Impressionism in the Age of Industry

Camille Pissarro - Le pont Boieldieu a Rouen, temps mouille, 1896

[Image: Camille Pissarro, Le pont Boieldieu à Rouen, temps mouillé (1896), oil on canvas, 73.6 x 91.4 cm. Gift of Reuben Wells Leonard Estate, 1937 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario
2415]

Impressionism in the Age of Industry (16 February-5 May 2019, Art Gallery of Ontario) is a wide-ranging, informative and stimulating exhibition of Impressionist art and art produced by other French artists of the period. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

The exhibition brings together leading Impressionists Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Mary Cassatt, Félix Braquemond, Alfred Sisley, Edgar Degas and Gustave Caillebotte with lesser known associated figures. There is art by many artists who are not generally classed as Impressionists. It needs to be stated up front that there is a degree of separation between the title and the contents of the exhibition. The selection includes many artists who are not Impressionists, such as the Post-Impressionists (Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Paul Sérusier, Armand Guillaumin), Divisionists (Maximilien Luce, Alfred William Finch, George Seurat, Paul Signac), Social Realists (Jules Dalou, Constantin Meunier), the Nabis (Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard) and others, such as honorary Impressionists Jean-François Raffaëlli, James Tissot, Edouard Manet and Eugène Louis Boudin. This exhibition should really be entitled “Late Nineteenth French Artists Respond to Modernity”. However, we can forgive AGO for choosing a title more accessible and appealing to the general public.

This exhibition is centred on the Impressionists’ painting of modernity, especially a modern Paris and its environs (with a handful of exceptions). The art was redolent of the anxiety of new social fluidity, centring on places where the middle class and working class fraternised in delimited spaces such as La Grande Jatte, Asnières, café-concerts and dance halls. Impressionist pictures are full of signs denoting disparities in class, occupation and status. Parts of the social disruption were the impact of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. The rebuilding of the Vendome Column (toppled during the Commune uprising) and the erection of Sacré Coeur (seen by many Parisians, especially of Montmartre, as punitive demonstration of the state’s definitive erasure of the Commune) were Parisians consciously reshaping of their city’s material structure to reflect its cultural values. The encroachment of factories (and their ever-visible smoke) and the Eiffel Tower were incontrovertible presentations of Paris’s future as a modern metropolis.

The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were forever including subjects at their places of work: Degas’s laundresses, dancers, prostitutes and cabaret singers, Van Gogh weavers and sowers, Pissarro’s peasants and market traders, Caillebotte’s builders and Luce’s foundry workers. The oeuvre of Meunier – a Social Realist rather than an Impressionist – was dominated by the image of the working man at manual labour. It was Meunier who went on to become the most influential sculptor of the Twentieth Century, held up as the ideal of the socially committed sculptor by Socialist artistic bodies and social-realist artists. Every realist statue dedicated to ennobling the working man owes something to Meunier’s example, whether or not creator or spectator realise it.

The catalogue essays discuss the approaches of artists to the modern city of Paris, including the ways in which artists depicted workers, construction and transport. The transport they found most captivating was trains. The bridges and stations were unapologetically up to date. Monet made a group of paintings of Gare Saint-Lazare, where train smoke was contained and illuminated by glazed skylights. Caillebotte painted a boldly modern railway bridge at Argenteuil in the 1880s – the very bridge which made this outlying settlement accessible to Parisian day-trippers and painters. Newly accessible Argenteuil was a favoured riverside spot for Parisians to relax on clement holidays, where they could row, dine and dance. It was frequented by many Impressionists, who frequently portrayed the landscape, setting and visitors there. Asnières was a location on the Seine which was site for new factories, which can be seen in the background of Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières (1884). La Grande Jatte – an island which featured in another landmark painting of Seurat – is a leisure space (at the time) on the outskirts of Paris, where families, courting couples, prostitutes, shop girls, factory workers, nannies and children and others from the middle and working classes mingled in a space that provided opportunities for cross-class interaction. It was a liminal space and locus for concerned discussion by clergy, politicians, journalists and other commentators celebrating and decrying social blending. The social communication of Impressionist art was a focal point of New Criticism from the 1960s onwards and one of the most fruitful areas that social historiography has addressed in the fine-art field. The research by Caroline Shields proves that there was commercial demand for Monet’s paintings of industrial subjects in the 1870s, which indicates that not only painters but collectors of art considered the changing face of the city an acceptable subject for fine art.

Photography by Craig Boyko

[Image: James Tissot, La Demoiselle de magasin (c. 1883-1885), oil on canvas, 146.1 x 101.6. Gift from Corporations’ Subscriptions Fund, 1968 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 67/55]

The project of boulevardisation of central Paris by Baron Haussmann (over the period 1853-70), the expansion of the railways, the construction of the Eiffel Tower and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur all provided numerous instances of construction work for artists to study. The inclusion of photographs of Paris, and the subjects that Impressionists portrayed, acts as context and also art in its own right. Also projected at the exhibition (and included in the catalogue as stills) are Thomas Edison’s 1900 film of Paris and footage of workers leaving a factory filmed by the Lumiere Brothers.

