Rodin and the politics of sculpture

I didn’t start deeply caring about sculpture until I saw Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff.[1] Prior to that visit, I had a vague admiration for Barbara Hepworth, but found more enjoyment in her abstract painting Winter Solstice:

BARBMy dad had also instilled in me an appreciation for Anish Kapoor, whose Sky Mirror is pride of place outside the Nottingham Playhouse theatre, and who created a rusty horn bursting out of the immaculate gardens of Versailles in 2015:

 

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On a very basic level, I just didn’t understand sculpture. A childhood filled with questionable pottery lessons chiselled down my interest in the form, even though I have long thought of all art as important. Just because I did not feel able to understand sculpture did not mean that there was nothing to it. For a long time, sculpture did not have the appeal to me that painting, film and other art forms have.

However, it was seeing two figures entwined and necking that really captured my imagination and re-framed what I thought sculpture was all about. I am sure there are many wonderful sculptors that I am overlooking in this capacity, that Rodin is an unimaginative choice to fawn over and that I am probably incapable of conveying academically why I think Rodin’s work is so brilliant, and yet here I am. A critic of art and art history I am not, but I am an enormous fan and advocate for both, and I am inspired enough to write a little something about some works that I have really connected with, starting with The Kiss.

Whilst in Paris earlier this month, we visited the Rodin museum on the Left Bank and it was perhaps the best museum we went to all holiday. The sculpture garden is endlessly dreamy and the chateau, Rodin’s home for a time, was charming and delightfully  littered with Rodin’s sketches, plaster casts, practice sculptures and works he’d collected himself, including pots and fragments from antiquity, as well as a couple of Monet , Munch and Van Gough paintings dotted about. The Kiss was here too:

The Kiss

We can see, as with many of Rodin’s marble sculptures, that he was influenced by Classical figures from Ancient Greece. And yet, in his portraiture of people through sculpture, Rodin does not merely recreate or appropriate Classical styles. He uses Classicism as a base note, but goes on to mold his ideas through the language of limbs, faces, the fluidity of bodies in a way that is nothing other than modern. It is hard to comprehend just how challenging the blatant sexuality and passion of this sculpture would have been to receive at the turn of the century when it was produced. Additionally, the sculpture seems to have been carved with a nod to what Charles Baudelaire described as ‘the transient, the fleeting, the contingent’ that defines modernity:  as with many of his sculptures, Rodin employs here the technique of juxtaposing the smooth carvings with marble left rough and rugged, not just at the base, but rising up and between the intricately rippling bodies. It appears the exquisite smoothness of the marble is reflected in the unbridled intimacy of the figures kissing, a flicker of bright, divine and transcending light bursting out of the obscurity of what is rough and earthly. And yet, the figures could so easily return to rubble. By maintaining the rough marble and bringing it into the structure of the figures kissing, Rodin has created a piece of work that recognises the transitory moment of modernity: the Classical-style bodies occupying the eternal and the marble left rough indicating the flighty present, nigh-on impossible to pin down.

This is an idea that is seen everywhere in his sculptures: in the marble with what is jagged and uneven left propping up or invading the figures represented, or in bronze where forms rise out of the molten into something vaguely less fluid. What I loved about Rodin’s bronze work was how these majestic figures rise from the oneness of liquid bronze embodying the impulse and awkwardness of individuation and self-determination. To show this, Rodin ensured that he injected quirks and oddities in his work to create a sense of visual discomfort. In one sculpture, the head- the centre of Cartesian rational thought and the Jungian ego-mind- is heavy, too heavy, as though burdened with the constant, revolving noise of the mind, dangling awkwardly to the side and creating one long awkward line from the neck across to the shoulder.

Awkward Rodin

Elsewhere, a sculpture leans over slightly too far; it looks uncomfortable, like the sculpture is in danger of falling: the arms are flung out as though for balance; emergent from what is whole and one, bursting forth but still reliant on the whole to provide it with strength and structure. In these sculptures in particular, I would argue that Rodin could be making a criticism of the modern world, defined as it is by commodity capitalism, where the drive and inevitable fallout of being an individual, separated and alienated from the collective, is mired in suffering, contortion and pain.

Leaning Rodin

The final sculptures that really stood out for me were a series of bronze sculptures called The Monument to the Burghers of Calais, made in 1887. These six sculptures commemorate six dignitaries who surrendered themselves and the key to the city of Calais to the King of England during the One Hundred Years War. I was neither familiar with these works nor the story surrounding them until our visit to the Rodin museum. On display were the six grouped together, as well as the six individual sculptures dotted around elsewhere.

Burghers Six.jpg

There are lots of ideas and emotions conveyed in these sculptures, the predominant being incredulity, despair, sadness, dignity and acceptance. Some of the sculptures are fully clothed, regal in their gait; others are naked and exposed. The Burgher that stood out to me the most was naked, arms outstretched, enquiring and admonishing, barely believing the cruelty of his own fate and asking on-lookers, at the time and of tourists traipsing around the Rodin sculpture garden whether we are going to settle for the injustice that attempts to quell and control us.

