Summer disturbed

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The Painter’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough’s intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, which took 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. Image © copyright The National Gallery London

He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a fashionably Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding. He is not just a portraitist exploiting vulnerability and shimmering fabric; he is their father who loves them and worries about them.

He would prefer to think his daughters are happy and well, hale and whole, but he dared to paint the anxiety showing in their faces as they ran, clutching each other’s hands, through the sinister half-darkness of a wood, which is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds.

Happiness as represented by the decoratively winged insect is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, “the feel of not to feel it”.

Love and madness disturb a summer’s day two hundred and fifty years after two little girls chased a butterfly.

I try to imagine again my first happy impression of this painting, first seen on visits to the National Gallery, when I was no older than the girls in the picture had been when their father painted them.

I took for granted they were living the ideal childhood of which I could only dream, long before I knew for a fact that both girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew up into deranged middle-aged women.

I didn’t see the sadness in their eyes, because I didn’t want to see it. The mysterious twilit wood looked enticing, not forboding.

When we look at their father’s painting, in ignorance of biographical details about the girls, shouldn’t our hearts still ache for them, with some knowledge intuitively divined, as Keats put it, “without irritable reaching after fact and reason”?

Or do we always impose our own preconceived ideas on everything we see, until some bossy person lectures us about it?

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that the girls would have fared better in our time. Nowadays, Mary and Margaret might be taken away from Thomas Gainsborough, who loved them so, and his unstable wife, whom he also loved, to be put into mental hospital or a lifetime of unreliable drug dependency.

gainsborough wife

The painter’s wife, Margaret Gainsborough, by Thomas Gainsborough, c 1779, when she was about fifty years old.
Image © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London

Imagine being both the painter and the parent of those little girls, chasing their butterfly, never being able to catch it.

One person’s wistfulness is another’s indifference. Nothing we see feels the same to the person in the picture. We congratulate ourselves on feeling so deeply about art that we must be good people or, at least, better than we thought we were a moment ago

Good or not, we cannot help the girls in the picture.

We chase the butterfly.

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Facing the world (3) through Acedia

 “The blues are brewin” (sung by Billie Holiday)

Acedia is a form of depression that was identified by theologians of the early Christian Church with sloth, a spiritual fatigue caused by too much time to brood and day-dream, especially in monasteries and convents, where self-discipline and self-motivation were essential for mental health.

At least one blogger is feeling the same symptoms today.

In the early 5th century, the ascetic and mystic John Cassian described acedia as “weariness or distress of the heart…akin to dejection”. Some of his suggested cures were manual work, sympathizing and caring for other people with loving kindness, taking plenty of exercise.

Later, in secular society, the same feelings of boredom and hopelessness were caused by the dull repetition of tasks at work or at home, whichever you were chained to, and by excessive pleasures and luxury of choice among the leisured classes.

More recently, acedia has been linked to the rise of consumerism in the 20th century. I’d add the Lottery, and the misuse of the word “aspiration” to dress up acquisitiveness in angel’s clothing. Modern shopping for stuff isn’t quite what the socialist arts leaders had in mind when they called for cultural beauty to be accessible and affordable to all of us.

Acedia is a sickly leveller, affecting rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.

Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

PART ONE – A Celebrity’s Tragedy

2006AV2988Sarah Siddons, oil on canvas c 1784, attributed to William Hamilton (or Thomas Beech).
© Victoria and Albert Museum.

Siddons dominated the female tragic roles on the English stage for over 30 years. Her stately performances in the most immediate of art forms articulated the eighteenth century’s ideal of the sublime, and her representations of the classical passions, in combination with her outwardly virtuous private life, won over audiences as diverse as George III, who appointed her Reader to his family, his son the Prince Regent, with whom he never agreed about anything else, and Lord Byron, who admired her more than any other actor, male or female, worth more than Cooke, Kemble and Kean all put together.

Even the Duke of Wellington, as famous for dry understatement as she was for grand pathos, was a fan.

Going to see her act was like an ecumenical religious event. Hazlitt said she was a goddess, Tragedy personified. By the time she died in 1831, she had outlived two kings, her friend, the portraitist Lawrence, the poet Byron, her brother and fellow-actor John Philip Kemble, her upstaged and discarded husband William Siddons, and, worse than anything that a mother should endure, five of their children, but not her reputation.

