Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Leslie Hurry’s palace of wisdom

In 2011 I posted here on a first, rather breathless, encounter with the ‘forties paintings of Leslie Hurry. He was clearly still working well into the 1970’s (he died in 1978); I may be missing something, but I still can’t see any recent monograph – is there really no big, glossy volume on this extraordinary artist?

coverThis lack makes Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry (Grey Walls Press, 1950) still a useful source, at least, up to that point. The book’s intro is by the “prolific and proletarian” Jack Lindsay; this is sympathetic but none too informative. Lindsay wastes several pages trying to set Hurry into some sort of mega history-of-art context, but then fails to locate him as a painter within the movements and networks of his own times, as if his development were some purely personal, hermetic affair. But the book does have 38 plates, though only two are in colour; despite the black and white, it seems worthwhile to scan a few here below. (Click to enlarge.)

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

The paintings give out all sorts of echoes. Hurry may have opted to work in detachment from organised surrealism, but his relations in that respect are obvious. Absent from much of the imagery is the standard post-cubist scaffolding, so that his figures often have a ghostly flaccidity, as if their bones had been carefully extracted. They swell, contract and flop like jellyfish. This watery, or airy, looseness is reminiscent of David Jones, and the earliest image in the book, a watercolour of a Breton mass from 1939, is strongly Jones-like, both in style and content. While some later figures show rather more structure, a constant Picasso borrowing throughout is the familiar multi-angled face, though in Hurry’s hands this becomes more an image of simultaneous ambivalence than a trick of animation across adjacent moments.

To my mind, his allegorical images of famine and so forth are the least successful. When Hurry does Agony it veers into cartoony; a 1945 watercolour titled Atom Bomb is awkwardly sub-Guernica. To compensate, the scenery designs are a pleasure; they are richly fantastic, and relate closely to the baroque obsessiveness of Robin Ironside.

Jack Lindsay’s introduction to the book rounds off with his own poem, “The Bough of Sweetness,” dedicated to Hurry:

O difficult regeneration of suffering men
on the star-anvils in Stepney and Glasgow clanging
Mass meeting Strike Prague Five-Years-Plan Shanghai
also the slight chime of a flower perfected
and the livid eyes of fear caught in a word
Steadily the hills close round
with the doves of dawn and the nearing annunciation …

Personally, I find Lindsay’s poetry more interestingly symptomatic than successful, though this does at least represent a clumsy attempt at a verbal equivalent of Hurry’s violent conjunction of the visionary and the political – all very ‘forties, very apocalypse.


In his introduction to the book, Lindsay gives us little by way of Hurry’s biography. Born in 1909, trained at St John’s Wood and the RA School of Painting, emerging in 1931, murals, landscapes, a loss of purpose followed by a “desperate retreat into his lonely self” at a cottage in Thaxted, a spell in Brittany and Montmartre in 1938, from these periods of crisis a move into his mature work, beginning with more geometric configurations but soon evolving into more organic forms, theatre work starting with Hamlet at Sadlers Wells in 1941 – and that’s about as factual as it gets. His Wikipedia page adds not a lot more beyond the interesting detail that his father had been a funeral director, a career path the son rejected.

At the time of my previous post there didn’t seem to be much of Hurry online, but matters have since improved. Copyright restrictions at the Tate site have been lifted, so his artist page there now shows six works, including  This Extraordinary Year, 1945, which called to me when it was on the wall at Tate Britain. Much of Hurry’s work was watercolours; these don’t qualify for the Art UK site, which now offers six paintings, of which four are portraits including two variants of himself, though not the self-portrait shown in this post. Beyond these sources, a Google image search will throw up a couple of dozen additional items from galleries and so on, not counting costume or set designs. Enough to go at.

I find it hard to account for the relatively low profile of such a remarkable British painter, particularly given recent stirrings of interest in the neo-romantic phase. Hurry’s tense, highly strung images layer up beyond exhaustion those twitchy, compulsive marks and fragments until they hiss and sing in a sort of maximalist coherence, hard won against the odds by forcing overwroughtness through to a point of virtue. For once here, the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom.

Kurt rejoined: Schwitters in Lakeland

A greyish day on a Lake District holiday is an opportunity for a pilgrimage to the modest shrine to Kurt Schwitters at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside. (For a previous post on Schwitters, see here.) Some years ago I searched the Lakes in vain for any traces of his presence, but now the Armitt sports a tidy little room with some thirty items. The weight is towards the effective but surprisingly conventional landscapes and portraits that were his bread and butter at the time, but there are a couple of Merz pieces too, plus – holy of holies – the faded sign to the now disembowelled MerzBarn at Elterwater. In the churchyard down the road at St Mary’s survives the headstone to the grave from which Schwitters’s body was removed to Hanover in 1970. Further south at Kendal the Abbot Hall Art Gallery hosts a small wall of Schwitters. All in all, a very worthwhile and tourable grouping of relics.


crossleyBarbara Crossley’s The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters, published in 2005 by the Armitt Trust, does not list or discuss in detail the works of this period, but does chronicle painstakingly his last years in the Lakes, following his release from internment in the Isle of Man in late 1941. Notwithstanding the self-sacrificial love and support of Schwitters’s partner Edith Thomas, it’s depressing to learn of the artist reduced to hanging about an Ambleside café, offering portrait sketches to customers for the price of a cup of tea, or working desperately on the barn, breathless and dying, his hands blue with the cold. It comes as a shock to realise that Schwitters died at the age of sixty. The subsequent neglect of his surviving work, followed by litigious bickering as prices later rose, does not make for good reading either. (Not that things are necessarily more sympathetic today. In the Armitt I was obliged to grit my teeth as some saloon bar know-it-all in hiking boots opined dismissively to his mate that the collages were “just patterns,” and that many of the works were probably labelled “Untitled” because the artist knew no English. )

Reviewing all this, I’m struck once again by the uncanny, almost miraculous even-handedness with which Schwitters maintained the two extreme polarities of his practice: the canon-busting inventiveness by which his collages bypass all expectations and still reach entirely satisfactory solutions, balanced by the comprehensive sanity of the observational work, as witnessed, among others, by the touching little pen and ink study of flowers at the Armitt.

Some of the Armitt and Abbot Hall items show up on the Art UK Schwitters page, but others are missing or beyond the scope of the site, so here are some selected snaps. (Click for enlarged slides. Any objections to my posting these, please contact me.) At the top left of the “YMCA Flag” collage is a portion of the envelope in which Schwitters received news of a grant towards the MerzBarn work from MOMA New York. Sorry about the reflections in this one; I find myself incorporated by the glass.


