The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

I think there’s a great division among readers between those who read fiction primarily for the plots and characters, and those who read for the pleasure of the prose. Not that the two are mutually exclusive — indeed one might argue that at its best literature should provide both — but I do think there’s a real difference there, and if you read book discussions on the internet, you often see people from the two sides talking across each other.

I would generally say that I am one of those who are more interested in prose style than narrative. But The Book of Disquiet really served to test that idea. It contains some of the finest writing I have encountered for a long time; it also has absolutely no plot.

It is presented as the ‘factless autobiography’ of a Lisbon clerk named Bernardo Soares, and it is a compilation of short pieces — some just a few lines, others three or four pages — which chronicle his inner life: philosophical musings about literature, love, dreaming, religion, and so on. Sometimes it’s aphoristic, sometimes detached and analytical, sometimes more personal and emotional; but it’s almost all inside his own head. We get little glimpses of his office and colleagues, and the streets of Lisbon; but really very little.

The result is often brilliant, sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes waffly, sometimes aggravating — Soares is too snobbish and solipsistic to be completely likeable — and I did actually enjoy it as well as being impressed by it. But what it doesn’t have is a lot of forward momentum. And so it took me quite a long time to read and I had to make a conscious effort to pick it up again and push through to the end.

» The two photographs are by Eli Lotar from the series ‘Lisbon from 1930-1934’. I found them on the website of the Réunion des Musées Nationaux [1, 2].

Futurism at Tate Modern

I went along to the Futurism exhibition at Tate Modern. Having sometimes commented on the excellence of past Tate exhibition websites, I have to say they’ve fallen down on this one — nothing to see at all. And they also didn’t have any exhibition booklets, so I have no aide-mémoire at all.

EDIT: they now have a much improved website up, so they obviously just hadn’t got their act together yet. Who knows, maybe they have some booklets ready as well.

CRI_151141

The Futurists were the early Italian Modernists — most of the paintings were pre-First World War — who were keen to embrace modernity, speed, machines and suchlike. They’re probably most famous not for any of the paintings but for the Futurist Manifesto, written by Futurist poet Marinetti. And whatever its aesthetico-philosophical merits, it’s punchy stuff; this is point 4:

4.We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath—a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

Admittedly some of it is a bit less appealing; this would be unpleasant anyway, but it’s even more so in the context of the upcoming war:

9.We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
10.We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.

Which segues neatly into the other thing that the futurists are famous for: Fascism. You can see how all the rhetoric about war and power and modernity might appeal to the same people who liked Fascism; and after the war, Marinetti founded a Futurist political party which ended up being absorbed into Mussolini’s Fascists. But the Tate makes a very reasonable case that it is unfair to tar all the Futurists with the same brush. So much happened between 1909 and the 1930s — the war, the Russian Revolution and the Great Depression, for a start — that you need to be very cautious in drawing any link between provocative aesthetic statements before the war and the politics of 25-30 years later.

bocc

And in fact many of the pre-War Futurists had left the movement by then, apparently. The reality of full-scale modern mechanised warfare left them less enthusiastic about the idea of machinery and war. And indeed some of them, like the Russian Futuro-Cubists, went in the other direction to produce Constructivist posters for collectivist farms.

One thing I rather enjoyed was one of the many manifestos: ‘Vital English Art’. This was published in the Observer in 1914:

VITAL ENGLISH ART.

FUTURIST MANIFESTO.

I am an Italian Futurist poet, and a passionate admirer of England. I wish, however, to cure English Art of that most grave of all maladies—passéism. I have the right to speak plainly and without compromise, and together with my friend Nevinson, an English Futurist painter, to give the signal for battle.

AGAINST :

1.—The worship of tradition and the conservatism of the Academies, the commercial acquiescence of English artists, the effeminacy of their art and their complete absorption towards a purely decorative sense.
2.—The pessimistic, sceptical and narrow views of the English public, who stupidly adore the pretty-pretty, the commonplace, the soft, the sweet, and mediocre, the sickly revivals of medievalism, the Garden Cities with their curfews and artificial battlements, the may-pole Morris dances, Æstheticism, Oscar Wilde, the Pre-Raphaelites, Neo-primitives and Paris.
3.—The perverted snob who ignores or despises all English daring, but welcomes eagerly all foreign originality and daring.

