Category Archives: religion

Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape at the British Museum

[This article originally appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

Every now and then — probably no more than a handful of times in anyone’s life — one stumbles over the sort of art exhibition to which the proper response isn’t so much respect, or admiration, or polite enthusiasm even, as something far more intense, personal and profound. The British Museum’s Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape is, for me anyway, one such exhibition. As compact, satisfying, modest, original and brilliant as the artist’s own strongest works, the show is at once an absorbing survey of Palmer’s own career, and a window onto nineteenth century British landscape art more generally. But for some viewers, perhaps, it will be even more than that. Put bluntly, I turned up at this exhibition liking Palmer’s work, not least because of its importance for Neo-Romantic artists such as Nash, Sutherland, Ravilious, Piper, Minton and Craxton who already meant a great deal to me — but by the time I left it was Palmer himself who had swept me off my feet.

Life and death
The facts of Samuel Palmer’s life are straight-forward enough. He was born in Newington, South London, in 1805. His father was a bookseller and Baptist lay preacher. A happy childhood ended suddenly, first with a miserable six months at the Merchant Taylors’ School in 1817, and then the death of his mother early in 1818. It was around this time that Palmer decided to become an artist. His family encouraged him, his skill was precocious and at the age of 14 his picturesque landscapes had been shown at the British Institution and the Royal Academy.

By 1822 Palmer had met several of the artists who would play an important role in his development: John Linnell, William Blake, George Richmond. Together with Richmond and others, he formed a society known as The Ancients, which its combination of religious serious-mindedness, artistic endeavour and mutual affection followed the Nazarenes and anticipated the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The group centred around Shoreham, a pretty village nestled in the Kent Downs, where Palmer lived, on and off, from 1826 until 1835. In 1837, having moved back to London, he married Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, with whom he had three children, two of whom died young. In particular, the loss of Palmer’s son Thomas in 1861, aged 19, was a blow from which the artist never entirely recovered.

Prior to his son’s death, Palmer travelled extensively — to Rome and Naples, but also within England and Wales — in search of subject-matter for his paintings and drawings. Afterwards, however, he retreated to Redhill in Surrey where he became a virtual recluse, although he continued to work. He died in 1881, at the age of 76, with his old friend George Richmond at his bedside. He is buried next to his wife in St Mary’s churchyard, Reigate.

Palmer’s legacy
The success that Palmer achieved in his lifetime was real but in some ways modest. He was, first and foremost, a ‘painter’s painter’, which is to say, admired more energetically by fellow practitioners than by the market or the critics: in his own words,

designing what nobody would care for, and contracting, among good books, a fastidious and unpopular taste.

Ruskin, at least, wrote warmly about his studies of foliage, and Palmer was elected to the various societies of watercolour painters that flourished during his age.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, he was largely forgotten. Snobbery about the media in which he worked may have played a part, for instead of producing large oil paintings, Palmer focused on creating drawings, watercolours and etchings, occasionally even committing the terrible art-historical faux pas of engaging in commercial illustration. In any event, it was only in 1926, with a massive exhibition of his work at the Victoria & Albert Museum, that he came to be accepted as one of Britain’s pre-eminent Romantic artists, fit to be mentioned alongside Blake and Turner. In particular, his early landscape drawings, executed in brown ink and sepia, coupled with the few remaining gem-like painted panels from his Shoreham days and his moody late etchings, seemed to offer the young British artists of the 1920s — themselves keen watercolourists, graphic artists and illustrators — both a visual language near-magical in its freedom, very surprising but also very English, and perhaps even more importantly, the possibility of re-enchanting a threatened landscape with its cadences.

Not that Palmer’s gift to future generations was anything like a unitary, imitable style. Palmer’s own influences were diverse, the lessons he learned from them highly personal. Relatively unfamiliar figures such as Lucas van Leyden and Giulio di Antonia Bonasone mattered as much to him as did Titian, Durer, Rembrandt and Claude Lorraine — a point developed skilfully in the present exhibition. The collections of the British Museum, located round the corner from his home during his adolescent years, were another source of inspiration. And then there was the gravitational pull of his various contemporaries, including Blake, Linnell and Turner, the force of which can sometimes be seen in Palmer’s art, although never overshadowing his own highly personal line.

Perhaps inevitably, in a working life that spanned six decades, Palmer’s own working practice, subject-matter and mood changed considerably. A crude narrative of this progression might run as follows: precocious but unoriginal picturesque landscapes, followed swiftly by ‘primitive’, visionary and entirely original sepia drawings and small tempera panels, followed by larger, brighter, skilful yet once again more conventional watercolours of ‘romantic’ landscapes, foreign and domestic, followed finally by the late etchings which recaptured a measure of that early strangeness and utter distinctiveness. In other words, it’s a story of youthful inspiration ultimately recaptured in a moving late style infused with private loss. Given that Palmer did not succumb to the Romantic cliché of an early death, it is hard to see how his career could have run on more Romantically acceptable lines.

Yet what this sort of narrative never captures, with its tidy but false discontinuities, is the silver thread of individual sensibility running through all the phases, connecting them together with unmistakeable, sparkling coherence. Thus in bringing together such a large and varied collection of the artist’s work, the present exhibition, arranged by the British Museum in cooperation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, not only provides a rare opportunity to experience the breadth and variety of Palmer’s achievement at first hand, but also to see his best-known work in the context of a long, fruitful career. Or to put it another way, if some of the more florid or cosy watercolours of the ‘Victorian’ Palmer have proved harder to love, either for us or for our grandparents, than either the early or late work, we can at least take pleasure in scanning them for sublimations of earlier obsessions, adumbrations of future concerns. Finally, the opportunity to see the works in the context of the life — for the exhibition is arranged along chronological, biographical lines — yields generous rewards. The Shoreham scenes start to mean more for what one can learn of Palmer’s idyllic early days there. The lonely tower — that haunting leitmotif of Palmer’s last work — means more when one understands its connection with the death of Palmer’s beloved son.

Doing justice to Palmer
The organisers of Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape, a event timed to coincide with the bicentenary of Palmer’s birth, deserve unbounded praise. It is, I imagine, harder than it looks to arrange an exhibition so that the subject stays in the foreground, with the organisers’ labours firmly in the background. Yet that is very much the case here. For while the exhibition provides a richly informative account of Palmer’s career — including, as we have seen, the artistic and literary sources that mattered to him, the media in which he worked and the reaction of his contemporaries — curatorial cleverness never gets in the way. The exhibition space — a curving, partitioned room suspended within the British Museum’s Great Court — works surprisingly well, both in terms of directing the flow of visitors, and in providing a warm, rich, sympathetic environment for the work. Perhaps basic professionalism should insist on both these things. But then there are lovely touches, too, like providing photos of Palmer’s various houses, or showing his old spectacles and engraving tools, which are so replete with sympathy for the subject as to transcend plain old competence altogether. The organisers have also secured some amazing loans from within Britain and from around the world, ensuring that the view of Palmer’s art is a comprehensive, virtually definitive one.

Meanwhile, the catalogue (William Vaughan, Elizabeth E. Barker and Colin Harrison, with additional contributions) is a model of its type, full of incisive essays addressing various facets of Palmer’s achievements, followed by full descriptions and illustrations of all the works on show. For those who come to Palmer knowing virtually nothing, it should provide an excellent introduction, while have much to offer even long-time Palmer enthusiasts. The bibliography is helpful, too. It is also a great relief to handle a catalogue that is so thoroughly practical, informative and illuminating, rather than bulked up with pointless theoretical padding and huge empty margins. It’s hardly surprising that the British Museum seem to have sold out of their first printing within a few weeks of the show’s opening.

Picturing Palmer
I started this review by writing that the effect of the exhibition had been not simply to make me appreciate Palmer’s art and his ongoing influence — which, to some extent, I did already — but rather, to make me feel drawn to Palmer himself. But although this may sound odd, is it really so unusual to think about artists in such terms? I once knew, for instance, an intelligent woman who couldn’t stand Picasso’s work because, as she told me more than once, she considered him an evil misogynist, and indeed I have to admit, oddly or not, that I disagree more with her account of Picasso, and perhaps with her intolerance of misogyny, than I do with the underlying logic of her position. From Vasari to the makers of every silly High Art biopic, the impulse expressed in such judgements is, if nothing else, a very human one. Ultimately, few of us are formalists of sufficiently robust and icy austerity to ignore the artist himself entirely when sizing up his work. And when the work is as intensely personal — informed by personal vision and personal experience, as well as by more public concerns — as is much of Palmer’s, ignoring the man behind the vision runs a real risk of ignoring the vision itself.

Practical difficulties, needless to say, often intrude here. Especially as one goes further and further back in time, it’s hard to get a very accurate sense of what an artist was actually like as a person. In the case of someone like, say, Uccello or Bosch, there’s not much to go on besides a trickle of stories, accurate or otherwise, heard inevitably in the shadow of the work itself, from which we are left — for such is the rather circular nature of this project — to conjure up a three-dimensional living human being. For more recent artists, in contrast, there’s much more biographical material to provide evidence, more divergent points of view, more exposure to present-day controversies. But then there are clearly fine critics out there who claim to be able to consider, say, Diego Rivera’s art without reference to his politics. At some level I admire the amount of rigid mental and emotional categorisation it must take to make this sort of self-denying ordinance work in practice. Oh, I know — there’s nothing very grownup or clever or elegant about what is, in effect, ad hominem art criticism. Needless to say, though, I couldn’t begin to stand back from it myself.

Palmer’s politics
As it happens, it is possible to know quite a lot about Samuel Palmer — and not just the subjective impressions one can glean from his magnificently luminous Ashmolean Self Portrait, either, with which the exhibition begins — although, having said that, there is nothing intrinsically offputting in the discovery that Palmer may have had tousled hair, lean yet handsome features, thoughtful, kind, slightly sad dark eyes and a rather lovely mouth. No, the real treasure as far as knowing Palmer is concerned lies in the letters that survive from him. They allow us to come very close indeed to hearing the artist’s voice, almost as one can in the letters of that other Christian artist with mystical inclinations, Vincent Van Gogh. As well as appearing elsewhere, including in at least one full collection, Palmer’s letters make up the heart of Geoffrey Grigson’s important biography, Samuel Palmer: The Visionary Years (1947), a fascinating book not just for what it tells us about Palmer, but for the degree of distance its various obsessions, prejudices and elisions demarcate between Palmer’s times and those of Grigson himself — the Romantics versus the Neo-Romantics, as it were — as well, now, as the distance between Grigson’s times and our own.

What, then, do we know about Palmer? His Dissenting background and a long-term obsession with Sir Thomas Moore notwithstanding, his religion was Anglican, serious and more insistently orthodox as the years passed. His politics were High Tory. He distrusted ‘innovation’ and ‘progress’. He was capable of being earthy, playful, funny and downright silly. He was also capable of enthusiasms, evasions, irony, kindness, conviviality, loneliness and real sadness. He was, to all appearances, an affectionate husband and father. He was neither particularly desperate for worldly success, nor in any way dismissive of it. He enjoyed music and poetry. He loved cats. ‘Nature’ per se didn’t interest him so much as did landscapes that were tilled, grazed, built upon and peopled — a prejudice he would bequeath to his Neo-Romantic heirs and epigones. Warm-hearted good sense shines out everywhere from his letters. In short, as far as I can see, he was a very likeable man.

Reading backwards from this knowledge, our understanding of Palmer’s art alters slightly — but in all honesty, I do think it is possible to intuit a fair amount about Palmer from his pictures, too. Of the Shoreham period, we should know more, perhaps, had Palmer’s surviving son Herbert — the person, I should add right away, who probably did more than any other to conserve Palmer’s legacy and to make the 1926 exhibition possible — not chosen to burn so many of his father’s works in 1909, ‘knowing that no one would be able to make head or tail of what I burnt; I wished to save it from a more humiliating fate’. Possibly the dreams of a young Romantic were too challenging for an ageing Victorian to decode; alternatively — and with an eye, for instance, on the overt eroticism of fellow Ancient Edward Calvert’s drawings — perhaps decoding the work was all too easy. It’s a shame, though, not only because the panels that survive are, with their golden-honey surface and half-familiar, half-mysterious imagery, amongst the most arresting works of their period, but in particular, for the window they appear to offer into Palmer’s inner world.

And yet, as both the exhibition and the catalogue make clear, Palmer’s Shoreham paintings and drawings may speak as much about the public affairs of Britain in the 1820s and 30s as they do about Palmer’s private universe. Indeed, at some level the two are impossible to distinguish. Coming from Evening Church (1830) sums this up. The little painting shows a pastor and his flock of parishioners leaving their tall-spired parish church and stepping out into a landscape of cosy cottages, trees forming Gothic arches and an enfolding circle of curving hills, all awash with golden moonlight. The figures, many of them bearded, are dressed in timeless flowing robes, as if they had just come from one of Blake’s drawings. Yet the meaning could hardly be more alien to that other visionary painter’s enterprise, for what Palmer evokes here is not some abstract cosmic saga known only to a inspired Dissenter, but rather an ideal of Anglican community created at a time when both parish and community were seen to be under threat.

We know, too, that these threats mattered to Palmer. The concerns are present in his letters, but perhaps most spectacularly manifest in the pamphlet he wrote during the general election of 1832, in which he endorsed his local Tory candidate and denounced the recent Reform Act, ‘the importation of Yesterday, from poor, degraded, dishonoured, Atheistical France,’ whose supporters were, as Palmer put it, ‘Jacobinical hyenas’. There were more observations in a similar vein condemning the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and defending the preservation of the tithe system. Palmer had held these views, as far as we can tell, consistently, but the immediate circumstances of life in rural Kent in the late 1820s and early 1830s brought them to the very much to the fore. These were, after all, the days of the ‘Captain Swing’ riots, the burning of barns and hayricks, the destruction of threshing machines and genuine fears of widespread, French Revolution type insurrection. Palmer’s criticisms, incidentally, are never levelled against the agricultural labourers themselves, but rather, against the Radicals who were manipulating them into calling for ‘reforms’ that would, as Palmer correctly intuited, do little or nothing to ameliorate their circumstances.

It is against this background, then, that a work like Coming from Evening Church starts to make sense as what it must have seemed to contemporary viewers, which is a combination of personal revelation and public exhortation. My companion at the exhibition has compared this little painting to an icon. The comparison works, I think, on several levels, for while there is something very icon-like about the intimate scale and the golden glossiness of the surface, there’s also a strong sense that the work condenses into simplified visual form a whole universe of belief, hope and faith, and that at some level what one is being asked to do is less to admire the skill and imagination behind the creation of the little image, than to respond directly to what the image instantiates. And to do this latter thing, I suppose, requires both a little knowledge of the world within and against which Palmer was painting, and also a little sympathy with Palmer himself. In that sense, of course, Coming from Evening Church is a very English icon indeed, insisting as it does on its own particularism and localism and unwilling to disentangle itself entirely from issues of personality, of politics, even private eccentricity. Yet if the Anglican tradition had ever encompassed the making of icons, might they have been so very different from Palmer’s mysterious, hieratic yet generous Shoreham works?

Palmer past and present
Even today, set against the towering reputations of Blake, Constable and Turner, Palmer’s name is still too little known even in his own country, let alone further afield. Maybe the present exhibition will change this, although it seems quite possible to me that it will not. Perhaps there will always remain something of a beautiful, precious secret about Palmer’s finest work. Perhaps the secrecy resides in the intimate scale of the sheets and panels, the necessity of drawing very near in order to see what’s going on in those strange, dark landscapes, the fields and folds lit only by the light of a low-hanging crescent moon. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.

Alternatively, though, perhaps this sense of a shared secret is somehow tied up with the nature of Palmer’s vision. His world is at once safe and weird, domestic and haunted, comforting and uncanny. Disregarded details — the moss on the roof of a rotting byre, the bark of an old oak — suddenly assume that stark lucidity only possible in dreams, while whole hills and forests drop away into black-shaded nothingness. Who else in this country has ever painted darkness so well? Palmer’s is an England of deep lanes and soaring church-spires, sheep in full fleece clustered together for company, tall corn the colour of gold or flames and hares casting shadows like sickles. It’s timeless, which is to say, it was perhaps no easier a fit with the age in which it was created than it is with our own.

Yet for all its peculiarity, Palmer’s vision has a way of seeping out into our world, as it did into world of the 1920s and 30s where its influence upon the Neo-Romantics was so formidable and important. Palmer’s ability to work on the viewer’s eye and heart is still very real. Emerging from the British Museum, having submerged oneself in the exhibition then surfaced again into the ordinary world, suddenly, at least for a little while, spires and skies and shadows really do all look different — richer in meaning, both more magical yet at the same time more real.

And that is, I suppose, why I ended up warming not simply to Palmer’s work, but to Palmer himself — or at least to the Palmer I think I met amongst the pictures, the biographical facts and the old correspondence. So much more than that of many artists, his work makes sense to me. I don’t think Palmer ever saw in art a substitute for religion, nor a way of changing the world, but rather, a talisman to be held up in the face of a life where change too often meant the end of something that mattered to him followed by the long slow adjustment to the fact of its unrecoverability. People he loved fell prey to death and disagreements, the England he loved was vanishing under the heavy-shod advance of industrialisation and commercialisation, and few seemed to understand the desperation these changes aroused in him. The religious faith, the friendships and family bonds that sustained him seem, for all the good they did, never entirely to have reconciled him to any of these things.

Art, though, may have helped a little. In his art — not just the Shoreham work either, but the caliginous ink drawings and late etchings, even the sweet-coloured watercolours – he conjured up a land beyond of all such deterioration. It wasn’t quite Heaven, because it was too much like England for that. All the same, it was a place exempt from the everyday tragedies of change and decay, bathed in a light that was kindly as well as strange — a landscape enchanted by Scripture, poetry and remembered happiness, peopled with timeless beings as much at home in the world of Virgil or Milton as in the Shoreham of the 1830s, their faces usually averted, as indeed the faces of the dead so often are in dreams.

This is, I suppose, precisely the sort of project that will bore, confuse or annoy at least as many viewers as it comforts or delights. Of course, people who wish their art to be ‘about’ light, or colour, or form, or meticulously literal verisimilitude, or a dozen other things along those lines may well find something that draws them to Palmer’s work. Palmer was, after all, an artist of considerable breadth, whereas in framing one particular view of an artist, as I have done here, with an emphasis on one particular period of a long working life, breadth is the first casualty. This account also suffers from something approaching a failure of tone, always threatening to impose on Palmer a nostalgic, faintly depressive seriousness which was really only one strand of a complex, dynamic, resilient, often endearingly playful personality. To that extent it’s inadequate. But then it’s never really easy to explain why one set of drawings and paintings and etchings strikes right at one’s heart, while another leaves one cold, any more than it is easy to explain the equivalent attraction when it happens with places or people. The only easy part is knowing that it’s happened. So in a world where it’s all too possible to feel a bit jaded about visual culture, a bit impatient with the claims that are made for it and the tiresome ritual trappings that surrounding it, the organisers of Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape are to be congratulated for reminding me, and perhaps others too, of what drew us to art in the first place.
Dr Bunny Smedley lives in London with her husband and young son.

