views, reviews and previews
PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN: MONET TO MATISSE
Royal Academyuntil 20 April.
When thecritics previewed the 2016 exhibitions calendar, this show was derided. The reason? Impressionists and gardens are bound to be a winner with Middle England, the audience the metropolitan arts journalist is required to despise. When the show opened it became a huge success, and the critics tripped over themselves to admire the Modernism of its artists and bravely defended a hundred years old paintings against nobody in particular. Indeed, on a limited review of the reviewers the most critical comments about the show seem to be about the lack of recognition given to nineteenth-century British gardeners, and maybe the show reflects a certain chauvinism in the potting sheds. It would not be surprising in the cher ennemi.
What is certainly surprising is just how many pictures of flowers and gardens were painted between 1880 and 1920. The Academy has brought together hundreds of pictures by painters, many of whom have previously been left in well-justified obscurity. Halfway through the show it is hard not to be stifled by the gorgeous colours of non-native blooms, the endless gravel pathways bathed in sunlight, and the fine old trees which give welcome shade. In real life these gardens must have been very beautiful. But in close order on the walls of the Academy they tempt the viewer to yearn for Picasso and a spot of Cubism. There are no works by Picasso here, but a few by Matisse and Kandinsky, Klimt and Van Gogh. They are not major works, though Van Gogh's are worth a good look. On this showing gardens did not play a major role in Modernism.
The joke is the number of fierce Modern Artists who clearly enjoyed a spot of weeding. And, best of all, there's a photograph of Klimt in his ground length smock, not fixing us with his usual sex-mad eyes, but gazing at his herbaceous borders. Of course, it makes sense of the flowers in Klimt's paintings.
The greatest gardener-artist is Monet. From his early suburban garden at Argenteuil to the great garden he created at Giverny, Monet was a garden obsessive. There is even a quotation painted on the exhibition walls from some journalist who said Monet was more interested in gardening than æsthetics. It doesn't seem to have done him any harm on the evidence at the Academy.
The exhibition shows garden paintings from throughout Monet's career, including the Hermitage's 1867 ‘Lady in the garden' and the 1873 ‘Artist's Garden in Argenteuil.' This has a naughty painting next to it by Renoir, which shows Monet painting his garden at Argenteuil, and making it clear how much of the local housing Monet forgot to include in his work, along with the suggestion that the great bank of flowers in the Monet might even have been next door's. Perhaps great landscape painters are closer in heart to estate agents than æsthetes.
The heart of Monet's garden paintings are the pictures he made at Giverny, obsessively capturing time and season and weather and plant life. The most heartfelt of these pictures are those which, despite their observation of nature, show Monet's response to the Great War. At the height of the war it is willows painted in garish colour and thick paint which express the painter's anguish and concern about battles raging just a few miles from his home. At the end of the war, rather than continue with that anguish, Monet painted to reassert the order, balance, and beauty of La Belle France. This is one of the points that separate him from the Modernist sensibility which has so rarely offered solace or believed in the underlying harmony of the natural world and the blessings of civilisation.
Monet did just that through two great panoramas of lilies. One was given to the French people and is view at L'Orangerie; and the other is a now-divided triptych of canvasses held by American galleries who have generously allowed them to be reunited in London. These paintings are the summary of Monet's art. At one level they are typical of his japonisme in their multiple vanishing points and the way they read from right to left as with an oriental scroll (which makes it essential to see them together). They are a harmonious blend of colour, a brilliant balancing act of highlights and foci. The peace and delight that Monet wished to give his fellow men and women is realised in an assertion of gardening and the joy of paint.
It is odd to leave this show and not be given the chance to join the National Trust.
Scotland’s Last Battle and the Forging of the British Empire
Little Brown, 409pp.
ISBN 978-704011 £17
Last Spring I spent a happy week in the Scottish Highlands, based in Inverness. It was fifty years since my last visit, as an adolescent, with my parents. My most vivid memory of that holiday was walking over Drummrossie Moor, the site of the Battle of Culloden. It was a summer's evening of fading light, gloaming, and we were alone on the Moor. It was wistful, romantic, moving; not least the stone cairns that marked the graves of the fallen clansmen.
Last year's anniversary visit was on a bright, blustery spring morning. We were among many visitors, although the site was not overcrowded. The field was unaltered. The cairns remained evocative. There was a new and impressive Visitors' Centre. As well as a good shop and restaurant, there were excellent explanatory displays, and several artefacts recovered from the field. In one large and empty room we stood surrounded by projections of a vivid reconstruction of the Highlanders' charge and the Army's musket barrage. It reminded me vividly of Peter Watkin's marvellous documentary film for the BBC from 1964 (which can be found on YouTube). That, in turn, was based on John Prebble's book on the battle and its aftermath of the Highland clearances: one of the best history books I have read.
