Monday, 18 November 2019

Books - Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas is best known for his novel The Slap, which tells the story of a group of friends who go to a barbecue and disagree when one of them slaps the child of another. I thought the concept was clever, but I hated the characters, who seemed vulgar and grasping and driven by startlingly forceful sexual appetites. 

All the same, I did recognise that Tsiolkas writes energetically and has original ideas, which is why, when I saw his latest novel in a bookshop in Sydney, I bought it - that and the fact that I was intrigued to discover that he had chosen St Paul as the book's central character and subject, a choice that, had he not already made a success of his writing, might well have guaranteed that the book would never be published. But it has been - and one can't help wondering if Saint Paul is having what is these days called "a moment", since the historian Tom Holland has just published a book called Dominion which, as I understand it, is essentially an attempt to explain how Saint Paul is central to western civilisation, influencing the ideas and thought of even those who are most violently opposed to the religion he espoused.

Tsiolkas's novel is written in the present tense, (so much is these days, and I'm still not at peace with it) and contains dialogue that is often rather wooden. It has very little in the way of a plot, which may explain the large amount of semi-pornographic sex and violence within it, which may be intended as compensation. 

Given that Tsiolkas has spent the last several years studying all aspects of Saint Paul's life and times, (including, I assume from his reference at one point to a feast that includes 'salted acorns', the culinary habits of the period [does anyone have a recipe for 'salted acorns' I wonder?]), I hesitate to challenge his portrayal of Paul's world as obsessed with violent sex*, circumcision and the punitive removal of genitalia in the most painful ways possible. And who am I to argue with his characterisation of Paul as a repressed and tormented homosexual who was in love with Timothy or his depiction of Timothy's death as suicide. 

Tsiolkas has done the research and I haven't, but I still find these last two suggestions offensive, even sacrilegious - although one might argue that, as Tsiolkas is himself gay, the most loving thing he can do to a character is to make him gay too.  But the Paul who wrote the various wise letters that form a large part of the New Testament does not seem to me to have anything to do with Tsiolkas's tortured fanatic, who spends most of his time in the book engaged in a desperate struggle with his sexual impulses. (And, given that the sex in the book is so full of disgust and deliberately inflicted pain, I can't help wondering about Tsiolkas's happiness, because at least in this piece of fiction he seems unable to imagine love and sex as coexistent.)

This is a strange and courageous (and, as so often nowadays, sloppily edited) book, which is largely unappetising. However, I do admire its author for tackling the unfashionable subject of Christianity with honesty and sincerity, and on some level understanding the importance and revolutionary nature of the faith:

"...the Lord forgives. That was the thing about the Jews that the Greeks and Romans could never understand. Their gods despised men for not being gods. This was the greatest wickedness, the worst lunacy. The Lord was the only god that forgave men as men"

as well as the difficulty of actually being a good Christian:

"I bring my head to the cool plank of the floor and pray for forgiveness, pray for charity and for filial love ... I pray, but rather than being soothed by the balm of selflessness and duty, my heart is struck by the poison dart of envy."

I will not be giving Damascus to any of my friends as a Christmas present, as for much of the time while reading it I was feeling rather sickened, but I admire Tsiolkas for taking the subject on. 


*Read no further if you don't want to feel queasy, but here are two passages to give a sense of what I'm referring to when I complain of the sado-porn aspect I discern in the text:

"...we enter the tight unsoiled cunts of the girls and we break open the tight buttocks of the boys and our spirits and our sex are guided by the hand of Venus and our hatred and our lust is enflamed by the mighty Mars and .... as we spill our seed into the children and the maidens and the women and the crones we know we are continuing the justice of war ... and we know we are beloved of The God and in this sodden pit our sex is full and we smear our sex with blood and we spill into the earth ...."

"...I look down to my body, below the blood-soaked pelt of my loins where there was once my sex there is now only a gash, raw and violently purple meat; flyblown, host to crawling, feasting maggots ...|

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

William Blake - Tate Britain

If you are English, and particularly if you grew up in London - even more so if you grew up south of the river - you are unlikely to have reached adulthood without having heard something of William Blake. You may have encountered his words while singing the hymn Jerusalem or reading his poems - his most famous poem is The Tyger. You may even know that as a child he saw a tree full of angels on Peckham Rye and that he lived in Lambeth and behaved eccentrically (something about surprising his neighbours by wandering about his garden without any clothes on has entered my memory, although I can find no trace of any such thing having happened).

