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.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Mad About the Girl

SEX, SCANDAL, SEVERED HEADS...with special guest stars Oscar Wilde, Al Pacino and Yukio Mishima... My latest article 'Mad About the Girl' is on the Reaktion Books website. Click right here.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Yukio Mishima Launch Event

Just a heads up to let everyone know that the launch event for my new book Yukio Mishima will be taking place on the evening of Tuesday 11 November at the Daiwa Foundation near Regents Park in London. The event will start at 6pm when I will be giving a talk about Mishima for 30-40 minutes, then there will be a Q and A followed by a drinks reception and book signings. The event is completely free and everyone is welcome so why not come along? (Please do let the Daiwa Foundation know if you are hoping to come though). You can find more details about the event on the Daiwa Foundation website here:

Look forward to seeing you all there.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

A Critic's Life: From John Ruskin to Breaking Bad

I've been reading of late some of the mixed reviews of the new Emma Thompson-scripted movie, Effie Gray, about the young wife of Victorian art critic John Ruskin (pictured right). The eponymous heroine abandoned her loveless, unconsummated marriage in favour of running off with dashing John Everett Millais, co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and most famous for his painting of Ophelia. Famously Ruskin was said to have been fatally turned off his young bride upon gazing at her pubic hair (there are lots of fans of the Hollywood out there who would sympathize) and is apparently depicted in Effie Gray as the stereotypical sexually-repressed, stiff (or rather, not so stiff) Victorian, a depiction repeated in the 2009 BBC series Desperate Romantics, with Tom Hollander playing Ruskin.

Clearly Emma Thompson was angling for a feminist vote of sympathy for poor old Effie Gray who soon settled down into tedious domestic harmony with Millais, producing eight children. Interestingly however, the film has had an unexpected reaction - the depiction of Ruskin has led to many voices calling for a re-appreciation of his genius.

I won't pretend for a minute to be any expert on Ruskin - I once did a brief skim through the volumes of his Modern Painters, at one time the cutting edge of art criticism, though now firmly belonging to the domain of mid 19th century history-of-art scholars. I've never read his Stones of Venice and am not sure I ever will. But even so, what's undoubted about Ruskin is how enormously influential he was throughout the nineteenth century, whether as the champion of Turner or the man who saved the incipient Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood from critical oblivion or indeed his extraordinary social vision, which inspired and anticipated many of the later achievements of the welfare state. A little bi-annual pilgrimage I like to make is to the Ruskin House at Coniston in the Lake District and I've happily sat through the documentary film of his life a few times.

Ruskin was clearly the critic's critic, a man who saw that the only worthwhile way to live your life is with a critical eye, constantly reassessing the value of things, whether he was appraising fine art or the society around him. He understood that while art is essential in a society so is the critical appreciation to that art and that one cannot fully operate without the other.

It's tempting sometimes not to over-think things and park one's critical faculties in neutral. I was attempting to watch the other week the classic Akira Kurosawa film Ikiru (1952). Having seen virtually all the Kurosawa films, somehow Ikiru had slipped through the net and I had kept meaning to watch it sometime. Many have proclaimed it a great classic, but when I started watching it, I simply couldn't get into it and paused it twenty minutes in. I tweeted at the time that it seemed so old as though it had been made in 1852 rather than 1952. A couple of weeks later I watched another half hour and paused it again. Sure, I'd get back to it sometime but truth to tell I'd really rather be watching the box sets of series two and three of Breaking Bad, which I have been consuming at a rate of an episode a night. The gripping tale of illicit crystal meth production in present day Albuquerque seemed a whole lot more engaging than a slow-moving story set in postwar, black-and-white Tokyo.

Imagine my surprise therefore when I happened to read online - this is very old news indeed but I am only just catching up - that the creator of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, had been inspired by the plot of Ikiru. In Kurosawa's film, a humble clerk is given a terminal diagnosis for stomach cancer and only then begins to break out of his humdrum existence. In Breaking Bad, Gilligan takes this idea and transforms it into the tale of a downtrodden chemistry teacher given a terminal diagnosis for lung cancer who begins criminal activities to pay for his medical bills and leave something behind for his family. Both film and series are acute satires on the societies in which they are set: in Kurosawa's case, he is satirizing the bureaucratic rigidity of Japanese society and the blind conformity of the employees; in Gilligan's case, it is the nation's lack of universal healthcare, the rapacity of its lawyers and businessmen, and the poor rewards of educators amongst many other things at which he levels his satirical vision.

