Art of the Canadian Relief Camps: Alan Caswell Collier

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[Image: (c) UBC Press]

In the wake of the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, many ordinary people found themselves out of work. At the time, unemployment relief was limited or unavailable. The existing system had not been expected to cope with the vast numbers of men unable to support themselves and their families. In Canada the relief project to combat unemployment and save workers from destitution was a work programme established by the Department of National Defence. Although nominally a civilian organisation for labour, it operated with military austerity and discipline, administered by former military personnel and organised along military lines. Basic shelter and food was provided and men cut timber, dug, built and laboured for 20¢ per day. The scheme was partly to provide subsistence living for the unemployed, curb vagrancy and crime and to combat a rising tide of Communism.

One of the men who arrived at relief camp 506, Big Bend, British Columbia in September of 1934 was Alan Caswell Collier (1911-1990). Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia collects Collier’s letters to his fiancée while he was working in one of these camps. (A “relief stiff” is an unemployed man on government relief.”) Collier had trained as a painter at Ontario College of Art between 1929 and 1933. There he met and fell in love with Ruth Brown (1910-1993). The couple courted and intended to marry but by the time Collier graduated, the Depression was in its trough. Unable to secure a job, Collier went to work at a relief camp in the rural interior of British Columbia.

Peter Neary, professor emeritus of history at the University of Western Ontario, has compiled this reading edition of 120,000 words from a transcript of 281,000 words. He not only edited down the text but also made minor changes to increase the consistency and readability of the text, which is an intelligent decision. Neary explains the background and the context of the DND “royal twenty centers”, as the relief workers were called. He writes: “Readers of excerpts I have chosen will encounter in passing the language of racism, homophobia, ableism, nativism, anti-Semitism, sectarianism, and intolerance.” To which concern I am bound to reply that his readers are doubtless robust and adult enough to detach themselves when they encounter language and views they do not personally endorse. No warning was necessary.

The artist intended to document his time through art and letters, primarily to Ruth. He was a skilled letter writer and his lively narrative is free of pretension. He attempted to record the toughness of the life in a way that was authentic, while no doubt taking off a few rough edges and embellishing anecdotes, as all writers do. Collier took paints and paper with him and produced (according to his own records) 61 pictures during his time in the camps. He painted landscapes and portraits, oil on board. His landscapes are largely in the school of the Group of Seven, a prominent association of Canadian painters who depicted the rural landscapes of Canada in a Post-Impressionist manner. He also added to his letters sketches (many humorous) of life in the camps and the characters he knew. Photographs of the camps and men add to our immersion in the milieu.

As an artist, Collier judged his postings by the landscape as a sketching subject. He would go out to draw or paint the landscape most Sundays, painting oil on board. He drew caricatures of the men and painted portraits too, some of which he sold to the subjects for $1. Some portraits he kept for himself.

The camps where Collier worked constructed roads in inland British Columbia. The men were a mixture of working class and middle class, some skilled tradesmen and professionals, along with piece workers. Most of the men were young; some of the older ones were veterans of the Great War. There were many recent immigrants. “Out of forty in camp, 37.5% are Canadian born; 35% were born in the British Isles; and 20% are Scandinavians.” Some, such as explosives experts were employed for their expertise, others moved between jobs in the camps as needed. The men worked five and a half days a week (a half day on Saturday, Sunday off). There was no sick pay but free healthcare. Collier started as a labourer before moving to the less physically arduous but intellectually taxing position of storeman, where he issued, ordered and monitored clothing and equipment.

From these letters we learn about his daily routine, his reading and views on current events, especially relating to the economic situation. There is much talk of food, grumbling about the rations – daily expenditure on food was 23.34¢ per man – and the competence of the cook. Clothes were issued monthly. Collier sold his tobacco ration to earn an extra 50¢ a month.

Like soldiers on deployment, separated from friends and families, the relief-camp workers killed free-time with letter-reading and -writing, playing horseshoes, gambling, washing their own clothes by hand and sleeping. There are stories of fist fights, drunken escapades, strikes and petty pilfering. The writer does not shy away from the seedier aspects of life in the camps. He comments how locals had low opinions of camp workers, most of the times they encountered works them was when they came to town on payday to drink, fight and cause a rumpus.

He atmospherically describes life in the snowbound camp. “That train that was buried at Three Valley was completely buried, and part of it is still in there. There was forty feet of snow on top of the mail car and engine.” At another camp, an avalanche killed three camp workers. Workers at Camp 376, Tappen envied the workers at camps located near towns. Those workers could earn up to 40¢ per hour snow shovelling – quite an improvement on 20¢ per day.

Discontent with the economic situation and lack of security provided the resentment that allowed Communist ideas to flourish. While sympathetic to limited social change in areas, Collier was critical of Communism. He took a leading part in a camp strike when a foreman abused his authority and refused to listen to workers’ grievances but he was opposed to general strikes to further Communist-aligned goals. Relief Camp Worker, a Communist newspaper, incited strikes and disruption. Collier quoted an article discussing individuals killed in an accident. “’We do not regret the accident. We suggest that they represented the type which will have to be exterminated before a perfect society can be realized. This type is an obstacle to world sanity.’ […] Statements like that show what kind of men run the Red organization.”

