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A recent book by Park Books explores the oeuvre of Italian architect Quirino De Giorgio (1909-1997). De Giorgio career spans the Fascist era to the 1990s. The majority of the photographs of his 90-odd buildings were taken for this book; they are complemented with photographs of the buildings in their newly completed states.
De Giorgio is associated with the Futurists in their post-war phase and counted Marinetti as his friend. While he is designated a Futurist, this cannot be detected in the plastic qualities of his realised buildings, other than their modernity. A 1931 drawing shows his ambitious fantasy of an upward thrusting vertically-orientated building, as do other included prints. He started designing buildings in 1928. His earliest constructed buildings – the first made in 1931 – were modest and facilitated by the construction boom of the Fascist regime.
The architecture of Fascism in Italy has certain common characteristics. It is assertive and does not deploy either pastiche or outright historicism. It uses colonnades, square columns, Roman arches and other forms in ways that are identifiably new. It includes modern materials (concrete, steel girders, sheet glass) and can include Modernist forms, such square windows, non-stucco brickwork, absence of architraves, column bases and column capitals and so forth. Civic buildings often had inscriptions and bas relief sculptures displaying civic virtues, martial prowess and the leadership of il Duce. Fascism has a tendency toward giganticism in architecture and town planning. De Giorgio’s projects took on these characteristics from time to time, appropriate to the setting and purpose.
De Giorgio was responsible for designing some of the 5,000 casa del fascio, mainly in his home Veneto region. His simplified style drew on the Metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. The colonnades with square columns, Roman arches and open unadorned balcony colonnades seem directly lifted from the atmospheric inventions of his compatriot. His Fascist buildings can definitely be described as both highly pictorial (memorable simplicity and starkness) and with a strong plastic presence (due to their easily comprehensible geometric morphology).
[Image: ; (left) Quirino de Giorgio, casa del fascio, Vigonza, 1936; (right) Giorgio de Chirico, The Enigma of the Hour (1911), oil on canvas]
The dramatic unimpeded verticals and horizontals, the presence of quadratic forms and the radical lack of ornamentation give De Giorgio’s casas del fascio an invigorating simplicity and purity. Later interventions have only reduced that. The addition of a handrail to the swooping staircase of Sede del gruppo rionale fascista Nicola Bonservizi (1937-8) was a necessary addition to prevent dangerous falls on to a marble-tiled floor, albeit an aesthetically detracting one. De Giorgio was commissioned to design 56 buildings during a prolific 1936-40 period.
[Image: Quirino de Giorgio, casa del fascio, (Brenta, 1939-43)]
The casas del fascio were decommissioned after World War II and the dissolving of the Fascist party and given to regional authorities. They were converted into schools, gyms, libraries and similar civic venues. This has led to the alterations to the structures we see today. Due to the relative lack of appreciation for De Giorgio, many of his buildings have fallen into disrepair, been unsympathetically altered and even demolished. The greatest loss is the Diecimila (Padua, 1938-9), an open-air theatre, demolished in the 1960s. Its simple geometry and evocation of the Roman antecedents made it a striking, though not intimidating structure.
Art Deco can be detected in the horizontal strips of windows, port-hole windows and the curving profile of the interior staircase of Sede del gruppo rionale fascista Evaristo Cappellozza (Padua, 1937-8). Although the building has been substantially expanded – altering its height and changing its external character – the 1930s Art Deco style is evident in De Giorgio’s remaining original design and fittings. The cantilevered canopy of a petrol station (Rovigo, 1948) demonstrates De Giorgio’s taste for drama and high Modernism. He could have supported the end of the canopy on the curving front wall of the building but he chose not to, keeping the structures separated vertically by about two feet of space. The authors comment on De Giorgio’s keen interest in modern design of cars, trains, aeroplanes and cruise liners, indicating a potential source for his streamlined interiors and use of simple panels and metallic surfaces.
De Giorgio was commissioned to design residential buildings – villas, houses, apartment blocks. Cinemas were De Giorgio’s principal area of activity. The foyer of Cinema Altino (Padua, 1946-51) has the appearance of a cruise liner ballroom. He designed a hotel (Abano Terme, 1965), a school (Colle, 1969), offices (Camisano Vicentino, 1965-6) and a number of shops. Later designs introduced geometric shapes in windows, glazed doors and fittings. His typical cleanness benefited the highly trafficked common spaces of school corridors and cinema foyers. This playfulness is used to good effect without these aspects ever becoming flippant or obtrusive. Advances in the development of plate glass allowed De Giorgio’s buildings to become increasingly airy.
The book documents all De Giorgio’s 90 or so surviving buildings, the last built in 1988. This monograph is photograph-led and hence the text is sparing. However, explanation is largely unnecessary for us to get an understanding for the buildings and settings, with the inclusion of multiple views, interior photographs and layouts and street plans. Some architectural drawings are reproduced. The authors note that almost nothing has been published about De Giorgio’s work, despite its high standard and its historical significance. De Giorgio contributed to this situation somewhat due to his aversion to expounding a personal theory of architecture. His records have been preserved and are in chaotic state, making research difficult. Let us hope that this book, acclaimed one of the ten best architectural books of 2019 by the Deutsches Architekturmuseum, is the first of a number on this serious and inventive architect.
Michel Carlana, Luca Mezzalira, Curzio Pentimalli, Quirino de Giorgio: An Architect’s Legacy, Park Books, 2019, flexicover, 400pp, 429 col./252 mono illus., €38, ISBN 978 0 386 01760
“One of the first targets of an invading army is the art of the defeated. Once cities are secured, army officers of the occupying force seek museums, palaces and cathedrals, intent on retrieving art for the benefit of the victors. However politely done, it is no different from the pillaging of ancient history. Two new books examine the art theft of occupying armies in two different ages.
