Sunday, 30 January 2011

Chekhov world-weariness

This is rather how I felt in some of the places I've lived:

ANDREY: Oh where is it now, where has my past gone, the time when I was young, merry, clever, when I had fine thoughts, fine dreams, when my present and my future were lit up by hope? Why is it that no sooner have we begun to live, we become boring, grey, uninteresting, lazy, indifferent, useless, unhappy . . . Our town has existed now for two hundred years, it has a hundred thousand inhabitants - and not one of them who isn't exactly like the others, not one hero, not one scholar, not one artist, not one who stands out in the slightest bit, who might inspire envy or a passionate desire to emulate him. They just eat, drink, sleep, then they die . . . others are born and they too eat, drink, sleep, and in order not to be dulled by boredom, they diversify their life with vile gossip, vodka, cards, law suits, and the wives deceive their husbands and the husbands lie, pretend they see nothing and hear nothing, and an irremediably coarse influence weighs down on the children, and the spark of God's spirit dies in them and they become the same kind of pitiful corpses, one like another, as their mothers and fathers . . .

Chekhov Three Sisters, Act 4

Monday, 24 January 2011

The feel of ordinary life

Philip Pullman said something good about about the Chekhov story he’d read (Guardian short stories podcasts, ‘The Beauties’), about the plot not being the point but rather the often inconsequential texture of ordinary life. It’s true of Chekhov’s plays, too -- that’s one way he was a Modernist innovator. The story, says Pullman, is like the man said about Waiting for Godot, ‘In this play nothing happens -- twice.’

I recalled this when looking at a kids’ comic strip by Jim Medway, in which nothing happens five times, on successive days.

Now I've hit on another good quote from much earlier, as it happens in the introduction to Chekhov’s plays that I'm reading as preparation for seeing The Three Sisters tomorrow (by the Russian company again, so we’ll see what they do with something good). The author writes:

Chekhov surely must have read Gogol's famous 1836 denunciation of theatre in Russia during the early nineteenth century and beyond. After deploring the stage's corruption by 'the monster . . . melodrama', Gogol went on to ask 'where is our life, ourselves with our own idiosyncrasies and traits?'…. 'The melodrama is lying most impudently,' Gogol went on. 'Only a great, rare, deep genius can catch what surrounds us daily, what always accompanies us, what is ordinary — while mediocrity grabs with both hands all that is out of rule, what happens only seldom and catches the eye by its ugliness and disharmony . . . The strange has become the subject-matter of our drama. The whole point is to tell a new, strange, unheard-of incident: murder, fire, wild passions . . . poisons. Effects, eternal effects!'

Voltaire DID care about liberty

I said (here) that De Tocqueville said that the philosophes weren’t interested in England, and (somewhere) that I've started reading Voltaire’s Letters on England. Well, the latter seem to refute Voltaire: see the following (Penguin, 44-5):

Here is a more essential difference between Rome and England which gives all the advantage to the latter: the outcome of civil wars in Rome was slavery, and that of the troubles in England liberty. The English nation is the only one on earth which has succeeded in controlling the power of kings by resisting them, which by effort after effort has at last established this wise system of government in which the prince, all-powerful for doing good, has his hands tied for doing evil, in which the aristocrats are great without arrogance and vassals, and in which the people share in the government without confusion….

The government of England is not made for such great glory [as Roman conquests] nor for such a terrible end [as the suppression of the plebs]; its object is not the brilliant folly of making conquests, but to prevent its neighbours from making any. These people are not only jealous of their own liberty but also of that of others. The English were fiercely hostile to Louis XIV simply because they thought he was ambitious. They made war against him with a light heart, certainly without self- interest. No doubt liberty has only been established in England at a heavy cost, and the idol of despotic power has been drowned in seas of blood, but the English do not feel they have paid too high a price for good laws. The other nations have had no fewer troubles and have shed no less blood, but the blood they have poured out in the cause of their liberty has only cemented their servitude.

The Cézanne book

I said I’d bought the catalogue -- a lavish and lovely production and value for money, I’d say -- and I turned to the chapter by Richard Shiff, ‘He Painted’, in the hope that it would tell me more than its title. It starts rather uninterestingly, for me, about Cézanne’s early reputation, but soon starts to say some helpful stuff, first by quotes and then in his own explanations.

So, Duret (1906) calls his technique, ‘strokes next to each other, then on top of each other’ - as if ‘he lays his painting with bricks’. Then Shiff asserts that ‘the historical trajectory’ of this technique (Courbet, perhaps) ‘need not engage the forces driving social history at any given time.’ (So somebody suggests or could suggest it might? interesting....) ‘The possibility of aligning aesthetic and social stars hardly motivated Cézanne’ (so it might, or did, others? I’d like to know more -- should read more art books....)

