Off to Venice with my wife and daughters. We stay near the Arsenale and enjoy the local neighbourhood, where my children delight in the sweary perambulations of Gianni, from bar to bar, greeting all as he goes. Once, we spot him being welcomed at lunchtime through a dark doorway by a nun who smiles away his rough greeting. We try to explain to the children that Gianni’s presence here is a good thing, and his acceptance by the neighbourhood as exemplary. The girls’ fear of Gianni fades. In the evenings, they run across the little square in front of the Arsenale entrance and its great marble lions.

Campo Arsenale

I take my old volume of Adrian Stokes with me, a heavy copy of Book II of the Critical Writings that doubles the weight of my carry-on bag. I wonder without concern if I will find his writings on Venice as exhilarating as I remember or portentous and silly.

Stokes II

Whenever I brought friends to Venice from my home in Bergamo I would begin the ‘tour’ not in Piazza San Marco but in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Partly, of course, this was to pig-headedly make a point, but also because this place served, for me, as the ideal introduction to the city. And you could sit beneath the statue of Colleoni, the great mercenary of Bergamo, and drink a beer for a fraction of the cost of a coffee in St Mark’s. 25 years later, the beer remains good value, and the square still the perfect place to begin the contemplation of Venice. Admire Verocchio’s great statue, pop into the Basilica to see the Bellini and the wonderful tombs by Pietro Lombardo, and then wander round the corner to Santa Maria dei Miracoli.

Santa Maria dei Miracoli

Stokes is brilliant on this church: “Pilasters, with their arch mouldings lying upon the bright marble wall-space, are the inner dark ferment in architectural form upon this marble. The darkness of the windows is like a residue both of the inside of the church and of the dark canal.” They do, and it does; he gets it right. He then places these observations into his complex world view, what he calls his ‘ideal living process’: “But they also provoke, and this church provokes, an image of the inner life; not this kind of inner life or that kind of inner life, but inner in the abstract in outer form. The stress of other art is one kind of inner ferment in outer form rather than upon the fact of outer form itself.” Portentous? Maybe. Certainly hard, tough to follow and challenging, yet still exciting and daring. The thrill of someone making the case for the importance of art.

We take the ferry to Mazzorbo in the lagoon on the greyest of perfect lagoon days, no separation between sky and water; we enjoy an excellent lunch and then walk round the island and over the wooden bridge to Burano, from where we take the ferry home. We see the Bellini in San Zaccaria and I note the house in the corner of the square that draws the attention of Stokes, who contrasts this simple, outward expression with its northern opposite, a pantomime witch’s forest cottage where the devilry is all within. Here, in the corner of what is still a quiet square: “An entire and generalized spirit is upon the outside: animation of oblong and circle is complete.”

campo-san-zaccaria

Before we leave, we wander down Via Garibaldi to have breakfast. Gianni stumbles into a bar to have his first beer of the day. Gianni, outside and out of the state’s control, the expression of a living community’s humanity and openness. I would like to think Mr Stokes would nod in approval.

David Quick

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Philip Wilson Steer, A Summer's Evening

Philip Wilson Steer, A Summer’s Evening

 

Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942) was an English painter. I have two of his watercolours, bought at auction for very little, in my study; they are pale, thin works, sketches of coastal summer skies, topped by with warm,high clouds. They date from the 1920s and 30s, but Steer’s most famous and appreciated works date exclusively from 1886 to the early 1890s, during which he produced, in oil, some of the greatest British Impressionist pictures. I love the thrillingly intense and natural works he painted in the pretty Suffolk seaside village of Walberswick – Knucklebones with its glorious, happy innocence, the balletic, daring Girls Running and so many others. Perhaps the greatest triumph is A Summer’s Evening from 1887-88. Three naked girls are observed on the beach; the heat stifles; the girls’ insouciance makes the painter invisible; it defies eroticism by asserting purity and love. It is heavenly. In 2005 A Summer’s Evening sold for nearly £1m at auction. These great works are displayed in Tate Britain, and other excellent galleries around the country, and beyond. Sydney Art Gallery has a wonderful painting of Knaresborough. I once visited a private dealer in San Francisco who had a wonderful (if outside the catalogue) work I could have snapped up for less than $100,000 if I’d have been both insane and very wealthy.

