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Friday 30 May 2008

Sea Change

I had been told (by reviewers and others) that she is too cerebral; even "cold" and "bloodless" was mentioned by one, and, from a passing acquaintance with individual poems, I was inclined to agree - but then if folk keep telling you that the water is cold, and all you ever do is dangle a toe in it to see if they are right, then you will be almost certain to agree, for it will feel cold. In order to be sure you have to take the plunge. There are some poets who can draw you in and make you theirs for ever, just on the strength of a single poem, but with others it is necessary to immerse yourself. At least, that's how it is for me. Jodie Graham is one of the latter. The effect of her poems on me is cumulative. Partly it may be because of her long lines and the fact that I had read them mainly in reviews. They just do not do what they are meant to do when contracted to three or four column-wide lines. Of course, one should be able to imagine them stretched out and looking as they will look on the book page, but for me it does not work quite like that. I saw the difference as soon as I opened her "Sea Change" in my local book shop. It brought about a sea change in my attitude towards her work. Well, not immediately perhaps, but it was the start of something almost magical.

If you will forgive the pun, one of the things her poems do, and do electrifyingly well, is to bring us to the point where we can see change, and see it for what it is. She has been accused - as was Seamus Heaney - of ignoring the political and social disasters of today's world, but one of the poems in "Sea Change" deals with the collapse of our belief systems - and that surely is a cause at the root of much modern turmoil and turbulence. Already I consider my purchase of "Sea Change" to be one of the most thought-provoking of recent acquisitions. Here, the opening lines from "Nearing Dawn":-

Sunbreak. The sky opens its magazine. If you look hard
it is a process of falling
and squinting - & you are in-
terrupted again and again by change, & crouchings out there
where you are told each second you
are only visiting, & the secret
whitening adds up to no
meaning, no, not for you, wherever the loosening muscle of the night
startles-open the hundreds of
thousands of voice-boxes, into which
your listening moves like an aging dancer still trying to glide - there is time for
everything, everything, is there not-
though the balance is
difficult, is coming un-
done, & something strays farther from love than we ever imagined, from the long and
orderly sentence which was a life to us, the dry
leaves on
the fields

This was where the book opened in the shop. It was where the browse began, and it won me over, persuaded me to take the plunge. Actually, the second sentence showed me the way of things: "The sky opens its magazine." Magazine as in what? Gun - a bullet or cartridge holder? Glossy - full of images? T.V. programme - a collection of disparate items? Storehouse? A supply device feeding raw materials into a machine? You do not know until you have read on - and then you do not know for sure whether you know or not. The poetry is dense with layers of meaning and dense with alternative meaning. And each layer has its alternative and each alternative its layers. We are interrupted again and again by change, but that which is changing is our perception. Graham's is a world grounded in the phenomena of the natural world in which we live, and yet it is, above all, a mental universe, so the word "interrupted" is interrupted by a line-break, a use of spatial form to represent a spiritual or psychological experience, in this instance a changed perception in which we see ourselves as merely visitors. At least, that is how I read it; you may read it differently - and tomorrow, so may I. Meanwhile there is much to enjoy, not least passages like:

meaning, no, not for you, wherever the loosening muscle of the night
startles-open the hundreds of
thousands of voice-boxes

and lines like:

your listening moves like an aging dancer still trying to glide

I absolutely love that line. That line and many another.

The blurb on the book's back cover reads:' Sea Change is a poetry of the tipping point, when what is lost and damaged in our world and our humanity is forever irrecoverable, when time itself has disintegrated", yet rightly or wrongly I detect an inextinguishable hope in the tone of the verses. Not everywhere, but here and there, like a fire about to break out gain.

Graham is no newcomer. She has published eleven collections , and in 1996 won The Pulizer Prize with The Dream of the Unified Field - definitely my next purchase. She lives part-time in western France and part-time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches at Harvard University.

The most difficult poem in Sea Change (of those I have read so far) I found to be Guantánamo, which is perhaps as it should be, but what about this, the opening lines of Day Off?

from the cadaver beginning to show through the skin of the day. The future without
days. Without days of it?
in it? I try to-just for a second-feel
that shape. What weeds-up out of nowhere as you look away for
good. So that you have to imagine
whatever's growing there growing forever. You shall not be back to look
again. ......................

