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GAUGUIN: MAKER OF MYTH

Tate Modern

until 16th January, 2011

RIGHT AT the start of this exhibition we see the painter as an awkward cuss. A series of portraits of that most delicious subject, himself, show Gauguin in a variety of poses, from bohemian in a soft felt fez, sensitive eyed with a little beard, via the bruiser – a pugnacious Ed Balls type with jutting chin and varied facial hair - to finally short-haired in a medical looking shirt just before his death. He is an aggressive man, contra mundum. In later rooms he is a distinctively red-haired Christ

But that first room is dominated by the one picture which isn’t a self-portrait. This is one of Gauguin’s finest pictures, ‘Manao tupapau’ – ‘The Spirit of Death keeps watch.’ Here one of his characteristically chunky Tahitian girls lies down naked on a white sheet and pillow which have been spread across a bed which itself is covered in a pareo of Prussian blue with gold ornament. At the foot of the bed in profile there is the figure of Death, cowled, thick-lipped and wide- eyed. The colours are bright and matt.

It was painted during his first trip to Tahiti and one of the self portraits shows it hanging in an attic studio with the original bed underneath. Clearly this work meant a lot to Gauguin, and in the small reproduction of the painting in the self-portrait we have a summary of what mattered most to him: the eroticised, naked woman; the native spirit which is amongst the few males to feature in Gauguin’s pictures; and the slabs of colour. But to say slabs of colour suggests Gauguin was crude. Nothing could be further from the truth. Taking his cue from the fashionable japonisme Gauguin’s colours are flat, but sensitive and imaginative. You only have to look at the poor quality reproduction of the painting in the catalogue to see what a difference it makes being even slightly off Gauguin’s palette. By contrast, the original carefully balances tones of colour, not merging them, but maintaining a distinctive separation.

Another typical feature of the work is the way the title directs the viewer’s attention to what the artist wishes us to see. Contrary to much of the modernist work he inspired, Gauguin used titles frequently to impose a meaning on his work, and one which wasn’t always quite what he painted. A description of this painting to his wife carefully draws out the sexual sting by focussing on the not very frightening spirit, whereas the description he gave to a male friend does talks quite cheerfully about all the rumpy-pumpy.

The painting also illustrates the confused mix of religious and social ideas which drove Gauguin. He had been a stockbroker, but came to hate what he saw as the emptiness of the Bourse. He looked for a world of innocence, first in Pont-Aven in Brittany, later in the French colonies, notably Martinique and Tahiti. He was always disappointed. He found Breton peasants were in their own way just as much fallen creatures as stockbrokers and in the Tropics he discovered the missionaries had got there a hundred years ahead of him and brought the island paradises to an end (why he didn’t check this out beforehand from an encyclopaedia is nowhere explained). And so he created a myth of the Tahiti and the primitive religion he had wanted to find. Maybe this is why his idols and spirits and devils are slightly comic and rather less alarming than their creator. One totem hid behind a bottle stuffed with luxuriant flowers is especially funny, but the painting itself is beautiful. By contrast to the Tahitian myth-making, Breton religion comes through the paintings much more powerfully. The wayside crosses feel like places of mystery and the flat landscape and its peasantry anticipate what Gauguin was to find/create in the Tropics.

‘Manao tupapau’ is also about sex. Again the Breton paintings anticipate much of what was to come, most notably ‘The loss of virginity’ which has an almost Pre-Raphaelite sense of abandonment and a naughty fox who is the forerunner of all those later idols. The storyline of sexual activity is also found in ‘In the heat (pigs)’ and various Ondines. These he developed in Tahiti into stories of sexual jealousy. But, as some of the sketches show, despite his sophisticated primitivism, Gauguin drew important inspiration for his ‘eternal feminine’ from Manet and the oldest profession. The beautiful and disturbing grande horizontale ‘Olympia’ lies behind Gauguin’s imagined island beauties. Perhaps he should have known Paris red in tooth and claw was just as much part of nature as Brittany or Tahiti. We might conclude from this the rather boring thought that for Gauguin travel was an escape from himself rather than his milieu. In good bourgeois/bohemian fashion the awkward cuss never quite sorted this out, but he gave us some wonderful painting along the journey. The landscapes are often very beautiful.

Owen Higgs

 

 

MOVE: CHOREOGRAPHING YOU

Hayward Gallery until 9th January, 2011

JUST ALONG from Tate Modern, the Hayward Gallery is showing an exploration of ‘the interaction between art and dance from the 1950s until the present.’ This is a show for people who are interested in dance or who have children to entertain. And, with Christmas coming up, the interactive exhibits provide the opportunity for seeing just how unhealthy you are. The toughest of these opportunities is provided by the choreographer William Forsythe with a series of gymnastic rings which visitors are encouraged to use to cross a short space. This is designed as a test of physical and mental agility and to promote, it says, a sense of the body, its weight and limitations – how many fathers in God could pass the test or desire a heightened sense of the body? Bruce Nauman’s ‘Green light corridor’ is also a test for the well-fed pastor – it is a narrow and deliberately unbalancing corridor of green light which only the slimmest can walk down.