The taking of these photos coincided with a strange camera malfunction (perhaps more a photographer malfunction, if truth be told) in which entirely unfamiliar images arrived in the camera’s memory, while shots of Schwitters’s works deleted themselves only to reappear at will later. Unnerving. But all quite appropriate to a MerzBarn from which the Merz has been excavated and a grave that no longer holds a body.

Satan meets Cinderella: two anarchist dramas of the ‘forties

Satan disguised as an engineer, a madman in the attic, an army of radioactive Welsh miners, plus Cinderella … Yes, it’s British anarchist drama of the ‘forties! This post will be a little longer than usual, I’m afraid, so be patient. First, a quick recap on the origins of all this in the poetic dramas of the previous decade.

The new poetic theatre

dance-of-deathPlenty has been written elsewhere about the ‘thirties heydays of the “new poetic theatre,” and in particular the plays, more or less political and Brechtian, of W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood, staged by Rupert Doone and the Group Theatre with the incidental music of Benjamin Britten, the sets of Robert Medley, and Faber to publish the scripts – quite a back-up! The first of these, The Dance of Death (1931), an Auden solo effort, is somewhat clunky but finishes splendidly with a brief guest appearance by Karl Marx:

Announcer. He’s dead.

[Noise without]

Quick under the table, it’s the ‘tecs and their narks,
O no, salute – it’s Mr Karl Marx.

[Enter Karl Marx with two young communists]

KM. The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated.

[Exeunt to a Dead March]

THE END

img_0001Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935) is my favourite of the series; their fascist-infected English rural idyll of Pressan Ambo, closely related to the nightmare delusions of Edward Upward’s extraordinary 1938 novel Journey to the Border, blends banality with menace, and is a fine satiric invention.  In comparison The Ascent of F6 (1936) and On the Frontier (1938) seem to lose a little sparkle.

Not surprisingly, other McSpaunday personnel get in on the act: Louis MacNeice’s witty Out of the Picture (1937) or Stephen Spender’s execrable “tragic statement” Trial of a Judge (1938), both also realised by Doone and Faber. Somehow Spender manages to write an anti-fascist play in which the fascists are the only interesting characters. One can almost forgive them for locking up opponents who go on like this:

TWO RED PRISONERS.
Your days in dark, our dark that wakes,
Across the centuries and the waves
Will join to break our chains and break
Into the nobler day which saves.

And so on. And on. John Piper’s scenery was wasted on it.

The coming of war and the dissipation of that particular political-poetical consensus might appear to mark the end of these theatrical experiments. So it’s interesting, a decade on, to come across their minor progeny under the colours of anarchism, which in more or less individualist or philosophical shades had become the ideological flavour of ‘forties neo-romanticism. Here are two examples.

The Last Refuge

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

Wrey Gardiner by Gregorio Prieto

The more slight, but no less interesting, is Wrey Gardiner’s The Last Refuge, a single act affair that pops up in the 1945 edition of New Road, an annual neo-rom anthology published by Gardiner’s own Grey Walls Press, and edited at the time by Fred Murnau. Charles Wrey Gardiner was most active as a poet and autobiographer, but is better remembered for Grey Walls and for his sustained editorship of Poetry Quarterly. Whatever the strength of his sympathies, The Last Refuge seems to be an unusual instance of his nailing his black flag overtly to the mast.

The play must have been written a few years before it saw the light in 1945. Despite some minimal stage directions it’s maybe better considered as unperformable, a drama on the page in the manner of Gervase Stewart’s The Two Septembers, or Robert Herring’s “pantomime” of the Blitz Harlequin Mercutio, to give two others from the same period and sampled on this blog. Virtually the entire script is versified. The action (or conversation, mostly) is set in a bombed-out house deserted by its owners, emblematic of Blitzed England, and squatted by a selection of archetypes: an Old Woman, her earth-daughter Cinderella, a Lunatic (her traumatised son in the attic), and an Anarchist who ascends from the cellar. A Voice in the Air from a wireless interjects occasional propaganda and inane dance music. Visitors comprise a Poet, in love (inevitably) with Cinderella, and an Inspector, the embodiment of authority, come to arrest the squatters on a charge of “living dangerously.”

The few moments when Gardiner tries a satirical touch are uncomfortably clumsy: “Silvery Sid and his Sauntering Saps” is not a great mickey-take name for a radio dance band, and Cinderella’s unsophistication at times has a cor-luv-a-duck touch – “Did ever anyone have such funny men as come my way?” The writing is far happier when Gardiner goes with his usual (and rather likeable) overstrained earnestness. The central tension here is between the writer’s twin, dialectical self-projections, the Poet and the Anarchist, the Poet being apt to rhapsodise in gloomy symbols, provoking the Anarchist’s denunciation:

Your song is vague and indecisive, Poet.
What the poor people need is freedom,
Not the undying words of a dyspeptic dream
But a bitter marching song that none can stem,
A rising tide, a rousing fire,
An anthem for the world’s despised.

Where the poet sees the traumatised son as “a caged animal” the Anarchist hails his insanity as a liberation:

He has had that little jolt
That brings a man to know
His own will’s the source and fountain
Of his own world.
The second bomb would give him the full knowledge
Of one who walks and lies down at will,
Accepts and refuses the snags of fate,
Free in a world where mass suggestion has no power.

The Anarchist brings proceedings to a sort of conclusion when, in a moment of Stirnerite resistance, he grabs the poker from the fireplace and brains the Inspector, leaving the Lunatic to pontificate –

All you poor crackbrained fools who disdain desire
Are but the slaves of a crawling cesspool
Some call sanity.

– the Poet to ruminate –

Truth is still stranger than we know,
Like light falling in a chaotic dream
In the twisted corridors, suddenly upon the wall,
Haunting the mad, the suffering, the chosen few.

– and Cinderella to round it all off with a nice bit of bathos:

Love as a woman’s tear will always fall
Sure as the gentle rain upon us all.

It’s all agreeably heady, and very much of its moment.

Cities of the Plain

cities-of-the-plainIf the class solidarity of “the world’s despised” is only alluded to in The Last Refuge, it’s up front, with marching boots on, in our second contribution, Alex Comfort’s “Democratic Melodrama” Cities of the Plain, published by – who else? – Grey Walls Press in 1943. As poet, novelist, literary critic, anarchist theoretician and conscientious objector, Comfort was remarkably busy during the ‘forties, with a literary reputation later eclipsed by his Joy of Sex fame. (Cities had been preceded in 1942 by Comfort’s “mystery play” Into Egypt; as this is currently unobtainable, I can’t say anything about it.)