A selection of pictures features rural workers – part of a conscious rejection of industrialisation by intellectuals in search of authentic peasantry and the back-to-the-soil romanticism of the urban-dwelling elite. Art by Van Gogh, Serusier, Bernard and – most prominently – Pissarro illustrate the utopian idealism of artists who never worked the land themselves but heroised those who did. There is sympathy and empathy, which make up for lack of understanding.

The inclusion of art by lesser known artists (not necessarily French but working in France in the 1860-1900 period) brings us art by Jean Béraud, Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Giuseppe de Nittis and others. The other material, such as maps, plans and publications will be unfamiliar to visitors.

There is a good selection of graphic art, including colour lithographs by Henry Rivière (particularly on the subject of the Eiffel Tower – perhaps a conscious homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (c. 1830-2)) and the street scenes of Bonnard and Vuillard. A lithograph by Meunier sets a miners head against the ravaged surroundings of a mine, comparing the sturdiness of the working man to the rugged and harsh environment that had formed him. A belle époque poster by Georges Paul Leroux advertises the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, which welcomed the new century with an international display of science, technology and culture. Posters by Toulouse-Lautrec are famous posters for evening entertainments. Stylistically, it is a blend of Art Nouveau dramatic form and sinuous line and beaux arts realism. Three Pissarro prints represent his typical subjects of river views and working women. Braquemond’s etching of Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844) is indicative of the Impressionist veneration for Turner as a precursor to Impressionist technique. Raffaëlli’s drypoint view of railway sidings is compared to a painting by Henri Ottmann.

Edgar Degas - Woman at Her Bath, c. 1895

[Image: Edgar Degas, Woman at Her Bath (c. 1895), oil on canvas, 71.1 × 88.9 cm. Purchase, Frank P. Wood Endowment, 1956 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario 55/49]

Raffaëlli’s famous ragpickers are in two paintings that show the thick impasto surfaces that led to him being admired by some painters of the time (including Van Gogh). Chromatically, the paintings are not sophisticated and leave one wondering if his popularity was anything more than a fad. Paintings by Caillebotte emphasise his brilliance as a painter of reflections. An atypical Monet painting shows colliers unloading barges at a bank of the Seine. This is one of the few Monet paintings to show people at work. The coloration is muted and the contre-jour effect of the repeated dark figures seen against the water and bank makes this a picture of unexpected terseness. There are views of Pontoise and Rouen by Pissarro. There are two excellent Sisley river views, showcasing his dappled brushwork.

The bronzes of figures by Degas, Dalou and Meunier are appealing and well chosen but few in number. There are paintings of laundresses by Degas and one nude bather, all very fine, delicate and adventurous. While Impressionists made sculpture, the most successful producer of Impressionist sculpture was Medardo Rosso. (See here for my review of his art.) Sculpture was a side line for Impressionist painters, with the exception of Degas, who devoted much effort, time and thought to working on his statuettes of dancers and horses.

“Impressionism in the Age of Industry” has art which forms multiple slices of social history as well as being satisfying as art. This exhibition will introduce many to the complicated factors motivating art that is often seen as primarily in pursuit of pleasure and optical fidelity.

 

Caroline Shields (ed.), Impressionism in the Age of Industry, Art Gallery of Ontario/Prestel/Delmonico Books, 2019, hardback, 248pp, 149 col./33 mono illus., £39.99/$50, ISBN 978 3791 358 451

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

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Women Models, 1900-1940

WWWM507

In The Women who Inspired London Art, Lucy Merello Peterson investigates the life of the model at the turn of the 20th Century. It was a livelihood that was uncertain, not well paid, sometimes short and veiled in neglect. The first woman to model at the Royal Academy may have done so as early as 1768. From the earliest academy records it seems male models were listed by name but the women were not. This anonymity was in many ways welcome and expected by models who wished to preserve their privacy and modesty, especially in connection to their families, however it made it difficult for artists to contact models directly, thus reducing their opportunities for work. There was an assumption that modelling and prostitution were related and overlapped, which compromised the moral standing of female models. Female models sometimes modelled with masks to conceal their identities.

The schools often paid female posers more than men, sometimes four or five times more for life classes, in part to compensate them for the implications of the job. Their importance to the teaching process, and the fact they were sourced from outside academia, gave the women a bit more negotiating power. Some male sitters were already on school payrolls as porters or other workers, and modelling was supplemental income for them.