Comments Off on Samuel Palmer: Vision and Landscape at the British Museum

Filed under art, religion, reviews, Tory things

The Westminster Retable at the National Gallery

[This article was written for the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

The British people do not love their own visual culture as much as they might. All the clichés of our national identity tell us to look elsewhere for Britain’s greatness. Ask a thousand people what it is that Britain has historically done as well or better than any other nation on earth: the answers, though plentiful and various — language, political institutions, legal systems, written literature, engineering, industry, empire-building, choral music, children’s television, self-deprecation, irony, whatever — will not include the visual arts. We are aware that our most feted artists — from Holbein and Van Dyck to Sargent and Freud — were born elsewhere, have rightly or wrongly regarded most of our native-grown products as mad or silly or both, and look out towards Italy, France or points farther west, our faces creased with a mixture of anxiety and condescension, for our measures of visual achievement. It is as if we still, at some level, need to define ourselves as a people of the Word rather than the Image — of reality rather than imitation — and are never really comfortable unless this is seen to be the case. Hence the jealous husbanding of ‘our’ second-rate Raphaels, the assumption on the part of the media that every arts story is humorous, and an ongoing inability to get to grips with even the most modest of public commissions — except, oddly, in wartime, when we do this rather well.

Ruined choirs, reused retables
These, anyway, are the reflections prompted by the Westminster Retable, just back from six years’ worth of painstaking conservation work and currently on show in the basement of the National Gallery. For most of its 750 years, this extraordinary object could be found about half a mile south, in Westminster Abbey. For although its history is more a matter of learned conjecture than of certainty, the best guess — and much has apparently been learned in the process of conservation — is that the Retable was created by Anglo-French artists around 1260. It may well have been commissioned by Henry III in the course of the pious project of rebuilding and decorating the Abbey as a fitting shrine to his royal predecessor, St Edward the Confessor, whose body was interred behind the abbey’s High Altar. The Retable’s dimensions, sophistication and splendour suggest that it could well have formed part of the High Altar itself. And if this were true, what we see before us in the National Gallery today was once a focal point of one of pre-reformation England’s most opulent and famous devotional destinations.

Less than three centuries after it was set in place, however, the Retable fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which in 1540 transformed the Benedictine abbey into the cathedral church of the new Diocese of Westminster, and then in 1560 refounded again as a collegiate church. Like other popular pilgrimage sites, the Shrine of the Confessor was largely demolished. Although there was a brief restoration of St Edward’s cult under Mary, Elizabeth’s reign saw a reorganisation both of St Edward’s Chapel and of the Choir, where the High Altar stood. As so often was the case in the English reformations, however, this reorganisation was the stuff of matter-of-fact bureaucracy rather than hot-blooded iconoclasm. Some unknown administrator’s practical streak ensured that the Retable, rather than being tossed onto the bonfire or smashed into a thousand pieces, ended up, by the late seventeenth century, serving as part of a cupboard in which the wax funeral effigies of monarchs were stored. In 1778, the disregarded cupboard was modified once again so that an effigy of William Pitt the Elder could be displayed more attractively for paying tourists — a project that involved scraping down some of the surfaces and repainting part of the Retable in fetching shades of green, white and grey. More damage was done to the wretched object at this point than in the course of its entire previous history.

Only in 1827 did anyone apparently realise that the Retable was of any interest whatsoever — and needless to say, this being Britain, the ‘interest’ was antiquarian, rather than aesthetic. Nevertheless, a rescue was executed. The Retable then survived in varying degrees of general obscurity until 1998, when the Dean and Chapter sent it off to Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for cleaning and conservation. And now for four months the Retable — Britain’s oldest major altarpiece, and undoubtedly one of the most significant survivals from the medieval art of the British Isles — is on display in the National Gallery, before returning to the Abbey. Public display may, perhaps, raise this magnificent, ruined treasure to a more elevated place in our national consciousness. More likely, however, indifference will prevail, followed swiftly by oblivion, if only because the object on show in the National Gallery constitutes, at some level, such an alarming departure from what we believe to be the truth about British art. Or to put it another way, while our seventeenth century forefathers recast the Retable as a cupboard and did so quite successfully, there are all sorts of reasons why our own attempts to remake it again as ‘art’ may prove a good deal less effective.

Moving images
What is there, then, to see in that rather dingy Trafalgar Square basement? At first glance, not much. The Retable is, at some level, even after all that restoration, a wreck. Over three yards long and perhaps a yard high, shaped like a long rectangle divided into five panels, the initial impression is of a mess of damaged gilding and missing inlay, blank surface where there should have been line and colour, omission and loss where there surely ought to have been something else. It’s hard not to wince a little as the reality sinks in. But then, stepping closer, some of that remaining line and colour starts to resolve itself into meaning. Yes, there’s damage and chaos and pointless violence. But here and there, fading in and out of sight like a vision on the point of embodiment or disintegration, there is also — one gradually begins to see — the most astoundingly intricate, delicate, elegant painting, executed in rich and jewel-like pigment on gold ground. This isn’t just a ruin — it’s a wonder, too.

Before discussing its significance, it’s worth spelling out the subject-matter of the work. The first panel, on the left, depicts St Peter. Moving from left to right, the next panel contains three damaged yet largely legible compartments featuring scenes of Christ’s miraculous interventions — The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (Mark 5:22-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:41-56), The Healing of the Man Born Blind (John 9), and The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14:14-21, John 6:3-14). Finally, the middle panel — the last in which any painting survives — shows Christ standing under an intricate Gothic tabernacle, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Christ is shown, not crucified, but rather standing whole before us, dressed in magnificent robes, one hand raised in blessing, the other gracefully supporting a tiny globe representing Creation, guarded and guided by His might.

Needless to say, the Westminster Retable was never meant to be a work of art. It was meant, instead, to do its job, which was to provide a fitting setting for the miracle of the Eucharist which took place daily before it. Perhaps, given its proximity to St Edward’s shrine, it also provided some sort of commentary on God’s ability to work wonders with the dull stuff of everyday life. For the imagery of the Retable is extremely unusual. So, too, is its opulence. It is, after all, a good deal more than just a painting, which is what most of us tend to think of anyway when confronted with that word ‘art’. Elaborately carved and gilded, some of the surfaces were once set with stained glass, while elsewhere glass has been placed over oil-based paint in order to simulate enamel. Originally the Retable would also have been decorated with simulated gemstones and cameos. When trying to reconstruct the impact the Retable must have made when new — its sheer visual firepower — it is worth thinking not just of the various thirteenth century altarpieces we now know as isolated panels, stranded in the secularising limbos of galleries and museums, but also of garish, exciting confections such as San Marco’s Palla d’Oro, which in terms of sheer magnificence is perhaps not unlike what Henry III might have wished to achieve, had he possessed the wherewithal to do so.

Get thee to the V&A
For we can’t escape those international comparisons, can we? Not least, conventional wisdom tells us that there’s far too little extant medieval British art with which to construct some sort of frame of reference. And when it comes to painting — ‘art’ in the sense of something that can be seen, looking through the appropriately teleological lenses, to develop over the centuries into museum-quality easel painting — this is, of course, true. How typical was the quality of, say, the Thornton Parva retable, stranded in rural Suffolk? How typical was the Coventry Doom? How mutually comprehensible, let alone consonant, were the visual rhetorics of the court painters and their country cousins? We’ll simply never be sure — and since these wall-paintings, by their nature, are scattered across all sorts of unlikely locations, we are unlikely to be troubled overmuch by such questions.

What we do know, however, is that English embroidery, stained glass, manuscript illumination and, in particular, the alabaster devotional sculptures produced in Nottinghamshire were at various points considered sufficiently desirable as to flow steadily into continental Europe. Unfortunately, however, we are particularly likely to ‘know’ this fact if we spend a lot of time poking around the museums and galleries of continental Europe. For what it’s worth, my first encounter with a Nottingham alabaster carving was at the Musee Cluny in Paris — and my first run-in with a really handsome set of English vestments may well have been in the museum of the Cathedral Chapter House in Siena, if not in Padua — certainly, though, Italian regional collections are full of the stuff.

The point, though, is this. Here in London, panels from altarpieces by Giotto di Bondone (maybe), Duccio di Buoninsegna, Hans Memlinc and dozens of others take pride of place in our National Gallery. At the same time, if you want to see medieval British art, you need to travel down to South Kensington to a museum which, for all its glories, was explicitly created to improve the quality of contemporary design and manufacture, rather than to display ‘art’. And there is, alas, still enough life in those old snobberies to provide a persistent undercurrent of commentary on the relative quality of home-grown visual culture, past and present. Or to put it another way, it’s possible to get rid of potentially troublesome objects without actually smashing or burning them.

Art and the Absolute
So, how to regard what’s left of our pre-reformation visual heritage? Stranded somewhere between art and objecthood, these relics — to use a loaded word — challenge us to categorise them.

In the finest British tradition, I was expecting the Westminster Retable to be — what? Interesting, maybe — or better still, to use that good seventeenth century word, ‘curious’, in the sense that I hoped the Retable might somehow tell me something about the devotional practice of 13th century Anglo-French court culture. What I wasn’t expecting, because we are not really accustomed to thinking of British medieval art in these terms, is the degree of aesthetic shock it would confer. The Retable’s beauty — and this time there isn’t really any other word that will do — literally made me catch my breath. The play of blood-bright reds against the dark greens and lapis lazuli blues is delicate, lyrical, intelligent. The flow of line is sinuous, playful, surprising. There is evident love for detail — the curl of a lock of hair, the twisting contours of outstretched fingers — but the demands of that love are never allowed to interrupt the formal imperatives of whole panels, or of the overall composition. There is sweetness in the faces, but also real vigour in the sway and balance of the figures. Naturalism isn’t the really point — but I can never for the life of me understand why anyone looks for ‘naturalism’ in a depiction of Christ in Glory.

Those who enjoy seeking some putative Englishness of English art in anecdote, decorative qualities and an ineffable yet present sweetness will find much to enjoy and recognise here. They may smile particularly on the tiny landscape — the most English, apparently, of artistic endeavours — captured, in schematic miniature, in the tiny orb Christ cradles in His hand. But anyone who might wish to move on from the Westminster Retable to, say, the work of Duccio or Simone Martini may be taken aback by the Retable’s sheer quality. No, it wasn’t meant to be ‘art’ any more than Duccio’s panels were — but there can be little question, even in its current, mangled form, that it can hold its own against the best products of contemporary Siena, Dijon or Paris.

The painted Word
Finally, those who suspect that a rather gentle, low-key, regretfully nostalgic Romanticism was always the authentic mode of English (in this case, not British) visual culture will perhaps suggest something further, which is that the terrible, ravaged nature of the surface of the Retable cannot honestly be disaggregated from our reaction to it. They would, of course, be correct. The chips, the yearning gaps, the achingly empty panels and the pointlessly brutal excisions underlie a thick varnish of known history, for which no degree of wilfully anachronistic aestheticisation is an effective solvent. The work might as well have ‘protestant reform woz here’ scratched across its damaged gilding. To that degree it is now poignantly about loss, change, unrecoverability. Those two long Tudor reigns which made ours a different country likewise made their marks, literal as well as figurative, on the Retable. All of which means that the post-Christian poetry of lost or failed beauty is powerful here — although it is by no means the only possible response to the Retable’s unmistakeable aura. It’s worth noting that both Paul Binski, the Cambridge University art historian who wrote the explanatory notes for the work, and a spokesman for the National Gallery have described the survival of the Retable as ‘miraculous’. Whether this strikes you as to any degree an odd choice of words is, if nothing else, a reliable index as to the subtle secularisation of your own intelligence.

All of which is quite a lot of reflection for quite a small area of extant pigment. Do, though, if you are in London over the next four months, do your best to visit the Westminster Retable in its dun-coloured, ill-lit, slightly depressing basement. It is not well sign-posted, and since the inexpressible delicacy of the brushwork requires extremely close-up viewing, there’s a certain amount of time spent standing behind dreary and self-important fellow Retable-spotters, craning for a glimpse of this extraordinary thing itself and often failing to achieve that glimpse. But it’s worth every bit of trouble you put into it, if only because viewing the Retable is sure to be so unlike any other gallery experience you will have had before, or are likely to have any time soon. There is, quite simply, nothing like it. For that reason alone, it deserves far more interest and engagement than I imagine it will receive.

No art, please, we’re British
Britain’s casual disregard for her nation’s artistic achievements is, no doubt, a sign of strength. Not for us the wistful resignation of the Italians or the Dutch, always looking back to an increasingly distant Golden Age when everything was so much better — nor the assertive boosterism of anxious places like Catalunya or Eire, or for that matter the USA in the mid-20th century, labouring under the historicist delusion that a strong artistic past might somehow imply an even stronger geopolitical future.

Britain, in contrast, is always wondering, admittedly without any great sense of urgency or seriousness, why her own art isn’t something else. We, for instance, have Hilliard and Oliver — instead of Tintoretto or El Greco. We have Dobson and Lely — rather than Watteau or Poussin or Claude. We have Thornhill — yet who visits the Painted Hall at Greenwich? Meanwhile our Reynolds kept talking to us about the sublime delights of Italy, and our Turner just swore and whored and kept on painting, and our Sickert was half-foreign anyway. By the time we come to the 20th century, what is there to say about British art? Picasso didn’t happen here, nor Matisse, nor Malevich. While the watery lager was flowing in the Cedar Tavern and America was lost in the throes of creating its own high imperial style, British artists were patiently adumbrating kitchen gardens, chalk figures and parish churches. The heroes of Abstract Expressionism played out their various drunken, messy endings with self-indulgent grandeur; in contrast, when our best artist of the 1930s died young, it was because he was shot down over Iceland while serving as an official war artist. We more or less invented Pop Art — a movement hard to read as anything other than commentary not on our own culture, but on someone else’s. And so on, and so on. Art history can be seen to move first in one direction, then another. Quite rightly, we are ambivalent about where we stand, as a nation, in regard to such movement. It must also be said, we also don’t really think it matters that much one way or the other.

On one hand, we do not see ourselves as successes in the field of art. On the other hand, we know perfectly well that political stability and mercantile success has ensured that Britain has better holdings of Italian, French and even Dutch art — let alone that of ancient Egypt, Greece or the Far East — than any other single nation on earth. We may have destroyed, in a low-key way, most of our own medieval art, but we’ve collected an awful lot of everybody else’s. We have provided a safe working environment for Warburg and Gombrich, although we have also nurtured Blunt and T. J. Clark. We would rather have launched the YBAs through the agency of a lazy sort of dole than any sort of concerted patronage of the arts. We quite like Tracey Emin, if only because she lives up to the sort of drunk, promiscuous, shambolic frivolity we’ve expected of artists, from Whistler and John to Bacon and early Hirst and beyond. And for that reason — to protect our sense of who we are, and what matters to us as a nation — we’d probably rather forget the aesthetic claims of the Westminster Retable, and what this strange, sad, horribly abused object says about us. Soon, of course, it will be back in the Abbey, which without doubt is a very good thing. That’s where it belongs. But for the next four months, we are going to have to work harder than usual to ignore the full complexity of Britain’s own visual inheritance.
Before she started writing about art, Bunny Smedley’s doctoral work at Cambridge University addressed the tensions between popular piety and official policy in the course of the Tudor reformations.

Comments Off on The Westminster Retable at the National Gallery

Filed under archive, art, culture, history, religion, reviews

Caravaggio: The Final Years at the National Gallery

This article first appeared on the website of the Social Affairs Unit.

At the heart of any exhibition review, after one’s stripped away the informative, fun or rancorous bits, there is almost always a simple, yes or no question waiting to be answered: is it worth bothering to see this show? So I might as well come clean right away. Yes, Caravaggio: The Final Years, currently showing at the National Gallery, is worth seeing. The organisers have managed to bring to London a few paintings of extraordinary quality, interest and importance, most of which rarely leave their usual domiciles in southern Italy. One or two are truly unforgettable. And it hardly needs saying, at least amongst people who know anything at all about art, that Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) was a magnificently innovative, endlessly surprising painter whose influence was immense and who continues to be copied and name-checked now, centuries after his short life ended. So to experience any of his autograph work at first hand, even amidst the least encouraging of circumstances, is a boost to anyone’s visual literacy. For that reason, if no other, it would be a mistake to miss this exhibition. In the end, after all, it’s the art that stays lodged in the mind — not all the transient infelicities of this misguided, mismanaged exhibition, which is so very many ways ought to have been so very much better.

In the spotlight
Let’s start with the single worst misjudgement first. What’s the one thing that everyone knows about Caravaggio? And no, I don’t mean his homicidal turns, his energetic bisexuality, his gift for making enemies or any of the other colourful content of his turbulent life — what’s the one thing that everyone knows about his art? It hinges, of course, on light. Caravaggio’s chief legacy to his followers was a whole new vocabulary of light, in which the intense contrast between illumination and shadow could frame a moment of drama, add weight to a composition or simply speak for itself with a degree of expressive potency unparalleled in earlier art. This, coupled with the so-called ‘realism’ of Caravaggio’s work — his tendency to people his holy scenes not with ideal types cribbed from classical art, but with the all-too-human prostitutes and petty criminals who filled the streets of places like Messina and Syracuse — bundled up, it must be said, with the strange lithe sexiness of some of his figures — that is what contemporaries found most striking about his work. And indeed, it what we find most striking now. But over the course of his life, Caravaggio’s use of light changed. It seems clear that in those last years preceding his death, his treatment of light and darkness grew more extreme, more intense and more violent than ever before. So presumably, an exhibition focusing on Caravaggio’s final years should provide ample scope for examining the painter’s use of light — its development, and, to the extent that the chronology of works is clear, its ultimate conclusion. We should expect to learn a lot about Caravaggio’s light. And if we don’t, then something has gone pretty badly wrong.

Yet what we encounter instead, as we file with the rest of the throng down the stairs into the airless, charmless bunker that constitutes the Sainsbury Wing’s special exhibition space, has to count as one of the most bizarre and inexplicable mistakes ever perpetrated by a major art institution. What we see isn’t Caravaggio’s light — it’s the gallery’s light, and pretty darned strange it is, too. Somewhere along the planning process for the show, someone obviously decided that it would be a really good idea to keep the exhibition space extremely dark — dark walls, in oxblood and slate, as well as a generalised absence of illumination — while at the same time training spotlights on the paintings themselves. The result? As might have been predicted, this arrangement (more familiar from, say, the London Dungeon than the more upmarket reaches of the tourism spectrum) has the effect of making the usual unremarkable crowd of massed cultural consumers look marginally more like figures from Caravaggio’s canvases — while making the canvases themselves almost unreadable. The raking light tells us a great deal about the glaze layers and the overall condition of the upper few inches of the larger works, bleeds all the colour out of the centre of the work and inflicts strange patches of glare everywhere else. The larger paintings are simply impossible to see in their entirety. Did no one notice this before the exhibition began? Did no other critic notice it? The literal-mindedness behind this decision might be vaguely endearing had the show been organised by a team of enthusiastic six-formers. Coming from the curators at one of the world’s greatest art institutions, though, it is nothing short of scary. What next? Insisting that viewers can only enjoy Bruegel’s riotous kermesse scenes after consuming four or five pints? Refusing to show Turner canvases anywhere except outside, preferably in a thick fog? Making everyone strip off on their way into a Lucian Freud retrospective? Demand that only horses can see the forthcoming Stubbs show?

Down to our level
But then there’s other evidence afoot that, in the midst of organising all the loans and scholarship and hype, no one actually thought to look at the end result. For one thing, the large works are all hung incredibly low. Does this matter? Well, yes, in all sorts of ways.

