgrown doll’s houses, big on the outside, but strangely cramped and illogical inside, with peculiar little wood-panelled rooms and an ancient smell of damp.

Dorothea Tanning – A Family Portrait (1954)

The nakedness of the power structure here isn’t subtle; and it isn’t supposed to be, because it wasn’t there to be questioned but accepted. Virtue lies in following god’s system of organisation, any suggestion to the contrary would make it an entirely different kind of painting. And indeed when painting – and painters – achieved a higher social standing in the century that followed, the messages become more subtle, only reappearing in something like this blatant form again in western art in the post-Freudian era, with a painting like Dorothea Tanning’s 1954 A Family Portrait. But Tanning’s painting is a knowing representation of a reality she was aware of but which had the force of tradition alone. Its appearance in the mid-17th century reflects the reality of the age; the truth, if not the only truth.


*EMW Tillyard, The Elizabethan World Picture, p.98-9

Richard Dadd – The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke (1855-64)

The first impression, looking at these kinds of paintings, is something like looking at fairyland through the distorting lens of Richard Dadd’s insanity centuries later; comical and disturbing, familiar and illogical. These painters of the Elizabethan and Jacobean tradition (their art died out at around the same time as Charles I did in the middle of the seventeeth century) – Souch, Des Granges, William Larkin and their many nameless contemporaries – were at the tail end of a dying tradition that would be replaced by something more spacious, gracious, modern and ‘realistic’; but ‘realistic’ is a loaded word and it’s entirely likely that this older tradition captures their world more accurately. We don’t need a time machine (though it would be nice) – a visit to almost any castle, palace or stately home is enough to confirm that the velvet curtains and classical paraphernalia of a Rubens or Van Dyck portrait does not tell the whole story of their era, even among the tiny demographic who their art served. It is a world that we would probably find dark and claustrophobic; witness the smallness of furniture, the lowness of the doorways and the dark paintings of dead ancestors, and this – regardless of the fact that it is partly due to what would later be seen as incompetence* – is what is preserved in this tradition of painting, as well as in the homes these people left behind.

* it’s a matter of fact that the average artist drawing a superhero comic in the 20th/21st century has a better grasp of mathematical perspective – and the idea of perspective at all – than even the more accomplished Elizabethan or Jacobean portrait painter 

William Larkin: a great painter who could have learned something from John Buscema & Stan Lee’s ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way’ (1978)

This is the kind of art that the Renaissance and its aftermath is supposed to have made obsolete – but though the word ‘art’ may owe its origin to its nature as something artificial, it also tells the truth, or a truth, regardless of its creators’ intentions. But if I’m implying that it’s realistic rather than idealistic, what does ‘realistic’ mean? Often when deriding ‘modern art’ (a meaningless term, since the art it usually refers to is often post-dated by art – like Jack Vettriano for instance – that is not considered to be ‘modern’) the assumption is that modern art is kind of aberration, a straying from a realistic norm*. But when looked at as a whole (or as much of a whole as is possible from a particular cultural viewpoint) it becomes quickly apparent that art that is ‘realistic’ in the narrowly photographic sense is a tiny island in the vast ocean of art history – and what is more, relies on ideas – such as the opposition of ‘abstract’ and ‘realistic’, that may have no currency whatsoever outside of the Western tradition.

visions of war: Picasso’s Guernica (1937) and Robert Taylor’s Struggle For Supremacy (2001)

Even within Western cultures, the idea that photographic equates to experiential is debatable; despite the persistence (outside of academia) of the idea that Picasso was primarily an artist who painted noses on the wrong side of heads etc, a painting like his Guernica clearly has more in common with images of war as it was experienced in the 20th century – even vicariously through cinema and TV – than the kind of ‘war art’ that my granddad had on his walls, beautiful paintings in a tradition that lives on through artists like Robert Taylor, visions of war where the fear and panic becomes excitement and drama, an altogether easier thing to be entertained by.

*A classic example of this attitude came from Philip Larkin, who, when writing about modernism in jazz, digressed to cover all of the arts, noting

All that I am saying is that the term ‘modern’ when applied to art, has a more than chronological meaning: it denotes a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this [ie the 20th] century… the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment) and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage. Philip Larkin, All What Jazz, Faber & Faber, 1970, p.23

Picasso was trying to capture the feel of his century – but most of the great courtly artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – the Renaissance masters who became household names – were trying to capture something loftier, to escape the more earthy, earthly aspects of theirs, not least because they were the first generation to attain something like the status that Picasso would later attain; artists as creators and inventors, not craftsmen and recorders. And therefore that feeling of the life of the times shines through more vividly in the work of artists like John Souch and David Des Granges. The 17th century was a time when the world – even the world inhabited by the aristocracy – was far smaller than it is today in one sense, but the wider world seemed correspondingly bigger and more dangerous, but also perhaps richer or deeper, just as these people – often married by 12 or 14, learned – if they were allowed to learn – by 20, old by 40, were both smaller and bigger than we are.

This kind of painting, part portrait, part narrative, was uniquely suited to the lives it recorded, and in one late example its strengths can be contrasted with those of the baroque style that swept it away. In 1613, Nicholas Lanier was a rising star in the English court, composer of a masque for the marriage of the Earl of Somerset. Around this time he was painted by an unknown artist, in the semi-emblematic tradition of artists like John Souch. There are references – the classical statue, the pen and paper with its mysterious inscription (RE/MI/SOL/LA) that highlight that this man is more than just a lutenist, but at the same time he is most definitely that, and the artist has taken care to render realistically Lanier’s muscles as he holds the instrument; an artist yes, but a workman of sorts too. By 1632, Lanier was the Master of the King’s Music and a trusted envoy of King Charles, who even sent him on picture-buying missions. And it is this gentleman that Van Dyck captures; aloof, authoritative, not someone we can picture sweating over a difficult piece of music.

Nicholas Lanier (1613) by an unknown artist (left) and Nicholas Lanier (1632) by Anthony van Dyck (right)

With the art of Van Dyck, the courts of Britain were to discover an ideal of aristocratic indifference which would partly define the project of British imperialism and which is, unfortunately, still with us today. But the truth of Van Dyck’s age, and those which preceded him was stranger, darker and more human. And it’s there still, in those damp-smelling big-small houses, and in the art that died with King Charles.


sleepwalking through geography – doodling and the automatic muse


a cat?
a cry for help from the depths of the classroom

There are relatively few times in life when it’s possible to switch off your mind and enter a trance-like state without going out of your way to do so; but sitting in a classroom for a period (or better yet, a double period) of whatever subject it is that engages you least is one of those times. When the conditions are right – a sleepy winter afternoon in an overly warm room maybe, with darkness and heavy rain or snow outside and the classroom lights yellow and warm, the smell of damp coats hung over radiators and a particularly boring teacher – the effect can be very little short of hypnotic. The subject will be a matter of taste, for me the obvious one I detested was Maths, but I think that something like Geography or ‘Modern Studies’ (strangely vague subject name), where I wasn’t concerned so much with not understanding and/or hating it, would be the optimum ‘trance class’.

I think every school jotter i had between the ages of 5 and 18 had this on the back, and it never went un-altered
fragments of the Metallica logo. and ???

There’s nothing like school for making you examine the apparently stable nature of time; if, as logic (and the clock) states, the 60 or so minutes of hearing about ‘scarp-and-vale topography’ really was about the same length of time as our always-too-short lunch hour, or even as was spent running around the rugby pitch, then clearly logic isn’t everything, as far as the perception of human experience is concerned.

Darth Vader, axes, spears…

But it would not be true to say that I did nothing during these long, barren stretches of unleavened non-learning. Mostly, I doodled on my school books. Sometimes this was a conscious act, like the altering of maps with tippex to create fun new supercontinents, or the inevitable (in fact, almost ritualistic, after 7 years of Primary school) amending of the fire safety rules that were printed on the back of every jotter produced by The Fife Regional Council Education Committee. Often these were just nonsensical, but even so, favourite patterns emerged. I had a soft spot for “ire! ire! ire! anger! anger! anger!” (in the interests of transparency I should probably point out that I was almost certainly unaware at the time that ire means anger), and the more abstract “fir! fir fir! Dang! Dang! Dang!” (see?), but some things like ‘Remember Eire hunts – Eire kills’ were fairly universal. But also, there was the whiling (or willing) away of time by just doodling, in margins, on covers, or if the books didn’t have to be handed in at the end of the class, just anywhere; band logos and Eddies* and cartoon characters. Later, towards the end of my high school career, there’s a particularly detailed and baroque drawing of a train going over a bridge (something I wouldn’t have had much patience for drawing in an actual art class) which immediately summons up the vivid memory of a particularly long Geography class, and even which pen – a fine felt tip I liked but couldn’t write neatly with** – that I drew it with.

possibly not fully engaged with learning – but I do remember that this was a Geography lesson

*Eddie = ‘Eddie the head’, Iron Maiden’s beloved zombie mascot, created – and painted best – by Derek Riggs

**i.e. ‘I wrote even less neatly than usual with’

adventures in abstract art
a scowling Eddie face, a strange man and some kind of tornadoes

