Carmen 2018

Here is re-blog of the post one of our lecturers has written about her recent trip to the CARMEN medieval network meeting in Finland to present a new research project…

Women and the Book

At the end of August, Women and the Book had its first proper outing, to the 2018 CARMEN 2018 Network Meeting at the University of Tampere in Finland. This was a great place to present this project, and to pick up a special commendation in the new CARMEN Project Prize.

CARMEN is a worldwide network of medievalists and its aim is to foster interdisciplinary dialogue on the Middle Ages between scholars, institutions, universities and research groups. The annual meeting is held in a different place every year and is focused around informative workshops and sessions rather than on a specific field or period. Thus this year there was the opportunity to hear about medieval research that is going on in Finland, and in Tampere in particular, and to attend workshops on prospective projects such as Pre-modern Manuscripts and Early Books in Conflict Zones – winner of this year’s Project…

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A blog about (art) blogging

MICHAEL CLEGG (History of Art, PhD)

When I started to think about trying to write on art, blogging seemed an obvious way to begin. My early researches, however, taught me a few unpleasant truths: that there was absolutely no chance of getting paid, that shouty prose was the internet’s default house style, and that you probably wouldn’t have an audience anyway.

By a stroke of good luck, at about the same time I was asked if I’d start a blog for the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, where I’d volunteered on and off for a few years. The Gallery has a dedicated – even international – following, so that rather than yelling to no-one I knew I’d have the opportunity to talk in measured tones to an informed audience. With just a copy of ‘WordPress for Dummies’ to fall back on, I agreed.

Clegg 1

At the Fry Art Gallery we like to think of ourselves as quirky but professional; the cottage garden entrance opening out on some serious art. The Gallery building itself was once home to the private collection of a local banking family, from whom it takes its name (they were distant relatives of Roger Fry, and apparently owned one of his oils). Now, however, it houses a collection of work by artists with a national reputation who lived or worked in North West Essex, many around the village of Great Bardfield. Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden are the names which draw in visitors, but there are also pieces by Marianne Straub, Keith Vaughan, Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree, John Bellany and many others. A plate by Grayson Perry gets a lot of comment, but the strength of the collection is very much in the mid-twentieth century.

At the Fry Art Gallery we like to think of ourselves as quirky but professional; the cottage garden entrance opening out on some serious art. The Gallery building itself was once home to the private collection of a local banking family, from whom it takes its name (they were distant relatives of Roger Fry, and apparently owned one of his oils). Now, however, it houses a collection of work by artists with a national reputation who lived or worked in North West Essex, many around the village of Great Bardfield. Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden are the names which draw in visitors, but there are also pieces by Marianne Straub, Keith Vaughan, Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree, John Bellany and many others. A plate by Grayson Perry gets a lot of comment, but the strength of the collection is very much in the mid-twentieth century.

Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious,

Two Women in a Garden, Eric Ravilious, 1934; Fry Art Gallery

The blog averages about 150 visitors per month, which isn’t massive, but compares well with the audience you would reach through an academic conference. When I launched the site in March 2017 it took a while for numbers to build, but things began to take-off when a feed from the blog was put onto the Gallery’s main website. We now have a pretty slick social media operation too, with new blog posts being advertised by my (volunteer) colleagues who handle the Gallery’s presence on twitter and facebook.

The technical knowledge needed to run a WordPress site is minimal, but whether I get the writing right – its tone and frequency – is another matter. I try to get a new post up at least every six weeks (which is probably not as frequent as would be ideal, but this is in my spare time). I don’t think of the blog primarily as a way of reaching new audiences so much as enhancing the Gallery’s offers to existing visitors and those potential visitors with a definite interest in the art. My imagined reader is someone who already knows that they like the art on show, but will get more out of it with further context, historical information or behind-the-scenes insights from a curator. It’s important to me personally that, whist the tone isn’t academic, the content and any research behind it would stand up to academic scrutiny.

Good images are at the core of any art blog. The Fry has a good library of digitised pictures, but doesn’t have the image rights for all the works it owns, which can make things more complicated than I’d like. Even where the Gallery owns image rights, I tend to use cropped and low resolution photographs on the site, as these are entering the public domain and control is lost.

Despite some initial scepticism, and a lot of effort for only its own reward, I’ve found blogging through a museum site rewarding, and a nice complement to academic writing. It’s helped me make some connections and establish myself at the Gallery: I’ve recently been asked to edit a revised version of the Gallery’s guide Ravilious at the Fry, which will be a whole new set of learning.

The Fry Art Gallery blog can be found here. You can follow it on twitter @FryArtGallery and me @michaeljclegg1

MA Art History and Curating Student Exhibitions, 2018

We are delighted to announce this year’s exhibitions, produced in partnership with our wonderful exhibition partners, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Royal Collection Trust and, Grand Union. Below are details of our two student exhibitions, opening this June. We hope you can join us!

  • Drawn to Perfection: Masterworks on Paper from the Royal Collection

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 15 June-23 September

Details, http://barber.org.uk/drawn-to-perfection/

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Filippo Lauri, ‘A ceiling design for Palazzo Borghese’, 1671, Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018

MA Art History and Curating students, in collaboration with the Barber Institute of Fine Arts and the Royal Collection Trust, present their exhibition, Drawn to Perfection: Masterworks on Paper from the Royal Collection.

This first exhibition in an exciting new partnership with Royal Collection Trust explores the use of drawings – as preparatory sketches and studies for paintings and frescoes, tapestries, sculpture or architecture, and as detailed working designs that allow an artist to explore the subject or trial compositional ideas. It includes a wealth of exquisite works on paper by outstanding Renaissance and Baroque Masters, including Bernini, Carracci, Claude, and Poussin. The artists featured used a great variety of techniques and media, and their work thus provides a rich introduction to the practical skills of drawing. The exhibition has been curated by students on MA Art History and Curating under the guidance of staff at Royal Collection Trust and the Barber. Generous loans by Her Majesty The Queen have been supplemented by items from the Barber’s collection. The exhibition is accompanied by a booklet researched and written by the student co-curators; available at the Barber. For public programming, please refer to the Barber What’s On guide.