The camp system was riven with inefficiency, profiteering, corruption and theft and Collier struggled to do right by the system and the men. He attempted to curb wastage and balance the books. He tried to protect hardworking amiable men and to retain the best cooks.

In the summer of 1935, Collier left camp, toured the USA and continued his art education in New York, joined by Ruth.

In these letters young artist comes across as serious, intelligent and independent. He seems – on the basis of these letters – a shrewd judge of character and sceptical of political ideology, fundamentally a pragmatist. His few casual slurs are typical of the time and – given the tough conditions – he seems free of malice or bitterness. He displays empathy and patience. His love of the landscape shines through in his descriptions of sketching trips.

The book contains an introduction, which sets out the methodology of the editorial process and explains the artist’s early life. The index is a useful addition and the footnotes are mostly informative and well judged. An afterword covers Alan and Ruth Collier’s subsequent lives and Alan’s art. During 1940s he painted photograph-derived montage-style paintings in a dry naturalistic style, produced art in mines and became a specialist in landscape painting. Each summer, from the 1950s until the end of his life, Alan and Ruth and their son Ian, toured Canada in a mobile home, Alan working on landscape paintings. He achieved considerable success in Canada and the USA as an artist, while Ruth chose to concentrate on home and family, ably supporting her husband’s career.

This book is an easy read and will appeal to general readers, as well as those interested in the 1930s life or Canadian art. This fascinating slice of social history forms a Canadian counterpart to the volume of Pollock family letters.

 

Alan Caswell Collier and Peter Neary (ed.), Relief Stiff: An Artist’s Letters from Depression-Era British Columbia, March 2018, hardback, UBC Press, 368pp, 89 mono illus., C$45, ISBN 978 0 7748 3498 8

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Van Gogh and Japan

ENG softcover Van Gogh & Japan

 

For Vincent Van Gogh, Japan was an ideal – a place of light, pleasure and a productive society framed by awe-inspiring nature. Van Gogh had a typically Western view of the Orient, with Japan being a fantasy composition of familiarity with some cultural objects, travellers’ tales and assumptions. So, in many ways, the exhibition Van Gogh and Japan is an examination of the artist’s conceptions about a distant land he never visited and his deep involvement in the art of Japan, as it was understood in France of 1880-90. This review is of the catalogue for the current exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (23 March-24 June 2018; previously Hokkaidō Museum of Modern Art (Sapporo), Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, National Museum of Art (Kyoto)).

Although Van Gogh’s knowledge of Japan and its culture was fragmentary, the relationship was important to Van Gogh and influenced the artistic production of his last years. The influence is apparent in the art but there is a degree of uncertainty about how much the artist knew of Japanese art and culture. He perused the stock Parisian print dealers (including Siegfried Bing), bought as much as he could and discussed the art with others. His brother Theo was in the art trade and they frequently discussed the qualities of Japanese prints and tried to build a collection of the art that appealed to them. This was an easy task as Paris was still in the grip of japonisme, the craze for all things Japanese, especially art, clothing and furnishings, so there was much to see in museums, shops and new publications. This was the effect of Japan being opened up to the West in the 1860s. Japan, it seemed to Westerners, was a blend of the primitive and sophisticated – an exotic paradise that was culturally, linguistically and geographically inaccessible.

Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo in September 1888, “We wouldn’t be able to study Japanese art, it seems to me, without becoming much happier and more cheerful.” In the West there is the frequent longing for a return to simplicity to combat the effects of industrial production, complex social systems and political sophistication in a participatory democracy. The exotic non-Western society is a fantastic release from the demands and complexities of life. Such views tell us about escapism and discontent in the West, but not anything meaningful about the actual lives of those in the East.

Often idioms of non-Western cultures are used by to inject a dose of invigorating “primitivism” into Western art (Tahitian culture for Gauguin, West African masks for Picasso, Oceanic art for Surrealism, and so on). While such incorporations are often based on misapprehensions, they sometimes successfully introduce new elements or ideas into Western art. One of the most prominent examples of this is the art of Japan, as viewed by Vincent Van Gogh.

Van Gogh’s attitudes towards Japanese culture essentially matched the prevailing European view of Japan. In that respect he was conventional. What is distinctive about Van Gogh was how he found a way to express his admiration for an alien culture by incorporating elements of that into the Western art tradition. Certain elements of Japanese woodblock prints appeared in his art: emphatic contours; clearly delineated areas of strong unmixed colour; increased planar flatness as opposed pictorial depth; horizons placed high in compositions; aerial perspective; strong diagonals; cropping and enlargement of foreground elements; absence of chiaroscuro; emphasis on the decorative over the naturalistic description. Van Gogh’s success is not in how noticeable these elements are but in how well – generally – they mesh with the Western tradition within which he worked. The uninformed viewer comparing a late Van Gogh landscape to a traditional Nineteenth Century Dutch landscape will feel the former is powerful and dynamic but – apart from noticing the strong colour and visible brushwork – will not sense how Van Gogh’s art differs. Likewise, it is not clear to the average viewer that the influence is non-Western.

Included in the exhibition are two oval paintings made on wooden panels. The panels are Japanese in manufacture. Photographs show the reverse of the panels, complete with manufacturer’s name.

