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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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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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Front cover of How to Read Contemporary Art by Michael WilsonHow to Read Contemporary Art, Michael Wilson (Thames & Hudson 2013)

The title of this book isn’t the one I wanted. I don’t want to know how to read contemporary art: I want to know how to destroy it. Or most of it, anyway. Alas, its worst forms continue to flourish all around the world. How to Read Contemporary Art devotes double-pages of text-and-photos to dozens of contemporary artists. So it’s full of pretension and fatuity, from Thomas Demand’s Landing (2006), which consists of a smashed vase on a landing (pg. 217), through Gabriel Kuri’s The Recurrence of the Sublime (2003), which consists of a bowl and some avocados wrapped in newspaper (pg. 223), to Rivane Neuenschwander’s Involuntary Sculptures (Speech Acts) (2002), which consists of a light green napkin folded and abandoned by an “anonymous patron” in a “restaurant or bar” (pg. 279). Michael Wilson’s text is fully worthy of art like that. I didn’t have to look long to confirm that he’s a fluent speaker of International Art English:

Marshalling considerable human and material resources, Pierre Huyghe stages elaborate performances that repeatedly cross and re-cross the boundary separating fact from fiction. In terms of both production values and duration, the videos that document these events have come to resemble full-length, big-budget movies. (“Pierre Huyghe”, pg. 200)

Central to Andrea Bowers’s practice is the connection of art to politics. In videos, installations and drawings she conducts an inquiry into issues of control and empowerment that has shifted from a broad-based exploration of performance and participation into a thoroughgoing focus on the history and aesthetics of injustice and activism. In her multipart project “The Weight of Relevance”, Bowers focuses on those responsible for maintaining and displaying the AIDS Memorial Quilt. (“Andrea Bowers”, pg. 70)

The establishment of loci for intellectual debate is a key part of Hirschhorn’s practice, as is the use of commonplace materials. “I am against work of quality,” he states. “Energy, yes! Quality, no!” In sculptures that frequently take the form of temporary kiosks or pavilions, he takes a “more is more” approach that eschews specialist techniques and privileges ready accessibility over potentially intimidating displays of craft or value. (“Thomas Hirschhorn”, pg. 188)

And so he goes on, waffling and wittering and packing in the polysyllables and pretentious jargon for nearly four hundred pages. There are some small mercies, though: he covers relatively few feminist artists and artists of color, for example. So there’s not much autoproctoscopy from them. But it’s depressing that Chinese artists have been hegemonized by the cultural imperialism of conceptual art too. Ai Weiwei is a big name and a big bullshitter: “Sunflower Seeds consists of 100 million seeds modelled in porcelain and hand-painted to resemble the real thing” (pg. 22). This “uniquely flexible” sculpture has earnt the big bullshitter some big bucks:

Ai Weiwei and some Sunflower Seeds

Ai Weiwei and some Sunflower Seeds

In 2011, a 100 kg pile of the seeds sold at Sotheby’s in London for more than half a million dollars, and in 2012, after a version was displayed at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York, the Tate purchased ten tonnes (about eight million seeds) for its permanent collection. (Ibid.)

Ai Weiwei has definitely learnt from Damien Hirst, an even bigger charlatan who has made even more money from bad art. But I have to admit that Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) is strange and beautiful rather than banal and boring. It’s a platinum skull covered with diamonds and equipped with real teeth. The idea of doing that isn’t special, but the result is: skulls and gems both have powerful effects on our psychology and something interesting happens when they’re combined. The skull cost £15m to make, which has power too. But none of that makes Hirst an artist, rather than a charlatan-entrepreneur. The photos of his shark-in-formaldehyde, deckchair-with-butterflies and spot-painting confirm this. Unlike the skull, they aren’t powerful or strange or beautiful.

For the Love of God by Damien Hirst (2007)

For the Love of God (2007)


He’s a conceptual artist, after all, and the point of conceptual art is to take power away from artists and hand it over to art-critics and art-dealers. Why should talent and skill play any role in success, after all? They certainly don’t explain the fame of Hirst or other “Young British Artists” like Tracy Emin and Rachel Whiteread. It’s another small mercy that Emin doesn’t get a double-page here, but Whiteread does. Her banal-and-boring concept is to take casts of large objects like buildings. Interrogating issues around her work, Wilson witters and waffles like this:

Responding to negative and vacated space via the use of casting techniques and industrial materials … hauntingly infused with memory and loss … consistent with both her own methodologies and the location’s specificities … Reportedly the largest object ever made in resin, Monument is also a technical milestone. … a locus of popular protest and celebration. Embodying both presence and absence … As an artist for whom the interaction of positive and negative space is so significant, it seems apt that Whiteread also stands revealed as equally sensitive to other kinds of opposition and coexistences. (“Rachel Whiteread”, pg. 374)

Smoke Knows by Pae White (2009)

Pae White, Smoke Knows (2009)

Yes. But the artist on the previous page, Pae White, takes something banal and makes it beautiful. Her Smoke Knows (2009) is a “wall-filling tapestry depicting a swirl of white smoke in front of an inky black background”. It sounds simple but it looks gorgeous. I’d like to stand in front of it and admire the way it captures the mathematical concept of chaos – smoke, like water and sand, is a very volatile and sensitive medium, never repeating or keeping the same shape. As for the other art in this book: I would like to drive a steam-roller over most of it.

But if I did do that, Cornelia Parker would have got there before me. Her Thirty Pieces of Silver (1988-1989) consists of silver “dishes, candelabras, trombones” “flattened by a steamroller” and hung from the ceiling of a gallery (pg. 294). All the same, I wouldn’t want to destroy that or some of her other art: it’s conceptual but, like Hirst’s skull, it’s strange and powerful. Another of her pieces, Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), has a pretentious title but fails to live up to it. It consists of fragments of a shed Parker “had blown up by the British army” and then hung from the ceiling of a gallery. The photo here shows the fragments dramatically lit and casting eerie shadows. I can’t see great skill or talent there, but it’s a powerful work nonetheless.

Cold Dark Matter by Cordelia Parker (1991)

Cold Dark Matter (1991)

Which makes it unusual in this book. Most of the art and all of the writing remind me of a passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters (1942). Lewis is describing how the Devil works to make prayer unpleasant to a Christian:

As this condition becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s paper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. (Letter XII)

Most of the art here is like “staring at a dead fire in a cold room”: no interest, no excitement, no life. The Devil’s purpose in The Screwtape Letters is to draw a soul towards damnation, so I suppose you could sum How to Read Contemporary Art up as a guide to aesthetic perdition.

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