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Saturday, 18 September 2021

“ALL BEAR MY SEAL”: IN PRAISE OF BLACK SABBATH (1 of 3)



”Figure In Black Which Points At Me”

Any band’s first task is to sound like themselves. That’s if they want to climb out of the footnotes of music history. Which is not as easy as it sounds, in fact arguably they’ll face no harder task. But it’s like shaking a six. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the game, that’s the point everything actually starts.

And with Black Sabbath we can pin the moment quite precisely. In 1969, then still a heavy blues band called Earth, they wrote a track the decided to call… well, ’Black Sabbath’. Later described by guitarist Tommy Iommi as “the first time I knew we had something different.” Their contemporaries Led Zeppelin continued with the blues covers, which they were able to adapt. Whereas for Sabbath to be Sabbath, they needed to abandon them.

We fans can fixate on lyrics. But bands normally come up with the music first then devise words to fit. Rather than developing some philosophical point, lyrics come to be about evoking and amplifying the music’s mood. Sabbath were no exception, Iommi normally finding a riff on guitar, Ozzy Osborne then scatting lyrics over it which would be later worked up into actual strung-together words by bassist Geezer Butler.

Except this time everything, even the riff itself, seems devoted to the sound, so ominous as to be almost droney. While the words ostensibly describe some malevolent apparition (“what is this which stands before me?”), what the dread figure mostly seems to manifest is the power of the music. There’s an almost brazen lack of context, in which the nightmarish figure just appears in order to evoke the mood which powers the song.


The mood’s set in the opening seconds with the tolling of a bell - doleful, intonatory, resounding. When the guitar breaks in it’s more powerful, but it takes up all those elements. (They’d later play a similar trick by starting ’War Pigs’ with a siren.) Brian Eno was later to compare hard rock to (yes, really) bellringing, pointing out both evoked the feeling of “immersion in solid, thick, dense sound.” In other words, where sound stops being intangible and becomes almost a physical presence, something you feel as much as hear.

Where the song has the line “turn round quick and start to run”, the ominous music has quite the opposite effect. Chords don’t make their point and leave; once struck they hang around ponderously, thickening the air. There’s a terrible stasis to it. The drums do most of the work, but rather than drive the track along they cycle and shuffle. The oppressive, momentum-less sludge of sound adds to the (in about ever sense) heavy notion that time has stopped for you just when you needed it most. It’s reminiscent of the way horror fiction can used stopped clocks as a sign of the supernatural.

The ‘poem’ on the sleeve, mostly an overblown emulation of Edgar Allen Poe, refers to “the silence that surrounds and threatens to engulf all those that would listen”. And that silence seems pretty close to their sound.

Butler has claimed the song came from a dream he had, of a black-hooded figure appearing at the foot of his bed. And the track conveys that fever-dream feeling of immobility, of being in the presence of danger but unable to run from it.

And Osborne’s vocal performance adds to this notion. He was, to use a much-misused term, a natural. He never seemed to be performing the songs so much as living them, and here he sounds a mixture of mesmerised and petrified. Hard rock singers tended to be either Teutonically heroic or sexually frustrated. Ozzy, conversely, is a powerless protagonist. Imagine Robert Plant singing about meeting Satan. He’d either strike a deal or strike ol’ red down. Ozzy emits a high-register wail. (And frankly, so would I.) Typically his voice often works in counterpoint to Iommi’s riff, sitting above it and offering a more melodic line.

The feeling is so funereal it almost becomes liturgical. Is our narrator transfixed, unable to escape the pull of this malevolent power, or does some part of him want to stay where he is?

It epitomises this music’s predilection for Dark Romanticism. It’s a self-styled ‘black’ number whose darkness is strangely ambiguous. The creeping dread, the fear of dark forces is combined with a feeling of sublimation which is almost comforting. Our narrator seems simultaneously marked man and “the chosen one”.

In Dark Romanticism, the supernatural is often a means of conveying the natural, reframing it as an incomprehensible and overwhelming force. Being overcome by the ominous presence is akin to the surrender of being swept up by a raging storm, a sense of rejoining the all just as you’re obliterated.

A subject on which Wikipedia quotes GR Thompson: “Fallen man's inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind - these were major elements in the vision of man the Dark Romantics opposed to the mainstream of Romantic thought.”


Most people know how the track and the quickly renamed band got their name, a phrase which shows up nowhere in the lyrics. It was from a poster they saw for a Mario Bravo film. And horror films rely more on evoking a mood than ostensibly similar genres such as thrillers. They can be cliched or even ludicrous but if they can succeed at tingling your nerve-endings you’ll carry on watching. And they can rely heavily upon music for that effect. For fear is almost the opposite of reason. Unlike words or plot, music can bypass the brain and provide a short-cut to the senses.

Horror worked for Sabbath the way science fiction worked for Hawkwind. It was more than just a gimmick or handy tag, it was a perfect analogy for their sound.

Most people also know that impetus for this sound came largely by accident. Literally so, Iommi injured his fingers and adapted by tuning his strings more loosely. Yet just as importantly there’s something reductive about it, taking a hard rock sound that most had thought simplistic in the first place and condensing it further. And this is precisely where the genius lies. Taking something out can add to the overall picture, just as adding too much starts to take away. And Sabbath were consummately creatively reductive, boiling music down to some primordial essence.

The track also demonstrates how much the band were masters of dynamics, with an unerring instinct for just when to break it up. Each section of a Sabbath song can be in itself bone-crushingly simple, yet as it arrives it takes things into a surprising turn. Their talent lies in putting the pieces together. (It’s only really the singles which follow the straight verse/chorus structure.)

It’s bizarre now to think how derided the band were by the contemporary music press. But this stripping-down, combined with their working class origins, goes a long way to explain it. In the early days of Prog this was proof positive these Brummie oiks were know-nothing numbskulls!

What gets written about is often not what deserves to get written about, but what is easiest to write about. And Sabbath weren’t like a jewelled mechanism composed of a thousand intricate and glistening parts, something which requires an expert to explain to you how it works. They were more a simple implement such as a Neolithic hand axe, something that wasn't altered much over millennia because it couldn't really be improved on. They defy analysis the way Homer Simpson defied brainwashing by the Planetariains, by sheer dumb insolence.

Of course as we all know now it was the critics who were cretins and Sabbath created a whole new style of music. (More than one if we were to count black metal, sludge metal and stoner rock as different things.) But they also had a huge influence outside of all that. In his seminal treatise on post punk ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ Simon Reynolds compares Sabbath to… deep breath… early Pere Ubu, early Joy Division, Wire, Black Flag, Killing Joke and Tubeway Army! And I say, why no Throbbing Gristle while we’re at it?

Alas however, first drafts of history are most commonly messy and that first album caught them too soon, mid-transition. ‘Wicked World’ is the only song to survive from the Earth days, but more than a few plodding blues numbers cleave to that earlier time. It’s a bit like if tracks from Warsaw had made it onto the first Joy Division album. Luckily for us, they went on to do five further albums where none of that would be a problem…

Second part incoming…

Saturday, 11 September 2021

‘JOHN NASH: THE LANDSCAPE OF LOVE AND SOLACE’

Towner Gallery, Eastbourne


The Trudge Of War

Paul Nash the very English Surrealist had a Tate retrospective led to one of my most-read blog posts. (Faint praise, I know.) His younger bother John also became an official War Artist for the First World War. This show recounts an anecdote of how, working in the same studio, they’d keep to their official war work until clocking off at six and reverting to their beloved English landscape. Which suggests that war merely interrupted what was otherwise a smooth career path, and probably with more accuracy for John than for Paul. So let’s look at each war in turn, then get back on that original path.


