A new book by Gregor J.M. Weber, Head of Fine and Decorative Arts at the Rijksmuseum, makes new claims about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675). Only Rembrandt is more acclaimed than Vermeer among Dutch Golden Age painters but very little is known about Vermeer, whose surviving output consists of 37 paintings and no drawings. We know that at least five of paintings were lost before modern times, but, because how slowly Vermeer painted meant that in his 23-year career, he did not have the opportunity to make many more.
No letters, diaries or contracts survive, so indirect circumstantial evidence is often the best we can get for this elusive figure. Every so often research sheds new light – for example, when a historian discovered the exact location for the painting Little Street – but there have been no big discoveries. This book contains no big revelations. It comes ahead of a large retrospective exhibition of Vermeer’s painting at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (10 February-4 June).
Vermeer was born into a Protestant family in Delft and had one sister, who married a picture framer. Vermeer probably converted to Catholicism to marry Catherina Bolnes in 1653. Baptismal records are absent for the period, so confirmation for his conversion is lacking. The couple lived with her mother and a rapidly growing number of children (ten surviving at the time of his death). The one fragment of testimony we have is that the strain of supporting his family following the economic depression of 1672 drove him into “a frenzy” and a sudden death. (Commentators have speculated about alcoholism and depression, associating it with a drop off in quality of the last paintings.) The painter joined the minority community of Catholics around a Jesuit centre in Protestant northern Holland, trading pictures (like his father) but also painting his own. Weber’s case is that the Jesuits played more of a part in Vermeer’s working practice and iconography than hitherto recognised.
The lavishly illustrated book shows the art that Vermeer made, the art he owned and pictures he would have seen and sold as picture merchant. Pictures by contemporaries show how close Vermeer was to his contemporaries. Work by the Utrecht Caravaggisti were a formative influence and one at least appears as a background of a Vermeer picture. Weber cannot confirm whether Vermeer trained with Carel Fabritius (1622-1654), who died in a massive gunpowder explosion that devastated Delft, so it is still unclear who Vermeer’s master was. Art owned by Jesuits may have been accessible to the young Vermeer, who made a copy of an Italian painting of saint.
Weber goes on to give examples of where the Catholic order produced theory and practical devices that explored the power and nature of light. Vermeer worked meticulously, using an optical device called a camera obscura (which uses a lens to project light on to a flat surface) to design his paintings. The author suggests that the artist was introduced to this machine by the Jesuits, perhaps inheriting one in 1656. Weber writes that Vermeer’s painting Allegory of Faith (c. 1670-4) follows Jesuit iconography. Gabriel Metsu (1629-67) – a painter personally known to Vermeer – painted an allegory of faith similar to Vermeer’s, produced a few years earlier. There is a resemblance but the treatment and iconography is quite different.
More Jesuit influence is detected in paintings of women with jewellery. Again, this is plausible, without being more than a possibility. Vermeer’s art has sufficient depth and ambiguity to leave it open to more lines of interpretation than more obvious paintings by his contemporaries, Gerrit Dou, Metsu, Pieter der Hooch and others. Certainly, Weber’s case should be entertained, though one would need to be very well versed in Dutch theology and iconography to make a decisive case pro or contra.
Gregor J.M. Weber, Johannes Vermeer: Faith, Light and Reflection, Rijksmuseum, 2023, 168pp, fully illus., paperback, €25, ISBN 978 94 6208 758 3
The latest addition to the series on lost civilisations by Reaktion Books is a book on the Phoenicians. Phoenician civilisation flourished from roughly 1200-332 BC along the Levant coast, principally along the modern-day Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian/Israeli coast. Vadim S. Jigoulov, lecturer at Morgan State University and Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, provides the general reader with a history of Phoenician history from prehistoric times to its final demise in 332 BC, with the conquest of Tyre by Alexander the Great. Carthage, the great city in Modern Tunisia, was extinguished as a distinct military and cultural outpost of the Phoenicians in 146 BC by Rome in the Third Punic War. Language, art, religion, coinage, trade and seacraft are given their own sections.
The author points out that the Phoenicians did not have a single civilisation but rather a group of poli (city-states) that pursued individual interests and shared a common language, alphabet and culture without a single monarch or central authority. The Phoenicians did not seem to see themselves as a single unified nation and it seems others did mainly for ease of reference, though certain poli had special links with other nations and foreign cities. It may be that the limited area of cultivatable land meant that a growing population had to seek income from foreign travel, hence the rise in maritime activities. (A Phoenician expedition is supposed to have circumnavigated Africa.) The search for resources also drove Phoenicians to found trading and production ports around the Mediterranean. This book outlines the sites of Phoenician population.