If I could recall the things I was supposed to learn in classes this well I would have done much better at school. But the point of doodling is that it’s whatever it is your hand draws when your brain isn’t engaged; or, as André Breton put it, drawings that are ‘dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’*
This is in fact from his definition of what surrealism is; ‘psychic automatism in its pure state’ and later, in The Automatic Message (1933) Breton went further, influenced by his reading of Freud, specifically referencing what would later become known as art brut or ‘outsider art’ – drawings by the mentally ill, visionaries, mediums and children – as ‘surrealist automatism’. Although it might seem to – well, it definitely does – give too much dignity and importance to the time-wasting scrawls of teenagers to consider them anything but ephemeral, the strange faces, swords, cubes, eyes, tornadoes and goats that littered my school books aged 12-14 or so do seem to preserve, not just the kind of pantheon almost every child/teenager has – made up of favourite bands, TV shows, cartoon characters etc – but  a kind of landscape of enigmatic symbolism that comes from who-knows-where and perhaps represents nothing more than the imagination crying for help from the heart of a particularly stimulus-free desert. But in the end, that’s still something.

boredom made flesh(y)


*André Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism 1924, published in Manifestoes of Surrealism, Ann Arbor paperbacks, tr. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, 1972, p.26


7.6 billion mirrors – the value of art

Aged 20/1586
James 6/By Grace of God King of Scotland

Was it a cold morning in Edinburgh in 1586 when James VI, only twenty years old, very aware of his status as a divinely-appointed monarch, but with already a lifetime’s experience of human nature and earthly politics, sat in front of Adrian Vanson to be painted? Was he nervous? His watchful eyes suggest not, but his position, though finally secure, probably didn’t feel very stable; just three years earlier he had been imprisoned by those ruling in his name, and this year, although he signed a treaty of mutual defence with England against the possibility of a Catholic invasion, his mother who he had succeeded, remained in England, alive and imprisoned. Was Vanson nervous? Or was it just another job? The King wasn’t always noted for his good temper, but the artist, who had come to Scotland from the Netherlands via London (where he had an uncle) already knew James, and had first painted some pictures for the young King in 1581, before his imprisonment and, in happier circumstances, the year before this portrait, had painted a more glamorous and light-hearted portrait of the King to be taken abroad and shown to prospective suitors. But this picture, sombre, stern even, is about power; James 6th by the grace of God King of Scotland. When we look at this painting, at this sulky looking young man, we are making some kind of connection, looking through the eyes, albeit via the hand, of a Dutch man who died around 420 years ago. The painting – even if by the standards by which art is usually judged, it’s ‘not great’ – has a personal value, one human being, recorded by another, as well as a cultural one. It tells us something about fashions, lifestyles, the way a king could be depicted in that country, in that period (for all his divinity he is not an iconic figure), class structures, religion – but what is it “worth”? What is any work of art worth?

James again, when both he and the artist were a long 9 years older

Leaving aside metaphorical, metaphysical or aphoristic answers, or going into a much more long winded but possibly worthwhile conversation about what art is (I’m going to say it’s a deliberate act of creation, but even that is arguable), let’s assume we know what art is. Googling ‘art definition’ initially brings up five presumably definitive and certainly iconic pictures, the Mona Lisa, The Starry Night (both as famous as their creators, pretty much), Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (whose creator – Picasso – is more famous than the painting), The (or rather Leonardo’s) Last Supper and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, which I think is probably more famous as an image than a title, and the image is more famous than its creator Seurat.
What are these paintings worth? I’m sure facts and figures are available, but this is not – despite the age of some of the paintings, about intrinsic worth; I imagine there is a basic going rate for an early 16th century Italian renaissance portrait on panel (and so forth), but that has little to do at this point with the price of the Mona Lisa. The painting would be just as good (or just as whatever you think it is) if the artist was unknown, but the value has – and always has had – a lot to do with Leonardo da Vinci and the perception of him as more than just someone who painted good portraits

a (but not “the”) Mona Lisa, an early copy probably by one of Leonardo’s apprentices

Separating the art from the artist is always a difficult and controversial subject, but should really be easier in the visual arts that almost any other field. Yes, artists have their own ‘voice’ or visual language, but that is not the same as reading their actual words, or hearing their actual voice; and yet – because, I guess, of market forces, artists are routinely known and valued above and beyond their works and those works – even their doodles and fragments – are valued accordingly. A scrawled caricature in a margin by Leonardo (or Picasso) can be “worth” many times what a highly finished, technically brilliant oil painting by an unknown artist is. This disconnect happens because although art history is human history, “the art world” as it has existed since at least the 19th century is more like horse racing – take away the money and what you have is a far smaller number of people who are genuinely interested in how fast a horse can run.
Which is fine – but the question of what a painting (for instance) is “worth” has become the way art is engaged with popularly; somehow art, unlike sport, has never earned its own daily segment on the news and really it only appears there when the sums it raises are enormous (Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi), the sums lost are enormous (theft, fires, vandalism), or it’s part of a story that’s interesting in itself (Nazi art hoards, previously undiscovered ‘masterpieces’ etc). But the veneration of artists above art – now at the very peculiar stage at which a painting “after” (that is, not by, and possibly not even from the same era as) a famous ‘old master’ can be worth a far higher sum than a genuine painting by a lesser known ‘old master’ – masks the true value of art, which may be cultural, but is ultimately always personal
Even without any knowledge of the King James or his life, we are able, if we can see –  just by being human –  to make certain assumptions about the kind of person he was, and what he may have been thinking or feeling on that day in 1586. This kind of empathy is an act of the imagination; if we are mind-reading it is ultimately our own mind we are reading – but no more so than when we meet eyes with a stranger on the street or on a train. And if looking at Vanson’s King James is – because we can find out these facts – a connection with both an immigrant living in what must have in many ways been an unfamiliar country, and with a young man who had recently attained some kind of power, not only over his own life, but over a country, at the cost of his mother, then what of a painting like the Mona Lisa? It is, regardless of how compromised it has become by fame, monetary value and endless theorising, a link with the mind and ideas – and hand – of Leonardo and a kind of communication with the sitter herself. She was probably Lisa Gioconda, she may have already been dead, but although I stand by all of the above, what I seem to have suggested is that a painting is a kind of code to be broken or a museum to be explored and unpacked. These things enrich our understanding of or connection with a painting, but they don’t make it. What makes art so fascinating – but also why it doesn’t have five minutes on the news every night – is because it’s so individual. It’s (VERY) possible to not care in the slightest about the outcome of, say a rugby or football match, but the final score is the final score, regardless of how anyone feels about the quality of the game or the skill of the players. It would not be satisfactory somehow to have a football match where no points were awarded and the outcome of the game depended on how you feel about it. But in art it is completely respectable – and I don’t think wrong – to say, (To paraphrase the great surrealist painter Leonora Carrington); if you really want to know what the Mona Lisa’s smile means, think about how it makes you feel.

Composition in White, Black, Red and Grey (1932) by Marlow Moss

This might seem like reducing art to the level of ‘human interest’, but what else is there? The choice of figurative paintings with a possible narrative element is a matter of taste and makes the human element unavoidable. But if we feel intense emotion when looking at a Mark Rothko painting, a sense of peace and calm from a Mondrian, Marlow Moss or Hans Arp picture, or exhilaration in front of a Peter Lanyon work, the fact remains that ‘we feel’ (or ‘we don’t feel’) is the common denominator. Viewers through the ages who have detected echoes of divine order and harmony in the works of Piero Della Francesa or Fra Angelico have only definitely detected them with any certainty within their own perceptions, which is not to say that they aren’t feeling something the artist himself felt. There’s a philosophical, ‘tree falling in the woods’ point here; is Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ a work of emotional and artistic intensity after the gallery lights go out? Or is it more like a kind of magic spell or booby trap, triggered only when a spectator is there to observe it?

That said, figurative art, especially portraiture, is – however many layers of information are contained in it – relatively easy to ‘understand’ on a basic level; ie if we can see, we can see what it is. It is the understanding and appreciation that remains entirely individual and subjective. Conceptual art – shockingly still around in much the same forms as it has been since the 60s – is, despite its apparently interpretation-inviting name, less transparent. This means that, unlike something we instantly recognise, it’s – initially at least – only as powerful as its visual impact. And in fact, whereas familiarity invites interpretation in traditional art, it tends to – on a popular level at least – repel it in conceptual art. The controversy surrounding classic media frenzy conceptual pieces like Carl Andre’s pile of bricks, or Tracy Emin’s unmade bed is because everyone knows exactly what a pile of bricks, or a sleeping bag or a bed is, and they don’t feel the need or desire to think further about it and if they do they feel – no doubt wrongly – that they are putting more thought into it than the artist did.

Comedian (2019) by Maurizio Cattelan
Carl Andre – Equivalent V (1966-69)

That is the ‘philistine’ response and it’s easy to have sympathy with; personally, I don’t mind wondering what a conceptual work means, but if I get no kind of emotional or cerebral response from looking at it in the first place then I’d rather the artist had just written their ideas down. This is me and my deficiency though – if Maurizio Cattelan put his heart and soul into taping that banana to the wall – or even if he just enjoyed doing it – who am I or anyone else to devalue that? And if whoever paid that much money for it is getting some similar experience, or just the satisfaction of being the owner of the most expensive banana in the world – then that’s hard to argue with too.