These kinds of performance art do provoke the question, is it art? and answer it by saying if ballet is an art, why not this kind of installation, since both are ephemeral. Of course, a lot of installation art is driven by ideas rather than by making and craft and we might jib at that. Not that the great art of the past didn’t have its own messages and ideas, think of the symbolism of the great mediaeval cathedrals. And performance art has religious roots like so much other art – the prophet Ezekiel was the forerunner of sixties happenings (discuss).

The art in this show can be disorientating, sometimes deliberately, but making ideas into art is really another form of story-telling. If you look at what is done at the Hayward and just record how you react to it, and not just think ‘this is a con’ or ‘this isn’t for me,’ chances are you will ‘get’ what these skilled artists are trying to convey. In this way the Hayward show is in line with Gauguin and apart from the agnosticism of much traditional modern art.

The exhibition is a challenge, not so much one of oddity but because it requires a response from us. A good example of this is La Ribot’s ‘Walk the chair’ which is a stack of chairs with some thoughts written on them. It is not a thing of beauty. It is not an example of making. But it does challenge the visitor to approach the show in a different way because the point is you’re supposed to pick up a chair and take it on a walk round the gallery. Even sit on it. Children love this. Adults don’t. Which says a lot about our relationship with art and galleries.

The other question we might ask about this sort of work is, ‘Is it any good?’ The fashionable answer to this is that the Achilles heel of modern art is that it has no criteria for success. But, if we set aside the fact most art of the past is not great and so we may expect the same of art today, we can at least challenge conceptual art on two levels. Does it do what it says on the tin? And was it worth saying anyway? In that sense conceptual art is quite easy to criticise. Forsythe’s gym rings do challenge us in just the way the say they do. And they make us aware of space and bodiliness in the way good architecture does.

Contrast the Forsythe with Isaac Julien’s ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ which is both more traditional and less effective. This is a film which mixes three themes or stories, the deaths of Chinese cockle-pickers on Morecambe Bay, the Chinese goddess Mazu, protectress of fishermen (Maggie Cheung) and a part remake of ‘The Goddess,’ a 1934 film about a woman (Zhao Tao) forced into prostitution to care for her son. The film is shown on nine free-hanging screens and lasts about fifty minutes. Some of the screens cleverly show on their reverse the reverse of what is shown on the front. But does it make us go on the journey the artist says it does? Does it develop what it is to have grown up in China or to be an immigrant? No. The footage of the cockle-pickers taken by the police rescue teams and the accompanying voiceovers from the rescuers are very sad, the horror of the situation highlighted by the phlegmatic professionalism of the police. But the Chinese scenes are very much a Western take on China. Julien has defended this as a parody of the Western parody of China, but formally there’s not much difference between a parody and a parody of a parody. In the end, despite the technical expertise, the thinness of the ideas, and this goes for much modern art, are a product of a society whose ideas are thin. This may be worth thinking about from an evangelistic perspective but it doesn’t make for interesting art. So it is quite easy to say ‘Ten Thousand Waves’ is not that good, though the opportunity to see Maggie Cheung is not to be missed - if the film provokes any serious questions it’s not about the experience of immigrants, but why are there so few decent opportunities for one of the finest and most beautiful screen actresses of the last twenty years.

Like any show, the quality of exhibits is uneven. But this show does also has real, live dancers, who crop up around the installations and do dancey things, just in case you got too comfortable. Is it great art? No, it’s too hackneyed and predictable, épater les bourgeois as a novelty act. But it is alive. It does take art seriously. It does make us interact, and after all how many shows have you been to when nothing went in?

Good for children and the slimmer, fitter clergyman.

Owen Higgs

TONY BLAIR A JOURNEY

Hutchinson 2010

9780091925550. pp 718, £25.

A COLLEAGUE of mine of impeccable orthodoxy and of a high Tory outlook on life surprised me by commending this book. My colleague told me he thought that the volume portrayed Tony Blair as someone who had made a spiritual journey and wondered whether, with my interest in Catholic social theology, I agreed. So I found myself not only reading a book I would probably not otherwise have read but also reviewing it.

For those who take a narrow view as to what might constitute issues of faith or, more precisely, Christianity, Tony Blair appears to offer very little. There is an important insight near the beginning of the book where Blair lists as one of the most formative influences on his life Peter Thompson, the Australian priest who befriended him at Oxford. Blair says that Thompson’s influence constantly reminded him that life was to be lived for a purpose. Religion provides distinctive values born of a particular view of humanity. This, Blair asserts, is the starting place for his outlook on the world. Tantalisingly, it is a theme to which Blair does not subsequently return save, in the final pages of the book, when he writes of his eagerness to pursue his strong interest in the philosophy of religion.

