“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…”
Livres d’artiste should (theoretically) be the most available of art, being more common than artist’s prints and cheaper than a drawing or painting, at the time of the book’s publication. Paradoxically, artists’ books are actually art works that are the least accessible and most difficult to understand. The high price of the books, their rarity and difficulty of access make artists’ books some of the least familiar of art works. Individual drawing, prints and paintings are exhibited and reproduced frequently; artists’ books are displayed partially, usually without accompanying text. It is rarely possible to exhibit a whole book and it is almost impossible to handle an expensive artists’ book. This is especially true for the books of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). With some Matisse volumes selling for over $500,000, there is virtually no chance for anyone other than a rich collector or a privileged researcher to handle such books.
In Matisse: The Books, Louise Rogers Lalaurie outlines the contents of each Matisse’s eight artist books, designed and published over a period of 18 years. The following books are described, analysed and reproduced (in part): Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies, 1930/1932; Dessins, Thèmes et Variations, 1942/1943; Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours, 1942/1948; Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes, 1943/1950; Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, 1943/1944; Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, 1947; Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises, 1946; and Jazz, 1947.
The books were published by gallerists and art publishers, such as Albert Skira, Martin Fabiani and Tériade, always designed to be sumptuous productions offered to art collectors and bibliophiles. Matisse was very closely involved in the production of the books, offering guidance and criticism to master printer Roger Lacourière (for Jazz, Edmond Vairel, Draeger Frères and Angèle Lamotte) and publishers. The delays between Matisse finalising the designs and art and the publication dates were due to the exacting technical demands of working with high-specification printing, sourcing suitable materials and the difficulties of production during wartime. (Only two of his books was printed during the Occupation of France.) In each chapter, Rogers Lalaurie describes the book, discusses the contents and selection of text, explains the personal significance of the text to Matisse and leads us through the production process. The covers and selections of pages of each book are illustrated.
Stéphane Mallarmé, Poésies (created 1930, published 1932)was illustrated with flowing arabesque lines in etching (black ink). It is redolent of the Nice period of languid nudes and women in elegant clothing. Matisse’s recent Tahitian journey and the design for the Barnes mural La Danse appear in two designs. His Baudelaire is drawn close up – forceful and intense; Poe is withdrawn, melancholic. The text is reproduced in part, allowing us to appreciate the care put into the whole production. “Unlike Picasso, Matisse was determined to avoid any hint of a frame, even using copper plates larger than the page size in the final book, so that no indented plate mark would be left on the paper during printing.” The success of the book aesthetically must have encouraged artist and publishers to return to the field.
Regarding Poésies, an error of authorial approach is evident. Once again, I caution authors against imposing their current sensibility on speech of the past. Translating Matisse’s word nègre as “a Black man” (rather than the historically accurate “negro”) makes the artist writing in the 1940s sound like a progressive prig; misrepresenting the speaker does both the speaker and readers a disservice. If the word was good enough for Ralph Ellison (a black author, writing in the 1940s and 1950s), it is good enough for a translation of Matisse’s contemporaneous comments. Authors and publishers, trust readers to have the worldly sense not to view historical subjects as racist on the basis of the language of their times.
Dessins, Thèmes et Variations (created 1942, published 1943) is a selection of linocut, lithograph and photo-lithographic reproductions from Matisse’s art and is something of an exception in the artist books in that consists of material that was essentially pre-existing re-made for the purposes of inclusion in the book. It was made as defiance against the Nazi Occupation of France and the Vichy regime, containing Modernist art, decadent themes and a text by Louis Aragon, prominent Communist intellectual. Themes are the reclining woman (Lydia Delectorskaya, his assistant), portraits and still-lifes; the drawings in charcoal, pencil and ink-line, were photographed and reproduced through lithography. This is more of a portfolio summarising Matisse’s artistic position in 1942 than it is a genuine livre d’artiste, especially considering the pre-existence of illustrations as standalone works. The definition of an original artist’s print is that it should come into existence through the making of the print and not be a reproduction or transcription of an existing art work.
Pierre de Ronsard, Florilège des Amours (created 1942, published 1948) was published with 126 lithographs, in an edition of 360 copies. The drawings are elegant and pleasing and some – especially p. 187, “je veux…”, a woman’s profile woman as the closing image – are gracefully beautiful. Flowers and leaves dance around the typed text. The elegance of the text and images do not undercut the seriousness of author and artist.
Charles d’Orléans, Poèmes (created 1943, published 1950) marks a departure. Matisse handwrote the texts of Charles d’Orléans’s poems, which he had selected. The poems were printed on unbound folded sheets with drawings in lithography, some with drawn cartouches around texts. The designs include heraldic fleurs-de-lys. The print format on single sheets suits poems of 12 to 17 lines. The book was made in 1943 but not printed until 1950, using multi-colour lithography. Matisse apparently identified with Charles, who had been given up for dead upon a battlefield before being recovered from the bodies. Matisse had a brush with death in 1941 when he survived an operation for cancer. Charles subjects of exile and ostracization also struck a chord for the artist, who had been condemned by Nazi occupiers, Vichy collaborators and French traditionalists.
Henri de Montherlant, Pasiphaé: Chant de Minos, (created 1943, published 1944) was a play and a prefatory text by the author. The linocuts present the simplicity of Matisse’s designs within blocks of black. The illustrations were in black, as were the bandeaux; the lettrines (initial capitals) were in scarlet. The author – a patriot and war-hero of the Great War – came to Matisse’s studio to sit for portraits. It was the only time Matisse engaged with an existing text by a living author for the production of a livre d’artiste.
Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, (created 1944-6, printed 1947) is the only book by Matisse that misses the mark. It is a failure of tone, as Alfred H. Barr noted. Matisse lacks the intensity, the power and the ability to produce material that is scabrous, sordid, dirty and ugly. The degradation of the Spleen section is completely outside Matisse’s range. Matisse selected only less rebarbative and pungent poems, providing each with a portrait (29 female, four male) and some abstract tailpieces. By selecting in order to match his outlook and capacity as an illustrator, Matisse effectively seems to misrepresent Baudelaire’s scope and intentions for Les Fleurs du Mal, deliberately avoiding the more difficult verse.
Marianna Alcaforado, Lettres Portugaises (created 1945, published 1946) is a set of letters ascribed to a Portuguese nun, written to her distant lover, a French diplomat. These passionate letters have been considered to be an epistolatory novel, so well do they present a narrative of desire, loss and grief. Matisse’s lithographs (printed in dark purple) are portraits of the nun (a 14-year-old local girl modelled) and designs of leaves and fruits work effectively. The natural forms add drama and punctuate the gradual changes in emotional register of the portraits.
Jazz (created 1943-6, published 1947) is unique among Matisse’s livres d’artiste in that is composed entirely of his words and images. Matisse’s handwritten text outlines his outlook, technique and aesthetics. The striking 20 colour planar prints – made by the pochoir (stencil) method – mirrored Matisse’s advances with the cut-out method, which consisted of colouring sheets of paper or card with gouache and cutting them with scissors, “drawing with scissors”, as Matisse put it. The motifs broadly relate to dance, music and performance (circus, trapeze acrobat, knife-thrower, sword-swallower, cowboy, swimmer, lion) but include natural forms of leaves, ripples, explosions and those that seem to be of sculpted women. The edition was 250 bound copies and 100 loose copies, the latter which were ideal for framed wall display. Matisse was initially disappointed by the print quality of the illustrations but eventually was reconciled to the book once he heard of its positive reception. Jazz remains the most famous and distinctive of Matisse’s books and its illustrations have become famous, commonly reproduced in books and as posters. Fittingly, it was his final book.
Full-page illustrations (including page edges), double-page spreads and cover images give readers a sense of handling and reading the books. The text is informative and explains the significance of the texts. The design and production quality of Matisse: The Books is high, with the best examples of the artist’s books being used to furnish illustrations. This book is highly recommended for fans of Matisse and livres d’artiste. For mere mortals, other than getting access to facsimile editions (themselves not cheap) Matisse: The Books is the closest we can come to handling Matisse’s books.
It would be a great service to enthusiasts of classic Modernism and artists’ books if Thames & Hudson were to publish Picasso: The Books, probably as a multi-volume work.
Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Matisse: The Books, Thames & Hudson, 2020, cloth hardback, 320pp, 237 illus., £65, ISBN 9780500021682
Jonathan Freedman is a professor at the University of Michigan, who has published critiques of literary Modernism, high and low culture and the role (and perception) of Jews and Judaism in Anglo-American culture. The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity is a study of Jewish creators played a role in fin-de-siecle Modernism and the Decadent Movement, in the process coming to be identified with vanguardism and all the connotations of formal progressivism and moral turpitude. Freedman appears to agree with Potolsky’s suggestion that “[…]“decadence” is perhaps the first transnational, cosmopolitan literary/cultural formation in the West […]”.
“As Jews entered European and Anglo-American cultures in the long fin-de-siècle, they faced a vexing dilemma. When they confronted decadence the cultural movement, they also encountered decadence the cultural smear: the claim that Jews were themselves exemplars, if not bearers, of cultural and social decline. With roots in German philosophy and support from the burgeoning eugenics movement, with an impetus from reactionary political movements and from established medical authorities, the identification of Jews as decadent took two opposing forms. On the one hand, they were seen as decayed representatives of a declining race, atavistically clinging to their outmoded rituals and superseded faith. On the other, they were identified as citified, hystericized, sexually dysfunctional avatars of a degenerate futurity.”
The author takes the fin-de-siècle to be 1870-1920, somewhat broader than purists would prefer, but it does permit the inclusion of Jewish precursors and retardataire followers of Decadent movements. It also allows him to include early cinema and Proust.
How much importance Jewish people have as instigators or participants in the avant-garde is a very open question that will never be fully answered. Is a Jew as an outsider (if we are to accept that Jews are indeed outsiders, which is a thorny issue) naturally more open to the unusual, the strange, the disturbing or the extreme? Why should that be? Is it just a matter of timing, with the influx of Jews into civil society and wider Western European culture dating to the series of emancipatory acts of the 19th Century, coinciding with the decadent phase of culture pre-1914? The deracinatory effect of expansion of the suburbs, industrialisation, mass mobility, dwindling religiosity and social emancipation, combined with relative civil stability and improving prosperity, necessarily gives rise to the pleasure-seeking phase for the urban elites – the anomie that Durkheim writes of in Suicide – and the degree to which Jews contributed to that (rather than simply following the trend and embodying the zeitgeist) is something that Freedman cannot answer. To be fair, such a vast question is not even formulated by Freedman.
“Decadence was, to be sure, largely a high-cultural phenomenon; indeed, its promotion of art t a near-cultish status may be said to have served as a powerful reaction-formation to the rise of mass culture.” Although, Freedman goes on to note that the sensation value of creators such as Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustave Moreau made them figures of popular currency and allowed them to reach audiences through non-high-cultural means. Much of that knowledge was second hand and indistinct – along with the understanding of Decadence and related movements as a whole – but it was clearly not secret or forbidden knowledge. One could say that such high-art forms as atonalism or automatism did not reach a mass audience at the time, even though the material was nominally accessible to anyone who wished to acquire it. It is the sensational quality of Decadent art and the moral peril to consumers and producers – and by extension to society more broadly – that fired the imagination of the general population at a distance.