Portrait of an unknown woman by an unknown artist c.1725

I don’t think it devalues art – quite the opposite – to think of it as a form of communication between individuals, even if as mentioned above, it is really communication with the one person you will ever know with any certainty – yourself. What I seem to be saying (which I may not entirely agree with) is that art is a mirror. Take this beautiful painting from around 1725 by an unknown artist of an unknown lady. To me, this is a real connection with this unknowable person – but again, only as unknowable as any face that passes you in the street never to be seen again – she was a real person, sitting in a room, around 300 years ago, probably wearing something she liked or that told the world how she wanted to be seen, being painted by someone – and by 1725 it could have been a man or a woman – with whom they may have been engaging, impatient, chatty… We can only guess and extrapolate from the picture. That extrapolation will be different every time depending on the viewer and their own knowledge, not just of history, but of people and experience. If 7.6 billion people look at the picture it becomes in essence 7.6 billion pictures, 7.6 billion mirrors.

That is not to say that the picture is ‘better’ than Cattelan’s banana. If I came across the banana taped to a wall anywhere except an art fair would I see it as art? In a way yes, in the sense that it is literally artificial – not the fruit itself, but its location would clearly be a deliberate, human act and not – as a nail in a wall might be – something that could feasibly have a purely utilitarian meaning. It would be puzzling – far more so in fact that in an art fair where the (surely expected by the artist) first reaction of most non-art world people would surely be the eye-rolling ‘so this is ‘art’ is it?’ Whether it would be intriguing, or thought-provoking seems less likely, except insofar as provoking thoughts like ‘who put that banana there and why?’ Which I guess is perfectly valid – and in its own way a genuine connection of the viewer and artists’ minds, though not something that would probably take up much brain space after the initial wondering. But then, many – even most, people (whether or not they would approve of it as art vs the banana) might just as well look at the woman in her fine dress 300 years ago, or the young King James, and pass on without even wondering anything at all.

chosen ones and dark lords and everything in between



To start with, this was mostly about books, and I think it will end that way too. But it begins with a not terribly controversial statement; hero worship is not good. And the greatest figures in the fight for human rights or human progress of one kind or another – Martin Luther King, Jr, Emmeline Pankhurst, Gandhi – without wishing to in any way diminish their achievements – would not have achieved them alone. Rosa Parks is a genuine heroine, but if she had been the only person who believed it was wrong for African-American people to be forced to give up seats for white people, the practice would still be happening. These individuals are crucial because they are catalysts for and agents of change – but the change itself happens because people – movements of people – demand it.

a bunch of lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes

This is obviously very elementary and news to nobody, but it’s still worth remembering in times like these, when people seem to be drawn to somewhat messianic figures (or to elevate people who have no such pretensions themselves to quasi-messianic status). One of the problems with messiahs is that when they don’t fulfil the hopes of their followers, their various failures or defeats (of whatever kind) take on a cataclysmic significance beyond the usual, human kind of setback and re-evaluation. It’s only natural to feel discouraged if your political or spiritual dreams and hopes are shattered, but it’s also important to remember that the views and opinions that you were drawn to and which you agree with are yours too. They are likely to be shared by millions of people and the fact that they are also apparently not shared by a greater number in no way invalidates them or renders them pointless.

The history of human progress is, mostly, the history of people fighting against entrenched conservative views in order to improve the lives of all people, including, incidentally, the lives of those people they are fighting against. This obviously isn’t the case in ultimately ideological revolutions like those in France or Russia, which quickly abandoned their theoretically egalitarian positions in order to remove undesirable elements altogether, or the Nazi revolution in Germany, which never pretended to be inclusive in the first place. Hopelessness, whether cynical or Kierkegaard-ishly defiant, is a natural response, but the biggest successes of human rights movements – from the abolition of slavery to the enfranchisement of women to the end of apartheid in South Africa to the legalisation of abortion or gay marriage – have often taken place during eras which retrospectively do not seem especially enlightened; if you believe in something, there is hope.

Rome is a place, but this is mostly about people

But when change is largely driven by mass opinion or pressure – and when we know that it is – why is it the individual; Rameses II, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Garibaldi, Lenin, Hitler, the Dalai Lama, Queens, Kings, political leaders – that looms so large in the way we see events historically? Anywhere from three to six million people died in the “Napoleonic Wars” – Napoleon wasn’t one of them, his armies didn’t even win them; but they are, to posterity, his wars. The short answer is I think because as individuals, it is individuals we identify with. We have a sense of other peoples’ lives, we live among other people (sounds a bit Invasion of the Bodysnatchers), but we only know our own life, and we only see the world through the window of our own perceptions.

Sara Shamma self portrait

The artist Sara Shamma – who, significantly has undertaken many humanitarian art projects, but has also done much of her most profound work in self-portraiture – saidI think understanding a human being is like understanding the whole of humanity, and the whole universe” and the more I’ve thought about that statement the more true it seems. If we truly understand any human being, it is first, foremost and perhaps only, ourselves. And, unless you are a psychopath, in which case you have my condolences, you will recognise the traits you have – perhaps every trait you have – in other people, people who may seem otherwise almost entirely different from you. When you look at the classifications humankind has made for itself – good/bad, deadly sins, cardinal virtues – these are things we know to exist because, in varying degrees, we feel them in ourselves, and therefore recognise them in others. Even that most valued human tool, objectivity, is a human tool, just as logic, which certainly seems to explain to our understanding the way the world works, is a human idea and also an ideal. Interestingly but perhaps significantly, unlike nature, mathematics or gravity, human behaviour itself routinely defies logic. When we say – to whatever extent – we understand the universe, what I think we mean is that we understand our own conception of it. It’s easy to talk about the universe being boundless, but not limitless, or limitless, or connected to other universes as part of a multiverse (though not easy to talk about intelligently, for me), but regardless of what is ‘out there’, what we are actually talking about is all ‘in here’, in our own brain; the universe that you talk about and think about is whatever you think it is, however you perceive it.  If what you believe dictates the way you live your life it may as well be, to all intents and purposes ‘the truth’. For Stephen Hawking there were black holes in space/time, and whether or not there actually are, for a creationist there probably aren’t.

This is not to say that there are no actual solid facts about (for example) the nature of the universe; but nonetheless to even prove – to us personally while alive – that anything at all continues to exist after our own death is impossible. We can of course see that it goes on after other people’s deaths, but then I can say with what I believe to be complete conviction that there is no God and that human beings are just (well I wouldn’t say “just”) a kind of sentient hourglass with the added fun that you never know how much sand it holds to start with – but that doesn’t change the fact that a whole range of Gods have made and continue to make a decisive difference to the lives of other people and therefore to the world.


But whereas that might sound like the background for some kind of Ayn Rand-ish radical individualism, I think the opposite is true; because if any of what I have written is correct, the key part is that it applies equally to everyone. The phrase ‘we’re all in the same boat’ is being bandied about a lot lately for pandemic-related reasons, and it’s only vaguely true as regards that particular situation. We aren’t in the same boat, or even necessarily in the same kind of body exactly, but what we do all share – if broadly –  is the same kind of brain. We are all individuals, and If we are conscious, we are probably self conscious. And given that we live our – as far as we can safely tell – single earthly life as an individual human being, the idea that any of us is powerless during that lifetime is nonsense. When asked to name someone who has made a difference to the world, the first person you think of should be yourself. There would be no world as you know it without you in it, and that is not a small thing; by existing, you are changing the world. Whether for better or worse, only you can say.

Having faith in other people (or even just getting along with them) makes both your and their lives better, but the belief that one particular individual outside of yourself may be the solution to the world’s (or the country’s, etc) ills is worse than feeling powerless yourself; not only because it can reinforce that sense of powerlessness, but because it’s blatantly untrue and (I hate to use this completely devalued word, but never mind) elitist. And it reduces every issue, however complex, to a finite, succeed-or-fail one, which is rarely how the world works. The idea of the hero as saviour probably has about as much validity as the idea of the lone villain as the cause of whatever ills need to be cured. Hero-worship is both logical (because we see the world from the viewpoint of “I”) and also an oddly counter-intuitive ideal to have created, since in reality as we know it, the lone individual may be us, but is largely not how we live or how things work. We have structured our societies, whether on the smaller level of family or tribe, or the larger ones like political parties or nations, in terms of groups of people. But I suppose it is the same humanity that makes us aware of and empathetic to the feelings of others that makes us want to reduce ideas to their black and white, bad vs good essentials and then dress those ideas up in human clothes.

childhood favourites

And so, to books! Reading fiction and watching films and TV, it’s amazing how the larger-than-life (but also simpler and therefore ironically smaller-than-life) hero/ine vs villain, protagonist vs antagonist and – most hackneyed of all (a speciality of genre fiction since such a thing existed, and the preserve or religion and mythology before that) – the ‘chosen one’ vs ‘dark lord’ narrative continues to be employed by writers and enjoyed by generations of people (myself included*), long past the age that one becomes aware of the formulaic simplification of it.

*for people of my generation, the mention of a ‘dark lord’ immediately conjures up Star Wars and Darth Vader/The Emperor, though the ‘chosen one’ theme is thankfully underplayed in the original trilogy. George Lucas doesn’t get much credit for the prequels, but making the chosen one become the dark lord is an interesting twist, even if Lucifer got there first.

Whatever its origins, it seems that people do want these kinds of figures in their lives and will settle for celebrities, athletes, even politicians in lieu of the real thing. Hitler was aware of it and cast himself in the lead heroic role, ironically becoming, to posterity, the antithesis of the character he adopted; Lenin, who by any logical reading of The Communist Manifesto should have been immune to the lure of hero worship, also cast himself in the lead role, as did most of his successors to the present day (and really; to enthusiastically read Marx and then approve a monumental statue of oneself displays, at best, a lack of self-awareness). The Judeo-Christian god with his demand, not only to be acknowledged as the creator of everything, but also to be actually worshipped by his creations, even in his Christian, fallible, just-like-us human form, is something of a special case, but clearly these are primordial waters to be paddling in.

