Tag Archives: March against Public Sector Pension Cuts 30th June 2011 National Gallery

John Martin: ‘The Great Day of his Wrath’ 1853, oil on canvas

After the Public Sector Pensions march across London today, what could be more appropriate than John Martin’s apocalyptic visions at Tate Britain? Early Victorian images showing the end of biblical worlds: Babylon; Sodom; the Christian world at the Second Coming of Christ. Sadly, no painting of George ‘Bloody’ Osbourne struck down by an avenging angel on the occasion of giving his autumn statement.

Towards the end of the exhibition there is a form of ‘son et lumiere’ that imagines the way in which Martin’s final large paintings were toured to the public. Flickering lights, powerful declaiming, cheering crowds; that sort of thing. The results are as successful as the paintings in conjuring up the sublime. But, it is interesting that this sort of vigorous and over-dramatized theatricality was once a central part of showing imagery, often large paintings, even in the 1850’s. We tend to think of this as the period of incipient Modernism, the beginning of aesthetic distance, the cool appraisal with one hand stroking the chin, deep in static thought.

I keep coming back to the role of looking at art. What is the experience of sitting and looking at an art object in a room full of other experiencers in a particular context? I was trained I suppose in the formalist school, the formalist viewer is, in essence, a single point (‘a disembodied punctum’ (Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze Bryson, p. 107). His (and it was usually a male viewer) main function was to divorce form from content; content merely confuses the essential form of an art work. Our job was to enter the pictorial space, aesthetic sword in hand to conquer the beast content; to be at one with the ‘Other’ (Adrian Stokes).

Peter Paul Rubens: ‘A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning’, 1636. Oil on Oak. Oil on oak.131 x National Gallery, London

When I sit on the leather bench in front of Het Steen for hour after hour (see earlier posts) it becomes increasingly apparent that it is impossible to separate the viewing experience from the object. The actual/ real/ pragmatic process of viewing an art object is an integral part of our experience of that object; and is therefore an integral part of the object itself; both content and form. Not in some complex, abstracted, semiotic distanced manner. But in a simpler spatial relationship. In front of the art work we stand/ sit/ run about/ speak on the phone/ listen to our audio guide as we drift past; we are in one form of space and we perceive/ imagine another (the artwork). The act of looking unites the two spaces; they are interdependent and deliberately so.

Watch viewers in galleries, they behave differently in front of different paintings. Why? Because space is arranged differently in different paintings. To understand that space, you the viewer need to move/ think/ approach the image in different ways. What happens in our space, where we stand, the eyeline, how we move eyes/ hand/ body is in direct relation to what is represented or described, it is part of a predictable process that the artist designed in from the start.

And, I mean the start. We might not know what happened at Stonehenge, or Avebury (Avebury is more complete and more inspiring of course) but you can have a fair idea of how what our physical/ spatial relationship to these spaces, and these carefully arranged objects is supposed to be. Where you are supposed to process, which is the bit where you go ‘ooh’, where the early equivalent of the overpriced National Trust gift shop was.

The ‘Venus of Willendorf’ 24,000-22,000 BC. 11 cm high (approx) limestone

Similarly, although I have not held the ‘Venus of Willendorf (that small Neolithic representation of a female figure) in my hand, just looking at it I know that is what I am supposed to do. From those physical/ spatial relationships, meaning and understandings flow.

John Martin: ‘The Last Judgement’, 1846, oil on canvas

I sit on the bench in front of three poorly structured John Martin paintings whose tonal values have been turned up to ten, which contain the same anatomically incorrect figures seen throughout his work: far too large, or small for their surroundings with legs twice as long as their bodies. Their content is risible, their forms are unconvincing. Bearing in mind my thoughts about the role of looking, and with the protesting chants from the day dying away in my ears (“when I say Clegg You say ‘Tory’, when I say Cameron you say: ‘C***” etc), how else can I know that these are not good paintings? The infinite crowds of blessed or the doomed are endlessly repeated by Martin, yet they have no resonance for a man who has just walked and chanted from Lincolns Inn Fields to Victoria Embankment; all together now: “No If’s No But,  No Education Cuts”

On my way out of the National Gallery, due to closures, I took a different route and passed Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne’. A painting I have been looking at, on and off, at least once a month I should think, for about 50 years. Thinking about that painting afterwards an image came immediately to mind: I want you to imagine two people both aged about 19 or 20, she has her hair fanned out into a huge mane, it is dyed orange, some white, some black. His hair is dyed also, mostly a sort of white colour with a great red streak across the front. They are dressed in black, but with some pieces of vivid coloured clothing, hand painted shoes for example. It is the later 1970’s and this couple are standing in front of a painting that is an astonishing blue, this painting in fact.

But when I very first saw it, Bacchus and Ariadne would have looked like a sort of brown colour. It was cleaned in early 1969 and that must have been the point when it really came into my consciousness. I can still remember the shock of first seeing that intense blue, the vividness of the colours the brightness of the contrast between the blue and the red. And I suppose, given the date, and what was happening in London in 1968/9 it must have mirrored the clothes and the excitement that was going on around us. I would have been about 12 when this happened. It was no doubt on that journey as many others to London, that I remember going to places like Carnaby Street with my parents and seeing the clothes and the painted walls and thinking that, like this newly bright painting, the world was an exciting place to be. Later, as I went through school and had to read things like Robert Graves Greek myths and Ovid’s Metamorphoses I began to get more sense of the story, although in fact this image largely comes from Catullus, a much more exciting writer I think.

