All entries for July 2006

July 28, 2006

Rebels and Martyrs. The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century

Yesterday I went to the National Gallery to see the exhibition: ‘Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century.’ The exhibition traces the development of the idea of the artist as an outsider. A ‘rebel’ battling against society and a ‘martyr’ willing to go to the utmost lengths to convey a vision which was at odds with popular taste.

The exhibition was divided, chronologically as well as thematically, into seven rooms. Moving from late eighteenth century depictions of the Romantic artist to early twentieth century tormented self–portraits, the increasing emphasis on the artist as a suffering and broken figure is made apparent. At the end of the short film which complements the exhibition, the presenter asks the question:

Do we celebrate such figures because we think they are actually what artists are like, or do we celebrate them because they are what we want them to be?

Although this exhibition celebrates the figure of the suffering artist, it also highlights the process whereby he/ she became entrenched in the public imagination as a rebel and martyr. Instead of challenging expectations, over time it seems that portraits of the tortured and tormented artistic genius actually fulfilled them and met a particular desire.

Room 1: Hero of the Establishment

This first room contains paintings of artists from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century. Among them is a self–portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. His courtly dress along with his artistic paraphernalia emphasise the important place of the artist among the aristocracy. His depiction of himself, along with the other paintings in the room, highlights the importance of the patrons for the artist as well as the necessity of fashioning the self as an integral part of the establishment. I was interested to read that the only painting by a woman in the room– Elizabeth Vigée Le Brun’s self portrait was actually based on a painting of Rubens’– his 'Portrait of Susanna Lunden'. Looking stylish in clothes that are obviously not suited to the artist’s workroom, Vigee Le Brun depicts herself as cool and collected. Although she is holding a pallet and some brushes, it seems that she sees herself as first and foremost a distinguished lady rather than an artist.

Room 2: Romantic Hero

‘It is the lot of genius to be opposed and to be invigorated by opposition.’ Henry Fuseli

In this room, I was most taken with Gustave Courbet’s 'Self Portrait ('The Desperate Man')' of about 1843. Positioned in the centre of the room, it arrested my gaze as I looked on at the haunting eyes of the artist. The veins stand out as the subject tears at his hair in a state of agony. Courbet’s signature, in blood red at the bottom of the painting, is an interesting feature that cannot be seen in reproductions. It makes the idea of sacrificing the self in the process of creating an artistic vision especially apparent. Next to Courbet’s painting is Henry Fuseli’s sketched self–portrait. Again, the eyes of artist stare out at the gazer. However, here they seem more melancholic than desperate. The self–scrutiny of the artist is emphasized in his perplexity. Perhaps the fact the drawing lacks any external stimuli and focuses solely on the gaze suggests that Fuseli wanted to convey the sense his inspiration comes entirely from the depths of himself?

Among others, many paintings in this room are from members of the Brotherhood of Saint Luke– a group of Viennese artists during the early nineteenth century who settled to paint in an abandoned monastery and isolated themselves from worldly concerns. The idea of artist isolation was emerging and the figure of the artist as a martyr seems to have become commonplace.

Room 3: Romantic Myths

Vasari’s Lives of the Artists was widely read in the nineteenth century and the themes of the great artists and poets of the past were hugely popular. Among others, the paintings in this room contain representations of the myth of Orpheus and the story of Tasso. The most striking painting in the room is Henry Wallis, 'Chatterton' (1856). Every time I see this painting in person (it is usually held in the Tate Britian), the whiteness of the dead Chatterton and the gloominess of his surroundings startle and depress me. Its inclusion in this room elevates the suicide of the young Chatterton (he was only 17) to the status of myth.

Room 4: Bohemia

The bohemian or the artistic adventurous rebel is the subject of the paintings of this fourth room. I was struck by the repeated image of the stove in many of the depictions of bohemian life here. Many of the paintings include the stove along with items of food in order to bring out the artist’s struggle to survive and sustain himself, especially in a climate where he is unappreciated.

Room 5: The Dandy and the Flaneur

Fantin–Latour’s full size portrait of Manet takes prominent place in this room. In it, Manet is shown to be the proper gentleman. Immaculacy dressed and attired, he is not given the appearance of one who it was traditionally expected would challenge bourgeois society. However, depicted as the typical ‘dandy’, his isolation from the worldly and vulgar is made apparent in a different way to that of the bohemian. Paintings of other dandy’s and flaneur’s by artists such as Whistler and Beadsley are also prominent in this room.