Still, entertainment-wise, it took a kind of humbling to get even to the stage we’re at. Heroes were once demi-gods; Gilgamesh had many adventures, overcame many enemies, but when trying to conquer death found that he could not even conquer sleep. Fallible yes, but hardly someone to identify with. And Cain killed Abel, David killed Goliath, Hercules succeeded in his twelve tasks but was eventually poisoned by the blood of a hydra, Sun Wukong the Monkey King attained immortality by mistake while drunk, Beowulf was mortally wounded in his last battle against a dragon. Cúchulainn transformed into a monstrous creature and single-handedly defeated the armies of Queen Medb. King Arthur and/or the Fisher King sleep still, to be awoken when the need for them is finally great enough.  These are heroes we still recognise today and would accept in the context of a blockbuster movie or doorstop-like fantasy novel, but less so in say, a soap opera or (hopefully) on Question Time. I knew some (but not all) of these stories when I was a child, but all of them would have made sense to me because, despite the differences between the settings and the societies that produced them and that which produced me, they are not really so vastly different from most of my favourite childhood stories.

Partly that’s because some of those were those ancient stories. But even when not reading infantilised versions of the Greek myths (I loved the Ladybird book Famous Legends Vol. 1 with its versions of Theseus and the Minotaur and Perseus and Andromeda*) it was noticeable that, although there still were heroes of the unambiguous superhuman type (in comics most obviously; like um, Superman), in most of the books I read, the hero who conquers all through his or her (usually his) all-round superiority was rarely the lone, or even the main protagonist. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of Christianity (or just of literacy?) but presumably at some point people decided they preferred to identify with a hero rather than to venerate them. Perhaps stories became private rather than public when people began to read for themselves, rather than listening to stories as passed down by bards or whatever? Someone will know.

.*I remember being disappointed by the Clash of the Titans film version of Medusa, too monstrous, less human, somehow undermining the horror

not the original set of Narnia books I had; never quite as good without Pauline Baynes’s cover art

The first real stories that I remember (this would initially be hearing rather than reading) are probably The Hobbit, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – all of which have children or quasi-children as the main characters. Narnia is a special case in that there is a ‘chosen one’ – Aslan the lion – but mostly he isn’t the main focus of the narrative, Far more shadowy, there are books that I never went back to and read by myself, like Pippi Longstocking and my memory of those tends to be a few images rather than an actual story. As a very little kid I know I liked The Very Hungry Caterpillar and its ilk (also, vastly less well known, The Hungry Thing by Jan Slepian and Ann Seidler in which, as I recall, some rice would be nice said a baby sucking ice). Later, I loved Tintin and Asterix and Peanuts and Garfield as well as the usual UK comics; Beano, Dandy, Oor Wullie, The Broons, Victor and Warlord etc. The first fiction not reliant on pictures that I remember reading for myself (probably around the Beano era) would be the Narnia series (which I already knew), Richmal Crompton’s William books and, then Biggles (already by then an antique of a very different era), some Enid Blyton (I liked the less-famous Five Find-Outers best), Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and Willard Price’s Adventure series. Mostly these were all a bit old fashioned for the 80s now that I look at them, but I tended then as now to accumulate second hand books.

Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain; perfect marriage of author and cover art (Brian Fround and Ken Thompson)
Biggles Flies Undone! Very old even when I was young, I bought this book from a jumble sale when I was 8 or 9

There was also a small group of classics that I had that must have been condensed and re-written for kids – a little brick-like paperback of Moby-Dick (Christmas present) and old hardbacks of Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Kidnapped with illustrations by Broons/Oor Wullie genius Dudley D. Watkins (bought at ‘bring and buy’ sales at Primary School). Watkins’s versions of Crusoe, Long John Silver etc are still the ones I see in my head. More up to date, I also had a particular fondness for Robert Westall (The Machine Gunners, The Scarecrows, The Watch House etc) and the somewhat trashy Race Against Time adventure series by JJ Fortune; a very 80s concoction in which a young boy from New York called Stephen, is picked up by his (this was the initial appeal) Indiana Jones-like Uncle Richard and, unbeknownst to his parents, hauled off around the world for various implausible adventures. I liked these books so much (especially the first two that I read, The Search for Mad Jack’s Crown – bought via the Chip Book Club which our school took part in, and Duel For The Samurai Sword) that I actually, for the first and last time in my life, joined a fan club. I still have the letter somewhere, warning me as a “RAT adventurer” to be prepared to be whisked away myself. Didn’t happen yet though.  And then there were gamebooks (a LOT of them), which have a special place here because they fundamentally shift the focus of the narrative back to the direct hero-conquers-all themes of ancient mythology, while also recasting the reader themselves as that hero.

80s Hollywood blockbuster design comes to childrens’ fiction

There were also books I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen but was given at Christmas etc, books by people like Leon Garfield (adventures set in a vividly grotty evocation of 18th and early 19th century London), the aforementioned Moby-Dick, a comic strip version of The Mutiny on the Bounty, a Dracula annual. Also authors who I read and loved one book by, but never got around to reading more of; Anne Pilling’s Henry’s Leg, Jan Mark (Thunder and Lightnings; there’s a moving article about this beautifully subtle book here), Robert Leeson (The Third Class Genie). And there were also things we had to read at school, which mostly didn’t make a huge impression and are just evocative titles to me now – The Boy with the Bronze Axe by Kathleen Fidler and The Kelpie’s Pearls by Molly Hunter, Ian Serralliers’s The Silver Sword, Children on the Oregon Trail by Anna Rutgers van der Loeff and The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden.  What did I do as a kid apart from reading?

Anyway; that’s a lot of books. And in the vast majority of them, the conclusion of the plot relies on the main character, or main character and sidekick or team to take some kind of decisive action to solve whatever problem they have. Heroism as the ancient Greeks would have understood it may largely have vanished, but even without superhuman strength or vastly superior cunning (even the fantasy novels mentioned like Lloyd Alexander’s which do still have the chosen one/dark lord idea at their heart, tend to have a fallible, doubt-filled human type of hero rather than a demigod) there is still the idea that individual character is what matters.

it’s hard to remember a time I didn’t know these stories

 And this makes sense – something like the ‘battle of five armies’ towards the end of The Hobbit is dull enough with the inclusion of characters that the reader has come to care about. A battle between armies of nameless ciphers (think the ‘Napoleonic Wars’ sans Napoleon) would be hard to get too involved in (cue image of generals with their model battlefields moving blocks of troops about, with little or no danger to themselves). Which is fair enough; after all, being in a battle may feel impersonal, but reading about one can’t be, if the reader is to feel any kind of drama. And maybe this is the key point – reading is – albeit at one remove – a one-on-one activity. Stephen King likens it to telepathy between the writer and reader and that is the case – they think it, we read it and it transfers from their minds to ours. And since reading is something that people seem to think children have to be made to do, often against their will, children’s authors in particular are understandably keen to engage the reader by making them identify with one character or another. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the most successful writers for children from CS Lewis to Enid Blyton to JK Rowling (to name just notable British ones) have tended to make children the protagonists of their books and surround their main characters with a variety of girls and boys of varying personality types. And children’s books about children are (I find) far easier to re-read as an adult than children’s books about adults are. As an adult, even JJ Fortune’s “Stephen” rings more or less true as a mostly bored tweenager of the 80s, while his Uncle Richard seems both ridiculous and vaguely creepy. “Grown up” heroes like Biggles, very vivid when encountered as a child, seem hopelessly two-dimensional as an adult; what do they DO all day, when not flying planes and shooting at the enemy?

the unasked-for Christmas present that began a few years of obsessive game-playing

I mentioned gamebooks above and they – essentially single-player role playing games, often inspired by Dungeons and Dragons – deserve special mention, partly just because in the 80s, there were so many of them. There were series’ I followed and was a completist about (up to a point) – first and best being Puffin’s Fighting Fantasy (which, when I finally lost interest consisted of around 30 books), there was its spin-off Steve Jackson’s Sorcery (four books), Joe Dever and Gary Chalk’s Lone Wolf (seven or eight books), Grey Star (four books), Grailquest (I think I lost interest around vol 5 or 6), then series’ I quite liked but didn’t follow religiously – Way of the Tiger (six books), Golden Dragon (six books), Cretan Chronicles (three books) and series’ I dipped into if I came across them: Choose Your Own Adventure (essentially the first gamebook series, but they mostly weren’t in the swords & sorcery genre and felt like they were aimed at a younger readership), Demonspawn (by JH Brennan, the author of Grailquest, but much, much more difficult), Falcon (time travel) and Sagard the Barbarian (four books; the selling point being that they were by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax. They were a bit clunky compared to the UK books). Sudden memory; even before encountering my first Fighting Fantasy book, which was Steve Jackson’s Citadel of Chaos, actually the second in the series, I had bought (the Chip club again), Edward Packard’s Exploration Infinity, which was one of the Choose Your Own Adventure series, repackaged for the UK I guess, or maybe a separate book that was later absorbed into the CYOA series? Either way, there’s a particular dreamlike atmosphere that gives me a pang of complicated melancholy nostalgia when I think of the book now.

lots of books; one hero

Putting a real person – the reader – at the centre of the action ironically dispenses with the need for “character” at all, and even in books like the Lone Wolf and, Grailquest series where YOU are a specific person (Lone Wolf in the former, Pip in the latter), there is very little sense of (or point in) character building. You are the hero, this is what you need to do, and that’s all you need to know. In many cases, the protagonists of the heroic fantasy novels I devoured in my early teens – when I was drawn to any fat book with foil lettering and a landscape on the cover (the standard fantasy novel look in the 80s) – were not much more rounded than their lightly sketched gamebook counterparts. These books often achieved their epic length through plot only; the truly complex epic fantasy novel is a rare thing.

