Medieval and Renaissance Artefacts in the Wyvern Collection

[© 2021 Thames & Hudson]

The Wyvern Collection of Medieval arts and crafts is one of the best-quality collections in the world. It is one of the largest in private hands. This book is the fourth volume in the catalogue raisonné of the collection. Including the 210 entries in this volume, the total number of entries in the series is 744 so far. Further volumes are under preparation.  

Fittingly, the first item described is a chrismatory, a receptable for chrism (blessed oil used in liturgy). The small casket was made by Anglo-Saxon craftsmen around 800 and is extremely rare. It has been altered several times, mostly in ancient times. It probably came through the dissolution of the French ecclesiastical institutions during the French Revolution. Like all of the artefacts in the collection, they show signs of wear and repair. Gemstones have frequently been pried off.    

The enamels – largely from Limoges, a centre of enamel production during the Medieval and Renaissance periods – present us with an in-depth selection of the high-end pieces produced for churches and private commissioners. The precious materials used demonstrate the importance of this type of work to the Limoges painters. The grisaille panels of the 1530-45 are striking. A Flagellation of Christ (c. 1550-60) is near grisaille, with only the flesh tones lightly tinted and the bloody wounds of Christ stark crimson. Small enamelled panels have come from objects that were broken up, with the silver or gold being melted down. The depth of the collection allows us to see how these parts would have been combined.   

Reliquaries feature in this catalogue. Reliquaries are elaborate containers designed to hold small fragments associated with the lives of holy figures (Christ, the Holy Family, saints), including precious metals, gems and exotic materials – such as tropical shells, coral and other curiosities. Inset enamelled panels are common in the reliquaries in the Wyvern Collection. Plaques with religious scenes were made to adorn book covers. Another outstanding treasure is a plaque showing the incredulity of St. Thomas encountering the risen Christ, made in enamel and silver in Abruzzo, c. 1430-40. Flowers are in silver and vines are of twisted silver wire.  

[© 2021 Thames & Hudson]

These paxes, pyxes, chrismatories, reliquaries, monstrances, chalices, censers, incense boats, crosses and other liturgical objects form a veritable survey of the most traditional of Christian spiritual metalwork. There are non-Christian artefacts, such as brooches, rings, cups, horns, tiles, dishes and plates. An oddity is a letter from Edward III granting fishing rights to the Earl of Cornwall, no doubt preserved because of the elaborate giant royal wax seal. There are some handsome helmets with gilding. The artisans who worked to decorate armour were those who would have worked on the type of liturgical objects in the Wyvern Collection.   

Perhaps the most remarkable pieces are the stained glass from the South Netherlands, c. 1490-1530, painted contemporaneously with Bosch. These are small roundels are of religious scenes, painted with exquisite care and skill. Another fine piece is a salt well (c. 1560-70) from the workshop of Pierre Raymond is in grisaille enamel with gilding and is decorated with various animals on its sides; there is a pelican in the shallow rounded well. Most of the objects came from central and northern Europe.

The publication is thorough, with detailed descriptions, bibliographies and provenance for each artefact, with moderate or large colour illustration, some with multiple views. Scholars have been consulted to identify origins and materials and the commentaries describe the notable features and functions of artefacts. Bibliographies and auction backgrounds for each entry allow researchers to trace ownership and follow the scholarship. The book is sumptuously produced, with high-quality printing, generous size and a cloth hardcover binding. This volume will appeal to collectors, auction houses, historians and specialist libraries.

Paul Williamson, The Wyvern Collection: Medieval and Renaissance Enamels and Other Works of Art, Thames & Hudson, 2021, cloth hb, 480pp, 400 col. illus., £65, ISBN 978 0 500 02456 0

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Renoir: Rococo Revival

The recently closed exhibition Renoir: Rococo Revival (Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 2 March-19 June 2022), relied on the excellent collection of both Rococo and Impressionist art to present Renoir and Impressionists as heirs to Eighteenth Century French painting. Rococo was the decorative style of late Baroque art in period 1715-1780, that originated in the court art of France, but which spread to Southern Germany, Italy and Austro-Hungary. It is characterised by the emphasis on curling natural forms, especially shells, lightness of tone, with an aim to titillate, amuse, arouse or instruct the viewer. This exhibition is reviewed from the catalogue.

Director of the museum, Philipp Demandt, sets out the thesis of the exhibition. “Unlike his colleagues Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and others, Renoir concentrated not on landscape but portraits and figural compositions in which he could easily pick up the thread of the Rococo’s genre scenes. And his depictions can indeed be read as new interpretations of Watteau’s fêtes galantes, Boucher’s pastorals and Fragonard’s elegant companies in fantastical gardens – now, however, freed of the moralistic undercurrent that had been a constitutive element of such works during the Ancien Régime. Instead, it was Renoir’s painterly representations of the lustre of skin, the iridescent sheen of glass and porcelain and the ever-magnificent and fashionable clothing of his female protagonists that forged links to the painting of that past age.”

During his lifetime, Renoir saw himself as a descendent of the Rococo painters. He supposedly said, “I am of the eighteenth century. I humbly consider not only that my art descends from Watteau, Fragonard, Hubert Robert, but even that I am one of them.” As curator Alexander Eiling points out, Rococo was a touchstone for discussion of Renoir’s art in the Nineteenth Century but that it became invisible in the following century, when referents became Dutch, Spanish and English painting, japonisme, Barbizon School and the realism of Courbet. Indeed, one might posit that Renoir’s occlusion in the later Twentieth Century is not just a matter of taste, but precisely because the emphasis on social realism, realism and foreign genre painting in Impressionist studies does not fit Renoir’s oeuvre. Rococo was an art of diversion and indulgence, a perfect grounding for Renoir, peintre du bonheur.   