’Oppy Wood’ (1918, above) is a very large work with just two human figures (down from three in the original sketch), looking out upon a vast No Man’s Land. We see they’re soldiers but they’re entirely passive, effectively audience surrogates. You’re first struck by the eerie silence which is conveyed. They look towards two shell bursts going on to the left, but you feel instinctively they’d be too far away to hear.

To the right there’s a neat comparison between blasted trees and the remains of some building, both coloured silvery grey. They turn into identikit planks of wood, angled downwards. It’s a striking and effective work. But its iconography of a barren nature doesn’t vary much from Paul’s.


’Over The Top, First Artists Rifles at Marceong’ (1918, above), is perhaps more original, with its greater focus on human figures. It details an abortive attack he participated in, when still enlisted, from which he was one of few survivors. In a letter home he said: “We passed a Boche officer dead on the road, frozen over and sparkling… nothing unusual for we were just as crystallised, only living.”

If it details an attack, this is again anything but an action scene. We should perhaps see it as a timeline. The dead figures, lying on the left, resume animation. They clamber wearily from the trench, and trudge forward sunken-shouldered, their weapons not raised but borne heavily. Of the many figures, we see the face only of one. It’s a kind of anti-resurrection, in body only, where even death offers no rest. It’s war as a kind of Sisyphean task, emphasised by the way the advancing figures are cropped so brutally on the right edge.


And this theme is taken up again in ’A French Highway’ (1918, above). The marching figures are not conveyed in landscape format, as you might expect, but portrait. Again this means they're closely cropped, so we’ve no idea how many  there are. This time the emphasis is on the weight of their backpacks, whose straps they clutch. Horsebacked, the officers inhabit a higher layer of the painting than the enlisted men.

Looking Technology In the Face


Like his elder brother his World War Two pictures look unlike those from World War One. But they take quite a different direction. In fact for an artist often happy to dismiss Modernism as a foreign affair, ’French Submarine La Croole in Swansea Dock’ (1940, above) shows a remarkable compositional similarity to Christopher Nevinson’s ‘The Arrival’. Nash’s is typically a naturalist image, while Nevinson’s is Cubo-Futurist. Nevertheless, were we to sweep away Nevinson’s shards of imagery we’d see two compositions dominated by the elegantly sweeping prow of a vessel.


Co-incidence? ’Destroyer In Dry Dock' (1940, above) takes quite a similar composition, even if it eliminates the prow. The colour-scheme also ensures the ship stands out from its surroundings. A preparatory black-and-white sketch shows how vital this is to the work. (Though I remember it being more gun-metal grey in the original work, and consequently the ship looking less like a brightly coloured toy.)

These images induce two contradictory-sounding responses. The vessels present technology like a landing UFO, an intrusion on the landscape which inevitably becomes a centrepiece. But they’re also like peering into a beehive and spying the Queen, everything not just dwarfed by her but arranged around her, an order whose workings cannot really be comprehended. This is an English pastoral artist at his most Futurist, technology as a subject for awe and veneration.

The Country Path 

And that original path? It was a country path. Like his brother, his early inspiration was not Modernism, which would then have seemed the latest thing from the Continent. Instead it was the rolling landscape of his native Southern England. In fact, in the show’s words, he “found much of his subject matter within walking distance of his successive homes.” He wrote in 1914 “I think I shall do farmyards for the rest of my natural… how can nature be dull? What is Cubism or anything else to nature?”

And this is pretty much the South Downs landscape you ride through, when taking the train from Brighton to the Towner. There’s even a local Eastbourne connection, he recuperated there after contracting what they then called Spanish flu. (Less than half a mile from this gallery, we’re proudly told.) It’s a hard thing to capture, at least for those of us who live round here, precisely because it’s so familiar. It falls into a gap in your perceptions, your eyes not treating it as new information while your brain doesn’t assign it to memory.

It’s tempting to conclude that inspiration lies all around us, should we look. Yet life is not so easy. The impetus for an artwork may come from outside, but inspiration is always within. So, to return to Nash’s quote, the problem is not that nature can be dull but that dull artists have ways of rendering it so. In fact the reason we so like to see the English landscape defamiliarised in art is because so many artists have done so much to familiarise it for us, and their damage needs to be undone. And truth to tell, there are works here which look merely twee and provincially English.

We may disagree about precisely which to consign. The show uses ’The Cornfield’ (1918) for its poster image (up top). Which on first sight I described as “genuinely corny” and depicting “a tidy nature”, words 
I stand by. But overall it seems unsure what direction to take, taking a title which refers to his English landscapes (curator Andy Friend having already written a book of that title) but opening with the better-known First World War work. (Laid out so ’Oppy Wood’ is the first thing you see on entering.) But his dullness does seem to increase over time, like there’d been an original inspiration which was slowly leaving him. (While, alas, many of the better earlier works do not seem image-captured to the internet.) 

Nash himself became worried he was creatively spent, just as his elder brother branched out into Surrealism, mysticism and other new directions. Commendably perhaps, the show diligently details all of this. (Most strangely, it quotes a friend pointing out the solution to his impasse lies not out there but in his earlier work, which had a rhythmic energy that later dissipated. Useful advice he doesn’t seem to have acted upon at all.)


One solution was simply to expand his frame of reference, to North Wales, Brittany and (after ’68) Scotland and Provence. ’Afon Creseor, North Wales’ (1951, above) for example does capture something of the brooding majesty of the Welsh mountains. The familiar device of an inviting path leading you into the work, here doubled up, is offset by the sombre colours and the snagging dead trees in the foreground, but mostly in the way they seem to fall to a halt before those mighty peaks.

Nash had thought this an attempt to “step beyond habitual motifs”, and was disappointed by its contemporary reception. True, it may not be as evocative as David Bomberg’s mountain landscapes (once on show in this very gallery), which suggested at remorseless geological forces barely captured by flurries of paint. But it’s effective enough.

But there’s more. Nash’s method had been sketch while the sun was shining, then work things up into paintings over evenings and winter months. So naturally, by stepping outside of this comfort zone he became more genuinely creative.


First we have winter, in works such as the inviting ’Winter Landscape, Wormingford’. 
Though admittedly they may rely upon the milder nature of the Southern English winter, an afternoon stroll through which can seem an appealing thing. Winter in the Scottish Highlands might have been a different matter.


More importantly there’s the crepuscular, often combined with the porous border between land and water, as in ’The Moat, Grange Farm, Kimble’ (c. 1923, above). Its elongated dimensions doesn’t capture tree trunks so much as present a lattice of rising and dangling branches, both emphasised and confused by the reflections in the water. There is something not just eerie but bewitching about it. It looks, for want of a better word, ‘cobwebby’, nature not as something neat but an etherial entanglement, ungraspable yet inescapable. To misquote Blake, did he who painted that corny cornfield really paint this? It seems he did.

If ’French Submarine’ was Nevinson’s Cubo-Futurism just without the signs of Cubo-Futurism, this is a kind of sibling to Andre Masson’s ‘The Picardy Road’, with the surrealism less overt. Which was once described, if only by me, as “sprouting sinister growths, tendrils appearing all over… Masson imbues everything with sentience and menace.”

Wikipedia relatively brief entry for Nash picks this work out, suggesting that, “completed a few years after the war, [its] characterised by a sense of bleak desolation that suggests the profound introspection that for many followed the devastation of the war.”

Perhaps so. But then why transfer such a sense into the English landscape? Why not keep painting No Man’s Land, if that was what haunted you? After all, Paul had said of his war experiences: “I have seen things that would last me my lifetime as food for painting and drawing.” And why go on to paint similar works decades later such as ‘The Lake, Little Horkesley Hall' (c. 1958)? Even if it could somehow be proven he wouldn’t have painted these if not for war, isn’t it more the point that there is such a mysteriousness to be found in ‘our own’ countryside? That we don’t know the places we think we do?