Burgher naked

They felt pertinent to me at the time for a number of different reasons: because I have such a limited knowledge of the One Hundreds Year War; that they are a reminder of the suffering that has occurred throughout history that I feel barely able to comprehend or quantify; and of the vulnerability of being a human being, tossed around and seemingly inconsequential in the rough seas of man-made war, devastation and chaos. Here, again, we can see why art is so important. The attempt to capture these seemingly obscure men from a time long since past is both an act of remembrance and an act of resistance. What fools we are if we believe that the turmoil we face today has not been passed down, like a chain of trauma, throughout the generations. Art offers us the insight and the ability to cut through the churned up homogenous events that we might call ‘history’; to give us the mirror and the platform to reflect and re-think our assumptions and orthodoxies. It is and always will be vital; no wonder the Tories don’t want people studying it.

On a day like today, where the British government, helmed by Boris Johnson, has decided to prorogue Parliament, I think about the Burgher of Calais sculptures: I think about the Burgher standing with his arms outstretched imploring his viewers to think about who they are and what they are doing; I think about the frosty-faced Burgher, handing of the keys to the city, a metaphor for freedom, both personal and societal, a moment where freedom is now longer a gift or a right, but something that has been forfeited. Maybe it is no coincidence that I am more attracted to sculpture at this present cultural moment. We are living in a time where our freedoms feel so much more restricted, that large societal forces, whether it’s Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, the Government, fossil fuel companies and others, are hell-bent on controlling us, harvesting our data, relentlessly trying to sell us things and destroy our planet. In sculpture, we see space being claimed and occupied. Much like Rei Kawakubo’s iconic fashion house Comme des Garcons, whose pieces verge on the sculptural in every single collection, there is power in sculpture’s ability to take up space, be large, voluminous, making it impossible to ignore. Maybe the Kapoor sculpture at Versailles was my biggest clue before my full on awakening with Rodin. Kapoor’s disruption of the sanctity, historical and otherwise, at the clipped and coiffed Palace of Versailles, appealed to me and began to broaden my understanding of what sculpture does. Our ability, as tourists, to take photographs of the pristine lawns and fountains was disrupted by this rusty looking horn, which had erupted out of the ground, churning up the grass. The stronghold of France’s ancien regime and absolutist monarchy was ripped up, long after the first flickers of revolution in the 18th century. I enjoyed the frustration.

The radicalism of sculpture lies in its ability to take up space and to morph and manipulate visual reality. What I love specifically about Rodin’s work is that it revolves around people and their bodies, making his work deeply vulnerable, personal as well as political. I was greatly impressed by his work, highly recommend the museum in Paris, that is completely self-funded, and relish future opportunities to explore and learn about sculpture. In these times where the world becomes scarier and where democracy and freedom do not feel or look like absolute givens, sculpture is an art form that offers challenge and defiance.

Le Penseur

[1] Two sisters, Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, together amassed an enormous collection of Impressionist and 20th century art, 260 works in total, which they then bequeathed to the public. The collection is on display and free to access in the Welsh capital. I can’t recommend it enough.

Abyssal Cuteness

This essay was first written and published on Everyday Analysis in 2014.

One of the latest videos to go viral in recent weeks (note: this video was also published in 2014 and now has 42,195,765 views) centres around a young girl howling with despair at the thought of her baby sibling growing up, and her own fear of dying ‘at one hundred’. You can watch it here and by clicking on the image below:

Abyssal Cuteness

The general cyber consensus of this video is that this is a moment of undeniable ‘cuteness’, a claim that is perpetuated by saccharine blogging sites who share the video, for example ‘Hello Giggles’. ‘Cuteness’ may, perhaps, warrant its own analysis for its pervasive presence on the internet, with the innumerable animal/baby/animal and baby/ baby and animal and baby animal videos that continue to appear on social media. Here, however, I would make the case that the video captures an abyssal moment in this girl’s life where, like King Midas capturing Silenus the companion of Dionysus, we learn that ‘the very best of all things is completely beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing’.[1] She does not want her brother to grow up and stop being ‘little’, and she simultaneously bemoans her own inevitable aging that will ultimately lead to her death.

The terror and horror of her and her brother’s existence is conveyed not through her language but in a choking cry half way through and at the end of the video, which the subtitles describe as ‘inaudible’. She is audible, because we can hear that she makes noise, however the noise she makes in her terror is seemingly outside of language and also beyond our ability to articulate in language. The girl, therefore, embodies the Dionysian impulse where, as described by Nietzsche, ‘the whole excess of nature in pleasure, pain and knowledge resounded to the point of a piercing scream’.[2] Her panicked coughing moan is the expression of her pleasure at the baby’s ‘cute smiles’, her affection for him, which is repeatedly conveyed in her kissing his forehead, and her pained fright at her recently acquired knowledge that both she and him are aging and finite.

This expression of the Dionysian that sees the girl intoxicated by the truth of her existence and thrown into self-oblivion is, however, still engaged in a dialectical tension with its alter drive, the Apollonian, without which it could not emerge. Nietzsche describes the condition of the Apollonian as ‘an existence in which everything is deified, regardless of whether it is good or evil’.[3] Although in western culture we no longer exist with a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods, I argue that an economic system of consumer capitalism sees every literal ‘thing’ similarly deified, spawning an exuberant culture of commodities which construct and offer identity. This is prefigured in the video in the princess dress that the girl wears, an item that enforces societal norms of gender and hierarchy which, therefore, enables a moderated self for the girl to be constructed. The Dionysian impulse that envelopes her destabilises this appearance of heteronormativity which appears to have structured her life.