If Last Refuge was not designed for performance, Cities most certainly was. A slightly pompous permissions note states that the author “wishes to repudiate in advance all the ideological constructions, of whatever complexion … placed upon this play. Ideological theatres will apply unsuccessfully.” Whether any theatre, ideological or not, applied successfully to stage it, is an open question. Directions insist that it is to be acted “with the maximum of gusto.”

A remarkably schoolboyish Alex Comfort faces up to the shadows of the mid-forties

The play, closer to its Auden-Isherwood predecessors, is set in a parallel society. The title references the Sodom and Gomorrah of Genesis, but the narrative involves a single unnamed city in thrall to a ruthless capitalist corporation that mines the neighbouring mountain. (For some reason best known to Comfort, the miners have Welsh names: Iorwerth, Dai etc.) Facing imminent bankruptcy, the directors sell out to a proposal by two mysterious and unscrupulous “Engineers” to mine the mountain for radium; though many miners will die from radioactivity, this is presented to them as a noble and necessary sacrifice. Dissent is encouraged by the principled doctor, Manson (man’s son, presumably), who leads back from the mountain an army of scorched, ulcerated and mutated miners who tramp off into the future, members of the audience joining them, to lead the revolution.

While the majority of characters are believable to degrees, the two Engineers operate on a different level. The Black Engineer, so called for the colour of his clothing – black shirt, velvet dungarees and biretta – is revealed as something beyond human when he encounters the sherry quaffing Bishop of Sodom and Gomorrah (a “pillar of Conservative-Churchmanship”), who recoils in horror, crying: “I don’t believe in you! I’m not a Manichee! You’re a heresy!”

This odd disjunction is a deliberate dramatic contrivance. In a discussion on Shelley’s The Cenci in “The Critical Significance of Romanticism,” later collected in his 1946 Art and Social Responsibility, Comfort notes that in that play, as in those of Ford and Webster:

img_0002The human players pass through a tragic conflict, but their opponents are not persons – they are naked, animated symbols. The impulses and powers of evil and of infatuation which in tragedy operate through imperfect living people are here made external and come to occupy whole persons, elevated to the same status of identity and reality as the protagonists … [Cenci] is a mask, as if the Devil had inspired a dummy or a suit of armour and made it walk.

Here is the Black Engineer’s offer to the Directors, in return for the mountain:

I offer you the price of your living, to drink the wine of this plain and to sit at this table – to sleep with your wives and to keep your names out of the papers; to make the sun and the moon stand still in the sky, and to sanctify the status quo. I offer you a new grip on the reins, a new leg for your broken chair. You shall not become bankrupt but be rich, and you shall die and lie in gold coffins …

It’s remarkable that the atheist Comfort, in order to personify and animate corporate evil, is obliged to fall back on this Faustian religious supernaturalism.

Like Auden and Isherwood, Comfort keeps his verse passages for key moments and uses far more vernacular conversation than Gardiner, though this can be a bit overdrawn and heavy handed at times. With the possible exception of the miners’ songs, which have a passing touch of Disney’s Seven Dwarfs (“With a will, ho!”), the verse is effective. Comfort was, in fact, a pretty decent poet. Here’s some of Manson’s big speech at the end of Scene II, pleading for the healing of the sick earth:

Now in the night, when continents
like tables cool and creak, and each tap’s timbrel
flickers invisible, constellations rise
westward on Europe moving carefully.
Out of Orion’s cockpit with no noise
the white aseptic stars watch blind earth tossing,
clawing the mask, going under; see the rivers’
reflexes quietly fade, the body grow quiet.
Between the hems of night the inflamed cities
throb in the flank; the finger in wise pity
probes the soft coils – as the stars’ gloved hands
draw up the wounded countries with small stitches.
You of the lancets, Sirius, Betelgueuse,
scanning the festered cities, plotting the fever,
cut to the permanent bone. This sickness is mortal.
Incise the will. Restore the healthy granite.

As a bit of a contrast, here’s the feverish, apocalyptic dance of the revelling shareholders, sung as the miners march to their fate, with a touch of Louis MacNeice’s “Bagpipe Music”:

The hills are tumbling round our ears,
The stars crash down from the night;
But the bonds are good and the wheels go round
And there’s wind in the bagpipe yet.

Seven red madmen dance to the moon,
Seven pale horses rode,
But spades are trumps and the sun stands still,
And there’s wealth on the turn of the card!

Their wheels are broke and their bones are dry –
Their hammers bang for the coffin;
But all we see is a five-pound note
And a Union seat in the offing.

And grey death hides behind the door
With a rattle of shot in his throat,
But the wheels go round and the people roar
To keep the bastard out.

Can you hear the crash of the steeples, boys,
And the guns go crack in the trees?
The world shall burn to warm our hands –
It makes a lovely blaze!

There is more of value in this play, and much more could be said about it. But I will return at some point in these posts to Comfort’s poetry. He wrote two further plays. The first act alone of The Besieged appeared in Life and Letters Today for April 1944, but it was never published entire. Gengulphus is also listed as unpublished; some sources give a date of 1948, suggesting a possible publication, though I can find no trace of that.

The quick fade to these experiments in anarcho-drama is probably attributable to the same factors that saw off neo-romanticism in general. The verse speeches, the heightened, symbolic characters, the open calls to political action, the almost expressionist intensity – these are worlds away from the kitchen sink social realism of ‘fifties theatre.

It would be interesting to know if either of Comfort’s two published plays was ever staged. My ex-library copy of Cities (Croydon Public Libraries) sports a fully clean borrowing label; clearly Croydon Rep didn’t jump at the chance to put on this “Democratic Melodrama.” Which is rather a pity.

Lewis’s magisterial line

A pity, I feel, when a public gallery crowds out its walls with Victorian junk when it might fill them twice over with wonderful 20th century art that is never or rarely put on show. A good job, then, that a display of drawings from local schools at Wolverhampton Art Gallery (some excellent) gives a pretext to sprinkle in some gems from the vaults that would otherwise never see the light of day.