Let’s take a simple example. One of the highlights of the exhibition is a magnificent Flagellation (1607), usually on show at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples. It’s a spectacular work even in the company it encounters there, tall and commanding, powerfully emotive — a perfect painting to experience in the run-up to Holy Week. Christ, head bowed, figure painfully twisted, naked except for His crown of thorns and a brilliantly-executed strip of white cloth, is tied to a massive stone column, flanked by the figures of three of his tormentors — two framing Him, one just a little taller and one a little shorter, another crouched at His feet. It is this grid of bare, pale limbs — Persecuted and persecutors entwined together in the elaborate choreography of suffering and forbearance — that gives the composition its almost electric charge — that, and Caravaggio’s inimitably successful way of establishing complicated spatial relationships through gesture and illumination. In a canvas that divides neatly into three horizontal fields, it is the lower two in which all the action occurs, while the velvet black of the upper canvas is mostly there to bear down upon the actors, forcing down Christ’s head, pushing His tormentors in closer to Him. In some ways, in fact, the lowest third, while less obviously full of psychological force than the centre third, has the most vital part to play, for this is both the area that establishes most clearly the relationship between all the figures, and that gives the viewers that almost frightening sense of proximity to, or perhaps even complicity in the terrible scene unfolding before us.

Yet here, at the National Gallery, what do we see? Not what we would have seen in the church of San Domenico Maggiore, that’s for certain, where the painting once hung and where a replica version hangs today, high above a raised, consecrated altar in a relatively narrow transept chapel flooded with natural light — which is to say, leaving the liturgical context aside for a minute, an uninterrupted, clear, upward-looking view of this magnificent painting. Instead, in the Sainsbury Wing, we simply see a flock of dramatically-lit gallery-goers lost in the whispered confidences of their audio-guides, and then rising above them, the upper two thirds, or perhaps the upper half, of the Flagellation. Well, perhaps even half of something this good is better than nothing?

Notes and queries
Still, while waiting in the inevitable informal queue that develops alongside the smaller works in order to allow some sort of view of them — the handsome, sober Portrait of a Knight of Malta for instance, or the distinctly creepy Sleeping Cupid — there are plenty of minor puzzles to help pass the time. How, for instance, did it come to pass that a costly, purpose-built, contemporary exhibition space, created expressly for the display of Old Master paintings, suffers from a nasty, glare-afflicted lighting scheme that, while it might please conservators, plays havoc, again and again, with what we must assume to be the painters’ intentions? And given the tendency of these Old Master shows to include large altar-pieces — one thinks here of the recent Titian, El Greco and Raphael exhibitions — isn’t it unfortunate that London’s main Old Master exhibition space has such repellently pokey little proportions, truncated sight-lines and all the charisma of a particularly lacklustre underground car-park? And — here’s an old favourite — why is it every time the National Gallery shows its own Old Masters alongside those from other collections, the National Gallery paintings always look so flat, so lacking in depth and luminosity, in a word, so hideously over-restored? (At least the answer to this final, rather upsetting question is being explored to good effect elsewhere.)

So far, then, so bad. Time, perhaps, to give the organisers of Caravaggio: The Final Years a small dose of credit where credit is plainly due. There is one practical aspect of their work that deserves a generous dollop of praise. Having complained recently on this site about the usual dichotomy between the uninformative, free exhibition leaflet versus the unwieldy, far-from-free catalogue, I was delighted to encounter a neat response to this problem — a compact, free exhibition guide containing a brief introduction, a short description of each painting and a tiny bit of useful additional material. Although one could quibble about some of the content, this is, more or less, the right size and shape and complexity of thing to accompany most of us around an exhibition, answering the most urgent questions and providing a point of reference if we want to pursue more complicated points elsewhere. (The catalogue, while illustrated in admirably true colour and hence in some ways a better source of visual information about the pictures than real life encounters with them in the present exhibition, is otherwise an oddly hermetic affair, of interest to connoisseurs of Italian art-historical academic cat-fighting only.) Other institutions would do well to adopt this format, although curators might well argue that it is particularly suitable for shows featuring only a tiny number of actual works.

Qualitas quam quantitas?
For that is another curiosity of this exhibition. When Caravaggio: The Final Years first appeared at the Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte in Naples, it was considerably more expansive, containing 19 accepted works, 9 copies of missing originals and 5 new proposed attributions. In London, by way of contrast, there are 16 accepted works — and that’s all. But the Italian show had another advantage. To crib a point made by Brian Sewell in his perceptive Evening Standard review of the London exhibition, Naples is so glutted with work painted by Caravaggio, as well as work profoundly influenced by him, that viewers can be assumed to know a lot, consciously or otherwise, about this painter, whilst visitors from Rome have the full benefit of all his earlier, more spectacular achievements there. By contrast, what do we have in London? The National Gallery’s Supper at Emmaus (1601), which is perhaps stretching the ‘final years’ concept more than a little, a Salome that Sir Denis Mahon bludgeoned the Trustees into acquiring, and not a lot else. All of which means that these 16 works, hung sparsely across the six dark, underlit rooms, are presented not only with very little context in terms of their original patronage, function or reception — the kind of lacuna we’ve come to expect by now — but also with very little context even in terms of art history. Or to put it another way, if you have the misfortune to enter this exhibition without any knowledge of what Caravaggio was getting up to before his ‘final’ years began, you’re going to emerge back into Trafalgar Square none the wiser. All of which is a bit odd, because surely half the point of the whole ‘final years’ tag is to make a distinction between earlier and later work, even to argue (however gingerly, given the bad teleological risks involved) for some sort of ‘late’ quality inherent in the work, some intimation of the end, perhaps something approaching a summation.

But it just isn’t here. How are we to recognise from this exhibition the distance travelled between the lush, overripe, gone-to-seed homoeroticism of his early work and, say, the very late St John the Baptist included here — coarse-featured, enervated, bled dry of fleshiness and physical appeal but perhaps more seriously invested with psychological insight? Or between the vivid colour of the earlier work and the near-monochrome rigour of David with the Head of Goliath — a really magnificent work, by the way, made all the more arresting by the suggestion that Goliath’s head was modelled on Caravaggio’s own? The overall effect is less a narrative of change and development than the evocation of one particular phase of a career. Yet even here, the chronology is still so hotly disputed, the number of works so small and the span of time over which they may have been painted so relatively large, that in the end, really, what is produced is more effect than argument — a show to experience with your eyes and heart and viscera, but not necessarily your intellect.

Spot the difference
There’s an exception to this, however. One of the high points of the exhibition is a comparison between two versions of The Supper at Emmaus — the National Gallery’s own painting and a loan from the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. It is the one point at which the comparison between ‘early’ and ‘late’ becomes real, because there — assuming one can see past the crowds, the glare and the nasty finish on the National Gallery’s version — it is possible to look back and forth from one to the other, analysing what was gained and lost in the development of the image. This is the kind of totally engaging experience that perhaps uniquely justifies all the time, effort, cost and danger consequent on the organisation of an exhibition involving paintings of this quality. What a shame, then, that there are not more such experiences on offer here.

Here, in front of these two powerful yet divergent works, even the least experienced Caravaggio-watcher can chart out for himself the way in which a completely different mood, a completely different spiritual impact is achieved. He can see, as it were, the brilliant reds and golden yellows of the National Gallery’s version drain away — we have to assume that they were not all created by dodgy ‘cleaning’ — to become the sombre, umbrous tones of the Brera painting. He can watch the focus simplify from that rather elegant repast to a quasi-sacramental loaf and wine-jug and the circle of interconnected gazes. He can see how apparently minor shifts in the gestures of the figures transform the scene from one of high drama to one of wonder too deep either for exclamation or exertion. Movingly, he can experience a sort of nightfall between the two works, drawing in about the Brera piece as if to make this scene the only one in all the world, so that the viewer shares the uncertainty of the participants: ‘And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered …’ For of the two — and doubtless familiarity plays its usual deadening role here — while the National Gallery version may be the more spectacular piece of painting, it is the Brera version that makes the more powerful spiritual point. And because Caravaggio is a painter who always seems, in a strangely modern way, to draw the conversation back to himself, one stands before this painting somehow imagining that the man who painted it must have felt in his own heart the appeal of the Emmaus story, with its promise of hope, even when hope seems most foolish and futile.

Is nothing sacred?
All of which brings us to a very basic problem — for once, not the problem of this exhibition per se, but of virtually all exhibitions of devotional art. No one would be barbaric enough, in these robustly civilised times, to suggest that a Cubist work by Picasso or Braque would look better with a thick layer of varnish. Nor would they suggest ripping the glass off one of Bacon’s Studies after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. And what is clearly the worst thing Clement Greenberg ever did? Not his self-centred mistreatment of lovers, colleagues and students, obviously, because that only hurt other human beings. No, his real sin was to encourage the loss of paint from the surfaces of some of David Smith’s sculptures. For these days there’s a general agreement that the artist’s intentions regarding a work are, if not literally sacrosanct, then at very least worthy of serious, scrupulous respect. Who, when hanging a Rothko exhibition these days, would ignore his well-publicised views about the height at which his works should be hung? Only someone who was purposefully making some sort of statement by doing so. It would be like hanging late Turners without frames, in order to make them look more contemporary — a tail-wagging intervention, soliciting approbation from critics and, mostly, other curators. It would not be done accidentally, not only without comment but almost without consciousness. If the edict were disobeyed, such a dandyish gesture would only call more attention to the edict, and to the importance of its conservation.

And yet such is, almost invariably these days, the fate of Baroque devotional art. Who cares if an altarpiece was designed to be hung at a certain height, to be seen from certain vantage-points but not from others, to be illuminated in a certain way and from a certain direction, and to be experienced in the context of particular surroundings — paintings, sculpture, architecture, whatever? While I have no idea whether Caravaggio is known to have made a great fuss over such matters, I do know for a fact that Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Raphael and others all did. What’s more, their patrons, critics and admirers were also demonstrably conscious of this sort of issue. Anyone who has ever yawned their way through any serious work on Renaissance or Baroque patronage knows the immense amount of tedious discussion surrounding scale, frames, harmonisation with other nearby work, visual puns, the overall impression made by a work once installed in its intended site — in other words, aspects of its visual functionality. Nowadays, however, it is considered perfectly normal — and like the present show, the El Greco and Titian exhibitions were perfect examples of this — not only to show unfinished, cut-down or otherwise damaged work, but to hang work low, more or less unframed, against gallery walls under artificial light. Is this really the best way to learn anything about an artist, though — even at the basic level of trying to understand how he wanted his paintings to look? Of course not. Instead, such hanging schemes bring the devotional hardware of other times and places down to the level of our present-day art, created for the tartish humours of public scrutiny in a shifting world of white-walled, anonymous galleries. And of course something is lost in this translation. No wonder these Old Master exhibitions so often have a strange, inexplicable air of sadness lingering about them.

God and man in Sicily
Inevitably, a lot of meaning is lost, too, in the decision to move a painting from a church into a gallery. Those who derive their knowledge of Caravaggio principally from broadsheet newspapers’ regurgitations of National Gallery hype, if not from that Derek Jarman’s film, may be surprised at the notion that Caravaggio’s work might have any religious meaning whatsoever. Surely a mentally-unstable bisexual murderer — for few artists have ever been luckier in their modernist, ‘misunderstood outsider’, creative credentials — couldn’t possibly have painted a ‘straight’, serious devotional work? Surely the hand that enthusiastically depicted all those pouting rent boys masquerading as St John, what with everything else it got up to, couldn’t have been connected to a self-consciously Christian soul? Surely these works, with all their drama, earthiness and patent genius must always have been mostly about art, or perhaps about the artist, and not about something as old-fashioned and dreary and unremarkable as actual Christian faith?

To be fair, Caravaggio is hardly the only painter who is burdened, again and again, with our baggage of anachronistic and frankly myopic secularist assumptions, although his bad-boy image makes him a particularly soft, receptive target. Goya is another, especially for those either unwilling or unable to understand the distinction between anticlericalism and atheism. For what, after all, is the point of painting something if you’re not out to undermine it, critique it or transgress against it?

It would, obviously, be foolish to ignore the amount of pride in his own workmanship, the sheer competitive zeal that must have gone into the scraping-into-life of Caravaggio’s most successful paintings. There’s a kind of wilful extremism in some of those compositions, in some of the schemes of illumination, that speaks as clearly as mute pigment can of the desire to push his medium just that little bit further than any of his contemporaries dared to go. The need to be at the cutting edge is one that we understand, although perhaps these days that understanding is intercut with a hint of nostalgia That is perhaps why the National Gallery is so keen to tout Caravaggio was ‘the first modern artist’. But I think we need to take seriously, too, the possibility that there was more than artistic ambition, coupled of course with the desire to make a bit of money, behind the creation of Caravaggio’s devotional work. It is all too easy, now, to read into those broad-featured peasant faces and dirty feet some sort of attempt to criticise the wealth and power of the ecclesiastical hierarchy or perhaps even to subvert belief, full stop — less easy, perhaps, to remember the desire of many Counter Reformation thinkers to develop an affective, personalised, down-to-earth style of religiosity both to wrong-foot protestant critiques and to improve the breadth and depth of public devotion. Surrounded by all the trappings of liturgy and faith, in the churches for which they were painted, we might at least have been able to explore whether this work might still speak to us at the level those who commissioned it, and perhaps even the artist himself, intended. In the Sainsbury Wing basement, however, it is hard enough for the paintings to function as art, let alone as anything more significant. And really, this should be a source of sorrow for all of us, Christian or otherwise, if only because it sets up a barrier between us and these magnificent, mistreated acts of creation.

Not in the South
Still — well, in the end, for all its faults, Caravaggio: The Final Years is still worth the admission fee. Several of the paintings are simply that good. I’ve mentioned, already, the Flagellation from Capdimonte and the David from the Galleria Borghese, Rome. Both are remarkable, yet what admirer of the Baroque won’t eventually find his way to a gallery in central Rome (no matter how eccentric its opening hours) or to the hills above Naples?

In that sense, the real wonders here are the three major Sicilian paintings which are much less well known to those of us languishing in London — the Burial of St Lucy from Syracuse, and the Raising of Lazarus and Adoration of the Shepherd from Messina. Of these, the St Lucy seems, at first, the easiest to dismiss, but is perhaps the greatest. It is a bit of a mess — thin in parts, with areas of repainting and a complicated, vexed history — and looks deceptively simple. But the longer one looks, the more there is to see in this strangely warm, earthy yet luminous work. The two gravediggers (what Leon Golub always tried to achieve, yet never did) seem too monumental to be ordinary humans, leaning inwards, their gigantic forms describing a sort of parenthesis within which much of the action occurs, while the almost scary foreshortening of the dead saint’s body provokes a sense of crisis, looking just that little bit too dead for comfort, and the cusp of the bishop’s mitre is picked out abruptly by the raking light. A blood-coloured cloth, near the centre, provides the only flash of colour. Meanwhile, the upper half of the canvas is occupied only by shadow and a mysterious double arch. The rhythms here repay protracted study — the composition is nothing short of amazing — but perhaps even more remarkable is the sense of age, mystery, gravity produced by this rather sketchy-looking, damaged marvel, which alone would have made entry to the exhibition worthwhile. It looks almost like an excavated fragment of classical Roman painting. It looks almost like some sort of artefact, a relic of something real, rather than just a painting, just a construct. The National Gallery speaks of ‘the first modern painter’ with the implication that this is a point in Caravaggio’s favour. Whereas in my own mind, Caravaggio may be the only painter other than Rubens to tackle the classical world more with lust and understanding than with deference. And what, in the first decade of the seventeenth century, could be more of a marvel than that?

But then the two Messina paintings are also, in their own ways, marvellous. Both share the reddish-brown cast and the low, wedge-shaped composition of the St Lucy. The Lazarus is laid out like a frieze, with Lazarus stretching his arms out in clear evocation of the Crucifixion, his right hand rising above the file of wondering mourners in order to connect, visually, with the imperative, pointing finger of a monumental Christ. The strange frightening light picks out bits of drapery, contours of flesh. Intuitively, the hot-blooded Caravaggio seems a world removed from cool, cerebral Poussin, yet at moments like this the two draw very close indeed. Meanwhile the Adoration is unlike any other treatment of this subject I’ve ever seen. It isn’t so much that all the actors are ‘ordinary’ — Netherlandish painting tended to cast those shepherds as very ordinary indeed — but rather, the psychology of the moment is evoked so unsparingly and perhaps so personally. Once again, much of the upper half of the canvas is lost in the dark — but in this case, rather than suggesting infinite space above, some sketchy rafters instead reveal how low are viewpoint is beneath the eaves of this low stable. Mary is lying on the ground, propped up on a feed box. She looks, frankly, exhausted — like a woman who has just given birth. She is nuzzling her baby, who reaches His tiny fat hand up towards her face. This, obviously, and correctly, is all she cares about — not the strangers kneeling in front of her, not Joseph, certainly not the indifferent bulk of the livestock, as impassive as statues, only a few feet away. It’s a very tender painting, but the sacramental still-life in the foreground lifts the tenderness above sentimentality, just as the emotive power pushes the composition far beyond mere artistic brilliance. It’s real and raw and beautiful. It’s the sort of painting that reminds us why Caravaggio is so easy to copy, yet so impossible to equal.

Ultimately, then, Caravaggio: The Final Years provides an odd sort of access to the life and work of one of Europe’s greatest and most influential painters. There’s no context, no sense of development, because the late work we see is contrasted with nothing. There’s no particular sense of why the work was painted, or what it was painted against, as it were — the work of Caravaggio’s predecessors and contemporaries, so richly represented only a few yards away in other parts of the National Gallery. The paintings are hard to see, while the lighting scheme and the overblown emphasis on the artist’s tempestuous life broadcast a pointless air of theatricality over the proceedings. Did the curators really believe that these paintings could not have made a case for themselves without all that regrettable ‘first modern painter’ bombast, the glaring spotlights and the melodramatic darkness? If so, they were bizarrely, inexplicably wrong. Viewed either at the level of stepping-stones in some narrative of learning how to make pigment on canvas do heart-stopping things — or, better still, as a particular individual’s highly distinctive meditations on the great truths of suffering, death and redemption — there’s enough here to make yet another grudging visit to London’s worst exhibition space entirely worthwhile. Despite itself, this is an exhibition worth seeing.
Bunny Smedley used to be Arts Editor of electric-review.com.

Comments Off on Caravaggio: The Final Years at the National Gallery

Filed under archive, art, religion, reviews

Double Dutch, part 3: What do the Netherlands mean?

18 August, 2003
CULTURE: Double Dutch, part 3
What do the Netherlands mean?

After two days in Amsterdam I spent a morning in The Hague before returning to London. More than anything else, The Hague is the anti-Amsterdam. Amsterdam adores its self-image as a city that has for centuries steered a stubbornly independent course from the rest of the Netherlands, whereas The Hague grew up a royal peculiar, the castrated and all-but-harmless darling of formal power. Even when its people proved themselves something other than harmless — for instance, in the gleefully unpleasant murder of the de Witte brothers — the underlying message was mysteriously legitimist, even well-behaved. Perhaps this is why the Dutch government, like others around the world, has shied away from locating its capital in its major city. So it is that Queen Beatrix still arrives every Prinsjedag at the pinkish fairy-tale castle that is the Binnenhof, having travelled there in a golden coach from the nearby Huis ten Bosch, for the state opening of the Dutch parliament.

