Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Gainsborough Girls

Another day, another painting - this time Thomas Gainsborough's unfinished The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly.
 Yesterday I popped into the National Gallery and was wandering around more or less at random, as I often do. Invariably, when I do this, something will catch my eye and draw me to it for a longer deeper look. Perhaps because I'd just been writing about Autumn Leaves - another painting of children with a theme of transience and a mood of suspended sadness - it was this Gainsborough that reached out and grabbed me. More precisely, it was this beautiful picture and a slightly later, more unfinished painting of the two little girls (The Painter's Daughters Holding a Cat) that hangs at right angles to it in a corner of Room 35.
 The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly shows, on the right, Mary and on the left, Margaret, at about the ages of six and four respectively. Mary is every inch the protective elder sister, yet seems strangely detached from the little drama that is about to play out, as Margaret impulsively reaches to grab a butterfly that has perched on a thistle - a double jeopardy. Clearly the butterfly can be read as a symbol of the transience of life and beauty, the brevity of childhood, etc (and equally clearly, Gainsborough was no lepidopterist - this butterfly seems to have its upperwings where its underwings should be). The thistle needs no gloss.
 The two figures are quite beautifully drawn - note in particular the placing of the feet, perfectly expressing the tension between them, the subtle modulation of skin tones, and the masterly free rendering of their dresses. It is a very immediate picture of a frozen movement, a moment in time, and it radiates the artist's intense love and tender anxiety for his young daughters.
 The painting becomes yet more touching with hindsight, as life did not go well for these girls. Mary made a disastrous, short-lived marriage (against her father's wishes) to the virtuoso oboist and composer Johann Christian Fischer, and her always eccentric and flighty character gradually descended into outright madness; it is thought she probably ended her days in an asylum. Margaret's eccentricity stayed within the bounds of sanity, but she never married, and led a rather lonely, retired life. They are both buried in Hanwell churchyard. My first school was in Hanwell, but that's another story...

Monday, 12 October 2015

'The first instance of a perfectly painted twilight...'

It's high time we had a painting - and what painting could be more perfectly seasonal than Millais's melancholy masterpiece Autumn Leaves? It's a picture I've lived with quite a bit over the years: there was a print of it in my rooms at university, and we have a (less satisfactory) reproduction of it in the front parlour of our present house. It's an endlessly fascinating work.
 The painting dates from 1856, when Millais's great Pre-Raphaelite works were behind him and his long descent into facile whimsy some way ahead. He was still young (27), professionally successful, happily married to Effie Gray - formerly the desperately unhappy Mrs Ruskin - and they were starting what was to be a numerous family. And yet Autumn Leaves, whatever else it is, is a deeply sad painting, suffused with a sense of transience and loss and, yes, death.
 According to Effie, Millais's aim was to paint a picture that was 'full of beauty and without a subject' - a kind of tone poem, you could say. The artist also 'intended the picture to awaken by its solemnity the deepest religious reflection. I chose the subject of burning leaves as most calculated to produce this feeling.' He also sought to evoke a Tennysonian mood - Tennyson being a master of the elegiac tone, and Millais his greatest pictorial interpreter.  The picture even drew on Millais's memory of raking leaves with Tennyson at the poet's house (somehow one suspects that Millais was the more efficient raker).
 Autumn Leaves was a hit with the critics, not least Ruskin (whose disastrous marriage of Effie had been annulled only the previous year). It was, Ruskin declared, 'by much the most poetical work the painter has yet conceived; and also, as far as I know, the first instance of a perfectly painted twilight'. (It is also, he might have added, a perfect representation of the full glorious tonal range of autumn leaves.) Ruskin even invoked the name of one of his artistic gods - 'though Giorgione might have come nearer the glow, he never gave the valley mist. Note also the subtle difference between the purple of the long nearer range of hills and the blue of the distant peak.' Indeed.
 Who are these girls raking leaves? We know that the two figures on the left are sisters-in-law of Millais - Alice Grey and, staring full at us, Sophy, the troubled teenage girl with whom the artist had an intense emotional relationship, and who later slipped into an unhappy condition we would now label as Anorexia Nervosa, dying young. The little girl on the right, holding the (meaningful) apple, is a Miss Smythe of Methven. But who is the girl who is standing, rake in hand, eyes downcast, behind and apart from the main group? This figure seems to be in a different register - not only pictorially - from the others, almost to be inhabiting a different space. There is no interaction between her and the other girls, or between her and the artist/us; she looks inward and stands apart. Indeed the painting would still make perfect pictorial sense if she was subtracted from it. I suspect that she is indeed not physically present in the scene, that she represents someone recently dead - perhaps another sister of Effie's? I haven't been able to find any documentary evidence for this, but is seems to me quite likely (and very 'Victorian'). Has anyone any information? I'd love to know...