Then there’s stuff on whether Cézanne dehumanises his figures -- again, not something that worries me. This concern comes from Meyer Schapiro (1952), who then is quoted with this lovely formulation about The Card Players: ‘The inherent rigidity of the theme is overcome also by the remarkable life of the surface. There is a beautiful flicker and play of small contrasts.’ Shiff comments that ‘fllicker’ is right, and it is, and says that it has the effect of making the surface appear to ‘warp’, which it does.

Then, to my delight, he confirms that, as I said in the first post, Cézanne’s marks aren’t all representational: ‘Yet Cézanne’s characteristic warp does not necessarily adhere to the representational anatomy or the logical arrangement of a figure in the space of a room.’ Rather what happens is an ‘insistent sequencing of parallel marks and alternating colours’, regardless of ‘the depicted subject’.

What follows is then terrific and just the sort of art criticism I need. Best if I try to reproduce a couple of pages. Start at the second para on p.79. Click on images to enlarge.

Another anti-theatre rant

Theatre on Saturday night almost resolved me (again) to give it up completely. Although it was the Sovremennik company from Moscow of whom great things were expected -- and evidently, for most of the audience (admittedly including many Russians) delivered -- for me it was the usual theatre stuff -- actors, producers and designers so evidently pleased with themselves; all that fussing around with sets and machinery; that studied standing very still when not part of the action; the long boring passages where someone is having emotions or thoughts. ‘Now pretend to be sad,’ ‘You pretend to snub her’, ‘You pretend to wash the floor’ etc. I found it boring, unmoving, undramatic and predictable -- or, where it wasn’t predictable, of no consequence either way. And primitive, childish, not in a good way.

It simply doesn’t work for me as it’s supposed to -- by contrast with television plays, of which every one that the BBC has done recently has been superb.

I suspect my revulsion is like what the Modernists felt towards conventional representational art and fiction and drama -- see Josipovici label-- an outdated and non-working convention, incapable of conveying anything recognisable as our condition. However, to be fair, this did seem a particularly poor play, Into the Whirlwind, though based on what is said to be a fine memoir by Eugenia Ginzburg about a life marked by unspeakable sufferings and courage under the Soviet system.

Why would you want to try to represent life on a stage with sets when you could do it in a real prison or field or city and record it with a camera? Well, I know why, of course -- it’s precisely for the sake of the non-representational element of expressiveness and abstract order that a built and painted construction can deliver. But that only makes sense if the actions within the set don’t pretend to be real behaviour: the speech should be in verse, recited not acted, perhaps read from the scripts; the actors masked and not in ‘costumes’ but in ordinary clothes or actors’ uniforms analogous to orchestral players’ formal gear. Like oratorio.

I enjoy opera best in versions that are termed ‘semi-staged’: no sets, singers in concert gear standing with the orchestra, a bit of movement, certainly expressiveness in the singing. I was due to see The Miraculous Mandarin by Bartok semi-staged on Thursday - but we’ve had a letter from the Philharmonia Orchestra to say that ‘this is no longer the case’, very disappointing. There was Stravinsky’s Pulcinella at the Proms last year on television, semi-staged, thrilling, hair-raising. Similarly, I like the earliest opera, Monteverdi’s Orfeo, from an age before they did full staging (I think).

There’s also something about us posh, comfortable people flocking to an expensive production in central London to watch a depiction by other comfortable people of suffering, cruelty and bravery in conditions we’ve never experienced. For some reason film and television don’t seem objectionable in the same way -- not just, presumably, because we don’t dress up for them. But I don’t think that line of objection will stand up if I follow it through.

Or, I may have to conclude, my revulsion may just be a blind spot in me.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Christmas joke

A good one, from the LRB letter’s -- even better as improved by me and useful for old-fashioned grammar lessons:

There’s the chief Christmas guy, Santa, and his little helpers, the subordinate Clauses.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

De Tocqueville Ancien Régime: last word

Over the two centuries before 1789 political life was abolished; no way remained in which the ordinary people of France could participate in public affairs. As for the aristocracy, they retained their privileges (exemption from tax), lost much of their wealth and practically all of their power. Power was sucked entirely into the state: i.e. the king, operating a bureaucracy so centralised and all-pervasive that De T calls it ‘in effect socialist’ (not a good word in his vocabulary); the state we associate with modern France (and later the Soviet Union) was in fact completely in place before the revolution; only the class structure changed.

