Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Flare Path

ImageA flare path (as I learned while watching the play) was the line of lights that illuminated a runway to enable WWII Bomber Command pilots to take off and land - dark before and after, and perilously visible to enemy night fighters as well. Terence Rattigan knew a thing or two about flare paths: he was a tail gunner in RAF Coastal Command, and wrote the play during service (and put a tail gunner in it). Indeed, the manuscript was nearly lost when his aircraft was damaged in combat. In Flare Path the play, we see RAF officers and their crews staying with their wives in a hotel in Lincolnshire, close to their airbase. For all the  jovial banter and stiff upper lip, they know they could be called out at any moment without notice, to be sent on missions from which they may not return. Dramatic action comes from a love triangle involving actress Patricia, her old flame fading film star Peter Kyle and her husband Teddy, whom she married recently without passion, apparently despairing of making a proper go of it with married Kyle and seeking respectability. Teddy does not know about her previous relationship, and telling him is simply unthinkable.  (Teddy later confesses he suffers, as any sane person would one might think, from 'funk' while flying a plane and being shot at). Patricia is torn between her loyalty to pilot husband and her romantic attraction to Kyle, a dilemma resolved in perhaps a rather predictable way, given that the play was performed in 1942 (the fact that Kyle is a naturalised American and thus a non-combatant is a sort of lingering hint). Other plots weave across this one, including a marriage between a barmaid and a Polish count, who insists on her being addressed as 'Countess'. Count Skriczevinsky speaks hardly any English, source of much good-natured mirth. Does he love Doris as a wartime pleasure, or for ever? Doris isn't sure. Before, during, and after the men are called on a night mission, a goodly amount of pink gin is consumed. Comedy leavens the deadly serious central subject.

This production by the Original Theatre Company brought out the play's strengths to great effect. Rattigan had a genius for exploring the depths of emotion swirling away beneath English reserve, and an apparent belief in the victory of traditional decency over personal gratification. He had a sympathy for those who cannot live up to ideals their culture sets for them which still touches the heartstrings today. He was also a great craftsman, and Flare Path moves irresistibly through exposition and development to two climactic moments. One of these is based on reading a letter. Rattigan liked the dramatic power of documents. One thinks of Crocker-Harris reading the inscription to his book in The Browning Version, the newspaper report that crowns The Winslow Boy, and the rather different one in Separate Tables. Less conducive to modern tastes is the sentimentality. The final scenes just seem too soft, but to a wartime audience who of course did not know how things would end, there must have been fairly strict boundaries to what was palatable: Rattigan had difficulties even getting the play put on because theatre managers felt the public did not want a piece about war. Then there is the  patronising habit of making working class characters figures of fun (and shrewish Maudie, with her endless prattle about bus timetables, is hardly even fun today). No point being too stern about this: after all Shakespeare had his rustic clowns to give us a break from the verse of the nobles. The idea that only the educated few have complex interior lives has a long ancestry. Back to the show, there was terrific ensemble acting throughout, and no point really in picking out individual names.

The performance was compelling and finally very moving, partly because it turned one's mind to the historical realities. I'm sure my Battle of Britain veteran grandfather would have approved, and I'm glad his grandson knows a bit more now about the life that crews and officers endured. Although in many ways a period piece, Flare Path - when given a production as strong as this one - still does a vital job of bringing its fast-receding period to life. Presumably theatres in 1942 would not have had the sound and lighting effects that we enjoyed at Theatre Royal Winchester. But then they would not have needed much help in imagining them. The play ends with a wartime song, 'I don't want to join the airforce'. I suppose in its original London run, the audience, stirred but not shaken, would have joined in.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Roger Scruton, Culture Counts

In Culture Counts, Roger Scruton mounts a defence of the heritage of high culture of the West against what he perceives as its enemies: fanatical Islam (only glancingly referred to), the operations of the market (briefly discussed near the end) and, above all, the attitude of 'repudiation' advanced by multiculturalists in the universities. He argues that the literature, music and art handed down to us - or at any rate the best of it - contains a body of emotional and moral knowledge that is intrinsically valuable and provides the imagination with a purer and better air to breathe in than the popular confections of the moment. The purpose of education in the humanities should not be to benefit the student with a set of instrumental skills, but rather to look after the culture itself by training a fresh set of guardians to look after it. The criticism we teach and practise should be to do with elucidating the aesthetic value and moral lessons of works. Despite the depredations he sees wrought by the multiculturalists, Scruton sees hope in the efflorescence of traditional practice in neoclassical architecture, music that returns to pre-Modernist tonality and writing that is similarly embedded in the conversation of canonical works.