In 1920 an Association of Artists’ Models was formed in Paris, however the informality of the work and the oversupply of potential models must have made the Association only useful for models working at the schools and academies. Many of the models were immigrants, chosen specifically as embodiment of ethnic types that artists needed for specific projects. For paintings of classical history, Greeks and Italians were in demand, as were Jews. This was the period when ethnographic nudes became the staple of French illustrated periodicals L’Humanité féminine and Mes Modèles produced to allow artists to study physiological differences in ethnicities.

In 1912 The Cave of the Golden Calf nightclub opened in Heddon Street, near Regent Street, London. Named after the object of decadent worship, the club soon lived up to its name. Models competed for the eyes and affections of artists and bohemian behaviour became standard for establishment, which soon earned a reputation for depravity. It was run by Frida Strindberg, divorced wife of August Strindberg, no stranger to unconventional behaviour. The cabaret was boundary pushing in its explicitness and the club has been called the first gay bar. It attracted artists such as Wyndham Lewis, Spencer Gore, Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Augustus John and others, who met models there and socialised. It also attracted spectators and those in search of a thrill. After legal trouble, the club closed in 1914 before wartime austerity arrived.

Peterson describes the Bloomsbury group and their use of fellow members, partners and children as models, rarely using professional models. She recounts the ways in which Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell chose and worked with sitters, with whom they usually had a personal connection. Peterson reminds us that Gwen John worked as a model for Auguste Rodin from 1904 onwards. Young artists (male and female) worked as apprentices or assistants for master artists, who had both sufficient demands and income to pay for help. It was common for these junior artists to model clothed or nude, as students did in art schools. Occasionally an established figure from an occupation other than modelling would become a subject for art outside of the realm of portraiture. Music hall comedienne and singer Lilian Shelley modelled for Jacob Epstein and Augustus John. The spectacular life of Betty May – included extreme cocaine and heroin use, Satanism, crime and four marriages before death in obscurity – is briefly touched upon.

The Avico sisters – Marietta (1906-1983), Leopoldine (1907-1979) and Gilda (1908-2001) – worked as artists’ models in London. (Three cousins also became models.)The family came from Italy. Their father was a bootmaker and the mother a French teacher, living in Windmill Street, Soho. The family was so poor the children had to spend periods living at the workhouse. The youngsters posed from 1919 onwards for a variety of artists and students of the Slade. Marietta posed for John William Godward (1861-1922), who in 1922 was still working in the Academic historicist style, with meticulous finish and antique paraphernalia in classical scenes.  She was modelling for him the December 1922 when he told her would see her the next week. The following day he committed suicide. Ill and depressed at the demise of academic painting, he took his own life by gassing himself. Gilda modelled for Ivon Hitchens and C.R.W. Nevinson. Leopoldine modelled for The Queen of Time (1930), Gilbert Bayes’s polychrome and gilded statue supporting the clock outside London’s Liberty store.

The book concludes with a compendium of models who worked during the 1900-1940 period. The Women who Inspired London Art is an enjoyable book, full of diverting anecdotes and interesting titbits. It gives us stories of some of the most celebrated artist-model partnerships in London. However, there are parts that discuss characters and events of the period that do not involve professional models. The chapters of Bloomsbury feature Bloomsbury figures interacting with each other and famous people of the time. Readers may finish the book amused and informed about the British art scene 1900-40 but wishing for more details about the professional models. For example, quotes from artists and models’ letters, diaries and memoirs would have fleshed out the daily lives of models. How long were modelling careers? Were there any noticeable differences between experiences of male and female models?

Altogether The Women who Inspired London Art is a pleasurable read but will likely leave the reader wanting more detail.

 

Lucy Merello Peterson, The Women who Inspired London Art: The Avico Sisters and OtherModels of the Early 20th Century, Pen & Sword, 2018, hardback, fully illus., £25/$49.95, ISBN 978 1 526 725257 (Paperback:  June 2019, £14.99, ISBN 978 1526 751 720)

Interview with Bleeding Fool website

I define cultural entryism as individuals entering a creative field with the intention of using art as a social tool. The newcomers (and their supporters, sometimes long-time professionals) are convinced of their correctness and they see the world as divided between good people and bad people. They are driven by moral indignation and they see dedicated fans and casual readers who ask for their cultural area to be left alone as supporting a status quo which perpetuates bigotry and marginalization. The entryists say “Everything is political”, which means nothing is private and every area becomes a political battlefield. Craft, canon, characters and continuity are all sacrificed for political objectives.

“I’ve seen this happening in the fine-art field (I am an artist and art critic), where art collectives have used the venues, funding and status of art to promote social activism. When I saw this situation in US superhero comics, I recognised the similarities….”
Read the full interview between AA and Jamison Ashley in Bleeding Fool website here: https://bleedingfool.com/interviews/on-comicsgate-and-the-ongoing-culture-war/

The Fight to Publish Ginsberg’s “Howl”

“In The People v Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, Ronald Collins and David Skover take us to the 1950s, and a California on the verge of social change. At the heart of their uplifting story is the business acumen and literary idealism of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

“Ferlinghetti, now aged 100 and still proprietor of City Lights Bookstore and publishing house, is a seminal figure in San Francisco. He is considered its poet laureate and a great contributor to its cultural life, as a publisher, artist, activist and political renegade. His idiosyncratic blend of environmentalism, anarchism, socialism and artistic freedom has provided generations with inspiration; his poetry, prose and polemic has impressed writers and given them the courage to follow their convictions; his publications have introduced millions of people worldwide to advanced writers.

