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BOTTICELLI REIMAGINED Victoria and Albert Museum until 3rd July

 

 

I do not know whether the curators of this show are cynical, stupid, or deviously brilliant – cynical to promote so much trash; stupid not to know the trash is trash; or deviously brilliant to show that, compared to Botticelli, widely promoted contemporary art is trash. Since New Directions is a positive and hopeful magazine, let's say the curators are deviously brilliant.

The show is divided into three. The first third is black-lined and displays twentieth- and twenty-first-century pastiches, borrowings, and copies of the works of Botticelli, notably ‘The Birth of Venus' (the original is safe at home in the Uffizi). These are stuck on or applied to a whole range of media. There is a boring film by Bill Viola. There is Californian kitsch from David LaChapelle. There are uninteresting Warhols and an uninteresting Magritte. There is also the kind of stuff that is sold in museum shops – and you cannot leave the exhibition except via the shop – though since it has been ‘designed' it will cost you a lot more. These reimaginings have no wit, no insight, no style. Their only purpose must be to highlight how great an artist Botticelli is in comparison: so the curators express their contempt not for the punter but for modern art. But they wittily begin with a real twentieth-century icon, Ursula Andress, emerging out of the sea to the delight of Sean Connery in ‘Dr No.'

The second room takes us back to the nineteenth century. This is a grey room, filled with toned-down Victorian erotic fantasy. It's the kind of thing the V&A must have by the yard and, yes, you can see how Botticelli might have set off Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. Technically these are assured works compared to the wonkiness of Botticelli's own perspective; but, as Gwendolen Fairfax says of the name ‘John’, ‘there are no vibrations.'

The final room is white and there is no shortage of vibrations here. A good number of works by Botticelli and his school are crammed in – no danger of iconic isolation. The quality is mixed; but the good are great. Nothing in the previous rooms is remotely comparable – proof, if needed, that works of technical skill or modern methods of reproduction do not measure up to the imagination of one of the Florentine greats if at the same time they lack philosophical vigour or strength of spirit.

In Botticelli the vigour and the spirit are there in his belief in and love of beauty. Botticelli sees the female form not just as erotic but as rapturously feminine, even incarnational. For the erotic you will have to go to the National Gallery and see its post-coital ‘Mars and Venus.' But at the V&A there is a great beauty, Simonetta Vespucci, whose portrait became idealised as Venus. And for a more Neo-Platonic version of female beauty there is the Uffizi's ‘Pallas and the Centaur’. There are also paintings of pretty young noblemen, much admired by Bernard Berenson.

However, the strongest pictures are the religious ones: the ones unused by the re-imaginers. Under the influence of the Dominican Girolamo Savonarola, Botticelli turned to a heartfelt faith. Sadly, this meant that he destroyed a number of his more pagan works. But the post-Savonarola religious works have real power. Among them, a Crucifixion stands out. It shows a tranquil Christ who looks down on a flame-haired Magdalen. She is the focus of the picture as she grips the cross with a headlong and terrible energy. Her pose and integrity are echoed by an earlier painting of a pair of angels in flight, part of an altarpiece at the Hermitage. There is nothing in the exhibition like the emotional force of the Magdalen. It's a long way from the Duchampian games of the show's first room, and puts to shame most Conceptual Art for the shallow stuff it is.

Much gentler and more typical of Botticelli's career as a whole are the earlier renditions of the Madonna and Child: the place where beauty and truth meet. The opportunity to see in London the ‘Chigi' Madonna should not be missed. But above all Vienna's ‘Madonna and Child with two angels' must be seen. More than most pictures, reproduction cannot do it justice. For once Botticelli has got most of the perspective right, and there is a patch of pale skin at the Madonna's throat which is both human and transfigured into divine beauty. No other painter in the show values a woman like that or sees where body and soul come together and mould each other. It is a highlight of pigment and spirit, and in this picture Botticelli adds to life because he believes in life. His reimaginers do neither.

