Saturday 28 March 2020


First broadcast: Oct/ Nov 1964
Written by Louis Marks

“There's nothing but death all around us”

The Great Indoors

I once wrote a post about how fans love to believe the essence of a series is to be found in the very beginning, and how very very wrong they are in this. I used Superman as my prime example, but I could have chosen ‘Doctor Who’.

Though it did come up with some essential elements the show’s original pitch was no foundational text. What was distinctive about ‘Doctor Who’ developed on the wing. Like the way the Tardis is portrayed at this point it was home-made, extemporised and somewhat error-prone. In fact we probably have the fates to thank that the pitch’s author, CE ‘Bunny’ Webber, never went on to write an actual episode. He was not, to put it gently, another David Whitaker.

Webber did conceive of the Tardis travelling ‘sideways’ into shrinkage, drafting what was then called ‘The Giants’ as an mooted first story. Presumably because this demonstrated from the get-go how the Tardis screwed with scale, just as ’Tribe of Gum’ did with time travel.

Going by descriptions, this was a fairly transparent cash-in of the 1957 American film ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’. Everyone remembers him dealing with adversity, marooned at micro size like a Robinson Crusoe of scale. (Google Image it and its giant cats and monstrous spiders which show up.) But it’s about a character who progressively drops out of human society in every definition of the term, with you waiting awhile for those moments to show up. His travails in his own basement are memorable largely because it’s simultaneously a domestic and an alien environment. 

So Webber’s story was to take place in the familiar Coal Hill School and involved various menaces including - inevitably - a spider. Sensibly, this cheap copycatism was dropped. But the concept hung around.

But there is another way of telling this tale. The ’Avengers’ episode ‘Mission… Highly Improbable’ (1967) as the title might suggest, plays the theme for fun and uses the props for pop surreal effect. Coming across a desk the size of a room, Steed parades around it like Gene Kelly on a movie set. Menacing creepy crawlies are entirely absent. Unlike the incredible but rather slowly shrinking man, Steed is instantly zapped down to micro-size so he can come across these mega props the sooner.

And so it wasn’t so different to the way old Batman comics would sometimes place normal-size characters on giant typewriters and the like. Or for that matter Pop artist Claes Oldenberg, who was making oversize sculptures of domestic items (such as ‘Dropped Cone’) from 1959.

And this makes an aesthetic out of a necessity. Back then the props department would obligingly knock up an actual giant matchbox the actors could sit on or climb into. There’s no confusing it with the real matchbox used when it goes into the giant-size cut-tos. It’s a prop and it looks like a prop. But that’s like complaining the puppets in ‘Thunderbirds’ look like puppets. As Andrew Rilstone says “We aren’t looking at ‘special effects’.” These being actual objects, free of CGI shimmer, grants them a surreal charm. Compare the two images below, the shower in the recent Marvel movie ’Ant-Man’ and the sink from ‘Planet of Giants.’

And this story shares with Steed not just a giant desk prop but an oversize phone call. Early on, Ian even speculates this is all “part of a crazy exhibition, where everything has been increased in size.” (One reason this story kept being deferred was that their original recording studio, the small side of pokey, wouldn’t have easily accommodated those Oldenbergian props.)

Yer the oddity of ‘Planet of Giants’ is that it looks like ’The Avengers’, but still feels much more like ’The Incredible Shrinking Man’. For all it’s playing with props tonally its quite definitely played straight. And this works surprisingly well.

Some are keen to say it isn’t a typical ‘Who’ story. Which seems to be down to their not thinking too much of it, and looking for reasons to discount it. But as Nick Waghorn rightly points out “Just because it doesn't have slobbering monsters or men twirling moustaches sinisterly doesn't mean it isn't Doctor Who.” The title suggests Earth transformed into a foreign place, and the familiar defamiliarised is quite possibly the show’s defining feature. Dramatic moments are wrung from briefcases being picked up and - yes, really - a sink being emptied.

”Think of the Ants and the Worms (Please)”

And, unlike Webber, Marks found a unique feature - an environmental theme. Shrinking its leads to bug size is a relatively ingenious way of conveying this, allowing them to witness and even experience the ravaging effects of pesticide up close and personal. (In this way, it does bear a resemblance to ’Incredible Shrinking Man’, though not one so neatly summed up in a memorable still. The protagonist’s shrinking is down to… you guessed it… pesticide.)

The show would return to environmental themes repeatedly. But what’s striking isn’t so much that this is the first time. There was always going to be a first time. What’s striking is how early this first time came.

In ‘British Environmentalism: A Party in Movement?’ Brendan Prendiville states “it is commonly accepted that British environmentalism began at the beginning of the 1970s with the first edition of The Ecologist magazine (July 1970) and the creation of the British branch of Friends of the Earth (FOE) in September 1971”. Both some way after 1964.

But there is an antecedent - Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ (1962). Shannon Sullivan comments that Marks was “heavily inspired” by Carson. But then to call this book ‘influential’ would be to undersell it. Writing in the Guardian, Tim Radford called it “one of the most effective books ever written.” And yet it pulled no punches. Prendville counterposes “a largely apolitical conservationism to a politically-aware environmentalism,” and Carson surely sat with the latter group.

As Wikipedia put it, she “accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and public officials of accepting the industry's marketing claims unquestioningly.”

Also from the Guardian, none less than Margaret Atwood recalled its effect: “Those were less cynical times: people still trusted large corporations. Cigarette brands were still cosy household names… Chemical companies were thought to be making life better every day, in every way, all over the world… Scientists in their white coats were presented as crusaders against the forces of ignorance and superstition…

“But now Carson was blowing the lid off. Had we been lied to, not only about pesticides, but about progress, and development, and discovery, and the whole ball of wax? So one of the core lessons of ’Silent Spring’ was that things labelled progress weren't necessarily good.”

Carson was of course writing in America. And while a similar cult of progress prevailed in Britain, there simultaneously existed a Romanticised heritage industry identification with the land. The founding myths are mirror images of one another. In brief, in America they the immigrants (well, you know, the white ones) had made the land what it was. Here the land had made us, fertilised our flowering into examples of Britishness.

