Monday, 27 October 2014

Hunted by Mr. Hunt

I was watching on TV the other night Simon Schama on the subject of Rembrandt's late paintings, a kind of trailer for the Rembrandt exhibition just opened at the National Gallery. Schama, with his camp, quirky gestures and idiosyncratic intonation, has invited much parody of late, but when he is on form, he really is unbeatable. These days he comments on too many subjects for his own good, but Rembrandt is very much his home turf, and he was wonderfully well-informed, insightful and opinionated. At one point he informed us that Van Gogh was so obsessed with Rembrandt's painting The Jewish Bride that he declared he would give up the rest of his life if he could but spend ten days standing in wonder before it. Really? I guess Van Gogh knew what he was talking about but I can't think I would give The Jewish Bride (pictured below) more than 10 seconds if I was whizzing past it in an art gallery.

This is I suppose the embodiment of the pros and cons of art criticism. A great critic can truly make you see something in a new light and reveal a wealth of meaning you would never discern on your own. But does that necessarily change the impact that the art work has upon you? I'm not so sure.

Schama spoke about how as a youth he had been utterly transfixed by the sight of a Rembrandt self-portrait on display at Kenwood House in London. Was all his subsequent art criticism a means to somehow make sense of why that particular painting had affected him?

Many notable critics have Rembrandt down as just about the best painter of all time, and though I understand why, I can't say his paintings have the same impact on me. When it comes to fine art, I've long felt guilty about the works that actually do obsess me as they are supposed to be utterly uncool and pretty much in the bottom division of world art criticism. For example, I am really, really interested in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt (self-portrait at top). Admitting that you are fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites is bad enough, but plumping for Holman Hunt in particular is (to paraphrase T.E. Lawrence) like pitching your camp on a 'sideshow of a sideshow'. Yet me personally? You can keep your Rembrandts; I would take Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd (pictured above) ahead of virtually any painting in the world.

For a long time I thought I was in a minority of one on this subject. After all, the Pre-Raphaelites, those purveyors of gaudy Victoriana, have been dismissed decades ago by influential art critic Ernst Gombrich as a 'blind alley', and even within the group, Hunt was supposed to be the clumsiest, in painterly terms the ugly sister to pretty boys Millais and Rossetti. Just about the only person who has had anything good to say about Hunt in the last century or so is the novelist Evelyn Waugh, who while noting that his works were 'ugly' also praised them as 'great masterpieces' and referenced them in Brideshead Revisited. But then Waugh was perhaps biased, as his father was the first cousin of Hunt's two consecutive wives, the sisters Fanny and Edith Waugh.

'Ugly' though is the wrong adjective to describe Hunt's work. There is an indisputable painterly beauty to them, though they are probably not the type of thing you would want hanging on your wall at home. 'Sumptuously unnerving' or 'gorgeously disturbing' are the adjectives I would use to describe them. They disturb me far more than a Francis Bacon does. They have got inside my head and won't let go.

By the end of his long lifetime (1827-1910) - which saw the rise and fall of Impressionism and the beginning of Cubism - Hunt's outmoded paintings, such as the picture The Light of the World had become some of the most popular art work in the world. When The Light of the World went on a tour of the British Empire in 1907, seven million people crushed into the galleries to see it. Never mind Van Gogh standing enraptured in front of The Jewish Bride, people stood for literally hours utterly mesmerized by this painting. It was reproduced and hung in millions of pious Christian homes around the world until it became synonymous with the stiff, religious Victorian world new generations wished to sweep away. Evelyn Waugh referred to a kind of cataract descending on the eyes of the world preventing them from seeing the import of the pictures.

But it's really fascinating how art works take on a life of their own and just when you think they are dead start bursting into vitality in completely unexpected places. Read just about any 20th century history of art criticism and you will be told that Pre-Raphaelitism was a withered branch on the tree of art, old-fashioned, outmoded, going nowhere. Where was its 'influence'? We can draw a line from Cezanne to Kandinsky to Jackson Pollock, but from Holman Hunt? Do me a favour.

Actually Holman Hunt was inspiring new art work, such as Arthur Boyd's The Australian Scapegoat (1987), but it's his literary influence which is the most fascinating. 20 years ago I was amazed to discover just how much the great Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki had become obsessed with the art of Holman Hunt and how he repeatedly featured it as a motif in his stories. Exploring the boundaries and interconnections between the visual and literary arts was a Soseki obession in the first half of his short writing career (1904-1916) and he would do what can perhaps best be described as 'literary recreations' of famous paintings in his stories. A key painting to Soseki was Holman Hunt's Lady of Shalott (pictured left) - itself a famous contemplation on the meaning of art - which Soseki 'recreated' in his story 'The Shallot Dew'. In his 1906 novel The Autumn Wind (Nowaki), Soseki even has one of protagonists, an aspiring writer, advised by a friend to go home and study the paintings of Holman Hunt.