Including this modest but magisterial pen drawing by Wyndham Lewis, a portrait of Bernard Rowland done in 1921. (Click to enlarge.) I didn’t know that Wolverhampton even had this. The drawing is number 475 in Michel’s catalogue, and came from the Mayor Gallery, London. Lewis’s biographer Paul O’Keeffe mentions that Lewis, then homeless, stopped temporarily with Rowland, a friend, when he parted from Iris Barry in 1921, so this could have been done as a thank you gift and keepsake. Rowland may perhaps have been the fabric designer of that name, though that’s just a guess.

bernard-rowland

Lewis was at the peak of his graphic and observational powers at this period. Each arc here just sings with the confidence of its liberty, all conspiring to lead the eye to the exquisite construction of U’s and V’s forming the upper lip that provides a fulcrum to the image, and this despite (or because of) the prominent pentimento running down the nose and across the mouth, which somehow seems entirely right and necessary, echoing lines of cheek and jaw. And just look at the play-off between the eyes! I could go on.

Sorry about the reflections. I dare say I shouldn’t have taken a photo anyway.

‘NUTS’: Julian Symons annotates Stephen Spender

Having in my time bought a few too many second hand books that turned out to disappoint, it’s rewarding when the reverse happens.

img_0001Some years ago, I forget where, I picked up for a quid a damp-buckled copy of Stephen Spender’s Life and the Poet, 1942, in which Spender attempts to reposition the role of the progressive artist and intellectual post-Spain, post-Popular Frontism. This was published by Secker & Warburg as Searchlight Book No 18, a series edited by George Orwell and T R Fyvel, billed as broadly popular, patriotic and anti-fascist. (Of the 17 projected titles listed here, only ten actually appeared before the printer’s paper stock ran out.) Searchlight Books were hardback with a dust jacket, but mine has paper covers, so must be a review copy.

And indeed, a reviewer has made his or her reactions known in some enjoyably bad tempered annotations, summarised inside the front cover:

Mr Spender wrote but apparently never went “Forward from Liberalism”. This is a wretchedly poor book, illogical, disconnected, apologetic & generally unsound.

Life and the Poet does indeed seem hastily shoved together, sloppily thought through and in places just badly written. Spender dedicates it to “Young Writers in the Armed Forces, Civil Defence and the Pacifist Organisations of Democracy”, which by covering all options avoids offence, but indicates something of the hand wringing equivocation he feels obliged to deliver.

“Before finishing the last chapter of this book,” he confesses, “and while revising the first five chapters, I have already been called up into the Fire Service. Yet I may stimulate in the minds of a few people the urgent necessity of a faith in poetry, or, rather, the poetic attitude …”

Our reviewer is not impressed by this excuse. Here are a few passages he/she found objectionable, with his/her reactions transcribed in italics:

Spender: 'Generally unsound'

Spender: ‘Generally unsound’

Without saying that Tolstoi, Turgenev or Henry James were socialists, one might draw revolutionary political conclusions from the life which they describe in their novels. Yet to believe … that the true picture of life in fiction today would inevitably have a socialist political implication is entirely different from preaching that … novels should preach socialism and see everything through red-coloured spectacles.
NUTS

In the case of a really great novelist or poet there might even be no difference, because his observation and his conclusions would be indivisible. But in the case of those lesser artists, there is a tremendous difference.
If the political conclusions were sound then the Novel will be too. The rest of Spender’s thesis is nonsense.

Listening to these [Left Wing] lectures on literature, it seemed to me that the principles were right, but their application was always wrong.
Well what the hell?

The ultimate aim of politics is not politics, but the activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State. Therefore an effective statement of these activities – such as science, art, religion – is in itself a declaration of ultimate aims around which the political means will crystallise.
Aim? Politics has no aim, any more than evolution has. 

So the political agitator is driven to deny that there is anything in life outside the struggle for power … Therefore you must pretend that everyone on your own side who is killed is a hero gladly giving his life for your cause without indulging in any feelings as a separate individual which might be irrelevant. Indeed, you go on to deny that anything in the nature of an individual really exists or has ever existed.
Oh do I?

Politics then become the only reality, and … [Artists, thinkers and scientists] make a merit of stifling the light that is in them: to become scientists who deny that scientific enquiry can ever be objective, poets who deny their own individuality, who show no curiosity about man’s situation in the whole of life and the universe, novelists who have no interest in human beings except to prove that one race or class is superior to others.
Mr Spender appears to have all the intellectual’s concern for his own piddling little individuality. What does he mean by superior? Dominant? Obviously no class is “Better” – No one suggests any one is.

Political evils must be met by other, greater political evils until the war is won. Yet, just because of this, it is all the more important that the “happy few” who uphold values of art, poetry and science should state as clearly as they can what the function of those values in life is, in order that new social patterns may grow around such an understanding.
Ha! Ha! Spender & Co, world-lovers & leaders.

Politicians establish a Sabbath of institutions which petrify, until at last they are shattered by revolutions. Yet to the revolutionaries, who are also politicians, Man … is still only made for their new Sabbath, which, they are determined, differs from the old Sabbath in that it will never be destroyed.
Nonsense. If Mr S will tilt at Marxists he should get to know some Marxism, which denies the possibility of a fixed, static, immutable policy.

What is important is Man. The creative mind must never entirely subscribe to any kind of Sabbath – Pharisaic, Jewish, Christian, Roman, Communist or British Imperialist.
How nice for the creative mind.

Part way through chapter two our annotator loses patience with the chore of annotation, but has made his or her position pretty clear. The book’s owner did not think to add a name, so who was this irascible Marxist?

As it happens, the sentiments chime rather well with “A Poet in Society,” a review of the book by Julian Symons in the first issue (1943) of the second series of Now, the anarchist political-literary review edited by George Woodcock at Freedom Press. (See here for another aspect. As it also happens, the handwriting of the annotations is not incompatible with the very few samples of Symons’s writing I can see online, though I can’t pretend that the similarities are absolutely conclusive.)

Symons: acerbic

Symons: acerbic

Symons is best known as a writer of crime fiction in later life, but was then the founder of Twentieth Century Verse, an independent Marxist (usually tagged a “Trotskyist”), and a reviewer of clinical and acerbic penetration. While Woodcock aimed to align the new series of Now with an “anarchist point of view,” contributors did not necessarily “subscribe to anarchist doctrines,” and in an editorial intro he carefully separates himself from the “hard things” that Symons has to say, defending “a certain virtue” in Spender’s “doubt of the value of politics as a means of social action.” Maybe he was anxious to avoid offending Orwell, later a contributor to the magazine.

In his review Symons tackles both Life and the Poet and Spender’s latest poetry collection, Ruins and Visions. The poems he finds “fine” and “moving”, but with Life and the Poet he finds himself “in violent disagreement,” denouncing it as “a high, thin and cloudy view of the poet’s nature and function,” marked by “the confusion of thought and frequent clumsiness of phrase which we have learned to expect and regret … Sometimes,” he adds, “this leads him into sentimental rubbish … It is impossible to comment usefully upon writing at this level.”

