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Saturday, 17 October 2020

“I SPOKE ABOUT WINGS”: THE WATERBOYS’ ‘THIS IS THE SEA’ (TOP 50 ALBUMS)

”Close your eyes,
”Breathe slow and we’ll begin”


’This is the Sea’, released in October 1985 is the final, fully realised expression of the early Waterboys sound.” So said Mike Scott, and he should know, being not just the main songwriter but the only constant band member.

Some albums are classic because they’re so mysterious, leaving you feeling compelled to constantly re-engage with them even as you know you’ll never ‘solve’ them. We’ve already had 'Paris 1919’ and ‘Thunder Perfect Mind’ in this series, and expect more. But other albums are classic just because they’re so… well, classic.

Everything just combines so naturally, symbols clicking together like Duplo blocks until they form a perfect picture. The imagery in this album is so recurrent from song to song it virtually becomes one long multiform number. It’s a fusion of Romanticism with Jungian psychology, which isn’t particularly smart or novel. But it is heady and potent. I already know every word and note of the album. I don’t go back to try and extract more meaning from it, like re-reading a book that always fascinated you. I go back just to be back there, like revisiting a place you love.

So we can just come out and say what this album is about – it’s about adulthood as apotheosis. Growing up isn’t about getting a driving license or no longer having to lie about your age in pubs, it’s a lesser person being replaced by a greater. (“There’s a man in my head/ And he isn’t me any more.”) No less than three songs were structured around a less/more dichotomy, ’Spirit’, the hit single ’The Whole of the Moon’ and the shimmering title track – with it’s refrain “that was the river, this is the sea.”

While most rock music tries to capture the angst of puberty, this promises you the end of all that. ’Medicine Bow’ is the classic example, in which the world is a tempestuous troublespot for our adventuring hero to stride boldly through. (“I’m gonna stop my squawking, grow some wings.”)

Though I’d heard the album earlier, the time I really got into was after I’d somehow got my way through my degree and had moved into the crumbling grandeur of a mansion-like squat on the edge of town. I’d play this album loud looking out onto the grounds (yes our squat had grounds!) and convince myself the world lay at my feet, I was destined for greatness and not at all the sort of person who would in later life turn to writing obsessive and long-winded blog posts.

Characteristically, I may have been overlooking something. If puberty was about focusing in on your private pain, accentuating the self, this was about embracing the universal. Beating your chest and making your sound, that might sound the very definition of rock ‘n’ roll. But Scott admonishes us: “Not here, man, this is sacred ground.”

Rather than being portrayed as knowing stuff, adulthood is no longer needing to know, being so in tune with the world you can simply act. The younger self is rent by indecision. (“You’ve got a war in your head/ And it’s tearing you up inside.”) Whereas maturity is beyond the need for decision, the antithesis of ego. (“Not to try/ Just let it come/ Don’t bang the drum”). An early lyrics from the title track was “forget all your schooling/ It won’t give you the key.”

And so the sturm und drang of ’Medicine Bow’ with its “pummelling rain, murderous skies”, segues from ’The Pan Within’. Which made it clear travel was as much inner as outer, “a journey under the skin” where “all we gotta do is surrender”. The sea, towards which the whole album draws, is depicted the way it so often was in Romanticism - as the infinite, the horizon-less sublime. Immersing yourself in it rids yourself of separation, draws you back to where you belong.


From the first single, ‘A Girl Called Johnny’, Scott had written character songs. But such things now seemed just the river. ‘Red Army Blues’, from the previous album had told the tale of a young Russian lad in the war. It had proved popular, but he was soon saying he’d be writing nothing more like it. Conversely the track which did most presage ‘This is the Sea’ was ‘The Thrill is Gone’.

With a violin part that doesn’t so much accompany the track as haunt it, it’s an awesome number. But then so was ’Red Army Blues’. Why then, as laid out by setlist.com, was ‘Thrill is Gone’ played seventeen times live in ‘85 alone, and ’Red Army Blues’ a mere twice? I’ve seen the band play a fair few times. And I think they may have always played ‘Thrill is Gone’ and never ’Red Army Blues’. Why was one orphaned, left behind by the band’s development, and the other so taken up?

’Thrill is Gone’ didn’t stay because of it’s theme (another break-up song) but because it offered no pedestrian reasons for the separation. (There’s no “now you’ve had that office affair” or “if you’re really taking up that transfer to Oldham”.) Instead it just reasserted the essence of the thing in four short words - “the thrill is gone/ And we’ll never get it back.” Emotional states direct our lives, shifting like tectonic plates, the details which seem to count merely surface markers moving with them. A line Scott would often sing live was “it ain’t why, it just is.”

Anything which suggested specifity was now out, snagging us on the real and immediate when we were headed for the bigger picture. It’s not just that the more immediate “you” and “I”s predominated, songs were often directly addressed to the listener. Including both opening and closing track. (The only exception is ‘Old England’, a personified state of the nation. But then that’s probably the least ‘This is the Sea’ track on ‘This is the Sea’.)

Songs took place inside a richly symbolic realm. As I said another time, the album’s set in a “heightened, idealised world – painted broadly so as to be beyond detail. You’re not supposed to be in a place, but the place, which wouldn’t appear on anything so petty as a map.” For Scott was at heart an idealist, not in the sense of naive or deluded, but in imaging there was an ideal state of things which we lay outside of, but which we could at times tap into. (“What spirit is, man can be.”) And music might work as a handy bridge between the realms.


Like every fool before me who tried to capture music with words, I’m focusing on the lyrics here. But like all great music the first thing that makes it work is the music, which would perfectly convey the feel of all this even if you couldn’t follow a word being sung.

Scott had grown up through punk and always retained a sense of punk ethics, but soon went beyond the aesthetics. He’s said he wanted a sound “like sunlight bursting through clouds.” An expansive, exuberant sound which came to be called the Big Music, after the title of an earlier single. Which made for a great contrast to earlier post-punk years, where music had been deliberately grey and austere, keen to deconstruct concepts and dispel romanticised notions. Perhaps most pointedly in the Magazine lyric “I couldn’t act naturally if I wanted to”. Now, to quote that earlier single, “everything came into colour”.

Scott brought back nature imagery in abundance – not just sunlight bursting through clouds but fullmoons, mighty seas, black winds blowing across those murderous skies. He became in his own words full of “the conviction that music can evoke landscape and the elements.” After seeing the band at Glastonbury, in the midst of the verdant sweep of the land, I can attest that was the perfect setting for them.

Interviewed the previous year Scott had said he didn’t see his music as “a product of the times in which we live”. Yet expansiveness and universalism, going beyond time, suddenly that seemed timely again. Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ was released the same year. And the story that ’Whole of the Moon’ was a hit at early raves, however bizarre, does seem to be true.

And yet I’d been a huge fan of post-punk, from first to last. Whereas in the main I found this newly enbiggined music risible, ostentatious dreck, full of stadium gestures, the soundtrack to the oversized hair and jackets seven sizes too large which filled Eighties fashion, all of it ludicrous even at the time. ‘Bigness’ was presented as if it had a value in itself, as if printing money on larger notes made you richer. So what made the Waterboys such a different order of things to Simple Minds and Big Country, and all those self-proclaiming no-hopers?