Owen Higgs

 

 

 

JOHN HENRY NEWMAN

A Portrait in Letters

Roderick Strange (ed.)

Oxford University Press, 595pp, hbk

ISBN 978 0 19 960414 2 £30

The distinguished biographer Philip Ziegler recounts at the beginning of his official biography of Lord Mountbatten that, in the course of writing his narrative, from time to time the behaviour of his subject so exasperated him that he resorted to propping up in a prominent position on his desk a piece of card bearing the words ‘He was a great man.' The modern biography has adopted a ‘warts and all' approach to its subjects, outlining their failings as much as their achievements, in preference to the Victorians' lapidary embalming of their subject; and that sometimes overly-disrespectful approach was pioneered by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians. His silkily malicious essay on Cardinal Manning is, one may think, as much about Newman as Manning; and his insinuations have coloured many views of both ‘convert cardinals' ever since.

This volume of Newman's correspondence is not a biography, although Roderick Strange's cogent introductions to each section and the footnotes to the letters almost make it one. Strange, himself a distinguished writer on Newman and the author of one of the best short books on him (short books on Newman do exist) has skilfully condensed into one volume the magisterial thirty-two volumes of Newman's correspondence, published by Oxford University Press between 1961 and 2008 under the editorship of Father Stephen Dessain of the Birmingham Oratory. There is much in it, however, that would have rejoiced the cynical biographical heart of Strachey.

There is the evidence of Manning's failure to produce to the papal authorities Newman's bishop's letter explaining Newman's concerns at residing as a cardinal in Rome, an omission that allowed Manning to represent those concerns as a refusal of the cardinal's hat. There is a lordly put down to a papal monsignor seeking him as a lecturer in Rome: ‘Birmingham people have souls, and I have neither taste nor talent for the sort of work which you cut out for me; and I beg to decline your offer.'

One wonders how his sister Jemima ever spoke to him again after Newman wrote a letter to her that begins ‘At the end of more years than I can count I have an invitation from you to Derby’, and which ends, ‘It is impossible I should come – but I am glad to have what I never have had for so long.' Even Ambrose St John was sometimes the target of rebuke.

These evidences of Newman's human temperament, however, demonstrate one of the key virtues of this generously ample volume of letters. For those who have not the strength or time to read the complete correspondence, it allows the reader to hear the direct voice of Newman speaking in response to the changing events and circumstances of his life. This may not always be the case, where the impact of those letters is filtered through a biographer's standpoint, be he or she in favour of their subject (Ian Ker or Maisie Ward), or essentially antagonistic (Strachey or Geoffrey Faber). ‘It has ever been a hobby of mine (unless it be a truism, not a hobby) that a man's life lies in his letters,' Newman wrote to Jemima in 1863. He collected and annotated his vast correspondence, even those parts that might have shown him in a less than ideal light, almost up to the day of his death,. Even that skilfully crafted autobiographical masterpiece, the Apologia, depends quite heavily on key sections on the letters he wrote at the time of his Sicilian journey and conversion to Rome. The very success of that ‘history of his religious opinions' restored the reputation for integrity, which Charles Kingsley had impugned, and some of his dearest friends to him. As a full exploration, however, of Newman's multi-faceted life and personality, it is limited by being a history of his opinions; and it effectively ends in 1845, the year of his reception.

These letters demonstrate a wider spectrum of the events of Newman's life: the attempt to found a Catholic University at Dublin or an Oratory House at Oxford; his courage at facing jail for criminal libel in the Achilli case; his pastoral care for converts and the bereaved; and, like his hero St Philip Neri, his humour and empathetic capacity for friendship, in which heart indeed spoke to heart. His letters to Keble at the time of his growing doubts as to the position of the Church of England are almost unbearable in their intensity.