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Bits and Pieces

I've got on to this fist concern very late in the day, so maybe you were there long before me, but it seems to me to be a matter of concern that the poet John Gallaher who, rightly, in my humble opinion, found himself with a page to himself on Wikipedia, signifying to all and sundry, that he is regarded as a "significant" poet. What was no doubt a very gratifying moment, was, alas, short-lived when he found himself to have been deleted. This, we know, is the downside of Wikipedia. Another contributor can decide that an entry is inaccurate or unworthy and alter it. In this case, though, it seems he was deleted because he didn't meet the Wikipedia criteria of significance. Except he was then reinstated, so perhaps he did meet it, after all! What it has thrown into relief, however, is the whole question of Wikipedia's criteria. Gallaher discovered that very few poets make it to the hallowed pages. (That has not been my experience, but I guess it all depends on how you interpret "many".) It seems that the criteria to be met include: the size of the poet's public following; how many articles have been devoted to him in what sort of publications; what awards he has one, and what sort of awards; the size of his publishers, etc, etc. My first reaction was to think: ah, well there has to be some sort of criteria. But does there? Why not allow bios of any bona fide poet initially and remove those that after a certain period of time are deemed to have aroused insufficient interest? The real questions raised by this issue are, I guess: how do we judge the "significance" of a poet? What is anyone's poetry worth to any other person? Is there a better way to give the public an opportunity to show its interest?

Two other news items caught my eye on the same day this week: first came the announcement that The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Time has come round again (it will open on June 9th), followed by a few column inches devoted to an opinion voiced by Professor David Crystal to the effect that texting, as in C U 2NITE, is actually improving the literacy skills of the younger generation.

I am something of a dinosaur in that any mention of The Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition - or simply The Royal Academy, come to that - brings back memories of the days when Sir Alfred Munnings (whose painting, Setting Off, appears left) was president and that august body was the last and most formidable bastion against the encroaching hoards and the abandonment of technique and ll else that was holy to the true artist. Indeed, so fixed am I at that point in past time that I have to change gear mentally to recall that it is no longer like that. It couldn't be more different, in fact, as was shown by the announcement last year that Tracey Emin had been made a member of the academy, and the further announcement this year that for the 2008 Summer Exhibition she has been given one of the rooms to curate. Exactly at what point the hooligans managed to take over the running of the boot camp, I am not sure, I think I must have been on my gap year at the time, but take it over they did, and have been well in control for some time. They are very well dug in now. Strange, is it not, that the world does not seem to be any the worse for it? The academicians of yesteryear - if, indeed any remain - must be seething at the thought of the likes of Emin in such control.

It is no secret that The Summer Exhibition is intended as a democratic affair, though some democracies are more democratic than others. Anyone can take their masterpiece along, run it (no exaggeration, that) before the hanging committee (good name!) and hope to get the nod of acceptance. Academicians, of course, do not have to do anything so demeaning, but the result is that the exhibition is a hotch-potch of paintings crowded together, those by totally unknown artists rubbing frames with works by the great, the good and the famous.

Into this melee comes Emin, with her twenty-something exhibits by other artists of the moment, erotic works that make her "feverish". There is to be a video of a naked woman and a giraffe having sex. Another naked woman will be screened performing a hula hoop routine using barbed wire for the hoop. Emin, no doubt, finds herself becoming more and more feverish as the woman becomes more and more cut and bloodied. There will also be some stunning porcelain sculptures by Rachel Kneebone, but here I will detour for a moment to recall that fifty-something years ago my brother, who was attending a Methodist Church Youth club, persuaded me to accompany him to their Youth Week debate. The subject for debate was: That the artist is of more use to the world than the scientist. The young lady that I sat next to, my future wife, was passionately on the side of the scientist, I equally passionately for the artist. We both had good cause to be grateful to medical science for our health, even our existence. Naturally, I have often thought of that evening since, not least when I have read screeds detailing how bad science has screwed up the food chain or polluted the earth or whatever happens to be the latest disaster to hit the headlines. At such times it occurs to me that the doctors' Hippocratic oath contains the injunction that a doctor's first duty is to do no harm, and I wonder if all scientists should not have to take a similar oath. But what about the artist? The question has never been resolved: can the artist even do any hatrm? And the corollary: can the artist do good? Down they years there have been poets and artists in plenty denying that their art is capable of b ringing about any change in the world. I am sure some will think Emin's selection of works will do harm - if only to the Academy's reputation. But could it go further than that? And could it also do good?

