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: September 2013

More crap Vorticist forgeries

My post of July 14 drew attention to the renewed appearance on eBay of decorative fakes of Vorticist artworks, mostly  by a single seller. He or she has since gone into overdrive, today’s browse turning up 25 new items by “followers of” Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and William Roberts. All are signed, though none are dated; all are described as a “deceased estate purchase”, and all are offered by London seller mortlakeunion2009 at prices up to £50. Just for the record, I show them here – click on thumbnails for the galleries. Similar items are offered by Laura Knight, Henry Moore and Mark Gertler, plus assorted Russian and Czech modernists, some at rather higher figures. Young Mortlake seems to be doing quite well with his/her artwork judging by his/her feedback, which shows multiple sales to a number of buyers, though the identities of items sold are nearly all blanked out on the feedback list. Buyers are presumably bottom end “art dealers” who sell this stuff onwards at a profit – though at this standard why don’t they just bang out their own and cut out the wholesaler?


The first Lewis here (above) is a re-run of the composition shown in my earlier post. The pasticheur has got a little of the jizz of 1914 Lewis, leaving some pen lines open ended or taking them fractionally beyond intersections, and being careful not to erase too much of the pencil under-drawing. But the compositions are hardly dynamic, tight or coherent, some whole sections being sliced off by grossly extended diagonal or horizontal lines that are not at all integrated. Some areas of watercolour are carelessly edged, and the use of three stripes occasionally has more of the feel of Adidas than of the Vortex. Even so, the Lewises are perhaps the best of the bunch.


The Bombergs (above) are far less successful, appearing clumsy and unknowing. This is particularly true of the first shown here, as well as the two superficial attempts at Ju-Jitsu type compositions where the faker has completely failed to understand the structural processes as discussed in my recent post on Vorticism and quilting. The final Bomberg shown here is a composition that doubles as two of the Roberts imitations (below), while a third Roberts re-employs many of the same motifs. The first, more figure-based, Roberts is a direct but very hesitant copy of his 1913 Study for a Nativity.


One could say more, but these hardly deserve the discussion. Though at least they are a tad better than the same seller’s lumpy attempts at Laura Knight drawings, which have to be seen to be disbelieved.

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Foreshortening

Glancing down over the back wall of the little station platform, I am appalled by the changed appearance of the “thirty” speed limit sign stencilled onto the road directly below. Gone are the familiar pert numerals within a neat oval, replaced by some gothic elongation, horribly steamrollered into a dead sausage in a most outrageous ratio of width to height, pulled beyond the limits of readability. What can have happened to it? Ah. This is how it really is.

thirty 2Much the same with time past, I guess. Some kids I have taught see time in two roughly equal parcels, Now and Olden Times. Now is anything within their living memory. Olden Times seem to begin (working backwards) roughly at the end of the 20th century and cover all events back to the birth pangs of the universe. Our foreshortening of previous centuries is always severe and misleading. At this distance the dead world looks trim and well proportioned, but walk up to it and you find that it is road kill, stretched and flattened out of all recognition, like Holbein’s skull.

In common with many, I have a morbid preference for a train seat facing the front, but as all the forwards seats are occupied today, I have no choice but to travel backwards. This is emphatically the wrong way, given that biologically we are made to face in one direction, namely towards the future. So now I am being catapulted backwards in time at a rapidly accelerating speed. But since time travellers are exempt from the rewind that affects their surroundings (never being reduced to babyhood or pre-existence), my brain is still working forwards, though it has to struggle against the impetus. The train is speeding up alarmingly; at this rate I will soon be back at the narrow end of perspective, wandering like an inept giant among the miniaturised scenes of my childhood.

rock drillAt the city of my destination, I find that there is nothing new to see at all. Indeed, some shops have become empty premises, reverting to the condition that preceded their opening. As I thought, this is very much time past. As the Art Gallery and Museum is unchanged, I am reduced to viewing some old favourites, in particular Epstein’s Rock Drill, whose robotic operator, perched in white over his monstrous black machine, welcomes me in his familiar, alienated manner. But of course this is a recent reconstruction of a radically modernist piece that was dismantled almost a century ago because of its unacceptable futurity. Though the drill is not reconstructed, but is a real drill – a found object, and an antique. As was Epstein’s original drill, not an antique at the time, though it would be now if it had survived. It occurs to me that the “new” drill might actually be a few years older than the “old” drill. So this is a backward looking recreation of a forward looking piece that has not survived, using an element that may be older than the original. Where exactly should I peg it on my time line?

I head back. On the ramp up to the station a very elderly man with a hard, white little beard is sheltering from the drizzle, unsmiling, as if living has little left to offer him. He holds on a pole a pink placard advertising Eyebrow Threading and Eyelash Extensions, perhaps in preparation for his imminent return to youthfulness by means of reincarnation.