  • Three Models for Change

Central Art Gallery, 1-10 June

Opening: 1 June 6-9pm

Centrala, Minerva Works, Digbeth, Birmingham, B5 5RT

Open: 2 June – 10 June | Open Tues – Sat 11-5pm

Artists: Chris Alton, Ian Giles, Greta Hauer

Details and public programme, https://grand-union.org.uk/gallery/three-models-for-change/

MA Art History and Curating students, in collaboration with the programme’s contemporary art partner, Grand Union in Digbeth, present their exhibition, Three Models for Change. This features new commissions and existing works by the artists Chris Alton, Ian Giles, Greta Hauer. It asserts the importance of historical awareness in establishing future potentials of communities. The works fluctuate between three actual and staged narratives: the formation of a fictional Quaker-punk band; the staging of cross-generational Queer histories; and the uncertainty surrounding a newly formed volcanic island and its territorial disputes. Ian Giles is developing a new performance project on queer spaces for the exhibition; auditions are on 28 May and the performance is on 9 June – for details, see here. The students are currently crowdfunding to publish a reflective publication on the exhibition. Please support them, at here

The MA Art History and Curating is run by the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies. Applications are still open for this coming year. For details, contact the programme convenor, Dr Claire Jones, c.jones.4@bham.ac.uk

Bruegel in 2018-19: at the Kunsthistorisches, Vienna, and Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

JAMIE EDWARDS

Bruegel Babel

Bruegel the Elder, “Large Tower of Babel,” 1563; Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

In September 1569, Pieter Bruegel the Elder died — aged, tragically, just forty or so — and was buried in Notre Dame de la Chapelle in Brussels. To mark the 450th anniversary of this event, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which holds the single largest collection of Bruegel paintings (over a quarter of them), is staging the first ever major monographic exhibition on the artist. Due to open in October this year and running till January 2019, it promises to offer an overview of the artist’s entire painted oeuvre …. More here.

B winter-landscape-with-skaters-and-a-bird-trap-1565

Bruegel, Landscape with Skaters and a Bird Trap, 1565; Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels

2018 is, it turns out, a good year for Bruegel and the Brueghel dynasty. In September there’s going to be a pretty big three-day international conference at the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. I’ll be speaking, and the Acts are coming out next year as a book. More info., and the programme here.

In Bruges: A Rewarding Encounter with Frank Brangwyn

JON STEVENS, MRES HISTORY OF ART

In the middle of February, I spent three days in Bruges undertaking preliminary research for my dissertation and taking in many of the artistic pleasures of this enigmatic city. On the second day, I met with Laurence Van Kerkhoven, Assistant Curator at the Groenigemuseum. She gave me details of the fin-de-siècle works in their collection and we discussed some of the ideas behind my dissertation. Then she took me around their permanent display of works by Frank Brangwyn, on the first floor of the Arentshuis, a fine eighteenth-century house that forms an annex to the main museum. I had seen the display before but this time Laurence drew my attention to Brangwyn’s various depictions of Bruges and she reflected on the diversity of his practice.

arentshuis

But who was Frank Brangwyn, I hear some of you say? He was born in Bruges in 1867, the son of William Brangwyn, a British architect and designer, who based himself in the city for some years. In 1874, the family returned to London and, around 1882, Frank was taken on by the studio of William Morris. He only spent two years there and, at the young age of 18, he launched his career as an artist, working from the start in a wide range of disciplines.

brangwyn

Brangwyn’s continuing connections with Bruges

Brangwyn always maintained his connections with Bruges and in 1936, towards the end of his career but when he was still highly regarded as an artist, he gifted a substantial body of work to the city of Bruges on the understanding that a museum would be created to display them. The museum remains popular but, beyond Bruges and even in his home country, Brangwyn is largely forgotten, despite his considerable reputation across Europe in the early twentieth century.

I asked Laurence about this. In her view, there are several reasons for the comparative neglect of Brangwyn. Partly, it may be due to the range of his practice, which is very much on show in Bruges. It may also be because his work cannot be pinned down stylistically; it doesn’t fit neatly into any one school or movement. It was also evident from the work on view that, in the 1920s, the quality of his work began to decline as he became increasingly detached from wider developments in the art world.

In Britain, he remained well thought of; he was knighted in 1941 and in 1952, four years before his death, he received the first retrospective of a living artist at the Royal Academy. But this was at a time when the ‘young-bloods’ of the Pop and Op art movements (Hamilton, Hockney, Riley et al.) were beginning to look outwards and in the process they turned their backs on most pre-1945 British art. Hence, after his death, Brangwyn and his work faded into relative obscurity.

The outstanding English artist of the time?  

Yet at the beginning of his career, Brangwyn was perhaps seen as the outstanding English artist of the period and he had success in many different fields. In 1885, when he was only 18, he first exhibited at the Royal Academy. Two years later, his work was shown at the Paris Salon and, in the same year, he became a corresponding member of the Munich Secession. In 1895, he was commissioned by Siegfried Bing to provide murals for his newly-opened gallery in Paris – L’Art Nouveau – which was at the centre of this new movement. Two years later, he was a founding member of perhaps the most famous of the secessionist movements, the Vienna Secession, and, in 1899, he was commissioned to produce stained-glass designs for Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Thus, by the turn of the century, when he was just over 30, Brangwyn’s work was recognised and celebrated in Britain, across Europe and in the USA. In the following decade and a half, he was extraordinarily productive exhibiting widely and representing Britain at the Venice Biennale in 1905, at the Ghent World Exhibition in 1913 and at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1914.

The display in Bruges provides an excellent overview of his work during this period and later and I thought it might be of interest to highlight some of the pieces that caught my attention as I went round with Laurence.

Brangwyn as an interior designer

The two years Brangwyn spent in the William Morris studio gave him an idea of the importance of the decorative arts and he worked as an interior designer for all of his career. In the gallery, is one of his earliest commissions, a carpet design called ‘The Vine’, which he produced in 1896 for Bing’s, L’Art Nouveau. This was an impressive achievement for a young British artist; at a time when the decorative arts were seen across Europe as being on a par with the fine arts.

Brangwyn carpet

Brangwyn (design), The Vine (carpet);Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Another example of his work on show is a chair he designed for the British pavilion for the 1905 Venice Biennale. The simple lines of the chair, which formed part of a total scheme of decoration, show how his work was progressing away from Art Nouveau towards Art Deco at the very beginning of this movement.

Brangwyn chair

Chair designed by Brangwyn; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a colourist

In the meantime, Brangwyn was exhibiting his paintings widely. His practice as a painter was greatly influenced by his travels with fellow artists to Turkey, South African and Morocco. Perhaps his most significant companion was Arthur Melville, who he travelled to Spain with in 1892. Melville, who was 12 years older than Frank Brangwyn, was a member of the Glasgow Boys and an inspiration to the later Scottish Colourists. (Co-incidentally, one of Melville’s early works, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, is currently on show upstairs in the Barber in the exhibition The Rhythm of Light: Scottish Colourists from the Fleming Collection).

Arthur-Melville-The-Lawn-Tennis-Party-at-Marcus-1889-Watercolour-pencil-and-bodycolour-on-paper

Melville, The Lawn Tennis Party at Marcus, 1889; Private Collection. (Image: Bridgeman Education.)