 

Knucklebones, Steer as genius

Knucklebones, Steer as genius

Steer’s masterpieces (though many were harshly judged at the time) date from his 20s and early 30s. In 1898 he exhibited at the New English Art Club a large reclining nude called ‘Sleep.’ There is a monochrome plate of the work in Bruce Laughton’s book on Steer, and Laughton makes the comment: “the nude lies on a scarlet robe which throws reflections into flesh the colour of ripe cheese.” It does not sound good, and the reader is relieved the reproduction lacks colour. Steer’s biographer (a friend and admirer, on the whole), DS MacColl declares the painting a mistake: “For Steer can be one of the stupidest of men; he blunders magnificently.” Over the next decades, the blunders become less magnificent; Steer retreats into a kind of safe Englishness. He paints the English landscape. He does it well, but with a heavy sense of duty. The intensity has all gone. Not for Steer the crazed genius of Titian’s late years, his aged hands smearing the paint across canvases as thrillingly, chillingly violent as The Flaying of Maryas. Instead, Steer aims for accuracy, as if it were a virtue. He plods around the beauty spots of England and makes postcards.

 

Sleep, "flesh the colour of ripe cheese."

Sleep, “flesh the colour of ripe cheese.”

As a life, Steer’s seems an abject failure. The intense promise of his early years fizzles into convention and conformity. His talent and energy drain away. He becomes a jobbing painter, tolerated by the establishment, invited to lecture in the conservative academies. He appears to lack ambition, to turn his back on his own genius.

And perhaps that is what makes Steer so appealing – that failing is itself something so human – so touching in its ordinariness – that it is impossible not to admire. Steer is like each of us, when our ambitions fade. The old man Titian, raging against death, is awesomely beyond us; Steer, choosing the safe path, takes his place beside us in our offices and our homes. He puts away the guitar we used to play; he deletes the poems we wrote when we were young; he switches the TV set to the football and away from the subtitled film. He is the best and worst of you and me.

 

In 1931, a dealer calls by Steer’s Thames-side house, uninvited. He explains he wishes to buy ‘masterpieces’ and asks Steer to name his price. According to his biographer, Steer responds as a true Englishman: “‘I don’t paint masterpieces,” said Steer, and shut the door.”

 

Desiderio, A Little Boy - marble filled with grace

Desiderio, A Little Boy – marble filled with grace

As a student, I was introduced to the writings of Adrian Stokes, that curious and now neglected English essayist, painter and poet. His writings on art ignited a passion that has given me joy throughout my life. I regard Stokes’ critical writings as some of the greatest works ever written about art, and of his books none is finer than The Quattro Cento. In his introduction, he sets out his thesis, that the great early Renaissance sculptors “made stone to bloom.” Carrying on the metaphor, he identifies, so very beautifully, stonework that is “immediate, without rhythm, like the open face of a rose.” I carried the volumes of Stokes on my early journeys around Italy, and they proved wondrous companions, not just to the art of Florence, but to the entire conceit that is Venice, and to strange yet riveting oddities like Rimini’s Tempio Malatestiano (immortalised in Stokes’ ‘Stones of Rimini’).  Stokes moved to Cornwall just before Wold War II. LIke many artists, his best works originate from his time there, during which he also met Peter Lanyon, encouraging him to paint in a more contemporary style. Lanyon subsuequently became a close friend of WS Graham – Graham’s elegy to his friend, The Thermal Stair, can be heard here

The Cornish artist, Peter Lanyon

The Cornish artist, Peter Lanyon

In it, Graham declares the common purpose of artist and poet:

“His job is love

Imagined into words or paint to make

An object that will stand and not move.”

In that stillness, I see an echo of Stokes and his rose without rhythm, and Graham, too, saw in great art the ability for the materials of art to overcome their physical state, for words, in poetry, to become something other than words.

 

The funerary tomb in Santa Croce

The funerary tomb in Santa Croce

Stokes introduced me to Desiderio da Settignano, the great Florentine sculptor. I went to Santa Croce to see the funerary monument to Carlo Marsuppini, and I saw, I felt, marble transform into something lighter, something almost insubstantial. Fine cloth is draped over the shoulders of two nimble angels, while two children stand in mock guard below. Stokes has it: “No call for soldiers and funeral genii to guard the breezes of repose, no call to drag at the silky canopy when nothing is hidden, and when nothing is stark or crushed by celestial flames.”

The guardian children

The guardian children

In this death, nothing is dark indeed. There is a world of grace in the space between the two guardian children, who are joyful, curious and naked but for their outsize shields.

In this heaviest, most ponderous of settings, the monument is as light as air, as insubstantial as a kiss on the cheek. Even Carlo’s body appears to be in the act of ascension. Marble has been turned into a rose petal; this is art as alchemy; it is love imagined.