[…]

8.—The old grotesque idea of genius—drunken, filthy, ragged, outcast ; drunkenness the synonym of Art, Chelsea the Montmartre of London ; the Post-Rossettis with long hair under the sombrero, and other passéist filth.
9.—The sentimentality with which you load your pictures—to compensate, perhaps, for your praiseworthy utter lack of sentimentality in life.

[…]

WE WANT:

[all the usual Futurist guff; I can’t be bothered to type any of it out]

F. T. MARINETTI,
Italian Futurist Movement (Milan).
C. R. W. NEVINSON,
Art Rebel Centre (London).

Ah, what fun. You gotta love the ‘Art Rebel Centre’.

As a geeky aside, the multi-media guide (basically an audio guide with a few still photos) was excellent. Last time I got an audio guide at Tate Modern I said this:

The commentary has a kind of coy, knowing, vaguely patronising tone, as though the narrator was trying to seduce a slightly dim 12-year-old…. It was also short of insights that reached beyond the blindingly obvious. If I’m standing in front of a painting, I don’t need the guide to carefully tell me what the painting looks like; I want some kind of extra information that I can’t see for myself.

… instead of the standard audioguides with a big keypad, the Tate has got some little touchscreen devices. Which would be fine in principle, except that the touchscreen is erratically responsive, you have to carry around a stylus, and the user interface is badly designed…. I spent a couple of minutes trying to figure it out and nearly crumbled and went and asked for help. Even when it was working, some design decisions were just bad; for example, when you pressed the ‘Go’ button to start a recording, the screen changed and the play/pause appeared on exactly the same part of the screen, with the result that many times, I accidentally pressed the screen twice and found I had paused the audio by mistake. And just when I was coming to the end of the exhibition, it crashed and I lost the tour altogether.

Well, this time the guide was much better written; it actually added useful context and information I wouldn’t otherwise have. And they’ve sorted out the hardware by getting some iPod Touches. Admittedly since I have an iPhone it wasn’t a fair test of how intuitive it would be to just pick up and use, but it has to be better than the crap they were using before.

Personally I would like it even better if they would let me buy the guide through iTunes and use it on my own phone or iPod, with my own headphones: either as a stand-alone application or just as a set of audio or video files. Why not? That would save them worrying about people nicking their equipment — I had to leave some ID as a deposit — and it would mean I could listen to the introductory blurbs on the train on the way to the exhibition. Or refer to them at home later.

» Carlo Carrà’s The Funeral of the Anarchist Galli is currently in the Tate but normally lives at MoMA. Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space is part of the Tate’s own collection.

‘Rodchenko & Popova’ at Tate Modern

I went to ‘Rodchenko & Popova: Defining Constructivism’ at Tate Modern today. I’ve seen quite a few exhibitions in the past few years that feature Aleksandr Rodchenko*, so I wasn’t really sure how much I would get out of it, but in the event I enjoyed it. Firstly I didn’t know anything about Liubov Popova, and also they had a couple of rooms of paintings, which I certainly hadn’t seen many of before.

I think they were much better designers than painters, mind you — the paintings look like rather generic examples of early geometrical abstracts, to me — but it was still interesting to see them. And the graphic design work they had on display seemed to be a different selection from what I’d seen previously. So that was all good.

The Tate’s exhibition website doesn’t have much stuff on it — I’ve used most of the pictures in this post — but curiously enough, when I was looking for pictures, Google threw up the Tate’s Immunity from Seizure page which, currently as least, is full of (rather tiny) pictures of work from the exhibition. If you’re curious:

Part 6 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 provides immunity from seizure for cultural objects which are loaned from overseas to temporary public exhibitions in approved museums or galleries in the UK where conditions are met when the object enters the UK.