By the 1890s, Melville had developed a free style of painting that clearly influenced Brangwyn’s early paintings, which – like Melville’s – are saturated with light and colour and full of human activity and movement. In Bruges, they have several examples of Brangwyn’s work from this period; notably Fishermen at Sea in a Squall of 1908, which exemplifies his fluid and exuberant style.

Brangwyn 'Fishermen at Sea in a Squall' .jpg

Brangwyn, Fishermen at Sea in a Squall, 1908; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a printmaker

Frank Brangwyn was a significant graphic artist and printmaker. His early work was much in Morris’s mould (as for example in a series of bookplates on display in Bruges) but his work, later, became darker and more expressionistic; as in his series of prints of railway stations. La Gare of 1910 shows his effective depiction of atmospheric effects and his expressive use of flowing, tangled lines.

Brangwyn, La Gare

Brangwyn, La Gare, 1910; Museum Artenshuis, Bruges

Brangwyn, like many artists of the time, was influenced by Japanese prints and he took this interest further when, in 1910, he formed a highly successful partnership with a Japanese woodblock artist, Yoshijuro Urushibara. Brangwyn collaborated with Urishibara for the next 30 years; perhaps their most celebrated work is a series of coloured wood block prints for a book of poems on Bruges by the English poet and art historian, Laurence Binyon. The Beguinage, Bruges is a highly evocative image which channels earlier Symbolist views of Bruges (some of which are on view in the main gallery of the Groenigemuseum) and which reinterprets them in a pattern of delicate lines and misty tones with a tell-tale lit window (a typical Symbolist trope).

Brangwyn 'The Beguinage, Bruges' .jpg

Brangwyn, The Beguinage, Bruges; Museum Artenshuis (author’s photograph)

Brangwyn as a social commentator

Brangwyn’s work does not, on the whole, address social issues and concerns. However, the outbreak of the Great War, caused him to consider the impact of the conflict and his position as a British-based artist with connections in Belgium. Brangwyn did not become an official war artist but during the war he produced a large number of prints and images. Some of these tended to be jingoistic (as in his recruitment posters) but others were more reflective. Like many other artists and writers, he became aware of the human cost of the conflict and it should be noted that his colleague, Laurence Binyon, was a celebrated war poet.

Throughout the war and after, Brangwyn produced a series of powerful images highlighting the plight of refugees, starting with the mass displacement of people caused by the surprise and brutal German invasion of Belgium at the beginning of the war. His later Refugees of 1927 seeks to universalise the refugee experience at a time when many artists were seeking to consign the war to the past.

Brangwyn 'Refugees' .jpg

Brangwyn, Refugees, 1927; Museum Artenshuis

Brangwyn and the avant-garde

Laurence added that Frank Brangwyn and his work are in currently being re-evaluated. Her work at the Groeningemuseum has undoubtedly been important in keeping his reputation alive and, recently, several smaller British galleries have had exhibitions of work focusing on specific aspects of his overall practice (as in the William Morris Gallery’s Frank Brangwyn and the Art of Japan, held on the 150th anniversary of his birth in 2017, when I saw more of Brangwyn’s and Urishibara’s collaborative work). And back in 2006, Leeds Museums and Galleries held a broader retrospective of his life and work. This had an excellent accompanying publication with a series of essays on different aspects of his practice, which is in the Barber Fine Art library. Although the exhibition and the publication tends to underplay his Bruges works, which is curious considering it travelled to the Groeningemuseum.

Interest in Frank Brangwyn and in many of his English and Scottish contemporaries is growing (as per the Barber’s Scottish Colourists exhibition). Part of this reflects a wider understanding of the development of the pan-European avant-garde, when Brangwyn’s work came to the fore. The period between 1880 and 1914 was a time of unparalleled cultural dialogue and exchange and artists like Frank Brangwyn are now being re-assessed as significant participants in the avant-garde. Brangwn may not be a major figure but his early work and practice is in many ways emblematic and deserving of greater attention.

Why I like this Module: Victorian Art and the British Empire

LOUISE GREENHILL (second year student)

As part of the second year module ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire,’ taught by Dr Kate Nichols, we all visited the Ikon Gallery in Brindley Place to see their exhibition on Thomas Bock (ran from 6 December 2017 – 11 March 2018) as in Week 9 of the term we would present our research on this subject to small groups of visitors from the Ikon’s Legacy Group for adult learners. From the start the project promised to be interesting and of particular interest to me was the fact that Bock himself was a fellow Brummie!

Thomas Bock was an engraver who was deported to Tasmania, then Van Diemen’s Land, in 1823 where he became a convict artist. The focus of our study was on the detailed watercolour portraits of Tasmanian Aboriginal people that he produced, which are striking in their sympathetic and personal depictions of each individual.

One of the main themes of this module is the idea that studying imperial art should give a voice to the colonial subjects depicted and recognise the two-way exchange between both cultures, and this is what we tried to do in our research of Youth Sitting. There is some evidence, mainly facial features and the records of the group, to suggest that the subject of this portrait was actually a Hawaiian called John/Joseph/Mclain/Mclean who worked as a sailor and travelled from Hawaii to New York to Liverpool where he was arrested and sentenced to deportation to Tasmania, so he turned out to be a very interesting man to research.

 

Youth Sitting

Perhaps the most interesting part of this portrait is the fact that the subject is portrayed completely naked, unlike the portraits of the Aboriginal people who are often wearing intricate, detailed outfits. The oddly flat proportions of the torso and the way in which the head seems superimposed to the body led to the theory that “John” was originally sketched with clothes which were, in a sense, removed in the final version. Further evidence to point to this is a preliminary sketch made by Bock which shows “John” again but he is wearing trousers and in the top right-hand corner of the sketch two figures that are sitting in the same cross-legged pose as our subject, are clearly wearing European style shirts and trousers. His nakedness is intriguing because as someone who had travelled around the world and was technically an English convict he surely would have worn English clothes as shown in the sketch. So why did Bock make this artistic decision? Perhaps he wanted to depict the group as similar, he also put a traditional Aboriginal spear into the portrait. Perhaps Bock himself, as a white European man, did not differentiate between different ethnicities. We even wondered if “John” himself wanted to be shown as similar to the Aboriginal people so that he could make a fresh start in Tasmania after his arrest. These are all just theories and there is no conclusive proof either way but the project raised many important questions about the importance of dress in imperial portraiture, the accuracy of portraits and the conflicting intentions of both artist and sitter. Thinking through all these issues and more besides made ‘Victorian Art and the British Empire’ a very interesting module indeed!!

