Friday 30 October 2009

More about art

" Lewis Hine's 1905 photograph 'Young Russian Jewess at Ellis Island'. For a photographer known for his social documentary work, it's a strange image, with its brooding, intense face and its indistinct, soft-focus background. Ellis Island, which in most photographs appears overrun by people, is empty and still here. The only indication of place is the blurry bars of the fenced walkways through which lines of people were processed in the Great Hall. This image of such a private and solitary moment in the packed bustle of Ellis Island is a document of an anomaly in the place and in the work of Hine. It's not about social conditions. It's about the soul.  A woman with a scarf or shawl pushed back, just far enough to show her dark hair, parted in the middle and not recently washed, looks at something past the camera, neither intimidated nor engaged by it. Only her cloth coat with its assymetrical closure places her as being from the far eastern fringes of Europe.  Up close she is nearly beautiful, young and somehow tender, but from further away or with a smaller or darker reproduction, you can see the skull in the set face of this emigrant, as though through hunger, exhaustion, fear, she is close to other borders than national ones. Above her shadowed eye sockets, her forehead gleams as white as the sky behind her. It's as though we can see through it to the same distant pallor that is the sky, or as though both are only absences on the photographic paper. "

Another piece of writing that impresses and thrills me: it's a couple of years since I read Rebecca Solnit's book and this description came vividly and almost entire into my mind as I continued to think about how to write about art.

This is very different from Drusilla Modjeska's piece. There is no interweaving of the writer's immediate response with an overt political viewpoint, although the image is briefly but tellingly contextualised within Lewis Hine's body of work and within the seminal history of Ellis Island. It's just one extract from a brief, dense book where the photo is evoked as part of a story of the writer's own life, identity and imaginings. But this short passage also stands well on its own.

What we get is a deep, dreamy, but pointed entering into the photo, a 'looking back at her' - powerful and specific, though not for a moment overwhelming of the original image. And it's beautiful writing: strong, unexpected simile and a small, satisfying, complete-in-itself narrative arc.

While pondering these things lately, I came across a piece on critical writing by JC Hallman, excerpted from his new book, The Story about the StoryIt's the lead item in the latest issue of the estimable Quarterly Conversation, whose editorial takes up the theme.  'Creative criticism' is what they're advocating, 'work that reads the self as closely as it reads the examined text and that is every bit as creative as it is critical'. Not just work that 'reads the text', I would contend: writing about any kind of art is surely at its best when it's 'telling a good story...  using the language of metaphor and simile that art itself uses... [occupying] the no-man's land between creative writing and criticism', when it aims to 'communicate something that can't quite be said plainly',  to 'convey the enchantment of the... experience'. The enchantment. Yes.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

About art

From The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska:

" In 1948, Grace Cossington Smith painted one of her few self-portraits. It is not a great painting: the colours are muddy and lack her characteristic clarity and sharp manipulation of light. Its composition is unexceptional. Nevertheless, in thinking about Grace Cossington Smith in particular, and women artists in general, it is a painting I return to, and not because it is the only one I know in which she is wearing spectacles. The spectacles slightly emphasise the size of her eyes, from which I infer they were reading glasses: I have no evidence that she was a myope. The painting has, however, everything to do with sight: with seeing, with being seen, wanting to be seen; and with not being seen. And there is nothing straightforward about any of that if you are a woman and an artist.

The portrait is striking for the uncompromising plainness with which Grace Cossington Smith presents herself. Photos of her as a young woman show a pretty, smiling girl. In middle age, she paints herself stark and unadorned. A private face, a face without compromise: the face, it seems to me, of a woman who has renounced the vanity of being seen, and yet presents herself in her not-to-be-seen face. Simone de Beauvoir, at about the same time, in 1949, when 'The Second Sex' was published though not yet translated into English, was arguing in ways that were then quite startling, and now hardly commonplace, that the function of woman in our culture as man's other is intimately connected with speech, and with sight. By being all that man is not, woman reflects him back in glory: transcendent to her immanent, subject to her object. He speaks; she listens. he sees; she is seen. Like a mirror, it is she who reflects: it is she who is seen, and in being seen, sees. The face Grace Cossington Smith paints is the face of a woman who is not available for this service, yet sees, and demands to be seen, in the seeing of the non-seen. It is an uneasy challenge she makes to herself, and to her viewer.

The self-portrait was painted just before the first of the interiors that were to dominate Grace Cossington Smith's late work. It shares the same technique: those small blocks of colour in broad brush strokes which require us to move backwards and forwards to find our own focal range.

In those late interiors, in the last phase of her work, Grace Cossington Smith was painting out of a daily solitude, living alone in the family house where parents had did and from which siblings had departed. Do we see here the representation of a spinsterly existence: single beds, neat cupboards, empty hallways? Or the riches of solitude; empty rooms filled with possibilities? Doors opening onto hallways, windows opening onto verandahs and gardens, drawers and cupboards allowing us to glimpse their treasures? To my eye these interiors are by way of being self-portraits of a woman who has resolved the tension between her own ability to see and the seeing, or being seen, that is required of her: a woman who has fully withdrawn from the gaze of the world to discover not a defensive retreat, but the fullness of a solitude that society deems empty. They are the work of a woman with strong hands.