The mystique of the Tragic Muse had been preserved, but only just. Even before her formal retirement in 1812, something had gone wrong. “She was no longer the same….” complained Hazlitt of her inaudibility and disproportionate emphases. She kept making ill-advised and distressing comebacks: “her voice appeared to have lost its brilliancy”; “….she laboured her delivery most anxiously as if she feared her power of expression was gone” (Robinson).

She had gone from goddess to joke. Continue reading

The Character of Light

enchanted castleClaude Lorrain, Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, 1664
National Gallery. Image source: National Gallery

“You know the Enchanted Castle, – it doth stand / Upon a rock, on the border of a Lake, /
Nested in trees….” (Epistle to Reynolds)

(FINAL) PART EIGHT

Claude’s Landscape with Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, inspired by Apuleius’s story, which Keats sourced for his Ode to Psyche, is a late work of the painter’s, an elegant baroque fantasy with less than the usual “incessant observation of nature” and quality of “Brightness [that] was the excellence of Claude, brightness independent on colour…the evanescent character of light”[1] that Constable valued above all other artistic attributes.

The picture’s shortcomings, its dark, sleeping stillness, as if waiting for someone to step in and breathe life into it, gave literary advantages to Keats. The glimpse of the stone towers and colonnades nested above a foaming sea left him with more “room for Imagination” [2] to improvise a philosophical fairy tale to entertain a sick friend [3] and, later, to develop a recurring motif in his work.

He woke up the painting from its two centuries’ sleep and called it The Enchanted Castle. He rebuilt it repeatedly in his fertile year of 1819. The “marble balustrades”, “polish’d stone”, “diamond paved lustrous long arcades” and “crystalline pavilions” dominate the dreamscape of The Fall of Hyperion, the precious fragment containing his beliefs and doubts about the value of art and poetry distilled from the previous two years of his writing life. He remembers the Elgin Marbles in the motionless postures of the Titans, Saturn and Moneta: “Like sculpture builded up upon the grave / Of their own power. ”

The white heifer from the Epistle to Reynolds is sacrificed another two times, in Ode to a Grecian Urn and The Fall of Hyperion. The narrator’s blissful vision the moment before he is tolled back to his sole self in Ode to a Nightingale by the spell-breaking word “forlorn” is of the Enchanted Castle overlooking the sea.

The fragrant woodland landscape of the Enchanted Castle is where the dreamer, the feeling man, aspires to become a poet who can “‘Labour for mortal good'”. In his attempt to “usurp this height”, [3] Keats’ experiments in poetry were not infallible. He also had to earn a living; and he was getting ill. (Those of us wanting our young poet/prophet to be perfect, prefer to keep Otho, and The Cap and Bells out of our thoughts, only daring to admit them in parenthesis.) During his last year of “posthumous existence” that produced no new poetry, he was still consumed from within by “all that information (primitive sense) necessary for a poem”, and of feeling “the identity of every one in the room” [4] with the same intensity that made a newly created god shriek in pain.

The gap remained, the aching voids between form and expression, imagination and experience, objectivity and subjectivity, universality and the personal. The dialectic irradiates his writing, an intellectual light diffused over the lush landscape. He argues with his own poetry.

ClaudeLorrainSeaportwiththeEmbarkationofSaintUrsula wiki versionClaude’s Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula, oil on canvas, 1641. National Gallery, London –
“in no other picture have I seen the evanescent character of light so well expressed.” John Constable, Second Lecture at the Royal Institution, 1836. Image source: Wikipedia.

The “wide arched grace” of Lamia‘s marble palace, an artifice inside an artifice, decorated with “creeping imagery” of trees, reminiscent of Claude’s feathery foliage, is the setting for the battle between rationality and sensual imagination that ends in a world “empty of delight”.

Even more difficult to face than the truth that sexy, brilliant, passionate Lamia is a serpent, is that self-important, negative Apollonius is right. Art must include the real world in its grasp, or it is useless. Denial of reality is self-poison. The inextricable contrarieties of life must be endured if we are to enjoy happiness, rather than spoil each rare joyful moment with regret that it must pass. The dreamer in The Fall of Hyperion is advised to bear: “The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct”. 