Thanks, presumably, to Tolkien, these plots generally revolved around main characters who were rarely heroes in the ancient mould (though Conan and his imitators were), but were mainly inexperienced, rural quasi-children, thrust into adventures they initially had no knowledge of (Terry Brooks’s Shannara series being the classic Tolkien-lite example). But even when, as in Stephen Donaldson’s also very Tolkien-influenced Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the hero was a cynical, modern human being, or in Michael Moorcock’s deliberately anti-Tolkienesque  Eternal Champion series, where s/he was a series of interlinked beings inhabiting the same role within different dimensions of the multiverse, the ‘chosen one’ vs some kind of implacable ‘dark lord’-ish enemy theme remained pretty constant. But this underlying core or skeleton is only most explicit in self consciously fantastical fiction; whether or not there’s an actual dark lord or a quest, in most fiction of any kind there’s a ‘chosen one’, even if they have only been chosen by the author as the focus of the story she or he wants to tell. Holden Caulfield and Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood have this in common with Bilbo Baggins, Conan the Barbarian and William Brown. But really, what’s the alternative to books about people anyway? Even novels in which people (or surrogate people like Richard Adams’s rabbits or William Horwood’s moles) are not the main focus (or are half of the focus, like Alan Moore’s peculiar Voice of the Fire, where Northampton is essentially the ‘hero’) rely on us engaging with the writer as a writer, a human voice that becomes a kind of stand-in for a character.

classic 80s fantasy cover design

But books are not life; one of the things that unites the most undemanding pulp novelette and the greatest works of literature is that they are to some extent – like human beings – discrete, enclosed worlds; they have their beginning, middle and end. And yet, however much all of our experience relies on our perception of these key moments, that’s not necessarily how the world feels. Even complicated books are simple in that they reveal – just by seeing their length before we read them – the sense of design that is hidden from us or absent in our own lives. Even something seemingly random or illogical (the giant helmet that falls from nowhere, crushing Conrad to death in Horace Walpole’s proto-gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) for example) is deliberate; recognisably something dreamlike, from the human imagination, rather than truly random as the world can be.

What we call history (“things that have happened”) usually can’t quite manage the neatness of even the most bizarre or surreal fiction.  There have been genuine, almost superhuman hero/antihero/demigod figures, but how often – even when we can see their entirety – do their lives have the satisfying shape of a story? Granted, Caesar, stabbed twenty three times by his peers in the Senate chamber, has the cause-and-effect narrative of myth; but it’s an ambiguous story where the hero is the villain, depending on your point of view. Whatever one’s point of view in The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, to have sympathy with someone referred to (or calling themselves) a ‘dark lord’ is to consciously choose to be on the side of ‘bad’, in a way that defending a republic as a republic, or an empire as an empire isn’t.

Or take Genghis Khan – ‘he’ conquered (the temptation is to also write ‘conquered’, but where do you stop with that?) – obviously not alone, but as sole leader – as much of the world as anyone has. And then, he remained successful, had issues with his succession and died in his mid 60s, in uncertain, rather than dramatic or tragic circumstances. The heroes of the Greek myths often have surprisingly downbeat endings (which I didn’t know about from the children’s versions I read) but they are usually significant in some way, and stem from the behaviour of the hero himself.  Napoleon, old at 51, dying of stomach cancer or poisoning, a broken man, is not exactly a classic punishment from the Gods for hubris, or an end that anyone would have seen coming, let alone would have written for him. As ‘chosen ones’ go, Jesus is a pretty definitive example, and whether accepted as history or as fiction, he has an ending which, appropriately for god-made-man, manages to fit with both the stuff of myth (rises from the dead and ascends to heaven) but is also mundane in a way we can easily recognise; he isn’t defeated by the Antichrist or by some supreme force of supernatural evil, but essentially killed by a committee, on the orders of someone acting against their own better judgement. More than anything else in the New Testament, that has the ring of truth to it. A significant detail too for those who want to stress the factual basis of the gospels is that the name of the murderer himself*  unlike the nemeses of the ancient heroes, wasn’t even recorded.

* I guess either the guy nailing him to the cross, or the soldier spearing him in the side (much later named as Longinus, presumably for narrative purposes) 

And if Jesus’s nemesis was disappointingly mundane, when on occasion, the universe does throw up something approximating a “dark lord” it doesn’t counter them with ‘chosen ones’ to defeat them either, as one might hope or expect. Living still in the shadow of WW2, Hitler’s messy and furtive end, beleaguered and already beaten, in suicide, somehow isn’t good enough and there are a variety of rival theories about what ‘really’ happened, all of which more pleasingly fit with the kind of fiction we all grow up with. Mussolini was strung up by an angry faceless mob and his corpse was defiled. Hirohito, meanwhile, survived defeat as his troops were not supposed to do, and presided over Japan’s post-war boom to become one of the world’s longest reigning monarchs. The moral of the story is there is rarely a moral to the story. For proof of that, did the ‘heroes’ fare much better? The victors of Yalta lived on to die of a haemorrhage just months later on the eve of the unveiling of the UN (FDR), to be voted out of office, dying twenty years later a divisive figure with an ambiguous legacy (Churchill) and to become himself one of the great villains of the century with a reputation rivalling Hitler’s (Stalin).

Entertainment programs us to view history as the adventures of a series of important ‘main characters’ and how they shaped the world. It’s perhaps as good a ‘way in’ as any – like Frodo taking the ring to Mordor when no human can, or Biggles (almost) single-handedly defeating the Luftwaffe, it makes a kind of sense to us. But the distorted version of history it gives us is something to consider; think of your life and that of (name any current world leader or influential figure; apologies if you are one). If the people of the future are reading about that person, what will that tell them about your life? And what is ‘history’ telling you about really? Things that happened, yes, but prioritised by who, and for what purpose? This is an argument for reading more history, and not less I think. Other people may be the protagonists in books, but in our own history we have to take that role.

Artists (and historians too, in a different way) share their humanity with us, and there are great artists – you’ll have your own ideas, but William Shakespeare, Sue Townsend, Albrecht Dürer, Mickalene Thomas, Steven Spielberg and James Baldwin seems like a random but fair enough selection – who somehow have the capacity or empathy to give us insights into human being other than (and very different from) themselves, but somehow created entirely from their own minds and their own perceptions of the world. But just like them, however aware we are of everyone else and of existence in all its variety, we can only be ourselves, and, however many boxes we seem to fit into, we can only experience the world through our own single consciousness. If there’s a chosen one, it’s you. If there’s a dark lady or a dark lord, it’s also you.



“Ane doolie sessoun” covid-19 and the art of isolation


At some point in the late fifteenth century, the poet Robert Henryson (who lived in Dunfermline, not too far from where I’m writing now), began his Testament of Cresseid with one of my favourite openings of any poem:

Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte
Suld correspond and be equivalent.

Robert Henryson – The Testament of Cresseid and Other Poems, my edition Penguin Books, 1988, p. 19

I don’t think I knew, word for word, what he was saying when I first read it, but I did get the meaning: essentially that miserable/sad times (‘doolie’, which I guess would be ‘doleful’ a few hundred years later; not sure what it would be now) call for tragic/sad/grim (“cairfull”, literally ‘full-of-care’) poetry, and the words, with their mixture of strangeness and familiarity (people in Scotland have not talked like that for many centuries, but I think that being attuned to the accents and patterns of speech here still makes it easier to understand), stayed with me. The poet goes on to talk about the weather; apparently it was an unseasonable Lent in Fife that year, when “schouris of hail can fra the north discend/that scantlie fra the cauld I micht defend.” Despite impending climate disaster, Fife weather hasn’t changed beyond all recognition it seems; It was only two weeks ago – though it seems far longer now – that I was caught in a hailstorm myself.

my own photograph from April 2006

The season is still doolie however; not because of the weather, but because of the pandemic sweeping the world, one unlike any that Henryson would have known, but which probably wouldn’t have surprised him; one of the key elements he brought to the Troilus and Cressida story in The Testament of Cresseid is its heroine being struck down by leprosy and joining a leper colony.
the cover of my copy of his poems has a drawing from a medieval manuscript, of a figure which would have been familiar to most readers at the time; a leper with a bell begging for alms.

Maurice Utrillo

In fact, with dependable cosmic irony (or if you are less fatalistic, normal seasonal progress), the weather, since ‘stay home’ has been trending online and quarantine officially recommended, has been beautiful here. The streets are fairly, but not yet eerily, quiet. So this particular dyte (the old word that Henryson used referred to his poem but I think stems ultimately from the Latin dictum and can apply to any piece of writing) may not seem especially gloomy (and may in fact be quite sloppy), but it is certainly careful in the sense that Henryson intended. It’s quite easy – and I think reasonable – to be optimistic about the state of the world in April 2020, but not I hope possible for anybody with any sense of empathy to not be concerned about it.