So: a population with no political or civic experience within the memory of several generations, and no political debate or discourse except the highly abstract, rarified, reason-driven disquisitions of the politically naive, inexperience and irresponsible philosophes with their all-or-nothing, everything-by-reason, clean-slate, rebuild-human-nature ideas -- which one way and another got through to the rural and urban poor and, in the absence of the moral inhibition and sense of proportion that come with living in communities that regulate themselves, licensed the ruthless implementation of abstract schemes in the revolution and, during the Terror, the unrestrained indulgence of the most savage impulses.

What was established thereby, De T says, was a new régime in which equality was the watchword -- equality as subjects of the state -- and liberty featured not at all, having been ignored as by all the 18th century treatises (the philosophes had only contempt for the idea of popular participation in government). And we ended up with the revival in a new guise of the absolutist state, equally unchallengeable and equally oppressive.


Sunday, 16 January 2011

What was Cézanne doing?

Finished De Tocqueville, Ancien Régime (but still intend to read some more appendices, including that on Frederick the Great; I found very interesting the one about French Canada displaying in its purest, most oppressive and most dysfunctional form the absolutism of the ancien régime). He keeps referring by way of contrast to Voltaire’s three years stay in England, so I've now started Letters on England (in English, Penguin).

That was on the train to Waterloo this morning where I was en route to the Courtauld Gallery for opening time of the last day of Cézanne’s card players. It was one room, about 20-25 pictures, all on the same theme -- just right for a single gallery visit. Not too crowed either -- I suppose not that many people know where it is.

They weren’t all card-playing scenes but were all peasants, portraits with and without pipes, some playing cards in two or three and studies for them, none doing peasant stuff in the peasant environment but all indoors in the studio, the space traditionally reserved for posher people. (The notes and captions were -- for once -- good; not a hint of Tate Modern’s post-modern bollocks.)

So, a good chance to look properly, an activity to which I was impelled by an article on the show by T.J. Clarke which was either very profound or rather silly, I'm not able to decide, but was certainly interesting and not post-modern.

So here’s some of what I saw.

Well, they were beautiful, if you’re allowed to say that these days. The atmosphere was calm and contemplative, the figures dignified despite their clown’s hats and pipes. The colours rich and wonderful.

I could see where this way of painting was headed: you could have taken passages of paint from these works and transferred them to a cubist painting of a decade and more later: painting that looks like paint marks applied with a broadish brush and close up doesn’t look like anything else.

I.e. if you looked closely at the actual jacket or its sleeve (sleeves are big in these paintings) as the chap was wearing it, you wouldn’t see what the painting shows. Each brush mark doesn’t represent something corresponding in that position in reality. But the whole effect does look like a sleeve or jacket: solid, volumetric, dipping away, protruding, lit and shaded, borne up and drooping or falling. It’s a mystery how he could do this, since to apply the paint he must have worked so close up that the marks lost their bigger context and were emptied of meaning.

So what’s the process? Perhaps: form a concept of the the whole effect and of the bits that will go to make it up; then, keep that firmly in your head and approach the canvas, but in painting keep the idea in mind and take no notice of the meaningless of the marks you’re making.

Or was it like this? He’s evolved a language or vocabulary of types of brushstrokes. (Of course it’s wrong to say that it’s a language -- in many ways it’s nothing like -- but the idea of combinable elements, some arbitrary -- not representational -- is similar.) He’s found another way than copying each minute bit to convey the effect of an object, using instead an ensemble of brush marks, each meaningless in itself but together delivering the idea; he’s found that human perception can be relied on to produce that transformation. So, having that language, he looks at a sleeve, forms a concept, and then paints the concept -- constructs the sentence ‘sleeve’, something that means sleeve just as the sleeve as seen for real does but getting there by starting somewhere quite different.

I'm interested enough to want to know more about this, so -- something I never do -- I bought the catalogue and to hell with the expense. The articles looked as if they’d be helpful. Then I want to know how he got there from, presumably, being a conventional young painter.

What’s the best book on Cézanne’s life and career?

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ivory tower classrooms

Train of thought this morning, walking down the Thames to Kingston:

The cruise boats were all moored for their winter painting etc. One was the ‘Richmond Royale’ and I thought how, probably, few people who used ‘royale’ in titles -- mainly of consumer items like notepaper and American cars, in copperplate typefaces -- realised it was the feminine of French ‘royal’. It’s used instead of ‘royal’, and placed after rather than before the noun, because the style connotes expensive sophistication.