There is no doubt at all that some will consider as harmful, David Crystal's opinion that txting benefits the literary development of those who engage in it. Txt messagers have been described by John Humphrys on the BBC as doing more harm to literacy and to our native language than ever Ghengis Khan did to his neighbours 800 years ago, and my instinct is that the vast majority who have even thought about the subject will agree with Humphrys. Yet to my mind David Crystal is one of the good guys, a talker of sound common (and uncommon)sense and a defender of whatever most profits the spirit of man. No matter what the subject for debate, I will always start with the assumption that I am on whichever side can count David Crystal among its supporters. It seems almost instinctual, now that someone has said it, that txting would improve literacy skills. Text messagers play with the language and if you can read btfl as beautiful you will certainly be able to scan a page of text more quickly than someone like myself who has to look at it twice before the penny drops. Written language contains a high proportion of redundant characters, the ability to screen them out is just one of the higher reading skills. That may not be the only benefit that txting brings, but it is a useful enough starter.

Friday 23 May 2008

spin didn't begin with tony blair

I see this poem as a companion piece to A Family Occasion, though my interest here is less in memory and false memory than in fantasy and a child's imagination. I am nine months younger in this poem, but the memories seem firmer and more reliable (perhaps because there is no one who can contradict me about what I was thinking), though if I am correct in that it might suggest that I was suffering from grossly uneven development!

Spin Didn't Begin with Tony Blair

Coughing, I'd missed a lot of what he'd said,
but fairy air, that much I'd heard, and there-
by come to think the doctor scary who
had always been my friend - and who
had never spooked me half to death before!
But fairy air...? Could human beings breathe
the like of it and live? Dad put me straight.
Not 'fairy air'. He called it 'extra-airy air',
your chum. The stuff to give you back your puff.
He knows a wizard place with kindly folk
who kind of magic children well
with just a whiff of it. He'll meet us there.

I saw the place at once - as clear
as anything I've ever seen:
walls webs of sparkling glass; shelves bright
with wands and pickled toads -
and jars of honeyed air. And there,
behind the counter, taller now
in wizard's hat (less chilling too), my "docker man"
was taking from his bag the magic props
he'd always bring on visits: pills,
his stethoscope and, best of all,
his books of British Empire swaps!
Those stamps were passports to exotic lands,
to Montserrat and Sarawak,
Aden and Samoa. Just
what I've been looking for!
he'd drool,
perhaps of some quite common stamp of mine,
then offer me a "Sea Horse", Bechuanaland, five bob,
maybe. One landscape with the Monarch's Head,
my Grandma said, does more than all his pills!

Made welcome by a snowed-on Oberon in bronze,
then stretchered on a flying carpet, in
through busy casualty. Strange wonderland,
where sterilizers whistled jets of steam.
How worrying was that? Two armies poised for war
I'd left; men bunkered in my bed;
I hardly had the time to stay for tea!

Then lemonade and buns with cream.
No mention yet of oxygen. Instead,
still shadow-boxing truth, another tack:
It might be fun to stay the night, they said.
"The night when Father Christmas comes," I wailed.
"What fun is that?" They were persuasive then,
that he who knew the whereabouts
of every child, would know
for sure to find me there
where seven rag doll dwarfs
sang carols over boughs of holly,
and miners' lanterns hung above each bed.
I said my silent prayer aloud: "Drums, if you please...
an army ambulance... but most of all, a Snow
White doll, to keep the dwarfs in check."

The Christmas tree lights blazed more brightly yet.
All things conspired - a nurse who must
have fanned a latent spark in me,
so easily she worked my strings -
to coax me out of my mistrust.

