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A Forger’s Tale: Confessions of the Bolton Forger, Shaun Greenhalgh (Allen & Unwin 2017)

Was I was one of the many people fooled by the Bolton Forger? I think so, because a few months ago I read a book on Leonardo da Vinci that contained an attractive profile of a young woman. I liked it and even thought of finding it online and putting it on Overlord-of-the-Über-Feral.

I’m pretty sure that the same drawing, entitled La Bella Principessa, opens the photo-section of this fascinating and well-written autobiography. The caption underneath runs:

I saw this drawing in Milan in 2015 and despite all the frenzy in the press, it is my work of 1978. Although it looks to have been gone over or ‘restored’ by a better hand than mine. But, like me, no Leonardo!

In his final chapter, “Postscript”, Shaun Greenhalgh (pronounced Green-alsh or similar) gives more details. He says that he made the drawing in imitation of Leonardo, then sold it “for less than the effort that went into it to a dealer in Harrogate in late 1978 – not as a fake or by ever claiming that it was something it wasn’t.” More than 30 years later, he learned that his drawing had risen higher in the world than he could ever have guessed:

I received [an art book from an anonymous donor and] the picture on the cover was immediately familiar, but better-looking than I remembered it. […] [The] title [of the drawing] was rather grand and pompous – La Bella Principessa – the beautiful princess. Or, as I knew her, ‘Bossy Sally from the Co-Op’. (pg. 354)

From the sublime to the ridiculous! The Co-Op is a supermarket chain in northern England. Greenhalgh continues:

I drew this picture in 1978 when I worked at the Co-Op. The ‘sitter’ was based on a girl called Sally who worked on the check-outs in the retail store bolted onto the front of the warehouse where I also worked. Despite her humble position, she was a bossy little bugger and very self-important. If you believe in reincarnation, she may well once have been a Renaissance princess – she certainly had the attitude and self-belief of such a person.

You see the girl in the drawing differently when her label changes. But the drawing itself hasn’t changed. Now that I think back on my first sight of it, I remember being half-aware that it was remarkably clear and bright by comparison with the other art in the Leonardo book. It definitely stood out, but I didn’t suspect anything. After all, it was in a book by an expert on Leonardo, so I accepted its attribution without question.

And so, without knowing it at the time, I had an important lesson in the way art often works. Our appreciation of it can be affected much more than we might like to think by the labels and reputations that go with it. Greenhalgh says here more than once than we should enjoy art without worrying about whether it’s genuine or not. And what is “genuine” anyway? That’s one of the fascinating questions raised by this book and by the phenomenon of forgery in general. Here’s more of what he says about the drawing:

I’m a bit unsure how to talk about this because the book was written by an eminent Oxford professor and must have been quite an effort. I don’t want to ruffle any feathers or cause problems but I nearly swallowed my tongue on reading of its supposed value – £150 million! It would be crazy for any public body to pay such a sum. So I feel the need to say something about it.

He goes on to describe how he created the drawing and made it look old. It was a good effort but he says there are “umpteen reasons for not thinking this drawing to be by Leonardo.” (pg. 357) One of the most important, for him, is that it isn’t skilful enough: “I couldn’t match how Leonardo would have rendered it [a section of cross-hatching]. But I have a good excuse. He is he and I’m just me.”

Well, Shaun Greenhalgh isn’t impressed by Shaun Greenhalgh, but lots of other people have been. If you read this book, you’ll probably join them. He tells the remarkable story of how an apparently ordinary lad from the Lancashire town of Bolton fooled the art world again and again with work in a great variety of mediums and styles. Sometimes he meant to fool people and sometimes, as with La Bella Principessa, he didn’t. And he says he’s sorry that Bolton Museum, “my favourite childhood place”, was duped by a “15 minute splash of light and colour” he’d done “in the style of Thomas Moran”, an American artist originally born in Bolton.