It is difficult not to conclude from the evidence that Newman's famous sensitivity in the face of setbacks and slights from others was not justified; nor that his transcending generosity to those that inflicted them – he visited Faber on his death bed, reassured Manning of his friendly feelings, and said mass for the repose of Charles Kingsley's soul – is not just the indication of a great man but of a great saint, too. And, for this reviewer, those indications of frail humanity which the letters sometimes reveal are all the more remarkable, in that they also demonstrate the heroic virtue of the saint who overcame them.

Nigel Palmer

 

ON BEING HUMAN

Distinctiveness, Dignity, Disability

& Disposal

Michael N. Marsh

Iff Books, 282pp, pbk

ISBN 978 1782794516 £15.99

Late last month, the Pontifical Council for Culture, with the Stem Cell For Life Foundation, brought together a group of faith leaders, scientists, clinicians, patients, ethicists, and government representatives to a conference at the Vatican to discuss how the latest developments in cellular science will affect society, and provide hope for future therapies. The aim was to unite people across religious, economic, and cultural spectra to develop understanding of how cell therapy can not only deliver new therapies for those suffering with chronic conditions, but also how these therapies can provide more personalised care.

It's important to understand what stem cells are: they are simple cells that have the ability to change into other types of cells, and can act as an internal repair system. But in this transformation – serious medical conditions, for example – cancer or diabetes can occur. Against this backdrop, Michael Marsh's On Being Human helps provide a framework in which we can view the complexities that are involved in being human. In an expansive sweep, the book considers our origins as humans, our anthropological development, and, ultimately, how we die. Michael Marsh writes with pace, but not blithely covering issues that would warrant a book in their own right. Coming from a background as a distinguished clinician, and having later studied Theology, Professor Marsh is able to explore the topics with authority.

A chapter of particular merit explores disability, dysfunctionalism, and disfigurement, with the section about attitudes being particularly powerful. Here, Marsh seeks to explore ‘Man's inhumanity to man’, and asserts that ‘the past and continuing depravity to others within the human race is simply staggering'. We have given up any form of responsibility to ‘wholesome neighbourly relationships’, and this shapes our attitudes to others. Marsh uses two examples to illustrate his point: the first is that we no longer inhabit neighbourhoods, but instead
‘communities’, which lack the same bases as ‘being neighbourly'. He draws on local failings: post piling up at a victim's door, which no one could be bothered to investigate, for example; or where communities experience collective grief, necessitating compensation or counselling: basically, promises of reward. The second example is the cult of individualism, where ‘we do things alone without restraint from others’, pursuing ‘our own relentless furrow, not as part of society [...] but apart from it’. We will all see examples of this in our everyday lives.

The penultimate section of the book covers ‘Disposal’, where Marsh discusses abortion and infanticide, and the contemporary debates surrounding assisted dying and assisted suicide. He attempts to shape a Christian narrative to what remain controversial and problematic issues. In so doing, he attempts to weigh the varying view on abortion with rational data, acknowledging that such debates happen increasingly in a secular environment, lacking a thoughtful Christian response. Similarly with assisted dying, Marsh offers some proposals for those who think that assisted dying is wrong, or for those who experience ‘deep feelings of guilt over this matter’.

It would be wrong to believe that moral dilemmas in medicine are new: there have always been such questions. Nevertheless, medical advances in the second half of the twentieth century have led to a reduction in communicable disease as the principal cause of premature death, and replaced it with a rise in non-communicable diseases that are longer-term in nature: for example, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. These diseases are not new: but the responses they require are, and may require some beliefs to be challenged.

How, as Christians, we respond to these dilemmas requires sensitivity and careful thinking, not knee-jerk political responses, which is too frequently the leitmotif of the Church of England. That said, in what could be viewed as a departure from its normal agenda, the General Synod earlier this year considered whether parishes should encourage their congregations to consider blood donation as part of their Christian giving. Social policy has long considered blood donation as an example of the altruistic society: Professor Richard Titmuss published a book on this issue in 1970. Perhaps Christians should also consider what their role is in providing frameworks to ethical challenges. On Being Human helps provide questions requiring thoughtful discussion in the Church.

Christopher Exeter

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