Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Grayson Perry and the Reith Lectures

I started two of Perry's Reith lectures. I did not finish either.
They are full of the stench of cheery hypocrisy. As a "transvestite potter from Essex", complete with cor-blimey accent, he pretends to stand as the plain-person's scourge of art establishment, while being both part of it and absolutely dependent on it. His whole stance, artistically and personally, is designed for head-line effect in the disingenuous establishment of pseudo-transgression that is such a potent force in the art world.
I listened to some earlier interviews on line. In the older ones he finds it harder to sustain the accent beyond the opening sentences. Now he can perform "common" cackles and "working-class" tics with impeccable skill - to rival that of Nigel Kennedy. King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford,  seems far away.
The laddish presentation (yes, he is laddish) somehow succeeds in masking the reality of views that are ill thought-through, and often ill-informed. Just two examples. In an Art Newspaper interview (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE-u9Y76Y-I) he claims that "tapestries came before oil paintings". This is simply untrue. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, tapestries became far more expensive than paintings in exclusive aristocratic contexts - which is not the same thing at all. Then in a Victoria and Albert Museum interview on art and craft (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAdcD4ZCKak) he tells us that "painting is becoming a craft". This seems meaningless without some kind of supporting argument. Having ill-informed opinions, that are aired with chirpy assertiveness and are self-consciously designed to be contrarian, does not necessarily stop an artist from making great art-works. I think the tapestries and the pots are rather good, even if he's no Hogarth. What is not justified is that Perry should be taken as some kind of authority on anything in art he choses to speak about.

Lucien Freud

Last week I was in Vienna for a gala opera performance for Gheri Sackler's admirable charity, Wiener Lerntafel (http://www.lerntafel.at/index.php?home) , dedicated to rescuing young children who are in danger of falling out of the educational system. There was an exhibition of Lucien Freud at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Each time I see a body (no pun intended) of his works, they look more and more limited. The retrospective at the Tate showed that he really cannot handle more than one figure. His notable trick, turning gobs of impasted paint into flesh, is considerable, but it too has severe limitations. Walking from the room that housed his biggest paintings into the halls housing Titian, Rubens, Dürer, Brueghel & co. puts him into unkind perspective. You may say that the comparisons are unfair, but the reality of the present art market means that you have to pay as much for a Freud as for a major old master.

His version of Chardin's Young Schoolmistress, included in the Vienna show, demonstrates what is wrong. Chardin's painting is a miracle of eloquent and restrained precision.  The tender yet prissy delicacy of the teacher's profile is wonderfully translated into the sharp and steely gleam of the hat-pin with which she points to the rows of small images in the open book. The chubby child's blunt face and podgy hand serve as a telling counterpoint. Chardin exploits his unique kind of clotted surface, like unglazed ceramic, to create open surfaces that somehow become flesh and drapery. Nothing is overtly described, but he cajoles our perception into seeing materials that are not there.

Freud literally blunts all this - emotionally and formally. The schoolmistress's face is given the standard Freudian lumpiness, and her incisively instructive pin is removed entirely. She points meaninglessly to a blank page, as does the child. The face of the child suffers less, but looses its translucent softness as it is battered into Freudian shape. Whereas Chardin invites us to see the structural folds of the drapery, as they respond to the interplay between tailoring and posture, Freud's brushstrokes only convey a generic painterliness, which becomes an end in itself.  Look for example at the "boat-prow" fold at back of the teacher's lower neck.   Chardin does just enough to let us sense its structural integrity. Freud's thick splodge turns into nothing outside his own mannerism.  You may say Freud is doing something different from Chardin. Sure, he is painting "Freuds". Chardin is painting "Chardins" in such a generous way that they also become something else in the eyes of the viewer.

Freud is an artist with a highly recongisable voice. The best of his images of single figures are impressive and often poignant. But he is not really great artist. Let's get things in perspective.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Leonardo and the supposed portrait of Isabella d'Este

Another promotion of a non-Leonardo, pushed by the Corriere della Serra, which has been a great newspaper. I was contacted by someone called ********** (removed at the request of the editor) - not, apparently, an accredited arts journalist. I declined to express a visual opinion on the basis of the poor reproductions I had seen but made it clear that any attribution to Leonardo was not consistent with the documentation. The result is that I am implicitly cited as a supporter of the attribution. I will be asking for a retraction. (note: they subsequently published an accurate interview with Francesca Pini, a very good arts journalist)

Having looked further at this, it is clear that the painting cannot be by Leonardo, on the basis of the documented account of Leonardo's relations with Isabella d'Este and his evident failure to paint her portrait. The documentation (in summary) runs as follows:

1) Leonardo made a finished drawing of Isabella when he was in Mantua in 1500. He left this behind in Mantua but Isabella's husband, Francesco Gonzaga, gave it away, much to her irritation. This is almost certainly the autograph cartoon partly coloured in chalk in the Louvre, which is pricked for transfer.
2) The studio made a revised version of the cartoon to take away with them (now in the Ashmolean Mus in Oxford), which was seen when Leonardo visited Venice. This was made from the Louvre cartoon, as the sploveri (dots of charcoal) confirm. The original cartoon has been revised to give more adequate room for the sitter's right arm, which is lowered, together with the ledge on which is rests and the book to which she points. The revised cartoon was taken back to Florence so that Leonardo could potentially make a painted version.
3) When Leonardo was back in Florence Isabella pestered him for 6 years  for a painted version of the portrait or for any painting from his hand.
4) The correspondence suggests that she was not successful.
5) If Leonardo or the studio produced a portrait it would have been based on the revised version that they had with them not the one Alfonso had given away.
6) At some point the Louvre cartoon was cut down, with the loss of the ledge and book. This makes nonsense of her pointing gesture. The painting is based on the Louvre cartoon after its cutting down not on the Ashmolean one.
7) The crown and martyr's palm indicate that someone has used the Louvre cartoon to transform it into an image of Sta Barbara (as in Palma Vecchio's painting), or possibly of Santa Caterina.
Connoisseurship is not needed in this case. The documentation and evidence of the surviving drawings exclude the possibility that the painting can be by Leonardo.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Security alert in Arab lands

The great palaver about anticipated attacks by Islamic militants, accompanied by the closure of embassies etc., is presented as a triumph for intelligent gathering via snooping on electronic communications. This is very convenient and timely for security agencies that have been attacked as the result of Snowden's disclosures. Let's set aside extreme scepticism and accept that the alert is not a contrived false alarm, we can still wonder if the trumpeting of the intelligence would have been the same at another time. The security agencies can't loose. If there are attacks, they can say, we told you so. If there are not, they can seek our acclaim for heading off the threats.

Leonardo and modern anatomy

I was hoping that we had passed beyond the "brownie-point" accounts of Leonardo's anatomical studies; that is to say valuing his work in terms of how far he was correct in terms of our present knowledge.

The item on Leonardo's anatomical drawings on the Today programme on BBC radio 4 was cast entirely in terms of how "modern" Leonardo's anatomies are.  Once this has been accepted as the framework for judgements, the inevitable question follows. "What did Leonardo contribute to modern medicine?"  "Ah.... actually nothing, since his work was not published, but it would have been the greatest had it been". Not direct quotes, but basically what was said. We can do better than this.

We are told, for instance, that Leonardo's use of sections anticipated CT and fMFRI scans. He did produce one early image of a leg cut into chunks like gigot chops, but the series of successive, very fine layers in modern scanning techniques actually grow of of 19th-century techniques of sectional anatomy presented on card or paper as extensive series of parallel slices. Leonardos use of sections (favouring solid over  pure sections) can best be understood in terms of his use of innovatory use of sections in architectural studies and engineering  - the sectioned dome of the human skull as the the sectioned dome of a temple -  and his quest for three-dimensional visualizations that would present a total picture of the forms and functions of the body as a microcosm or  "lesser world".

Leonardo's anatomies were not designed to perform the same function as the legions of sober illustrations in Henry Gray's Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical. Leonardo's representations, like those in the great anatomical picture books that followed, were elaborate exercises in natural philosophy, displaying the magnificence of god's supreme creation, and the anatomist's mastery of it, rather than directly serving the standard needs of practicing physicians or even of operational surgeons.  The grand and lavishly illustrated books of anatomy, from Vesalius's Fabrica (1543) onwards were not text books for general medical training but were aimed at patrons and wealthy academic and medical elites. The levels of knowledge of internal structures and functions displayed by Leonardo and Vesalius could not for the most part be directly exploited by medical techniques in the 16th century. Their demonstrations of the "fabric" of the body were directed towards quite another end than medical practice.

It is of course of interest and relevance to Leonardo's own aspirations to see what he "got right" and what he "got wrong". We can better understand Leonardo's studies when we know what he was looking at and how his kind of looking and representation resulted in the drawings and notes that have survived. But if our modern judgements of rightness and wrongness steer the system of values though which he look at his drawings, we are misunderstanding both the magnificent totality of his vision (in and beyond anatomy) and the historical context in which it was vibrant.