Take 'Interior with Wardrobe Mirror' (1955) which is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. In it a mirror of a wardrobe door swings open in the centre of the painting, where it invited our own reflection - and in that invitation we see the absence of the painter whose image should face directly into that shiny surface. Instead it reflects a door which opens across a verandah, across a lawn, to trees and a distant sky. Where the artist should stand, stands instead an invitation to the world, to all that is beyond. That is the fullness her solitude has produced.

Whereas the colours in the self-portrait had been murky - dull greens, muddy browns, flushed pinks - in the interior they are clear and luminous: the yellows of sunlight and ochre, every shade of red, vermilion to the tenderest pink, touches of green, pure blue, a surprising mauve. In the self-portrait seeing and being seen are held in a painful tension, a dark and punishing solitude that contains as much refusal as release; in the interior we see the fullness of a feminine space once so ambivalently inhabited, and connected, in Grace Cossington Smith's words to 'a golden thread running through time', and to 'the silent quality which is unconscious and belongs to all things created'. "

I've pages and pages in my journal of recent scrawled notes on a film I loved and an exhibition I didn't care for, and am having a hard time making anything coherent of them. Cogent and creative criticism must be one of the hardest things to formulate, especially when the brain is bloody tired. I don't want to leave these aside and never get around to putting any words to such strongly felt responses and when I was re-reading The Orchard by Drusilla Modjeska a fabulous and unusual book introduced to me last year by a review from Litlove, I found myself particularly drawn to this enlightening and deeply felt passage about a painter I was not familiar with, and wondering: why do I like this so much? Partly because I'm sympathetic to Modjeska's feminist analysis, of course. But that would not have been enough to make the paintings live in my mind's eye before I saw them, to send me running to the Internet in search of Frances Cossington Smith, or to make me turn the paragraphs over and over, as I did both on the page and in my memory.

So why is this so good? I think because it combines a deeply felt emotional empathy with a strong and informed intellectual argument and much patient detail, laid on carefully but lightly. Also because it ranges seamlessly between a close-up and a panoramic view, between concrete observation and imaginative speculation. I shall hold this in mind while having another go at writing my own reviews.

Monday 26 October 2009

Thursday 22 October 2009


The peerless Irène Jacob in "Three Colours - Red"

Some recent very cheap offers on DVDs led to my acquisition of a boxed set of Éric Rohmer films and all three of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy. So the other night I watched Red for the first time in many years (I couldn't find a trailer with English subtitles, but the dialogue is, I think, the least of it here).

So beautiful, deep, attentive. So detailed, but spacious. I felt as though I'd been given something: gorgeous, affecting, lasting images; deep perceptions; new, provocative thoughts. So different from the way films tend to make me feel these days - that my time, attention and emotions have been taken for an hour or two, leaving me depleted.

I love the way the film is full of patterns. The patterns of repeated views and intersecting trajectories in the city, evoking foreshadowing, repetition, familiarity, surprise meetings and converging paths in life.

I loved it the first time, more than a decade ago, and was surprised by how many scenes were still vivid in my mind and felt familiar when I saw them again. At the same time, I was able to appreciate the skill and poetry of the camerawork even more, having learned in the past few years of taking photographs a bit more about visual images and looking.

That sense of being enlarged, rather than depleted, by a work of art is something I want to think about more and be guided by in my consumption of books and films. I think it already guides my viewing of paintings and photographs.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

City sky

I like this photo, taken on the busy main road through the part of London where I live, because it symbolises in a small way what has made me come to terms somewhat with the din, filth, chaos and constant overstimulation of the big city, against which for so many years I held myself tense and rejecting - and the significant role that photography has played in that process.

If anyone had told me, down all those long years: "but, look, there is also so much in the city that's quirky, interesting and beautiful - many people just as sensitive as you find as much here to love as you find to hate", I'd have known what they said was true in theory, but it just wasn't what I perceived every day.

Nothing has changed, except my perception. Maybe age and maybe cultivating inner stillness, and almost certainly looking through the camera's lense, have finally brought me to see more - more details, different meanings, different perspectives from the obvious. Not all the time. There are still days when I feel overwhelmed and angered by the crowds and the mayhem. But enough to make a difference.

Small things, mostly, like this off-kilter detail above the busy street, are enough - if I really look at them - to stem the furious onslaught of ugliness, to break open the stiff rejection that only serves to strengthen and solidify that ugliness. Just a crack to see out of is sometimes enough to change the whole view.

Sunday 18 October 2009


Soft, bloody fallen petals cling to the damp gravel
like curling flakes of scraped-off skin. Somewhere nearby,
a flayed and thorny creature stumbles in the rain.

