Saturday, 20 May 2017


Brighton Dome, Sun 14th May

I was there to see Shirley Collins' unannounced comeback gig three year ago, supporting Current 93 at the Union Chapel. Which, despite lasting precisely two songs, was considered significant enough an event to get it’s own Guardian write-up.

And at the time I confess to having felt like I was watching a different set to everybody else. To the point of wondering whether they were so furiously applauding a reputation rather than a performance.

Then 'Lodestar' came out to what a reliable source of gossip described as “widespread acclaim”, and I figured to give this gig a whirl.

Instead of a single support act, a succession of musicians did a couple of numbers each. Some of whom came back with the main ensemble. All of whom seemed to know Collins in some capacity. Though finding someone from the folk scene unconnected to her would seem the harder task. She's something of a lodestar, it seems.

And, as you might expect from that description, the results were something of a mixed bag. And yet when Collins and her retinue came on for the main set, the bag seemed to stay just as mixed.

Collins looks more like your Gran than your Gran does, and sounds similar. Which is probably a good sign. Folk singers need an ordinariness, an anti-flamboyance to them. Vocal theatrics are unwelcome in any music genre, but with folk music they're an absolute anathema. But they also need an underlying sense of strength to them. Think, for example, of June Tabor. While with Collins' voice I hear pretty much just the ordinariness. Collins the person seems quite a character. Her voice less so.

At one point, she tells an anecdote about visiting a lady in Arkansas to collect folk songs. (While accompanying Alan Lomax. Told you she knew everyone.) At one point nature called and they jointly visited the euphemistic 'outhouse'. At which point she became treated to the lady's “ugly” repertoire, unsuited to the house proper.

And it tends to be the outhouse songs which are more memorable here. The murder ballads and tales of women who run away to sea only to drown in it, all sung in Collins' straight-up, home-cooking tones. There are admittedly a fair few of these. In fact the Guardian review of the album commented the “songs’ body count would startle a Norwegian death metal band.”

Plus, strange as it is to say about a classic singer, I often took to the instrumental passages. (In opposition to most folk gigs, where I just try to sit through the finger-picking without fidgeting.) Which did feature Ossian Brown, in his time of both Current 93 and Coil, turning the lever on the hurdy gurdy. An instrument which is almost a microcosm of the gulf between the way people picture folk, and what it really is. The name couldn't be any more pewter tankard if it was called the Hey Nonny No. But the sound it emits is eerily unearthly. It was probably invented by some ancestor of Chris Carter.

Ultimately I guess I feel folk is great and possibly even vital, but that's no reason to get all traditional about the stuff. I'm less interested in music which reprises the past than music which questions the certainties of our connection to that past. And so I preferred the Flit gig to this.

West Hill Hall, Brighton, Sat 13th May

I have now officially lost count of the amount of times I have seen Damo Suzuki live. Perhaps the remarkable thing is that, with each gig being entirely improvised and with a new set of 'sound carriers' (as he terms them), they've been so consistent.

This time he's playing with Zoff (who I'm afraid to admit I don't know at all, despite being a local band), plus E-da (from the previous gig) on extra drums and percussion. One member seemed to have a veritable mad scientist's lab on stage, complete with green oscilloscope screen, which he'd crouch over and adjust while somehow avoiding crying out “it lives, it lives!”

One review I found described the set as passing “through sonic troughs and peaks”, and indeed it was like watching waves rolling and crashing against the shore. At points the two drummers would lock in together, rising to the fore to hammer away in fearless union, with even Suzuki going uncharacteristically quiet. It would then swell over into something more hauntingly ambient, before starting to stir again.

What might sound schematic on paper becomes mesmerising to experience. It's like when you watch the actual waves crash against the actual shore. Even if parameters exist, within them what's happening is constantly changing and at any one moment unique, and the more you watch the more mesmerising it becomes. Damo did it again.

The Haunt, Brighton, Thurs 11th May

The Physics House Band stop off in their home town mid European tour. (It must feel odd to be half-way through such a venture yet sleeping in your own bed.)

The first time I saw this trio I thought of them as musically on the cusp of the Seventies, the point spacey psychedelia grew noodly appendages and evolved into prog. (Partly this came through seeing them a few days apart from heavy riffers Mainliner.) (The second time they reminded me of a car from 'Wacky Races'. Let's not get into that again or it'll confuse things.) This time they seemed more of a cross between proggy fusion and the frenetic eclecticism of post-dance music, even if electric guitars are their primary weapon.

Truth to tell, there are points when their science class name becomes too telling and they become too muso-ish for me. (And we don't want too much music in our music. That just gets away from the point of the thing.) But at other times their porridge is just right. Through all the multi-note pile-ups these techy kids have the ability to lay down a killer tune. A tune often carried by the bass, for the drums main role seems to be to continually set off firecrackers under the set, lest things start slipping. Sometimes they'll bounce back and forth between straight riff and proggy polysllabery like a circus tumbler flipping forwards. They also give some tracks appealingly atmospheric ambient intros.

Saturday, 13 May 2017


Brighton Dome, Sun 7th May

Plot spoilers afoot

Science fiction is forever heading off for alien planets which on closer inspection turn out to be rather Earth-like. There'll be silver jump-suits or plastic protuberances on people's foreheads or something, but beneath the dressing it will all be analogous to the Middle East crisis or Brexit or something.

Jonathan Glazer's 'Under The Skin' (2013), conversely, presents the Earth through alien eyes. The rather abstract opening scene turns out to represent her eye being formed, accompanied by a barely annunciating voice-over as if she's learning human speech in real time. And from there an alien Scarlett Johansson (unnamed, as are almost all the other characters) sees shopping centres and streetlights as she never has before. While surreal SF sequences are also in the mix, much of it looks like a low-key documentary, as if a fly-on-the-wall team were accompanying her for her first few days on Earth. (And some of the street scenes were shot with hidden cameras.)

