Letter from London

Dear H,

Grief at the Royal Society of Literature. Charles Dickens’ quill has collapsed. The RSL is an association for writers, founded in 1820 and still going strong. It has about 500 Fellows, entitled to call themselves FRSL, and most of Britain’s best-known writers are among them. When someone was elected a Fellow, they always had to write their name in the roll book using either Byron’s pen, given to him by one of his mistresses, or Dickens’ quill—both of them authenticated objects.

But Dickens’ quill finally started spluttering and has had to be retired. It is now locked in a safe. Fortunately, when she died, T. S. Eliot’s widow Valerie bequeathed to the Society the fountain pen her husband used for most of his life—and it has taken the honored place left vacant by Dickens. Choosing which of the two to pick up was always a challenge to new Fellows, who were carefully watched by all the rest. At my turn some years ago, I hesitated long before I chose the quill and so added to the wear and tear on it. One man was so awed by the chance to make tangible contact with two great writers of the past that he signed his first name with one and his surname with the other. The signature was allowed to stand.

That attachment to past writers has surfaced in more virulent form with the showing of the television series Sherlock, supposedly based on Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the famous detective. Many Sherlock lovers have been appalled by it. Sherlock is a cheeky young narcissist with bright ideas but only feeble sleuthing powers, as far as the programme has yet shown us. We get ingenious camera work with swirling images and words to illustrate Holmes’s brain at work on a problem, but he does not seem to have much of a gift for clues. His doctor friend Watson is as young as Sherlock; and when Watson got married, this brought on rage in one viewer who evidently adored the genial elderly bachelor that Dr. Watson used to be. He threatened to kill the young actor, Martin Freeman, who plays the part. This lover of temps perdu went a step further even than the men who wore black armbands when Conan Doyle originally killed Sherlock off.

In fact, the episode of the new series that included that death drew an extraordinary amount of attention. The programme portrayed Sherlock as faking his death by jumping from a rooftop onto an airbag and then rapidly substituting a real corpse for his own supposedly dead body. The Sunday Times even consulted a team of experts about the plausibility of this. They were all scornful. A top policeman said there would have been too many witnesses in a busy street; a stuntman said that in real life Holmes would have needed “balls of steel” to make the jump; and a doctor said the state of the substitute corpse was not mangled enough.

In fact the whole concept of the series seemed to have nothing in common with Conan Doyle’s stories except the name it had stolen. One person said it was like writing a play about a bad-tempered prince with one sweet daughter and two naughty ones and calling it King Lear.
At one time, museum curators were thought of as rather dusty elderly men, as dusty as the exhibits that it was their job to keep clean. No longer. The world is now full of bright young curators, well trained with specialist degrees, but what is a curator without an exhibition to curate? So clever ideas for new exhibitions have ever more frequently been surfacing in museums and galleries, both large and small.

At the National Gallery there has been a queue stretching outside into the rain for a show of just two pictures. Appropriately enough for combatting the rain, they are both pictures of sunflowers in a vase. They are two of seven sunflower paintings by van Gogh, four of them painted by him to decorate the cottage in Arles he was sharing with Gauguin in 1888, and three more painted a year later. One of the paintings on show comes from the first series and is owned by the National Gallery. The other, hanging next to it, is one of the later three, which were copied by van Gogh from the earlier ones, not painted from life as it were. This painting has been borrowed from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Most of the people in the queue passed quickly through, not looking for long, and I think they mostly preferred the later picture, the copy. It has a lighter yellow background, and the arrangement of the flowers has a more airy look, while the flowers themselves have a lighter green center and a more golden glint. It is a delightful picture, but the earlier one has a dark and much deeper air, and the flowers are a much more intense presence. I felt that while the light of the sun falls beautifully on the scene in the later painting, it is the heat of the sun that is embedded in the first one. The seedheads in it are dark and rich and feel even more significant than the wilted, twisting petals. Nevertheless every inch of the painting is suffused with the gold and yellow of the sun—colors that had hardly ever before been used as powerfully as in this painting. Van Gogh himself spoke of the enormous mental and physical effort he put into the sunflower paintings that he made for the cottage—adding that he was working on them “with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse.” They turned out to be his last great expression of the joy that could be found in the world before he succumbed to madness and death.