Thursday 15 October 2009


Recently I read a book about Sissinghurst, the country house much loved and admired for its garden, created in the early and mid twentieth century by Vita Sackville-West, the talented, outrageous, androgenous aristocrat who inspired Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando. I've never been to Sissinghurst. Must go. What also riveted my mind, though, was mention of another thing Vita is famous for. She grew up at Knole, then the largest privately owned 'stately home' in England, set in vast acres of the Kentish Weald. Much gossiped about for her 'open' marriage to Harold Nicolson and both their many gay love affairs, her greatest love was probably Knole and the tragedy of her life -perhaps what made her such a questing, creative, promiscuous soul - that when her parents died the great house and park passed away from her to a male relative.

Whilst I don't find the thought of such wealth and privilege endearing, this thwarted love affair with an ancient and beautiful place does touch my heart and, after I read about it, long suppressed memories surfaced of leaving Yorkshire as a young woman and moving to London to get away from an impossibly difficult relationship. Painful and mutilating though it was, that was probably the right decision, but it also meant leaving the city and the grey-green post-industrial landscape that I'd come to love very much. I missed the place as much as the man.

There were return visits in the first years, but then there was a weekend, with my friend C, when we drove out to the countryside and walked along a canal. An Autumn day, low sunshine, broken mill buildings through the dense foliage dappling the water. A quality of light and colour utterly characteristic of that part of the country. It took me unawares. Beside the canal, I sobbed and sobbed and couldn't stop, had to be driven back to Leeds and put to bed with migraine. Shocked at myself and embarrassed, I got up and went home earlier than planned - and did not return to West Yorkshire for, oh, close on twenty years.

Since then other places have touched my heart, and I've gulped and blinked and not gone back, pushed them from my mind. There was a visit to France, especially, a few years ago. On the train back to Paris, still wrapped in a blanket of the cool, dreamy greens of that place, I fell into a deep cave of fear inside myself, terrified by so much wanting, such an impossible compulsion to embrace a landscape, cling to it, stay in it - a compulsion sure to be thwarted, and how would I bear that? No idea if I was sitting there normally on that train or unconscious on the floor for hours. I haven't been back to that high, clear, magical corner of the Jura, not even in my thoughts.

Thinking of Vita and Knole, I remembered these experiences. For many years, I think, this same emotional energy of passionate relationship with place fuelled my 'hate affair' with London. That's over now. We reconciled. Perhaps this is why I let myself remember. Not sure, really, whether it's a significant reclamation of something or just a bit of exaggerated, self-indulgent sentimentality.

Photo: Vita Sackville-West in her garden, 1958 - John Hedgecoe, National Portrait Gallery

Wednesday 14 October 2009

More figures at the museum

I keep swapping these over -
photoshop sections of the two together
and it wouldn't be a bad photo. Bah.
So why not make the effort to learn something about light
and shutter speeds instead of pointing and hoping?

No better place than a museum for people-watching. The visitors loiter and linger - one of the rare contexts, these days, in which this is a morally approved activity. The light inside is often lovely. (Last week the light outside was pretty good too). And then there are the guards, whose job it is to sit or stand in watchful stillness.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Even Kooler Kwan Yin

Mmmm. Very subtle level of discourse on Buddhist iconography. S/he is reelly kool, though, no? I can appreciate, but not articulate - when I stop working, I'm sadly aware of this empty, crackling space between my ears! For intelligent and moving commentary, see Antony Gormley's article, which Marja-Leena spotted on the V&A site. No surprise to know that ancient Buddhist figures are very meaningful to him. The deep pleasure and satisfaction I find in much of his work, and especially the Iron Men, is certainly akin to what these provoke.

Friday 9 October 2009

Cool Buddhas on a cool day

Oh my, I could see my breath before me this morning - so much chiller than a week ago. And, as the season turns, a lovely day out this week to see the timeless figures in the V&A's new Buddhist Sculpture Gallery.

Tuesday 6 October 2009

In a quiet place

This past weekend I was in a lovely place. Elegant and spacious within, natural beauty all around and quiet, quiet... more horses than cars passing picturesquely on the horizon. Even though I was there to work and barely looked or went outside for the first twenty-four hours, the heart expands, the pores open wide to take in a tangible breath of calm. The skin of humans is so much more porous that we like to believe. Supposing my life had not been in the city, how very different it and I might have been - not so feeble, maybe, on a lifelong larger oxygen supply, not so roughened and carapaced.

Monday 5 October 2009

Mirror, mirror, mirror, mirror

Rather like the inside of my head, in this first week or two of the new academic year.

Thursday 1 October 2009

Perfectly simple

If I ever have a front garden of my own, this is the one I want, with its densely planted, fragrant lavender bordering the distinctive but calming symmetry of the Victorian-style tiles (too intact, I think, to be original).