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Three Novels (1887), oil on panel, 31.1 × 48.5 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Back of Three Novels, with mention of the firm Kiryū Kōshō Kaisha, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

One aspect that seems to have passed unremarked is how the two still-life paintings are set on tables and the oval format evokes the shape of a round table viewed obliquely. Van Gogh, who was familiar with classic Dutch painting including illusionistic and trompe l’oeil painting, may possibly have used the unusual format to evoke perspectival distortion. It seems relatively unlikely. There is little in the way of visual wit in Van Gogh’s art. It was not in his outlook.

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[Image: Katsushika Hokusai, Bullfinch and Weeping Cherry, from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), from an untitled series known as Small Flowers and Birds (c. 1834), colour woodcut, 25.5 × 17.1 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1925, Photo credit: The Art Institute of Chicago / Art Resource, NY/ Scala, Florence, © 2017]

 

In two double-page spreads, two versions of Portrait of Père Tanguy (both 1887) – which show a supporter of Van Gogh seated beside an array of Japanese woodblock prints – are juxtaposed with illustrations of the prints, allowing us to compare the sources with the transcriptions. The painter made substantial changes to the images but the spirit is carried over. For the artist, his positive feelings regarding his patron were expressed visually in a montage of Japanese art, which he associated with pleasure and exuberance.

On three occasions the artist transcribed Japanese prints as oil paintings, tracing the originals for accuracy. (The tracings still exist.)

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[Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, Sudden Evening Shower on the Great Bridge near Atake, from the series One Hundred Views of Famous Places in Edo (1857), colour woodcut, 33.8 × 22.6 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

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[Image: Vincent van Gogh, Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) (1887), oil on canvas, 73.3 × 53.8 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)]

 

Inspired by the slightly wrinkled surface of prints on thin Japanese paper – called crépons by the French, after the uneven surfaces of pancakes – Van Gogh began to produce paintings with textured surfaces. The regular impasto brushstrokes formed a crinkled appearance. He adapted his drawing technique to imitate Japanese masters, by using blends of blue and black ink and working with reed pens. He adopted a stenographic style of drawing: creating areas of pattern by making rapid repeated (simple) marks. Thus with dashes, dots, circles and so forth, he could describe discrete areas of grass, foliage, roadway or sky in ways that had distinct vibrancy and density. These marks are clear enough to be legible but small enough to generate an overall impression. One could almost describe the vibrancy of the areas as “colour”. (Compare to Bonnard’s style of drawing, which took Van Gogh’s approach one step further by using differing weights of touch.)

The catalogue includes fascinating glimpses of Van Gogh’s enchantment – and possible late disenchantment – with Japanese art, including contact with two Western artists (Louis Dumoulin and Edmund Walpole Brooke) who had visited Japan. It seems Van Gogh was interested to hear first-hand testimony about life in the Far East or was assessing the practicality of actually visiting Japan.  One essay examines the Van Gogh brothers’ collection of Japanese prints.  The number of Japanese prints that entered the Van Gogh Museum in 1973 was 482. Originally there were at least 660 prints but some were disposed of by the brothers. Vincent bought 660 prints by early 1888, though apparently he never paid the full price due. The artist had initially thought of exhibiting and selling on the prints but had little success in the one display he arranged. His admiration was genuine and daily acquaintance with his stock influenced his art. His collection included a wide range of subjects – except for warrior and war scenes and erotic prints – and items varied in quality and condition. It notably excludes Hokusai, whose prints were more highly priced than those by other by other printmakers. Chris Uhlenbeck concludes that “Van Gogh quickly formed the collection, within his own limited means, based on aesthetic considerations such as outspoken colour, striking compositional elements in landscapes or sumptuously clad beauties in kimonos. The collection, together with other Japanese art that the artist may have encountered in Paris, provided a new, exotic aesthetic that profoundly influenced Van Gogh’s own artistic voice.”

The catalogue includes a chronology covering Van Gogh’s links to Japanese art and covers some works only tangential to the subject, which gives the publication a satisfying breadth of scope. The reproductions are crisp and largely accurate. For anyone interested in understanding key stylistic aspects of Van Gogh’s art, this catalogue will become essential.

 

Louis van Tiborgh, Nienke Bakker, Cornelia Homburg, Tsukasa Kōdera & Chris Uhlenbeck, Van Gogh and Japan, Van Gogh Museum, 2018, paperback, 240pp, 200 col. illus., €29.95, French & Dutch versions available, ISBN 978 9 462 302204

Building the Communist Dream

“In revolutionary climates, literally anything seems possible. Not only can streets, cities and states be renamed, even the calendar can be reorganised. Everything can be engineered towards the goal of reforming and reformulating existence.

“The Bolshevik-led October Revolution ushered in a new era in what would become the USSR. Not only would political and economic systems be abolished and replaced by Communism, there would be a project to create ‘Soviet Man’, which would entail re-education of men and women previously shackled by the bourgeois capitalism that existed under Russia’s monarchical tyranny. The individual was no longer considered a private person with concealed (and potentially suspect) beliefs and selfish interests; Soviet Man would control the means of production and govern the state as part of a collective. But in return he must forgo his private self-interest.