One strength of Scruton is always the writing. He frames his arguments clearly and gracefully in a rhythmical prose that is a pleasure to read and a standing lesson for the tone-deaf scribes of the journals. His style is precise but also conveys deep feeling. Consider the phrasing and cadences of this sentence from his description of the decline of architectural teaching: 'Students of architecture were no longer to learn about the properties of natural materials, about the grammar of mouldings and ornaments, about the discipline of the orders, or the nature of light and shade'. Whatever one's views on building design, that is a beautiful summation of the essence of the classical view. The author is particularly strong at explicating philosophical points. I came away from his discussion of the different kinds of knowledge, for example, with that pleasant sensation of having had my mind tidied and cleared. And similarly with the passage on the thin crust of normality, with barbarous instincts beneath and the serene air of art and spiritual empathy above, and in many other instances. Some points are made in a single striking sentence: the few pages on Foucault, for example, ask us to consider whether that thinker can help us at all in elucidating the truth-value of any part of a governing discourse. He can be very funny, as in the attack on Le Corbusier. And I warmed to Scruton's sense of battling against the powers-that-be in academia. Though I am out of touch with the academic world now, I sense that his kind of traditionalism still has little purchase in the modern seminar and lecture hall. The book is an interesting contrast to John Carey's What Good are the Arts, which had the peculiar quality of an author sounding cross at the very idea of a higher culture, even though he was clearly on the winning side. One has to look hard for Carey's enemies - presumably Scruton and a few senior members of Oxford college common rooms - but Scruton's are at any rate easy enough to discern. I wonder if both authors overstate the influence of university courses generally.

Some parts of the book left me with reservations. Perhaps the weakest part is his chapter on teaching, with its wildly romantic vision of children rote-learning and acquiring a love of medieval Latin and the classic texts. There is no sensible suggestion here how such a programme could possibly be implemented, and I don't even see what he imagines happening in a lesson. Most of what he posits, concerning the slow acquisition of moral truths, would happen on a subliminal level anyway rather than by direct instruction. The chief enemy of promise in schools is not an academic culture of scepticism, but the dominant discipline of accountancy, which demands that any piece of work should be judged against a hyper-rational scheme which breaks down skills and 'objectives' into specific categories, each carrying percentage points. It is an insane approach to the business of learning (for a business is what it has become in all sectors of education), and has nothing whatever to do with the way the mind works or how culture lives. But unfortunately it is the system which dictates the practices of every single school and teacher in Britain today. Next to this one can gaze at Scruton's vision and sigh a little. But he must know that his kind of education has no chance whatever of taking effect, and so the chapter really reads as the indulgence of a fantasy.

Nor am I sure what our author would like to happen at university level, except for a mass removal of feminists, Marxists and the like. He castigates universities for adopting a programme based on various kinds of scepticism; but perhaps it is the job of a university to be sceptical. There are some well-aimed shots about some kinds of study which simply deaden the mind because the only tolerable answers are those known in advance; and the point that the so-called liberalism of some kinds of theoretical inquiry is simply a way of excluding anything off-message seems hard to counter, at least at an abstract level. It does seem to be the case that the same dismal left-wing dogma is preached across many university courses. What alternative is being offered, though? Elevating selected cultural artefacts to the 'high' category carries its own dangers. It misses the internal tensions which the great works and their creators leave us with. Is it repudiation to point out that in our greatest literature we also find anti-Semitic caricature? What are we to make of the fact the The Faerie Queene carries in its sumptuous verse the notion that the Irish are savages and should be exterminated by some kind of murderous robot? Is this a denial of our heritage? The issues seem to me rather to be things worth discussing. His reading of texts as embodiments of moral lessons seems painfully reductive (the single example of what we are meant to take from King Lear is most unconvincing. Nor do I see that one has to choose between Scruton's kind of reverence for art as embalming the best that has been thought and said on the one hand, and the hard-edged world of modern criticism on the other. I can be moved by King Lear one day and read a cultural materialist discussion of it the next, without the second experience damaging the first. This is, to be sure, a cognitive challenge, but the human mind is well equipped to perform distinct and even opposite operations at the same time.