But fairylands can harbour evil things.
Across from me, a terrorist,
a sleeper 'till the time was right.
Now, with the confidence that heavy armour brings,
he'd send his Christmas tanks, he said,
to snuff out my Snow White.

Saturday 17 May 2008

Environmental Art

Antony Gormley's Angel of the North having been credited with bringing cohesion and a sense of identity to an area that had been lacking these attributes, it was inevitable, perhaps, that there should be pressure brought to bear for an Angel of the South to bring those same qualities to the yet-to-be-realised Ebbsfleet Valley development close to the Thames Estuary. The rules for the competition for the new Angel do not say that it must bean angel, merely that it should be twice the height of the Angel of the North. Twice the cohesion and twice the sense of identity, no doubt! The news that Mark Wallinger's proposal for a naturalistic horse is by many a long length the public's choice for the project seems less inevitable to me. And less inevitable still, the gooey enthusiasm of Jonathan Jones, "a leading art critic", for the Wallinger solution of a horse thirty-three times life-size standing in a field one times life-size. Does it not strike Jones - or any of the many other backers of this particular horse - that a perfect, laser-copied, reproduction of an actual horse, blown-up to thirty-three times its actual size - i.e. out of scale with its environment by a factor of thirty-three, so big that it will nedd shipbuilding techniques to realise it in steel plate - is anything but "naturalistic". Had nature decided the horse should be that size, she would not have been so foolish as to retain its present proportions. It would never have managed to rise on its spindly legs, let alone gallop across the countryside. Other proposals seem more in keeping with the natural scale of the area.

However, Jones maintains that the horse is in the English tradition. He points to the white horses on the hills of Southern England. And so he might, for they have been there since 1000 B.C. Or at least, one of them has, The White horse at Uffington. The rest were carved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He inveighs against such installations as the Antony Gormley figures standing sentinel along the Crosby sea shore, comparing them unfavourably ("trite") with the henge monuments and Neolithic stone circles, yet to me, Wallinger's vision of how his white horse will look is grotesque. Unlike the other white horses of which Jones speaks, it will stand in no relationship to its environment, and contrary to what Jones maintains, it exhibits none of the qualities that must have entranced the creators - and others - of those ancient chalk figures. For that matter, it will display none of the qualities Jones admires so much in the Angel of the North.

This flying in the face of the obvious (as I saw it) started me thinking in more general terms about the relationship between art, and specifically sculpture (including installations), on the one hand, and the landscape on the other. I began to think, in other words, about the matter of Environmental Art. There are now two distinct concepts of art that are commonly referred to by that phrase. I had, only a few days before, chanced to read an article, in a National Geographic magazine, on Christo and Jeanne-Claude, two people who call themselves environmental artists and represent one of the two strains of environmental art.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude achieved fame, and some notoriety, way back, wrapping objects and people, before moving on to larger stuff like islands and sea shores wrapped in polypropylene. Their latest project, not to be realized before 2011, is to suspend translucent panels of fabric, horizontally, over the Arkansas River in the State of Colorado. The panels will be seen as shimmering screens waving high above the water level and, when seen from below, will have "projected" on them, the silhouetted forms of clouds, mountains and vegetation.

Typically, their projects take decades to come to fruition, most of which time is consumed by the need to survey perhaps dozens of potential sites to find the perfect one, to complete all the paperwork, obtain all the permits, reassure the locals at public meetings, modify the plans to meet any objections and/or the requirements of local use and health and safety issues. Indeed, most projects never see the light of day, and those that do, Christo and Jeanne-Claude insist, are dismantled after a fortnight.

When it was put to Christo that it must be very difficult, thinking of the concepts for their projects, he disagreed: "Any fool can get a good idea," he said, "the difficult part is doing it".

Art such as Christo's and Jeanne-Claude's tends to grab the limelight and so has become what most folk know as Environmental Art. It is one of the two forms I mentioned earlier. It is Site Specific art. It should have much going for it, but it has had its failures. Christo, for example, once wrapped the coast of Little Bay, near Sydney, Australia, as a result of which a seal and some penguins became trapped. The fabric had to be cut to allow them to escape; an incident which caused the creatures concerned no little trauma and set in train a great deal of rethinking on the issues of environmental art.