In practise this has left apolitical conservationism and politically aware environmentalism strangely tangled. With weird effects such as radical environmental groups defending a piece of countryside against ‘development’ because Gainsborough painted it.

An example of this in ’Who’ is coming up quite soon. Bu, refreshingly, this story has no space for myths of Albion. The suburban, humdrum nature of the pocket-handkerchief front garden is part of the point. Here insects may be creepy or even threatening but they’re a necessary part of the ecosystem. Like they actually are.

And it opens well, with the crew exploring the cracks in crazy paving like an alien planet. The revelation might have worked well on contemporary viewers, at least if it wasn’t (as so often) given away by the title. It’s semi-reminiscent of the opening of The Daleks’. And by finding a reason for the insects to be dead, it plays down any interaction with them. Which, let’s be honest, would have been less than effective.

In a nice touch they can’t understand the ‘giants’ when they speak, the words just sound like thundercracks to them. 

Unfortunately, however, we can.

The truth is that Marks had a great concept for a story, but one he singularly failed to turn it into a great story. The event-empowering conceit is ‘from above to below’ - that events happen at the macro scale, which impact upon the travellers’ micro scale. Olympian heights. But really, nothing very interesting is going on up there, and it proves almost impossible to maintain your interest through those scenes.

The two villains are an obsessive scientist and a wicked capitalist. The scientist is called Smithers. The other one isn’t Mr. Burns but might as well be. If they’re both walking cliches Smithers would be the only possible point to mount a defence, ostensibly motivated by solving world hunger while Forrester just schemes for profit. (Though he has a good line in “ don't feel guilty.… I'm too busy.”)

The best way to read them would be that Forrester is Smither’s id, doing the dirty but supposedly necessary tasks and allowing him to carry on testing with aloof and feigned innocence. His sullied white lab coat becomes an effective synecdoche of his character.

Yet for the plot to work Smithers has to only lately become aware how lethal his pesticide is. So not only has he done no proper testing he can’t even ask why officialdom would want to nix it until the final episode. Which doesn’t sound like the model of the enquiring scientific mind. He also seems more concerned by coming across dead ants than a murdered man. Yes, we’re supposed to be a nation of animal lovers, but even so…

Not only is absurd for the regulator Farrow to show up and say his stuff to Forrester in person, this is even underlined by his continually repeating he’s already said all this over the phone. What’s more, the day is really saved by the prompt appearance of the Constabulary. (And actually has precious little to do with the efforts of the Tardis crew.)

More to the point, if robust regulation was protecting us from dangerous chemicals Carson would scarcely needed to write ‘Silent Spring’ in the first place. As ever, this ruthless scheming capitalist trope isn’t just tiresome, it obscures the self-evident fact that business as usual isn’t some ‘normal’ state we need to get back to, it’s the very source of our problems. World hunger remains unsolved to this day, and that’s because there’s no profit to be made from solving it.

As is well known the story is itself reduced in size. The intended final two episodes were hastily telescoped together, resulting in an unusual three-parter. To get this thing over with and move more quickly onto the reappearance of the Daleks. Yet if the resultant compound final episode sometimes seems to rush past plot points, such as the travellers’ decision to stay and see justice done, the whole thing is so perfunctory you scarcely notice. We could follow it with our eyes closed.

Marks didn’t write for the show again for eight years.

Saturday 21 March 2020


Tate Modern, London

“I wanted to forget everything that I knew. I sought to learn what I did not know. I started my studies again.”

The Colour Bar

The art of Pierre Bonnard divided his day. While Matisse championed his work Picasso loftily dismissed him as “just another neo-Impressionist… the end of an old idea”, slating his work as “a potpourri of indecision”, claiming he shouldn’t even be seen as a Modernist.

And it continues to divide. It’s notable this show got the same divergent response as Impressionist exhibitions, the crowds flocking to it while critics often sniffed. “Everything was absolutely lovely,” said Adrian Searle in the Guardian, “I couldn’t wait to get away.” At the Arts Desk, Florence Hallet calls it “a fulsome invitation to wallow aimlessly in colour.”

Why should this be? Bonnard first visited the south of France in 1908, and bought a house there in 1926 inside which at least a hundred and fifty of his works are set. Inspired by the region’s light and landscape, he kept to a narrow range of subjects and styles. All of this resulted in him becoming more and more idiosyncratic, more remote from the wider world. The First World War at times came literally within his earshot, but he continued to indifferently paint his interiors.

His fascination with rich, saturated colours, combined with his self-limited range of subject matters, can make him seem concerned only with surfaces. Like Whistler, ostensibly representational art is really just a series of colour fields. Like his frequent subject the woman bather, his art can seen as relaxing for the eye as a warm bath is for the body. As other artists struggled to remake the world, he could only decorate.

And unlike his compatriot Matisse, he was never proto-abstract enough to be inserted into the “path to abstraction” narrative (as discussed in an old post on Kandinsky), and so was stuffed in the only other place the theory had space for. He came to be seen as a holdover.

Because he so often painted himself and people around him recognisably, others try the current fashion in looking for biographical explanations. This picture must have been done after a lovers’ tiff, that one after reconciliation, and so on. But this flounders, failing to explain for example the often long gestation period of his work. Ultimately it looks in the wrong place. Bonnard’s art is about its formal qualities.

The “wallow aimlessly” accusations seem to suggest Bonnard is using the wrong colours, upchucking gaudy daubs like his art is just a kind of enticing advert for itself. But the vehemence suggests an underlying hostility to colour altogether. As if line and form are expressive tools, while colour is forever consigned to be their mere handmaiden. Which seems to come from a puritan mindset, where we go to galleries for self-improvement not enjoyment and never the twain can mix.

At times he almost seems to accept this critique. “Colour has carried me away,” he said. “I sacrificed form to it almost unconsciously.” Yet at another time: “I realised that colour could express everything…. That it was possible to translate light and shapes and character by colour alone.”

