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Thursday 30 October 2008

The Flowers of Evil.

(To all who were good enough to comment on my Autistic Boy, this is to say that I have now posted a redraft.)

I first saw it in a tray of books outside a secondhand bookshop in the Charing Cross Road, a battered, old, two-language edition of Les Fleurs du Mal. It was the title that caught my eye and fired my imagination. Even today it is my all time most inspired title, by a very long way, but back then it excited by virtue of the clash between those two irreconcilable concepts, flowers and evil, along with all their equally irreconcilable connotations. As Seamus Heaney might have said of them: Like water hitting off granite. I skimmed through a dozen or so pages, but in truth did not get a lot from them, beyond the fact that they might be good for a giggle behind the bike shed at school. (I was of that age - Is there any other?) As it turned out, they were not. Slowly the realisation dawned that that was not what I had. What I had was something more than that. But what?

One of the first that I read (fell for) deeply was the poem called The Ideal. The first section (seventy seven poems, the remaining thirty four being spread through sections two to five) is called Spleen and the Ideal, spleen being a word very much in vogue at the time and used to mean a state of great depression or world-weariness, as we might say today. Here, then is the poem in question:

The Ideal

It's not with smirking beauties of vignettes,
The shopsoiled products of a worthless age,
With buskined feet and hands for castanets —
A heart like mine its longing could assuage.

I leave Gavarni, poet of chloroses,
His twittering flock, anaemic and unreal.
I could not find among such bloodless roses,
A flower to match my crimson-hued ideal.

To this heart deeper than the deepest canyon,
Lady Macbeth would be a fit companion,
Crime-puissant dream of Aeschylus; or you,

Daughter of Buonarroti, stately Night!
Whose charms to suit a Titan's appetite,
You twist, so strange, yet peaceful, to the view.

That is not the translation in which I first read it (that one has, I guess gone the way of all flesh), it is, for me, a more telling translation, but the original one did enough to make me lose all interest in prose for quite a while!

There was some talk on the comments page to my previous post about epiphanies, small and large. Well, this was a small one, but one that was to be instrumental in opening the door to the much larger one of T.S.Eliot's The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock - and to some extent, his Waste Land.
Les Fleurs du Mal was to be my John the Baptist, preparing the way, the lesser soon to be eclipsed by the greater, though these days in my dotage I seem to be turning more often than in my middle years to Les Fleurs du Mal -the World Wide Web having replaced the bike shed, perhaps.

None of which does anything to tell you what it was that I had bought. What I had bought, as I soon discovered, was no giggle book, but a copy of the world's first collection of modern verse by a poet, Charles Baudelaire, who by virtue of having written them has been hailed as the father of modern poetry. Yes, I know, there are other claimants to the title, not least Arthur Rimbaud, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, but Baudelaire was in there first, and so has a just claim to the title. But on what grounds, for the poems do not look modern in the way that theirs look modern?Les Fleurs du Mal look very unmodern indeed. Their form is traditional, offers no surprises.

This, for example:


I'm fair, O mortals, as a dream of stone;
My breasts whereon, in turn, your wrecks you shatter,
Were made to wake in poets' hearts alone
A love as indestructible as matter.

A sky-throned sphinx, unknown yet, I combine
The cygnet's whiteness with a heart of snow.
I loathe all movement that displaces line,
And neither tears nor laughter do I know.

Poets before my postures, which I seem
To learn from masterpieces, love to dream
And there in austere thought consume their days.

I have, these docile lovers to subject,
Mirrors that glorify all they reflect —
These eyes, great eyes, eternal in their blaze!

So if not by their form, by what do these poems merit such extravagant claims for them - and through them, for their author? It is first of all in the content that the break with the past occurs. In the lengthy first section, mostly love poems, Baudelaire can still extol the beauty of the beloved's eyes, but can as easily enthuse about her saliva. Hardly the traditional talk or subject matter of romantic verse! Anything from common life, no matter how trivial or banal, even repulsive is taken in his stride. The carnal is as likely to be included in his musings on the divine, and the spiritual to be invoked at the very point at which lust or lewdness are at their most base. He is writing about the modern world, of and for modern man, and he is writing in a new way. So, just when his speech is at its most rhetorical, when he is showing his most virulent self, it may well be that there is where he is using his quietest and most tranquil rhythms. Throughout the collection there come the clash of irreconcilable experiences prefigured in the title.

But there is another aspect in which he is the first modern poet: he has moved from the countryside and taken up residence in the city, and he has found it to be a booming, buzzing, chaotic clash of discordant experiences. How should he represent those in verse? He simulates them by juxtaposing images which do not sit happily together, that are difficult to reconcile - and therefore to unlock for meaning.

