Nothing, or the Magic Pin Board

Part ten of Nothing

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Shakespeare (Hamlet)

The most personal of Gijsbrechts’ deceptions casually pins down all art, and individual identity, as a coat of arms on a plain wooden board. A musical instrument, the tools of his own craft of painting, even himself, in a miniature self-portrait, are stuck there, a declaration of THIS IS ME, all in vain, until somebody three and a half centuries later looks at them.

GijsbrechtsTrompe_l'oeilviolin art

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with violin, painters implements and self-portrait, oil on canvas, 1675,
Royal Castle, Warsaw. Image: Wikipedia

We should be so lucky, to create anything so well-made that it lasts beyond a moment on the web. Most of it is worthless, read or not. Words, words, words as a fictional Danish prince said in around 1602.

There is nothing deep here, on this blog, only a brazen attempt to create the illusion. I don’t know much about Nihilism and Existentialism, and can seldom untangle a metaphysical conceit, but, as I like the sound of the words, I’m content to use them as labels for states of mind, alluding to concepts without fully understanding them, just like a monkey would, and now with WP technology I can tag them, separating them with commas, meaninglessly. “Words are wise men’s counters….but they are the money of fools” (Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651).

I blog profitlessly, in every sense.  I shouldn’t be here at all; I should be out, trying to earn a living, not flirting with dead men and downloading old pictures. “Vanity of vanities! all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, King James Bible version, 1611).

wood

wood by Martin Hübscher Photography  © August 2014

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts began his adventure in still-life and trompe l’oeil in Antwerp, then found customers in the German cities of Regensburg and Hamburg, before he was appointed court painter in Copenhagen where he decorated the King’s Kunstkammer, one of the greatest of all European cabinets of curiosities, with his illusions of illusions; no job or position ever lasted, he always moved on, itinerant artist in search of the same theme, first to Stockholm, and then back to Germany, to Breslau, now the Polish city of Wroclaw, and then, almost full circle, he returned to Flanders, ending up in Bruges. On the way, he broke the fourth wall.

kms3076

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil. A Cabinet of Curiosities with an Ivory Tankard, 1670
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen

Gijsbrechts painted a series of representations of cabinets of curiosities, with closed or half open doors revealing the eclectic objects inside, for the Perspective Chamber of the real cabinet of curiosities of the Danish kings, a sort of site-specific art installation, except none of the objects were real.

Visitors to the Chamber were unwittingly entering a stage-set. In one of the paintings, they were given a glimpse back-stage. The door opens on to nothing, Lord Rochester’s “Great Negative”, the beginning and end of everything, into which all our words and illusions must “undistinguished fall”, where the cosmos itself started and will end.

That is the rational end, but for most of us it is not the end of illusion. We are unable or unwilling to grasp finality in our minds. When we look at the picture, we are tempted to jump into the grey empty space on another adventure of the imagination, through a portal to another world.

Gijsbrechts’ tricks with our eyes were intended to entertain, no more, but few things, let alone people, turn out exactly as intended. Some of us spending too much time looking at his painted half open-doors, might find, like Keats looking at the Grecian Urn, an art form “dost tease us out of thought”. Is it something, or nothing?

Unable to encompass the magnitude, or the littleness, of what art and history is telling me, bemused by all their illusions, this blogger is like one of those people described by Hobbes in Leviathan as “birds that entering by the chimney, and finding themselves enclosed in a chamber, flutter at the false light of a glass window, for want of wit to consider which way they came in.”

It’s been a long train of thought that’s led me here, and, look, guess what, at the last post, all those words, all those pictures of dead princes and poets, their monkeys and dogs, all those letter racks and skulls and fruit pieces, they’ve all been in vain, and I’ve blogged my way to dusty

NOTHING

the front of the picture

Part eight of Nothing

KMS5

Is this a photograph of an easel and canvasses arranged for a trendy shop window display? Or you might see it on the cover of one of those aspirational free lifestyle mags published by estate agents, showing off the latest interior design features to fill those awkward corners of a penthouse with river view.

We know it’s staged – no real painter’s easel ever looks like that – but it is a reproduction of a real three-dimensional, isn’t it?

It is the three-hundred and forty year old optical illusion proving that human life is transient and meaningless, but art is not:

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts Cut-Out Trompe l’Oeil Easel with Fruit Piece oil on canvas 1670-1672.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum, Copenhagen..