 

 

 

 

Professor Matthew Rampley’s New Grant Award

The Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies is delighted to announce that Prof. Matthew Rampley has been awarded an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council. The award of €2.4 million is for the five-year project Continuity and Rupture in Central European Art and Architecture, 1918-1939. It examines how the arts responded to the political upheavals in central Europe after the First World War, in particular, the collapse of Austria-Hungary and the creation of the new states of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. How did such huge political change affect architecture and the visual arts? Many artists and architects were keen to embrace the new opportunities that were available, and happily consigned the memory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to oblivion, but others were either ambivalent about its loss or mourned its passing. How were such varied attitudes expressed? Moreover, how did the governments of the newly created states define themselves, and how did they use the arts to promote such definitions? The project is thus an examination of the culture and politics of memory in the visual arts, and it has contemporary relevance. Most states of the former Austria-Hungary still enjoy a special relationship as members of the Visegrad group; there is a sense, therefore, that the old Empire cast a long shadow into the present.

Jaromir Funke. Photograph from the Cycle “Time Persists” (1932). Source Artstor.

Jaromir Funke. Photograph from the Cycle “Time Persists” (1932). Source: Artstor.

 

Vilmos Huszár Composition (1921) Source Artstor.

Vilmos Huszár. Composition (1921) Source: Artstor.

 

 

Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition

SAM ROBINSON (second year student)

Situated on the western arc of Paris’s Boulevard Périphérique, perhaps better known as the Périph, the Louis Vuitton Foundation presents something of a welcome respite from the bustle of inner-city Paris. Having spent the best part of the week-long study trip rattling around the Metro in short bursts from Musee D’Orsay to Centre Pompidou, the semi-rural feel of the LVF building felt a bit alien.

Fondation LV

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the route I had opted for would take me on a scenic tour of the Parisian periphery – a mostly wintery scene, that is, made up of desolate woodland and dual-carriageways. Once the leafless canopy began to clear, however, the destination presented itself in the most striking sense. Several glass panels of a grand scale, arced and deflected, are held together by a semi-visible industrial skeleton to resemble the grandest, gleaning origami construction on the Paris skyline.

Home to the recent Being Modern: MoMA in Paris exhibition, the building is the product of architect Frank Gehry’s trademark obsession with warping and visually stimulating curvature (see Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum) and is something quite remarkable to behold. There is a strong sense of statement to Gehry’s architecture, a bold design that stands out both aesthetically and geographically.

The fact that the roof terrace might ordinarily offer exquisite views of the Eiffel Tower, if it weren’t for the quite deliberate placement of a web of hefty iron pillars, suggests that this building aims to stand apart from the traditional tourist image of Paris. This is the Eiffel Tower of the Périph.

An impressive sight, the LVF building nonetheless echoes the corporate excess of those that occupy it. For me, the uneasy cleanliness and air of expense sat at visible odds with the pretty bleak landscape of the Bois de Bologne in winter. Such feeling was probably best represented by the dozens of queueing visitors anxiously scraping the mud off their feet so as to not dirty the pristine white walkway, for fear of reprisal …. It certainly felt the shiny new product of Paris’ highest-end fashion corporation, a showpiece of expensive designer taste – a world distinctly apart from the functionality and industry of the Pompidou or Eiffel Tower.

That said, once inside, it becomes apparent that such an exhibition would most probably not have become a reality without the sheer cost of it all being able to be met. The volume of work on show on loan from the MoMA — over 100 objects — reportedly required no fewer than seventeen trans-Atlantic shipments to get it all to Paris, which, I’m guessing isn’t exactly cheap.

The first floor of the exhibition, which spanned four floors in total, offers a chronological examination of the MoMA’s history. Initially House by the Railroad by Edward Hopper, 1925, cuts a lonely figure – but only momentarily, as attention is immediately wrenched away by the plethora of instantly recognisable icons of twentieth-century modern art that lay beyond it. Should the eye veer too far left while viewing Hopper’s work, for example, the flitting projection of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) proves far too intriguing a distraction.

Whether this was merely a personal failing, my own attention deficit, or whether bigger questions are to be asked about the design of this show, there certainly was some sense of chaos to the display. Perhaps this was an inevitable result of trying to present so many objects — many of them very famous — of all different kinds in one space …. Whatever it was, certainly the show was a feast for the eyes, so much so that it often seemed difficult to concentrate on any one object.

Opus 217 by Paul Signac caught the eye, as a work returning from whence it came. It alludes to the great influence that Parisian and European art once held in shaping the future for American modern art, although after the first floor and the founding years of the MoMA, the art becomes noticeably more American in its identity.

The previously overwhelming collection also begins to thin, in that each individual work is allowed more room to breathe and not diminish into the overwhelmed whole. Andy Warhol’s infamous Campbell’s Soup Cans are allowed a vast amount of wall space, as are other iconic works such as Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl. It makes sense, too, of course, that the most iconic works and their makers are afforded the most space and so attention. Working in chronological order, floor by floor, presents a kind of ascent to a climax. Between each floor, there was an increasing, though indiscernible, buzz of anticipation as visitors escalated past the webbed glass sails of the exterior (somewhat in awe) to the very top.

In this sense I think America was very much the point of ‘Being Modern: MoMA in Paris’. There is some sense of an overzealous presentation of a pure American spectacle, as a show of national pride and brute strength via the medium of loaned artworks. Even so, the exhibition would essentially have been doing what it said on the tin – presenting the ‘MoMA in Paris’: the pinnacle institution of American modern art, showing off a tour de force roll call of world-renowned art to the rest of the world.

 

Students’ diary: a week in Paris

Each year, 2nd year History of Art students embark on a University-funded, week-long study trip to a European city, in order to study its art, architecture and culture up-close as part of the module Art History in the Field. In the past, students have visited, among other cities, Rome, Berlin, and Brussels. This year, however, the destination was Paris, led by lecturers Dr Fran Berry and Dr Greg Salter, and Sara Tarter (PhD student and teaching associate). Here, 2nd years Hannah Binns, Louise Greenhill, Rozeena Jabeen, Beth Moody and Elizabeth Shih tell us all about what they got up to …. 

Group -- Paris

Group shot at the Pompidou

Monday 12 Febuary (Hannah Binns)

In the ever-bustling New Street Station, we all gathered bright and early on Monday morning to set off for Paris. Some, me and one other nervous traveller, arrived a solid hour early and watched as everyone else gently congregated by Pret in various states of awakeness. Some light competition about who had packed most efficiently, the distribution of the various train tickets, and several litres of coffee later, and we were off. The Virgin train to Euston was painless due to my decision to purchase Travel Boggle, although the clatter of sixteen dice every three minutes was perhaps not overly popular with fellow passengers ….

