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Archive for the ‘Aesthetics’ Category

Futurism, Richard Humphreys (1999 Tate Publishing)

The future of Futurism has come and gone, and in some ways it was exactly what Futurists wanted. They demanded speed, noise, and violence, after all, and the twentieth century provided enormous amounts of all three. And when I say “demanded”, that is exactly what I mean: like a political party, the Futurists had a manifesto, penned by Filippo Marinetti. Clause nine was this:

We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world – militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman.

And if you’re thinking that sounds rather, well, fascist, you’re right, because Futurism, despite being an avant-garde, fetishistically modern movement, was closely allied with Italian fascism. If that news comes as a surprise when you open this book, prepare for another surprise as you leaf through it, because Futurist art, at least from masters like Umberto Boccioni or Giacomo Balla, is actually interesting, even, whisper it, skilful. Sometimes attractive too.

What it isn’t, however, is particularly distinctive: much of the art reproduced in this book could have appeared in other books in the series, which covers movements in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-century avant-garde like Cubism, Minimalism, and Surrealism. No, what makes Futurism distinctive is its bombast, its manifestos, and its political allegiances. They’re all described here, and refreshingly they’re not described in the usual stale bourgeois academese of most modern criticism in the arts.

That’s not to say all the text is worth reading: for me, analysing a picture is like analysing a joke: it destroys any spontaneous enjoyment. Art is about images and intuition; analysis is about words and logic. They take place in different parts of the brain and they shouldn’t be mixed. Perhaps that’s why it’s easier to take Futurist paintings seriously than it is to take Futurist prose:

We want to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and rashness. The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt.

Perhaps the most appropriate response to Futurism in theory was Evelyn Waugh’s vignette in Brideshead Revisited (1945) of Futurism in action:

We were joined by a Belgian Futurist, who lived under the, I think, assumed name of Jean de Brissac la Motte, and claimed the right to bear arms in any battle anywhere against the lower classes. (Part II, 3)

The battle in this instance was against the lower classes of Britain during the General Strike, and the attempt to join it ended like this:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week.

But the embers of Futurism are glowing yet, and this book is a good short survey of the pre-war fires of energy and excitement that created them.

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Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinoüs, Royston Lambert (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1984)

Antinoüs was the Bithynian catamite of the Emperor Hadrian and was discovered dead in the river Nile, apparently drowned, in 130 AD. He was about 19 years old. But why did he die? How did he die? That’s been a mystery ever since. This book is a discussion of the possible solutions and of the way Antinoüs’s life and death have influenced Western art and culture right to the present day.

Unfortunately, although Beloved and God has a good crisp title, with a subtle double entendre, its title isn’t matched by its prose. This book is dense and sometimes difficult to read, with some spectacularly crass metaphors. But it’s still rewarding, if partly as an illustration of how biography is more a disguised (and sometimes not-so-disguised) way of talking about oneself than it is of talking about one’s subject. Royston Lambert was presumably a paederast in the classical sense, and when he talks about the complexity of Hadrian’s personality or the beauty of body and soul of Antinoüs, he’s really writing disguised autobiography or sexual fantasy. But as Lambert talks about himself, he also packs in a lot of classical history and tells the fascinating story of how the cult of Antinoüs was created by Hadrian and spread throughout the empire.

I don’t like Antinoüs’ looks or the cult that surrounded him: there’s something bloated and sickly about both of them. But nihil humanum and all that: there were plenty of boy-bandits in the ancient world and there are plenty today, which is why this book has had several editions. And it does have an interesting story to tell. Among other fascinating sidelights was the story of the Paedogogium in Rome (Trajan’s and, to a lesser extent, Hadrian’s boy brothel) and the grafitti scratched there, which seems to record an early Christian pupil being mocked by his peers: there’s a crude donkey-headed Christ crucified, with the subscription ALEXAMENOS WORSHIPS HIS GOD. Elsewhere, Alexamenos seems to have struck back by proclaiming himself ALEXAMENOS THE FAITHFUL, which even I found touching. More importantly, there’s a good overview of the representation of Antinoüs in sculpture and coinage. And Lambert manages to convey the power of Antinoüs’ death in the Nile very well, describing the ancient worship of the river and the only occasionally successful attempts to placate its ferocity and caprice. Anyone drowned in the river, however humble their origin, automatically became a god and had shrines erected to them, but Antinoüs was special to someone very important and his cult became the biggest of all.