Is this why all of us, even if we can’t draw or paint or write much more than a list of tags, are so desperate to leave our mark? Because we can’t bear being meaningless?  Even if we can’t find a market for it? Even if we’re vanity publishing?

Posting on our online pin boards is another opiate for existential angst, supplying illusions ad infinitum. We think it keeps us sane, even while we drive everyone else mad. All is vanity.

Our response to the portrait of Lord Rochester holding a laurel crown over a monkey is dictated by the subject matter, because the charisma of the wild glamour boy poet, and the daring symbolism, which was the patron’s idea, not the artist’s, are more striking than Huysman’s execution, gorgeous though the baroque reds and ochres are.

Most Vanitas painting, of everyday objects, just stuff lying around, succeeded in glorifying itself as much as the customer’s lifestyle choices.

It was bravura advertizing of the painter’s technique and ingenuity, especially in conveying perspective, and of the power of art, in which the painting triumphed over the concept, the artist over the patron, however rich or royal; as an exercise in humility it defeated its own object. It is utterly vain. It’s not even transient.

The strict moral message is usually, thank God, almost completely submerged in wonderfully extravagant decorative effects, like theatre design.

The seventeenth century was as fluent in theatrical metaphor as we are in digital media and the manipulated image. Vanitas, which at first glance is the least dramatic of historic painting, with none of the stories to tell of landscape and portraits, is all about theatrical illusion.

Gijsbrechts created his delectable fruit-piece for the Danish king’s cabinet of curiosities. It was plainly described in the inventory from 1674 as: “A stand with painter’s paraphernalia painted on perspective.” (SMK website, which is superb.)

Even without tricks of perspective, the most mundane looking Baroque still life is set-dressing of a drama or satirical comedy, an illustration to a Shakespearean soliloquy about the futility of life, in which the cloud capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, all our invented consolations dissolve; or it simply looks good enough to eat.

dessert

Photo: Martin Hübscher Photography © 2014

And there is more vanity to come, in yet another post….

monkey lost

Part six of Nothing

Prince Rupert’s monkey was not supernatural, as the enemy claimed, but when it wasn’t being amusing, it must have been offensively annoying to its own side. There is no record (as far as I know) of what happened to the monkey, whether it survived the first civil war to go on Rupert’s further adventures as a soldier in Europe and pirate of the Caribbean, or if it died of natural causes in England.

Rupert didn’t become a pirate for fun – Royalist fortunes were at their lowest point in the early 1650s when England was doing very well as a republic for the only time in history – so far –  and his exiled cousin, Charles II, was desperately short of money.

Rupert lost something far more precious than the booty he gained on the expedition: Moritz, his closest brother and best friend, his second-in-command and comrade-in-arms was drowned. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

KMSst461

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Trumpet, Celestial Globe and Proclamation by Frederik III of Denmark, 1670, oil on canvas. Collection and image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The symbols of temporal political power and global commerce are piled up like forgotten booty, or modern window display of a luxury boutique for people who have everything, in front of Gijbrechts’ usual background of plain wood.

Rupert’s personality and exploits swept him away from historic battlefields into Stuart myth, biography, novels, and most dubiously of all, blogs, which, while romanticising him, have detracted from his tangible achievements.

There are two Ruperts, a figment of other people’s imagination, an object of desire or envy, and a real man who, when he settled in his adopted country of England after the Restoration, contributed in a very realistic, practical way to British artistic and scientific progress and overseas commercial exploration.

He is the sardonic action hero with brains and, when he was young, beauty, the darkly brooding antithesis to Rochester’s merry lord of misrule. Continue reading

Who’s the monkey now?

Part two of Nothing

When Lord Rochester, the Restoration satirist, poet, libertine, courtier, and acting coach, wanted to make a visual satire on human vanity and transience, he avoided the 17th century’s skull cliché by being portrayed with a monkey offering him a page torn from a book, the descendant of the million virtual monkeys typing out Shakespeare’s plays.

rochester

Jacob Huysmans, John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647 – 1680), oil on canvas. Private collection. Image: WGA Rochester, the most glamorous, and lighthearted, of obscene immoralists, collaborated with the Roman Catholic Flemish painter Jacob Huysmans to produce an iconic image mocking the ignorance and pretentiousness of mankind.