Room 6: Priest, Seer, Martyr, Christ

‘The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher; by so much more am I an artist– a creative artist.’ Vincent van Gogh

Many of the paintings in this room, dating from the 1880’s and 1890’s, depict the artist as a visionary or martyr. Included are self portraits of Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Ensor in the guise of Christ suffering, or preparing to suffer, the crucifixion.

Room 7: Creativity and Sexuality

Considering that for the most part, the artists whose works are displayed in this exhibition are men belonging to exclusively male groups, it is unsurprising that rather than being depicted as artists themselves, the women in this section figure largely as inspiring muses or as dangerous femme fatales. In Munch’s painting, ‘Vampire’, a woman envelops the artist with her red hair. Without the title, it seems that the woman could be seen as a protective influence on the artist. However, as a ‘vampire’ she comes to him disguised in an attempt to devour and destroy. As the paintings in this section make clear, the traditional understanding of woman as ‘other’ largely held firm whilst other ideologies were being challenged.

The only painting that stands out as different is Lovis Corinth’s 'Self Portrait with Model' (1903). In this, the female artist stands, naked, in the traditional pose of the male artist. Her hand covers her belly which is swollen as though through pregnancy. It was interesting to read that, in fact, the artist was not pregnant at all when she painted this self–portrait. However, rather than just representing her ‘artistic fertility’ as the supplementary commentary suggests, perhaps the pose and the assumed pregnancy can represent various things to various gazers.

July 23, 2006

Life Lines: Poets for Oxfam

Writing about web page

Life Lines

I purchased this CD a couple of weeks ago and am really impressed by the quality of the 69 poems it contains. All read by the poets themselves, the poems focus on diverse subjects from terrorism and war to growing old and falling in love.

Poets who contributed to this CD include: Andrew Motion, Benjamin Zephaniah, Carol Ann Duffy, Pam Ayres, Helen Farish and Pascale Petit.

The cost is only £4.99 and the money raised from its sales goes to Oxfam itself.

July 20, 2006

The Cost of Life: An article on Kaxuro Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

Writing about web page

Click on the above link to see my article on 'Never Let Me Go'

July 10, 2006

Time and the self

We have dreams moving back and forward in time, though to use the words back and forward is to make a nonsense of the dream, for it implies that time is linear, and if that were so there could be no movement, only a forward progression. But we do not move through time, time moves through us. I say this because our physical bodies have a natural decay span, they are one–use–only units that crumble around us. To everyone, this is a surprise. We see it in parents and our friends and we are always amazed to see it in ourselves. The most prosaic of us betray a belief in the inward life every time we talk about ‘my body’ rather than ‘I’. We feel it as absolutely part not at all part of who we are. Language always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.

Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (London: Vintage Press, 1990) p. 90

An Artist of the Floating World

2 out of 5 stars

Last week I finished reading Ishiguro’s novel, An Artist of the Floating World. Set in Japan in the late 1940’s, it is ostensibly about the rebuilding of a shattered city and the shift in the sensibilities of its main characters. However, what makes it powerful and emotionally affecting is the emphasis it places on the development of an individual through time and the astute meditations it offers on the political importance of art.

The story is narrated by retired artist, Masuji Ono. Once a successful and affluent painter in a prosperous city, he struggles to come to terms with the political implications of his artistic project. His tensions are heightened as he enters into marriage negotiations for his youngest daughter and attempts to offer answers about his past that satisfy his inquisitive grandson.

The complications implicit in offering a straightford narrative of a past life is acknowledged towards the start of the novel when, after recounting a conversation he’d had, Ono claims:

These, of course, may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon at the Tamagawa temple; for I have had cause to recount this particular scene many times before, and it is inevitable that with repeated telling, such accounts begin to take on a life of their own. But even if I did not express myself to the Tortoise quite so succinctly that day, I think it can be assumed these words I have just attributed to myself do represent accurately enough my attitude and resolve at that point in my life.

The idea that ‘with repeated telling’ events or conversations once experienced ‘take on a life of their own’ is a fascinating one and one Ono often comes back to as he reflects back over a life packed full of various experiences. His emphasis on the importance of his emotions at certain points in his artistic career is also something that he repeats and uses as a foundation on which to build various narratives.