Or you could check out this page of Rodchenko stuff from Howard Schickler Fine Art in New York, or this from MoMA.

Incidentally, I was interested to note that they’ve started using touchscreen iPods for their multimedia guides. Last time I got an multimedia guide at the Tate, it was on a Windows Mobile-fuelled piece of crap of some kind and it annoyed me so much that I complained about it at some length afterwards. I didn’t try the guide today, so I can’t offer a comparison, but it seems like a move in the right direction.

* There was an exhibition of his photography at the Hayward; at one stage the Tate had a room displaying his photomontages for USSR in Construction; he also featured in the V&A’s Modernism exhibition and the British Library’s exhibition of printed material from the European Avant-Garde.

» both pictures from the Tate website; the top one is Liubov Popova’s Painterly Architectonic, 1918, and the bottom is Aleksandr Rodchenko’s design for an advertisement for the Mossel’ prom (Moscow agricultural industry) cafeteria, 1923.

‘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.

Dada, modernism and suchlike

I seem to have gone a bit link-happy over the past 24 hours, producing a daily links post which is far too long. So I’ll single out one of them in case you miss it: Charles Simic on Dada.

I always think of continental Europe as being the natural home of modernism. The Great War, the Russian Revolution and the growth of fascism provided the context for art of real ferocity. There always seems to be a disconnect between that and the work of British and American modernists like Eliot and Woolf. That’s a terrible simplification, of course, but still, you get an odd perspective on modernism if you learn about it through the lens of English-language literature.

Anyway. Read the Simic.

‘Undercover Surrealism’ at the Hayward

Going to them one after the other, it’s hard not to see the Undercover Surrealism exhibition at the Hayward as some kind of riposte to the Modernism exhibition at the V&A.

The Hayward exhibition (full title: Undercover Surrealism – Picasso, Miró, Masson and the vision of George Bataille) is about a magazine called Documents which Bataille ran from 1929-30. Bataille was most closely associated with the Surrealists – he had a falling out with the ‘official’ surrealists and was never really a surrealist himself, but that was the circle he moved in. Documents was notable for juxtaposing articles about high culture, popular culture and ethnography. So you get coverage of Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Picasso, Dali, Buñuel, Hollywood, trashy novels, African masks, Ethiopian iconography, and the development of the horse imagery from Roman coins into the coins of the Dark Ages. To be honest I was unexcited by the prospect of an exhibition devoted to a magazine, but the curators have done a good job of tracking down plenty of the objects that were covered; so there are Miros, Picassos, Giacomettis, as well as African masks, Dark Age coins; all sorts of stuff. Including some music and film, which was a good move. Apart from the intrinsic interest of most of the exhibits, it did a good job of evoking a particular artistic moment. You can see some of the work here.

Documents existed bang in the middle of the period covered by the V&A Modernism exhibition, but while Corbusier and the Bauhaus were building their airy white machines for rational hygienic living, the Surrealists were more interested in violence, sex, fetish, blood, transgression and distortion. Here’s a typical bit of Bataille:

The slaughterhouse is linked to religion in so far as the temples of bygone eras (not to mention those of the Hindus in our own day) served two purposes: they were used both for prayer and for killing. The result (and this judgement is confirmed by the chaotic aspect of present-day slaughterhouses) was certainly a disturbing convergence of the mysteries of myth and the ominous grandeur typical of those places in which blood flows. In America, curiously enough, W. B. Seabrook has expressed an intense regret; observing that the orgiastic life has survived, but that the sacrificial blood is not part of the cocktail mix, he finds present custom insipid. In our time, nevertheless, the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship. Now, the victims of this curse are neither butchers nor beasts, but those same good folk who countenance, by now, only their own unseemliness, an unseemliness commensurate with an unhealthy need of cleanliness, with irascible meanness, and boredom. The curse (terrifying only to those who utter it) leads them to vegetate as far as possible from the slaughterhouse, to exile themselves, out of propriety, to a flabby world in which nothing fearful remains and in which, subject to the ineradicable obsession of shame, they are reduced to eating cheese.