Given The Hague’s slightly priggish history, it somehow also makes sense that the United Nations’ International Court of Justice should be based in the Hague — although having said that, as the casual visitor wanders back from an elegant tree-shaded market or from lunch beside a languid canal, it’s a shock to encounter the structure wherein Slobodan Milosevic waits in a twilit world of legal limbo — his prison an unremarkable low building given added interest by those festoons of barbed wire, manned checkpoints and men carrying guns. This is considerably more security than the Huis ten Bosch is given. But as for the rest of The Hague — and very much in contrast with Amsterdam, because it is almost impossible not to compare the two — everything else in this capital city radiates sleepy, complacent ordinariness. A large, mostly charmless shopping precinct fills the centre of The Hague which, a few architectural tweaks apart, might well be in Lille or Nottingham or Stockholm; out on the edge of town, old warehouses and cheap housing have been pulled down, and insubstantial-looking corporate office buildings thrown up in their stead. Beyond stand the reassuring green fields, the farm buildings, the tranquil cattle. Locals enjoy the tiny hint of glamour that the presence of so many international diplomats brings to their town — The Hague is still not a city — yet are not entirely comfortable with the dark-skinned recent immigrants who staff the accompanying service sector and who threaten to transform this sleepy enclave, like it or not, into something slightly more cosmopolitan

But for those of us who are neither diplomats, indicted war criminals nor the Queen of the Netherlands, the pre-eminent reason to visit The Hague is that most beautiful of Dutch museums, the Mauritshuis. Named after the man who commissioned and lived in it, Johan Maurits (1604-1679) — an eminent sprig off the Orange family tree, long-time governor of Brazil, Dutch field marshall, Golden Age court politician, and much else besides — the Mauritshuis is an elegant little Palladian jeu d’esprit, hovering over a water-lily-choked lake in which, when I was there, a bluish heron was nesting. Once it was Maurits’ townhouse, fashionably close to the seat of authority at the Binnenhof. Now it is home to several of the most famous paintings on earth.

As with the Rijksmuseum, the Mauritshuis’s history as an art museum is paradoxically rooted in the French desire to make the Louvre the most exciting display of imperial plunder since the days of Alexander. That desire, although not entirely thwarted, inadvertently resulted in a general European impulse towards museum-building as a form of national self-promotion. In 1822 — less than a decade after most of the works stolen by the French had been returned to the Netherlands (strangely, however, at least 70 of them were never returned and still remain in French provincial collections) — the Mauritshuis opened its doors to the public. As the official court newspaper put it, ‘from now on the Royal Cabinet of Paintings in The Hague can be visited on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 am to 1 pm by anyone who is well dressed and not accompanied by children’. Although this civilised and sensible restriction was later dropped, the Mauritshuis soon became, along with the Rijksmuseum, a magnet for anyone with an interest in Dutch art.

From the start, however, the Mauritshuis differed from its Amsterdam-based sibling in two important ways. The Rijksmuseum, having been created by an act of parliament, was funded by a combination of public contributions and state subventions, and, in everything from its name to its extravagantly didactic building, radiated a sense of ‘belonging to the nation’. In contrast, the Mauritshuis — or, to give it its correct present-day name, The Royal Cabinet of Paintings, Mauritshuis — remains at its heart a royal collection, housed in an supremely elegant little patrician townhouse where kings and princes have been entertained, and appearing even now to admit the public largely as a gesture of splendid, extravagant noblesse oblige.

The second difference, following on from the first, has greater implication for the nature of the collection. As we have seen, from very early on, the Rijksmuseum set out to create a representative collection of Dutch art, with a special emphasis on the Golden Age — and a concomitant and perhaps unavoidable tendency to prefer some aspects of Golden Age art to others. The Mauritshuis proceeded slightly differently. King Willem I (1772-1843) regarded the Mauritshuis very much as ‘his’ museum. This manifested itself in a variety of ways. The Amsterdam College of Surgeons was prevented by royal decree from selling Rembrandt’s magnificent ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp’ to anyone but the king’s favourite museum, which also benefited from earlier royal acquisitions. The Holbeins at the Mauritshuis were brought back to Holland by stadholder Willem III — more famous in these islands as William of Orange, our own William III — from Britain, and subsequently retained, much to the disgust of Queen Anne and her successors. Of course the ranks have been augmented with state purchases as well. Vermeer’s ‘View of Delft’ and Ruisdael’s ‘View of Haarlem’, to name but two, were purchased by the Dutch state for the collection. Since then, indeed, debate over acquisitions has become a staple of highbrow public entertainment, filling correspondence columns in quality papers, eliciting accusations of ‘philistinism’ and ‘lack of vision’ and producing their own pantomime casts of heroes, villains and nail-biting eleventh-hour rescues. (Indeed, despite what Danny Frederick might tell you, this is probably a more authentically Dutch recreation than smoking lots of cannabis and visiting a brothel.)

The point, anyway, is this — that while the Rijksmuseum displays large portions of a large collection on a large site, the Mauritshuis displays a tiny proportion of a smaller collection over eight small rooms and two small landings. There is none of that worthy, weary tramping about, the sense of hard work that sometimes occurs elsewhere. Instead, visiting the Mauritshuis is like opening a magnificent little casket to reveal a handful of perfect, intense little gems, to be examined in comfort and at leisure. This, as much as anything, is why so many world-weary art-lovers feel so certain that the Mauritshuis is one of the very greatest museums on earth.

The politics of style
Visiting the Netherlands in 1874, Henry James complained — probably not entirely seriously, but given his bleak New England sense of humour it was hard to be sure — that Dutch art had ruined the experience of looking at Holland itself: ‘You have seen it all before; it is vexatiously familiar; it is hardly worthwhile to have come!’ Meanwhile the Dutch speak comfortably of ‘Jan Steen families’ (chaotic, dysfunctional) and throw the whole power of their state behind efforts to ensure that parts of Amsterdam, Delft and a host of other towns and villages still live up to the expectations that seventeenth-century painting creates for them. Finally, writing about the Rijksmuseum, I have suggested how decades of critical and curatorial editing have helped to shape the Netherlands apparently visible through the lens of Dutch art — not just the topography, architecture and faces, either, but the character of the Dutch as well. Such art has tended to emphasise the humble, the down-to-earth, the ‘realistic’ and the ordinary, perhaps even the burgerlijk and democratic over the alternatives, which include the sublime, the supernatural, the ideal and the elegant, the aristocratic and the super-civilised. Now, the Rijksmuseum projects this edited vision with great efficiency. Yet in the Mauritshuis, those slight differences in selection, hanging, even context seem to alter the picture slightly. The effect? One is reminded how radically arbitrary, how nonchalantly selective our received impressions of the Golden Age, indeed of the Netherlands themselves, might actually be.

Unlike a visit to the Mauritshuis, however, one has to embark on a bit of a journey, some of it probably very dull indeed, in able to arrive at this point. Bear with me, though. The first thing I want to demonstrate is something not about the Netherlands but instead about you, the reader. It is simply that most people, whether they have ever stopped to think about it consciously or not, assume that style has inherent intellectual, ideological, even moral content. The fact that this is nonsensical is neither here nor there. But if evidence for the mainstream character of this position is needed, then here is a passage from the short description of a very beautiful allegorical painting by Agnolo di Cosimo, known as Bronzino, taken from our own National Gallery Companion Guide(a book sponsored, as it happens, by a Dutch bank), written by the anything-but-loopy, very mainstream and sane Erika Langmuir:

Like the world of high fashion, the court of a despotic ruler prizes artifice above nature. Style assumes a disproportionate influence because it masks the brutal realities of power and dependence. Spontaneity is stifled and protocol governs daily behaviour. Intellectual enquiry is devalued, but a veneer of learning is a hallmark of the élite. Bored courtiers must learn to pass the time in solemn frivolity.

There is, in short, nothing very subtle about the language here. ‘Brutal’ despotism is linked with artifice, style, formality, superficiality, boredom and frivolity, whereas an art filled with ‘nature’ (i.e. naturalism, which is obviously not considered a ‘style’) and spontaneity would make it possible to ‘reveal’ hidden realities, escape the tyranny of ‘protocol, pursue free intellectual enquiry and, possibly best of all, to have genuine fun. Clearly, in the world of Ms Langmuir, you can find out a lot about the qualities of a regime by looking at its art. Thoré could not have put it more aggressively himself.

But of course once one starts down this path, something else starts to matter, which is the sort of regime — or to put it another way, the intellectual, ideological and moral qualities — one values. This problem has been one of the biggest of modernism’s meta-narratives. Thoré looked to this logic as he sought to identify — both in the past and the present — a truly democratic, modern, socialist art. By the same token, however, we all know people who, in their belief that Alfred Munnings was the only acceptable painter of the past century, rush to embrace Thoré’s logic while at the same time batting away his conclusions. So it’s anything but exclusive: conservatives, liberals, even libertarians can all play with game, using the same basic rule-sheet. The select band who can see that it is not worth playing are distributed fairly evenly across the political spectrum, united only in a generalised sense of loneliness.

All of which leads us, by degrees, to a sort of debased libertarian account of the history of art, culled generally from fourth-hand knowledge of E. H. Gombrich’s popular children’s book about art, sensationalised news stories and perhaps a few increasingly dim memories of school visits to art museums. (Before anyone becomes too cross about this, though, I should add that by no means all libertarian accounts of art fit this gloomy stereotype: Tyler Cowen’s In Praise of Commercial Culture, for one, is genuinely well-informed and thoughtful. Nor is there anything exclusively libertarian about its weaknesses — just the point that ‘rational ignorance’ applies as much in the visual arts as in any other field of human endeavour) And the reason it matters is because it probably does, at some level, inform libertarian understandings of the Netherlands and their potential for freedom. This debased account runs more or less as follows, give or take a bit of bracketed heckling:

Once upon a time, in the Middle Ages, art [because it is taken by this sort of person that art is a sort of eternal, objective conceptual category] was produced only for the Church or for kings. This is why early paintings are all either religious scenes, or portraits of kings. This art was very stylised and unrealistic, because painters had to do what their patrons wanted and could not exercise self-expression. Then along came the Renaissance, the Reformation, science, the Age of Reason, democracy, free trade and other good things like that. What this meant was that ordinary people [the libertarian here means what anyone else would call ‘the bourgeoisie’; he’ll use the concept but not the word] could for the first time buy art, which left painters free to engage in self-expression [yes, it’s a non sequitor, but never mind] and also made it possible for more different sorts of subjects to appear. This is why Dutch art is so good — because it responded to the market. Whereas now art is all funded by the state through taxation and selected by quangos, which is why although the Impressionists were realistic and good, modern art is all conceptual and hence bad.

All right, perhaps I am stretching the point just a bit — but only just. Nor are libertarians the only people who believe something very like this account. Some of it, indeed, differs hardly at all from a socialist analysis of Western art history. What matters, though, in this context, is simply the position accorded to the Dutch art of the Golden Age. And that position tends to be a particularly advantageous one.

Whether one is Thoré, or Erika Langmuir, or a stereotypical libertarian, one ends up handing the Dutch a very large and leafy palm indeed. The Dutch can be seen to have painted ‘realistically’, to have painted ‘real’ rather than religious or mythological subjects, to have painted for a mass market. Sometimes, indeed, both in terms of technique and subject-matter, their work seems to point the way forward towards modernity — towards Millet and Courbet, for instance, or towards the Impressionists — even towards photography itself. Their work can look spontaneous, lively, full of genuine ‘fun’. We think we can see immediately what it is about. Nature wins out over artifice; the modern wins out over the medieval; the people win out over the ancienne regime. This is the way that history is headed, as well as art, and so it is good that Dutch painting expresses it. Here, we think, is a world we know and understand. Here are pubs, streets, ordinary domestic spaces. Here are artists using painting almost like documentary photography. Here are people whose measure of understanding is — well, their own ordinary lives, their own ordinary refracted virtue.

Who are you calling ‘ordinary’?
You may, perhaps, be wondering why I am making this obvious point. There is, alas, a reason. As I mentioned earlier, the Mauritshuis houses several of the most famous — a more hackish yet accurate description might be ‘the best-loved’ — paintings on earth. Paramount amongst these are Vermeer’s ‘Girl with the Pearl Earing’ and his large, wet-roofed ‘View of Delft’, yellow patch and all. Both are now endlessly familiar, from literature as much from reproduction, but even one of our contemporaries who had somehow managed to avoid those famous images would perhaps be taken aback at the near-photographic character of the work — not just the treatment of light, but the apparently-casual ‘cropping’, the instantaneous quality, their big pools of clear colour. Part of why ‘we’ love Vermeer now — and have done since the days of Thoré and Proust, much more so indeed than before — is that modern eyes are given scope to read his work in such a modern way. A greater if less famous painting, Carel Fabritius’ ‘Goldfinch’, to some extent shares this quality. Today they occupy a single room in the Mauritshuis, along with a handful of other astounding paintings, hung sparingly around the wood-panelled walls with natural light streaming in at the windows. Often there are only one or two people in this room at the same time — sometimes fewer. These pictures — the whole experience — are the sort of thing that reminds even the jaded, weary or sad of what visual art can do. In this, they are the mirror-image of those life-leaching works in the Stedelijk Museum. The world simply looks more interesting, better even, after time spent with them. Indeed, visit to the Mauritshuis is such a magical, hauntingly perfect experience that one hardly has the stomach to analyse it afterwards. If I could save ten paintings from all of human history, that ‘Goldfinch’ would be one of them. The ‘View of Delft’ might well be another. That is the sort of place the Mauritshuis is.

Yet it is hard, walking again and again through that small set of rooms — and on the day when I visited, part of the museum was shut off in preparation for a forthcoming, doubtless excellent Holbein exhibition, so there were even fewer rooms open than usual — not to be struck, again and again, by the tendentiousness, or at least the arbitrary quality, of the conventional view of Golden Age Dutch art.

It is true, obviously, that what one actually sees in the Mauritshuis is the sublimely brilliant tip of a largish iceberg. The illustrated catalogue is well worth owning for all sorts of reasons, but its most enduring if embarrassingly recherche — some might even say ‘deeply ERO-ish’ — pleasure is the chance to see what isn’t being hung. But whether one works on the basis of the art actually there on the walls, or whether one includes the paintings in storage as well, the lesson is the same. As the Mauritshuis proves again and again, the Golden Age was simply not what most people tend to assume it was — not even what libertarian mythology tends to assume it was. It is, in large part, a nineteenth century fiction. And whatever else it was, it was not about individuality, classlessness, democracy or ‘freedom’.

Take, for example, the whole grotesquely-misunderstood question of religious art. We are continually told that the reformation created in protestantism a faith of the Book that turned its back on the image. Here, for instance, is the account given by Patrick Collinson, arguably Britain’s most eminent living historian of reformation, in his most recent book:

So it was that [in England] the visual arts came to concentrate on human individuality, both the painted portrait and tomb sculptures. Sadly for the English social and cultural historian, it is necessary to cross the North Sea to discover the full potential of protestant art as it reproduced the streets and marketplaces, the taverns and intimate interiors of seventeenth-century Holland, not forgetting those many painterly visions of the luminous interior of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft, the tomb of William the Silent seen from every possible angle. It encapsulates the story of art in the Reformation that painters now found employment in painting pretty pictures of churches rather than in painting images for the Church.

The facts that some towns in the Low Countries underwent short, sharp bouts of iconoclasm in the 1570s, and that the form taken by religious painting altered around the same time, are so obvious as to be unremarkable. Some readers, on the other hand, might question the ‘individuality’ of those mass-produced alabaster tomb sculptures, made in the Nottingham quarries or elsewhere, without the least bit of interest in the appearance, age or personality of the subject. Similarly, some might take issue with the notion that those paintings of the tomb of William the Silent were ‘pretty pictures’, at least in the minds of those who commissioned, painted or bought them. Such a reader might detect in such images a new visual language capable of commenting acutely on confessional as well as patriotic issues — but we’ll leave that fight for another day. Suffice to say that the oddest thing in Collinson’s account (Collinson, for what it is worth, is, despite his Regius professorship, his career at Trinity College Cambridge and his CBE, a socialist who, despite his attractive Derbyshire acres, has expressed yearnings for the better world of Castro’s Cuba) is the contention that ‘protestant art’ , with its apparent emphasis on ‘individualism’, ‘reproduced the streets and marketplaces, the taverns and intimate interiors’ — and, by implication, ignored the religious scenes that had occupied artists in the past. Can this be true?

Well, in a word, no. Strolling through the Mauritshuis, even in its current curtailed form, evidence to the contrary is everywhere — in Jan de Bray’s tender ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ (1665), ter Brugghen’s ‘The deliverance of St Peter’ (1624), Rembrandt’s staggeringly dramatic ‘Simeon’s Song of Praise’ (1631) or his vulnerable ‘Suzanna’ (1636), to list just a few. This is, of course, leaving out the many magnificent works in the Mauritshuis that were created by artists such as Rubens, Van Dyck and Jordaens, who were then living in Catholic Flanders. It also ignores the fact that protestant Dutch painters were, as any biography of Rembrandt makes clear, keen collectors and connoisseurs of Italian religious art. How on earth would you have Caravaggisti — how ever much critics might deplore them later — if you lived in a world devoid of religious imagery? More to the point, though, such an account also leaves out the explicitly Christian content, let alone the even more obvious sub-Christian moralising, that contemporaries were probably able read from what appear, to our theologically purblind eyes, to be secular, ‘realistic’ works. Or to put it another way, if you go to the Mauritshuis looking for secularism, you can find it — but if you go looking for any sort of religious orientation, you’ll be practically overwhelmed by it. We see, as even fourth-hand readers of Gombrich ought to know, with our minds more than we do with our eyes. The secularised ‘realism’ of Dutch art may be as much the product of our own anachronistic vision as is the ‘photographic’ quality of Vermeer’s work.

Similarly vexing is the idea that Golden Age Dutch art is somehow a ‘democratic’ art — paintings of ordinary people forordinary people. In any event, I suppose it depends what one means by ‘ordinary’. Van Ostade’s ‘Peasants in an Inn’ (1662) certainly depicts very lowly people indeed, but it seems odd to assume that the people who bought such pictures found the peasants ‘ordinary’ rather than funny in a coarse sort of way, like those other staples of such art: cripples, dwarves, drunks, belches, farts. Could such paintings not be — just to sound like a Marxist for a second — normative instruments for ensuring that the bourgeoise knew how not to act? Vermeer’s interiors do not, obviously enough, depict ‘ordinary’ homes — even during the Golden Age, not many ‘ordinary’ homes included maps, Italian paintings, and girls who could choose from wardrobes and coffers filled with silks, furs, pearls. Jan Steen’s ‘The Poultry Yard’ depicts a super-rich young heiress enacting the role of Charity outside the gates of her great estate — not that far removed, perhaps, from the splendour of the Mauritshuis. We know from archival evidence that admirers of Gerrit Dou’s sublime ‘Young Mother’ included our own Charles II — is he likely to have appreciated it for its ordinariness, democracy and (with that twenty-foot-high ceiling) its realism? Or is he more likely to have admired this only-slightly-secularised Madonna and Child — and a very pretty Madonna at that?

The point, perhaps, is becoming obvious enough. Many of the most beautiful paintings at the Mauritshuis are paintings based on religious scenes. Others have mythological subjects. Many others are portraits of relatively grand and important people. Most seem to be directed towards elite audiences, expressing what may well have been a fairly narrow, class-specific field of concerns. To the extent that such works illustrate, as libertarians may believe that they should, the concerns of proto-capitalists, these works suggest that proto-capitalists were interested not only in the religion of the Bible, but also in the theological virtues, notably faith and charity, as well as social hierarchy, some normative sneering at the vulgar, a sophisticated sort of ostentation and a bit of sexual innuendo. Paintings that apparently centred on material wealth may well have told a warning tale about the transitory quality of worldly goods, the importance of chastity and continence, the excellence of housewifely virtue. When Professor Collinson writes of artists ‘reproducing’ streets and taverns, he turns the conscious, selective acts of painters and their patrons into a sort of proleptic simulacrum of the photocopier, the digital camera, the WAP phone. He is, I think, uncharacteristically sloppy in this. We can be a lot more casual about our acquired images than could our forefathers, who had to work much harder for them.