There are some silver linings to the current situation (major caveat: so far); as well as, inevitably, bringing out the worst in some people, a crisis also brings out the best in many more. And a whole range of major and minor plus points, from a measure of environmental recovery to time to catch up with reading, have emerged. For me, one of the nicest things to come out of the crisis so far is – thanks to social media – the way that arts institutions, while physically almost empty, have begun to engage online with a wider range of people than those who are likely to, or physically able to visit the galleries themselves.

Algernon Newton – The Outskirts of Kensington


It has been said that Edward Hopper is the artist who has captured this particular moment, and it’s true that his vision of loneliness in the metropolis particularly mirrors our own age of social media and reality TV, in that it is voyeuristic* – we are not looking at ourselves, or at an absence of people, we are looking at other people whose isolation mirrors our own. If there’s something about this particular pandemic that sets it apart from the Spanish flu of 1918-19 or the great plague of 1665 or the Black Death of 1348-9, or any of the devastating outbreaks of disease that sweep the earth from time to time, it’s that online we are (a ridiculous generalisation perhaps, but if you’re reading this chances are you have internet access at least) sharing the experience of isolation; surely in itself a relatively new phenomenon, at least on this kind of a scale. When Daniel Defoe wrote in his fictional memoir of the 1665 plague (and it’s worth remembering that, although he was only five when the plague swept London, he would have had the testimony of many who had survived as adults as well as whatever shadowy memories he himself had of the period)

Passing through a Token-house Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three violent screeches, and then cried “Oh! Death, Death, Death!”in a most inimitable tone, and which struck me with horror and a chilness in my very blood. There was nobody to be seen in the whole street, neither did any other window open; for people had no curiosity now in any case; nor could any body help one another

Daniel Defore, A Journal of the Plague Year, 1722, my copy published by Paul Elek Ltd, 1958, p. 79-80

he was depicting a situation which many people could no doubt relate to; after the fact. What we have now is a sense of shared helplessness in real time; this has never existed, quite in this way before. Assuming some kind of return to normality, we (not entirely sure who I mean exactly by ‘we’) will know each other better than we ever have; something to have mixed feelings about no doubt.

*not a criticism; visual art is voyeurism

Edward Hopper capturing the 2020 zeitgeist with 11 am (1926)

The current appeal of Edward Hopper’s paintings of lonely figures is humanistic and easy to explain. His art, with its depiction of strangers quietly sitting in anonymous places, people who paradoxically we can never know and never know much about, but who we can easily relate to, is profoundly empathetic.  It belongs to a long tradition of quiet loneliness or at least alone-ness that stretches back, in Western, art to the seventeenth century and the art of Vermeer (it’s easy to forget as the children of it, but the idea of art reflecting the individual for reasons other than wealth and status is an essentially Protestant one*) through artists like Arthur Devis (though I’m not sure he intended the quiet melancholy in his paintings) and Vilhelm Hammershoi (who did). In fact, Hammershoi’s beautiful turn-of-the (19th-20th)-century paintings are if anything even more relevant to stay-at-home culture than Hopper’s diner, bar and hotel-dwelling urbanites. With Hopper, we are often watching – spying on – his characters from the outside as if through a pair of binoculars, with Hammershoi we are shut in with them, like ghosts haunting their silent rooms.

*really the only ‘lonely’ figures in pre-Protestant European art are Christ himself  (think of the utter solitary misery of the crucified Jesus in Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece) and of course Judas, or those who like him, have separated themselves from Christianity. There is a terrifying solitary quality in some depictions of saints during martyrdom, but for their contemporary audience it was essential to bear in mind that they were not spiritually alone (note: this may be a completely false assertion)

Vilhelm Hammershoi – A room at home with the artist’s wife (1902)
voyeuristic Hopper: Night Windows (1928)

But if Hopper’s most discussed and shared works now are those where we seem to catch, as we do from a train window, a momentary glimpse of a life that is utterly separate from our own. It’s a feeling I associate with childhood and (very) specifically, with travelling through Edinburgh in the winter and seeing glimpses of people at windows and the high ceilings in Georgian houses in the new town when Christmas decorations were up. Who were all these people?


                                                                                             But there are Edward Hopper paintings too – including some of my favourites, like Early Sunday Morning (see below) – where the only human presence is the artist, or the viewer, where Hopper could claim (though I have no idea if he would have) like Christopher Isherwood, I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking.* But recording, for a human being, is thinking. And the picture of a place-without-people is rarely as simple as it seems; even in the case of an actual photograph; someone had to be there to photograph it, and had their human reasons for doing so. The tradition of landscape painting exemplifies this; landscapes may be mythical, romantic, realistic, but they have been recorded or edited or invented for a variety of complex human reasons. The landscape painting of earlier eras was often self-consciously beautiful, or psychologically charged (Caspar David Friedrich is the classic example; landscape as a personal, spiritual vision; in some ways in fact his work, with its isolated or dwarfed human figures, is kind of like a romantic-era Hopper), but the fact that the urban landscape is itself an artificial, human-constructed environment gives it a different, poignant (if you are me) dimension.

*Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye To Berlin, in The Berlin Novels, Minerva 1992, p. 243.

Edward Hopper – Early Sunday Morning (1930)


The appeal of the empty urban landscape in art is perhaps hard to explain to those who don’t see it, but I think it’s worth examining. There is a utopian tradition beginning with (or at least exemplified by) the ‘ideal cities’ produced in Italy in the late 15th century that is in a strange way misanthropic (or at least anthro-indifferent) in that the tranquil geometric perfection of the imaginary cities can only be made less harmonious by the introduction of human figures. But it’s also important to note that these cityscapes actually pre-date landscape painting for its own sake in western art by a few centuries. I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that in the medieval and renaissance period, the urban landscape had a far greater claim to represent paradise than the natural one. The garden of Eden was a garden after all, not a wilderness, and even the word paradise denotes a walled enclosure in its original Persian meaning. We might think now of paradise existing beyond the realms of human habitation, but in ages where the landscape was mainly something perilous to be passed through as quickly as possible on your way to safety, the controlled human landscape had a lot to be said for it.

Ideal City c.1480s, previously attributed to Piero della Francesca

Like the Renaissance ‘ideal city’, the beautiful post-cubist-realist paintings of Charles Demuth have a sense of perfection, where the severe but harmonious geometry of his industrial buildings seems to preclude more organic shapes altogether.

Charles Demuth – My Egypt (1927)

But if Demuth shows an ideal world where human beings seem to have designed themselves out of their own environment, the ideal cities of the renaissance, with their impossibly perfect perspectives are something  more primal and dreamlike; prototypes in fact for the examinations of the inner landscape of the subconscious as practised by proto-surrealist Giorgio de Chirico and his actual-surrealist successors. De Chirico’s eerie ‘metaphysical’ cityscapes are essentially the ideal renaissance cities by twilight, and artists like Paul Delvaux used the extreme, telescoped perspectives of the early renaissance to create their own prescient sense of urban displacement. Why the kind of linear perspective that sucks the eye into the distance should so often be, or feel like, the geometry of dreams is mysterious – one plausible possibility is that it’s the point of view that first forms our perception of the world, the low child’s eye view that renders distances longer and verticals taller; we may be the hero (or at least main protagonist) in our dreams, but that definitely doesn’t mean we dominate them.

Paul Delvaux – Isolation (1955)

The use of isolated human figures, as in Delvaux and Hopper’s work, gives us a ‘way in’ to a picture, something human to either to relate or respond to (although Delvaux – like Magritte in Not To Be Reproduced (1937) – emphasises the loneliness and again the ultimate unknowable nature of human beings in Isolation by showing the figure only from behind), but the cityscape that is devoid of life, or which reduces the figures to ciphers, has a very different appeal.

Rene Magritte – Not To Be Reproduced (1937)

Whereas the unpopulated landscape may suggest a prelapsarian, primordial or mythical past, or an entirely alien realm altogether, empty streets are just that; empty. These are utilitarian environments designed specifically for human beings and their patterns reflect our needs. A meadow or hillside or mountain with no visible sign of human life may be ‘unspoiled’; towns and cities, by this definition, come ‘pre-spoiled’, and the absence of people raises questions where a natural landscape usually doesn’t; Where are the people? What has happened?

That said, nothing about Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, Algernon Newton’s paintings of Kensington (or Oguiss’s Paris, or indeed the beautiful photographs of the city in Masataka Nakano’s Tokyo Nobody (2000)) really suggests anything ominous or post-apocalyptic, but even so, the absence of life is the most noticeable thing about them. Whether intended or not, this gives a picture a psychological depth beyond that of a simple topographical study. As with the use of musical instruments within a still life painting (whether there to express the fleetingness of time, or the lute with a broken string to denote discord etc) the inclusion of something with a specific purpose (roads, paths, buildings) apparently not fulfilling that purpose, creates a response as complex as – though very different from – the feeling of looking at those lonely figures in Hopper and Hammershoi’s paintings. Not so different in fact, from the feeling of leaving your home in the spring of 2020 and walking down the deserted street outside.

Takanori Oguiss

These paintings can have a slightly uncanny quality reminiscent of (or vice versa) the eerie opening scenes (the best parts) of movies like The Omega Man (1971) and 28 Days Later (2002) or John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York (1981) where, emptied of people, any sign of life in the city becomes, not a sign of hope, but threatening and full of sinister power. Things will hopefully never reach that point in the current crisis, but as it is, avoiding people in the street is for now the new norm; for the first time I can remember, my natural reserve feels almost like a plus.