Far more telling is Blair’s account of his formulating an ethical foreign policy. He rightly recognises that the outcome of foreign policy will often have an eventual and sometimes major impact on domestic policy. Thus not intervening in Kosovo might well have resulted in the conflict spilling over into other parts of Europe. Blair further argues that, even when the immediate effect on British life seems far removed, there is a moral argument for intervening in failed states. He deplores much of the world idly standing by during the Rwandan Genocide and felt morally obliged to intervene in Kosovo and subsequently in Sierra Leone. The moral argument for going after terrorists and those states that shelter them becomes increasingly clear to him after the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and in London. Such reasoning leads us into Blair’s defence of his foreign policy in Iraq and in Afghanistan. It is not surprising to find much space devoted to a defence of his stance on Iraq. Blair is clearly stung by the allegations that he acted in bad faith and by what he sees as the increasing claim, fomented by the media, that he is not to be regarded as a trustworthy politician.

Those with a taste for political philosophy will appreciate Blair’s explanation of the New Labour Project. His insistence that New Labour is about finding new and non-ideological ways of implementing a society based on bringing prosperity, opportunity and hope to all its members may be true. It may be true too that abandoning Labour’s traditional mechanisms for bringing these things about was the major cause in sustaining that party in office for the longest period in its history. Very often, though, the Third Way sounds very little different from what politicians from the centre right have being arguing for years. Blair welcomes the emergence of a new, more consensual political agenda, based on the need to find pragmatic answers to the problems of our day rather than on applying the traditional socialist diagnosis and medicine of the paSt Interestingly, Blair even sees the Liberal-Democrat element in the present coalition government as offering something of an Old Labour attitude as David Cameron and like-minded Conservatives seek to press forward. Such an analysis poses awkward questions for true Socialists; is their true home any more to be found within the Labour Party? In any case, is Blair correct in his diagnosis that the only way to be elected is to be in tune with the British public rather than to seek to convert them to one’s own ideology? Harold Wilson used to speak of a pragmatic Socialism. Blair presents a strong case for operatingpragmatically within the political world in order to gain and then to retain the necessary power for then putting one’s principles into practice.

There are other ingredients to this book that should not be missed. It is written in an engaging style, perhaps more akin to the Daily Mail English prose of the Middle England that Blair seeks to win over, rather than the rich prose which has given us so many of the great political memoires of the paSt His assessment of many former colleagues makes fascinating reading. His account serves, at the same time, to remind one of the more restrained political journals of former statesmen when ‘kiss and tell’ was not the order of the day. Just compare Blair’s account of ministers with whom he fell out with that of Harold MacMillan’s treatment of ministers sacked during the Night of the Long Knives. There is a delightful intimacy in Blair’s account of family life but references to a night of passion with his wife or of the effect that being prime minister has on his bowel movements perhaps open up all kinds of intriguing possibilities for subsequent accounts by politicians of their period in office.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book but am still left asking whether or not it is the account of someone on a spiritual journey. By the final chapters we read of a prime minister who is confident in the position at which, not least by careful soul searching, he has arrived.

Blair is now quite clear that there are now no deals to be done. He will tell things exactly as he sees them and seek to act accordingly. Indeed, he gives many illustrations of speeches made promoting policies unpopular with the growing resistance to New Labour among his colleagues and of commitments, similarly unpopular, being made. These could be the actions of a man now more comfortable in his own skin than ever before. They could, too, be the final throw of a prime minister who knows he is about to stand down or be forcibly removed from office and so has nothing to lose. For a man who was prepared to be defeated in Parliament on the matter of the Iraqi War and who, indeed, nearly was, that is to offer a hard judgement. For this reviewer the jury is still out.

Martyn Jarrett.

CREDO: THE

CATHOLIC FAITH EXPLAINED

Marcus Holden and Andrew Pinsent CTS, 112pp, £2

95978 1 86082 4708.

 

THIS ADMIRABLE and beautifully produced little book has its origins in the Evangelium course revewed on page 9 of this edition of New Directions, and ultimately, of course in The Cathechism of the Catholic Church, At a price which must make it ideal for Church bookstalls, it offers a brief but nevertheless comprehensive synopsis of what Evangelium treats in a course of over twenty weeks and which in the full Catechism will be forbidding to many readers.

Credo is not ‘dumbed-down’ religion. It is a clear and accessible introduction which parish clergy can confidently put into the hands of enquirers and regular churchgoers alike. Its illustrations are themselves a course in the history of Western religious art, from Byzantine icons to Holman Hunt.

The text is a miracle of concision, with much information summarized in tabulated form for easier access. You could not expect more for less than three pounds!

Geoffrey Kirk ND

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