From 1854 to c. 1858, Renoir had a job as a decorator of ceramics, working in the rococo tradition. He never rejected the decorative and pretty aspects of art. It seems that the humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War sparked a patriotic revival of support for Rococo as a national style, shorn of the connotations of decadent Ancien Régime. This does seem to push directly counter to interpretations of Impressionism as a fusion of realism, social critique and application of optical science. Add to this the “socially progressive” attitudes of some of the Impressionists (primarily Pissarro), and we find ourselves facing conflicting interpretations. Naturally, every movement (and in every complex artist) we see a confluence of influences that are to some degree contradictory. So, rather than seeing two opposite trends – “retrograde” Rococo and “progressive” social realism – struggling for the soul of Impressionism (or the credibility of historians of Impressionism), we would do better to consider the trends as co-existing sentimental attachments rather than considered conceptual positions.

Eiling points out that the Goncourt brothers and Théophile Thoré both “rediscovered” the Rococo as a distinctly French art form. The Louis La Caze donation to the Louvre, which went on display in 1870, making additional works by Fragonard and Watteau available to Parisians. Diderot considered Boucher a painter of (and for) women, characterising Boucher (and, by extension, Rococo painting) as feminine art, art that would be supplanted by the masculinity of David and Neo-Classicism. Certainly, this was how Neo-Classicism was regarded in its day and largely so since: the necessary cleansing of an era of decadent soft art with a purgative wave of moralistic hard art.

The fête galante is an ideal comparator for Renoir’s scenes of lower-class and lower-middle-class summer revelry. In Renoir’s early scenes set around Paris, on the café terraces of Montmartre and on the banks of the Seine, we get updated versions of Watteau’s scenes of nobility in cultivated pastoral settings engaging in flirtation and intrigue. The class levels have changed and the timelessness has been pinned down to explicitly the modern day (the latest bonnet, the current awning, the common matchbook), but the atmosphere and personal dynamics are carried over. Perhaps, we could say that revelry, flirtation, merriment and body language are nearly an unchanging constant in human relations.

In his catalogue essay, Guillaume Faroult investigates what Rococo art was on public display during the Nineteenth Century and consequently what the Impressionists would have seen. The reception of Rococo art via French museums was muted in the early half of the century, no doubt a lingering coolness to art associated with the French court and the dominance of Neo-Classical works acquired during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. In the 1820s Rococo paintings were sold for a pittance and the circle of knowledgeable collectors for the style small and not especially well-heeled. Only slowly – and by way of donation – did good Rococo paintings enter the Louvre from the 1840s to the 1870s.

Renoir’s taste for the art of courtly France is described as reactionary. The fact that he appreciated Fragonard, Boucher and Watteau as upholders of an older order – and not as paragons of proto-modernity – does tend to reinforce this view. Perhaps it is discernment of the connection between Boucher and Renoir that led to Renoir being so excoriated by critics. Both artists worked in ceramics and Renoir had copied Boucher on vases while working at the factory in his youth.

The selection of works for the exhibition – and illustrated full-page in the catalogue section of the book – are very good and include many unexpected delights. The fêtes galantes of Henri Baron, Émile Wattier, Jean-Baptiste Pater and Narcisse Diaz de la Peña are less familiar than Watteau’s. There is a full-length portrait of a woman by Ernest Meissonier, master of pompier art. The swathes of lace ruffles at the hem of the subject’s dress dominate the lower third of the canvas. This follows the sensuousness and attention to fabric paid by Boucher and Fragonard. Boucher’s (in)famous portrait of Louise O’Murphy travelled from Cologne to Frankfurt for the exhibition. The Renoirs come from around the world and include some masterpieces. It is nice to see Richard Guino’s bronzes, executed under supervision of the elderly Renoir, included in the display. Sculpture (and especially bas reliefs) were a feature of courtly decorative art, so it is understandable that Renoir was drawn to the field. Renoirs still-lifes are well paired with Chardin’s.

Essays by specialists discuss the drawings of Renoir, journal reproductions of Rococo, Renoir and decoration and Renoir’s portraiture and pastel painting of the Eighteenth Century. One text links Renoir, Charles Joshua Chaplin and Rococo art, looking at the distinction between decorative art and the art of the boudoir. Chaplin was noted for his Rococo brushwork and palette. Chaplin had also etched reproduction prints after Watteau. A fascinating article by Michela Bassu recounts the work done by Lionello Venturi towards a catalogue raisonné of Renoir, which remained unfinished and unpublished. Pages of notes, clipped illustrations and lists show Venturi gathering data and formulating assessments. Venturi (who wrote the first catalogue raisonné of Cézanne) considered Rococo art to be a key influence on Renoir. The footnotes and bibliography are extensive and Hatje Cantz have taken its usual care to ensure high production quality.  

Besides being a pleasurable book on Renoir – enthusiasts will not be disappointed by the illustrations – Renoir: Rococo Revival is a valuable source not only for those studying Renoir and the Impressionists, but also anyone seeking to understand the reception, and revival in fortunes of, Rococo art in Nineteenth Century France.