“The Wedding Feast at Cana was painted by Paolo Veronese in 1563 for the wall of a Benedictine abbey on the Venetian isle of San Maggiore. Situated in the refectory, the picture depicts Christ seated at the centre of a wedding feast; the giant painting (almost 7 metres high by 10 metres wide) teems with brightly robed figures set in an illusionistically rendered architectural setting. On completion, it was recognised as a masterpiece of the Late Renaissance/Mannerist era, with connoisseurs travelling from around Europe to marvel at the painting.
“Cynthia Saltzman’s Napoleon’s Plunder: The Theft of Veronese’s Feast recounts what happened when Napoleon defeated the Austrians and took control of northern Italy in 1796, and how his roving eye turned to art. Portable treasures were to be sold to finance the cost of the war effort; the greatest of the art would be reserved for the Musée Napoléon, the French Republic’s public art museum (sited in the Louvre). Saltzman outlines the extraction of art from not only Italy but Spain, Flanders, Holland, Vienna and Berlin, all intended for Napoleon’s museum….”
“In the cycle of a fiction writer, there is a pattern: youthful works, reviews/articles and fiction during the author’s lifetime; then posthumously comes unpublished fiction, journals, collected articles and – finally – letters.
“Letters are the most fugitive of literary texts. They are distributed between numerous recipients and their descendants, sold to collectors, lost, forgotten, destroyed. But they allow us to experience life events from the perspective of the author.
“So it is with Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). In The Letters of Ernest Hemingway, Volume 5: 1932-1934, we spend time with him in the Florida Keys, a period when Vanity Fair featured a full-page, full-colour Ernest Hemingway paper doll, captioned ‘Ernest Hemingway, America’s own literary cave man; hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving – all for art’s sake’. The paper costumes were Neanderthal, soldier, boulevardier, fisherman and bullfighter. By this point, Hemingway was already working to maintain a macho reputation he himself had promoted: a proper man’s man, but with the sensitivity of a poet and the avant-garde technique of a literary Picasso.
“Hemingway was notorious for exaggerating his masculine achievements, but he had real prowess as a sports fisherman…”
Tom Thomson (1877-1917) is considered one of the greatest of Canadian artists. His spectacular landscapes of the New Ontario wilderness – composed with vivid colour, passionate brushwork and startling brevity and energy – are considered not only stylistically ground breaking but have become icons of the glory of the Canadian landscape. Alongside the Group of Seven and Emily Carr, Thomson is beloved by Canadians and enthusiasts of Modernist landscape painting worldwide.
Thomson worked in Toronto as a commercial artist, producing lettering and graphic designs for publication. He had been an enthusiastic artist from childhood but began painting seriously in 1913, travelling to the Algonquin Park to capture the sights en plein air, using oil paint on small boards. In 1914 he exhibited publicly for the first time in an open exhibition, meeting with success. Thomson returned to the park each summer, travelling out into the wilderness using a canoe, taking with him tent, survival equipment and provisions as well as painting supplies. According from companions, he was apparently an experienced and judicious outdoorsman, capable of setting fires, pitching tents, hunting, fishing and defending himself against wolves and bears. Due to his frequent visits and long stays, he was regarded as familiar with the landscape and the locals.
Death on Canoe Lake
Supposedly, on 7 July 1917, Thomson spent the night drinking with friends at Canoe Lake. It is alleged that this ended in a fistfight, with Thomson fighting either Martin Blecher Jr or Shannon Fraser. Fraser owed Thomson money, though (apparently) they were on good terms. Regarding the war, Thomson was pro-Canada and Blecher pro-Germany and there was bad feeling between them. This was an awkward situation, as Thomson was staying at Mowat Lodge (a large guest house), run by the Blechers. However, this scenario was not mentioned in 1917, only in 1970.
On 8 July, Thomson helped Fraser carry a boat, then went fishing alone in his canoe or he departed for a two-week trip (reports vary). That afternoon, at 3:05 p.m., the undamaged canoe was seen floating upturned by Blecher Jr, who did not report it nor consider it significant. Searches were mounted and George Thomson, the artist’s older brother, visited to help. No trace of Thomson was detected; George was due back at his work and departed. On 16 July, Thomson’s body was found floating in Canoe Lake by Dr Goldwyn Howland, a holidaymaker, and his daughter. As the coroner had not arrived by the following day, Howland was deputised to perform an ad hoc examination. Howland and Robinson examined the body and Howland concluded the cause of death was accidental drowning, perhaps caused by a blow which had left a bruise to the right temple and/or forehead (reports vary). A later report noted a short length of fishing line was wound around his left ankle and cut/snapped. (This was possibly from the rod of Howland’s daughter, who it was claimed had snagged the body underwater and causing it to rise. Others suggest the line was Thomson’s own. An obvious alternative is that it was the line that was used to tow the body to the shore or – more sinisterly – used to tether the body underwater.) No post-mortem was conducted. Due to decomposition and the hot weather, it was decided to inter Thomson in the village cemetery, Mowat Cemetery. The coroner, Dr Ranney, arrived but decided not to disinter the body to perform as post-mortem; instead, he took witness statements and recorded a verdict of accidental drowning.
On 18 July an undertaker sent by the Thomson family disinterred the body and placed it in a fresh coffin for removal to the family plot in Leith Presbyterian Church cemetery, Ontario. Although the formalities were not observed and the undertaker had worked hastily, the park warden permitted the removal of the body. Mark Robinson, a park ranger and friend of Thomson, noted that the excavation in the local cemetery was very shallow, which troubled him. On 21 July, in a closed-coffin funeral, Thomson was reburied in Leith, with his family in attendance.