Scruton's view continues a tradition from Arnold, Eliot and Leavis, and it is important that this tradition persists. In this book at any rate it seems to be deeply informed by a sense of some lost world of collective values, located chiefly in the shared beliefs of religion. Around Scruton's writing there hovers the yearning for community, for a way of thinking that confers membership in a society resting on firm foundations, at peace with itself. I simply have no idea where in history that world is to be found. I gained a great deal from this book, and would recommend it as a stimulating read; but I do not find myself sufficiently enchanted by the lament for an imagined golden age to seek membership of this particular club.

Hamlet (Cumberbatch)

We went to see Hamlet in what is rapidly becoming my favourite way of seeing London productions - streamed from the theatre onto a cinema screen, cutting out the expense and fatigue of travel and bringing you up close to the acting. It was particularly appropriate to this record-breaking-sold-out-within-minutes production directed by Lyndsey Turner and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. For this show had so many cinematic effects, it felt like watching a film turned into a stage play and then turned back into a film again. Lyndsey Turner was working with Designer Es Devlin; their last collaboration, which I saw in the NT Lyttleton, was Caryl Churchill's A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire. Both productions in their joint vision have featured a large and well-stocked banqueting table and large amounts of earth (in neither case required by the texts, both of which can be performed on a nearly empty stage). The Turner-Devlin Hamlet was set a vast palace interior and used Richteresque ambient music to underscore the emotions of the scenes. There were chases under strobe, freeze frames and a stunning dust-storm at the end of the long first half, leaving the palace a half-sunk ruin for the second, symbolising the moral decay of Claudius and Denmark no doubt. Heaven knows how many lighting cues there were; the whole thing was certainly visually exciting to watch, with a wardrobe ranging from evening dress to modern military and a delightful large toy fort.

I start with the look of the thing because that did, over time, become a distraction. Shakespeare's verse is deeply visual because it was written for a less furnished stage than a lavish London show would dare to put before us. A clever design can accentuate the feelings of a work, but it mustn't work against the words themselves. Here it did. when Claudius is giving his first speech on the death of the old Hamlet and his marriage to Gertrude, we shouldn't be gawping at ornate evening dress and weird table props. There were moments when what we saw and what we heard took us in different directions. For example, we saw in mime Hamlet put on an Indian head-dress in what appeared to be an affectionate, playful scene with Ophelia. But then we saw Ophelia reporting Hamlet's appearance (2.1), 'My lord, as I was sewing in my closet'. But what she was describing was not what we had just been seeing at all. What were we to make of this? Was the idea that she was making it up? But why would she do that? Then there is design and stage business when none is really needed. Consider the brief scene about the fight for a scrap of land in Poland, setting us up for 'How all occasions do inform against me' (4.4). It's an odd afterthought of a scene in any case, and hardly needs a whole military camp with soldiers in tents blowing on their fingers to bring it alive. This is theatre adapted to the hyper-visual world of the modern audience, I suppose. But it must first and foremost adapt itself to the text. The Players scene (shortened to lose the dumb show) didn't work simply because in order to see the lovely mini-stage on the stage we couldn't see Claudius, and everything is meant to be about his reaction (the camera helped us cinemagoers a bit).