He isn’t patronising the monkey; he rated animal instinct higher than human nature, including his own, and his specific targets were the ruling class of which he was a member by birth, and everyone who presumed to exert power over other people, by force or by creed.

Like the other great privileged literary rebel, Byron, he inherited titles, property and a Cavalier heritage without any money, the lifeblood of power in society.

Rochester’s father was a hard-drinking, Anglo-Irish Cavalier officer, of the clubbable “Laughing” kind, committed to upholding monarchy, “his mother a strict Puritan; out of their union, the great disbeliever was born.

Rochester’s portrait also happens to be one of the most seductive images of male beauty, enhanced by androgynous Restoration fashion, which has glamourized the popular perception of libertines and nihilism ever since. We’d all be enrolling in metaphysics classes if the lecherous lecturer looked like that.

We might even dare go into the darkness some of us fear, to read erotic fiction and obscene verse, because Rochester makes sex feel like love.

Like the actor who played the rake-hell Willmore, based on Rochester, in a revival of Aphra Behn’s The Rover in the 1690s, “he made vice so alluring” to even the virtuous Queen Mary II.

Even the most sincere of critics of human nature cannot shake off his own self-consciousness. By showing himself in a portrait as a freethinker crowning, or more likely decrowning, a monkey, he was declaring how much more hip he was than everyone else at court and in the country.

He was right, of course – he’s a sex symbol who still makes hearts throb faster today, a prototype Romantic, by turns lyrical or obscene, depending on his hangover; one of the great tortured, self-destructive, witty, bisexual, substance-abusing, rocking and rolling anti-heroes who lived in the moment because time before and after is a fantasy, a trick of the mind’s eye, a waste of living.

Monkeys were popular pets among 17th century cosmopolitan aristocrats with brains and attitude – Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, had kept one during the Civil War a generation earlier, “a malignant she-monkey” which the Roundheads made crude allegations about.

When their propagandists alleged she was a witch in disguise with whom the German prince was having sex, they were serving the public an inflammatory potion of minor royalty, xenophobia, superstition, and prurience –

That monkey won’t stop jumping about – it’s run away with the theme of this post – I can’t catch it – where has it gone?

The journey into Nothing will be continued….

No room for another post

Part one of Nothing

trompe

Cornelius Gijsbrechts (c. 1630 – c. 1683) Trompe l’oeil of a Letter Wall,
oil on canvas, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent. Image: WGA
Letter walls, or pin boards, were popular during the age of cabinets of curiosities. This Vanitas painting by a master of illusionism alludes to the pointlessness of writing, and ultimately of the painting itself, from the briefest letter to the most elaborately printed book, all of them posted here, along with the tools we use to scratch our individual marks on time.

ALL IS VANITY, INCLUDING BLOGGING

Gijsbrechts was a Flemish artist who specialised in Vanitas, a deceptively bleak spiritual outlook dominant in northern European art of the seventeenth century about the worthlessness of all human endeavour. Accomplished still-life artists were able to earn a living through a genre which made rich Protestants feel better about their rampant materialism, so they could carry on buying stuff, and paying for art and literature, with a clear conscience.

It was also an enjoyable and sophisticated visual game, stuffed with intellectual allusions to flatter high-brow patrons, and, whenever artists deployed illusionist perspective, enough tricks of the eye to beguile everybody.

Trompe_l'oeil._Skab_fra_kunstnerens_atelier

Gijsbrechts A Cabinet in the Artist’s Studio, 1670-71.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
One of the more conventionally cluttered of Gijsbrechts’ Vanitas paintings is still studio-bound, a painting about painting itself, and the painter, rather than morality; it is art for art’s sake, and a self-portrait.

At the same time as reflecting that they were justified by Faith alone, the patrons could show off all their acquisitions, the luxurious furnishings, the architectural garden features, the exotic flowers and fruit, a token rotting one, of course, their hunting trophies, and all their books, their pictures, their musical and scientific instruments, everything which makes life bearable and beautiful, none of which cannot save any of us, a point often rubbed in by a skull knocking about, to put the fear of God into you.

Baroque Yoricks proliferated like zombies and skeleton armies in the post-apocalyptic, internet-free visions of our own culture.

KMSst537

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’oeil with Studio Wall and Vanitas Still Life, 1668.
Image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
While deceiving us like a magician with the illusion we are looking at three-dimensional objects, the artist has taken the opportunity to do some very realistic self-advertizing by adding his address details to his name on the piece of paper tucked into the bottom of the frame.