Fraser wrangled with the Thomsons over expenses he incurred regarding the recovery and return of Tom’s body. Gradually, the Thomson family became aware Fraser owed Tom the remainder of an unpaid personal loan. Locals did not consider Fraser trustworthy and Tom had become suspicious of him and his wife snooping on his personal life. Fraser had some of Tom’s possessions from his final trip, which he did not return until February. (They were all mundane items – clothing and cooking utensils – no art or writing.) By early 1918, the Thomsons, protective of their reputation and Tom’s legacy, were content to treat his death as a tragic accident.
By 1931, author Blodwen Davies decided to write an expanded appreciation of Thomson. Unbeknownst to her, rumours of suicide or foul play were circulating. Weather was mild, somewhat rainy. There was doubt that a sober man – particularly a known strong swimmer such as Thomson – would drown in placid inland water such as Canoe Lake. Contradictions became more numerous. The coroner recorded – second hand – that the head wound was on the left temple. Yet Dr Ranney cited Howland as recording the wound on the other temple and bleeding from the right ear. When manipulated, it was determined there was air in the lungs, which ruled out death by drowning. Blecher Jr claimed he did not recognise the upturned canoe, yet all Thomson’s acquaintances knew the canoe, which was painted a distinctive dove-grey (or green). The hasty burial of the body despite the imminent announced arrival of the coroner was highly irregular. There was scepticism that the man who exhumed Thomson’s body could have dug up the body, placed it in a metal coffin, soldered it shut and removed the coffin by lantern light in three or four hours at night. Davies pressed for an examination of the Mowat Cemetery in order to establish that it was Thomson’s body that had been exhumed from the small site which had multiple burials close to each other.
Over the years, more reports emerged, some with perplexing details. One was that the Blechers had retrieved the canoe, which was found floating upright. Robinson’s audio-recorded account, recorded at the end of his life, adds further confusion, as they contradict his earlier statements. It seems that $50 was missing from Thomson’s body – or it was left at his lodgings and disappeared from there. Locals speculated that the affections of Thomson’s close friend or lover Winnifred “Winnie” Trainor (1885-1962) (a local woman) was the subject of rivalry between Thomson and Blecher Jr. However, some close to Thomson (and his family) suggest that Winnie was keener on Thomson than he was on her; Thomson had not mentioned engagement to Winnie to anyone, it seems. There are no reports from people who knew Thomson first hand to contradict this, though second- and third-hand assertions were published much later.
An Unauthorised Exhumation
Without permission, in 1956 a group of men (including William Little) decided to excavate the Mowat cemetery to settle the suspicion that Thomson’s was not the body transferred to Leith. They did find a body, with a skull that had a seeming bullet hole in the left temple. Forensic anthropologists concluded that the shape of the skull and dental characteristics suggested Mongoloid (First Nations/Indian) typology; bones indicated a height of about 5’8” (Thomson was estimated to be 6’0”) and aged 20-30 (Thomson was almost 40), therefore the skeleton was not Thomson’s. One doctor thought that the hole was the result of trepanning, not typical of a gunshot. No bullet was located in the skull, which had no exit wound. It seems impossible to belief that an experienced doctor such as Dr Howland could have missing a bullet wound to the head, especially where the hair would have been short.
The subsequent discussion and William Little’s The Tom Thomson Mystery (1970) foregrounded the suspicion of murder among the general public. Little suggests that he believed that Blecher Jr murdered Thomson by striking him on the head with a paddle by the lakeside. Little’s book – which summarised and published little-known sources – became a key book and powerfully influenced debate. Charles Plewman’s essay and talks in the 1970s suggested that pressure from Winnie regarding marriage had potential driven Thomson to desperation, even to the point of suicide. A still later theory was that Thomson had been killed by accident in the fight of 7 July and that his body was disposed so as to make it appear an accidental death. One of the last survivors of the era, Daphne Crombie, gave interviews in which she says that Fraser’s wife admitted that her that her husband had killed Thomson by accident during the supposed fight of 7 July. Fraser struck Thomson, who had fallen and hit his head on a fire grate, killing him. She had no corroborative evidence to add. By the 1970s, there was a cottage industry of articles, books and television films about Thomson’s death.
Determining the cause of death at a distance, relying on sources that are not full post-mortem examinations, is impossible. Was the bruise to the forehead or temple related to Thomson’s death or was it the result of the reported fight from the previous evening? Was it actually discoloration due to decomposition? Likewise, blood from the ear may be putrefaction fluid leaking from a body that was apparently very swollen and becoming rotten by the time Howland examined it.
In The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Gregory Klages attempts to patiently unpick the way rumour and legend were added to the Thomson story over the years, with the changing information altering interpretations. Various individual writers became attached to certain theories and sought to defend them over decades, with subsequent books splicing in new snippets of information and paraphrasing information that was already unreliable. Klages rightly dismisses the idea of suicide by voluntary drowning and can see no plausible alternative method of suicide that explains the circumstances. Klages thinks murder is not proven (true), any culprit not identified (also true) and that “we can reasonably and confidently conclude that Tom Thomson was not murdered”[i] – which seems too definitive. With regard to death by murder, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Klages states there is not enough evidence to disbelieve the narrative of Thomson’s body removal from Mowat to Leith.