Jews played a prominent role in the art trade, involved in the promotion of avant-garde art. Berthe Weill, Charles Ephrussi, Paul Cassirer, Alfred Flechtheim, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Wilhelm Uhde, Murray Marks and the Bernheim, Durlacher, Wildenstein and Rosenberg families are just a few of the most successful Jewish dealers who played a part in the marketing of Modernist art. Likewise, Jewish collectors heavily bought in the field. Regrettably, Freedman does not dig deeper into what it meant to be a Jewish vanguardist in the visual fine arts.
The question of what a people with a strong visual tradition but lacking a distinct school of pictorial art will do when they move into a secular society causes us to consider the neophilia of the more adventurous members of the vanguard who were also Jewish. Is it unreasonable to see Jewish neophilia in secular culture as an attempt to shape and claim a portion of a new territory as a response to a notable absence of Jewish influence in a long-standing national culture? This situation is separate from (though it is undoubted related to) the issue of the difficult negotiation of the loss/reward balance that comes with assimilation into host societies.
We should not overlook the drive of the Westjuden to distinguish themselves from their Ostjuden cousins. There was an ambivalent attitude of the urban dislocated Westjuden in Western and Central Europe towards the rural Ostjuden with long-standing links to the land and traditions, whom they viewed with a mixture of sentimental religious reverence and repulsion at the crudity and poverty of their lives. For the Westjuden, the prohibition against image-making had been loosened, whilst (famously) painter Chaïm Soutine fled his Lithuanian shtetl because he was beaten for making images in his youth. One freedom and way of distinguishing the sophistication of the Westjuden was art making.
Freedman devotes a chapter to support by Jews for Oscar Wilde, including the commissioning (by William Rothenstein) and execution of his tomb (Jacob Epstein). Wilde proposed to Charlotte Montefiore (a Jewess) after the death of her brother (Leonard), to whom Wilde felt particularly close. Wilde would patronise the disgraced Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon (1840-1905), who had to retreat from public life after two prosecutions for homosexual acts and ended up an alcoholic inhabitant of a workhouse. (Freedman suggests an affinity between homosexuals and Jews as outsiders in the Victorian period, although without overstressing the point.) Wilde’s American theatrical tour and admiration for socialism brought him into contact with Jews in both fields. The Leversons, who took in Wilde during his trial, were steadfast supporters. Reggie Turner (an acculturated Jew) who was one of Wilde’s closest companions and was with Oscar’s deathbed. Freedman notes Turner’s ambivalence about his Jewish ethnicity and absence of Judaic belief; identified as Jewish by others, he oscillated between an adopted Anglicanism and anti-Semitic remarks and a passionate defence of the Dreyfusard.
However, despite Wilde’s admiration for certain Jewish writers and artists, one cannot detect anything in his writing or outlook as specifically Jewish, with the sole exception of the selection of Salome as a subject. It seems Salomé was translated into Yiddish, published and performed on stage by 1907. “When Salomé was finally performed in English, critics saw it as a creaky anachronism, and it is The Importance of Being Earnest that lays his claim to theatrical immortality. But Jewish literary culture responded with equal enthusiasm to Wilde’s incandescently vengeful Salomé, with her over-the-top desires for mutilation and necrophilia.”
According to Freedman, by the last decades of the 19th Century “pervert” and “Jew” were virtually interchangeable in the discussions of sexologists and criminologists. Both Jewish men and women were seen as predatory and unnatural, not least because of the powerfully strong endogamic tradition of Judaism made sexual relations between gentiles and Jews taboo. This context made depictions of Salome, a prominent Jewess who used her sexual allure to procure the death of John the Baptist, particularly potent at the time.
[Image: Romaine Brooks, La Venus triste (1917), oil on canvas, 150 x 271 cm, Musees de la Ville de Poitiers, copyright Jean Pierre Prevost/Pascal Legrand]
Salome became a favoured character for Jewish actresses and dancers, from Sarah Bernhardt, Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova, Bessi Thomashefsky, Ida Rubinstein to Fanny Brice, who were (when young) strikingly slim and slight – contradicting the stereotype of Jewish women as zaftig or matronly. The character was an Orientalist costume, to be donned in order to perform sexual provocation, comedic lasciviousness, neurotic narcissism or unearthly beauty, forming an ideally malleable role for Jewish actresses seeking to exploit their ethnicity, be that due to reasons as negative as absence of other roles or as positive as an opportunity to take a starring role and expand their range. For the abovenamed performers, it was a chance to use their apparently atypical appearance in a starring role, which was one of few Jewish characters commonly known in Christian societies. Bernhardt’s thinness became a raging fashion among women of the 1880s, even though it was also mocked in caricature as being unhealthy. (Freedman puts the case that Bernhardt was the first vamp-goth-style archetype in popular culture.) Ida Rubinstein was a link from Bernhardt to the Modernist age in dance and Alla Nazimova’s flapper costume and vamp make up in Salomé was the actress’s own design, done to exploit her taut physique.
Studying the Western press, a Jewess could be forgiven for thinking that she could not win: she was either a zaftig temptress (of unnaturally strong libido) or a starkly slim waif (harbourer of tuberculosis or syphilis), either way a malevolent threat to gentile normality. (Read my review of E.M. Lilien and his Images of Jewish Women here.)
For painters such as Klimt and Moreau, Salome became a topic in which could be invested all the eroticism and Orientalism that they could conjure. Freedman notes that Moreau turned to the subject of Salome at least 70 times in his career. (One might posit a psychoanalytical reading of a never-married painter of notoriously opaque sexual taste becoming obsessed by the story of a beautiful woman symbolically castrating the object of her spurned desire by having him publicly beheaded.) In Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), the tattooed character displays her slender, almost androgynous physique, in a hieratical pose. Moreau never conveyed movement in anything like a persuasive manner; each of his pictures (respectively) benefits or suffers from a quality of Byzantine stillness.
[Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing before Herod (c. 1874), oil on canvas, Musee Moreau, Paris]
Freedman gives a chapter to Proust – an equivocal half-Jew – and depictions of Jews in his À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust’s tangled attitude towards his Jewish inheritance was tied into his other hidden identity as a homosexual. Freedman notes that Proust dedicated one volume to Léon Daudet, a virulent anti-Semite. “Decadent culture, sexuality, and Jewishness were conflated in Proust’s own life as well as in the public sphere of his moment,” the author comments before quoting a letter from Proust (of 1888) disavowing decadence. Proust notes “the religious belief in beautiful forms of language, a perversion of the senses, a sickly sensibility that finds pleasures in exotic occurrences, in musics more suggestive than real….”, which seems an ideal definition of decadence.
Another chapter deals with Jewish responses to Schopenhauer, a giant figure in Germanic thought, deeply pessimistic, with a tragic outlook. Freedman summarises the responses of Freud, Italo Svevo, Isaac Bashevis Singer and (somewhat anachronistically) Saul Bellow to Schopenhauer. Another chapter considers Walter Benjamin as a critic of French anti-Semitism. Freedman’s discussion of An-Sky’s The Dybbuk (1914) (dybbuk is a malevolent possessing spirit) includes an illuminating discussion of Count Dracula as a stereotypical Jew. A final chapter mentions Claude Cahun (a subject covered by me here and here). Claude Cahun (Lucie Schwob) was the niece of Wilde’s French translator Marcel Schwob. Freedman deals with the Jewish dance of adopting and dropping their religious/ethnic identity through necessity and choice.
Overall, The Jewish Decadence is a richly rewarding read, blending deep knowledge, provocative insight and unsparing honesty to the role Jews have played in fin-de-siècle culture of Europe and the USA. Barely a page goes by with an insight into cultural production and consumption and unexpected links between creators, places and ideas. This book will be of value to anyone wishing to under early Modernism and Jewish contribution to vanguard art.
Jonathan Freedman, The Jewish Decadence: Jews and Aesthetics of Modernity, April 2021, University of Chicago Press, paperback, 304pp, 41 mono illus., $30, ISBN 978 0 226 58108 8 (cloth edition available)
The Decadent Movement was a late manifestation of Symbolism, principally in literature, that flourished in the final two decades of the Nineteenth Century. It is thought to be a largely British and French movement. It is considered to have lasted from around 1880 to 1895 (Wilde’s imprisonment), with 1914 forming the terminus ante quem for the Decadent Movement, as it was for so many fine de siècle movements. (The stature and reach of the Men of 1914 diminished the standing of the preceding generation.) This collection of academic papers seeks to expand our common understanding of Decadence. Topics include fine art, poetry, theatre, cinema, prose, music, politics, antiquity and other areas, with academic authors addressing Decadence in relation to countries other than Great Britain, France and Belgium.
There are perennial problems of defining Decadence. Does Decadent art reflect or celebrate – even encourage – degeneration from seemingly stable, ennobling, aspirational moral and aesthetic standards? Editor Alex Murray somewhat fudges the issue, by claiming that conservative “moral hysteria” regarding Decadence was unwarranted, yet this reaction was one that the Decadents instigated, using the succès de scandale as a promotional tool and social ostracization as a badge of honour. Murray discounts the acuity of conservative opposition to what Arthur Symons characterises as “typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects all the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society; its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature.” Murray notes Paul Bourget’s commentary on Decadence with regard to Baudelaire, which bears lengthy quotation:
In 1883, as part of a series of essays in La Nouvelle Revue on ‘contemporary psychology’, Bourget published a wide-ranging essay on Baudelaire in which he set forth a striking thesis on the nature of Decadence. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Bourget’s articulation in this essay of a ‘theory’ of Decadence. In the most oft-quoted passage Bourget offers a striking triple analogy: in biological terms cells decay, leading to the corruption of an organism; society is an organism, and the individual is a cellular unit; under decadence the energy of the individual refuses to be subordinated to the whole, with the result that broader social energy dissipates and declines. These rules governing the social and cellular order also pertain to ‘the decadence of another organism, language’. Bourget’s analogy then leads to one of the most memorable, if misleading, characterizations of the literature of Baudelaire and others: ‘A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book falls apart, replaced by the independence of the page, where the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence makes way for the word.’
Murray suggests otherwise – stating that Decadent art does have meaning and is purposeful – but what lingers with us regarding Bourget’s critique is that it is one also consonant with our own era’s deconstructionism, Post-Modernism and political cultivation of a fractured society. The decomposition that Bourget sees in Decadence is something that seems apparent in relativism and multi-culturalism. Post-Modernism is an extension of Decadence, using linguistic and semantic games to undermine established orders with the explicit aim of discrediting and defeating “hegemonic majorities” (demographic or political) of masculinity, logic, the scientific method, Christianity, heterosexuality, whiteness and so forth. Bourget’s statement about the decline of unity and stability is significant not for what it tells about Decadence in 1900 but for what it tells us about the situation of Western civilisation around 2000 and immediately after. No matter how unstable, partial and self-contradictory those core values were, we respond to the emotional truth of Bourget’s observation that Decadence is a movement with social implications that atomise populations and undermine commonly held value systems, regardless of the intentions of individual creators, distributors and consumers of that artistic material. However flawed Bourget’s critique is of Decadence, it functions effectively as a critique of decadence.