 

The child in the apocalypse enjoys special status. When Sophia goes missing in The Walking Dead series 2, the entire plot centres around the effort to find her. The scene  during which the zombie-Sophia emerges from the barnful of protected walkers is simple and devastating, while those with the children in the current series 4 are close to unwatchable to this parent of two (though I do, of course, watch). The depiction of innocence in the fallen world creates massive emotional tension, just as showing  children injured or killed in, say, a terrorist attack appears to many to leap over some boundary of decency. William Friedkin assaulted this invisible line in his mesmerising and appalling The Exorcist in the excruciating scenes of a child bawling obscenities. Even now our BBC is routinely criticised if it depicts criminal children in dramas, where the child swears or behaves with cruelty. In the outstanding The Line of Duty of 2012, it was reported for having taken “insufficient” steps to care for a child actor, which makes one wonder what Mr Friedkin would face  if the Exorcist were re-made in today’s shiny new United Kingdom.

In the post-apocalyptic world, the child is like Blake’s Little Boy Lost:

“The night was dark, no father was there,
The child was wet with dew;
The mire was deep, and the child did weep”

The mire is indeed deep for the children lost in the forests of southern America in the Walking Dead. The idea of family lies at the heart of this show, from Rick’s odyssey with his son, to the Governor’s chained zombie daughter, from the heartbreak of Sophia to the heroic self-sacrifice of Hershell. In the apocalypse, family is both all we have, and all we do miss.

So here is a sketch from my work in progress, my child character about to cross the line that both excites and appalls us:

Yes the birdies all quiet now, yes no singing. Quiet like nighttime, but not scary. Not scary like the creaking if it’s windy. Creak creak creak. Like the monsters padding up and down up there on the roof. And you pull the duvet round you tight and snug and Daddy says think of nice things and you’ll go to sleep so I say like ice cream?, and he says like summer days playing in the paddling pool with your friends and I pull the duvet tight tight tight and close my eyes and think of Jessica and Imogen and Violet and me all splashing in the paddling pool, and the sunlight making a rainbow yellow green red blue but pink’s my favourite. Pink but not too frilly. My sister likes frilly but she’s much younger, she was a baby when I started school. Now she’s a toddler but then she was a baby. We get older, and then we die. Like Grandad did; he died, and made Mummy cry.

David Quick, March 2014

 

Today I stood near the three trees on the road to Burdale from Thixendale. The trees are close to budding now. The weather forecast promises T-shirt weather; the presenters giggle about Yorkshire being warmer than Ibiza. In 2012, I stood, with my eldest daughter, in the first room of the Royal Academy’s A Bigger Picture. My daughter sat down and scribbled on the children’s pad provided by the show, while I absorbed the paintings,.

Three Trees in the proximity of Thixendale

Three Trees in the proximity of Thixendale

Each work plants the viewer firmly in the heart of each season, and every season is shown at its apex, whereas today, standing there, right there, I could see winter begin to drift into spring, as the grass greens up from winter’s clayey browns. Indeed, here in the Wolds, one rarely feels entirely within one season. Summer may merge with autumn, and winter with April, as happened in 2013. Occasionally, it as if there is no summer at all. Hockney, though, fixes his four moments entirely within their season’s peak. In his spring Trees, the high clouds carry no threat of the late snow that fell there last year, the blossom sways gently on a light breeze, the sturdy limbs of the trees do not bend to a sudden blast from Siberia. In that room in the Royal Academy, one turns to see a new season. Time has passed; the next time will come, and it, too, will pass. The trees will fall, be cut up for logs. New ones may grow in their place. Permanence is illusory, as the short films he made along Woldgate show. Everything is changing, all of the time. But the artist, painting over time, applying daubs of oil, one daub at a time, over days of endless change, weeks of rain, wind, sunshine and snow, fixes those trees directly in front of me, just as they stand there now, as they stood there today, in front of me standing. These pictures are as fantastical as paintings of unicorns, or the slaying of fauns, yet every leaf, every sod of the soil, is entirely real, and can be seen, if you stood on that lane, from Thixendale to Burdale, perhaps with a canvas before you and a brush in your hand, and looked, over and over again. Just seeing, that’s all it takes.

Just look

Just look

Hockney, Thixendale

“Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.”

Shakespeare, Macbeth

 

Something terrible

Something terrible

I continue to wrestle with zombies. I am sketching a novel. It is set here, where I live, and one of the narrators is a 9-year old girl. Something terrible has happened, and is happening, and will happen. I want to generate the permanent and overwhelming sense of dread I admire in The Walking Dead Series 2, where terror loiters in the background, glimpsed from a passing car, or overheard from outside a handsome barn. I do not want the ghouls in plain sight. I do not want a Bosch-like tableau of horror.