“San Francisco was the West Coast centre for the Beat Generation, a counterbalance to its other centre in New York. On the evening of 7 October 1955, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg gathered at a gallery in San Francisco to read poetry at an event called ‘6 Poets at 6 Gallery’ (the sixth poet was either compere Kenneth Rexroth or the spirit of the late John Hoffman, whose work was read by Lamantia). In the audience were Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac….”

Read the full review on Spiked here: https://www.spiked-online.com/2019/05/09/the-fight-to-publish-allen-ginsbergs-howl/

René Magritte, Philosopher Painter

04. R. Magritte_La m├®moire_1948

[Image: René Magritte, La mémoire (1948), oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm. Collezione della Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles (FWB) Ministère de la Communauté française, Bruxelles
© 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

Magritte: Life Line is catalogue is produced for the solo exhibition of René Magritte (1898-1967) at Amos Rex, Helsinki (8 February-19 May 2019) and Museo d’arte della Svizzera italiana, Lugano (16 September 2018-6 January 2019). The basis of this exhibition is a lecture given in 1938 by Magritte. The curator and writers have taken his biographical lecture as a starting point for the selection of art by Magritte, using it to illustrate the themes he identified as his most important ones.

The lecture “Life Line” was delivered on 20 November 1938 at Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. The text is reprinted here in full. The artist greeted his audience with the words “Ladies, Gentlemen, Comrades” and included a swipe at Hitler. Magritte’s political commitment was never entirely full and it fluctuated. His support always seemed more an expression of anti-authoritarianism and opposition to Fascism rather than any desire to see a dictatorship of the proletariat. Surrealism implied members’ allegiance to Communism, as repeatedly stated in the movement’s manifestoes and statements. The speech was more about an undermining of our assumptions regarding reality and the natural laws than anything more polemical. He talks about the origins of his fascination with painting.

In my childhood, I used to enjoy playing with a little girl in the old disused cemetery in a small provincial town. We visited the underground vaults, whose heavy iron door we could lift up, and we would come up into the light, where a painter from the capital was painting in a very picturesque avenue in the cemetery with its broken stone pillars strewn over the dead leaves, the art of painting then seemed to me to be vaguely magical, and the painter gifted with superior powers.

For Magritte, art was bound up with magic and eroticism. His wish to make himself and others wonder in order to experience the world anew and the erotic impulse were twin motivations for Magritte as artist during his whole life.

Encounters with paintings by first the Futurists and then Giorgio de Chirico inspired Magritte to turn away from realism. When Magritte read the manifestoes and saw the art of Surrealism, he located a means of combining wonder and eroticism. In 1925 he began to explore the terrain which would come to be considered typically and uniquely Magrittean. Through inversion, metamorphosis, replacement of images by words and juxtaposition Magritte transformed aspects of the real world into something remarkable. In the early years unknown and impossible substances and painterly effects were part of his repertoire but in the years after 1930 this part diminished and Magritte dealt henceforth mainly with materials and objects that we recognise.

One night in 1936, I woke up in a room with a bird asleep in a cage. Due to a mahnificent delusion I saw not a bird but an egg inside a cage. Here was an amazing new poetic secret, for the shock I felt was caused precisely by an affinity between the two objects, cage and egg, whereas before, this shock had been caused by bringing together two unrelated objects.

Hereafter, Magritte treated his ideas as more consistent and less arbitrary. In Hegel’s Vacation a glass of water is balanced on an open umbrella. The conjunction is between an object which is used to contain water and one that is designed to repel water. This is typical of the newly refined process of image creation.

Magritte goes on to give some examples of his paintings as representative of his thought, rejecting the idea that painting was to give sensual pleasure. This was a position he temporarily reversed in the Second World War, creating paintings in the Impressionist style of Renoir to delight the senses in delicate brushwork and spectacular warm colour. The lecture text is accompanied by the original glass slides that the artist projected on the evening.

The catalogue includes an interview with Suzi Gablik. She stayed with the Magrittes in 1960 while preparing her landmark monograph on the artist. She discusses her memories of the Magrittes domestic life. Other texts analyse Magritte’s interest in Futurism, his relations with the Paris Surrealists and his partnership with his America-based dealer Alexandre Iolas. There is a bibliography and chronology.