Keats, the striving writer, was never satisfied that he had found the solution – “ever must I moan, / To question Heaven and Hell and Heart in vain” [5]. Keats was a suffering artist, without affectation; complacency is the death of any artist, “sublime or low”. [6] When we were young, hot for certainties, [7] some of us glided over the question marks in Keats, treating them as if they are the rhetorical flourishes of a Regency ghost – a big mistake, because they are nothing of the sort, they are questions, to be delivered with urgency; they complete the counterpoint; they are part of his chiaroscuro. He described his profession as  “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness”. [8]

Towards the end of his lifelong study of nature, Monet’s transcendental, increasingly abstract Nymphéas in the series begun during the early casualties of the First World War, are still real water lilies, “material sublime”, painting them being another word for feeling, a Keatsian twilight fusion with Essence.

monetsunsetMonet, Water Lilies, Sunset, after 1914.
Oil on canvas, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris. Image source: WGA
Given to the French Nation by Monet in 1922
“The pain alone; the joy alone; distinct” (The Fall of Hyperion)

In trying to trace “the shadow of a magnitude” [9], poetry of art, like any other religion, offers us salvation, or, failing that, perspective. Even when we are beyond cure, it brightens our darkness, like a star dying into life, or the subtlest play of scattered light on shade.

The poet-painter controls the field of vision. We all feel better when we have control, when we see a pattern. Viewing an Enchanted Castle in close-up, or led under its imitation marble arches into the wreathed trellises of the interior, we are dazzled into believing it is a private theatre for our fantasies, an exquisite virtual world, architecture for introspection.

Valeriani design for a stage setGiuseppi Valeriani: Set of designs for a stage set, 17th Century.
The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London
“A rosy sanctuary will I dress / With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain” (Keats, Ode to Psyche)

The poetry of art offers us rescue from a vile world through mediation, not denial, of external realities. The wide shot of ‘Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid’ shows us that the gleaming towers are on the promontory of a wild sea, subject only to the laws of nature and reality, where, without the redemptive powers of imagination and reason, our individual hopes and fears, loves and ambitions “to nothingness do sink.” [10]

The Enchanted Castle is where the poetic soul is made, the place where, in a Turner or Claude painting or Keats poem, self is dissolved by imagination into light. And, yes, penetrating this evanescence is a death-wish, to die upon the midnight with no pain, the kind of fantasy-death without cough, fever, haemorrhage, and sickening belief of having failed, for which Keats yearned and did not have, a sensation as sweet as sex, or drinking wine, knowing the taste of joy will turn to poison in an instant, and drinking again, because truth is beauty.

At this apex of feeling, the poet/painter is tolled back to “self-concentration”,[11] and, by starting the careful selection and combination of forms and colours, “patent yellow or white lead”[12] for sunlight, learned from patient study of art and nature, renews his cycle of creativity.

As for the rest of us, without his “magic casements, opening on the foam / Of perilous seas”, [13] where on earth would we be?

[1] Constable, Lecture II, p307
[2] Keats referring to the Camposanto frescoes in Letters, pp 187-8, a selection edited by Robert Gittings, OUP 1970.
[3] The Fall of Hyperion
[4] Keats, Letters
[5] Letters, 14 February 1819
[6] The Fall of Hyperion
[7] George Meredith, Modern Love, (1862) in one of literature’s truest and most quoted aphorisms “Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul / When hot for certainties in this our life!—”
[8] Letters
[9] Keats, On Seeing the Elgin Marbles
[10] Keats, When I have fears
[11] Letters
[12] Constable, Lecture II, Memoirs of the Life of John Constable, p307
[13] Ode to a Nightingale

The poetry of art

The first thing you notice is the astonishing blue. It is a woman’s dress, with a luminous life of its own, a bright heart bursting out of a pale pink shell, made of the same colours as the blue sky, flushed pale carmine by the setting sun. Darkling, she “cannot see what flowers are at her feet, /Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs”. She has a woman’s head, but her body looks more like an exotic blue flower, a lady elf transforming from gordian to woman’s shape. Her dark curling hair might be part of a tree’s foliage.

gainsborough ladybate-dudley1787Lady Bate-Dudley, oil on canvas c.1787. © Tate. Her husband, Sir Henry, known as the Fighting Parson, was a loyal friend and supporter of Gainsborough; he also wrote comic operas. The Bate-Dudleys seem to have inhabited a surprisingly passionate landscape of their own.

Viewed as late 18th century society portraiture, Gainsborough’s painting of Lady Bate-Dudley is disconcerting, being far more about abstract colour and light than the status of the sitter; as poetry of art, it perfectly evokes states of mind painted in words by Keats.

Gainsborough was a poetic painter, Keats the most painterly of poets in an age inspired by unbounded imaginative affinities. Keats’ liquid imagery was as often in danger of dripping from his verse as Gainsborough’s oil-diluted colours from his palette. They Continue reading