One answer is better influences. Scott always said the Velvet Underground were a prime influence, with the band even named after a Lou Reed lyric. But with this album he added to the mix Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’, channelling it to the point where he covered ‘Sweet Thing’ - later included on the later expanded CD. (And in the spirit of full disclosure I’ve already listed ‘Astral Week’s as one of my favourite albums here, and should this series ever get that far it will doubtless also include the VU.)

And what he was able to take from Morrison was his sense of spontaneity, that all this was happening in the moment, with him in the midst of some epiphany that had struck him just now and was compelling him to sing. ‘Astral Weeks’ may best be defined by the trapeze instructor in the film ’Wings of Desire’ who insists “not with force, with a swing.” It doesn’t just sound organic, it makes almost all other music sound factory farmed. Scott called it “luminous and gossamar-light”, not anything anyone’s said about Simple Minds.

And there were more functional, more autobiographical reasons. In a Quietus interview Scott confessed he’d been suffering from the dreaded ‘third album syndrome’. For the first time writing for release, “I suddenly grew self-conscious”, something he fought by “doing what the music told me to do.” It’s reminiscent of the famous Captain Beefheart line: “You couldn’t have done this if you knew what you were doing.” Being in the moment was something he was then keen to build up in himself, his songs a kind of self-cure. He was summoning the slow train for himself to jump on, as much as you and me.

And if this album was “the final, fully realised expression” then from this point that big music wasn’t going to get any bigger. In fact Scott knew not to try. He compared recording it to climbing a mountain, then being immediately transfixed by sights the peak view it revealed. The chief sight being… well, a story for another time...

For those who like to know such things, otherwise unattributed quotes from the 2004 expanded edition of the album. And for the two or three of you who don’t already know ‘Whole of the Moon’. Because for once the hit single really is a good introduction...

...and should there be anyone who hasn’t enough of this sort of thing yet, I’ve written about three Waterboys gigs, the tour for ‘Appointment With Mr Yeats’, the anniversary of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and the more recent ‘Modern Blues’.

Saturday, 10 October 2020

‘THE MYTH MAKERS’ (WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

Written by Donald Cotton
First broadcast Oct/Nov 1965

“Is nothing sacred to you?”

Menelaus


Deflating the Legends


The Romans and Greeks, historically they overlapped. We know that full well. But our hindsight can’t help but build a divide between them. The Romans were ‘early’ and serve up historicised adventure stories, the Greeks ‘ancient’ and provide us with quasi-primordial legends. Think of the difference between two early Sixties films, ’Spartacus’ (1960) and ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ (1963). One asks us to imagine this is the way real things happened, even if no-one’s speaking the Latin. The other has mythological creatures and yer actual Gods gazing down while proclaiming things. 

Which seems explicable. Rome's connected to us in two ways. They invaded us, leaving things behind when they went. Hadrian’s Wall makes for something of a memento. And later Roman times incubated Christianity. While the Greeks are more removed from us.

And associated with this is the way the Greeks represent culture. Which is seen as somehow beyond human creation, the heirloom we can no longer remember how we got. The Romans of popular conception watched human blood sports at colosseums, the Greeks did serious-minded theatre. We use terms from Greek comedies, such as “cloud cuckoo land”, without even thinking they had comedies. Our minds go to their tragedies. While as much as we think of Roman theatre at all, it’s the farces.

So when the earlier story ’The Romans’ was played as a comedy, partly it seemed audacious but it was as equally fitting. Making this Greek-set, legend-based story a comedy is the bigger step. Pissing on a Greek statue becomes a bigger art of desecration than on a Roman monument. This story knows this. In fact, that’s precisely why it’s here. To piss on stuff.

(Which may be behind the well-known fact that the BBC barred the punning episode titles. For some reason the least of them, ’Small Prophet, Quick Return’, was passed. But alas we lost ‘Zeus Ex Machina’ and the even better ’Is There a Doctor in the Horse?’)

So this opens as if it was going to be played straight, with characters of legend saying things like “the God of my people are not lightly mocked” and sounding all thespian. Setting up a tonal clash with the more everyday speech of the travellers, with the Doctor intent on asking them for directions.

But this source of comedy is soon replicated between the historical characters, and we’re witnessing exchanges such as Cassandra intoning “the auguries were bad this morning. I woke full of foreboding”, only for Paris to complain “never knew her when she didn’t.” (Generally the squabbling family unit of the Trojans gets the best lines.)

Despite the adventure story trappings, it soon comes to resemble a sitcom when ’The Romans’ had only really got as far as farce. This time we’re shown a situation which is on repeat, even if we get only one iteration of it. Set ten years into the siege everyone is trapped in a stand-off they don’t like with people they care for even less, with all having become wearily accustomed to it.

After the initial fight, the Greeks and Trojans don’t meet until the final episode. It’s their own kind they have the trouble with, Paris loudly complaining he gets more respect from the enemy. While Menelaus is (as the saying goes) “in his cups”, a cynical and washed-up drunk. Plans are confounded like that’s just a law of physics. (And besides anything else, epic history on a budget? The only way to play it successfully is to thwart expectations.)

History is Rough Hewn

But then in that final episode they do meet. With far from hilarious consequences. This widely noted tonal shift takes things more into the realm of revisionism. The Sixties was a prime era for revisionist Westerns, which morally muddied and de-heroised America’s founding myths. (And notably Cotton’s next ’Who’ script would do similar things to Westerns.)

So it perhaps wasn’t surprising that the same era saw revisionism of legends, such as the Pasolini films ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1967) and ’Medea’ (1969). Was Helen the face that launched a thousand ships? Of course not, Menelaus is glad to see the back of her and the whole thing’s really an unseemly squabble over trade routes. Helen’s so unimportant to the true course of events she doesn’t even appear.

Which sets up the story’s best-known feature for fans. It’s known for breaking what was once a prime directive, in letting the characters affect historical events. And it’s true, this happens to a greater degree than the inadvertent, incidental stuff in ‘The Romans’. But it’s a perspective which reduces the series to a bunch of formal innovations, and in-so-doing misconstrues what happens within the story itself. Yes it’s the travellers, not the “heroes” they run into who are the myth makers of the title. But how does this work out?

Unusually, the travellers admit they’re from the future. Which has the Doctor and Vicki seized on by both sides, as “prophets” who can get them out of all this. From there the story not only assumes we know the basics of the legend, but builds gags around it. The Trojans, for example, are forever going on about their fondness for… nudge, nudge… horses.

The legend was told to me at school as an illustration of how smart the Greeks were. But it more suggests the opposite, the Trojans history’s thickies in falling for such a transparent ploy. And the Doctor originally dismisses the wooden horse as a dumb idea, clearly a fiction dreamt up by Homer, and only reverts to it out of desperation. It’s a plan so flimsy Cassandra sees through it straight away, but can make no-one listen.