The city-island-ports of Arwad and Tyre protected the coast and the mountains provided some protection from the interior of Near Asia. Sidon and Byblos were also significant centres. Phoenicia came into existence due to the exploitation of natural resources of timber (principally cedar), tree resin, olives (and olive oil) and wine. Phoenicia’s access to the sea and its production of raw materials and manufactured goods made it an advantageous tributary. It seems that the Assyrians were content to allow the Phoenicians autonomy once a tribute was regularly paid. (When the Persian Empire rose, a similar pattern continued.) The decline of Assyria apparently drove the Phoenicians to be more active as traders, particularly in the Western Mediterranean and Egypt. The ties were such that Phoenician royalty were sometimes entombed in sarcophagi made in the Egyptian style, as found in the tomb of Tabnit, king of Sidon, early 5th Century BC. Trade with the Greeks and the islands exported Phoenician goods and coinage. Although the Phoenicians did set up coastal colonies, they were not an imperial power. The degree of trade and expertise in maritime travel meant that the Phoenicians were known in the region from an early time.
A chapter on coinage assesses what we can glean from numismatics. For a trading nation, the Phoenicians adopted coinage late, in the mid-5th Century BC – 150 years after the Greeks and Persians. Jigoulov’s estimation is that coinage was adopted from the Greeks to ease transactions between Phoenician poli. Commonly, payment was made in ingots of silver and gold. Coins were more valuable than the raw metals, thus was lighter to use and easier to handle than ingots between citizens of different poli. Other reasons are discussed. The plausible reason that coins were used to pay rowers and mercenaries has been disfavoured because little Phoenician coinage has been found in the Persian interior, suggesting the coins circulated mainly between coastal cities. Experts read the iconography, weights/denominations and distribution to infer facts about the society’s economics and the way the rulers intended to project power, allegiance and deference. A Tyrian coin featured a dolphin and a murex shell. Murex was the crustacean that produced the dye that made Tyrian purple that made the city rich and renowned. Sidonian royals sought to affirm their allegiance to Persia by adopting common standards and symbols.
The Greek alphabet was developed from Phoenician, as the Greeks themselves noted. It is assumed that the widespread use of the easy-to-follow-and-use Phoenician script throughout the Mediterranean Sea region led to its adoption by different peoples. Over 10,000 inscriptions in Phoenician and Punic have been deciphered but longer writings have proved elusive. Disagreement regarding the rate of literacy among Phoenicians continues; writings that have survived tend to be legal or commercial in character. The author suggests that common people may have understood little more than numbers and common signs, with merchants restricting their writing to accounts, records and agreements. Although libraries of Phoenician writings did exist, it seems that these writings on parchment, papyrus or other organic supports have not survived and were not transmitted through copying by other civilisations. Thus, although we have written accounts of the Phoenicians, they come mainly from the Greeks and Romans. References acknowledge the trading influence and maritime accomplishments of the Phoenicians, but tend to characterise this merchant race (as encountered in trade) to be untrustworthy and oath breakers.
On Jewish literary sources (Biblical and non-Biblical) the author writes: “Though not devoid of ideological bias, they nevertheless point out the core qualities associated with the Phoenicians – their skills in maritime navigation, trade and their ability to manoeuvre the political landscape by making treaties with other royals. In treating Tyre and Sidon as independent city-states, the ancient Jewish writings also offer a unique Near Eastern, as opposed to Mediterranean or Homeric, view of Phoenicia and the Phoenicians.”[i] It seems that the Sidonians acted as envoys and delegates between their Persian overlords and the Athenians. Sidonians resident in Athens were accorded special status and exempt from a common tax there.
