How to Support my Work

For those of you who appreciate my writing, please consider four ways of indirectly assisting me.

  1. Consider subscribing to the journals I most regularly write for. Two outlets have recently requested renewed support to continue their work. They are The Jackdaw (“independent views on the visual arts”, featuring journalism, news, artist profiles, exhibition and book reviews and contributor letters, six issues per year) and The Salisbury Review (“the quarterly magazine of conservative thought”, featuring discursive articles on politics, culture, history and biography, with art, book and media reviews, four issues per year). The websites are here The Jackdaw and The Salisbury Review. The pieces that I publish in these outlets appear nowhere else, so you will be receiving unique content. You will also be supporting independent journalism.
  2. Consider purchasing my books. Culture War: Art, Identity Politics and Cultural Entryism (Societas/Imprint Academic) is available through bookstores in the UK and USA, Amazon, other online stores and the website of the publisher. Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History (Societas/Imprint Academic) is published on 6 October 2020, available through bookstores in the UK and USA, Amazon, other online stores and the website of the publisher. Other books by me include fiction, verse and art published by Aloes Books, Golconda, Bottle of Smoke Press and Pig Ear Press. These books can be found on Amazon and other online websites. UPDATE: You can purchase new copies of books of verse/art by me from Ragged Lion Press (eBay link: https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/402304017970) Ragged Lion Press can also be contacted directly about AA books in stock here: https://www.raggedlionpress.co.uk/contact
  3. Sharing my online articles. I write regularly for the websites Spiked Online and The Critic. I also publish articles on this site. Please consider liking and sharing these articles. Even small efforts like this raise my profile and make websites and publishers more likely to commission future articles and books.
  4. Rating my books on Amazon, Goodreads and other websites.

Thank you again for your support.

AA

UbuWeb: Culture meets the Internet

“Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted.” So Kenneth Goldsmith describes the website he started in 1996. It has survived copyright claims because it is non-profit, so it does not extract financial gain from its appropriation.

The website was named after Alfred Jarry’s anarchic protagonist Ubu Roi. The website contains avant-garde artistic and cultural material such as verse, prose, audio, video and images. The site hosts little-known side-projects of major artists, such as Salvador Dalí’s film Haute Mongolie – hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) and Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973). Goldsmith is a poet and so there is a particular emphasis on poetry and spoken poetry, including concrete poetry and sound poems. UbuWeb is a resource replete with ephemeral material, side projects, creative dead-ends, aborted forays and one-off collaborations. It does not host mainstream music, video or texts. The material sometimes comes from official releases; other times it is recorded (with varying degrees of competence and fidelity) from radio or television by private individuals. Sometimes it is bootleg or clandestine. UbuWeb is the sort of place a person can spend a whole evening following a meandering trail through the cultural jetsam of the Twentieth Century.

Goldsmith explains that he uses basic coding and simple systems that have not changed in over 20 years. The relative crudity of such procedures makes the website robust, as well as charmingly old-fashioned. Without relying on cloud data storage or specialised database systems, Goldsmith has (so far) avoided the dangers of redundancy or dispute with programmers, which could have taken the site offline. “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe in it.” He warns, “don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future.” We live in a time of encroaching censorship, when cloud/online access is at the mercy of increasingly censorious governments and overbearing social-media websites. Organisations make themselves vulnerable to pressure from activist lobby groups and Twitter mobs of a few hundred ill-informed virtue-signallers.

Pirating is a compliment, as Goldsmith views it. “If your work is well regarded enough to be pirated, that means you have achieved some level of success that most artists will never have. When we decide to pirate an artists’ work, it means that we think that work is worth knowing about and worth preserving.” The diffuse, unregulated distribution of material increases the chance of preservation and transmission. However, technological obsolescence has rendered some formats more inaccessible than some dead languages. Do you know anyone who has the technology to read a floppy disk or Betamax video cassette? The technology exists but it is rare, specialised and diminishing yearly. This will inevitably apply to digital files also.

Goldsmith calls the guerilla collaborative project of UbuWeb the product of “folk archiving”. “[…] we’re no fans of licenses of any kind. We’d prefer the materials be used without any restrictions whatsoever.” Fine in itself but beside the point because the material is not produced or owned by UbuWeb, as Goldsmith freely admits. He is applying his principles to the products of others but yields ground when challenged by rights holders. Sometimes artists submit material or make arrangements with their agents to permit material to remain on the website.

UbuWeb falls into an ethical grey area, even if the legal situation is fairly obvious. The UbuWeb modus operandi is to post first and wait for artists or representatives to react. Strictly speaking, the fact that UbuWeb is not monetised and is a non-profit body does not take precedence of copyright violation, which is a matter of intellectual property rather than income claiming. Copyright strikes come from those copyright holders important and financed sufficiently to pursue take-down notices. UbuWeb does accede to requests from copyright owners. (Search for the films of Francesca Woodman on UbuWeb and you will encounter the message “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery.”) However, much of the work on the site is so gloriously shoddy, awful and poorly recorded – or simply obscure – that it is not material that could generate income worth claiming.

Goldsmith explains how automated notices triggered by file titles – often filed by bodies with no authorisation to do so – claim copyright and demand compensation. As UbuWeb gains no income from the material, there is no gain to be paid. (Legally, the issue is deprivation of benefit and unauthorised use of protected material.) These automatic copyright claims are now commonplace and even inhibit legitimate criticism and educational use permitted under law. Among ISPs, rights holders and pirates, there is recognition that digitisation of data and the advent of the internet has meant that copying and distribution are beyond complete control.

