Monday, 2 March 2015

Wolf Hall and the art of sumptuous cliché

Not having an television, I have watched episodes of the much-lauded Wolf Hall on BBC i-player. All I normally watch are the sports programmes.
I really disliked it.

The dialogues are stilted, ponderous and self-consciously portentous. Typically, one person is lurking in a shadowy interior. The camera dwells on details - furniture, faces and costumes. The subject's eyes, into which the camera stares, are deep wells of unspoken thoughts. Someone enters, usually a duplicitous adversary, weighed down by a mighty costume. His eyes (the mobile people are almost all men) express more unspoken thoughts in another sustained close-up. A pregnant pause ensues. The visitor slowly enunciates a message, not infrequently ironic and oblique. More meaningful looks follow, as the camera searches impotently for deeper meanings. The response, equally ironic and oblique, is painfully measured. And so the dialogue proceeds, until, following final bout of meaningful silence, the visitor exists with an air of morbid satisfaction or thwarted malice. We know we are watching "big acting" - and a lot of expense.

The almost perpetual gloom locates Wolf Hall in Monty Python's "dark ages". Even in daytime interiors illuminated by great tudor windows, we are faced with shadowy figures acting out a drama directed by Caravaggio at his most penumbral. At nighttime or in poorly-lit interiors, banks of candles (huge numbers in the scene of Anne Boleyn's trial) cast no useable light into the space of the room. In the actual interiors, our eyes with their ability of accommodate would have seen very adequately.

Dark deeds are conceived in melancholy darkness. No-one plots in daylight.

A hybrid of Monty Python and Harold Pinter - or even Waiting for Godot. It is like the most stylised of the verismo operas of the 19hC, without the redeeming factor of the music.

You may say that that Wolf Hall is drama, using dramatic licence, and that my reading of it is too literal, too naturalistic . Yet the massively expensive costumes, fittings, furniture and settings are telling us "this is how it actually was". You cannot have it both ways.

In the book, the dialogue can be stripped to acid essentials, while we paint the pictures in our mind.  I suspect, looking back in 50 years time, the sumptuous clichés of such a "costume drama" on TV will seem bizarre.

Art in History. Iniquities of Amazon

Further to my post on Art in History, which I wrote to take advantage of the concept of an e-book (or ebook), with animations and links to websites with high res mages and good information, it seems that such "enhanced e-books" are effectually "hidden" as the result of commercial self-interest on behalf of Amazon, who have a near monopoly.  I asked the publisher, profile Books, why I could not myself read the e-version of my own book, even having downloaded Kindle for my Mac. Opening the book, I am informed that “There is video content at this location that is currently not supported for your device”. It transpires that this part of the content is visible to few who download the book.

Mike Jones, who is now responsible for the book for Profile, tells me that "much, as I am sure you know, is dependent on ‘metadata’ within the title and subtitle, and much of that we cannot control as it has to follow universal guidelines concerning ISBNs and supplying large ebook suppliers such as amazon. Everything feeds through to these companies. They would block a description on a print book page that promoted an ebook. .... Amazon - who control a vast slice of the market for ebooks - do not promotionally support enhanced ebooks, and often the enhanced ebook becomes 'hidden' behind other editions. Also, there are only a limited number of devices capable of accessing the material – as you are finding to your cost....  There just aren’t that many people with the right devices and then the inclination to download a book and have an animation alongside. Many people just don’t want this or see it as a creative extra".
I explained that "in writing and designing the book, the e-book was not considered to be a minor add-on that might be readily available in full form for a few readers. It was my prime target and provided the justification for a low specification print book ....The animations on space and colour deal with fundamental things that I do not treat adequately in my text, because I thought they would be readily available. The low spec illustrations were OK providing the links we provided were available to supply high res images (and additional information and bibliography). The animations were for me an integral part of the project, providing a new dimension as to how a book about visual things operate".
This is disappointing. We are looking at ways of increasingly awareness of the e-book, not least by using Youtube for the animations:

All help gratefully received!


Sunday, 8 February 2015

"Michelangelo" bronzes and judgement by eye

The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge is currently showing two bronzes of muscular nude men riding “panthers”. They are little short of a metre high overall, much larger than standard bronze statuettes. They were announced to press a few days ago. I was asked by various journalists what I thought of them. Having been involved the attribution of two new “Leonardos” – the portrait on vellum that I christened La Bella Princpessa and the Salvator Mundi - I know how unwise it is for art historians to give instant responses to press enquiries on the basis of poorish images and with no access to the detailed evidence. I set my mind against premature ejaculations, and said I would wait to see the bronzes – which I did on Friday. Before commenting on the attribution, it might be helpful to say something about methods of involved.