A good example of how we may approach Leonardo through contemporary medical eyes without  asserting that such eyes present us with the way to understand his science is in Francis Well's recent book, The Heart of Leonardo. In my preface to his book I wrote that:

"Every drawing by Leonardo is simultaneously act of analysis as well as description. He cannot draw a form without intuitions about its function. To ascertain how a form works – with no deficiency or redundancy – he brings his knowledge of dynamics to bear on his accounts of structures in motion. He knows about weights, levers and pulleys, which he can apply to the functioning of the body. The skeleton and muscles serve as a compound machine, the mathematical trajectory of which enables humans to move their limbs with complete freedom in space – across what he calls a “continuous quality”. The complex motion of fluids, above all water, to which he devoted minute and exhaustive attention, becomes vital to his reading of the actions of the heart valves, which he shows to be miracles of geometrical engineering.  He cannot see what blood does in the valves, but he can transfer his knowledge of water vortices. He is a natural bio-engineer. Indeed, his plan to make a glass model of the neck of an aorta to test his notion of the internal currents of blood is entirely novel. He is determined to invent means to determine the “impetus” and “percussion” of the surging torrents of blood, even if he cannot see them first-hand within the heart.

"We do not have to validate Leonardo’s science in terms of contemporary knowledge, nor do we have to evaluate it by adducing its influence on the history of medicine. His visions of the human body and the body of the earth possess a beauty of insight that are uplifting in their own right, to no lesser degree than his works of art. And they stand as an enduring monument to an unconstrained quest for understanding across disciplines. However, it is thrilling to find that he can still conduct a creative dialogue with a major heart surgeon over the span of 500 years. Francis Wells brings his clinical eye to bear upon drawings we have long admired, and points out major features that we little understood and telling details that we had entirely missed.  He shows that no organ had ever been subjected to such remorseless visual enquiry and functional interrogation as Leonardo devoted to the heart."

 I am sorry that I mentioned bio-engineering. But most of if seems OK.


Wednesday, 17 July 2013

cuts and efficiency - and acronyms

Another one before I leave for lunch (which I never normally have).
The cutting of funding (in this instance the National Health Service) is announced stereotypically as "efficiency savings". I first encountered this piece of lying jargon in 1981 when the Thatcher government introduced severe and abrupt cuts in university spending. Cutting money does not introduce efficiency. Is it efficient to reduce the number of nurses?
The kind of efficiency that is meant in this world of double-think is that is defined by more managers ticking more boxes. Efficiency should be defined in relation to the proportion of staff time devoted to doing the actual job (i.e. treating patients or teaching) and the reduction in the amount of managerial processes needed to achieve this. One reason why the National Health Service suffers disasters in care, of the kind just published, is because well-meaning people in the front line have been dragooned into believing that satisfying managerial imperatives is a higher priority to their continued employment than the simple, humane business of care. No-one goes into front-line care with the intention of neglecting patients.
Along the way... I'm thinking of writing something in praise of (humane) inefficiency.
Also along the way... you might note that I have not written "NHS".
I am the founder and to date the only member of SAC; the Society for the Abolition of Acronyms. Like all forms of jargon, acronyms convey a spurious notion of special knowledge and serve to keep outsiders outside. Not good.

mobiles, texts, emails, desperation, time

The story about the the check-out operator who refused to proceed until the customer ceased mobiling (if there is such a nasty word) is hardly new, but it carries a wider truth. It is extraordinary how an otherwise considerate and well-mannered person can sever a conversation mid-sentence to dive into their bag, pocket or pouch to take a call or intercept a text. Were someone to join 2 people who were already talking, basic courtesies would be observed - introductions or whatever. There is often a sense of near desperation to catch the latest incoming thing, seemingly stemming from some kind of anxiety or even a need to feel wanted.
Much the same is true of the constant need to check actively for messages, emails etc. There is clearly some basic psychological mechanism at work here. Whatever its nature, we see that minutes, hour, days become fragmented by incoming "stuff", much of it trivial and almost all of which can wait. Many of the the "urgent" things and "emergencies" are more cosmetic than real.
My own personal answer (as someone who loves the opportunities presented by the technologies) is  to have my phone almost always on vibrate (which is less insistent that ringing), unless I know that I need to link at short notice with someone. I also have restricted the number of people, and especially organisations, that have access to my mobile number. I'm fortunate to have a separate office number at home. If I do need to answer an incoming call, I will say to the person(s) I am with, "will you excuse me", and move to somewhere quiet if possible.
I never use email on my phone. I can but don't. This is a way of saying that I will not deal with emails other than when I decide or have the opportunity to hook up my laptop. This is basically a way of organising time. It is a mechanism (entirely contrived) to package up my emailing, writing, conversations into reasonably sustained bouts of time and really focussing on those activities to which I dedicated those packages of time. I don't do it as well as I would like.

Otherwise there is so much desperate fragmentation. I have friends who are more or less addicted to to electronic communication at the expense of coherence in their daily lives.

I occasionally write bits of formatted prose. Not good enough to be called poems. I wrote this one some time ago, which seems relevant if a rather devoid of hope.