There are odd cases when works are caught in limbo: not financially viable enough to license and release and still restricted by copyright. This means that non-profit file-sharing is the only way to make (unofficially) available material of documentary, historical or cultural value. In the case of artist videos, the material is seen so rarely and in specific locations that – unless one happens to have access to a specialised university library – one can live a whole lifetime without seeing pieces. The stills reproduced in monographs or old magazines become the entirety of one’s understanding of the videos. Gallerists consider UbuWeb a competitor, which devalues the rarity if their commodity, although it is possible to view UbuWeb as a promotional channel, exciting and stimulating viewers and collectors, especially with regard to lesser known artists. The often poor quality of the videos on UbuWeb (compressed, pixellated, muffled, samizdat) means that ardent collectors or enthusiasts seek out high-quality versions they have pre-viewed on UbuWeb. Some creators offer material to Goldsmith and use it as a channel to reach an audience, although Goldsmith notes that UbuWeb is a repository for material already existing rather than a channel for new work.

The birth of digitisation and the internet has revived the readership of concrete poetry. Now original books and journal pages can be copied and shared accurately, allowing readers access to visual-verbal poetry that is not financially viable to publish conventionally. Kurt Schwitters is a favourite of Goldsmith’s. He discusses the importance of words to Shwitters the artist and how his writing overlaps with his celebrated reading of his Ursonate. All of this maps neatly on to UbuWeb’s capacity to store examples of visual, verbal and aural art. UbuWeb contains scans of every page of Aspen, RE/Search and Fuck You, famous channels for the counter culture. Likewise, the 27 Tellus audio cassettes of music, poetry and sound are available complete on UbuWeb.

The book ends with 101 of Goldsmiths favourite gems of UbuWeb: Céline singing his songs accompanied by accordion, Don Cherry and Terry Riley playing live in Cologne, a rare very early Steve Reich tape piece taken from secret recordings, Captain Beefheart reciting his verse, Alice B. Toklas reading Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.

The author is generous in his appreciation for the countless donors who have sent files and physical material and he tells the stories of some pioneers – poets, collectors, fans, obsessives (or an admixture) – with whom he has interacted. Some wish to remain anonymous, concerned about stigmatisation as pirates or the threat of legal action. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we can well imagine the excitement of discovering troves of material – some of it considered permanently lost.

Goldsmith makes a common error of writing of material being “excluded from the canon”, which is an impossibility, as the canon is not exclusionary. No material can be excluded from a canon, only included or omitted and is a corporate effort; the canon cannot be imposed or enforced, hence exclusion is impossible.

Goldsmith has a lively and informal style and a lithe mind. He blends erudition and irreverence. Although the writing style is witty and readable, Goldsmith does include some footnotes. Duchamp is My Lawyer would prove a valuable book for law students and jurists as it explains how copyright works in practice not just law and how “folk law” tends to regulate copyright disputes through give-and-take personal interactions rather than court rulings. Interested parties reach informal, cost-effective, non-arbitrated understandings through negotiation in cases regarding material of little monetary worth.  

Duchamp is My Lawyer is an approachable and even-handed discussion of UbuWeb and issues regarding copyright in the digital age. It also provides an insight into the evolution of the counter culture in the internet age and the practical, legal and financial issues of producing and consuming art today. Well worth seeking out.

Kenneth Goldsmith, Duchamp is my Lawyer: Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, Columbia University Press, paperback, 2020, 318pp + x, $26/£20, ISBN 978 0 231 18695 7

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art

James Ensor: Chronicle of his Life

Xavier Tricot, Ensor scholar and author of his catalogue raisonné, has written James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, a summary biography of James Ensor (1860-1949). Ensor is a significant artist in the development of Post-Impressionism and the foundation of Expressionism and has gone to be one of the most influential of Belgian artists. This book illustrates paintings and photographs, giving an account of major events and relationships, with lengthy quotations from letters and press articles.

Ensor was born in Ostend in 1860. His mother was Belgian and his father English. He met his future wife while on holiday in her native city. Ensor revered his father, whom he described as exceptionally intelligent, handsome and athletic. He had hoped to start a new life for the family in the USA but his foray across the Atlantic coincided with the Civil War and he had to return. It seems the set-back left him increasingly resentful of narrow materialism and limited intellectual scope of Ostend. More than a little of this attitude seems to have been adopted by his son. The family ran a gift, curio and seashell shop. The many masks in the shop and the apartment above provided Ensor with his most compelling subject, one that make him famous.

Ensor studied fine art in Brussels from 1877 to 1880. His art education in Ostend had been limited and traditional. At the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts he received more traditional training. He did not do well in examinations and tended to be placed in the middle or bottom of the class. One of his fellow students was Fernand Khnopff. Ensor worked alongside Willy Finch (1854-1930). They sometimes painted the same still-life side by side and they used similar styles; they painted each other’s portraits.

Ensor was disillusioned by the expectations of the academy and the opportunities for advanced art in Belgium in 1880. That year he left both the academy and the capital, to return to live with his parents in Ostend. Advanced art was synonymous with Impressionism and Realism. Ensor enthusiastically explored both avenues, relishing the use of paint that made clear its materiality. The Oyster-eater (1882) is a good example of Impressionist-inflected Realism.