The gods of Phoenicia had different levels of devotion in different poli. The main gods were: Astarte (or Inanna and Ishtar), consort of Melqart, goddess of procreation and sexuality, most venerated in Sidon; Eshmun, god of healing and well-being; Melqart, god of death and resurrection, worshipped in Tyre; Baal (judge and god of weather and the natural cycle), Baal Shamem (god of seafaring) and Baal Zaphon (god of storms) were sometimes considered separate entities; Baalat Gubal, who was consort of Baal, worshipped in Byblos; Baal Hammon and his consort Tanit (protector of Carthage and guide to sailors), were worshipped in Carthage (potentially through the sacrifice of children). Lack of written records and the brief character of inscriptions mean information on Phoenician religion is sparse. Temples have been overbuilt or converted. Later accounts describe Phoenician priestesses as shaven headed, barefoot and celibate. Common ritual worship included feasts, drinking, processions with musicians and burned offerings. It seems the afterlife was a staple of the religion, with offerings left in tombs to accompany the dead to their afterlife – practices that seem close to those of the Egyptians.
It is thought that there may have been Phoenician influence on the architecture and technical aspects of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, as we are told that Phoenicians provided at least bronze fittings for it. There is also an absence of icons, which suggests that although the Bible mentions worship of Baal and sometimes statues to him, aniconism may have been a feature of Phoenician religion and that this may have influenced the Judaic prohibition of icons.
For a nation of traders, travellers and artisans – a nation with a distinctly diffuse and undirected character – the cultural production of the Phoenicians is difficult to summarise, understandably. Artistically and architecturally, Phoenicia was mixed, with tendencies towards “syncretism, eclecticism and multiculturalism”.[ii] This can be seen in the coinage. “In terms of iconography, Byblian coinage was syncretistic, as it frequently featured Egyptian, Greek, Sidonian and Persian images.”[iii] The borrowings came from the schools of the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. The destruction of Carthage and overbuilding of other Phoenician poli has eradicated much of the architecture and the literature (whatever that may have comprised of) has been lost. Being in centres of continuous occupation has meant that archaeological sites have been compromised or are now inaccessible.
Phoenician artefacts found abroad are hard to classify as they display multiple influences and iconography. The pottery is often classed as mediocre, comparatively, and it seems that there was a class stratification, with the rich using metal vessels (often imported from Greece and Cyprus) and the poor using crockery that imitated the metal objects. Domestic and ritual vessels were not differentiated. Phoenician glass production was a major contribution to Mediterranean culture and a source of income for Phoenician cities, especially Sidon. Engraved and embossed silver platters and bowls were highly prized abroad but it is unclear where and why these were produced. It may be that the Phoenician style became imitated and diffused, because few have been found at Phoenician sites. Relief carvings in ivory were used for decoration and displayed strong Egyptian influence and apparently went into decline when ivory supplies petered out as Syrian elephant herds were depleted.
Terracotta figurines were cheap and commonly used in Phoenician settlements. Often associated with domestic worship, these figures and reliefs were sometimes crude. Some are decorated with metal insets and overlays. Of all the figurative art, these terracottas are the most original and indigenous of the products of Phoenicians. Several remarkable and powerful masks are reproduced in this book. Local sandstone and limestone is easily eroded, so many statues have not come down intact. Imported Greek marble was used for high-status statuettes and sarcophagi, which show a high degree of craftsmanship (albeit with little originality) and much Egyptian influence.
Overall, The Phoenicians is a clear, up-to-date and balanced assessment of one of the less known great civilisations of the past. It has maps, photographs of objects and recreation illustrations. Suitable for anyone keen to understand the basics, become familiar with current historical debates and comprehend Phoenicia in relation to historical rivals and partners.
Vadim S. Jigoulov, The Phoenicians, Reaktion Books, November 2021, hardback, 248pp, 23 mono/39 col. illus, £15, ISBN 978 1789 144 789
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)
I am pleased to announce the publication of my new book.
Alexander Adams, Professor Frank Furedi (foreword), Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History, (Societas) Imprint Academic (UK/US, distr. worldwide), paperback/e-book, 170pp (approx.), £14.95/$29.90, illustrated by the author, mono illus., published worldwide 6 October 2020
Iconoclasm, Identity Politics and the Erasure of History surveys the origins, uses and manifestations of iconoclasm in history, art and public culture. It examines the various causes and uses of image/property defacement as a tool of political, national, religious and artistic process. This is one of the first books to examine the outbreak of iconoclasm in Europe and North America in the summer of 2020 in the context of previous outbreaks, and it examines the implications of iconoclasm as a form of control, censorship and expression.