My return train is already at the platform. As this is its terminus, will it proceed or reverse? Uncertain even as to which end the engine may be, I pick my seat. A fifty per cent chance, past or future. That’s fair. The train sways into movement. I have bet correctly, and am propelled towards the future, or rather back to the resumption of the present.

A few stations later, I am accosted by the oldest ticket inspector I have ever seen. His lack of height is amplified by a vicious stoop, and he proceeds like a nervous question mark. Maybe his expeditions through past and future and back again, repeated without mercy, have taken their toll on his metabolism; has he not been granted the time travellers’ immunity? He scrutinises my ticket, holding it an inch or two from his nose, and pronounces that I have offered him my outward half, not its return twin. This seems improbable, but when I ask if I might check the ticket myself, he presses it to his hollow chest and hobbles off with it, muttering that he will be back later. Which ticket was it, to past or future? And, given that they are not collected in at the barrier any more, what has happened to the other one? This is unsettling; I sense conspiracy. He does not return, and I conclude that he must be some variety of phantasm, an undead figment, a wobbling anomaly thrown up by the scraping time-plates.

At my home station it is still raining, just as it was when I started my journey. And, amazingly, my car is exactly where I left it. To my relief, I am back in the present moment. I retrieve my car keys and pick up where I left off.

Samuel Beckett and the mental belch

beckett 2My post on the Christian underpinning to Samuel Beckett’s 1938 poem “Ooftish” (three down or go here) was written in ignorance of a moment in his early novel Murphy, published the same year, that sheds a little sideways light on the poem.

“Ooftish” was prompted by Beckett’s recollection of a sermon on the problem of pain in which the preacher declared: “The crucifixion was only the beginning. You must contribute to the kitty.”

Ooftish

offer it up plank it down
Golgotha was only the potegg
cancer angina it is all one to us
cough up your T.B. don’t be stingy
no trifle is too trifling not even a thrombus
anything venereal is especially welcome
that old toga in the mothballs
don’t be sentimental you won’t be wanting it again
send it along we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
with your love requited and unrequited
the things taken too late the things taken too soon
the spirit aching bullock’s scrotum
you won’t cure it you – you won’t endure it
it is you it equals you any fool has to pity you
so parcel up the whole issue and send it along
the whole misery diagnosed undiagnosed misdiagnosed
get your friends to do the same we’ll make use of it
we’ll make sense of it we’ll put it in the pot with the rest
it all boils down to the blood of the lamb

When Murphy’s confederation of “friends” catches up with his abandoned partner Celia, Beckett writes of her:

“Then she lay down on the bed, not with any theatrical intention, but in pure obedience to a sudden strong desire to do so. The likelihood of its appearing theatrical, or even positively affected, would not have deterred her, even if it had occurred to her. She stretched herself out at the ease of her body as naturally as though her solitude had been without spectators.

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’

But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it.”

But we have heard it, and are most likely none the wiser, even if we happen to have come across “Ooftish”. Murphy’s intellectual friends converse entirely in such coded obtusities, whose allusions baffle the reader while they give an airing to the tracery of his private thinking. (By the time of his next novel, Watt, such showy, arcane referencing has been relegated to an appendix, due to the author’s “fatigue and disgust” with it.) Celia, on the other hand, embodies unaffected physicality, natural simplicity. The hopelessly affected Miss Counihan (whose attentions Murphy has had the good sense to avoid) mistakes Celia’s movement for an affected swoon signifying despair or infirmity. Counihan’s sarcasm is lost on Celia, who does not hear her and would not pick up on the allusion if she did. In this she has the reader’s solidarity.

So what is the “mental belch” from which Murphy’s longing for silence has protected her? Any form of involuntary or unthinking “self-expression” perhaps, any species of automatism. But it’s tempting, in this context, to take the “mental belch” as poetry per se, maybe with “Ooftish” in mind. Murphy is, in some respects, a version of Beckett; it seems that here, if only for the moment, Beckett the author repudiates the sentiments of “Ooftish” by handing them over to a tiresome character, while Beckett-as-Murphy repudiates the very business of poetry.

The voice of “Ooftish” appears to be that of the preacher, his position on pain satirised by Beckett, but in Murphy the satiric sneer is Miss Counihan’s, herself satirised. So where does Beckett stand? It’s all a bit slippery. This dog has more than two heads.

calder

On a bit of a tangent, my post was made also in ignorance of the recent publication of John Calder’s The Theology of Samuel Beckett. Who better qualified than Calder, his friend and publisher? But the book is a disappointment.

Seemingly zhooshed up from a bunch of old lecture notes, it is slight, rambling and repetitious, despite the odd interesting insight along the way. Calder shows no familiarity with theologians, nor any real understanding of religious belief, which he largely equates with dogmatic fundamentalism, no other form apparently having been tenable since the Enlightenment, when Science put us all straight. He makes an under-informed appeal to Gnosticism and Manichaeism as more authentic, Beckettian forms of Christian thinking that were stamped out at the Council of Nicaea. This is tired stuff, and not far from the Gospel according to Dan Brown.

In passing, prayers are confused with credal statements, and the late Marian doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption are alleged to be tenets of “general Christian belief”. Such mangling of significant detail undermines much of his credibility. He shows no more knowledge of Biblical texts than does the illiterate “average churchgoer” whom he is eager to dream up and damn in generality. Airy, sweeping assumptions are waved about on every page; Calder’s favourite adverbs are “probably,” “evidently” and “obviously”, each used to mask the precisely opposite circumstance.

The core of his analysis, if it has a core, is his “discovery” of Beckett’s “invention” of a new theology of “incredible audacity” and “of the same order” as Paradise Lost and Regained: “What Beckett has done is finish Genesis and also the New Testament”. This can be teased out from Beckett’s short 1981 text Ill Seen Ill Said, in which Calder identifies the voice of the narrator as that the Deity, reversing time to wipe out his corrupt Creation.

The textual clues to this are the phrase “full of grace,” applied to an old woman character “who we now know[sic] is the Virgin Mary,” and some reference from Milton that Calder omits to specify. As a clincher, the old woman visits a grave, “obviously[sic] that of Jesus.”

So why might Beckett have masked his true intention by tucking away so few and such tiny clues? And how did he feel about Calder’s uncovering of it?

“[The clue] is carefully planted, certain to be discovered one day, as it was by me, but only after knowing the whole text well for some years and from having organized many public readings. The Milton reference had to be seen sooner or later, but not too many academics interested in the great writers of the twentieth century ever go back to earlier classics …”

“When I spoke to him about it, having just discovered this one important part of the secret – the presence of the Virgin Mary – he was not pleased, pleading loss of memory, but he knew I was right.”

“ … the author was obviously[sic] reluctant for this masterpiece … to become too well understood … on the only occasion when I discussed Ill Seen Ill Said with the author, he was not pleased that I had discovered what I had. Perhaps one reason for his reticence was that he never wanted to face the attacks of organized religion and of the faithful generally.”

Or perhaps Beckett’s displeasure was of another order entirely?

But even if out of order with this particular mental belch, Calder is right to draw attention to the Judaeo-Christian narrative that, even in residue, survives at the heart of Beckett’s vision. Beckett protests at the condition of fallenness, refuses indifference. In this dialectic, the possibility of redemption remains firmly implicit, is the invisible mammoth in the room.

Boundaries

boundaries
The “park” is less a park proper than a vast, levelled, uninterrupted area of urban grassland – what used to be known as a recreation ground. A playground and a sports cage occupy one end, and a pair of drooping goalposts the other. Along the far side a tractor pulling a mower spews out clouds of grass cuttings. At intervals a middle aged man appears on a motor scooter, riding up and down the turf for no apparent reason other than recreation. Under the relentless sun my two year old grandson and I kick a ball around inexpertly by a bench at the perimeter. There is no one else much about.

Except for an oddly thin young man walking rapidly inside the otherwise empty sports cage. He circulates the inner face of the wire compulsively, sometimes pausing at the corners as if to get his bearings. At present he is moving anti-clockwise. He keeps his head as close to the mesh as is manageable, holding his left hand with palm and fingers flat to blinker his eye, so that his field of vision is filled by the pattern of the wire. From time to time he reverses direction, changing hands. He does not venture out of the open exit, and he does not deviate inwards across the open tarmac. Nearby, two people who I take for his minders wait by a small white van.

I watch him for a while. He is engaged in the maintenance of his boundaries, checking the vital security of their closeness, reinforcing and repairing the borders of his known space. By so doing he allays, from moment to moment, the anxieties that threaten to overwhelm him, defends his sense of self against the horror of the vacuum. Good for him. I don’t blame him.

While I have been preoccupied in watching, my grandson has toddled off across the grass at an astonishing speed, heading for the enormous, empty heart of the sunlit plain. The inverted flower pot of his sun hat bobs to the rhythm of his running; his hands dangle decoratively, but his short legs shunt like pistons. His diminutive silhouette finally comes to a distant halt under a huge sky and turns to look back at me.

There are no obstacles or pitfalls, no discernible danger in the featureless field; no one else is anywhere near. The motor scooter man can no longer be seen, and the tiny tractor is still busy mowing on the far side. My grandson is free to run as extravagantly as he likes into the exhilarating openness. But I hear my voice shout out: “Kieran, don’t go too far!”

I am recalling him to his boundaries.