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)

Monthly Archives: May 2012

Outsider modernism: Edwin G Lucas

Terrorism, 1946

Here’s the sort of art you don’t see every day. Wasting spare time that I don’t have, googling about in Scottish painting of the ‘forties, I came across Edwin G Lucas. He seems to have started out as a skilled but rather safe landscape painter. The website devoted to marketing what looks like a massive cache of unsold Lucases states that in the late ‘thirties he enjoyed “a brief flirtation with Surrealism”. To be frank, it looks more to me as if he stumbled across a couple of early tabs of lysergic acid diethylamide.

Here are two or three of the best. These travel backwards through the bad taste barrier so far and so fast that they emerge somewhere at the other side of the universe as spectacularly (and postmodernly) good. I am reminded of Austin Osman Spare’s assertion (in The Book of Pleasure, 1914) that:

“Were you to say a certain principle is bad as Art (or as composition, colour etc.) it would simply be the chance for originality, and you could make a wonderful Art by utilizing only the prohibited or bad principle.”

Greek Ruffian, 1946

Head of a Clown, 1947

Lucas seems to have noticed that the rules were there to be broken, and to have set about breaking them with an entirely original abandon, paying only superficial attention to the orthodoxies of the avant garde. To be fair, some of his “experimental” work does not come off, appearing inept, misjudged, uninformed. At the same time, there is at least a courageous honesty about it that sets it well apart from, say, the tedious, cynically calculated badness of Martin Kippenberger. Lucas seems to have pretty much given up painting by the early ‘fifties, by which point his work had reached a sort of random, squodgy psychological automatism not too far away from Pailthorpe and Mednikoff. A real outsider modernist who, if only on the odd occasion, hit the nail on the head and came up with some breathtakingly disjointed pieces that were way out of the box,  and way out of their time.

Walking the Dog, 1949

Runes, redemption, signs, sacraments and selfishness

Odd how things sometimes come together. Some recent random reading has included David Jones’ book length poem The Anathemata, a bit of Swedenborg, and John Michell’s Megalithomania. Artists, antiquarians and archaeologists at the old stone monuments (a readable and relatively objective account, unmuddied by Michell’s usual New Age confusions).

In a chapter on “freaks of interpretation” of prehistoric rock inscriptions, Michell tells the story of Professor Finn Magnussen (Finnur Magnússon), who in the 1830’s transcribed and translated what he took to be extensive runic inscriptions in an unknown script, carved on the Runamo rock in Sweden. He revealed them to be a set of five heroic poems celebrating the victory of the Battle of Bråvalla, a lost masterpiece of early Scandinavian literature. This academic triumph was rather tarnished a few years later when geologists proved the “inscriptions” to be entirely natural fissures in the rock surface. Magnusson was mercilessly mocked, but stuck to his guns till his dying day.

This was not his only petroglyphic misinterpretation (a hazardous branch of scholarship, it seems), but it did take the biscuit. The extent of his self-delusion is breath-taking. In his defence, he cited the unanimous judgement of literary scholars that the poem was an absolute masterpiece. If so, that only makes his creative achievement all the more remarkable. It follows that, without the paranoiac process of “translation” on which to construct it, he could never have written something of such quality.

Is creativity, then, rooted in self-delusion? A delusory experience of discovery? If it is, it can be no more than egotistical folly.

Which makes creativity problematic for the Christian. My wife recently met someone, now ordained, who went through a conversion experience (triggered by Jesus walking into his room) while an art student. He made the prayerful decision to abandon art as a career path because he feared that, as an ego-driven pursuit, it would conflict with his new faith – a perfectly understandable point of view. This was maybe rather more than art being a bit of a diversion from what is important; the self-indulgent is, after all, essentially useless.

The notion of “use” brings me to the 18th century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. I hadn’t realised that he had started out as an engineer and an anatomist. In The Divine Love and the Divine Wisdom he speaks extensively of the human anatomy as evidence of divine love. Proof of this is the usefulness of every part:

“… all things therein and each smallest individual unit of them are formed in accordance with a use and for that use … This is the Arcanum that results as a conclusion: Man embraces within himself all uses whatever existing in the spiritual and natural worlds … for life from the Lord embraces within itself all uses to infinity …”

Swedenborg, albeit a visionary and a bit of a nutter, correctly insists that his Understanding “is an enlightened rational one”; these are values of the Enlightenment and of the utilitarian Protestantism that shaped it.