All this can be justified by theatre's constant need to recreate itself, and the changing expectations of a younger audience (it was great to see some youngsters at Vue Cinema when we saw it, apparently there of their own volition and not part of a school trip; if Cumberbatch brought them and cool visuals held them then that's an undiluted good). But that brings me to a further grumble. If you're going to bring Shakespeare to the people, then it really should be Shakespeare, untampered with. In this showing, the opening battlement scene was lost and sort of transposed into Hamlet's meeting with Horatio; but that first scene, amongst other things, establishes Horatio's character as the studious sceptic, a foil for Hamlet's more intuitive cast of mind. Polonius was heavily cut. His first speech amounted to 'He hath. my lord. I do beseech you, give him leave to go.' In the text you'd get in a bookshop, we get: 'He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave / By laboursome petition ...' and so on in leisured rhetorical fashion. Notice how this speech characterises Polonius as a windbag, a trait developed in his advice to Laertes (also edited), his spying on Laertes (cut entirely), and his meeting with Hamlet (reduced). In this production, Polonius was in fact turned into a model of concision, making the Queen's exasperated 'More matter, with less art' quite meaningless. Shakespeare's character of Polonius had been turned into a fairly nondescript elderly courtier. But of course, we must concede, Shakespeare's company cut, and we must regard the texts we have as flexible things, at best approximations to what the first audience heard. Still, I don't think flexibility should reach to simplifying and modernising the words themselves. Instead of 'Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off', we got 'nightly colour'. Why? Is 'nighted' really too brain-achingly tough to figure out, especially when he's wearing black? Accents shifted. Claudius gave 'comméndable' in the modern stress, against the metre of the line, but the correct 'perséver' a couple of lines later. We heard, or I think I heard heard, 'Things rank in nature possess it merely', and I contend that the missing 'do' matters. In Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death the 'hoar' leaves were kindly translated for us into 'pale'. Unless I am mistaken, every mention of a Polack was nervously corrected to 'Polish'. Everything was delivered in the modern naturalistic style: Gertrude's 'I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid' had at least two heavy pauses breaking up the line, just to take one example among many. Well, this is Shakespeare today and it can bring lines alive in unexpected ways. I don't think I'd ever really registered 'The sun no sooner shall the mounains touch' (4.1) but something about its delivery on this occasion put the image vividly in my mind. This is why one goes to Shakespeare repeatedly. I wonder if there will be a swing towards a more verse-oriented delivery of Shakespeare in coming years. Perhaps I should forget these reservations and get into the flow. Perhaps. But orchestras don't change Mozart's notes, and art galleries don't alter their masterpieces to make them easier to a modern sensibility. There is something indicative of a deep lack of confidence in altering the thing you are bringing to the public, however slightly. Wedges continue to have thin ends.

All that being said, I did enjoy this Hamlet and was glad I went. There were some excellent performances. Ciaran Hinds was a menacing Claudius, and Karl Johnson was brilliant, doubling as Ghost and Gravedigger and getting both parts across vividly. Sian Brooke was an affecting Ophelia, making her frankly tedious mad scenes into something touching, especially when she went to the piano, and Matthew Steer was an amusing Rosencrantz. Benedict Cumberbatch himself was full of vocal and physical energy, bringing across Hamlet's relish of exercise both mental and physical just as he is saying he has had enough of it all. In fact his action-packed performance perhaps diverted us from the point that the play revolves around his hesitation, his in-action when it comes to the moment of vengeance. But this is just hard to get. How many in a modern audience are worried that they might go to Judgement unconfessed? Yet the failure to kill Claudius while he is a-praying revolves around this. Cumberbatch made sense of the soliloquies and his Hamlet overall was humorous, genial and engaging.  I did find the music, the antics, the imaginative staging, the cool visuals exciting. And there were moments which came across effectively and poignantly - 'there's providence in the fall of a sparrow' struck me as a particularly well-tuned moment. But after the immediate excitement had faded I felt the production tried a little too hard to be like a movie and lost the intimate verbal drama of Shakespeare's creation. Somewhere at the back of my mind was a speech by Steven Berkoff reported in the paper that same day, on how young actors these days don't know or care about the history and traditions of their craft. I don't know whether that is true, but practitioners can always benefit from opening themselves to older styles. Also in my mind, a letter to the paper a while back wondering why it is that while musicians work hard to fathom what Beethoven meant by a phrase or passage and try to bring it out in performance, productions of plays and operas often push the author to one side and 'interpret' their material into some bizarre places, and sometimes out of recognition. There must be an answer to that, but I can't think what it is. Perhaps it's to do with markets, directors and designers needing to have a brand. We mustn't overstate the role of the 'creative team' as it's unfailingly called these days. I love directing plays, but I can't see it as a creative act comparable to writing one. Shakespeare is the Creator we should be left thinking about. All unresolved issues pattering round the brain. Hamlet, more than any other work, at least gets you thinking.