Armed only with these scraps of information (or misinformation in the case of the nude gardening element), when I saw that Tate Britain was putting on a large exhibition of Blake's work, (it runs until February 2020), I decided to go down and find out (although it isn't meant to, I fear this post is beginning to sound a bit like a Julian and Sandy sketch?), more.

So deep was my ignorance of the artist, in fact, that when I went into the exhibition, I was under the impression that Blake was his own model for the bearded deities that I'd seen in many of his visual works:
Either from Urizen or Blake's Small Book of Designs, 'Of life on his forsaken mountains' 1794, Colour-printed relief etching with hand colouring, on paper, British Museum

Elohim Creating Adam, 1795-c.1805, colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, Tate

Here is what Blake actually looked like, (handsome, in a way, and with a lively, intelligent, even intense look about him):

Portrait of William Blake, c.1802, graphite with black, white and grey washes on paper. This is probably a self-portrait drawn by Blake when he was in his forties

Portrait of William Blake by John Flaxman, c.1804, graphite on paper, Tate

William Blake Wearing a Hat, by John Linnell, c 1825, graphite on paper. Linnell made this seemingly spontaneous portrait of Blake during one of their regular walks on Hampstead Heath. Linnell, who lived by the Heath, was Blake's most important friend during his final years.Their families became close and, through Linnell, Blake's social circle expanded. He met landscape artist John Constable at Linnell's house. Looking at Constable's drawing of trees on Hampstead Heath, Blake exclaimed that it was 'not drawing, but inspiration'".

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807, oil paint on canvas, National Portrait Gallery. This is Blake at the age of 50, enjoying a brief period of relative celebrity. Phillips said he captured Blake's 'rapt poetic expression' as he recalled one of his visions, a visit to his studio from the Archangel Gabriel 

Sadly though, aside from enlightening me on what Blake actually looked like, the exhibition did not do much more to broaden my understanding of Blake's work and position. I had hoped to emerge with a clearer understanding of why Blake deserves our attention, where he fits in artistic tradition and what exactly he was trying to do. The exhibition curators, however, have largely squibbed this task. As the little catalogue that is given to exhibition goers says, "This exhibition does not try to explain Blake's imagery and symbolism ... Instead it considers the reception of his art [and] sets out the personal and social conditions in which it was made". As the imagery in Blake's art is unusually full of obscure symbolism, I felt rather abandoned as I tramped from room to room, trying to make sense of Blake's wild and confusing images.

But perhaps no explanation is possible and the work is merely incoherent and rather strange. But if that is the case, why organise this huge exhibition? It seems to me that some attempt should be made to explain why Blake was significant, rather than just a peculiar and mildly intriguing English eccentric. Yes, he had quite definitely an entirely individual vision but was it an enlightening one or just very striking? I wasn't convinced by the end that a transcendent intelligence or talent was at work, so much as a strange, wild ego.

The one thing that did strike me was the possibility that Blake's moment has finally come. I believe that if he were working today, Blake, with his fondness for serpents and dragons, might be immensely popular, striking a chord with the many fans of Tolkien, Game of Thrones and all forms of fantasy:
The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea, c.1095, ink with watercolour over graphite on paper, National Gallery of Art Washington
Pity, 1795, Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper

The Night of Enithamion's Joy (formerly called Hecate) c. 1795, colour print, ink, tempera and watercolour on paper - a heated discussion went on between two gallery goers beside me about whether the size of the feet of the main figure doesn't suggest that the model was a man
As I'm not fond of the fantasy genre, I found myself less excited than baffled and a great deal of the time I found Blake's visual choices bordered on kitsch. Why for example did he feel the need to put in those terrible eyelashes in this picture:

The Virgin and Child in Egypt by William Blake, tempera on canvas, 1810. This painting demonstrates Blake's enduring ambition to work ona larger scale. He adopted the 'Tuchlein' technique of 16th-century Netherlandish painting, using tempera on linen. Blake had seen such paintings on the London art market. It is one of four life-size figure paintings Blake did for Thomas Butts in 1810

Although capable of reasonably good portraits, vis this of the reverend John Johnson, who was rector of Yaxham and Welborne in Norfolk, for whom Blake went on to provide some fairly hideous fireplace surrounds:

The Rev. John Johnson, Watercolour on card, 1802, Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, Buckinghamshire
and this of the son of one of his mentors:
Thomas Alphonso Hayley, c 1800, attributed to William Blake, graphite and gouache on paper (this is the sone of Blake's sponsor, William Hayley - the boy died at the age of 19 in May 1800)

apparently he did not find that kind of work interesting. All too often, in fact, he gives his figures absolutely idiotic faces, none more so than this image of Christ who is supposed to be descending into the grave but looks more like a shy debutante entering her first ball:

Christ Descending into the Grave, c.1805-7, ink and watercolour over traces of graphite

Blake seems to have been less interested in individual psychology than in striking, strange and original - if not entirely beautiful? - semi-symbolic images, the kinds of things that might appear in lurid comics these days (these were my favourite works in the exhibition and I think illustrate a poem by Blake called Urizen, about which I would have appreciated more information than was provided by the curators):
"I sought pleasure and found pain" (Urizen?)


Frontispiece to 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion', c. 1795, relief etching, ink and watercolour on paper

"The floods overwhelmed me" (Urizen?)

'Everything is an attempt to be human' (Urizen)

At times, his work reminded me of the illustrations of Edward Ardizzone (or perhaps that should be the other way round, since Ardizzone came later):

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake, c. 1786, watercolour and graphite on paper. 

Brutus and Caesar's Ghost, by William Blake, c.1806, ink and watercolour on paper. This is from a group commissioned by the Rev. Joseph Thomas, lent by British Museum

A Woody Landscape, by William Blake c.1801, watercolour and graphite on paper, Yale Centre for British Art

The Counsellor, King, Warrior, Mother and Child, in the Tomb, by William Blake, 1805, ink and brown wash over graphite on paper, collection of Robert N Essick

Richard III and the Ghosts, by William Blake, c.1806, pen and black ink, and grey wash, with watercolour on paper. 

At times, I found it sickeningly wet and sentimental:

Friendship, c. 1825-7, ink and watercolour over graphite on paper

Sometimes it just doesn't seem very good:

This seems the equivalent of a Hollywood underwater ballet extravaganza:
Queen Katherine's Dream, 1809, ink and watercolour on paper, lent by the British Museum
And this is supposed to be a depiction of a terrible scene but the whole thing is too mannered to evoke any real emotion, I think:

The Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve c 1826, Ink, tempera and gold on mahogany: In the 1820s Blake's work took on a richer appearance. He began to use more vibrant colour and to apply gold leaf more frequently. Anther new practice was his use of a mahogany support. These innovations were perhaps inspired by Northern European art of the late 15th century, which adapted ideas of the Italian Renaissane. Blake and Linnell often visited such works in private and public collections across London. Blake's use of gold may have been facilitated by the fact that one of his Fountain Court neighbours was a gilder
As for this, if that is the conversion of Saul, then Saul must have been the gentlest persecutor the Christians ever had to suffer the attentions of:

The Conversion of Saul, c.1800, ink and watercolour on paper, The Huntington Library

Drawing was fundamental to Blake, the catalogue tells us, but the evidence on show suggests that his drawing was not all that strong:

Landscape with Spire c.1801, graphite on paper, Yale Centre for British Art

The Ghost of a Flea, c.1819, graphite on paper
(Here, by the way is the finished painting Blake made from that early sketch:

The Ghost of a Flea, c. 1819-20, Tempera and gold on mahogany: The Ghost of a Flea is one of Blake's most bizarre and famous characters. As the vision appeared to Blake, he is said to have cried out, "There he comes! his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hand to hold blood, and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green." John Varley watched Blake make the original sketch of this character. He also owned this painting showing the creature on a stage, flanked by curtains with a shooting star behind. Varley was a keen astrologer.)
What Blake was good at was conveying liveliness and movement - and of course he was an absolutely astonishingly skilled engraver. Both of these traits are visible in his work on the Canterbury Tales, (which sadly caused him all kinds of misery). The thing is full of movement and character and includes some marvellous dogs:

Canberbury Pilgrims detail, by William Blake: In around 1806 both Blake and his old friend Thomas Stothard started planning pictures representing characters from The Canterbury Tales. Stothard's painting was commissioned by publisher Robert Cromek and they planned to issue a print of it. Blake felt betrayed and claimed that Stothard had stolen the idea of a frieze-like composition from him. Blake completed his own painting in 1808 amd published his print in 1810 but worried it would be overshadowed by the more commercial work of his rival. The incident prompted a series of bitter and frustrated commentaries by Blake and motivated his disastrous one-man exhibition in 1809. Blake felt his artistic vision was more authentic than Stothard's and that Stothard and Cromek were more interested in making money than in great art. 

