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.
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.
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.
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?