With reference to Raphael’s painting Transfiguration, Nietzsche suggests that the Apollonian and Dionysian are reciprocal and depend upon each other. This is achieved because the Apollonian gives way to the Dionysian, which is redeemed with the reinstatement of the sublime Apollonian image. In this video, the re-establishment of the Apollonian, which has already been prefigured in the girl’s princess dress, comes in the way this video has been elevated to a position of ‘cuteness’, from the comments on YouTube to the chat shows that have had ‘exclusive’ interviews with the girl post-abyss. Whatever ‘cuteness’ may mean, the perpetuation of this word perhaps allows people, or more specifically adults, to semi-patronisingly reflect on this girl’s struggle with the chaotic state of her existence in this abyssal moment. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that ‘cute’ has also become a barrier for those whose lives are too structured by the Apollonian culture of ‘things’, and who resist the tormenting Dionysian impulse that, we have come to understand, is never too far away.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.27.

[2]Ibid, p.32.

[3] Ibid, p.27.

Love Note – Graphic Novels

The world is full of dark, difficult and complex issues that need to be sensitively and appropriately discussed. War, genocide, abuse, loss and our hopes of building a better life for ourselves are all incredibly difficult conversations that need to take place: but how? Is there are right way to talk about these things? How can we ensure that we get the greatest insight into the emotional and critical upheaval when unimaginable things happen? This is where art and literature have always been important. Film, visual art, poetry and novels have always helped to expand our understanding of what it means to experience life and all of the social, political and archetypal challenges that we face. Representation of experience is crucial in helping us to understand the world around us, but when what we are talking about is so traumatic or challenging, it is even more important to think about how these are presented.

Graphic novels, otherwise known as comics, are an almost niche area of textual production that are, in my opinion, some of the best media for representing conflict and its fallout. Edward Said, in his tribute to Joe Sacco’s Palestine wrote that:

‘In ways that I still find fascinating to decode, comics in their relentless foregrounding […] seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures. I knew nothing of this then, but I felt that comics freed me to think and imagine and see differently’.[1]

Graphic novels help us to ‘see differently’ because they are a hybrid form that combines accessible, but no less wonderfully ambiguous and complex, art with punchy storytelling. They give an imaginative and, at times, extremely personal telling of stories, bringing drawings and language into conversation. Fragments of images, language and spatial organisation on a page builds an almost compulsive narrative that can at once expose and explode systemic injustice and power structures (what are complicit with Said’s ‘ordinary processes of thought’), whilst also attempting to make sense of the personal experience within them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the most famous graphic novels are autobiographical memoirs, which focus on the experience of the individual against the backdrop of something much greater and, oftentimes, misunderstood or difficult to represent. We have two confusing and compelling worlds clashing, the public and the private, and the graphic novel attempts to navigate us through both.

I find reading graphic novels to be an incredibly immersive and compelling experience. I recently finished reading Malik Sajad’s Munnu and had to share my thoughts on this text and some of my other favourite graphic novels. These texts take us to the depths and fringes of human experience, re-write what we think about the world, countries within the world, and the people within them. They blow open preconceptions and stereotypes that we are fed, and my understanding of conflict and world history, is all the more rich and nuanced as a result.

Maus, Art Spiegelman, 1980

 

Maus

 

Maus is one of, what I consider to be, the Holy Trinity of graphic novels. It portrays Spiegelman as a young cartoonist, interviewing his father Vladek about his experiences during the Holocaust. The comic charts Vladek’s survival of Nazi atrocities, but also portrays Spiegelman’s oftentimes strained and difficult relationship with his father. The two regularly butt heads in ways family members often do when a deep amount of love and respect is patched over with trauma, neurosis and unrealistic expectations. Notably, the characters in Maus are all presented as animals to represent their different ethnic groups: Jews are depicted as mice, Nazis as Germans and Americans as dogs. One of the panels that stood out most to me is one that presents Spiegelman himself wearing the mask of a mouse, sat at his desk, talking about the opportunities that have come with his novel’s publication. Around him are littered the bodies of Holocaust victims.

maus2

This panel suggests that through the production of Maus, Spiegelman has assumed almost unwanted ambassador status for his presentation of Holocaust testimony. The artificial mouse mask, tied at the back of his head, points to the idea that in the telling of this story, he has almost performed his Jewish identity, and become a spokesperson for Holocaust victims and survivors in the process. He has achieved acclaim and appreciation off the back of so much death and horror, signified by the cadavers gathered around him and his drawing desk, yet still struggles to maintain his sticky relationship with his father. As a result, the dissonance between his success and the emotional burden his success has become weighs heavily on him, entangled as it is with feelings of guilt, misplaced responsibility and fraudulency. The Holocaust is such a difficult and upsetting subject to discuss and represent, and Spiegelman demonstrates great sensitivity and self-awareness in his handling of such a traumatic and barbaric event. The novel is not only a historical document of his own father’s survival, but also provides a platform for conversations about how we successfully represent the un-representable, and all the responsibility that brings.