So what are the possible solutions to the mystery of his death? Lambert lists them: a boating accident; a murder by jealous rivals; a botched castration meant to preserve his youth; suicide prompted by the disappearance of youth and hence, inevitably, of Hadrian’s affections; a sacrifice to reverse successive failures of the very important Egyptian grain-harvest, which would soon have triggered trouble throughout the Empire. Traditionally the way to appease the Nile was to sacrifice to it and perhaps Antinoüs chose to die for the sake of his lover. Royston Lambert sacrificed in another way, because he was at the end of his life when he wrote this book and it was published posthumously. He could have been doing other things in the time he had left, but he wanted to leave a legacy and guide more people around the Antinoüm. But although this book is a memorial to Hadrian and Antinoüs, it’s also a memorial to Lambert himself. We can’t escape death and very few of us manage to escape ego.

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The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, James Hall (Thames & Hudson 2014)

I enjoy books that have me taking notes and looking for more online. This book certainly had me doing that: it’s erudite and informative, full of fascinating asides and anecdotes. Did you know, for example, that the arrow transfixing the martyr’s neck in Pietro Perugino’s St Sebastian (c. 1493-4) actually consists of a narrow line of text: PETRAUS PERUGINUS PINXIT, meaning “Pietro Perugino Painted (This)” in Latin? I didn’t know that and I’m not sure I’d’ve noticed anything strange about the arrow if I’d looked at the painting for myself. Good art-criticism enriches and informs our experience of art like that. And if you wonder how you missed something that seems so obvious once it’s pointed out to you, well, that’s a reminder that you should look more carefully when you’re on your own.

But I wasn’t so sure that this book was good art-criticism as I worked my way through it. Or at least, I wondered whether it was as good as Laura Cumming’s A Face to the World: On Self-Portraits (2009). I don’t think it is, but Cumming set a high standard. She also followed a well-trodden track that Hall has followed again. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez appear in both books, but it would be perverse to avoid them in a history of the self-portrait. Then again, perversity is one way of making a name for yourself when so many critics have written about a limited amount of art for so long. James and Cumming don’t employ it, but I wish they had in the case of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (c. 1638-9). It would be perverse of an art-critic to call Gentileschi a bad painter and this second-most famous of her works an ugly, awkward and uncouth mess.

But it would also be true. Hall and Cumming aren’t perverse: they treat paintress and painting seriously. Where’s Brian Sewell when you need him? Six foot underground, that’s where. I think he could have written a better book on self-portraits than either James and Cumming have done. It would certainly have been more idiosyncratic and politically incorrect. But would Sewell have been able to draw a parallel between self-portraiture and acting by quoting from Diderot? I don’t think he would. James could and did (but I’ll put the original French first):

Garrick passe sa tête entre les deux battants d’une porte, et, dans l’intervalle de quatre à cinq secondes, son visage passe successivement de la joie folle à la joie modérée, de cette joie à la tranquillité, de la tranquillité à la surprise, de la surprise à l’étonnement, de l’étonnement à la tristesse, de la tristesse à l’abattement, de l’abattement à l’effroi, de l’effroi à l’horreur, de l’horreur au désespoir, et remonte de ce dernier degré à celui d’où il était descendu. – Denis Diderot, Paradoxe Sur le Comédien (1773/1830)

Garrick puts his head between two leaves of a door, and in the space of four or five seconds, his face passed successively from wild joy to moderate joy, from this joy to composure, from composure to surprise, from surprise to astonishment, from astonishment to sadness, from sadness to gloom, from gloom to fright, from fright to horror, from horror to despair, and then back again from this final stage up to the one from which he had started. (ch. 7, “At the Crossroads”, quoting from Diderot’s The Paradox of Acting, written 1773, published 1830)