Her annunciated RP English contracts with the broad Scottish accents sported by most others. This is intended not only to distance her from them, but suggest at a non-accent, like the modulated service encounter speech in 'Anomalisa'. (I'm not sure how much we do see RP as a neutral non-accent these days, but go with it.)

The film works with the space-femme-fatale, date-rape-in-reverse conceit, familiar from such salacious fare as 'Species'. But this alien framing reverses that reversal, largely through the alien remaining our protagonist. When we see her pick up and devour her victims, we neither sympathise with or condemn them. In fact we tend to regard them as dispassionately as she does, simply because she does. There's a snippet of a radio report of a body being found. But there's no police investigation, no backstory to the other characters.

Of course it's common for characters to be given a theme in soundtracks, which can even be labelled as such. But in Mica Levi's score, here supplied live, the alien's theme pretty much is the soundtrack. It seems to operate at an angle to consensus reality. A frequent feature is different lines which seem to work at different speeds to one another, like planes crossing in an abstract painting. The slow-heartbeat drum pattern should anchor the microtonally shifting strings, but actually adds to the disorientation. It conveys a strange sense of suspension and weightlessness, visually matched by the empty black void her captives find themselves floating in.

But, appropriately for a character who lures her victims, there's simultaneously something siren-like about it. The soundtrack pulls you into watching as surely as she attracts her victims, it's both her theme and her seduction tape. Levi lists it's influences as “Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis and John Cage… these big, music-changing composers. But I also took a lot of inspiration from strip-club music and euphoric dance as well.... It does sound creepy, but we were going for sexy.” It's effective enough to fall confidently silent for long periods, yielding to extemporised speech or simply ambient sounds. In fact it's so effective in placing a destabilising filter over everything, it is hard to imagine the film without it. It may even be integral, the film needed precisely this soundtrack to work.

From a previous viewing, I had imagined the alien gave up her hunting after encountering the man with the facial disfigurement. And there is the scene where she sees her own face in the mottled mirror, briefly de-beautified like his, shortly followed by him legging it across a field. But on re-watch this is actually seeded much earlier, and chiefly represented by her fall in the street.

Because fall it is. One possible interpretation of the film is that it's the helmeted guys on motorcycles who are the actual aliens, and she's a construct they create to harvest humans for them. Hence we see her being built at the start. The ant she finds isn't the first Earth creature she sees, it's the first thing she sees. In which case Pinnochio's plan to become a boy turns out to be a hopeless dream. When she attempts to become human she's unable to connect to anything, wandering without speaking with an almost catatonic expression. Even if you can swap your skin, you can't change your spots. The film pessimistically defines us all as either predator or prey. When she is assaulted herself her attacker even uses her MO, with seemingly aimless chat including the vital question “are you on your own?”

St. Nicholas' Church, Brighton, Fri 5th May

The Ligeti Quartet's programme of contemporary American and American-derived music is part of the 'Listen America' series staged by Music Of Our Time.

John Zorn's opening piece 'Cat O'Nine Tails' did make for an uphill start to the evening. As it careered crashingly round multiple musical styles, it seemed fragmented for fragmented's sake. It was like having a box of jigsaw pieces thrown over you, as if you were expected to assemble them, only to find they came from completely different sets. (And by chance I'd been listening to 'The Faust Tapes' before attending, so should if anything have been primed for collage music.) I suppose we need to respect Zorn, but I'm not sure that's a reason to actually listen to him.

Things thankfully scaled up from there in the listenability stakes. I particularly liked Earle Browne's String Quartet, not a composer I was previously at all familiar with. Like many others from the programme Browne uses non-standard musical notation, which was projected on a screen as the quartet played. And it became part of the fun trying to figure how such strange abstract art could possibly be read as a score. He certainly utilized the non-standard notation to create some non-standard sounds from such standard instruments. A reliable source of gossip claims two of his main influences are Alexander Calder's sculptures and Jackson Pollock's paintings.

Aaron Copland's 'Rondino' was introduced as representing optimism, and made a change from some of the more challenging works. It's odd the way people will use “American” like it automatically acts as a diss term in art. Copland's big, bold strokes, so evocative of wide open spaces, seem quintessentially American. But it's an optimism which feels not just genuine but involving.

Of all the pieces George Crumb's 'Black Angels' was the only one to extend the natural timbres of the instruments with treatment, to the extent the quartet pulled the sound technician on stage for the applause. But they also chant out (naming numbers in various languages) and calmly walk away from their patented instruments to take to gongs and wine glasses. In fact it had some of the ritualised feeling of fellow classic Sixties composition Cardew's 'Great Learning', if not the same communalism.

The sections are divided into movements titled 'Departure', 'Absence' and 'Return', and the music follows a palindromic structure, suggesting a literal musical journey intended to be transformative for player and listener. The subhead “thirteen images from a the dark land” refers to the troubled America of the late Sixties, with Crumb commenting “there were terrible things in the air... they found their way into 'Black Angels'.” But in it's way it's less a reflection of events than an offer of a means to work them out. It's optimism is less breezily open than Copland's, more placed at the end of difficult terrain, but it's there.

It's a tidy twenty minutes long, but is so sonically rich and dense that it feels longer. (In, you know, a good way.) Each of those thirteen 'images' is itself so swiftly run through you need to struggle to keep up. Having previously mentioned 'Faust Tapes' it less matches the classic liner notes of that album - “part of a whole music that time is pressing them to play” - and more the famous Talking Heads line - “say something once, why say it again?” There's a gnomic precision to it, where it's both expressionist scream and set of perfectly composed miniatures.

And just as Copland had provided a little relief into the programme's first half they returned for a Harry Parch piece which was quite folky in it's lyrical melodicism, the quartet strumming rather than bowing their instruments.

Kings Place, London, Sat 6th May

I thought to take in this after enjoying Maya Beisor's set earlier in the Cello Unwrapped season, and after hearing Tim Gill played with the London Sinfonietta. As seen several times by my lucky self, including the time they played a Mica Levi piece. (We don't just throw this show together, you know.)