There are versions of famous paintings included in the exhibition. Among these are The Red Model (with boots metamorphosing into feet), The Castle in the Pyrenees (a castle on a rock which floats over a sea), The Listening Room (a giant apple fills a room), Memory (a plaster cast of a woman’s head is splashed with blood), The Son of Man (a man in a bowler hat, face obscured by a hovering apple) and other compositions. The Marches of Summer (1938) has the awe-inspiring conceit of the sky and earth broken into giant perfect cubes, turning the world into a puzzle for titans.

Le grand Siècle

[Image: René Magritte, Le grand siècle (1954), oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm. Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen. © 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The exhibition also features less familiar paintings that are arrested and absorbing. The Great Century (1954) has a man looking across a sunlit park and a grand villa, all of which are under a vast ceiling. It gives us a strange sensation of contained in a building so vast that encompasses – perhaps – the entire world. (Something of a parallel to concept of existence as a simulation within an incomprehensibly sophisticated computer.) Countryside (1927) shows an irregular flat fragment of tree foliage dissipating, smoke-like, into the air; it is a placed in an alien landscape and under a cloudless sky. Celestial Muscles (1927) is a torn part of grey mist (or cloud) intruding into a room. The mist has a lovely silvered-lead quality and its formlessness is contrasted with its crisp arabesque outline; the conjunction creating a delicious frisson. These paintings appeal due to its combination of colours, textures and shapes, demonstrating how Magritte’s early period was largely intuitive rather than reasoned. These are examples of the sensual appeal of Magritte’s art, despite his avowal of a detached intellectual manner of creation. Magritte also talked of art showing us the poetry of the world and we can think of Magritte’s pre-1930 art as poetry without metre, with his art after 1929 (and especially after 1935) a more structured form of poetry.

One example of Magritte’s art entering the territory of the crime story (a genre Magritte enjoyed) is The Night Walker (1927-8). A man in hat and coat is strolling through a normal dining room which is lit by a streetlamp. It is a poetic rendering of the strangeness of our everyday world rearranged, drawing attention to a threat and mystery of the ordinary.

01. R. Magritte_Le noctambule_1928

[Image: René Magritte, Le noctambule (1927-8), oil on canvas, 55 x 74 cm. Museum Folkwang, Essen. © Museum Folkwang Essen – ARTOTHEK / 2018 Prolitteris, Zurich]

The famous “Words and Images” illustrated text is included in its original manuscript form. This short explanation of Magritte’s ideas was published in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1929 and has since been frequently reproduced. His paintings with words substituting for images provide further demonstrations of the ideas in “Words and Images”.  Art by Giacomo Balla, Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico puts Magritte’s practice into perspective.

The selection is excellent and enjoyable. It is representative of Magritte’s main themes and includes pictures from his Impressionist phase and the Vache period, when he painted pictures that were crude, scatological and bawdy. Prints, painted bottles and bronze sculptures show Magritte’s work outside conventional picture-painting. The pairing of drawings and paintings with sculptures allows us to judge how satisfactory the translations into three dimensions for bronze casting by Italian craftsmen are. This catalogue is a fine book for anyone wanting to gain a general understanding of Magritte, as well as providing thoughtful analyses and a key text by the artist.

 

Xavier Canonne (ed.), Magritte Life Line, Skira, 2018, hardback, 176pp, 120 col. illus., £32.00/$40.00, (Italian version available), ISBN 978 88 572 3897 5

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9781138054271

 

In René Magritte and the Art of Thinking Lisa Lipinski situates Magritte’s art in the context of phenomenology of Merleau Ponty and other thinkers of the Twentieth Century. Lipinski, assistant professor of art history at George Washington University, presents Magritte’s use of pâpier collé and words as an extension of the inventions of the Cubists. The introduction of extrinsic elements of language into the field of painting opens up questions regarding semiotics and linguistics.

[Cubist] collage was a way of probing not only the reality or relationship of signifier and signified, but also the differences between words and images in terms of meaning, which according to structural linguistics is a function of the system rather than of the world. Unlike some kinds of images, words possess no natural relationship to the things to which they refer.

This has been subject of study by Foucault and other philosophers already. Lipinski presents a summary of the conclusions that she finds most salient. Instances of trompe l’oeil painting are discussed in terms of Deleuze and Guattari’s proposition of “becoming-imperceptible”. For the artist his “painting has to resemble the world in order to evoke its mystery.” Summoning the mystery of the world into existence in his art required the quasi-deception of illusionism – a compact entered into by artist and viewer with the understanding that their suspension of disbelief will be mutually beneficial. Bloodletting (1939) – which shows a painting of a section of brick wall hanging on an interior wall – becomes a locus for examining the literalness of Magritte’s talk of the visible concealing the visible in levels. It makes us aware of the way signifiers in pictures relate to signified subjects and thus refer to the absent subject. Magritte’s art makes this matter the subject of a picture by playing with such notions of absent signified and by revealing of the should-be-hidden matter makes apparent the codes of representation that we accept.