That was one of the parts of The Self-Portrait that had me taking a note and finding out more online. But erudite and informative as the book was, it was still, like all artistic criticism, trapped inside a web of words. Critics write constantly about geniuses but can’t explain them or analyse their work other than superficially. Dürer, Rembrandt and Velázquez all had special brains. I want to know how those brains evolved not just in a cultural sense but in a biological sense too. And I don’t believe that all races were capable of producing the dazzling art that’s discussed here.

Biological analysis of art will seem perverse and even blasphemous to critics, who mostly belong to the biology-denying Guardianista community, but their prejudices won’t stem the flood of perversity that is on its way. And if art criticism is something will never be the same again, then nor will the human race.

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100 Pre-Raphaelite Masterpieces, Gordon Kerr (Flame Tree Publishing 2011)

For me there is a simple test for Pre-Raphaelite art and many of the paintings in this book don’t pass it. The test goes like this: is this art deeply, soul-stirringly ugly and unpleasant on the eye? Are its colours garish and ill-judged, its figures stiff and ungainly, its general air stilted, simpering and sentimental?

If I can say “Yes” to those questions, it’s Pre-Raphaelite art. So Sir John Everett Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents (1849) is Pre-Raphaelite. And Millais’s Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849) is too. And Millais’s Ophelia (1851-2) definitely is. And so are William Holman Hunt’s The Hireling Shepherd (1851), The Awakening Conscience (1852) and The Light of the World (c. 1852). That last, which shows Christ knocking on an overgrown door, is one of the most famous paintings ever created. For me, it’s also one of the ugliest. Pre-Raphaelite painters often turn flesh and other matter into something that looks like plastic. Here it looks like putrescent plastic.

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)

William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (c. 1852)


But Holman Hunt’s The Scapegoat (1854) doesn’t pass the “Yuck!” test so successfully, so it’s not very Pre-Raphaelite for me. Nor is his Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867). And most of the paintings here by Dante Gabriel Rossetti don’t even come close to passing the “Yuck!” test. He wasn’t a particularly good artist, but he could capture the beauty of female hair, skin, lips and clothing, and even set them glowing, so I don’t like to classify him as Pre-Raphaelite. I don’t like to classify Sir Edward Burne-Jones as that either. He too could capture beauty, though less earthily and more ethereally.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Monna Vanna (1866)


But Rossetti and Burne-Jones were Pre-Raphaelite, the best of a generally bad movement. Anthony Frederick Sandys was technically a better artist than either of them, as he proved with Medea (1866-8), but he couldn’t capture beauty so well. William Waterhouse could, but he definitely wasn’t Pre-Raphaelite. He was neo-classical and skilful and if the two of his paintings included here, Ophelia (c. 1894) and Juliet (1898), don’t seem particularly out of place, that’s because they are far from his best. In fact, I would say that the only masterpieces here are by Rossetti. He was an uneven artist who belongs with the Pre-Raphaelites at his worst and transcended them at his best. Millais never transcended anything. But perhaps Pre-Raphaelitism would have been a less interesting movement if it hadn’t failed so often and so uglily.

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Risingtidefallingstar, Philip Hoare (Fourth Estate 2017)

The best thing about this book is, I was disappointed to learn, the photo by Mary Martin on the front cover. The black clothes, the scarlet cap, the bursting wave in the distance and the blurred, jumping feet: it’s intense, instantaneous art. If the text had lived up to it, this would have been a very good book. But it doesn’t live up to it and I’d call it good only in patches. Robert Macfarlane, who’s included in the “Thanks” at the end, is better at turning his encounters with earth and sea into digressive, rambling, allusive and anecdotal literature.