His early paintings were marines, townscapes, still-lifes and interiors. They show careful observation and the adoption of a Realist palette, enlivened by attention to facture. Tricot has included seminal works by Ensor, stressing the paintings rather than the drawings or etchings. The book amounts to a biography of Ensor through his own words and art as Chronicle contains quotes from Ensor’s own writings, which were extensive. He wrote some articles and many letters, few of which are available in English translation. The reproductions are largely accurate and all the paintings are reproduced in colour.

Ensor’s paintings earned respect from critics and fellow artist when they were exhibited in numerous group exhibitions over the 1880s. He was building the reputation of being a leading painter, without there being anything unique about his paintings. His association with Les XX (the Belgian group of avant-gardists, operational 1883-1893) and La Libre Esthétique group (the successor group, 1893-1914) helped to spread knowledge of Ensor’s art. Despite this recognition, sales were slow and prices low.

In 1883 Ensor began painting his mask series in earnest. These paintings were of figures wearing carnival and theatrical masks – and the masks with figures – as well as skeletons, each interacting with each other and with figures who seem unaware of their presence. They were to prove Ensor’s greatest achievement. They destabilised the narrative of Realist art and took on aspects of caricature, satire and dream imagery. They extended gothic art and fantasy art. Ensor was playing with the boundaries between real and unreal, living and inanimate, high and low art, entering the territory that Symbolists were examining in the same period. What made Ensor different was his wit and the use of images and conventions found in satirical prints. The Symbolists were rather averse to humour, satire and social commentary, which can make their art rather self-important, grand and detached.

He started to overpaint his older pictures, adding masks which mock the oblivious subjects. Ensor’s mask paintings were not his sole output during this time. He was as likely to exhibit a still-life, view of Ostend or a religious drawing. Ensor’s religious paintings are almost all centred on Christ, interpreting the life of Christ through a personal fusion of Ensor’s own surroundings and the art he loved. They are highly idiosyncratic pieces and vary in tone from the devotional to satirical and the autobiographical. His spurt of originality lasted from around 1883 to 1900, when Ensor’s verve diminished rapidly. His love of Turner blunted his earthy palette. He reprised old subjects but never recaptured his fire. Ironically, it was after 1900 that artistic taste caught up with Ensor and collector interest increased substantially.  

Ensor participated in the 1901 Venice Biennale. A series of publications and exhibitions raised his profile. He was knighted in 1903. In 1904 he met art dealer François Franck and in 1910 the well-connected gallerist Herbert von Garvens-Garvensburg, both of whom bought and exhibited his art. Ensor ended up painting replicas of his old paintings to meet the demand of collectors but his new compositions were generally unremarkable. In 1925 Ensor was admitted to the Académie Royale. In 1929 a huge retrospective was held in Brussels, including 337 paintings, 325 drawings and 135 etchings. The same year he was awarded a barony.   

Tricot has uncovered new data about Ensor’s life from memoirs and Ensor’s own letters. It seems his father was brutally attacked in 1885 and was hospitalised, apparently mentally unstable, and died in 1887. Tricot reveals links between Ensor and a number of artists well-known and obscure. He quotes letters written to (and from) Ensor’s publishers and collectors. He discusses matters of price and provenance that allow us to understand Ensor’s attitude towards the disposal of his art. In particular, Tricot provides information about how Ensor attempted to place key pictures with certain museums. Although this is not a full biography, the inclusion of the artist’s words gives a vivid sense of his character and views. His sardonic humour, wild wit, self-pity and capriciousness emanate from his comments. Memoirs and letters of others tell us how he was seen. Tricot has corrected the dating of At the Conservatoire from 1902 to 1893, altering his position the publication of his 2009 catalogue raisonné.

Overall, this is a very useful guide to Ensor’s life and art, especially when read in conjunction with larger catalogues. Perhaps the only shortcoming is the absence of graphic work, which may be less familiar to readers but was a key aspect of Ensor’s oeuvre.

Xavier Tricot, James Ensor: Chronicle of His Life, 1860-1949, Mercatorfonds/Yale University Press (distr. Yale), 2020, paperback, 224pp, 200 col. and mono illus., £30, ISBN 978 0 300 25397 9

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Late Stalinism: Marxist Magic Realism

“In Late Stalinism: The Aesthetics of Power, Evgeny Dobrenko (professor of Russian studies at University of Sheffield) characterises Late Stalinism as a state of low-level civil war with the overt features of “aggressive nationalism […] anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, imperialism”. That imperialism extended both outside the USSR (the Eastern Bloc) and inside the USSR, by suppressing the distinct cultural identities of non-Russian states. Stalinist culture was propaganda made during the Cold War, created for the purpose of maintaining the status quo domestically and internationally, preventing escalation to military conflict (externally) and political dissent (internally).

“Andrei Zhdanov’s 1934 definition is “Socialist Realism, as the fundamental method of Soviet artistic literature and literary criticism, demands of the artist a truthful, historically concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development….”

Read the full review on The Critic website here: https://thecritic.co.uk/marxist-magic-realism/

London Street Signs

Although we see them daily, we often do not notice them. Indeed, if we fail to notice the street sign (like a sports referee) then that is evidence of their effectiveness. The street signs of London are very diverse, not least because of the size of London and its varied history. If you have not already noticed how diverse London street signs then this is the book for you: Alistair Hall has noticed for you. In London Street Signs, Hall has compiled photographs of hundreds of signs, showing the full range of materials, sizes, styles, conventions and placements that can be found in London signs. Alistair Hall, who teaches at Central Saint Martins and The Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, provides informative observations, sometimes with some background research. He has limited his scope to Greater London.