I'm craving space, Leonardo's 'continuous quantity'.
Space to breathe the country air, 
To hear the distant sounds of stirring nature, 
To have no task to perform other than to feel time passing, 
Transcendently calm in one of those moments of shared love, 
Extending into the geometry of the eternally infinite. 

But the jolting assault of the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. 
The abrupt, broken discords of outer demands, 
The fragmentation of days, hours, minutes, seconds 
Into discontinuous shards of numbered events. 
Cracked vessels seeping desperate hopes. 
Were they ever whole? 
Or were they made incomplete, 
Mocking illusions of an intactness that never was?  


Again, a long gap. I fear that the blog does not have a high enough priority to lever aside set deadlines. It's really not a blog, which implies some regularity, but consists of intermittent pontifications. I'm waiting to have lunch with Colin Franklin (Rosalind's brother), and will see what I can do before I go.
More to come...

Saturday, 16 March 2013

letter from America 2: democracy?

There is a serious question to be asked about every self-proclaimed democracy throughout the world. Nowhere is that question etched more sharply than in America. To be sure there are elections, but they essentially provide a thin gloss of democracy on a sea of vested interests, self-interest, prejudice and what can only be described as corruption. Every candidate, successful and unsuccessful, has effectively been "bought".  So many many millions of dollars are needed to run viciously negative attack campaigns that large sums of money must be taken from huge entities of varied kinds. They are not bankrolling candidates (often opposed candidates) for no reason. The massive lobby groups bully politicians and promulgate skewed information on a massive scale. For every dollar that huge entities pour into lobbying, they should give two dollars to charity.

It would be conventional wisdom to identify this corruption with the right, especially the far right. But no faction is isolated from it. There is no "left" in the USA in this respect. Obama has decent instincts, but he a is at root a conservative Harvard lawyer not an out-and-out reformer. He rode on to office on a raft of other people's money and an enthusiasm for a level of change that was never his reality.

 Only through the operation of severe caps on election expenditure can politicians and the media surface from the inundations of vested slogan-speak to highlight the actual issues.

Even considered as a political process the American system no longer works. It should be the right a party elected with a manifesto and a mandate to implement their policies. I do not support the Conservative / Liberal coalition in Britain, but I defend their right to govern and implement their policies during their term of office. Instead, here we witness endless exercises in political obstruction in which politics is the name of the game not policy. The so-called sequester - the general slashing of budgets across the board that was introduced as a political device and that was not expected to be realised - is a vivid illustration of the breakdown of sane governance. It seems that most significant measures are subject to so much politically driven compromise that it limps into being as an ineffectual runt of the original idea.

Again the constitution is in difficulty. It sates that "The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years". 
The internal dynamics and chronological disjunctions in elections to Senate and Congress, given two closely dominant parties, all too readily results in the kind of ponderous paralysis that we now witness in tackling the challenge of creating a fair society.  The party with a majority should be able elect the chief executive and their policies should be operative for their due term. To have a president and two houses of varied political complexions may look as if it creates balance and safeguards. In reality it now allows a vacuum of incoherence into which vested interests rush. 

letter from America 1: gun control.

I have now been in Princeton for well over a month (teaching a grad course on Leonardo until late May) and it's about time I resumed my ineffectually intermittent blog.
The title "letter from America" is a tribute to Alastair Cook (if you know about that it dates you) rather than a pretence that I could even come close to his excellence.
This first one picks up on gun control.
The situation is even more scary here than it is at a distance. The prime response to killings is to argue that even more people should have guns and to introduce armed guards into schools etc. The head of the National Rifle Association, LaPierre, sloganised that the only only way to combat a "bad guy with a gun" is by a "good guy with a gun". Here as elsewhere in American politics slogans act as a substitute for thinking.  Who is a guaranteed "good guy? Is it a military veteran? Is it a policeman? Is it a hobby shooter with a large arsenal of weapons. Is it a young man with a loving mother? Is it me? Is it you? If only it were so easy, so facile. I believe, as I said before, that any private person owning a weapon whose only prime function is to inflict serious injury or death on living creatures is not in this respect a "good guy".
Then there is the holy cow of the constitution. A senator said that the second amendment is a "holy thing".  This is what it actually says: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed". This is historically specific to the security of the early republic that was threatened by reconquest.  Even it we only read the second part of the sentence, we cannot assume the the founding fathers (for whom I have huge admiration) foresaw its application to todays circumstances - both in terms of society as it has developed and the technology of weapons. Even if we claim that they were divinely motivated, they were human and subject to limits. Jefferson would be horrified by the NRA.
Even the pragmatic argument falls. The proliferation of weapons, including the routine arming of police, certainly had not been successful in reducing death from shooting, which run at a horrifyingly large rate compared to Britain. Ugh!