That’s what I’ve found, anyway. Hoare’s prose seems a bit stiff and constrained. I don’t find it easy to read and I wish I did, because he has some interesting ideas and writes about some interesting people, all the way from Wilfred Owen and Stephen Tennant to Sylvia Plath and David Bowie. And there are interesting black-and-white images to accompany everything. That’s why the lack of an index is such a serious flaw: when a book is full of information, it should have sign-posts.

But the lack of one sign-post is a good thing. Hoare is homosexual, but doesn’t write about being so here. He isn’t self-obsessed: he’s sea-obsessed. He describes swimming in the sea again and again in this book and he tries hard to make his writing into a swirling, surging sea of sounds, sights and symbolism. For me, he fails, but the effort was worthwhile.

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Morrissey The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart by Gavin HoppsMorrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart, Gavin Hopps (Continuum Books 2012)

In a way I was an ideal reader for this book, because I was impressed by it despite myself. Gavin Hopps is described on the back cover as “the Research Council’s UK Academic Fellow in the School of Divinity at St. Mary’s College, the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.” He takes people like Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari and Žižek seriously. He uses words like “focalization” and “performative” and phrases like “the gendered subject” and “etceterizing gestures”. I thought his book would be a particularly ugly example of breaking a butterfly on the wheel.

I was wrong. I have to agree with something else on the back cover: the claim that this book is “at once erudite and accessible”. It’s highly erudite and despite the occasional intrusion of po-mo jargon it’s highly readable too. Beyond that, it does Morrissey a very great service. It proves that he is much more than a butterfly. Yes, there is shimmering beauty and tantalizing elusiveness in his work, but there’s profundity and intelligence too. And even muscularity. To adapt one of his own lyrics: the more you dismiss him, the larger he looms.

And Hopps is well-equipped to discuss all sides of his work, because he knows a lot about music, not just about literature and popular culture. When he’s discussing the chordal structure of Johnny Marr’s guitar-playing, he can drop asides like this: “The nineteenth-century musicologist Karl Meyrberger famously described the ‘Tristran chord’ – the radically ambiguous combination of F-B-D# and G# with which Tristran und Isolde begins – as a ‘Zwitterakkord’, that is, an ‘androgynous’ or ‘bisexual’ chord (see Nattiez, Music and Discourse, pp. 219-29).” (ch. 1, “Celibacy, Abstinence and Rock ’n’ Roll”, note 77, pg. 32)

But Hopps wears his learning lightly: he isn’t showing off, he’s trying to analyse Morrissey and the Smiths with the seriousness that he thinks they deserve. He doesn’t fall into the trap that he identifies in “Mark Simpson’s Saint Morrissey – which is a book about Mark Simpson that occasionally digresses to say something about Morrissey” (ch. 1, note 19, pg. 17). If you’re a fan of Morrissey and the Smiths, this book will enrich your understanding and enhance your enjoyment, sending you back to the music with new and more sensitive ears.

And unless you’re very well-read, it will introduce you to some new authors and new ideas: “The phrase Sprachskepsis or Sprachkritik refers to a radical loss of faith in language, which results in a sense of existential estrangement, the celebrated account of which is Hugo von Hoffmanstahl’s The Letter of Lord Chandos” (ch. 3, “The Art of Coyness”, note 74, pg. 163). Oscar Wilde, Philip Larkin and John Betjeman won’t be new to many readers, but Hopps does a good job of explaining how Morrissey has incorporated their work into his own. Morrissey is a magpie as well as a maker. But there’s a curious omission in Hopps’ study of his influences and predecessors: A.E. Housman, who offers even more similarities than any of those three. Wilde might be Morrissey’s greatest hero, but his art was much more elaborate, artificial and upper-class than Morrissey’s or Housman’s.
Mozipedia by Simon Goddard
Like Morrissey, Housman wrote lyrics about lads and laddish crimes, not mannered prose about rich decadents and London clubs. So why is Housman not discussed in this book? I don’t know. So much of what Hopps says about Morrissey applies to Housman too: the elusiveness, the irony, the sadness, shyness and feeling of being “a foreigner on the earth”. Housman has an entry in Simon Goddard’s Mozipedia: The Encyclopedia of Morrissey and the Smiths (2010) and although that’s not in the bibliography here, I assume Hopps has read it. Not that he needed to: Housman would be an obvious forerunner of Morrissey even if Morrissey had never been influenced by him or referred to him.