This brings me to a consideration of the other form, which has been with us since the days of early man. We might think of Cro-Magnon man painting the walls of his cave, for example, or of the megaliths and stone circles already mentioned to realize for how long man has sought to connect with the powers of nature and to interpret their images and patterns, their structures and their systems.

It has usually been a gentle art form, but whenever the world has been thrown into some sort of religious, political or technological turmoil, man has come up with new art forms to forge new connections between himself and his changed or changing environment. Most recently, perhaps, during the 1960's some Western artists began to reject the traditions of formalism which had governed painting, and set out to find ways to bring mankind into some more direct relationship with his environment. One of the things they did was to begin to sculpt the landscape itself. At first some of these attempts were crude by today's standards, and did more harm than good to the environment. Since then, of course, the issues have multiplied, concern has deepened immeasurably and the terms by which we know, what was then simply environmental art, have proliferated. We may now speak of eco-art, land art, art in nature, urban art and others, but whatever the term, the three key, defining attributes of the art are that it should do no harm to the environment, that it should be sensitive to environmental issues, and that it should sensitize us to those same issues. In the meeting of those goals we might expect it to:- look for ways in which we might more happily co-exist with our environment; highlight ways in which our fragile eco-systems are being damaged and how they might be repaired and/or sustained; use natural materials (feathers, twigs, leaves, mud etc) and where appropriate power its art works using natural forces; alert us to our abuses of nature in all its forms.

No doubt that sounds like a counsel of perfection, and certainly, I feel this post is becoming something of a sermon, which was not intended, so I will leave the issues now and move on to a consideration of artists who fall into this second category. Or rather, I will choose two to represent the breed, my first choice being Andy Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is one who might be known to some. His use of such materials as flowers, leaves, soil, moss, icicles, twigs and branches, stone, rocks, snow and pinecones has become a trademark. He has become famous as the founder of modern rock balancing. He produces two distinct forms of art: ephemeral and permanent. For the latter he will use machinery such as earth-moving equipment, whatever is necessary, but for his more impermanent works he uses only his hands and teeth - with a little help from tools which he finds in nature. Goldsworthy maintains that his ephemeral works grow, stay a while, and then decay, and he is at pains to photograph them at every stage, producing a complete record of the processes of nature. The images, he believes, show the work when it is at its height (i.e. is most alive) at each stage. Do find the time to look at one or more of the following videos. I guarantee you will not be disappointed - and there are more on the pages to which the links will take you.Andy Goldsworthy Video :Collaboration with Nature Andy Goldsworthy Video : Yorkshire Sculpture Park Nature and Nature : Andy Goldsworthy Video

Richard Long is my second choice. I probably could do no better to introduce him than to quote from the home page of his official website: Art made by walking in landscapes. Photographs of sculptures made along the way. Walks made into textworks. That seems to me to sum up the whole spirit, not only of Richard Long's work, but of the genre as a whole.

Richard Long's "Sahara Line" installation - and my proposal for an Angel of the West, bringing the nations together... or just milking the concept?

Wednesday 14 May 2008

Robert Rauschenberg


News of the death of Robert Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008) is a reminder of yet one more artist who has perhaps not received his just deserts from what should have been a grateful world.

When Marcel Duchamp threw down the gauntlet in the shape of a urinal and then just left the idea lying around to worry us while he went off to play with other things, this was the man who picked it up and ran with it in a variety of new directions - so many, and so quickly that by the time the critics of the day and others had realised the sleight of hand, it was too late, the ball was out of sight.

Rauschenberg was perhaps one of those artists who failed to get the acclaim he merited (in my opinion) because he could not be pigeon-holed. It is said that he did for painting what Walt Whitman did for poetry: he opened it up. Before Tracey Emin was, he had incorporated a quilt sheet and pillow from his bed in a montage, and had soaked them with paint to represent blood; ere Damien Hirst had taken the stage he had affixed a stuffed bald eagle to a canvas ("Canyon") and placed a stuffed goat encircled by a tyre above a painted panel. It was he who first painted completely white canvases, and then went on to paint completely black ones. It is said that the composer John Cage was inspired by one of his white canvases to write his silent work, (4' 33"). Generations of artists have drawn water from the wells he dug, yet beyond the art world he is hardly known.