As in so many paintings the clue to the story is in the details, top left on the sea is a small boat. The boat belongs to Theseus, him of the slaying of the Minotaur fame. Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, had shown Theseus how to escape from the labyrinth after slaying the Minotaur, in return for Theseus taking her away from Crete and making her his princess. On the return from Crete they stop at the island of Naxos, Ariadne falls asleep on the beach and Theseus abandons her there. This painting is set at the point at which she both realises her loss, and suddenly sees and fall in love, at first sight with Bacchus. In fact the whole painting is full of those sort of glances. For a young man at an all-boys school seeing this sort of thing was heady stuff. And Bacchus himself was an appealing figure, the god of wine, of parties, of good times. I can remember reading the Greek myths in astonishment at what they got up to and couldn’t help but compare it to the frankly rather dull behaviour of Protestant approved Christianity. My parents were defiantly atheist, but in those far off days we did seem to get an awful lot of morally improving Christian stories, and without any of the, for boys anyway, appealing gore of Catholic saints and martyrdom. In that earlier mythology Bacchus, as part of his earlier travels had been to the Middle East and then India, that’s why his chariot is drawn by exotic animals. Also because his patron, Alfonso d’Este, kept them, this painting is part of a very upmarket interior decoration scheme. It was while Bacchus was on his travels that he discovered the worship of the juice of the vine. In other words wine and the ecstatic rituals and rites that went with it, which is what we see here in his followers, the Bacchante. Paralleling the development of a young adult?

Pursuing that theme of love further, as no doubt I was trying to do myself, rather unsuccessfully if memory serves me correctly, notice up in the sky above Theseus’ ship, a circle of stars. Bacchus has thrown Ariadne’s crown (given to her by Theseus) into the sky, Bacchus is immortal, he promises her that she will become immortal in the sky as the constellation Corona. Perhaps you could see this as a parable for male behaviour, one man promises to make her his princess, but once he has had his wicked way with her he abandons her on the beach, the next man, says he’s a god and promises her the stars. Unusually in the myths (and life?), Bacchus and Ariadne stay faithful to each other forever.

At school I began to find out more about how to look at painting, and some of the specialist terms. For example: contrapposto, the Italian for against the body and the description for the pose of both Ariadne and Bacchus and others, Look for example at the Bacchante struggling with snakes. Wrestling with snakes was part of the Bacchic cult, as was eating raw meat by the way, hence the animals head being dragged along by the small boy. And the satyr brandishing an animal leg. But this snake wrestler also refers to the Laocoon which (according to Vasari anyway) had been dug up in 1506 in peach orchard just outside Rome, under the very eyes of Titian’s great rival; Michelangelo. Including this pose is a form of one-upmanship, although Titian hadn’t been to Rome by this point he would have known this sculpture and the sort of use Michelangelo was putting it to. You can see this sort of showing off even more clearly in the way Titian signs his name. Alberti, in Della Pittura had written that only the best artists could imitate gold with colours rather than the material itself “there is greater praise and admiration for the artist in the use of colours”. Not only has Titian imitated gold with colour, he has made it even more difficult by placing the vase on a yellow cloth and has painted his signature in the ellipse of the vase. This is someone at the height of their powers really showing off.

In my gap year I worked for six months at the Marley Company in Lenham, Kent making floor tiles. Not much connection between Titian and floors, between art and industry you might think, as indeed many of my fellow workers tried to point out. I can remember trying to explain the contrapposto position of Bacchus to someone as we heaved great sheets of lino about, twisting our bodies in dynamic forms etc, not surprisingly he didn’t think we were very godlike and was not impressed.

I went to Venice as part of my own travels, the city where Titian was born and worked, a city known for its intense colours as the pigments came down the silk route from the east. A city steeped in art and trade, particularly in textiles and dyeing cloth, hence the emphasis on cloth and colour in this painting. After that first journey, perhaps inspired by Bacchus and Ariadne I have been back to Venice many times since, for the Biennale exhibition, and will be going again in a couple of weeks.

My first year at University was spent studying the Renaissance, I learnt for example about materials used, the importance of ultramarine, the pigment that gives Bacchus and Ariadne it’s vivid, intense blue. A pigment made from the mineral lapis lazuli, that only came into Venice from Northern Afghanistan, dug out of the Sar-e-Sang mine, very near to the two huge Buddhas that where destroyed by the Taliban. Incidentally these huge statues were originally painted blue and red, ultramarine and carmine.

Back to the image I started with. It was from University that I took my girlfriend to see my favourite work of art in the National Gallery in London, we made a special trip, hours in a coach. We stood in front of the painting in our coloured clothes; I think she was about as impressed as my fellow worker at Marley Floors. One thing she said though that stays with me, “This place” she said looking round and Claire was not from the University, “this place is not for the likes of me” and I remember being horrified by that.

I had never thought of art and art galleries as being closed to anyone, art and art galleries have always felt like home to me, since early days sheltering from bullies in the art room, or seeing this painting in my pram (apparently). I suppose that is why I am writing this.

And that brings me to the most recent part of the painting to come to my notice. This figure in the top right hand corner: Silenus, was, traditionally, Bacchus’ teacher, he is described as the oldest, wisest and most drunken of the followers of Bacchus, typecast no doubt. But that sense of trying to get others to appreciate, to understand or just to enjoy art perhaps it was planted then in front of a painting I have been looking at for over fifty years

Claire by the way left me soon after for someone much more glamorous, someone who was to become the leader of one of the top Goth bands in the country, that was my fault obviously, not wearing enough black, and liking bright paintings, as I still do. And will do for the next fifty years, I hope. Though, if the Coalition has its way it will be in pension poverty and no doubt, by then we will have to pay to see such an important painting. After me one/ two/ three/ four: ‘No Ifs, No Buts, No Public Sector Cuts’.