It’s the second point which carries. If he was using colour, maybe he was using it, as an expressive device. It’s noticeable that black-and-white reproductions of Bonnard aren’t just inadequate, they verge on the incomprehensible. They simply don’t make sense, because vital information is missing.

Yet some try to simply invert this critique, claiming that through troubled times he remained “the painter of happiness”, offering untroubled idylls as an antidote to the brute external world. Searle and (perhaps more unusually) Picasso were wrong. But those guys are truly missing the point. The true Bonnard is elsewhere.

”The Painter Was There”

True, something like ’Nude In the Bath’ (1936, above) has an almost rhapsodic use of colour, setting bright cyans against shimmering gold and rich purples. Even though the figure’s placed centrally, rather than her becoming the focus of our attention the whole canvas seems to come alive. Yet she seems to be the only solid element in the room, everything else as incandescent and insubstantial as the dappled water or golden light pouring through the window. Even the tub, something we rather rely on as being solid, seems to dissolve into the room. (Check it out at the upper left.)

Note how the figure is indulged yet also isolated, the bath forming a secondary frame around her. Unusually with Bonnard a biographical detail helps us. For Marthe de Méligny (his “mistress”, to use the terminology of the time) the hot tub wasn’t just chill-out time. Baths alleviated her ailments, and so in a sense became her drug.

There’s nothing symbolic in this picture. The bathwater doesn’t stand for baptism, the gold for alchemy or anything like that. But in his younger, Parisian days Bonnard had associated with the movement. And while he soon dropped the symbolic part of Symbolism, he retains its mood. And the sumptuousness of Symbolism slid easily into decadence. It’s art which lures you into its world with a siren-like appeal, and does nothing to hide that. This is an enchanted faerie realm you’ll never find your way back from. So the work’s richness is shot through with melancholia. (Timothy Hyman makes a fairly convincing case that Bonnard was about reconciling the “internal” of Symbolism with the “empirical” nature of Impressionism, in ’Bonnard’,, Thames & Hudson.)

Other works give a clearer idea of what Bonnard was about. In ’Mirror Above a Washstand’ (1908, above) a nude, who you might expect to fill the frame, is a cropped toros sighted in a mirror. Given which we should be able to see the painter reflected - in fact he should be placed dead centre. And often with Bonnard we do. But here he’s absent.

Whereas it takes you a second to notice the other figure, looking back at us. This figure holds a cup, which seems to align with the jug on the washstand, as the nude’s rounded bum should be associated with the dish. Without a painter but with a returned gaze, intimacy and voyeurism seem to co-exist.

And reflections are to become a repeated motif. Sometimes taking up virtually the whole picture. (His self-portraits for example often include the frame of the mirror he used.) At others they’re just ghost reflections in the glass of windows and doors. Why do such a thing? Why not a more straightforward view?

Taking Bonnard’s dislike of working from life the show makes memory, or more accurately its inherent ambiguity, his prevailing theme. It even takes this thesis up in its title. And it’s not alone. He’s regularly compared to Proust, Hallett describing this mood as “the melancholy of time lost.” Michael Prodger in the New Statesman claims “his enigmatic pictures are ripe with the immanence of decline.”

And this would help to explain his penchant for portraying human figures as transient things, barely discernible reflections in windows or blurring into walls. These don’t look like the extended phantoms of long-exposure photographs but have a similar feel to them.

However, I’m not so sure of it. It’s true that not just the themes repeat, Marthe for example seems to remain a certain age like an aquatic Peter Pan. Yet when first painted she was that age, so where is the “time lost” there?

And what of that much-quoted comment that he wanted to convey the sensation of first walking into a new room, and the jmble of impressions which hit you. What has that got to do with memory?

Mirrors act as a frame within a frame, disrupting the integrity of pictorial space and creating a kind of puzzle image. Bonnard’s interest in the artifice, the mechanics of art, is always foregrounded. These are paintings which know they’re paintings, which aren’t trying to be anything else. And it starts with figures gazing back at us. “Let it be felt that the painter was there,” he wrote.

Art tends to either centre on the human body or make a feature of not doing so, such as making people diminutive dots before mighty mountainscapes. To slice off more than half of the figure, as in ’Nude In An Interior’ (1935, above) seems an almost audacious act. Yet the composition is more audacious still, a rigid grid of verticals against horizontals. Only the object on the foreground table is angled, even the two tables are painted as if with a set square.

If we count the two tables and the deep red at the back of the back room as a rug above the carpet, there are seven surfaces here. All of which are patterned, or brightly or deeply coloured, to pull our attention away from the thin slice of the supposed subject matter. The colour scheme is riotous, looked at from top down one combination of orange and red gives way to another. The eye is set a merry dance. Bonnard denies certainties and instead confounds us to get us looking.

And yet The Table’ (1925, above) while theoretically employing perspective relies more on the elevated viewpoint. So high that to paint it, you’d need another table to stand on. This viewpoint is used to extend the distance between the dishes on that table. Though some objects overlap peripherally, each is kept clearly distinct. One of the few that doesn’t, as if to underline the point, is a clear glass bottle. The effect is almost diagrammatic, as if labels were about to arrive and tell us what each dish wash. Above and behind become interchangeable terms. (A device he almost certainly picked up from Japanese prints.) And this simplifying, this literal laying out of the image, goes alongside his penchant for visual puzzles.

What is Bonnard up to? Let’s start with a seemingly trivial detail then go on to generalise wildly. If the Impressionists insisted on painting from life, to capture verite images, Bonnard always started from life but never painted from it. By necessity they painted quickly, catching the light before it changed. While Bonnard could spend years composing a painting, with multiple preparatory sketches. (Some on show here.) “The presence of an object is a hindrance for the painter while he is painting,” he’d insist. “I do not let myself become absorbed by the object itself.” Or, at another time, “the pojnt of departure for a painting is an idea.”