Algernon Newton – In Kensington (1922-3)

Those 15th century ‘ideal cities’ were part of the flowering of the renaissance, and, as with every other aspect of it, they were the product of people looking backwards as much as forwards. The actual, non-ideal cities that were lived in by the artists who painted the pictures were largely organic, messy, medieval conglomerations, regularly visited by outbreaks of disease. The ideal city’s emptiness is not only harmonious and logical, it’s clean. And like the classical sculptures, bleached white by time and weather, which were to prove so influential on that generation of artists, the aspiration is towards a kind of sterile perfection which never really existed until long after the culture that created the buildings and the art, had disappeared to leave a ghostly husk of its former self.

Algernon Newton – Spring Morning Camden Hill, 1940

The deserted city or townscape more or less disappears from art from the 15th century until the later years of the industrial revolution, when urban life itself became the subject for modern art. And it makes sense; the reversal in European culture which saw city life become perilous and the countryside as a means of escape was a slow one, and the solution (never more than a partial one) was in building programmes, urban renewal and harmonious town planning; Empire building and colonial expansion fuelled the growth of urbanisation and were fuelled by it; to imagine an empty city at the height of Empire was to imagine extinction. If the idea of empty streets, If there was any remaining collective memory of empty streets in the late 19th century, it was probably an echo of the kind of scenario that Defoe had written about*; less graced by the muses of harmony than haunted by the dead.

*or of natural disasters like drowned villages, or man made catastrophes like the Highland Clearances.

But by the late 19th century, in Europe, plague was less a current concern than it was gothic horror, the memory of a memory, and industrialisation had – for those with a measure of financial security – rendered the city (now with drains and public transport) and the country (now sans dangerous animals and medieval lawlessness) on something of an equal footing. For the generation of the impressionists, both city and country could be celebrated, and both (as has been true ever since) could mean escape. But that impressionist cliche, the ‘bustling metropolis’, defined by Baudelaire’s “fleeting, ephemeral experience of life in an urban metropolis” – the hub of modernity, the engine of culture and progress, when the streets are empty, becomes something else, but it can never just be a collection of buildings.

Maurice Utrillo


Not surprisingly perhaps, it seems that to some degree, the art of the deserted street is a kind of declared outsider art; Maurice Utrillo was an alcoholic with mental health issues, and although literally at the centre of the Parisian art scene centred around Montmartre – because he was born there to an artist mother – he was nevertheless a marginal figure, and his paintings of his home town are heavy with melancholy and isolation.

Similarly, although far less gloomy, the Montmartre paintings of Maria Slavona, a foreigner – a German Impressionist painter living in Paris, are depictions of an urban landscape that, while not hostile, is enclosed and other and (to me) brings to mind the close of Philip Larkin’s Here: “Facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach.” Whether that mood is inherent in the paintings, or only in the mind of the person looking at them, is not something I can answer.

Maria Slavona – Houses in Montmartre (1898)

The German artists of a later generation found a similar sense of alienation at home. The neue sachlichkeit (‘new objectivity’) movement of the Weimar Repulblic may have been a rejection of the extremes of Expressionism and romanticism, but in its embracing of modernity it was a specifically urban movement too. The teeming street scenes of George Grosz and Otto Dix reflected the sometimes chaotic street life of Germany’s big cities in the social and economic upheaval following that followed World War One much as Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was to do in literature, but there were other views of the city too.

It was an era of political unrest, but if one thing united the political left and right it was the understanding that they were living in an essentially transitional period; that change would, and must come.

Hans Grundig was the epitome of the kind of artist hated by the Nazi party; politically a communist, he used his art to oppose the creeping rise of fascism but also to capture working class life in the city (in his case Dresden). But in Thunderstorm (Cold Night), 1928, it is the environment itself that condemns the society of the declining republic: the streets are empty and ghostly pale, the buildings, run down and near-derelict, offer little shelter and no comfort, and the people whose fate looked uncertain, are nowhere to be seen. Meanwhile, a storm approached.

Hans Grundig Thunderstorn (Cold NIght), 1928


Carl Theodor Protzen – Lonely Street (1932)

Carl Theodor Protzen was, by contrast, an establishment figure; a member of the Association of Fine Artists and the German Society for Christian Art, he was to become a pillar of the Nazi art community. Urban landscapes were his speciality and his depictions of Nazi building projects were to make his name, but just prior to the NSDAP’s rise to power in 1933, he was painting pictures like Lonely Street (1932) that show those same urban landscapes, but without the excitement of progress. Less bleak and doom-laden than Grundig’s city, this is nevertheless an environment which does not embrace or protect humankind; the title reflects the child’s exclusion from the harshly geometric scene in which he finds himself and, although there is no sense of exaggeration, the perspective, as in surrealism, pushes the end of the road ever further into the distance.

This perspective is seen too, in Volker Böhringer’s the Road to Waiblingen, painted in the year that the Nazis came to power. Böhringer, an anti-fascist painter, was later to become a surrealist, and the ominous (blood-stained?) road, stormy clouds and sinister trees suggest that this is  (with apologies to Waiblingen) not a road that he saw leading anywhere very pleasant.

Volker Böhringer – the Road to Waiblingen (1933)

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always loved to visualise (usually at night) a real place, say a nearby hilltop or field, as it is at that moment, with nobody except animals and birds there to see or experience it. It’s a strange kind of excitement that depends on not being able to experience the thing you’re excited about: psychology probably has a term for it – but at a time when people have never been more inescapable (not that one necessarily wants to escape them) there is something appealing about the complex landscapes we have created for our needs, but without the most complex element of all – ourselves – in them. Whether we enjoy the empty streets or not (and hopefully we don’t have to get too used to them), we should probably take the time to look at what is all around us; it’s a rare chance to see our world without us getting in the way.

Surrealist social distancing: Rue de la sante (1925) by Yves Tanguy

a true state – cut and paste and the art of collage (Edinburgh, summer 2019)

Francesca Woodman, Untitled (1977)

2019 has, in many ways, not been a good year so far. But this summer, the National Galleries of Scotland had (well, has; they are still on) three particularly outstanding exhibitions that brought a bit of light and intelligence to a period of more-than-usual stupidity. At the National Gallery itself, there was the excellent, eye opening and brain-frying Bridget Riley exhibition (closes 22nd September), at the National Portrait Gallery the superb Self Evidence (closes 20th October) in which Francesca Woodman’s tiny, intimate, self-enclosed photographs vibrate balefully in their little corner, overshadowing (for me) the also (but in an entirely different way) intimate and at times frankly challenging monumental works of Robert Mapplethorpe* and, to a lesser extent, the brilliant but (I guess appropriately) don’t-quite-fit-in Diane Arbus portraits of the lives of people marginalised and made invisible by mainstream culture.

*though the Mapplethorpe pictures were the ones that moved me the least, they did provide the priceless spectacle of parents hurrying their curious kids past the notorious 1978 Self Portrait With Whip. They had been warned!

But for me, the highlight of the National Galleries’ summer programme is Cut and Paste: 400 years of Collage at Modern Two (closes 27th October).

Thanks to its inclusive definition of collage (which covers photomontage, traditional collage, plus bits of decoupage, pressed plant samples and even quilting) as well as its historical scope, the exhibition manages to be both focused and wide-ranging, and also (I found) surprisingly moving. What collage does, or at least amplifies – perhaps paradoxically given its use of found/ready-made materials – is that aspect of art that disappears most quickly in reproduction; the hand of the artist. This is art not only as a reflection/projection of culture but one that includes material culture itself.* There is, sometimes regardless of the picture/object, a poignant quality that comes from the materials used, in a way that doesn’t happen with paint, unless you are the kind of conservator who can isolate pigments used to specific periods (I’m not, unfortunately).

*I don’t think this is just pretentious bullshit; but you never know

Pablo Picasso, Bottle and Glass on a Table (1912)

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but a seminal collage that makes an appearance in the exhibition, Pablo Picasso’s Bottle and Glass on a Table (1912) is a classic/typical Picasso cubist/spatial experiment, but the use of newspaper – a very specific, dateable piece of ephemera (from Le Journal, 3 December 1912) – gives the work, instantly and inherently, a dimension largely absent in conventional painting. The feeling that the collage is both artwork and artefact; literally as well as figuratively multi-layered, makes a case for collage as a distinct and special art form, a feeling echoed by the Scottish artist Eduardo Paolozzi (represented by some outstanding works in the exibition), for whom the form offered clarification, where formal art training raised problems and questions: “Unlike the world of school where the universe was systematised in a certain order, the reassembly of this disparate material reflected a true state, both autobiographic and dynamic.” (quoted in the exhibition catalogue,  p. 126)

So anyway; the exhibition is arranged chronologically, in the usual Modern Two layout; in various rooms, up the stairs, through the corridors etc, always I think a layout that makes for an engaging, surprising way of looking at art. Partly deliberately (there were too many people in the first room), I went around the exhibition in reverse chronological order and in retrospect that seems like a good decision. This meant that the exhibition opened with the Chapman Brothers’ The Disasters of Everyday Life (2017), a spectacular-looking wall-like object consisting of 80 of Goya’s horrific etchings, The Disasters of War, with of course added bits and pieces, sometimes powerful, sometimes deliberately absurd, I think (though I’d have to go through again the other way) it serves better as a kind of abstract for what is to follow than it would as a conclusion, where peering at a lot of small images might have seemed a bit anticlimactic.
I’m not going to mention every picture in the show, though I can’t think of anything that doesn’t deserve a mention. The first thing to have a major impact for me was Lucy Williams’ 2015 Crescent House, as much a piece of model making as a collage, a strange, small scale (just under a metre long) recreation of a bit of postwar architecture, but simplified and made more colourful, giving it a feeling of harmony almost like a kind of 3D Mondrian.