He argued that painting is made more like the real world if it is made out of the real world. “I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly,” he once said, “because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.” He embraced Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art (though some critics will deny that he was ever a pop artist), performance art and in many ways became midwife to the Concept Art that Duchamp had sired. He was never afraid of being thought banal and was thus able to respond to the everyday and to other art forms. He learnt from Dadaism how to juxtapose items in playful, humorous ways.

It maybe that he is better-known and appreciated by our friends on the other side of the pond. I don't know, but it would be good to think so - or are prophets still not honoured in their own countries?

(The second image above is of "Riding Bikes")

Saturday 10 May 2008

A Family Occasion

For sometime now, I've had a couple of true stories buzzing around in my head whilst I wondered if I could (should) use them, and if so, how. Then, not a hundred years ago, I swanned over to Ken Armstrong's Writing Stuff which is always different and always a pleasurable experience, and blow me, if he didn't have a couple of posts that might have been meant especially for me. One was a true story in which Ken was himself involved, the other a tale about the tale and how he came to write it, leading to a moral, almost a moral imperative, you might say, which convinced me that the true stories with which I have toyed long enough are asking to be written down and should get their wish. One of my stories is in verse, the other in prose. The one is a mix of childhood memories, mist and maybe even false memory, the other perhaps does not project my true image, does not show me as the totally lovable, virtuous guy I truly am. Hence the hesitations. No matter, Ken has made the issues clear enough: not to worry about getting it right; get it written. So with a "thank you" nod to Ken, here is the first:-

A Family Occasion.

Out on a limb above the Anderson,
hands reaching for the choicest plums - those velvet
bombs of taste, incendiaries of pleasure;
soft, waxy reds and yellows, blue-blacks and indigos.
Then suddenly alone upon an icy ridge
(though grandpa's hands were holding me,
tight as a rope around my waist),
the Anderson a lower peak; the tree
my Everest; the golden plums
small nuggets left by thieves - my treasure trail.
My plums! My own Victorias! - all mine, because
the tree was planted on the day that I was born.

You'd bite your plum along its length to leave an amber wake,
grainy, firm and juice-filled, then gently squeeze
until the sharp stone surfaced like a stricken submarine.

Those hands, though, strong and sure, whose were they?
Grandpa's, I was always told, but
I've a different memory: my relatives,
grandpa among them, sitting in the shade, in deck chairs,
by the house, their sherries and their beers and my half-eaten
birthday cake beside them on the ground (they, like
the day, were drowsy hot), when from the sky
a drone, and, looking up, a fighter plane,
black crosses on its wings. Then others,
distant, silent, high above the rooftops, out
beyond the chimneys, twisting, turning
the way our neighbour's hungry fish would pike
and swerve, challenging for food. One,
diving from the sun, was like the sly one
striking from his hideout in the reeds.

So I bellowed at the slumberers: "Achtung! Achtung!
Get down the Anderson, the huns have come,
the huns are here!" and heard my mother's voice:
"You'll have to stop him, John, we'll be in trouble
if the Bobby hears!" I saw dad rise and start towards us,
then stop dead. My anchor man behind, had weighed-
in with "Don't take all day, they're overhead!"

The shelter had a corrugated lip to be stepped over.
My mother slipped in hurrying, the lip
scraped down her leg, removing half the skin.
I thought she was the war's first casualty -
and that the bone might surface like a submarine.

Some things still worry me: those
German fighter planes... for half an hour or so
they must have stayed. Had they the range?
And mother's leg, could it have been
that badly injured? If so, who treated it,
and how? Who was it held me safely
as I crawled along that bough?