The variety of street signage in London is caused by multiple factors. Firstly, there is no uniform regulation for manufacture of signs. Black lettering on a white background is standard but not mandatory; there are places (such as Hampstead) where white lettering is used on black tiles. Secondly, there has never been a concerted drive to replace old signs, some dating back to the Seventeenth Century. Happily, that preserves for us glimpses of London past. This ensures that a cross-section of signs survives. Some are lost entirely. The lamp-post signs went with the lamp posts; wooden signs of the pre-1850 era have long gone. Likewise, fragile glass signs are prone to damage. Lastly, signs are repaired or replaced by individual borough councils, each with different approaches. Periodically, boroughs rebrand themselves through street signage.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

There is guidance for manufacturing new and replacement signs which imposes a degree of conformity in size, lettering, format and additional information, such as postcode and borough name. This book includes extracts of regulations guiding sign design from the last century, with samples. Luckily, this has kept signage clear and relatively standardised but tolerant care has been exercised to preserve older signage.

The book opens with some old name tablets built into houses in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Some have an elegance that reminds us of the care and pride of owners and builders, with their civic-mindedness. Other signs – such as a handsome cartouche in Fleet Street – are designed into the buildings. In the case of Savile Row W1, the letters are cast metal and applied to the wall of a police station. Painted signs have been repainted over the years and some are maintained still by residents. The designs date from the pre-Victorian era up to the sans-serif designs of the 1960s.

[Image: (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Fonts vary surprisingly. Not even sans-serif is a constant, with serif versions being used in some new signs. Some choices are eccentric and lack legibility as lettering to be viewed quickly and in poor light. Hall highlights quirks and even a few errors. Spacing can a significant factor in legibility and the author has some choice words for those sign writers who make poor decisions. Borough councils have attempted to distinguish themselves by adopting slightly different lettering styles: Albertus (Lambeth), Northwood (Lambeth), Kindersley (Kensington & Chelsea), Transport (Camden, Brent). Colour borders are also deployed sometimes.  

Vitreous enamel signs, with white lettering on dark blue ground, is rarely used now, though it works very well in suburban, low-rise brick-built areas. Heavy cast-metal signs can still be found but they require regular maintenance and – like painted signs – these signs suffer due to a shrinking pool of skilful craftsmen. Clumsy restoration or neglect are the result of this dearth. Uniformity – so beloved of big-thinkers and bureaucrats – has made in-roads into London street names. There was a concerted effort to remove duplication of common names and this can be seen with some old signs remaining next to signs with new names. Lost boroughs of Stepney, St Marylebone and Deptford linger on in unrevised signs.

[Image: Hampstead, (c) 2020 Alistair Hall]

Hall explains the mysterious vanished postcodes. There are a handful of old signs which include the postcodes S and NE. The NE postcode was introduced in 1856 but dropped in 1866, ostensibly because it received much less post than the other districts. NE was absorbed into E and only a few street signs now remain. Hall reproduces the only two surviving S signs, for Lark Hall Rise and The Pavement, now both SW4. (S was divided between SE and SW in 1868.)  

New signs are covered in the Greenwich Peninsula development and around the Olympic Village in Stratford. Innovations such as the QR code already look as dated as arrows and pointing hands visible on old signs.

With touches of humour and erudition, Hall guides through both typical samples and rare survivors. Hall’s acute eye for detail has espied numerous deviations and variations in lettering, pointing out instances in brief image captions. In an era of iconoclasm, when zealots erase history to impose their values upon the past, London Street Signs makes the case for retaining and celebrating our heritage.

Alistair Hall, London Street Signs, Batsford, 2020, hardback, 192pp, fully col. illus., £14.99/$19.95/C$26.95, ISBN 978 1 84994 6216

Publication: Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History

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I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book.
 
 
Alexander Adams, Professor Frank Furedi (foreword), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History, (Societas) Imprint Academic (UK/US, distr. worldwide), paperback/e-book, 170pp (approx.), £14.95/$29.90, illustrated by the author, mono illus., published worldwide 6 October 2020
 
 
Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History surveys the origins, uses and manifestations of iconoclasm in history, art and public culture. It examines the various causes and uses of image/property defacement as a tool of political, national, religious and artistic process. This is one of the first books to examine the outbreak of iconoclasm in Europe and North America in the summer of 2020 in the context of previous outbreaks, and it examines the implications of iconoclasm as a form of control, censorship and expression.
 
 
The book contains detailed discussion of the history of iconoclasm in the following areas: Egypt, Byzantium, England, France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Mexico, Wahhabism/ISIS/Taliban, Nazi/post-unification Germany, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, China and USA. The phenomenon of art vandalism and defacement as an artistic strategy are analysed. The book contains a discussion of the 2020 iconoclasm, Confederate monuments and identity politics, including a thorough list of monuments destroyed or removed. It is fully footnoted and written in a clear, accessible style.
 
 
 
 
The book is available for purchase from the publisher’s website (UK and USA), via internet booksellers internationally and usual book retailers.
 
