Exciting sighting: I saw a bat in the park today. It’s not completely unusual to see bats around here: I see a few in the summer, because it’s when I’m most likely to be outside at night. But not many. And to see one flying around over the park pond in daylight is most unusual.

I’ve no idea about the species, of course: it looked medium-large by bat standards, but apart from that… who knows.

» 3 Vintage German Halloween Diecut Bats "Vintage Halloween", posted to Flickr by riptheskull, used under a CC by-nc-sa licence, is one of a whole collection of vintage German Halloween diecuts.

‘Breaking the Rules’ at the British Library

I realised that Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900 – 1937 was about to close, so I popped in today for a quick gander. As ever at the BL, the range of material was impressive: they really do own a lot of stuff. Eliot, Bretton, Man Ray, Lorca, Mayakovsky, Ernst, Rodchenko… you name it, they’ve got it.

I started out carefully reading all the labels and conscientiously looking at each item, because I thought it was probably the kind of exhibition where background information and context would make all the difference. And it was interesting, but I still started to speed up fairly soon. There were some items that were nice pieces of design in their own right and had an immediate appeal even for the non-specialist; but rather more that didn’t. Particularly as they were all in languages I don’t read.

Mayakovsky's For The Voice

The material was mainly grouped by city; Paris and Moscow/St Petersburg had the biggest displays, but 30 cities were included, from all over Europe — Milan, Belgrade, Vienna, Barcelona, Brussels, Warsaw, Kiev, and so on — which did give a strong sense of this as a genuinely widespread movement. Or group of movements. Mind you, I didn’t pay that much attention to the dates, but they weren’t all active simultaneously. The exhibition covered a 37 year period, which is plenty of time for artistic fashions to sweep from one side of Europe and back again several times over.

They even made a case for London as an avant garde city, but it wasn’t completely convincing, somehow. For example, there were successful exhibitions of the Surrealists and the Futurists in London: but that’s not the same as producing the stuff ourselves. Perhaps I’m being unfair. Perhaps I just find it easier to take all these Frenchmen and Russians seriously because they’re French and Russian. Still, there was a good gag from Wyndham Lewis: apparently he supported his application for a British Army commission by saying that he had masterminded the Cubist invasion of Britain ‘without losing a single cube’.

» The picture is the cover of Для голоса (‘For the Voice’) by Mayakovsky, designed by El Lissitzky.

More modernism and art

One obvious point to make in passing: even if there is some kind of profound connection between someone’s political leanings and the form they choose when they write a poem*, that connection is not stable over time.

It meant something different to be writing sonnets in 1520 than to be writing them in 1820 or 1920. And something different again in 2008.

Or at least, if anyone wanted to suggest otherwise, I’d need to hear some pretty convincing arguments.

* Or paint a picture, or build a house…

‘From Russia’ at the Royal Academy

This is a seriously impressive exhibition. The full title is ‘From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg‘. It starts with a little room of Russian paintings from the start of that period; then you get a whole load of French paintings that were collected by two Russian art collectors, Ivan Morozov and Sergei Shchukin, and are now divided between various Russian state museums; then the rest of the show is of Russian paintings again, which are more or less heavily influenced by the French work.

The French section includes major works by most of the biggest names in French art — Renoir, Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso, Rousseau, Bonnard — whereas with a couple of major exceptions in Chagall and Kandinsky the Russian artists are less familiar. It makes for a good combination; the French artists are immediately enjoyable while the Russians, simply because they are less familiar, require a bit more evaluation.

My favourite painting was probably Matisse’s Harmony in Red:

Harmony in Red by Matisse

Apparently, when the collector bought it at a Paris show, it was all blue instead of red, but Matisse asked to hang on to it for a few weeks because he wanted to tweak it. It must have been a bit of a shock to open it up and find it had completely changed colour.

Of the Russians: there were lots I quite liked including, unusually for me, the two Chagalls. Among the people I was with the most popular choice for a painting to take home would be Altman’s portrait of Anna Akhmatova. I think I’d probably take one of the three Malevich paintings called Black Square, Black Circle and Black Cross which are just black shapes on white backgrounds. That kind of geometrical minimalism is a bit mysterious: sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Those ones worked, for me, though I’d be hard pressed to explain why.

This exhibition has an obvious relevance to the whole modernism and politics discussion, since Russia went through an immensely creative period in art and architecture for the first two decades of the C20th, and for a while after the revolution this radical art was embraced by the party; but then the regime ruthlessly crushed it. Artists may have supported radical politics, but politicians didn’t necessarily support radical art. A dislike of ‘decadent’ art was one of the things Hitler and Stalin had in common.