Palestine by Joe Sacco, 1996

palestine cover

The second graphic novel in the Holy Trinity follows a Joe Sacco, an American journalist, travelling to Palestine and the Gaza Strip to witness and interview oppressed Palestinians during the Intifada. In the West we are given a very limited idea of the history and lived experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation on the West Bank. This graphic novel has been hugely influential in its multi-dimensional perspective of conflict; and especially those conflicts that receive little traction in the news or are obscured by global and media power players. Sacco gives voices and faces to the seemingly unending hardship on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip that easily bypasses the consciousness of many in the West. The violence and terror that Palestinian men, women and child experience on a daily basis is front and centre of Sacco’s novel, as he tracks his own journey from bystander and objective interviewer, to witness.

 

Palestine

 

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, 2000 and 2014

Persepolis cover

This novel is the third graphic novel in the Holy Trinity. Persepolis blew open what I knew and understood about Iran and Iranian history. As far as I was aware, when I first read this novel in 2010, Iran was a rogue bogeyman country, intent on making nuclear weapons to blow everyone up and destabilise the Middle East permanently, and that was the way things were and the way things always had been. As with my original perceptions of the Palestinian conflict, this graphic novel proved this idea of Iran to be completely limited and short-sighted. Through the story of her family and childhood, Satrapi presents Iran as a vibrant, secular country before the Islamic Revolution, and depicts the horror of war as Iran and neighbouring Iraq are drawn into a deadly conflict. She presents the oppressive practices and rules enforced in school and in public, in particular regarding women’s rights, whilst struggling with her own direction in life, with her time in Europe marred by racism and homelessness.

Persepolis

Persepolis is a coming-of-age story like no other, offsetting universal teenage angst and confusion (the start of The Vegetable chapter with panels of Satrapi’s face changing through puberty spoke to me like little else) with religious extremism and Western xenophobic bigotry. The novel provides both creative freedom for Satrapi to explore her own personal story and to shine a critical light on the injustices and pervasive power structures that successfully control people in both the East and West. At the same time, the graphic novel, with its black and white colour scheme and regular panels, successfully conveys the claustrophobia of living in a world where you are penned in by cultural expectations, conflict, bigotry and your own demons.

embodiment-1

 

Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir, Malik Sajad, 2015

Munnu

In the tradition of Maus, Persepolis and Palestine, Munnu follows the coming-of-age of the eponymous Munnu, the youngest member of a family living and hailing from war-torn and devastated Kashmir. In a similar vein to Maus, Sajad uses animals, specifically Kashmiri deer, to highlight Kashmiris’ endangered status as a free and independent people. The novel balances the intricacies and tensions surrounding the conflict and hypocrisies between Kashmir and India, Kashmir and Pakistan and amongst Kashmiri resistance groups, whilst also exploring family, existential anxiety and trauma as a result of conflict, and the power of cartoons to grant personal freedom. The final panel is particularly unnerving and unsettling, and I was most touched by young Munnu grappling with his fear of death. Munnu also critiques the West’s seeming inability to comprehend the severity of the conflict in Kashmir and its ineffectiveness in using diplomatic pressure and might to bring about a resolution.  I recently discovered that Munnu has not been published in India, which is very telling about the current tensions unfolding in Kashmir as a result of the occupation and how powerful, and thereby threatening, this graphic novel has been in exposing them.

eu-embed-sajad-malik

 

Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, Kate Evans, 2015

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Rosa Luxemburg is a giant of the Left and nowhere else has her life and work been so beautifully presented and so articulately explained than in this graphic novel. Luxemburg’s philosophy that Marx was not beyond criticism, even though she took her political and economic position from his work, is a lesson for us all: nothing is beyond critical interrogation, especially the people we most admire and whose thinking has been the most influential for us. The concise and accessible exploration of Luxemburg’s philosophy includes her radical pacifism: my favourite panel coming with Luxemburg’s response to the First World War: head bowed, she is disturbed and weighed down by the destruction and wanton chaos of a war that will end nowhere and will result in the deaths of millions of working class people. Evans also gives us an insight into Luxemburg’s personal life, the incredible obstacles she overcame to become a writer and political leader, and her relationships with close friends, family and lovers along the way. This graphic novel, and its subject matter in Luxemburg, is absolutely inspiring.

RedRosa_extract_TheNation_img

 

Other graphic novels to explore:

Dragonslippers: This is what an abusive relationship looks like, Rosalind B. Penfold, 2006

Diary of a Teenage Girl, Phoebe Gloenecker, 2002

Threads: From the Refugee Crisis, Kate Evans, 2017

Tamara Drewe, Posy Simmonds, 2007

 

 

 

[1] Homage to Joe Sacco, http://journeyofideasacross.hkw.de/anti-narratives-and-beyond/edward-w-said.html [accessed 22/05/2019].

Wastelands

I originally wrote and gave this paper in 2014. After a weekend reading T.S Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ for the first time, I decided to commit this paper to my blog. In the paper, I compare the fallout of conflict in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ form Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ and Titania and Oberon’s quarrel in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (the featured image here is Vivien Leigh playing Titania in 1937).