All is vanity, including blogging, but occasionally we are dazzled into believing otherwise. During the course of picture research for this blog, I came across a website and art collection new to me, of the great national gallery of Denmark, proving that the journey is often more rewarding than the destination.

No visit, real or virtual, to SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, is in vain. Please go!

This journey into Nothing will be continued….

Fairy tale ending

NPG D34186; Maria (Gunning), Countess of Coventry by John Finlayson, after  Katharine ReadNPG D7116; Elizabeth (Gunning), Duchess of Argyll by John Finlayson, after  Katharine Read

The Gunning sisters: Maria, Countess of Coventry (1733-1760) and Elizabeth, Duchess of Argyll (1734-1790),
Mezzotints by John Finlayson (Maria, on the left, or top, depending on your device) published in 1771, Elizabeth, on the right, published in 1770) after paintings by Katherine Read.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
Perhaps it’s projection, or Read, an experienced society portraitist, really did put a hint of slyness in Maria’s expression, and caught Elizabeth’s bland composure and self-determination.

Being defined by being beautiful and nothing else has always come at a price: Maria died aged only 27 of blood-poisoning caused by the excessive use of lead in her make-up. Ten thousand people went to look at her coffin.

We – the observers, then and now – are so afraid of our own mortality, so needy for affirmation of own moral superiority, we like to believe that if she had not been so vain, she could have controlled her fate.

It depends on your definition of vanity, of course. If she had been a plain woman, or an old woman, spending time at the dressing-table before going out to work, or the shops, or being forced to stay in for BT or the gasman, taking the trouble to put on a bit of powder of lipstick, we would call her “well-groomed”, and be cheered up by her sense of social responsibility.

If she was a blogger, anxiously counting her “Likes”, screaming at the screen because she didn’t have enough Followers, would we call her vain?

Everything is vanity, traditionally: every thing that makes life bearable. Beauty, comfortable housing, not just the cushions and the free-standing bath (god, I’d love that, if I had the space and the plumbing wasn’t so crap) but the external structure of your home – why can’t you live in a nicely frescoed cave? – and the fixtures and fittings inside – the fireplaces, the built-in cupboards, the curtains, even your books, your pictures, your hobbies, your phones, your tablets – not to mention your bank accounts, which the government are probably looking at already – so why can’t we give that girl the right to own her face?

raritiesarevanities

Jan van der Heyden Still-Life with Rarities, 1712, Oil on canvas, Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
Image: WGA
“Rarities are vanities” – the pointlessness of civilization and individuality (but oh! what a nice fireplace for the cool light of a modern home, with an optional armadillo swinging by).

We don’t think, if we hadn’t been so addicted to looking at her, thousands of us looking at her, criticizing her, aggrandizing or belittling her, she wouldn’t have been so obsessed with how she looked in our eyes. She wants our approval, we want her to have our approval, we want to own her, a fiction of our making, and we, like drug dealers, push her, this lovely, stupid, vulnerable girl, into the habit.

Every time you notice she’s got a zit, are you relieved to see she’s as prone to imperfections as you? Then it’s you who are vain.

Oh, look – beauty and tragedy, in one stroke. Eat this lovely red apple, Snow White. We’ll give you a happy ending if we feel like being cheered up, but sometimes tears are even better; they make us feel we are good people.

toilettepapillons

La Toilette engraving by Saint Aubin, 1748, Bibliothčque Nationale, Paris. Image: WGA
As well as pretty shells and gurgling putti, flower garlands and little baa lambs, Rococo imagination played with sinister, grotesque and entomological figures long before pseudo-medieval horror entered mainstream culture, and these giant butterflies, descended from fantastical stage-set monsters of a hundred years earlier, so closely resembling science-fiction aliens of today, might be visible fluttering around our own dressing-tables in the blinking of an eye…

The younger sister, Elizabeth, had more sense and a stronger instinct for self-preservation. She never lost the proverbial “luck of the Gunnings”, and she had a natural dignity of her own. She was a successful serial gold-digger, marrying two dukes and being engaged to a third in between, finally being granted a noble title in her own right by a besotted George III.

Hers was the sort of life, like Lorelei Lee’s, in which “Fate keeps on happening”.

There was something of a life-force about Elizabeth, which was her greatest beauty.