(Generally round here, legends get deflated. Achilles is a single- and slightly simple- minded lad bereft of special powers. The Cyclops is just a bloke Odysseus knows with a bad eye. But Cassandra’s prophetic powers seem genuine, she even tells Odysseus it will take him ten years to get home.)

The causal loop, they only know of the horse because they’ve read about it, isn’t dwelt on. The point is that history was made by the bad, fall-back idea because the people at the time couldn’t think of anything better. It’s the biggest reversal on audience expectations in the story, the Doctor doesn’t come up a brilliant last-minute masterplan to save the day, he effectively has to give up. But it’s more than that…

In the epilogue to the novelisation of ‘The Crusades’, history had been specified as moral and instructional, paving the march of human progress. Here plans are hasty and extemporised, motives grubby and grasping. See history up close and it becomes, as Priam describes the horse, disappointingly “rough hewn”.

And the badness of the idea becomes associated with the carnage that ensues, once the Greek troops get inside the city. This isn’t one of the Doctor’s elegant plans which resolves everything. It’s closer to him being forced to build a weapon which then gets used, while he’s forced to witness the results. Odysseus, about the only character at home in the situation, described by the Doctor as “selfish, greedy, corrupt, cheap, horrible”, is effectively the villain of the piece. Yet he triumphs, and does so gloatingly. Precisely one Trojan gets saved from the lot.

It’s the biggest reversion to flight-over-fight since ‘The Aztecs’. Yet there, and in ‘The Time Meddler’, the Doctor was forced to yield to history, as an overpowering force. But, contrary to what almost everyone says, he doesn’t change history here - he enables it. Odysseus’ butchery triumphs precisely because of him. Which is somewhat revisionist not just to tales of legend but ’Doctor Who’ itself.

Vicki Vacates

Vicki, meanwhile, is more the ingenious young woman of ‘The Space Museum’ than the poor li’l orphan girl we met in ‘The Rescue’. For the majority of her stories she hung off the Doctor’s side, asking him narratively useful questions. Here she spends very little time with him at all. Frustrated at being told to stay in the Tardis, she’s mostly with the Trojans and is frequently contrasted with Steven’s impulsive hotheadedness. Her chiding riposte to him, “I told you strong-arm tactic wouldn’t work”, is itself quite a Doctorish comment.

Which of course means she leaves at the end of the episode. It’s like the classic thing people say about relationships, you wish the person you split with at the end could have been the person you met at the beginning. It follows the Susan formula, growing up equals falling in love which itself equals leaving the show. And, just like Susan, Vicki has been allowed the regulation two stories to be interesting in.

First Troilus and Steven get all huffy with each other over her. But in the legend Cressida (aka Vicki) dallies with Troilus before going off with Diomede (aka Steven). Here there’s the strange congruence of them getting a battle injury at almost the same time, and her getting Steven to the Doctor before going off with Troilus. It’s like a transference is occurring between the two.

It seems incongruent that the Doctor and Steven’s mission becomes to get the hell out of Troy, while she elects to stay forever. But, if we’re to accept the somewhat schzio way her character’s been presented, it makes some sense for her. She’s attracted to Troilus partly because of his own love of adventure and, while Susan needed some not-so-subtle nudging out of the nest, she just takes off. Given which, the tabula rasa caused by the fall of Troy becomes almost a plus for her. The girl always complaining she had no place in the world hasn’t found one, she’s decided to make one.

She’s replaced by a dutiful servant girl, rather hastily concocted up by the plot, who thinks the Doctor is a God. Ah well…

Further reading: At Chair With A Panda, BJ O’Shea homes in on something I barely allude to, Vicki being given a new name within the story. It perhaps veers towards the category error of trying to weight genre characters with psychological depth, but for all that is worth reading.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

'GALAXY 4' ( WILLIAM HARTNELL’S DOCTOR WHO)

aka 'The One in Which Dumb Blondes Who Can't Drive Their Spaceship Try to Take Over the Galaxy. With Explosive Consequences’

By William Emms

First broadcast: Sept/Oct 1965


To celebrate the lucky-for-us thirteenth anniversary of this blog, let’s pick up the Hartnell ’Who’ reviews again, going into his third and final season. And are we kicking off in style? With another classic story? A firm fan favourite?

Er…

...well…

...no.

Note – this story contains more sexism than is usual.”

Avery’s Doctor Who Guide

Space Women From Space (Again)

'Galaxy 4', as Tomb of the Anorak points out, can be seen as 'The Daleks' upside down. There, the Daleks tell our intrepid travellers that the Thals are hideous mutants. But then Susan finds out they’re blonde and good-looking. So they must be the good guys, right?

Okay, hang onto your hats folks, because those good-looking blondes are back but with a cunning twist. This time they’re the bad guys and the “creeping, revolting, green monsters” the good! Unfortunately, a cliché’s somewhat like a carrot, turn it upside-down and you’re still looking at one. 

But never fear for the script then bolts on another twist to enliven... well, actually it just dulls things down more. You see, the really radical thing here is that the bad blondes are actually women - an Amazon race called the Drahvins. TV Tropes labels this as Lady Land. In fact Femizons have even made it into the ranks of official SF clichés, having their own dedicated 'Futurama' episode.


It’s continually surprising that of all the genres science fiction can be so consistently conservative. The Drahvins' oh-so-unnatural girl-on-top origins aren’t just anti-feminist but explicitly related to technology – their troopers are all test tube babies rather than the offspring of two people who love each other verymuch. Even if some men are kept around purely to fertilize the elite, a classic case of nice work if you can get it. (And let’s remember the Daleks were essentially test tube babies who never really left the test tube.)

Though of course at the same time the male-voiced Rills must have superior technology. In fact, it’s this which first tips the Doctor off to their peaceful nature. (Giving technology to women presumably being analogous to handing your missus the TV remote. You know, a no-no.) 

It’s also interesting to compare the Drahvins to Vicki. She is the first to distrust them, while Steven is still eyeing them up. And the story opens with - I kid you not - her cutting Steven’s hair, one of many strangely folksy moments. Her willing embrace of domestic tasks is held in contrast to their war-raging. (Disclaimer: Later, it’s Vicki who finds a way on to the Rills' spaceship.)

It is bizarre to discover this plot ‘twist’ was suggested by a woman – in fact by a woman part-way through a highly successful career, none less than Verity Lambert herself. But when you consider how much more tedious this storyline must have been as first draftedwithout this one faint flicker of interest, you wonder if - dramatically speaking at least - her instincts weren’t correct. (I imagine the conversation going something like - “But couldn't this story have some kind of point to it?”, “Well I suppose it could in theory, but what kind of point?”, “I reckon any kind of point would do right now.”)


For Domination, Call Us Now

But why such conservatism? Or, more accurately, why this conservatism? In times past, the dominant image of the World Turned Upside Town was human/animal inversion, men having to carry donkeys on their backs and so on. However, by the time of modern science fiction there'd come to be two main persecution flips - what if the blacks made us their servants and what if the women started wearing the trousers? These reach critical mass at a similar time, and of course for similar reasons – its the hysterical reaction by reactionaries to the threat of liberation movements.