While Klages can be disparaging of authors, he is at times a little unclear himself. The most contentious point of Klages is “Thomson’s body did not have wounds that suggested trauma or violence.”[ii] Klages attributes the bruise or marking to the temple to post-mortem decomposition and – it seems – the ear blood to decomposition. Yet he also seems to hold out the possibility that these observations indicate the results of an accident. This is unclear. Contusion due to injury due to a fall on a canoe gunwale or rock is still “trauma or violence”, even if it is not deliberate or inflicted by a person. Whether the marks were due to man-inflicted violence, accidental injury or decomposition is indeterminate at this point – though it is possible to assign probabilities to each discrete possibility – and this uncertainty is not compatible with Klages’s definitive dismissal of “trauma or violence” and murder. Klages favours a scenario of Thomson’s canoe hitting a submerged log (common due to the logging industry) and causing Thomson to strike his head on the canoe or log, dying by drowning. There are two problems with this. Firstly, according the Fraser in 1917, the canoe’s two paddles were tied in for portaging. This means that the canoe was not in movement in the water to strike any log. Secondly, drowning is contradicted by the evidence of air in the lungs. Cerebral haemorrhage causing instant death would be feasible, as that would not entail drowning, but it seems that the bruise (if it was a bruise) did not indicate cranial fracture to the examining doctor. Such an injury would have to have taken place while the canoe was stationary. Klages, however, maintains that Thomson’s death was through drowning and not suspicious.
John Little, son of William Little, has written Who Killed Tom Thomson?, published in 2018. Little states up front that he believes the bones found by his father in Mowat Cemetery were Thomson’s. Little introduces new evidence from an elderly local park guide, Ralph Bice, who stated that he had heard that Thomson was a womaniser and a heavy drinker, in fact “a drunken bum”[iii] who “couldn’t paint unless he had a bottle of gin”. According to Bice, Thomson had fallen on his head while drunk and drowned. Yet, these disparaging comments came from an individual who resented Thomson’s celebrity and never spoke to him.
Little accepts some later additions to the Thomson story – the drunken fight, the fishing line around the ankle (not mentioned by Howland, Ranney or Robinson in 1917), Robinson’s immediate opposition to the accident verdict – and presents some rather distant tales of Thomson as a womaniser. That is not to say these aspects are either impossible or unlikely, simply not contemporaneous. Little is correct in assessing the body buried at Mowat as anomalous. The oddity of the body being in what seemed to be Thomson’s original coffin is unexplained. Even a burial just before it becoming covering the empty coffin debris is hard to understand. There were two recorded burials at the period of Thomson’s burial, with a potential third. There was no record of an Indian being buried then. Yet the forensics report defies Little’s belief that the bones were those of the artist. Little does conclusively prove that no member of the Thomson family saw the body after the exhumation. Little outlines an idea that Thomson was shot, pointing out the weaknesses of the shooting theory.
Little asked a pair of retired police detectives to review the evidence. They rule out suicide and accidental death by drowning. They believe the Mowat body to be Thomson and suspect foul play. Little concurs. Short of DNA testing the reinterred Mowat bones or exhuming the Leith body (ruled out by the Thomson family), there is no way to end the debate over the body identities and no way at all to determine a cause of death.
Gregory Klages, The Many Deaths of Tom Thomson: Separating Fact From Fiction, Read How You Want, 2017, paperback, 359pp + x, mono illus., £24.99, ISBN 9781525236884
John Little, Who Killed Tom Thomson?, Skyhorse Publishing, 2018, hardback, 409pp + xxxvii, 31 mono illus., C$24.99, ISBN 9781510733381
The Decadent Movement was a late manifestation of Symbolism, principally in literature, that flourished in the final two decades of the Nineteenth Century. It is thought to be a largely British and French movement. It is considered to have lasted from around 1880 to 1895 (Wilde’s imprisonment), with 1914 forming the terminus ante quem for the Decadent Movement, as it was for so many fine de siècle movements. (The stature and reach of the Men of 1914 diminished the standing of the preceding generation.) This collection of academic papers seeks to expand our common understanding of Decadence. Topics include fine art, poetry, theatre, cinema, prose, music, politics, antiquity and other areas, with academic authors addressing Decadence in relation to countries other than Great Britain, France and Belgium.
There are perennial problems of defining Decadence. Does Decadent art reflect or celebrate – even encourage – degeneration from seemingly stable, ennobling, aspirational moral and aesthetic standards? Editor Alex Murray somewhat fudges the issue, by claiming that conservative “moral hysteria” regarding Decadence was unwarranted, yet this reaction was one that the Decadents instigated, using the succès de scandale as a promotional tool and social ostracization as a badge of honour. Murray discounts the acuity of conservative opposition to what Arthur Symons characterises as “typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects all the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society; its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature.” Murray notes Paul Bourget’s commentary on Decadence with regard to Baudelaire, which bears lengthy quotation:
In 1883, as part of a series of essays in La Nouvelle Revue on ‘contemporary psychology’, Bourget published a wide-ranging essay on Baudelaire in which he set forth a striking thesis on the nature of Decadence. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Bourget’s articulation in this essay of a ‘theory’ of Decadence. In the most oft-quoted passage Bourget offers a striking triple analogy: in biological terms cells decay, leading to the corruption of an organism; society is an organism, and the individual is a cellular unit; under decadence the energy of the individual refuses to be subordinated to the whole, with the result that broader social energy dissipates and declines. These rules governing the social and cellular order also pertain to ‘the decadence of another organism, language’. Bourget’s analogy then leads to one of the most memorable, if misleading, characterizations of the literature of Baudelaire and others: ‘A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book falls apart, replaced by the independence of the page, where the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence makes way for the word.’
Murray suggests otherwise – stating that Decadent art does have meaning and is purposeful – but what lingers with us regarding Bourget’s critique is that it is one also consonant with our own era’s deconstructionism, Post-Modernism and political cultivation of a fractured society. The decomposition that Bourget sees in Decadence is something that seems apparent in relativism and multi-culturalism. Post-Modernism is an extension of Decadence, using linguistic and semantic games to undermine established orders with the explicit aim of discrediting and defeating “hegemonic majorities” (demographic or political) of masculinity, logic, the scientific method, Christianity, heterosexuality, whiteness and so forth. Bourget’s statement about the decline of unity and stability is significant not for what it tells about Decadence in 1900 but for what it tells us about the situation of Western civilisation around 2000 and immediately after. No matter how unstable, partial and self-contradictory those core values were, we respond to the emotional truth of Bourget’s observation that Decadence is a movement with social implications that atomise populations and undermine commonly held value systems, regardless of the intentions of individual creators, distributors and consumers of that artistic material. However flawed Bourget’s critique is of Decadence, it functions effectively as a critique of decadence.