Stylistically and politically, Decadence is as broad as any other form of Symbolist. However, Murray’s celebration of the recent expansion of the Decadence canon – or an expansion of what we understand to constitute Decadence – means that the inclusion of more women, non-Europeans and minor creators causes a diminution of our understanding of Decadence. By making the Decadent Movement broader, it also makes it (relatively) thinner, more diffuse. It becomes commensurately more difficult to say something meaningful about a movement that has expanded to encompass adjacent areas. This is the iron law of all academic disciplines: the demands of academia mean academics must find new figures to study and professors of new academic fields need to claim attention of other fields by appropriating established subjects to themselves, claiming unique insights. This leads to field creep and therefore dilution. When connoisseurship of a movement becomes a field of academic study – and a discrete body of committed individuals with shared aims and language becomes a tendency or sympathy diffused among unconnected individuals in many places and eras – useful investigation of that subject is doomed to depletion; notwithstanding how cognisant academics are of this tendency, it seems inevitable.
There are essays on Decadence and the hermaphrodite, gender politics, Christianity and Swinburne’s poetry. Various writers pay attention to Decadence in the literature of the USA, Spain, Russia and Czechia. Hilary Fraser examines how the Renaissance influenced painters the Gabriel Dante Rosetti. Matthew Creasy explains how British Decadents responded to Verlaine. The periodicals of the movement (The Yellow Book, The Savoy) are summarised by Nick Freeman. The role of technology and science in relation to M.P. Shiel and Arthur Machen’s novels by Will Abberley is welcome. He suggests that the authors saw advances in science and technology as a front of rationalism that would founder on the impossibly unarguable redoubts of the occult and spiritual. Rationalism and materialism were foils for Decadent themes of the irrational, private and mystical and the Symbolist dedication to the archaic and anti-productive, for rationalism and materialism were associated with capitalism and bourgeois morality – enemies of the twin Decadent poles of the elevated and the debased. Kristin Mahoney expounds the relation between Decadence and what she calls “camp modernism” – “the persistence of fin-de-siècle styles into the modernists moment, and it similarly calls into question categories of periodization by allowing us to see how late Victorian aesthetics remained vital and present long after the century turned.” She identifies Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett and the Sitwells as exponents of camp modernism.
This is necessarily a specialist volume but one which eschews jargon. Recommended for students and scholars of the Aesthetic and Decadent Movements and late Victorian culture.
Alex Murray (ed.), Decadence: A Literary History, Cambridge University Press, 2020, hardback, 530pp, 14 mono illus., $110/£84.99, ISBN 978 1 108 42629 9
By the mid-1980s, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was already both famous and infamous. As king of the West Coast underground poetry scene, Bukowski was a critical figure in the counter culture, on the verge of entering the mainstream. His verse – curt, pungent, profane, grand – spoke to many, even those who usually did not read poetry. During the 1970s he had filled university halls with his poetry readings. For decades he had published stories, poems and columns in the underground press and men’s magazines. He had appeared on radio and television and a documentary had already been made about him. His novels won critical acclaim and a cult following, not just in the USA but also Germany, with his works being translated into other languages yearly.
In 1985 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Magazin finally managed to get Bukowski – who was an increasingly well-known author in Germany – to agree to have his picture taken for a feature. Bukowski: The Shooting is the illustrated story of four days a young photographer spent with Bukowski.
Abe Frajndlich – a German-American professional photographer – got the assignment. Frajndlich used a personal contact to persuade the reluctant Bukowski to give him one day. He recounts in his essay his time with Bukowski and his fiancée Linda Lee Beighle. On 4 and 5 March, the photographer spent time with the couple in their house in San Pedro, California; he photographed the couple and Bukowski alone. He was allowed into the office. “Although most of the house was clean and tidy, his working room was complete, but creative, mess, with papers strewn about, beer and wine bottles and magazines lying about helter-skelter, and manuscripts over and under the desk and on the floor.” However, when he submitted the images, the picture editor rejected them all. He told Frajndlich that the photographs were too poor to be used. They were mere documentation and provided nothing exciting or visually powerful. Frajndlich was crestfallen and desperate to make emends. He half-begged, half-bullied Bukowski into letting him return for a second session. Bukowski agreed.
The photo shoot on 1 April was quite a different affair. The first had been low-key, unintrusive: Bukowski typing in the garden, in his office, with Linda. The second shoot had to be something special. Bukowski and Frajndlich decided to play up the author’s wild-man reputation with props, humour, play acting and excess. Frajndlich believed his career was on the line and Bukowski wanted to help him out; they tapped into Bukowski’s irreverent side.
When the feature was published, Bukowski received copies and was delighted with the result. He invited Frajndlich to his wedding in August. Frajndlich agreed to take a set of photographs for the couple, himself and a patron. The ceremony was performed by Linda’s guru (she was a Buddhist) and the day proved memorable for all, with Bukowski getting very drunk.
The Shooting reproduces photographs from all three days. This captures a wide range of moods and aspects. The first shoot has Bukowski at work (or mimicking it), drinking at a garden table during an evidently not warm day. We see his office, dirty, chaotic and comfortable, chair at the desk facing a blank wall, books, magazines and manuscripts in profusion. Next to the electric typewriter is a lamp and a radio. (Bukowski preferred classical music to rock music.) We get a sense of Bukowski’s normal life and environment: working, smoking, drinking, under his lemon tree, with and without Linda. This is Bukowski’s subdued self, his sensitive and introspective side. Much of Bukowski’s power as a writer resides not in the declamatory, erotic and comic modes; rather, it lies in the thoughtful, reflective and tender side of the man, which does not undercut his dry humour, clear-sightedness and lack of false sentimentality. Bukowski was as much a reader and (in his youth) a frequenter of libraries as he was barroom brawler. The obscure historical asides and literary references in Bukowski’s verse demonstrate the writer’s time spent as a reader.