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Under this conference’s umbrella theme of war and literature, I am specifically interested in investigating the aftermath of conflict, seeing what literature has to say about war when it is over. T.S Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’ is a seminal 20th century text, published four years after the 1918 Armistice and I would like to suggest that it is involved with a negotiation of the condition of modernity in the wake of the first terrible ‘Total War’. It is a text that in a number of ways bemoans war because of the death and decay it leaves behind it, but is simultaneously a violent and aggressive attack on preconceived notions of form and meaning, suggesting that it relies on war, indeed it is an act of war, to create something new and radical. I have restricted my close reading of ‘The Wasteland’ to the first part, ‘The Burial of the Dead’.

The title ‘The Burial of the Dead’ suggests a final action that commits dead bodies to the ground, keeping the spheres of the living and the dead completely separate and thereby allowing the living to continue with life. However, the poem opens with an image that suggests otherwise:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land

We are presented with living things, lilacs, rising out of a ground that belongs to death, but is not necessarily dead in itself because it is involved with growth, not stagnation and inertia. Thus a paradox emerges: whilst the ‘burial’ of the title suggests a movement of taking extinguished life down to the ground, the opening of ‘The Wasteland’ suggests a movement of death bringing something life-like back to the surface. The poem emphasises that this is a ‘cruel’ movement instigated by April, a month that traditionally has a cultural relationship to spring and new birth, but here becomes the site of death becoming an inescapable presence that infects life and the living. The snow of winter covers this ‘land’ which enables us to temporarily ‘forget’ its disturbingly deathly quality and, potentially, the conflict that made it this way, (Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in forgetful snow’) but April serves as a reminder that the earth is teeming with deathliness.

This is cemented by the speaker’s reference to lilacs, which are flowers with a mythological history: Syringa (the botanical name for lilac) was a nymph who hid from the amorous advances of the woodland god Pan by turning into a bush of flowers. Therefore, lilacs are involved with disguise and have a history that suggests that figuratively, there is more to them than what meets the eye. Within the context of ‘The Burial of the Dead’, the lilacs are masked harbingers of death, metaphors of bodies belonging to death that are hidden but nevertheless inherent to the post-war landscape. The use of the verb ‘breeding’ to describe the production of the lilacs complies with this, a word that is defined in the OED as ‘bringing to the birth’. It points to the bodily, inorganic quality of the lilacs that re-enter the sphere of the living hidden within the form of a flower. This image is echoed at the end of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ when the speaker calls out to Stetson:

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?”

There has been a reversal in the terminology of growth and surfacing employed: whereas the lilacs are bred out of the ground like bodies, the corpse, it is proposed, will grow out of the ground like a flower, sprouting and blooming. This implies a commonality between the flowers and the corpse, suggesting that they are exchangeable and fluid.  The distinctions between them are done away with because they are both objects coming forth from death’s land, and we can see that the landscape inhabited by the living is at the mercy of a deathliness that seeps into it as a result of horrendous conflict, making the two states of life and death indistinguishable.

This can also be seen in the speaker’s description of London;

Unreal City,

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

I had not thought death had undone so many.

The repetition of ‘so many’ points to the extraordinary number of people that the war brought into contact with death in one way or another. The image suggests that in the aftermath of conflict, death controls and oversees existence, stripping life away from people left behind and reducing them to a deathly state whilst still alive. As a result of an existence defined by death blurring itself with life, the city and the people within it are ‘unreal’, occupying a liminal and disturbing position that they might not be able to properly identify themselves, hence the interchangeability of the lilacs with the corpse as previously mentioned. Death’s infection of life has become hegemonic, and is not challenged and questioned by the inhabitants of the city.

The image of the ‘brown fog of winter dawn’, a pervasive meteorological nuisance, helps to exacerbate the murky and indivisible landscape of deathly life, and also helps to develop the poem’s melancholic and depressive tone. It is at this point that I want to draw a comparison between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a text produced 300 years earlier, where we are also presented with a traumatised landscape that has resulted from conflict. Eliot’s ‘fog’ recalls the image of the fog produced by Titania in her description:

But with thy brawls thou hast disturb’d our sport.

Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,

As in revenge, have suck’d up from the sea

Contagious fogs.

This is one of numerous images of the sickly landscape described by Titania that has resulted from her conflict with Oberon over an Indian boy. The personified seasons and elements have been neglected by the fairies, and avenge this abandonment by unleashing nature’s fury, causing chaos, sickness and ‘distemperature’ through floods, rotten harvests and ‘rheumatic diseases’. Most importantly, however, and in a way that links to Eliot’s wasteland, is that Titania shows how these have caused the seasons to change and merge with one another:

[…] the spring, the summer,

The childing autumn, angry winter, change

Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world

By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evil comes

From our debate, from our dissension;

We are their parents and original.

Titania warns Oberon that the seasons have inadvertently undone themselves and have exchanged and adopted the appearance of each other, in the process throwing off what categorises them individually. The identities that contain and separate them from each other have collapsed so that now it is no longer obvious what time of the year it is supposed to be, causing confusion and bemusement amongst human beings. This motion is similar to what is at work in ‘The Wasteland’, where the boundaries separating death and life have disintegrated and death has blurred and intermingled with life, manifesting explicitly in the realm of the living, meaning that it is now difficult to successfully differentiate between the two states. However, there is a significant difference between ‘The Wasteland’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: Titania delivers this speech during the middle of the conflict. Not only is there time for the situation between them to be resolved, which over the course of the play is achieved, she and Oberon have the power and the capability to reverse the deconstruction. As the fairy Queen and King, the parents of the seasons and the elements, they can restore the status quo through reconciliation and ending their conflict.