» The Matisse image is from the Artchive.

Modernism and politics

A discussion of modernism and politics starting at Alfred Corn’s, then Baroque in Hackney then George Szirtes here and here.

Salvador Dalí, Mi esposa desnuda, 1945

I suppose we tend to associate modernism with left-wing politics because we feel that people who embrace radical and new aesthetics would probably have radical instincts in politics as well: whatever else modernism was, it wasn’t a conservative movement. To reduce so much in art and politics down to one binary personality trait is very simplistic; even so, there’s probably some truth to it.

But left-wing politics doesn’t have a monopoly on wanting to change the world. Fascism was a radical movement; perhaps it’s not surprising it should attract its share of radical artists.

» The painting is Mi esposa desnuda by Salvador Dalí; an artist who started on the left and later supported Franco.

Herba Parietis or the Wall Flower


The text reads:

Herba Parietis or the Wall Flower
As it Grew out of the Stone Chamber
Belonging to the
of London Called

Being A History
Wch is Partly True
Partly Romantick
Morrally Devine
Wherby A Marriag
Betweene Reallity &
fancie is Solemnised
By Devinity

Written By: I: B: whilst he was A Prisoner therr.

Every time I start browsing the British Library collections online, I find lots of stuff I want to post. This is from George III’s collection of geographical material, so I guess it must be C18th. I’ve slightly reduced the size; you can see it full-sized here.

Deletionists, Inclusionists, and the joy of the trivial.

There is, I gather, an ongoing philosophical debate running behind the scenes of Wikipedia; one which will probably run forever. On the one side are the deletionists; on the other are the inclusionists. The question is how to deal with articles about less important subjects: one side generally favours deleting them, the other would prefer to include. The deletionists see Wikipedia as an attempt to create an online version of a traditional encyclopedia; only important subjects are worthy of an article. In the jargon, they have to be ‘notable’. The inclusionists would tend to allow articles on any subject, however obscure. They make a virtue of the fact that ‘wiki is not paper’: that there is no material constraint that prevents it growing indefinitely.

I’m on the inclusionist side. I just can’t see what harm it does if, for example, every primary school in Norfolk has its own article on Wikipedia. Or indeed every bakery or hairdresser’s in Norfolk. And I think that trivial information has its own value.

the West Sussex Dairy Company

I’m not trying to make a radically relativist case, that your local florist is just as important as Paradise Lost; of course Wikipedia should strive to have good coverage of the core encyclopedic subject matter. And I can completely see why some of the people who edit Wikipedia find it faintly embarrassing that the coverage of Doctor Who is so much more comprehensive than the coverage of Elizabethan drama (I haven’t actually checked whether that’s true; bet it is, though).

But I’d like to make the comparison with the Evanion Collection of Ephemera. Evanion was the professional name of the Victorian conjurer and ventriloquist Harry Evans. He collected trade cards, catalogues, advertisements, posters: all kinds of rubbish. It is, almost by definition, a collection of the sort of thing that deletionists at a Victorian Wikipedia would have rejected as non-notable. Now, proudly displayed on the British Library website, it is endlessly fascinating.

Steiner's Insect Powder

Or take a more recent example. If all has gone according to plan, just below this post should be a post with links to YouTube clips recorded from a Detroit TV station in the late 80s and early 90s. Some are from a dance show, with locals dressed up for a night out and dancing to Detroit techno; the others are recorded from ad breaks for the same show. They are only twenty years old, but already they have the same fascination as the Evanion material: a record of a very particular time and place through fashion, music, the adverts made by small local businesses; the ephemeral and trivial.

Wikipedia has only been running for seven years and is already an extraordinary success. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t still be going in a hundred years. There are two points I’d take from that. Firstly, taking the longer view, there is still loads of time to build up the serious encyclopedia stuff: Elizabethan drama, C16th Chinese porcelain, whatever. But also: who knows what people will find interesting, now or in twenty or a hundred years time. Just record it, let people sort it out for themselves.

» For more discussions about deletionism vs. inclusionism, check out this rather lovely article from the NYRB that I linked to before; or this blog post which I found via a post at Language Log. The ad for the West Suffolk Dairy Co. and E. Steiner’s Prime Dalmation Insect Powder are both from the Evanion collection at the British Library.


1984 by George Orwell

I picked this up to read again because I’ve just read a biography of Stalin. I think I first read 1984 when I was really quite young — certainly no older than my teens; in fact I may have made a point of reading it in 1984, when I was nine or ten — and though I was precocious and superficially well-informed for my age, I didn’t really have much sense of the reality of what life under totalitarian regimes could be like. In fact even when the Berlin Wall came down, when I was fifteen, although I knew intellectually that it was an incredibly important event, it didn’t have the emotional resonance you might expect. Knowing the basic facts isn’t enough; it’s the cumulative effect of finding out about a subject bit by bit over a period of time, of encountering lots of details and seeing it from different perspectives, that makes it seem real.


