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Saturday, 24 August 2019

‘ALL TOO HUMAN (BACON, FREUD AND A CENTURY OF PAINTING LIFE)’ 2: KOSSOFF, AUERBACH, KITAJ + SOUZA

Tate Britain, London

(Continuing our look at Britain’s post-war revival of Expressionism. For the first part, looking at precursors Sickert and Spencer, then prime proponents Freud and Bacon, click here.)


London Achurn

If Freud and Bacon’s work was dominated by the human figure, Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach both went in for urban scenes. If that seems a break, there’s one point of continuity. Both Freud and Bacon repeatedly worked with the same models, while Kossoff and Auerbach returned to their home city. Kossoff was born in London, in 1926, and (barring national service) lived there his whole life. Auerbach, originally German, moved there at age seventeen. In fact even to talk of London is too wide, each focused chiefly on his home neighbourhood.

David Bomberg was tutor to and a great influence on both. He painted blitzed London only once, in 'Evening In the City Of London’ (1944). But its imprint is all over his pupils. However, it was more impetus for them as guiding star.

Its London is ghostly, fading out like Brigadoon. While their era was a time of quite rapid development, Parliament’s own website acknowledging “the demolition of listed buildings… continued almost unchecked in the 1950s and 1960s until rigorous new planning procedures were laid down in the Planning Act of 1968.” There’s a possibly apocryphal story than no map of New York is ever accurate, development being so fast and so perpetual. London at that time must have felt similar.

So their London is monumental but at the same time turbulent, ceaselessly overwriting itself. The buildings around you are facts on the ground, landmarks to navigate around. Yet any one of them can at any time be smashed down to pieces, and replaced by something as seemingly permanent as the last one. Elena Crippa, in the guidebook, describes their work as “sedimentation of different temporalities… rather than pure presence and a sense of totality, we find ourselves experiencing a place that is mutating in time, and is always partial.”

See for example Kossoff’s ’Demolition of the Old House, Dalston Junction, Summer 1974’ (1974, up top). (The precise titles, going almost as far as postcodes, are common with him.) Kossoff later commented “demolitions, like building sites and railways, are part of the London I know”.


It was painted from the window of his studio, from the classic artist’s viewpoint of elevation and distance. But at other times, he virtually made action paintings of digging work. ’Building Site, Victoria Street’ (1961, above) looks like it could have been painted from the mud he found there. If conveys effectively how looking upon a building site feels, the powerful gouging of the earth conveyed in those swirls and strokes.


At the other extreme, when he did paint the monumentality of buildings he did so dynamically. For example, ’Christ Church, Spitalfields’ (1990, above) foregrounds diminutive human figures, a classic trick to evoke scale. Yet the Church is depicted not geometrically, but as if rearing up over the figures. And this is not a dramatic Dutch angle Kossoff has chosen to employ, for the wall on the left and tree on the right stand straight. Kossoff is painting a building the way Van Gogh painted trees, powerfully thrusting its way up from the ground, following its own path.

Both Kossoff and Auerbach were Jewish, a people whose history (as the historian Simon Schama once put it) suggests that before long you’ll be reaching for the suitcase again. Auerbach was an immigrant, Kossoff the child of immigrants. And this could be a factor in their turbulent depictions of London. This is the way home looks to the perpetual outsider; you’re contingent on it, it’s all you’ve known, yet all remains in a constant state of flux.

At the same time, we should be wary of seeing this vision as relentlessly negative. Doesn’t an ever-modifying London mach the diasporist spirit more than would a sedate city? And aren’t Modernist artists supposed to celebrate modernity, champion a city that isn’t stifled by its own traditions? And isn’t there something thrilling in the dynamism of these works? Similar to the way children find building sites exciting.


Speaking of which, let’s look at another side of Kossoff - with ’Children’s Swimming Pool, Autumn Afternoon’ (1971, above). It’s a large work which looks like a small sketch blown up to wall size, with no greater detail added. The result is not a set of figures but a series of captured gestures - a stretch, a leap, a loll. All of which adds to the sense of teemingness. The pool already looks too full for anything resembling swimming, yet more figures are leaping in at both front and back.

The result is some bizarre combination of dynamic and idyllic, the nearest Kossoff ever got to Lowry. Kossoff took his own child to that pool, that might even be him holding his boy in the lower centre. But the heightened way its painted makes it seem more like a memory dredged up from his own childhood.

The alert reader might note that at this point I have focused on Kossoff at the expense of Auerbach. To me Auerbach occupies an awkward midpoint, his thickly encrusted layers of paint jarring against his so-very-British fidelity to realism. (His portraits seem particularly inept.) Had he fled Germany for America, as so many others did, perhaps he’d have been free to embrace Abstract Expressionism and the mismatch would have been resolved.


However, this show did succeed in getting me to like him more than I previously ever have, particularly his later years. Take for example ’St. Pancras Steps’ (1978/9, above) which, like Kossoff’s ’Christ Church, Spitalfields’, contracts the urban environment against some human figures. But, in complete contrast, the urban environment is almost completely a set of right angles, further emphasised by the green line at the top. 

And the human figures are not dwarfed so much as transient. It’s like watching a time-lapse film compressed into a single image. And it flips the perspective of earlier. This is the view of a London native, where visitors come and go but the landscape remains. This London is virtually an eternal place we pass through, a barometer of our morality.

The Art of Diaspora



Ronald Brooks (normally RB) Kitaj also often returned to London in his work. ’Cecil Court, London, WC2 (The Refugees)’ (1983/4, above) even uses the precise location title conventions of Kossoff. However here the emphasis is on the figures, making the subtitle seem uppermost. Unlike the portraits of Freud and Bacon it’s a group scene, yet Kitaj uses the receding perspective to lay out discrete figures in a collage style. They behave as if oblivious to one another, one figure sweeping his step while others litter the street and one looks to be giving birth. This was a street he knew and people he knew from it. He even painted himself in, but reading in the foreground, at a remove. It’s as if this where the flotsam and jetsam of the world are currently washed.

London is the city of refugees, the home of the homeless in which the homeless themselves can find no commonality. And yet at the same time they seem beneath the notice of the standing figures, they look as dressed up as entertainers. Some figures are thought to be influenced by Yiddish theatre, and it’s reminiscent of the way disapora peoples can gravitate towards becoming entertainers, trying to wring value from their itinerancy.

This gives a great flamboyance to the work, the vivid colours making it look almost Pop Art despite its grotesquery. (And remember Kitaj cropped up in the Pallant House’s ‘Pop!’ show, albeit as a kind of mercurial element.) It vaguely resembles the ‘motley assortment of figures’ album covers from the late Sixties, such as ‘Sergeant Pepper’, ‘Strange Days’ and ‘The Basement Tapes’ - where the only thing those dissimilar figures had in common was their unlikeness to everything else.

In 1989 Kitaj wrote a Diasporist Manifesto in which he said: “To be consistent can mean the painter is settled and at home. All this begins to define the painting mode I call Diasporism. People are always saying that the meanings of my paintings refuse to be fixed, to be settled, to be stable: that's Diasporism, which welcomes interesting, creative misreading.” (And of course creative misreading is just what we do here.)

”The Bone of Man”

Francis Newton (normally FN) Souza had no real connection to the School of London. Nevertheless, though born in India he lived and worked in London from 1959 to 1967 and there’s more than enough thematic overlap to warrant his inclusion. This might not immediately be obvious. The boldness of his art, with brush strokes sometimes over a centimetre thick, recalls panel icons and stained glass windows. And his art often has religious themes, for example ’Jesus and Pilatus’ (1955/6) below.


This is a style we associate with certainty, art as a guide to a clear symbolic order. His typically highly prominent signature, as here nowhere near the edge of the work, seems uninterested in conveying any illusion of pictorial space, adding to this sense. So we tend to look at Souza as though he’s conveying some simple truth which we haven’t grasped quite yet.

The piercing arrows are a common motif, inspired by the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. (Indeed Souza painted ’Mr. Sebastian’ in 1955.) But there’s no sense of the torment often found in Medieval religious art. Instead you imagine their bearers sporting those arrows as they pass through their lives, stoically accepting their martyrous fate. Perhaps, a Catholic brought up in India, Souza was motivated by following a minority religion. Certainly, his art seems very much the art of the mocked outsider. (Gregory Salter, in the guidebook, finds in Souza a conflicted relationship to his Catholic inheritance and an articulation of the migrant experience.)


In ’Crucifixion’ (1959, above) the central, crucified figure has the expected nails driven into his feet. But it’s almost impossible to tell him from the wooden cross he’s on. His arms seem to be morphing into branches, his legs trunks, both sprouting. He extends off the canvas in all four directions, as if being stretched on it. While the left figure, scarcely any less tree-like, seems to be cannibalising his own arm. And the other’s grimace extends past the edge of his mouth. All three sport crowns of thorns which seem unremovable from their heads. The Biblical crucifixion was a one-off event, necessary to redeem us. Here it becomes an inevitable condition of being alive.


‘Negro in Mourning’ (1957) retains the iconic means of depiction but is of a modern suited figure. This temporal shift is typical of Souza. (‘Mr. Sebastian’ would be another example.) And in a way he’s reverting to source. Medieval art was uninterested in capturing the historical Biblical era, and would dress events up in its own times.

Yet there’s also a surprising similarity between the paintings. With his narrow head and long neck, leading down to that black tie, again the human figure seems its own crucifix. The downward drips of paint add to this effect. Souza pointed out he’d painted it “in London when race riots flared” but also that it was “close to the bone of man.” And so Souza is exploring similar themes to those found in Bacon and Freud, the prison of being.

Postscript: Kossoff died, aged 92, between my visiting this exhibition and writing it up. He relentlessly pursued his own vision, in the words of his Guardian obituary, “through years of being not merely unfashionable but positively spurned.” So let’s dedicate this review to him.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

‘ALL TOO HUMAN (BACON, FREUD AND A CENTURY OF PAINTING LIFE)’ 1: SICKERT, SPENCER, FREUD & BACON

Tate Britain, London



”Renaissance painters painted men and women, making them look like angels. I paint for angels, to show them what men and women really look like.”
Souza

Painting With Severed Hands

Try this for a theory. Through figures such as Henry Moore and Barbra Hepworth, Modernism had combined internationalism, universalism and semi-abstraction. And in the post-war era this proved triumphant, in terms of mass acceptance and public commissions. Modern art was being made as part of a modern world.

Yet every action will have an equal but opposite reaction. So the inevitable rejoinder to this was a rejuvenated Expressionism, with a renewed focus on the unidealised figure. It was a return to, as the first room of the show is called, “the raw facts of life”. The show’s title comes from Richard Schacht’s summary of Nietzsche, that even “the pride of our culture and the zenith of our humanity… was not only far from divine but all-too-human.” Art was no longer transcendent but particular, the figure no longer an example of the universal but a representation of the self. It’s a sweeping theory, but surprisingly compelling.

So, just as Moore and Hepworth were associated, the artists in this show form a loose-knit group - sometimes referred to as the School of London. Their stories are frequently overlapping, and they often use one another as models. But they had more than association in common.

Neither Moore nor Hepworth were stereotypical champagne Socialists. The art they made was avowedly anti-elitist. Moore was a miner’s son, who put most of the money he made into a Foundation for the arts. Hepworth might have come from a more typically privileged background, but was after all a woman in a male-dominated arts scene.

Nevertheless, it’s a striking contrast just what a group of outsiders produced this work. Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach were Jewish, both arriving in Britain as children fleeing fascism. Auerbach’s parents stayed behind, and died in the camps. Also Jewish, Leon Kossoff’s parents had fled persecution in Russia, though he was born after they reached London. Kitaj, again Jewish, was born in America but had relatives who had needed to escape the Nazis. But they were polyglot even in their outsiderness. Francis Bacon was Irish, and not just gay before legalisation but with an authoritarian father who sought to beat those ‘effeminate’ ways out of him. FN Souza was Indian by birth. As Kitaj pithily put it: "You don't have to be a Jew to be a Diasporist."

Nevertheless the irony, and proof that history is never neat, is that both groups can claim to represent their era. Semi-abstraction and universalisation represented the bold new world of the National Health Service, mass education and new housing. (As seen in the ‘Out There’ exhibition.)

Whereas seen the other way up post-war plenty merely obscured the question, like a spray scent which masks a bad smell while ignoring its source. We might stock up in supermarkets or picnic in the park, but all the while knowing human beings had the capacity to destroy other human beings in terrible numbers. 

And the way the Second World War segued straight into the Cold War upped the ante even on this; it raised the suggestion that the human being was not just some mad beast at war with itself but one with the capacity to utterly destroy itself. Unlike the War, how was it possible to choose between those two sides this time? The problem seemed too deep to be political, it seemed existential.

Ironically, this was much the same motivation as had driven the American Abstract Expressionists. But differing national contexts meant that what drove one group towards abstraction simultaneously drove the other back to the primacy of the figure. (Perhaps significantly, when Ab Ex artists did name-defyingly draw the figure, the results were not so very different. De Kooning is the most obvious example.)

Moore and Hepworth, though they never really went fully abstract, had something transcendent about them. The riposte here is partly that we claim we can universalise when we do not even understand ourselves. Kitaj curated a 1976 exhibition called ‘The Human Clay’, after a line from an Auden poem (“Art's subject is the human clay/And landscape but a background to a torso”). But there’s something stronger, the notion that we universalise to avoid looking too deeply into ourselves.

Another reason for the return to the figure is given before you’re even in the show, in a series of photos of the artists’ studios. Artists at work are not normally thought of as tidy folk. Though significantly, it’s the two best-known artists of this era, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud who are the messiest of all. (A slightly different photo of Bacon’s studio is below. While Kitaj’s, bucking the trend, looks tucked into a neat nook of a suburban house.) We’re also told that there was a renewed interest in artists’ studios, with the book ‘Private View’ published in 1965.


But it’s Bacon who’s the giveaway where, among the layers of detritus, are stacks of magazines and reference books. Semi-abstraction was seen as new, neat, sleek, a way to throw off all that weight of art history. Its surfaces were smooth. This was a way of reloading it, of reproblematising the age-old question of how to capture the figure. And Bacon not just returned to the figure but frequently cited earlier works in his paintings.


As a brief introduction to the style, try Leon Kossoff’s ’Self Portrait II’, (1972, above). It’s a brooding image, his head angled down and his eyes shifting to the side. But it’s the thick swabs of paint, as thick as the detritus in Bacon’s studio is deep, often applied in heavy downward strokes, that so distances it from Moore and Hepworth. It’s like someone took that studio and smeared it over the canvas. The sheer viscous thickness of oil paint is foregrounded, even as it’s pressed into the service of capturing an image. The artist has become his own subject matter again. Freud (more of which anon) said “I would wish my portraits to be of the people, not like them… as far as I’m concerned, the paint is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does.”

Though of course nothing starts from nowhere, and the show starts with… wait, I need a preamble here. Because of rule foisted by social media companies that incitements to fascism are just fine but the human body is objectionable, I’ve had to figleaf the offending body parts. Not being entirely happy with this, I have covered them with something which could more genuinely be considered offensive.



Anyway, where was I? Though of course nothing starts from nowhere, and the show starts with important antecedents to this stye. Walter Sickert is one of the oldest, ’The Studio: The Painting of a Nude’ (above) dating to 1906. As the title telegraphs he paints the painting of a nude, rather than the nude herself, as emphasised by the outstretched artist’s arm in the foreground, and the mirror reflection. We treat ‘the nude’ as a genre in which we recognise if not expect certain poses, normally to do with displaying the body, whereas this model doesn’t seem to be posing at all.

In fact no figure or object is shown complete in the whole painting. Combined with the low lighting, this creates a sense of mystery, like trying to infer a picture from incomplete puzzle pieces. Further, by crossing the figure that foregrounded arm gives things a sinister air. That paintbrush gains the air of a murder weapon. Artists were normally to be found insisting their use of nude models was a healthy, creative affair. Whereas Sickert’s combination of sinister and sordid will recur again and again in this show. Her nudity makes her seem vulnerable, the dark and cluttered room around her leaving her nowhere to run. But this also marks the degree to which Sickert is only a precursor. He paints scenes, in which the figures are normally decentered.


Wheres with works such as ’Nude Portrait of Patricia Preece’ (1935, above) Stanley Spencer is more pioneer. In fact much which follows in this show start from here. Like Sickert’s subject she’s not in a classically ‘nude’ pose. But from there all the differences are epitomised by her being named in the title. She’s centred (the only background being her armchair), well lit and - most noticeably - calmly meets our gaze.

In fact it looks like a classic portrait in which her nakedness is unmistakable yet incidental. Her face looks made up, but there’s no attempt to idealise or eroticise her body. There’s folds in her belly, below sagging breasts lined with veins. Yet Spencer was at this time obsessive over Preece, only two years later divorcing his first wife to marry her. (Disastrously as it turned out, but he could scarcely have known that then.)

In one of the most counter-intuitive statements I may have ever said about art, forget (if you can) that this is a male artist painting a woman. What’s more important, and more typical, is that it’s a painting of someone the artist knows well. So it becomes a depiction of the human body as we find it, not as we would like to. More, whether the painting is of the artist (as with Kossoff) or not (as here), it still functions as a kind of mirror. A mirror which, even as it rather mercilessly traces every blot and blemish, uses a record of an individual to evoke a state of being.

There’s a passage in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel ‘The Reprieve’ which elucidates this:

“There lay his hands on the white parapet: bronze hands they seemed, as he looked at them. But, just because he could look at them, they were no longer his, they were the hands of another, they were outside, like the trees, like the reflection shimmering in the Seine: severed hands… “

Our consciousness makes us aware of our bodies, but as something outside of ourselves. We say “my body”, the way we say “my hat,” “my house” or “my annoyance at stupid social media rules”. And, seen through this lens, the body becomes a bag of sagging flesh and gristle. Yet the same consciousness also tells us that we are contingent on our bodies, and in this way they are not like hats or houses. Within this paradox we’re aware these bags of flesh are inevitably subject to disease and decay, while equally aware that we are trapped within them.

Tarred With the Same Brush

Though there’s a plethora of names included here, it’s Bacon and Freud who are the undisguised headliners. Not only could the whole show have easily been devoted to them, I’ve seen both in solo shows which worked well – Bacon here at the Tate and Freud at the National Portrait Gallery. (Though, to my everlasting shame, I never got round to writing up that one.)

There’s an art tradition where the portrait centres on or just features the head. Even Spencer cut Preece off at the torso. The artist is often interested in getting to the essence of the person, for which the head can work as a kind of synecdoche. Whereas Freud often insist on painting the whole figure, working from a semi-raised perspective. He commented “I wanted the likeness, the portraiture, to come from the figure.”

He even uses this perspective in a rare occasion when he does merely paint someone’s head; in his ‘Portrait of Frank Auerbach’ (1975/6, below) the head seems elongated, the face is pushed down into the lower half of the composition and the bare-flesh brow gets if anything more attention than the features. Compare the composition to the full-body painting ’Sleeping By the Lion Carpet’ (1996, also below).




And he didn’t just focus on but show a meticulous fidelity to the figure, described in the National Portrait Gallery show as “forensic”. Models had to be willing to sit for him for hours as he tried to capture each fold, kink and crevice of flesh. It’s hard not to think of the subjects as… well… subjugated. It’s almost reminiscent of a cop grilling a suspect, interrogating him for hours until he finally cracks. In fact, so frequently do his subjects have an off-milk pallor, you could almost believe he’d been keeping them prisoner until he pronounced the work done. (When not in his studio Freud seems to have been sexually predatory, fathering at least fourteen children.)

At one point, moving to a larger studio, Freud upped the scale of his works and started to include windows. Yet this soon proved a mistake; letting the outside world in took too much away, breaking the hermetic spell. Significantly, none of the works chosen for this show are from this period. (Though ’Two Irishmen in W11’, 1984/5, is in the guidebook.)

Figures never seem to strike a pose, they recline and sometimes look asleep. (Perhaps an inevitability given his lengthy painting time.) You can look at the Spencer up above and ask yourself what Preece might be thinking. You can’t do that with Freud, the question essentially rebounds. As the clothes go so does the veneer of civility. But he dehumanises without deindividualising, reduces us our our essential animal state while keeping the domestic setting.


He often paints people alongside animals, as if to emphasise this point. See for example ’David and Eli’ (2003/4) above. The composition emphasises David’s genitals. Yet he’s not displaying them, as we might see in erotic art. There’s simply no reason to find a pose to hide them, the way a dog would behave.


Bacon’s gurneying psychodramas, often featuring gross distortions of reality, may seem a long way from Freud. See for example ’Study After Velazquez’ (1953, above). Bacon’s painterly mirror could hardly have any been more distorting, Freud’s scrutinising stare any more unyieldingly exacting. And Bacon worked more from photographs and film stills than from life models, increasingly so as he went on. But put their work side-by-side, and these formal distinctions tend to fade in importance. Both painted hermetic interiors as a kind of existential hell. Both would compare human to animal figures. For example compare the work above to ‘Study of a Baboon’ (1953, below).


We see a snarling baboon, clearly in a cage, including links of chain fence. But, only slightly more metaphorically, the Pope figure is effectively transformed into another raging caged animal. Note how the vertical lines, nominally some kind of curtain, continue into the figure. It’s a (literally) vicious circle in which the bars provoke the beast to fury, which only strengthens the bars. While the baboon is itself semi-translucent, the background part-visible through it.

In Freudian terms (and remember Sigmund was Lucien’s Uncle) it’s the instinctual drive of the Id versus the controlling superstructure of the Super-ego, a self-perpetuating war between snarling dog and lead. His signature distortions of the figure need to be seen as an expressive means of portraying this.

Apeing Apes

In my look at Bacon’s solo show, I noted an overlap between this and “the cod-Freudian pseudo-science of Desmond Morris and Robert Ardrey, whose books filled the era.” Often referred to as the killer ape theory, this stuff can roughly be summarised as the notion human evolution is only skin deep. Our savage instincts were the very things which drove us to succeed as a species and are now barely sublimated by social norms.

This thinking did not originate in this era, and within evolutionary studies would be considered (seen most generously) as highly contentious. But there was a spike in both populist and popular versions of it, perhaps starting with the 1961 publication of Robert Ardrey’s ‘African Genesis’. The opening section of ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968, still below) was clearly a dramatic retelling. But perhaps it achieved maximum popular culture penetration with a 1974 episode of the comedy TV series ‘Whatever Happened To the Likely Lads’, where a pub fight’s viewed through the writing of Konrad Lorenz (as read in a Sunday supplement).


Part of its appeal was that its cartoon thinking gave reassuringly simple answers to complex questions about human society. Much as Von Daniken, another staple of Seventies paperbacks, did to questions about the origins of human society. One said, “aliens dunnit”, another said “all about apes, duh”. Books such as ‘African Genesis’ (1961) and ’The Territorial Imperative’ (1966) could literally be read by their lurid covers (below). And it had more general associations with art. Just as Von Daniken often seemed to be writing reformatted science fiction scripts, Morris was himself a Surrealist painter and Ardrey a playwright and screenwriter.




The Naked Ape is of course an antonym to the ennobled, universalised and above all smooth-skinned human figure of Moore and Hepworth. It doesn’t emphasise common humanity, it traps each person within their self. And it them defines that self as an animal self.

And of course this seems worse now than it would have done then. If Moore and Hepworth’s art represented a society made up of benevolent institutions, this art is all too close to the non-society that would supplant it – the free-market fundamentalism of neoliberalism. Such theories normally tell us more about the era they’re coined in than the era they’re ostensibly about. The supposedly inviolable law of the market, that each is placed against all, was supposedly reflected in the law of the jungle. So any constraints on the market are seen as akin to tampering with the laws of nature.

In short it only managed a human understanding of the animal world, a failing it then tried to pass off as an insight. Neither needed questioning because, in classic circular reasoning, each could justified by the other. And this continues today, in examples such as Jordan Peterson’s recent rantings about lobsters.

So do Freud and Bacon reduce to that reading? Their art is actually more sophisticated than the supposed scholarly writings. The whole existential notion of self as cage, so central to them, is nowhere in Morris and Ardrey. And in general I tend to regard the darker arts as the most likely to be politically progressive, dealing in realities which need to be faced down. As Thomas Hardy put it, “if a way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worse.”

Nevertheless, there’s no sense Freud or Bacon had a point to get over, more simply they were trying to externalise what was within. In fact, in their differing ways they led the lives of figures from their work. And in the evocation of the savage there is a familial resemblance which is hard to unsee once you’ve seen it.

Coming soon! Part two looks at Kossoff, Auerbach, Kitaj and Souza

Saturday, 10 August 2019

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY VISITS ROUSAY (PART TWO)

...more neolithic sites, more nature, more wide-ranging sea views from this Orkney island. As ever, full set on 500px.






Saturday, 3 August 2019

‘MIDSOMMAR’: A REVENGE FANTASY?

PLOT SPOILERS lie ahead!


’Midsommar’ is quite definitely one of the best films of the year so far, with powerful visuals and an effective soundtrack. You can probably tell just by checking out some of the stills whether its a film for you, which is normally a goos sign.There’s been plenty of proper reviews of it. But this isn’t one of them, it’s more a counter to the way some people have read it.

It is very definitely, in the words of director Ari Aster, "a breakup movie dressed in the clothes of a folk horror film." Clearly, everything we see is through both the distorting lens of Dani’s grief and suppressed anger at her so-called boyfriend Christian. So, for example, his cheating on her doesn’t involve something so tawdry as sneaking upstairs with someone at a party, it becomes the centrepiece of a grand pagan ritual. But is it, as some maintain, a revenge fantasy?

Compare this film to perhaps the greatest revenge fantasy of them all, Brecht and Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ (1928). (In the unlikely event you don’t know it, you can catch it here.) The ‘gentlemen’ who populate the song are effectively Grosz-like caricatures, puffed-up bigots and bullies, and the point of the thing is that like Jenny we can exult in them getting their comeuppance. They’re coconuts placed to be knocked off their perches, complete with grimacing cartoon faces.

Now Christian, there is no doubt, is a thoroughly slappable oaf. But neither is he an out-and-out jerk. In fact he’s mostly characterised as being characterless, hopeless rather than malevolent. He’s frequently swayed by Mark’s peer pressure to break up with Dani, then hopelessly unable to go through with it when alone with her. (Mark is in fact much more of a self-serving jerk than Christian.) He can’t even think what to write his thesis on, pathetically copying Josh.


And this is reflected in the different ways the Harga treat them. Dani is crowned the May Queen, given the illusion of agency. Whereas Christian is simply told what he must do. There’s little indication that he’s even attracted to the red-haired Horga girl he gets paired up with, it’s yet another thing in life he goes along with. And of course, ultimately he’s rendered paralysed, the terminus of useless lumpness.

And speaking of Mark…

The deaths of both Mark and Josh are punishments for having transgressed village rules, not for the way they’ve treated Dani. In fact Josh has little interaction with her. While the English couple, Simon and Connie, are about the closest anyone in the film gets to sane and well-balanced. They have the strongest reaction against the death ritual, and Connie point-blank refuses to countenance that her other half would have left without her. (Correctly, as things turn out.) Arguably they’re a counter-example to Danni and Christian’s non-relationship, but then in a revenge fantasy shouldn’t that virtue lead to them living? (Spoiler – they don’t.)

And speaking of the Harga…

More widely, for a fever dream going on in Dani’s drugged-up head the world of the Harga is remarkably thought-through and consistent. They need to draw in fresh blood to avoid inbreeding, so they need celebrations they can invite people to. Reach a certain age and suicide’s expected of you, a custom presumably dating back to times when resources were more scarce. They literally write their plans and customs on their walls. (Albeit in runes and pictograms.) Extending Chekhov’s rules, if they have a bear early on in the film you can bet that will become relevant later. Effectively, they live in a kind of cyclic time, where what they’re going to do is already ordained.


And remember the first Horga we meet is the ingratiatingly creepy Pelle, who intrusively brings up Dani’s bereavement and repeatedly insists he knows how this feels. He’s flirty-fishing fresh stock, persistently bringing up Christian’s multiple failings and suggesting he’s the antithesis of them. (His parents dying “in a fire” is a rare logical lapse. The inference is they’re sacrificed in the ritual, but that’s only supposed to happen every Ninety years. My guess would be the original line had them dying “in a fall”, but that was thought too obvious.)

There’s also a scene where he claims to have gone out with Connie before Simon, and she has to remind him they just went somewhere together, not the usual definition of “going out”. (Some have assumed Pelle arranged for the deaths of Dani’s family, though there’s nothing within the film to support this and it doesn’t need to be true. His predation could easily start after having heard of her bereavement.)

When made the May Queen Dani is given the power to decide whether Christian lives or dies. But this crucial moment is elided over., the film cuts ahead. Quite unlike, say, the triumphalist roar of “kill them now” in ‘Pirate Jenny’. Why should this be?


Pretty much everything that happens is their manipulating both her and Christian into their respective positions. Talking about this film while sidelining the Harga’s schemes would be a bit like talking about ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ while skipping Satanism. The May Dance which she ‘wins’ is clearly as much a fix as their putting temptation Christian’s way. The May Queen ‘dress’ she wears is as confining as Christian’s bear suit. That they give her the illusion of agency  is important, but it’s no agency.

It’s thematically similar to ‘Kill List’, particularly in the final scenes. In both the lead character’s ‘emotional journey’, that supposed staple hacks learn in screenwriting class, is turned into something malevolent - a trail of breadcrumbs laid for them to innocently follow. The Harga don’t represent the surrender to grief or revenge. They are not an externalisation of Dani’s pent-up anger against Christian. Instead they want something specific from each of them. With Christian all they want is his extra-territorial sperm, after which he becomes superfluous. With Dani this is more complicated.


We can infer this from how they behave. Though there’s elders there’s no really a malevolent cult leader, announcing how it’s all going to plan, as there would in a regular horror film. They’re often filmed from above, forming shapes as distinct as their runes, as choreographed as any Stalin May Day parade. The women frequently mimic and echo Dani’s feelings, like a Swedish version of a Greek chorus. It’s important to note this mimicry isn’t taunting. In the death ritual, while the old man doesn’t die immediately the crowd copy his cries of pain. They’re there to honour his sacrifice, this is a a kind of sharing.


Yet in the ending, for the first time, they act in differing ways. Of course they’re externalising Dani conflicted state of mind. Wikipedia, in its plot summary, describes this as: “Dani, at first sobbing in anguish, gradually begins to smile”. Let’s remember, at the end of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’, Mia Farrow’s happy to hold her child. ultimately, the Harga do just want you to feel like you fit in. In fact they’ll see to it that you do.

The film’s written so you’re constantly able to read it both ways up, as a psychodrama Dani’s having over the trauma of break-up, and as a horror of cult entrapment. But the bleakness of the film is that neither way up works for Dani. In the earlier scenes she frequently retreats into a small room (often the smallest room), both isolated and self-isolating in her inexpressible grief. The implication is that, in our individualised society, them’s the breaks – emotions have become privatised. But life with the Harga is the opposite extreme, socialisation to the point where there’s no individual left - you simply belong. It’s locking yourself in the bathroom or being sewn into the bear suit.