“Architecture was to play a crucial role in the revolutionary intention to create Soviet Man. This is captured by Imagine Moscow, a new exhibition of art, textiles, posters and architectural plans at London’s Design Museum, which examines six Soviet architectural projects for Moscow, dating from the 1920s and 1930s….”

Read the full review at Spiked, 10 April 2017, here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/building-the-communist-dream/19638#.WOtgEs8rLIU

Franz Kafka: a Life Beyond Literature

“There are few writers as highly regarded as Franz Kafka (1883-1924). Even people who have not read Kafka understand his blend of the sinister and absurd. Despite the reputation of being a high-brow, intellectual author, Kafka wrote bewitching tales in clear prose. Indeed, his stories are often short and ostensibly easy to understand even if the allusions and implications. And his writing is often shot through with humour – not just absurdity, but also comic misunderstandings and dry irony.

“A recently completed three-volume biography by Reiner Stach, superbly translated from German by Shelley Frisch, uses newly discovered sources to capture Kafka’s life and reflect on the origins and meaning of many of his writings. Stach takes time to correct previous biographical misconceptions, and observes that while there are mountains of academic, theoretical and literary overviews of Kafka, there are few biographies.

“Stach attempts to be scrupulously fair to Kafka’s parents. Hermann Kafka was a self-made proprietor of a fancy-goods store in Prague, selling fabrics, clothes, household goods and toys…”

Read the full review of the new 3-volume Reiner Stach biography online at Spiked Online (28 February 2017) here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/kafka-a-life-beyond-literature/19511#.WLWjhfl_s5k

 

A Violent Sensation

“Violence has always been a staple of literature, but it became an obsession during the 19th century, first with the Romantics and the vogue for Gothic horror, and later still with the development of detective fiction, which started with Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe in the mid-19th century.

“But as Scott Spector explains in Violent Sensations: Sex, Crime and Utopia in Vienna and Berlin, 1860-1914, it was anxiety about an apparent rise in violence and sexual degeneracy that made Berlin and Vienna twin centres for advances in the legal and scientific discussion of these topics. More specifically, Spector looks at what motivated people of the era to ask ‘Is there something inherent in modernity and urbanisation which causes degeneracy?’ Using German-language sources of the time, Spector examines four aspects of this discourse: biological models of criminal profiling; sexual crime; the emergence of the homosexual as a social and criminal phenomenon; and anti-Semitism.

“The industrial and scientific hubs of Vienna and Berlin were known not only as beacons for culture and enlightenment, but also as centres of squalor and depravity…”

Read the full review on Spiked (30 December 2016) online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/a-violent-obsession/19153#.WGeCRPl_s5k

 

 

Identity Politics in Arts Programming

“In The New Philistines, Sohrab Ahmari has conducted a compelling exploration of how identity politics is now central to UK arts programming. Indeed, for many practitioners, identity politics is their sole subject.

Ahmari was first prompted to examine how identity politics has influenced so much quasi avant-garde art after experiencing a confused and patronising production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What Ahmari finds leads him to conclude that, far from being cutting edge, much supposedly edgy art is deeply conformist and reaches an audience disinclined to contest its political message.

As a London-based journalist at the Wall Street Journal, and an Iranian-born American, Ahmari is a well-positioned observer of British cultural life. He is both distanced from and familiar with what he commentates upon…”

Read the full review online (Spiked, 7 December 2016) here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/philistines-in-avant-garde-clothing/19074#.WEgQWPl_s5k

The Madness of Vincent Van Gogh

“Until now, the way of testing whether or not someone had good biographical knowledge of Vincent Van Gogh was to ask them about the famous ear-cutting incident. The answer ‘he cut off his ear’ informed you the speaker had only a hazy comprehension, whereas the knowledgeable person replied ‘in actuality, Van Gogh cut off only part of his ear’. Now new information suggests that Van Gogh did indeed cut off his whole left ear. On the Verge of Insanity: Van Gogh and His Illness, a new exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (closes 25 September), accompanied by an excellent catalogue, attempts to get as close as possible to the truth about Van Gogh’s physical and mental illnesses.

“The confusion about the ear incident sprang up during Van Gogh’s lifetime. On the 23 December 1888, Van Gogh was living with Paul Gauguin at the Yellow House in Arles. Gauguin announced his intention to leave Arles after persistent rows with Van Gogh. Deeply anxious and depressed, Van Gogh slashed his ear with a razor. He presented the ear wrapped in newspaper to a prostitute at a local brothel. The next day police discovered Van Gogh unconscious in his house surrounded by blood…”

Read the full review at Spiked, 26 August 2016 online here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/the-madness-of-vincent-van-gogh/18680#.V8WS0PldU5k

 

 

Re-reading John Wyndham, I

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John Wyndham (1903-1969) was a writer of the novel of ideas, where broad ideas take priority over character, mood, dialogue and naturalism. He follows a chain of events that present characters with situations and choices which illuminate the author’s themes. Wyndham’s mature novels have a lot in common with the scientific romances of H.G. Wells. Wyndham had a great variety of occupations before the war and the breadth of his experience shows up in his later writing. His early writing was stories for pulp magazines, mostly American, writing in the genres of crime and science fiction. These were published under pen names. The early stories have been reprinted and are worth reading. They are rich in ideas and provocative conceits; they are not too distant in that respect to the stories of J.G. Ballard.