Like his brother, Nash rarely placed human figures in his nature scenes. And like his brother he almost but never quite anthropomorphised trees, in works such as ’The Fallen Tree’ (1955, above) or ’Edge of Rendlesham Forest’ (1967), which shows an ancient forest seemingly guarded by two stout-trunked sentries. This enhances the sense of our senses being limited, our never quite sure of what we are seeing.

“This exhibition”, we’re told, “attempts to reposition Nash with the history of Twentieth century art”. If he’s never been seen as on the same creative level as his brother, that isn’t about to change now. Frustratingly, there is a lot of tweely pastoral country scenes to trudge past. And he seems to have been aware himself when that was and wasn’t working, but without knowing how to channel it. But at it’s best his work had its own appeal.

Saturday, 4 September 2021

‘JEAN DUBUFFET - BRUTAL BEAUTY’

The Barbican, London 


“I have become concerned to represent not the objective world, but what it becomes in our thoughts.”
- Dubuffet

“Picasso was close to the roots of art? He was really reclining in the penthouse while Dubuffet laboured in the basement, scratching obsessively on the walls with a compass end.” 
- Me, the last time I wrote about Dubuffet 

Art Against Culture

Jean Dubuffet is most famous for coining the term ‘Art Brut’. Literally “raw art”, but more commonly Anglicised as Outsider art. He amassed a large collection, of over 1,200 works, which he both drew inspiration from and exhibited in its own right.

As he can’t be uncoupled from this, shows don’t tend to try. The Pallant House exhibition, now nine years ago, arranged a companion show of contemporary Outsider art, Art From the Margins. Here, the Barbican devotes two rooms to works from his collection.

And when you see them together, Dubuffet and his muse, something’s immediately obvious.

They have virtually nothing in common.

Works in the collection are hieratic, often symmetrical utilising compositional devices such as tight, neat hatching. As said of ‘Art From the Margins’ this art is “not wild and exuberant but obsessive… reproduc[ing] the world on a micro-scale, as if making a power object in the hope that will control it, the map-maker seeking to rearrange the territory by delineating it.” Its disordered minds evoking order.

This is taken to the max with Augustine Le Sarge’s ’Symbolic Composition of the Spiritual World’ (1923), a grand vision of hierarchic cosmic order, like a celestial org chart, with no trace of human presence. It evokes order to such a degree its actually pretty frightening. Outsider art was less an influence and more a foreign system to gallery art, German to the galleries’ French.

There’s no more reason to expect this type of art to be homogenous than any other, so all the above might sound like the sort of statement which should be covered in caveats. But it’s striking just how much of what’s on show here fits this description. Perhaps some of the sculpture looks more Dubuffet-like, but that’s all.

Dubuffet, a smart-dressed Parisian from a bourgeois background, found the savage in this because that’s who he was looking for. In a classic case of opposites attracting, he extolled the virtues of an art “foreign to culture” and therefore freely expressive, enthusing “millions of possibilities of expression exist outside the accepted cultural avenues”. I’ve written before how widespread and how hopeless this notion was in Modernism. Dubuffet himself, in later life, conceded he’d been over-idealistic.

Yet, as also said in the same piece, the test of these ideas isn’t in their truth but the effect they have on your art. Whatever works for you works. Duchamp had consistently and cheerfully conceded that his attempts to excise his own presence from his art was an impossibility, but one which made him embrace the exercise all the harder. Dubuffet just did that part at the end, that’s all.

He laced his oils with baser materials such as plaster and sand, sometimes even glass, like the refined oil paint couldn’t be trusted on its own and needed to be set a bad example. Which suggests he wasn’t imagining he could slip the bounds of his own culture but challenging it. As he stirs together irreconcilable ingredients, aesthetically and sometimes literally, he makes a virtue of their collision.

And besides the material influences on his art were slightly different to the tales he told. A fan of Brassai’s photos of Parisian graffiti, he went on to influence the New York graffiti artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. (The latter only recently gracing this gallery.) In those pre-spray-can days many of Brassai’s examples had been incised into the stone of walls, and it’s probably not surprising that the earliest works shown here are lithographs. Dubuffet took art back to its basics of mark-making.


And the other big influence, though barely mentioned in this show, is children’s art. Take ’Monsieur D’Hotel’ (1947, above). Like much child art its subject is the human figure, isolated and painted flatly. (There’s probably a more high-falutin’ art term that should be used there, ‘two-dimensionality’ or similar.) When other elements are depicted they’re often accoutrements of the figure, rather than part of an environment to set it in. Hands and gestures are emphasised, sometimes oversized to assign their importance. And note the child-art proportions, the enlarged head above the shrunken blob of a body, the arms joined to the trunk rather than the shoulders.

And what these two have in common is Georges Bataille’s theory that the essence of art is in its root, in the scribble, the child’s drive to deface and despoil pristine spaces, the mucky thumb print gleefully smeared on the pure while paper. (Think how many times you’ve been told by some small-minded moralist that graffiti is inherently childish.)


Perhaps inevitably, as much as with his materials, the images are a collision of things. Take the devouring figures of the lithograph ’The Bird Eaters’ (1944), which seems determined to compare the bird in the bush to the one on the plate. Those swallowed-whole feathered friends could be imagination or offspring being devoured, it doesn’t matter much. This really sets the tone for Dubuffet to come.

And that tone’s the grotesque. As said another time: “The grotesque is the collision of the horrific with the humorous, each simultaneously lacing and souring the other.” Its frisson is from the feeling these two things shouldn’t really be tied together, yet here they are. Dubuffet himself insisted “art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little.” And the point was to not know how much of each.

More Paintings About Landscapes, Women + Ghosts


Then next comes ’Large Black Landscape’ (1946). As the title might suggest, here landscape dominates. This format, with the thin sliver of sky occupying at most the top fifth of the painting, and with lines incised into the thick encrusted paint, will be used again and again. (Alas, you’ll pick up little of this from an internet thumbnail and will just have to trust me.) Dubuffet’s description of walls, “finding themselves in the open while living off darkness” seems to apply her.


Traditionally, landscape was an ordered backdrop to set the figures against. Even when it was made a subject in it’s own right, it would be divided into ordered zones. Contrast that to a work like ’The Roses of the Earth’ (1952, above). While Dubuffet’s working methods commonly led to an encrusted surface, this is a painting in such relief it would almost work in braille. With its brown hues, its ambiguous whether we’re looking at a stretching surface or subterranean layers, an archaeology of buried, amorphous objects. It could be read Surrealistically, the thin strip of off-white standing for consciousness, the tip that doesn’t know of its own iceberg.

In the show’s words, Dubuffet gave “the impression of a ground teeming with energy and a mind brimming with thought”. Not only are his landscapes clearly doubling as mindscapes, there’s a sense he’s not particularly distinguishing between them and his figures at all. The human body is to him is not a jar which holds our consciousness, where art’s function is to accurately label its contents, but a kind of landscape in itself.


This is demonstrated by ’Clown’s Point’ (1956, above). The figure is outlined, at points double-outlined and then colour-coded against the background. But he looks less a discrete object with integrity of form, and more an accumulation of fractured parts. He has two planted legs but no arms, his eyes are glassy and unfocused, his head could be merely another bump on that horizon line.

This is possibly shown still more clearly by his sculpture. With his series ’Little Statues of Precarious Life’ (begun 1954), the show makes much of their being made from discarded material, including the wreckage of a car. Which makes you picture something akin to Paolozzi. But while ’Coquettish Grin’ (1959 below) was made from papier mache, it looks more as if composed of solid rock.