As I stated earlier, many attitudes to the significance of art and artists are revealed throughout the novel. I’ve listed a few below:

'I…was a man of some influence, who used that influence towards a disastrous end. Brave young men died for stupid reasons, but the real culprits are still with us. Artists are the only ones who care now, not army officers, politicians or businessman.' (Ono)

'Artists are on the whole an astonishingly decadent crowd often with no more than a child's knowledge of the affairs of this world.' (Ono)

‘And if there’s one thing I’ve tried to encourage you all to do, it’s been to rise above the sway of things. To rise above the undesirable and decadent influences that have swamped us and have done so much to weaken the fibre of out nation.’ (Ono to his art students)

'Artists live in squalor and poverty. They inhabit a world which gives them every temptation to become weak–willed and depraved.' (Ono’s Father)

‘It is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective. Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential amongst other such painters. But Father’s work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter.’ (Setsuko)

July 03, 2006

Fashioning the Frame

4 out of 5 stars

Dress challenges boundaries: it frames the body and serves both to distinguish and connect the self and the ‘Other.’

Warwick and Cavallaro begin by asking whether dress should be regarded as a part of the body, or merely as an extension of, or supplement to it. Derrida’s analysis of the logic of the supplementary suggests that the supplement operates as an optional appendix and as a necessary element. The authors’ arguments are based upon this idea as well as upon the concept that the body is both a boundary and not a boundary; its ambiguity producing a complex relationship between self and non–self. More is written about the concept of a ‘boundary.’ Interestingly, the authors challenge the conventional notion that a boundary is a border demarcating a strict division and propose the idea that boundaries can be fluid and diverse. In their introductory essay, they conclude that boundaries may indicate ‘points where something could begin.’

In their Preface, the authors consider Tono Stanto’s photograph, Sense (1992)Sense as illustrative of Barthes’ idea that the body can be represented as a gap produced through the frame of clothing. They argue that, in the photograph, ‘the body is portrayed as a fluid boundary glimmering between two edges of apparent nothingness. Yet it is that nothingness that defines it: the body is an optical effect accomplished by clothing.’ They move onto speak of the relation between body and dress as an interplay between presence and absence and remind us that, in the face of a clothed body, we respond to a presence based on absence. They also suggest that, both the body and dress are symbolic and linguistic structures inconceivable outside the domain of representation.

The unfixable character of dress as both a personal and a communal phenomenon is largely due to its ability to quiz conventional understandings of the relationship between surface and depth. The conventional reading of dress as a superficial form to be penetrated in order to gain access to a deep content, obviously based on the primary notions of depth and content over those of surface and form, is radically challenged by a reading whereby the superficial forms of people and objects are seen to possess their own kind of depth. (xxii)

Considered in a Lacanian framework whereby the depth of a thing can be manifested on the surface by a system of signs, dress can be seen as an example of the unconscious at work. Like a symbolic language, the authors claim that clothing can speak volumes about submerged dimensions of experience. As such, they regard it as a deep surface, a facet of existence which cannot be regulated to the psyche’s innermost hidden depths but which actually expresses itself through apparently superficial activities.

After considering clothing as the incarnation of the Kristevan ‘abject’ and as an example of Lacan’s concept of the ‘rim’ (serving as the interface between the inside and the outside of the physical body), the author’s deal with the idea of ‘shielding and sprawling garments.’ They consider clothing as a shield or a surface and consequently look at the problematic ideas of corporeality. Their ideas of mask wearing are particularly interesting and worth reading.

In Chapter 5, ‘Clothes in Art– Painting In and Out of the Frame’, I was especially interested in the author’s interpretation of Waterhouse’s painting ‘Penelope and the Suitors’ (1912).Waterhouse The painting represents weaving as an ambiguous activity in that whilst women are traditionally associated with sewing and weaving as a domestic activity, they are also associated with the activity in the symbolic sense whereby weaving is connected to deceitful plotting. Warwick and Cavallaro claim that the in Waterhouse’s work, ‘the making of materials is a metaphorical equivalent for the making of the self.’ Indeed, the legend of Penelope emphasises the idea that the act of undoing is also vital to the making of the self. Looking at the painting and considering their arguments, I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s intriguing re–telling of the legend in ‘The Penelopied’ (2005).

To conclude, a central emphasis of the book is on the making and the unmaking of the self through fabric and fashion. However, as I have already discussed, the underlying theme is that of the exteriority of clothing existing as a ‘deep surface.’ The author’s have certainly made me think more about the relationship between surface and depth and have also challenged me to re–consider my pre–conceived notions about clothing or masks being devices of concealment more than aspects through which the self is revealed.

July 2006

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