During the war Wyndham worked in military intelligence and his experience of viewing the destruction of war first hand led him away from fantasy towards stories set in the present day. The experience of mundane reality overturned by the catastrophic became a staple of his literary thought thereafter. His first published novel was The Day of the Triffids (1951). It is that novel and the subsequent one, The Kraken Wakes (1953), which will be discussed here.

Wyndham was the product of a childhood during the Great War, the instability and rise of authoritarian regimes in the 1920s and 1930s, the Great Depression and the shattering experience of World War Two. This was followed by the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. Underpinning all of Wyndham’s post-War fiction is the consideration of competing mutually antagonistic ideologies which explicitly and implicitly shape his outlook on the survival of mankind. This is sometimes in the form of overt discussions of Communist and Capitalist reactions to alien threats (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos); at other times the competition is a matter of inter-species rivalry (Triffids, Kraken, Midwich Cuckoos, Chrysalids, Web)

The Day of the Triffids follows the narrator Bill Masen, who awakes in a London hospital to discover that the majority of the human race has been blinded by a supposed shower of comet debris (later mooted as an accidental transmission of a weapons satellite). Masen has a number of unnerving encounters with the blind before rescuing a young woman called Josella. Josella had been a socialite and novelist before the comet. Together they discuss leaving London to find a rural retreat. They join a small group of sighted people who plan to help a limited number of blind and to form a new society based on rational and pragmatic considerations. Before this group can depart as planned Bill and Josella are kidnapped and forced to serve as leaders of bands of blind people. These groups are depredated by sickness and attacks of the triffids (newly developed ambulatory plants cultivated for their nutritious oils and which are capable of stinging to death people). Bill and Josella are separated and flee London. Later reunited, the pair forms a small family group and attempt to survive on a farm surrounded by triffids.

The triffids are not the subject of the story. Indeed, they are little more than a means to hasten the break-up of society and add an element of the unknown to an otherwise mundane catastrophe – widespread blindness. Wyndham is not interested in triffids per se but in examining how societal norms fragment under pressure and how difficult it is for man to adjust his expectations under extraordinary circumstances. Old habits and customs outlive their usefulness; sentiment can undermine necessary pragmatism; excessive ruthlessness can impose intolerably inhumane conditions; good intentions can lead to barbaric outcomes. Wyndham follows different approaches and examines the viability and validity of each.

The novel was an enormous success, sold very well and was critically well received. The concept of the triffids entered common parlance. The story was filmed a number of times but the only adequate dramatization is the 1981 BBC television adaptation, available on DVD. That adaptation hit a sweet spot between faithfulness to the original text while making necessary adjustments for the format. It captures the spirit and letter of the novel and is highly recommended. There are a number of radio readings of the novel which are also effective and recommended, especially the Roger May reading for BBC Radio 4/4 Extra.

 

Triffids is superbly constructed. Wyndham tells the story in such a way that explores many branching possibilities: the serving of large groups of the blind by the sighted and also their abandonment; scavenging a living in an urban environment and farming in the country; the adherence to traditional values of Christian society and the establishment of a pragmatic humanitarian alternative; the imposition of authoritarian feudal serfdom and how it must – in the main – collapse. As a novel of ideas it follows characters living these alternative realities rather than the narrator describing them. The narrator’s life is tied into the farming of triffids. Being a triffid expert, Masen is in a position to supply first-person narration of background to one of the two alien elements in this fictional world (the other is the development and –putatively accidental deployment – sophisticated satellite weaponry).

There are logical faults to Triffids which are plot devices. Almost as soon as the catastrophe takes place, characters are committing suicide and succumbing to despair. In reality, people would have been waiting for aid and for their eyesight to return. The arrival of the triffids in London is unrealistically hasty. The plague (apparently artificial) kills most of the blind within days. These elements artificially accelerate the phases of the story and inject surprise, conflict and tension. The despair of the blind cements the irrevocable loss of sight; the confrontation with the triffids as soon as the day after the disaster brings forward the theme of inter-species rivalry; the plague clears away the surviving blind, ends attempts to aid the blind and removes our protagonists from cities and sets them on the road. One can acknowledge the effectiveness of Triffids’s overall pacing and progression while still finding the plague’s artificiality irksome and the immediate suicides of the blind jarring.

Josella is an example of Wyndham’s highly competent female characters. Wyndham’s co-educational experience at the progressive Bedales School left him with a lifelong belief in the equality of men and women. His fiction is full of strong female characters. There is a speech given by Coker in Triffids which presents what one might take to be Wyndham’s beliefs. It is worth looking at this speech, not least because it is sometimes misunderstood.

Coker confronts a woman at the traditionalist Christian group in Tynsham Manor when he discovers that an electrical generator has been going unused because the women there (the only sighted persons at the manor are women) have not worked out how to operate the generator. He chides her not just for her group’s lack of competence but more for its lack of initiative. She retorts

“It’s not my fault if I’m not any good at things like that.” “I’ll differ there,” Coker told her. “It’s a self-created fault. Moreover, it’s an affectation to consider yourself too spiritual to understand anything mechanical. It is a petty, and a very silly form of vanity. […] Hitherto we have been able to afford to amuse ourselves with that kind of mental laziness and parasitism. In spite of generations of talk about the equality of the sexes there has been much too great a vested interest in dependence for women to dream of dropping it.”