And Hopps could also have learnt from Housman how to wear learning even more lightly, because Housman was a highly learned man who wrote simple, clear prose with vigour and insight. Fortunately, the worst prose here is in the notes, as in this quotation from Matthew Bannister’s White Noise, White Boys: Masculinities and 1980s Indie Guitar Pop (2006):

New Pop discourses were mainly concerned to demonstrate how postmodernism, poststructuralism and postfeminism as manifested in MTV, Madonna, Prince and digital sampling celebrated a shiny new androgynous semiotic wonderland, where continuous self-invention through artifice and intertextual pastiche eased sexual differences, problematized authorship and created polysemic and polysexual possibilities. (note 6, pg. 14, ch. 1)

Hopps only gestures towards writing as bad as that. He doesn’t make the jaw-dropping connections that Dr Miriam B. Stimbers makes in Can the Cannibal?: Aspects of Angst, Abjection and Anthropophagy in the Music of Suzi Quatro (2004), but I assume that Morrissey has been flattered to have someone as intelligent and erudite discussing his work. Not all erudition is valuable, of course, but if you’re a fan of Morrissey and the Smiths, you should try this book and see if you agree that Hopps rocks. He has a lot to say and says it well as he explores every facet of Morrissey’s art, from falsetto and flowers to melancholy and melisma, from no-saying and nonbelonging to eccentricity and embarrassment.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Musings on Music

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Plankton Wonders of the Drifting World by Christian SardetPlankton: Wonders of the Drifting World, Christian Sardet (The University of Chicago Press 2015)

Originally published in French as Plancton, aux origines du vivant, this is a big book on a tiny subject. A microscopic subject, in fact. Or mostly so:

It is not easy to collect and study a drifting ecosystem consisting of a vast multitude of organisms ranging in size from less than 1 micron to tens of meters, over 10-million-fold difference. The smallest beings are viruses, and then bacteria and archaea. The largest are threadlike colonial cnidarians (siphonophores such as Praya dubia) that can reach more than 50 meters when extending their fishing filaments. (Introduction, pg. 16)

Nothing unites these organisms except the way they drift on the ocean’s currents: “plankton” is from the same Greek root as “planet”, which is literally a wandering star. And if there is life on another planet or one of its moons, it may be no stranger than some of the organisms here. And may be less so. The faintly dizzying smell of ink that rose from the pages of the copy I looked at went well with the phantasmagoric colours and shapes on those pages. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque, all remind me of a line from Aquinas: Unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis – “One philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee” (Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, 1273).

The philosopher at work here is the French marine biologist and planktonologist Christian Sardet, creator of the Plankton Chronicles project and a worthy heir to Jacques Cousteau, who sailed around the world to capture images of macroscopic life like whales, dolphins and squid. Sardet sails around the world to capture the microscopic.

In this, he’s also a worthy heir to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who first popularized the beauty of microscopic marine life in books like Kunstformen der Natur (1904), or “Artforms of Nature”. His books truly were art, because he illustrated rather than photographed his subjects, like the “siliceous skeletons of polycystine radiolarians” on page 85, which are reproduced from Kunstformen.

Something is lost in a photograph, but the door of technology can’t be closed now and some images could only be captured by a photograph, like the instant in which a misleadingly named predator meets its next meal on page 166:

The naked pteropod Clione limacia, or “sea-angel”, is a torpedo-like creature a few centimeters long. Furiously flapping its fins, it speeds through the water hunting its favorite prey, the coil-shelled thecosome pteropod Limacia helicina (lower left corner). On contact, Clione immediately ejects six buccal cones, grabs the prey, then eats it slowly with its raspy tongue. Clione roam the cold polar waters where they can reach high densities comparable to the tiny shrimp that constitute krill. Sea angels are themselves a major food for marine animals.