It was the title that first caught my eye, and it was the title that kept me focussed when at first I could not get hold of the poems, so you can imagine how dismayed I was when I later discovered that Baudelaire had toyed with the idea of calling the collection The Lesbians. I had (and have) no bias against lesbianism, I hasten to add, it was not that I disliked the new title, but mourned the old one. The Lesbians had no meaning for me, whereas The Flowers of Evil I had thought a magic title for the reasons already given. There are three lesbian poems in the collection. They come early in the second of the book's five sections, so the subject would not, on the face of it, appear to be one of the greatest importance - though as we all know, a book may take its title from a single poem, that was not it, for none of the poems are called The Lesbians. Nevertheless, it is obvious from the length of time with which he toyed with the idea, that the subject was important to him. The three poems offer a clue as to why this should be: the women are prospectors, adventurers, exploring unknown territories, driven by forbidden passions to forbidden destinations, wallowing in masochistic pleasures on expeditions that are bound, in the last analysis, to be unfulfilling. This is very much one of Budelaire's general themes, equally applicable to straightforward heterosexual love as to lesbian relationships, but he found it much more difficult to treat in the general context, and used lesbian love as an image for the universal.

Lesbos, where love is like the wild cascades
That throw themselves into the deeper gulfs,
And twist and run with gurglings and with sobs
Stormy and secret, swarming underground.

I cannot finish the post - though I am sorely tempted - without an example of one of the more troublesome poems. On account of this (and several others) Baudelaire and his publishers were prosecuted (as Flaubert and his publishers had just been for Madame Bovary) for offences against public decency and for Religious Immorality. They were acquitted on the latter charges, but found guilty on the former. The title refers to women being damned in the sense of condemned.

Here then are the first two and the last three verses of
The Carcass

The object that we saw, let us recall,
This summer morn when warmth and beauty mingle —
At the path's turn, a carcase lay asprawl
Upon a bed of shingle.

Legs raised, like some old whore far-gone in passion,
The burning, deadly, poison-sweating mass
Opened its paunch in careless, cynic fashion,
Ballooned with evil gas.

Yet you'll resemble this infection too
One day, and stink and sprawl in such a fashion,
Star of my eyes, sun of my nature, you,
My angel and my passion!

Yes, you must come to this, O queen of graces,
At length, when the last sacraments are over,
And you go down to moulder in dark places
Beneath the grass and clover.

Then tell the vermin as it takes its pleasance
And feasts with kisses on that face of yours,
I've kept intact in form and godlike essence
Our decomposed amours!

Sunday 26 October 2008

Autistic Boy

Gaudy red squares,
triangles, crude trees
with leaves like faces: these
are the alphabet
of his attempts
to touch our world from his.
Among a host of other names

we've labelled it rejection -
his of our world - but the feel
of it is of one calling,
calling, inches out of earshot.
(He is that close.) We glimpse

as through a foliage of tags,
lost in a paper drift
where theory mists and moves,
a modern myth, part natural,
part made by us
who marvel at his alphabet,
but miss the point of him.

Revised version. I have

  • removed the reference to zoo creature - though the allusion was to the retrictions imposed on him, not to him
but also:
  • located the foliage of tags between him and us without relating it to either - an ambiguity which seems to me to be wholly appropriate

  • Changed We are that close to He is that close -psychologically different if logically the same

  • Slightly shortened the poem.

Grateful thanks to all who pitched in with suggestions.

Thursday 23 October 2008

A Painting with a C.V.

Haki Madhubuti once said A poem never stopped a tank. It recalls W. H. Auden's famous remark: A poem never changed anything. Most people would agree, and the same sort of attitude prevails when we come to art. The following snippet of overheard conversation is typical: He paints... Oh, so he's not practical at all then? Poetry and art share the fate of not being seen as part of the real world, or if a part, a fairly useless part. I suppose that if asked, most of us would ruefully admit that there never was an occasion when a poem or a painting changed the course of things for us. Could either a painting or a poem, for example, change the course of a life, your life or mine? I have often agreed readily enough with the Auden dictum and with others like it, and yet there was perhaps an occasion... which is to say, there was a painting that might be up for consideration... a painting by a boy of eight or nine years, yet as I think back to it, that seems to have been little more than an accident, for I do not think of the painting as an example of child art... But I am getting ahead of myself. I will call the boy Raymond.

I was starting my second year out of college and teaching in a large Junior School. A good school, as all the staff had insisted on telling me when I had joined, by which they meant that the children all came from wealthy or comfortably-off families; professional people and small shopkeepers for the most part. I really believe that none of the existing staff had ever come into contact with an example of what we now refer to as children with learning difficulties. Not until I was starting my second year of teaching, that is, at which point a number of these rather inconvenient children came into our catchment area as the result of a slum clearance scheme in the East End of London. The (new) head decided to create a special class to contain them (although there was a wide range of ages), and asked for volunteers to take it. I was the only volunteer. So I, who was the last who should have been entrusted with the group (being the most inexperienced) was duly presented with my outrageously colourful and larger-than-life class. Even their names hinted at them being, if only very slightly, out of the ordinary: there was Roy Rogers (who was always dressed as for a day on the prairie), David Lloyd George, George Stephenson and Peter Wilson, the great media sports writer and pundit of the day - plus me, of course, Dave King, then at the height of his fame. A few of my charges, I would discover, had inherent learning difficulties, but mostly they were socially deprived, untaught or both. A couple had possibly been ill-treated (today we would say abused, but I don't remember the word ever being used back then). One thing they all had in common was poor language development.

Cut to a perfectly normal morning and a science lesson in which I am introducing the latest ideas about how the cosmos came into being, though I am pretty sure that what I was giving them then was the Steady-State Theory of continuous creation (Hoyle's theory, the one generally accepted then) and not what was at that time the new red hot, and now popular, Big Bang theory. Raymond, who was usually hyperactive, finding it difficult to settle, impossible to concentrate, was very focussed indeed. At the appointed time the bell went and they all trotted out to play. After play was assembly, and there was the head, giving them the story of The Creation from the Book of Genesis. Raymond, I could see, was becoming quite distressed, and remained so after we had regained our classroom. He asked if he could do some painting. I agreed, for I could see that I would get little else from him. And in any case, it was easy for me to agree, for I had planned a session in which small groups would be engaged in different activities - schools were like that back then. I left him alone, but noticed that he had taken several sheets of drawing paper and was busy taping them together. That done, he turned them over and began painting. Almost immediately the scene materialised: mountains appeared, clumps of trees, a river, flowers in the foreground, butterflies, and to one side, beneath a palm tree, a naked female figure at the door of a gypsy-style caravan from the crooked chimney of which, puffs of smoke were issuing. Then back mid-frame, and in the centre a deep valley between hills, and in the valley two figures, a large one bending over a smaller one. The larger of the two, wearing a halo, was holding out an open hand towards the other who was pointing towards the sky. In the sky were birds, stars, the sun and what looked like two moons. At which point he announced that it was finished. I used the recommended format and asked him to tell me about it - never ask what it's meant to be! He explained the landscape as The Garden of Eden, before coming at last to the figures. The small one, I was told, was Adam and the big one God. Adam was pointing skywards to the more insignificant of my two moons and saying So, see there, God? I put that one up! (The first Russian Sputnik had just been launched into orbit). I asked what God had to say about that. Raymond replied that God was showing Adam a tiny spider in his open hand and was saying And I've just made him. Now beat that!

It was suggested to me at the time that the narrative was something he had heard somewhere. I think that may well have been the case, but there is no doubt in my mind that he had taken whatever he had come across, from whatever source, and made it his own. The painting was nothing like any other painting I had seen him do. It was if anything more crudely executed (more quickly, I suppose) but more full of life and with more detail. More naturalistic in a way, in the way of naive art rather than child art. It reminded me in many respects of the paintings of Grandma Moses. It was certainly much larger than anything he had attempted before, but the real difference was the slow, though thorough-going change in him that occurred as he worked. It left no room for doubt so far as I was concerned.

It would be easy, but too glib and certainly too simple, to say that Raymond's painting changed the course of my life, but it certainly changed him, if only for a time, and I do believe that the combination of the narrative that lay behind the painting, and the difference that the painting had made to him, caused it to become a symbol for me, an image that came to sum up the various experiences that would occur during the course of that year, which in total would cause me to leave that school, where I was particularly happy, and to work from then on in special education with (as we now term them) children with special needs. Alas, I never again had a class as colourful as that one (neither could I have expected such a group), but my decision I never regretted.

What I have often regretted, is that I did not think to photograph or photo-copy the painting before Raymond took it home. I doubt it exists now - though on second thoughts that might be no bad thing, for if it does exist, and if I was ever to see it again, it might be that I would be vastly disappointed. I rather think it was a painting that belonged to a particular moment.

Sunday 19 October 2008

You might have missed...

...being a few snippets that have caught my eye in the newspapers this week - there seem to have been more than ususual

Rothko: The Times reprinted a few paragraphs from 1961, headed "Wall of light"

Mark Rothko may well be accounted one of the most remarkable of living painters by virtue of the canvases, simplified to the nth degree and aptly described as "walls of light", into which he is uncannily able to infuse life and significance...
"To achieve clarity," the artist says, "is inevitably to be understood." But how, it may be asked, does one understand a "wall of light"?... There is either a philosophy in it or a strong inducement to attach one. It is the nature of Rothko's paintings not to elude criticism, but to lead to thought.

from Times 2 (15.10.08)

The first solo show in London for six years by Sarah Lucas opened at Sadie Coles HQ last night with plaster casts of her boyfriend's penis. It's a logical evolution from Lucas's previous work that includes a wire penis, another in papie maché and the unforgettable "Penis Nailed to Board".

from Times 2 (15.10.08)

The Frieze Art Fair is back in Regent's Park. Dan Colen is a 29-year-old New York artist said to have "a unique talent for combining grime with the sublime" His oil on wood called "Holy Shit 2006, (The words Holy Shit roughly painted upside down.) costs $80,000 (£45,000).

from The Guardian Weekend (11.10.08) - an interview with Jake Chapman:

asked what was his most embarrassin moment
...losing The Turner Prize to a grown man dressed as a small girl

and asked when he was happiest
...Until Bambi's mother was shot dead in front of me in glorious technicolour. After that, everything seemed to go downhill.

from The Independent (17.10.08): by Tracy Chevalier, author:

Years ago I vowed to see every one of Vermeer's 35 paintings in the flesh, and did. Recently, I was thrilled to see the exhibition of work by the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi at The Royal Academy in London. I've found my new passion.

and The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson was a wonderful biography, focussing on the strange, passionate years when she lived with her brother and kept her journals. Wilson writes elegantly and with insight.

from The Independent (17.10.08):

Every couple of years the world takes some famous person we love and digs away at the scabs of their life until the pus runs. Two years ago it was Gunter Grass. This year it's Milan Kundera (who allegedly once betrayed a spy to secret police). kundera denies these reports. And we all know how reliable old Soviet documents are... (www.bookninja.com)

and: One of the terrors of dating is Milan Kundera, and specifically, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being", the sexually transmitted book that this author has inflicted on a generation of American youth. I recognise the important role of the dating book, that is, the carefully selected work you lend to a prospective lover... the problem is that "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is a really bad book.

Rothko Extra

This is something of a post script to my previous post - a post post, I suppose! Having trawled the web for some time looking for something a little more adequate than the one, rather pathetic-looking Seagram image I was able to find for that post, I finally decided that that was it, that was all that was available. I gave up too soon, obviously (getting sloppy in my old age, no doubt), for no sooner had I posted than I stumbled upon the three that I post below. (I have found others since!)

I am also grateful to Jim at "The Truth About Lies" for pointing out that there is information available on the Rothko Chapel (which I did not cover), for which click here. I should repeat, perhaps, that no matter how good the image, it will be nothing like the reality, for scale and surface are intrinsic to the experience.

Thursday 16 October 2008

chapels, sacred and secular

A true story told to me many years ago goes something like this: a small boy was taken by his mother on his first ever trip round London to see something of the great landmarks. They saw Buckingham Palace and the Changing of the Guard, the Tower of London and Trafalgar Square and then for the grand finale they went to St Paul's Cathedral. They walked up the steps outside and entered through the West door. Somewhere high above them the organ was playing. "And this," said his mother, "is the house of God!" Later that evening he was telling his father about his day. He got to the last bit: "And then we went to the house of God..." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "But God was upstairs hoovering." The bit that I find fascinating is the fact of him lowering his voice to a whisper to tell his dad that God was upstairs hoovering. Cathedrals do that to you, even to young boys who have not yet learnt the expected response. It is there somehow, in the fabric of the building. Churches can do it. Even chapels may do it, but Cathedrals never fail to do it. No doubt size and spaciousness are factors, but it must be more than that. The proportions perhaps... We could go on guessing, but as so often is the case, what works for faith can work for art also. Chapels (if not Cathedrals) can be secular. There are some stunning examples. I have chosen four very different ones. The current Rothko exhibition at Tate Modern got me thinking about similarities and differences between it and the Ofili exhibition entitled The Upper Room which I saw some years ago and of which it reminds me. That was the starting point for my thinking, but the post starts with neither of those.

In 1941 Matisse was living in Nice when he developed cancer. He underwent major surgery and was then cared for with great tenderness by a pretty young nurse until he had recovered his health. She became his model. In 1943 she moved to Vence, some twenty miles away, where she entered the Convent of Our Lady of the Rosary, a Dominican Order. Matisse soon followed her, buying a house not far from the convent. At some point after that she suggested to him that he might like to help with the decorating of the chapel, but he was more ambitious than she, suggesting a purpose-built extension, a chapel in which everything would be designed by him: the pulpit, the chasuble, the pews... Even the black and white of the priests' robes were to be part of the grand design. It struck me, thinking about it, that looked at in a different way, Matisse's chapel is an installation - or could be. Whatever, it was certainly a great opportunity to showcase his work, but an opportunity he would pass up, as we shall see.
I have not been to Vence, but seeing the chapel in that light, I am more comfortable writing about it than I would otherwise be. Most works you need to have seen, but an installation is concerned with concepts, abstractions more easily talked about in the abstract or at second hand than other works of art. Photographs, videos and descriptions from those who have seen it, will take us further along the road of understanding than would be the case with, say, a Rothko.

The architect seems to have given Matisse all he asked for, the overall impression being one of space and lightness, achieved by walls of pure white, decorated with black outline drawings depicting the Stations of the Cross. The only colour belongs to the stained glass windows and to the light that streams through them to create moving abstract picture-shows on the floor as the sun moves round. Greens, blues and yellows contrast with their black and white surrounds and reproduce the characteristic shapes of the local foliage. The windows rise from floor to ceiling; the simplicity of the whole gives an impression of vastness, despite its small size; while the whiteness was meant to both symbolises the coming together of all the colours and the lightening of the spirit. It is a place of great beauty and tranquility.

It took Matisse five years to complete his commission. Some have seen this labour of love as a conversion. He said not: My only religion is the love of the work to be created, the love of creation, and great sincerity.

Matisse's use of light, vital and intrinsic, knitted into the fabric of the whole, is a characteristic of three of my four chapels. Except - time to own up! - they are not all chapels in any generally accepted sense of the word. Two of them are installations, pure and simple, though to me they partake of many of the characteristics of chapels, albeit secular ones. They have attributes enough to become chapel-substitutes. So what am I saying: first, a chapel that is an installation, and now installations that are chapels? But, taking Christ's remark that where two or more are gathered together in His name, He will be there among them, I think it is neither blasphemous nor too fanciful to draw parallels and to say that where a purpose-made body of work comes together under the precise conditions that the artist envisaged for it, then an indefinable something may be there that would not be present otherwise.