Last Judgment Tympanum, Autun

The Last Judgement of Autun, completed about  1145, speaks to us across the centuries. We may not see this great sculptural composition today with the same wonder as medieval pilgrims, many of whom were lepers come to venerate the relics of their patron saint Lazare and pray for a miraculous cure. But we can still feel a great impact from this mighty subject – Christ in judgement, the dead rising from their coffins and being gathered into Heaven or Hell according to their merits. And we can give ourselves time to experience the emotional power, or affect, of what we see. Partly, this is carried by individual episodes, like the horror-movie scenes of the damned being seized by giant hands, lifted bodily and thrust into strange containers by sneering demons; or the almost comical sight of the saved in the New Jerusalem opposite, looking contentedly out at the view below. But the expressive force of the Judgement is also a matter of its formal means: the power of Christ is communicated by his massive scale, his hands magisterially outstretched and his gaze concentrated ahead, as if it is we who are being appraised for eternity. The bold symmetry of the figure of Christ equates him with cosmic harmony, the order of the whole universe as represented by the sun and moon beside him. As we look, we feel Christ’s Majesty in the strain of the supporting angels, and we sense the subservience of the Apostles to his right in their strange, elongated bodies. Throughout, we get a sense, so frequent  in Romanesque art, of teeming tumultuous action – look, for example, at the balletic bodies of the angels with their great summoning horns, loud enough to awaken the dead, as twisted and coiled with energy as any jazz trumpeter. Indeed, having mentioned jazz, we might also pick up a curiously modern visual drama: the stretched figures remind us of Giacommetti, the crouching, huddled, leaning and clinging bodies are what we’d see in a Pina Bausch dance work. After the five hundred year hiatus of perspectival naturalism, modern art gazes into the unconscious and picks up where medieval culture left off.

We could spend much longer taking in the formal qualities of the work. Indeed one approach to this art is to concentrate on our immediate response to line, curve, relationships of mass, formal patterns, the play of light. This is what an artist like Antoni Tàpies chiefly took away from this art, and used in his own work; Meyer Schapiro’s description of the Moissac tympanum is an example of patient, slow looking over every visual detail, relating part to whole and savouring its formal, plastic properties.  What can we say of the style of Gislebertus (to take that for the moment as the name of the artist)? First, that he clearly let his imagination work on the subject he was given. Notice the differentiation in the risen, whom we see process along the lintel. The blocks of stone they stand on are their tombs, yanked open as God’s Second Coming pulls them back into the fierce, blinding light of Judgement. The divine mandorla in which He appears, presiding over the whole Cosmos, is an explosion of energy like a second Big Bang. Among the saved we notice a group of small figures – children! – gathered ecstatically around an angel, two bishops with croziers, a monk, and two pilgrims with bags bearing the symbols of the cross and the scallop, to show they have journeyed from Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela respectively.  On the other side, the scene of the angel rejecting one of the damned evokes a strong compassion. It reminds me of Masaccio’s Expulsion in the Brancacci chapel. Some accounts of the history of art have it that Masaccio and his fellow Florentines rediscovered complex human emotion in art after centuries of rigid medieval poses and faces; but a good look at Autun makes clear that this neat narrative is, to say the least, simplified. The Autun Last Judgement is full of recognisable human psychology: the apostles crowd towards God like sports fans hoping for an autograph (are they pleading on behalf of the judged? ); the gracious, leaning figure of Mary on God’s right signifies her infinite grace; the demon and St Michael are intent on their battle for a soul, and the terrified figures cling to St Michael’s feet as they cower from the three-headed serpent. All these incidents are bursting with character and energy. Even the figures in the outer archivolt, which illustrates the times of the year with the zodiac, have a realistic feel to them. They seem intent on, and happy in, their work.

Symbols have a history. Scholarship has related many of the iconographic details of this Last Judgement to eastern influence; the arrival of Byzantine motifs, such as the appearance of Mary in a Judgement scene – this is the first example in the West – reminds us of the fruitful interaction of national styles that marks the Romanesque period. The whole scene, too, is a wonderful example of how medieval art takes Christian ideas so literally: weighing souls is not a metaphor, but a real weigh-up on a scale; and it seems from this sculpture that there is no way of getting into heaven except by being physically pulled up, or pushed and dragged in through a convenient window. The tymapanum takes our gaze to the hidden mysteries of heaven and hell; but it also brings those places vividly down to earth.