Before we knew it, we were trekking down the Euston Road to St Pancras where we all made it through security and border control unscathed and the excitement began to set in. The Eurostar, like the Virgin train, was made infinitely better by Boggle – I even managed to rope in a few more players. Then suddenly, we were pulling into Gare du Nord, Paris. We piled into a coach and trundled through the city to our hostel which was, to everybody’s delight, lovely.

My friends and I pootled off to explore the surrounding streets and find food and drink before collapsing into bed to recharge before an art-filled week.

Tuesday 13 February (Louise Greenhill)

After a busy day of travelling, our first stop Tuesday morning was Musée d’Orsay, one of Paris’s most well know museums, with around 2,997,622 visitors in 2016. Its extensive collection is housed inside a nineteenth-century railway station, which means that the whole museum is filled with light, even on a rainy day in February. That, in combination with the surprisingly small crowds — although, we did get there early! — meant that this was my favourite museum of the trip. The collection comprises eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, many of which were originally in the Louvre. The museum’s collection includes paintings, sculptures, objets d’art, and old photographs, which, along with the architecture itself, means there’s something for everyone to enjoy. One of the highlights that we all got to study was Manet’s famous and, in its day, controversial painting Olympia, which was amazing to see and think about in real life having seen reproductions of it so many times since arriving at University.

d'Orsay d'Orsay2

Olympia

Musée d’Orsay is situated on the banks of the Seine so after the visit we took a walk along the unusually high Seine, taking in the famous padlock bridge and the beautiful architecture. We also admired the traditional Parisian sight of a few brave book and art sellers, or “libraries forain, that were still out despite the freezing temperatures and light snow. Then we visited Sainte-Chappelle, a truly beautiful thirteenth-century building commissioned by Louis IX as an “architectural reliquary,” which, among other things, is famous for its original stained glass windows (miraculously, they survived the French Revolution). This is definitely a place worth visiting for those interested in the medieval history of Paris.

For lunch we found a suitably French-looking café and feasted on camembert and bread — all the walking on this trip definitely made us very hungry! We then took a leisurely stroll to Notre Dame, which, don’t get me wrong, is impressive but was somehow smaller than I had imagined ( … perhaps our expectations have been spoiled by Disney?).

The evening concluded with a visit to Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre by metro. Unfortunately, we did not have time do go inside Sacré-Coeur itself but were assured by several course mates that the interior is amazing. A favourite place for artists such as Monet, Renoir and Degas, Montmartre offers beautiful views of Paris from the top of the hill (be prepared for leg ache) and its old squares have lots of shops and restaurants to choose from.

Overall, the first day was a very interesting, action-packed start to what promised to be a brilliant week ahead!

Wednesday 14 February (Rozeena Jabeen)

Louvre.jpg

Wednesday was the day we were all anticipating and dreading. Yes, it was the day to visit the Louvre, which we all knew had lots of amazing art on offer but had also heard all the horror stories about crowds, queues and hostile “selfie sticks”. The daunting task of navigating our way through as many wings as possible within a few precious hours was beyond me, but it was a challenge worth taking. After an initial introduction, we were free to make our own way through the museum.

Of course, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa was certainly not to be missed and most of us had it our list of must-sees. All the horror stories we’d heard about seeing this picture — of tourists climbing on top of each other, elbowing one another, or even shoving a camera in someone else’s face — didn’t seem to hold true on the day we visited: we were able to slip in through the sides and take a glance at the revered artwork before moving on to the rest of the collection.

I’ve been to the Louvre a couple of times before so I was determined to view part of the collection I haven’t seen before, the Early Netherlandish works. I was desperate to see Jan van Eyck’s Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, especially after studying it in Dr Jamie Edwards’s Renaissance Art in Italy and Netherlands c.1400-60. In fact, many of us who had taken that module in the Autumn were really keen to go and see many of the works that we’d discussed. Unfortunately, however, the Early Netherlandish galleries were closed. Nonetheless, we were able to see many other wonderful northern works of art, albeit from a little later, by the likes of Bruegel, Brueghel, Rubens, van Dyck … Rembrandt … the list goes on ….

Louvre2.jpg

A little respite was in order so some of went to explore the subterranean shopping centre inside the Louvre, where, to my pleasant surprise, I found out that the French have a penchant, shall we say, for cat-themed gifts – who knew! We then re-fuelled at lunch, met up with everyone else and split into two groups. One group visited the Jeu de Paume photography museum with Greg, while the rest of us went to the Musée de l’Orangerie with Fran to feast our eyes on a whole bunch of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works.

Monet.jpg

More serene and peaceful than the Louvre, the Musée de l’Orangerie allowed us to view and to think about the works more carefully. One of the first things we saw was Monet’s amazing Nymphéas (Water Lilies), which adorn an oval-shaped gallery that was designed by the artist himself. Due to its immense size, I was able to get extremely close to the picture and examine every quick brush stroke, thick application of paint and its vibrant colours. Besides works by Monet, we studied many a famous work by artists including Matisse, Cézanne, and Renoir. Overall, the Musée de l’Orangerie was definitely a gem, and a lovely change of pace compared to the Louvre.

Due to our aching feet, some of us went back to the hostel and then went to the hostel’s cafeteria for onion soup. We chit chatted about the day’s adventures and new friendships were born. It was the perfect way to end an inspiring and thought-provoking day.

Tuilleries

 

Thursday 15 February (Beth Moody)

Thursday was the perfect Parisian day for those of us with a passion for modern art. It started with a trip to Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, the national art gallery of France that opened in 1977. Much like its British equivalent, Tate Modern, the building’s architecture is imposing and industrial. The enormous gallery contains a huge variety of collections of modern art, by artists such as Pollock, Braque, Kandinsky and Matisse. The grand scale of the gallery and vast art collection meant there was not enough time to view everything (which most of us were craving to do) and so was a popular place to return to on a free afternoons.

Pompidou2.png

After crêpes for lunch, we split into two groups, one of which went to the Foundation Cartier pour l’art contemporian, whilst the others went to the Picasso museum. I visited the Foundation Cartier, which had a Malick Sidibé exhibition entitled ‘Mali Twist’. This was a contemporary photography exhibition that celebrated not only the power of the photographic image, but the happiness of the Bamako community and the love amongst those within the community. The black and white photographs, accented by the bright yellow walls of the exhibition space, together with the rock and roll vibes and overarching expression of joy omitting from the photographs, made this exhibition definitely worth visiting. Everyone left feeling content and in a good mood.

In the evening, a group of us that hadn’t been already went to see the magnificent Notre Dame, followed by a stroll to Quartier Pigalle for some authentic French food and vin (of course!) – a lovely relaxing end to a busy, modern-art-filled day.