On The Dabbler today, I recall Beverley Nichols, of all people...

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Larkin and Embarrassment

P.J. Kavanagh's collection People And Places begins with the author in Westminster Abbey, watching, with mixed feelings, the unveiling of a memorial to sixteen 'War Poets'. A year later, in 1986, he's back at the Abbey, this time for the grand memorial service for Philip Larkin. How, Kavanagh wonders, will the service negotiate the awkward fact of Larkin's resolute, oft-stated atheism without embarrassment all round? A few minutes into the service, he reports, 'it met the central difficulty head-on... when this was said:
 "In particular on this day we commemorate with thanksgiving Philip Larkin, who, possessing outstanding literary gifts, combined distinction with rare humility. We give thanks for his intellectual integrity which would not allow him to share the consolations of a faith which he could not share and which would have delivered him from a fear of dying by which all his life he was haunted. Of this he frequently wrote or spoke, and never more movingly than in the lines:
    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die..."
It was 'brave', Kavanagh declares, 'in the midst of such a vast musical brocade, to quote those lines'. Well yes, but the address went on to conclude rather more assertively:
 'Now we commend him to the God who is the loving Father of all, of those who cannot yet believe in Him as well as of those who do, with the assurance that, his fears dispelled, he now shares our rejoicing in eternal life, the gift of that Risen Lord whom here on Earth he did not yet know.' Larkin 'not yet' a believer? Hmm. This is not so much meeting the difficulty head-on as politely acknowledging it, with the impeccable manners that distinguish (or used to) the Church of England, and then carrying on regardless. In fact, apart from some of the music being live jazz, the Larkin memorial service was a decidedly Godly affair, with Sentences from the Book of Common Prayer, a Psalm (39: 'I said, I will take heed to my ways; that I offend not in my tongue'), Ecclesiasticus (read by Ted Hughes), a Handel anthem, prayers and hymns ('Lead kindly light', 'Abide with me'). Today that would look like the memorial service for a devout Anglican churchman.
Three poems were read - Church Going, An Arundel Tomb and Love Songs in Age. The abbey was full. It was St Valentine's Day (or Ss Cyril and Methodius if you prefer). Kavanagh concludes:
 'Larkin gains much of his Silver Classical feel from his reticence, from his obvious dread of embarrassment, which ought to have made him a Church of England man. What he would have made of this no one can tell. Most of us, I think, were glad it happened.' Silver Classical is very good.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Make Like a Poet

This being National Poetry Day, I feel obliged to mark the occasion by following the Poetry Society's injunction to 'Make like a Poet'. To achieve this, I gather, I shall have to 'Live like a Poet', 'Speak like a Poet', 'Love like a Poet', 'Think like a Poet', 'Dream like a Poet' and 'Act like a Poet'. This sounds like a pretty tall order, so let's hope it will have the salutary effect of discouraging would-be poets from taking up their pens. Meanwhile, there's always Radio 4 - poetry all over it today, some good, some great, some awful...

'Eighteen frames into the distance'