At a small gallery in a beautiful eighteenth-century house in Canonbury Square in north London, there is another enterprising show. The gallery is the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art, which opened in 1998, and contains a large number of Italian surrealist and futurist paintings collected by Eric Estorick, an American sociologist who fell in love with the Italian art of this period. Its current temporary exhibition is of sculptures by Giorgio de Chirico, who became famous for his “proto-surrealist” paintings before 1920 but made the works on view, all bronzes, in the 1960s and ’70s. He was painting just before the surrealists invented their name, but he was really one of them—and I have always considered him the best.

Those early paintings are really haunting—small Italian town squares painted in clear bright outline, often with a mysterious classical statue and other, more disconcerting objects such as toys lying around, but always with a shadow stealthily approaching from one corner that made one feel ill at ease. If the main aim of surrealism was to re-create the atmosphere of dreams, then in de Chirico the movement found its painter.

The bronzes in this show, nearly of all them gilded and shining, are of human figures, often pairs of people in a relation of quiet but distinct companionship, but all with oval, practically featureless heads. Their chests are also loaded with objects connected with classical architecture, such as pediments and set squares, rather like a modern policeman with all his gear strapped to his front. Some reviewers disliked them, seeing them as an unsuccessful—even vulgar—attempt to reprise the spirit of the early paintings. I disagree. I think that the postures of the figures draw one into their warm intimacy, while the bright, unrevealing heads plunge one into their unfathomable mystery—a very strange but fascinating sensation. The figures’ architecture-based hearts also sit easily on them, hinting at an extraordinary strength of character and purpose within them. For me, these bronzes are an unexpected and welcome revelation.

More unfamiliar work is to be found in a show at a gallery in a very different part of London, the Whitechapel Gallery in the old proletarian East End. This gallery was founded in 1901 and has always had a radical, missionary air about it. Picasso’s Guernica was exhibited there in 1938. Arriving by Underground is a curious experience. You come out of the Aldgate East station onto a busy street and find that the station entrance hall behind you is like a cave dug out of the gallery building, which goes up on one side of the station entrance, continues across its top, and comes down again on the other side.

The show is a large collection of works by Hannah Höch, a German artist of the 1920s and ’30s who was a self-professed Dadaist and mostly created collages. She was obviously a very lively and inventive woman. Some of her pictures are feminist, such as one of a peasant who is portrayed as a cow, with his wife behind him leaning forward so that her head becomes one of the cow’s buttocks. Others strike a socialist note, such as cutouts of contemporary financiers trampling on tiny people and houses below them.

However expressive they are, these are really not much more than the equivalent of newspaper cartoons today. Most of the pictures are simply of startlingly misshapen bodies, such as a man with a head on top of his legs with no body in between. These seem simply made for shock value. The exhibition claims that young artists today can learn from her work, but surely that is the last thing we want. Artists have been trying to reproduce the original shock created by Duchamp’s urinal for almost a hundred years now, not noticing that the shock faded long ago, and not realizing that there was never much to it anyway. Let young artists go to this exhibition and start to understand that.
There was a picture in the press of Prince Charles carrying a curious tool. It turned out to be a sonic screwdriver that performed technological wonders from the sci-fi television series Dr. Who. The Financial Times thought he might be proposing to use it on one of the modernistic buildings that he hates, but contemporary architects can sometimes be their own worst enemies. One of the new tall buildings I wrote about in my London letter in the Summer 2013 Hudson Review was in the news again. One hot afternoon the so-called Walkie-Talkie, designed by Rafael Viñoly, now almost finished, gave off such a fierce solar glare from its glass front that it melted parts of a Jaguar parked below in Eastcheap and caused blisters on the paintwork of some shops opposite. It was also calculated that it was hot enough to have fried an egg on the pavement, though it is not known if it actually did. The developers say that they have now installed solar shading, but the building will, I think, take some time to shake off its new nickname of the Walkie-Scorchie.

Another failure of architects to show themselves in the best light was an exhibition of work by seven architectural firms at the Royal Academy. An architecture exhibition is a hard one to devise. It cannot show whole buildings, so it usually shows only drawings and models. The Academy left the selected firms to invent their own ideas and offered the large galleries of its fine building in Piccadilly to give them space. The resulting exhibition was called “Sensing Spaces.”