The watercolour is reproduced in the photo-section, labelled “© Metropolitan Police”, because Scotland Yard – or “the Yardies” as Greenhalgh disdainfully calls them – now have a lot of what he’s created. They raided his home, carried away much of the contents, then slowly got around to prosecuting him. In the end, he got four years and eight months in jail for his artistic endeavours. The art-critic Waldemar Januszczack condemns the length of that sentence in the introduction. Januszczack was someone else fooled by the Bolton forger. In his case it was a Gauguin Faun “[d]one in three parts and authenticated by the Wildenstein Institute of Paris”. Januszczack waxed lyrical about the faun in a Gauguin biography he did for the BBC, but says that “[i]nstead of hating Shaun Greenhalgh for fooling me, I immediately liked him for pushing my button and being a clever rogue.” (Introduction, pg. 4)

Greenhalgh wouldn’t agree that he’s either clever or a rogue, but he’s definitely wrong about the first thing, at least. He’s a self-taught expert on a dazzling range of art from a daunting stretch of centuries. Or millennia, rather, because his forgeries included an attractive “Amarna Princess” in alabaster, supposedly from the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th Century BC. Like many of his other works, the princess was coveted by an “expert” who thought he could get it for much less than it was apparently worth. After all, the statue was being offered for sale by a family of thick northerners – Greenhalgh and his parents – who had no real idea of what it was. In fact, they had a much better idea than the expert – or the experts, rather, because the “Amarna Princess” was probed and pondered for months. Greenhalgh never expected it to withstand the scrutiny, but: “In late October 2003, we were paid half a million for the Amarna Princess, less taxes. So $440,000.” It ended up in Bolton Museum again and Greenhalgh says again that he wasn’t comfortable about that and didn’t touch most of the money.

And is he still trying to assuage his conscience when he insists the Princess clearly wasn’t pukka?

The first problem with the Amarna figure was that it was not done to a proper proportion, something fundamental in all ancient Egyptian sculpture, even with the radical designs of the court of Akhenaten. […] The left arm, or what’s left of it, was cut ovoid in section, which is again un-Egyptian. Part of the robe extending into the negative space to the figure’s left is also totally wrong. […] One other mistake about it was that I put a ‘contrapposto’ into the torso that was totally out of place. That’s the slightly slouchy pose you first see in Greek art of the classical period, post-fifth century BC. It isn’t found at all in Egyptian sculpture. (pg. 346)

Maybe he’s trying to assuage his conscience or maybe he’s re-living his triumph over the experts. Or maybe he’s doing both. Whatever it was, his next major forgery, a bas-relief of an Assyrian priest, was meant for the British Museum down south. And this was a forgery too far. The experts rumbled him this time and the police came knocking. Then he began a slow legal journey towards conviction and custody. Prison is where he wrote this autobiography, but he doesn’t devote much space to it. Instead, he describes how an apparently ordinary lad from Bolton, born in 1960, acquired such a love for and knowledge of art from all over the world and right through history, whether it’s ancient Egypt, Renaissance Italy or Mayan Mexico. Unlike most of us, though, when Greenhalgh liked the look of something he wanted to make something like it for himself. And he wanted it to be as authentic as possible. That’s why he learned about the chemical composition of Roman metalwork and Chinese porcelain.

Most art experts learn through their eyes, by looking at art and reading about it. Greenhalgh did that, but he stepped into a third dimension because he learnt with his hands too. And he stepped into a fourth dimension, because he learnt about the role of time and patience in artistic creation. By doing all that, he won insights that few others possess. As he says: “I’ve always found it strange that art, unlike most professions and trades, has as its experts and explainers people who can’t do that of which they speak.” (pg. 311) For example, how many Egyptologists know what it’s like to carve a statue for themselves? Very few. But Greenhalgh does and he acquired even greater respect for ancient sculptors by discovering how difficult the stone they worked with was. But that’s the way he wants it: “I like to do things that are difficult. Easy isn’t a challenge, is it?” (pg. 293)

However, he discovered that the effort he put into some forgeries was wasted, because art-dealers often didn’t know what to look for. And often didn’t care. They took what they thought they could sell. At other times, they did care what they were buying – a lot. But they tried hard to conceal their interest, because they thought they had a gullible and ignorant seller to rip off. A lot of Greenhalgh’s work is still out there, sailing proudly under false colours. He’s seen some of it but kept shtum, he says. That’s partly because he doesn’t want to spoil the new owners’ enjoyment and partly for his own protection. He doesn’t want to go back to jail.