For the Impressionists had predicated their approach on their observational skills. A keen eye, shorn of the old prejudices about the way things ‘should’ look, could take in and capture that moment on a canvas. Too many paintings had looked like stiltedly posed photographs, fixed figures putting on their best dress and necessary expressions, a stiff simulation of life. (Not always of course, but too often.) Impressionism excelled as the photo which magically seemed to work itself out, laid out neatly but without obvious arrangement, like a perfect composition had been hit on by sheer luck. It made everyday life seem poetic.

Whereas Bonnard looks like one of those accidentally taken photos, where everyone should have lined up and everything should have been arranged but was snapped slightly too early or too late. And the world it captures doesn’t just seem disordered so much as ungraspable. What initially looks straightforward comes to befuddle us, the seemingly solid proving slippery. It’s more than merely misremembering, we lost our grasp of things even when they were there in front of us.

And this includes Bonnard himself, the artist trying to stand outside the picture frame but failing, and by extension us the viewer. His vibrant, luxurious use of colour also comes in here, seducing the eye then abandoning it once it’s lost.

It may be significant that Impressionism had begun before the hand-held camera, while Bonnard arrives after it. Once you freeze life, once you were able to strike out that distracting motion, it was thought you would finally have the butterfly pinned. It will lie exposed and explicable before you. At which point Bonnard appears to say “non”.

Commonly labelled a post-Impressionist, it may be closer to call him an anti-Impressionist. Hyman has commented: “Using Impressionist language for his own ends… Bonnard was reversing Impressionism, standing it on its head.” Bonnard himself said: “When my friends and I decided to pick up the research of the Impressionists, and to attempt to take it further, we wanted to outshine them in their naturalistic impressions of culture…. There was a lot more to be got out of colour as a means of expression.”

There are Manets, for example, which create a mystery around the relationship between the characters. But Bonnard isn’t concerned with narrative in this way. You don’t look at a Bonnard and wonder as to what the story might be. With him it’s not the lives of others but existence itself which proves mystifying. Order is undermined, not even as something we briefly impose upon the world but a comforting lie we like to tell ourselves. In brief, Bonnard paints life passing us by, disappearing as soon as we try to get a fix on it. We’re left with only a clutch of mystifying fragments.

There’s a passage from an Auden poem, ‘As I Walked Out One Morning’, I always associate with Bonnard:

“O plunge your hands in the water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed”

His widespread restriction to domestic scenes (a common criticism) is similar to Cubism’s restricting itself to the same still-life objects - which no-one worries about at all. But it’s as necessary for him as it was for them. There’s nothing unusual about his subject matter, this is everyday stuff we should grasp easily. The painting is all about the way that stuff then gets depicted. But while Cubism defamiliarised the objects we see, subjecting them to the shattering effect of time, Bonnard gets us to question our own senses.

And this was the era where Modernism was decluttering, dropping its burdensome baggage so its now-open hands could reach out and capture life. Bonnard paints the impossibility of this, an art that is always aestheticised, always mired within itself. The quote up top is the Modernist credo, allowing art to escape accumulated conventions. Bonnard applies it to Modernism itself.

And it’s this, the incessant desire to question the making of art from first principles, which makes Bonnard quintessentially Modernist. Certainly more so than those who thought it meant merely staying modern.

The Room Is the View

Bonnard, then, is like a pianist who confines himself to a narrow range. He knows what notes work for him, and sees no need for the rest. But he does it knowing that narrowing the parameters makes us more attuned to smaller changes between them. In fact it makes more sense to arrange his work around his themes than it does chronologically. (Particularly once he hits his mature years.) Let’s take two standards from his repertoire he worked and reworked with endless variants, the bathing woman and the garden view.

’The Bath’ (1925, above) is clearly set in the same room as the earlier ‘Nude In the Bath’, but the similarities effectively end there. It’s so closely cropped as to be almost insanely reductive, a series of horizontal lines which include those that make up a human figure. Her face is foreshortened but, unusually for the bathing pictures, quite visible. And it’s not at all beautified, sporting a flat and impassive expression. Rather than sensuously curving around one another, her legs stick straight out - like someone’s dumped a mannequin in a tub.

If the first bath looked luxurious, here she’s taking a bath the way a commuter takes a train. With the first bath you know on sight that water’s warm and soothing. No such indication this time round. This could be the treatment bath required of an institution inmate.

Going further still, the Tate comments “the effect is strangely lifeless, and almost tomb-like, as if the painting were a silent expression of sorrow for Marthe's plight.” Rather than variants on a theme, they’re virtually yin and yang.

Another painting titled ‘Nude in the Bath’, (1925, above) seems to be the same scene as ’The Bath’, just from another angle. Initially the composition looks nonsensical, as if the bath has been laid up on end, or the previous work had been hung sideways up. And Bonnard here is not the artist, offering us his eyes to see through, but an intruding torso and leg. The result is a playing card image with legs shown both ways up. Yet the figures seem to share a colour scheme, against the brighter oranges and reds of the room. Notably the earlier ‘Man and Woman’ (1900) also divides the figures, by placing a screen between them.

Outside Intrudes

’The Dining Room in the Country’ (1913, above) is, on first sight, an interior with some country views. Even if, with both the door and window wide open, the country view takes up night-on half the canvas. But the room’s in deeper colours, ruddy oranges and browns, while the outdoors is lighter and brighter, so it’s the interior which attracts the eye.

Yet the figure we see, leaning on the window-frame, is colour-coded with the room but stands outside. We then notice two cats, one sitting on each chair. And then another human figure, much more camouflaged, through the doorframe. The animals are indoors, nature relocated and domesticated, the humans standing without. As you look at it longer even the seemingly rigid colour scheme division starts to break down. The flickering greens and oranges of the chair seat are echoed in the bush just beyond the door.

Nature is not just a view framed by the window. The centre of attention isn’t the human figure, but the space created by the open doorway. The way the picture feels, that is where we are - in the threshold space between indoors and out. And it may be epitomised by the graduated light playing on the door.