But also... well, I just plain like the cello. As Thomas Ades, one of the featured composers, is quoted in the programme “the cello of all instruments makes one dream of Elsewhere when one hears it. Perhaps because the colours are so rich and wide-ranging.” Certainly I wouldn't travel so far for Maracas Unwrapped.

Eclectic programmes such as this can become something of a grab-bag. The organising principle seemed to be to alternate the more melodic, post-Romantic works with more cutting-edge contemporary pieces. Well, I may find myself thrown out the Modernist club for this, but it was the post-Romantic which won out for me. The contemporary (at least in style) topped and tailed the evening, with works by Anton Webern and Harrison Birtwistle. The Webern in particular I found to be indigestible, and silently yearned for something less strident. (But then he was a disciple of Schoenberg, the guru of atonality.)

Whereas I did take to Thomas Ades, who really did make me dream of Elsewhere. Or Arvo Part's lyrical 'Fratres'. Or Olivier Messiaen's 'Louange a l'eternite de Jesus', where the accompanying piano strummed a few languid notes, a steady hand on the tiller, as the cello bowed it's sinuous way. (It's a movement from his classic 'Quartet for the End of Time', which I saw nearly a decade ago.)

Jonathan Harvey's 'Ricercare Una Melodia' played back recordings of Gill as he bowed. But rather than loops turning into a rhythm track or the subtly shifting fuzzy shapes of Minimalist multi-tracking, the piece was composed of sharp acute lines. These reverberated around Gill, forming a kind of prism of sound. As the piece went on the recordings slowed to half speed, becoming more of a near-drone backing.

Anna Clyne's 'Paint Box' used recordings of human voices and other sound sources in a tape collage/ music concrete style. It was one of those evocative works that sound intimate and numinous at the same time, like it's able to bypass your conscious mind entirely. However, unless I was missing something, Gill's contributions seemed minimal.

After saying I preferred the post-Romantic a glorious exception, and the night's highlight, was Iannis Xenakis' 'Kottos'. In a perfect combination of form and content, it required (and got) both wild and virtuous playing. I wondered if it had been written for a performing spider, only to read in the programme Kottos was a Greek God with a hundred arms. Sometimes it went so far into raw rhythm it could have been a noise artist improvising.

Judging by the general audience reaction, this stirred people the most and should really have been the finale. The night wasn't as involving as Beisor's overall, but had it's highlights.

Sunday, 7 May 2017


(Onward with those art exhibitions reviewed after they close)

“Futurism and Vorticism have all gone under and we are in the full swing of a Classical revolution.”
- The Sunday Telegraph, 1919

The Classical Comeback

Which is more delightfully absurd? Going to the Sunday Telegraph to check what's the latest thing in Modernism? Or finding them to be on the money? Because artists who had been at the very cutting edge of Modernism one day shifted gear and came to embrace those cold marbles of Classicism. At the very same time that commercial art used it's solid-seeming reassurances to flog stuff.

Modernist Classicism - how did that ever happen? It sounds such an oxymoron. After all the very stuff the Impressionists had railed against had been quite literally wrapped up in Classicism. Why should figures in paintings pose around in togas, when they don't do any of that in the street? It's no coincidence that this antipathy was taken the furthest by the Futurists, who were based in Italy – centre of both Roman Classicism and the Renaissance. Who didn't want to transcend it so much as bin it. They'd look at all those noble-looking statues and column-fronted buildings and ask if anyone intended cleaning up around here. So vehement could they get that their manifesto was arguably one of their most accomplished artworks. Just taste some...

“It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours… we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards… Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!”

And even if their actions did not quite live up to their incendiary manifestos, at least not as far as taking up pickaxes went, how did we get from there to yesterday's news becoming the latest thing? Of course the immediate spanner in the great bus of progress was the Great War. After it's carnage, to misquote Othello, Modernism seemed to have loved the machine age not wisely but too well. War Memorials didn’t just affect a respectful tone, they often stripped their subject from all references to Modernity. The classically proportioned figure was held at odds to the machine guns and barbed wire which blasted and tore apart the actual human body.

But even granted that, how did this last till 1950? Because of course it reflected a wider impulse, of which the immediate post-war mood was just the spark. One which wasn't oxymoronic at all. The past is like the proverbial river, it may seem to occupy an identical space but you soon discover you can’t jump into the same past twice. And they had never been reacting against Classicism so much as an earlier Neo-Classicism, from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. This was not your parent's past.

Through this lens Classicism was, or seemed to be, the setting of the aesthetic rules we now live by. Hence Escher’s poker-faced joy in “mocking our unwavering certainties”, appearing to adhere to Classicism’s rules while breaking them. Hence any distinction between Classicism and the Renaissance is considered as essentially trivial, as both are concerned with trying to enforce an arbitrary geometry on the world. The world was held to be measurable and classifiable. You learnt to be a surgeon or a builder by apprenticing yourself to the masters and learning the pre-set rules, and you learnt to be an artist the same way.

Is any of this actually true? Perhaps to some extent. But that’s not really the question. It just needed to be true enough to sound credible. Art movements are forever trying to paint their predecessors as a flat stereotype, the easier to bounce off them. Almost without fail, each successive Modernist movement would pull this trick on their forebearers.

This show's an effective sequel to the Pallant House's 'Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War' exhibition, with many artists straddling the two. But there throwing the lens over on a specifically British response had seemed a smart piece of focusing. The jury is more out over how well things work here. There's little doubt that, like Classicism before it, Neo-Classicism was essentially a continental import. So to isolate it's British element might seem wrenching.

On the other hand, we were on precisely the opposite end of things to the Futurists. We have little genuinely Classical art and architecture of our own, even when things are stretched to the Renaissance. Of course we had amassed huge collections of the stuff, in the British Museum and other places, the plunder of empire. But that was the equivalent of best china, not for use but display. In our daily lives we did not move among the remains of Classicism, as people did in Italy or Greece. And that exacerbates an effect seen across Neo-Classicism...