As well as its artistic qualities, The Autun Last Judgement is also a remarkable artistic feat. The central scene of Christ and the angels is carved onto 13 separate blocks of stone, and the upper and lower registers around them take up 16 more. To support this huge weight, the lintel is made from two parts and supported by central column. It seems likely that the main figures were carved at ground level and further work was done in situ, when the stones were in position, to make possible exact continuity across limbs and drapery, concealing the joins beneath. The point of the whole exercise was not to create a work of art to be admired, but to instruct and scare the populace. The various inscriptions make this clear: above the damned, for example. The Latin means ‘May terror cover those who are in bondage on account of earthly error and the horror of this scene shows them their lot’.  And above Christ: ‘I alone dispose of all things and crown merit. Those who are led astray by crime will be judged and chastised by me’. In its time, then, this work had a powerful ideological function: for all its brilliance, we may say, it was a tool of control by the Church over the minds and imaginations of the faithful. It was there to scare, but also to comfort, as the poor and humble could imagine the bliss of being with God in paradise, wearing fine linen and living in a palace in the company of angels.

In later centuries, amazingly, this sculpture came to be seen as crude, and the church canons plastered over the whole tympanum in 1766, erasing the Virgin’s face and breaking off Christ’s nose to make an even surface. This act at any rate saved it from the attentions of post-revolutionary anti-clerical destruction (of which Cluny was a victim) and the work was discovered (literally, dis-covered) in 1837. It should be seen as a part of a greater whole, for the rest of Autun Church contains more superb stonework, among them a stunning capital carving of the hanging of Judas. Gislebertus, who ‘signs’ the work ‘Gislebertus hoc  fecit’,  is usually credited as the sculptor, though Linda Seidl argues that he was in fact a member of the ducal family responsible for the acquisition of the saint’s relics. Whoever he was, we may feel he occupied a very different world from us. Yet we too have our devils – think of the Joker in Batman, for example – and social media is energetically used every day to shame those who have strayed from the path of correct behaviour. Perhaps we are not so distant from our medieval forebears as we may think.

Don Denny, ‘The Last Judgement Tympanum at Autun: Its Sources and Meaning’, Speculum, 67:3 (July, 1982), 532-547.

Denis Grivot, Twelfth Century Sculpture in the Cathedral of Autun (Colmar-Ungersheim, 1980)

Meyer Schapiro, Romanesque Architectural Sculpture (University of Chicago Press, 2006)

Linda Seidel, Legends in Limestone: Lazarus, Gislebertus and the Cathedral of Autun (University of Chicago Press, 1999)



The Apse Mural of St Climent de Taüll (c.1123)

‘Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so,  Amen. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.’

This is part of the vision of St John’s Book of Revelations. It is given artistic expression in this mural painting from the apse of St Climent de Taüll, a small church in the mountainous region of the Vall de Boí in Catalonia. As we stand before it, we are confronted by image of Maiestas Domini, the Majesty of the Lord. One moment, we regard him, static, immutable, seated on a rainbow, in the immaterial realm of the divine. But the next we imagine Him swooping down from heaven towards us, the highest authority in the universe administering the justice our deeds deserve. This is not the kindly God of modern faith, but a terrifying King, the heavenly judge, the Pantocrator - ruler of all, Creator and Destroyer, Alpha and Omega, beginning and end of things. His right hand is raised in blessing, but the blessing is also a reminder of his divine power. Vast in scale, surrounded by the energy of his mandorla, crowned with a nimbus bearing a crucifer, God is regally dressed in tunic and gem-studded mantle. He stares directly at us, his feet resting on the earth as his footstool. His left arm holds open the Book, with the reminder ‘Ego sum lux mundi’, ‘I am the light of the world’. The small, illiterate, peasant community who gazed on this in their little mountain church in the twelfth century must have felt a dread which the modern viewer can only imagine.

This image is a theophany, a vision of divine truth. It does not record any specific episode but gives visible form to the invisible truths of God’s nature. Around God on the upper register are various figures and creatures, pulsing with energy as, in counterpoint to God’s frontal pose, they twist and lean and gesture to the Godhead. Revelations helps us to decipher them:

...  and in the midst of the throne, and round about the throne, were four beasts full of eyes before and behind. And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.