But then this whole business of finding meaning in old paintings is a minefield of anachronisms and teleology. Heaven knows what Early Modern people thought about anything. Is Paul Potter’s extraordinary ‘Bull’ — until someone got round to rediscovering Vermeer and Hals, this pungently strange work was the absolute superstar of the Mauritshuis’s collection — an essay on the importance of realism and a hymn to material consumption, or is it a humble account of the excellence and wholeness of God’s creation? Is Rembrandt’s ‘Anatomy Lesson’ about the progress of science, the rationalist re-conquest of the human body — or is it about mortality, and possibly about the rightful punishment meted out to the executed criminal who takes such a central role in the composition? Hardest of all to interpret, perhaps, is the art-form that the Dutch gave the world, so that our word for it is simply a misspelled appropriation of theirs — landscape. Are these refulgently Dutch works, as libertarians might have it, celebrations of the technological achievements of drainage, industry, the productiveness of property? Or are they, perhaps, about patriotism — land rescued from Spain as surely as it was rescued from the waters — or even religion — land rescued from Rome as surely as it continues to be rescued from wildness? What is it that ‘the market’ encouraged — and was it so different from what was commissioned by the individuals who made up ‘the Church’, or by their brothers and cousins the aristocracy? The answer is, I suppose, that we will never be sure. As much as we love the ‘Girl with the Pearl Earring’, as much our eyes and hearts fill before the ‘View of Delft’, we must realise — however awful this realisation may be — that the voice we are hearing is speaking a different language, and that however enchanting it may sound, we are lucky if we understand one word in a hundred. Standing in front of these works, we should aim for humility and forbearance, rather than conclusive understanding.

Yet, having said that — and taking humility as our goal — there is obviously something in the idea that the Dutch sometimes looked at subjects that had not been treated before, and addressed them in a way that had not been assayed before. Had this not been the case, there would not have been reason to have attacked such approaches so aggressively. One example must stand for many. As artist and lawyer Jan de Bisschop (1628-1671) wrote, in the mid seventeenth century, when looking at Dutch art

one saw almost nothing but groups of beggars, crippled, scrofulous and tattered, brothels full of filth, gluttonous peasants in drunken carousals, repugnant in various respects and too foul for words.

According to Bisschop, this was no good thing, either, because — he wrote, sounding pleasantly Brian Sewellish, ‘it is an evident error of judgement to believe that things which are hideous in life are sweet and pleasant when depicted in art’. (The phrase ‘evident error’ ought to be used more often in art criticism. Truly, we live in a diminished age.) Instead, Bisschop preferred a style we now see as looking rather French, rather false, not at all ‘Dutch’ — nice people doing nice things, with plenty of satin and silky-coated spaniels. It was, in the short run, the way of the future for Dutch art, but by the end of the nineteenth century it looked like a betrayal, a fatal cul-de-sac, perhaps even a presentiment — or cause? — of cultural malaise.

We have come a long way, I know, and some of us are weary, but we are very near the main point. Here it is. We may think, reading Bischopp, that he is very silly. We may think, armed with the aesthetic tools handed to us by modernity, that looking for beauty in the beautiful is, well, a bit silly. We may think, however unconsciously, that Bischopp was somehow looking back to the values of the past while at the same time missing out on the demotic, rough-and-tumble, gritty, true-to-life greatness of his own time. And in this, of course, we have a point. In our own age, as a culture we accord great consequence to the tame savages penned up inside the Big Brother house (the sort of people for whom not reading or writing for weeks seems entirely possible), a priesthood of young men ritually equipped to kick a ball to each other, and a whole ersatz pantheon of po-mo deities whose lives consist of little apart from the insistent rhythm of fame, procreation and death. (If I keep this up for another 2,000 words, can I have an article in The New Criterion, please?) Words like ‘sweet’ or ‘pleasant’ sound barbed; words like ‘repugnant’ or ‘foul’ hold promise. If you don’t believe me, read the industry (not broadsheet) reviews of Damien Hirst’s next show at White Cube2. ‘Laid’ is the new ‘jolie’. Bischopp, in other words, is full of nonsense.

Or is he? Let us return again for a moment to the Mauritshuis — past the surly ticket-seller, up the dark wooden stairs, through the room where the Japanese girls are still ogling Professor Tulp and that poor flayed hand, and the creakingly middle-aged American woman (bless her) is still in sacramental tears before ‘her’ Vermeer, as her manly-yet-affectionate, baseball-cap-wearing husband pretends not to notice for the tenth time in as many minutes. Which are the Golden Age paintings that ‘we’ here, at the Rijksmuseum, anywhere — love most?

They are, needless to say, all ‘pretty’ paintings, most of them of women, a few of them of the sort of landscapes that would have sent any self-respecting Early Modern agrarian into a flurry of lust and frank acquisitiveness. Be honest. What is it that attracts visitors into the Mauritshuis or the Rijksmuseum? Is it van Ostade’s mercenaries, Codde’s dark loners, the grimmer end of Steen, van de Velde’s maritime specificity, even Post’s amazing views of Brazil? Is it poverty, vulgarity, work, violence, technicalities, exoticism? Or is it, alternatively, wealth, refinement, leisure, tranquillity, idealism, the familiar stereotype? If you do not believe this, pause for a moment to consider that elegant girl with her earring; the view over the wealthy, peaceful town; the vulnerable, naked woman; the handsome little boy of sufficient wealth to merit a portrait. Fair enough, we may steer away from explicitly religious and moralistic art, having the intellectual wherewithal to deal with neither. At the same time, the works we love most are not those that any Golden Age Dutchman would have loved most — nor are they even the ones that comply with our understanding of Golden Age preferences. Instead, they convey a forlorn sort of desire for a world where women could have big thighs and large bellies, wore silk and furs and pearls, sorted laundry, spent time with their children, didn’t have to go out to work — where even cities were small and negotiable — where it was possible to encounter gentility and courtliness of a sort that we rarely experience today, but that is not so completely alien to our world that we feel either excluded by it or unaware of it — and where little goldfinches were considered beautiful and important.

In short, art-lovers have made their own Golden Age, which undoubtedly smells sweeter, is less noisy, less cruel, and has less political or religious content, at least on an explicit level, than did the original. For those who believe that art is a litmus-test of cultural, ideological purity, such fictions are, of course, anathema. For the rest of us, I suppose — realising that style has no implications whatsoever except those we impose on it — nothing could be simpler. We like what we like, and occasionally, if we are that way inclined, we stop to wonder whywe like it. But this modest exercise leaves the Dutch past intact. A Golden Age? Why on earth, if we want one so much, should not each of us simply construct our own?

Home and away
And so we return, finally, to Amsterdam, and to Danny Fredrick’s pamphlet, where we began this journey. There are things to be said in its favour. It is true to Danny’s own experiences. It is (or was) informative. It is admirably concise. At the same time, as shrewder readers may have realised, I do not entire agree with it, or rather, do not wish to let it pass without comment. Here’s why. It is not, first and foremost, that Danny argues on the basis of bad art history. If one stops to read the pamphlet, it will soon become clear that Danny does not argue on the basis of any history, except that of the days he has spent in Amsterdam himself. Indeed, he shows a refreshingly honest if implicit contempt for ‘culture’, ‘heritage’, ‘history’. He makes a reference to museums, only to suggest that the Damrak’s Sexmuseum is the only one he bothered to visit. He has, as far as I know, never darkened the portals of the Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum, the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, the Mauritshuis. Well, there are too many people who make a creepy fetish out of ‘culture’, and Danny is doubtless right not to do so. He makes no reference in his work to Dutch art. If he has absorbed any knowledge whatsoever concerning it, I can only conclude that this must have been of the most indirect, verbal, apocryphal, conjectural sort.

Nor is it a problem with history per se. In his pamphlet, Danny shows no extended curiosity about the context out of which his paradise of freedom seems to have emerged. Because the urge to provide historical justifications for things is, in my world, right up there with sneezing or burping (and perhaps just as profound too) this seems odd to me — odd, but not sinister. We are, perhaps, all made differently in this respect, and at least Danny deserves credit for not arguing on the basis of bogus history. His paradise emerges, sui generis, complete, unproblematic. Well, who could ask more from a paradise than that? What drags me back to a gritty, pungent past is perhaps just what pushes Danny forward. Perhaps Danny is really not influenced in any way by the hard cross-currents of Dutch history. Perhaps, to him, the Golden Age is simply here and now.

So it isn’t that. Nor is it an issue of doctrine, exactly. It isn’t just that by my reckoning, Danny presents a limited vision of utopia — although that is, incidentally, certainly true. Anyone who has been lucky enough to experience conviviality, sex or even the slightest of spiritual ecstasies in more holistic, complicated contexts — friendship, love or prayer, for instance — might well argue that all these experiences all lose something fundamental in being reduced to pay-as-you-go economic transactions. There is something poignant and forlorn, if recognisable, in Danny’s memory of ‘paying double’ to spend a little more time with a particularly appealing whore — Auden’s

Every farthing of the cost All the gloomy cards foretell Shall be paid — but from this night Not a whisper, not a thought Not a kiss nor look be lost

rendered with a literalism that both illustrates and appears oblivious to every point that this most Platonic of modern poets may have wished to have made. And indeed, at the risk of sounding prim and Augustinian, one has to wonder whether, in his second pamphlet about Amsterdam, Danny’s growing dissatisfaction somehow relates to the very human, very natural sense that, despite all the beer, the sex, the heavy metal music and the hand-rolled smokes, something is missing, even though he and I would disagree fundamentally about that that ‘something’ is? No, perhaps not. Perhaps Danny is simply happy enough with what he has. Perhaps that other Auden line — ‘each in the individual cell of himself / is almost convinced of his freedom’ should not be ringing in my mind so insistently right now.

What is it, then? Part of it, I suppose, is a complaint regarding the proscriptive character of the ‘freedom’ that Danny offers. What does ‘freedom’ look like? It looks, oddly enough, like Danny’s idea of fun. Why this is characterised as ‘freedom’, rather than a version of despotism agreeable to Danny, remains veiled in mystery. All of which leads me to suspect that Danny’s idea of paradise is, pure and simple, a libertarian totalitarianism. Nowhere in his pamphlet does Danny contend with the notion that his version of ‘freedom’ might be a minority taste, shunned by most normal Dutch people, let alone everyone else.

In any event, though, it is hard to imagine that Danny would be equally excited about, say, the freedom of people who find soft drug use distasteful to exclude it from their community. And yet paradoxically, this is precisely what happens in all but one tiny corner of the Netherlands. Nor is this a trivial point, at least for those of us with some vague interest in the practicalities, the histories, the weird little contingencies of ‘freedom’. It is one thing to light up a joint in the Zeedijk and quite another one to do so in, say, the Hooftstradt, let alone in Tilburg or Zutphen. And the same goes for prostitution, pornography, even wearing unusual clothes or behaving in a raucous manner. Danny thinks that Britain is a repressive, reactionary place. Fair enough. Yet the reality is that both law and a hard-to-define sense of social good manners ensure that the Netherlands are much more tightly regulated in such matters than the UK — and not only in provincial areas but in Amsterdam itself. And it is hard to deny that this is part of what makes the place so attractive. By way of example, what the Dutch rather charmingly call ‘wild pissing’ — the recourse to bits of urban wall so beloved of young and bibulous Englishmen at home or abroad — attracts a sizeable fine in the Netherlands, whereas in our own Soho, for instance, the authorities will clamp a delivery vehicle within minutes of parking, but can apparently do nothing to stop the streets from smelling foul first thing on a Sunday morning. And if you see people behaving badly in Amsterdam — singing too loudly, picking fights too readily, vomiting too profusely and inconveniently — rather embarrassingly, those people are, as any Dutch person will politely point out given half the chance, almost inevitably English.

So what Danny enjoys might turn out to be, at the end of the day, a particular and limited set of freedoms that appeal to Danny, contained within a series of well-delineated bounds. All sort of issues of property rights, cultural norms and ‘freedoms’ come into play here. The basic point, however, is that if the Oudezijds Voorburgwal is anything, it is the tiniest of tightly-managed, officially-licensed safety valves for a notably conformist, law-abiding, and heavily-regulated society. After all, selling even the softest of drugs for more than personal use isn’t legal in Amsterdam — meaning that the law can crack down on the wholesale end of the retail chain more or less at will, while sales of hard drugs result in huge fines and long prison sentences. This has something to do with why those cash-cow ‘brown cafes’ are not run by gangsters, and why they are pleasant places (if you like that sort of thing) to frequent.

Still, what is paradise to Danny may not look like paradise to everyone. The brothels are taxed and can still be shut down by the police, none of which prevents the usual problems with coercive sex, violent pimps and bad smack habits; the fact that so many whores are tired-looking immigrants, and so few of them pretty blonde girls, should tell even the dimmest visitor something about whether prostitution should really be considered a well-paid, high-status, fulfilling, desirable career option. Gay marriage is legal, but at the same time, plenty of intelligent, sophisticated, successful gay men and women hugely and perhaps correctly prefer the security of the closet, from which nothing will seep out to disturb their families, colleagues or neighbours. You won’t see men strolling down the streets of provincial villages, hand-in-hand. And there are other illiberal forces at work in Amsterdam, too. Part of the delightfully laid-back atmosphere comes not from endless spliffs — over-indulgence in that sort of thing is strictly for tourists and down-and-outs — but rather from the happy acceptance of EU working directives limiting the number of hours spent on capitalist endeavour, thus leaving the Dutch with plenty of time to spend relaxing with friends and family. Meanwhile, an expensive welfare state exists alongside a growing number of legal and illegal immigrants from Surinam and elsewhere, who face a degree of resentment and out-and-out racism that might surprise anyone still clinging to the dream of Dutch ‘tolerance’. And actual Dutch people tend to regard Danny’s Amsterdam as something distasteful and perhaps even undesirable — certainly a place best left to foreigners only.

Up from libertarianism etc.
Do the Netherlands need their safety valve? The Dutch have a sustained ability to surprise British observers. Often their behaviour appears downright paradoxical. Apparently the most calm and reasonable of people, the odd explosion of violence — from the murder of the de Witte brothers to the fairly serious social protest that long outlasted the 1960s — looks all the more startling. The same could be said about the juxtaposition of conservatism with extravagant libertarianism implied by some of the above. The eye-catching career of Pim Fortuyn — gay, xenophobic, charismatic, dead, whatever — sums this up. The contrast, though, is surely more imagined than real.

In large part, though, this stems from the British habit, evident from the late sixteenth century onwards, to make the Netherlands into a symbol of something — always in a way that comments, however eliptically, on Britain itself. For a long time, such comparisons had to do with pressing issues such as degrees of religious reform, industriousness, the assertiveness of married women or the treatment of landscape painting. Now, however, interest focuses on ‘liberalism’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom’. And of course, as is always the way with such comparisons, the actual Dutch reality of being Dutch is worse than completely irrelevant, since what is being discussed is Britain, not the Netherlands. Who looks at a mirror in order to see the mirror itself? Our boundless curiosity about the Netherlands is more than partly rooted in self-regard. Why are they like that — why are we like that? This is why Amsterdam’s apparent libertarianism piques us like no one else’s. This is, I think, why Danny could only write about Amsterdam’s freedom in terms of London’s un-freedom. This is why, as far as that goes, the whole business of looking at Dutch art is, for British people, a way of talking about anything but the Netherlands themselves.

We have been here in the Netherlands a long time; we are all tired; it is time to go home. There is, however, one last question I want to ask before we go.

Am I alone in detecting an almost touching element of holiday romance in Danny’s narrative? Definition by comparison has been one of the recurrent, if one of the quieter leitmotives of this essay. Surely, though, this is the nature of holiday experience? Whatever else a holiday might be, it is not home, real life, the everyday reality in which one normally passes one’s days. The experiences that Danny enjoys in Amsterdam, whether explicitly — drugs, alcohol, heavy metal music, uncomplicated sex — or perhaps more implicitly — spectacle, slipped inhibitions, intimacy with his travelling companions, even the very sense of a special, unique, privileged experience that drove him to speak and write about it — are not, perhaps, so different from those enjoyed by young people who go to Ibiza or Aya Napa, or our trans-Atlantic cousins with their Saturnalian ‘spring breaks’, the dirty old men who slope off to Thailand to do things they could not legally do here, or even — on some tiny scale — the suburban people who invade the West End every Friday and Saturday night.

To spell out the obvious, the attraction is, self-evidently, not the intrinsic ‘freedom’ of Spain, Cyprus, South Carolina, the Far East or, err, the City of Westminster. By no sane index are any of these places more ‘free’ than Danny’s London. What they are, however, are places that can be defined against a background — and a bleak one it is, too — of all the responsibilities, work, drudgery, disappointment and boredom that may well be waiting there on Monday morning, after one has returned from wherever it is that once has been. This, rather than native cynicism and bad-naturedness, is why I’d bet anything that Amsterdam, transferred ‘freedom’ and all from the Netherlands to London, would soon lose its charms for Danny. He’d keep running into people he knew, he’d get tired of the girls, he’d learn all the things that were flawed or boring about them, he’d have bad memories of some of the clubs, his mates would have other things to do — and besides, there’s be work the next day, laundry to do, errands to run, telephone calls to return, rent to pay — all those ghastly things that even libertarians accept have to happen, at least for the here-and-now, but which would reliably wring the joy out of so many of Danny’s pleasures. Worst of all, what about his personal sense of having — personally, perhaps uniquely — experienced ‘freedom’? The fun would have gone. He’d have to seek out new horizons, new Amsterdams, new dreams. As any Christian with neo-Platonist urges might have told him, it is, alas, the human condition to pursue here on earth the sort of transcendental moments which are, so the Christian would tell him, only lastingly possible in Heaven. But I suspect that would be little consolation to Danny.

‘Freedom’ is, then, perhaps, something only possible in the negative — as a periodic escape from the burdens we usually but necessarily bear, the consciousness of which is concomitant with the human condition. We are only conscious of the absence of those burdens when we are no longer carrying them, but if we stopped carrying them, we would no longer be conscious of their absence. Does this sound bleak? I don’t mean it to sound bleak. What Danny wants is, in a way, not so different from what we all want. The libertarian mistake is simply to imagine that even some small proportion of our wants could be encompassed, for any extended amount of time, within the paradise defined by Danny.

Danny is not, however, wrong about everything. He loves Amsterdam. So do I. Of course we differ about things. For him, the tarts all love sex and are ‘doing it’ because they want to, not because they have not got proper passports, have no cash and their Albanian pimps would knock several shades of whatever out of them if they said ‘no, sorry, this makes me feel cheap and hurt and violated’. For me, those tarts are desperately unlucky. As much as I pity them, though, I have even more pity for people who live in ugly dormitory towns, growing fat and smug on the certainty that sin and viciousness only happens in places like Amsterdam or Soho — forgetting as they conveniently do that most sins have nothing to do with sex, but quite a lot to do with sloth and pride, failures of charity or humility. I also rather admire Danny for thinking that the world around him ought to be better, happier, more expansive than it is, because in doing so, he bears witness to powers stronger and greater than he, or any of us, can perhaps effectively imagine, although we periodically feel them working within our very hearts. Unlike Danny, I do not think these urges will ever be satisfied here, and so I shall I shall not expend my efforts trying to create heaven here on earth. Danny, perhaps, will. As for the rest, none of us can choose the point from which we start, the wounds we seek to staunch, the weird eliptical stance from which we view the heavens. A Golden Age? My fun lies, for whatever reason, in tearing the last one apart; Danny thinks one will turn up one of these days. One of us, clearly, will be right.
Bunny Smedley, August 18, 2003 05:03 PM

Comments Off on Double Dutch, part 3: What do the Netherlands mean?