However, in ‘The Wasteland’, the conflict is already over and the speaker and humanity as a whole are left in a world that has not been restored to its previous state, but has seen the irreversible movement of death entering into the sphere of life and having an unwavering presence amongst the living. The speaker is not in a position, indeed no one is in a position to solve this, which is evident in the speaker’s assertion: ‘I was neither living nor dead, and I knew nothing’. Titania and Oberon know that if they reconcile and take up their parental responsibilities, the seasons will once again don the right appearance. However, the speaker in ‘The Wasteland’ is trapped between the states of life and death and has neither the power nor knowledge to resolve the conditions, and does not know how to continue existing within them. This is because death is the ultimate powerful force at work that has made itself an unquestionable presence that undoes people’s relationship with life, rendering them deathly whilst still alive. The poem suggests, therefore, that there is nothing more powerful and controlling than death in the post-war wasteland.

We have seen that the post-war environment that the speaker of ‘The Burial of the Dead’ presents is one that is mournful and aware of the presence of death that conflict has brought into the world. I would like to argue that this war has bred another war:  ‘The Wasteland’ as a poem that has been produced in a damaged and deathly world, has no choice but to carry on attacking, suggesting that the only way to exist is to perpetuate conflict. This it achieves through an attack of established poetic conventions, taking on the quality of the death it presents by rigorously undoing the standards we are familiar with. One of the last phrases of ‘The Burial of the Dead’s’ curious ending is ‘You! Hypocrite lecteur!’ which translates as: ‘You! Hypocrite reader!’ We can see that the speaker constructs a notion of readership through the use of ‘you’ that it immediately challenges by addressing the ‘you’ in French and by accusing ‘you’, this reader, of being a hypocrite, itself a curious insult that suggests that we are guilty of falsely professing some kind of virtuousness. I would argue that it points to the futility of people attempting to live life forgetting to acknowledge or pretending to not acknowledge that death is an almost tangible feature of the post-war landscape. Nevertheless, we can see that the poem aggressively sets up a concept that we might be familiar with, the position and audience point of a reader, but immediately undercuts it, throwing it into doubt and uncertainty through the use of a different language to the predominant one employed, and by using it imperatively to challenge and question. This is one of a number of ways in which the poem destabilises comfortable notions of poetic address, form and meaning, attacking conventions and norms in a threatening and war-like manner to create something new. Another example of this would be the endless references and inferences that are made in the body of the poem and for which Eliot provides notes at the end, which playfully lead to new references and inferences. It thus aims to send one on nothing short of a wild goose chase to uncover a meaning that the poem suggests, in doing so, does not exist.

Therefore, the poem, in this its first part, presents life post-war as not a unified thing, but is something pertaining to, undone and controlled by death. As a result of this, poetry itself is fragmentary, and can do nothing but arise from the ashes of one war to begin another, on the poetic form, and our conceptions of form and meaning. This, ‘The Wasteland’ suggests, is not wholly regrettable, and is an unmistakeable and undeniable condition of modernity post-1918.

Dior: Designer of Dreams

On Friday 5th April, I trundled down to London to visit two very excellent friends. We have partaken in a number of cultural weekends in the capital over the past few years, with trips to see the Savage Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican, the Vogue 100 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, the West End production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring Sienna Miller and Jack O’Connell (where somehow we managed to get seats in a box, very jammy), amongst many other lovely, fun activities. This weekend was in every way just as lovely: in spite of a sketchy visit to a fancy restaurant off Regent’s Street where we were made to feel like actual scum, we shopped in Arket, visited the new Archlight cinema in Battersea, drank all the Taddy Lager at a Samuel Smith’s next to Liberty’s and spotted BBC Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen at Denmark Hill station and started smirking at him by accident. He definitely thought we were insane. The highlight of the trip, however, amongst all the other loveliness, was our visit to the Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

My first academic introduction to Dior came through the documentary, Dior and I: a fly-on-the-wall film that followed Belgian designer Raf Simons as he took up the mantle of creative director in 2012. I had been aware of John Galliano’s tenure, largely thanks to Lily Cole who was a veritable goddess in his designs, but had little actual passion for the house of Dior beyond that. I have a penchant for the theatrical in fashion, but I was more into Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton at the time. Galliano was famously fired from Dior after an anti-Semitic rant outside a café in Paris, and this created a space at Dior for something new and different. The film introduced us to Raf Simons, with his refreshingly modern aesthetic and his endearing emotionality. Reading from Christian Dior’s autobiography and discussing art, it became clear that Dior was on the cusp of being reimagined for a new generation. I fell for the brand then and there.

Raf

I came to learn from Dior: Designer of Dreams that the fact that there is even a house of Dior is nigh-on miraculous. Christian Dior founded the label in 1947, creating the ‘New Look’: he divined an ultra-feminine silhouette, re-introducing women to sensuality after the austerity, deprivation and destruction that encompassed life during the Second World War. In no more than ten years, he built a booming, globally successful fashion house, placing his love for women at the very heart of his work. He introduced the H line, the Bar jacket and many other ingeniously crafted designs to emphasise curves, create drama and indelibly flatter. Tragically, he died in 1957; but in the short but very sweet time he had, he laid the foundations for one of the best-loved fashion houses of all time.