Seeing things “in the flesh”
The truism is that the item must be inspected closely in the original before putting forward or dismissing an attribution. This comprises the basis of traditional connoisseurship – or what I prefer to call judgment by eye. It is valid, but only to a limited degree. There are two major qualifications to the truism, both arising from modern technologies of imaging. The first is that very high resolution images produced under ideal lighting and/or by multi-spectral scanning may well disclose more than first-hand inspection, even aided by magnification. The second is that varieties of scientific analysis may produce clear evidence about the origins of the work, most definitely to exclude the artist or period or place from which the work is supposed to originate.

The imaging will often produce such clear results that a given attribution can be safely excluded, independently of what the object might look like in the original.  I am sent many “Leonardos” (and other things) that can be securely excluded without seeing the original. If I were to travel to see every speculative attribution - ranging from 19th-century lithographs to paintings by followers - I would be on the road more or less perpetually. I have been denounced by David Feldman on behalf of the Mona Lisa Foundation for “refusing” to see the so-called first version of the Mona Lisa in Geneva. I have not refused, but on the basis of high level imaging, most notably infrared reflectography, I have decided that the visual and documentary evidence does not in this case rise above the threshold of probability (or even possibility) at which it is worth the time and expense of the necessary travel. If a work is above that threshold, then being in the presence of the original becomes a crucial factor. I would be pleased to see the Geneva version at some stage, just as I would like to see all the earlyish copies of Leonardo paintings, which exist in great numbers.

As it happens, sculptures are something of special case. Even the best images, including close-ups and photographs from varied viewpoints, do not convey the full effect of the plastic and spatial properties of the work at its actual scale. We can draw some conclusions from photography and technical analysis, but the presence of the sculpture is significantly diminished when rendered in two dimensions – to a much greater degree than a two-dimensional painting. The effect of the bronzes in the Fitzwilliam is different (and more impressive) than the best photographs available online.

The nudes
The figures of the two men, each with one arm raised and with one leg more bent than other, are powerfully realised, with a strong sense of an individual vision. The comparisons in the accompanying book by Victoria Avery and Paul Joannides are very telling, ranging from the marble David to a figure at the centre of Bastiano da Sangallo’s fine copy of the bathers in the lost Battle of Cascina cartoon. In all respects, the two nudes align very well with Michelangelo’s vision of male anatomy around 1506.  I happy to accept them – at least provisionally.

Questions remain. I will raise just two.
One concerns what the men were holding in their upraised hands. They are currently gripping stubby cylinders, which appear to be the vestigial remains of what would have been shafts or handles – perhaps of weapons.
The second concerns the angles of the men’s’ legs.  The relatively narrow V between their thighs, particularly that of the younger figure,  is not that of a rider astride an animal of normal bodily bulk. This brings us to the animals themselves.

The “Panthers”
The first thing to say is that to call them “panthers’ is relatively meaningless.  Panthera is genus that includes the lion, tiger, jaguar, leopard and snow leopard. What we now call a panther is a black (melanistic) variety of a jaguar or leopard, not a species in itself. Since they are sculpted in dark bronze, we cannot of course tell if the “panthers” are black. If we are using “panther” in a historical sense, we will need to clarify what was known and named at the time (not least in Florence), beginning with Pliny’s Natural History. The picture is confused, since not enough specimens were available to sort out the confusion in the existing texts, including bestiaries. Bacchus’s chariot in Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne is pulled by a pair of very well described cheetahs.

The “panthers’ on which the men sit are very poorly characterised, working against any clear identification – and indeed against their attribution to Michelangelo. The animals torsos are notably narrow, even for slim big cats, indicating that they have been formed to fit as best as they can between the Vs of the men’s thighs. The animals’ anatomies are as incoherent as the men’s’ anatomies are coherent. The flat-footed paws are stereotypical, lacking the kind of organic vitality with which Michelangelo endowed clawed feet. The bodies and heads are full of sausagey lumps that look anatomical but are not. The strange “shields” with median incisions than run down the animals’ noses are bizarre and ineloquent. The muzzles are crudely incised with deep marks that signify nothing. The folds of skin around their necks fail to convey any sense of real folding. We might argue that Michelangelo did not have a model of a “panther” to guide him. This would not have stopped him creating compelling sculptural beasts, even if ithey were not zoologically accurate.