Alexander Eiling (ed.), Renoir: Rococo Revival, Hatje Cantz, 2022, cloth hardback, 328pp, 350 col./mono illus., €50, ISBN 978 3 7757 5134 6

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity

[Image: Gentile da Fabriano, Nativity scene
in the predella of The Adoration of
the Magi Altarpiece
(c. 1423), originally
in the Strozzi family chapel in Santa
Trinità, Florence, tempera on panel,
25 x 62 cm, Uffizi, Florence]

Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity studies narratives of the Nativity of Christ, following the development of the symbolism of pictorial art of (principally) the Renaissance. This is the follow-up book to the author Sarah Drummond’s previous book Divine Conception. A complex iconography accreted over centuries, differing between regions, that were essentially local oral traditions. The sculpture, paintings, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts and craft of the pre-16th century is evidence of these tales, often hard to untangle without specific accessible written records. The author has consulted widely to trace the iconography of the Nativity in art of Europe, principally northern Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. It starts in the Roman period and ends in 1566 with Bruegel.

The book is divided into chapters on Joseph, Mary, the Magi, ox and ass, cave, manger, midwives, shepherds, Birgitta’s vision and Joseph’s dream. While most of these are familiar, some are less so. (For example, who knows that in some traditions there were twelve Magi?) Birgitta’s vision was experienced by St Birgitta (Bridget) on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1373. She would go on to found an order and her description of the birth of Christ and his placement on the ground “presented a revolutionary way to reflect on the scene. With astonishing speed artists all over Christian Europe were soon depicting this new iconography.”

Drummond notes how descriptions of the Nativity in the Gospels is sparse, especially about the journey to Bethlehem, and how folklore filled in the gap with details that appeared in art work. The ox and ass are entirely apocryphal, not appearing in the Gospels at all, though they are first depicted in the Nativity in the Late Roman era. Perhaps the ox was a lingering reference to the Mithraic cult of bull sacrifice. When St Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in 1223 with an ass and ox in a church, it became a sensation, inspiring deeper devotion among the congregants. The fame was spread by St Bonaventure’s account and only underlined the centrality of these humble beasts of burden to the Nativity.

Likewise, the image of a shepherd goes back to kriophoros – the Greek figure of the shepherd carrying a ram on his shoulders. Drummond tells us that the cult of Mary began in 431, when the Council of Ephesus declared Mary theotokos, God-bearing. Joseph has always been a difficult figure for theologians, keen to portray him as incapable of fathering Christ, attentive yet unobtrusive. “In icons of the Orthodox tradition Joseph is always depicted apart, sitting in a pose that indicates thoughtfulness, mistrust, incertitude, doubt. His body is bent over as he muses on his sorrows and difficulties; he carries the weight of insecurity and anxiety.”

The cave is sometimes an alternative setting for the Nativity, in preference to the stable, often incorporating Roman ruins. This is something that is supported by the local topography, which has many caves, hollows and grottoes. These were used as stores and stables, so such an association is feasible. The cave was associated with thresholds to other realms and the abodes of prophets and sibyls. Drummond thinks that the later domination of the built stable in Nativities was the result of a drive to make the scene relatable for Northern Europeans. The forms of mangers vary greatly, generally related to familiar forms of the regions where the image makers lived.

[Image: Giotto, fresco of the
Nativity in the Arena Chapel,
Padua
(c. 1305)]

The story of the midwives who came at Joseph’s behest to assist Mary came from the Apocrypha, namely the Protoevangelium Jacobi (c. 150). These women of Bethlehem witnessed miracles and were the first people to experience divine enlightenment. We can imagine that such an example offered an example of servitude of women that was uniquely feminine and allowed worshippers before these images to consider the birth of Christ in terms familiar from their daily life.   

The author knows her topic well and gives us illuminating quotes from ancient sources. The footnotes and bibliography will assist some researchers, but this is not a scholarly book. The selection of art is satisfyingly broad and frequently unexpected. Some illustrations are complex whole compositions but reproduced too small. In these cases, details would have been more suitable.

This would make a good Christmas gift for those engaged by the iconography of art. This review will be reposted before Christmas 2022 to remind people of the book.

Sarah Drummond, Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity, Unicorn Press, London, November 2021, hardback cloth spine, 132pp, fully col. Illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 913 491 86 4

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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

David Lynch: Digital Nudes

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

The close-up of Dorothy in Blue Velvet, the zoom into the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the zoom into a hole in a wall of a police interrogation room in Twin Peaks Series 2, the close-ups of characters in Mulholland Drive – and many others – all of these are evidence of David Lynch’s fascination with making the familiar strange through extreme close-up. Lynch’s sense of the beauty, strangeness and danger being ever present and lying latent below the surface of daily life and appearances, is a constant in his film work and (to a lesser extent) his photography. It does not, however, occur in the paintings, drawings and prints. Taking a tiny fragment of a real object and making a painting of that is time consuming and the result is often unsatisfactory, with the art appearing semi-abstract or unrealised. In photography, the extreme close-up has been a staple of art photography since the Surrealism of Man Ray and Brassaï.

Lynch is an accomplished photographer and has been taking photographs for his own pleasure since his time as an art student. They have been exhibited and published occasionally since then, but they should be seen as more than a side project. The majority of Lynch’s creative energy in the last two decades has gone into art and photography.

The book David Lynch: Digital Nudes includes photographs of female nudes. Most are close-ups of female bodies nude, in undefined setting, light in harsh artificial light and surrounded by dark. The photographs are (almost all) in colour, but muted or washed out. The subjects are all pale-skinned white women, with no tan-lines, tattoos or piercings. This stymies a spectator’s tendency to seek out identifiable models/subjects. Lynch wants to confront us with visions, not to get to know his subjects as people. In these nude photographs, Lynch wants to detach us from the notion of body-as-person and immerse us in body-as-place.   

The body as landscape is a common analogy. In the case of these photographs, it is a case of a foreign landscape. The cropping, angles and inversions mean we are often disoriented by what we see, even after we have cognitively processed exactly what we are seeing. This slipping back into unfamiliarity is due to the instability of cognitive grip when under the influence of uncertainty. The artificiality of framing and lighting and the incompleteness of the body make it alien, notwithstanding our cognitive processing of what we are witnessing. Lynch never intends to fool us; we are never completely baffled. The failure to retain comprehension, despite knowledge and attention, is what Lynch intends.

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

We find such effective means of destabilising our secure knowledge in Lynch’s discovery of mystery in the everyday, akin to Magritte’s. A heap of dirt (Fire Walk With Me) becomes an element with ritual power and creamed (sweet)corn (Fire Walk With Me) becomes invested with power as a symbol of pain and suffering. The intimation that what we see is not all there is – the intimation of a realm of magic or unseen power – is what makes Lynch’s cinema carry a potency beyond matters of plot, themes, character and so forth.  

Choosing a harsh single light source – artificial and directed – allows Lynch to sculpt with light. It is also a way of drawing in ink, with dark shades blocking us information about part of a form. Shadow is a vital component of Lynch’s aesthetics. It is the dark of the universe which is ever present. Darkness is the default normal. We cannot expect or demand otherwise; confronting shadows is to made aware of our existence as primitive, incomplete, fearful beings in the presence of the sublime.

The fact that Lynch chooses not to photograph the face makes empathetic response and humanisation of the object (as in the viewer as subject and viewed as object) more difficult. Lynch does not want us to distinguish one body from another. He has no ethnographic or psychological intent; biography does not come into it. There seems (from the outside) little by way of intimacy or chemistry between Lynch and his subjects, who are not identified. These photographs deny intimacy.

Are these photographs erotic? Lynch has produced erotic sequences in his films and there is an undercurrent of sexual passion in his work. However, these photographs have distinctly non-erotic qualities. The lighting is unremitting. Although one could say the figures of the subjects are healthy, young and shapely, with clean skin and good proportions, they seem uninviting. The unearthliness of them precludes any sense of ownership or intimacy in an imagined encounter. They are indifferent to the eye and – by inference – the touch. There is no rosy glow of stimulated skin or flushing of erogenous zones, no sweat. The poses and cropping are not salacious or even flattering. One might describe the handling of the photographer as clinical, definitely it is detached. There is nothing wayward or impulsive in the photograph’s creation of these images, which works against any presumption of erotic impulse.  

There are some photographs of whole single figures (perhaps one model in one session) on a curving Modernist couch. They are time-lapse multiple exposures, with the limbs and head moving and the trunk remaining relatively prone. This gives them a disturbing quality – like watching an animal in pain or a beast thrashing on a leash. These are close to Francis Bacon’s paintings of figures in the 1960s. Lynch has admitted Bacon as an influence on his art. The sense of movement (which Bacon partly got from Futurism) and confinement suggest us to fleshy, labile, discontented creatures – tangentially human. They are repellent and repelling.

[Image: David Lynch, from Digital Nudes, publ. Fondation Cartier, 2017, copyright David Lynch 2017, used with permission from Fondation Cartier]

By making the inexplicable mystery and power of the startling vision, Lynch’s nudes suggest that we should reconsider the world around us – look harder, think more clearly, reject the preconceived notion. This may be considered related to Lynch’s long-term commitment to transcendental meditation. In Lynch’s outlook, his meditative practices and his cinema and photography, we find this enchantment with mystery. This is not whimsical mystery or casual dreaminess, this is a willingness to open up the mind to experiences that may be unpleasant, shocking, even sanity altering. Consider the confrontations with evil that change or shock his characters. Lynch (like the Surrealists, whom he so admired as an art student) seems to suggest that a hidden reality is awaiting discovery by those brave enough to leave behind convention and received ideas, although some of the discoveries may be distressing or even dangerous to a seeker.

The dark core is more personal to Lynch than his other interests and tastes. This book is far from a coffee-table book of titillating images; it is closer to a thesis statement of the power of detachment and meditation in the face of the mysteries of the world.    

This article is related to (but is not a review of) David Lynch: Digital Nudes, Fondation Cartier, 2017, information here. Images used by kind permission of Fondation Cartier.

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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

William Burroughs, “Blade Runner: A Movie”

Source of disappointment and confusion for two generations of fans of Ridley Scott’s eponymous sci-fi movie, William Burroughs’s unrelated book Blade Runner: A Movie is republished by Tangerine Press. The short text – which is comprised of a series of prose scenes or routines – was originally published in 1979. It appears here in a new edition, with a frontispiece photograph of the author and an introduction written by Burroughs expert Professor Oliver Harris.

In the introduction, Harris explains the indirect, accretion-evolution of Blade Runner. Burroughs read Alan E. Nourse’s novel The Bladerunner (1974) soon after its publication and by 1976 (newly arrived in New York, roughly three decades since his departure) had embarked on writing his version. It was nominally a movie treatment, nothing close to a conventional script. Burroughs had been stimulated by the lifting of many restrictions on pornographic cinema in the early 1970s, which he had seen on visits to New York prior to his move there in 1974. Completed in 1977, Burroughs realistically accepted that his text was not suitable for even the most outré of independent cinéastes of the era. Burroughs then repurposed the treatment as a novella-length book.  

It was Nourse’s novel about medical smuggling in a sci-fi future that provided the name for Burroughs. It was from Burroughs that Hampton Fancher took the title for his film script adaptation of Philip K. Dicks’s novel Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep?, that would become Scott’s 1982 film. As it happened, neither Burroughs or Nourse’s books influenced the content of that script, beyond the title.

So, what of Blade Runner itself? It bears little resemblance to Nourse’s novel. Burroughs gives us the rollicking foul-mouthed satire of the excesses of the politico-medical complex in the near future. Burroughs’s text is both Modernist and Post-Modernist. It is Modernist in that it is deliberately dense, self-aware, assertively artificial, alienating and politically provocative; it is Post-Modernist in that is ironical, destabilising, self-negating.

It opens with an unnamed narrator pitching the Blade Runner film to a studio executive. “Now B.J. you are asking me to tell you in one sentence what this film is about? I’m telling you it is too big for one sentence – even a life sentence. For starters it’s about the National Health Insurance we don’t got.” The film will be a satire of the crippling medical insurance/services racket in the USA and the social collapse resulting from a system of exploitation growing to epic levels. The critique could appeal to both the big-state socialist and low-tax conservative through its depiction of a dysfunctional system that fails to provide adequately to the average-income man while taxing him exorbitantly. “This film is about overpopulation and the growth of vast service bureaucracies. The FDA and AMA and the big drug companies are like an octopus on the citizen.”

In reaction to the insane costs and bureaucratic resistance, the population of Manhattan has turned to underground medicine – the smuggling of medical supplies – a rare direct link to Nourse’s novel in Burroughs’ narrative. Societal collapse gives rise to a nightmare New York. The subway is reduced to a sluggish partial service. “Hand-propelled and steam-driven cars transport produce, the stations have been converted into markets. The lower tunnels are flooded, giving rise to an underground Venice. The upper reaches of derelict skyscrapers, without elevator service since the riots […] Buildings are joined by suspension bridges, a maze of platforms, catwalks, slides, lifts.”

Protagonist Billy will save humanity from a deadly virus. His story is told in a series of impressionistic scenarios described in Burroughsian poetic-satirical eroticism, generating a flickering delirium of a montage of scratched silent footage or jumbled phantograms.

In many ways, Blade Runner is a recapitulation of Burroughs’ greatest hits. The comic routines here are from Burroughs’s pre-existing roster of scientifically-shrewd dystopian medical science and anarchic exploits in doctoring – half prophecy, half silent comedy. There are glimpses of a failing metropolis that resembles strike-ridden impoverished London and riot-scarred New York on the verge of bankruptcy. Both were cities with which Burroughs had deep familiarity. Touches of archaic technology being used to replace broken modern systems will remind some readers of steampunk. Escape from New York (1981), Robocop (1987) and the Deathwish vigilante films are also handy comparators for this failed and feral metropolis.   

Burroughs presents us the racial conflicts of tribalisation in Balkanised city, the dream of post-racialism impossibly distant. Considering the race riots in the USA of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Burroughs was as much re-presenting a pre-existing reality to his readers, as he was using his powers of imagination. It is difficult to tell if the legalisation of heroin is satire, considering the methadone programs of various local and national public health systems. In another scene, a taxpayer complains of being forced to fund “Queer sex orgies and injections of marijuana”.

The people work to combat the forces of the medico-military complex, using their ingenuity and improvised weapons. Life-lengthening drugs have caused dysgenic deterioration of the population in a manner predicted by social Darwinists. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics has rendered the population of Western cities as vulnerable as “the Indians and South Sea Islanders on first contact with the whites.” An ancient virus is released by a scientist to combat an accelerated form of cancer. All the while, the population is deprived of basic medication and access to Wilhelm Reich’s orgone treatment. (Burroughs was a supporter of fringe medical figure Reich, who was hounded for his quasi-spiritual theories and whose writings were destroyed by the American government. This also comes up in the original manuscript of his first published novel, Junkie (1953).)

Blade Runner includes scenes of homosexual sex and gun action, as well as social commentary and comedy, making it typical of Burroughs’s writing. With Burroughs, we cannot be sure he is not relishing depravities even as he mocks them. Burroughs is the most complex of all writers because of the interleaving levels of ethical and artistic contradiction present in his life and writing. Burroughs can be legitimately interpreted as Stoic, Buddhist, moral patriarch, Modernist, Post-Modernist, decadent, individualist, communitarian, post-humanist, conservationist, reactionary and libertarian.

Burroughs advocates for affordable healthcare as he delights in describing scenes of mayhem, wherein elaborate boobytraps are deployed against soldiers. Not that these points are necessarily in contradiction – and Burroughs should not be read as anything less than primarily a writer of the freewheeling imagination and comic paradox – but it makes constructing a settled, coherent, moral narrative from Burroughs’s fiction nearly impossible. One might draw absolutely multiple opposing interpretations from a Burroughs text and all be valid.   

Overall, Blade Runner is a short, accessible romp, lacking involved plot and differentiated characters. For fans of Naked Lunch (1959) and Interzone (1989), this book is an ideal addition, with its own tone and content. Although Burroughs is in the habit of recycling material, collaging and overlayering it in hectic fashion, the distinct setting and common threads make Blade Runner more memorable than some of the other Burroughs books of the 1970s. Recommended for enthusiasts and those wishing to sample classic Burroughs for the first time.

William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (intro.), Blade Runner: A Movie, Tangerine Press, (second printing) 2022, paperback, 96pp, 1 mono illus., £9, ISBN 978 1 910 69 1908

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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


“The epistolary Eliot”

“In the ongoing Faber & Faber publication of T.S. Eliot’s letters, the project has reached the late 1930s and the wartime years. These were years in which Eliot was involved in writing Four Quartets (1936-42), Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) and The Family Reunion (1939); this was in addition to his work as a director of Faber & Faber. Devotion played an important part in Eliot’s life, never less than in the dark years when his wife was confined to an asylum. The confinement was something for which Vivienne’s family were responsible and with which Eliot acquiesced, and that weighed on Eliot’s conscience. The punishing routine of work between early-morning prayer and late-night fire-watching during the Blitz seem at least in part a form of penance. Eliot’s engagement with the place of Christianity in a secular society is frequently the prompt for letters and solicitations for book reviews.  

These letters cover Eliot’s private life, professional correspondence and publishing business. We get his letters to James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Henry Miller, Djuna Barnes, Louis MacNeice, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Herbert Read and John Betjeman. Most are cordial and unrevealing. His long-standing correspondent Ezra Pound is ever present, mainly writing about publication matters. Eliot approves of a critical review of a collection of Pound essays, anticipating Pound’s reaction: ‘a furious letter, which I shall have to suppress in his own interest. In these volumes, Eliot seems wearied by Pound’s relentless passion, quixotic changes and prickliness.

A more regular correspondent was John Hayward, the brilliant and difficult English-literature scholar and editor, who would play a significant part in Eliot’s life…”

To read the full review free on The Brazen Head click here: https://brazen-head.org/2022/06/05/the-epistolary-eliot/

“Modernism seen now”

“The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection…”

To read the full review free on The Brazen Head click here: https://brazen-head.org/2022/06/03/modernism-seen-now/

“John Wyndham: Genius and Prophet”

“The publication of a clothbound boxset containing the classic novels Day of the TriffidsThe Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1903-1969) by the Folio Society, prompts the question, ‘How much is Wyndham a man of his time?’ In this review, we will look at the novels, these illustrated editions and how much 1950s England influenced these stories.

Wyndham had a difficult childhood. His parents were involved in a high-profile divorce case, at a time when divorces were rare, and must have been aware of the consequent press coverage. The family moved around the country, and the young Wyndham attended a number of schools, including the famously progressive Bedales School. He had a number of different professions before deciding to pursue fiction writing. While he had some success as a writer of science fiction and pastiching American detective stories during the inter-war era, he did not seem to have found his metier. Although he did not know it at the time, his background and writing had set him up for spectacular success in the post-war period.

It was the catalyst of the war which seemed to bring Wyndham new introspection and a wider view of human nature…”

Read the full review free on The Brazen Head, here: https://brazen-head.org/2022/06/03/john-wyndham-genius-and-prophet/

Two anthologies on Aesthetics

These two newly issued anthologies collect important texts on the subject of aesthetics by salient authors. These anthologies contain texts by the following authors, with some of the selected extracts or essays are used in both collections:

Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology – Paul Oskar Kristeller, James O. Young, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, St. Bonaventure, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Edmund Burke, Gotthold Lessing, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller, J.-J. Rousseau, G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Eduard Hanslick, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Bullough, Clive Bell, R.G. Collingwood, John Dewey, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Arthur Danto, George Dickie, Berys Gaut, Nelson Goodman, Richard Wollheim, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Amie L. Thomasson, Frank Sibley, Kendall L. Walton, George Dickie, Alan H. Goldman, Malcolm Budd, Mary Mothersill, Jenefer Robinson, Noël Carroll, Alexander Nehamas, Eileen John, Peter Livy, Mary Devereaux, A.W. Eaton, Yuriko Saito, Carolyn Korsmeyer, with texts by the editors. Editors Steven M. Cahn (City University, New York), Stephanie Ross (University of Missouri-St. Louis) and Sandra Shapshay (City University, New York).

Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art – Danto, Dickie, Monroe C. Beardsley, Denis Dutton, Dominic McIver Lopes, Catharine Abell, Levinson, Julian Dodd, Aaron Ridley, Thomassen, Sibley, Walton, Nick Zangwill, Robert Hopkins, Carroll, Torsten Pettersson, Stephen Davies, Jack W. Meiland, Malcolm Budd, Gaut, Eileen John, Eaton, Jerome Stolnitz, Cynthia A. Freedland, Eileen John, John Searle, Richard Moran, Tamar Szabó Gendler, Stacie Friend, Wollheim, Abell, David Davies, Roger Scruton, Dawn M. Phillips, Paisley Livingston, Katherine J. Thomson-Jones, Jenefer M. Robinson, Peter Kivy, Jeanette Bicknall, Aaron Meskin, Matthew Kieran, Allen Carlson, Patricia Matthews, Emily Brady, Yuriko Saito, Sherri Irvin, with texts by the editors. Editors Peter Lamarque (University of York) and Stein Haugom Olsen (Bilkent University, Ankara).

The volumes overlap to a degree, with Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology a more comprehensive collection, starting early and taking a general view of aesthetics from the ancients to the modern day. Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art has a more modern selection and has primary focus on visual fine art. Of the two, the latter covers Critical Theory, New Criticism and Post-Modernism. Themed sections are: identifying art, ontology of art, aesthetic properties and aesthetic experience, intention and interpretation, values of art, art and knowledge, fictionality and imagination, pictorial art, photography and film, literature, music, popular arts, aesthetics of nature and everyday aesthetics. Older texts are more extracts from longer treatises; newer texts are often complete essays; the former tend not have authorial footnotes and sources, the latter do have footnotes and sources, given here. Both books have introductory essays, bibliographies and indices.

The two books are valuable compendiums of influential short essays, extracts of classics and selections of newer texts that are harder to find. The translations selected favour modern publications over early translations and that generally serves the readers well. Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology has summaries written by experts which outline the importance of various thinkers and concepts, grouped by subject or period. Each text has a brief biographic introduction, suggesting the context of the text.

Overall the selections in both anthology are thoughtfully chosen. The translations preferred are modern ones, meaning they largely supersede the old translations of pre-modern texts which are out of copyright. Although every expert will have his own preferences and there may be quibbles of selections but there is no doubting the value of the extracts for the areas covered. The richness of thought is enlightening and stimulating, especially in Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology. The production quality of both volumes is good, the spines are suitably sturdy and the margins generous for marginalia.  

Both volumes are highly recommended for students and tutors of aesthetics, philosophy of aesthetics and history of art. If one needed an essential source book on aesthetics, either volume would be suitable, although many would prefer Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology because it starts with the ancients and runs unbroken through the modern day.

Peter Lamarque, Stein Haugom Olsen (eds.), Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art: The Analytic Tradition. An Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2018, paperback, 744pp, £32.99, ISBN 978 1 119 22244 6

Steven M. Cahn, Stephanie Ross, Sandra Shapshay (eds.), Aesthetics: A Comprehensive Anthology, Second Edition, Wiley Blackwell, 2020, paperback, 848pp, £34.99, ISBN 978 1 118 94832 3

(c) 2022 Alexander Adams

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

Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution

A central aspect of the art of Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) is the adoption of ancient and non-Western visual languages and conventions. The exhibition Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution at the Albertina Museum, Vienna (17 September 2021-9 January 2022) set out to make clear what forms these affinities took in Modigliani’s art and compare those to primitive-inspired art by Constantin Brâncuşi (1876-1957) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). All three were based in Paris. In short, the exhibition sought to explain how primitivism influenced the directions of leading Modernist artists in the École de Paris and also to look at the links between these three artists. This review is from the catalogue.

Modigliani arrived in Paris from his native Italy in 1906, intent on being a sculptor. The carved stone heads – some twenty – are evidence of his dedication to achieving a single ideal: a female head that would meld the sophistication of European beauty, the direct simplicity of non-European art and the mysterious dignity of ancient statuary. The artist required technical instruction on stone carving and so fell in with another newly arrived immigrant. Brâncuşi arrived in Paris from Romania in 1904. Modigliani was also friendly with Jacob Epstein, with whom he collaborated on a sculptural project in his early Paris years. Over the periods 1907-11 and 1912-4, Modigliani made many drawings of caryatids (some related the Epstein project), which translated into only a handful of sculptures.

One of the most striking aspects of Modigliani’s art is the incorporation of non-Western and archaic art. No viewer of his art can miss the references, albeit highly synthesised, to art generally considered outside of the European fine-art canon. These stylistic elements have been carried over into his paintings. Frontality, stiffness, reduction of modelling and lack of expression are all typical of primitive or archaic statuary and we see all of these is the art of primitive-influenced Modernists. The elongated faces and columnal necks are African innovations and recur often in Modigliani’s carved heads and portraits.  

Friedrich Teja Bach enumerates three reasons why Brâncuşi was so struck by encounters with African artefacts. Firstly, it liberated his imagination. Secondly, “the contemporary appreciation of African sculpture made him aware of the relevance of wood – something familiar to him from the arts and crafts of his Romanian homeland – as a material for modern sculpture of the context of the urban avant-garde. Third, as Sidney Geist has rightly pointed out, the abstractness of African sculpture, as found in some masks, probably made a significant contribution to opening for him a path to an abstract symbolic dimension.”

Archaic Greek carvings, Egyptian statuary and murals and other ancient art – in addition to non-European art – was of mutual interest to the pair. Brâncuşi worked in stone, wood, metal and plaster, whereas Modigliani worked only in stone. It was the irritation that the dust of carving caused his tuberculosis-weakened lungs that caused Modigliani to give up carving for painting by 1914. It seems that the friendship of the pair petered out at this time. Unlike Picasso, Modigliani displayed an attachment to primitive art throughout his career, starting in 1906 up to his premature death of tuberculosis. It is the case that Modigliani gradually moved away from primitive influences, especially as he strove for prettiness in his Nice period but one can discern the traits become more or less prominent between pictures.

Modigliani’s portrait painting Black Hair (1918) was bought or acquired by exchange by Picasso in the early 1940s. What exactly the relationship was between Modigliani and Picasso is disputed. Picasso’s biographer John Richardson (and Francis Carco) underplayed it, suggesting that Picasso avoided Modigliani, disliking his drunkenness. Richardson – like many prominent art historians – seemed to have a low opinion of Modigliani. The main charge against Modigliani is superficiality. The idea was Modigliani relied on a range of mannerisms (the long necks, the almond eyes, the long elegant nose) in place of open interaction with sitters and subjects. While that charge has validity, Modigliani’s adoption of the rough surfaces, unusually flattened facets and taut graphic lines – all common between Modernism and African carvings – counteract the tendency towards suaveness and the prioritisation of attractiveness.   

Picasso’s paintings from 1906-8 seem to parallel the art of Modigliani. The overwhelming flatness, drawn outlines, graphic shorthand replacing individualistic description, simplified forms, roughly painted facets making no concession to volumetric modelling – all of these are shared by Modigliani and Picasso. It is a moot point how many Picasso works – which seem to date slightly earlier than Modigliani’s, although dating to a precise month is not always possible – Modigliani saw. Many of these pieces were never exhibited during Picasso’s lifetime, so it was only through a studio visit that the Italian could have seen them.

Restellini attempts to reduce the role of debauchery and dissolution in the common view of Modigliani. He quotes the source of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s most committed collector and confidante, on the artist’s use of drugs. The author then adds, “Contrary to legend, Modigliani was neither an alcoholic nor a drug addict. He did not create under the influence of narcotics or drink: like a “seer,” he needed them to fathom the depths of the human soul, to penetrate the other and discover what lay hidden within himself: “Alcohol insulates us from the exterior, it helps us delve into our inner self, all while making use of the outside world.”

The influence of the West African traditions of mask making provided fresh alternatives for avant-garde artists. The radical simplification of the face and the use of symbols and flatness, all aligned with the tendencies already apparent in Post-Impressionist art. We can say that École de Paris artists found what they sought in non-Western art because many aspects of their existing art – and the preferences that they felt drawn towards – were present in the art they responded to. After all, had they been Symbolists such as Moreau, they might have been drawn to the ornate decoration of Khmer sculpture, intricate needlework of North American native textiles, the bas-reliefs of Coptic art, the vivid colours of India art or the narrative function of Aboriginal art. Instead, they found earthy colours, flatness, simplification and the incorporation of shells, feathers and nails in art of West Africa. What the admirers of primitivism found did not change the direct of their art; it confirmed the correctness of their existing trajectory (by antecedent endorsement) and accelerated their trajectory. It was a highly selective response to the breadth of material available.

Modigliani – like artists such as Picasso, Derain and Matisse – frequented the Musée d’Ethnographie at the Palais du Trocadéro, where he was captivated by art of Indochina, Africa and Oceania. At the time, the museum was disorganised, badly lit, overfull, inadequately labelled and unfriendly for any visitor wishing to gain information rather than simply immerse himself in the miasma of foreign cultures. Many readers will long for such a museum, repulsed by the excessive curation of politically active staff of recent days. Publications – especially with high quality illustrations – were less available in those days, which meant that a lot of artefacts that confronted visitors were utterly unexpected and alien. The jolt to the preconceptions of European artists was a shock that electrified and animated Modernist tendencies. Readers are advised to treat the discussion of primitivism by Restellini with caution. While it has some handy quotes from individuals from the lifetime of Modigliani, the historical analysis of primitivism is purely politically driven and of little worth.       

Modigliani and Picasso both exhibited at the Lyre et Palette exhibition, held at the studio of Émile Lejeune on 19 November 1916. This displayed modern art alongside 25 African carvings from the Paul Guillaume collection by work by Picasso, Modigliani, Kisling, Matisse and Julio Ortiz de Zarate, in a non-hierarchical approach. It was a recognition of the influence of non-European art and a sense of shared values and outlooks, to a degree.  

This exhibition brought together an impressive selection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs of lost sculptures. The quality of the art is excellent. There are plenty of drawings by Modigliani, especially those that anticipate sculptures. There is Picasso’s rough unfinished wooden carving of his mistress Fernande as a primeval Venus, made in Gósol in 1906. This is contrasted with a rarely seen gouache of 1905 of harlequin applying make-up, accompanied by a seated woman. At this time, Picasso was looking at ancient Iberian art and the African statues and masks at the Trocadéro. There are many seated portraits in elongated vertical format, which became a feature of his late output. Some of his best portraits are included, such as the profile portrait of his mistress Jeanne Hébuterne (1918) with extravagant curved neck a tapering hairdo. It is notably how few drawings by Modigliani use shading as a modelling technique. When shading appears, it is mainly to separate a figure from a ground, emphasise a line or indicate a block of tone. The paintings deploy modelling techniques, which are handled with a delicacy. The rough dabbing and scumbling of the 1914-5 era is turned into soft smudging in Nice, reminiscent of two local painters: Renoir and Bonnard.

Brâncuşi’s lost wooden figure of a child (The First Step (c. 1914)) is represented by a vintage photograph and a drawing. The sculptor radically simplified the form of an infant walking, following the approach found in West African carving. An oil painting of bathers (1908) by Derain presents art by another Modernist who was inspired by African figures at the Trocadéro. This painting seems as one with Picasso’s African period of 1907-8. The exhibition includes only a few non-Modern/non-Western works (West African carvings, Cycladic stone statuettes, a Khmer head), but there are numerous illustrations of other pieces, some of which may have been personally encountered by the three artists.

Considering today’s political climate, it is unfortunate (but entirely expected) that any approach to primitivism in art leaves the conventional curator tied up in agonised knots of shame. Every statement is preceded by elaborate unequivocal condemnations of the vast ignorance and shameful chauvinism of European artists, even those who demonstrated an intellectual and artistic engagement with non-Western art. “The predominant analysis of this artistic revolution, as articulated by Rubin in the 1980s and persisting until the end of the 1990s, is tinged with racism: this claims that the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas were more at ease in expressing emotion due to their “indigenous” and “primitive” nature.” The curators perform such elaborate obsequious performances to demonstrate their political virtue that they end up damning everyone who came before and failed to meet today’s standards. This leads to an impression that the artist subjects – who were sympathetic towards, and engaged by, non-Western art – are being tried for crimes against 2021’s left-liberal norms.

For those of us who require historical accounts of art that treat us as intelligent, empathetic and morally-informed individuals, we must firmly and clearly reject the presumptions of curators who often know less than their audiences about topics on which they opine.

Notwithstanding this reservation, the catalogue summarises well the inspiring spark that non-Western and archaic art provided for artists of the École de Paris.

Marc Restellini (ed.), Modigliani: The Primitivist Revolution, Hirmer/Albertina, 2021, 216pp, 222 col. illus., £39.95, ISBN 978 3 7774 3566 4

Suggested illus.

113, Picasso, female head, 1908, p. 178

114, Fang mask, p. 179

7, Brancusi, The First Step, 1914, p. 62

42, early cycladic figure, p. 102

43, Modigliani, female nude with crossed arms, 1911, p. 102

80, Modigliani, head, 1911-2, p. 146

21 April 2022

© 2022 Alexander Adams

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