In illustrating Dante's Divine Comedy, I think Blake found a perfect vehicle for his histrionic vision:

Ephialtes and Two Other Titans, 1824-7, ink and watercolour over black chalk, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Six-Footed Serpent attacking Agnello Brunelleschi, 1824-7, ink and watercolour over graphite and black chalk, with sponging on paper, National Gallery of Victoria
The Serpent Attacking Buoso Donati, 1824-7, ink and watercolour on paper, Tate

Capaneus the Blasphemer, 1824-7, ink and watercolour over graphite and black chalk, with sponging and scratching out on paper, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

and of course the exhibition is almost worth visiting just to see parts of the original illuminated Songs of Innocence and Experience, produced some time between 1789 and 1794 as disbound books, 14 plates on 7 leaves made using a mysterious technique invented by Blake called 'relief etching', printed in green ink, text strengthened with blue wash and finished with watercolour on paper, (property of the National Gallery of Victoria, part of the Felton Bequest):

Ultimately, I wondered if the problem I was having was more than anything a difference of temperament. I have noticed that fans of the apocalyptic and the Gothic tend not to be strong on humour and I felt that Blake too, although in some ways perhaps an absurd figure himself, had no sense of the absurd. There is a poignance in some of the accounts contained in the exhibition of how even in his own time barely anyone - possibly no one - understood his larger projects. Now I notice that they are being championed by Patti Smith among others - another charismatic but solemn figure. Perhaps at heart I am too flippant to be a romantic and this is where William Blake and I parted our ways?

To give Blake his due though, he did have moments of intense prophetic power, vis this work, which the nation might have taken as a dire warning but, alas, did not: 

Europe, a Prophecy relates contemporary historical events - specifically the French Revolution - in an epic, symbolic form. As Blake's biographer Alexander Gilchrist observed of this book: 'It is hard to describe poems wherein the dramatis personae are giant shadows, gloomy phantoms; te scee the realms of space; the time, of such corresponding vastness, that eighteen hundred years pass as a dream.' This copy may have been the one bought from Blake by the painter George Romney.

and he was without doubt an astonishing engraver:

Detail from the frontispiece to The Grave, (although actually I see now that this engraving was executed by Louis Schiavonetti from inventions of William Blake)

Of all the images I looked at in the exhibition, it was this, a tiny image among many that I am most glad that I have seen. I cannot explain why, except to say that there is something both poignant and eerie about it that appeals to me very strongly:

One of a set of wood engravings to illustrate Pastorals of Virgil, a Latin textbook. A group of young artists called 'the Ancients' particularly admired these engravings, one member, Samuel Palmer, saying that they possessed 'a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the inmost soul ... unlike the gaudy daylight of this world'.
Overall though, I was left wondering whether Blake was great but hard to categorise or whether he was to the visual arts what Somerset Maugham claimed to be to writing - at the very first rank of the second rate.


PS - A sign of the times: this warning, or what was left of it, accompanied an illustration made by Blake, depicting a hanged slave. The exhibition caption to that illustration reads thus:

"This controversial image provides an important test case for how we think about Blake's politics.

Blake expressed his opposition to slavery in all forms and is often taken as a courageous opponent of empire and colonialism. However, his work has been interpreted in different ways. Some people see this print as a sympathetic image of an enslaved man. For others it is a sensationalist representation of slavery that objectifies the Black body."

The pomposity of that "important", the odd capitalisation of "black", the sudden interest, shown nowhere else in the exhibition by the curators, to guide the viewer's interpretation of an image, the insinuation that Blake said he was against slavery and empire, but actually others know better, all these things annoy me a great deal - and I think that last element, the insinuation, undermines the entire exhibition, by suddenly suggesting that Blake was some kind of racist bigot masquerading as something he wasn't, (and when you spell it out like that, the idiocy of the caption emerges even more clearly).

Blake was a committed anti-slavery advocate and the illustration was not advocating but reporting. Have we really reached a point where a 19th century engraving made by someone who hated slavery can somehow cause offence? And if warnings are to be given so that people of colour are not offended, should we not also have warnings for women that they might see themselves portrayed as objects or warnings that we might find some images violent? Where will all this end? Are we mere children or can we actually be brave and look at things and survive?