 
 
To view my books and art, visit www.alexanderadams.art

William S. Burroughs: Dead Fingers Talk

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Dead Fingers Talk (1963) is a bibliographic oddity in Burroughs’s output. It was a composite text composed extracts from the novels Naked Lunch (1959), Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962). Dead Fingers Talk was the brainchild of John Calder. Calder was the Scottish London-based publisher of Calder Books, which specialised in avant-garde literature. This restored version gives us the text as it was intended to be.

The publication history of Burroughs’s texts in the 1960s is fiendishly complex. Myriad publications in various countries issued by different publishers in forms that ranged from partial, censored, jumbled, poorly proofed and corrected, not to mention revised, expanded and partially re-written forms. At the time Dead Fingers Talk was composed, Naked Lunch had been published twice in two versions, Soft Machine was in its first edition form and Burroughs was finishing the manuscript for The Ticket That Exploded for Grove Press. Dead Fingers Talk was produced as an introduction to Burroughs’s work for British readers, preceding Calder’s publication of Naked Lunch in 1964. Calder had brought Burroughs to the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, where his description of his cut-up technique in a literary panel captured the imagination of consumers of experimental culture and newspaper journalists.

When it appeared, Dead Fingers Talk disappointed those who had already heard responses to the imported Girodias’s Naked Lunch and deemed Dead Fingers Talk “merely pragmatic means to more important ends”, i.e. British publication of Naked Lunch. The book was a curiosity that went out of print and was not published outside of Great Britain. Dr Oliver Harris is the leading Burroughs textual expert. He has produced restored editions of classic early books – discovering missing parts and correcting errors – and now turns his attention to Dead Fingers Talk. His comprehensive and fascinating introduction discusses the initial reception of the book and its absence from critical literature since. “By ignoring Dead Fingers Talk completely, the consensus of the critics is that there’s simply nothing to say for or about it […]” Harris has provided full textual notes, explaining changes, for those wishing to understand what has changed. Of course, given the limited readership of the original book and its reprints, most readers will be encountering this book for the first time.

The book includes parts of the three novels of 1959-62, omitting the most sexually explicit and profane passages. There was also a small amount of new material. The texts were reshaped and re-ordered, forming a new semi-narrative. Notoriously, there is no linear narrative to any of the novels, so chopping up the material did not make the text less comprehensible, simply comprehensible in a new way. Dead Fingers Talks is a collage of recognisable materials; it is a famous symphony played by a chamber orchestra. There are absurd horror, mordant satire and memorable characters. There are passages of exquisite prose poetry in tangled streams of consciousness. “Hands empty of hunger on the stale breakfast table – Winds of sickness through his face – Pain of the long slot burning flesh film – Cancelled eyes, old photo fading – Violet brown souvenir of Panama City –” There are paragraphs of Conradian description. “Aching lungs in dust and pain wind – Mountain lakes blue and cold as liquid air –” There are cowboy-style gunfights. There are sections of science-fiction. The chapters are short. However dense a section, it does not last. Thus there is no grind or page after page of unindented word collage, which renders The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded tedious reads.

Describing the text in any conventional manner would be absurd. We meet again familiar characters such as narcotics agents, junkies, dealers and confidence tricksters. Dr Benway, the maniac physician of dubious means and morals, reappears as a part raconteur, part press agent, part Dr Mengele.  Burroughs’s scepticism about authority leads him to treat religion as the long con – a giant experiment in control. His blasphemy is an expression moral outrage at manipulation. For Burroughs, restrictions on sexual activity are intolerable impositions on natural rights. This would become a core part of his libertarian fantasies of autonomous colonies in Wild Boys (1971), Port of Saints (1973) and The Red Night trilogy (1981-7).

A key element in Burroughs’s writing is discussion of drugs as a means of control and consciousness expansion. He invents fantastic drugs and also describes the reality of addiction. Sometimes fact and fantasy blur. “Shooting Eukodol every two hours. I have a place where I can slip my needle right into a vein, it stays open like a red, festering mouth, swollen and obscene, gathers a slow drop of blood and pus after the shot. […]” Burroughs is no way a hedonistic promoter of drug usage and is unflinching about the danger and squalor of drug taking. “Look down at my filthy trousers, haven’t been changed in months – The days glide by strung on a syringe with a long thread of blood – I am forgetting sex and all sharp pleasures of the body – a grey, junk-bound ghost.”

There is also plangent beauty throughout Burroughs’s writing, all the more striking when contrasted with the high comedy, street slang and horror. There is a persistent melancholy in Burroughs’s imagination. Sooner or later, the atrophying of the heroin high induces sadness. “There is no rich mother load, but vitiate dust, second run cottons trace the bones of a fix.” “Inactive oil wells and mine shafts, strata of abandoned machinery and gutted boats, garbage of stranded operations and expeditions that died at this point of dead land where sting-rays bask in brown water and grey crabs walk up from the mud flats to the silent temple of high jungle streams of clear water cut deep clefts in yellow clay and falling orchids endanger the traveller.”

Pleasure is plentiful in reading such free language and playful ideas, especially in a time when speech is policed so arbitrarily and tactically. That makes Dead Fingers Talk recommended reading for dissidents, critics, free-thinkers and lovers of imagination. Remarkably, for a compromise stop-gap measure meant to sustain notoriety with an eye to commercial considerations, Dead Fingers Talk is perhaps the best entry point for a reader who has never encountered Burroughs’s writings.