When looking at Henry Moore’s sculpture, it was noticeable how much it felt autochthonian (or born of the earth). Dubuffet feels similar, and at the same time the very opposite. Moore’s work looked idealised, as if everything came from some ideal pure form out of which it developed particular features. Dubuffet’s look like a rough and incohate set of ingredients, the rough always coming before the smooth.

Dubuffet often worked in series, and two series involve important distinctions to what’s above. While one lacked an official name, as virtually ever work was called ’Lady’s Body’ let’s go with that. Even if our example (below) is ’The Tree of Fluids’ (1950).


Look back at ’Monsieur D’Hotel’ a moment. In a complete reversal, it’s the body which is now bulbously oversized and the head shrunk. Arms are de-emphasised by camouflage, by being placed over the body not the background, while it’s the sex organs which are foregrounded and enlarged. The show describes these works as “female bodies that appear to have collapsed into a visceral landscape of flesh”. And this looks like the flesh has been stretched like a cadaver across a dissecting table. (When Dubuffet uses ‘corps’ in his titles it’s merely the French for body, yet it can’t help but underline this association in our Anglophone minds.)

It’s also the colours which are so different - not ochres but putrid pinks, burgundies, off oranges, curdled luridness. Dubuffet combined oil paint with a putty of zinc oxide precisely because they don’t combine, like oil and water, creating those smeary rivulets of colour streaking through the work. The male body is something sealed, integral. The female body is virtually bursting with fluids and innards.

The question of misogyny came up in Dubuffet’s day. And he was insistent these should not be seen as an assault on women but on the Western art tradition of the Nude. It would be truer to say they burn away all the refinements that make that misogyny more palatable, leaving it bare. But this is not the same thing as challenging that misogyny. What this work exposes, at the same time it exemplifies. You suspect that only a misogynist, at least on some level, could have painted them. (You could compare them to de Kooning’s paintings of women at the American Abstract Expressionism show.)


For another series Dubuffet re-used his method of combining oil with an incompatible medium, this time enamel industrial paint. Figures up to now have been insistently embodied. These look so diffuse they’re like phantoms or spirit forms, inhabited ectoplasm. They look less menacing than forlorn, sometimes reaching up to us, and looking out with some mixture of hope and hopelessness. Of these the show would seem to favour ’The Extravagant One’ (1954), making that their poster image. But I preferred ’Intervention’ from the same year (above).

And there seems something lose-lose about all this, as if your only choices are to be trapped in some fleshy bag of fluids or banished outside of one. And there seems something highly Dubuffet about that. Aesthetically, he offers a promise, that we can cast off the confines of culture to create art that is wild and free. But the art that results is not just pessimistic in tone, it often seems precisely about being entrapped.

Roses of the Earth

After moving to Venice in 1957 Dubuffet embarked on a new series, Texturology. He borrowed a trick from local stonemasons, who he saw shaking paint-dripped branches over plastered walls to soften the colour. The results, as in ’The Exemplary Life of The Soil’ (1958), make an abrupt break with the figure.

Seen in another context, you wouldn’t necessarily parse these as artworks at all. (And this time there’s truly no point in my including a thumbnail. It’d just look like sandpaper.) It’s only because they’re hung in a gallery that we look… in fact study them in a way we normally don’t. Then we realise that many things in our lives - a stone lying in the ground, the ground itself, the night sky - we blithely assume to be featureless, but the more we look the more we find to see.

The elision between ground and sky, between micro and macro-scale, seems entirely deliberate. An exhibition of them was titled ’Celebration of the Soil’, and ‘soil’ or ‘earth’ recur in individual titles. But Dubuffet also said his aim was to evoke the “impression of teeming matter, alive and sparkling, which… could also evoke all kinds of indeterminate textures, and even galaxies and nebulae”.

Yet I couldn’t feel a little as I did with the Academy’s Anselm Kiefer show when he went cosmic scale. I kind of missed the figure, the human context. Luckily for me…

At Home A Stranger 

In 1961 Dubuffet returned to Paris, re-united himself with his Art Brut collection (to which he was soon adding anew) and announced he’d “decided to start all over again from the beginning”. The result was the Paris Circle series. Though he’d been away only four years, and in another city, he seemed to see Paris with a stranger’s eye. Though he’d been living in Venice, perhaps he even saw the city that way in general. The result s were unarguably the highpoint of his career.


If Futurist art insisted new methods had to be devised to capture the marvel of new world we now inhabited, Dubuffet takes precisely the opposite tack. He depicts it in the oldest ways he can come up with. ’Restaurant’ for example, (1961, above), is a familiar thing shown in an unfamiliar way, partly by being on a grand and depersonalised scale. It's an accumulation of elements, structured round a grid, with no centre of attention. Faces either looking straight forward or in full profile. Writing is hand-transcribed, not formulated into logos. (Here visible in the reflected Restaurant and the Toilet sign, more apparent in other works.)

The perspective is, in the show’s words, “deliberately skewed between a frontal and an aerial view”. Some figures, including the chief waiter, seem seen through a distorting lens. (You could probably debate whether that’s a feature of child or of Folk art thing. Perhaps an interesting question in its own right, it doesn’t concern this work much. Despite the elevated perspective, what we have is a child’s eye view.)

Dubuffet commented “I want my streets to be crazy, my broad avenues, shops and buildings to join in a crazy dance.” And this could be the result of a child’s visit to a restaurant, enthralled by the bustle, trying to keep the experience alive in his or her mind by transcribing it.


Whereas ’Paris, Monparnasse’, despite being from the same year, is of quite a different hue. Literally so, with the the darker, muddier colour scheme. Traffic and pedestrians in a street scene, that should if anything offer more of an ordering device than a restaurant. Added to which, we have the central device of the big bus. But instead, what we see is a mad cacophony.

This isn’t the cliches of urban alienation, the trudging overcoated figure alone against the night and so on. But everyone look isolated, in their bubble cars, in ones and twos, even strung along the side of bus. It’s unclear whether figures are lying down, or that’s just an effect of the crazy perspective, an ambiguity which if anything adds to the effect. Everyone is alone together.

If it’s a feverish form of alienation, where the city assaults your senses in an amassed frenzy, it’s a form of alienation still. Dubuffet described this series as “looking at the most banal things to reveal their phantasmagorical side.”

Though hung on facing walls, however distinct these works are, they shouldn’t be seen as opposites but as the two poles of a spectrum. The seed of each is in the other.

… Then Things Go Bazaar

The earlier Pallant House show had focused on Dubuffet’s next series, L’Hourloupe (beginning 1965), so fortunately I was ready for what was up next. Which is his moving straight from his best era to his worst. They’re works which look Sixties in all the wrong ways, gimmicky and attention-grabbing. They initially look vibrant, but turn out to be deathly - empty surface.

However, I had noted how the works looked better when incorporated into poster design. And the same seems true for another break from painting, into… well, I’m not sure whether to call them sculptures, costumes or theatrical models. Dubuffet called them ‘theatrical props’ and from 1971 to 3 he made 175 of them. He staged the performance work ’Coucou Bazaar’ with a mixture of props, mechanised parts and actors in costume. If we only get twenty here, it’s still the absolute highlight of the l’Hourloupe section (below).


As I’ve argued before the Sixties were a troubled time for visual art, and thankfully when they were over the Dubuffet we know returned. In the Eighties, shortly before his death, he embarked on a series of ’Non-Places', works influenced by American Abstract Expressionism. They were painted in acrylic paint, creating colours so solid and vivid that they look like pure colour, in the same way as Matisse’s cut-outs.


So they lend ’Fulfilment’ (1984, above) a 3D effect, with the vibrant yellows floating above the bright blues and scarlets, moving down to the whites and finally the black background. And at the same time it doesn’t look composed but lively and impulsive, art that lives in its mark-making. In a very real sense, it still exemplifies the child’s delight in creating. Perhaps even the very youngest child and their overlaid scribble marks.