This is the tetramorph, the group of four beasts which medieval theologians took to represent the four evangelists. As we see it, the lion is bottom left, its feet held by an angel. This is the symbol of St Mark. The calf is on our right, again held by an angel. This is St Luke. Above these images we can read ‘St Marcus EG’ and ‘S Lucha EG’, ‘EG’ standing for ‘Evangelist’. On the row above them, we see the beast which ‘had a face as a man’ (Matthew) holding the gospel, and opposite him an angel holding an eagle, symbol of St John. The six wings are given to the Seraphim and Cherubim at the extremes of the upper image. The monks who used the church for their hours of service would have provided the chant, the processions and liturgy to make up the acts of the Church, of which this and the other church paintings formed a part. This is an important point. The images we view as ‘art’ today were only a part of the total and ongoing act of worshipping and contemplating the divine. To the monks, as they continually pondered the mysteries of the deity, the image would have held endless  levels of symbolism. Just as in their books we find annotations constantly relating one text to another, Old Testament to New, the scriptures to the patristic commentaries of the Church Fathers, so Romanesque imagery can generate multiple layers of interpretation: the four circles in which Mark and Luke are represented, for example, suggest the four wheels of the Chariot described by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel (1:5-21); and on the summit of the arches above the painting we see a Dextera Domini, the right hand of God. This pointing hand is symbol of witness, protection and power. Next, in an axis radiating out to the viewer, is a seven-eyed Lamb of God, emblem of Christ’s sacrifice. If we turn to Revelations chapter 5, we find references to seven seals, seven eyes and seven horns, representing ‘the seven spirits of God sent forth into all the earth’.  With the Pantocrator, these other images – the hand, the Lamb - make up a slightly different image of the Trinity from the one we are used to. So we have the Apocalypse, the Trinity, and an Old Testament vision all superimposed before us. We also know from remaining fragments that the surrounding arches also contained the figures of Cain and Abel and the story of the poor man and Lazarus.

Beneath the Absolute realm of the Upper register we have the Temporal realm of five apostles and Mary. They bear witness to the vision of God above, and stand, in a fully frontal pose, in a highly stylized arcade, itself symbolising the Universal Church and the Celestial Jerusalem. Mary holds a chalice, the vessel of the Eucharist, and next to her, on the other side of the window, John holds up his book. A detail to notice is that these sacred objects are held with covered hands, a detail of liturgical practice we can see elsewhere (for example, the mosaic of Justinian at Ravenna): note the covered hands of the angels bearing the gospel and St John’s eagle in the upper register. Beneath the apostles would have been a third register, representing the lowest world,  that of earthly creatures, depicted in a highly stylized geometrical form. But of this only some faint traces of zig-zag pattern remain.

The St Climent de Taüll paintings (there are some others, and the whole church was originally covered with them) are, then, rich in imagery which unlocks for us a medieval world in which just about everything was seen through the lens of symbolism. But we can also experience them in purely formal terms. We can respond to the symmetrical face of God, with its piercing eyes and dramatic arched eyebrows, to the juxtaposition of His severe, rigid posture and the ecstatic figures around Him. The bold linearity, the expressiveness of the arabesques and curves – in God’s long hair, for example – or the ‘flying folds’ of the drapery can all speak to us across the centuries. We can sense how the figures are pushed forward by the bands of colour behind them and sense how the whole composition is transforming natural elements like limbs and heads and pulling them in the direction of geometric abstraction. Scholars have identified stylistic influences from Byzantine, Mozarabic (art influence by Arabs, who still occupied much of Spain at this time) and Islamic art. At the same time, it can seem surprisingly modern. Artists such as Picabia, Breton, Picasso and Tàpies have all drawn inspiration from the anti-naturalistic, expressive resources of Romanesque art.

St Climent de Taüll itself, as we noted earlier,  is the church of a village in the Valley of Boí, up in the Spanish Pyrenees. This small area has one of the most concentrated amounts of Romanesque art in the world. Much of it was uncovered and identified in the early twentieth century and this painting, with several others, was transferred to canvas by Italian experts and moved to Barcelona. This was partly for conservation, but mainly because American collectors were already showing an interest in purchasing it, in an early, unregulated art market, and Barcelona was anxious to preserve this extraordinary art as a part of its national heritage. The expedition sent out in 1907 to make an inventory of the surviving artefacts was commissioned by the newly founded Institute of Catalan Studies and the project formed part of a renewed interest in the Catalan heritage, comparable to the study of national traditions taking place elsewhere (the movement to record English folk music, for example).  In the original church a copy was made; this has since been moved in its turn, and replaced by video mapping. Meanwhile, the original can be seen in Barcelona’s MNAC (National Museum of Catalan Art). Few viewers will wail in dread at the sight of the Pantocrator, perhaps, but it is still hard to be indifferent to this potent reminder of the intensely emotional art of medieval master artisans: the anonymous creator of this painting is simply known as The Master of Taüll. The apse of St Climent is classified as fine art today; but it is also reminder of the power of the medieval Church over the minds and imagination of the faithful.