William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (ed., introduction), Dead Fingers Talk: The Restored Text, Calder Books, September 2020, paperback, 269pp + XLIII, £9.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 50015

 

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

© 2020 Alexander Adams

In Search of Old Mistresses

“”Where are the Old Mistresses?” That was the cry in the early 1970s among female art historians. The Women’s Liberation movement caused a wave of cultural reassessment to sweep through academia and it had no greater impact than in the field of art history. There was a scramble to find overlooked female artists and balance Old Masters with Old Mistresses. Artemisia, the currently suspended exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) at the National Gallery, is the most recent attempt to advance the status of women artists. The exhibition is now set to take place at the National Gallery 3 October 2020 – 24 January 2021.

“In 1971 Linda Nochlin published the landmark feminist essay “Why are there no great women artists?”. Nochlin theorised that women’s creativity had been sublimated into craft and that, consequently, Western high art was shaped according to male standards. Finding overlooked women painters and reassessing their abilities was beside the point, Nochlin argued, because the standards were discriminatory. It was a bold statement and strategically astute: women artists could never be found justly neglected due to deficiencies because they were being judged by masculine standards designed to exclude them. Therefore there would never be any Old Mistresses. Nonetheless, every year fresh books and exhibitions about female artists appear, evidence of a compact of curatorial, academic and commercial interests….”

Read the article at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/in-search-of-old-mistresses/

Natela Iankoshvili

Autumn at Kiziki

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Autumn at Kiziki (1976), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm | 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Natela Iankoshvili (1918-2007) is one of the most prominent painters of Georgia, former state of USSR. This survey of Iankoshvili’s painting is published by Hirmer and Galerie Kornfeld, the Berlin gallery representing her estate. This book is a good guide to the life and work of this celebrated Georgian artist. Essays outline the artist’s biography and career, her work as an illustrator, the important support her marriage provided, her achievements in a Georgian context and contemporary reactions to her art. The publication includes a chronology and a bibliography. The selection of illustrated paintings covers broadly 1960 to her last years. (The only weakness of the catalogue is that a few of the illustrations are not crisp enough.)

Iankoshvili was born on 30 August 1918. In 1937 she entered the Academy of Art, Tiblisi and graduated in 1943, in the midst of World War II. She destroyed the art of her student and early years, which was Socialist Realist in character, later stating that it seemed artificial and insincere to her. One of the few paintings to escape the flames was the 1951 realist portrait of her husband Lado Avaliani (1913-1998), a noted author and biographer.

By 1960, when her solo exhibition (of 250 paintings) at the Georgian State Gallery of Painting (National Gallery) took place, her mature personal style was established, in which she painted over 2,000 pictures. The exhibition of 250 paintings was a breakthrough for her and a significant distinction for any Georgian artist, let alone a female painter. Iankoshvili’s mature painting is characterised by vigorous application of paint, heavy impasto, use of broad brushes and palette knives, strong local colour, an Expressionist palette and lack of academic finish. She frequently used square-format canvases. The paintings appear to be painted in a direct manner in few sessions, maybe only one. The artist commonly painted and drew over black or dark green backgrounds. (An example of a drawing employing this technique is a portrait – real or imagined – of a black Cuban.) The landscapes were principally black with motifs depicted in pungent colour. Her landscapes are remembered, invented and reconfigured. A particularly effective one is Landscape of Shatili from Above (1985), which the artist in green over black – almost without another hue, a few touches of yellow blended in the green.

Shales Forest in Kakheti

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Shales Forest in Kakheti (1987), oil on canvas, 110 x 75 cm | 43 1/3 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Her subjects were not typical genres of official Soviet painters: local landscapes, wildlife, portraits of exotic figures rather than workers or party officials. She did also paint portraits of authors she admired, including Ana Kalandadze and Boris Pasternak. Depicting glamorous women in bourgeois costumes was a clear rejection of the official aesthetic and a way of connecting to Western European painting and art of the pre-Modern era and thus an act of defiance – albeit not a dangerous one by the 1960s. Her attachment to the religious and vernacular architecture and traditions of Georgia also distanced her from Socialist Realism. The cerebral light-filled optimism of an everlasting present of official Soviet art is supplanted in Iankoshvili’s art by a darkly luminescent night, redolent of intrigue, romance and history.

Authors note that Iankoshvili took inspiration for her work on black grounds from Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918), a famed Georgian painter. Pirosmani’s painting is not dissimilar to that of Douanier Rousseau’s primitivist painting. He used black sail canvas because he could not afford proper artist’s materials. In allying her practice to Pirosmani’s, Iankoshvili can be seen as drawing upon her Georgian heritage and seeking to take vitality from folk art, uncontaminated by the political correctness of her time. Another guiding light was the art of El Greco. His colours, sense of movement and spatial ambiguity seem points of attraction for the Georgian. Her 1965-6 illustrations to the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin were done on black paper.

The year after her landmark 1960 exhibition, Iankoshvili was one of the artists who travelled to Cuba and Mexico in 1961 on a state-sponsored mission for the collaboration between the nations’ artists. She was attracted by the racial variety of the people and the lush vegetation and fauna of the island.

Iankoshvili had numerous exhibitions in exhibitions within the USSR and, from 1976 onwards, exhibited internationally. In 1977 she was awarded a gold medal for a portrait by her exhibited in Paris. In 1995 she received the Shota Rustaveli State Prize and the following year she was awarded the Medal of Honour of the State of Georgia. In 2000 a museum dedicated to her art opened in Tiblisi. Contemporaries commented that the painter’s attitude towards commerce seemed to be a blend idealism, cussedness and naivety: she gave away pictures rather than selling them, limiting the exposure her art would have generated through commercial dissemination, especially after the demise of the USSR in 1991. In recent years, her art has been shown worldwide, championed by Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin.