Dubuffet’s is one of those careers where it always feels like he held to things consistently, only for that sense to disappear when you look at his work from moment to moment. Yet if you were to glance back through the thumbnails above, they clearly have something in common. He was perhaps a latecomer to Modernism, yet still found ample ground to travel in the perpetual quest to pull art back down to its roots. Perhaps some struggles are perpetual…

Saturday, 21 August 2021

REPORTS OF MY DEATH HAVE BEEN MILDLY EXAGGERATED


Not dead. Not even Marvel dead. But blogging here may be a bit more sporadic in coming weeks...



Saturday, 14 August 2021

FOLK’S NOT DEAD (A SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)



Now, this playlist may take a somewhat catholic definition of Folk. To the degree that some will say there’s just two real folk songs in it, and others only one. Yet we’re not talking about a museum exhibit, but music which continues to live, breathe and evolve. You can't span the breadth of it in seventy minutes, but hopefully you can catch some of the variety. And remember - fate is only foolin' with us friend.

(The illo’s from the Tate’s British Folk Art show, which you could read me wittering about here, had you a mind to.)

Sandy Denny: The North Star Grassman & The Ravens
Pentangle: Sweet Child
Nick Drake: Hazey Jane I
Trees: Murdoch
Richard Thompson: Keep Your Distance
Current 93: Bind Your Tortoise Mouth
Tunng: Bricks
Jeffrey Lewis: The Story of The Fall
Blyth Power: Inside the Horse
The Imagined Village (feat. Paul Weller and Martin & Eliza Carthy): John Barleycorn
Gillian Welch: One Monkey
Richard Buckner: Poor Old Tom
Martin Green: Smallest Plant
Cinder Well: Brittle Bones
Mekons: Trimdon Grange Explosion

(More themed playlists coming, one day or another.....)

Saturday, 7 August 2021

“A FEELING INSIDE OF ME…” (ON THE PERPETUAL PARADOX OF ROMANTICISM)



Millais’ ’John Ruskin’ (1854, above) fits neatly enough in its frame. Yet try to frame it’s genre, Romanticism, and you face two great obstacles. The first is that in two ways, it won. Much like the labour movement won us the weekend, it’s a victory which soon became normalised, woven into the fabric of life. It’s an effort to will to remember a time before it. (I’ll try to prove this partly by jumping between contemporary and current-day examples, defying you to spot the difference.)

And yet it couldn’t be taken on its own terms, even if you wanted to. It can only be understood as a reaction to the Enlightenment, its actions not arising out of any inner volition but coming as parries ands counter-punches thrown in an ongoing struggle. Or, perhaps more accurately, as a teenager wilfully choosing to do the opposite of whatever their parents tell them.

In a brief but relatively accurate summary, it came to be about prizing the heart above the head. Keats spoke warmly of Negative Capability, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”, giving a negative thing a positive spin. This was often a simple mirror image. In ’The Romantic Revolution’, Tim Blanning locates the Romantic fixation with the night (such as the prevalence of musical nocturnes) with an equal but opposing Enlightenment emphasis on the illuminating light. He’s doubtless right.

But some of these counter-balances take on more weight than others. So as the Enlightenment lent itself to penetrative enquiry one of their chief (if unstated) conceptions became essences. Think how this applies so readily to three great Romantic obsessions; the artistic genius, the national spirit and the lovers. As visually represented, respectively, by Courbet’s self-portrait ’The Desperate Man’, (1845), John Gast’s ’American Progress’ (1872) and John Everett Millais’ ’The Huguenot’ (1852), all below. (Let’s not get into any debates about how much a Romantic Courbet was. This work perfectly illustrates the concept, whatever else could be said.)





The genius was in essence a genius, the American at heart an American, and the lovers truly and purely in love. None of these things had material causes or social context, they were simply irreducibly themselves. Scrutiny would be unrewarded, analysis repelled. To quote the Waterboys, in many ways latter-day Romantics, “there’s no why, there just is.”

Perhaps this is at its clearest in the figure of the genius, who supposedly owes nothing to the society around them, who has pulled something wholly new from out of his own furrowed brow. Virginia Wolf once said: “Masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.” An obvious truth Romanticism simply shrugged off with more of that Negative Capability. But the three overlap in practice. Edward Butler Lytton spoke of “the national genius”, Goethe wrote of his lovers “the world was lost to them,” and so on.

One of these three may not seem like the others. We live in a time of the rising far right, where it seems counter-intuitive to think of nationalism as a radical idea. But, skipping over the rights and wrongs of it, in that dawn it was widely though to be so. Its notion of nations was less forelock-tuggingly deferential and more to do with a shared culture, “we the people” rather than “our benevolent rulers”. And across much of Europe nationalism was not defensive but disruptive, about creating countries by breaking up empires. (Famously, the Romantic poet Byron died fighting for Greek independence.) So it could have it both ways, seem a radical new notion and a trans-historic truth simultaneously.

Germany was then a great centre of Romanticism - and, significantly, before there actually was a Germany. This gave nationalism simultaneously a positive and a radical aspect, not about defending a status quo but creating something bold and new. Furthermore German nationalism, at least as conceived of by Romanticism, was not hindered but enabled by the seemingly inconvenient lack of a geographical Germany. 

Theirs was a rival nationalism to one composed of border posts, ambassadors and postage stamps, made up by language, folk culture and natural environment, which were held to epitomise a kind of shared spirit. All of which would have been distracted if not undermined by the tawdry business of running an actually existing country, with budgets to balance, roads to repair and all the rest. 

…which is typical of the way Romanticism plays it tricks, even upon itself. It may well be true of traditional societies, that for example tribes in Northern Canada will have developed a different culture to others in the Amazon. But the claim that modern Germany innately possesses a separate, identifiable ‘spirit’ to modern France or the Netherlands is a clear-cut absurdity. And yet that absurdity is potent. You can see the appeal in believing that the landscape around us still seeps through those four thick walls around us and imprints itself.

But Romanticism’s greatest and most long-lasting invention may seem quite the opposite, the creation of the individual. This must be the example par excellence of something we now imagine as inherent, if not fundamental. Of course I am me, of course you are you. We have different Facebook profiles, duh. But once there was a time where your social status determined you, what you did was what you were. Looking past that status, ranking and context, to see the self as something innate, was at the time a conceptual breakthrough.

And the way it conceived of individualism, the way it held people to work, was analogous to the way it held countries to work. Every man was like a bordered realm, neighboured but containing something inalienably unique within.

It may well have started with a few favoured examples, where the artistic genius (Wagner, say) had individualism bestowed upon him. But this slowly seeped down even to us regular folk.

So art shifted from fulfilling a social function to being concerned with individual self-expression. The great German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich insisted “the artist’s feeling is his law.” We now very much live through the downside of that, where egoism and self-obsession are confused with artistic genius, where something being from you is held to be inherently of value. This is precisely why so much contemporary art is tiresome. But, hard though it may be to see now, in their day this was again something of a breakthrough.

And nature pretty quickly becomes handy for this. Once the social order was seen as a microcosm of the natural order, ‘God’s plan’. To be part of it was to already be part of nature, lions ruled their world just as Kings had kingdoms. Now the conception of nature completely switches over.

Part of the rationale was isolation. Just by going out into the green we cast human society off, leave it behind us in the dirty city. Outside of the thing that labels and categorises you, you were freer to think of yourself as yourself. In the words of the Thomas Grey poem (later borrowed by Thomas Hardy) you were “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife.”