His critique follows the annotations at a distance while, naturally enough, losing some of the immediacy of his anger. One or two of our annotated passages in particular are fastened on.  Spender, who believes in no absolute, is criticised for setting up “the creative mind” (see the final passage above) as a kind of absolute. The fourth annotated passage above, on the “ultimate aim of politics,” comes in for particular scrutiny:

Man is a social animal: and his creative activities – “activities which can be practised within the political framework of the State” – are part of his social life. It follows that to talk about a statement of artistic aims round which political means will crystallise is to talk nonsense. A new view of society must precede a new view of art: society fashions art, art does not create a society. It is therefore a delusion to believe that any artistic aims are ultimate, since no state of society is ultimate: artistic aims are instead fashioned out of the social life of the time, which is in turn influenced by the tradition of social life and art which it has accepted as a heritage. “Eternal aspirations,” loneliness, and yes, the “creative mind” itself vary in form with the society that contains them. A society gets the art it deserves.

The heavy stress placed on “life” in this book is occasioned by an irrational dislike for the logic which binds the poetry written today inside our routine of living; a routine which exists as much for those who try to be “free” and who write from a position of freedom which is in fact false, as for those who are consciously and even willingly bound.

This is all excellent common sense, and seems to me highly relevant to today’s facile, commodified and over-valued art scene, still lubricated by persistent notions of art and poetry as magical, “alternative,” special or visitation from without.

Symons was surely one of the sharpest minds at work on the Left during this period. In a contribution to Now 5 on “The End of a War: 8 Notes on the Objective of Writing in our Time,” he references, interestingly, Wyndham Lewis’s Men Without Art, making entirely valid use of the perceptions of a writer working “from an attitude very different from mine.” (Symons knew Lewis well, and respected him.) In Now 6 his demolition of Cyril Connolly (“The Condemned Playboy”) is a pleasure to read.

img_0003

A rose extinction: the poetry of Gervase Stewart

In issue two (1944) of Stefan Schimanski and Henry Treece’s New Apocalyptic review Transformation (For Treece, see here) appears a prefaced “In Memoriam” to four poets killed on service: Sidney Keyes, R Brian Scott, Gervase Stewart and Alun Lewis. Though the dedicatory poem by Richard Church doesn’t quite hit the spot – “Out of the tumbled plane, the dead boy … there flutters again the phoenix of death, whose song surprises” – its sentiment is honourable enough.

IMG_0003Of the four enfants perdus, the dead boy out of a tumbled plane who is not so well remembered as Keyes and Lewis is Gervase Stewart, killed in August 1941. Beyond contributions scattered among small magazines his only poetic legacy is a slim selection put together hastily by Treece and published by The Fortune Press in 1942. For title, Treece chose No Weed Death, culled from Stewart’s “Obituary notice for the Squire”:

He craved no weed death but a rose extinction …

If the choice of title was a happy one, Treece’s judgement in the selection of poems was maybe less secure. Even so, there’s enough quality in these three dozen small pages to show that Stewart was a poet of real ability who deserves our attention, even if his output had not yet achieved the volume and confidence of Keyes, Keith Douglas or Drummond Allison, the obvious comparisons. (For Allison, see here and here.) “Had he lived,” wrote Treece with maybe not too much exaggeration, “there is little doubt that he would have become one of the most eminent poets of his generation.”

Trevor Tolley noted approvingly Stewart’s “Audenesque stylishness,” and identified his strength in “an urbane blend of imaginative fantasy and a sensitive awareness of the everyday world that was characteristic of the poetry of the thirties.” On the whole, the influences of Auden and Eliot served Stewart well. He is at his best in a sort of Audenish, floating, hawk’s eye commentary that picks out among the minutiae of daily life the signifiers of the anxieties of the age: nostalgia for the pre-war peace, fear of what is to come, the relentless betrayal of ordinary people.

Have we not watched the terror of the night
Receding and winging up and down the stairs
And a floor board stretching in the heat
Has spoken death to us. You too have been alone
With the table lamp, standing as a lady stands
On Brighton beach in summer with her hands
Clasped ecstatically behind her head …

Or –

Day goes with sun as golden lift girls go
slipping to basement down the shaft of night.
Sea makes its soft shape comfortable, assumes
an easy shade, as from their broken rooms
in tribes the chosen people make for tubes,
take escalator down
to dream of bricks and straw and wait for dawn
at Earls Court, Leicester Square and Camden Town …

He is at his less best in lyrical, self-torturing  teenage boy mode, but then he was a teenage boy when most of his work was written. Some pieces give the impression of being unfinished, and there is a tendency to wander off or to unravel towards the end, plus an occasional but persistent weakness for rhymes ending in “-ation”. But there are also many pieces to admire, and I’ve transcribed my own selection of sixteen – a personal choice, not representative – on a new Gervase Stewart page – go here or find the tab up above. I hope you’ll read them.

wikiThere is no comprehensive point of reference, but the life of Gervase Leslie Stewart can be picked out from various sources. (Thanks to Bill Bennett for his input on this.) He was born in March 1920 in Monkseaton, a pleasant village near Whitley Bay in Tyneside. He followed his father to Tynemouth School (later renamed King’s), a local and aspirational public school. In a poem not in my selection, Stewart voices himself as “essentially one of the rank and file … persuaded our suburb was rather elite” who has “attended a school of exorbitant fees”. But it clearly suited him, and his fingerprints are all over the school magazine of the time, in the cricket and rugby teams, the boxing club, composing a “rugger song,” in the library and the debating society, in amateur dramatics and musical theatre, and then as house captain and head boy. The magazine reports that as a boxer Stewart “is keen, and has an admirable physique … quite stylish and a heavy hitter. His footwork must develop from the hopping shuffle which it is at present.” As a cricketer, he was no batsman, but his fielding is said to be “particularly stylish” and, later, “singularly spectacular.”

Henry Treece was at the time a popular young teacher at the school, organising boxing and drama and supervising the magazine. He came to know Stewart as a confident and vital young man with “an enthusiasm for life which may best be described as Elizabethan … kind though candid, sincere though subtle,” good humoured, versatile, with a strong faith in God and in essential human goodness. On the other hand, many of the poems indicate that behind this “handsome presence” lay a full portion of doubts, anxieties and melancholy.

