Bored in the Uffizi

I think we have bad habits now, in museums and galleries, or those vast visiting collections that are puffed off at the Royal Academy or the British Museum. It’s partly the crowds of course, and the pressure to keep moving, but it’s also the sheer numbers of paintings or objects. A literary critic once suggested that you shouldn’t try to read more than four poems a week. I suspect you could apply the same rule to paintings. No more than four in a visit – or is that still too many.

Which all goes to say that I found the the Uffizi marvellously tiring, or tiringly marvellous. I grew especially weary of the endless repetition of religious paintings – all those Madonnas, clutching their – often slightly disturbing – babies.

Which made it all the more exciting when we came across this painting by Antonella da Messina – a Madonna for sure, but somehow less removed or antique, more real; more, I thought, like one of us. Her son too, clambered about in a cheerfully unsymbolic way as babies do, and hugged his mum.

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I discovered that da Messina was painting in the 1470s – when all around him were bursting into the gorgeous excesses of the heroic renaissance – and wondered why he wasn’t better known. If you google him, his paintings all have that unfussy but very human directness. They are real people with back stories, bad thoughts and an appraising eye.

Look at these three:

Antonello da Messina collage 3

And this thoughtful Virgin Mary:

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I even like his crucifixion. Well, Jesus is a little staid, but his thieves are wonderfully acrobatic.

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You can read about Antonella here.

It’s fascinating that much of the story of the renaissance is about south influencing north – but with da Messina it looks as though it was the other way round.

Bored in the Uffizi

The worm in the apple

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We call the Gospel ‘Good News’, but Anne Enright in her witty, erudite lecture on the story of Adam and Eve, exposes the fake news at its heart. It’s funny, illuminating and – I think – one of the best short guides to the institutionalised mysogyny that underlies so much of western culture that I’ve come across:

“The story of the Fall is one of the most enduring stories we have, and it is never fair. You could use it as a template for a certain kind of novel: put a choice in there, tip the balance, make the consequences so disproportionate we doubt our sense of cause and effect, make them suffer, make them into better human beings. Visually, the narrative is brilliantly successful, for being so easy to hold within a single frame. There is nothing static about the way the viewer sees an image of the first couple considering apples. It is a moment of great tension, and they are wearing no clothes. So, to the rules for writing a successful fiction, we might add, pretend that it is not about sex, make the world symbolic, expand the small asymmetries. Here are two human beings who are slightly, but perhaps disastrously, anatomically different. She likes something long, he likes something round – what could possibly go wrong?

The story is a riddle about authority and predestination that has survived the theological palaver of generations because, simple to the point of transparency, it is also impenetrably self-enclosed. It is held in a brilliant web of balance and contradiction by a few hundred words; so it is worth looking at those words and what they actually mean.

Just to be clear: there was no seduction. There was no devil, nor any mention of Satan, who was, at this stage, an unimportant figure. Although he played a sporadic role in the torment of Job, or in the temptation of Christ in the desert, Satan was not a mythical force before the bestiary of Revelations, and the rebellious Lucifer was some other angel until Milton came along. The idea of a great battle between light and the forces of darkness did not get going until early Christian times, possibly because this small, persecuted sect needed to find a great spiritual enemy against which to pit themselves. The creature in Genesis was just a snake, and though he was crafty, he didn’t seduce, nor did he ‘tempt’ Eve – this last term means ‘to test’ and is used only once in Genesis, when God tests Abraham, requiring the sacrifice of his son Isaac. So Eve did not tempt Adam, either, nor was he seduced by her nakedness. There is, in fact, very little sex in the story. Our readings of it are all subtext, all interpretation, all error.”

You can read the whole text here at the LRB.

Better still listen to Anne herself in an LRB podcast here

The worm in the apple

The Soul

I believe in the transmigration of souls … I’ve come to this belief through experience. My own soul, in all the time of my earthly suffering, has traversed many animals and plants, and endured all the stages and realms spoken of by the Buddha.