But his first and so far only stretch in jail was worth it in one way, because it produced this book. He says that “A good faker, just like a good artist, has to be a close observer.” (pg. 296) And there’s a lot of close observation here about both art and life. Greenhalgh lost his wife-to-be when she died of a brain tumour and says that marriage would have taken him down a different path. He would have stopped forging and never gone to jail. Nor would he have written A Forger’s Tale. That makes you look at the book in a new way. Literature is even more about perspective and labels than art is. A clever writer like Michael Connelly knows that, which is why he wrote a crime novel, Blood Work, with such a clever twist at the end that I re-read it at once, marvelling at the way the text had suddenly changed.

A Forger’s Tale isn’t a novel and I won’t be re-reading it immediately. But I would like to read it again sometime. Greenhalgh isn’t a professional writer but he obviously could have been if his inclinations had lain that way. As it is, the occasional naivety of his prose adds to the appeal. He’s an ordinary lad with some extraordinary talents for what he’d call imitation, not creation. And he has extraordinary knowledge too. There is a lot of information here about art and the brief definitions in the glossary make me think of the Latin phrase Leonem ex ungue – “You can recognize the lion by his claw”. Here’s Greenhalgh’s definition of “Reducing atmosphere”, for example: “An atmospheric condition need to achieve specific ceramic effects, in which oxidation is prevented by the removal of oxygen.”

But any self-respecting ceramics expert could tell you what a “reducing atmosphere” is. Greenhalgh knows more: how to create one. Here’s his top tip:

You can use any combustible material [in the kiln], but most burn with some debris landing on the pot, causing imperfections. Mothballs splutter and vaporise instantly, starving the kiln of oxygen. (pg. 294)

So there’s everything here from mothballs to the Mayans, from lanxes of silver to Lowry of Salford. Crime captures life in all kinds of ways and the forger Shaun Greenhalgh has some very interesting things to write about.

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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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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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You've Had Your Time by Anthony Burgess
You’ve Had Your Time: Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess, Anthony Burgess (Heinemann 1990)

After the excellent Little Wilson and Big God, this was a big disappointment. Burgess’s life before fame seems to have been much more interesting than his life after it. This is partly because of his wife before fame: the alcoholic Welshwoman Lynne Burgess, née Llewela Isherwood Jones, is much more memorable than the scholarly Italian Liana Burgess. He ended Little Wilson thinking that he had a year to live and a year to create a pension for Lynne.

That was in 1959, but he was still alive in 1968 when Lynne died of cirrhosis of the liver. Before that, again and again, “she drank deep” and “became fierce-eyed and lively, ready for argument, anecdote, fist-fights.” (Part 2, pg. 111) As Burgess says: “She was, God help her, never dull.” Nor was he. But his life became less interesting as his fame increased. Or perhaps he simply grew less interested in it. He evoked pre-war Manchester and post-war Malaya vividly in Little Wilson, but Italy, Malta, America and Monaco don’t live on the page here. This is a rare flash of memorability:

We were in brutal country [in Sicily], the land of the Mafia. Taking coffee in a side-street, we heard a young man, swarthy as an Arab, tell his friend of his forthcoming marriage. He was going to paint his penis purple, he said, and if his bride evinced surprise he was going to cut her throat. (Part 3, pg. 182)

I wonder if that was a joke when the young man noticed them eavesdropping. Elsewhere, Burgess encountered folk who were swarthier still. This is about his time as a “Distinguished Professor” at “New York City College”, where he gave a course on Shakespeare:

The sessions were held in a large lecture hall on Convent Avenue, and outside this lecture hall was a cashier’s office complete with guichet before which black students waited to receive a weekly subsistence allowance. Whether they were more than merely nominal students I never discovered; I know only that they waited with competing cassette recorders of the kind called ghetto blasters, and that their noise prevented me from making a start on my lecture. I rebuked them and received coarse threats in return, as well as scatological abuse which was unseemly in any circumstances but monstrous when directed at even an undistinguished professor. (Part Four, pp. 274-5)

If you are shocked and disgusted by such uncouth and uncivilized behaviour, imagine how the poor Black students must have felt. That was in 1973 and it’s sad to see that, nearly half-a-century later, the fetid stench of white supremacism hangs as heavy as ever on the air of American colleges.