In 1935, when Stewart was just fifteen, he was already writing poetry, and showed his efforts to Treece, who judged them “competent, but a little too commonplace and literary.” Despite his natural ebullience, his serious teenage writing seems to have been a rather guarded affair; the school magazine contains just one contribution, in 1937, a promising descriptive exercise on the topic of “Rain” which bears the stamp of Treece’s encouragement:

The boles of trees reflect a growing smudge
Of light, a soft electric lozenge squashed
On sodden, shining oaks. The miles of streets
Gold-splashed, run oil, and fish-scaled gutters see
Within their mirrors, hazed red, yellow, green …

IMG_0001Both Treece and Stewart left the school in the summer of 1938. In 1939 Stewart went to St Catharine’s, Cambridge to read theology, with the intention of ordination. (He may initially have been at Fitzwilliam House until it was disbanded and the students transferred.) In his first year he became editor of Granta and in Lent term 1940 a “chairman of debates”, the wartime equivalent of Union president, being considered “one of its wittiest speakers.” In the ‘eighties his fellow poet Nicholas Moore recalled that Stewart avoided the Cambridge literati: “He hung out with the rugger crowd, all tough, bumptious boys together.” (Despite this, contact with Moore was close enough for Moore to publish Stewart’s work in several outlets and to dedicate a poem to him.) “He was a brilliant scholar. Yet when it came to exams, he became as nervous and fluttery as a girl before her first party – a bundle of nerves, shivering and quaking like a trapped animal and chattering away nineteen to the dozen.” Derek Stanford remembered Stewart simply as “an Apollo in tweeds.”

A few of Stewart’s more effective poems have a London setting, and at some point after the outbreak of war he must have spent time there. During this period his poems appeared in Seven, edited in Cambridge by Moore, Delta, run by Lawrence Durrell, The New English Weekly, Granta and Fords and Bridges (“The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine”), also edited by Moore among others. In 1940 six of his pieces appeared in the Hogarth Press’s Poets of Tomorrow: Cambridge Poetry 1940, edited by Moore and Alex Comfort. A short story, “Gretchen,” later appeared in the Schimanski-Treece anthology of 1944, A Map of Hearts.

In 1940 Stewart abandoned his studies, joined the Fleet Air Arm and was posted as a flying instructor with 749 Squadron to HMS Goshawk, a naval air station in Trinidad. On 25 August 1941 his Walrus seaplane exploded in mid-air. Temporary sub-lieutenant Stewart RNVR was killed with both members of his crew. He was 21 years old.

IMG_0002Given that (or perhaps because) Treece chided the schoolboy poet for a preoccupation with the Divine (“He replied that God was within his experience as much as anything on earth”), there is relatively little of the overtly Christian showing in Stewart’s surviving writing, though he was clearly extremely sensitive to ordinary suffering and injustice. No specific political allegiance emerges, but at times he demonstrates an outspoken and angry radicalism. In “The Two Septembers,” an early and apparently unfinished “play” (more a declamation in rhyming couplets) later published in Treece’s Transformation, an “orator” exhorts the crowd to demolish the Whitehall Cenotaph and replace it with a huge toilet:

…   This cold white stone
Is a mockery out of the past. Let us tear it down,
And build for ourselves a luxurious lavatory,
For a public convenience will perpetuate the memory
Of unnecessary death as well as a monument will.

PEOPLE

Call the workmen and bid them tear it down.
Let us drag to the spot the mobile crane …
Out of the old we will build the new,
Out of the rotten will grow the ripe …

Down with it. Down with it. Down with it.

IMG_0004Even at his most nationalistically anthologisable, in “I burn for England,” Stewart’s patriotism is, as we now say, considerably nuanced: “Flame shall destroy whoever seeks to turn [her people’s] sacrifice to profit” in a “war for freedom” fought by those “who were never free.”

Naturally, he also wrote his share of navel-gazing soliloquies –

Will none remember that I walked upon this land
And penned one bearing note upon its song?

– and of love poems, some quite direct:

Naked at night in a golden chariot
Drive to my heart, my lover.

It’s possible to read these in the context of the seismic uncertainties thrown up by the outbreak of war, but in the main they seem to me the less successful pieces, and I’ve tended to avoid them in my own small selection, in favour of Stewart’s broader visions of social complacency and despair, parting and war – the “brightly coloured maze moving massed and individual.”

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

Photo Ralph Gould, North East War Memorials Project

“Pick up my book,” he wrote in maudlin-mortal mode, in the early “My Vanity.” “Read but one verse, and I … will know that one, at least, remembers me.” Well, we have, and we do, but for better reasons than that particular verse. In place of the neo-romantic spectre of Death, mortality in Stewart’s poems is recurrently, and presciently, figured by clocks – the stealthy tread of clocks, the swinging heart of clocks, obsequious clocks, hammer clocks, watch ticks, semitones, persistent tappings, rhythmic pulse. There is a dreadful brevity in the easy transition from the school 1st XV to college to warfare, all tough, bumptious boys together. His short life seems little more than a countdown to that awful, unnecessary, mid-air moment when, quite literally burning for England in living flame, he was extinguished in a rose of fire.

To save retracing steps, here’s another link to the selection of his poems.

*           *           *

As a suffix, two appeals. Google threw up, then promptly lost, a snippet of a later poem involving a pint of beer and an air raid. If you have the full text of that, I’d love to see it.

Secondly, I can find no picture of Stewart. There are hints online of  a second edition of No Weed Death, possibly by Bodley Head in 1944, that contains a portrait. If that’s so and anyone can send a scan of that or of any other image of him that I can use here, I’d be very grateful.

The fabric of war

And so to the excellent Imperial War Museum North at Salford Quays, and in particular to their “Fashion on the Ration” show, a fine selection of British WW2 utility and creativity in stitching, running till May next year, and very much worth a look in. I was taken aback by the outrageous up-market “propaganda” scarves and fabrics – clearly anticipating the rise of Lettrism in their sloganising. (Click for enlarged slides.)


In the book/gift shop on the way out I noticed that the entire IWM “Dazzle” range of WW1 merchandising is now being flogged off at half price. Actually, I’m not too surprised, given that the IWM’s collaborators on this range, the bright young people at Patternity (“the world’s leading cult pattern specialists”) don’t actually seem to get the idea of dazzle ship camouflage, and have “re-imagined” this Vorticist application as a sort of simplistic GCSE op art of counterchanged black and white stripes, which it ain’t at all. The contents of my half price Dazzle post card pack will give the idea – half a dozen good cards of the real thing and four lacklustre “re-imaginings”.

Jazz and the undulating see-fields of Stanley Jackson

After five years’ blogging, you’d think I’d have learned to exhaust leads before rushing to post, but I haven’t, so here’s a second instalment on the marvellous but mysterious Stanley Jackson (see previous post).