Stylistically and politically, Decadence is as broad as any other form of Symbolist. However, Murray’s celebration of the recent expansion of the Decadence canon – or an expansion of what we understand to constitute Decadence – means that the inclusion of more women, non-Europeans and minor creators causes a diminution of our understanding of Decadence. By making the Decadent Movement broader, it also makes it (relatively) thinner, more diffuse. It becomes commensurately more difficult to say something meaningful about a movement that has expanded to encompass adjacent areas. This is the iron law of all academic disciplines: the demands of academia mean academics must find new figures to study and professors of new academic fields need to claim attention of other fields by appropriating established subjects to themselves, claiming unique insights. This leads to field creep and therefore dilution. When connoisseurship of a movement becomes a field of academic study – and a discrete body of committed individuals with shared aims and language becomes a tendency or sympathy diffused among unconnected individuals in many places and eras – useful investigation of that subject is doomed to depletion; notwithstanding how cognisant academics are of this tendency, it seems inevitable.
There are essays on Decadence and the hermaphrodite, gender politics, Christianity and Swinburne’s poetry. Various writers pay attention to Decadence in the literature of the USA, Spain, Russia and Czechia. Hilary Fraser examines how the Renaissance influenced painters the Gabriel Dante Rosetti. Matthew Creasy explains how British Decadents responded to Verlaine. The periodicals of the movement (The Yellow Book, The Savoy) are summarised by Nick Freeman. The role of technology and science in relation to M.P. Shiel and Arthur Machen’s novels by Will Abberley is welcome. He suggests that the authors saw advances in science and technology as a front of rationalism that would founder on the impossibly unarguable redoubts of the occult and spiritual. Rationalism and materialism were foils for Decadent themes of the irrational, private and mystical and the Symbolist dedication to the archaic and anti-productive, for rationalism and materialism were associated with capitalism and bourgeois morality – enemies of the twin Decadent poles of the elevated and the debased. Kristin Mahoney expounds the relation between Decadence and what she calls “camp modernism” – “the persistence of fin-de-siècle styles into the modernists moment, and it similarly calls into question categories of periodization by allowing us to see how late Victorian aesthetics remained vital and present long after the century turned.” She identifies Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett and the Sitwells as exponents of camp modernism.
This is necessarily a specialist volume but one which eschews jargon. Recommended for students and scholars of the Aesthetic and Decadent Movements and late Victorian culture.
Alex Murray (ed.), Decadence: A Literary History, Cambridge University Press, 2020, hardback, 530pp, 14 mono illus., $110/£84.99, ISBN 978 1 108 42629 9
William Simmonds (1876-1968) was an English sculptor and puppet-maker whose work has long been appreciated and who is now the subject of a thorough and sympathetic biography. Author Jessica Douglas-Home recalls visiting the artist while she was a child. She has consulted primary sources, including the letters and diaries of the artist and his wife, as well as archives of museums. The author situates Simmonds as a late practitioner of direct woodcarving in a line stretching back through the Arts and Crafts Movement to the artisanal creators working in traditional materials and idioms from the medieval period onward. Douglas-Home takes care to describe accurately places, people and events of Simmonds life, weaving a rich tapestry of Edwardian and early Twentieth Century life in England. Her touch is light and the book is a pleasure to read.
William Simmonds was the son of John Simmonds, a successful carpenter. An apprenticeship at his father’s firm proved unstimulating and he successfully petitioned his father to release him from the apprenticeship so he could pursue an artistic vocation. Simmonds studied art at the National Art Training School (later the Royal College of Art) (1893-8) and the Royal Academy Schools (1899-1904). Simmonds came into contact with the Arts and Crafts Movement, through his tutor Walter Crane at the NATS, which left an indelible mark on him and would guide his artistic career.
Simmonds found work as an illustrator of classic literature. Simmonds received commissions for illustrations in the golden age for book illustration – after the invention of low-cost colour metal-plate lithography, in a time when line-block graphics were common in books and newspapers before waves of austerity and photography made illustration into supplementary (and ultimately dispensable) ornamentation. Examples show Simmonds to be skilled but unremarkable as a pictorial artist.
Simmonds was hired as an assistant on a mural project under Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911), his former RA tutor. Abbey was an American illustrator who had entered the RA as a painter and was enjoying considerable success as both a painter and illustrator – too much success. His huge workload was onerous and sapped his health. Abbey’s refusal to compromise on historical accuracy meant that his work was slower than it would otherwise have been. Simmonds worked on portable murals for the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg, though he is not always credited for his contribution.
In 1912 Simmonds and Eve Peart were married in London. Peart was a former student of Sickert at Westminster School of Art. Her knowledge, judgment and skills would make her an ideal companion and collaborator with her husband. She was noted for her embroidery and sewing skills. She would become the more financially astute of the pair. That same year Simmonds began carving wooden puppets for private family performances. Eve would design and sew the clothing. Eve was an accomplished keyboard player and would perform popular, folk and classical songs as accompaniment to the puppet performances. Performances ranged from vignettes and comic sketches to whole plays. Douglas-Home has not entirely solved the difficulty of how to convey the content of these ephemeral performances or the impression they had upon audiences, though she does quote contemporary accounts. Puppet performances were popular and highly regarded at the time and the author effectively explains the prestige that the art form had.