Coker goes on to say that the myth of female impracticality in matters technical was one fostered in a post-War British society to allow women to concentrate on domestic matters and ensure that men went on uncontested in mechanical professions. Now such niceties are unsustainable and women – every bit as competent as men when trained – must learn as much as possible for the advanced society to survive. Coker’s point is that the practice of learned helplessness is one that can only be sustained in a sophisticated, well-ordered, safe society. Wyndham points out the social construction of gender roles, suggests that change is not only possible but absolutely necessary in certain circumstances and might anyway be welcome otherwise. Not only that, he has the discussion take place in a situation germane to the setting and the narrative. It is typical of Wyndham to address sophisticated sociological points in unobtrusive ways within the context of his fiction. This is true of all his books but particularly Triffids and The Chrsyalids. Though Wyndham was writing within the conventions of Britain of the 1950s and 1960s – with a consequent dated tweeness to some of dialogue, which can be off-putting to new readers  – his ideas were as advanced and considered as any author of the time. How much he chafed at the restraints of British social mores and publishing norms can only be guessed at. Wyndham may not have been a radical but he may have wished to be more direct about matters sexual and violent and in terms of swearing.

Wyndham’s prose is rarely discussed but it is one of the great strengths of his books. It has the restraint of English middle-class emotional reserve and the crispness of American crime noire diction. His humour is dry. (A pub sign bears “a reputed likeness” of General Montgomery.) Adjectives are carefully chosen, adverbs rare and there is no straining for literary effect, though there are passages that both memorable and evocative simply through the quality of the prose. Wyndham can be elegiac as well terse. Poignant encounters are underplayed, leaving the reader to draw out the terrible implications. Readers are implicated as silent observers walking alongside Masen as he sees the blind confronting practical difficulties to succeed and fail.

That famous jibe of Brian Aldiss, that Day of the Triffids is an example of Wyndham’s “cosy catastrophe” is quite wrong. It is true, as Aldiss observed, that the hero spends much of the later chapters living with his companion in a world unfettered by law and economic contingencies in a land of supplies so plentiful that they are effectively unlimited. Characters repair to deserted saloon bars to discuss tactics and Masen considers himself liberated from social strictures that numbed him. But just because this adventure takes place in urban and pastoral England populated by the middle-classes, it is quite wrong to assume that the matters Wyndham approached were somehow less serious than the wave of “hard sci-fi” novels of the 1960s. Wyndham is always interested in characters testing their social situation and responding to change. Science, creatures and disasters are merely means by which to effect change in the social, economic and political status quo.

Far from existing in a cosy dream of middle-class liberation, Masen witnesses death by murder, suicide and illness; he assaults and is assaulted, and deals with the consequences of kidnapping and attempted rape. Masen is forced to be brutal and cold-hearted in order to save himself and to confront his innately selfish desire for self-preservation. All of this seems more pointed and real because it takes place in the world we inhabit. Rather than taking place in a space station or on a foreign world or at some time in the distant future, we experience an alternative reality which is theoretically only hours away. We confront our social assumptions and reconsider our fragile existence supported by a highly developed economic system.

 

The Kraken Wakes (1953) shares many similarities with Triffids. The novel is presented through the eyes of a couple of journalists, Mike and Phyllis Watson, observe the approach of alien spacecraft while on a honeymoon cruise. The craft descend into the sea. Soon the couple learn that the phenomena is widespread and unexplained. One of the leitmotifs is the mutual hostility of the capitalist West and Communist East and the suspicion that the opposing side is responsible for the unfolding events. This Cold War conflict makes scientific research, dissemination of accurate information and working in a common cause difficult at times impossible.

Phyllis is another of Wyndham’s strong women. He makes clear that Phyllis is actually the better journalist and more farsighted of the couple. Together the couple report on attacks on unexplained sinking of ships which causes worldwide disruption to travel and trade. It becomes clear an alien intelligence is engaging in marine warfare which humanity is ill-prepared to confront. The Watsons travel to Escondida, a tropical island, to document attacks by sea tanks on human habitations. The attack kills many of their colleagues and presents mankind with a new peril. The next phase of the attack on humanity is the melting of sea ice and the raising of worldwide sea levels. In a setpiece narrator Mike Watson describes high tide breaching the Thames walls and flooding London. London abandoned and much of Great Britain in anarchy, the Watsons flee in order to attempt surviving at their Cornish holiday home, now an island.

The subject of outright alien invasion is less approachable than Triffids, which features only one improbable element – a mobile, man-killing, carnivorous plant. For Kraken Wyndham has to introduce an alien species (never described in the novel), sci-fi technology and global warfare between mankind and aliens. Every new element adds distance between the fictional reality and the reader’s experience. The reliance on newspaper and radio reports likewise detaches readers from the events discussed, though the modern fictional approach (derived from sci-fi movie) of describing individual vignettes through the eyes of multiple characters (or an omniscient narrator) would have been more unsatisfactory. Wyndham’s approach has at least the advantage of brevity and avoids the dislocating effects of multiple perspectives and unnecessary secondary characters. Kraken does the same by having the Watsons personally involved at the arrival of the alien species and following developments closely as journalists. (Something similar happens in The Midwich Cuckoos, subject of a future post.)