The A J McCarthy who penned the text to Jackson’s images in George Woodcock’s Now 4 was indeed jazz writer Albert McCarthy, and the next issue of Now ran an advert for a new review, Jazz Forum, edited by McCarthy and due out in September 1945. In the event, with rather modified contents, it appeared in June 1946 and lasted for just five issues, spanning a little over a year. Interestingly, McCarthy’s policy was to blend jazz content with a wider literary flavour, taking jazz out of the specialist box and making it an element in a broader modern movement. Accordingly, contributors were pulled from the philosophical anarchists and neo-romantic poets networked around Now, plus pukka British surrealists such as Ithell Colquhoun and Toni del Renzio, with some transatlantic contributions.


From issue three the weight shifted, purer jazz writing dominating, but all five issues sported a front cover by Stanley Jackson. Fortunately, every issue is digitised here on the National Jazz Archive site, from where I’ve borrowed images (discreetly “watermarked”) of the covers. I find his designs remarkable. Not only have they an assured virtuosity, but they are bang on the cusp of the cultural moment, or a lurch beyond it; it’s hard to believe, for instance, that the fifth cover was done in 1947, so perfectly does it gel with 21st century cartoonoid mini-character design. The carved characters there and in number 3 (the oddest of the bunch) are maybe chosen for their supposed African qualities; otherwise, the covers keep to morphing, musical abstractions. They are signed “jaxon”, “jxn” or “stanly[sic] jackson”; apart from the reduced spelling, the latter is perfectly compatible with the signature on the National Army Museum painting mentioned last time, proving that both are indeed by the same hand.


The ad for issue 1 of Jazz Forum indicates that it incorporated Conception, previously advertised as the “experimental jazz literary review” of McCarthy’s “Jazz Sociological Society”. It’s unlikely that issue 1 of this ever made it into print; if it had, it would have included more “reproductions” of Jackson’s work, but I can’t find any trace of it. A couple of other covers for Jazz Sociological Society publications are clearly by Jackson, but are considerably less edgy in style.

However, Jazz Forum 1 does contain a book review by Jackson, which seems to have been created by tacking some very brief afterthoughts onto an existing personal credo. (The “review” is of number 5 of George Leite’s US literary review, Circle, to which McCarthy was a contributor, available from Jazz Forum.) This feverish piece of writing reveals a descent into oneiric worlds that might even hint at some hallucinogenic input, as well as a fondness for italics and for neo-Joycean hyphenated compounds such as “tumult-foam” or “pure-truth”. It may not be the most cogent artistic manifesto ever but it’s well worth a read, so here it is. (Jazz Forum has its share of typo’s; the three bracketed corrections are mine.)

CIRCLE 5.

The object in writing, painting, music, is to reveal something of the grandeur which belongs [brings ?] potential to man.

*           *           *

The music of the laughter of sound as thrown off from undulating see-fields, the multitudinous laughter of the ocean billows-love addressing the ear and the eye-mustering tumult-foam weaving garlands of translucent radiance for one poised moment in the eddies of gleaming abysses, sea-cradel’d[sic] flowers to the eye raise phantoms of gaiety rising as far as the eye can reach ….

*           *           *

Painting … sinking into night depths, blazing into day-heights, now skimming the shimmering surface, now sinking heavily into darkness, rising buoyantly into light. The layer upon layer of pigment extorting the torments; winging the dream-imagery to lofty brilliance – this tumult of images! Everlasting layers of ideas, feelings, images, images which madden, which terrify, which intoxicate, images which sob, have fallen – softly as light, as light upon light, upon the artist’s perception, conception.

Each successive image has seemed to bury all that had ever happened before, and yet, in its sur-reality, not one has been extinguished, They are all predetermined, gathered, waiting … ignoring whatever heterogeneous elements life may have accumulated from without. The pall of present, the pall of future, deep as oblivion, has been thrown over every trace of these vrai-experiences, they, so long, have slept in the dust of memory-past, there waiting for the bright steel tube of memory-future to probe and shatter them into a thousand multi-coloured fragments of human grandeur …

Suddenly a signal, a word, a note, a colour from the artist who can dream splendidly, the pall lifts, the fantastic, incredible, yet pure-truth theatre is revealed.

*           *           *

Whatever may be the number of those in whom this faculty of dreaming splendidly-sleeps, there are not many in whom it is developed – and far more rare is it for a man, who possesses this ability, to awaken the sleep – and to capture the instant. For unfortunately, the condition of living which burdens the vast majority to a daily existence incompatible with much elevated dream-thinking, undoubtedly sullies the colour of grandeur in the capturing-faculty of phantasy, even for those whose minds are filled with imagery. To dream splendidly, a man must have an incredible determination for imagery, and a continual obsession to awaken his sleeping dream-phantasy.

“Circle” have published two such men in their issue number five.

Frederick [Frederic] Ramsey Jr., his story of Vanicilio Meban, and Dane Ruhdyar, his Neptune, evocator extraordinary. It is also very pleasant to see Klee’s provocative thought-sketches again.

STANLEY JACKSON.

After 1947, the Jackson trail goes cold for me. What happened to him? Do his illustrations crop up elsewhere? Where is all the rest of his artwork? If anyone reading this has access to Buckman’s Artists in Britain since 1945 (sadly no longer online at issuu.com) or any similar directory, could you scan me Jackson’s entry, if he has one? I’d be very grateful. Otherwise, the hunt for more of Stanley Jackson is most well and truly on, over the undulating see-fields of billows-love to the bright steel tube of memory-future …

conception ad

Royal academician goes bonkers: the mysterious Stanley Jackson

Now 4

 

 

It’s good when something rather wonderful turns up unexpectedly, especially if it involves a “lost” British surrealist. Or quasi-surrealist, even. Yesterday the postman delivered my copy of Now 4, George Woodcock’s anarcho-arty-literary review put out under the Freedom Press banner, this issue apparently from late 1944. A few pages away from what I’d been looking for were four bonus and totally bongoid images by an unheard-of artist, with this curious little write-up:

PATTERN OF FRUSTRATION

Four Drawings by Stanley Jackson

The work of Stanley Jackson has not yet received the attention that it undoubtedly merits, the main reason for this being that it deals with subjects which society prefers to ignore – death, frustration, the hopelessness of individual life and the pointlessness of accepting the current solutions. In this sense Stanley Jackson is a Romantic in outlook for he sees man as a victim of his environment, and has no faith in the political panaceas which glib-tongued orators espouse so convincingly, and with such cost to mankind. In the past he had paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy, but his present development represents a withdrawal from the academic field towards a personal maturity which can only be expressed in less rigid forms.