Sir_Joshua_Reynolds_-_Elizabeth_Gunning,_Duchess_of_Hamilton_and_Argyll

Portrait of the Duchess of Hamilton and Argyll by Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas c 1760-61.
Image: Wikipedia.
Elizabeth, the younger sister by a year, wearing the ermine edged crimson coronation robes of a duchess, as you do, while you lean nonchalently on a plinth in a park.
The robes are only worn on the ceremonial occasion of the sovereign’s coronation, in this case, George III’s.

At the time Reynolds painted her portrait, Elizabeth had been recently widowed and was a dowager duchess at the age of twenty-four; she quickly married another duke in time for the new king’s accession, proving the luck of the Gunnings, that gentlemen marry brunettes, that Fate keeps happening, and that it’s hard to tell the difference between history and fantasy.

Page_138_illustration_from_Fairy_tales_of_Charles_Perrault_(Clarke,_1922)Illustration by Harry Clarke to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, published in 1922 by Harrap. Image: Wikipedia

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 poet on the chain of art

Everyday pains and regrets, washing hanging on the line on a windy day, a glass of wine, a loaf of bread, a plate breaking in the kitchen sink, are as vital to art and writing as the greatest loves and losses, the grandest landscapes and lushest nudes. The material sublime was made out of rock and hair, skin and wood, sap and egg and insect carcasses.

Part Two of The Character of Light

DionysosFigure of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, c.438-432 BC. © Trustees of the British Museum. “Misshapen monuments and maim’d antiques” – Byron, satirizing English Bards and Scotch Reviewers
for indiscriminate gushing over the Elgin Marbles.

Keats’ imagination links him to the chain of art, from the realistic details of classical sculpture and drapery in early Renaissance frescoes, to the joyful experienced sensations of Impressionism, the anguished lyrical Expressionism of Munch, and the quietude of abstraction. His multi-faceted poetic personality reflected all life, sensual and intellectual, mystic and realist, neo-classicist and Romantic.

He never wanted to be part of a school or movement. He saw himself as a student of life and art, not a precocious genius: “I cannot speak/ Definitively on these mighty things” he admitted in his Sonnet to Haydon after his first sight of the Elgin Marbles. When he wrote in a letter,“I never can feel certain of any truth but from a clear perception of its Beauty”, he was thinking the same as John Constable, who said “There is nothing ugly; I never saw an ugly thing in my life: Continue reading

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

Yellow and Purple, or A Plate of Figs

Links are a lazy way of making a point; finding degrees of affinity or underlying meaning in coincidences are a substitute for profound originality.

This shamelessly shallow post presents a colour-coded association between the excessive frivolity of the ancien regime and the socialist conscience of modern feminism, between Marie Antoinette’s favourite dress shop and the intellectual salon of Simone de Beauvoir, both in Paris, two centuries apart.

In the 1770s and 1780s, Rose Bertin’s shop on the rue Saint-Honoré was decorated in yellow and purple, including the painted imitation marble at the front entrance.

From the late 1950s to 1980s, Simone de Beauvoir furnished her Paris studio with yellow sofas and chairs on a purple carpet.

This leap-frogging post might be silly, but it is not ironic. By serendipity, after lunch on a hot June day, it has landed on a revelation of women’s history through two colours.

yellow and purpleContemporary purple cardigan and yellow dress c. 2014. Private collection.
Image © MHP

Complementing yellow and purple had been fashionable many times before, of course, in horticulture, interior decoration and fashion design, and continues to be; there’s a striking use of the combination in the bed hangings of the Yellow or Velory Room at Ham House, home of the Duchess of Lauderdale, one of the most powerful operators at the heart of government and politics during the English Restoration.

The colours glowed in dark old rooms like dappled sunlight and shade; our ancestors brightened their interiors with hues that in electric light we recoil from as garish.

In any era, any tone, yellow and purple are an imperial choice. A hundred years later, Bertin’s Rococo yellow and lavender (not girlish pale pink or virginal white or fresh pea green or sky blue but majestic purple) declared her right to dictate fashion to rich customers, terrified of being out of date whenever they passed her yellow and purple shop front: I’m new, I’m self-made, I don’t care if you think I’m vulgar, I’m as good as you, you need me to tell you what to wear, I’m more powerful than any of you duchesses and princesses, I’m modern luxury consumerism, based on wealth and success, not birth and education, I’m the future. Continue reading