Yet it soon went beyond that. Nature wasn’t just the absence of society, a kind of quiet room for gathering your thoughts, it was explicitly seen as a thing in itself. It was no longer something decorative in art, a scenic backdrop, like marginalia for illustrated books. It became a subject for art in itself, a subject as important as the artist himself. (With this subject we’re going to have to get used to male pronouns.) Hence Ruskin’s doctrine of “truth to nature”:

“The love of natural objects for their own sake, and the effort to represent them frankly, unconstrained by artistical laws."

Nature ensures there are no more restrictive laws to bind us, “artistical” or otherwise. The wide open spaces allow for our inner space to open up. So these two things were spliced together in the great Romantic credo that we find ourselves in Nature. Friedrich also said: “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him”. The implication is that the two need to be done at the same time, that they’re interwoven.


Yet at the same time Romanticism is based on the notion of the Sublime, something is both opposite to and beyond beauty. Nature isn’t a pretty scene, like a tended garden which just happens to not have a wall around it. Diderot claimed that “all that stuns the soul, all that imprints a feeling of terror, leads to the sublime.” As a presence, it was – in about every sense of the word - primal. (See Turner’s ’Valley Of Aosta’ 1846/7, above.)

Nor was this just a matter of extending scale or selecting extreme weather events. You could sum it up as ‘don’t describe, evoke’. Romantic art is nature-based yet non-topographical, it doesn’t map its subjects even as it frames them. Nature is shown as intrinsically possessing an elusive mystery. Chemically, ‘sublime’ means to change from a solid to a vaporous state. And Romantic artists were wont to take this quite literally, blowing beguiling mists across their compositions. But it meant more than that, the works are sometimes painted in a style that’s slightly indistinct, that suggests more than it shows.

It’s somewhere between two things which may not sound like they have much in common. It’s like those blurry photos of the Bigfoot or Loch Ness monster, barely grasping the mystery of their subject, suggesting that’s the best our human senses might be able to do. But it’s also the way an altarpiece is seen to represent but not sum up God. Nature is always beyond us. We attempt to capture that which ultimately can’t be framed by our terms, so all that’s left us to to log the attempt.

So at one extreme, Romanticism tips over into the pantheistic. Wordsworth spoke of “God in Nature”. Yet if nature challenges or even replaces the Christian God, there’s nothing of the protective shepherd. The wildness of nature, the savagery of beats, the terrible sea storm, the vertiginous drop, these things aren’t sidelined but positively venerated. Let’s go for another example from current-day music, Patti Smith’s ‘Pissing In a River’:

“Spoke of a wheel,
“Tip of a spoon,
“Mouth of a cave,
“I'm a slave, I'm free”

We are not things in ourselves but part of a greater whole, our existence is contingent on the greater thing for our very survival. Yet to it our survival is essentially arbitrary, a matter of no consequence. Nature means death just as surely as it means life.

And of course there’s a paradox inherent to this. If Nature was there to convey to you your insignificance, it was still there to convey things to you. And as it was there to reveal to you your individuality, it was implicitly there just for you. There’s a passage of Wordsworth that captures this, where a ‘nook’…

“That seemed for self-examination made
”Or, for confession, in the sinner’s need
”Hidden from all men’s view.”

In art, Romanticism was carelessly bigging up two rival ruling forces. The artist who no longer merely reflects but creates – effectively he creates himself. But doesn’t this mean that, at least in his work, he also creates nature? Nature is forever being anthropomorphised, in other words brought to our level. 

Isiah Berlin said: “(They) do not hold a mirror up to nature, however ideal, but invent; they do not imitate but create.” Marx put it more pithily, if not acidly: “the forest echoes back what you shout into it.” So we get the artist Adrian Ludwig Richter’s description of Romanticism, “where man and nature dominate equally, each giving meaning and interest to the other.” 

In the exact counter to Ruskin, the paradox that founds Romanticism constrains it, and probably defines it. We can illustrate this. In ‘Hamlet’ Ophelia’s madness has made her as innocent of danger as a child, leading to her drowning. In Millais’ ‘Ophelia’ (1852, above) the artist runs with this, setting her death amid abundant nature. (To the extent that any ‘artistic’ depiction of a woman drowning made since cannot not seem a riff on this.) In fact, she seems to be morphing back into the natural world, an incidental detail now being re-absorbed by the bigger picture. And, if any further example was needed for the influence of Romanticism, later productions of the play have often incorporated Millais’ imagery.


Contrast that to Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog’, (1818, above). Friedrich’s upright human figure stands above that commanding view, the stick in his hand as if he’s a conductor about to raise his baton. Of course the female figure is prone while the male is (ain’t no other word) erect. All that’s obvious enough. But my point’s elsewhere.

Friedrich’s image is in clear opposition to the supine Ophelia, it’s impossible to bring them together in any coherent way. Romanticism cannot be both of these at once, it must choose. And yet that’s the very thing it is.

And there is even an upside to this. Pre-psychoanalysis, Romanticism could use nature as a means to convey the idea there is more going on inside us than we know of, simply by displacing that inside to the outside. It scarcely matters whether this was intentional or not. Romanticism seems more akin to Surrealism, which most fetishised the unconscious, than it does most Modernist movements.

Yet this perpetuates even today. You can read anywhere about how it arose as a reaction to both the Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution. The two TV series on Romanticism, Peter Ackroyd’s ‘The Romantics’ and Simon Schama’s ‘The Romantics And Us’, both say this.

Yet both go further. If Schama’s is more telling titled, both make their central thesis that the Romantics made the world we live in. Yet how, if its origins were so contingent, can it still have such an influence today? Particularly when you think of its fixation not just with youth but with dying young.



Let’s start with subculture. Hippie subculture, it is no breakthrough to say, was Romanticism reprised. Just look at that picture of Gong above, frolicking so bucolically. All of which was challenged and usurped by punk, by band such as the Jam who used urban graffiti as their logo for their first album cover (also above).

Or was it? Punk may have decried the pastoral escapism of its older sibling, and made the city its habitat. But theirs was not the bold, dynamic city of Futurism or Constructivism. They took the Romantic view of the city, as alienating and oppressive, where to quote the Velvet Underground “a man cannot be free”, and set up shop there. The first punk record released in Britain, the Damned’s ‘New Rose’, opened with the line “I’ve got a feeling inside of me”. Which is as Romantic a mission statement if ever was. Romanticism was doing something more than continuing to make its arguments. It was effectively still setting the terms.

And even that, to confine things to subculture, seems too narrow. Romanticism is now everywhere. Take the two points raised earlier; its claims for the discrete individual and self-expression in art are now taken as read, not considered but assumed. Has it in fact triumphed?

It’s not so simple. Rather than their winning out over their old enemy the Enlightenment, the once-rebels are now the dominant force. We could bring up climate change here, but the clincher must be Brexit. It’s now our side who come armed with infostats, information and appeals to clear-headed thinking, which they sweep to victory with oratory, broad appeals to emotion and feelgood notions of petty nationalism.

Yet at the same time nothing has been resolved. The tussle continues perpetually, crystallised in our continuing conception of head and heart as opposed forces. Based on a paradox, how could it ever supplant it? Romanticism cannot win, even while it’s winning, for its heart still needs head to be held against. Both sides will be perpetuated as long as we continue to embrace this dichotomy. And the unsolvable paradox of Romanticism’s attitude towards the individual and nature is not an obstacle to but the very reason for its longevity, a quandary which gets parcelled up and passed down the generations
. 

Saturday, 31 July 2021

“SEE THE CRIPPLE DANCE”: HOLE’S ‘CELEBRITY SKIN’ (TOP 50 ALBUMS)



”I’m Glad I Came Here…”

If Grunge was about reuniting Punk with rock, Hole played a characteristic twist on things. They set the two against one another, and so sounded like an arms race between the anti-social and self-loathing, creating music that was simultaneously furiously assertive and absolutely self-destructive. Tony Wilson famously said that Joy Division had moved music on, from Punk’s credo of “fuck you” to “I’m fucked”. Hole upped the ante with “fuck you, I’m fucked.” A fairly typical lyrical sentiment was “here you are just as ugly as me.”