Three of the four, though not the same three, share another feature: they are to varying degrees showcases for the artist's signature style work. The exception, as I have already hinted, is the Vence Chapel. A wonderful opportunity, you might have thought, for Matisse to present himself to the world under ideal conditions, and yet he went to extraordinary lengths to efface himself, even working on the outline figures with brushes mounted on two-meter length bamboo poles to ensure that nothing of his usual style crept in.

The Resurrection of the Soldiers

We consider next, though, what is in many ways the odd-one-out of my four, The Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in what is now Hampshire, but was Berkshire. Stanley Spencer was one of the most original painters of the modern era, a one-off. Original in the way that primitive painters are original, with a plethora of detail and a naive religious vision probably closer to William Blake than any other. However. he did receive formal training, at The Slade School, but there is no sign in his work of anything he might have picked up there. His paintings were for the most part set in his home village of Cookham, where he lived all his life, except for two periods as a war artist (WW1 and WW2) and for the five years it took him to complete the Burghclere Commission. The canvases were crowded with the people that he knew and met every day in Cookham. Lovable, slightly rolly polly people for the most part. The paintings were scriptural, interpretations of gospel events taking place in Cookham in modern times.

When you enter The Burghclere chapel you enter a place of Sepulchral gloom. I wonder if my young friend from the St Paul's Cathedral story would have lowered his voice... There is no lighting and there are no significant features but Spencer's paintings. They have a common theme, aspects of military life - and death - at the front, but there is no narrative; they are all stand-alone pictures, but they lead the eye inevitably to the room's main focus, the massive Resurrection of the Soldiers covering the East wall. Despite their subject, the paintings are remarkably light in tone and, given also the slightly cuddly nature of the characters peopling them, some commentators have been led to observe that it must have been a lovely war!

The soldier whose life is remembered by the chapel was killed in Macedonia - where Spencer himself served for a while in the front line - during the First World War.

The Seagram Murals were originally commissioned for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building New York. There is much doubt and controversy as to why Rothko eventually reneged on the commission, sending back the money. He is alleged to have said initially that his hope was that his paintings would spoil the meals for the rich b******s who would eat there. Later he told his assistant that no one paying those prices would ever see his paintings. One version is that he had wanted them to hang in the staff's eating room. He then gave nine of the paintings to the Tate, on condition that they would be given a permanent, exclusive room.

The murals consist of rectangles of soft, luminous colours, the deepest of reds, oranges, maroons, greys, browns and blacks, whose edges bleed into each other. They are shown in a room as sepulchrally gloomy as the Burghclere Chapel, but they are themselves more gloomy than the Spencer paintings. Many people compare the experience with entering a cathedral.As with all Rothko's paintings of this type, you (I!) need to stand in front of the canvas, suspending, as far as possible, any attempt to search for recognisable or suggestive shapes, any analytical activity aimed at discovering their meaning. I think I have said this before in an earlier post, describing it as something akin to meditation. Before long the flat black area reveals itself as nothing of the sort. Other blacks, gradations of all sorts, appear, the way other colours appear in a red brick wall if you study it closely:

The Rothko Seagram
canvases, my metaphor
for death. I've looked at it
in many ways (each age
of man sees it anew),
peered lazily at reproductions,
studied from afar off,
now, in touching-distance,
looming over me, they frighten
with their magnitude. Their dull,
flat, smack of black
is nothing of the sort close up
where flecks and shimmers draw you in.
A man could lose himself in subtleties,
in modulations,
changes to
the light that flows
from paint and texture. You
might see your shadow shaped
and coloured for eternity. My metaphor
for resurrection!

I had intended first to introduce the Burghclere Chapel and to conclude with the Rothko. In other words to start with the busiest and most detailed of the paintings and to progress through to the most minimalist, but finally decided to leave until last the most difficult, Chris Ofili's The Upper Room. I am not a great fan of most installations, as some of you will have guessed by now, but of the two in my collection of four chapels I will make an exception. True, they are installations of paintings, and that helps... The reference in the title here must be to the upper room which was the venue for the last supper of Christ and His disciples - thirteen people in all. The installation consists of thirteen canvases, which in some ways I find reminiscent of the Rothko paintings, except that each bears a figure and the Rothkos, of course, are strictly non-figurative. These are arranged six on either side of a long, specially designed room panelled in walnut veneer. The thirteenth canvas, the largest, depicting the largest of the figures, and the only one whose figure is shown facing the viewer, a Christ - or Buddah-like - figure in gold. This canvas hangs on the end wall, the position corresponding to the head of the table. Each painting is individually lit, but because of the way the images are built up using layers of resin (and the famous Ofili beads, elephant dung and varnish) and because of the way the light hits the paintings, it pours off them as though they were its source. They give a quick first impression as of stained glass windows. Indeed, the whole installation is alive with the play of light and shadow, in which are many references, not just to Christianity but to many other faiths and beliefs. So much is this the case that the viewer becomes personally involved in the narrative in a way that possibly does not happen in the other chapels.