Until I happened upon it while browsing the web, I had no idea that the eminent literary scholar Hugh Kenner had written a book about the great animator Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame). But there it was - Chuck Jones: A Flurry of Drawings, the third in a University of California Press series, Portraits of American Genius. And so, of course, it is: if any animator can claim the 'genius' label, it is surely Chuck Jones (no, not Walt Disney, who wasn't a particularly brilliant animator himself; his gifts lay elsewhere).
 Kenner's book draws on other published studies of Jones, on Chuck's own Chuck Amuck, and on conversations with the highly articulate and intelligent Jones. But most of all it draws on a deep knowledge and love of those great animations. Kenner outlines the unique set of circumstances that enabled them: Jones's own extraordinary talent and imagination, the coming together of a dream team of animators and voice artist (Mel Blanc) around him, and, paradoxically, the extreme parsimony of the producer overseeing their activities at Warner Brothers, Leon Schlesinger, whose only interest in animation was to keep it cheap. 'He [Schlesinger] once bought a yacht from Richard Arlen,' recalls Jones in conversation with Kenner, 'and called in the Merrie Melodie, with a little dinghy on the back that he called Looney Tunes. One day I said, "Mr Schlesinger, when are you going to take us out on your yacht?' And he replied, "I don't want any poor people on my boat."'
 Financial restraints worked with the artistic restrictions Jones imposed on his work - always paring it down to essentials - to create greatness. 'You don't lose when you restrict,' writes Kenner, 'no, you gain. That's true of all Art, and a maxim Animation was a long time validating. Out in Burbank the Disney folk were never sure that there was any limit between what they were doing and sheer hang-it-all Realism. (T.S. Eliot, whom they didn't read, had supplied a theme for pondering a decade previously. What had killed off the theatre the glory of which was Shakespeare, had been, Eliot postulated, its limitless appetite for Realism.)' There's the literary critic showing through...
 Chuck Jones, who was art-school trained and knew his anatomy, realised that the key to characterisation - in fact to just about everything - in animation was movement. You had to get the way a character moved precisely right, and to get that you needed to know that character's weight. This is one of many insights into Jones's technique that Kenner passes on. As a gauge of how precise an artist Jones was, here he is on Wile E. Coyote's trademark fall into space:
 'When I put down a twelve-frame hold, that didn't mean thirteen frames or eleven frames, it meant twelve frames exactly. When the Coyote fell off, I knew he had to go exactly eighteen frames into the distance and then disappear for fourteen frames before he hit. A new animator would come in and he would overlap it, and it would never work.' Eighteen frames, Kenner calculates, is three-quarters of a second, the time between heartbeats at a regular 72 per minute.
 Kenner (like all persons of taste and discernment) prefers Chuck Jones's style to Disney's, whose obsession with 'the illusion of life' led him into expensive artistic dead ends. 'If you're animating,' says Kenner, 'then take pencil in hand and animate! Don't restrict yourself to what a clicky-click tripod-supported optical eavesdropper might have picked up without even thinking (because it can't think) about trying.'
 Warner Brothers, having never really seen the point of its cartoon operation, closed it down twice: once in 1953 when they were convinced that 3-D was about to take over(!), and again, finally, in 1962, when it fell victim to the onward march of television. The movie theatres' standard bill of newsreel, cartoon, short and feature was becoming a dead letter as audiences got all they needed from the television. My own experience of Chuck Jones cartoons began in the news cinemas that were to be found everywhere in my boyhood and youth, and continued when those same six-minute shorts became a staple of television. Television didn't kill Chuck Jones's creations. Nothing ever could.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

The Green Table

I mentioned recently that my cousin was launching her new novel - in fact her debut novel - The Green Table. Since then, I have read it.
 Now, I'm not one for log-rolling - still less, nepotistic log-rolling - nor am I generally one for new fiction, but I must tell you that this is a seriously good novel, and one that's very hard to put down.
 The Green Table is set in Amsterdam before and during the Nazi occupation - a time and place that are vividly (but economically) evoked. The action revolves around a notably well drawn set of central characters. Hedda Brandt is a dance teacher, formerly a dancer with Kurt Jooss's company, who has stayed behind in the Netherlands after others of the company left for England (the novel takes its title from Jooss's most famous work). Katje is a young girl full of life and desperate to dance, who persuades Hedda to take her on as a pupil. Katje has a troubled brother, Werner, who is a piano pupil - and worshipper - of the German would-be composer Erik Weiss, an enigmatic, increasingly sinister figure, with whom Hedda has an intense and difficult working relationship. Hedda has another pupil, Elise, who is physically handicapped, and whose family befriend Hedda, thereby bringing her together with Elise's half-brother Kai, with whom she reluctantly but helplessly falls in love.
 The action follows this group of characters (and those around them) as they struggle with the ever increasing difficulties and dangers of life under the Nazis, the desperate urge to resist and the consciousness of the deadly risks of stepping out of line. As the story proceeds - crisply told in short sharp chapters - the tension mounts inexorably, and we care more and more about what will happen to these people, who will survive and how, what price will be paid...
 This is not a faultless novel. I found the Prologue, though essential, a bit of a stumbling block, and didn't really begin to enjoy the story till the time shifted to 1939 and it began in earnest. Though the structure is impeccable and the characters really live, the dialogue is sometimes lumpy, and there's a certain gaucheness of tone - perhaps a hangover from the book's origins as a (very different) novel for 'young adults', but anyway justifiable as reflecting the younger characters' gaucherie. These minor flaws make little difference to the assured flow of a novel that keeps you - even me - turning the pages, eager to find out what will happen next, what will become of these people. It is involving, gripping, moving - in a word, a page-turner (though that was the last thing the author thought she was writing).
 It would be a shame if The Green Table, published by a small press, languished unread and neglected, as so many do. It deserves better; indeed it deserves a mainstream success (though desert seems to come nowhere in the book world today). I heartily recommend it - and, in particular, if you or anyone close to you belongs to a book circle, I'd recommend it as an excellent reading choice, with much to enjoy and discuss. If you're thinking of buying it, do go to the Cinnamon Press website - here's the link - rather than to Amazon, as this will be of more benefit to the publisher and the deserving author.