The book contains detailed discussion of the history of iconoclasm in the following areas: Egypt, Byzantium, England, France, Switzerland, the Low Countries, Mexico, Wahhabism/ISIS/Taliban, Nazi/post-unification Germany, Spain, Russia, Ukraine, China and USA. The phenomenon of art vandalism and defacement as an artistic strategy are analysed. The book contains a discussion of the 2020 iconoclasm, Confederate monuments and identity politics, including a thorough list of monuments destroyed or removed. It is fully footnoted and written in a clear, accessible style.
“At 1:32am on the morning of 8 March 1966, a loud explosion was heard in the center of Dublin. When dawn came, visitors to O’Connell Street were greeted by the sight of a pile of rubble and the sheered column base of Nelson’s Pillar. Completed in 1809 in British-administered Ireland, the monument had honored the late Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, who had defeated Napoleon’s navy at the Battle of Trafalgar. The statue, on its Doric column, reached 134ft (40m) into the sky—almost the same height as Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. Although Irish sailors and soldiers had died in the Napoleonic wars in the British armed forces, the statue of a British military hero in the Independent Republic of Ireland still grated with Irish Nationalists, even 150 years after the erection of the monument….”
Kerouac: Beat Painting is the catalogue for an exhibition held at Museo MAGA, Gallarate (2 December 2017-22 April 2018) of the art of Jack Kerouac (1922-1968). Jack Kerouac was one of the founders of – and most famous member of – the Beat Generation of the 1950s and early 1960s. He was elevated to fame and notoriety by the success of On The Road (1957) and series of popular semi-autobiographical novels published thereafter. The seminal On The Road established many of the staples of Beat counter culture: Buddhism and Oriental spirituality, jazz, black culture, drugs, drink, sexual freedom and the lure of the road.
Kerouac was an amateur artist, something that he mentioned in his writings. The examples exhibited in Gallarate included drawings and paintings on paper and canvas. Subjects are portraits, symbolic tableaux, isolated figures, abstracts, religious imagery, scenes of everyday life, a handful of landscapes and doodles. There are palimpsests within which overall pattern and figural forms interact. There is one scene of boats on shore. There is a pencil drawing of a sea view from the roof terrace of Burroughs’ Tangiers residence, Hotel El Muniria. Kerouac visited his friend in 1957 and (being a skilled and speedy typist) he typed up the manuscript of Naked Lunch – until it gave him nightmares.
The portraits are symbolic portraits, portraits of famous personalities (including Truman Capote and Joan Crawford) and some generic figures. There are a few recognisable portraits of people Kerouac knew, including his father, lover Dody Muller and a powerful profile of William Burroughs.
There are images which depict memories of family scenes from Kerouac’s childhood, reframed as religious scene. His strongly Catholic upbringing coloured his outlook – no more obviously than in his conception of his family life. The death of his brother Gerard was treated by Kerouac as nothing less than the death of saint or a holy innocent. There are drawings of crucifixion crosses without Christ figures. There is a painting of a sacred heart which has a touch of Guston to it – although made before Guston’s celebrated return to figuration in 1968-9. Other images are related to mandalas, cosmic forms and over-layered figures (referring to reincarnation?) which are connected to Buddhism. Much of Kerouac’s thoughts about spirituality revolved around developing a syncretic synthesis of Buddhism and Catholicism.
During 1958-1960 Kerouac had an affair with Dody Muller, a painter who introduced him to abstract art first hand. The art of the New York School of Abstract Expressionists impressed Kerouac and influenced his own art. He was friends with Franz Kline and worked alongside his neighbour in Northport, NY painter Stanley Twardowicz. Some of Kerouac’s art could be described as Abstract Expressionist. His abstracts include brushed and puddled paint, also finger painting. The art is roughly and lightly worked, with much of the ground showing through. A pastel of blurred forms is vaporous, contrasting with the visceral impasto and strong forms of paintings, some with metallic paint – an aspect of Pollock’s painting that he may have picked up from artist friends. Kerouac spent time in San Francisco, which had a vigorous abstract art scene, which he would have known about.
Kerouac wrote “USE BRUSH SPONTANEOUSLY without drawing; without long pause or delay; without erasing… pile it on.” This accords to the principle of automatism of the Abstract Expressionists which had been taken the concept from Surrealism. “28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better.” That refers to writing but equally apply to Kerouac’s art.
In some respects this lack of revision accords with the Beat idea of creativity untrammelled, in a version of stream-of-consciousness monologue. Likewise, the directness of application was in line with Kerouac’s aesthetic of personal directness, which differed from Burroughs’ aesthetic of using mechanical means to process pre-existing material, as we find in the Cut-Ups.