Provisional conclusion
The men’s’ figures are compelling in themselves, and are based on models that can be reasonably attributed to Michelangelo. The “panthers” seem to have been designed by someone else to accommodate the men. My hypothesis is that the large models of the men, originally intended to hold weapons, were made for an unidentified ensemble, perhaps a tomb (like that sketched in the corner of the Albertina drawing, fig. 31 in the book), in which they straddled or knelt on an architectural feature.  Someone has utilised the exisiting models of the men to realise a pair of bronze sculptures that have Bacchic connotations. This is of course very hypothetical.

Is the bronze of the “panthers” the same as that of men?  Are the anal rods that are used to insert the men into the backs of the “panthers” cast from the same bronze as the men?  There are many questions to resolve.

A footnote
While we are talking about making attributions, what about the famous British Museum drawing for the centrally seated man in the Battle of Cascina (fig. 46 in the book)? It graced the cover the Michelangelo drawings show in the BM. It seems to me to be a laboured version, poorly articulated and mis-proportioned. There’s an arbitrary judgment for you!

(I am trying to attach images...)

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

power for the powerful

The widely recognised failure of the major parties in the UK to offer significant change to to our increasingly broken system is well recognised. Alternative voices struggle to be heard.
All the major traditional vehicles for the expression of opinions play to the status quo. This includes the BBC (see George Monbiot's analysis in today's Guardian:

The world economic and media systems remorselessly favour:
power for the powerful;
privilege for the privileged;
property for the propertied;
education for the educated;
culture for the cultured;
voices for the voiced;
money for the monied;
food for the well-fed.

Please add to the list.

I am of course part of this system, like most of my few readers I imagine.

Some internet voices provide alternative ways of being heard - Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Change, Greenpeace,  Compassion in World Farming...  The are not the big answer, but they do provide a way for like-minded people whose voices are lost in the present system to come together and to erode the pernicious power of intersecting establishments.
I have joined the Green Party, not because I agree with all their policies, but because in the current state of flux they can provide a focus for those who regard UKIP as poisonous, and the other parties as failing to provide alternatives.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Another survey history of art?

This blog is not so much intermittent as worse than occasional. Sorry.
I always intend to respond to events in the news. But rarely do so in time.
This one is unashamedly advertising my new book.

This month (Jan 2015) sees the publication of Art in History as a print book (for £8.99!)
and an animated e-book (2 devoted to the technical issues of space and colour, and 3 with a cartoon Kemp pontificating). I will post the link to the e-book when it becomes available. I discourage potential purchasers from using Amazon, which I am boycotting because of their employment and tax policies.

Below is the intro. to the book, to give an idea of how I have tackled the barmy task of treating 26 centuries in 40,000 words. This came about as the result of an invitation from Michael Bhaskar of Profile Books. There are no works discussed in detail that are not illustrated, and each illustrated work is given a kind of traditional ekphrasis - a set-piece of word painting in the Ancient and Renaissance manner.

I wonder if overarching surveys still have a role to play. I hope so. In any event, I'm doing the round of the Lit Fests, including Hay, Edinburgh and Oxford.

 The artists and works of art in this book have transformed how art affects us. Over the ages, painters and sculptors have invited us to do radically new things.
 To take just one example, we do not know how the first viewers of Diego Velásquez’s Las Meninas reacted to his mighty canvas, but we can be sure that they had seen nothing like it before. It is recognisable as a group portrait, but does not conform to the norm. The artist is there, but we see only a portion of the back of his painting. The young princess and her entourage have assembled in the grand room. But at whom are they looking? At someone more important than us, we imagine. The king and queen are visible in the mirror. But where are they? They are the absent subject of the picture. Velásquez, in common with other great artists, presents us with a field for interpretation in which we can all play our part.
 Art in History concentrates on the triangular relationship between art, artist and spectator – frequently in the context of God and nature. This is how the present book differs from the numerous previous histories of ‘Western Art’. It looks at the varied historical notions of art and artists as categories within which art is produced and consumed. What art required of the spectator and what the spectator required of art changed radically over the ages. We will see the artist emerge as an individual who makes a distinct contribution to the development of art in ancient Greece and again later in the Renaissance. Subsequent centuries witness the evolution of the categories until they assume their modern meanings. The developments often embody the idea of ‘progress’, a powerful concept in the forging of modern economic and political systems. Indeed, every aspect of the rise of art and artists is deeply involved in material and conceptual shifts in society.
In setting art in history, a big question looms into view: is the maker of artefacts a subservient agent or an autonomous hero of creativity? Or to frame more subtle questions: how far is the art work first and foremost an expression of a series of social imperatives; and how far does it depend on the direct and timeless communication of human values from one individual to another? Can it be both of these things? I will argue that the power of images depends on both, in a wholly integrated manner.
How a work of art is embedded in history varies as widely as the works and the artists vary. A medieval Madonna and Child is directly concerned with a kind of spiritual beauty that lies beyond this world, while Goya’s painting of a contemporary massacre speaks of violent contention. What we call the ‘style’ of the work is integral to its effect. The suave grace and high polish of the Madonna would not serve Goya well. The violent colour contrasts and incendiary brushwork of Goya would not exercise the right effect on a medieval worshipper. All the works here demonstrate a compelling unity of style and content. Each of them posits their own special relationship with the spectator in the context of the society from which they emerged, and they ‘speak’ to us in a period voice. Although we can still hear them speak, we gain enormously from attuning our ears to their very varied accents.
We will be encountering our key works in a broadly chronological order, because what each artist does is articulated in relation to what went before, and affects our view of the past. As the great poet T. S. Eliot wrote in 1921, ‘what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it’.
Until comparatively recently, works of art that have emerged from the changing frameworks tell the story of big blokes – whether artists or their funders – and play to what is a familiar story of canonical masterpieces that stood at the centre of new developments in European and North American art. There are of course other stories, but the narrative I follow, looking at European and North American art, is a real and massive one, not least in terms of where the international art world is now, in China no less than in the USA. It is also the story that I am best equipped to tell but I don’t claim that it is definitely what the history of art is about. As one of the possible stories, not the least of its attractions is its focus on some of the most enriching works human beings have produced. It is also closely related to what we experience when we step into major galleries and museums.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

usain bolt and drugs

The Commonwealth games reminds me to say something I have been considering for a long time.
Sprinting events have a long history of performers whose achievements suddenly rise to extreme heights, either (or both) in terms of their own career or global performance standards. In almost all cases of such steep rise, artificial stimulants were involved.  The performances of the adored Usain Bolt, who is the biggest draw in contemporary athletics, rose with awesome steepness. See

Five Jamaican athletes have already tested positive for drugs:

The world of athletics has a huge investment is Bolt being "clean". If, to use a cliché, I were a betting man (I have never laid a bet on anything), I would not put any money any top current sprinter running below 9.80 seconds not being eventually exposed as a drug cheat, using techniques that are currently difficult to detect. I hope that this is not the case. Bolt is properly regarded by myself and the world at large as "clean" until proved otherwise. But the history of athletics, and its willingness to welcome back those convicted, does not encourage me to be optimistic that new revelations will not emerge

Gustav Metzger, major artist i

On Saturday I was at a conference in Cambridge organised to celebrate the exhibition of the life and work of Gustav Metzger at Kettle's Yard. Do I hear the question "who?", even from people who are well-informed about contemporary art.  The problem is that he has, over the course of a heroically consistent career, created works based on processes rather than the depositing of artefacts as fixed and marketable commodities. If someone asks, "where do  I go to see his works?", the question is not easy to answer. For the most part his oeuvre is known through a very patchy visual record of photography and film, and recreations of the kind in the Kettle's Yard show and earlier in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1998-9 (the publication for which I wrote an essay).

Arriving as a teenage refugee from Hitler's Germany in 1939, he studied at the Cambridge School of Art. Some biographical details are at and in the excellent publication by Lizzy Fisher.

He was a pioneer of auto-destructive art and auto-creative art, in which processes driven by technologies and cutting-edge science create results that impermanent and unpredictable. Most famous are the remarkable liquid crystal displays in which wall-size panels undergo wondrous changes of form, colour and light. I devoted one of my columns in Nature to their Oxford manifestation (reprinted in Visualizations, OUP). I include the text at the end. At least the recreation in Cambridge is owned by the Tate.

Unlike many young radicals, Metzger has never compromised to become a maker of expensive collectables. His social and artistic mission remains, at the age of 90, undimmed by time and inevitable physical frailty. This mission is summarised in the "Harmony" declaration to which he contributed in 1970 (reproduced in the book of the show). Just two excerpts will demonstrate its prophetic nature:

      "The traditional Techniques of European civilisation for control of out environment have developed to the point of creating desperate problems that cannot be solved on their own terms...
The whole enterprise of science is a branch of the apparatus of production: of commodities, of war, and of consciousness. It has more or less autonomy depending on local circumstances. Up to now its relative independence has been both a precious freedom for the few, and a convenient myth for the many."

I would now add to the second of these, which is very much of its time,  "political imperatives based on the national economic demands and the trans-national dictats of big business". Metzger loves true science, dedicated to the disclosure of the nature of things, as I try to argue in my Nature piece, below. He is to my mind one of the major artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Art that relies upon the witnessing of a process confounds our expectation that any act of making in the ‘Fine Arts’ should result in a collectable artefact - an expectation that we do not impose on theatre or musical performance. The work of Gustav Metzger is particularly infuriating in this respect. His programme of ‘auto-destructive art’, launched in his London manifesto of 1959, leaves behind no permanent object or enduring trace - frustrating mercenary dealers and acquisitive museum curators. His ‘aesthetic of revulsion’ which relishes forms and modes of expression that ‘are below the threshold of social acceptance’ insults the established criteria of those who aspire to appreciate ‘Art’. And his apparently anarchic media, such as the nylon canvases dissolved by acid spray into apparent nothingness, set him up as a prime candidate for ridicule by the popular press and those who decry ‘modern art’ as fraudulent. 

The destructive processes which form one strand of his activity are a response to the events which marked his personal and political life. Born in 1926 as the son of Polish Jews in Nuremberg and exiled with his elder brother to England in 1939, Metzger’s student years were ravaged by a war in which his parents were immolated, and the art of retaliatory mass destruction was first practised at Hiroshima. In life as in art, he has fomented rebellion. In company with Bertrand Russell and fellow anti-nuclear protesters, he was one of those imprisoned in 1961. 

Science - and this is where he qualifies for inclusion in our present context - has been a constant concern  in his art. Science is neither automatically demonised nor gratuitously exploited. On one hand, he has savaged the way that scientific technologies have ruthlessly extended man’s destructive potential, forcing the old concept of ‘Nature’, ideally inclusive of man, to become the ‘Environment’, which is to be managed from ‘outside’ by mighty human agencies.  And he bears witness, metaphorically in his auto-destructive acts, to the awesome ‘tearing apart’ and ‘annihilation’ practised by nuclear physics in its dismembering of the atom.

On the other hand, Metzger recognises that ‘each disintegration.... leads to the creation of a new form’, a transformatory process that leads logically to the other side of his artistic and social coin - ‘auto-creative art’. Setting up physico-chemical reactions to produce growth and metamorphosis, ‘auto-creative’ works exploit the potential of such physical wonders as liquid crystals and new technologies, and most notably computing, to forge art-forms that serve as theatres of natural process. A central ideal is non-predictability, resulting in ‘a limitless change of images without image duplication’.

His most prominent creations in this ‘auto-creative’ mode are his liquid crystal projections, invented in 1965 and first manifested on a huge scale at concerts by ‘The Cream’, ‘The Who’ and ‘The Move’ at the Roundhouse in London at the end of the following year. For a series of exhibitions in 1999, the ponderous 1966 programme of twelve apparatuses operated by a dozen assistants, which operated less than smoothly, has been replaced by a computerised system. Six automated projectors, equipped with devices for the heating and cooling of slides of liquid crystals, work according to a non-repetitive programme to cast images through rotating polarised filers onto the walls of the gallery. The endless sequence of infinitely varied configurations and colours pulse with similitudes of organic processes, orchestrated according to individualistic timetables. They simultaneously suggest microbiological metabolisms, geo-physical phenomena, chemical reactions, physical processes and the artificial beauties of the kind of abstract art that rose to prominence in the 50s and 60s with the Abstract Expressionists. During a sustained viewing when they were on show in the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, there were recurrent though non-identical resonances with the floating veils of colour on the canvases of Mark Rothko.

On one side of his coin Metzger displays our potential to become the agents of irreversible destruction; on the other he rejoices in our creative integration with the life-giving properties of nature. His mission fuses art and political meaning. He is intending that we should see that the choice of on which side coin falls is literally too vital be left to the short-term expediencies of commercial gain.