Friday 16 February (Elizabeth Shih)

In the morning, following an introduction by Fran, the focus was on architecture, visiting works by Hector Guimard, Le Corbusier and Robert Mallet-Stevens. The walk was not long, but most of us were feeling pretty frazzled after a fun and inspiring, but nevertheless tiring, art-filled week à Paris! The sun gave us a smile, so a flurry of Instagram posts seemed essential: #LeCorbusier.

In the afternoon, I intrepidly ventured out of the City for Versailles, and whizzed into the Hall of Mirrors. The Palace was opulent, but the garden got most of my attention. There were swans swimming in the pond, submerging their head into the water. I walked down to the fountain, and saw the golden frogs and a woman with infants on the top, gathering like a choir opening their mouths prepared to sing. I sat on a bench alongside the river in the garden of Versailles, taking it all in and reflecting on the week. Absolute tranquility!

I could have wandered aimlessly and timelessly around Versaille, but a group dinner in Montmartre beckoned. We went to Le Bouillon Chartier, which is over a hundred years old. It was founded for Parisian residents, and is beloved by tourists. The restaurant didn’t disappoint but was a little busy, not to mention loud, so my voice seemed to become part of the din. Nevertheless, we ordered some good wine and food and immersed ourselves in the Parisian atmosphere.

Bouillon Chartier

Van Gogh was said to be inspired by the French writer Guy de Maupassant to paint his Starry Night Over the Rhône, who described the starlit night in Paris in his novel Yvette. This painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay, hanging in the same room as van Gogh’s self-portrait. I had seen both in real life just a few days earlier, on Tuesday during our visit to the Orsay. It was not the best representation of night, nor was it the best representation of Paris; but seeing it has made a lasting impression on me, and is a fond memory from our time in Paris.

Saturday 17 February (Hannah Binns)

And so we came to our final day in Paris. We’d all certainly given the city our all and experienced a good chunk of what it has to offer, but I’m sure we’ll all be back there soon to see all the things we didn’t have time for this trip. There was time, though, for a final bit of art history in the morning ….

Half of us went to Musée Rodin with Fran and the other went to Musée de Gustave Moreau with Greg. I had been looking forward to this particular trip all week and it did not disappoint. All the works are displayed in Moreau’s house. The first floor contains much of the artist’s furniture and memorabilia, while the second and third floors, where he had his studio, are home to a huge number of his paintings and sculptures.

Camille Claudel, La Petite Châtelaine, 1895-6, at the Musée Rodin

Camille Claudel, La Petite Châtelaine, 1895-6, at the Musée Rodin

 

I spent a long time on the very top floor looking at the various depictions of Salomé as I find late nineteenth-century femme fatale figures really interesting, partly thanks to studying art in fin-de-siècle Vienna last term with Dr Sam Shaw. Two of Moreau’s paintings of Salomé become the obsession of Des Esseintes in J K Huysmans’ 1891 novel, À Rebours, which I briefly studied in one of my English modules this year (I am a joint honours student, Art History and English). Moreau’s paintings of Salomé, through their featuring in Huysmans’ novel, also had a profound effect of Oscar Wilde who I also studied as part of the same English module. When Wilde wrote his play Salomé in 1891, he sent Moreau an inscribed copy by way of acknowledging the effect that Moreau’s works had had on him.

After a fantastic morning, a few of us headed for a final coffee and sandwich before we had to return to Birmingham, a city that, for all its charm, does not have quite the same calibre of baguettes. We all gathered at the hostel quite early, a definite feeling of fatigue hanging over us by this point. When the time came, we all boarded a coach, tootled to Gare du Nord, checked in and eventually climbed aboard the Eurostar back to London. Boggle made a brief appearance, but even I, renowned Boggle enthusiast, was too tired for many rounds. Then, before we knew it, we had made it to London Euston and were Birmingham-bound.

Truly, it was truly an incredible week. I’m sure that I speak for the whole group when I say that I am so grateful to Fran, Greg and Sara Tarter for making it so interesting, enjoyable and memorable! Here’s a drawing I made to give to Fran, Greg and Sara to say thanks for such a wonderful trip:

Binns, Fran, Greg and Sara

 

Life, Art and the Spaces in Between: Reflections on “The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velásquez” by Laura Cumming, “War and Turpentine” by Stefan Hertmans and “The Last Days of New Paris” by China Miéville

BY JON STEVENS, MRES HISTORY OF ART

Last year, prior to my arrival in the Department of Art History, I read three books, which had a lasting impact on me. Reflecting further on these books, I realised that, among other things, they all have something intriguing to say about the relationship between art and life: about the uncertainty and indeterminacy between the real and the invented and the dreamed and the experienced.

In this piece, I have tried to articulate some of my reflections and to explain how these three books, each in their own way, seems to inform and enrich the continual dialectic between art and life. In doing this, my hope is that I might encourage those of you, who haven’t read the books, to seek them out; you will be well rewarded. And for those of you who might have read one or more of them, I hope that you find my take on them of interest.

Vanishing Man

In February last year I took a trip to Madrid and Seville with my wife. Our visit would provide a long-awaited opportunity to see the magnificent collection of Goya’s work in the Prado; not least the assembly of his ‘Black Paintings’. In Foyle’s bookshop, just before we left, Laura Cumming’s The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velásquez caught my eye. I read it on the train, on our flight and finished it in our hotel, so that by the time of our visit to the Prado, I found that Velásquez was competing for my attention with Goya.

Laura Cumming’s book tells two interwoven stories. In the first story she relates her personal encounter with Velásquez, when she spent time in Madrid grieving for the early death of her father, the painter James Cumming. At first, she tells how she couldn’t bring herself to enter the Prado but when she does and – as she is searching for works by El Greco, one of her father’s favourite artists – she comes upon Las Meninas and like many before her she is overwhelmed by the experience.

The second story is about John Snare, a provincial Victorian bookseller from Reading, who dabbled in art dealing. In 1845, in his mid-twenties, he spots a painting up for auction at nearby Radley Hall. It is described as ‘A portrait of Prince Charles, later Charles I’ and in the catalogue it is suggested that it might be by Van Dyck. Snare was an autodictat, who had already acquired enough knowledge to question this attribution. He knew that the young king-to-be had visited the Spanish court in 1623 on a fruitless mission to arrange an advantageous marriage; might it have been possible that he had his portrait done at this time by the court painter Velásquez? Little was known about Velásquez’s works in England in the mid 1800’s. There were a handful of examples in private collections and, of these, several had misleading attributions. However, first-hand accounts of Velásquez’s works on display in the Prado were beginning to circulate and Snare was convinced that this painting was the genuine article.