Barry Schwabsky said of Bonnard “the notions of inside and outside are particularly permeable to each other.” (Tate Etc. Magazine 45, Spring ’19) Paintings are normally of somewhere, set in a place neatly summarised by the title. Bonnard’s places are liminal. Schwabsky also said “Bonnard’s was an art of flux”. But Bonnard rarely painted movement. The flux comes for our eye, when it tries to get a fix on one of his works and doesn’t find this as easy as it looks.

And as there were yin-and-yang bath paintings, compare that to ’Large Dining Room Overlooking the Garden’ (1934/5, above), which reconfigures these elements to tell quite a different tale. This time not only is the window firmly closed, but a table blocks the width of the canvas between it and us. Moreover, the table’s made an attention-grabbing purple and strewn with visual obstacles. It’s composed in the same ‘stacked’ style as ’The Table, which only makes the view outside the window seem more remote.

The human figure is firmly within the room, and not only placed behind the vase of flowers it’s quite hard to discern where they end and she starts. She’s then colour-coded with the room, as if blending in with those solid walls. Overall the deeper, richer colours make the painting seem more ‘locked down’, a fixed point.

Whereas ‘The Studio With Mimosa’ (1939/46) uses the window and stretch of wall as a framing device for the view, both compositionally and in terms of colour tones. The vibrant yellow of the mimosa doesn’t just dominate the view, it feels like it’s beaming out it’s own sunlight - pouring through the glass, bathing the room and filling our vision.

Impressionists could paint buildings in nature which just seemed to blend into the scenery. Though art books always consider it the first Modernist movement, it upheld the Romantic notion of nature as an inscrutable force which the artist could only channel. Similarly Monet and Pissarro would paint from balconies or terraces, yet felt no obligation to put their viewpoint into their work. With Bonnard, even if nature is not just contained by a frame, he is reluctant to abandon that frame altogether. Art cannot be just a capturing of nature, it is always something cultured. “Art is not Nature”, he said pithily.

Though, rather than making some philosophical point about perception, Bonnard may simply need this balancing element. There are works where the colour runs too wild, and it starts to screw with the image’s decipherability altogether. ’The Garden Seen from the Terrace’ (1924, above) is perhaps already close to tipping over, and we need the handholds of the terrace, the path and the solid orange blob of the figure. Yet even here Bonnard allows for counter elements, the white paper and black inkwell on the table.

Then, every now and again, Bonnard would hit some notes that completely surprised you. ’The Fourteenth of July’ (1918, above) portrays a crowd on France’s National Day. As a young man he’d shared the progressive views of his Parisian group, though this never seems to have progressed beyond bog-standard bohemian individualism. By this point he’d regressed into nationalism.

And yet this is not the orderly onlookers who shout “hurrah” at passing dignitaries, the human equivalent of bright flapping bunting - this is an unruly mob if ever there was. It’s like seeing neatly outlined, well-behaved individuals being boiled down into a seething mass. It’s as grotesque and carnivalesque as Ensor. And remarkably similar to the way Nature is shown in Romantic art, this crowd is savage, unknowable and more than a little frightening – yet we feel like we belong among them.


Me the past year or so: “The only way I can ever see myself catching up with my visual arts posts is if there were no new exhibitions for months on end.”

Me now: “Hmmmm...”

Saturday 14 March 2020


Pallant House Gallery, Chichester

“I have lived the life of a somnambulist, grasping at experiences, often dangerously tottering on the edges of dark places.”
- Trevelyan

The Cloud of Imagination

The most striking thing about Julian Trevelyan’s ’Self-Portrait’ (1940, above), unsurprisingly used for this show’s poster image, is of course those piercing eyes. It’s a painting which seems to gaze deeper into you than the other way around. In fact those eyes, with the rest of his features, seem more differentiated from his head than his head does from the background. They come out at you.

Yet at the same time the tempestuous sky, with its blues and purples, seems continued in what should be the whites of his eyes, like he’s channelling his environment. It seems a bold statement. How did this man ever come by such a look?

Much like the recently-seen Christopher Nevinson, Trevelyan was a British artist who contracted Modernism from a visit to Paris. Which he described as “the workshop where the future of painting was being beaten out”. But he hit the boulevards in the early Thirties, and the company he kept were not Futurists but Surrealists, including Masson, Giacometti and Calder.

’Riot In the Studio’ (1933) perhaps summarises the way this manifested. With an outbreak of amorphic forms in an otherwise realistic studio, made from brick walls and floorboards. They don’t seem to sit still even as you look at them. (“Form it was, but no form” he said at the time.) This isn’t just a new way of doing art. This is telling us the reality we thought we knew proved to be inadequate.

’Figure (After Pierro Delle Francesca’) (1933, above), largely built from one swooping line, looks like a doodle which transposed itself into a finished work. The Surrealists had a penchant for painting mannequins - sometimes just costumes - as if imbued with life, and this looks like the idea of a thing made into a thing itself. It’s carrying two pieces of paper, where the one we can see looks reductively to be a drawing much like itself. The yellow moon at upper left looks like a part of pictorial space, but trace it round and it morphs first into a big black comma then a (yellow again) snail shape.

Perhaps because of its date (1935) the show seems keen to view ’Hypnosis’ (above) as a warning of the rise of Fascism - “a mind controlled by trigger mechanisms. Perhaps the Nazi salutes by storm-troopers he had seen.” A barked order causally stirs a brain-cog, an arm winches upright. But that seems too reductive. The machine elements look too elegant for so brute a purpose, almost like a Calder mobile, and too impractical. They’d be useless as a blueprint for any actual mechanism, even if they are actually blue.

As said over the Academy’s ‘Revolution: Russian Art’ show, “like the gestures of a stage magician, the gears and pistons of the machine are merely showy accompaniments to the central act of magic.” In other words Modernism’s model of the machine tends to be magic with added cleverness. It’s fetishised for an irreducible complexity which is only formally connected to its function. Cogs and gears are there to represent, not to turn causally.