Simmonds found that carving his puppets and independent sculptures (principally of animals) in wood and stone appealed to him more than painting. Thereafter, sculpture became his primary medium. He took up modelling in clay in his last years as his dexterity and strength ebbed.
In 1915 Simmonds was invited to work on the development of a prototype of a landship, which became the first tank. Simmonds’s experience with joints and traction in marionettes came in useful in this project and he was apparently pleased to be contributing to the war effort in a way few could. The tank proved to be effective and broke the stalemate on the Western Front. Simmonds never received any patent compensation for his innovations. Simmonds then transferred to the drafting department of the de Havilland aircraft company. It was an occupation he would keep until the conclusion of the war. Eve worked at Kensington War Hospital. Some of the best sections of the book are those blending the personal experiences of the Simmondses and their friends into a narrative of the First World War. Douglas-Home’s account of the Zeppelin and Gotha air raids on London reminds us of the suffering and stress Londoners endured.
In 1919, released from war work, the couple moved to the Cotswold village of Far Oakridge. The house (with thatched barn, to be used as a workshop) was close to other artists and creative figures, thus was not as isolated as it might been. They were to remain there for the remainder of their lives. The connection to nature, immersion in English pastoral tradition and intimate contact to the living culture of rural working people provided comfort and inspiration to the couple. Simmonds frequently walked the lanes and was a patient observer of the fauna he encountered. His sharp memory and sensitivity is reflected in his carvings, which elicit warm responses from observers. The carvings were unpainted and with eyes of ebony inset. His artistic approach combines strong understanding of animal anatomy and a drive towards realism tempered by adroit use of simplification and stylisation.
One constant visitor and active supporter was William Rothenstein. Rothenstein was a well-known painter, public figure and head of the RCA. He made valuable professional contacts for Simmonds and was a link to the heart of the London art world. Rothenstein made sympathetic chalk portrait of Simmonds, illustrated in the book. Simmonds and Rothenstein became lifelong friends and Douglas-Home touchingly describes their companionship and the sense of loss Simmonds suffered when his friend died in 1945.
The Simmondses were part of the set of Fabian Socialists and Arts and Crafts progressives, though it seems the couple did not have strong political beliefs, more temperamental sympathies. Other members of their social circle included the Bloomsbury Group and prominent figures in the arts and politics. Famous names crop up frequently in asides. Despite this stellar group of friends and collectors it is easy to see how – though still respected by current connoisseurs, dealers and collectors – Simmonds’s art is not as well-known as that of Gaudier-Brzeska, Gertler, Dora Carrington, Bomberg and other British artists of the era. The natural modesty of Simmonds’s subjects and the relatively small scale he worked at, have meant it is easy to overlook his work. General public taste has swung to Modernism and the appetite for the biographical content of Bloomsbury-related art finds nothing in Simmonds’s carvings.
Regular submissions of carved animals to the RA Summer Exhibition maintained Simmonds’ reputation as a sculptor. The 1922 “International Theatre Exhibition” at the V&A led to prominent newspaper reviews and his name became widely known in Britain. Performances of the Simmondses’ marionette shows in their region and at London venues were very successful, drawing large audiences and enthusiastic newspaper notices. Later performances included celebrity attendees, including Churchill and H.G. Wells. The author notes the financial support that Muriel Rose’s Little Gallery in London provided during the years of the Great Depression. Her famous clientele (including royalty) added prestige to the material benefits artists reaped. Sadly, we do not get much indication of exact figures paid for pieces or an overview of how much the Simmondses’ income was and whence it came.
When war broke out in 1939, Simmonds volunteered for ARP work. There were many RAF airfields in Gloucestershire and there were bombing raids and dogfights over the area. When Sir Stafford Cripps moved to Far Oakridge, he and his family became good friends with the Simmondses. Simmonds’s natural charm and modesty won over many, it seems. As their social circle narrowed in the post-war years, their lives became less eventful, it seems. Simmonds died in 1968 and Eva in 1980.
Illustrations include photographs of the Simmondses, their friends and the marionettes and sculptures. Although the range is necessarily limited, the images give a fair impression of Simmonds’ skill. Examples include carvings of rabbits, dormice, owls, swans, horses, hares, ducks and dogs. Vintage photographs of puppets and miniature theatres give us a sense of what the public saw of Simmonds’s marionettes at the time they were in use. A few of the artist’s book illustrations are included. Researchers may be disappointed by the paucity of endnotes; the author has opted for a general list of published sources and archives instead. General readers will not miss detailed references; there is an index.
Overall, this biography is a wide-ranging, intelligent and fair assessment of the life and work of a much-respected English sculptor. Let us hope that this raises Simmonds’s profile with the general public.
Jessica Douglas-Home, William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Unicorn, hardback, 28 col. illus./mono illus., 284pp, £25, ISBN 978 1 911604 75 4
The films, television series and video projects of David Lynch have vexed and stimulated viewers since the 1970s. Authors James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig have taken of the films and one television series by Lynch as subject for their discussion about agency in Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch. Each chapter relates to Lynch’s films Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE and the third season of the television series Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks season 1 and 2, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me,Dune and the short films are excluded. (On the absence of Dune, they write: “[…] we both find the film to be unwatchable.” Many viewers find INLAND EMPIRE far more unwatchable.)
They point out that Lynch does not seem to be setting forth a coherent articulated philosophical worldview in his films. “However, the search for thematic coherence in the director’s body of work need not entail a unified philosophical position in evidence throughout Lynch’s oeuvre.”[i] This comes position comes as a relief, as attempts to present any body of complex cinematic work as a fixed, purposeful, consistent and didactic system seems a chimera, more of a projection of a need for certainty and confirmation on the part of the interpreter than any empirically derived assessment of the work as it is.