John Snare spent the rest of his life trying to prove that this painting, which he acquired for the sum of only £8 (less than £1000 in today’s money), was a lost masterpiece by Velásquez. Laura Cumming first came across the story when she found a pamphlet by Snare that he published in 1847, prior to the painting being put on show in London. ‘The History and Pedigree of the Portrait of Prince Charles’ is a testament to Snare’s thorough research – at a time when little had been published on Velásquez and when what was available was often highly misleading – and it shows his tenacity in seeking out sources, when many doors would have been closed to him.

Art as an all-consuming obsession

Laura Cumming’s recounts the many vicissitudes of Snare’s travels with his beloved painting. The painting is a popular success wherever it is shown; many reputable observers are persuaded that it is indeed a Velásquez and Snare uncovers more evidence to support his case; although gaps and contradictions remain. On the way, he has many misfortunes and he makes a number of enemies; the painting is possessed twice and he pays substantial sums to redeem it; his ownership of the painting is contested leading to a tortuous trial in Edinburgh, which he eventually wins; by then, however, he has absconded taking his painting with him to America. Ultimately, the Velásquez is all he has; his business has been bankrupted and his marriage is over. Yet still he feels compelled to press his claims; it is not for money, as he receives several substantial offers for the work, rather, it is to prove his point.

Snare’s fortunes improve in America. His painting is generally lauded but sadly he misses its greatest triumph; he dies before it is shown to general acclaim at the Metropolitan Museum in 1889. After that, the painting returns home to his family. It is shown one more time in his hometown and then it unaccountably vanishes from history. Laura Cumming pursues every conceivable lead and goes down some fascinating paths but, in the end, the object of John Snare’s magnificent obsession remains elusive. Could the painting have been by Velásquez? And might it be hanging somewhere forgotten and unrecognised? Cumming interlaces the many questions about the lost painting with her own reflections on Velásquez’s life and practice.

Going back to Laura Cumming’s midwinter encounter with Las Meninas, last February, I followed in her footsteps. Arriving at the Prado as soon as it opened, I was able to spend 30 minutes almost undisturbed with this celebrated painting. Much has been written about Las Meninas and many artists have marvelled at it. In 1865, Éduard Manet stood entranced before it and later wrote to Charles Baudelaire that Velásquez was “the greatest painter that ever was”. Almost a century later, Picasso obsessively painted 58 versions of Las Meninas in one year and, late in his career, Francis Bacon spent long hours – after the galleries were closed to the public – trying to comprehend this “amazingly mysterious painter”.

Art as a mysterious illusion

Velásquez is a master of illusion. The figures in Las Meninas are life-size and as you approach the painting you are caught by the quizzical gazes of the little princess and her attendant dwarf in the foreground, of the chamberlain in the rear doorway, of the ghostly presences of the king and queen in the mirror (who might be standing beside you) and, above all, of the artist himself poised before his canvas. You find yourself as the latest participant in a drama that has been played out for over 350 years.

Yet as you draw closer, the illusion dissolves before your eyes. The paint surface becomes a pattern of “dots, dashes, flicks and spatters of paint”, which only a moment ago represented the shimmering dress of the princess, the soft fur of her dog, the indistinct image in the mirror and the glint in the artist’s eye. Because Velásquez’s technique is so baffling, there is a danger (as Cumming notes) that we assume “the illusion is all there is”.

Art as a balm for troubled minds

Yet Velásquez’s illusionism is only the means by which he explores both the outward appearance and the inner lives of his subjects; whether they are effete kings, arrogant aristocrats, looked-down-upon servants or ridiculed court entertainers. This was brought home to me most forcefully when I passed into the ‘Dwarves and Buffoons’ room. The name of the room may jar in a modern context but (as Cumming eloquently suggests) Velásquez’s intimate portraits of the two dwarfs, Francisco Lezcano and Sebastián Morra, and the full-length portrait of the court performer, Pablo de Valladolid, are works of compelling empathy and psychological insight. Their images have stayed with me since my visit and I can fully understand how they acted as a kind of balm for Cumming’s pressing grief.

turpentine

Last June, I attended some lectures in Oxford on American art by David Lubin. I had met him earlier in the year, following a research seminar he gave at the Department. Before his final lecture, we had coffee together and, when I told him of my possible research interest in late 19th century Belgian art, he enquired if I had read War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans. I had not heard of the book and purchased it on my return. On the back cover, War and Turpentine is described by the New York Times as a “masterly book about memory, art, war and love”; it is a sweeping family history written by the Flemish writer Stefan Hertmans about his grandfather, Urbain, and the tumultuous times he lived through from his birth in 1891 until his death in 1981.

In writing the memoir, Hertmans drew heavily on two notebooks, which his grandfather gave him before he died at the age of 90. In the notebooks, his grandfather recollects his early life in Ghent, his experiences as soldier in the Belgian Army in the Great War and his return home. Hertmans reconstructs his grandfather’s life from a rich amalgam of extracts from the notebooks (skilfully edited), personal memories and his imagining of his grandfather’s inner life.

Art as an article of faith

The book opens with Hertman’s catching a glimpse of his grandfather in old age “silently weeping” over a reproduction of what we later discover is Velásquez’s Rokeby Venus. He goes back in time to describe his grandfather’s impoverished upbringing in Ghent at the turn of the 20th century. Urbain’s father, Franciscus, is a jobbing artist, spending his time restoring murals and paintings for Catholic churches and monasteries around Ghent, working long hours for “starvation wages”. Franciscus is a man of absolute faith; it suffuses his whole being and the life of his family. The young Urbain is fascinated by his father’s calling and spends his spare time acting as his assistant. Then out-of-the-blue, Franciscus is commissioned to create some original murals for a church in Liverpool, this is a great opportunity and he leaves the family for several months. On his return, the family have little time to celebrate his achievement. He is ill and dies from pneumonia.

Hertman’s quotes selectively from his grandfather’s notebooks in his rich account of his upbringing in Ghent and of the hardships he and his family endure, particularly after Franciscus’s early death. Then, in the second section of the book, his grandfather’s experiences in the Great War are related more or less verbatim from his notebooks. Writing thirty years after the event, Urbain gives a visceral and gut-wrenching account of the horrors of the German invasion of neutral Belgium. In the first few months of the war, over 5,000 civilians are executed in reprisal for Belgian resistance to the invasion and the Belgian army, in which he is a corporal, suffers catastrophic losses.

Art as a refuge from unspeakable horror

Miraculously, Urbain survives the first chaotic battle of Schiplaken and he lives to fight through the war on the front at Yser. He suffers serious injuries and on three occasions he is sent to convalesce in England. The first time he ends up in Liverpool and, as he recovers, he remembers the murals created by his father, Franciscus. He scours the city for the church or monastery where they might be found, without luck. Then, one day wandering along the docks, he stumbles into a cloister and there before him is a mural of St.Francis. He recognises his father’s hand immediately. He is enthralled by the experience, all-the-more-so when he notices St Francis’ face. It is a likeness of his dead father and then he looks at one of the shepherds standing by the saint and he sees…his own face, as a child.