Trevor Royle, with a fine track record as a military historian, retells the tale well, as might be expected, and is lucid and compelling when describing the clash of arms in the battle. He places this one battle not merely within a Scottish, or United Kingdom context, but within a much wider European and Imperial perspective. His argument is persuasive. He does this without losing sight of individuals. There are several nicely etched character sketches. Both of the principal protagonists, of course, are central. Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and William, Duke of Cumberland are fairly assessed.
The Bonnie Prince was as hopeless and useless as most, if not all, of the Stuarts. Handsome in his youth but not especially bright, he exhibited the characteristic family traits of stupidity and stubbornness. Jacobites rallied to their cause despite the particular qualities of their leader. He chose to ignore the advice of Lord George Murray, by far his best general. He carried that unpleasantness and spite beyond his defeat when he consistently refused to receive Lord George during their respective exiles.
Cumberland emerges in a rather better light, not merely militarily, than his soubriquet ‘Butcher' might suggest. He was more intelligent, and a much better tactician and strategist than Charles Edward. He could also take advice and act with cool calculation. Although he may have been strict by the severe, even cruel, standards of the time, he was able to inspire – as much by force of character as fear of brutal punishment for minor infractions of discipline – a motley cosmopolitan and partly mercenary force.
The battle was brief and bloody, but the aftermath was more protracted and bloodier. The Highland Clearances markedly scarred the collective memory and still seem to wound. But there were complexities, varied motives, and shifting alliances – as much pragmatism as principle before, during, and after the '45. These are explored in Trevor Royle's fine book. If this book does not replace John Prebble's earlier masterpiece in my affections and high regard, this new look at Culloden is to be welcomed, is a worthwhile and worthy exercise, and can be enthusiastically recommended.
With a penchant for lost causes and impossible dreams, Anglo-Catholicism has always evidenced a stream of Jacobitism and a fondness for the Stuarts, the lost Catholic kings over the water. The annual commemoration of the execution of Charles I, the Martyr King, was held at Hampton Court on 30 January. He gained a greater nobility in his death than he was able to maintain in his political travails. Despite their hopelessness and general uselessness, the Stuarts are still more attractive than the adamantine self-righteousness of Cromwell, or the nationalistic totalitarianism of the current exponents of Scottish independence. There is something deep within us that responds to the legitimacy of blood rather than of power.
Your Invitation to a Jesus-Shaped Life
ISBN 978 1627073561 £10
I was reluctant to open this book. Sheridan Voysey read the Sermon on the Mount every day for months and found that it took over his life, shaping his attitudes and teaching him things he had never known about Christ. The book contains about 90 reflections on different verses of this famous Sermon. My problem was that I have generally found such reflections to be banal, moralistic, and uninspiring. Voysey's book is none of those things. He has engaged with Christ as he really is: not a soppy, sentimental Christ; not even a fiercely revolutionary Christ; but a Christ who is, by turns, warm, encouraging, challenging, forgiving, demanding, and loving.
Voysey uses real-life experience to demonstrate the power of Jesus's words: a conversation between a Hutu man forgiven by a Tutsi woman whose son he had killed; the litigious society in which we live that will not accept a simple ‘yes' or ‘no'; and the discovery that law serves to protect us, not to imprison us. Throughout is that genuine love of Scripture which made me want to return to the Gospel myself, and seek the same kind of life-changing experience that Voysey has had.
It's not rocket science. You don't have to be very clever. What you need is time and a desire for God. A retreat is a good time to discover Scripture in this way. Individually-directed retreats are centred on Scripture, and invite us to spend time letting its words sink deeply into us. The daily Offices are mainly Scripture; but do we give time to them, encasing them in silence so that we can reflect on and digest them? Or do we rush through them with our eyes on the clock, and our mind on the next thing waiting to be done? We know that our love for God is weak, and our knowledge of Christ is small; yet is it not because we don’t do the simple thing we do with the people we love: just spend time with them?
Nicolas Stebbing CR
THE PSALMS: PRAYERS FOR TODAY’S CHURCH
A course in five sessions
York Courses, 24 pp, pbk with a CD ISBN 978-1909107106 £15.40
Since the reform of the Church of England's liturgy, its worshippers are less familiar with the Psalms. What we have gained from more frequent masses is greater than what we have lost in regular attendance at Mattins and Evensong; but it is a loss all the same. This course, written by Bishop Stephen Cottrell, gives the reader and, I would expect, the person who hears it delivered, a way back into the texts.