All I remember clearly, are the plums.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

More on Primitivism

My earlier post on Primitivism in art (to which this is very much a follow-up) brought various comments, questions and suggestions, both as comments and by email, on the relationships between the various branches of Primitivism - if, indeed, that is what they are, for there seems to be no finality as to what exactly each is and where it lies in relation to the others. There is instead, a great deal of overlap and imprecision. So, back to basics: my Encarta World Dictionary defines Primitivism as "1), The state of being primitive or the qualities associated with being primitive. 2), (Arts) Simplicity or Naïvety of style. 3) Anti modernism: the belief that less technically dependent cultures and ways of living are inherently superior to those more technically dependent." The first definition sent me to look up the definition of Primitive. There are nine, ranging from "first forms of... or early forms of...", through "simple", "original", "natural", "untrained", "from a culture with simple technology", "early Medieval", to "in an original state". Not much help there, I think, for someone looking to see how and where Primitive art, Primitivism, Naïve art, Folk art, Tribal art and Outsider art (the last intriguingly thrown into the melting pot by Jim ) might dovetail together. Whatever your views on any or all of them, you could find some confirmation there.

So let's take another tack. In 1984 The New York Museum of Modern Art moved into newly expanded premises and celebrated with a now famous exhibition: Primitivism in Twentieth Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern. I had thought, when composing my previous post, that I was being somewhat broad in my definition of Primitivism, but this throws it even more widely open, for the sub-title of the exhibition was: The Influence of "Uncivilized" Art on the Twentieth Century.(My quotes.) Wider, but also more profound, more basic, for the exhibits were paired, one Primitive with one modern, all the way through the exhibition, but in ways that would make it difficult to believe that between the paired artists there could have been any direct influence. For example, Portrait of Madame Matisse by her Husband, was paired with a mask from the Gabon. In other words, what the visitors were being asked to realize for themselves was an "affinity", the idea that something was going on in the one which was also going on in the other. (The Gabon mask shown here is not the actual one from the exhibition, which I was unable to trace, but hopefully it makes the point.)

Madame Matisse                     and a mask from The Gabon

But the history of Primitivism is as littered with misunderstandings as a road in some "Bomb Alley" with potholes. African masks have been held aloft as proof of a belief in spirits, though the purpose of the masks in question, we now know, was to scare the enemy in battle. (There are, of course, a wide range of masks for a wide range of purposes.) Picasso confessed that African art both drew him and repelled him. Artists who were consciously influenced by what they took to be the "meaning" of a Primitive artifact could not tell the difference between African and Oceanic examples. They were all the same to them. The interest was in them almost as "found" objects, and not in the cultures from which they had come. Until recently we in the West were unaware of the fact of African art having its own masters, schools and influences in exactly the same way as our own art. Similarly, it was late in the day before we realized that Aboriginal Art had gone through its periods of changing styles, exactly like ours.

Maybe I chose an elliptical route to get here, but we are at the point of coming to realize that there is a definition of the word Primitivism that is missing from my Encarta World Dictionary (though some might argue that it is subsumed under the third definition). The missing definition would go something like: "Primitivism" is an artistic movement which idealizes whatever is thought to be simple or primitive above that which is seen as having a degree of sophistication." The first five words form the core of the definition, the rest could be argued about. The inspiration for Primitivism came from the eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (not to be confused with the painter Henri Rousseau) who was at pains to point out what eighteenth century culture most lacked: nature, passion, emotion, instinct and mysticism.

Primitivism, then, is the trunk, from which emerge the various branches we have mentioned: Naïve Art, Folk Art, Tribal art (this last perhaps distinguishable from Folk art only by the preponderance of body art.) and Outsider art. And if Primitivism is the trunk, then Primitive art is the soil from which it comes. Primitive art includes the art of all prehistoric peoples and those tribes and races that are still technically unsophisticated. Aboriginal and Maori art, for example. African art and the art Oceania. That much, I think, is indisputable. This next bit is for the purist - which we all are from time to time, though few consistently. My previous post on the subject was maybe chewed at a bit by that fiend pragmatism, whom I let off the leash once or twice for the sake of a quiet life.