This is a revelatory episode and it is not entirely clear whether this is a real experience or an intense dream or both? He searches for the cloister again but he never finds it.

Urbain is much decorated for his heroism but he ends the war a disillusioned man, not only because of the horrors he has witnessed but also because, as a Flemish speaker, he is never promoted above the rank of sergeant-major.

Art as an escape from a humdrum and loveless life

On his return to Ghent, Urbain finds work with the railways and he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter, Maria Elena. The final words in his notebooks attempt to describe his passionate love for her. But tragedy strikes again, his young wife-to-be is struck down by the Spanish flu that sweeps Europe after the war. He is inconsolable but, after a time, he agrees to marry her older sister, Gabrielle, and they settle down to a humdrum and loveless life together. At this time, he turns to painting and “this becomes his only escape”.

He is a relatively talented amateur painter, who has no truck with modernism. He turns out competent still-lives and workmanlike copies of the works of the Dutch painters he loves, including Van Dyck and Rembrandt. When he is 45, the traumas of the past catch up with him and he has the first of several breakdowns. He is pensioned off and spends the rest of his days painting; this is how Stefan remembers him. Then, in his seventies, he decides to tell the story of his life; for thirteen years he labours over this until he reaches his early meetings with Maria Elena and he can’t continue. Five years later, he dies leaving the notebooks to his grandson.

Art as an expression of overwhelming loss

In the final part of the book, Stefan Hartmans tries to untangle his grandfather’s life and the reasons for the sadness that seems to have engulfed him. He recalls that in summer, the family would go on almost weekly pilgrimages to Bruges and, after his grandfather’s death, he finds a well-thumbed copy of Georges Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, the notorious Symbolist novel, which dissects the grief felt by a man who has lost his young wife and the false hope he experiences when he meets a woman who has an uncanny likeness to her. Folded into the pages of the book are some mementoes, a half-finished sketch and a reproduction of the Rokeby Venus. Does this provide some clues to his grandfather’s silent tears?

(The grandfather’s attachment to Bruges-la-Morte was of particular interest to me as this novel triggered off some of my own research interests)

In a second revelatory passage, he finds a collection of old photos of Maria Elena and he goes back to his grandfather’s careful copy of the Rokeby Venus, which had been found in the attic. It provides him with an almost unbearable testament to his grandfather’s love for Maria Elena and the sense of loss he carried with him until his death.

new paris

The Guardian’s review of China Miéville’s genre-bending The Last Days of the New Paris described it as a “dazzling scholarly fantasy”. Being unfamiliar with Miéville’s works – this was enough to attract my interest. The novella opens in Paris in 1950; but it is a Paris still under Nazi occupation in which strange forces battle for control of the city. A young freedom fighter, Thibaut, leads one of the factions, Le Main á Plume or The Feathered Hand, which is based on an historical grouping that sought to keep Surrealism alive in Paris during the occupation and which was linked to the French resistance.

However, this is Paris after the mysterious ‘S-blast’, which shortly after the occupation, unleashed all the powers of Surrealism on the Nazis. Nine years later, Paris, which is isolated from the rest of France, is engulfed in an unending conflict that pits a cast of Surrealist manifestations or ‘manifs’ against unspeakable subterranean devils or monsters conjured up by the Nazis.

Art becomes life, life becomes art: the Surrealists’ invocation

The range and extent of Surrealist and other references in the novella is extensive and it reminded me of the many different artists who were drawn into Surrealism and of the substantial and only recently fully recognised contribution to the movement by women artists. These references are explained in notes that accompany the account and these notes maintain the conceit that The Last Days of New Paris had been related to Miéville by Thibaut in his old age. When I first tried to read the book, I found it difficult to visualise the references, most of which refer to specific artworks. But I was fortunate to come across an online guide, called Graphic Annotations of China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris by Nicky Martin, which reproduces nearly all of the artworks that inspired the ‘manifs’. With this in hand, I was able to relish the diversity and richness of Miéville’s sublime metafiction; a work in which art comes to life and in which boundaries of all kinds are constantly crossed and re-crossed.

A few of his imaginings. The first ‘manif’ to appear is of a curious machine smashing though the Nazi barricades; it appears to be a sort of tandem. “Only one woman rode…the other was a torso, jutted from the bicycle itself…” It is Leonora Carrington’s 1941 drawing I am the Amateur of the Velocipede brought to life. The Velo crashes on the “Surrealist side of the street” throwing its human rider onto the ground before careering off again. The woman is dying, she seems to be a foreign agent, she mutters “Fall Rot” or “Code Red” before she dies.

Thibaut senses that the Nazi forces are about to launch some kind of new offensive to break the stalemate, which has kept Paris in a state of limbo. He sets off on a journey across the blighted ruins of the city. On the way, he encounters a succession of ‘manifs’, which although they are ‘on his side’ seem to have a life of their own. And he passes a number of landmarks transformed by ‘irrational embellishments’ (as suggested in a 1933 article by seven Surrealists which proposed modifications to a number of Paris sites). For example, he finds the church of Sacré Coeur is now “a tram depot, painted black” as imagined by André Breton.

En route, he is joined by two companions, Sam, a journalist apparently from the outside world, and by an ‘exquisite corpse’, which is reproduced at the front of the book. It is perhaps the most famous image of its kind and was ‘assembled’ by André Breton (head), Jacqueline Lamba (torso) and Yves Tanguy (legs) in 1938; one of many products of the Surrealist’s version of the parlour game, Consequences.

Fleeing poetry for reality or fleeing reality for poetry?

The novella moves back and forward in time. We learn that when the teenaged Thibaut joined the Main á Plume he recited their mantra “We refuse to flee poetry for reality. But we refuse to flee reality for poetry” as part of his entry test. The action switches to Marseille in 1941, where a group of (real) Surrealists, awaiting safe passage out of France, play invented games. One of these is based on a Surrealist card pack usefully detailed in the notes and illustrated in Martin’s guide. The game is joined by a crazed occult rocket scientist, Jack Parsons; his arrival has very unexpected consequences that lead to the later developments in Paris.

The division between real and invented characters and between fictional and imaginary events becomes increasingly difficult to divine as Miéville’s phantasmagorical imagination runs riot. Amidst all of this strangeness, the novella reaches a climax with further perverse surprises; Thibaut confronts what might be seen as the ultimate Nazi ‘manif’ and he has a final encounter with ‘the banality of evil’. Thibaut survives, he “takes a deep breath and steps across the boundary into New Paris, the old city” and life and art return to normal. Or do they?

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