And this is hysterical in both senses. Jordan Peterson, laughably held up as the thinking man’s bigot, once tweeted: “Women: if you usurp men they will rebel and fail and you will have to jail or enslave them”. Which is the whole cognitive dissonance summed up within the necessary character limit. There is nothing wrong with the way we men treat women right now, it’s all just fine. But if the thing reversed it would suddenly become terrible, because then we’d be treated as badly as them. You might try to point out feminism calls for equality, not a reversal of dominance.But this isn’t someone’s dialogue with feminism, it’s with their own guilty conscience.

But it gets interesting when you compare the two. There’s obvious overlaps, but one clear-cut difference which entirely transforms the type of stories which get written. Race persecution flips generally result in straight-ahead horror stories. Let's assume El Sandifer is right about the adversaries in 'The Ark' (only a couple of stories hence) a href=http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/ready-to-outsit-eternity-the-ark//>(Spoiler - she is.) The goofiest critters you ever saw, even outwitted by Dodo, are still played as monsters - as a terrible threat to the natural order.

While matriarchal phobias are at the same time fantasies, because ‘dominant’ women come across as thrillinglykinky. You normally have to look up numbers in phone boxes for that sort of thing. Hence the necessity of the men encountering the matriarchal society from outside, then either escaping from or ‘re-righting’ that society at the end. Even the most willing masochist needs his safe word.

Hence the paradox that patriarchy defends itself with junk science and folk myths, while at the same time maintaining a separate set of folk myths about matriarchy. Which characteristic cretinism, Peterson invoked the fallacious appeal to nature with his now-infamous “consider the lobster” quote. While at the same time the Black Widow spider was even named after the (almost entirely) junk science story that the female kills and eats the male while mating.

Of course in patriarchal society women are supposed to be sexy. Not sometimes be found sexy by straight men or gay women, depending on taste it’s simply what they're for. But its more than that - it's the 'natural' state of male domination that's being asserted. And this is truer of patriarchy than other oppressions. Even the most virulent racist is dimly aware that colonialism and slavery didn't just happen, they're historical processes which had to be brought about in some way. Someone had to sail the ships and lock the leg irons on the slaves. But the patriarchal family is assumed to just occur in precisely this way. In the famous Gloria Steinem quote “gender cuts deep enough to be confused with the laws of nature”.

And of course were any of this really natural it wouldn't need asserting. Which is why we should probably welcome such a reaction from the reactionaries. To use the famous quote often attributed to Gandhi: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win”. In short, them getting mad is the precursor to yougetting even. And by 1965 they'd already been pushed into some midpoint between the laughing and the fighting. The emerging sisterhood should have seen 'Galaxy 4' as a promising sign...

When Even Sexism is Sexless

Yet curiously that salaciousness is what's so conspicuously absent here. At one point Steven suddenly swaps with Vicki as the Drahvins’ prisoner, and their leader Maaga sets about trying to win him over. Yet there’s not a whiff of seduction to be found! This is a let-down both to those who find assertive women a kinky novelty, and to the rest of us who might find such a scene risibly amusing – it’s the thing without the essence of the thing.

In fact the Drahvins seem more intended to demonstrate the deficiencies of rigid hierarchies. They're effectively tin soldiers in drag, identikit and interchangeable, characterised as pack-animal clones (“we do nothing until our leader speaks”), described by Maaga as “products”.

Yet the BBC’s pre-publicity was suitably salacious, leading the Daily Mail to run the story 'Enter Dr Who's new foes: The ray-gun blondes'. And their soundtrack theme is a slightly raunchy saxophone motif, quite distinct from the regular electronica. But all the armchair viewer of 1965 would get was the tease.

Now not only were the Drahvins a late addition to the story, it had originally been written for the Ian and Barbara model. Perhaps most amusingly, in the realignment Steven ended up with some of Barbara's lines. Yet that shouldn't necessarily be seen as an encumbrance. Necessity is often invention's mother. Both Cathy Gale in 'The Avengers' and Ripley in 'Alien' got much of their characters from old scripts meeting new casting, donning the male-intended lineslike trouser suits. Alas none of that happens with Maaga.

Perhaps this is an early prototype, a cliché still in production. The natural comparison is 'Star Trek,' the standard go-to for sexism in Sixties SF. However, inevitably, feminophobia wouldn’t reach its shrill apex until the mid-Seventies – at the point where feminism itself was at its height. Take for example Gene Roddenberry’s post-‘Trek’ spin-off ‘Planet Earth’ (1974), where the Femizons' matriarchal leader is even called Marg - clearly some cousin to Maaga, both a not-so-subtle homophone for 'Ma'. 

And the following year, when those uppity women's libbers still wouldn't quit, the trope spawned a whole series, the beyond-parody ‘Star Maidens.’ In which a planet of - inevitably enough - Medusans kidnap Earthmen to set them the domestic work and otherwise invert all natural laws. With hilarious consequences. Some of which might even be intentional. 'Who' scribes John Lucarotti and Ian Stuart Black both contributed to this.

It might be objected that such things couldn’t happen on a family show like 'Doctor Who'. Against which we might point to the stronger stuff in 'The Romans' or 'Keys Of Marinus'. But we might also be tempted to ask - in which case, why bother? 


Part of the show's remit was to play commercial channel ITV at its own game. But the Drahvins’ frumpy costumes make them look like nothing less than a hopeless attempt to upstage the hipper rival. With their funny dotted eye make-up, they look as though they weren’t sure whether they were going to war or out dancing, so tried to dress for either. They’re less the boots of shiny, shiny leather and more the Women’s Institute swapping jam for domination.

The effect is weird. We’ve all become used to inveterately sexist writers trying to turn feminist in a bid to stay ‘with it’, shortly before failing miserably. Future years of 'Who' are stuffed with some risible notion of what an ‘empowered’ woman would be. (“She could wear trousers for a bit then start screaming!” “She’s feisty in a half naked sort of way!” etc.) Bizarrely, ‘Galaxy 4’ often feels the other way up – like someone is trying really hard to be sexily sexist, but isn’t quite sure what’s being expected of them. Perhaps because it doesn’t seem to have the courage of its own wrongheaded convictions, it’s not even very good at being bad.


The Ticking Planet

Perhaps the comparison to 'The Daleks' is telling. Though over-long, it throws up interesting subplots and questions along the way – the Doctors’ reckless curiosity, the Thals’ pacifism. 'Galaxy 4' is strangely bereft of subplots or secondary themes – in fact it barely has a main plot. If you didn’t already know which side was which, you’d guess it pretty quickly - with approximately three-and-a-half episodes to go. With little capitalised on over the Drahvins, the script largely returns to the book-by-its-cover theme which was so hackneyed to start with. The last episode in particular piles on the platitudes so endlessly you wonder if the Rills don’t have some sneaky masterplan to bore us all to death.

Part of the problem may be establishing so early that the Rills are more powerful. Once they’re then outed as the good guys, there’s little narrative tension – you expect the Drahvins to lose and then they do. There’s a suggestion that Maaga has a more powerful gun than she lets her troops get hold of, but that’s simply forgotten about. 

Perhaps they should have entered the Tardis while the power cable led out its door (don’t ask!), then held the crew hostage while unprotected by the Rills. Okay I’ve previously argued that the Tardis should be a Narnian wardrobe, and not intrude too much onto the stories it brings us to. But, by introducing this galactic jump-lead, they’ve already thrown this precious rule away. 

(It’s absurdly ill-explained why the Drahvins don’t simply take the Tardis in the first place. They know of its existence and manage to take the whole crew captive. Did they regard the Rills' ship as the most pimped ride?)

The main attempt to get things moving is the old stand-by of the ticking bomb, now made planet-size. It will soon explode, it seems, so it may be a good idea to get off it. This device might have been more effective if it had been integrated into the main plot rather than being rather desperately imposed upon it. Perhaps, in a twist, it could even have been an accidental side-effect of the Rills' drilling for fuel – something to compound the travellers’ initial distrust of them. 

Plus, we require earth tremors or some accelerating signs. As it is the ticking bomb is dressed unconvincingly up as the planet’s natural death but keeps obstinately to it’s own type – no physical pre-warnings, then one big boom. (A script which measures space travel via number of “dawns” was probably unlikely to win many scientific awards.)

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect is the way Maaga herself gets so frustrated by her underlings’ limitations. She starts off a strict prep school headmistress, starchily criticising their gormless inefficiency. But before things are through she's pretty much given up on them and is effectively talking to herself. She's even staged staring into the camera, like she doesn't want to be part of proceedings at all. (The fact that she's effectively soliloquizing while they respond in clunky sci-fi dialogue underlines this.) And some of the subordinate's lines are genuinely funny - “but Maagda, we always go on patrol at this time.” Just as all the best clowns are at root tragic figures, the best villains are frustrated social reformers. 


The Rills are staked across a thin line between having a form unsightly to us and having no form at all. They're semi-shapeless, not humanoid like most ‘Who’ monsters. (The Daleks, the Cybermen, the Zarbi, even the Mechanoids – all reduce easily to an outline.) The scene where Vicki encounters one through the airlock is reminiscent of 'Quatermass II.' However, there irresolvable form was made a visualisation of incomprehensible thought. Here Vicki can converse with the Rills, as their robot Chumblies (don't ask!) can transmit their thoughts. 

Yet it remains significant that they can only communicate through intermediaries. Combined with their benevolent superiority this bestows something almost religious upon them – angels disguised as demons. The cloned Drahvins are essentially bodies, shells. The monstrous appearance of the Rills, conversely, is there to point us away from petty appearance and the merely material - they're things of spirit. Perhaps even the otherwise unexplained exploding planet can be pressed into serving this theme – our time on earth is limited, and only celestial forces can get us off it. (As with ‘The Sensorites’, telepathic communication is seen as an inherent sign of goodness and wisdom.)

So good guys equal spirit, bad girls mean material in a story keen to tell us the material is temporary. Popular culture associates women, the begetter of children, with the body more than it does men. And religion, or at least the ascetic type of it which the Hartnell era sometimes slides into, thereby associates women with wrongness.

There are perhaps one or two other things we could add to the plus side:

  • Encountering the Rills is held back until half way through, a dramatically effective device. (Even if it’s exactly the same trick as pulled in 'The Web Planet', another previous episode it much resembles.)

  • Refreshingly, there is no World War Two analogy.

  • Equally refreshingly, nobody gets lost in any caves or tunnels. Admittedly, instead of this nothing much happens at all. But it still makes for a change.

After the second season had started with the sub-par ‘Planet of Giants’, you could almost believe this was a tradition they were keen to keep up. The cast themselves openly disliked this script, and it’s perhaps telling that none of Emms’ later submissions were ever taken up. In fact, as soon as you list the one-off scripters for the first Doctor, you quickly see a pattern.

The Hartnell years, and the second season in particular, often seemed to take an almost cavalier approach to experimentation. But part of this impression might come from time constraints which left the producers unable to drop anything which had been started, however badly it was turning out. Misfires, however, weren’t always given a second shot....

Postscript: Having thought the term ‘Femizon’ to be some clever neologism on my part, I discovered Marvel already has a group of villains of that name. Led by Superia, their goal is to enslave all men while wearing as little clothing as possible, ensuring that the only actual Marvel death is parody.

Saturday, 26 September 2020

‘DEGAS AND THE BALLET: PICTURING MOVEMENT’

Royal Academy 17 Sept – 11 Dec 2011


This one is going up so late that some say Degas himself attended the opening. But, after looking at the movement in general and then Monet it serves to conclude our series about Impressionism. (For now, at least.)

Don’t Just Stand There...

If you want to know whether this theme fits better than the one the National came up with for Monet, Google-image his name and see what comes up. Degas painted the ballet over two hundred times. But, while ballet developed in parallel step with Modernism his was the classic ‘ballet blanc’ everyone thinks of, all women dancers in white tutus. 

Though if, like me, you care not for all this prancing and pirouetting that will mar your enjoyment of this exhibition not one iota. We learn, unsurprisingly, that the man himself was a fan. But that isn’t the real reason why he returned to painting it so often...

We tend to associate ballet with traditional painting because… well, they’re both traditional. They tend to use the same classical subject matter. But Degas isn’t at all interested in attempts to evoke myth, or conjure up the theatrical illusion and all of that. When he paints dancers he tends to paint everything else around them, the curtains, the footlights, all the paraphernalia we’re supposed to tune out as soon as the house lights go down. 

He’ll paint the theatre flats as flats, as painted boards. He’d show the performers through the audience with all their protruding hats, and the upturned necks of the instruments. His ballet was not some rarified world of great artistry, it’s placed squarely in this world. Look for example at the deliberately unconvincing backdrop and that expanse of bare board in ’Two Dancers On the Stage’ (1874, below). The work’s used for the poster image (up top), where they crop it down to centralise the figures, cut back on the boards and generally make it more conventional.

But most of the time he painted not the show but the rehearsals. Girls were often shown resting or simply hanging about. Which is most of ballet’s associations swept away in one fell swoop. What can be afoot?

Let us not get too romantic here, for one motivation was that they sold. In 1873 he found his family fortune had been squandered by his brother, and so was suddenly and rather forcibly introduced to the concept of earning a living. But he could only have found out their saleability after he started painting them. 

In case we missed it hidden away in the name of this show the very first information board tell us they were “a pretext for depicting movement.” If there’s one thing you can rely on with ballet dancers, its for them to not stand still all that much.

And Degas excelled at his chosen task. Finished artwork all too often looks like the embalmed corpse of the original sketch. Here his paintings and sketches are sometimes hung side by side, with no significant loss of life from one to the other. Yet he’d had the conventional art training of his time, when attentive figure drawing was so drilled into you it became a rote task. Breaking from this was one of his greatest achievements.

Dispute hangs over whether Degas should be considered an Impressionist, and (by extension) a Modernist. It’s true he began as a more conventional painter and always rejected the term himself. (Though he exhibited at all but one of their group shows.) Some of the things we think of as essentially Impressionist, such as painting outdoors, he actively mocked, declaring the police should prevent such things. 

His interest in depicting scenes, windows upon environments which you easily imagine extending beyond the confines of the frame, seems at odds with one of Modernism's most basic tenets – that paintings are primarily paintings, coloured pigment on canvas. If Monet was moving in that direction, Degas’ back is firmly turned against it. Yet in his interest in movement he was being modern. Motion wasn’t a fidgety model, a problem to be overcome, but a force to be evoked.

When Edmond de Goncourt said of him “He is more skillful in capturing the essence of modern life than anyone I know” the ‘essence’ he refers to is movement. The conceit is that movement captured in an artwork conveys a society on the move. It might sound reductive said out loud. Yet we should remember two things. 

First, the most direct idea is often the most effective. Second, these times are not ours. Some of the technological innovations were specifically about accelerating movement, such as trains. But they weren’t really the galvanising force, and Degas himself was often blimpishly disdainful of them. (The show ends with a brief film-clip of him, taken towards the end of his life. But he’d actually refused permission, and had to be surreptitiously shot on the street.) The point was that a society that had seemed primarily concerned with tradition was now all about progress. And withsociety itself constantly on the move, art had to be in a perpetual state of motion just to keep up.

But was this really all that new? After all, art has never confined itself to static scenes. In fact it's previous role as illustrational (of classical myths or Bible stories) precluded that. Nor did progress start in Degas' day. We now see the Nineteenth Century as stuffy, pompous gents parading round in starched shirts. Yet they saw themselves as stewards of a modern world.

However, compare Degas to Ford Madox Brown's 'Work' (1852/62). Brown places his industrious navvies at the centre of his composition, digging their way to a bold future. But, while he might depict movement, he does this without any particular attempt to capture it. You can picture clear as day the models holding the poses. (“I holds the shovel up like this, Mr. Brown, sir?”) Moreover, the sheer teeming accumulation of figures he loads onto the canvas work against any sense of individual motion. Our brains are too busy assembling them all into the visual equivalent of a sentence.

Brown's work is instructive, his figures a means to get across his point about progress coming through hard work and industry, and the result is a tableau more than it is a scene. While Degas is primarily descriptive. He seeks to capture a moment, to show rather than tell. And it's this distinction which allows him to make movement his focus.


And so the shows’ main thesis, that the spur to his art was developments in photography, is effectively looking in the wrong place through being so specific. In 1875 he painted the seemingly telling ’Dancer Posing For a Photograph’(above), but was known for mischievous humour. He didn’t buy a camera himself until 1895, after most of the works here had already been created. His photographs are hung in the show, with suitable reverence. And they’re entirely unexceptional, documentation at best. Moreover, I’d suspect his relationship with photography was more complex than suggested, more like a tempestuous love affair, forever blowing hot and cold.

All In the Moment

Last time we looked at Monet’s gift for compositions which at a glance seemed casual while being quitely accomplished, which gives his work an involving sense of verisimilitude. Degas may go one better, he can seemingly go wrong and still make it right. Like Dolly Parton saying “it costs a lot of money to look this cheap”, Degas invested a great deal of time and effort into this. Unlike Monet he tended to paint indoor scenes, with the figures spread in a seemingly haphazard fashion. 

And yet (also unlike Monet) he didn’t tend to paint whole scenes as they lay before him. He’d sketch figures simply or in small groups, which he’d refer to as his ‘cast list’, then later combine them into compositions. So nothing you see on the canvas is incidental, everything deliberately placed. 

So, for example, in ’The Rehearsal’ (1874, above) he has decided both to crop off all but half of the right-most figure, and to stick a spiral staircase in front of the figures to the left, with one poor soul left with only their feet showing. The solid walls, floors and (here) stairs, just emphasise the fleeting movement of the figures, like rocks in a flowing stream. 

The effect is like those faux-found-footage movies, all the usual signs which keep you distances from the work are eroded. We feel we are peering into a room, perhaps through a door temporarily left ajar. We get a sense of the bustle going on, a world in flux. But open the door to an actual room like that and at first it rears at you; you need a second to make sense of it, like the eye adjusting to sudden gloom. Whereas Degas never leaves us confused by what we see. 

Monet would paint like he was staring straight at the sun, it’s light dissolving the seeming solidity of all objects. While Degas’ light permeates through closed blinds. That indirect, shuttered light seems as signature to him as the pale, wan light was to Vermeer. He had said “the intriguing thing is not to show the source of the light but the effect of the lighting.” It’s like their art was passing by oblivious to one another, Monet enthusiastically capturing the outdoors while Degas’ realm is dark and hermetic. (On his death he was found to have amassed a seizable art collection which included not a single Monet.)

Slightly later he came to employ elongated, letterbox-shaped canvases. Inside which he would rarely build a composition up the classic way, radiating out from a central object, but pull the eye across - from lower right to upper left. The result is that the eye itself moves, to take the composition in, and feels itself doing so.

See for example ‘The Dance Lesson’ (1879, above). Against the subdued tones of the background he uses what’s effectively spot colour to lead the eye. The bright orange of the left-most figure is like the capital letter of a sentence, leading to the softer pink on the second seated figure, ending with a smaller splash of orange at the upper right. And like a sentence the spaces are as much part of the work. As Adrian Searle said in the GuardianDegas understood emptiness, the space between things, the pauses and breaks.”

Fond of provocation, he liked to play his efforts at composition up in his rhetoric as much as he played it down in his art. He’d insist “there is nothing less spontaneous than my art”, that “a painting is an artificial world existing outside of nature, and requires as much cunning as the perpetration of a crime.”

Girls At Work

The day I visited, two young girls were mimicking the poses of the dancers. A charming sight, but of course leading you to suspect they were from the leafier parts of London. Whereas in Degas’ day ballet dancers were commonly referred to as “ballet rats”, scarcely more respectable than actresses or prostitutes. And by constantly returning to their rehearsals Degas emphasises how much a workplace this was. Some look not inspired to leap and dance but slumped and exhausted, their heads in their hands. His ceaseless foregrounding of bare floorboards recalls the phrase ‘factory floor’.

These were ‘working girls’, the most plentiful category in a whole group of paintings Degas made of working girls. Debra N Macoff wrote of them in ’Art Quarterly’ (Autumn 2011):

Two other subjects showing women in motion also held Degas’s attention – laundresses and milliners... these women enacted a contemporary, real-life performance of posture and gesture, honed through repetitive actions and motivated by their need to earn a wage. Degas’s laundresses and milliners share a bond with his dancers. They were all working women, moving to the rhythms of modern life.”

(Truth to tell, working women would have made for a more varied and more effective subject than ballet. But still, as said, better than some of the stuff done over Monet. So let’s stick here to what the Academy served us.)

With all these paintings being of women it would be appealing to try and take some proto-feminist reading, that we’re dealing with some Great Aunt prototypes of Rosie the Riveter. It’s true that unlike, say, the Pre-Raphaelites he is painting women with a place in the world, whereas their interest was all in their supposed other-worldliness. But we’d simply be kidding ourselves. 

The Impressionist method was to paint simply what you saw, not stuff their works with references and allusions to be picked up by the cognoscenti. So it is often associated with progressive politics. Degas on the other hand came from a moneyed, conservative background and matched a curmudgeonly temperament with notoriously reactionary views. He became increasingly anti-semitic, stretching even the standards of his day, and sacking Jewish models. His stance over the Dreyfus affair, infamously divisive, something of the Brexit of the time, drove many former friends away form him.

And if he painted these women with a place in the world, it was in their accustomed place. Look how frequently he paints Dance Masters, stock-still and commanding, custodians of social order. They’re not always as prominent as the stick-wielding figure in ’The Dance Class’ (1897, below), you may take a moment to spot him in ’The Rehearsal’, but he’s rarely far away.

The most likely reason for painting so many women was it was the safest means to depict the workers. A muscular male arm raised in labour might as easily raise in revolt. Yet women were then seen as the weaker sex. Not necessarily just physically, the prospect of such a flouting of the natural order as working women rising in revolt seemed more remote and so less concerning. (If you’re wondering whether it worked out that way in practice go to the back of the class.) Working women allowed Degas a way to enter the world of the poor, with the least risk the poor could do the same back to him.

Where the Action Isn’t

Degas was sometimes in the habit of adding finishing touches of pastel to his sketches. By the end of the 1870s these became larger and more composed, the pastel strokes filling them, blurring the line between preparatory work and the finished object. Like the sketches, the pastels mostly reject the landscape format of the oils for portrait. Like the sketches, the pastels they laid less emphasis on the environments the figures were in.

But rather than coming to dominate the frame the figures instead look isolated. The paradox is that these works are brighter yet less dynamic. See for example ’Two Dancers at Rest’ (1898, above). Another, not included in this show, is tellingly titled ‘Waiting’ (1880/2.) This is Degas’ cast list not being cast, stuck on the subs’ bench, perhaps in perpetuity. The master of movement is now in the business of denying activity to his subjects.

Tom Stoppard’s play ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ (1966) is said to have been inspired by the lives of bit-part players, who spend more time awaiting their cues form the wings than on-stage. He focused on two minor characters from Shakespeare, leading a life both purgatorial and absurdist, marginalised from events, not only failing to bring any influence but unable to grasp the plot of the drama they’re in. 

And there’s a similar feeling to many of Degas’ pastels. It seems an inherent feature of perception that wherever you are it feels like here, just like the time is always now. But these figures are where the action isn’t, fated to live in a perpetul off-stage, banished to liminal space.

There were biographical reasons for this. Degas had never been life’s cheeriest soul and, counter to the joie de vivre spirit usually associated with Impressionism, had always had a melancholic streak. He painted the decidedly un-upbeat ‘The Absinth Drinker’ (1876) and even titled another work ’Melancholy’ (1874).

But he’d became more reclusive, through a negative feedback loop of souring disposition and worsening eyesight. (Some suggest these eye problems precipitated his move from oil to pastel.) And the story lacks a happy ending. His eyesight and reclusiveness worsened, until he’d managed to antagonise almost everyone he once knew.

But the downward trajectory has a bump in it for, with ’Russian Dancers’ (1899, above) the dance is back! They were inspired by a ‘Russian’ (actually Ukrainian) dance troupe performing in Paris. But the work has no sense of staginess to it. These could be real peasant dancers, in their home environment, and dancing not for Dance Masters but the sheer joy of it! Rather than be confined in their pictorial space one kicks out left and the other right, as if they can barely be contained by the frame. Perhaps they’re the note to go out on...


Saturday, 19 September 2020

‘MONET & ARCHITECTURE’

National Gallery, London


(...continuing our look at Impressionism, via it’s best-known exponent)

More Paintings About Buildings And Trees

’...and Architecture’, I’m not sure I came across one single review which enthused over the chosen theme for this show. Intent on the pretence this wasn’t really called ‘Hey, More Monet’ they took to hang it on which sounded a but more convincing than ‘Trees And Things’ or ‘Those Times Monet Painted Stuff With an R In It’.

On the other hand, it’s less of a shoehorn than the theme Tate Britain came up with at the same time. All we really need is for something to be built somewhere in the frame for the picture to be admissible, which at times is about as dominant as a ‘Where’s Wally’ game. So it’s not that surprising that pretty much every review I came across to ‘Hey, More Monet’ said “Hey, more Monet!” Who cares if crowdbait is going on? We are, after all, talking about the man who named and did so much to define Impressionism.

Nevertheless, when the show comments how he’d use architecture as “foils for the irregularity of nature and screens for the reflections of light” - let’s test that out, just to see where it takes us.


To recap a little from last time, he was interested in capturing what he called “effects” - the way the light made a scene look at one particular moment. So with ‘Snow Effect at Giverney’ (1893, above) there’s no way he spied those buildings and decided to paint them. At the title spells out it’s the snowy haze itself which interests him, which makes up the picture. (Other works also have “effect” in their title.) 

The work is given so minimal a chromatic range it’s remarkably close to the old gag painting of a glass of milk and a sugar cube lost in a snowstorm. His challenge becomes to give us just enough information to discern the objects within it. And, as so often with Monet, the composition looks casual while being carefully arranged. Those snow-capped roofs, for example, are only visible because of the faint tones lent to the trees behind them.


Conversely ’Le Pont de l’Europe, Gare St. Lazare’ (1873, above) does create a contrast between the sharp diagonal of the station roof and those puffs of steam, to the point where it could be called a foil. (Further emphasised by all the verticals, including the funnels who create that steam.) Monet was remarkably consistent in his aims over time, but not necessarily narrow in them.

But the drawback of the “foils and screens” theory isn’t that it’s wrong so much as inadequate. Zola said of Monet: “Everywhere he likes to find the mark of man. Nature seem to lose it’s appeal… as soon as it does not bear the stamp of our mores”. But the mark of man is not the same as man himself. There’s a Romantic trope of sticking a human figure into a nature scene, to show him dwarfed by his surroundings. Monet will often do this with buildings, such as 'Customs House, Varengeville’ (1882, below, actually shown in ‘Inventing Impressionism’, but it makes the point best.)


So many of his paintings contain water in some form, it really would have made for a better theme than that other thing. And why would this be? There’s a Manet painting of Monet painting (if you follow!), aboard a boat he bought and specially adapted for the purpose. Why go to so much trouble? Brought up in coastal Normandy, there’s tales of how from a young age hewas transfixed by the sea. But there’s more...

When it was Turner’s turn, I noted his “recurring elements are water, mist and steam”. Whereas Monet’s are water, water and water. And it’s his element because of its fluidity, its suggestion of motion even when it’s still. When present, which it normally is, it seems to affect everything around it. In the painting above the downward diagonal of that verdant green seems to continue into the sea, in a work which seems to shimmer throughout.

Seeking to convey how shocking his work first appeared, Norbert Lynton mentions how “the coarse, unblended brushstrokes used, defensibly possibly as a way of rendering water or foliage were given also to firm objects such as buildings and people”. (‘The Story of Modern Art’) Phoebe Pool has pointed out “he enjoyed flux and all that was indeterminate and amorphous in nature” ’Impressionism’, Thames & Hudson). Anne Rice, in (yes, really) ’Interview With the Vampire’ said “the colours seemed to blaze with such intensity they destroyed the old lines, the old solidity”.

And as an example, we might pick customs houses which don’t look just dwarfed by their environment but made subject to the surrounding laws of motion. The rules of nature rule all. For all our steam trains and our iron bridges, we are still within it.


Though, again, we can find a contrast. 'Customs Officer Cottage, Varengeville’ (1882, above) offers us a variant where the house is larger and more dominant, an obstinate vertical in the face of the broad sea. Yet the hut’s colours (purples and browns) are similar to the earth around it. The show tells us the cottage is Napoleonic so it was almost certainly built from local stone, a part of the environment as much as an intrusion onto it. Its existence is less a statement of man’s dominance and more just a temporary rearrangement of things.


’Hut at Sainte-Adresse’ (1867) might look at first glance a still greater counterpoint, with it’s more rigid sectional divisions between sky, sea and land. And the tide, rather than presented as an incoming force, divides the sea further into horizontal bands. Yet if the parallels are less strong they’re still there, the dappled strokes which make up the shimmering sea echoed in the uneven vegetation. Even without that puff of steam on the horizon there’d be an implicit sense of movement.

Turner can portray the industrial and nature as opponents interlocked in a struggle, two mighty giants clashing while we can only watch. With Monet there’s a far less dramatic interplay, where one is never quite distinct from the other.


’Antibes, Morning’, (1888, above) shows us the titular town as viewed from nature, as if the city were the unfamiliar thing. It’s so far away that details can’t be made out, just a soft shimmer on the horizon, described by the show as “like a vision across the sunlit waters”. It’s an arrangement which, minus the intervening body of water, he also uses in ’The Church at Varengeville’ (1882, below).


Spectral Cathedrals

Impressionism necessitated painting in situ, which itself necessitated quick brush strokes, the better to capture your subject. Which became a style in its own right. But the weather could still change faster. Monet’s solution became, whenever the light changed on him, to put aside one canvas for another. And only return to it if similar conditions returned. He could end up with as many as ninety canvases, all of which needed to be kept on hand, even if not all would see completion. The result of which was his series works. This show features examples from three of these – London’s Houses of Parliament, Rouen Cathedral and Venice. We’re going for the last two.

Made from the same vantage point, they can look so similar it’s as if the same painting was just subject to different Photoshop filters. But he wasn’t continually trying to capture something, hoping to one day strike lucky. The recurring elements are really just there to accentuate the differences. Despite working in the very early days of the camera, he was aware the shutter was no approximation for memory. We don’t file a single ‘decisive moment’ in our minds, for later recall, clicking our eyes and mentally pressing ‘save’. With places we regularly revisit we gain an overall sense impression, each successive image overlaying rather than replacing the last.

So the crucial thing to understand here is that the series is the work. Alas artists require an income, and they were often sold separately. But when you see them even partially reunited this becomes unmissable. (Alas blogging constraints limit me to inadequate single examples.) Phoebe Pool calls them, correctly in my view, “the very essence of Impressionism”.


Remember the show’s thesis from earlier, that architecture is being used as “screens for the reflections of light”? In fact he’s doing something far more radical. Look at the image above of Rouen Cathedral, from 1893. Cathedrals are normally painted in situ, after all they’re the cathedral to a town, like a priest being shown before his congregations. And they’re also shown to be crowned by the spire, pointing to heaven. Monet shows his in tight-cropped close-up, sans spire.

And when that light falls upon it, it does something to the supposed “screen”. To the point it no longer looks like its made of solid stone, like a building you could walk inside. The Romantics were forever painting ruins, as a kind of liminal point between this world and the next. And, despite clearly not being of a ruin this feels much the same, a spectral image. It’s simultaneously monumental and translucent. You could image it vanishing at night, then reforming in the growing morning light.

Mark Hudson, in the Telegraph, wrote of “the gothic façade dissolving into pure light and colour”. And Laura Cumming in the Guardian takes the point further: “The buildings are just a pretext for painting the sublime.”

Not Built On Solid Ground

Google image Venice and what do you see? Streets of water, often narrow, bustling with boats, often crossed by pedestrian bridges. Then turn to Monet’s Venice, such as ’The Doge’s Palace’, (1908, below).


If he was rigorous about always painting what he saw, he wasn’t adverse to setting up the scene a little when it suited. The Parisian train station we saw earlier was not only emptied of distracting travellers but more steam was blown up when required, like he was a director staging a scene. Venice was already a tourist Mecca, so his decision to eliminate the crowds was practical. But it goes beyond that.

It’s often noted that the human figure, never particularly prominent in Monet’s work, diminishes further and further as time goes on. And his Venice paintings become where that absence is conspicuous. But further and unlike, say <i>’Antibes, Morning</i> he gives us no solid vantage point. The ground beneath our feet seems to have gone, and we see spectral buildings seemingly floating on the water-line. (The other side of the Palace not only can be seen from the ground, but from across a sizeable square, so this was an aesthetic choice.)

In fact we always see his Venice from a distance, across a wide body of water. Which here takes up more than half the canvas. If Rouen Cathedral was created from light, the Palace seems to be rising up out of the drink. Venice is a town not built on solid ground.

Turner had painted Venice as a “Gothic ruin” with “a romantic fatalism”, something only half in this world. (At least according to me.) Monet, who also painted there late in life (aged 68), takes away that earthly half. Though both have a mirage-like aspect, of a place which you can see but can’t reach out and touch, his is much more solitary than Turner’s.

It’s almost inevitable that we live more in the world when we are younger, and as we age we retreat increasingly into our own private space. The Venice paintings seem to simultaneously suggest a world becoming more and more remote from him, and a fraying of earthly ties. After Venice, he mostly painted his own private garden.

While we should be wary of seeing Impressionism as a clean break from all that came before, much earlier painting had been about recording the wealthy with their possessions about them, a form of cataloguing. The ability to convey solidity on a flat surface was therefore considered an essential part of an artists’s skill. It’s significant how much Monet breaks from this. And it seems most audacious of all to render Cathedrals and Parliaments as insubstantial.

In the Standard, Matthew Collings comments: “Monet suggests that all the usual relationships we expect, which anchor us in all our doings, are questionable. Which is the definition of revolution.” We always thought we were simply seeing, while our eyes were really corralled by convention. We didn’t see things as they were, but as they’d been shown to us to be. As said last time Impressionism was not overly politicised, so the political implications are only latent. But equally, they’re as obvious.