These then for the pure of heart:-
Naïve Art or Art Naif
The term presupposes the existence of an academy or a "canon" of work, different from it. It could not, therefore, properly be applied to true Primitive Art, such as Aboriginal Art. We are speaking of the work of self-taught artists with no formal training, but often obsessively dedicated to making art. The appearnace of the works is usually quite distinctive, but may be deceptive: typically they will have the appearance of a child-like innocence, though the artist may have borrowed his visual vocabulary, composition and techniques from old masters and others. Nevertheless, there will be an awkwardness that is quite genuine and stems from a lack of accomplishment with drawing and perspective. The result may be a vision that is refreshingly "different". However, the genre has become so popular, not to say, financially rewarding, that not all is what it seems. There is a great deal of "pseudo Naïve" or "faux Naïve" art about that is imitative rather than original. And, as noted in my earlier post, the genuine Naïve artist is often termed Primitive, Henri Rousseau, being a prime example. We, though, are being purist, so I will say no more about such goings-on! To recap my earlier post, other characteristics of Naïve Art are bright, even gaudy, colours, intricate detail and flat space.

Folk Art is often confused with Naïve art, but is characterized by traditional decoration or motifs and form that are specific to its culture. Sadly it is often found in corrupted form, the negative influence of tourism.

Outsider Art is a new kid on the block as the phrase didn't exist until 1972, when it was coined by Roger Cardinal, the critic, as a pseudonym for "Brut art", which translates literally as "Raw" art or "Rough" art. It refers to outside constructions and artifacts made by individuals with not training, and who do not see themselves as artists. It is art from outside the world of art.

End of my purist phase, back to what happens in the real world. What happens is that a group of artists come together or come to be considered together because of a commonality in what they are attempting, some common purpose to their philosophies or similarities in style or technique. In time, if they become successful, others, with some points in common, will be added to the group. Imperceptibly, almost, the definition loosens and may end as little more than a similarity of appearance. It happened to The Impressionists. The term was coined by the critic Louis Leroy of Monet's "Impression Sunrise", and seemed to him to fit the loose, "unfinished" style they favoured. The characteristics of The Impressionists were: Brush strokes that were rapidly applied, were broken, short and, above all, visible; colours that were laid side-by-side or applied wet-on-wet and allowed to mix on the canvas; no use of transparent glazes, of colours built gradually from "ground-up"; en plein air painting with an emphasis on natural light. Today, depending on which authority you consult, you might find any of the following, listed as one of the Impressionists: Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh - and even the sculptor Auguste Rodin (for his broken, "impressionistic" surfaces, I suppose).

Now a few examples of Primitivism and the labels I have found attached to them after the briefest of trawls on the web.

L.S. Lowry: Naïve
Alfred Wallis (Cornish fisherman) Naïve / folk
Edward Hicks: Folk (Artcyclopedia), Naïve, Primitive (Worlwidearts Resources)
Henri Rousseau: Naive or Primitive (Wikipedia)
Grandma Moses Naive, Primitive and Folk (various)

Images are from Wikipedia

Saturday 3 May 2008

More from my April Haiku Challenge

April having now left us, and the challenge to write a poem a day departed, I have both a feeling of profound relief and one of regret that April could not have gone on a little longer. Who am I kidding? I didn't have to stop writing. Seriously though,my grateful thanks to Sorlil at Poetry in Progress for the inspiration and for awakening me to the fact of April being Write a Poem a Day month (I might never have known!) and to Jim at The Truth About lies for the suggestion that for the second half of the month I try to break away from the 5-7-5 format. (For the earlier set see My April Haiku Challenge.)It certainly relieved the strain on the brain's musculature. Whether it has improved (or dis-improved) the quality, I am not sure. Too close to them all to judge, I will have a looksee in a month or so. And to those who didn't like my presentation last time (and I was one of them), an attempt to break up "the wall". So, for better or for worse, here is a selection:

presented this time
on a single string -
kite-flying, if you like.
With two strings, though, this tanka might
have turned a somersault.
under the bird table
pigeons gather the crumbs
that small birds drop.
even humble water cans
will form a landscape
at the touch of snow
at my approach
the larger birds
are always first away
one spring-like day
the one bee in the daffodils
prefers the one bedraggled bloom
trying to give light
by striking endless matches
- that's lightning for you!
low cloud cover
keeps the earth frost-free,
dark - and dry as desert sand!
hammer the conservatory roof
drowning out the thunder
incessant rain
this year the flame
merely smoulders
snow on the pony's blanket
and we see in his back
an echo of the distant hills
council workmen
strimming the grass verges
strim a sleepy hedgehog.
three feasting on the table
blue tit and sparrow unaware
the third one is a mouse?