No such premium on usefulness for Catholic convert David Jones. (To read Jones you need an open encyclopedia at your elbow, but every now and again, among the obscurantism and the archaic Welsh names, even in the middle of a footnote, prophetic truths leap out.) The “anathemata” of Jones’ title are:

“.. the blessed things that have taken on what is cursed and the profane things that somehow are redeemed … that partake of the extra-utile and the gratuitous; things that are the signs of something other … Things set up, lifted up, or in whatever manner made over to the gods …

… If there is any evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artefacturer or artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion, because the extra-utile is the mark of man. For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.”

There. For Swedenborg, man embraces within himself all uses whatever, but for Jones, the extra-utile is the mark of man. Jones’ arguments concerning art as sign and sign as sacrament are well known, but are sometimes summarised down to a sort of weedy creation spirituality: in our creative activity we share in the work of the Creator, and so on. But here he seems to be claiming something well beyond this. The useless, better understood as the extra-utile, is the character of the artefact as sign, as sacramental. And it is by the sacramental that we “participate directly in the benefits of the Passion”. If this is so, the same selfishness that was our undoing now provides, if not the means of redemption, then at least a sure approach to it. And therein, it seems to me, is a great Mystery.

Should anatomist Swedenborg have looked for a gratuitously ornamental bit of the human body as the sign of its divine life? And in his self-delusion, did Finn Magnussen uncover a secret far greater than any saga? If so, I hope my wife’s acquaintance still picks up a pencil from time to time.

Jankel Adler, mentor to the Roberts

My lengthy page on the Two Roberts, painters Colquhoun and MacBryde, has been rounded off (for the time being) with a short thought on their mentor, the exiled Polish painter Jankel Adler. The Roberts are said to have borrowed much from Adler, so it’s hardly fair to peg him as their follower. Though I wonder if the borrowing wasn’t more two way? I know very little about Adler’s work, but I am struck by the way that his painting techniques at this time seem to have borrowed from the experimental processes of etching he would have encountered during his collaboration with S W Hayter in Paris.

Anyway, use the Colquhoun and MacBryde tab at the top or click here if you’re interested, and then scroll way, way down. The paintings are sumptuous.

Word and flesh: the good poetry of the Irishman Rodgers

“Recently I’ve been reading good poetry by the Irishman Rodgers. Do you know his good poem about Christ on the waters?” asked W S Graham in a letter of August 1946.

“Bertie” Rodgers at the BBC microphone

Well, not too many of us do know the work of the Ulster poet W R Rodgers, though here and there in the blogosphere there twinkle isolated instances of appreciation. At one time, “Bertie” Rodgers was almost the other half of Louis MacNeice, and a key name in Ulster regionalist writing. His 1941 collection Awake! was much applauded. A former Presbyterian minister, he moved to London in 1946 to work for the BBC, becoming better known as a reviewer and broadcaster. In late 1947 Graham sent him a copy of his own The White Threshold, and sought his advice on his own forthcoming American visit; by now they were obviously on good terms. In 1952 Rodgers’ second and last collection, Europa and the Bull, appeared. After that the poetry tailed off somewhat, though some later items were included in a 1971 Collected. The selection Poems is currently advertised by The Gallery Press, but otherwise Rodgers’ poetry appears quite out of print. The online introduction to Rodgers’ papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland includes a useful biography, and a published biography by Darcy O’Brien is also obtainable.

Awake! is an uneven collection, but it includes some substantial and considered pieces from the late ‘thirties that are pretty Audenesque both in their language and in the aerial detachment of their social viewpoint:

It is a pity that distance releases us
From the quick retort, the tight resistance,
The press and prison of sanctioning wills,
Unseals the quivering and undriven heart
That in the burrows of imagination
Runs from the kennelled hound and hears the horn
Of to-morrow’s hunt; distance enlarges it,
Lets loose the schoolboy to spit and jeer,
Lets loose the arrogant engineer,
Allows assault upon a serene people
And clangs death’s bell in every heady steeple.