To see this at work, look at the way John Armstrong's lithograph 'Pheidippides 490 BC (Greek Messenger)' (1935, above) reproduces a version of the Classical figures from a Greek urn. But with them come the shape of the urn. In fact the suggested curve of the urn is used to enhance the perspective, pushing the messenger ahead of the other figures.

Classicism is not just being cited but self-consciously referenced, a frame within a frame. The Victorians saw the Classical world as composed of distant relations, who had clearly intended us to inherit their fortune, even if no actual will was to be found. While Modernism essentially brought the distance back. It's no longer being assumed Classicism was explicable to us, let alone assimilable into our culture. Anything we say about it becomes by nature a commentary.

And this distances us from one particular use of Classicism in parts of the continent, which sought to deny that element of framing. Overall, there are not a great deal of positive things to say about Fascism. But it was very handy in demonstrating Classicism as pastiche. If companies invoked the reassuring, ordered world of Classicism the better to sell their products, then so did the goose steppers.

Which they pretty much had to. Their ideology was more a fever dream of the Twentieth century than a coherent political position, an incoherent jumble of often contradictory concepts held together only by the formal fetishisation of unity. In his early days, Mussolini had flirted with the Futurists. But he soon decided “established 1922” was not much of a sales pitch to be using in the Twenties, so claimed to be based on an original idea by the Roman Empire. Then, particularly once in power, Fascism could indulge it’s taste for a kind of Ratners Blinging Classicism. It's marbled drapery was not just decoration but a necessity, to figleaf their unendowedness.

The Great Generation Gap

And this framing evident in Armstrong, though rarely absent, could manifest in different ways. Before we've even entered the first room, the show is quoting TS Eliot's 1923 essay on Joyce's 'Ulysses'. It's “parallel between antiquity and the uncertain present” turns then and now into a set of antonyms - the great and the small, the epic and the ordinary.

Perhaps even the eternal and the transient. In Ithell Colquhoun's 'The Judgement of Paris' (1930, above) Paris is not only depicted in duller colours than the radiant Goddesses, he's pushed so far in the foreground he's virtually in the audience with us. Despite his ostensible 'judging' role he looks meekly down as the mighty Goddesses gaze up. Mortal even in the myth, Paris is made one of us. The distinction isn't between then and now so much as them and us.

Similarly 'Arcadia' (1928/9) by Edward Burra (an old favourite of ours here at Lucid Frenzy) depicts a garden party of bright young things. The composition places their jumble of gesticulating figures below more composed (pun intended) classical statues. Some of the party sport classical-themed fancy dress, which just accentuates the difference.

At times, the juxtapositions can become so pronounced we're essentially looking at collage. In Meredith Frampton's 'Still Life' (1932, above) the bust head with the laurel crown is not, as we might expect, at the top of the frame but displaced by flowers. (With the garland-like crown comparing the two.) A painting focusing on a vase of flowers seems more of an Impressionist thing to do, so we might want to read the work as Modernism displacing Classicism.

Yet the composition is split in half, into classical and nature sides. And yet the unspooling measuring tape is allowed to unfurl itself across that split. Measuring tape itself is modern. But the act of measuring is often associated with Classical rules of proportion. (In Hans Feiburch's advertising gouache 'Architects Prefer Shell', 1933, a modern measuring rod is placed alongside some compasses.) Those “and yets”... ultimately, they're the point. That the relationship between the Classical and the modern world is not a set thing, but ever-shifting.

In others, it's hard to tell the joins and that's the point. Madame Yevonde's 'Crisis' (1939, above) sharply combines juxtaposition with verisimilitude. The gas masked bust relies not on our expectation that we see busts in art, but that we encounter them in the real world. Had this been a painting not a photo, it would have much less impact.

But conversely, other works can look to a synthesis. Dod Proctor's 'Early Morning' (1927, above) has not just modern furniture. Even without the title, the lighting would pin it to a time of day. (We know precisely where the sunlight falls from, even if it's not shown.) Yet the show is right to say it also has a “sculptural quality”. This is not just it's stillness. There's the pallid colours. Classicism is associated with whiteness, however wrongly.

And more importantly, as Charlotte Higgins commented in the Guardian, “the white sheets and nightgown that Procter has arranged around her model strongly recall the pale chilliness of antique sculpture.” Classical sculpture would try to capture the momentary folds of drapery but then inevitably freeze them in stone, a feeling evoked here. Similarly, Hans Feurbach's 'Narcissus' (1946, below) is a virtuous combination of the solidity of statuary and the fluidity of oil.

While William Roberts' 'Judgement of Paris' (1933) is less bothered with Classical forms than by universalising the myth. With the absence of architecture and the figures nude or near-nude, we have no handholds which might pinpoint it to an era. If anything, the multi-racial figures would suggest to us modern times. (Wrongly, but then it's the image of Classicism which counts here.) And, like Joyce, he trivialises. His naïve, flat-footed tubular anatomies, so at odds to the Classical rules of proportion, suggest some sort of myth diorama, staged with toy figures who have lost their clothes. (And the way Roberts' take on the myth can be so utterly unlike Colquhoun's shows in itself how many pasts there were to pick from.)

Generally the sculpture in this show, unlike the sculpture-derived painting, is a weak point. Jumping between media acts against the merely imitative, and pushes somewhere new. Until that is, we reach Henry Moore. He really attacked the problem from the other end, collapsing the difference between Classical and primitive forms and arriving at something which does suggest at the eternal. (See 'Reclining Figure', above.) 

In my earlier piece on Moore I remarked on the centrality of his Shelter drawings, and how rooted they seemed in Grecian Hades. Here he's quoted: “Until my Shelter drawings I never seemed to feel free... to mix the Mediterranean approach comfortably with my interest in the more elementary concept of archaic and primitive people.”