I said there was a difficulty: it is that the twelve disciple-figures are monkeys - possibly not the Christ-like figure, though there is some ambiguity as to that. Specifically, the twelve are rhesus macaque monkeys, the ones most familiar to us from our visits to the zoo, the ones that have been shown capable of using symbols and tools and of possessing some concept of number. The ones, I suppose, closest to us. Is this relevant? I don't know. I have been looking for clues to the symbolism since I first encountered this installation, several years ago. I have not found much help from the critics. Most seem to get stuck at first base, talking about Making a monkey out of religion etc, etc. Rightly or wrongly, I discounted such readings from the beginning. The whole feel of the piece is against it. I thought of the Simian Monkey-God, the symbol of strength and tenacity; and I thought of the monkey as a mirror in Japanese ritual, the way it was at first revered as a mediator and then mocked for its pathetic efforts to be like us - could Ofili be hinting at the pathetic efforts of humans to be Christ-like? - before finally being seen as a clown, an object of laughter, that even while it was being laughed at, could subtly undermine the pretensions of a culture. Then a bit of research turned up the yang wood monkey, symbol of revolution, movement and change.

But our natural reference points (though perhaps not Ofili's) are in Christian Iconography, in which the monkey is a symbol of the devil, or at any rate of mischief. Could that be it, or part of it? There is an additional reason for pursuing this particular line of enquiry, the fact that the twelve monkey figures - though not, as I have already pointed out, the large Christ-like one - are all shown in profile. According to Orthodox Christian Iconography the only figures that may be shown in profile are demons and Judas Iscariot. But now to complicate the picture further, there is yet another fact that might or might not be worth throwing into the melting pot: the monkeys were taken from a drawing by Andy Warhol. So, I thought, (being clever, like!) let's look-see what use Warhol was making of it. Perhaps the clue lies there. It turned out that it was a drawing of a monkey wearing a hat and waistcoat and playing with a cup-and-ball game. Clue? Or no clue? It at least explains why all the monkeys are holding up goblets. It does not explain, though, why they are all stuck with glitter pins. But perhaps this is another example of a work we should not try to analyse. one in which it might be more profitable simply to lose ourselves, but somehow I do not think so. Again, the feel of the work does not suggest that to me. The figures are sumptuous, produced by a patternig of monochrome dots on grounds of senuously swirling flora and abstract shapes.

I have provisionally decided that Ofili might have chosen monkeys for his figures in order to dilute any specifically Christian references and to give us instead a potpourri of vaguer religious feelings to do with beauty, awe, deep affinities with the natural world, sublimity, the futility of human desires, etc. He is particularly adept at such syncretising the varying aspects of different faiths. I would be greatly interested to hear if anyone has other readings to throw into the pot.

Sunday 12 October 2008

More on Mr McTavish

This post is some what off topic, for which forgive, for I have had several emails asking for more information on Mr McTavish, one in particular has led me to offer this short post on the gentleman, who, to the best of my recollection, was my teacher from around my ninth birthday until the end of my eleventh year - year six in the new money!

The happenings recorded in the poem were typical of his spelling lessons which, for obvious reasons, were always the last of the day. The first lesson of the day also had a typical format. He would usually begin it with the words: When I was in Mesopotamia... There would then follow a longish discourse on some aspect of mind over matter. He had been an army medical orderly in Mesopotamia and he would tell us in lurid detail how early every morning he and his friend and fellow orderly would walk across the sands towards the large hospital in which men were dying of dysentery. The point of the story was that he and his friend would vow to each other that neither of them were going to catch it - as, indeed, they did not, because of the power of mind over matter.

The clothing described in the poem was but part of the picture. The shoes he only wore for the spelling sessions - i.e. for the jig he played in the spelling sessions, for they had to do with appeasing the god of that particular piece of music. He would change into them during afternoon playtime. The plus fours were standard wear. Additionally, though, he would wear a coloured handkerchief in the top pocket of his jacket, the colour being that demanded by the gods of the composer whose music he was playing.

One strangeness, was his belief that sugar was the cause of cancer. He convinced us all of this, or so I believe. He had some very graphic descriptions of how, if left in a glass of water overnight, a cancer would turn to sugar by the morning. To this day I do not take sugar in tea or coffee because of the effect upon me of those lessons. My Grandmother, who loved a drop of tea to moisten her cup of sugar, would be livid with rage whenever I recounted these sessions.