The photograph, “taken by Alexander Semanov in the White Sea” (off Russia), looks like a Lovecraftian deity descending on a Lovecraftian demon. Velella, a beautiful blue cnidarian that floats on the surface, propelled by the wind, is more like something from Clark Ashton Smith. There’s a photograph of a specimen of Velella about to be eaten, with gourmet-like delicacy, by a giant sun-fish.

Lovecraft and Smith would have enjoyed not just the images in this book, but the language too. The colours and shapes are phantasmagoric and so are the scientific names: from Asterionellopsis to Xystonella, from Phaeodactylum to Meganictyphanes. But the terminology is complex because it has to be and this is actually very clear writing:

These three spumellarian polycystines measure between 50 and 100 microns. To capture microscopic prey, they use membranous and cytoplasmic extensions, a peduncle called an axopode, and shorter extensions called rhizopodes that cover their entire surface. (pg. 79)

Christian Sardet translated this book himself from French with Dana Sardet and I’d like to sample it in the original. But Georgian would be even better: plankton should be written about in a strange language and beautiful alphabet. Of course, French and English are strange from the perspective of Georgian, but I don’t think the Roman alphabet could ever look beautiful to a Georgian. It’s functional and perhaps it’s good to have that contrast with the phantasmagoric.

If it is a contrast. Everything here is functional, no matter how strange or beautiful it seems:

Ctenophores owe their name to the Greek word ctene, referring to the minuscule combs comprised of thousands of fused cilia, arranged in eight rows on the gelatinous surface. The cilia of these comb plates are made of the same microtubular elements as those present in human cells. A simple nervous system controls the pulsating movement of the comb plates that act like tiny prisms, diffracting light in rainbow colors. (pg. 98)

No matter how remote ctenophores, diatoms, cephalopods, nudibranchs, tintinnids, chaetognaths and doliolids seem from humans, we have a common ancestor with them. And vertebrates are part of the plankton: larval fish drift there, so we were once part of it too. We mirror the world and the world mirrors us. But some parts of the mirror are more beautiful to look at than others and the world of plankton is certainly one of them.

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Drawing and Painting Plants by Christine BrodieDrawing and Painting Plants, Christina Brodie (A & C Black 2006)

A book that combines botany with beauty. Christina Brodie’s beautiful drawings of trees, flowers, leaves, fruit and seeds rely on a botanically trained eye. So it’s a textbook in two ways: artistic and scientific. The colours and shapes of plants please the eye; understanding those colours and shapes challenges the brain.

So does capturing them on paper with pencil, ink and paint. Art is an intelligent activity in more ways than one. Illustration has one big advantage over photography: the eye can be selective and adaptive in a way the lens can’t. When Christina Brodie drew a passion flower for page 31, she reduced it to its essentials to capture its structure: the three-pronged stigma, androgynophore, hinged anther, corona filament, perianth segments, and so on.

Colour and shading weren’t important, so she didn’t depict them. Elsewhere, she does: the autumn leaves on pages 96 and 97, for example. There are also two photographs on page 97 and they underline the advantage of illustration. Brodie’s leaves are isolated on stark white paper; her photographs have backgrounds and inessentials. Photography can’t focus and exclude in the way that illustration does and there’s no clear sense of purpose and mind in photography.

Nor does photography pay proper tribute to the complexity and depth of nature. A camera can record a leaf in the same time and with the same ease as it records a forest. Or record a star with the same easy as a galaxy. If photography is an art, it’s a lazy one. There’s nothing lazy about botanical art and some of the power of this book comes not just from the obvious skill of the artist but also from her implicit patience and perseverance. We see in an instant what sometimes must have taken hours to create.

So art is a ritual that pays proper respect to the deep evolutionary time that is also implicit in this book. From fruits and flowers to ferns and fungi: plants come in a huge variety of forms and have been evolving and diversifying for hundreds of millions of years. Anyone who opens this book will see that for themself, but botanical artists like Christina Brodie appreciate it more deeply. She’s a highly skilled artist and thanks to printing she’s able to share her skill with many others.