I believe the key to Dior’s success in his lifetime and beyond can be attributed to his commitment to women. Indeed, he seems to have dedicated his whole sartorial life to making women look and feel beautiful. He said:

‘Deep in every heart slumbers a dream, and the couturier knows it: every woman is a princess’.

It is one thing for men to say that they love and support women, but it is almost overwhelming how much Christian Dior repeatedly practiced and demonstrated that love through his creations. He knew how to make women feel special through the alchemical combination of silhouette, colour and craftsmanship. He in no way objectified women: instead, he placed womanhood and femininity on a pedestal to be absolutely adored. I used to be very sceptical of traditional notions of femininity: I’ve read my Judith Butler, I understand that gender is performance in many ways. However, where so much disrespect and abject hatred of women and their bodies has been witnessed and experienced throughout history, for a man to be so readily loving and devoted to women, is amazing. Similarly, I do not subscribe to monarchy or regal inequality in any way, but I think the reference to princess-hood can be read more archetypally. His work helps to bring women back to the sense of their own worthiness: that, yes, each one of us is unique and special, with dreams and ambitions, and a powerful capacity for conscientiousness, compassion, joy and love. All of these things make us inherently beautiful. I know a lot of women, including myself, have a hard time believing that, but Christian Dior is here to remind us, in a sartorial, fashionable way, that it is truly is the case.

Christian Dior’s legacy has been kept intact thanks to a line of wonderful designers who placed women and what women want at the core of their work. Everyone, from Yves Saint Laurent to Maria Grazia Chiuri, have adhered to his silhouettes and inspirations, but subtly and ingeniously regenerated and refreshed them for each generation of women that passed their way. The exhibition presented and reflected this fact beautifully, placing pieces from all of Dior’s eras next to one another: for example, these two dresses from 1953 and 2019:

Mexican Dior

Both of these dresses nod to Dior’s interest in Mexican art and sartorial sensibility, speaking to each other across the years.[1] Although the Dior logo splashed across the dress on the right is a dead giveaway that it is a 21st century piece, they could both feasibly have come from the same collection. Similarly, the 18th century-inspired collections exhibit both continuity within the house of Dior and their individual designer’s unique perspective and flair:

18th century Diors

On the far left we have Gianfranco Ferré’s imagining of an 18th century coat, followed by Raf Simon’s cornflower blue dress with drop-waist hip emphasis; then we have another Raf Simons creation, this time a two-piece of intricately embroidered top with combat trousers; and finally a theatrical John Galliano dress with a billowing top and voluminous pleated skirt. All of the pieces are intrinsically Dior and could have walked down the runway in exactly the same show. But, we are also introduced to the subtle modernity of Simons, somehow taking an archaic hip style and making it contemporary and cool; the free-spirited proportion-play of Gianfranco Ferré; and the drama and craftsmanship of Galliano. The accusation has been levelled (at Simons in particular) that these collections for Dior are archivist; however, we can see clearly how the directors have honoured the history and mystique of the house whilst also exploring their own creative interests and personal aesthetics. It makes the collections personal but also part of a fluid, historical whole.

I will always have the softest of soft spots for Raf Simons because his work is just so polished, interesting and fun; but this exhibition formally introduced me to the work of Maria Grazia Chiuri. Up until now, I have reservedly watched Chiuri’s tenure blossom with popularity from afar. I was not convinced that slapping ‘We should all be feminists’ and ‘Why have there been no great women artists’ onto T-shirts to be sold for hundreds of pounds was particularly intersectional. I am still absolutely sure that capitalising on a buoyant new wave of feminism for commercial gain whilst reinforcing exclusivity and hierarchy is not how I want my intersectional feminism to look. However, this exhibition taught me that this woman bloody well knows how to make fabulous clothing. We wandered around the exhibition, pointing to one exquisite dress after another, exclaiming ‘I want that. I want that. I want that’, most of them originating from her sketchbook. Chiuri’s silhouettes are not as avant-garde as a Galliano, nor are they as refined and modern as a Simons, but they are dreamy beyond belief. Deceptively simple forms make way for frothy, fairytale content: her dresses become canvases for beautiful entwining flowers, embroidered constellations, elegant tulle and third eyes.

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I have a newfound respect for what Chiuri is accomplishing at Dior. Namely, creating exceptionally designed clothing, luxurious without being fussy, whilst also, with those clean and elegant lines, very wearable. I would opt for any of these dresses in a heartbeat (please sartorial gods, please).

Without spoiling the exhibition too much for those who are still to visit, the final room was quite literally breathtaking. We audibly gasped and gaped at the twinkling ballroom setting we found ourselves in, debating whether or not we’d overreacted to the splendour on show. The gasps and squeals that came behind us as others entered the room confirmed not. The whole effect was magical: the glittering dresses, the rosy lighting, the cavernous space, everything. Time permitting, we could have sat in that room for ages just absorbing it all.