Then I thought, what a donnish line of thought. Haven’t I anything better to do than go round like some leisured 18th century dilettante collecting interesting and amusing linguistic usages? I imagined the sort of unworldly teacher who would discourse about such oddities to bored classes who would mutter that he should, as they say today, get out more.

But then I thought, hang on: don’t some kids actually like that sort of unworldliness? Isn’t one point of school that it’s completely separate from life and that all children are thereby guaranteed many years of weekday security, peace and freedom from the constraints, pressures and preoccupations of their lives outside? Aren’t too many schools and teachers today jumping too fast to the belief that children need school to be obviously relevant to not only their lives but their modes of interacting and communicating outside?

Isn’t it precisely, for some, the abstraction and detachment of science, maths, history and poetry that make them so rewarding?

Memo to self: look again through Jonathan Rose’s great book, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, for the quotes I remember of 19th century weavers living an alternative life in the volumes of literature, economics and geometry they propped up on their looms. For them, self-education wasn’t primarily a matter of seeking political liberation, still less the present-day obsession with vocational advancement; it was for entering the world of the mind.

Then: might it be a, perhaps the, problem for education that children divide: one group appreciate abstraction (let’s call it that) and the other are bored and switched off by it and need to be coaxed by ‘relevance’ (this novel is more about your own lives than you think) into such engagement. Where’s the research on this? is it a false or a true dichotomy? where’s the research on those teachers who have successfully taught both types together in ‘mixed-ability’ classes? (It’s not of course a matter of ability.)

I also thought -- the Thames was lovely, wild and windy with swans and geese rising and all the moored barges -- and I need a good camera. My present one isn’t broken but the quality now depresses me when I see the work of people (Neil!) with better lenses and electronics. I've more or less stopped using it. So my dilemma: do I get a something bulkier for the sake of the lens, at the price of having to deliberately carry it round my neck or in a sizeable bag, or get a good compact on the grounds that I'm more likely to use it if I routinely have it in my coat pocket?

I might then get back to putting more photos on the blog.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

De Tocqueville again

For ages I've been reading L’Ancien Régime et la Revolution (see 5 & 6 November 2010) and have now nearly finished. It’s slow work because it’s in French.

I bought it second hand in Brussels but that copy fell to bits so I bought a new one -- identical impression -- from Amazon and read the second half in that.

I'm as impressed as ever. He seems to have conducted the sort of inquiry that no one had thought to do before, looking in the archives of 18th century France and earlier for clues to what made the revolution happen in France in such a unique way and what survived it. In the second book he’s into the literary antecedents: the philosophes who were totally out of touch with the lives of the peasants and yet whose ideas provided them with the language to contemplate their injustices; the économistes, mainly administrators, who cared nothing for liberty and everything for what de T. calls socialist reforms of the state: all-powerful state that individuals exist to serve, standardisation, centralisation, rationality, away with all traditions. Well before the Revolution they wanted to rationalise and rename the provinces; all their planned roads were dead straight.

The elite had no idea that the people would revolt, so long had society been without any public or political life so they had no way of knowing what the people thought. The ruling class were so ignorant of the peasants that they supposed their own exchanges were unintelligible to them; one aristocratic lady used to undress in front of her servants, says Voltaire, because she didn’t realise they were people with human responses.

And the final twenty years before the Revolution were the most prosperous in French history and made most progress towards alleviating the condition of the people. De Tocqueville comments that it’s precisely when oppression starts to ease that it is felt as most intolerable.

Reggie Maddox, BGS

Today’s Guardian supplement has an article by Denis Healey’s son about his father’s drawings and paintings. Some are reproduced and they’re good.

Healey, who was a pupil at Bradford Grammar School, pays tribute to the art teaching he had from Mr Reginald Maddox, particularly in watercolour. This suggests that my contemporaries and I underestimated the man -- and indeed his woodcuts, or was it scraper boards, in the school magazine and the Christmas cards he designed were truly dreadful, as my dad, who my knew a bit about this stuff, invariably pointed out. We never saw his watercolours.

But -- something kids don’t sufficiently acknowledge -- he was a nice man and I liked going and working in his art room after school for my O level art -- not on my official curriculum -- a venture in which he encouraged me.

It helped that the art room was such a lovely room with a fine view across the valley to Bolton Woods (an industrial village with quarries). Indeed, the school had a lovely new building, completed just before the war when Bradford had money and was then occupied and, it was said, partly wrecked, by the army. It was a bit tackily Tudor with its mullioned windows but floors were parquet and the classrooms spacious and light. It has a handsome, well-designed music room that I was sorry to see on a recent revisit had been turned into a computer suite.