The Human Condition is a series of paintings which use the motif of the painting mirroring the reality around it in a way that makes it indistinguishable from the surroundings. The surface of the depicted painting becomes as one with the surface of the actual painting, toying with ideas of verisimilitude, semiotics and language. The recurrent use of the picture as subject, the view seen through a window and the empty frame are other types of analysis of visual language.

There is some discussion of the Renoiresque paintings but Lipinski seems to misunderstand the rejection of these pictures. Viewers rejected the art because the style was incongruent with subject and in fact detracted from the legibility that Magritte’s art required to function effectively. The viewers may not have termed their unease and impatience in such terms but this was what caused these pictures to be rejected. Inside of the controlled dissonance and incongruity that Magritte habitually deployed, he was prey to unconscious dissonance by taking up a position where his language and subject short-circuited each other. The paintings fail to be pleasurable because the viewers intuit their inherent and unhelpful internal inconsistency. The Vache period is discussed briefly. The book concludes with a discussion of the photograph portraits of Magritte as indicative of the painter’s ideas.

This book provides a digestible overview of the Magritte’s themes as considered in the light of philosophy, semiotics and post-structuralism and will be of most value to university students.

Lisa Lipinski, René Magritte and the Art of Thinking, Routledge, 2019, hardback, 140pp, 14 col./40 mono illus., £115, ISBN 978 1 138 05427 1

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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

 

Re-reading John Wyndham, II: The Enemy Within

In the first two novels published by John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris as John Wyndham (The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Kraken Wakes (1953)), the author examines the conflict between sophisticated predatory species. He thought such conflicts were inevitable and would be pursued with absolute ruthlessness, leading to extermination of the weaker group by the stronger one. This was a lesson of evolutionary science applied to human history, specifically in the form of Social Darwinism. (That discussion is here.) They form a pair of thematically-linked novels; the following two novels form another pair addressing related issues. Although it seems this was not a conscious plan, the pairing seems apparent. The Chrysalids (1955) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) both explore the responses of human societies to the danger of infiltration by distinct sub-groups which threaten the unity and even survival of those societies or species.

The Chrysalids

The Chrysalids is set in a future after a nuclear holocaust has destroyed our current civilisation (whom they call the “Old People”), made much of the world uninhabitable and caused substantial genetic mutations in living things due to radiation. We follow David Strorm, who is a member of a fundamentalist Christian society located in Eastern Canada, which has strict definitions of physical normality and which exiles people and destroys animals and plants which deviate from the society’s standards. Technology is reduced to pre-industrial levels, travel is limited and the land is sparsely populated. Knowledge of history and science is greatly reduced. The society venerates the pre-holocaust civilisation yet its natural wariness of innovation – each scientific discovery potentially undermines Christian teaching – means the society is only slowly and piecemeal recovering the technology and knowledge of the Old People.  As a child, David befriends Sophie, a girl who lives locally but does not form part of his community because her parents keep her existence secret. She has a minor deformity which would lead to her exile (or death) in the Fringes (an area beyond the boundaries of cultivated land) if she were examined by an official of the main community. Eventually Sophie is discovered and her and her family are banished. David comes to recognise the potential of banishment for abnormality. When David realises he was born physically normal but with the very rare power of telepathic communication, he understands that he could be classed as a deviation.

David, his cousin Rosalind and a small group of other local children are telepaths who bond as a result of their sense of communal closeness. He and his fellow telepaths must deal with the constant fear of exposure and expulsion. They develop a code of silence to protect themselves. As the children age they realise that there are instances of people evading normality standards applied to domestic animals, crops and even people and that standards within their community are debated and applied with varying degrees of strictness. David’s Uncle Axel discovers David’s telepathic deviation and chooses to conceal the boy’s condition; he advises and supports the telepaths. He has travelled widely as a sailor and has heretical views on the purity standards, believing that they are subjective and too rigid.

David and the telepaths discover David’s younger sister Petra is a telepath of greater power than the others in the group. A series of accidents and slips lead to the community discovering the existence of the telepaths and their persecution of members of the group that they can identify. David, Rosalind and Petra attempt to escape to the Fringes and are pursued by a posse; others in the telepath group are captured and tortured for information by the community, which is alarmed at the presence of this secret group of deviations. The strength of Petra’s projections alerts a technologically advanced society in New Zealand, where most inhabitants are telepaths and telepathy is considered the norm. The New Zealanders send an aircraft to rescue the fleeing telepaths. The aircraft arrives during the climactic battle between the Fringes band of outcasts and the community posse; David, Rosalind and Petra are rescued by the New Zealanders and are taken to their city.

The novel is written as an adventure story particularly suited to young adults. It features a rich cast of characters and describes David’s community in varying degrees of detail – especially detailed on the matter of the identification and treatment of deviations – all of which combines to present a vivid world with many memorable images and exciting action. Beyond the world of the story, Wyndham’s intention is to examine ideas of purity, nature v. science and pragmatism v. dogmatism. Wyndham looks at how a community forms its ethical and economic standards by combining the demands of viability in an environment prone to accelerated heritable variation while cleaving to a long-established religious code.

