Friday 24 August 2018


The British Museum, London
(The latest in a series of fashionably late art exhibition reviews)

”Creation is my master.”
-Hokusai’s seal

Culture Always Flows

Were I to start this review with a comparison of the great Japanese artist Hokusai to Akira Kurosawa you might be tempted to ask whether I was dragging Yoko Ono into it as well. Kurosawa was, after all, not an artist but a film director, and one even born until more than a century after Hokusai’s death. There are in fact two reasons for this. And indeed the first is to set things up as they’ll go on. I really don’t know much about Japanese art, even less than the little I normally muster, something which should be borne in mind for what follows.

The second is less to do with let-downs. Like almost everyone else in the West, when I first got into Kurosawa’s films I excitedly imagined I’d hit on some authentic expression of Japanese culture, without really wondering how Hollywood had found him so easy to borrow from. Only now, in what Laura Cumming calls “a revelation of the show”, do I discover that he was himself influenced by Western cinema, so of course I was readily taking to him.

And now here I am finding out the same thing about Hokusai. He lived under the policy of Sakoku, an imperially decreed policy of culturalisolation, where Westernmerchants could only visit outlying islands. Yet ‘Under The Wave Off Kanagwa’ (c. 1831,above), to give his well-known Great Wave it’s actualname,not only uses a bold composition, butWesterndevices such as perspective and a naturalistic light source. Further, it’s a captured moment, the titular wave poised to crash down.Even the dominant colour, often employed by Hokusai, is Prussian Blue – as the name might suggest, literally a Western export. (And Hokusai took to this shade so much some works employed it solely.)

But as with Kurosawa, and particularly given the straitened times in which we live where petty nationalism is painted as a refuge from the big bad world, rather than mourn the absenceof any supposed ‘authenticity’ we should try to see thingsthe other way up. It shows the creative spirit to be ever-restless and always heterogeneous, always seekingout new influences and inspirations,defiant ofof barriers or boundaries.

Let’s contrast Hokusai to one of the works from Victoria and Albert’s ‘ Masterpieces of Chinese Painting’ exhibition. (Which, to my shame, I never got round to blogging about – not even late.) Let’s not try to fill in the gaps between himand Gho Zongshu’s ‘Summer Palace of Emperor Ming Huang’( below) which was made over a thousand miles away and hundreds of years earlier, or even comment on one being a painting and the other a print. Instead, let’s focus on those contrasts.

There’s not just Zongshu’s characteristic disinterest in colour to focus on. Formally, without perspective being employed, it’s mist which getsstrategically displayed over the joins. Yet there’s aworldview behind this device, just as much as there was with perspective in theWest.The work’snot just undynamic but the very opposite of dynamic – serene, harmonious. Ostensibly secular subjects thereby come to conveya religious purpose. Itconveysrealms, separate and yet linked by that mist. 

It becomes like a kind of cosmic map in microcosm, to showhow ordered the world under heaven can be. In fact, withthe V&A show, when Western perspective arrived all that seemed vital and unique about the work seemed to spill over that vanishing point. (In‘The Story of Modern Art’, Gombrich suggestspainting was then seen as purely functional in purpose, a meditational aid rather than something aesthetic.)

And look again at the Great Wave. The human figures are dwarfed, reduced to ciphers, as they mightbe in a Western Romantic work. So much so viewers don’t always spot them. You might even see themas prostrating themselves before the mighty one. And the Wave (it seems to deserve the capital letter)looks almost poised about the boat, like a cat anticipating the moment it pounces upon the mouse. As they descend, the waves almost becomegrasping fingers.The show quotes Van Gogh: “the waves are claws, the boat is caught in them, you can feel it.

Influence is normally a two-way street, and 
(jus tlike Kurosawa) having been influenced by Western art Hokusaiin turn went on to influence it right back.In 1859, a decade after his death, Japanese isolationism was brought to an end and the British Museum had bought their first of his prints as early as the nextyear. He was particularly taken up by the Impressionists and pos-Impressionists. Jason Farago possibly oversells it when he says “Without Hokusai, there might have been no Impressionism”, forImpressionism’s rise was not soley down to outside influences. There had to be a domestic impetus to make people receptive to those outside influences. But he chronicles and details the influence well.

For example ‘Ejiri In Shunga Province’ (1831, above) has a proto-Impressionist sense of verite, a moment snatched from everyday life. You can almost imagine the classic ’Beano’ sound effect “sudden gust of wind”, as the hats and papers of the peasants are borne aloft. While under the seeming simplicity and spontaneity is an accomplished composition, the curving path echoed in the side of the mountain, the upwardly jutting trees providing a cross feature.

While ‘Poppies’ (1831/2, above) shows flowers not as a merely decorative feature but a microcosm of nature, bent against wind, their edging not prettily crinkled but jagged. And, as the Van Gogh quote above shows, this view of nature as raw and powerful, somewhere in the overlap between animist and anthropomorphised, was widely taken up in the West.

Perhaps significantly, Hokusai would often visit nature to depict scenes but lived in Edo (present day Tokyo), at the time the largest city in the world. Which does start to sound like the Impressionists, boarding newly installed trains to rural stops, a Romantic nature of the mind whose frame was always urbanism. Perhaps his seeming exoticism masked deeper similarities.

At the Heart of It All...

It’s a tribute to the Great Wave that it’s so iconic. But, as the show’s title suggests, this does mean we can abstract it from its context. Let’s look at another feature the casual viewer can miss. Poking up in the background is Fuji, Japan’s tallest mountain here reduced to a stub caught between sea and wave. Add the similarity of it’s snow-covered cap to the foam-crested wave, and no wonder so many don’t see it. But it gives us a context in quite an immediate sense, for the work’s part of a series - ‘Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji’.

Hokusai himself regarded this series as pivotal. Financially, it rescued him from mounting family debts. But it’s significance was also artistic. Despite embarking upon it in his early Seventies, he essentially came to see all that had come before as mere juvenalia.

This series includes works such as ‘Sudden Rain Beneath the Summit’ (1831, above), where the emphasis is clearly on Fuji. But also ‘Fuji View Field in Owari Province’ (1831, below) Here Fuji is framed inside the workman’s barrel, but not centred, and the workman himself has his back to it. And these varying views of Fuji are very much the point.

Hokusai liked to tell the tale that, after praying to the Buddhist deity Myoken for artistic talent, he was struck by lightning.And Myoken wasassociated with the North Star, the fixed point in the sky and so the centre of the universe. Hokusai itself, the most famous of the manythe names he took,means ‘North Studio’.

And as above, so below. Fuji echoes the North Star on the earthly map. (Earlier, Hokusai had created‘Famous Places on the Tokaido Highway’, 1818, a panoramic view of Fuji dominating the locallandscape.)In mythology the Axis Mundi has a double purpose. It’s the centre of the earth, the point around which all else revolves. But that central place also makes it the connection between earthly and celestial realms.

So, in Japanese culture, was Fuji seen as the Axis Mundi? Tall mountains often are, such as the Kunluns in China. 
Signs point to yes. But don’t actually arrive there. Slightly bizarrely, the Wikipedia entry is illustrated by a photo of Fuji, but makes no mention if it in the text. The show claims Hokusai“identified with Mt Fuji as a source of long life, even immortality.” WhileSimon Schama, covering the artist in the recent ‘Civilisations’ series, described Fuji as “a talisman of immortality”, possibly meaning something closer to ‘eternal’.

Holy Men and Ghosts

But, even as we see Hokusai as someone both influenced by and influencing the West, we should also look at the ways he remains uniquely Eastern. Those outside influences must have seemed revelatory at the time, like the world had suddenly opened up. Yet their great wave never overturned his boat. Certainly, while he strove all his life to become a better and better artist (hoping to live to a hundred in order to “be without equal”) he doesn’t seem to have separated artistic endeavours from Buddhist enlightenment.

As such, his art doesn’t seem particularly concerned with self-expression. There are a few self-portraits, but the work isn’t one extended self-portrait the way it was with, say, Gauguin or Picasso. Nor does he seem keen to develop a personalised signature style, as if he’d rather be everywhere doing everything. And on the subject of signatures he changed his name over thirty times, something it’s hard to imagine a Western artist doing. They reflected changes in his art, and may even be suggestive of reincarnation – the idea that existence is at root a learning process.

And this variation gave him elbow room. As the show points out: “the boundary between this and the worlds he imagined was often porous. As old age advanced, Hokusai regularly painted holy men, protective deities and terrifying ghosts, invoking and releasing their power through the force of his art.”

’Ono Waterfall, Kiso Highway’ (c. 1833) is so accurate a depiction the show asserts he must have visited the scene, en plein air like the Impressionists. Yet the way the waterfall spans the depth of the work, and the way the mountains to the right disappear into some very traditional mist, suggests the idealised spiritual maps of Zongshu. The water is depicted through alternating white and blue lines, a device echoed in the stream on the lower right, suggesting what’s being depicted is the symbol of water rather than the runny stuff itself. Finally, the bridge over the stream is one of many bridges in Hokusai’s works, which may have stood for the connections between the different realms.

’Poet Li Bo’ (1833/4, above) is if anything more traditional, the waterfall less realist and more dominant. The poet is physically separated from the waterfall, yet the protrusions of both rocky outcrops work against this. In particular, his long dangling sleeve seems an echo of the craggy rock above him.

And if they’re the holy men here’s the ghost… Hokusai had begun is career effectively illustrating pulp adventures, and this spirit never quite left him. ’Kohada Koheiji’ (1833, above) is based on a traditional story of a murdered husband whose spirit returns to confront his wife. Perhaps assuming the viewer will know this story, Hokusai removes the wife to concentrate on the confronting ghost. (Though contemporary viewers may have recognised the thing he pulls down as as mosquito net.) It’s his grimacing expression that makes the work, as if he’s tauntingly calling “darling, I’m ho-o-ome!” With this image, I think you might agree, there’s no great overlap with Monet. However, it’s strangely prescient of the black humour of the later EC comics.

This is, it should be agreed an inadequate overview of Hokusai. Not least, while his medium was prints, it mentions this only in order to not mention it. It takes him too much at his own word in skating over his early years. It's references to 'Eastern' art are not exactly unpacked. And much else. But perhaps overviews are doomed to be inadequate, he was so prolific, so varied and so ceaselessly inventive there’s no real capturing him. Creation was his master.

Saturday 18 August 2018


The latest in a series of not-a-proper-review-at-all

Beyond beyond

Some seven years after I last looked into a Mark Fisher book, 
and two years after he actually wrote ’The Weird and the Eerie’, I am yet again confirming my status as the internet's latecomer. But it’s okay because I am, I confess upfront, using Fisher’s book as a jumping-off point rather than offering a ‘proper’ review.

Fisher’s method is to explore the distinctions between the Weird and the Eerie through a series of examples. For convenience’s sake, let’s assume they’re both subsections (or, in Fisher’s terminology, ‘modes’) of the Uncanny.

If I were to reduce the Weird to a phrase it would the one used in the invocation of a genie in ’The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad’ (1958) - “from the land beyond beyond”. Or if an image, there’s a Doctor Strange panel I remember as a child, where the dread Dormammu was literally tearing his way into our reality. It wasn’t the sky which he ripped apart, which wouldn’t be so different to an arriving alien fleet, it was everything - air, earth, matter, the entire scene. He had been outside of our reality, and now here he was stepping inside it.

Except there’s two problems here. First, I… sotto voice… completely failed to find that image anywhere. (There’s a vaguely similar one above.) Second, there’s a central element to the Weird it leaves implicit. If there’s always the rip, the threshold torn open between dimensions, it has a paradoxical purpose. It disrupts out reality, but it exposes us to a higher reality. It’s impossible but also inevitable.

Imagine a child at night, sensing some monstrous creature in his room and pulling the covers over his head. A sheet will be no protection from such a beast, but in that moment the gesture makes him feel better. Now imagine a bigger sheet, a shared one we have wrapped right round ourselves, one generation after generation have lived their lives under. We’ve even written reassuring-sounding explanations upon it that there can be no such thing as monsters, not in this world. And we have explored from one end of that sheet to the other. It’s worked quite well, we’ve become our own reassuring parent to our own troubled child, singing ourselves to sleep.

But it’s never really worked. When we encounter the Weird we’re struck by dread. But also resignation. Like the child, in our hearts we knew… we always knew that sheet was only there to make us temporarily feel better. As Fisher says: “The weird thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.”

And it’s this combination that counts - the threshold, and the sense that the Weird however arresting or unexpected is not wrong. Fisher starts his book with Lovecraft, clearly the exemplifier of the Weird par excellence, but then moves onto something which looks and feels very different - the HG Wells story ’The Door in the Wall.’

This door leads to quite a different world to Lovecraft’s dark and destructive forces. This time there’s an idyllic garden making up an idealised world, where pictures in a book are not of things but the things themselves. (A language where, in Semiotic terms, the signifier is not separate from the signified, is often used as a metaphor for the absence of alienation. Language simply connects us to things, rather than abstracting them from us.) It’s the difference between the mundane and the experiential, between being alive and living.

But can these two really be filed together, Lovecraft’s malevolent nether worlds and Wells’ bucolic paradise? Or is Fisher simply shoving together anything outside the narrow norms of social realism? (The widespread assumption there’s Proper Writing and That Other Thing.) The short answer is yes they can, and Fisher is smartly using his first two examples to mark out the parameters of the Weird.

But for the story to have any impact we need to feel two things - that this strange world is the world, that it’s us who have somehow stumbled into the wrong place, and now our task is to get back. And readers must recognise the place, not just as a literary trope, but (perhaps in a less literal sense) in themselves. They must feel the protagonist’s sense (“this place is inexplicably strange to me, and yet I know I belong here”), while knowing from the outset they’re only ever going to get glimpses of that world.

In fact it’s quite similar to Van Morrison’s song ’Madame George’, the only significant difference being Morrison reflects on an Arcadian time rather than a place. If Wells’ tale is summed up by the door that sometimes opens, with Morrison it’s one that definitely closes. Morrison needs no Weird motifs because his song is about memory, his place is somewhere he can see but not access.

It’s We Who Are Outside

And if the Weird is dependent on a juxtaposition, with the Eerie it’s a disjunction. (Fisher describes it as “constituted by a failure of absence or a failure of presence”.) So with our default Eerie example, Paul Nash’s ‘The Shore’ (1923, above), this time its effect is drawn precisely from its depiction being so consistent. 

There’s nothing you could point out as unfamiliar. Yet this isn’t the charming English seaside we feel we could step into, warm sand between our toes. In fact, if there is a thing that doesn’t fit here, it’s us. There’s the sense that even if this wasn’t a painting, even if the scene was really there in front of us, we’d be just as distanced from it. If conveys a feeling of alienation close to exile.

Except, again, there’s a deficiency in using this as our identifying image. With the Weird’s insistence on an incongruous presence, there’s a natural tendency to focus on one half of the Eerie, to see it as all about haunting absence, the withholding of something. (Fisher uses the metaphor of the curtain you can’t pull back.) But that would be too limited. The Eerie’s not the opposite of the Weird, their relationship is more like siblings. Nash himself often painted Eerie presence he found in his home landscape. This is what I said after his recent Tate Britain retrospective:

“When you come across a megalith or longbarrow on the landscape it just calmly sits there, seeing no reason to explain itself. It can even seem as though it's you who is the interloper. And it's mystery seems magnified by it's misshapenness. Classical columns seem to manifest the universal rules of geometry, just as they're connected to a language we can decipher. And so their strangeness becomes in itself strange to us. This should be our home turf, the most recognisable thing, and yet it’s impervious to our understanding.

”Inevitably we come to see these things as outside ourselves, a puzzle to be solved with measuring tape and aerial photographs. Yet there's the nagging sense the answer is within us, one of those things we seem to know but cannot quite recall.”

"The Thing Overwhelms"

Fisher refers to dictionary definitions of both words but only in passing, seeing them as perfunctory and inadequate. His insistence on the term ‘modes’ may be because he’s keen on opening up broad categories, rather than proscribing rigid systems. (He specifically rejects ‘genres’.) And it would be strange in itself to build rigid parameters around such a term, when even the casual use of “weird” has connotations of inexplicability.

And his counsel is wise because this reductive reaction is retained in us, the fans of these genres. Even as we reach towards the Uncanny we’re predisposed to try and explain it away. Fisher is always cautioning us against rushing to explanations, but he’s at his most pointed over Lynch’s ‘Mulholland Drive’:

“…we are compelled to treat it as a solvable enigma, to overlook its ‘wrongness’, its intractability, in the same way that, in Club Silencio, we are compelled to overlook the illusory nature of the performances.”

Or, as he says elsewhere over Lovecraft:

“The Thing overwhelms, it cannot be contained, but its fascinates.”

All those YouTube videos which glibly promise some film or other will be ‘explained’ in less than ten minutes… They’re presumably made by fans of the Uncanny, or at the very least by people who paid for their own cinema tickets. But ironically they become the equivalent to that stock film character who insists there must be a ”rational” (ie banal) explanation. The one whose killjoy insistence usually gets him killed.

We go to see a film like ‘Mulholland Drive’ precisely because we want to experience the Uncanny, but once that’s taste’s on our tongue we immediately try to counteract it with something more bland. We’re like the fool who goes looking for a fight, but as soon as it starts shies away. We don’t want to get what we want, we just want to want it. Worse, sometimes the work itself comes audience-ready, created just to be “explained”, in which case there was never anything Uncanny there to be begin with. (I’ve not seen the film Jack Graham reviews here, but his comments ring true in general.)

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with theorising from films. Fisher himself does this continually. And, for example, his reading of the ending of ‘Under The Skin’, with it’s reflection on varying notions of the self, is compelling. But theorising is a different creature to explaining, just as to explore is not to delineate. We have the phrase “explain away”. No-one has ever theorised anything away.

New Times, New Monsters

But the real problem with dictionary definitions is that they’re concerned with etymology. They don’t necessarily find the meaning of a word in it’s origins, but they assume there’s some core concept which has been retained over time, even if it’s outer form has changed.

The Weird’s original definition (usually, if inadequately, reduced to fate) implied not a thing outside our world but a thread that ran through all worlds. (Ironically, Alan Garner, who Fisher files with the Eerie, exemplifies this original conception of the term quite closely.) Whereas in the sense Fisher uses them, they’re not even recent concepts so much as modern, even if they appropriate old words. All his examples are Twentieth century or later.

All the time people believed in the literal existence of Heaven and Hell (themselves adaptations of the original Upperworld and Underworld visited by shamans) any conception of the Weird as we use it now was held at bay. Both places might be fantastical in nature but they were places, connected to our world. They could be visited, and they were, by Dante and others. (‘The Divine Comedy’ is not intended to be taken as a true account, but it is structured as a travelogue.)

In short, we need the explored world in order to have the beyond. It’s the sheet we hold up before us. The Weird is dependent upon the supposition that all is delineated, in order to violate it. The Eerie is dependent upon the supposition that all is known, in order to upend it. The “eerie cry” of the bird (a common dictionary example picked up by Fisher) works because we have ornithology, our studies should by now have given us an understanding of birds’ actions.

But space counts as much as time. In my examples above, the first my mind went to, the Weird is American and the Eerie British. And of Fisher’s seven weird examples, four are from America. Whereas of his twelve examples of the Eerie, nine are European. And he stresses how Daphne du Maurier’s original novel ‘The Birds’ differed from the later film. (“Instead of a sunlit Californian setting, we find ourselves in a grey and tempestuous Cornwall”.) And, anecdotal evidence only, but I think my own preference is for the Eerie.

(The tricky cases are the Canadian Margaret Atwood and the Australian Joan Lindsay. The latter’s ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ has Australian characters but what the story is about is displaced Europeans, clinging to old customs in the new and unfamiliar landscape.)

ST Joshi suggests that the greater dominance of Puritanism in American culture led to social realism becoming the primary literary mode. It’s not just that fantastical literature is seen as silly or juvenile, social realism is held to be morally instructive – the stuff that’s good for you. So in America fantastical fiction in general was most marginalised - into pulp magazines. But, at least in part, Weird fiction needs that repression and marginalisation. Fisher recounts how Lovecraft and Lindsay don’t reject social realism so much as utilise it in order to subvert it. But there’s a wider point. There’s no return of the repressed without the repression.

Fisher refers to the human-as-scale device: ”Lovecraft needs the human world, for much the same reason that a painter of a vast edifice might insert a standard human figure standing before it: to provide a sense of scale.” And of course that’s a common Romantic motif, used to convey the Sublime. And if the Uncanny is modern, then the art movement Modernism drew a surprising amount from Romanticism.

Formally, the distinction is clear cut. The Romantic concerns itself with the natural world, whereas the Weird is always about the outside and beyond. But in practice things are slipperier. In Romanticism nature very often is depicted as outside - the forest outside the village, the mountain beyond the town and so on. Moreover, its depiction of nature often borders on the animist, nature is seen as having a presence. More importantly, as mentioned earlier, the arrival of the Weird is seen as inexorable - we always knew it would end like this. And this is the real connection. Like Nature in the Sublime, it’s where we really belong, even if it destroys us.

Hence, while Nash was a Modernist artist, associating with Surrealism, he also had a post-Romantic fascination for the English landscape. And the animism of objects, in both Kneale and Garner, is clearly indebted to the Romantic.

And (to use another of Fisher’s examples) Tarkovsky’s ’Solaris’ is virtually pantheistic. The titular planet isn’t just sentient but inscrutable, as much so as any God. It’s there to tell humans things about themselves, even if they have trouble deciphering it’s mysterious ways. Perhaps, symbolically speaking, it is the Earth. The humans observe it from their satellite, through their instruments and devices, having (as one character puts it) “lost our sense of the cosmic. The ancients understood it perfectly.”

So the Weird is in many ways an upping of the ante on the Sublime. But that upping is important. Fisher describes the Weird as “exorbitant,” which seems a stronger word than “more”. Sometimes a difference can becomes so quantitive that it tips over into qualitative. Turner’s sea storms look like they could smash you to pieces, even if you think you’re clever. But Cthulhu can obliterate your mind simply by showing up.

Are Alternative Facts Uncanny?

And if the Uncanny is associated with the modern, Fisher’s book may even be timely for its importance may be increasing. The dystopia of a film like ‘THX 1138’, - where everything is in order and that’s precisely the problem, all so right it’s wrong - now seems like yesterday’s problem.

And the face of the resurgent far right, somewhat less aesthetic than Dr. Strange or Paul Nash, is of course Donald Trump. Of course the Orange Aboherrence himself is not even a boorish Cthulhu, his bozo inarticulacy and tiny grasping hands are merely a synecdoche of the banality of evil. (And we should never forget his victory was brought about through the American political system, rather than the American electorate.) But he still spearheads something.

And that something isn’t dystopian, at least not in the strict sense of an anti-utopia. Trump and his “good people” seem to have no plan beyond sewing disorder that will hopefully hit their enemies harder than them. That’s why Mark Hamill reading Trump’s tweets in his Joker voice worked so well, he’s more devil clown than despot.

In my recent piece on the Tate’s exhibition of Russian Revolutionary prints, 
to describe the first failed Revolution of 1905 I used Gramsci’s quote “now is the time of monsters”. And it often feels like we are living through another time of monsters. Though our times would better be described by Goya’s “the sleep of reason produces monsters”. The unnatural (zombie outbreaks and other apocalyptic events) seems the natural way for us to describe our era to ourselves. We distract ourselves from our impending destruction by watching big, spectacular movies which show us our destruction, and we even comment on it to ourselves as we do it.

That old internet quandary, of how to debate against weaponised stupidity, now seems all-prevalent. In fact reason can seem to be the wrong implement in analysing what’s going on in the world today, which is so manifestly devoid of reason. It would be like trying to analyse water by pinning it down. You literally can’t make sense of the far right because it doesn’t, it’s incoherent to it’s core. Whereas to see it through the prism of the Uncanny, that might prove more helpful.

Let’s try to find an example. In an earlier piece on the history of Science Fiction 
I focused on the image of the skeleton in the space suit, which in retrospect I interpreted too narrowly. I was thinking of some cross between Cronos devouring his own offspring and a parasite hollowing out its host from within - so what we end up with is a skeleton where there should be an adventurous astronaut.

And what we see may well be the Gothic wearing the skin of Science Fiction. But that skin is still important! Even in that image, the space suit is still integral. On the outside is not the same as marginal.

The far right, will often straight-out mock rationalism in it’s foes. Smart people, they’re not real people. (As in Michael Gove’s infamous phrase “people have had enough of experts.”) And the basis of its appeal of course lies in offering an ersatz sense of belonging, which is at the very least orthogonal to an appeal to reason. 

But, despite its frequent appeals to history (of course nothing more than hanging up fake heraldry), it’s a modern phenomenon. So, while always feeling free to contradict itself, it will often affect rationalism. It’s fundamentally irrational, but not formally anti-rational. Just as the far right venerates order while practising disorder, it venerates rationalism while speaking in gibberish.

This allows its adherents the luxury of succumbing to their basest instincts while maintaining a veneer of reason. You can indulge your heart (or perhaps more accurately your spleen), while pretending to keep your head. This is why we have ”alternative facts’”, which are in essence facts still clung to even after they’ve been proven false, because they only ever had to look like facts. (It’s not a coincidence that alt.right leaders are almost entirely very stupid people very convinced they’re very smart.)

And if I say there’s some parallel between the skeleton in a spacesuit and the alt.right’s pseudo-rationalism, I’m not claiming the image to be far right in itself, nor it to be a critique of the far right. It’s highly unlikely any of this entered the head of its creator. I’m just saying it’s zeitgeisty, a cultural barometer, and it had to be because it composed itself out of ingredients it found around itself. Consequently, it can be made into a way of framing something which might be useful to us.

Saturday 11 August 2018


Photos taken during the recent Fort Process Dispersion at the De La Warr Pavilion. A day which, as said at the time, could even get you buying into that whole "English Riviera" thing. As ever, full set on 500px.

Friday 3 August 2018


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

”Pop Art is: Popular (designed for the mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big Business”
- Richard Hamilton

”Stretched Beyond the Fine Art Limits”

By separating out the Eduardo Paolozzi sections of this exhibition into a separate post I’ve raised an inevitable question - was there much of a British Pop art scene without the star player? Initial signs, in fact, are good. The Independent Group only really existed form three years (1952/5), but among it’s members were not just Paolozzi but Nigel Henderson and Richard Hamilton – both on show here.

Henderson’s ‘Screen’ (1949-52, above) manipulates some of its images (for example the face at the top left of the third panel), but mostly it works by juxtaposing quite intact images – it’s only when they are placed alongside one another that it becomes a collage. In this way it recalls a thumbed magazine or an evening’s TV viewing, their accumulation of images rearranged into space.

The flat screen also provides a space where, as the show puts it “fine art and popular culture, kitsch and technology, intermingle on equal terms” - the colloquial level playing field. For example, half-way up the second panel is a classical nude, while occupying a similar position in the third is a topless pin-up girl. This levelling may be something with which the internet generation have become overly familiar, but would have been quite striking at the time.

Though documentaries on the era always focus on hemlines, haircuts and recreational drug consumption, the most significant change of the Sixties was the blurring of once-rigid class divisions. How much of that was a real shift and how much a media storm is open to argument. The inevitable answer would be a bit of both, followed by a pedantic debate about the degrees. But that needn’t concern us here. Look for example at the incorporation of ‘regional’ accents on the BBC, which at the time seemed something of a barometer. Henderson’s Screen does a similar thing with images.

While Hamilton’s screenprint ’Adonis in Y-Fronts’ (1963, above) employs bold, simple, striking graphics, a look more associated with Pop than the information overload of Paolozzi and Hamilton. Further, it not only mixes high and low in its witty title but combines different sign systems, the photo-printing of the figure combined with the solid blocks of colour of the dumb-bell.

It’s not that we now see Coca-Cola cans more often than Classical sculpture, even though we do. It’s that even when we do see Classical sculpture, it’s normally via a media image. At the time the Reithean ethos of the BBC insisted on a dose of nourishing high culture amid the popular entertainment, so it would intersperse the two. Which ironically only exacerbated the levelling effect in the long run.

And this, we should remember, is something Modernism had often willed on. It saw the mass media’s dissemination of images as a way of democratising art, of toppling it from its elevated pedestal. This had been spelt out by Walter Benjamin back in 1935. 

And by this point it seemed that his John the Baptist prophecies had come true, heralded a saviour who had finally shown up. Lawrence Alloway, himself a member of the Independent Group and deviser of the not-quite-there term “mass popular art” wrote the 1958 essay ’The Arts and the Mass Media’, which often feels like a sequel...

“...the elite, accustomed to set aesthetic standards, has found that it no longer possesses the power to dominate all aspects of art. It is in this situation that we need to consider the arts of the Mass Media. It is impossible to see them clearly within a code of aesthetics associated with minorities, with pastoral and upper-class ideas because mass art is urban and democratic… The popular arts of our industrial civilization are geared to technical changes which occur, not gradually, but violently and experimentally...”

“...our definition of culture is being stretched beyond the fine art limits imposed on it by Renaissance theory, and refers now, increasingly, to the whole complex of human activities. Within this definition, rejection of the mass produced arts is not, as critics think, a defence of culturebut an attack on it. The new role for the academic is keeper of the flame; the new role for the fine arts is to be one of the possible forms of communication in an expanding framework that also includes the mass arts.”

Alas, we see little of Henderson from that point on. (From what little I know of him, he combined Dadaist photomontages with documentary photos of London’s East End, which suggests I’d prefer him of the two.) While Hamilton, from the evidence here, mostly took to mixed media work combining screenprints, collage and relief. His ’Hers is a Lush Situation’ (1958, above), is based on car ads - taking its title from a line of copy.

It’s often commented that if art is going to be merely imitative of Coca Cola cans you might as well just look at Coca Cola cans, which aren’t that hard to come by. But here, much like the Futurists never merely transcribed the city, Hamilton doesn’t show a car but captures it’s contour lines (it’s not clear from the illo, but they’re in relief), focusing on the same aspects of a car as an advert would. And the resultant work seems as influenced by the more abstract end of Surrealism as by advertising art. He then dots the works with collage elements (free-floating lips, a building), adding to the subjective sense of objects which whizz past your sight as you drive.

Post-war planning involved… well, planning, New Towns designed from scratch. So a collage approach to the urban environment, throwing various elements in against one another, vied with this. Eric M Stryker comments:

“In Alloway’s writing, two technologies embodied this new media ideology: the CinemaScope screen, with its dramatic expansion of the field of vision, and the windshield of an American car, which provided a panoramic view of the city. Both the windscreen and the movie screen were, according to Alloway, communication devices through which images of the city are formed and transmitted. The popular audience who receives these images is locked in an interactive loop with the realities constructed both in the movies and in the city itself…. The public environment and media environment are treated as parallel systems.”

Hamilton’s ’Swingeing London’ (1967, above) is based on a newspaper photo of Mick Jagger’s infamous arrest for drug possession, the title a pun on the extra-strong arm of the law. (The other figure, the gallery informs us, was Hamilton’s art dealer, Robert Frazer. Furtherproof that Swinging London actually comprised about twelve people.) There seem to be multiple versions of this, as was common practice in Pop. But this is probably the best, with Hamilton working the chassis of the car and window into relief.

Much like ’Adonis in Y-Fronts’ two sign systems thereby collide. The image, typically for Pop, is ‘fast’, immediate, picked up in a second’s scanning. But Hamilton then semi-obscures it from us, building on the blocking hands by creating a second block in relief between us and the print. While of course the work is all about a collision of systems, the swinging and swingeing Londons at war with one another.

Is RB Kitaj an unlikely artist to crop up in a Pop art show? The notion’s confirmed before you’ve even entered the gallery. The corridor outside is devoted to some of Snowdon’s photo-portraits. While Paolozzi is shown working, not facing the camera, the others pose quasi-casually, looking into the lens with practised ease, media stars in their habitat. Whereas a black and white shot of Kitaj (above) shows him in existentialist black amid a wintry garden, at a slight distance, not acknowledging the camera. It could be a portrait of an Expressionist, certainly not someone making readily accessible work.

While in the Pallant House magazine (no. 44) MJ Lang recalls attending a lecture of his which was “dense; composed word by word… impenetrable – too full of ideas to absorb one before the next arrived.” Which sounds some way from Paolozzi’s whizzy slideshow. In fact he even named the movement he did belong in, the School of London, and can be seen in their company at the Tate Britain’s current 'All Too Human’ 
exhibition. (Not a show I’ve seen yet, but I intend to.)

The show effectively acknowledges he wasn’t a Pop artist so much as an influence on later generations through his use of found imagery. His collages are frankly inferior to his paintings, from the examples here. But his screenprints, such as the series ‘Mahler Becomes Politics, Beisbol’ (1964/7) are more interesting.

They’re produced by Kelpra Studios, the same as Paolozzi, but are unlike both his sprawling curves and more like Rauschenberg’s overlaps and recursions. In fact they’re unusually neat, setting elements inside their own frames. See for example ‘The Cultural Value of Fear, Distrust and Hypochondria’ above. ’The Gay Science’ even includes a visual gag where one such frame becomes an open window. While Pop art uses sensory assault, these look planned and purposeful.

Art Amid Happenings (The Sixties Swing)

Most artists here left paint behind for collage, where existing images are kidnapped, turned and released back into the gene pool, and screenprints – a medium at a point where ‘art’ and mass production meet. Peter Blake, notably, sticks with paint. And it shows.

’Boy With Paintings’ (1957/9) has a Poppy Hamiltonesque title, with the ‘paintings’ referring to the tin badges the boy sports. This was a common trope of Blake’s, where he’d depict images within images and frames within frames. (Such as the actual Beatles standing with wax models and cut-out figures on his well-known ’Sgt. Pepper’ cover.) But painting the badges, not pinning them onto the frame, turns them into paint and takes away their vibrancy. The title’s doubly ironic, for paintings is what they become.

Blake sometimes looks, in a technical sense, a straightforwardly bad painter. But at times he’s able to work that, to magnify the ‘wrongness’ of paint as a medium until it worked for him. Certainly, he always painted on board, as if to emphasise all that. His paintings have a flattened effect which makes them look naive, like the votive offerings of folk cultures reapplied to media stars. His ’Irish Lord X’ (1962, above), of a star wrestler, even has one eye scratched out, as if it had been fly-posted and subject to wear and tear. While the fairground-style calligraphy is in an interchange between hand-drawn and mass-produced.

Pop music of this era made an apparent fracture into an interplay, nostalgically venerating the past eras it was supposedly overwriting, reaching greater sophistication while evoking childhood innocence and simplicity. Yet there’s very little here to match, say, the Kinks’ ’Village Green Preservation Society’ or the Beatles’ ’Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’. It may well only appear with Blake, the Beatles’ best-known cover artist.

And yet there are pleasant surprises. David Hockney now seems to have made the leap from bright young thing to national treasure while bypassing the being-any-good bit. However a couple of early etchings on show here, such as ’Edward Lear’ (1964, above) do have their appeal. They evoke the side of the Surrealists most commonly overlooked, their automatism, their sense of images tumbling out and being caught on paper just as they appear, overlapping and overlaid.

But mostly a pattern emerges. Joe Tilson’s ’1-5 The Senses’ (mixed media, 1963, above) may be typical. Five paintings, each reproducing one of the senses with rather gormless literalism, are grouped and then covered by numbered shutters. The show tells us this “implies a sense of participatory play, and a celebration of the possibilities of freedom in a non-hierarchical society.”

All of which may work better the other way up. With the only game you can play with those shutters being peep-oh, there’s merely the appearance of any meaningful choice. Which seems a pretty good metaphor for a packaged world where a series of prepared channels are pushed at you.

Overall, the later Sixties generation of British Pop artists seem as vacuous and disposable as their American brethren. While seeing so few Henderson’s was a combination of frustrating and appetite-whetting, seeing repeat instances of Patrick Caulfield’s bold outline paintings just confirms how one-trick they are. And Mark Lancaster’s blocks of colour in ’Cambridge Red and Green’ (1968) just looks like something to take a selfie in front of, even if the technology didn’t then exist. Which may be the most telling thing of all…

Seeing these from the vantage point of hindsight, it’s clear enough that Benjamin and Alloways’ bold pronouncements was at best over-optimistic. The mass media did not provide the cultural cure-all that was hoped for. In fact, this all now seems exactly where art went wrong. Sixties Pop is always forward-looking, and in all the wrong ways. I commented another time that Nineties Brit Art “marked the inevitable degradation from artist as individual genius to artist as celebrity”. All of that seems to start here. Pop may be the point where art decided to slide down that slope.

Hindsight is perhaps kryptonite to this show. In ’Baby Baby Wild Things’ (1968) Gerald Laing uses Brigitte Bardot as a poster girl of sexual liberation, someone who later espoused the most vile anti-immigrant rhetoric. While part of Claes Oldenburg's ’London Knees’ (1966-8), a mixed media work on the (no pun intended) rise of the mini-skirt, collages in a woman’s now-visible knees as if they were a tall building by the Thames. Just where we now see clusters of branded buildings in gimmicky shapes, as if to persuade us what fun corporations really are.

But why should this be? For the past century, visual art had been at the forefront of Modernism. To the point where people take it for Modernism, and are surprised to hear it existed in other media. While the Sixties were such a cultural firmament and hotbed of creativity in just about every other aspect. Why should art be the odd one out? Why should it produce so much great pop music and so much trite Pop art?

Partly, visual art was inherently too contemplative, and therefore too slow, not immediate or portable enough for the times. The era’s best summed up by 
the scene in Godard’s ‘Bande a Part’ (1964, still below) where the young characters race through the Louvre in record time, dodging stodgy security guards.

Art’s only solution seemed to be to try and come up with works which could still be caught by those youngsters in mid-dash. It became like an old timer trying to change his ways to keep up with the kids, desperate to convince them that he was (to return to Hamilton’s quote) young, witty, sexy and glamorous. And of course when you try that all you manage to do is lose what you had. From Hamilton’s list, all it really maintained was ‘gimmicky’ and ‘easily forgotten’. When there was no longer any reason to linger in the galleries, there was no longer any reason to visit them in the first place. As the Sixties swung visual art dangled.

None of the Blake works on show here come anywhere close to challenging his ’Sgt. Pepper’ cover, despite him being one of the better artists. While, though there are those of us who like Hamilton’s ’White Album’, he’s not defined by it in the same way. And yet the same is true for Warhol, ’The Velvet Underground and Nico’, being far better than any of his screenprints. Blake and Warhol worked best, not when they tried to combine the art world with commercial design, but when they left one behind for the other.

Art After Vietnam?

While, at the other end of the equation… It’s become commonplace to compare the Sixties to the Twenties. And the art movements in both decades which had the most bite were anti-art movements. This was covered (more or less) in my write-up of the Tate’s ‘Conceptual Art In Britain’ show, with it’s Joseph Josuth quote: “Being an artist now means to question the nature of art.”

Take the way both rebelled against the previous big thing in art, Abstract Expressionism. Which to Pop art was like mighty but lumbering symphonies, to be countered with catchy singles in colourful sleeves. While to Conceptualism and to Fluxus, it was something not to be opposed but destroyed, with the most flamboyant and incendiary gestures. One was just so much more thorough, more thrilling than the other.

But did Pop develop its own politics? The show tells us “Pop materialised as a resistance movement, youthful in energy and spirit.” Youthful yes, but resistance? Yet as the Sixties went on they slowly started to resemble the way people remember them. As Vietnam became a bigger and bigger issue, anti-war attitudes precipitated, or at least became emblematic of, a general critique of society. The time for celebrating America, however distanced or ironic, seemed over. 

(Though arguably when we stopped taking of cues from American mass culture we just swapped for its counter-culture; we stopped dreaming of Twinkie bars and started listening to the Jefferson Airplane.)

The alert reader of these two posts will already have noticed the prevalence of pin-up girls and the shortage of female artists. And the reader trying to skim through them in the fastest time possible, they’ll have noticed the same thing. As part of the afore-mentioned ’London Knees’, Oldenberg includes the text “revolutionary this paradoxical combination of masculine voyeurism and female liberation seemed in it’s time”. A statement we may be… ahem!.. a little more skeptical of today. Was any of this challenged then? Alas, from the evidence here, no. The show raises the question to big up Jann Haworth. But her art’s as forgettably gimmicky as all around her.

And it’s true some of the more politicised art does merely mirror image Sixties Pop art, setting up the cliches for successive generations. Colin Self’s photomontage ’Woman, Rocket, Lolly’, a comparison of an avidly consumed lolly to a rocket tries to bend Pop art in another direction, but the reading’s so obvious it just breaks instead. The bad anarcho-punk albums of my youth always had hackneyed pictures like that on their covers, which at least forewarned how self-righteously unlistenable the music was.

More interesting is ’Bela Lugosi Journal’, (1969, above) a screenprint where Joe Tilson ups his game considerably from ’1-5 The Senses’. With it’s dark reverse-image look and night-for-day name, against all the bright screenprint colours of earlier it works like a negative to the daily newspaper. It actually sticks to the rules of those laid-out gridlines, even though the overlay of images makes it look chaotic. Down the left column is a sequence where a monkey bares it’s teeth. The accompanying text informs us “the gesture is meant to demonstrate a lack of hostility”, not entirely reassuringly.

His ’Letter From Che’ (above), another screenprint from the same year, is quite reminiscent of Rauschenberg, even to the point of hanging physical objects from the work. Two crumpled photos of the dying revolutionary are contrasted with two much larger and successively more abstracted Ben-Day images, taken from a close-up of the first photo.

It’s perhaps indicative of the Sixties phrase revolt into style. To Christians, Jesus’ immortality was confirmed by the whole Son-of-God thing. In the Thirties ballad ’I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night’, the inference is that Hill could never truly die while the class struggle goes on. (Guevara himself, asked shortly before being shot if he was thinking of his immortality, replied "I'm thinking about the immortality of the revolution.") While here Pop art seems to reassert itself, with mass reproduction being your elixir – what’s immortal now is the image.

And if this screenprint seems part of the transition of Che from revolutionary icon to advertising brand, the screenprint next to it, from the following year, is a similarly iconic tribute to Ho Chi Minh. The widespread uncritical cheerleading of the Viet Cong now seems to us symptomatic of the degree to which Sixties protest was hopelessly uncritical, chasing thrilling-seeming images while chanting daring slogans, the moment of truth in the conservative critique it was well-off kids playing at revolution. 

In his retrospective of the decade, ‘A Grin Without a Cat’, radical film-maker Chris Marker concluded it had been “a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat”. These two images illustrate both clauses quite effectively.

Best of these images is Derek Boshier’s screenprint ’Sex War Sex Cars Sex’ (1968, above). Rather than abstracting an image like Lichtenstein, Boshier creates a whole comic strip, and so his juxtaposition ofimages is initially disguised.We expect a comics page to tell a coherent story, even if it uses cinematic devices such as cross-cutting.Whilehere even the genres are deliberatelymixed –war, crime, romance and superhero thrown together.

This also allows him to develop an argument in a fragmentary fashion. (“If we want to win the war in Asia, we should bomb them with Cadillacs”.) Of course he’s copying the French Situationist device of ‘detournement’, appropriating mass cultureimages and turning them towards his own purpose. But then the idea was to steal in the first place…

The impact, the oomph of the four-colour comic strip is acknowledged. But it’s not the subject of the artwork, as it was in earlier works. It’s more a force that needs appropriating, a magic power objectwhich we need to graspand twist. For over a century radical politics had focused on what Marx called ‘the means of production’. The Sixties came to focus on the means of dissemination as an equally powerful, shaping force.

Writing in the Telegraph, Alistair Sooke comments: 

“The curious thing about the Pallant House exhibition… is that, by the end, you may feel confused about what British Pop Art really was. Indeed, on the evidence presented here, the ‘movement’ was an infinitely various phenomenon, characterised by artists with different, even conflicting agendas, interests and predilections, all producing work in a startling range of materials and styles.”

Is that a criticism? Sounds like a strength to me. Certainly, if that’s your problem with Pop you’re going to have trouble with pretty much every art movement in history. Much of the appeal of art is that it’s a space where we don’t need things to be neat, where we can embrace the messiness of life. And the Sixties were themselves convulsive and downright riotous, even if subsequent attempts have been made to confine them inside theme park nostalgia.

It’s perhaps too easy to dismiss Pop art, to deride its practitioners as opportunists who made photo-op paintings of bubble gum wrappers while others marched against Vietnam. But that was only ever one aspect of it. These last two posts have hopefully been a little more nuanced, but are doubtless still too schematic. There’ll be more to this than generational succession. Sometimes Pop genuinely fizzed, at others it merely frothed and at others still it fell flat. There’s really not much more to say than that.