And this sense of machine as mystifying object is central here. This work is not about fascism but Freud. It’s in a similar category to the assembled mechanical objects in Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even’ (1915/23). It evokes the way we’re subject to unconscious drives, operating literally behind our sight, with the result we can often be surprised ourselves by what we do. This was something the Surrealists found not controlling but liberating. There is one thing in the word so vast, so inscrutable, we could never make it known to us. And that thing is ourselves.

Significantly, the rather wonderfully titled assemblage ’Machine For Making Clouds’ (1937, above) uses another mechanism - this time a mincer. (Try not to think about how much the head looks like David Cameron.) The analogy is clearly the mind’s ability to imagine. There’s an obvious connection between the cloud and those amorphous shapes flying off the canvas we saw earlier. It also echoes the way thought bubbles in comics resemble clouds.

But this is made into a mechanical process. How does the brain, a lump of tissue sitting on our shoulders, connect to the mind – the place the human imagination lives? Artists of this era often favourably compared the human body to a machine, most famously Leger. Why not do the same for the human brain, see it as a dream producing factory?

‘Untitled (Babylon II)’ (1936, above) is made up of marks incised in a long stretch of slate, sometimes coloured in. This could be read as blocked figures inhabiting a linear landscape, perhaps with one slate standing for day and the other night. But there’s also a vibrancy which, like many Paul Klee works, suggests a form of notation. Musical notation is semi-onomatopoeic, acting as a seismograph of the sound even for those of us who can’t actually read the stuff. Yet at the same time most of us can’t read the stuff, so that sense of suggestion comes accompanied by an air of mystery.

But if Klee is also operating in the interchange between symbols and hieroglyphs, he is rarely this linear. His images aren’t corralled by staves, they dance and career. They’re as much a dancefloor as they are the script that set off the dancing. You feel asked to look at them, not read them.

Here, the use of ‘Babylon’ in the title suggests not so much musical text as actual text. As much as Klee it’s a forerunner of works by Abstract Expressionist artists such as Mark Tobey. Of whose 'Written Over the Plains' I said: “It's title refers to hieroglyphic shapes found on ancient tablets, many of which remain unreadable to us… when you take the familiarity of that Western alphabet away, what is left becomes mystifying at a more basic level… It's language turned back into pictures, which reduces us to the stupefied level of small children staring mutely at the pages of a book.”

But whether you take the work as hieroglyphs or notation, they point the same way. In Trevelyan’s double title it’s simultaneously suggested that we should and shouldn’t be able to read this. The effect is a reading which should be as clear and direct as those symbols, but but which hovers just out of reach.

Go North, Young Man

In 1938 Trevelyan resigned from the Surrealists. (I love the way these movements were so absurdly formalised. Did he have to give a month’s notice and use up his annual leave?) He returned to England, but this time went North - initially to Bolton. Though he’d grown up in Surrey, his grandparents had lived in Northumberland and he’d been, in Ariane Banks’ words, “transfixed by the gritty urban landscapes… that conjured up another word.” (Pallant House magazine, Oct ’18/ Mar ’19.) Can you be re-transfixed? It seems you can, for he was.

Remember the old Style Council record ’Speak Like A Child’? (“I really like it when you speak like a child/ The crazy sayings like I'm so free and so wild.”) Trevelyan adopts a naive style that leaves him free to paint like a child. Of course having had little formal art education, he may have been embracing a direction he was largely forced down as much as recklessly making a bonfire of Renaissance rules. But with art all that matters are the results.

Mired in adult mindsets, we’ve come to frame the world as a kind of technical drawing we can use for navigation – mapped with mathematical precision but its precise surfaces devoid of substance. While Trevelyan’s naïve style has a child’s-eye animism, imbuing the most inanimate of objects with a sense of life. Even sheds. As in ’Sheds’ (1939/40, below). They seem grub-like creatures, unattached to the ground they cluster together, pipe vents functioning as antennae.

While ’Three Children’ (1939, above) more deliberately plays with perspective. The title-grabbing three kids are placed front and centre. The rest of the composition recedes away from them. We know how this sort of thing works.

As seen in the Tate’s British Folk Art show: “Objects are often sized according to the relative significance rather than their physical size or place in the composition. Notably, within themselves, figure are normally proportionate.” Here there may be a perspective, but it’s a crazy one. They’re bestride their world like colossi. That toy train must be about the size of a Great Dane. The left shoulder of the main figure seems irresolvably confused with the bare trees behind him.

And when the three giants are children and the semi-silhouettes behind them all adults, what we see isn’t some simple-minded innocence of Renaissance rules but a deliberate scuppering of them. And this is exacerbated by the urban setting, when folk art styles are so popularly associated with the rural and traditional.

Similarly ’The Potteries’ (1938, above) is made up of curves, winds and soft angles - the ways art normally depicts the countryside, now relocated to the town. This time the ground drops away, drawing your eye to those belching chimneys. The consequent black cloud looks to be a permanent addition to the sky. As all the figures look blackened by it, it also functions as the black cloud above the head from cartoons immemorial. And look at all those figures, each one trudging towards us. The first one has got close enough for eye contact. And he doesn’t look that thrilled to see us. In fact a great sense of menace pervades over this painting, as thick as that cloud.

Poor neighbourhoods often by necessity build up a defensive civic pride around themselves. People will tell you, with varying degrees of tongue-in-cheekness, “this may be a dump but it’s our dump.” And they are not necessarily appreciative of outsiders telling them how pleasingly aesthetic their dump is, especially as they then tend to go back to their feather beds leaving you where you are. This might be best summed up in the film ‘La Haine’ (1995) where reporters try to interview the estate kid protagonists without leaving the safety of their car. Who reply angrily “we aren’t in the zoo!”, before backing their point up with projectiles.

This leads onto something. Its ultimately untangleable how much posh boy Trevelyan is seeing British workers as a subject worth of artistic study, and how much using them as a symbol of childlike innocence – the uncorrupted indigenous tribe who aren’t in remote Tahiti but handily up the road.