The course is divided into five sessions, prefaced by a page of ‘suggestions for group leaders' that are as interesting as the sessions themselves. The fourth suggestion begins ‘take the group into your confidence...’, and following its advice should prevent the leader trying to dominate the group. Each session is focussed on a particular psalm, to which there is an introduction. The text is then printed, and some further reflections added. In the margins there are quotations from sources as different as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Joyce Meyer, and the session ends with some ‘questions for groups' that should provoke both thought and soul-searching.
It is crazy that it should be this generation that misses out on the Psalms, because, as Bishop Cottrell reminds us, ‘they give voice to my own deepest feelings and aspirations before God. Even more than this, they give me words and phrases that express feelings and aspirations that might otherwise remain unexpressed.' What people want nowadays – young people especially, I think – is the chance to express their emotions, and for these expressions to be received as a gift and taken seriously. Too often in church we either ignore the emotions, or indulge them. The Psalms help us to avoid both mistakes since they ‘express' but also ‘expand every possible sentiment and desire about life lived in community with God.'
As well as having them taken seriously, people also want their emotions to be satisfied, and the Psalms point to the only source for that satisfaction: Jesus. What prevents this course from encouraging pointless whingeing or smugness is that it
approaches the texts in the knowledge that Christ ‘died with the words of the Psalms on his lips and in his heart’.
The CD that accompanies the course is more difficult to summarise than the booklet. Timothy Radcliffe OP's contributions are wise and often funny; and Rose Hudson-Wilkin's remarks about the link between the fear of God and secular ideas about ‘respect’, in a discussion about Psalm 130, is well worth listening to.
If you think you are missing something in your life with God, it might be that the Psalms are what you need. There's no need to wait until next Lent to use this course; but if you do, it will be an excusable treat.
Curiouser and Curiouser
SONG THAT BLESSES EARTH
Hymn texts, carols, and poemsThomas H. Troeger
Oxford University Press, 109pp, pbk ISBN 9780193405493 £15.50
The arrivalof this latest small collection from one of our finest English-language hymnwriters prompts some reflections on the state of hymns today.
But first, this poet-professor from Yale sees language and theology, including his own, as evolving; to which we may want to say ‘Yes, but..’. He still sings the old classics, and his own are full of God and of Christ; even ‘Lord' which many Americans have abandoned. But he himself seems to have evolved beyond singing the name of Jesus and the title of ‘Father’. We do not sense much of the faith once delivered to the saints.
In the UK, only Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith (in his ninetieth year) matches Troeger's grasp of rhyme, stress, metre and sound; and while their styles differ widely (Dudley-Smith is more congregation-friendly) they have much else in common. Their well-quarried themes of creation and Christmas still provide countless opportunities.
Each delightful new carol has its gentle surprises: ‘Why do angels come by night?'; ‘When Mary's baby cried’. The Mother of our Lord receives more loving attention than in most Protestant books. Unlike some better-known British names, Troeger ‘does church' with several confident anniversary hymns, written for named congregations but often more widely usable. The local church is an expression of the universal body, rich in history, open to the world but anchored in eternity. Sadly, those of the ‘Adam lay ybounden' and ‘Willie take your little drum' school of carol services are unlikely to let us sing any Dudley-Smith or Troeger.
Troeger has updated his thoughts on criteria for hymn texts, and the value of hymn-books over the doubtful blessings of pewsheets or screens. Most catholic Anglicans seem broadly content with the 1986 New English Hymnal; some lukewarm reviews gave way to an outstanding publishing success, probably exceeding even the hopes of its main editor, George Timms. Thirty years is now a long life for a hymnal, though it is hard to see it lasting as long as the 1906 parent book. Its editorial team, led firmly from the front, set its face against any hint of trendiness except for a single nod towards Sydney Carter. Even the typography is strictly traditional.
Archdeacon Timms was himself a hymnwriter; but where are his lineal successors? In conferences and publications of the Hymn Society one meets many evangelical and 'middling' Anglicans, Methodists and URC members, with sprinklings of Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Salvationists. But spotting a genuine High Churchman is rare. Occasional hymns surface from this constituency; is it perhaps time for Francis Gardom to remove the bushel from his light by publishing his own collection? These hymns too are faithfully conceived and skilfully constructed: is there yet life beyond Lewisham?