Burgess plainly was – and plainly is – one of the white males responsible for this sorry situation. As both volumes of his autobiography reveal, he was much more concerned with literature, music and art than with social justice. Time and again he attempts to defend his white privilege and male privilege with appeals to universalism and the supremacy of the imagination. That defence isn’t good enough and perhaps, as his long day waned, he recognized his failure to fight for equality and was enervated by it. That would also explain why You’ve Had Your Time is so much duller than Little Wilson and Big God.

Encroaching senility is another explanation. In the introduction to this book, Burgess says one of the most fatuous things I have ever read: “I was in the Catholic church long enough to know that anyone may confess and, indeed, has to.” How long does one have to be in the Catholic church to know that? Or out of it? That’s writing on auto-pilot, like much of what follows. If you’re interested in Burgess, you should definitely read this book, but I’m certain that it doesn’t receive as many second and third readings as Little Wilson.

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The Greatest Albums You'll Never Hear ed. Bruno MacDonaldThe Greatest Albums You’ll Never Hear: Unreleased Records by the World’s Greatest Musicians, ed. Bruno MacDonald (Aurum Press 2014)

This book is a who, why, where and when of what-might-have-been: albums that never appeared or that came out much later in different forms. It’s fun to read:

Pretentious, confessed Pete Townshend of the concept that haunted him for three decades, “is just not a big enough word. … I could explain it to Roger [Daltrey] and John [Entwistle] and Keith [Moon] … and they’d say, ‘Oh, I get it, you put these suits on and you put a penny in the slot and you get wanked off.’ I’d go, ‘No, no, it’s much bigger than that.’ ‘Oh, I get it, you get wanked off and you get a Mars bar shoved up your bum…’” (The Who, Lifehouse, pg. 46)

The maverick [Neil Young]’s abrupt changes of mind bewildered not only fans and critics, but even his own band. “No one ever mentioned we were doing an album ever,” Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro told biographer Jimmy McDonough. “We just played and recorded. Every once in a while Neil would say – and I remember it shocking us – ‘Hey man, I sent in a record.’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah? What was on it?’” (Neil Young, Chrome Dreams, pg. 90)

“I have no problem with bootlegs,” the star told the New York Times, “although every time I say that, my lawyer says, ‘Oh yes you do.’” (Paul McCartney, Cold Cuts, pg. 113)

Rod Yates (RY) is a Sydney-based journalist who has written about music and film for the past twenty years. Now editor of Rolling Stone Australia, he has edited Australian editions of Kerrang! and Empire. … He has a weakness for hair metal, perhaps because he has no hair. Or taste. (“Contributors”, pg. 249)

The book is also fun to look at, because skilful designers like Heath Killen, Bill Smith, Damian Jaques and Isabel Eeles have created mock-ups of the lost albums. Some covers are cleverly dated or clichéd, but some could be timeless classics, fitting the artist so well that it’s hard to believe they’re not real. I particularly like the rainbow vees and veiny man on The Who’s Lighthouse (pg. 45); the so-simple-it’s-sophisticated fence-and-flat-landscape on Neil Young’s Homegrown (pg. 81); the time-lapse doll’s head on Jeff Buckley’s My Sweatheart the Drunk (pg. 165); the city-lights-through-rain-(s)wept-glass on Robert Smith’s not-yet-materialized solo album (pg. 202); and the sharp-text-over-blurred-photo on U2’s Songs of Ascent (pg. 232).