It was rather a let-down. One expected to find some ingenious demonstrations of how architects invented different spaces in their buildings to provide the best impact and achieve their various purposes. All that the cult Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura gave us, however, were concrete replicas of two of the Academy’s own entrances, apparently to show that they could be reproduced in new materials. The Japanese Kengo Kuma offered a forest of scented, hanging sticks to suggest that smelling spaces was another way of sensing spaces. Alas, too often this is the way it is in the world. The Dublin firm Grafton Architects built a succession of lit and darkened rooms and informed us that there was pleasure in moving from darkness into light and from light into darkness. A wooden tower by the Chilean firm Pezo von Ellrichshausen enabled us to go up and look at the ceiling. It all seemed deplorably unambitious and naive.

It was ill luck for the Royal Academy that their show opened in the same week that a new series on the eighteenth-century art of the Rococo began on BBC television. It proved to be a brilliant series, written, directed and presented by Waldemar Januszczak, the art critic of the Sunday Times. In the first instalment, he concentrated on Rococo palaces and churches, especially in Germany, and demonstrated what beautiful, original and lighthearted spaces were created for their interiors. The buildings were, beneath the surface, just oblong boxes, but by the cunning use of plaster, the ceilings were turned into glorious clouds of gilded curves with shapely spaces interposed for the gay and pretty paintings of artists such as Tiepolo. Nothing could be more offensive to modern architectural taste, with its pseudo-puritanical demand that the materials used in building should be shown plainly for what they are—but Rococo architects certainly knew what a rapturous appeal to the senses the spaces in a building could deliver.

Januszczak is, in my view, a new television star. In his open-necked shirt and baggy trousers, he stumps stiff-legged around all the places and pictures his programs are about, talking in emphatic, rather demotic English and giving us a stream of brilliant aperçus and interpretations of what we are seeing. He has a great flair for creating an arresting scene. His main theme in this series was that the Rococo was the art of an epoch when pleasure was everything. He held up a parchment of the American Declaration of Independence on the steps of the White House and read out the sentence about the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Life and liberty, OK, he said, but the pursuit of happiness—when did that ever have a place in a political manifesto before? By 1776, the pleasure-loving spirit of Rococo had even reached America.
The literary scene in Britain has been dominated by a flow of books on the First World War and its origins, from learned works to novels. However, the fiercest debate on the subject was provoked not by a book, but by an item in a magazine. The historian Niall Ferguson argued in the BBC History Magazine that Britain’s entry into the war was “the biggest error in modern history.” He said that even if Germany had defeated both France and Russia, the British Empire would still have remained stronger than Germany, in financial terms and on the seas, if we had stayed out. Many voices were raised against this view, some arguing that it was a matter of honor that we should go in, others that it was vital to us that the traditional English policy of keeping Europe divided should be maintained. Yet others just mused sadly on the terrible slaughter. As with all “what might have been” speculations, there was no conclusion or consensus to be had.

A book that was widely admired but that did not get much publicity was Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by the conductor John Eliot Gardiner. It was a biography of Bach with close and deeply-felt interpretations of his works, particularly his choral works. What gave it its unique quality was that in 2000 Gardiner had led what became the year-long Bach Cantata Pilgrimage through numerous churches in Europe where Bach might theoretically have played, and some where he actually did. All the surviving sacred cantatas by Bach were performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir in these churches on the exact liturgical days for which they were composed. They performed on Easter Sunday in the church in Eisensach where both Bach and Luther had once sung as boy choristers. Gardiner’s book is constantly illuminated by insights into Bach that he gathered on this remarkable tour.
Britain is full of uncertainties about the future just now. Will the country emerge successfully from the financial crisis? It is beginning to look hopeful but still remains uncertain. Will we leave the European Union after the referendum David Cameron has promised us, if he is returned to power next year? Will Scotland separate from England in August? What is going to happen to London as it becomes more and more cosmopolitan at every level of society?

In such times it is not surprising if there is an inclination in the country to look back and reconsider its past, such as the Great War—and a keenness to preserve all that is best in the cultural legacy, such as great European music, that we have received from that past.