Filed under art, culture, history, religion

Semper Eadem: Elizabeth at the National Maritime Museum

CULTURE: Semper Eadem
Elizabeth at the National Maritime Museum

Ageless Elizabeth
Once in a while, an exhibition comes along that is simply so good that it is almost impossible to say anything unpleasant about it. Elizabeth, opened by HM the Queen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich last week, is such an exhibition.

The subject hardly requires introduction. Even now, in a nation that grows more vague by the day on the subject of its pre-Blairite history, the memory of Good Queen Bess is likely to ring bells, if bells of distinctly different castings, tones and timbres. For some she’s simply one of the trio of these islands’ great, long-reigning and high-profile female monarchs, a familiar figure in her increasingly improbable costumes and lead-laced face-paint; for others she’s a stock figure vaguely recalled from dozens of films and books of varying age and quality; for a sizeable number her image is still an icon of English exceptionalism, insular and Providential, projected with swashbuckling vigour overseas or nurtured industriously and fluently at home, in the face of Continental perfidy and error. That the tiny band who remember her mostly as a martyr-making she-Stalin to Walsingham’s Beria generally have the good grace to keep quiet about this in mixed company is more a sign of the resilience of her popularity than anything else; that she has given her name to an age almost universally if dimly regarded as a Good Thing is, at any rate, more or less incontrovertible.

In her own time Elizabeth worked as hard to shape her own image as others did to impose their particular preferred image upon her. And indeed, how could it have been otherwise, given how absolutely unacceptable the realities of her situation must have looked to everyone: the realities of life as an only intermittently legitimate heir and female monarch, first young then unmarried and finally terminally childless, faced with a kingdom that was bankrupt, riven by doctrinal and factional rivalries and surrounded by hostile and aggressive foreign powers, unable to achieve anything except by through an alchemy of compromise, subterfuge and good luck?

But by the same token, ever since her death four hundred years ago, each age has been equally assiduous and inventive in producing its own, bespoke, purpose-built Elizabeth. Thus it is that within memory, Elizabeth was successively the triumphant leader of an embattled little island, or a pretty young girl-queen set to preside over an age of bracing economic and social transformation. More recently, in contrast, there was Cold War Elizabeth, negotiating her way in a world terrifyingly poised between the claims of two all-encompassing, thoroughly incompatible ideological systems, one of them characterised by authoritarianism, repression and foreign tyranny, the other characterised by liberty, economic freedom, individual expression and a subliminal tendency to look out towards a broader Anglosphere for support. And as Christopher Haigh, amongst others, has pointed out, it was only a matter of time before Elizabeth became confused in the public mind not with her regal namesake, but with quite another image-conscious, carefully-coifed, indefatigable, larger-than-life female, surrounded by scheming courtiers, would-be favourites and dubious adventurers, and fully capable of capturing the public mood — so much so, in fact, that by the time of that tragic, final overseas banquet, when Mrs Thatcher appeared in that strange yet unforgettable purple cape, the blending-together of these two world-famous English women seemed not only fitting but somehow inevitable, not vainglorious or mad but simply absolutely right.

But now that the Cold War has given way to other styles of conflict and the Iron Lady is herself lapsing gently into the role of living legend, it is time for a new Elizabeth. That, in essence, is what the National Maritime Museum is offering us in their magnificent, intelligent exhibition, both in displays themselves and in the marvellous accompanying catalogue. And what does our new, twenty-first century Elizabeth look like? Strange to say, she looks very much like a management guru. In all seriousness, the press pack for the exhibition actually includes a flyer offering ‘Leadership lessons from Elizabeth I’, aimed at business studies students, while the exhibition itself has, for all its qualities, more to say about issues of presentation, style and ‘spin’ than it does about doctrine, legitimacy or Britain’s relationship with the world. Truly, even after all these years, Good Queen Bess can still surprise us all.

Mirrors into historians’ souls
The guest curator of the Elizabeth exhibition is Dr David Starkey, currently a bye fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, but far better known for the energetic omnipresence and distinctive tone he brings to his various roles as author, broadcaster and multi-purpose commentator. And although his function in this context is, presumably, to front the long roster of very eminent scholars and curators involved with the show and to provide the enterprise with an eye-catching, celebrity, him-off-the-telly Big Name, there are moments in the exhibition where the Starkey touch is both unmistakable and decisive. Not least, the Bess-as-management-guru line of attack has ‘Starkey’ written all over it.

But if you detect a faint sneer somewhere in the vicinity, it certainly isn’t mine. Let’s make a brief digression. Years ago, my career took a false turn and stranded me for a season in the world of Tudor academic historians, so I make the following observations with a sort of weary jaundiced confidence. First, David Starkey is a real and, in the best sense, serious historian, who continues (long after fame could have spared him the hard work) to dig with profit in some exceptionally well-turned soil, still unearthing enough of significance to cause occasional consternation amongst his colleagues and still achieving more than plenty of tenured fellows unburdened with media careers. Secondly, in a profession not over-endowed either with generosity or human kindness, he is (pace that carefully-crafted media persona) remarkably lavish with both, and energetic besides. Thirdly, if many of his colleagues profess complete contempt for him, this is simply a left-handed acknowledgement of his ability both to write books that specialists need to read, and — more surprisingly — that non-specialists persistently want to read. His preferences for individual biography over generalisation, court politics over economic and social history, aristocrats over commoners and psychology over religion are less evidence of essential frivolity than profoundly-rooted and respectable methodological stances. Or to put it another way, there is a lot of jealousy out there, directed as much at Dr Starkey’s imagination, hard work and good luck as at his big bank-balance, high profile and widespread appeal. And jealousy is, probably, the least attractive vice on earth.

Like all competent popularisers (and is there anything that those education-is-a-right-not-a-privilege, access-for-all, socialist academics hate more than ‘popularisers’, with their quaint old-fashioned appeal to intelligent generalists and the notion of self-improvement?) Dr Starkey realises that the past, like the present, is rarely of any intrinsic interest unless it somehow has implications for the observer’s own life. Thus his typically lively introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue makes various references, with varying degrees of subtlety, to familiar cultural fixtures such as the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent ‘war against terrorism’, as well as the odd axiomatic pronouncement with broad geopolitical and indeed personal relevance: ‘And she was right. You cannot hold respect and sacrifice territory’.

There is no great mystery about Dr Starkey’s attitude towards Elizabeth. Anyone who has read his biography of her, or who has seen any of the relevant television programmes, will by now be well aware that the waspish, theatrically unpleasant tele-Starkey has more than a soft spot, not so much for the aged, sexless, wig-wearing, toothless defender of Tilbury, but rather for the bookish, precocious, strange-looking, probably emotionally damaged teenager who overcame all odds and made such an unlikely success of the hopeless hand that fate had dealt her. Who knows what is being worked out there? Never mind. It is perhaps not surprising that Dr Starkey’s introduction to the catalogue focuses particularly on the first few weeks of Elizabeth’s reign, which were to set the tone for its whole 45-year course. Elizabeth is seen hand-picking a tiny but trusted team of advisors, seeking plain-spoken rather than sycophantic counsel, acknowledging that rebellion is sometimes the fault of inept government rather than the wickedness of the governed, going on walk-abouts, nurturing her own popularity, seeking a ‘middle way’, making compromises but at the same time remaining rigid on the few points that really mattered. Dr Starkey phrases this in terms of mission-statements, chairmen, boards of directors and so on. In other words, this is a very old story recounted with typical concision and flair, but given a smart new twist.

So far, so slick. But at the same time this all feeds into to another, closely related response to Elizabeth — a personal response that takes us perilously close to the old-fashioned notion of historical-figure-as-role-model, as the object of intense personal identification and even guidance. So whereas Mary, Queen of Scots is damned (rightly) as ‘foolish, self-indulgent, frivolous, unreliable and treacherous’ and whereas there is precious little sympathy here for those who ended up on the wrong side of Elizabeth’s decision-making (of whom there were many), Dr Starkey concludes his introduction with the following shrewd aside:

Not only was [Elizabeth] great; she was also admirable. She can appeal — and that is the magic of her — both to an age who loved heroes, as did the Victorians, and to us, an age of sentimentalists who like our public figures to be a bit cuddly and victims too (but Elizabeth had the good sense to keep quiet about the cuddliness and the victimhood, and I like her all the more for it.)

There’s obviously a fair bit of self-conscious irony here on Dr Starkey’s part (was there ever a media performer who put more effort into keeping quiet about cuddliness and victimhood?) but there is also something agreeably unfashionable about it. History is, at present, so frequently a matter of ‘debunking’ ‘myths’, producing revisionist assaults on yesterday’s verities, cutting historical figures down to our own size, seeking out social and personal vice with all the creepy zeal of latterday inquisitors, that the absence of these things seems positively refreshing.

Happy and glorious
Elizabeth, as its title implies, focuses largely on Elizabeth’s life, but in doing so also casts long glances over a series of related themes. Therefore we are shown The Young Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s England, The Court, Elizabeth’s Adventurers, Presenting the Queen, Threats to the Crown, and Elizabeth’s Final Years. The emphasis on Elizabeth per se has, inevitably, the effect of highlighting some aspects of the reign while cold-shouldering others. Personality, decision-making, leadership is all-important here — impersonal matters of theology, parliamentary rule or nation-building a good deal less so.

None of which is a complaint exactly — more an observation about what is, by any standard, a marvellously well-organised exhibition. The quantity and quality of objects on show is nothing short of breathtaking. The National Maritime Museum has a fine collection of its own, particularly with respect to Elizabethan seafaring, but the curators have also managed to secure some absolutely extraordinary loans, not just from the usual suspects (HM The Queen, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of London, the Public Record Office, the British Library and so forth) but also from a host of private lenders. The result is a stunning mix of the familiar and the completely unexpected. There honestly is no pointless filler anywhere in this exhibition. Everything is here for a good purpose. But it also looks amazing. The labels on the items deal concisely and fairly, and sometimes amusingly, with what are often bewilderingly complex subjects. The overall tone of the exhibition is nothing short of exhilarating. In short, Elizabeth is, as I wrote at the beginning, virtually above complaint, or rather disarms potential complete with a winning combination of generosity, vigour and high spirits. I left, wanting to return as soon as I possibly could, armed with a nearly-fully-illustrated and scholarly catalogue so modestly priced as to suggest abundant subsidy on the part of the sponsors. If the case made by Elizabeth is partial, as indeed it must be, it is also intensely persuasive.

Because the spotlight here is trained so insistently on Elizabeth herself, the picture of that emerges is that of a nation viewed from the heights of its luxury goods market. There are fabrics, mirrors, goblets, musical instruments, jewels and pictures here that would each have cost many hundreds of times a working man’s annual salary, if not a lot more. A trio of cloth caps — virtually the sole evidence of life beneath the level of the gentry and the grander City merchants — are shown, remarkably, in the context of perhaps having been thrown in the air as Elizabeth’s coronation procession passed by. There are also iconic objects sure to stop any viewer with much historical consciousness in his or her tracks: a letter from young Elizabeth to Queen Mary, basically pleading for her life; a marvellous jewel given by Elizabeth to Sir Francis Drake after he not only circumnavigated the globe but brought home a wealth of ex-Spanish riches as well; John White’s beautiful, candid little drawings of life in what would later become the Carolinas; Leicester’s last letter to Elizabeth, which she kept under her pillow until her dying day; some rather ordinary pewter dishes that went down with the Armada; a huge magnificent commemorative volume illustrating the Queen’s funeral procession, at which City sentiment seems to have celebrated the arrival of a new reign rather more than it mourned the passing of the old one.

In short, all these objects confer on legendary deeds and persons the sort of illusory proximity, even intimacy, that constitutes history’s most intoxicating if befuddling vintage. While some, like the magnificent Coronation portrait from Warwick Castle via the National Portrait Gallery, are very well known, others, such as Elizabeth’s ring (loaned from Chequers) containing a portrait of Anne Boleyn, or the two low Spanish chairs from Loseley Park, or an extraordinary walnut orpharion used by the Queen herself, are certainly not. It would be possible to arrange a credible survey of sixteenth century English art on the basis of the works including here, including paintings by Nicholas Hilliard, Marcus Gheeraerts and some jaw-droppingly good entries by the hopelessly anonymous British School. (The survey would, presumably, put to rest the notion that England became a wholly iconophobic, art-hating nation within seconds of the first vernacular Bible rolling off the press.) It is pleasing that the exhibition is in Greenwich, Elizabeth’s birthplace and for so long her home, as well as the shores from which so many of the famous Elizabethan exploratory voyages set out. Meanwhile the references to the City and to the colonisation of North America are similarly apposite, given the exhibition’s sponsorship, and also informative — although it might be mentioned in this context that a more expansive treatment Elizabeth’s other realms, not least Ireland, might have been welcome, if only because the privileging of North America over Ireland in this context displays an anachronistic set of assumptions out of step with much of the rest of Elizabeth.

But indeed, such is the richness of the show that anyone intent on finding fault with Elizabeth would probably have to focus on what is not there — the missing portraits, the subjects that might have received more expansive treatment, the unexplored avenues of approach.

As far as that goes, it is not hard to imagine a looking-glass version of Elizabeth that might have used these same objects, so heavily pregnant with association, to entirely different ends. Such an exhibition would have been less confident of King Henry’s power, Anne Boleyn’s innocence and Elizabeth’s claims to be anything other than one of several of royal bastards, and even then one who ended up enthroned less through the workings of Providence than through the similarly inscrutable workings of contingency. It would have had a good deal more time for the victims of Elizabeth’s personal callousness — Lady Katherine Grey, Amy Robsart, John Stubbs, Peter Wentworth MP, Arbella Stuart, Sir Walter Raleigh, to name but a very few of that large number — and would persistently have preferred as an explanatory strategy ‘personal callousness’ over ‘reasons of state’. It might have turned its attention briefly from Gloriana, her court and her consumer durables to the various economic downturns, agricultural crises, fatal epidemics, armed rebellions, religious persecutions, dynastic uncertainty and increasingly oppressive international isolation that quite possibly loomed much larger in the lives of her various subjects. It would have been more anxious not to take the success of any hallmark Elizabethan strategy — doctrinal equivocation, military stinginess, Anglophone expansion — as read. Above all, it would have despised the older Elizabeth myths in favour of a myth of its own making, which would centre around the possibility — itself clearly mythic at best — that anyone, let alone an exhibition courting and deserving a popular audience, will ever manage to strip the centuries-old carapace of legend, fable and fancy away from the bones of England’s Virgin Queen.

Royal progress
But whether or not such a looking-glass exhibition would be conceivable, it would not, I think, be desirable. And here we come to a point about the nature of historical exhibitions. What’s the point? Well, like all forms of entertainment — and ultimately, that is what they are, or ought to be — they require a shaping narrative, which in turn involves choices, simplifications, elisions, sleights-of-hand and captivating stuff done with smoke and mirrors. None of which is to suggest that there is anything dumbed-down, let alone mendacious, about Elizabeth. Not least, the informing intelligences behind the show — not only Dr Starkey, but his fellow catalogue essayists including Patrick Collinson, Ian W. Archer and Susan Frye, among others — are men and women who have pushed hard at the boundaries of what can be known about the Tudor past, often with some success. If there is a knowable ‘truth’ in history it is hard to see how we are to glimpse it other than through the lens of such research. But at the same time, shining out through each of these quite varied accounts are common threads of admiration, respect and even enthusiasm for Elizabeth — the sovereign as well as the woman — which reflect something at once less and more than simply the effects of decades of archival mining, boring graduate seminars and prestigous if dry publication. Put simply, historians are no different from the rest of us — like us, they have a gut-level feeling about Queen Bess and her age, a sort of intuitive shorthand that’s quite different from what they feel either about the mess of the late fifteenth century or the mess of the mid seventeenth century, informed as much — if we are being honest — by inscrutable issues of personal inclination as by intellectual effort, which is why the personalised nature of this exhibition is by no means simply an exercise in crowd-pleasing for its own sake. And in general, that feeling is still, if in a complicated way and with various reservations, broadly a positive one.

Thus it is greatly to the credit of the organisers of Elizabeth that in reflecting all this, they have managed to avoid every obvious mistake that lay in the path of this exhibition. It could have been an exercise in pointless iconoclasm, on the premise that the more negative and unpleasant a thing is, the more likely it is to be ‘true’. More probably, it could have been a dreary little exercise in projecting present-day snobberies and biases on the opaque surface of the past, with the sole point of demonstrating how lucky we are to have the wise liberal order under which we now live. Bravely, however, the organisers of Elizabeth have done neither of these things. Instead they have put together a treasure-house of an exhibition — indeed it is hard not to compare it, in terms of tone as much as presentation, with displays of treasure in the greater churches of Catholic Europe — which is not afraid to appear at times nostalgic, patriotic and indeed celebratory about its central theme, which in this case is inextricable from the birth of the Britain in which we live.

If there’s a reservation, it’s about something that can hardly be blamed on the organisers of Elizabeth, or on Dr Starkey, or anyone else involved with this exemplary enterprise. It lies, typically, more with the nature of the world to which any present-day Elizabeth must be shaped, and in way it is about a failure to make a certain sort of distinction between right and wrong. In a climate where Elizabeth’s management ethos is treated as important per se — important in terms of efficacy more than in terms of the doctrinal rightness of the results it produced — the reconfigured landscape of Tudor England can look slightly odd to those who remember previous vistas. There is, for instance, precious little sense of religion as something centrally and transcendentally important, rather than simply yet enough policy issue for Elizabeth to finesse — little sense that the nature of the religious settlement mattered, as long as it worked. And indeed one could make similar points about Elizabeth’s relationship with Parliament, with Europe or with what would soon become Britain’s empire.

What this all means, on the other hand, is a good deal less clear, although the easy explanation would lie in either general obliviousness or, alternatively, general consensual complacency towards issues of faith, statesmanship and nationhood, coupled with an exaggerated interest in surface, style and celebrity. Never mind. Elizabeth is as rich, as perceptive and topical an exhibition as I have seen in many years — and no worse for the possibility that somewhere in the midst of it, we may end up catching a glimpse of our own reflection — a glimpse that may, according to taste, prove either revealing or mildly troubling.

Elizabeth, sponsored by Morgan Stanley, will be at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich from 2 May -14 September 2003. Tickets cost £9; various concessions apply.

In an earlier incarnation, before becoming ERO’s arts editor, Bunny Smedley gained her doctorate at Trinity College, Cambridge, working on enforcement of the Tudor reformations of religion at the parish level.

Comments Off on Semper Eadem: Elizabeth at the National Maritime Museum

Filed under archive, culture, history, religion, reviews

Habeas corpus: the old taboos are the best ones

[This article was originally posted on Electric Review on 28 November, 2002.]

How one hesitates to add to the publicity already garnered by Professor von Hagens and his enterprising display of flayed human beings, currently on display at a third-rate East End art gallery, or the public ‘autopsy’ that took place at there last week and was soon thereafter beamed into thousands of British homes through the agency of Channel 4. Surely something that feels this guilty ought, at least, to be a pleasure? Conversely, it would be gratifying to think that — despite, or perhaps even because of the enormous wealth of media attention given to this wretched man — Britain’s leading High Tory webzine could stand forever above the fray, oblivious as we are implacable, ignoring a subject as distasteful as it is banal. For surely, all reasonable people think as one on this particular, loathsome, and wildly over-hyped topic?