Dissembling Arcadia

But let's jump to another corner of the board. Here we might see Classicism not through Joyce but Shelley, as something inherently Ozymandian. Here Classicism does not imply order or continuity but rupture and upheaval. It was a warning against hubris, a reminder empires fall. For if even the Romans didn’t last, why should we? (It's perhaps analogous to the way in music the Nineties were so often said to be the Sixties upside down, presenting not the view from Woodstock looking forward but Altamont looking back.)

Classicism is strongly associated with the cult of the body, like a Charles Atlas ad in reverse where it's the 'before' figure we should aim to be like. So in Michael Ayrton's 'Orpheus', his ravaged form could not be more at odds with the idealised anatomies of old. The myth of Orpheus incorporates anthropomorphism, his lyre playing said to be so beguiling it could stir the trees and rocks to dance. Here the opposite has happened, the landscape he’s in as ravaged as he is. In fact there’s little differentiation between them. The same ghostly grey hues are used for both, a touch of off-red on his lips is the only hint of colour. While the straggly bare trees are echoed in the veins on his chest.

After being unable to rescue Eurydice from death, a distraught figure wandered the earth. And the story’s ending is here associated with the end of Classicism itself, as if he’s exiled past his time and it’s the barren modern world which batters him.

Furthermore, it's a truism that we rarely see intact examples of Classicism. The broken pieces of pot, the limbless statue, the incomplete frieze… what's Classical comes down to us in a battered box with pieces missing. Our knowledge of it is a combination of assemblage and guesswork. Art can be used to overcome that, to reassemble Arcadia, take us back to when temples were intact. Or, conversely...

John Armstrong's 'The Three Orders of Architecture' (1927, above) presents this fragmentary, collage view of Classicism. Two different column caps are conjoined, while we only see pieces of the main figure, the rest suggested in white outline. And of course we are used to seeing Classical statuary in just this incomplete state, in the more iconic cases to the point where to now see it intact would be jarring. It's a visual metaphor for our incomplete understanding of the past. But it should also be seen in combination with other Armstrong works.

His 'Pro Patria' (1938, above) is more a companion piece to his ruin works from the earlier 'British Artists and the Spanish Civil War' show. There's the same jagged shards of what once were houses, wallpaper still attached. But this time he incorporates Classical motifs, such as the fractured statue face, and quite modern elements – such as the two peeling posters which shout at each other from opposite walls.

“Pro Patria” (“for the fatherland”) was a phrase from Horace turned into a slogan by Mussolini. It could be read as a promise that, like the Rome Mussolini modelled himself on, fascism would fall. But there is also something more sweeping and simultaneously beguiling to it. Is this post-attack or post-apocalypse? The green peeling paintwork on the right looks almost like foliage, as though this is the new nature, our new normal.

(After the earlier exhibition unearthed Armstrong, he was noticed by numerous well-informed critics. (And by me.) We're now told he was part of a mini-movement, the Tempera Revival.)

Frank Runacres' 'Untitled (Ruin)' (1939, above) perhaps goes further in turning bomb wreckage into collage. Ironically, amongst the damage, one figure is shown holding up entabulature. The pure geometrical forms – a sphere, a wheel, a pyramid – serve to emphasise what a jumble everything has been reduced to. The classical sculptures are missing limbs, but of course we have no way of knowing whether that's from the blast or they have just come down to us that way. The sky is deep storm-grey, though the scene is painted as if brightly lit. The show refers to this as “the destruction of culture through war”.

Notably, both these works were not journalism but heralds of war. JG Ballard, who experienced World War Two as a child, perhaps made one of the most important statements about Modernism when he said “war is surreal”. If Ruancres' image is a mite too arranged to look like an actual scene, it's perfectly possible a museum or private collection could have been bombed. And being based in a credible event grants it credibility.

It is slightly strange the show focuses on Eliot's essay on Joyce and not his own 'The Waste Land' (1922), despite it being widely seen as a foundation stone of Modernist poetry. In it Eliot quotes from Classical sources such as Homer and Ovid, and the second-hand Classicism of for example Shakespeare's plays. And notably this was another war work, though this time a reaction to the First World War.

Making Myth Into Psychology

Whether people from Classical eras believed in their myths with earnest literalism is one thing. (With what evidence we have pointing against a neat answer.) But, even when they focused on the exploits of individual heroes, they were always social stories with a collective message. Yet we've since seen the parallel rise of psychology and art more concerned with mental landscapes. Joyce's 'Ulysses' bases itself on 'The Odyssey' to emphasise the contrast, as art went from a macro to a micro focus - from the mytho-historic or even cosmogenic to a peep inside a single mind. In fact the show's post-Freudian title would seem to stem from this.

Glyn Philpott summed up the paradox: “For me the more personal has been my desire to create some expression of my own emotional or spiritual experience, the more readily have I accepted the aid of a theme drawn from myth and legend.”

It's only been three times already, let's turn to John Armstrong again. He didn't consider himself a Surrealist, but take a look at 'The Labyrinth' (1927, above). Objects as symbols and figures as cyphers, situated inside a bizarre architectural space strewn with apertures. The way the three figures are in the same pallid off-white, giving the walls and ruddy ground the most vivid colours, suggests the maze is a frame holding the figure together rather than dividing them. Hollywood's quasi-classical epics were always boasting of a cast of thousands. But perhaps this has a cast of one. The three figures are merely elements of a single psyche.

If we’re going for psychological explanations for a Surrealist work, Freud would seem an obvious fit. Wikipedia summarises his tripartite mental model: “the id is the set of uncoordinated instinctual trends; the super-ego plays the critical and moralizing role; and the ego is the organized, realistic part that mediates between the desires of the id and the super-ego.” And here we have three figures - the bullish brute id placed dead centre (the Minotaur), the advancing ego seeking dominance (Theseus), and the directing super-ego (Ariadne). (The plan, let’s remember, had been Ariadne’s.)