I was a pup when I was born, and a goose when I entered public life. Starting in government service, I became small potatoes. My boss dubbed me a brick, friends—a jackass, freethinkers—a sheep. Traveling along the railroads, I was a rabbit; living in a village among peasants, I felt myself a leech. After one instance of embezzlement I was for some time a scapegoat. Marrying, I became horned cattle. Embarking, finally, on the one true path, I acquired a belly and became a triumphant swine
Anton Chekov)

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2017/08/30/some-thoughts-about-the-soul-2/

The Soul

Choosing Logres

Jeremy Corbyn has been stuck like a fishbone in the craw of the Labour Party almost since he was first elected back in the eighties.

Irritating but immovable, the party learned to overlook him – along with the smaller band of refuseniks who sat with him on the backbenches resolute in their – deeply unfashionable – principles.

Fashion, though, has a way of coming full circle. Just as we can be certain that mullets and bell bottoms will one day return to triumph – so Corbyn triumphs now. It’s biblical: remember Psalm 118 v22:

The stone which the builders refused is become the head stone of the corner.

So, with socialism back on the table, we have a choice on Thursday. It is political of course, but I wonder if it isn’t deeper than that too. Here’s something I read years ago in CS Lewis’ strange novel, That Hideous Strength. One of his characters, Dimble, asks if we had noticed:

“How something we may call Britain is always haunted by something we may call Logres. Haven’t you noticed that we are two countries? After every Arthur, a Mordred; behind every Milton, a Cromwell: a nation of poets, a nation of shopkeepers; the home of Sidney–and of Cecil Rhodes. Is it any wonder they call us hypocrites? But what they mistake for hypocrisy is really the struggle between Logres and Britain.”

It crops up in Howards End too as the contrast between the life of the mind – and heart – and the world of ‘telegrams and anger.’ Margaret Schlegel, here:

The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched–a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There, love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one–there’s grit in it. It does breed character.”

Margaret’s wisdom is to see that you have to have the grit of the outer world as well as the world of ‘personal relations’ – but it shouldn’t be all about those ‘telegrams and anger’. In Lewis’ terms Logres and Britain will always need each other.

The problem today is that, for the last forty years ‘Britain’ has been in the ascendant. The voice of the practical woman and man has been supreme in the land. Some things have improved, but a great deal of what we most value – children and families, health, the environment, has been – is being – threatened. We need to redress the balance, bring back some of those other qualities – where people matter, where the heart has value, and where what counts is not merely money.

Corbyn – for all his many faults (he’s no King Arthur) does represent something different. Maybe Thursday is the time to give Logres its chance.

Choosing Logres

The Naked Quaker

I’ve been reading a little about the early Quakers recently and came across these two descriptions of the lengths they’d go to demonstrate their belief that, whether finely or raggedly dressed, people underneath were just the same – including a willingness to go naked in public – described as a “dramatic way of calling people to repentance…[and] ‘a trenchant reminder to the ungodly'”.

Two examples:

Elizabeth Fletcher who ‘in obedience to ye Lord’, went naked through the streets of Oxford ‘as a sign against that hypocritical profession they then made there, being then Presbyterians and Independents, which profession she told them the Lord would strip them of, so that their nakedness should appear’.

And this, from Samuel Pepys about an incident in Westminster Hall in 1677,

when, a large crowd having assembled to hear the King speak, a Quaker ‘came naked through the hall, only very civilly tied about the privies to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone upon his head did pass through the hall, crying “Repent! Repent!”‘

So streaking wasn’t as new as we imagined back in the 70s.

I couldn’t help imagining the man with his chafing dish as a sort of seventeenth century as a sort of early Arthur Brown. Inaccurate of course – Brown always covered more than just his ‘privies’.

Photo of Arthur BROWN and CRAZY WORLD OF ARTHUR BROWN

The Naked Quaker