Which is not to say I like U2. I don’t. I don’t like Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna, the Clash or rappers like 50 Cent and Dr Dre either. It didn’t matter: the might-have-beens are still interesting to read about and you can always dream a bit bigger. Okay, the Clash never released this album, but what if the Clash had never existed at all? What if N.W.A. had accentuated the niggative too successfully and never had a career either? This book also made me think about the opposite: not real bands vanishing, but unreal bands existing. Imagine a book about artists that never existed. They could be distorted versions of real ones: Deirdre Bowie, Turquoise Floyd, the Strolling Bones, Splashing Munchkins.

Or they could be entirely new: the Autumn Spiders, Klimmosh, Trevor Blacknett. Good musicians have often failed while bad ones have succeeded. And unlike science or mathematics, genius isn’t constrained by reality in the arts. The possibilities are far greater in art and what might have been dwarfs what actually has been. This book peeps through a keyhole at a few might-have-beens and allows you to dream about many more.

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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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Miller's Field Guide Glass by Judith MillerMiller’s Field Guide: Glass, Judith Miller (Octopus 2015)

Glass is a magical substance. How can something solid be transparent or translucent? How can it become soft and malleable when heated, so that it can be moulded into infinitely many shapes? Well, glass can and glass has been for thousands of years. This attractive little guide begins with the “Ancient Glass” of the Egyptians and Romans, then moves forward to begin a detailed survey of British glass. There’s a big gap between “ancient” and “British”: “virtually no glass was produced in Britain before the late 16thC and all supplies of glass were imported” (pg. 14).

In talking about glass, it’s also talking about history, because changes in technology and fashion were inevitably reflected in glassware. But glass has its own evolutionary path too: “Lead crystal was developed in 1676 by the British glassmaker George Ravenscroft. It used a high proportion of lead oxide to create a relatively soft, brilliant glass that was suitable for cut and engraved decoration” (pg. 8). New techniques were invented and old techniques re-discovered as glassmakers learnt how to make their glass more delicate and more colourful.

After British glass, the book looks at France, then glass from Holland, Central Europe, Scandinavia and Italy. Finally there are “American Glass” and a brief section on “Chinese glass”. It’s a small book devoted to a big subject full of beautiful objects: glasses, decanters, claret jugs, bowls, candlesticks, candelabra, scent bottles, stained glass, and sculpture. I could have named only two glassmakers when I opened it: Lalique and Tiffany. They’re both here:

Technically challenging and rare, cire perdue (lost wax) casts are the most eagerly sought of the Lalique glass output. A model for the design was made in wax and this was encased in clay or plaster to create a mould. This was heated to allow the wax to flow out of the mould. Molten glass was then poured into the mould. (pg. 126)

Son of the American jeweller Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort visited Europe and the Middle East, where he was inspired by decorative styles and forms from many countries. On his return he founded the Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co. in 1892, and in 1902 he became art director of his father’s company, Tiffany & Co. (pg. 189)

But with Lalique and Tiffany are many other designers and manufacturers who have enchanted the world with the magic of glass: Gabriel Argy-Rousseau, James Couper & Sons, Daum Frères, Josef Hoffman, George Davison & Co., Wilhelm Kralik Sohne, Stevens & Williams.

The colours and shapes of their work are beautiful, and so is the fragility. If glass were indestructible, it would be less magical. It’s like a butterfly or flower: beautiful but fragile. Unlike a butterfly or flower, however, it will retain its beauty if it’s handled carefully. Living with glass is like living with fragments of rainbow, brought to earth and sculpted by magicians’ hands. The natural world certainly inspired many of the objects here: Lalique is famous for his dragonflies and fish, of course. He’s famous for his girls too: glass is a feminine substance, smooth, seductive and sinuous.

This book is an excellent introduction to its charms, explaining terms and prices and guiding the novice’s eye with questions:

Does the piece bear a mark of a crowned lion rampant over battlements?

Is there a polished pontil?

Is the glaze similar to Chinese peach-bloom glaze, in shades of cream to light or deeper rose pink?

Has the lampshade been reverse-painted with a landscape?

Is the piece a single colour of glass with carved or incised decoration?

And it notes that glass “is one of the few areas of antiques collecting where items are still relatively undervalued, unlike silver or porcelain” (pg. 6). If you want to live with rainbows, Judith Miller tells you how.

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