But it's in Soseki's masterpiece Sanshiro (1908) that Hunt finally moves to centre stage. You really can't get to grips with this novel unless you understand that Hunt's iconic paintings The Hireling Shepherd and Strayed Sheep are at the beating heart of it. The words 'Stray Sheep' are indeed constantly repeated in English and are first uttered by the central character Mineko in a scene which is a sly Sosekian reproduction of Hunt's The Hireling Shepherd. The name 'Mineko' incidentally is also a Sosekian play on words - Hunt's painting was accompanied by a rhyme from King Lear referring to the hireling shepherd's 'minikin mouth'.

Ten years ago, I was so fascinated by the Soseki-Hunt link that I did everything I could to promote it. I hoped to get Sanshiro - out of print in English at the time - back into publication and accompanied with an introduction that would boldly explore what the novel was all about. For reasons that escape me, Penguin ran with my idea but came out with an edition with a banal introduction by some obscure novelist called Haruki Murakami. What a wasted opportunity...Instead I implored Manchester Art Gallery - which holds The Hireling Shepherd - to promote the Soseki link. I even gave a lecture there on the subject. Result: complete indifference. Natsume who? Never heard of him and the critics don't think much of Hunt either.

I decided to retreat back into my default position of being in a minority of one when it came to Holman Hunt appreciation. (Actually it's a minority of three: me, Soseki and Evelyn Waugh, which isn't a bad club to be in). But then I was jolted out of my habitual mental hibernation by happening to watch the 2011 BBC adaptation of Michel Faber's critically lauded novel The Crimson Petal and the White. The story is a very clever reworking of many favourite themes in Victorian fiction. Utterly central to it is Holman Hunt's painting The Awakening Conscience (pictured right), depicting a Victorian gent with his 'kept woman' on his lap, compared to the cat playing with a mouse underneath the table. It's no exaggeration to say that the whole plot of The Crimson Petal and the White seems to fan out from this picture, imagining the different worlds of the respectful gent and the sex worker. From this central point Faber spans out a visceral, excruciating vision of Victorian London as sprawling, extreme and interconnected as Dickens' magnificent Bleak House. Just for good measure, there is also a wonderful inversion of Jane Eyre when the prostitute-turned-governess is moved into the attic room of the prosperous gent while his 'mad wife' (actually suffering from a brain tumour) lives in the house downstairs. The gent when he visits the prostitute in the first place actually assumes the identity of a 'William Hunt'.

If you could choose just three works that define Victorian London then Jane Eyre, Bleak House and The Awakening Conscience seem to be about the best picks you could possibly have and I suddenly became interested to learn more about Michel Faber. I was surprised by his sci-fi writings. As many of you will know, his earlier work Under the Skin about aliens on earth was turned into a recent film and his latest novel (The Book of Strange New Things, purportedly his last) is a return to the sci-fi genre.

How do you go from a contemplation of a painting by William Holman Hunt to writing science fiction? Easily it seems because Faber, I discovered, is not the first to do so. I was fascinated to read that the prolific science fiction writer Brian Aldiss - who wrote the book on which the Spielberg film AI was based - had back in 1967 penned an experimental sci-fi classic called Report on Probability A in which Hunt's Hireling Shepherd is of central importance. Indeed it seems that Aldiss actually rewrote and reissued the novel so that Hunt's picture hangs in the room of each protagonist. The novel, inspired by Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, questions the possibility of ever attaining 'objective truth' because everything depends on the stance of the observer. (Presumable Hunt's picture is in the mix because it too is open to a multiplicity of radically different interpretations). The novel has been compared to the work of Beckett and Borges.

Having got this far in my investigations, I'm having to revise yet again membership of my exclusive Holman Hunt club and say there are now five of us: me, Soseki, Evelyn Waugh, Michel Faber and Brian Aldiss. More and more, I'm liking the look of this club. For any art historian who wants to tell me - honorary secretary of the club - that Hunt's art is a 'dead end', I can only say that there is now a heck of an appreciation club that says differently.

And as for Mr. Hunt, he just won't leave me alone, I feel hunted by him all the time. What's the meaning of all his work? Can't you see? From The Scapegoat to The Triumph of the Innocents, he's the world champion of the victims and the oppressed. And that, my friends, is the most universal and modern theme you will ever find.

1 comment:

Pjamasaurus said...

I'm so pleased that there is someone else promoting the Soseki-Hunt link. I read Sanshiro and shortly afterwards saw the painting Stray Sheep, and having seen the painting it seemed unimaginable that the Penguin Classics version made no recognition of this link. I guess its part of the strange exoticism which blinds much of the British attitude to Japanese authors which we also see in the way people approach Ishiguro as though he was a translated author.