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Guide to Garden Wildlife by Richard LewingtonGuide to Garden Wildlife, Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing 2008)

Richard Lewington illustrated the excellent Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe (2006). Here he’s both illustrator and author, describing and depicting the many species of mammal, reptile, bird, insect, arachnid and mollusc that can be found in a British garden. But that list isn’t exhaustive: millipedes and centipedes aren’t insects or arachnids:

Luminous Centipede Geophilus carpophagus

Dark and sombrely marked, this centipede is sometimes known as the “glow worm” as it gives off phosphorescent light at night. Found under loose bark and fallen logs, and in damp sheds and buildings. Widespread, it appears to be essentially coastal in northern England and Scotland. (“Chilopoda”, pg. 164)

Centipedes are strange animals. Luminous ones are even stranger. But glowing-in-the-dark isn’t the greatest feat of Geophilus carpophagus. Like all other centipedes, it has to solve complex biomechanical problems with an exigent allocation of neurons. As Lewington notes, centipedes are elusive, fast-moving and predatory. But they have flexible bodies that are never in the same orientation twice. Some very interesting algorithms must be at work in their brains and bodies.

In a more general sense, that’s true of every page in the guide proper, with Lewington’s drawings of beautiful or bizarre animals facing potted summaries of their behaviour and habitats. Evolution is a kind of algorithm and every species in this book, from the sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus, on page 49 to the horse leech, Haemopis sanguisuga, on page 195, has a common ancestor. So evolution is the greatest artist of all, working with matter and energy to create millions of variations on that common ancestral theme.

But the human brain is also a product of evolution, so this book is actually part of nature. That would be true even if it used photographs, but I prefer illustrations. Photography is literally “writing with light”, but a camera is a mindless mechanism. Richard Lewington understands light and had to struggle as he learnt how to capture it on paper. By drawing nature, you acquire a deeper understanding of the richness and complexity of nature. When you draw as well as Richard Lewington and his brother Ian, who supplied the bird illustrations here, you can initiate the unartistic and bring them at least across the threshold of nature’s temple. There’s something magical and ritualistic in illustration that isn’t found in photography and a book like this is as much as an aesthetic experience as an intellectual one.

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Drawn from Paradise by Richard Attenborough and Errol FullerDrawn from Paradise: The discovery, art and natural history of the birds of paradise, David Attenborough and Errol Fuller (Collins 2012)

A book about feats for the eyes that also is a feast for the eyes. The second set of eyes are human; the first are avine – specifically, the eyes of female birds of paradise. The gorgeous plumage of the males has been created by female preference over many generations. The more attractive a male’s feathers and the more energetically and skilfully he displays, the more likely he has been to mate and leave offspring. As the most attractive males in each generation are selected, so the features that make them attractive grow ever more exaggerated, even – or especially – if they become a handicap in escaping predators and so on.

Darwin called this “sexual selection” and it’s most famous in the peacock. Peahens are drab and inconspicuous by comparison, but they are the driving force for the spectacular feathers of the male. If peacocks didn’t exist, would any artist have been able to create them? I don’t think so. The same goes for the birds of paradise: it’s not just their beauty and extravagance that are astonishing. So is their variety. Some have golden feathers, some have scarlet, some have celestial blue. Some have plumes, some ruffs, some sprays, some wires and some “flank feathers” that rise “to form a perfect ellipse”, framing the male’s head during courtship (ch. 6, “The Sicklebills”, pg. 142).

That’s the brown sicklebill, Epimachus mayeri. The superb bird of paradise, Lophorina superba, does something even stranger, raising a cape of feathers on its back to create a kind of cone around its head, in the shadow of which two white head-feathers glimmer like eyes. But it wasn’t until artists saw these birds in the wild that they knew precisely how to represent them. Before that, they’d used guesswork and inevitably got many things wrong. For a long time, as Attenborough describes, artists were working from dead specimens, sometimes traded several times before they reached Europe and sometimes lacking their wings and feet. This gave rise to the legend that the birds floated rather than flew, living permanently in the sky till they died and fell to earth. Hence the name “birds of paradise”:

In 1522 the first of many, many bird of paradise plumes arrived in Europe. Within just months they attracted the attention of a celebrated artist, Hans Baldung Grien. His picture may have been a comparatively flimsy affair, but it began a tradition among artists that has continued to this day. The list of artists who have felt compelled to paint or draw birds of paradise is studded with some illustrious names: Brueghel, Rubens, Rembrandt, Millais. Then there are men who actually specialised in painting birds: [Jacques] Barraband, [Josef] Wolf, [William] Hart, [John] Gould, [John Gerrard] Keulemans. And, of course, there are modern painters. Walter Weber produced a series of iconic images for The National Geographic magazine during the early 1950s. William T. Cooper illustrated two major monographs on birds of paradise, and Raymond Ching is known throughout the world for his poetic and highly charged paintings. (Introduction, pg. 32)

The work of these artists illustrates the book. There are no photographs, just paintings, drawings and engravings from the six centuries during which Europeans have been fascinated and dazzled by the Paradisaeidea. Errol Fuller, the co-author of the book, is one of the artists. He’s a skilful painter, but he has to be: birds of paradise are challenging subjects, the visual equivalent of a complicated piece for violin or piano. An artist has to have full command of colour and line. The artists here do: you can almost smell the jungle in some modern paintings.

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis

Jacques Barraband, Petit oiseau de paradis


But that realism is the influence of photography and of personal observation. The Frenchman Jacques Barraband (1761-1809) never got to Papua New Guinea or northern Australia, so he never saw the living birds, but he remains one of the great paradiseans, able to bring dead specimens to life on canvas. The biographical section at the end of the book, describing “People Associated with the Discovery and Visual Representation of Birds of Paradise”, says this:

Despite the incredible beauty of his images, and the great influence they have had, comparatively little is known of Jacques Barraband and it has not proved possible to find a portrait of him. He was the son of a weaver, and it seems he worked originally as a tapestry designer at Gobelin’s, and later turned his hand to decorating porcelain at the famous factory in Sèvres. (pg. 236)

So we know he existed, but we don’t have an image of him. The opposite applies to some birds of paradise: we have images, but don’t know whether they ever existed. Some paintings and drawings are mysterious. Are they are invented or based on real specimens that are now lost? Birds of paradise often hybridize, adding more phantasmogoric variety to the family, and a few species may have gone extinct or be awaiting re-discovery.

Those are tantalizing prospects, but the biological interest of this book isn’t confined to birds. The biographical section at the back contrasts with what’s gone before. Birds of paradise come in many colours and shapes, but the “People Associated with” their “Discovery and Visual Representation” are overwhelmingly white males of northern European ancestry. They’re the ones who have created the beautiful art and run the enormous risks. New Guinea has always been a dangerous place, with its fast rivers, mountainous terrain, violent tribes and tropical diseases. That’s why it attracted one of the twentieth century’s greatest adrenalin-junkies:

Adventurer, bar-fly, beachcomber, boxer, brawler, drifter, entertainer, freedom fighter, lover, platypus and bird fancier, prospector, self-confessed thief, sailor, writer, Hollywood icon, Errol Flynn [1909-59] packed every conceivable human activity into his whirlwind tour through life. He starred in almost 60 films, wrote two novels and an autobiography, before dying at the comparatively early age of 50 from the effects of a totally worn-out body. (pg. 240)

I was surprised to find Errol Flynn here, but his presence and the quote about collecting birds of paradise from his memoir My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1960) make the book even stranger and even more satisfying to read. White men like Flynn are as spectacular for their achievements as male birds of paradise are for their plumage. Perhaps sexual selection explains both sets of phenomena. Certainly some kind of evolution does, because genetics are responsible for the feats of both. There is much more to this book than birds, but phantasmagoric feathers are why it’s such a feast for the eyes.

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