The subject of global warming is prescient and precedes Ballard’s Drowned World by nine years. There are many effective scenes but the changing phases of the war feel disconnected and most are viewed from a distance. John Wyndham’s social – even anthropological – preoccupations touch upon environmental disaster and geopolitics. Though enjoyable and with a number of memorable set pieces (such as the attack of the sea tanks in Escondida and the flooding of London), The Kraken Wakes is a less effective novel than The Day of the Triffids. It ends in an almost identical situation – an isolated small group moving from a rural retreat to join a more populous group in order to form a new society – but because the Watsons’ situation and setting are less completely described and explained as the product of the evolution over a period of time, Kraken is less narratively satisfying and emotionally powerful. At the end of Triffids, when Masen’s group flees from their farm under duress we share in their mixture of emotions: we feel their anxiety and loss but also the sense of joyful release.  We can imagine the farm and its setting, whereas the Watson’s cottage and surroundings is barely described. Significantly, in Kraken the message the Watsons get is that the battle against the alien lifeform is all but won, whereas in Triffids the struggle is yet to begin in earnest.

Both novels share the themes of inter-species rivalry, the threat Cold War conflict, the catastrophic decline of established societies and economies, the struggle for life in an anarchic setting and the more overarching theme of remaking society better after disaster. Both are powerfully grounded in reality but use invented threats as the catalysts for sudden upheaval. Though Kraken has perhaps the more dramatic imagery – sea tanks attacking a sleepy tropical island village at night, London streets flooded and peopled by lone bandits – it is Triffids that is more satisfying as a whole.

While many high-brow social novels and technologically prescient sci-fi stories have become dusty curiosities, Wyndham’s novels live on as exciting stories, incisive in social comment and memorable in imagery. Wyndham’s best novels are as serious, intelligent and thought-provoking as any fiction produced in the immediate post-War period in Britain.

Review: Aubrey Beardsley catalogue raisonne

 

beardsley salome

“During his short career, the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) gained a formidable reputation as an unwholesome genius – a brilliantly original draughtsman intent on corrupting and scandalising. He should be a peripheral figure working in a minor medium (illustration) on the fringes of art movements that were stronger in applied art than in fine art, yet Beardsley’s art is not only unforgettable, it is the defining graphic manifestation of Aestheticism, Decadent art and Art Nouveau, and constitutes some of the world’s most remarkable illustrations.

“While a schoolboy in Brighton, Beardsley had a passion for theatre and designed puppet theatres, which foreshadows his later choices of subjects…”

 

Published in The Art Newspaper. Link removed due to page being inaccessible.

Review: Early Jean Dubuffet

Dubuffet Bousquet

Jean DUBUFFET (1901-1985), Joe Bousquet au lit (1947), oil on canvas, 146 x 114 cm, MoMA

Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, New York City (15 April-10 June 2016)

While I was a student there was a revival of interest in the work of Jean Dubuffet. Unfortunately, it was the late work. I took a look at the books and magazines and decided there was nothing much to see. Encountering the occasional illustration of an early work in a general reference book or magazine did not really inform me and – with so much other art to look at – I never got around to educating myself on Dubuffet.

The current exhibition in New York is the logical place for all of us to rediscover early Dubuffet. His success at exhibition at the Pierre Matisse gallery in New York ensured he was a constant presence in the New York art scene and many of his early mature-period paintings entered American public and private collections. The current exhibition includes loans from those collections and features 51 outstanding examples of Dubuffet’s painting and sculpture, all dating from before 1962. Wisely, with a single exception in a small hallway space (the 52nd item), drawings are excluded from the display. The inclusion of graphics would have diluted the powerful impact of the bold and visceral paintings.

During the occupation of France in the Second World War, former art student and then-current wine merchant Jean Dubuffet took up painting again. He was essentially starting from nothing. Having rehearsed styles and subjects popular during the pre-War period, Dubuffet had never developed any definite attachments to a movement or technique. He had no style to speak of. The works he began in 1942 were childlike drawn figures with colouring. Subjects were people on the street and daily life. This exhibition surveys these early colourful paintings and the rawer, more brutish paintings that followed in the later 1940s and 1950s. Topics include figures, portraits, landscapes, animals and street scenes; approaches include painting, collages and objets trouvés sculpture.

The definition “mixed media” might have been coined to describe Dubuffet’s paintings. He spurned pure artist’s oil paint and instead concocted his own media, mixing pastes incorporating household and commercial paints to which he added sand, gravel, dirt, charcoal, resin, coal, straw and plaster. This would sometimes be applied over heavily textured surfaces built up in plaster or putty. (Dubuffet had been alerted to the potential of textured surfaces by seeing Jean Fautrier’s Hostage series when it was first exhibited in Paris in 1945.) All of this heavy material demanded strong supports such as wood or Masonite. The coloured paste was applied with trowels and furrowed with sticks. At times it seems that Dubuffet’s aversion to beaux-arts was almost more of an imperative than any other motivation. Contemporaneous with Pollock, Dubuffet was working his own horizontally oriented planes the way a farmer ploughs a field. Dubuffet thought of himself as closer to an artisan or a labourer than a practitioner of fine art. However inaccurate that belief, it was clearly a productive and sustaining one: Dubuffet’s art shows evidence of his sustained engagement and consideration throughout his career.