Not much earlier, in 1933, Orwell had published ’Down And Out in Paris and London’ where he’d lived the life of a lumpenprole. Yet unlike Orwell Treveylan was not motivated by socialist conviction. Industrial Bolton must have seemed, in its own way, as exotic to a Surrey-born, Cambridge-educated artist as had Paris. Possibly more so, as little of the distinctive landscape of Paris enters Treveylan’s work. And it’s this exoticism he paints. He had joined Mass Observation, intended as “a mass recording and cataloguing of public opinion.” 

But, like Lowry, he depicts environments first and then the human figures within them. (And even within Mass Observation Tom Harrison, with who Treveylan was much associated, was an anthropologist whose pre-Bolton placement had been the cannibals of the New Hebrides.)

And speaking of Lowry it’s tempting to see a divide between Southern posh boy Trevelyan and the native Northerner. Yet he’d grown up in Victoria Park, a relatively suburban part of Manchester. What may be more significant is that he was a reclusive individual and his crowds are often portrayed at a distance, rarely eyeballing their audience. Whereas Trevelyan was a more gregarious character. Painting in the street he inevitably interacted with his subjects. Seeing accomplishment in art as an encumbrance to expression, he became associated with an exhibition of ‘Unprofessional Painting’, first shown in Gateshead. 

And so this, a critique of Trevelyan’s work, gets caught up within it. Which is tangled further by his continued insistence that the idyllic goes hand-in-hand with the sinister. Lowry is forever finding the poetry in grey Satanic mills, insisting you just need to know how to look at them. Trevelyan sees the two things in co-existence - a bleakness which is nevertheless enticing. It’s summed up by those chimneys in ’The Potteries’. Though there’s a couple of the thin cigars we’re used to, most are rounded and irregularly shaped. They look folksy rather than industrial. Their shape is even echoed by the steep hill behind them. And yet they exude that thick smoke. (Yes, the actual chimneys may well have looked that way. Trevelyan is still using them.)

He also collaged these scenes. Rather incredibly, he’d create these from life. The show includes a suitcase he’d schlep around, stuffed with scraps of paper (below). The wind, he’d complain, could prove an obstacle.

This may be a Surrealist inheritance. Yet curiously there’s little surreal about their content, they’re quite straightforward depictions. It’s as if he was unwilling to make an absolute break from before, when he really should have. Further, paints is often considered the medium to portray nature, so using it for urban environments can feel something of a twist. The same isn’t true of collage.

Their failing might be to work too well. You don’t clock them as collages from a distance, and when you come in close the pieces fit together too neatly. There’s nothing strange or jarring, no Dada war with meaning. When for example he uses blocks of text to create the sides of buildings, they resolve into walls quite readily.

One of the best is ’Rubbish may be Shot Here’ (1937, above). The neat lines of the buildings in the upper section jar against the jumble of the lower. As only that lower part contains human figures, squashed down into one third of the space, with the most central ones placed behind bars, it’s clear we’re looking at urban alienation. People built this place. But it’s an environment they cannot be at home in, they’ve been made its detritus.

Living Free Flowing

In 1935 Trevelyan moved to the Thames-side location of Durham Wharf, where he stayed until his death. It inspired many works, many of which came to be called ’Durham Wharf’. In ’Durham Wharf’ (1940/3, above) the sky is a very English gunmetal grey, and the belching chimneys from the Northern works remain. Yet the grass is almost luminously green, particularly where watered from that oversize can, and just above the roses in the lower right is a red heart. To the right, a steamboat and yacht co-exist on the river.

Another ’Durham Wharf’ (1944, above) reprises many of the elements while sliding across to take in more of the river. This looks a brighter day, though a very blustery one - with the trees bent and the river a raging torrent. The chap sat so casually on the edge of that barge would seem to be asking for trouble. Yet the male figure is placed between a black cat and a gaggle of swans. Presumably Trevelyan himself, he’s even washing a frame in the raging tide. Both paintings have such a strong idyllic feeling to them. They show nature’s tempestuousness, but human figures still in interaction with it.

The later print ’Durham Wharf’ (1971, above) is ostensibly an interior, but the river fills the windows of the darkened room as if they are a secondary frame. The verticals of the windows are continued in the floor, the triangles of the boats in the ceiling. It looks almost like one of those submersibles in nature documentaries which are effectively a glass ball, offering views in every direction. While ’Renoir Gone Wrong’ (1988, below) is located outside, with the black-and-white triangles of the boats echoed in the far woman’s dress.

Notably Trevelyan’s self-portrait, his “this-is-who-I-am” moment (seen up top), also uses this backdrop. Because in a sense they’re all self-portraits. This is the conceit that by some sympathetic magic the place you inhabit becomes associated with the workings of your mind. To live here means that your mind is open, free-flowing, porous to influence. “A great river is like a biography”, he once said. Notably, it’s the very opposite of the stereotypical artist’s garret, the Rapunzel tower you exile yourself into.

With these last two works we’ve already hit on his next development. Having learnt print-making in Paris, post-war he returned to it. He became the Head of Etching at the Royal College of Art, in the process influencing Hockney, Kitaj and Ackroyd. These prints influenced his painting. Then, from 1963 onwards, dwindling health meant he could only produce prints.

Prints offer little space for suggestion. They’re a definite medium, you either make a mark or you don’t. So the best examples turn this limitation to their advantage. For example ’Paddle Steamer’ (1986, above) uses geometric blocks for clouds and repeated hieroglyphs for human figures. Though sky and sea are bright blue, with the foreground figures engaged in that inscrutably impassive featureless face-off there’s a hint of menace that recalls ’The Potteries’. In fact that black cat exudes the stuff.

And ‘Manhattan’ (1982) condenses down still further into solid outlines and bold colours, looking like almost no other work based on that over-used subject. The featureless skyscrapers seem almost a natural phenomenon, aiming at the red sun in the way plants will grow towards the light.