The Midwich Cuckoos

The Midwich Cuckoos is a story set in a small fictional English village of Midwich. The village becomes subject to an inexplicable force field caused by an extra-terrestrial intelligence. All people inside the affected zone fall unconscious, as does anyone entering the zone. Before the authorities can decide on a response to this situation, the force field disappears, as does what was apparently an alien spacecraft that had landed in the centre of the village. It is subsequently discovered that all women of child-bearing age are pregnant.

The authorities monitor the situation. Our narrator is Richard Gayford, a resident of the village who was outside of the village at the time of the event. Military intelligence ask Gayford (who served in the army during the Second World War) to provide updates on subsequent developments in the village. We do not get strong impressions of most of the villagers. The exception is Roger Zellaby, a scientific authority and writer, who provides an informed commentary and is something of an investigator of the developments in the village. Zellaby and his family are the only villagers who have distinct characters.

Sixty-one babies are born and seem to be human-alien hybrids: appearing largely human but with silver-gold hair and golden irises. “The Children” develop fast and are discovered to have powers of telepathic communication and learn as a group in the manner of a hive entity. The Children are emotionally detached from the host community and use powers of telepathic control to coerce their mothers to support and protect them. They also prevent the mothers from taking the Children out of the village. Some of the babies are abandoned by their mothers and those are brought up by foster families. While the Children are infants the narrator leaves the country for work reasons. We also leave the narrative at this point, to resume seven years later, with the Gayfords returning to Midwich.

Despite the passing of only seven years, the Children have developed at an abnormally fast rate and are physically equivalent to human children of twice the age. They share their knowledge telepathically, therefore their schooling is done by teaching a single girl and single boy, who pass on their knowledge to the hive mind. We discover Children are using their mental powers of coercion and collective intelligence to control the behaviour of villagers in order to protect themselves. The villagers are frightened of the Children and resent them but are unable to confront them. The Children are acting as parasites, using a mixture of collective action, psychic powers and the hosts’ residual (but ebbing) maternal sentiment to provide for them.

Gayford learns from his military contacts that other such groups have been recorded in different places in the world. There are suspicions that the Midwich Children may be in communication with (or aware of) the experiences of other groups and may become super-intelligent. Zellaby summons the Children for a film display, during which he explodes a bomb which kills him and the Children. He sacrifices his life to destroy the Children, whom many villagers and military/governmental authorities consider an increasing threat to society. We learn that in the USSR, a colony of Children has been destroyed with a nuclear explosion and that the Children in Midwich may have soon acted more brutally to preserve themselves.

Although Richard and his wife Janet are the readers’ viewpoint on events, most of the writing is omniscient and the first-person perspective is a dramatic device for artificially limiting the information provided to us. Gayford is inactive as a protagonist; he and Janet mainly act as insiders who can observe events and acquire official intelligence by liaising with authorities. Out of Wyndham’s first four published novels, The Midwich Cuckoos is the one that is closest to a pure novel of ideas. Character, environment, mood and prose description are at a minimum; plot and concepts dominate, though we do get vivid glimpses of how the villagers respond to events. Midwich is perhaps the least satisfactory novel of the four for those reading for enjoyment. The denouement is unsatisfactorily convenient and is also a plot hole. If the Children learn through only one girl and one boy experiencing events, why do all of the Children gather for a film showing? Surely only two Children would have needed to attend the film showing, which one presumes the Children would have treated as an educational experience, as they do not seem to be much swayed by sensory pleasure.

Discussion

Both novels succeed on their own terms and are replete with insights into human nature. They are novels of ideas but sustain tension and narrative drive, though Midwich largely lacks the striking images and dramatic scenes that make Wyndham’s other novels so memorable. The only event that we experience close-at-hand through the narrator’s eyes is the foiled revenge shooting by a villager. Everything else is reported second hand or alluded to.

Midwich misses the distinctive characters (other than Roger Zellaby) that people Wyndham’s mature novels; the police officer and the village doctor are only ciphers. Wyndham’s specific ideas and approach in Midwich meant that elaboration of character or complex interplay between characters would have slowed the pace and distracted the reader. The dramatis personae fall into three groups: the Children, the villagers and the outside authorities. Distinctions within these groups are minimal; the names of individuals hardly register with readers.