How could I have not seen the connection, especially as I was watching both at the same time? Although I am well aware that Kurosawa was inspired by the Westerns of John Ford and that Kurosawa's films in turn inspired a slew of classic Westerns, somehow I had failed to see that there was a straight line between New Mexico and Tokyo.

Having taken a leaf out of Ruskin's book and turned back on my critical vision, Breaking Bad resonates in ever more fascinating lights. I can appreciate for example how in the virtuoso episode in series three The Fly - a two-hander set entirely in the meth lab and concerned with the capturing of a fly - we have a set-up inspired by Sartre's famous play Les Mouches (itself a reworking of Aeschylus' classic Oresteia) in which the fly becomes a potent symbol of the guilt felt by the protagonist Walt White. Would the real-life fly be killed before he made a full confession to his young accomplice? It was all brilliantly done.

Note to self: Keep your critical faculties switched on at all times, you never know when they might come in handy. As Ruskin taught us so well, from lady gardens to Renaissance buildings to pensions schemes, nothing is beneath the analytic scrutiny of a finely-tuned critical eye.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Freedom and the Middle East

(Image: Syrian children in Lebanon, courtesy Trocaire)

It's said that in the last days of the Third Reich, Hitler and Goebbels nestled down in the bunker and, as the walls shuddered around them, thumbed through an edition of Carlyle's biography of Fredrick the Great. Hitler took solace from the fact that the King of Prussia had once found himself in a hopeless position, holed up in a ruined palace in Breslau, with the armies of the world around him, but had been miraculously saved by his enemies turning one upon the other. Might this not happen again? When the advancing Western allies met the Soviets might they not too turn upon one another and allow the Reich to be saved?

Hitler may have seemed extraordinarily delusional, but if you examine what is currently going on in Syria, you soon see that such outcomes are by no means impossible. Two years ago, who would have given President Assad and his crumbling regime a chance of surviving given the grand alliance marshalled against him? The US, Israel, Turkey, Britain, France and others were all united against him and the Syrian rebels found huge numbers of arms being provided for their use. Only the Russians stood by the beleaguered president, whose grisly end, in the manner of Gaddafi, seemed only a matter of time.

But now, in a veritable Frederick the Great-style turnaround, the Grand Coalition is attacking the very rebels it once so eagerly armed. Debate rages as to whether the alliance should also still be attacking Assad (but would this not, some claim, create a huge political void that more religious extremists would quickly fill?). Assad was once portrayed as the butcher of the Syrian people, a modern day Hitler. Now attacking his regime seems like an enormous mistake, a pandering to the Israeli obsession with the Hezbollah-Assad-Iran alliance arrayed against it, that has created infinitely more trouble than if Assad had simply been left in place.

On the day of the 9-11 attacks on the Twin Towers, when the British Government got word that the perpetrator was a group called 'Al-Qaeda', it seems everyone looked at one another with a blank face. Eventually someone was dispatched to Waterstones in Trafalgar Square to buy a book on the Middle East to find out who exactly this 'Al-Qaeda' were. How times have changed. These days, you would need a PhD in Terrorist Studies to keep up with it all. There is ISIS (or IS or ISIL) of course, a breakaway reconfiguration of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Then there is Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, who were at loggerheads with both ISIS and Hezbollah, though they may now have patched things up with ISIS as both groups are being bombed by the Grand Alliance. There may be another group called Khorasan, who might be about to launch an attack on the West - though this group might not exist at all and may just be a wing of al-Nusra. Turkey does not like ISIS, but fears the Kurdish PKK more, and so will not provides arms or support for the Kurds to attack ISIS lest the PKK gain in strength. Confused? You will be.

In the midst of all this, there is supposedly the 'Free Syria Army', though some people claim this doesn't even exist any more (assuming it actually existed in the first place). It's a shame that this is the army which, in the midst of the melee, we are all hoping will win.

Whatever else you can say about the mess which currently exists in Syria and Iraq, there seems little doubt that even in the miraculous event that a 'Free Syria Army' should prove triumphant, what will emerge will not be a 'Free Syria'. Foreign powers will be pulling the strings. But then 'freeing Syria' was never the point. The intention was simply to make Syria more compliant and complicit.

What's currently going on in Syria and Iraq is actually a textbook example of what has been going on in the Middle East over the last century. There is a choice between secular dictatorship on the one hand and frenzied theocracy on the other - there seems to be no space whatsoever for secular democracy. Faced with the threat of militarized theocracy, Western governments - concerned about oil supplies and Israel's security - invariably plump for propping up secular dictators, doling out billions of dollars of military aid, just so long as they keep their peoples acquiescent. Meanwhile all types of compliments are dispensed to the virtues of 'moderate Islam', encouraging the mullahs to support the system and keep the extremists in check.