Further Reading

Manuel Castiñeiras and Jordi Camps, Romanesque Art in the MNAC Collections (2008)

The Catalan language entry in Wikipedia is very helpful and detailed.

Frederic Chordá, El Abside de Sant Climent de Taüll (Madrid, 2012). Stresses the multiple possible significations of the image.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World

How to See the World is an introduction to the new academic discipline of the study of visual culture. Visual artefacts in the form of fine and decorative arts have been studied in universities for about a century, of course, and before that in salons and art academies. What makes 'visual culture' as a field a new departure is its focus on mass and popular imagery, which now has an unimaginable range and volume in the age of digital media. How to See the World takes us through some of the perspectives this new analysis can take. 'How to See Yourself' takes us fairly speedily from classical portraiture to modern artists such as Cindy Sherman and the ubiquitous selfie. The emphasis here is on how the self is radically unstable, and a matter of performance rather than essence, in tension with traditional social categories. ''How We think about Seeing' is an update on brain science and what it tells us about perception and processing of visual information; we see with our bodies, not simply the retina. Further chapters look at the story of mapping for military purposes from the nineteenth century to the contemporary drone; early film and its conjunction with industrialisation and the train; the rise of the modern megacity; the changing climate; and mass political protest. All of these areas of life have generated, exploited and explored the expressive and interpretive capacities of visual culture. To orient oneself in the modern world, we need to develop skills in reading images from street art to museum-housed installations to instagram snaps and video clips circulated as memes. To be active participants in our own culture, we need to be adept at using these visual codes ourselves.

I had some problems with this book, not least in finding some definition for the discipline itself. It seems to draw on many other fields: the ideas on the performative self, for example, are familiar from feminism and gender studies; the psychology of perception is central to Gombrich's Art and Illusion; and the survey of the giant city draws heavily on authors like Mike Davis.  Mirzoeff acknowledges a debt to the work of John Berger, itself drawing on Walter Benjamin. Sometimes the book felt like familiar ingredients given a slightly new twist rather than an exciting new departure. Visual culture is so vast that it surely takes in just about anything, from a school whiteboard to a weekend watercolour. Unsurprisingly, the book as a whole felt like a disparate gathering of thoughts on subjects the author is interested in (and on which he is clearly very well informed). It's not always easy to find a thread running through a chapter; rather, one item seems to auto-suggest another. 'Divided Cities', for example, uses this suggestive heading to hurtle us through Berlin, the American South, South African apartheid and Israel-Palestine in a few pages, without time to look in any detail at any of these scenarios. In these stretches, it reads as a sequence of riffs rather than an over-arching composition.

Despite these reservations - perhaps I was looking for a more traditional thesis-style book - I must admit found this a riveting read. Mirzoeff has an immediately engaging style, unencumbered by theoretical jargon. Every page offers some fascinating nugget of information, such as the surprising but convincing link between Impressionism and early industrial smog. He conveys a passionate curiosity and is an example of an academic for whom the wall between academic observation and practical action is, like other walls mentioned here, one to be dismantled. He is clearly fascinated and inspired by social protest movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy, and sees in the visual traces such actions produce a hope for the representation of popular interests in a world in which the 99% are generally excluded by corporate media. Visual Culture is for Mirzoeff something we should do, not simply study. Only through imagining the effects of climate change can we hope to address it; and this imagining necessarily takes the form of the actual making of images. The record of mass protest in Egypt stands as an example of visual artefacts which the regime cannot erase. The commitment to action in the book makes it a refreshing change from the traditional world of formal art criticism, often  confined to a reflective discourse within the space of the museum. If the structure of the book doesn't fit the usual academic conventions, perhaps that is part of the point. 'Once we have learned how to see the world,' he concludes, 'we have taken only one of the required steps. the point is to change it.'