In the second shoot, Bukowski puts on Linda’s hat and glasses. He wears the glasses upside down. He draws his famous cartoon figures at giant size and poses with them. He strips off his shirt and he brandishes a knife. He plays the grotesque. In his mugging for the camera, Bukowski acts very similarly to how Picasso acted in his photoshoots of the 1960s, which Bukowski must have seen. We see the man unshackled from boredom and the routine of a professional writer with a fiancée, a mortgage and a BMW, allowed to play freely. We have drunk Bukowski, a sliver of the hostile, arrogant, lecherous drunk that acquaintances were accustomed to and wary of – yet, here, Bukowski is his other self more in jest than earnest.
The final shoot was the wedding of Bukowski and Linda in August 1985. We see bride and groom, the Rolls Royce hired for the day and a shot of the couple in their marriage bed. On the covers is a drawing by the poet of his cartoon figures, with the legend “LEGAL, AT LAST! AFTER 8 YEARS! Hank & Linda”. On a photograph of cups and saucers set out on a table, Bukowski has written “FOR ABE – FILL THESE FUCKING THINGS WITH WINE!” We get a sense of the friendliness that developed between poet and photographer and a glimpse of the marriage that provided Bukowski with much needed stability and serenity.
Included is “The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski” by Glenn Esterly. First published in 1976 in Rolling Stone, it is a long profile of the poet, describing a Bukowski reading in 1976 (not long before the poet ceased giving public readings) and featuring an interview with the poet at home. Public readings made Bukowski nervous, he often drank too much and antagonised the audience. By 1980, his royalties were so high that he no longer needed the money. Esterly captures the tone of the event and incorporates comment from Bukowski’s colleagues. The interview is good and the author is not afraid to challenge Bukowski, question his public image and present him with contradictions. It presents a snapshot of the poet just before he met Linda and his life settled into its late period of material comfort and emotional security (albeit with ructions).
The text is translated into German in full. The combination of new text and provocative and memorable images – both providing insights into the life of one the century’s great writers – make a winning combination. Fans of Bukowski will not be disappointed by The Shooting.
“Founded in 1996, UbuWeb is a pirate shadow library consisting of hundreds of thousands of freely downloadable avant-garde artifacts. By the letter of the law, the site is illegal; we openly violate copyright norms and almost never ask for permission. Most everything on the site is pilfered, ripped, and swiped from other places, then reposted.” So Kenneth Goldsmith describes the website he started in 1996. It has survived copyright claims because it is non-profit, so it does not extract financial gain from its appropriation.
The website was named after Alfred Jarry’s anarchic protagonist Ubu Roi. The website contains avant-garde artistic and cultural material such as verse, prose, audio, video and images. The site hosts little-known side-projects of major artists, such as Salvador Dalí’s film Haute Mongolie – hommage á Raymond Roussel (1976) and Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People (1973). Goldsmith is a poet and so there is a particular emphasis on poetry and spoken poetry, including concrete poetry and sound poems. UbuWeb is a resource replete with ephemeral material, side projects, creative dead-ends, aborted forays and one-off collaborations. It does not host mainstream music, video or texts. The material sometimes comes from official releases; other times it is recorded (with varying degrees of competence and fidelity) from radio or television by private individuals. Sometimes it is bootleg or clandestine. UbuWeb is the sort of place a person can spend a whole evening following a meandering trail through the cultural jetsam of the Twentieth Century.
Goldsmith explains that he uses basic coding and simple systems that have not changed in over 20 years. The relative crudity of such procedures makes the website robust, as well as charmingly old-fashioned. Without relying on cloud data storage or specialised database systems, Goldsmith has (so far) avoided the dangers of redundancy or dispute with programmers, which could have taken the site offline. “Don’t trust the cloud. Use it, enjoy it, but don’t believe in it.” He warns, “don’t bookmark. Download. Hard drives are cheap. Fill them up with everything you think you might need to consult, watch, read, listen to, or cite in the future.” We live in a time of encroaching censorship, when cloud/online access is at the mercy of increasingly censorious governments and overbearing social-media websites. Organisations make themselves vulnerable to pressure from activist lobby groups and Twitter mobs of a few hundred ill-informed virtue-signallers.
Pirating is a compliment, as Goldsmith views it. “If your work is well regarded enough to be pirated, that means you have achieved some level of success that most artists will never have. When we decide to pirate an artists’ work, it means that we think that work is worth knowing about and worth preserving.” The diffuse, unregulated distribution of material increases the chance of preservation and transmission. However, technological obsolescence has rendered some formats more inaccessible than some dead languages. Do you know anyone who has the technology to read a floppy disk or Betamax video cassette? The technology exists but it is rare, specialised and diminishing yearly. This will inevitably apply to digital files also.
Goldsmith calls the guerilla collaborative project of UbuWeb the product of “folk archiving”. “[…] we’re no fans of licenses of any kind. We’d prefer the materials be used without any restrictions whatsoever.” Fine in itself but beside the point because the material is not produced or owned by UbuWeb, as Goldsmith freely admits. He is applying his principles to the products of others but yields ground when challenged by rights holders. Sometimes artists submit material or make arrangements with their agents to permit material to remain on the website.
UbuWeb falls into an ethical grey area, even if the legal situation is fairly obvious. The UbuWeb modus operandi is to post first and wait for artists or representatives to react. Strictly speaking, the fact that UbuWeb is not monetised and is a non-profit body does not take precedence of copyright violation, which is a matter of intellectual property rather than income claiming. Copyright strikes come from those copyright holders important and financed sufficiently to pursue take-down notices. UbuWeb does accede to requests from copyright owners. (Search for the films of Francesca Woodman on UbuWeb and you will encounter the message “These films have been temporarily removed by request of the Marian Goodman Gallery.”) However, much of the work on the site is so gloriously shoddy, awful and poorly recorded – or simply obscure – that it is not material that could generate income worth claiming.
Goldsmith explains how automated notices triggered by file titles – often filed by bodies with no authorisation to do so – claim copyright and demand compensation. As UbuWeb gains no income from the material, there is no gain to be paid. (Legally, the issue is deprivation of benefit and unauthorised use of protected material.) These automatic copyright claims are now commonplace and even inhibit legitimate criticism and educational use permitted under law. Among ISPs, rights holders and pirates, there is recognition that digitisation of data and the advent of the internet has meant that copying and distribution are beyond complete control.
There are odd cases when works are caught in limbo: not financially viable enough to license and release and still restricted by copyright. This means that non-profit file-sharing is the only way to make (unofficially) available material of documentary, historical or cultural value. In the case of artist videos, the material is seen so rarely and in specific locations that – unless one happens to have access to a specialised university library – one can live a whole lifetime without seeing pieces. The stills reproduced in monographs or old magazines become the entirety of one’s understanding of the videos. Gallerists consider UbuWeb a competitor, which devalues the rarity if their commodity, although it is possible to view UbuWeb as a promotional channel, exciting and stimulating viewers and collectors, especially with regard to lesser known artists. The often poor quality of the videos on UbuWeb (compressed, pixellated, muffled, samizdat) means that ardent collectors or enthusiasts seek out high-quality versions they have pre-viewed on UbuWeb. Some creators offer material to Goldsmith and use it as a channel to reach an audience, although Goldsmith notes that UbuWeb is a repository for material already existing rather than a channel for new work.
The birth of digitisation and the internet has revived the readership of concrete poetry. Now original books and journal pages can be copied and shared accurately, allowing readers access to visual-verbal poetry that is not financially viable to publish conventionally. Kurt Schwitters is a favourite of Goldsmith’s. He discusses the importance of words to Shwitters the artist and how his writing overlaps with his celebrated reading of his Ursonate. All of this maps neatly on to UbuWeb’s capacity to store examples of visual, verbal and aural art. UbuWeb contains scans of every page of Aspen, RE/Search and Fuck You, famous channels for the counter culture. Likewise, the 27 Tellus audio cassettes of music, poetry and sound are available complete on UbuWeb.
The book ends with 101 of Goldsmiths favourite gems of UbuWeb: Céline singing his songs accompanied by accordion, Don Cherry and Terry Riley playing live in Cologne, a rare very early Steve Reich tape piece taken from secret recordings, Captain Beefheart reciting his verse, Alice B. Toklas reading Brion Gysin’s recipe for hashish fudge.
The author is generous in his appreciation for the countless donors who have sent files and physical material and he tells the stories of some pioneers – poets, collectors, fans, obsessives (or an admixture) – with whom he has interacted. Some wish to remain anonymous, concerned about stigmatisation as pirates or the threat of legal action. Their enthusiasm is infectious and we can well imagine the excitement of discovering troves of material – some of it considered permanently lost.
Goldsmith makes a common error of writing of material being “excluded from the canon”, which is an impossibility, as the canon is not exclusionary. No material can be excluded from a canon, only included or omitted and is a corporate effort; the canon cannot be imposed or enforced, hence exclusion is impossible.
Goldsmith has a lively and informal style and a lithe mind. He blends erudition and irreverence. Although the writing style is witty and readable, Goldsmith does include some footnotes. Duchamp is My Lawyer would prove a valuable book for law students and jurists as it explains how copyright works in practice not just law and how “folk law” tends to regulate copyright disputes through give-and-take personal interactions rather than court rulings. Interested parties reach informal, cost-effective, non-arbitrated understandings through negotiation in cases regarding material of little monetary worth.
Duchamp is My Lawyer is an approachable and even-handed discussion of UbuWeb and issues regarding copyright in the digital age. It also provides an insight into the evolution of the counter culture in the internet age and the practical, legal and financial issues of producing and consuming art today. Well worth seeking out.
Kenneth Goldsmith, Duchamp is my Lawyer: Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb, Columbia University Press, paperback, 2020, 318pp + x, $26/£20, ISBN 978 0 231 18695 7
“(I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.
Only the elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.
There are not many words anyhow.
They are scattered like clouds.)
“John Elvis Smelcer, writing in Ahtna language, Alaska.
“Today 7,000 languages are spoken. Fully half are expected to die out before the year 2100, continuing a centuries-long trend. Half of all people in the world speak 25 main languages. Every year these large linguistic groups expand at the expense of the smaller languages.
Natural disaster, legal suppression and forced migration all play their part in this process of linguistic extinction. But sometimes native speakers have advocated abandoning their language. In the late 18th century, some educated Scots suggested that speaking primarily Scots dialect deprived intelligent ambitious people from communicating with English-speaking audiences. Speaking English would allow Scots greater opportunities. Indeed, it was after English became favoured over Scots that Scottish individuals came to be disproportionately represented among Britain’s leading thinkers, scientists, engineers, writers and entrepreneurs.
“The fact that over 800 languages are still spoken in Papua New Guinea – the least colonised, least explored and most ethnically diverse region in the world today – is hardly a coincidence. There is a sadly inexorable process of absorption when an indigenous tribal culture comes into contact with a larger, more technologically advanced and more militarily powerful group. It seems that improved medical care, better literacy, efficient sanitation and centrally codified laws necessarily entail the lessening of ties to a population’s traditional heritage….”
This new edition of the collected poems of Philip Larkin (1922-1985) brings together Larkin’s poems published in his lifetime and his own photographs for the first time in book format. The book is handsome and pieces work very well.
This edition has introductions from editor Anthony Thwaite and biographer Andrew Motion. Motion discusses the connections between Larkin and photography. Larkin was influenced by photographs and made them the subject of some poems. The device allowed Larkin to use more temporal distance and emotional detachment whilst permitting detailed visual description. Yet Larkin did not always use emotional detachment, as Larkin knew and exploited the personal responses he had to viewing photographs. Photographs were ways of preserving memories and interacting with these images generated new responses – melancholic, wry, sad, cynical, sentimental.
From his teenage years on, Larkin was a proficient and enthusiastic amateur photographer. His hobby of cycling and church visiting went in tandem with his photograph taking. He also photographed friends and scenes around him. These have been the subject of exhibition and publication, although these have treated the photographs as adjuncts to Larkin the poet. Whether or not Larkin’s photography stands as an independent body remains to be determined. Photographs in this book include those of Monica Jones and Maeve Brennan (long-term romantic interests), his mother, himself and scenes of Hull and local countryside. Some of the selected images are those Larkin marked for cropping.
Larkin very rarely left Great Britain and his writing is characterised by its intense affection-repulsion complex regarding the British, specifically the English and Englishness. “Show Sunday” describes the course of a day at a country fair; “The Whitsun Weddings” is an account of travelling by train and observing newlywed couples boarding the train. “Going, Going” laments the commercialisation and industrialisation of England and the degradation of the country he considered irrevocably lost to him. He blames companies, social policies and people generally. “[…] greeds / and garbage are too thick-strewn / to be swept up now […]” Larkin’s misanthropy is never very far away. He sees the English working class as saviour and destroyer of English culture, a cultural ecosystem that is fragile and degrading yet still capable of coarse vitality. It reminds us that environmental concern is not the preserve of the political left or right but temperamental in outlook.
The selection and arrangement of verse by Thwaite is almost ideal. Thwaite admits being in error for the editing of the first Collected Poems of Larkin, performed just after Larkin’s death. Rather than abiding by Larkin’s carefully judged ordering of poems in their original collections, Thwaite broke up the poems and ordered them chronologically. This contradicted Larkin’s wishes. He stated often that he carefully arranged his selections in order to heighten drama and direct the mood of readers. This volume has the poems sequenced in the order of original publication in books, with a selection of published and uncollected verse at the end. Thwaite has correctly decided to exclude Larkin’s juvenilia, published while he was at Oxford University. He has also excluded all unpublished pieces, which is not entirely satisfactory. A few fine pieces, which Larkin deemed too raw to publish in his lifetime, are omitted. The means the volume lacks a couple of powerful poems (“Ape Experiment Room”, “Love Again”) and the unfinished “The Dance”, which is a loss.
I spotted one error. The couplet “When the Russian tanks roll westward” omits the prefatory quotation quoted in Larkin’s letter of 22 August 1969 to C.B. Cox. It is a small thing but as easy to get right as to get wrong. Thwaite knows the letter as he included it in his edition of Larkin’s letters.
The Folio Society is known for its attention to production detail and distinctive designs. A leaf-green cloth binding and an abstract geometric design (reminiscent of the 1950s) are attractive and appropriate for Larkin’s verse. The layout is unobtrusive and the number and choice of illustrations serve the texts rather than drawing attention to the designers. This is not just a bookshelf ornament but an edition that will be constantly re-read by the Larkin enthusiast. There is no reason why this edition will not become the go-to volume for readers. This collection is by far the best collection of Larkin’s verse ever published. It is comprehensive, respectful of Larkin’s wishes, beautiful printed and bound and including some of Larkin’s images. It omits weak and distracting material and is not encumbered by notes. This is not a book for scholars and researchers but a reader’s book, a book for lovers of Larkin’s writing.
Philip Larkin, (introductions) Andrew Motion, Anthony Thwaite, Collected Poems, The Folio Society, 2020, three-quarter bound in blocked cloth with a paper front board, set in Berling, printed with a design by Richard Peacock, 280pp, colour title page, 12 integrated black & white photographs by Philip Larkin, 91/2˝ x 63/4˝, $49.95/£34.95. The book is available exclusively from www.FolioSociety.com
“GK Chesterton’s most famous analogy is that of a walker finding an ancient fence in a landscape. Chesterton suggested that while one might not understand the fence’s purpose, one should still respect it, because it had at one time served a function and it might still perform that function. Tearing down the fence out of impatience or impetuosity was reckless, Chesterton suggested, because through simple ignorance one might be destroying a potentially useful construction. Such was the situation in which modern man found himself.
“HG Wells (1866-1946) – the prolific fiction and non-fiction writer, best known for his early science fiction – never encountered a fence that he did not do his best to pull down. Family, marriage, religion, nationhood, custom and class – all were subject to Wells’ ire and mockery. He felt it his duty to remake the world according to science and rationality. The sight of old fences was a provocation to him.
“Many today underestimate the enormous influence of Wells. Not so Sarah Cole, who seeks to retrieve something of Wells’ importance in Inventing Tomorrow: HG Wells and the Twentieth Century. As she points out, Wells’ work has sold millions of copies, and has been translated into multiple languages…”
“In his fiction, Michel Houellebcq has chronicled the deracinated state of modern France, as he sees it. Made selfish by the generation of ’68, detached from morality by easy access to pornography, alienated from its history, numbed by mood medication, destabilised by mass migration and rendered powerless by the rise of transnational authorities, France (and Europe generally) is slipping into social, cultural and moral disintegration. It is, as he sees it, inevitable, imminent and irreversible. Houellebecq is the ultimate ‘blackpilled’ author. He offers readers no intimation of the rescue or survival of Western civilisation.
“In his new novel, Serotonin, we encounter another snapshot of France’s plummet into oblivion. Not that there aren’t pleasures and diversions to be had as the tragedy of Europe is cast as a grotesque comedy. As usual, Houellebecq’s protagonist is his alter ego, in this instance a character called Florent-Claude Labrouste.
“Labrouste is aged 46, a heavy drinker and smoker, cynical, sour, tired and anti-social. His ‘flabby and painful decline’ is analogous to the collapse of his society….”