Lucy Williams – Crescent House (2015)
Linder – Pretty Girl (1977)

Crescent House captures something of the intended optimism of the postwar new town planning that’s most often associated now with neglect and urban decay. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing (Williams is around my age), but for me there was something powerfully bittersweet about the feeling of an abandoned, never-quite-attained future, heightened by the realness of the work as an object.

The aesthetic of Crescent House – though that is far lighter in tone – makes me think of the late 70s work of Linder (Sterling), another exhibition highlight. Although similar in its reference points to the pop art collages of Richard Hamilton a couple of decades before (sadly his iconic 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing is not in the exhibition, though they do have a nice work by him, Desk from 1964), the feel of Linder’s work is far darker (it makes me think of the confrontational industrial work of Throbbing Gristle and COUM Transmissions around the same period) and the satire more pointed. Works like her Pretty Girl series(1977) exemplify a particular approach to collage. Using the detritus of everyday life; magazines, posters, advertising, it became a way of embodying in the art a criticism of the culture that it’s a reaction to as well as a product of. It’s a feminist criticism of the objectification of women that uses already depersonalised women (part of the problem) and merges them with actual ‘objects of desire’ from a patriarchal culture that above all else believes in commodification for its own benefit.

Craig W. Lowe, Bedroom Cupboard door covered with stickers, 1987-1997

Thanks to the exhibition’s open-minded and inclusive approach, there are some unexpected revelations (but aren’t all revelations unexpected? I mean, that’s obvious). While Craig W. Lowe’s bedroom cupboard door covered in stickers c. 1987-1997) may appeal most as nostalgia, the inclusion of Jamie Reid‘s original Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks cover collage (1977; copyrighted image so I’d better not share) opens realms of not-previously-considered information (at least to me) about one’s record collection. Firstly, the collage is black and white, and secondly, it isn’t just a picture or a ‘file’, it’s an actual thing. Like, presumably all album cover art (and book cover art etc) before the digital age, the NMTB cover in all its yellow and pink (or pink and green) glory, taken for granted forever, is not a picture, it’s a photograph of a picture. In its final form it’s been overlaid with colours, but that object there on the wall in Edinburgh is the thing itself. A strange feeling, like looking at the inscription on a ten pound note and considering that it is a representation of something, rather than ten actual pounds.

The Sex Pistols cover primes the viewer (at least the viewer going through the exhibition backwards) for the various bits of Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band cover that are on show – and, great though they are (and I like Sgt Pepper quite a bit more than I like Never Mind The Bollocks), without that priming, the Beatles items wouldn’t have the same impact; perhaps because the cover itself is clearly a photograph of objects and cut-outs and seeing them is very cool but not really revelatory, the whole is too familiar and iconic to give the frisson of a moment captured. In fact, Blake’s superb, possibly slightly twee The Toy Shop (1962) is a far more vivid time capsule; clearly pointing to Sgt Pepper, its a conglomeration of bits and bobs familiar to children of the 60s – but also to children of later generations as belonging to the same family as the bits & bobs of their own youth (in my case, comics, football stickers, sweets, TV tie-in toys (He-Man et al), but also the odd antiquated throwbacks that still existed, like bows and arrows and balsa wood or polystyrene gliders which came with a weighted plastic propeller so they flew when thrown – do they still make those?). It’s hard to imagine that there will be a generation that can’t relate to The Toy Shop at all, however virtual entertainment becomes, kids will always like stickers.

Peter Blake – The Toy Shop (1962)

But Blake’s pop art nostalgia – powerful though that is – is one of the few purely positive and joyous post-war works in the show. More typical are the mischievous collage book covers made by Joe Orton and his partner and eventual murderer Kenneth Halliwell. These were put on library books and returned to the library – an act that eventually cost them a six month prison sentence – and they exemplify the sense of the significant, perhaps subversive and illogical accident that drew the surrealists to collage a few generations earlier.

Kenneth Halliwell & Joe Orton – collage on library book cover (c.1960-2)

For the surrealists, collage was almost a manifestation of the galvanising quotation from Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror (1869) where a boy could be described as being “as beautiful as a chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” This aspect of surrealism is brilliantly captured in Max Ernst’s gothic ‘collage novels’ (one of the most exciting inclusions in the show is an unpublished picture from his 1934 collage novel Une semaine de bonté) as well as in beautiful works by Toyen and some of the collaborative exquisite corpse collages made by André Breton, Jacqueline Lamba and Yves Tanguy, where each artist could only see their own part of the work until it was complete. Again, what I hadn’t really anticipated was the difference it makes seeing these items in real life – for example, I had seen and liked (and own a postcard of) Roland Penrose’s untitled 1937 postcard collage, but seeing it, life size, and looking at the actual real postcards stuck to it, was a weirdly moving experience. But why? It’s something about the immediacy and associations of familiar things, the thought perhaps of Roland Penrose actually going into a newsagent and buying the postcards one day in 1937. Why that should be more moving than an artist using paint I don’t know, except that, like the scrapbooks owned by Tristan Tzara (very exciting to see) and the paper cutouts by Matisse (which until now I’ve never been a fan of) it brings the whole process of making art into an immediate, almost tangible one.

Roland Penrose – Untitled (1937)

The work of the Dadaists (Hannah Höch was the main reason I wanted to see the show) is less self-consciously unconscious (well, that makes no sense) than the surrealist works, but the element of satire and sometimes bitter humour – especially in John Heartfield’s iconic anti-Nazi photomontages – make them the spiritual ancestors of the works of artists like Carolee Schneemann and Nancy Spero in the 1960s as well as Linder and even Terry Gilliam in the 70s. Highlights for me were the selection of works by Kurt Schwitters, whose own version of Dada, Merz, even had a collage-like genesis, the word itself apparently derived from a fragment of text relating to a banking firm (Kommerz und Privatbank). The fact that the word Merz also has echoes in the words schwerz (pain) and ausmerzen (to weed out or discard) adds to the sense that this was a movement (if you can call one person a movement) for which collage wasn’t an entertaining diversion, but a central idea. The cumulation of meanings and associations in works like Merz 229: Heet Water (1921) makes these small works with their train tickets, textiles, playing cards – pretty much anything that could be cut up and stuck down – powerfully evocative, as well as decorative in themselves.

John Heartfield – Adolf the Superman – swallows gold and spouts junk (1932)
Kurt Schwitters – Merz 229: Heet Water (1921)












The section on the birth of modernist collage features a group of Picasso works including the the aforementioned Bottle and Glass on a Table, which form year zero of modernist collage, alongside works by peers including Braque (who may actually be the first modernist collage-maker) and Juan Gris (whose The Sunblind, 1914 is a highlight) and then the ripples spreading outwards from that explosive group of works, including the Russian constructivists and suprematists, the Italian Futurists and even the Bloomsbury group in the UK; I was very impressed to come across a painting by Vanessa Bell (Portrait of Molly MacCarthy, 1914-5) that didn’t immediately wilt into insignificance when surrounded by the big names of European modernism.

Juan Gris – The Sunblind (1914)

It seems obvious to say that collage is comparatively egalitarian insofar as you don’t need to be able to draw or paint to do it – and it’s true that works by generally non-visual artists like Breton and Joe Orton have a similar energy and atmosphere as those by more conventional artists, but it’s also noticeable that, pre-modernism, although the idea of collage existed and there was sometimes that same element of playfulness, the work is more notable for its skill and ingenuity – especially in the Victorian photomontages – than for any disruptive or ironic qualities. But collage being what it is, it’s here that the sense mentioned earlier of the collage as actual material culture comes into play again, sometimes – especially for me in the small character pieces by George Smart from the early 19th century – powerfully so. Somehow, these little watercolour paintings adorned with carefully cut out and arranged pieces of paper and fabric (irresistibly reminiscent to me of the ‘fuzzy felt’ sets I played with as a child) bring us closer to the artist than just paint on canvas would do.

This is perhaps art history as human interest and association rather than as aesthetics (this is especially true in the case of the Victorian scraps and scrapbooks, perhaps because the ready-made nature of the scraps themselves makes the objects feel less like the works of an artist and more like a hobby; nothing wrong with that, but as the sort of things you see in auctions and junk shops they have the aura of being ephemera, rather than using ephemera to make something else; a false distinction perhaps), but for me this exhibition brings those two aspects of art – the human/historical and the aesthetic/technical together in a deep and very satisfying way.

I have no real criticisms of the exhibition; it is thought provoking, beautiful to look at and put together with care and imagination. It might have been nice to have had something by some of the other artists most strongly associated with collage, like Romare Bearden and Wangechi Mutu; but if an exhibition leaves you wanting more that can’t be a bad thing.


Since I mentioned the anyone-can-do-it aspect of collage, I might as well mention that I went through a phase, especially in my student days of making collages, and while they are nothing special, they do have a kind of diary-esque subtext which has only really become apparent over time. Since it’s my website and no-one can stop me, here are a couple of examples, plus a more recent one.

untitled collage, c. 1998?
untitled collage c. 1998-9








untitled collage, 2019
untitled collage, late 90s