Lynch’s background as an artist, his absolute control over most of his projects (as writer, director and editor, as well as his contributions to the music and occasionally acting of his films) make Lynch an archetypal auteur and (as such) an ideal subject for an assessment of overarching ideas and themes. His freedom in combining disparate imagery, genres, tones and themes means his work is very rich. Within films, even within scenes, Lynch juxtaposes (rather than blending) humour, eroticism, the aesthetically striking and the unsettling in ways that allow the exploration of deep emotions, contradictory feelings and rarely posed philosophical questions, particularly regarding reality, desire, memory and understanding.
Alvin from The Straight Story is attributed a high degree of agency because of his active participation and pursuit of self-determined goals in his quest to travel to see his sick brother. The story centres on Alvin driving hundreds of miles with a tractor because he has no driver’s licence and features the encounters he has along the way. In some respects, The Straight Story is judged an atypical Lynch film in that it features little eroticism, horror, gore and Surrealism; what is not mentioned is that the protagonist is atypically assured and purposeful, also able to enact his aims in a straightforward manner. It is uncharacteristically straight. The authors demure at the suggestion that Alvin’s quest is an embodiment of the value of rugged individualism, mentioning the assistance he gets and the framing of his journey as an act of recuperation.
Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer is a character with weak agency. Henry evades responsibility, avoids making firm decisions, initiates little, is passive in most situations and thereby gains his classic Kafkaesque character of the man buffeted by circumstance. He seems barely in control of anything yet is held responsible for the burden of fatherhood to a creature which is not human but has human traits. He fails as a husband and provider and ultimately catastrophically fails as a father by inadvertently killing his “child” whilst trying to alleviate its suffering. He seems to have gained little understanding of his world or what is expected of him, surrendering his agency through ignorance and timidity than any sort of malice. The authors write of Henry as an example of Aristotle’s akrasia (weakness of will), as he is man stuck in stasis which seems (at least in part) of his own doing. Yet, as the authors note, Henry’s infanticide is an act of liberation for him, displaying some agency, perhaps a powerful subconscious selfishness. The problem of drawing any line between reality and fantasy in Lynch’s works means it is not clear whether of not Henry commits infanticide or merely imagines doing so. The deliberate ambiguity of the director leaves the matter in irresolvable doubt.
John (Joseph) Merrick of The Elephant Man is a case of a person whose agency is limited by environment. In that film, based on the true story of a Victorian Englishman afflicted by a severe deformity, Merrick is unable to test his intellectual and emotional capacities due to the cruelty and hostility of a society repelled by his ugliness. His life is so circumscribed by his medical condition, which left him seriously disabled, and by the rejection of society that it is only the intervention of an enlightened surgeon, Dr Frederick Treves, that Merrick is permitted to engage in polite society rather than being confined to a freak show. Ironically, it is through the intervention of another that the character achieves limited liberation from societal hostility, though his medical condition remains unchanged.
Merrick’s situation and his ability to further his desires rests upon eliciting the empathy of others. Merrick’s intelligence and sensitivity are revealed through the charity and compassion of the high society people who were introduced to him through his guardian, Treves. Once enabled by this, Merrick can explore new experiences and develop his artistry (his ability to construct elaborate architectural models). It is seems slightly off the mark to critique The Elephant Man for taking “considerable liberties with historical fact and seems to ignore the ways in which socioeconomic forces govern human lives, presenting the viewer with stark moral alternatives more in keeping with bad Hollywood Westerns. If there is exploitation to be addressed, its proper target is something larger, and more impersonal, than the individuals directly involved in Merrick’s fate.”[ii] The authors seem to have pre-judged how any socio-economic critique might lay blame. Such matters are not cut and dried and it is unwise to assume their views to be objective and universally shared. Lynch is not an analytical or especially socially-directed creator, so expecting any approach of this type is puzzling.
In Blue Velvet Jeffrey Beaumont investigates and becomes sexually entangled with club singer Dorothy Vallens and thereby incurs the wrath of Frank Booth. For the first time in Lynch’s work, there is an active antagonist, one who exercises powerful self-directed agency. Frank threatens Dorothy and Jeffrey, kills Dorothy’s husband, kidnaps her son and dominates the crime scene of Lumberton. Jeffrey overcomes his own weak agency and the opposition of Frank to defeat Frank and restore order to Lumberton, returning a degree of comfort to Dorothy by (indirectly) freeing her son. In the film, Dorothy and Sandy have the least power of control or self-actualisation, limited by the actions of others. However, significantly, it is Dorothy’s command of sexual attractiveness that is used to dominate Jeffrey and to demand of him sexual violence against her.