Well, no — and therein lies the sole reason I’d even consider writing about Gunther von Hagens, purveyor of plastic-coated cadavers to the curious. Over the weekend, as we sat cosily reading the papers, someone for whose moral as well as intellectual qualities I have literally boundless regard surprised me by announcing that he had some sympathy for Hagens, if only because the enemies ranged against him were ‘all the usual suspects’ — the British Medical Association, the befuddled denizens of Scotland Yard and the odd if plangent voice from deep within the tabloid press. Strange to say, this bothered me to the extent that I ended up spending far more time anatomising — if that’s the right word — my objections to Hagens than I have ever hitherto done. As it happens, the longer I thought about it, the more Hagens’ friends seemed at least as remarkable than his enemies, and the thinner their arguments sounded — and the less argument per se seemed to matter, in the face of the enormity of Hagens’ grisly project.

Hence the article that follows. Do, though, feel free to skip it. Read something else instead. As far as I’m concerned, what Hagens does is so unpleasant that it falls into the same category as the published evidence from the Rosemary West trial, or Channel 5 documentaries about serial killers, or — well, you know the sort of thing I mean, and if by some chance you don’t, I want nothing to do with delivering you from that happy state. There are, after all, moments when decent people should not be ashamed to turn away out of sheer disgust, and this is just as true when it comes to the pornography of death as it is in the context of livelier forms of pornography. Honestly, there are better things for you to be thinking about than Hagens! He does not deserve the attention he’s getting, and if I thought that ERO would add to that in any material way, you wouldn’t be seeing a word of this.

An evening at the theatre
Obviously, however, not all journalists feel the same way. The civilised, decent and impeccably well-mannered Simon Jenkins sat through the protracted mutilation of the corpse of a 72-year old alcoholic and resourcefully gleaned from it at least two columns, one in the Times and one in the Evening Standard. I wonder how much money he made from that? Jenkins, though, is a great beacon of liberalism, and made a spirited case for what he had seen — a case that is worth examining in some detail, if only because it touches on virtually all of the points made in Hagens’ favour.

Consider, then, Jenkins’ Evening Standard piece and its disparate ingredients. First we were flirted at from behind the strangely old-fashioned veil of populist appeal, as Jenkins announced that ‘half a million people have visited [Hagens’] Body Worlds display, most of them respectable’. Hence Hagens ‘rates a hearing’. If one wanted to score a cheap point here, it would be possible to ask how many ‘respectable’ people engage in domestic violence, child abuse or low-level racism, and thus whether the case for these also ‘rates a hearing’ — but let it pass. Jenkins’ main argument appears in the next paragraph, where he states that although the ‘autopsy’ was ‘mildly shambolic’, it nevertheless ‘seemed a genuine attempt to bring anatomy to a public audience’ — and anyway, more to the point, ‘this is a free country. Why should anyone want to stop it?’ Again, cheap points loom temptingly here — surely even Jenkins could see why someone might ‘want’ to stop something that another individual was notionally free to do? — but I’ll hold off for a moment longer.

Jenkins next sets off for an attack on the medical profession and the ‘anatomists’ monopoly on dissection’. He quotes that racist eugenicist Shaw with approval: ‘all professions are conspiracies against the laity’. (Other than op-ed journalism, obviously.) And here, the conspiracy is against popular knowledge:

Von Hagens may be a showman and a little gauche, but his technique of combining education and sensation seems wholly admirable. Body Worlds must have done more for public understanding of science in six months than the Department of Health and the Royal College of Surgeons have done in sixty years.

Jenkins goes on with some deeply confused and frankly off-putting material about Georgian London, before returning to his main point:

A corpse is not a living person. It is private property. These corpses are donated voluntarily and used only with permission of next of kin. I found last night’s show unsettling, a throwback to the seventeenth century. But to upset sensitive doctors and their ministerial friends is not a crime in Blair’s Britain — or not yet.

And that, I think, is the important line, if for no other reason than because it encapsulates, more or less, the point that my companion made to me as we read the papers together. The argument seems to be this: that Hagens’ exhibition is admirable not despite the fact that it upsets people, but because it upsets them — and, more to the point, people like Jenkins are admirable because they are prepared to tolerate in the name of ‘freedom’ something that they find ‘unsettling’ and perhaps even atrocious.

Up from liberalism
It has taken me a very long time indeed to realise that instinctive responses, however mute, should not invariably be banished in the face of rational, verbal argument. As you’ll have gathered, I disagree profoundly with those who feel even the slightest sympathy for what Hagens is doing. Yet, strange to say, for some time my objections to Hagens were held in check by the sheer force of my instinctive revulsion. In the same way that one does not stop to reason before dragging an absent-minded friend from the path of an oncoming automobile, or hesitate before startling at the sound of an explosion nearby, it was in that same visceral sense that I felt sickened by the whole idea of displaying corpses as a form of entertainment — sickened to the point where argument seemed both inadequate and unnecessary. Obviously, though, my instinctive response was clearly far from universal. And that, too, had a sort of silencing effect. Surely — to crib Jenkins’ point — if so many respectable people, my own near and dear included, find this stuff tolerable, than the problem is mine, not theirs?

In general, the leader-writing classes have embraced Hagens’ cause with unsqueamish zeal, almost as if doing so provided unarguable evidence for their own rationalism, sophistication and tolerant liberalism. Fifty years ago, educated people were puzzling anxiously over Theodore Adorno’s claim that art was simply impossible after Auschwitz — today, Time Out art critic Sarah Kent happily reviews a display of actual corpses in the ‘art’ section of the magazine. On the ‘is it art’ issue she hedges her bets, as it happens, denying that what she is describing is art, while concurrent treating it as if it were art — hence the disclaimer that ‘this is education at its very best’, accompanied by a somewhat confused protestation that it ‘is not art, it’s anatomy, but be sure not to miss this splendid display’. I suppose that until Time Out develops a ‘ghoul’ section, ‘art’ is the obvious place for such stuff. More alarming, though, because so much more seriously confused, is her reassurance that

since most donors have their facial features removed so that they are not recognisable, one thinks of them as examples of homo sapiens rather than individuals. This allows you to concentrate on the subject — whether it be the functioning of the liver of the astounding complexity and beauty of our arteries and blood vessels.

So that’s all right, then — although the notion of the full richness of human individuality being subsumed into ‘examples’ of a particular ‘subject’ might induce a shiver or two in those with longer historical memories than are apparently thrive at Time Out. There is nothing new about the subordination of human sympathy to an intellectual scheme that makes it look silly, soft and embarassing — the schemes change, but the sense of queasiness remains.

All the same, perhaps it’s worth pausing for an instant to examine whether the bodies exhibited by Hagens can be considered as ‘art’, at least in the practical, modernist sense of something valued primarily for its aesthetic or formal qualities. Whether or not Hagens realises it, his exhibition certainly echoes a much older corpus of work which teetered on the brink between ‘art’ and something else. One influence is the meticulous ecorchés of eighteenth and nineteenth-century anatomy books — flayed figures holding open flaps of flesh in a lively, spirited manner, displaying what lies within. These skilful engravings were made for the benefit of gentlemen amateurs as much as medical specialists and at their best can be strangely moving. Closest of all, though, was the French anatomist Honoré Fragonard — cousin of the far more talented artist — who, like Hagens, found a way of preserving flayed human corpses — foetuses included — posed in fanciful stances and displayed as gruesome curiosities.

Does the fact that Hagens’ exhibition is not very innovative make it better or worse? Are these things art? To my mind, they are not, any more than a prepared joint of meat is art. But the sober truth is that there are strands of post-modernist thought which would not only look enviously on the shock-value of Body Worlds but would also embrace its allusions, however unconscious they may be in practice, to the Wunderkammer-fodder of ages past. But since this is something less than a popular doctrine, most commentators have nervously tried to have it both ways, bringing in the concept of ‘education’ as well, for all the world as if two flawed arguments were somehow better than one. Hagens, I think, has a showman’s pragmatic understanding that liberalism will licence things under the banner of ‘art’ that would result in criminal charges in any other context, but is otherwise not much interested in art. Kent, I think, recoils from the naff staginess of the poses in which the corpses are displayed, and thus really means not that Hagens’ exhibit is not art, but that it is bad art that she nevertheless feels honour-bound to defend.

Let’s talk sternocostal articulations
What, though, of the ‘educational’ justification? How real is that? Well, all I can say is that for all the comments I’ve read about how ‘educational’ the exhibition and onscreen ‘autopsy’ were, I have yet to hear a single specific instance in which anyone’s knowledge of anatomy was in any way advanced by what they witnessed. Nor is this surprising. Dissection is not a good way to learn basic anatomy. Neither is looking at freakishly-posed cadavers. Medical students invariably spend a long time studying anatomy from textbooks before they are allowed anywhere near an actual corpse, for the simple reason that actual bodies are much messier, more confusing and less ‘average’ than a good set of labelled illustrations. I suspect, as with much display technique these days, even the figures in Body Worlds are intended mostly to produce a vague yet potent sensation, rather than real understanding — which after all requires time, effort and application, and hence is largely inappropriate for popular exhibitions. Perhaps, of course, I’m wrong, and Sarah Kent and Simon Jenkins will surprise us in the future with their enhanced grasp of the working of the adrenal system or the intricacies of skeletal structure. Perhaps it is helpful to have flayed corpses enacting the roles of ‘goalkeeper’ or ‘basketball player’ in order to comprehend at a deep level the way in which the human body works. Perhaps, indeed, it is useful to have such an exhibit in a shop window at Piccadilly Circus — an obvious venue for scholarly application. On the other hand, perhaps this is all just an opportunistic freak-show, there to titillate rather than educate? If the next few decades see a renaissance of anatomical understanding in this country, I shall happily admit I was wrong, and this wasn’t simply an essay in extremely callous, dehumanising entertainment.

But actually I don’t think that’s the sort of ‘education’ people such as Jenkins really mean to invoke. More likely, really, they are saluting the way in which Hagens brings the living face-to-face with death. At one level, such a endeavour may, indeed, seem entirely admirable. It is true that most of us in Britain are oblivious to the realities of death to an extent that would have shocked our own great-grandparents. In our world, death is something best handled by professionals, whether in hospices, hospitals or funeral-parlours. We no longer lay out, wash and dress our own dead. Instead of burying them in our midst, we exile them to bleak and distant suburbs or reduce them to ash. As a society, we focus our attention on the appearance of youth, health and vigour, as if to contemplate anything else was to court it. Thus when a young person dies suddenly — one thinks, unavoidably, of Diana, Princess of Wales, but sadly there are plenty of other examples closer to home, no less poignant for their lack of celebrity — it seems a terrible affront. More gradual if no less tragic deaths are couched in terms of ‘losing the fight’ with whatever disease is to blame. Anything, after all, is better than admitting that death is less an adversary than virtually the only inevitability in life. Surely cosmetics, exercise, medical care will protect us? I suspect few of us really, in our heart of hearts, believe that we are ever going to die.

So is Hagens’ work a much-needed memento mori held up in the face of a culture that has forgotten too much? Well, no. In the first place, Hagens has enough commercial sense to provide the frisson of death without exposing his punters to any of its more rebarbative aspects. Corruption is the concomitant of death, but Hagens’ display corpses apparently have a shiny plasticky sheen, vivid colours and no smell. Their active poses are entirely at variance with the postures more usually assumed by the dead. Flayed and faceless, they don’t — as Sarah Kent points out — look much like dead people at all. In fact, what they look like is anatomical models (c.f. Damien Hirst’s polychrome bronze in Charles Saatchi’s collection), except that they happen to be constructed out of dead people. Meanwhile the so-called ‘autopsy’ — and the televised nature of the event belied the whole idea of an autopsy, in the sense of seeing with one’s own eyes — while marginally more indebted to the realities of death, was so theatrical, so mediated with the murmurings of Christina Odone & Co., as to have very little to do with real death. If that sort of education is what Channel 4 wanted, why not leave an hour of normal news footage unedited, so as to depict the dead as open-eyed, contorted and frightening as they actually are? No, if Hagens’ show is a memento of anything, it is a monument to human arrogance or obviousness in the face of the end that awaits us all.

Rest in peace
And this, I think, is why I was instinctively so repulsed by the idea of setting up a show of mutilated corpses as a commercial proposition. As a Christian, I don’t regard this earthly body as very important, since whatever becomes of me after death, I know there will come a day when I am re-embodied. Though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. Yet this body is also, for all its inadequacies and failings, a God-given thing that deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. And this brings us to an elementary point of anthropology so basic it is remarkable that it needs to be stated at all. Put simply, if you love someone, or feel some sense of kinship or sympathy with them, it is a basic human instinct to show for their dead body a measure of the regard you’d have shown towards the living person. As far as I know this has been true from the dawn of time, amongst all people everywhere. Of course the converse is also true, which is why bodies of enemies are so often mutilated, exposed or otherwise mistreated — and why such behaviour is invariably regarded as a serious affront to the memory of the dead. Think here not only of the bodies of Simon de Montfort or our own regicides, but more recently the bodies of Mussolini, the US soldiers killed in Somalia or James Bulger — in each of these cases, the way in which bodies were treated after death was both intended and understood as a grave and terrible insult. There are different ways of explaining why this should be the case, but in the present case, it hardly matters. The instinct is there, it’s universal, and even today, it retains its potency.

Yet if this is true, why do so many ‘respectable’ people flock to see an exhibition in which their fellow creatures are encased in plastic, naked and anonymous? Why do they peer guiltily at the mutilation of a fellow human on television, in the lonely hours after midnight in the comfortable fastness of their suburban homes? Here, I think the answer lies in combination of factors. The first is the absolute unfamiliarity and hence the obliviousness of death that I mentioned a moment ago, and the second is the lack of any metaphysical equipment with which to handle the concept in the unlikely event that one has been forced to engage with it. The culture that delivered the material prosperity necessary to delay death, to treat it as an embarrassment and to tidy it away into ghettos of professional specialisation, has concurrently stripped away the theological understanding that made death both more acceptable and comprehensible to earlier generations. Simon Jenkins, after all, loves our parish churches, but has to explain away his guilty secret by glossing them as a sort of secular shrine to social history, rather than as — well, what the people who worshipped in them for centuries thought they were.

But to return to the subject at hand, if you don’t think you’re going to die, and if you think that everything ends once you die, then why not achieve ‘immortality’ — after all, we all remember what we watched on television at midnight on a Wednesday evening a few weeks ago, don’t we? — by donating your corpse to the first passing charlatan? We also, I suspect — although if true, this contention is the most grisly thing in this article — feel much less connection with the people around us than we once did, and hence are relatively more indifferent to seeing our fellow creatures’ corpses served up as light entertainment. And then there are those, like Jenkins, for whom a lofty disregard for long-established proprieties is almost an end in itself, signalling as it does so many encouraging things about his sophistication, clear-headedness and general superiority. Finding something ‘unsettling’ and yet advocating it — what more fitting sacrifice can be laid on the altar of liberal fundamentalism?

Indeed, instinct seems a world removed from Simon Jenkins’ frankly glib ‘free country’ arguments. For Jenkins, the main issue wrapped up with Hagens’ exhibition seems to be one not of casual cruelty and callousness, but of personal freedom. Jenkins appears confident that a person should have the right to do what he wants with his or her own dead body. After all, a corpse isn’t a living person — it is private property, isn’t it? Well, yes, up to a point. In law, human corpses remain private property of a very specialised kind, and a moment’s reflection suggests why such laws are challenged far more rarely than Jenkins implies. Most people, it turns out, are happy enough with the idea that their lifeless bodies, or those of their lovers or kinsmen, will not be sold off and dissected in public by showmen. This is not entirely an abstract point, either. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the urban poor lived in terror that ‘body-snatchers’ would tear them from their modest final resting places and sell them to anatomists. This is where most of our present legislation on the treatment of corpses originates. In general, people value their right not to live in a world where such things happen more than they value some subjunctive right to do such things if they wish. This may not be a particularly libertarian stance, but then most people are not particularly libertarian when it comes to the matters closest to their hearts — matters like love, altruism or grief, as close study of libertarians in action makes clear. Conventions, like professional qualifications, are often handy shortcuts towards making life work smoothly. Jenkins may talk grandly about professions being a conspiracy against the laity, but does he seek medical advice, legal opinions and help with his accounts from random amateurs?

Pretend, though, for a moment, that this is a point best settled by rational argument. How far is Jenkins willing to push his rights-based case? Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that corpses really are private property, just like any other commodity, as if they had no other significance. Would he be happy for corpses, say, to be sold on the open market — perhaps in specialised shops — for any random use? To be sold for their value as spare parts, genetic material, fertiliser, components of household furnishings or items of personal adornment? Would parents be able to sell off the bodies of their children in this way, or could children thus dispose of the bodies of their senile parents and grandparents? What if someone apparently wants to be made into a handbag or a pair of brogues? Where does one draw the line? Simon Jenkins is making an absolute sort of argument, but I strongly suspect he would not be willing to follow it to its logical conclusion, because at some point a sense of common decency would kick in, wrapped up perhaps in arguments about the sort of abuses and inconveniences such practices might encourage. There would come a point where freedom would have gone just that little bit too far for liberal good manners to bear it. But that, I suppose, is exactly the point. It isn’t that Jenkins doesn’t want limits — he wants the limits to be set by himself, and people like him. And I think he is also, ultimately, just as moved by those instinctive proprieties as the rest of us are. It’s just that he’s a little bit more callous about the exact didactic manner in which they ought to be applied.

Some dead are more equal than others
And here, perhaps, is the most squalid aspect of Hagens’ London sojourn. The corpse at the centre of Hagens’ ‘autopsy’ was, apparently, that of a 72-year old failed businessman who had turned to the bottle and who ‘donated’ his body to be publicly dissected after his death. His family apparently gave their ‘permission’ for the dissection to take place. We are meant to be reassured, I suppose, by both these assertions. Yet if Simon Jenkins really thinks this whole business is so ‘admirable’, as he puts it, why is he not donating his own body to be hacked apart on stage in front of television cameras, or to be gaped at, skinless and naked, in a lucrative exhibition? Does he wish that those closest to him — his family, his friends — should do so? Would he enjoy seeing his own grandparents or children, for instance, subjected to this treatment? Again, I suspect he would not. I also suspect that Channel 4 would not have embraced this project if the body were that of a child, or an attractive young woman, or someone from an ethnic minority group. After all, we like children, attractive young women, and coloured people, don’t we?

Thus our public dissections, like those of the seventeenth century, enshrine their own morality tales, even if Simon Jenkins is too squeamish to spell these out. In the past, those consigned to dissection were the outcasts of society — hanged criminals, for the most part, for whom public mutilation was simply one final gesture of society’s contempt. Last week in Brick Lane, it was possible to watch a poor old drunk — he was a heavy smoker too, apparently —being sawed to bits, his face fully visible. Some of us might have felt that such a person deserved pity, a bit of Christian charity and respect someone who, though a sinner like all of us, was likewise a child of God. Some, indeed, might have doubted that the decisions that an old drunk was making by the end of his life were necessarily wise or sound ones, and hence might feel there was a moral case to be made for holding back from offering him this sort of choice. Some might likewise recall that since families are perfectly capable of disliking, harming or even murdering their own, the permission of next-of-kin might encapsulate a good deal of resentment and desire for revenge, rather than benevolent concern. Liberalism, with its mantras of ‘freedom’ and ‘choice’, gets a good press; obviously, the alternatives can sound patronising, arbitrary and repressive. Yet there are moments when the fruits of liberal permissiveness can taste very bitter indeed, and the night of Hagens’ autopsy was one of them.