Yet before we close the case let’s note a few more things. Ariadne’s thread, a detail from the myth most remember, is absent. And without it’s linking device the figures look isolated. Both Ariadne and Theseus seem to look out of the frame. Pushed to the edge of the composition, it’s unclear whether Theseus is striding boldly forwards or simply sloping off. Besides which, Freud associated the super-ego with… surprise, surprise… the authority of the Father.

Psychological explanations of myth often assume it’s role is inherently instructive and even curative, about the symbolic restoration of balance. In this way they occupy the insidiously slippery slope where Jungism degenerates into New Age mush. Yet myth is more often an explanation for why things don’t work than why they do, and the Theseus story – with it’s litany of betrayals and failures, and long line of avoidable deaths – is a classic example.

The Minotaur was the progeny of Minos’ wife and a bull, shamefully consigned to the labyrinth. Traditionally he was depicted as a symbiote, half man half bull. Armstrong makes him more of a fusion, animal body yet humanised (if horned) face. And the unsocialised child is often likened to an animal. Perhaps the male figure is just that, not Theseus but simply standing for ‘the male’. In which case he could as equally stand for Minos, the father keen to finally rid himself of his troublesome offspring. It’s the Oedipus myth the other way up.

While, even in the original myth, Theseus breaks his promise to Ariadne and abandons her. In times past the labyrinth was not just a puzzle to be solved but a sort of spiritual journey akin to pilgrimage; you could pass through it, while trapping those plaguing evil spirits within it. But the opposite happens here. ’The Labyrinth’ is a portrait of a fractured mental model, three pieces which must be made to fit together but which cannot.

Looking backwards to go forward... This was the way Modernism had pretty much always seen primitive or folk art. The way to not become blocked by an immediate obstacle was to take a step back in the hope of leapfrogging over it. Ultimately, it’s Armstrong’s incomplete Classical statue which is the signature image. Classicism may first have been sought out for it’s reassuring orderedness. But it remained as a repository of imagery, as pictures already scalpeled and hence collage-ready. It presented images which looked like they should have been unifying but simply weren’t.

Coming soon! More art exhibitions reviewed after they've closed...

Saturday, 22 April 2017


The Haunt, Brighton, Wed 19th April

Looking back at what I wrote after first seeing Chelsea Wolfe, at the Mutations festival, I find I was much taken by her music. While taking some exception to her Gothy, too-much-mascara look. 

Which in retrospect seems too much like reviewing a book by the shade of it's cover. True, I tend to react to the trappings of Goth the way they do to sunlight. The main problem with it is that too often it's just the dressing up, just empty theatrics and painted dark. But then your actual dark is plentiful enough with Wolfe. (Quite literally so. It's one of the most underlit gigs I've been to in recent years.) Enough to convince you she's yer actual creature of the night.

There's a cool quote from her on Wikipedia: “"I do have a hard time sticking to one genre, and honestly I prefer it that way. I'd rather be free to experiment and make the kind of art I want to make than be easy to define." It the goes on to list her influences as “doom metal, drone metal, black metal, gothic rock, folk and dark ambient”. 

Bar folk, none of which are sounds which you associate with songwriting, yet she seems continually able to pack them into songs. In fact, by 'folk' I suspect people mean that packing - the means by which she binds those sounds together - rather than any kind of Sandy Denny vibe. (Though at the same time it can sometimes sound like later, louder Portishead. Wolfe's tremulous voice in particular can channel Beth Gibbons.)

Guitar lines can be distorted to the point where there's really only the distortion. Yet their scrunchy metallic rhythms don't collide with melodies so much as co-exist. Songs don't progress so much as deepen, like storm clouds thickening. And the sound is so expansive it's great to hear in a live setting.

If I say there's something underlyingly adolescent about it all, I mean it in a positive sense. In the sense of feeling that immensities are contained within you, which you're compelled to find a way to release. And in our nostalgist, classic rock magazine era, we probably need to cling on to the sense that it's music about stopping you getting old and accepting.

An old-ish clip but a track from the current album... (And like I say, underlit.)

Saturday, 15 April 2017


(The latest in a long line of art exhibitions reviewed after they close)

“Ensor was a scenographer, depicting a strange world that was neither tangible nor imaginary, populated by inscrutable beings”
- Curator Luc Tymans

The Sunless Seaside

I first saw the work of the Belgian artist James Ensor in an exhibition devoted to Carnival - 'Carnivalesque' at Brighton Museum, back in 2000. Fittingly enough, for as we'll come onto, Carnival was prevalent in his work, almost always at least implicit. Now any Carnival buff knows the festival to be inextricably connected to it's ostensible opposite - Lent. And so Ensor starts with Lent. Officially that's the wrong way round, for Carnival was supposed to yield to Lent. But then he was a somewhat contrary character, so let's follow his lead.

Take for example 'Afternoon in Ostend' (1881), where figures sit primly at afternoon tea, or the murky oil of 'The Bourgeois Salon' (1880, above). The light at the window is able to strike up some white echoes straight in front of it, but the single figure is determinedly turned away. And the exteriors were little less oppressive. In 'Large View of Ostend (Rooftops of Ostend)' (1884, below) those titular rooftops are crammed into the lower fifth of the canvas, huddled below a tempestuous sky. Not unlike Sickert's Dieppe, there's a sense of unease to Ensor's Ostend, made stronger for never being quite identifiable.

It's not an approach Ensor ever entirely abandons. 'Flowers and Vegetables' (below), dating from 1891, is that rare thing – a still life which virtually leers out at you. The ruddy reds and lurid greens must make for the most feral-looking vegetables in art history, as throbbing with life as any Van Gogh nature scene. Set against that those delicate blue bits of porcelain, it looks like the crusties have taken over the garden suburb. You can uproot nature and even fetch bits of it indoors, but it remains untameable.

But the underlying unease becomes more palpable and more fantastical as Ensor went on. For in a remarkable sea change, almost all of the successive works are devoted to what 'The Bourgeois Salon' shutters out. What is repressed is shown as returning, quite frequently erupting. In 'The Haunted Furniture' (1880), an early example, spirits rise from the sides of a great heavy wardrobe.