Albums can split into tracks like libraries divide into sections - the cheery up-tempo one here, the melancholic ballad over there, and so on. Hole just curdled it all into one tangy taste. And with Courtney Love’s lyrics even the metaphors were fucked up, tangling, contorting, turning in on themselves. (“I love him so much it just turns to hate/ I fake it so much I am beyond fake.” Or “If you live through this with me/ I swear I will die for you”) She once said “whenever I write about something I end up writing about something else.”

‘Celebrity Skin’, their third album came out in 1998 and was in part “dedicated to all the stolen water of Los Angeles”, with an accompanying picture of the Department of Water and Power. The title track opened, riffing on the ruined decadence theme of classic films such as ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Whatever Happened to Baby Jane’, nicknamed “hag horrors” by a crassly cynical marketing machine. (“Wilted and faded, somewhere in Hollywood.”)


But the dominant image is of an LA all surface and superficiality - “Miles and miles of perfect skin/ I swear I do, I fit right in.” (The title comes from a cheap porn mag that went in for paparazzi celebrity shots.) It conjures up images of endless boulevards and avenues, all interchangeable, each only leading to more of the same. Populated by equally interchangeable people, plastic surgeried into sameness, where even those not in movies pass through an arbitrary series or roles. (“Hooker, waitress, model, actress/Oh, just go nameless.”) Guitarist Eric Erlandson confirmed “We used this great hollow city as inspiration for the album.”

With the opening line "oh make me over” it’s in many ways a post-break-up album. And like break-up albums immemorial, it’s full of regret for what’s passed (“It’s the emptiness that’s all you have left”) mixed with the desire to create a new identity for yourself.

And that break-up was in part with Punk. Perhaps not surprisingly after a four-year gap, the new album had a new sound. Well, not just one. It’s generally dubbed ‘alternative rock’, most likely because that’s a tag so elastic it can stretch as wide as anyone might need it to. Which is handy. The transition between the intense, strident acoustic ‘Northern Star’ to the FM/ West Coast sound of ‘Boys On the Radio’ is a particularly memorable leap, but really the album’s full of such moments. The cumulative effect of which is, to borrow a lyric, “hit so hard/ I saw stars.”

But let’s back up… Hole with a West Coast sound? Yes, really. Punk is perhaps at its most cliched with the “we won’t sell out” song, which mostly means “we will never change the record.” On the second track, ’Awful’, they launched into a now-familiar diatribe against Grunge being prettified and presented as mainstream rock. (“It was Punk/ Yeah it was perfect, now it's awful.”) Except it’s pointedly given the mainstream rock sound it ostensibly criticises.

Even with the previous release, Punk purists had been shouting “sell out!” at gigs. And to respond by goading her critics even further, to introduce more of a mainstream rock sound for punkish reasons, seems characteristically Courtney. Ben Hewitt in The Quietus called it “magnificently defiant, like someone raising a middle finger clad in swanky velvet gloves.”

“Have you ever felt so used up as this?”, she asked on her most inspired release. On a later track she states “when the fire goes out you better learn to fake”. And indeed this went on to become their best-selling album.

”All That’s Cold and Cruel”


That dedication continues “…and to anyone who ever drowned,” and the album’s also illustrated by Paul Abert Stick’s painting ‘Ophelia Drowning’. It’s about as lyrically consistent as it is musically varied, with themes and images constantly recurring shaken into different forms. Throughout opposites are juxtaposed, fire/water (even making it onto the cover), but also sweetness/sugarlessness and numerous others.

But most of all surface is contrasted with depth. Except here depth, even when you get it, is only for sinking into. (“Our love is quicksand/ So easy to drown.”) Proceedings turn into a tails-or-tails choice between surface and drowning, between un-life and death, between a headstone and a hard place.

And to understand that, we should remember something about this break-up. When Love sings “I know that you don’t love me any more”, her ex does have a good excuse for that. To try to make a twist out of something everybody knows very well, Kurt Cobain’s suicide had happened just before the previous album was released. So everyone had been waiting four years to hear Love’s reaction. And there is something creepily voyeuristic about all that, as if we’re keen to find out what use she’ll make of such great material.

She would often deflect this by insisting his death didn’t feature at all. And it’s true, none of the previous recordings had come in sunny side up. She’d started wishing she could die on the opening track of the first album. And the title track of the predecessor, ‘Live Through This’, was in memory of Black Flag’s roadie Joe Cole. Yet perhaps that just played up the problem. Simon Reynolds once described her lyrical style as “emotional nudism”. So this type of material, it really was just up her street. The difficult truth is that, however ghoulish it might be, all this did lead to the band’s greatest album, the one Love was born to make.

All of which Love took head on, audaciously and laceratingly. “You want a piece of me?” she spits on the opening track, “Well I’m not selling cheap.” ’Dying’ opened with the audience-confronting line “see the cripple dance”. ’Petals’ featured a violating stripping away (“Tear the petals off of you/ And make you tell the truth”), reprising a lyric from the last album. As if the whole point of the thing was for her to get her scars on show. Underlying the whole thing, Courtney’s stage surname, punned on throughout, started life as her stripper name.

The Rolling Stones’ ‘Paint It Black’ and Patti Smith’s ‘Gone Again’ may bookend musical reactions to bereavement. A jolt of stricken grief against a redemptive coming to terms. Given the time distance from the moment, we might expect from Love something closer to Smith’s. In fact it covers just about every point between, and including, the two.

So there’s anger (“How are you so burnt when you’re barely on fire?”), guilt at failing to prevent his death (“Put me up above the boy/ The one I love I should destroy”), survivor guilt (“I want what’s yours/ Oh I’d give anything/ And I’ll take the pain”), post-relationship bitterness (“And now I understand/ You leave with everything”), no-I’m-leaving-you wilful defiance (“No loneliness, no misery is worth you”) - and more. Quite a lot more, in fact.

And isn’t that how it is? When something momentous happens in your life, a hundred contradictory reactions collide in your head. So ‘Celebrity Skin’ captures them all, not resolving or even cataloguing them so much as externalising them. It’s not the sound of of someone feeling at times angry, at times despairing, at times redemptive. It’s feeling angry and despairing and redemptive, a dizzying whirlygig of emotions and images. The mix may ebb and flow, but each remains in the mix. Just when you think how have an image pegged to a symbol or a track to a theme, something else will appear to throw you off balance.

All of which are typical reactions to bereavement by suicide, about which there’s presumably been psychological studies. Yet because all this happened so much in public there can’t help but be an extra element…

Blaming suicides for suicide is like being one of those right-wing shock-jocks who blame poverty on the poor. Yet at the same time there’s a Romantic fixation with dying young, with screwing your life up to the ultimate degree made as some kind of social statement. People talk of That Stupid Club (which may even have got its name from Cobain) like its some exclusive hip establishment you should be clamouring to get into.

Whereas Love famously told Cobain’s fans to chant “asshole” at him for quitting before break time, commenting (fairly astutely) “so fucking what? - then don't be a rock star.” And this appears on the album too, Courtney knocking down Kurt the Idol of Easeful Death - “I had to tell them you were gone/ I had to tell them you were wrong”. Riffing on his Neil Young-quoting suicide note (“it’s better to burn out that fade away”) she countered “It’s better to rise than fade away”.

”Get Well Soon”


If LA dominates the album, even its sprawl can’t encompass the whole of it. The dark and brooding ‘Northern Star’ seems set in Seattle (or at least Washington state), as a kind of opposite pole. The refrain “run to the pines” recalls the folk standard ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night’ (also known as ‘In the Pines’), often played by Nirvana. But of course its depth is again that of the grave. (“Praying to the wound that swallows / All that's cold and cruel.”) This reinforces the binary.