The result of one session remains vivid in my memory, because it brought about a sea-change in attitude and behaviour, not just on my part, but on the that of the whole class - no mean feat, I can assure you, for it was a fairly tough school. The session had to do with a lady whom everyone knew as The Mitcham Belle. She lived alone in an air raid shelter on the green adjoining The Cricket Green; a brick shelter, wholly above ground, not one of the dug-out type. She had a sack of manure as bedding. We boys were fascinated by this, not being able to make up our minds as to whether she slept under it for warmth or on top for comfort. The shelter was without any facilities or comfort and was pitch dark inside. She was very sad and very smelly - even without the sack she would have been smelly. There was much gossip about her and I fear she had a torrid time of it from us boys - until Mr McTavish decided to intervene. He devoted a session to the matter of The Young Lady Who Lives on the Green, which lesson title he wrote in green chalk along the top of the long blackboard fixed to the wall. After that we left her strictly alone - and even defended her against other, less civilised, boys from other, less civilised, schools. I do not remember much of the actual lesson, only its result.

He had one highly discernable effect upon me: entirely as a result of his teaching I saved my pennies and bought myself a copy of Plato's Dialogues in the Penguin edition. I bought it as soon as it came out, or as soon as I could lay hands on it, I am now not sure which, but I do remember that The Republic, which was my favourite, was in verse, and I can still recite whole chunks of it that I learnt then, not because anyone said I should, but simply for the pleasure of it.

So too, it was his influence, I am sure, that was instrumental in encouraging me to ask my mother please to cancel my standing order with the newsagent for the weekly Film Fun and Radio Fun, and to order Punch instead. Thinking back to those days, it struck me that he was in many ways a typical English eccentric - except that he was Scottish. I also began to think about those teachers who have meant the most to me and really made a difference. He would rate as one of the top two, I think. The other was very different, a geography teacher at the Grammar School, who taught us more than just Geography: how to take notes that could be referred to at a glance, for example. The whisper was that he would have been lecturing in some university somewhere had he not had too much of the communist about him. He was certainly head and shoulders above the general run of the teachers we had then. It was not just his name that endeared him to the boys - Sidney Bottoms.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Thoughts on the Musée des Beaux Arts

The images are: Botticelli's Martyrdom of S Sebastian and
A Crucifixion by Giovanni Bellini and Grünwald's Isenheim Altarpiece

About suffering were they never wrong,
Auden's old masters who beautified it,
crucified Christ in gardens of delight
and showed Sebastian as bright as song?
Grünwald alone among them was one strong
enough on truth to let flesh be corrupt,
while Bosch gave fantasy its nightmare flight
with carte blanche for the devil-throng.
But for life's darkest horrors truly told
come closer to our times: Guernica,
the shootings of the Third of May by Goya
or Kahlo's broken body... But does loss
less threaten dressed or with a gentle gloss?
Was that their unique flair, those men of old?

The images in order are: Picasso's Guernica, Goya's The Third of May (1808) and Frida Kahlo's Broken Spinal Column

Sunday 5 October 2008

The Cliché's Bad Press

A recent visit to Poet Hound's Poetry Tips set me thinking about clichés. The post was concerned with them and with catch phrases, the tip being: Why not use them in poems the way Andy Warhol used pop culture in his art? I decided to have a bit of fun with the idea, concentrating on clichés. The poem below was the result. I emphasise that it was just a bit of fun, (I spent no more than 15 minutes on it, possibly less, so it is definitely not Wordworthian), but it led to deeper thoughts, not profound, mind you, but deeper - thoughts which have led on to this post.

At the end of the day...

when all that is not rocket science has been said
and done, God will be the final cliché. Fact
of the matter is he is a God to die for, for his raft
of special measures for mankind has led
to millions going head to head to win their daily bread;
by millions more a too low profile kept;
and further millions rated last who had been least;
not to mention donkeys flogged who were long dead.
It's neither here nor there to say
that those who sing from another sheet
may live to sing another day,
may have the young and callow at their feet
or on the soul's back burner stoke
the fires without which is no smoke.

Until early in the nineteenth century, the word cliché meant a stencil or stereotype as in a printer's metal printing plate. The process was that papier-mâché or some such material would be used to produce a mould from a block of type. The plates would then be cast from the resulting mould. Towards the end of that century, however, cliché had begun to take on the critical meaning that we give it today.

Just so that we are all singing from the same hymn sheet, a definition might be in order here. A cliché is an overused expression, a word or phrase that has lost its original power and meaning by being so overused. (Ideas, too, can become clichés, but I will come to those later.) Today, the word cliché usually refers to a word or phrase that has become annoying to a significant number of people, so over-used is it. This is apt to occur when it has become difficult to detect a specific meaning for it in a particular context. Also today the word is taken to indicate a certain sloppiness or laziness on the part of the author, perhaps even insincerity.

So where along the line did the word come to gather around it the pejorative associations that are now almost always ascribed to its use? For it was not always so. It is interesting to note that the modern meaning of the word dates almost exactly from the first stirrings of a general desire for originality. This is no coincidence. If we go back to classical times we find that writers like Virgil and Homer used expressions which in a modern writer we might denounce as clichés, and used them for a variety of purposes including the maintenance of the work's rhythms and as an aide-mémoire. Homer's Odyssey, for example, I have heard criticised for its repetative use of the phrase rosy-fingered dawn, but in fact Homer was writing within a well-accepted and established tradition. His readers back then would have seen nothing there about which to be critical. Neither should we forget that Shakespeare and the Bible are both rich sources of cliché, nor, indeed, that today's cliché was yesterday's powerful - and possibly original - phrase. Some will argue that the only reason a cliché is so called is because it has stood the test of time and is now what it always was: a good turn of phrase.