Skeletons At Work and Play

'The Skeleton Painter' (1896, above) is one of many images using the skull or full skeleton. The title is most likely some double-edged self-referential joke, the skeleton who painted skeletons. We don't see the figure's hands, so can't ascertain whether this is an animate skeleton or just someone in a skull mask. Skulls and masks are placed around the studio, suggesting either is possible. Though the eyeballed skull atop the easel seems more animate than the figure. It's widely seen as a kind of self-portrait, which would make that easel skull a kind of totem. (He'd also create the etching 'My Portrait as a Skeleton', 1889.)

Notably, there's no attempt to give the skeleton any shock appeal. It's entirely unlike covers to Gothic novels, with their long bone fingers stretching towards shrieking maidens. For one thing, sunlight pours in the room. In fact it's the 'natural' 'Bourgeois Salon' which takes place in the gloom, rather than this 'fantastical' work. And skeletons are always painted naturalistically, or even casually, like they belong to their environments. (See for example 'Skeleton Looking at Chinoiseries', c. 1888/90.) TJ Clarke of the London Review of Books commended Ensor's “ability to convince us that horror and absurdity are familiar events, behaviours we all recognise from our daily round… Garishness and matter-of-factness were faces of the same coin.”

The show suggests a local origin for this imagery. The ongoing development of Ostend had disinterred mass graves, the residue of the Eighty Years War, reminding us that the past is rarely actually past. Remember the old Fall song lyric where unearthed graves are found to be “disease ridden, dusty, organic - and psychic”?

But it does also seem to be tapping into the same themes as Mexican popular art. As I said of the British Museum's 'Revolution on Paper' exhibition of Mexican prints:
“The skeleton figure acts paradoxically, throwing emphasis onto the figures’ accoutrements (bosses’ top hats versus peasant caps), whilst confirming that these are only accoutrements for almost identical figures…. reducing us to the skeletons we all are underneath.” The face is just mask for the skull, which less represents death than the inescapable baseness of life.

Which is possibly most visible in 'Skeletons Fighting Over a Pickled Herring' (1891, above). What's striking isn't the armless war between jaws, like the figures are squabbling birds. Or even the way their tugging is emphasised by the angle of the clouds. It's the fine-looking clothes, the bizarre busby hat perched on the bone head. A human in a hat like that might even seem deserving of our respect. Whereas a skeleton is a ghoul, a savage mockery of status.

Masks Alive

Following an an 1908 description of him by Emile Verhearen, Ensor has become known as “the painter of masks”. To the degree where the show insists this is too limited a frame, which needs busting open. Nevertheless, the motif is recurrent in his work.

As already seen in 'The Skeleton Painter' Ensor would casually mix his skull and mask motifs up. And we perhaps shouldn't try too hard to disentangle them. An artists' work rarely reduces to a neat set of symbols, which you can come along and fix a key to. Nevertheless, while Ensor is able to convey different expressions through skulls, the mask inherently gives greater variety and so becomes a broader symbol.

And as with the skull, the mask had a local connection for him. Ostend was home to the annual Ball of the Dead Rat, a carnivalesque masked ball. He even grew up, and later made his studio, above a shop where his mother sold carnival masks and similar goods.

And what did the mask mean in Carnival? Not merely the way we see them now, as a form of disguise. The masks were often associated with characters, and to don one was to effectively become that character. And if anything Ensor pushes that concept further. The masks often appears as the embodiments of spirits, as if they were themselves animate. As Laura Cumming wrote in the Guardian, Ensor's work is “a theatre where the masks can live their own existence.”

'Intrigue' (1890, above) is so famous a work it's not just the poster image but has the show named after it. (The last time I can think of that happening was Fuseli and the Tate's 'Gothic Nightmares' exhibition, back in 2006.) And here the figures seem not just living their own existence but pressing into ours, massing at the front of the work like they're about to erupt into our space. In particular the red coated woman with the baby seems to be projecting out of the frame, while the black slitted eyes of the main figure seem to be not even looking out as us but on a point beyond us. The figures are less alive than charged, animate energy virtually seething with malevolence. The work almost literally exudes menace.

There's not a sliver of human flesh to be found, the two hands gloved, the high collars - particularly that raised black collar on the main figure - obscuring any join at the neck. It's reminiscent of the trope in films such as 'The Invisible Man' (1933), in which a figure is unwrapped to reveal only an absence. Similarly, in 'The Astonishment of the Mask Wouse' (1889, below) some figures seem to have had their spirits desert them, leaving inert masks attached to husks of clothing on the ground. The hand of the main standing figure is upraised, as if she might magic motion back into them.

‘The Intrigue’ can also be traced back to an event in Ensor’s biography, but accurate or not that’s scarcely the point of the work – it’s source not explanation. Overall, and typically of Ensor, the painting's neither explicable as a scene nor reducible to a set of symbols. And that’s kind of the point. It presents a kind of erupting irrationality, against which we’re like the defensively doubting rationalist in the horror film, stuttering about some pat psychological explanation. Ensor himself declared “reason is the enemy of art.”

And this is not just to do with Carnival but the childhood sense of animism, the feeling every object in the world is possessed of a spirit unknowable to you. This can seem charming, as we see children form attachments to inanimate objects. But at the time, as those thoughts run through your head, it meant even a domestic scene could seem charged with danger.

The Crowd As Collage

Okay, some social levelling, masks...what else do you need to create Carnival? Of course, there has to be a crowd. A party needs invites. And as if by magic Ensor's other most famous work, 'The Entry of Christ into Brussels', foregrounds this. (Represented here not by the giant, four-metre plus painting of 1888, but an 1895 etching, above.) Though Christ can be found in there if you search, the work's more concerned with the figures which surround him. They're a motley array, a jumble of individual heads – this is crowd as collage.