Iankoshvili’s individualism (which expressed itself in her decision to forego the official style and thereby limiting her opportunities for official commissions) is as important as her art. Although she benefited eventually from taking such a brave decision in the long run, her initial choice seems to have been based on a question of conscience. In the West today, we are too cynical. Our default response to acts of conscience and risk-taking in the face of consensus are to diminish them as careerism or motivated by materialism or ulterior motives. We should be more responsive and respectful of acts of honest conscience.

Enigma

[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Enigma (1983), oil on canvas, 125 x 155 cm | 49 1/4 x 61 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]

Her art (developed independently) parallels the 1970s and 1980s school of German, Italian and American Neo-Expressionism. The directness, vigour, romanticism and glamour of her art shrugs off the caginess of art based on systems, unashamedly embracing the subjects of the past without apology and self-consciousness. For artists seeking an antidote to the irony and insincerity of Post-Modernism, art such as Iankoshvili’s is a route to an alternative future. Regardless of what one thinks of her art, Iankoshvili’s heroic individualism and love of art was in direct opposition to the anonymity and utilitarianism of Socialist Realism of the 1940s, yet it also (inadvertently) opposes the caution of Conceptualism, the irony of Post-Modernism and the utilitarianism of artivism of today.

The vitality, humanity and complete commitment to the principle of art-for-art’s-sake are what can make Natela Iankoshvili an inspiration for future artists who wish to reject the sterile cynicism of today’s art movements.

Mamuka Bliadze, Natela Iankoshvili: An Artist’s Life between Coercion and Freedom, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2020, hardback, 160pp, 66 col. illus., £32, ISBN 978 3 7774 3513 8

 

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art

Italian Novecento painting

Carrà - Marina 50x70 1941

[Image: Carlo Carra, Marine (1941), oil on canvas, 50 x 70 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art]

This exhibition catalogue accompanied an exhibition at Tornabuoni Art, London (12 February-18 April 2020). This review is from the catalogue.

The 1920 to 1950 was an eventful period in Italian history. It saw the aftermath of World War I, the rise of Fascism, World War II, military occupation and defeat, a resurgence in Communist sympathy and the beginning of economic reconstruction. In the plastic arts, there were conflicting tendencies. The Futurist movement – with its bellicosity, militarism and adulation of technology – was discredited following the horrors of World War I. The rappel de l’ordre (call to order or return to order) was a movement advocating a return to realism, traditionalism and regional/national schools of art, mainly French. This movement of traditional figurative art (inflected by Modernism) derived from Metaphysical Art was called Novecento (“Twentieth Century”).

This exhibition selects art by leading Italian painters from the inter-war period. The curators describe critic Margherita Sarfatti (who was also Mussolini’s lover and biographer) as a lynchpin to the Novecento group, following its inaugural exhibition in 1922 at Galleria Pesaro, Milan. Prominent painters in Novecento were Giacomo Balla, Pompeo Borra, Anselmo Bucci, Achille Funi, Gian Emilio Malerba, Ubaldo Oppi, Fortunato Depero, Massimo Campigli, Carrà, Felice Casorati, de Chirico, Filippo De Pisis, Piero Marussig, Morandi, René Paresce, Ottone Rosai, Gino Severini, Mario Sironi, Ardengo Soffici, Mario Tozzi and others. Some of these were former Futurists. The Futurists were politically aligned to Fascism. Balla dropped his commitment to Futurist aesthetics in order to follow Fascism. Severini turned from Futurism to Cubism during World War I and then briefly to Neoclassicism before blending Cubist and Neoclassical styles and elements. Severini amalgams are some of the satisfactory painting in this exhibition. Marinetti – leading Futurist theorist – was not a practicing artist.

Writer Flavia Frigeri claims: “[…] the style of the works on view was far from unified. Heterogeneity was, in fact, at the heart of the Novecento project.” She cites Sironi claiming that the primary original figures in Novecento were independent painters who formed a loose alliance and that Novecentismo style only came later, with minor painters forming a style. However, even in these major artists in this exhibition, we can detect certain consistencies. The chief subjects of Novecento featured in this exhibition are landscapes, still-lifes, portraits and nudes (mainly female). Women are portrayed as passive. Most of the paintings of women in this exhibition are nudes, excluding the many portraits and maternities that can be found in exhibitions of the time. Novecento paintings are distinguished by their simplicity, clarity and solidity and the utilisation of the flat picture plane and inclusion of Cubist aspects (pattern, abstraction, planar aspects). There is a deliberate attempt to make art that was recognisably Italian and also timeless, avoiding references to contemporary life. We can discern a number of specific precursors, such as the portraits of women by Camille Corot portraits, Pablo Picasso (of his pre-Cubist and Neoclassical periods), Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and the Italian Primitives. Sarfatti cast Novecento as aspiring to the Quattrocento. Novecento painting has the restrained chalky colours of fresco painting.