Obviously, however, plenty of people will continue to disagree with me in my distaste for this exhibition, my nearest and dearest included — a sign, if one were needed, of the extent to which we live in a pluralistic society where literally nothing can be taken for granted as a common belief. Some people find this exciting, while others find it destabilising, alienating and more than a little bleak. In the end, alas, there is perhaps no line of argument on subjects such of these that will succeed in bringing liberal beliefs — I choose the word carefully — safely into port alongside their Tory equivalents. There have been questions raised about the ways in which Hagens has recruited his ‘volunteers’ — especially some that appear to have been posthumously volunteered by the proprietor of a Russian crematorium — and these remain to be answered. But let’s assume for a moment that all the dead bodies he displays come from willing donors and that his work really does have some sort of educational or perhaps even aesthetic value. Would I be happy with it then? No, not at all. I’ve examined my own revulsion, turned it over in my own mind and tried to understand why it is there, but in a sense the sheer fact of it speaks for itself. What Hagens is doing is simply wrong, in the same way that murder or torture or extreme indifference to human suffering is wrong. If ever innate moral sense told us anything, this would be it. If I had to make arguments to defend my opposition, however, I suppose I’d argue that treating dead bodies in the way that Hagens does not only indicates a lack of respect for the living as well as the dead, but that it can only serve further to coarsen the moral sensibilities of those who countenance such treatment, with frankly frightening implications for the future. Great apes, apparently, treat their dead with a sort of forlorn and puzzled concern, until gradually they grow bored of their lifeless companion, turn and amble away. It’s hard to think of any creature that uses its dead fellows for fun. Maybe my friend is right, the conservative voices are wrong, and this is where liberal progress has led us. If so, though, it leaves me feeling more Tory than ever.
Bunny Smedley, ERO’s arts editor, not only has not seen Body Worlds but cannot imagine the circumstances in which she ever would.

November 28, 2002 11:23 AM

Comments Off on Habeas corpus: the old taboos are the best ones

Filed under archive, culture, religion, Tory things

Bloody brilliant: Aztecs at the Royal Academy

15 November, 2002
ART: Bloody brilliant
Aztecs at the Royal Academy

As lost civilisations go, the Aztecs have a serious PR problem. It isn’t just that they kept dogs for meat, or that they called their gods by unwieldy names like Huitzilopochtli and Xiuhtecuhtli and Chalchiuhtlicue. Those things happen. But they failed to provide any images of themselves doing the sort of things that we like to think everyone does. There are no tender Aztec mother-and-child scenes, no love poetry, no injunctions to charity or kindness towards the weak or the unfortunate. In fact, although the Aztecs provided state support for the disabled, such support lasted only up to the moment of the next solar eclipse – at which point the disabled were amongst the first to be sacrificed and then stewed up with peppers and tomatoes and eaten by their former patrons.

But then human sacrifice was a major feature of Aztec civilisation. Conservative estimates suggest that at least 20,000 people were sacrificed by the Aztecs every year — something like one per cent of the population — while less conservative accounts not only put the number much higher, but claim that cannibalism added vital protein to the otherwise rather starchy diets of the Aztec elites. Thus if you accept the conventional wisdom that eating people is wrong — and ERO has always retained a soft spot in its black and cankered heart for conventional wisdom — then this will almost certainly colour your perception of the strange, civilised, horrific people whose empire bestrode much of Mesoamerica at the dawn of the sixteenth century. It’s interesting, then, that the Royal Academy’s magnificent new exhibition, Aztecs, addresses the human sacrifice issue not by denying that it happened, but by glossing over the idea that it might be in any way problematic, or that it should do anything other than add a delightful shiver or two to our encounter with Aztec visual culture.

Aztecs, it must be said, is an extraordinary, overwhelming, more than slightly alarming and wholly unmissable show. It is perhaps the most important thing that has happened at the Royal Academy for years. Loans have flooded in from everywhere, not least from Mexico itself, making this a fuller account of Aztec culture than most of us ever would have expected to see on this side of the Atlantic. Aztecs was opened by the President of Mexico and boasts a catalogue introduction from our own Prime Minister and essays by many of the great and the good of this particular scholarly field. It’s high level high culture at its most incontrovertible. Yet at no point have worthy educational ends, let alone diplomatic gentilesse, been encouraged to eclipse either these objects’ aesthetic force, or their terrible charisma. It’s like Sensation but with more scholarly credibility, more shock value and more things that make one feel genuinely sick. What could be better, with Christmas on the way? This is, in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition. In fact I’d go further, and say that anyone with any interest in history, anthropology or visual art who fails to see it is making a real and regrettable mistake.

On one level, this is history as pure theatre. Coming out of Aztecs, walking home through a rain-washed and monochrome Piccadilly, it was the sheer drama of presentation that stuck in the mind. Ivor Heal designed Aztecs and he deserves credit for providing the sort of spectacular visual impact not always associated with archaeological exhibitions. Of course the Royal Academy started off with an advantage. There’s inevitably a bit of a frisson where — excuse the very non-pc language for a moment — apparently ‘primitive’ art invades the classicised idioms and civilising spaces of nineteenth-century high culture. The brutal bulkiness of basalt carvings gets a boost from the gilt-edged coffered ceiling soaring high above it — just as a certain sort of trashy, demotic contemporary art does, as we’ve recently seen in those exact spaces. But the design here is magnificent. Inspired lighting effects, an imaginative placement of artefacts and large chip-board additions to existing doors have transformed the main galleries of the RA into a succession of darkish, mysterious spaces punctuated with amazing sights, and culminating in a space that alludes directly to the temple architecture of the vanished Tenochtitlán, which the Aztecs believed was the literal centre of the universe.

So, as I’ve said, what will stick with the viewer is less a series of discrete objects or parcels of information, than an overall experience: an impression of sharply-incised carving picked out by dramatic lighting, of exotic materials and terrifying imagery. This is the Other, exhibiting all the repulsiveness and magnetism we are told we should no longer experience in the presence of alien cultures. This is a vision of archaeology that owes as much to old Curse of the Mummy films as it does to learned journals with long footnotes. And as is often the case with Romanticism, the fact that it’s a guilty pleasure probably only sweetens the experience. Despite, or perhaps because of its rather alarming subject matter, it deserves the blockbuster audiences it will almost certainly attract over Christmas. For a wet, grey London on the brink of war and mildly twitchy about a whole host of things, this is precisely the sort of high-quality escapism we need.

But to say that there’s something dreamlike — or nightmarish — about Aztecs shouldn’t detract from its profundity. It would be hard to leave this exhibition without having learned something about the history of the Americas and about the nature of contact between hitherto distinct cultures. In these days of low expectations regarding the gallery-going public, the RA deserves a huge amount of credit for the grown-up, sane, informative nature of the explanatory material here. It has been a long time since I have seen interpretive panels that were so long, so unpretentiously ambitious or so genuinely interesting. The catalogue, by the same token, is a minor marvel in its own right. Weighty, informative, intelligently-organised and full of ravishly attractive photographs, it is well worth the reasonable price the RA is charging for it. And here’s a strange fact — in both the exhibition and the catalogue, the account of the centrality of religion in Aztec life and culture is such that even ERO cannot think of anything remotely critical to say about this. No, the drama here has not come at the price of patronising visitors. Other curators, not just in London either, might well wish to take note.

So what is there to learn about the enigmatic people who created the wealth of material on show in Aztecs? A great deal, as it happens. Perhaps the most salient fact about the Aztec empire is how young it was when Cortez first encountered it. Less than two centuries separate the year 1325, when this wandering tribe founded their capital at Tenochtitlan (the site of the present-day Mexico City) from their defeat at the hands of the Spanish in 1521. Another surprising fact is the extent to which the Aztecs looked back to previous civilisations for inspiration and legitimacy. As a group of lacklustre nomads with no particular visual culture of their own, they swiftly appropriated the remains of older civilisations such as the Olmecs (c. 1200-100 BC) and the Toltecs (c. 900-1200), or borrowed from contemporaries such as the Mayas. The great ruined city of Teotihuacan (AD 100-750) exerted a particular fascination. The Aztecs believed that the city had once been home to Quetzalcoatl, the legendary god-king of the Toltecs, before he had vanished beyond the sea. It is strange to reflect that more time separated the first Aztecs from the last days of Teotihuacan — nearly 600 years — than presently divides their last days from our own times.

This openness towards cultural synthesis explains a great deal in Aztecs. The Aztecs — actually, ‘Mexica’ seems to be the more acceptable term for these people, but I’ll avoid it here to spare everyone’s confusion — were fascinated by the ruins of the past. They excavated old cities. They treasured the artefacts they found, even when these were fragmentary, and — the highest praise possible — sacrificed them to their gods. When real ancient material was not available, they created facsimiles instead. This willingness to simulate an antique style, based on a belief that such a style somehow connected more directly with divine realities, is one of the most interesting things I’ve ever learned about a past civilisation. It also explains a great deal about their ‘contact’, as the exhibition puts it, with the Spanish conquistadors. When the Spaniards arrived, the Aztecs admired their curious beards, their horses and firearms, and greeted them as the vanished Quetzalcoatl and his retinue. Later they embraced the outward forms of the conquering people’s religion and created handsome liturgical objects in the new idiom. There’s a sense that what happened had less to do with conquest, than with yet another wave of syncretic assimilation. As late as the nineteenth century, good church-going Amerindians kept in their houses terra-cotta or wooden figures of Aztec minor deities, apparently with a degree of official sanction.

Aztecs has been supported both by the Mexican government, its tourist board and its major petrochemical company, Pemex. Perhaps this accounts to a large extent for the relatively relaxed view that the exhibition seems to take regarding the ‘conquest’ of Mexico by the Spanish. Perhaps the idea of attacking a situation in which a small, light-skinned, wealthy Spanish-speaking elite governs a large, poor, creole or Amerindian majority does not, for some reason, appeal? Still, the result is a sane, balanced account of the way in which waves of culture lap over one another, each leaving behind on the beach its own little aggregation of offerings before withdrawing once again. This is why we have Aztecs modifying Olmec masks before sacrificing them to Tolem deities, and their grandchildren making magnificent hummingbird-feather mitres for Catholic clergy. That Aztecs skims over this with self-confident brevity can only be a good sign. The nation that has already given the world Diego Rivera, let alone his over-rated consort, has a lot more to add when it comes to the visual arts.

As for Aztec society, it combines the disconcerting and the familiar in equal measure. The empire’s capital, Tenochtitlan, had an estimated population of 250,000 — enormous by pre-modern standards — and was compared by the first Spaniards who encountered it with Venice. Currency consisted of cacao beans or white cotton cloaks. Feathers were considered as valuable as gold. The only domesticated animals were turkeys and dogs. There were no draught animals. The Aztecs famously did not use wheeled vehicles or pulleys. Aztec society was based on a caste system, and was theocratic and militaristic to an almost unimaginable extent. The bulk of the population were serfs or slaves, presided over by an hereditary elite and a growing mercantile and artisan class. Aztec poetry was poignant and sometimes remarkably vivid, but more often than not, dealt with the shortness of life and the loneliness of the afterlife. And the visual record left by the Aztecs relates almost exclusively to religion, sacrifice and death.

It is easy to caricature this grimness of tone. Women who died in childbirth — personified as Cihuateotl — were regarded as the equivalent of warriors who died in battle. At their death they were believed to become living spectres, capturing the souls of the unborn and joining the sun from its zenith to its setting in the west. The example in Aztecs is shown wearing a garland of sculls and a necklace of severed hands, ‘the tangled hair of a corpse’, emaciated and raising her claw-like hands in a gesture of aggression. So much for all the gentle ‘Virgin and Child’ scenes that have, since Byzantine times, occupied so much of Western art! There is a whole room in Aztecs devoted to gods of death, including the alarming Xipe Totec, dressed in his fitted suit of flayed human skin – not that the room devoted to gods of life looks that much more cheerful. But the single most distressing thing in this exhibition must surely be item 97, ‘container for flayed human skin’. Not only is it a strange, sickly, pinky-yellow colour, but it is covered with lumps of fired clay, apparently designed to resemble blobs of subcutaneous fat. Devotees of Xipe Totec apparently wore the skins of sacrificed humans for twenty days over their own faces and bodies, in order to personify their god, before storing them in jars like this one and storing them in a chamber beneath their temple. Neither Damien Hirst, the Chapman brothers nor Bruce Nauman have ever approached the sheer nausea-value of this fact, which makes mid-country Liberia of the 1980s sound a wholesome and agreeable place.

But horror like this would not be interesting were it not shot through with a great deal of beauty and skill. The Aztecs were capable of working stone with immense skill and fluidity, they could shape terra cotta with delicacy, and their goldworking techniques amazed even Albrecht Dürer. It is hard to reconstruct that moment of inter-cultural contact now, but it’s important to remember that those who lived through it saw it more as a meeting of equals than as an encounter between a ‘civilised’ renaissance culture and a ‘primitive’ peripheral one. Looking at Aztec artefacts, this makes sense. There’s a huge granite carving of a rattlesnake, marvellously naturalistic, where even the underside is shaped to resemble the reptile sinuous curves. There’s a remarkable feathered serpent representing Quetzalcoatl, again a huge thing rendered out of a single block of reddish stone, mysterious and wholly convincing. There is a life-sized ‘Eagle Man’ made out of fired clay, presumably unimaginably fragile yet extremely menacing. There are the intricate illustrated books, the so-called codices, which were collected by Archbishop Laud, amongst others, and which tell us so much about Aztec life and history. And there is a terrible life-sized fired-clay model of Mictlantecuhtli, half-flayed, his engorged liver hanging down from his ribcage, placed on a plinth in the exhibition so that he appears to be reaching down towards the viewer in some ghastly simulacrum of mute greeting, his bony face convulsed in a grin. It’s an embarrassing thing to admit, but if there had not been a gallery full of people, I would not have lasted two minutes in those rooms before running away.

All of which goes a long way towards explaining why some of the responses to this exhibition have been so silly. Yes, to twenty-first century people like us, such images appear horrifying, and the little we know about the Aztecs does little to reassure us. Yet at the same time, it is witless to assert, as one critic has recently done, that these things have ‘a visceral impact, a power which operates on some atavistic level’ and hence can communicate directly with us, bypassing the need for in-depth knowledge. Equally silly is the claim by another critic that ‘we can easily imagine’ the ‘terror’ of a sacrificial victim – before admitting that the Aztecs, with their lack of ‘forgiveness, humility and hope’, leave him ‘cold’.

If, however, we take the time to move beyond pleasurable shocks and shivers towards a moment of vaguely sane anthropological reflection — because, to use another out-of-fashion word, this is less an art exhibition than an ‘ethnographic’ one — then we should really be able to admit, honestly if a bit sadly, that we can never actually know how these images looked to the Aztecs themselves. Aztec cosmology was complex and intricate; Aztec theology was predicated on a system of dualities and overlapping realities; when Aztec religious thought was described by the Spanish — almost invariably, Catholic lay brethren — it was filtered through a more or less inevitable series of misunderstandings, implicit critiques and outright disagreement. And this applies to most aspects of Aztec culture, even the most apparently sinister. As a Christian, I am disgusted by the way in which human sacrifice disregards the sanctity of human life, and am delighted that the Spanish converted the Aztecs to Christianity. But this does not provide grounds for the assumption that Aztecs saw human sacrifice as negative, terrible or even terrifying. There is, alternatively, a great deal of evidence that for them, human sacrifice was integrally connected with themes of rebirth, regeneration and even hope. And given that Christians have as their ultimately consoling and life-affirming image the figure of a wounded and bleeding man being tortured to death on a cross, we should perhaps avoid leaping to any conclusions about how the objects on show at the Royal Academy were regarded by their creators. Whatever we feel about these objects, we bring our own feelings with us. They are neither inherent in the objects themselves, nor are they elicited from us by the objects through some ‘atavistic’ ‘power’.

None of this, I suppose I ought to emphasise, means that we cannot or should not attempt to draw as close as we can to the Aztec’s mental world, in the hope of understanding as much of it as possible. From their poetry — transcribed by Spanish sources and written in a language still spoken by many Amerindians today — it is clear that Aztecs knew laughter, friendship, sexual attraction, affection for children and parents, and pleasure in everything from the colours of flowers to the smell of perfume and the taste of chocolate. Trying to assimilate this knowledge with what we see in Aztecs is one of the considerable pleasures of the exhibition. There’s a marvellous fired clay drinking vessel, for instance, in the form of a rabbit, made in about 1500. The rabbit is lying on his back, paws crossed in front of him, looking sweet and rather silly. Apparently the vessel was used in religious festivals devoted to Ome Toechtli, the patron of drunkards, where it was filled with a mildly alcoholic drink laced with trance-inducing drugs. What is one to make of this? Or of a statue of Huehoeteotl, literally ‘old, old god’, depicted with frankly engaging naturalism as an old, old man, wrinkled and snaggle-toothed, smiling at he looks ahead of him? I have no idea, but I think it’s strange how quick some critics have been to assume that the Aztecs’ world was all death, all violence, even — to use a word that has featured in more than one review — all nihilism.

But then I think art critics are easily wrong-footed when confronted with a body of fascinating, powerfully, visually compelling material that was never mean to be art per se. The Aztecs valued the skill, imagination and commitment of their artisans and craftsmen, and described their work appreciatively. But art for art’s sake was a concept as alien to them as it was to the Europeans who encountered them. So the critic is left with two main choices. One, which is looking a bit dated now, is to project anachronistic, formal concerns back upon these objects — not least, the magnificent stone sculpture — as if they were somehow equivalent to work by, say, Rodin or Calder or Paolozzi. Putting these items in an art gallery, abstracted from their ritual context and their intended environment, obviously plays slightly to this reading. The logical alternative is to refuse them status as art, and instead treat them as anthropological or archaeological specimens, in the way that old university ethnographic collections, with their dusty vitrines and faded typescript labels, used to do — and the concomitant risk is an experience that would engage no one but the Mesoamerican specialist.

So by concentrating on drama, the Royal Academy has, in a sense, opted for a third way, bypassing both the aesthetic and historicist options in favour of pure sensation. It’s a reasonable compromise. The sheer grand guignol notoriety of the Aztecs ensures that we don’t forget that the stunning objects here were made for a purpose — hazy though we might be about the nature of that purpose — while the visual impact of the objects is such that they unfailingly fascinate, even at their most disgusting. Of course this, too, has inherent hazards. To return to a point made at the beginning of this review, it is strange how easily violence and cruelty can be transformed into the stuff of pleasantly scary entertainment. Confident sculpture, sophisticated gold-working techniques and an inspired way with hummingbird feathers do not excuse mass murder, any more than politcally correct gestures towards cultural relativism do. Somewhere within the tyranny of tolerant liberalism under which we labour, there is still clearly a bit of a blind spot when it comes to ‘primitive’ cultures. It is hard to believe that a show about, say, the art of Nazi Germany — hopeless though most of that obviously was — would possibly be allowed a similar degree of sinister glamour.

History isn’t the same thing as art. The Aztecs deserve their bad PR. Those reclining chacmool altars really did once support still-beating human hearts; the handsome obsidian blades really did drip with arterial blood; the unseeing eyes of some of these images have looked out over things that few of us could imagine. There are many beautiful things in Aztecs, and many terrible ones, too. The juxaposition of the two is occasionally anything but comfortable, if only because the truth it tells about the world is such an unpleasant one. This, as much as anything else, is what makes Aztecs such a brilliant, surprising and unforgettable experience — more so, certainly, than mere art alone could possible provide.

Aztecs is at the Royal Academy from 16 November 2002 – 11 April 2003. Full price tickets cost £10.
Bunny Smedley, November 15, 2002 07:45 PM

Comments Off on Bloody brilliant: Aztecs at the Royal Academy

Filed under archive, culture, religion, reviews