But the one point that things break from that system is where a third place is referenced. And it gives the title to the single, ’Malibu’. (Disclaimer: Three singles were released in total. But this is the one which sounds like the single.)

The sea is the only non-stagnant water on the album (“Down by the sea is where you drown your scars”). While the titular light on ’Northern Star’ got you nowhere except lost, here multiple stars morph into angels. The second-person address seems (as ever) to slip between her talking to Kurt and to herself. But the overall sense is one of escape - “And the sun goes down/ I watch you slip away/ And the sun goes down/ I walk into the waves.”

Referring to the most redemptive Hole album might be like naming the most danceable Leonard Cohen album or Von Stroheim film made most in colour. But it remains the case. “Can you stand up,” Love rails, “or will you just fall down?” It’s a classic Punk taunt, demanding inner strength and castigating those who lack it. But like all such taunts, the question rebounds on the questioner.

And the answer we got back was yes. But there’s little redeeming about this, no pines-and-sea version of “hello trees, hello flowers”. Ultimately the album may not decide life is worth the living so much as describe survival as a kind of reflex action, the way you reach out when you fall. As Dorothy Parker said many years before - “might as well live.”

Saturday, 24 July 2021

‘BLACK WIDOW’

Beware! Plot Spoilers below!


Given that Natasha (aka the Black Widow) first appeared in the third Marvel Comics Universe film, ‘Iron Man 2’, back in 2010, there are those who have seen this solo outing as somewhat overdue. And this is almost literally true, you need to retrofit its events between already released films.

But perhaps the much-criticised delay was in part down to a wariness over how to do it. Natasha’s more spy than superhero, a creature of the shadows. And how do you spotlight that? As I said at the time, despite all the shared screen time, ‘Captain America The Winter Soldier’ (2014) got its title for a reason - Cap was the moral centre of the film. She inhabited the blurred line between right and wrong he fell into and struggled with. But what does a shadow do when there’s no goody-two-shoes for her to cast against?

One solution is to hold her at a distance. She’s twice shown as ahead, not just of other characters in the film but of us in the audience. Early on, she leads an enemy - and with him us - to believe she’s still in a building she’s already flown. And in the finale her plot to defeat Dreykov is revealed to us piece-by-piece, by repeated flashbacks. In this genre plots and calculation are more commonly seen as a villain’s thing, against which the hero brings his innate virtue and bulging biceps. All this helps her keep her anti-hero credentials.

And so we’re given not a new Cap but more Widows. With the help of one real sister (Yelena) and several proverbial ones (the amassed Widows), she works to overthrow the manipulating Dreykov. It’s almost the ‘Marvel Team-Up’ scenario, where the girls first tight one another, then figure out they’re better off working together. Even the armour-clad adversary Taskmaster, this film’s equivalent of the Winter Soldier, turns out to be another Widow, and hence turnable. (I plead guilty to first assuming she was male, and now have to march at the back on demos.)

The only man in on their plot is the sisters’ father, Alexi, a boastful but bumbling and ineffective figure. (Though there seems no continuity between how he’s played in the opening flashback and later.) In one gag he speaks into his comms, only to be told they didn’t bother issuing him with any. This isn’t just to give the show a clown, it provides a contrast between the weak father and Dreykov, the ‘bad Dad’. In a great gag, once free of Dreykov’s control Yelena immediately goes for every girls’ dream - clothing with pockets.

When Natasha confronts Dreykov, the twist is that he’s saddled her with a “pheromone lock”. This latest piece of sci-fi gobbledygook makes less sense than usual. Once she smells him she’s rendered incapable of fighting him. So did he have to avoid showering prior to the showdown? But pheromones are used by animals to perpetuate kinship, a notion often reinforced in popular culture. (Remember those Lynx adverts?) So this establishes Bad Dad as Natasha’s True Dad, the strong man, rather than the semi-useless Alexi.

And Natasha reacts in typical fashion. Just as she did with Loki back in ‘The Avengers’, she uses her enemy’s hubristic boasting against him. She goats him into breaking her nose, blocking her capacity to smell him and so breaking her link to him as pack leader.


So does that make this an anti-patriarchal film? Plenty will argue so, and from both sides of the ‘culture war’ divide. And Marvel seem smart enough to have clocked that the frothings of the anti-woke mob give them free publicity, so are worth stirring up. (Though intriguingly, and alarmingly, Marvel boss Isaac Perlmutter is a yuge Trump donor.)

But there’s another way of reading that moment. Remember her now-notorious line in ‘Age Of Ultron’ (2015)? Revealing to Bruce Banner she’d been sterilised by the Widow programme she adds “you still think you’re the only monster on the team?” And we’re reminded of this when Alexei sarcastically asks Yelena “is it that time of the month?”, for her to explain the details of her forced hysterectomy. (Admittedly a good moment in itself, nailing us boys’ yukkiness at female biology.)

In that context the significance of that nosebleed takes another turn. You don’t need the most vivid of imaginations to see it as representing the return of menstrual blood. Tied in with her gaining her freedom from Bad Dad, with her de-monstering of herself, is the re-establishing of her womanhood. In other words, if this film is opposed to patriarchy it’s a patriarchy which doesn’t define and then place you in the role of ‘woman’, it’s one which specifically denies you that role. In other words, it’s not any kind of anti-patriarchy at all.

And the film pulls off another conceit on the back of that. The backstory has to be dated to the Nineties to work chronologically, but it breezily folds that era into the Cold War in order to re-establish the familiar formula: East = tyranny, West = individual freedom. Natasha’s family may be somewhat matrilinear, but family is still what this film is somewhat obsessively about. Sheep would be easier to count than the number of times that word is used. And as their family is split up immediately on returning to the East, it’s effectively treated as an American import. (Anyone familiar with the sexual politics of Stalinism is here invited to laugh risibly.) So when family = good, we can bet collectively = bad. In fact here collectivity isn’t associated just with conformity but complete mind control.

What we have then, is an apparent individuality which is actually based on a kind of essentialism. A contradiction which is liberal thinking in a nutshell.


It might be objected that most viewers are unlikely to think any of this, and are more likely to come out the cinema saying “cool white costume” or “that Black Widow, she kicks ass!” And even Freud once said a broken nose was just a broken nose. (Or something like that anyway.) But the subliminal nature is precisely the problem. It’s the odourless smells which travel the furthest. And patriarchy is probably the most deep-rooted, the most ‘naturalised’ of all oppressions. You almost don’t need to try to reinforce it, you just need to rub with the grain.

And the serum comes in here, Soviet collectivist ideology in bottled form, at odds with ‘human nature’ and therefore switch-offable by a plot MacGuffin, which essentially provides instant deprogramming.

We are probably better off looking to Hollywood for textbook examples of the disease rather than expecting them to administer any cure. (Particularly any cure not reducible to magic red pixie dust.) But then neither should we entirely forget the first explanation for that busted nose. Perhaps it comes down to the nature of the ‘culture wars’, where legitimate questions about representation are reduced to a crude form of accountancy, until supposedly progressive voices become no more than a kind of mirror image of the anti-‘woke’ mob. Many fans uncritically lauded ‘Black Panther’ (2018) for having a a black lead, overlooking a plot about a born royal reclaiming his throne from an ignoble troublemaker, in order to restore peaceful relations with the West.

The metafictional elements of the film come in here, with Natasha watching James Bond and Yelena teasing her for posing in fights and generally being a cover girl. But this gag rebounds. ‘Black Widow’ is much closer to the corporation who put a woman on the recruitment poster, and considers that job done. A cover girl with a broken nose is still a cover girl.