As has been pointed out in numerous studies, Italian Fascism had a very different character to Nazism. The attitude to the arts in Italy was much broader than the stylistic prescriptions of German Fascism. The Italians not only permitted stylistic diversity, they encouraged it, stating that the strength of the nation under Fascism was great enough to resist the divisive effects of plurality of voices, as long as they did not conflict with the unity and good of the state. Thus, the Italian state in fine art did not impose requirements upon painters. (The situation in architecture is slightly different but this falls outside the parameters of this review.) Sarfatti rejected the excesses of Futurism – in style, breaking tradition and cultivating individualism – and she saw Novecento as an asset to nationalism and Fascism in its realism and reduction in individualism.

For enthusiasts of moderate Modernism, there is much here to give pleasure. Marussig’s Vase of Flowers (1917) is redolent of Gauguin’s still-lifes, with its restrained use of powerful separated by rough drawing and neutral-tone ground. Balla’s light-drenched landscape is atypically loose and focuses on the optical. One of the defining features of the Novecento is the tightness of drawing and the dryness of paint application. Novecento has a pre-Renaissance attitude rejection of later developments in art, such as the play of light, reflection, transparency and cool shadow. Overall, Balla’s landscape and Soffici’s smudged townscapes look out of place in this company.

Novecento art is static. None of the figures portrayed seem caught in movement. Novecento presents figures with pre-Renaissance hieratic stances. Even the nudes are rather inanimate. Severini’s Fashion Over Time (1945) typifies the Novecento’s borrowings from Braque and Picasso repurposed as a cosmetic addition to a composition that is unambitious. The rare, early Morandi portrait is as static as his still-lifes. Other Morandis are more familiar still-lifes and townscapes. Morandi reverses the expectations associated with landscape painting by making his landscapes horizontally orientated.

De Pisis’s painting of Venice seems an adaptation of Dufy. Carrà’s landscapes are disappointing: slight, blurred, chromatically muzzy. They lack the mystery of his Metaphysical period. Campigli seems to reach back to Etruscan funerary monuments and late Roman-period Egypt funerary portraits in encaustic for his portrait of 1950. His highly stylised figure paintings are deliberate rejections of both modernism and realism, constructing a personal archaism that turns away from the Italy of his own time. (Ironically, for all its archaism, it is very much of its time and could have met common comprehension and acceptance throughout the non-Fascist West.)

Added to the variety of Novecento is Sironi’s faux-naïf paintings that gather fragments, drawn in paint in quite a crude way, that steers a course equidistant from the sophistication of Futurism and the sophistication of Renaissance art. His paintings aim for timelessness of Roman murals made by a modern-day hermit. Viewers will have to decide whether they consider them persuasive. An early townscape parallels Beckmann. Sironi was the most ideologically committed to Fascism. Sironi aimed for his art to be politically persuasive. Given Fascism’s intention to combine modern technology and means to revival and extend long-standing collective nationalist identity, this blend of classical imagery and Modernist style makes sense. It also shows the distance between Italian Fascism and German National Socialism in the arts. Sironi’s art would have been inconceivable in Germany, certainly as art exhibited or in any way sanctioned by the state.

Casorati - Nudo di schiena

[Image: Felice Casorati, Nude Seen from the Rear (1939), oil on canvas, 160 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art”]

Casorati’s art is some of the best shown here. His Nude Seen from the Rear (1939) benefits from its simplicity, muted coloration and shallow picture space. It is both tender in tone while being severe in its stylistic austerity. The two other nudes are also strong. The bust of a nude woman (1942) recalls Beckmann in its uses of black and strong shadows lightly modelled. There is another picture that looks effective. Unfortunately, the page gutter of the catalogue obscures the pivotal figure of the painting, making it impossible to view accurately. This is a flaw in book design. Casorati’s 1922 portrait of Silvana Cenni is an iconic portrait of the movement, the period and Italian traditional art. Casorati is described as a Magical Realist.

chirico new (1)

[Image: Giorgio de Chirico, Still-Life (1930), oil on canvas, 53.5 x 74 cm. Courtesy of Tornabuoni Art.]

De Chirico’s art as a pictor classicus was not completely congruent with Novecento but Sarfatti’s inclusion of de Chirico’s still-lifes and nudes (and the art of Carrà) was perhaps a matter of prestige or credibility. In truth, their art is not dissonant in this company. Certainly, these two artists were deeply engaged with classical art, localism and a rejection of overt Modernism, which is Novecento at least, even if de Chirico’s engagement with Baroque art and Romanticism run counter to the austerity and primitivism of Fascist art. De Chirico’s nudes (including one exhibited here, dated 1923) and Carrà’s paint handling is more sensuous the other art in this catalogue. Morandi attached himself to Novecento because of a need to exhibit and sell art. He had the approval of Carrà’s positive approval in print in 1925. Sarfatti may have selected Morandi for his first Novecento group exhibition on the basis of this review.

The catalogue is in English and Italian and contains biographies of artists, facsimiles of documents (with translations) and a bibliography. Full-page illustrations face pages with comparative figures, often of pieces that were included in original Novecento exhibitions. Data gives information about the literature and exhibitions relating to the exhibits. This catalogue will help to spread knowledge of art beyond the well-known movements of Metaphysical Art and Futurism; that makes it a useful addition to any library covering Novecento and Modernist Italian and European art generally.

Flavia Frigeri, Janet Abramovicz, Morandi, Balla, de Chirico and Italian Painting 1920-1950, Tornabuoni Art, 2020, hardback, 175pp, fully illus., English/Italian text

For more information and buy the catalogue visit Tornabuoni website here: https://www.tornabuoniart.com/en/

© 2020 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art