That’s one of the entries from the Critical Dictionary that was a feature of Documents. Somehow I don’t think Bataille would have agreed that less is more. Even the ethnographic stuff feels rather fetishised – even though it is a serious and intelligent effort of early ethnography, there are enough hints through the exhibition to suggest that Bataille’s interest in black people was basically sexual. Mind you, he seems to have found most things sexual. The surrealists, of course, were also a key part of de Sade’s reinvention as an important literary figure; it was that moment when Freud was seen as validating everyone’s sexual quirks, and the quirkier the better.

It’s tempting to see the two things – Corbusier on the one hand and Dali on the other – as somehow two sides of the same coin, or each as necessitating the other. Or at the least as products of the same forces; of the Great War, and a moment of cultural and historical instabiity when everything was up in the air and no-one quite knew where the world was going. As Yeats put it in 1920: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Perhaps it’s unwise to insist too much on the historicity of it, though. There are probably always some people who are minimalists by temperament and others who are surrealists.

‘Modernism: Designing a New World’ at the V&A

I went to see the Modernism: Designing a New World exhibition at the V&A, which was good. It was largely what you’d expect – white houses, angular furniture and posters with large sans serif headers printed at an angle – although there were some treats and surprises, like a Tatra T-87 saloon car.

Looking at the best of the modernist buildings, like the Villa Savoye and thinking of all those lumpen, red-brick, pitched-roofed houses that the British construction industry threw up over the course of the C20th, you can’t help feeling that our suburbs might be less ugly if we’d embraced modernism a bit more. Of course no style or philosophy is a substitute for a good architect. An industry that cares so little about aesthetics and design would only produce equally lumpen, graceless buildings in white-rendered concrete.

Incidentally, note that many of the most successful modernist dwellings seemed to be (like the Villa Savoye), stand-alone houses set in the country, where the trees provide a soft green background to the starkness of the design and the sweeping picture windows can look out over beautiful views. The large scale housing projects – and there were plenty of those in the exhibition as well – struggle to have the same impact. With rows of separate buildings, the effect can be rather a lot of visual clutter; perhaps because Modernism eschews decoration, so the aesthetic effects are achieved with structural elements – i.e. the shapes of the buildings. Or something. I haven’t really thought that through yet.

One of the odd things about the exhibition was that it was a constant stream of utopian, reformist ideals, but in the back of your mind was that the period it dealt with was bookended by the Great War and the Russian Revolution at one end and World War Two at the other, with the Depression and the growth of Fascism in the meantime. And yet somehow, all these idealists who were trying to change the world by giving the working man an efficient living space with Licht, Luft und Sonne seem to fit quite well into that kind of background. The wish to change the world by throwing out everything old and rebuilding it from scratch, to draw a line under ten centuries of European history and say “we can do better than that” has its echoes in the politics. Of course revolutionary Russia was one of the centres of early Modernist design.

And while I’m sure they wanted nothing but to make people’s lives better, the rhetoric – of the house as a ‘machine for living’, of progress, efficiency, mass-production – can be rather dehumanising. It reeks of top-down planning. And then there’s all the stuff about ‘hygienic’ living, with its celebration of cleanliness and the body. There’s a section about it in the exhibition, including some film of the ‘Sokol Slets’ – massed displays of gymnastics in Czechoslovakia which look like something Reni Liefenstahl would have dreamt up after eating too much cheese.


‘Performance of 16 800 women at the 1938 Sokol Slet. Strahov Stadium, Prague.’

Despite all the dubious parallels I’m drawing, it’s worth pointing out that both Hitler and Stalin disliked Modernism. Their idea of a good building was one smothered in heavy-handed political symbolism. And although some of the architects and designers were quite political (mostly leftists of various kinds, but some of the Italian Futurists were Fascist sympathisers, apparently), I’m not suggesting that any of that is terribly relevant to the actual buildings. I’m just drawing connections because I think it’s interesting.

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