So back then I read it almost as straight fiction: dystopian and science-fictiony, and with limited relationship to the real world. I wondered if the older, better-informed me would find it more evocative and more powerful as a book about totalitarianism; I’m not sure it does quite work that way. The society Orwell creates is too highly fictionalised. One thing in particular, I think, is that the Party is just too good at what they do: the Thought Police come across as infallible and all-knowing, the Ministry of Truth manages to maintain total control of all information. To have the ring of truth, I think it needs to be a bit more capricious and random; the organisation itself, the Party, needs to have more of an edge of craziness and paranoia to it. I appreciate that it isn’t supposed to simply be a portrayal of Stalinist Russia, or any other particular regime; it’s an extrapolation of that kind of regime into something different. But even so.

One thing it did make me think of, not surprisingly in retrospect, was Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib, just because that’s what torture reminds me of at the moment. It’s a depressing thought that the Ministry of Love should remind me of US policy.

Big Brother

The least successful part of the book seems to be the romance. I didn’t find Julia to be believable: she’s just too good to be true. She seems to be completely untouched, psychologically and ideologically, by having grown up under IngSoc. In fact at times her dialogue makes her sound like she’s just wandered into the novel by mistake, having taken a wrong turn when leaving a gymkhana in 1940s Surrey. And she’s too good for Winston. Nothing we learn about him suggests he might be an attractive character, physically or in personality; so the moment when this young, sexy woman spontaneously declares her love for him at the risk of her life seems completely implausible.

As long as we’re dealing with Winston’s interactions with the Party, the bureaucracy, his neighbours, even the proles, there’s a certain kind of cohesion to the world he’s moving in. It occasionally hits a false note — the dialogue, particularly the working-class dialogue, is often a bit strained, and I’m not sure his portrayal of the proles, or the whole class system of the book, is convincing — but it’s all part of the same overall vision. The relationship with Julia seems to be happening somewhere else altogether.


But then the strength of book is not really as narrative at all: it’s a combination of atmosphere and ideas. The atmosphere is in all the details: the griminess, the smell of cabbage, the physical jerks in the mornings in front of the telescreen, the red sash of the Junior Anti-Sex League, the Two Minutes Hate, the relentless drinking of Victory Gin. What really lasts about the book, though, is the ideas, and I was surprised how often they seemed topical and relevant: the citizenry under total, constant surveillance, a state of continual war maintained to keep the people fearful and patriotic, the finessing of political rhetoric, the politically motivated drive to change the very vocabulary people use. None of these are part of modern society in quite the forms they take in the book, but there are continual resonances and parallels and points of friction. Not bad for a political novel which is sixty years old next year.


Tibet and the Olympics

It’s going to be really interesting watching the Olympics unfold. There had already been rumblings, with the protests last year in Burma and pressure over Darfur, but protests in Tibet bring it that much closer to home. And as the Olympics get closer, and more and more media attention is focussed on Beijing, the Chinese government are only going to find it harder to control the news agenda. Though I’m sure they’re going to put a great deal of effort into the attempt.


They have a knife-edge path to walk: they have no chance of getting through the games without at least a few difficult moments, but probably it will be no more than that. Western governments are not keen to start a confrontation, and while there will be a lot of media there, most of it will be the well-oiled machinery of bland, upbeat sports coverage, with its emphasis on lap times and human interest stories about plucky Britons just failing to win bronze medals. As long as the games themselves are running smoothly, Steve Cram and Sally Gunnell are not going to be spending much of their time in the BBC studio talking about China’s human rights record.

But with all that attention, there’s always that sneaking background knowledge that, thanks to the oxygen of publicity, if something does spark off, it could be very explosive indeed. I suppose the doomsday scenario would be something like large scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square during the games themselves. If I was a Chinese government press officer, I think I’d be quite tense already.

» The defecting Tibetan Antelope mascot is from here.

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A question.

I’ve been wondering: what proportion of Premiership football matches this season have featured the players wearing black armbands?

Santa Cruz

It seems like they never take the field without them. And far as I know Britain isn’t currently experiencing a surge of extra deaths due to, say, an outbreak of the Black Death.

I know, it’s a completely harmless trend, and I’m sure that, whoever is being memorialised, their family and friends appreciate the gesture. So why not? It’s just a slightly odd phenomenon: the more commercialised the sport becomes, the more prone it is to very public displays of sentiment.

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