There is another valid use of cliché, which is in extempory speech where it may be used to give the speaker thinking time to mentally plan the next point or idea.

Even today, a good case can be made for certain uses of cliché in literature. The expression of irony, for example, this may involve the twisting of a cliché, thus: Never do today what you might put off until tomorrow. It might be useful to portray a character, maybe by putting a string of clichés into his mouth: You've let the grass grow under your feet, m'boy and now you are reaping what you have sown! tells us a great deal about the character. It might also help ro realise that a complete avoidance of all clichés is hardly a practical proposition.

So when does a cliché stop being a positive contribution to the work in question and become a thing to be avoided? I have already hinted at one answer, the one given by most people, I believe, in their response to a speech or a reading: it is a cliché of the kind to be avoided at all costs when it is irritating to its readers or listeners and/or when it appears to have no specific meaning in a particular context.

I also said earlier that cliché does not have to be a word or a phrase, and neither does it. All the arts have clichés of their own. Film for example, is heavily laden with them. Here's one: we see a pair of feet creeping across a dark screen. We cut to something shiny, reflecting the light. Cut. The something shiny has become a hunting knife. It is being held aloft in a gloved hand. The screen goes black. There is a scream. We see the knife again, now dripping blood.

Think of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and the clichés in that, from the shower and shower curtain, to Perkins's oedipal relationship with his mother... except that they were not cliches when he made the film. He was working creatively, but the film spawned a whole genre of clichéd films. (To my mind Psycho was not his best film, nowhere near as good as the earlier North by Northwest and Strangers on a Train.)

One of my all time best ten was cliched, though, but in my opinion rose magnificantly above them: High Noon and
Now here is a list of general clichés. You almost feel you ought to be able to buy them at the corner shop. Buy two, get one free.

  • Sunsets into which lovers walk and cowboys ride,

  • Escaping goodies and baddies who always make for the top floor from whence escape becomes more difficult

  • Good dying characters who would not be seen dead unless they were surrounded by friends

  • Good dying characters whose final words are always lucid and significant, if not philosophical

  • Good dying characters who nearly always close their eyes at the point of death

  • Good friends of the good, dead character on hand to close the eyes of those who do happen to die with them open. (The eyes always stay closed after such ministrations.)

  • Characters having nightmares who invariably sit bolt upright upon waking. (Unlike us in real life.)

  • Dogs who never fail to detect the baddies with their highly moral doggie sixth and seventh senses

Examples occurred to me faster than I could write them down, but I have probably given enough here. No doubt you could add scores of your own, for they are not difficult to come by. But here are a few I think work and work well as stereoypes, though you may not think well of them on moral or ethical grounds:-

  • The sinister lump on Richard III's back.

  • Captain Hook's evil prosthesis.

  • Captain Ahab's wooden leg.

  • Steinbeck's use of the moron to portay menace in his character of Lenny.

  • The stereotype of the Jew in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice

But at the end of the day and bearing all things in mind, it remains the fact that that which causes us to frown heavily at the cliché is that which gave us the word in the first place: the desire for originality. All of which leaves one question still bugging me, a side issue perhaps, but germane to an extent: do we sometimes sacrifice too much in our quest for originality? I was left pondering the question again this morning after reading James Campbell's account of an interview with Derek Walcott in this morning's (04.10.08) Guardian. Walcott quotes Pasternak's remark that Great poets have no time to be original.

Thursday 2 October 2008

Mr McTavish

Dancing on the table, blue
patent leather shoes, plus fours.
The same old jig - a touch
of Ireland in his veins, perhaps.

End-blown, the flute
(he'd have us know), the best
for spelling - but the fancy dress
was to appease the gods of music.

Our place to dance around the table.
We tried, but lacked the needed rhythm -
and the appetite. Perhaps
if we'd worn patents or plus fours...

Who knows? Mourners with no funeral,
we were; a cortège with no coffin.
But when the music stopped abruptly -
as it would, the flute flung out

on a long arm's end, its mouthpiece
drooling his saliva
like a baleful dog, and staring
straight at one of us -

we'd shuffle into statue mode,
silent and preoccupied, like
old folk counting, waiting for
the thunder after lightning. Then:

Spell chrysanthemum! he'd roar.
Or brontosaurus! or bronchitis!.
If you were chosen and could spell
your given word spot on (no

hesitation) you could go, walk out,
be early home for tea. Bronchitis
was my favourite. And his. For me,
my annual enemy, I knew it well;

for him, First rate banana skin -
a simple word to catch most folk
He would laugh at me:
I dinna ken anither lad

get bronchitis with sich ease!

One day, my first back after illness,
he had a cake to welcome me -
and that with war-time rationing!

For him, I had a doctor's note:
I'd chronic bronchiectasis,
was not to take part in P.T..
He read it through a few times while

I waited for the classroom to catch fire.
But no, he smiled, then laughed out loud:
We ken you spell bronchitis lad, spot on -
but fecks, your doctor canna!