“Blue Velvet is a film about seeing and, importantly, about seeing as an instrument of knowing. This is a film that asks obsessively what it is to know something, how vision enters into the search for truth, and how far the capacity to see reaches in the work of acquiring knowledge, in a Kantian register what the scope and limits of vision can be said to be.”[iii] In the most famous scene, Jeffrey secrets himself in a closet in Dorothy’s flat to avoid discovery and inadvertently observes her unawares. He inadvertently witnesses the emotional abuse and sexual assault of Dorothy by Frank. What was intended as an enactment of a mystery investigation – a staple of detective novels and old films – becomes a shocking insight into depravity and the depths of the human psyche, something for which Jeffrey is completely unprepared. The authors examine the difference between experiencing and understanding. “One of the central events of Blue Velvet boils down to the unmasking of a misguided conception of what it is to come to know. Jeffrey is, it seems, actuated by curiosity, the desire to know simply for the sake of knowing, and, more specifically, as we saw, by the desire to see.”[iv]
Wild at Heart is a violent road movie with two main protagonists, Sailor and Lula. “If Sailor and Lula frequently appear to be failing as agents, this is partly because they bring with them all the existential anxieties associated with their pasts, in the shape of experience, but also in the guise of significant others, whose lives, past and present, form a web into which their current efforts invariably fall. Sailor and Lula cannot easily escape (or escape too easily in spurious forms of release) because they carry with them the potent influences of those responsible for helping create the contexts out of which they grew and developed and against which they now struggle.”[v]
Interpretation of Lynch’s subsequent films Lost Highway, INLAND EMPIRE and (to a lesser extent) Mulholland Drive is complicated by structural and character ambiguity. It is harder to discuss the characters in these films because disentangling fact from fantasy in these (fictional) films is almost impossible. The reality of the characters resides both in their actions and dreams; their actual selves and their imagined selves (including doppelgangers and alternate selves) overlap. The authors do their best but much of what they conclude is necessarily more debatable due to the complications the material presents. I contend that the discussion of the third season of Twin Peaks is flawed because it does not sufficiently incorporate an analysis of the first two seasons and (especially) Fire Walk With Me. Although Twin Peaks Season 3 has many aspects that make it self-contained, a discussion of character agency cannot be understood without recourse the viewer expectations and experiences of the excluded material, and the way pre-experienced tropes are extended and subverted by the third season.
The book is readable, with a minimum of jargon is used. In its seriousness, the authors do not sacrifice accessibility. The authors apply philosophy and philosophy of cinema at various points whilst not making such discussion too intrusive. They compare Lynch’s cinema to films by others and refer to cinema-theory writings. This title will be most value to students of cinema theory and those analysing Lynch’s unique contributions to film.
James D. Reid and Candace R. Craig, Agency and Imagination in the Films of David Lynch, 2020, Lexington Books, hardback, 267pp + xi, £69, ISBN 978 1 4985 5593 7
“Berlin’s Alte Nationalgalerie exhibition of Belgian Symbolists, Decadence and Dark Dreams: Belgian Symbolism, closed last month. As few were able to attend, for obvious reasons, this article will review the exhibition from the catalogue.
“Symbolism – like its precursor, Romanticism – is a school that thrived, and had its premier exponents reside, in Northern Europe. Belgium produced some of the best Symbolist art in the era 1860-1914. Artists of the new nation of Belgium in search of an identity reached back to the Flemish Primitives as a strong regional model and nation achievement.
Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland
“Symbolism was a rejection of the deracinating impact of greater homogeneity in industrial production, education, and news dissemination, and the dwindling of traditional religion, farming and attachment to the land and homeland. In the same way the Arts & Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialisation, Symbolism was a reaction against rationalism…”
“Albert Camus (1913-1960) confessed that he had one wellspring of inspiration: his Algerian childhood. His silent unlettered mother, his absent father (killed in the Great War) and the ever-present warmth of the sun and the presence of the sea: all these were the foundations for his insights into the world:
A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened. This is why, perhaps, after working and producing for twenty years, I still live with the idea that my work has not even begun.
“Ironically, Camus would be dead less than two years later, not even 50, killed in a car accident.
“This idea of a return to an immutable emotional locus is something Camus reprises in the 1958 introduction to The Wrong Side and the Right Side, some of his earliest writings. This is the first part of Personal Writings, which also includes the 1939 collection Nuptials (Noces) and Summer (L’Été) of 1954. The essays of The Wrong Side and the Right Side (L’Envers et l’Endroit, previously translated as Betwixt and Between) were written 1935-6 and published in 1937 in Algeria…”
NB: This is a notice, not a review. It is derived from the final version on PDF, not a published copy of the book. Hence, I cannot provide a complete review as I am unable to discuss print quality, binding, etc. All information below is accurate to the PDF I have viewed.
Leonor Fini (1907-1996) was an Argentinian-born Italian Surrealist painter. She grew up in Trieste and received no formal training as an artist, teaching herself. She joined the Surrealists in 1933. She was part of the oneiric (or dreamlike) strand of Surrealism, led by Dalí, who became a friend, although it would not be until 1938 that she would produce her first mature Surrealist paintings. These feature women in elegant dresses inhabiting fantastic invented settings, with mythological references. Throughout her career, invented female portraits and self-portraits would be a major part of her oeuvre. Her art would centre on women, sensuality and sexuality. She portrayed male lovers nude and painted scenes of lesbianism in later years. The atmosphere of her scenes is mysterious and often sinister. Her art developed through different phases. In the 1950s, her art became more decorative and abstract, with figures floating in fields of organic patterning. These verge on the psychedelic. In the 1960s and 1970s, Fini’s figures become paler and less modelled. The increasing stylisation, flattened forms, area of strong colour and shallower picture plane indicate the influence of Pop Art. In the 1980s the backgrounds darkened and her art becomes more serene and less playful. She painted until a few months before her death in 18 January 1996.
This catalogue raisonné is in two volumes. The first volume contains essays on various aspects of the life and art of Fini, with illustrations including photographs of the artist, her famous ball costumes and sketches, along with a selection of colour plates of paintings. The second volume contains a catalogue of all Fini’s known paintings, with colour images and information, concluding with a detailed chronology, bibliography, exhibition list and other source data. The texts are informative and thorough, with Overstreet and Webb already proven Fini experts. The bibliography is extensive but not complete. The illustrations (judging from the digital file) are high quality. This publication will be a vital resource for collectors and dealers, though its price will put it out of the reach of many enthusiasts.
Richard Overstreet and Neil Zukerman (eds.), with Peter Webb and Rowland Weinstein, Leonor Fini: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Scheidegger & Spiess, 2021, hardback, 2 vols. in slipcase, 648pp, 1082 col., 339 mono illus., €350, ISBN 978-3-85881-843-0