Despite his Parisian coming-of-age and debt to Surrealism, there is a restrained Britishness to Trevelyan, Like Paul Nash before him, he doesn’t depict dramatic events or even movement over-much. Leading to virtually the same debate as over Nash. Painting and print-making aren’t about dramatic events so much as the power of suggestion. The art that haunts is the art that lingers. And his combination of idealisation and menace is quite unique.

Saturday 7 March 2020


Reader be warned! This enquiry into Michael Winterbottom’s new film is the latest in a long line of posts which aren’t proper reviews at all but still manage to involve plot spoilers.

Steve Coogan stars as Richard ‘Greedy’ McCreadie. Who, in the thinnest of veils since Arturo Ui turned out to be Hitler, bears more than a passing career resemblance to retail tycoon Philip Green. (Just one of many egregious incidents here.) It even cribs a much-shown television scene where he snapped at a member of a government committee for “looking at me”. Despite the fact he was before the committee at the time.

Which makes it part of the same set as ‘The Social Network’, ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘Brexit the Uncivil War’. All of which take as their protagonist anti-villains, characters who weaponise their own sociopathy to get results in a society which venerates that.

But there’s a significant distinction. When ‘Brexit the Uncivil War’ and - especially - ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ got seduced by their own subjects, so becoming of the devil’s party whether or not they knew it, ’Greed’ is unashamedly anti. It’s there to bury not praise Philip Green, giving McCreadie an absurdly hubristic caesar outfit, having an employee call him a “bully” and a “parasite”, and ending with infographics on the exploitational nature of the fashion industry.

And what’s interesting about that distinction is that it tries so hard and yet fails. Which doesn’t stop it being a good film, in the sense of being well constructed, entertaining and involving to watch. The problem doesn’t lie in the execution. The problem lies in the premise.

You can see the problem. How else could it be done? There’s points where the hack journo, brought in to write a puff piece on McCreadie, stumbles across so much dirt that he seems about to switch to the other side. Except how can a film’s twist reveal something you knew before going in, before you even knew this film existed? You might as well try and work a twist into ‘The Hobbit’ where the gold-hoarding dragon turns out to be a gold-hoarding dragon.

We already know, all of us, that the “wealth creators” rhetoric is rubbish. We all notice when they take credit for opening businesses, then blame their closing down on “the market”. We just file away that knowledge, just as we knew not to question the school bully. Our acquiescence not seeming much of a story, the camera naturally shifts over to point at them. They’re where the action is.

Of course Green might well be delighted with all this attention. But that’s not the problem. Satire wasn’t derailed by Michael Hestletine wanting to buy his ‘Spitting Image’ puppet, even though people are always saying it was. The targets of satire are not the same as its audience, it’s not a roundabout means to embarrass those targets into better behaviour. Its audience is us, the success or failure of the film lies in its effect upon us.

The point about Belfort and Green is that they’ve managed to transform monetary power into cultural power. They’ve become celebrity businessmen. So handing them more celebrity is like those who shared the racist rantings of UKIP supporters to expose them, blithely unaware that exposure was precisely what they were after. (And another function of this is that they take the flak from the non-celebrity businessman. The owner of the fashion retailer Zara is even richer than Green. I don’t even know his name off-hand.) But it’s more than that…

Take the repeated scenes where McCreadie walks away from deals until the price falls. (There’s only one where they even compromise, the others he wins outright.) This is presented as down to his strength of personality, his hard-headed business acumen. Intangible qualities we don’t seem to possess. Just the way you imagine the real Green sees it. And this spins the circularity of their logic. “I must be special because I am so rich. And I got rich because I am so special.”

But that’s not the way it works. It’s not because, to use another repeat scene, he’s great at cards. It’s because he’s holding the cards. When Green sold BHS it was for a pound. Was his strength of personality missing that day, or was he no longer in a buyer’s market?

Green, Cummings, Belfort and Zuckerberg make themselves out as larger-than-life colourful characters. But they simply aren’t. They’re the banality of evil personified. They succeed because they benefit from a system built to benefit them, like winning cards with a rigged deck. They’re symptoms, not the disease.

To the film’s credit, it doesn’t pretend to have a solution. It manufactures a timely demise and appropriate comeuppance for McCreadie. (Green is unfortunately yet to do something useful like feed a hungry animal.) But it makes clear that not only will his estranged son take his place, his being so estranged will make this easier. This isn’t the way old family shops would proudly add “and son” to their sign, secure in the knowledge he’d diligently keep the business running as an heirloom for his own kids. He will slash and burn his way through it, just as Green did the enterprises he took over.

If you ask what Philip Green is like, “he’s a self-serving arsehole and sponging spiv” isn’t a very surprising answer. But more to the point it isn’t a very useful answer. The real question is - what do we do about bullies and parasites like Philip Green?

The presumption is that we Little People, constrained by groupthink such as moral codes, need these Big People who function outside of all that. So they can do the stuff we can’t. Yes we do lack agency but that’s not down to personal lapses, it’s because we live in a society organised around denying us that agency. 

Proving the Big People are Bad People doesn’t undermine any of that, they just claim to be necessary monsters. (We’re told he gave himself the nickname Greedy McCreadie, as a sort of self-mythologising stunt.) Think of those who readily concede Trump’s boorish behaviour and reality-deficient ranting is “unpresidential”, but consider that the inevitable price of having “a strong man in charge”.

What we need to do is break this absurd binary. And you do that by reversing the perspective, stopping seeing them as the centres of gravity around which the rest of us orbit. Many years ago Joe Strummer sang “I don’t want to know what the rich are doing.” We were smarter then.

And what sort of film could do that? We need to switch the camera back until it focuses on us again. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, the masses won’t turn out for ‘Sorry We Missed You’. (Even if I suspect people prejudge Loach films as worthy drudges, when they’re actually quite compelling to watch.) But, and I mean this entirely seriously, what about ‘Joker’? A film which starts by homing in on the little guy standing on the street outside a closing-down store, not the corporate bozo who shut the store.