Chrysalids has many memorable characters – even the minor ones leave strong impressions. The imagery is powerful and Wyndham’s writing flourishes. There is action, drama, romance, adventure and humour. The most horrifying passage is the story of Uncle Axel, where he recounts the devastated world sailors encountered. The weird imagery gives us a nightmare vision of a post-nuclear-holocaust world, complete with blasted lands, radiation sickness and glowing horizons. This is one of our only views of the outside world, which the Christian enclave in Canada has turned its back upon. Wyndham thoroughly presents the social and psychological realities of fundamentalist religion as a refuge from the horrors of devastation and as a template for a society in search of stability in a world ravaged by genetic fluctuation. For young readers, Chrysalids serves as a primer for how it is to live in a deeply conservative society and encourages empathy for freethinkers and minorities. In terms of skill and power, Chrysalids is Wyndham’s greatest accomplishment. The deeply emotional scenes of young David mourning the loss of his friend Sophie (whom he thinks he has betrayed) and the confrontation between David’s mother and aunt about the birth of a deformed baby are tours de force that brilliantly impart the moral implications and emotional impact of the novel’s drama. Chrysalids is Wyndham’s most sustained imaginative feat.

Chrysalids presents us with a degree of ambiguity regarding the two competing societies. Wyndham shows us the Canadian society as capable of instilling solidarity and bravery and of being an effective means of supporting people, including eccentrics. (Consider the characters of Uncle Axel and the passing mention of a local man who runs a steam engine as a novelty). His New Zealand society of technologically advanced telepaths is welcoming to the telepaths but dismissive and hostile towards the non-telepaths, whom they regard as an inferior sub-species due to fall into extinction as the Old People had. The representative of the New Zealand telepaths is portrayed as cold, lacking empathy, morally complacent and arrogant. As readers, we wonder how we would cope in a society composed of individuals who read emotions and thoughts so clearly. How would we be able to retain any privacy?

The novels interweave drama, action and adventure in stories that raise serious intellectual, political and moral ideas. Indeed, there is no way of separating these. Midwich is considerably less successful as a reading experience than Chrysalids because we lack the characters to care about and we do not relate strongly to the narrator. The absence of emotional involvement makes Midwich something of a thought experiment or exercise in applied morality rather than a compelling story. There is no adventure to speak of, more a series of logically extrapolated steps. The protagonist does not take part in the action merely observes and engages in discussion. In Triffids we see the multiple routes and alternative scenarios played out in a novel that has great organic and narrative consistency, making Midwich’s limitations appear even more unfavourable. As a novel of ideas, Midwich does not need to be rich or engaging but it would have benefited had Wyndham found some way of developing the story in a way that was closer to Triffids or Chrysalids. However, the limitations of Midwich are perhaps inevitable as Triffids and Chrysalids are adventures, character-driven dramas and immersions in alternative worlds, whereas Midwich is an investigation into morality in a very limited scenario, admitting little room for character investigation or world-building.

The Enemy Within

The theme which links the two novels most strongly is that of societies dealing with sub-groups that present a threat to their standards and even their existence. In Chrysalids and Midwich, Wyndham presents us with two stories that deal with inter-species rivalry that he had already addressed in The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, this time in a new form: inter-species rivalry within the human race. The telepaths in Chrysalids and the Children in Midwich are both human in form, with familial relatives, names, schooling and places in their societies, yet they are also different from the society around them. Telepathy and brood parasitism are phenomenon that separate humanity in these stories into two groups: majority and a newly emergent minority. In Chysalids we view the minority group from the inside and grow to care about and support the minority; in Midwich we view the minority group from outside and grow to fear them and recognise the danger they pose to the majority (and, implicitly, us as we conceive of ourselves). Wyndham’s pessimistic view that inter-species rivalry between apex predators in a world of limited resources inevitably leads to warfare resulting in the extermination of the loser here takes a chilling turn: the enemy is within. In a situation where no compromise is possible between different strands of humanity, our conflicts present us with existential annihilation of opponents who are almost identical to ourselves and may even be members of our own families.

The pair of novels raises awful questions which force us to address the most essential moral questions. How do we differentiate between competing formulations of humanity and society? What makes us human? How far would we be prepared to go to defend our civilisation and society? Would we kill members of our society or our own family to preserve our society? Encountering a superior society or sub-species of humanity which is incompatible with ours, what can and should we do?

The themes of religious persecution, inter-species competition and cultural conflict are pressing matters. The revival of Socialism among the young in the West, the morality of human genetic engineering, the possibility of viable artificial intelligence and the rise of Islamist terrorism in Europe all present us again with the Wyndham’s questions of how do we define our societies, how do we decide to include or exclude individuals, how do we deal with fundamental ideas which are incompatible with our societies, how do we respond to dissident groups and what does it mean to be human. How fair is it for us to regard supporters of totalitarian absolutist ideologies as members of competing groups which threaten our societies? How far can we go to defend our civilisations without becoming totalitarian ourselves? Too much resistance and we become monstrously intolerant; too little resistance and we are swept away by murderous opponents convinced of their righteousness.

Wyndham’s view that conflict is inevitable, pursued ruthlessly and resultant in extermination of the losing group is as far from the “cosy catastrophe” as can be imagined.

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

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