Dior: Designer of Dreams was another triumph for the Victoria and Albert museum. The layout and story of the exhibition is pitch perfect, demonstrating seamlessly the historical threads of the fashion house, as well as showcasing the individual contributions of the creative directors. The exhibition is a tribute to everyone who has been involved with the house: from Christian Dior himself and his creative directors, to the petit mains creating the designs at the atelier and the women chosen to represent the brand (it features dresses worn by Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron, Rihanna and Lupita Nyong’o). It celebrates womanhood, femininity and the princess within each woman, and the paradox that is a success built upon a winning and delicate combination of history and modernity. Needless to say, if you can get to it, go.

 

[1] What was also brilliant was that the curators had taken great pains to stress the pitfalls and damage of cultural appropriation, highlighting the ways in which Grazia Chiuri in particular sought practical help and input from Mexican women in the production and presentation of her Mexican-inspired collection.

Love Note – Vincent Van Gogh

This is an anticipatory Love Note for when I get round to seeing a new film starring Willem Dafoe called At Eternity’s Gate. Dafoe stars as Vincent Van Gogh and charts the final years of his life in the South of France. I haven’t seen the film yet, so cannot possibly review or attest to how good the film is, but I am nevertheless excited to see one of my favourite painters depicted on screen. This is not the first time Van Gogh and his life has been depicted on screen: one of my favourite episodes of Dr Who brought Van Gogh to life through a very moving performance by Tom Curran.

vincent and the doctor

He was also represented in the visually stunning Loving Vincent, a truly extraordinary animated film that saw artists fluent in Van Gogh’s style paint frames telling the story of his final days. In both, Van Gogh was presented as tortured, immensely sensitive, almost living and breathing his wonderful art and terminally underappreciated and misunderstood.

loving vincent

I have loved Van Gogh for a very long time and I think what made him extraordinarily gifted was his capacity to paint both places and people. His style captures the nuance and intricacy of whatever it is he is looking at, and his paintings almost hum with vibrancy, no matter whether he’s painting a field scene or exploring the lines of a weathered and weary face. Additionally, he only ever painted or represented the world around him. He may have done this in an utterly original and inspired way, but it was always a reflection of what he could actually see. This put him at odds with his contemporary Paul Gaugin, who drew from his imagination to create people and figures in his paintings. Van Gogh, on the other hand, would never do this. This aesthetic and practical difference can be seen in Van Gogh’s Olive Grove and Gaugin’s Christ on the Mount of Olives:

Van Gogh Olive Groves

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This is not to say that Gaugin’s work is inferior in any way to Van Gogh’s (I actually think his Christ looks remarkably like Van Gogh in this painting, which is interesting), but it demonstrates a very interesting dynamic at work in Van Gogh’s art. His commitment to reflecting the world around him accurately, but with his own unique insight, makes his work at once highly personal and imaginative but always grounded in what is physical and real. It is endearing and almost egoless to bring such consciousness and attention to what he saw, rather than to emphasise the world by applying a story to it. Through Van Gogh’s art, we learn that the world itself is a story to tell, we don’t need to apply grand narratives of religion or myth to elevate it as such.

I have been fortunate enough to see Van Gogh’s paintings in the paint at both the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and from the Davies collection at the National Museum of Wales. What I learnt and what absolutely stood out to me, more than the tragic circumstances of his depression and his death, was that he was a masterful and learned technician. Whilst a lot of emphasis has been placed in popular culture on his naiveté and the impressionistic and emotional ecstasy of his paintings, what I learned was that he had an almost academic approach to art. Van Gogh developed his technique out of dedicated and meticulous study and practice. He took lessons from Anton Mauve in the Hague, studied colour theory through Charles Blanc’s colour wheel and through analysis of Eugène Delacroix’s paintings, explored pointillism and the un-mixing of colours through the work of Georges Sauret, experimented in a Japanese style through a study of Japanese woodcuts, and from his friendships with Toulouse Lautrec and Émile Bernard learnt about the versatility and vibrancy of pastels. Passionate and zealous as he famously was with his impressions and interpretations of the world around him, Van Gogh was a learned and masterful technician. I don’t think this should be overshadowed by the turbulence of his relationships or his volatile mental health. He may have found inspiration in his pain and darkness, but his expression of it came from hours, days and years of practice and development.

Here are some of my favourite pieces of Van Gogh’s work:

Van gogh the harvest

The Harvest, June 1888 – The warmth of the sun radiates in this painting, everything that summer should be.

van gogh self portrait

Self Portrait with Grey Felt Hat, c.1887 – I have this painting on a postcard hanging up in my flat and I think it is beautiful. The sun-scorched orange of his beard complements the bright blue of his clothes and background, and the green tinges around his eyes and brow convey his deeper emotional sensitivity.

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Fishing Boats on the Beach at Saintes-Maries, June 1888 – This is another painting on a postcard that I have hanging in my flat (courtesy of my boyfriend who loves this particular painting). It is reflective of Van Gogh’s interest in Japanese art.

van-gogh-rain-auvers-1890

Rain – Auvers, 1890 – I saw this painting at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff and it brought tears to my eyes. There is a battle going on here between the sunny warmth of the land and the deep, dark despair of the rain. It reminds me that no matter how depressed, anxious and afraid we may feel, the land needs to be watered to flourish; goodness, light and clarity come from embracing and moving through the dark and difficult times.