I love the speech made by Ross in Macbeth, which I quote above. Indeed, the entire scene, beginning with its ‘desolate shade,’ is ripe with the stench of the apocalypse, and not more so than in Ross’s words.

Something terrible has happened. Like the floods that prompted my earlier musings.  I observe them, and wonder what would happen if it continued to rain. If it just kept on raining. I think back to books I devoured as a teenager – the astonishing ‘apocalypse’ novels of JG Ballard, especially The Drowned World and The Burning World.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

Something terrible is happening. The world is changing, and not for the better. Mankind has messed up, and is continuing to mess up, the world. Anyone who is fortunate enough to believe differently is a truly happy fool, and I envy you. Our children – my children – will deal with the consequences. The dystopian worlds of Ballard, or Romero, or Shakespeare, loom. Every decent work of zombie fiction, of apocalypse and post-apocalypse fiction, performs as a a parable of this at some level, and none is better than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

The Road, a great book and a decent film

The Road, a great book and a decent film

Something terrible will happen. To me, to you, to the ones we love. That is the human condition. In the making of fiction, we have to be personal. We have to make our readers care, even as terror overwhelms us.

We do not end well. That is all we know.

“MAN that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.” The Book of Common Prayer

David Quick, February 2014

Parmigianino, Self-Portait in a Convex Mirror

Parmigianino, Self-Portait in a Convex Mirror

We spend a lot of our lives thinking. We indulge in memory, lying sleepless in the early hours trying to recall in detail the particular softness of a lover’s kiss or reliving the moment we saw a footballer control the ball on his chest, then swivel and shoot, in one swift, fluid motion, and the ball’s arc, up and over and into the net, again and again like a gif on a sports website. And we consider matters of weight, pondering careers and money, the character of our friends; we think about death and love; we think about faith and loneliness and fear.

In film, thinking is often depicted by flashbacks, entered through the giveaway portal of the fade, or by voiceover. “What is love?’ a Malick character might voice as the sun streams through the jungle. “What place does it have in our hearts?”, the child skipping in the luxuriant garden.

In fiction, thinking is hard to do. You can give thought free rein, like Thomas Bernard or Lydia Davis (whose novel The End of the Story is a true masterpiece of thought, albeit the conflict of thought), or make it the unseen, unheard master of action, the pressing force behind, say James Ellroy’s sentences of attack and thrust.

Poetry and thought are close companions, though, from the glorious contemplations of the Psalms to the compressed complexities of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Or John Donne, thought in action, in the very process of itself:

“And now good-morrow to our waking souls,

Which watch not one another out of fear;

For love, all love of other sights controls,

And makes one little room an everywhere.

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.”

The connecting words (and, for, let) propel the ideas, one to the other, in sophisticated mental discourse.

WS Graham

WS Graham

WS Graham, in the Nightfishing, published in 1955, begins to be a poet of thought, even in perhaps his most sensuous poem:

“Yet this place finds me

And forms itself again.”

Over 22 years later, thinking has become the dominant ‘activity’, in the dazzling poems of Implements in their Places.’

Here, he entreats us to:
“Imagine a forest

A real forest”

and to:

“Hang up the ballad

Behind the door”.

The intellectual struggles of the poet become the subject of these poems, each physical impression both a thought and a feeling, and always always always words:

“Out into across

The morning loch burnished

Between us goes the flat

Thrown poem and lands”

For me, Graham is enacting the very act of poetry – this is poetry happening; this is creation itself, thoughtword. All one, mingled. It is rougher, more vigorous than Donne, and its conflicts no less tough than other masterpieces of the poetic process such as Wordsworth’s The Prelude:

“Trances of thought and mountings of the mind

Come fast upon me: it is shaken off,

That burthen of my own unnatural self,

The heavy weight of many a weary day

Not mine, and such as were not made for me.”

In the great modern masterpiece of poetic thinking, John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, the whole, long poem is a speculation (from the Latin for mirror, as Ashbery helpfully glosses at one point), a self-portrait in thought, a true reflection, albeit convex:

“Tomorrow is easy, but today is uncharted,

Desolate, reluctant as any landscape

To yield what are laws of perspective

After all only to the painter’s deep

Mistrust, a weak instrument though

Necessary.”

Press play and Nikolayeva begins a Shostaovich Fugue. We might know what is coming, but today really is uncharted.

David Quick

February 2014