 (“The Far-Off Hills”)

Despite the very clanging death’s bell and the rhyme too far of “steeple” in the last line, this is most intelligent and well crafted verse. However, as the earlier run of “burrows”, “kennelled hound”, “horn” and “hunt” might hint, Rodgers was sometimes too ready to chase the extended metaphor. His long poem “End of a World” kicks off with a circus image that parades the lion-tamer Discipline, the snake-charmer Sentiment, the lariat Intellect and the sly Illusionist. At this point he runs out of big top turns and unaccountably throws in the wild pig of Contempt, closely followed by locusts of hate that eat everyone’s fig-leaf sensitivity and grass-skirt insularity.

A few years later, this straining of conceits has been succeeded by a much happier straining of language, presumably under the influence of Dylan Thomas. A very fine example is the “good poem” that caught Graham’s attention, “Christ walking on the Water”, which first appeared in Horizon for September 1943:

O what a cockeyed sea he walked on,
What poke-ends of foam, what elbowings
And lugubrious looks, what ebullient
And contumacious musics. Always there were
Hills and holes, pills and poles, a wavy wall
And bucking ribbon caterpillaring past
With glossy ease. And often, as he walked,
The slow curtains of swell swung open and showed,
Miles and smiles away, the bottle-boat
Flung on one wavering frond of froth that fell
Knee-deep and heaved thigh-high. In his forward face
No cave of afterthought opened; to his ear
No bottom clamour climbed up; nothing blinked.
For he was the horizon, he the hub,
Both bone and flesh, finger and ring of all
This clangorous sea.

“Miles and smiles” is maybe a pun too far, but it’s easy to see why Graham enjoyed the tumbling and audacious exuberance of the language here. (It would indeed sound good done in an Ulster accent.) The poem finishes as Christ, his confidence draining fast, clambers into the boat:

                                    Looking over the edge
He shivered. Was this the way he had come?
Was that the one who came? The backward bowl
And all the bubble-pit that he had walked on
Burst like a plate into purposelessness.
All, all was gone, the fervour and the froth
Of confidence, and flat as water was
The sad and glassy round. Somewhere, then,
A tiny flute sounded, O so lonely.
A ring of birds rose up and wound away
Into nothingness. Beyond himself he saw
The settled steeples, and breathing beaches
Running with people. But he,
He was custodian to nothing now,
And boneless as an empty sleeve hung down.

He falls asleep in the bottom of the boat, “curled like a question mark”. The full text, on the Horizon page, is here, and well worth reading. Other Christian pieces collected in Europa and the Bull are similarly admirable, but we can’t finish without acknowledging the complementary side of Rodgers’ work, the blatantly and cheerfully erotic, as in “The Net”:

Quick, woman, in your net
Catch the silver I fling!
O I am deep in your debt,
Draw tight, skin-tight, the string,
and rake the silver in.
No fisher ever yet
Drew such a cunning ring.

Ah, shifty as the fin
Of any fish this flesh
That, shaken to the shin,
Now shoals into your mesh,
Bursting to be held in;
Purse-proud and pebble-hard,
Its pence like shingle showered.

And so on for four more verses. Crikey. Rumbustious stuff for a Presbyterian parson … I shall never look at a trawler in quite the same way again. And “cunning” is a great pun here. The poem’s closing lines “draw the equal quilt over our naked guilt”. Maybe “guilt” is pronounced with a bit of a wink, but there is still some tension here; this is not quite the fully reconciled “credal sexuality” of Jack Clemo, but one has to admire Rodgers’ attempt to bring together the Word and the flesh.  Awake! and Europa and the Bull are not too easily found on the second hand shelves, though when they are, they are not often expensive. They’re well worth a browse; there is much to dig out and admire in Rodgers’ “good poetry”.

Benjamin Creme and the circle of the Two Roberts

Another painter once allied to the two Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde, added to their page, here. (Scroll right down to the bottom.) An odd one this, in the sense that Benjamin Creme, the young Scottish painter of the ‘forties, reinvented himself quite extraordinarily in the ‘seventies as the Theosophical prophet of the coming Maitreya. Ah well, that’s what happens when you read Wilhelm Reich and start messing with an Orgone Accumulator …

But it’s his earlier career that links to the Roberts. And wonderful paintings they are, too. Forget crop circles: this is the real stuff.