Pattern of Frustration is, in my opinion, one of the clearest statements of the evolution of the individual in society. In the first reproduction we see the apparently solid footing suddenly merging into nothingness, and from this moment the individual is caught up in the struggle which can end only in defeat. The symbolism of the second phase needs no explanation while the third part shows the ephemeral moment when an ecstatic realisation is glimpsed. The final stage is portrayed in the last reproduction – the moment vanishes to be followed by the inevitable frustration – either the individual has to accept and adapt himself, or he faces annihilation. From this dilemma there is no escape.

A. J. McCARTHY.


Frustration? Er, well, yes. This doesn’t exactly flood the subject with clear light. A J McCarthy is no easy name to place, but I’m pretty sure that this has to be the A J McCarthy who wrote widely on jazz in the ‘fifties and who lived at this point in Notting Hill. I imagine Jackson was a mate. As for People and assJackson himself, he was born in 1917 but at the moment I can find little else. It seems that he did his time as a serviceman, but he is nowhere credited as a war artist. The National Army Museum holds a competent oil portrait of a soldier of the Madras Guards, done in 1943, signed with that name in a style not incompatible with the signing on our four images, while auction value websites throw up just one image of a painting of wartime refugees, shown here, and list a still life and a couple of watercolour views possibly by the same man – precious little survival for his “academic” phase and RA showings.

The four images in Now (click them above to enlarge) show a technical competence compatible with these two earlier pieces, but in every other respect they are light years away; their “Jaxon” signature suggests, for whatever reason, a very deliberate dissociation, while their cartoony plasticity and psycho-content surely owe much to the example of the wonderful Reuben Mednikoff, potholer of the unconscious. (See this post.) They’re described as drawings, but the rather grainy reproductions suggest that, if not pastels, they might even be paintings.

In the same issue of Now, McCarthy’s slightly baffling use of the term “frustration” is echoed, and perhaps explained, in a stodgy opener by editor George Woodcock on “The Writer and Politics” which bemoans the “schizoid frustration [my emphasis] … of the modern intellectual when confronted by social issues,” and proposes a disengagement of the writer from collective political activity as the only guarantee of uncontaminated authenticity. All part of the ongoing wriggling and repositioning of British leftist writers post-Auden and post-Popular Front. McCarthy’s outline implies that the crisis of Woodcock’s writer is experienced by every individual in a modern society in their compromised relations to social and political forces. (Woodcock’s position amounts to a neo-Stirnerism, an egoist or existentialist anarchism, which was common ground among Freedom Pressers, Apocalyptics and Personalists at the time. See also my piece on the anarchism of Henry Treece. More to come, incidentally, on the “anarchist” poetry of Woodcock and Alex Comfort in future posts.)

The works’ four titles have to be Jackson’s own, but is the sequence title “Pattern of Frustration” just McCarthy’s after-gloss on a selection of Jackson’s images? Or was that meta-meaning part of the artist’s intent? It’s hard to be sure. If the latter, these would not be surrealist works; rather than emerging from a process of automatism they would be symbolisations of pre-existing ideas. And it’s maybe true that they lack something of the unexpectedness of the comparable but genuinely automatic imagery of Mednikoff, Grace Pailthorpe or Sam Haile. So are they merely contrived and cynical pastiches of the surreal?

I don’t think so. And to be honest, I don’t care. I think they’re great, and it’s a huge pity we only have them in black and white. The fragmented amoeboids sucked past blasted trees through the sgraffito wind tunnel of Awareness are a classic image of wartime angst, while the John Tunnard-ish outline face of Ultimate Despair (great title), while practically toppling over into comic doom, sits brilliantly over the strange pointy-breasted nude and the drooping background monsters. What’s really going on here? Is it too glib to ascribe this extraordinary lurch into psychologism to the trauma of Jackson’s wartime experiences? It’s hard to imagine what might otherwise account for it, so perhaps not.

And what happened to these works of Jackson’s “personal maturity”? Do they survive? And are there more of the same out there? I need to know. If you can tell me, use the comments option, please!

Minor post script

On closer inspection, there is another war period Jackson hidden on the Art UK site, an oil of boat builders at Madras, listed as by E Jackson. However,  subject location, painting style and signature are all compatible with the National Army Museum picture, and it’s easy to take an “S” for an “E”. The painting is here. It’s owned by Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and was bought in 1970. It’s a decent, unremarkable work, and I’m struck again by the extraordinary transition in Jackson’s career.

Incidentally, is it just me, or do others find the Art UK site, with its annoying, floating, pinterest-style, pick n’ mix pages, a lot harder to use than the old Your Paintings site?

 

Curated to death

If there’s one word that’s been abused recently to the point of transparency, it has to be “creative” (as a noun). And if there’s another, it has to be “curate” (as a verb). Wandering through John Lewis in Birmingham the other day I was shocked (but shouldn’t have been) to stumble across this placard:

“We regularly update this space with a carefully curated selection of contemporary designers and standout pieces.

 Discovered. Loved. Curated. All here to be found.”

Space … curated … designers … pieces … found: the language of the art gallery. (Are retail displays yet tagged as “installations”? I expect so.) But I know this isn’t new. In 2012 John Lewis first used “Curated” as an in-house brand for their “boutique space” housing “bespoke selections.” Lately and more generally, “curated” has come to mean simply “offered for sale”. Here fine art and shopping have achieved a horribly overt congruence. But it’s no more than we deserve.

In this particular case, John Lewis’s “curated selection” seemed to be just a bunch of Urban Decay cosmetics, including Vice lipsticks. Again, nothing new, but the brand language is interesting here, isn’t it? It shows where the moral compass is pointing at this moment in the post-millennial flux, and that’s still firmly towards the dark side. Is it possible to imagine anyone keen to buy makeup labelled “Civic Regeneration” or “Virtue”? Outside of some Age of Enlightenment time travel scenario, I don’t think so, but the key question is: why not?

vice

Urban Decay regularly use the language of junkiedom to give their products edge, and I notice that (at least in the States) their sun screen is tagged as “Urban Defense”. Already the fashion industry is not afraid to co-opt the frisson of terrorism, counter-terrorism and mass shootings, witness also the Viktor & Rolf Spicebomb aftershave, whose hand grenade packaging set off a security scare at Edinburgh airport a while ago. Not long now till the suicide belt moves from the bad taste fancy dress market into the high street. Just the job to hold a carefully curated selection of loved and found objects.

spicebomb