The dominant notion has become that there is something reductive and deindividuating about a crowd, that being in one somehow makes you less than what you are. Yet when you’re in a crowd you’re part of it and yourself, at one and the same time. We all know this from experience. And this precisely what Ensor depicts. They're not a deindividuated swarm conjured up by popular phrases such as 'mob mentality', they're individuals amassed.

And there's a juxtaposition between the crowd and the neat military line of soldiers behind them. (A device Ensor re-employs elsewhere, for example in 'The Strike', 1886.) They're like the buckling bottle whose task it is to contain the frothing, fermenting alcohol. The crowd are shown at a physical distance. But that's not how the work feels. Ensor depicts crowds the way some artists do the sea, their teeming feels like an invitation to dive in. To quote Laura Cumming again: “Ensor is festive even when devastating or macabre”. The bawdy and the grotesque are bedfellows.

And if Ensor was the painter of anything, it wasn't masks but crowds. 'Skeleton Painter', showing his studio strewn with masks and skulls, can give rise to the notion he had a hermetic world-view - his imagery cast no wider than the room about him.
And so he comes to be depicted as some reclusive outsider artist, such as in Timothy Hyman's description of him as “working alone through long, silent days in his fifth-floor attic high above the family’s carnival shop.”

And yet, news though it may be to some, the art world is not the world. Yes, Ostend insulated Ensor from the art world, which he found confining and regulating. But that doesn't mean he hid away from Ostend, like some recluse. Let's remember his family shop was not selling antiques, but was outfitter to an ongoing carnival tradition. And you can see that in the work, a love of the crowd far too visceral to be theoretical.

There may, however, be one or two elements of truth to this. Ensor is known to have anarchist sympathies, and he went on to influence political artists, such as George Grosz. And at times these can come out in the open. (For example, the full-size version of 'Christ's Entry' contains a banner proclaiming “Vive La Sociale”.) But he was not primarily a political artist. He less saw the crowd as an instrument of social change and more loved it for it's own sake, luxuriating in it's disreputable tumultuousness. And of course these days we are more wary of making clear, causal connections between Carnival and revolt than others have been in the past. (Carnival yields to Lent, remember?)

Further, Ensor exhibits a paradox between an artist with a highly personalised cosmology, and one influenced by folk traditions. And the two often come together in his style. His compositions are often strangely arbitrary, heads and feet lopped off by his borders like he ran out of room. Just as some artists are Just Abstract Enough, perhaps we need a name for artists who are Just Outside Enough. Artists who, like Ensor, had formal art training and could draw conventionally when they needed, but didn't feel at all beholden to it. Timothy Hyman suggests the term “exceptionals”, presumably drawing on the twin meaning of ‘outside’ and ‘beyond’.

'The Baths at Ostend'(1890, above), for example, is so crammed with comic incident it's not entirely dissimilar from children's comic artists such as Leo Baxendale. (If a more lewd variant.) In fact, particularly with it's use of coloured pencil, it might even be a child's drawing. It's noticeable how much emphasis there is on voyeurism, with gapers down virtually the whole left side and the monocled figure in the lower centre.

Not Even Past

Try again to find the actual Christ in 'Christ's Entry Into Brussels'. There's a short cut, you can track him down by his halo, it's yellow an echo of the sun. This Medieval device, which had long since passed from art's vocabulary, makes a return. Similarly, 'Adam and Eve Expelled From Paradise' (1887) uses a local Belgian landscape for this Biblical fable. It's total uninterest in fidelity to the Middle East again echoes Medieval art.

And while 'Christ's Entry' might hide the title star in a crowd, Ensor often focused upon him. For example in the late 'Christ In Agony' (1931) or 'The Man of Sorrows' (1891, above) – where he's painted as if saturated with ruddy reds, to the point where it's hard to tell head and hair from blood. In fact it wouldn't be too hard to believe the thing had actually been painted in blood. There's none of the solemn dignity we're used to seeing given to Jesus, those harshly over-exaggerated features look more savage than John the Baptist.

To Ensor as with the Medieval artist the halo's a transpiring symbol, yet the face and body of Jesus is very much a real thing. His blood is not a religious thing, it's thick red stuff. Like many Medieval religious images, it's more macabre than moral.

All of which seems very much at odds with our idea of art of this time. Tuymans comments that Carnivalesque art had originally rebelled against Classicism, conveying order through it's neat rules of composition. Whereas for Ensor the dominant culture was Modernism, most of which he volubly detested. It really comes back to the image of the disinterred skeleton. Just as reason was a thin skin over the irrational, the present was a barely coping mechanism for holding back the past. The bodies just don't stay buried.

It's hard to find a term for the art history he refers to. I guess the point was less that it was an integral era, named and scrupulously annotated, and more that his interest went to the gaps – past-Classical yet pre-Romantic. People have sometimes seen an inheritance from his geographical forebearers, the Flemish Renaissance. There's Breugel's interest in the culture of the common folk, and Bosch's phantasmagorias. When people compare Ensor to Bosch perhaps they’re seeing a similar collision between the Medieval and the contemporary, for all that the two artists were working in different eras.

Held in the Academy's upstairs Sackler gallery, this is a relatively small exhibition, comprising about eighty works. So it's strange when curator Luc Tuymans sacrifices space to works by Ensor's contemporaries, a piece by himself and at one point a pointless fake video where an actor portrays Ensor perambulating on the seafront. Tuymans is himself an artist, considered well-known enough for his name to become incorporated into the show's title. And while it is often artists who understand other artists best, perhaps this sort of indulgent decision-making comes with celebrity curators.

Conversely, the show does give space to Ensor's prints and drawings. Though paintings are often held by curators to trump other media, Ensor himself saw them as equally important. In fact he prized his prints the highest, because they were the easiest disseminated. Overall, while it would have been nice to see a few more Ensors at this Ensor show, when even today he is so often overlooked there's never any reason to knock seeing Ensors.

Coming soon! More art exhibitions reviewed after they have closed. (While stocks last.)