The great Egyptian author, Naguib Mahfouz (pictured right, image by Misr2009)
who wrote some 34 novels over a career spanning seven decades was once asked to define what his life's work was all about. 'Freedom', he answered, bringing it all down to a single word. What exactly did 'freedom' mean? Two things. Firstly, freedom from foreign control. Mahfouz's novels span the five millennia of Egyptian history and tell the story of the Egyptian struggle to regain control of their own land from Hyksos invaders in the 16th century BC down to modern history and the attempts to throw off the shackles of the Turks, the British and the Americans. The story of the twentieth century, which Mahfouz so adeptly describes, is repeated national revolutions designed to wrest the nation from quasi-colonial control, only to discover that every time the colonial overlords crept back in. Egyptians youths laid down their lives in the 1919 Revolution to remove the British, but discovered that the British were still surreptitiously running things in the 1920s. Nasser's 1952 revolution did not bring true liberation either. And we all know what happened in the aftermath of the 'Arab Spring' of 2011. After the inevitable lurch towards the Moslem Brotherhood, it was back to business as usual with a secular dictatorship supported by hefty American military aid.

For Mahfouz though, 'freedom' meant not just liberation from foreign control, but liberation from the oppressions of religion too - and for him personally, this was by far the more dangerous path to attempt to pursue. In his masterly religious allegory, Children of the Alley, Mahfouz provides an incisive account of the development of religious faith from Adam to Moses and from Jesus to Mohammed. Throughout history, people were looking for liberation from their oppressors, whether Moses leading his people out of captivity or Jesus resisting the oppressions of the Romans. In many ways, Jesus is the key figure. He is the great prophet and hero of the downtrodden, but the crunch is that Jesus is brutally murdered. Where do you take the struggle for freedom to from there? In Mahfouz's telling, there were two options. The Christians come along and invent a myth that Jesus didn't actually die at all, but was resurrected and saved us all. Or you take the Muslim path that, yes, he was murdered and sadly that's where meekness gets you in this world, so next time around you had better make sure that your campaign for liberation comes armed - we have entered the age of 'Mohammed and the sword'.

Children of the Alley is an extremely perceptive and sympathetic account of the reasons for Islam's success, but it doesn't stop there - how could it? It also introduces us to a modern world of science, of atomic bombs and the Theory of Evolution, a world where the word on the street is that God is Dead.

The thanks that Mahfouz got for writing this masterpiece about the quest for human freedom was to see his book banned throughout the Arab world and, after The Satanic Verses controversy later flared up tensions, he was attacked by an Islamic fanatic who, incited by the mullahs, plunged a dagger in his neck. Mahfouz narrowly survived. Bizarrely what troubled the mullahs was not the implication at the end of the book that God is Dead, but some of the minutiae concerning the life of Mohammed, which for all but Islamic scholars would be unlikely to be even noticed.

After all the controversy Mahfouz not surprisingly kept religion at a respectful distance in his writings. He still claimed he was a Moslem (he would, wouldn't he?), but the Islam that engaged his interest tended to be Sufism, the mystical wing of Islam, an area where contemplation of the 'oneness' of things was all. When you get this far away from dogma and organized religion, the barriers between 'spirituality' and enlightened atheism become indistinct.

For Mahfouz - so far the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in the Arab World - the struggle against foreign colonialism and religious dogma represented the central narrative of five millennia of Egyptian history. The same could be said to be true of virtually every country in the Middle East. One could become depressed at the inability of the Arab World to shake off the endless cycle of vastly corrupt dictators and fanatical theocrats. And yet there is another way of looking at the equation. Firstly, Mahfouz understood that attempts at foreign control are only ever transitory: world powers wax and wane but the true Egypt flows on like the Nile eternally.

Secondly, Mahfouz saw that it is not the ultimate fate of the Middle East to be merely 'Muslim countries'. Being Egyptian meant being heir to the first great civilization in the world, to being connected to three millennia of civilization before Islam had even been invented. The same is true of all the countries of the Middle East. Syria and Iraq have a vastly greater cultural hinterland beyond the fathoming of shrill-voiced fanatics calling for a new caliphate as if history began in the seventh century.

As Europe was liberated from the shackles of religion and absolute monarchy by an enlightenment that harked back to a pre-Christian classical age, for me true freedom for the Middle East will only come when a dogged commitment to secular education lifts the shroud of religion and reveals the possibilities of a technologically sophisticated future lit by the glories of a classical past.