The vital, unruly and uncultured figures here are an expression of hope in humanity and humanism as a counterbalance to the horror and grinding inhumanity of genocide, war and nuclear annihilation. Their depictions exist within the Existential discourse within French culture of the 1940s and 1950s. Dubuffet knew and painted many of the leading thinkers of French world of art, literature and philosophy. Dubuffet’s figures are literally earthy: they are formed of coloured dirt, sand and pebbles. They are fertile as the soil – aggressively so – with their genitals roughly outlined. In Will to Power (1946), a portly man with body hair of gravel sports his sex organ like a club. These are uncouth men and women who can (and will) procreate, regardless of bourgeois anxiety.

A small selection of portraits shows how Dubuffet negotiated the issue of description within figure paintings. “For a portrait to be useful to me, I need the features of the figure not to be too fixed. Not at all outlined – to the contrary, more erased. Confidential, even. […] In portraits you need a lot of general, very little of specific. Usually there is too much specificity, always too much. Maast says that before the portrait of Monsieur Dubois can look like Monsieur Dubois it should begin, more than anything, by looking like a man. He says that in many portraits we are in the habit of seeing, an artist has forgotten to make a man, and to manage to give him life, before making him look like Monsieur Dubois.”[1]

The fierce and accurate likeness of Joë Bousquet (1947) is loaned from MoMA. In it the paraplegic writer is shown in his bed surrounded by his books and papers. It is like a sgraffito panel excavated from some primitive Pompeii. In this case, the painting-as-object has personality – almost a history and integrity in itself. This lends the object a certain authority, aside from its pictorial attributes. The painting as object in Dubuffet’s art would be a fruitful subject for study.

Other portraits shown here have great immediacy and directness which bypass more aesthetic depictions. It is a fictional sheen of authenticity of course: Dubuffet applies aesthetic criteria during the creation of his art objects as other artists do, the only difference being that Dubuffet’s affiliations are for outsider, naïve and children’s art.

The works exhibited demonstrate the artist’s mental dexterity and sensitivity. The abstract paintings rely on delicately patterned surfaces to build up an organic or mineral shimmer. The patinas can be sumptuous, with glazes puddles suspended on a surface of gold foil. One could compare Dubuffet’s abstracts to Asger Jorn’s decorative Luxury Paintings, in which the Pollock drip method has been neutered and applied as an all-over surface pattern, yet Dubuffet’s surfaces have stubborn substantiality. Dubuffet’s surfaces have geological and cartological aspects in that they both describe surfaces and exist as surfaces, complex, compacted and distressed. The collages including butterfly wings and tobacco leaves echo Surrealist experiments of the inter-war period: Ernst’s forests and devastated decalcomanie landscapes. Dubuffet must have known Klee’s paintings and drawings and one wonders how they might have influenced his collages. Perhaps all collages of vegetal matter and tessellated surfaces inevitably share certain characteristics with Klee’s herbarium-inspired drawings.

The most unexpected items in the exhibition are wooden statuettes composed of lightly modified pieces of driftwood. The eroded fragments have a richly striated surface like weathered skin and with a hole here and there and an astute combination Dubuffet summons golems he entitles The Old Man of the Beach and Long Face (both 1959). The Astonished Man (1959) is a rubbery faced figure who gawps at us in incredulity, unable to believe what he sees. His silver-foil surfaced form is alchemically unstable, part vegetable, part mineral. These are sculptures Arcimboldo might have made, yet with greater wit, elegance and intellectual litheness than that painter had. The sculptures are comic and grotesque, pathetic and sinister and really startle.

Cruelly crippled and clownish, these grotesques menace us but also seem to beseech. “We are no different from you”, their presence suggests, even though one feels these freaks should not exist and that their existence mocks our own. They are counterpoints to Giacometti’s gnarled slivers of humanity. These country personages seem in rude health (wizened yet energetic), full of spiteful humour and gleeful buffoonery, in contrast to Giacometti’s anguished, frail dwellers of plazas and streets. Dubuffet’s personages are like wild animals or crude peasants brought into the dining room. Brut et informel , knowing and caring nothing for etiquette, they pull faces, gawp, guffaw, belch and fart.

The intelligent selections and careful placement of works enhances one’s understanding of – and sympathy for – Dubuffet’s art. Seeing such excellent examples first hand in the tranquil setting of Acquavella’s belle-époque townhouse is the best possible way to re-discover Dubuffet’s early art. This is vintage Dubuffet.

Gallery website: http://www.acquavellagalleries.com/

Fondation Jean Dubuffet: http://www.dubuffetfondation.com/home.php?lang=en

30 April 2016

[1] pp. 68-9, Mark Rosenthal et al., Jean Dubuffet: Anticultural Positions, Acquavella, 2016, HB, 208pp, ISBN 0 8478 5851 4