The Beats often debated art, especially Cézanne, Van Gogh, the ideas of Artaud and the example of William Blake, an eccentric visionary poet who also made art. There are obvious links between be-bop jazz, Charlie Parker, Action Painting, improvisation and Kerouac’s creative output, which is briefly covered in catalogue texts.
There are certain characteristics common to amateur artists that we can discern in Kerouac’s art: frequent changes of idioms, experimental use of materials which are widely divergent, a lack of sustained effort to forge a consistent style, a wide variety of genre and subjects, inconsistent palette, modest size, cheap craft materials. The majority of pictures are on paper, with some sheets from a spiral-bound sketchbook.
It is clear from these examples that Kerouac is classifiable as an amateur. The art manifests an absence of skill which contrasts with the ingrained care and flair for language abundant in his writing. One of the essential points of amateur artists is that their production does not have a core – it is episodic not serial in nature. This results in not an erratic artist but effectively a dozen artists existing in one creator, most unrelated to each other.
Almost none of the sheets are dated. One question that is not resolved in the catalogue texts is how representative of his output as a whole this selection is. With the work of an unknown/little-known artist it is fundamental to use early publications to outline the extent of the corpus. This information fundamentally shapes our view of what we are seeing and is a basis for later studies.
How Beat are these pictures? Probably more Beat in approach and tone rather than content. What does Beat mean in terms of content? The life of the Beats and people following the ostensible Beat lifestyle; art encapsulating the Beat worldview; the subjects of Beat writings, namely refuseniks and the refused, junkies and drifters, radiant rent boys and beatific whores, truth-seekers and vision-chasers, petty criminals and cracked prophets. It is hard to find much of this in terms of imagery in Kerouac’s art.
This raises the question, is everything that Kerouac produced Beat? That is, is everything creative that Kerouac produced during maturity necessarily congruent with Beat ideas? Do the most idiosyncratic fusions of personal memories and religious associations function publically in a Beat manner at all? And why should they? It could be asserted that the Beat movement had little by way of aesthetic programme; its principle of freeing the individual from group-enforced convention covers the free expression of Beat creators and Beat followers. That should include Kerouac’s art, which we could call “Beat enabled” if not “Beat directed”.
How serious was Kerouac as an artist? It is hard to tell. In some respects his art is similar to that of Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs, both in approach and style. Although Kerouac was emotionally attached to art making and often mentioned that in his letters, judging his art – albeit on this limited selection and in ignorance of the composition of his visual corpus – suggests that he did not convert that affiliation into a sustained effort.
Catalogue texts discuss Kerouac’s contacts with artists, links between his writing and art, his use of religious symbolism and his improvisation in art and writing. All works are reproduced in colour. Generally these are high quality but a few photographs of art are not adequately focused. That should not detract from the pleasure readers will have discerning links between the author’s writings and his art.
“I have faith. You are a member of a religion. He is part of a cult.
“Every participant in a discussion about the Church of Scientology reveals a position by using the nouns ‘religion’ and ‘cult’. The former is accorded a degree of respect and recognition (socially, morally and legally); the latter is regarded with suspicion and hostility. However, nominating a group as ‘religion’ or ‘cult’ does not – a priori– establish the veracity of its core beliefs. So what is Scientology?
“Scientology is a religion/cult/philosophy which offers an all-American blend of self-help, psychological counselling, health improvement and Masonic-style careerism (especially in the acting world), based on ‘scientific research’ by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard (1911-1986). Scientological methods have been claimed to reduce stress, reveal past lives, end drug addiction, cure mental illness and heal physical illness. Caught off-guard by the huge success of his self-help manualDianetics (1950), Hubbard decided to start the Church of Scientology as an organisation to oversee the ‘auditing’ of subjects (a talking therapy utilising an ‘e-meter’ similar to a lie-detector) in order to control and monetise it. Scientology’s hostility to psychiatry, which Scientologists consider responsible for worldwide murder and degradation, is partly because Scientology was founded not in opposition to psychiatry but in competition with it, using concepts and techniques pioneered by psychiatry. Professional scientists were unimpressed by Dianetics. One of them described it not as science fiction but ‘fictional science’…”
Read the full article on SPIKED, 1 March 2013 here: