Saturday, 23 May 2020


First broadcast: Feb/March 1965
Written by Bill Strutton
Plot spoilers: Medium

“Caught up in a war between giant ants and fighting butterflies, can the Doctor escape the sinister Animus?”

Transforming zones

‘The Web Planet’ is one of the more divisive Hartnell stories, often bottoming polls of his era. Which can temp you into thinking it an outlier. However, through marking the furthest point the series went in one particular direction, it actually serves to underline a general point. The memory of this has partly been eraaed by the bigger-budgeted revival, but time was when the magic phrase “wobbly sets” was thought to dismiss the whole of ‘Who’. ‘Web Planet’ demonstrates how this is twice wrong.
First, if you’re going to watch First Doctor episodes, the most fundamental fact you need knocking into you is that this era wasn’t just different in terms of production values but of style. Before there were such things as computer games or podcasts to spin off into there was a Dalek stage play - with further stage plays to follow. 

Naturally enough, for the series itself largely followed stage conventions. Of course this was true of all TV from this era, which essentially filmed plays, but with a show like ’Who’ there was an extra twist. Your disbelief needed to suspend itself over a pretty deep abyss if it was going to get by. Just as Shakespeare plays portray a never-ending panoply of historical and fantastical locations with nothing but a few props stuck together with some iambic pentameter and held up by a willing audience, so (partly by sheer necessity) did TV science fiction. So the sets looked like sets? That’s what they were, dummy. Why should that matter? For like the stage the screen is a magic zone of transformed logic.

Second, nay-sayers and disbelievers tend to assume science fiction is all about visual spectacle. ‘Doctor Who’ was just a tuppenny ha’penny attempt to emulate ‘Star Wars’, an arms race the impoverished Brits were born to lose. But think how the respective series start. ‘Star Wars’ with a huge spaceship taking time to rumble across a cinema screen, followed by an even huger one. ‘Who’ with a police box in a junkyard that emits strange sounds. ‘Doctor Who’ is not and never was a space opera but a form of weird fiction. Its concern isn’t boldly going into the even bigger and bolder but encountering the unknown and unknowable.

And ’Web Planet’ occupies a special place in all this, one which the Tardis Index File tells us precisely one line into its review - “it is unique in ’Doctor Who’ history as the only television story where there are no humanoid characters aside from the regulars.” 

A pedant might suggest that there’s actually plenty of humanoid characters who merely wear weird costumes, and that a better description might be ‘everyone apart from the regulars attempt to represent some sort of insect through the medium of acting funny’. But the point stands. A whole alien world was built in the studio, with dancers rather than actors hired to capture the movements of these alien critters. 

While Hartnell’s second season is often regarded as the time of experimentation, this mostly involves trying on for size genres established elsewhere. (Historical drama in 'Marco Polo', farce in ’The Romans’, just about every genre going in ’The Chase’...) This is arguably the only attempt to do something genuinely experimental. Making an alien planet lookalien promises to make the show as strange as it’s theme tune.

So I was all ready to defend ’Web Planet’ as something theatrical and symbolist, the BBC’s equivalent to Karel Capek’s celebrated ‘Insect Play’ - an impressive flight of fantasy which set its back against conventions of normality and only gormless literalists misread by calling ‘unrealistic’.

The only trouble is – I then went and watched it.

Insects Abroad

It often fails through the best intentions, rich with bold experiments which don’t actually come off. A classic example is the way the surface scenes are filmed through distortion filters, in an attempt to impress on you the sheer strangeness of Vortis. Unfortunately without anyone to tell you this, it just looks like your TV’s gone funny. 

There’s a huge and quite commendable effort to give the butterfly-like Menoptrans their own alien culture and mannerisms. But their verbal tics and ceaselessly repeated gestures quickly become grating rather than exotic. They talk so slowly no wonder they never win any of their bloody battles- “Men-oooooptrans… be-waaaaaaare…. the Zar-biiiiiiii… ad-vaaaaance uponnnn uuuu… oh bugger, too late!” (They later turn this to their advantage by chanting “Zar-biiiiiiii” at the Zarbi. Which, given this description, proves surprisingly effective.) 

Moreover, you don’t need to watch the accompanying DVD to know those insect movements were cooked up in some Stanislavskian workshop. It reeks of one of those drama courses - “Run around like a butterfly! Now scurry like an ant!” Compare that stage death Menoptra to the Zeigfried Follies, below.

Of course, without elaborate sets or expensive effects we need things to be painted in words. But the language here often becomes so histrionic (“their deeds shall forever be sung in the temple of light!”), you end up with the most horrific notion of all - a planet entirely populated by luvvies. Or a TV station completely composed of luvvies living it up at the license payer’s expense – whichever is worse. 

At its worst it feels like it’s not an actual ’Doctor Who’ story at all, but the sum total of prejudices held in the heads of Who-haters, which somehow took on physical form – something cheaply made, confused, confusing and quite up itself. The BBC themselves acknowledge this: "'Thank goodness this particular story is finished', commented a Quantity Surveyor from the substantial number of the sample for whom this episode had scant appeal.”

Perhaps the problem is simply over-ambition. Or the continuing interaction with the human characters, which keeps their insect mannerisms foregrounded for the viewer. In ’The Insect Play’, Capek bookends his insects with a human observer but mostly leaves the stage to them alone. 

Capek also also used his insects for a universalist purpose, to demonstrate human characteristics allegorically, pinning them to something distant from us to allow us to examine them. ’Web Planet’ sometimes feels like a fairy story, the Narnia variety in which a Wicked Queen’s rule transpires as a physical sickness upon the land. But pretty soon it’s fallen into something mundanely specific. In fact, underneath the posturing and that stuff smeared on the camera lens, it’s ’The Daleks’ all over again.

The crew land on a barren planet which at first seems deserted, though we later realise that everybody’s merely hiding. They then find two warring sides, choosing one just in time to see it get ambushed and decimated. The Doctor gets imprisoned and interrogated by the bad guys while the others team up with the good guys and plan their assault, there’s a feint vs. real attack maneuver – through some bleeding tunnels, even! (Why does Barbara think so hard over this plan when it’s exactly the one they’ve used before?) 

The first two episodes are even symmetrically titled – from ’The Dead Planet’/’The Daleks’ to ’Web Planet’/’The Zarbi’! The only tick-box element missing from ’The Daleks’ is the work pit, helpfully provided in 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' and (needless to say) duplicated here.

Which of course means we’re back in the country of Nazi analogies. We've really come nowhere. It's like we hold dud passports which promise the world but hold us in Western Europe. 

George Orwell once said the English catalogue foreigners like insects. He was more right than he could ever have known. It's every bit about visual motifs to convey the funniness of foreigners. Wings signify French-ness, antennae German-ness. 

‘Zarbi’ could even be a code word for ‘Nazi’, except perhaps for that ‘code’ bit. The butterfly-like Menoptra are trillingly cultured and graceful against the robotic Zarbi. Their names are Latin, chiefly derived from insect categorizations. (For example Prapillus comes from Papilio, the term for butterfly.) And of course, we chiefly associate Latin with French. 

Only here the analogy is more schematic, more divisive. As argued previously the Thals were the ‘good’ pacifist Germans, hence (and crucially) a kind of cousin to the devious Daleks. So while ’The Daleks’ gave us a conflicted world where native was fated to fight native, ’Web Planet’ gives us a panto of good fluttering Frenchies and bad, black-clad swarming Nazis. 

In ’The Daleks’ the soil is found to still be fertile, with some sweat and labour their planet might eventually be restored to abundance. Here water magically starts to burst from springs as soon as the wicked witch is dead. Worse, the Frenchies are planning their own valiant but hopeless D-Day assault (with weapons that don’t actually work), until the allies arrive cavalry-like to save them. Fair makes you proud, don’t it?

In perhaps the chief difference the Zarbi are not innately evil, by nature they’re docile – but fallen under the foreign power of the Animus. She works as a kind of Hitler/Lenin figure – railing the workers against their natural and benevolent rulers. Vicki dubs their tamed Zarbi ‘Zombo’, emphasising this perception of them as zombified workers. (‘Zarbi’ could even be a code word for ‘Zombie’, apart from that code bit…) 

But even this difference is not significant. The Zarbi are described as “just cattle. They do not have any speech nor motive of their own”. Which echoes the famous speech from ‘The Great Dictator’, already quoted under <i>‘Dalek Invasion of Earth’:
“You are not machines! You are not cattle!” We should also note insects are commonly likened to machines. Cattle, insects, mechanisation, Nazis, all are bundled together and held in opposition to our supposedly organic society.

And in these “they're-not-like-us” xenophobic explanations commonly given for the rise of fascism, the Germans can be portrayed alternately as willful sadists or blind cattle, following their master's orders either with glee or with robotic obedience. Like most racist arguments iterating the prejudice was held to prove it. So one could slide to the other and back without anyone noticing – much less concerning themselves.

It’s arguable this lays bare a tension inherent in the show; was it designed as allegory or fable? Are we meant to look upon Vortis as a credibly alien planet, somewhere up there in the sky but part of our universe, or as some fantastical other-world? Never before have the two been forced to share the same living quarters so closely, and they make for an odd couple indeed.

The Daleks were of course never intended as a hit, they were only bumped up the schedules through other options falling through. The Zarbi, conversely, do seem to have been intended as a rival to the Daleks - with the BBC planning a second set of monster merchandise. Perhaps that very fact is part of the problem. “One more time with that order of lightning, please.”

Strength through strangeness

However, let's not overlook the bits which work. As this is all before the conceit that the Doctor can understand any language, he can’t communicate with the Zarbi and we’re into the second cliffhanger before he finally talks to the Animus. (After two episodes of chirrupy Zarbi chatter, the moment comes as a genuine shock. It’s perhaps significant that for most of the time we only hear the Animus, as a powerful female voice. The standard cliffhanger trope of ‘monster reveal’ is thereby reversed, the shock is not seeing the Zarbi but hearing their mistress’ voice.) The verbal sparring between them marks the highpoints of the story, as they perpetually smart and counter-smart each other. 

Notably, when we finally do see her, the set (while sadly deficient) is almost like a variant of the Tardis - a gleaming central console. Where the Zarbi or Daleks are the Doctor’s adversaries the Animus is his id – seeking to control and absorb all she encounters, even (in her final screechy boast) culture. (Prapillus conversely is the Doctor’s alter ego, most exemplified in the moment where they must swap objects for their respective missions.) Robert Sloman obviously found the Animus a fitting opponent for the Doctor, bringing her back in all but name for ‘Planet of the Spiders’.

I said of the show, when looking at ‘Keys of Marinus’: “Its images are innately strange, but at the same time its symbols are entirely explicable.” And ‘Web Planet’ may be the point where parable and weird fiction collide, each derailing the other. Its disappointing for a story to start off so insistent that this time an alien planet is really… no foolin’... going to be alien. Only to become so rigidly allegorical that the costumes might as well have labels on them reading ‘Nazi drone’ and ‘free French’.

However, overall, the normally acerbic Tomb of the Anorak hits the nail: “Okay it’s not very good, but there’s am ambition at the heart of it that makes it worthwhile.” Though it wouldn’t be the first episode you'd ever suggest to a newbie, in a way 'Web Planet' is the ultimate Hartnell story. Is it a bold and challenging experiment, a hopeless mess, a simple genre story warped by happy or unhappy accident, or an experimental drama cloaked in some cod-SF references so it could go out at teatime? It's kind of all of those at once.

There should be space in the world to try out things like ’The Web Planet’, even if the result is only things like ’The Web Planet’. This was a show centered around explorers made by explorers. The BBC that made ’The Web Planet’ is the BBC that made ’The Clangers’ or funded the Radiophonics Workshop, a hermetic world of deranged boffins blissfully unaware that their real job should have been studying demographic trends while underestimating audience expectations. (And in fact this isn’t so unlike ’The Clangers’, there’s the same sense of the ‘domestic cosmic’.)

And in these days when nothing seems to reach the screen that hasn't been bled dry by fifty focus groups, where nothing ever really fails because nothing ever really tries, where everything is just a product-upgrade copy of something else, you can come to see the upside of that.

While admittedly I hope never to have to watch it again, I would rather it than some of the play-safe dross the show has served up in more recent years. ‘Doctor Who’
can survive being bad, it’s done it for years at a time. When it dies is when it loses its strangeness.

Further reading! This time I can only link to an ad for the item, because Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles' 'About Time' is an actual book. You know, a thing you actually need to order, then open and read. (Ask a boomer to help you if necessary.) Perhaps one of the weaknesses of my reviews, particularly over the one-off scripters, is that they’re either made into a conduit for a zeitgeist or taken as a sock puppet of the Script Editor. Wood and Miles take biographical information about Bill Strutton to argue the Zarbi are not based on Nazis but... well, why not read the thing for yourself?

Saturday, 16 May 2020


Tate Britain, London 

“Real painters do not paint things as they are ...they paint them as they themselves feel them to be."
-Van Gogh

Love Colour, Let It Show

Van Gogh and Britain? He arrived in London in 1873 on his employer’s orders, and in the three years he spent there he painted …wait for it… nothing at all. Pierre Cabanne’s book devotes less than two pages to the non-episode. The (many) British artists who came to be influenced by him almost routinely made pilgrimage to Provence, to the landscapes where his style developed. While this show makes what it can of thumbnail sketches stuck in the margins of letters.

And the Tate Britain has form for this… In 1870, Monet and Pissarro went to London, fleeing the Franco-Prussian War. Monet went home almost as soon as he could, and (again) before he’d reached his mature style. They found that enough for a show.

Contemporary artists have most likely become averse to taking stopover flights in Heathrow, lest the venue try to wring a retrospective out of it, speculating on things they might or might not have bought in duty free which may or may not have influenced their work. But the truth is… muggins here went to both shows. If there’s some Monets and Pissarros or some Van Goghs - I’m there. Morsels can look like meals to the hungry.

The show starts with paintings he’s thought to have seen in his stay, and been influenced by. Sounds a stretch, but let’s take it at its word. Notably, there’s only one which now seems tolerable. Elmore Leonard famously said “if it reads like writing, rewrite it”. And the majority of these works are painterly. And their ostensibly being nature scenes only makes this problem worse.

Whereas with Millais’ ‘Chill October’ (1870) no effort seems apparent. The composition looks casual, as if hit on by chance. In fact I saw the same painting at the Tate B’s earlier Pre-Raphaelites show, and praised it’s ridding itself of the encumbrance of narrative. But hung here, it seems to make a deeper point…

Of course direct responses to nature, without the intervention of human culture, are an impossibility. (Something I’ve been known to rant about before.) But, like an actor who manages to suggest the lines he’s learnt are coming to him in the moment, too skilled to appear skilful, Millais seems to leave you with no place to apply that knowledge.

If there is another work here whose imprint can be seen on our boy it’s by another Dutch artist, albeit an older one, Meindert Hobbema’s ‘The Avenue At Middelharnis’ (1689). And what Van Gogh does is take Hobbema’s subject matter, a solitary figure in an avenue of tall trees, and match it with Millais’ ‘naturalness’ and Autumnal, melancholic mood. (Millais’s is the only work in this sequence not to include human figures.)

This is true of several works, the best of which is ’Avenue of Poplars in the Autumn’ (1884, above). It has Millais’ rich and deep colours. Yet it adds a unique feature. Both earlier works have expansive skies, a common feature of nature art, an open space they use to evoke mood. (Different skies for different moods, but the concept’s the same.) Van Gogh’s sky barely shows through. The tall painting is dominated by the tall poplars, which is then enhanced by their shadows cast on the path, then enhanced again by the twin fences on the bridge.

An attentive reader may have already noted that by this point Millais’ style isn’t that far different from the Impressionists, who by this date were already at work. And in fact the chief drawback with this section is that it mires us in looking elsewhere when the Impressionist influence on Van Gogh was surely stronger. There is after all a reason why he’s considered a Post-Impressionist. (And it’s not just because Post-Pre-Raphaelite would sound so clunky.)

Like the Impressionists, Van Gogh normally worked en plein air. (‘Outdoors’ to you and me.) But his art isn’t as descriptive, as concerned with capturing moments as theirs. It’s not even that we find we belong in nature, nature reflects us. The roots of Expressionism, the notion that art’s function is to map the mental state of the artist, are here. A smaller, ink-and-chalk work, ‘Alley Bordered By Trees’ (1884) is quite Munch-like.

His Wikipedia entry suggests he strove to convey what he saw as eternal truths, but which needed to be instanced through the real world. So everything had to have both a literal and a symbolic meaning, meanings which had to be presented as conjoined. And one could be said to stand for Van Gogh’s inner self, and the other for his responses to his environment. So the common debate about Romanticism, how much the artist channels the natural world and how much he projects his own feelings over it, becomes particularly acute.

One of those helpful hints no-one ever actually tells you about Van Gogh… Forget the sunflowers, which long ago became too familiarised for you to actually see. You can even skip the self-portraits should time be pressing. His essence is in his paintings of trees.

‘Hospital at St. Remy’ (1889, above) doesn’t just foreground and show them towering over buildings. It presents them stretching up into the sky, like a record of the their growth - like we’re looking at really slow time-lapse photography. It allows you to picture them forcing their way up through the ground, every inclination upwards. If this was a piece of music, it would be ever-swelling without reaching a crescendo.

And Van Gogh achieves such an effect by painting still things as though they aren’t still. In ‘Path in the Garden of The Asylum’(1889, above) the movement isn’t in the scene but where we almost don’t think to look - in the brushwork. Compare this to the earlier ’Avenue of Poplars’, where the path was a kind of canvas - a base layer to throw shadows over. Here the path is a tumult of strokes, as flowing as any river. In fact the stillest thing here seems to be the human figure. Everything else moves, just on a scale he can’t see. And this is what the show calls Van Gogh’s “distinctive, mature style”, a flickering flux made up of thick hatch-strokes applied by brush. He later incorporated the swirl motif, most famously in ’Starry Night’ (1889), a shape it’s almost impossible to perceive as still.

The well-known ‘Starry Night Over the Rhone’ 
(1888, above) is hung alongside Whistler’s ‘Nocturne: Grey and Gold, Westminster Bridge’ (c. 1891/2). But they’re more a contrast than a comparison. Whistler uses the London fog to mystifying effect, defamiliarising our own environment. It’s not a place but a setting. You wouldn’t know where you were without the helpful title. (‘Nocturne’ is usually a musical term, and music doesn’t normally go in for likenesses.)

Whereas ‘Starry Night’ is perfectly straightforward. You’d know if you were placed in that location, even in different weather conditions. (Its Wikipedia entry places a photo by it.)

Its instant hit comes from the way the harbour lights are stretched so dazzlingly by their reflection in the water. But the more lasting effect comes from the lack of distinguishing between the harbour lights and the stars, which virtually line up together. Van Gogh was influenced by Japanese prints. And like them he pictures an environment that is in inherent balance, harmonious to its marrow.

The effect isn’t at all melancholic, rather it’s rhapsodic. As Laura Cumming puts it in the Guardian: “The sheer joy of it all is what strikes every time: every brushload laid upon the surface an act of exultation, every colour a kind of gratitude.”

Which is why Jonathan Richman’s rip-roaring musical tribute to him is actually appropriate when that cloying Don Mclean crap just isn’t. (“He loved, he loved, he loved life so bad/ His paintings had twice the colour other paintings had/ So bad so bad that the world had to know/ The man loved colour and he let it show.” Good analysis. Not kidding.)

And all this only enters his art after he moves to France. Yet it’s the Van Gogh we think of.

Similarly in ‘Farm Near Auvers’ (1890, above), with those tumblingly uneven thatched roofs, the buildings blend into the slope of the hills, the flecked cottage roofs echoed by the yellow fields. There is something Arcadian in this lack of distinction between human construct and the natural world.

And he often seems part of a Modernism whose quarrel with Romanticism was merely aesthetic, about upping the ante. They had been too genteel in their approach; for so savage a subject what was needed was a more savage art - to capture nature in the raw. This often fed into his posthumous popularity, particularly among artists and art critics. The show includes a quote from Roger Fry: “Modern European art has always mistreated flowers, dealing with them at best as aids to sentimentality until Van Gogh saw the arrogant spirit that inhabits the sunflower.”

Yet ‘Loom With Weaver’ (1884, above) presents its twin subjects in title order. In fact only the upper torso of the weaver is visible behind his loom, caught within repeated frames. Yet despite this and the muted colour scheme there’s no sense of man being made prisoner by machine, the way Romantic art would insist on. That art almost always depicts a uniform group of figures, a production line of people. Putting one man in interaction with one machine seems more a precursor to Constructivism.

And in the ostensibly straightforward way it’s painted, it seems more a latterday piece of folk art - the mechanical loom presented as if if were a traditional activity. (We should also note that the bright lights captured in ’Starry Night Over the Rhone’ came from then-novel gas lighting.)

Romantic art could stray into seeing nature as Edenic and ‘unfallen’, and society as Babylonian, hopeless corrupted by sin, the place to flee. Whereas Van Gogh’s refusal to see nature and society as antithetical, could there be a connection between this and his humanism? He had an interest in socially reforming art, quite at odds with his tragic outsider image. Prior to Provence, he frequently drew and painted studies of the common folk, saying “I want to make figures from the people, for the people”.

In ‘Augustine Roulin’ (1889, above) that’s wallpaper behind the figure, but the flowers still seem to shimmer and dance. And this is enhanced by the colour scheme, where both the wallpaper and the figure’s clothes are in different shades of green. It seems influenced by his frenemy Gauguin, in works such as ’The Little One is Dreaming’ (1881). As I said, this was painted “as if the ‘real world’ was suffused with dreams”. Yet Van Gogh paints not just a wide awake woman but a particularly solid one, definitely planted in the real world. Realms don’t seem linked only at their margins, they just co-exist.

This Cult of Crazy is Crazy

As I said over the earlier Gauguin show: “Between them, Gauguin and his sometime compatriot Van Gogh embody the two main stereotypes of the modern artist – one the deranged visionary, the other the bohemian adventurer.”

And the show becomes more interesting when it timelines what we could call the Van Gogh cult, perhaps because it details something which actually happened in Britain. (Though it seems to have happened much the same way on the continent, merely sooner.) He was included in the famous 1910 exhibition ‘Monet and the Post-Impressionists’, which caused sensation and controversy in equal measure - the Tate reproducing a jeering Bateman cartoon. And interestingly his mental illness was marshalled as evidence by both critics and fans.

Though it was the Twenties which saw the start of the cult in earnest, with two biographies plus a collection of his letters published. This didn’t arise in a uniform fashion. We’re told of a Tate show in ’47 where in the post-war climate he was depicted as an artist of the people. It proved so popular the floor needed reinforcing.

But if the road had twists it still took us to the popular view of Van Gogh we’re now encumbered with, the wild and deranged genius who painted in a frenzy with his feet, while glugging absinthe and chopping random bits off himself at regular intervals. Inevitably, it’s his ’Self-Portrait With Bandaged Ear’ (1889) which accompanies the Wikipedia article on the Tortured Artist.

I know nothing of the biographies, but the letters are by necessity the artist’s own words. As Wikipedia puts it: “These began a compelling mythology of Van Gogh as an intense and dedicated painter who suffered for his art and died young.”

Yet I remember seeing the documentary ‘Vincent’ on release (1987), mostly comprised of readings from those letters, and being struck by how different those considered words were from that public image. (To avoid confusion, this is not the later ‘Loving Vincent’.) Norbert Lynton has pointed out “his letters prove him to have been one of the most observant and thoughtful painters ever.” (‘History of Modern Art’) This is the Van Gogh who spoke four languages and read widely, scarcely a savage outsider.

But, just as with his art, the published letters became a talisman of the popularly constructed deranged genius. What he said in them wasn’t the significant thing, their existence was taken as further proof for what everyone had assumed all along. These were books to wave about, not read.

It’s scarcely coincidental that this myth began after the artist’s death, even that 1910 show nearly thirty-five years after he’d gone. His headstone was a necessary lodestone to build it over. Not just because it fed the cliché of doomed romanticism, but because he was no longer around to contradict anything said about him. He went from living, breathing artist to mounted trophy. Effectively, he died twice.

When suffering from attacks, Van Gogh was unsurprisingly incapable of working. So is there any reason to suppose that they were not gift but merely burden? That, un-beset by them, he’d have produced more paintings during his time and probably lived longer anyway? Suppose he’d suffered from some debilitating physical ailment which prevented him painting, and finally finished him off? Would we be having the same conversation about his art then? He said himself, in one of those letters, he was best off trying “to look upon madness as a disease like any other.” And so should we.

’Self-Portrait’ (1889, above), used as the poster image here, has often been interpreted as the artist channelling his suffering into his work. Which just overwrites what’s on the canvas. He sports a scrutinising expression and clutches his palette firmly. This is an above-average example of a familiar image, the calling card of the hard-working artist. It’s a construct, of course. Art is always a construct. It may, for all we know, have been an act of bravado by a troubled soul. But we should always try to get as close to Van Gogh’s Van Gogh as we can, and worry less about others’ obsessions.

Given which, this show is a strange creature. The second section is essentially given to deconstructing this cult. Yet the show’s existence, particularly given its thin premise, is testament to that cult’s continuing prevalence. The bigger it becomes, the less we will know Van Gogh’s art. And it’s still growing…

Saturday, 9 May 2020


First broadcast Jan/ Feb 1965
Written by Dennis Spooner
Contains more of Ye Olde Plot Spoilers

”Got a funny side to it, hasn't it?”
- Ian

What Has ‘The Romans’ Done For Us?

With popular culture, what’s normally more interesting isn’t what it says about the society that surrounds it but how it epitomises clashes. Its not a mirror but a lightning rod, not an essay but an arena. If it was a weather map, it would be one showing up the occluded fronts. In the case of ‘Doctor Who’, the question isn’t how well it reflects the post-war liberal consensus, to which the answer would be an all-too-easy ‘very well’. The real stuff happens when new social trends come along, the show feels obliged to take them up as well, and gets all bent out of shape.

Arguably, this first happens with the first ever episode and the unearthliness of Susan, but that gets reined back pretty quickly. And besides her role in the story is more an ambassador of the Sixties arriving in what's essentially the Fifties.

But if not then, when did the Sixties (as we now think of them) first show up? When rising consumption and increased aspiration saw a break with the post-war world so fixated on asceticism and Nazi analogies? El Sandifer takes a stab: “anyone wondering when drugs entered the 'Doctor Who' production office can probably make a pretty safe bet that it's somewhere in the vicinity the tentacle rave bouncy castle at the end of 'The Web Planet' and the introduction of cross-dressing comedy [in ‘The Crusade’].”

Okay, by plumping for ‘The Romans’ I’m only lighting the joss sticks one story earlier. Perhaps the more significant thing is that it happened not during a science fiction story (so easily associated with psychedelia or pop surrealism) but one of those supposedly stuffy historicals.

Outwardly 'The Romans' is very similar to Dennis Spooner’s predecessor 'Who' script, 'The Reign of Terror'. The Tardis crew land near a villa outside Rome instead of a house outside Paris. From there they split up, escape and get recaptured, spend long periods working out how to rescue each other, while progressively trading their way up from minor and incidental characters to genuinely historical ones. Then, when things get hot, they leg it. So we're just swapping sans-culottes for togas, Robespierre for Nero?

Not really. For all the formal similarities, this story feels quite different. While 'Reign of Terror' threw up occasional and incidental comic characters, 'The Romans unabashedly avoids all serious intent. It starts as it means to go on when it resolves the cliffhanger from the previous story. Or rather it doesn’t, it just shrugs it off, yawningly uninterested in such things. And instead tries a grape.

Finding The New in the Old

And let's remember those Romans were not just a beacon of early civilisation but did things for us. It was they who brought that light to our darkened isle. (At least in official story.) This is like a thumbed nose to all that classicism, graffiti on those schoolbooks which loftily explained what the Romans had done to us. Possibly used buy Barbara for her charges back in Coal Hill school.

But of course the expectation of toga-sporting soliloquies from gesticulating thesps that the title would have conjured up - that was the fuel to the fire. As said of 'Unearthly Child' the “basis of swinging London was non-swinging London - one relied upon the other as a drab backdrop against which to parade its futuristic sheen.” The toga-sporting Romans become like the dancing policemen in the Beatles' 'I Am the Walrus' video. The original idea had been to parody the 1951 film 'Quo Vadis', much as 'Carry on Cleo' (1964) had been a skit on 'Cleopatra' (1963).

'Tribe of Gum's stone age setting was – to put it kindly - not entirely credible. 'Reign of Terror' was a hackneyed take on Revolutionary France, history corroded into theme park by countless adventure stories. But they were a straight-faced take on such things, a jobbing writer's best guess, which contemporary audiences most likely took as intended. Here there's only the most perfunctory pretense they actually visit Ancient Rome, the place Mary Beard bikes round to read us inscriptions. It doesn't just incorporate farce elements. Where they go is the land of farce.

So it doesn't matter Nero is nothing like the historical Nero. He only has to be the Nero of popular misconception, a fat, middle-aged, megalomaniac louche, full of capricious whim and petty vengeance. Rather than some annunciating Rada type he's played by 'Carry On' regular Derek Francis (watch out for those!), who first emerges chewing on a chicken wing.

In fact we're better off asking which of the 'classic historicals' this is most unlike. Its tempting to contrast things to Spooner's earlier 'Reign of Terror', and we've already done so. But that was both the epitome of the re-enactment historical and the beginning of its subversion, Napoleon turning up to look like Napoleon while meanwhileadventuring Aristos play at 'Scarlet Pimpernel' games of hide-and-seek. (And, in something we'll come onto, it sets things up for Spooner's next assault on the classic historical.) 

Its equally tempting to choose 'The Aztecs' as, in something we'll look into, its rules are expressly flouted. (“You can't rewrite history, Barbara. The consequences would be too hysterical to contemplate!”) But the story which wins the Most Exactly Unlike crown is one yet to come - 'The Crusades', with its grand figures uttering heightened speeches at important historical junctures.

And yet the beauty of the concept is at the same time its a take-down its entirely fitting. For the Romans... the actual Romans loved farce and would have recognised every beat here. Characters are forever missing each other in rooms with multiple entrances. (Ian has gone to one door for the Doctor to come out of another before the first episode is even half-way through.) And even when they do meet they generally talk at cross purposes. Mistaken identities abound.

Despite its initial mandate as 'serious SF', 'Doctor Who' had never been at all interested in positing what life might be like on Mars. But it became increasingly keen on asking what might be going on elsewhere in the TV schedules, with a view to trying on their clothes. And the farce was a huge influence on that TV staple the sitcom. A link not only made here. The stage version of 'A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum' had come to London in '63, with the film following in '66.

Farce was, after all, created 
partly to derive maximum usage from limited numbers of actors and sets. Unable to perpetuate an illusion of realism, it instead blows up its own unreality. Unlikely and contrived events are accumulated and accentuated to amuse us. The appeal of farce is the opposite to the appeal of its ancient corollary, tragedy. Tragedy involves us, asking us to identify with the plight of characters who seem at the mercy of fate. In 'The Aztecs', for example, we're invited to feel Barbara's frustration that her good intentions don't bring results. 

With farce, we exult in being out of the action and seated in an audience, enjoying the removed perspective granted us by our seats. Events on stage become a kind of tangled puzzle, to which only our particular vantage point provides the key. The pleasure in seeing the Doctor and Vicki missing Barbara in the slave market lies in us missing none of it.

The Impetuous Doctor

Yet where farce really stands or falls is on the quality of the performance, which the audience needs to distract them from its inherently contrived nature. You could hardly call this ‘acting’, it’s more a matter of how much charisma the performers can invest into their stock characters.

And Hartnell shines here. We don't think to question, for example, that the aged Doctor is suddenly something of a champion wrestler who taught the Mountain Mauler of Montana, when in the previous story he’d been unable to fend off Bennett. It would be like asking how they can all get so split up and end up in the vicinity of one another anyway. All roads lead to Rome. Especially in farce.

Its striking the degree to which the Doctor is so driven by impetuous curiosity and mischievous play-acting, and so undriven by any kind of moral purpose. Rather than the emerging interventionist of 'Dalek Invasion of Earth' he seems closest to the early Doctor, the “blood-on-this-knife” Doctor of 'Tribe of Gum'.

Pretending to be a man who has just been assassinated purely to see where it takes him, he's adventuresome without necessarily being heroic. He's as amateurish as ever. While Hartnell's ailing memory had previously been incorporated into the scripts, here it’s given it's most in-story function - he's constantly unable to remember the name of the duffer he's impersonating. But at the same time he's brimming with cunning, and expertly plays those around him.

In the first Troughton story (to come, honest!) he takes up the badge of the bumped-off Examiner and promptly starts examining. While Hartnell shows not the slightest interest in offing Nero or destablising his regime, however blackly its painted. At one point, he even saves Nero from poisoning. He chooses to take the road to Rome, is dutifully handed his mission card, then simply refuses to play it. As far as the development of the show's formula goes, it almost feels like its being deliberately screwed with.

This effective amorality, this sense that the Doctor is free to follow his whims while others are mired in historical purpose, isn't so far from making him a kind of geriatric bohemian. And those he tricks into applauding his non-compositions are the clueless squares. This is Hartnell at his most impish, most tricksterish. Years before any suggestion he had an elongated lifespan, a sharp young mind and thumping heart are contained in that old body.

This is most apparent when, rather than stopping the Great Fire he starts it. Inadvertently, but on finding out he still succumbs to childlike glee. Rewriting time has gone from cast-iron no-no to sniggery jape, like doing your tax returns late or sneaking off down the pub while the missus thinks you're walking the dog.

His shining does, however, put others in the shade. Vicki is less his companion or even assistant, and more an on-stage audience - saying “what's that Doctor?”, “what are you doing now Doctor?” and the like. And her tagging-along, established here, becomes a habit. The honorary grand-daughter will spend more time in his shadow than the actual grand-daughter did.

Meanwhile Ian still seems insistent he’s in a serious drama despite all the signs to the contrary, beset by travails which mostly take the form of found footage. (Perhaps it was thought such scenes played better to William Russell's style.)

And notably its the Doctor's story you remember. In fact, at the end Ian doesn't even get to tell his.

Sights of the Sixties

Let’s return to and modify the original question? What does 'The Romans' do for 'Doctor Who'? Though this is an above-par effort, though there will be effective successor stories, the overall answer is “not so much”. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is “of its time”. With the Doctor not orienting himself around the wanderer/interventionist axis, that when seen with hindsight seems such a through-line, it feels more like a side-step the Sixties that a stride in the development of 'Doctor Who'. You have been watching a piece of 1965.

Sidney Newman commissioned the show as part of his shake up the fusty Beeb, now it had to compete with the commercial channel ITV. And so he did his best to enlist others in his vein, commenting: “I rejected the traditional drama types who did children's serials, and said that I wanted somebody who'd be prepared to break rules in doing the show. Somebody young with a sense of 'today' - the early 'Swinging London' days." Except he probably didn’t, as London wasn’t called a “Swinging City” until ‘Time’ christened it that in 1966.

And we all slip into such teleological conception of time, where the Sixties had a purpose which was to bring things closer to today. And of course that's just not how it works. The irony is that the most reactionary elements are often the very stuff which would have seemed so modern to a contemporary audience. Take the laugh-a-minute scenes of Nero sexually pursuing Barbara. Barbara's story essentially bisects both Ian's adventure and the Doctor's farce, which only makes the suggestion of rape harder to parse.

And this after the sexual threats made to her by the villainous Vasor in 'Keys of Marinus' were were portrayed as genuinely menacing. But this presentation of sexual subjects, undisguised but still seen as a ripe subject for tittering, that would have slotted straight into the TV schedules of the day.

And the story's other great weakness is the other time it tries to take itself seriously - the rather daft reveal that Tavis has been helping them due to secret Christianity. This scene is oddly jarring, like something from a schlocky Hollywood movie stuffed in the middle of a Roman farce. Perhaps what’s most notable is that it’s so similar to the Christianity of ‘Star Trek’s Roman episode, ‘Bread and Circuses’ - despite the two being so different in just about any other way. (‘Bread and Circuses’ is essentially a parallel Earth story played for drama, with an unbroken Roman empire.) 

In both Christianity is an underground, operating at the periphery of the main plot yet enabling of it. In both there’s the suggestion that no-one knows how big this underground is, perhaps even the people within it, and that the power of it’s ideas mean it will inevitably ascend. To win Christianity just has to be.

The popular view of the Roman empire has become so associated with the rise of Christianity it now seems incomplete without this, and so becomes self-perpetuating. And of course the two are so associated historically because they’re seen as so disassociated conceptually. They’re imagined as weathervanes, Christian brotherhood inevitably emerging just as gladiator fights and orgies wane. Historically of course this not even wrong. But historical fiction is often like party political broadcasts by the Conservative party, it allows people to rewrite history as they want it. And the desire to remember the past your own way is a strong one.

Ian & Barbara's Toga Party

One appealing element of the story is the time granted to show the travellers simply hanging out in their borrowed villa, at both the top and tail ends. Tradition at this time was for one storyline to follow straight on after another, being set up with a coda cliffhanger from its predecessor. (Presumably to deny the audience jumping-off points.) This ‘holiday’ stops things feeling too frenetic, too perpetual. It also suggests the travellers live quite aristocratically - never working, merely squatting someone else’s property while they’re away. (There's a couple of passing references to their selling vegetables, which wouldn't really explain how they get to dine on such fine repast.)

This lack of noises off throws a focus on the relationship between Ian and Barbara. Fans can fixate on this, finding in their flirty-fighting fun belated proof of how in love they really are. It may be surprising to our modern eyes how much of a given their relationship is – all that travelling in time and space doesn’t seem to change anything from when they were teaching together in Coal Hill School. In a modern drama, being thrown together on the Tardis would doubtless make them realise their underlying feelings, their hearts would finally speak out and all the rest of it. Here it changes nothing.

But let's remember the 'understanding' was common to dramas of this period. They understand, even if unspokenly, that one day they will settle down and get married. They have a familiar manner with each other, even in the opening episode, which makes that quite clear. But first there's a whole load of marking to do. Closely followed by becoming stuck on Skaro without a fuel link, captives of Marco Polo and so on. All quite stiff obstacles to booking the Church and sending the invitations. But the underlying point remains the same. If they don't say things out loud that's because they don't think it needs saying.

These scenes work perfectly well. But what they’re not is a development, something missing from the earlier storylines. In his novelisation of 'The Daleks', David Whitaker gave them an antagonism-into-romance plot line. But that was for a one-off. An 'understanding' works better, both with the constraints of the era and the nature of a running TV show. The set-up even gives them an honorary child to fend for (first Susan, here Vicki).

And an emphasis on the very English uprightness of the two schoolteachers may be a good point to end on. For their tweedy ways would soon be gone, the steady hand taken from the tiller and the more rocky seas of the Sixties sailed into. Yet swinging Sixties culture did not erupt all at once. It was seeded, and perhaps the main seed was – irony of ironies – a genuinely funny comedy dressed up as one of those historicals everyone's so quick to label as 'educational'.

Plus, unlike 'Reign of Terror', but like 'The Aztecs', this comes in at a slim four episodes. The most basic rule of early 'Who' is thereby reinforced – to misquote Orwell, four episodes good, six episodes bad!

Coming soon! Insects. Insects are coming soon...

Saturday, 2 May 2020


British Museum, London

“We do not want pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create… an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art of one’s innermost heart.”
- Edvard Munch

The Skull Beneath The Skin

So, Munch’s prints… in one of those things you won’t know till you’re told, he didn’t start making them until ten years into his career. But they came to cement his reputation. There were practical reasons for this, they were more easily acquired than paintings and better evaded censorship.

But also, we tend to parse paintings diegetically - as if they’re a window onto an actual space. Prints we accept more readily as artifice, as works of design. That’s why they can incorporate text or other seemingly extraneous elements. And Munch is perhaps the default example of an Expressionist artist, who painted not what he saw but what he felt. He often gave works thematic titles such as ’Despair’, ‘Jealousy’ and ’Angst’. Prints simply worked for him.

For example, in ‘Self-Portrait With a Skeleton Arm’ (1895, above) his signature is on a white strip at the top of the frame. This feature is then echoed by the skeleton arm at the base. And we could probably argue for some time whether the arm’s another framing device or should be seen as attached to his shoulder. All of which directs our attention to something right at the edge of the frame.

Which is a skeleton arm. Art Nouveau, then a contemporary movement, was always decorating borders with fronds, inter-twined vines and other fecund growths. Munch brings in bones, a forerunner of Eliot’s famous phrase “the skull beneath the skin”.

Emily Spicer, at Culture Whisper, wrote “Munch was the art world’s answer to playwright Henrik Ibsen. He painted what the Norwegian writer penned for the theatre – jealousy, adultery, madness and disease.” The suggestion they’re in some way interchangeable takes it too far. Ibsen was much more the social commentator, and Munch the confessor of his own heart. But there was definitely an association. Munch designed theatre posters and screens for Ibsen, and painted his portrait.

And given its artifice the association of his art with theatre is strong. The contradiction of putting domestic life on stage, as actually experienced by the audience, runs through both. His compositions often look more like set designs than real places, for example ‘Death in the Sick Room’ (1896, below).

However this is an artifice we shouldn’t associate with fakeness or aestheticism, but quite the opposite. Do you want to become distracted by some detail of perspective or foreshortening, when your aim is to capture an emotional truth?

And it leads to what can feel like the bizarrest perspective on life for works created during the modern era. Munch could be called a Symbolist as much as an Expressionist, and his art’s an ominous realm stuffed with signs, portents and encounters with quasi-human figures - almost a retreat to Medievalism. And yet this matched his world all too well. It’s a combination also to be found in Strindberg (if less so Ibsen). In fact scientific advances seemed to feed this mysticism. Laura Cumming in the Guardian commented: “X-rays, ‘aura’ photographs, Freudian analysis: this was an age of strange revelations.”

Nature is a Language And It Screams

Though Munch made four versions of ‘The Scream’, his best-known work, that transfixed figure doesn’t travel much. The Tate exhibition of 2012 had to get by without one, and we’re excitedly told this is the first version to be shown in the UK for a decade. So unsurprisingly, the 1895 print (above) takes pride of place on the poster image.

If its Munch’s representative image, at least it’s typical. Though we’re given highly evocative slideshows of both Berlin and Paris, and hear him enthusing about life in both, his art remains set in this liminal Norway of bridges, shorelines and forests. His works sometimes seem to have been set within a radius of a few square miles.

The famous fact about ‘The Scream’ is that, even though his mouth is open, it’s not the figure doing the screaming. Look more to his hands, held over his ears. It’s virtually spelt out in words by the opening of Herzog’s 1974 film ‘The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser’: “Do you not then hear this horrible scream all around you that people usually call silence?”

Munch himself said “I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream.” And his own title for the work was ’The Scream of Nature’. We see the scream ripple through reality as if we’re looking at a seismograph, with the figure hopelessly trying to shut it out even as it bends like a reed in the wind.

Munch had been brought up by a pious, Pietist father. And Protestantism places a great emphasis on the word of God. We live in a vale of tears, a base place where all eventually die. Yet we hear the word of God, from outside of this, and feel redeemed. Hence the huge emphasis on prayer - eyes closed, ears open. While since Romanticism art had posited nature as the means by which we could re-find ourselves. Just to see it was considered rejuvenating. Consciously or otherwise, Munch brings us the worst of both worlds - here it’s nature which reduces to a sound, and it’s a scream.

However, there’s no getting around this – created to be reproduced, it became a victim of its success, too familiarised to remain potent. Inevitably there’s T-shirts, napkins, chocolates, ties and i-phone cases of it in the exit-through-gift-shop. Inevitably it even became an emoji. Even talking about how ubiquitous it has become seems of itself ubiquitous. But worse, much of what makes it ubiquitous also makes it insidious. In many ways, it encapsulates all that’s wrong about art from Modernism down to today.

Note the distinction of the main figure from the insensitive, tone-deaf others. Munch was accompanied by two friends the night of his dark revelation, who (unsurprisingly) heard nothing themselves. But that alone doesn’t explain why in all versions those two figures have to remain in, while pushed to the edge of, the frame. (And are then echoed by the two ships.)

Both Munch and Herzog discover the bohemian artist needs the conventional bourgeois to be defined against. His fine-tuned sensitivities have to be contrasted against the brute incomprehension exhibited by the rest of us. This trope of the suffering artist is of course absurd and tiresome, and gets rightly pilloried by AL Kennedy here. But we’ve still not arrived at the worst of it.

More pernicious still is that it turns the purpose of art upside-down. Note how, in the quote up top, Munch speaks of his “innermost heart”. The artist doesn’t articulate things which we might feel but be less skilled at expressing. Instead the artist parades his unique, rarified angst like a private horde of rubies, at which we less sensitive types can only gape in awe. The others could not hear the scream. The artist cannot not hear.

Munch was subject to both physical and psychological illness (once spending eight months in an asylum), which he seems to have parcelled together and fetishised. He commented “I would not cast off my illness, because there’s much in my art that I owe to it.”

So far so bad. Yet that’s not the whole of it. In an early version, the charcoal drawing Despair’ (1892, above) a full third is taken up by an explanatory text, suggesting the effect’s not being fully conveyed visually just yet. Once hit on, the modified pose seems obvious. But let’s concentrate here on the changed look of the figure.

Here he’s not recognisably Munch, but is obviously a Western man. In the final, famous version it’s simultaneously foregrounded and made more ambiguous. Often likened to an embryo, putative and genderless, in its way it’s like a stem cell out of which can grow any angst you’d like to profess. Which is the art that “gives something to humanity” 
in the quote up top.

It’s a paradoxical image. Munch universalises the figure at the very same time he reduces it to the suffering artist. Small wonder it’s so ubiquitous. It can stretch in two seemingly contradictory directions, which Munch himself seems to have regarded as interchangeable.

The Sickness At the Heart of Things

Munch saw the painting ‘The Sick Child’ (1907) as his breakthrough work, and in truth it probably is better than ‘The Scream’. The painting has an immediacy quite unlike the foreboding Symbolism of elsewhere, as if we’re actually in the room witnessing events. There’s just enough incidental detail, such as the edge of a cabinet, to help convey this. Art for Munch isn’t meditative, intended to help us reflect or take stock, but to capture moments as they hit us.

Yet it’s as much about the way it’s painted. It took him a year to complete, working it over and over. Take the oppressive downpour of those persistent strokes of deep green. The mother’s body seems to disappear into them, as much as the child’s pallid face does into the white pillow. Which spells out the whole story, unbearable but unavoidable parting, the mother trapped in the weight of this world just as the child fades out of it.

Munch’s father was a doctor, and the painting’s based on a child he saw treated for TB. Yet both his mother and sister died from the disease, while another developed schizophrenia. He came to believe that “disease and insanity were the black angels that stood over my family”.

But that merely instanced it. If this was a time when medicine was less advanced, where sickness seemed able to strike at will, it becomes so strongly and persistent a theme of Munch’s that it seems inadequate even to call it a perennial threat. It seems at the very heart of things. It runs right through nature, long held as the source of health. And so society cannot escape it…

Each Confined Within Themselves

Munch associated with the Kristiana Bohemians, described by the British Museum as “a group of bohemian writers and artists who sought to expose the anxiety and hypocrisy beneath society’s ordered surface, including a fear of sexuality and its consequences.”

Which we might well see in ’Angst’ (1896, above). Unlike the isolated figure of ’The Scream,’ respectable Sunday finery pulls the figures together into a black clump. (Something we also see in ’Death in the Sick Room’.) Yet their expressions while matching are mournful in their solitariness, a parade of ghouls each confined within themselves. Munch commented “I see their hollow eyes, skulls behind the pale masks.”

Yet when he depicted his comrades, as in ‘Kristiana Bohemians II’ (1895, above), these are far from the free spirits commonly thought of. Instead, in one of the most funereal party scenes in art history, they’re poor lost, pitiable things. They’re as angsty as the figures in ’Angst’, they’re just being angsty in a bar rather than on the way to Church. That’s thought to be Munch’s cheery visage, puffing away in lower left. And, at a distance but under the smoke from his fag, lurks a femme fatale if ever there was. The show identifies her for us (Oda Englehart), points out that a tempting bowl of fruit lies just below her and fills in the biographical details. But you’ve already guessed.

We’re told “Munch’s bohemian love affairs were frequent and beset with difficulty. He was attracted to women, but was unable to commit himself to anybody.” Suggesting the show’s title gets things the wrong way round. Fearful of both attachment and isolation, small wonder he became reclusive in later life. And while his bohemian brethren may have exposed the fear of sexuality, they articulated rather than dispelled it.

And this is bohemianism in a nutshell. Their revolt wasn’t entirely abstract and inconsequential. Hans Jaeger was banged up for sixty days for expressing deviant beliefs. Yet lacking any coherent or systemic critique of power (which would have involved questioning rather than just rejecting their bourgeois origins), bohemians become superstitious of it - fearing it’s tendrils wherever they wandered.

And their wanderings mostly led them to encounter each other. Solitary predators, such as spiders can find mating encounters fraught with danger and potentially life-threatening. With bohemians this works in a slightly less literal way. ‘Vampyr II’ displays well the common elision between the femme fatale and the female vampire. The lurid red blood we’d see gushing in a Hammer film becomes symbolised by red hair, draped across the victim. She sucks her lover’s life force without resorting to such literal means.

Why are these tropes so common? Why would women be presented as such powerful forces in so male-dominated a society? The question becomes self-resolving. In a world established as about predators and prey, the predator always fears the tables turning. Should women gain power it’s assumed this would not be over their own lives but over men’s. So in a work like ’Jealousy’ (1896, below) it’s assumed the woman’s motive isn’t attraction to the second figure, who is barely delineated, but to stir up jealousy in the first. Her life is about its effect on his. We even see his despairing reaction before its cause.

But that’s not the whole picture. Look at ’Attraction’ (1896, above). It’s like two energy vampires got together, and each is able to suck the essence from the other but without gaining sustenance - a feedback loop of mutually assured destruction. A desolate road stretches out ahead of them, spelling out their fate. You imagine each is aware this will happen, but neither can change their nature enough to break from it.

But ’Desire’ (1898, above) breaks the mould most of all. A young naked woman is laid out as if on a slab, with three malevolent male heads leeringly hovering over her like cruel apparitions. As if all they are is bulging eyes and devouring mouths. The nebulous black wash replacing any kind of a background makes the effect starker, as if we’re witnessing some primal sacrifice played out as a universal event.

Given his family history connection to ’The Sick Child’, this is perhaps the only work we’ve looked at were Munch is definitely not the subject. But even when defined more tightly, much of Munch features himself or fairly transparent stand-ins pushing their way into the foreground. An artist’s work may have to be about himself to some degree, but it also needs to involve us or it becomes a closed system. And this is the central question which hovers over Munch, perhaps over the whole of Expressionism, packed inside the paradox of ’The Scream’.