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)

Tag Archives: kitsch

Artificial melancholy in Sutton Coldfield

My wife says it’s a shame that I’m reduced to blogging about the contents of garden centres (see last post), and she probably has a point. But while I’m still in the mood, here’s a quick tour around select bits of Hall’s of Sutton Coldfield, a surprisingly off kilter venue nestling innocently just outside Birmingham, whose displays of massed cultural fossils achieve fresh and unerring incongruity overload, reuniting Nature with ruin and artificial melancholy in a tradition extending back to the eighteenth century. In connection with which, I was delighted to find above the toilet doors a print of Millais’s Cherry Ripe, a kitsch icon and descendant of Joshua Reynolds’s Penelope Boothby as already discussed in this post. Other highlights include a “Japanese Water Garden” (with both piped water and piped pseudo-oriental music), a vast stock of worryingly large plastic animals and a gargantuan dinosaur on a pallet on the roof. (Oh yes, and look carefully and you’ll see that the tree man, behind the frog and duck fountains, houses a surveillance camera.)

A previous foray here into contemporary kitsch, my post on the Trafford Centre in Manchester, left one commenter feeling “a bit queasy”. This is all very much miniaturised in comparison with that postmodern Xanadu, but I hope these images may have just a little of the same effect. (Click thumbnails for slides and click below slides for mega enlargements. )

In the Temple of Lost Marbles

Nothing recent here, I know. Apologies. (Energy has been spent elsewhere, on my other blog, which readers of this one are unlikely to find of interest.) Image222But a recent shopping trip Up North brought an opportunity to gawp at the Trafford Centre, Greater Manchester’s jaw-dropping acid-classical Xanadu of kitsch. Mancunians perhaps have grown blasé about their local outbreak of Delirium Tremendous, but for the rest of us the obvious question is: was there ever a moment in the late ‘nineties, when this shopping centre was built, when an opium reverie blended from bits of De Chirico, Dali, Alma-Tadema, Piranesi and Robin Ironside was actually the expected flavour of the weekend retail experience? Because if there was, I must have missed it. So the next question has to be: what on earth were the Trafford’s architects and designers on?

Maybe this has something to say about our troubled perceptions of The Past in the run up to the Year 2000 – the Trafford as fin-de-millénaire panic gone large. It certainly involves a late, disturbingly decadent, and Image243hallucinatory version of neo-classicism, drawn less from Praxiteles than from Canova. Unaccountably meaningless and garbled murals jostle with palm trees, real marble Caesars, golden fountains, distant obelisks and massy Egyptian colonnades – more post-ancient than post-modern, in fact. Then, for good measure, just when you think you may be coming down, streets out of Old Beijing and New Orleans lure you into a vast, starlit, subterranean eatery done out like an ocean liner complete with swimming pool. Only the iceberg is absent.

Despite the unrelenting and unsettling oddness of it all, it seems unknowing, as if irony was not the intention and this was someone’s sincere idea of quality for the masses. The occasional statue would be unremarkable in a shopping mall, but here the sheer, overwhelming weight of pastiche and incongruity topples the whole installation off at a tangent in the direction of the astral plane. Can you tell that I’m impressed? I’m not sure that any photo can really contain the Trafford’s Full-on Bonkers Effect, but here’s a gallery of fifty snaps from my (rather pre-modern) phone. Click for the slide show and dip into the trip!

Veritasse vincit omnia

In the latest Hereford Diocese magazine I came across a full page ad for “Veritasse,” a website offering Christian art, so I took a look. I know I’m a cultural snob, but I do find something deeply disturbing about their insistence on the “positive” and the “uplifting”, especially when that translates into 57 varieties of soft edged but luminescent clouds, doves, sheep, flowers, waterfalls etc., no matter how competently executed. On the other hand, they do invite submissions from Christian artists, and that’s me, sort of, and Veritasse does appear to be a big success. Or a bigge successe, even.

So I emailed over half a dozen graphics I’ve been working on recently (click to enlarge), with a pleasantly worded request for feedback:

A week on, and no response.

Yes, I know I’m being unnecessary, but there is a real issue here. How has the content of much of what passes for contemporary Christian art become so – well, infantilised? This isn’t Catholic kitsch, which is better understood as a form of folk art. (Nor is it analogous to say, modern praise music, often derided, but where the use of worthwhile popular forms has enabled much excellent popular Christian song writing, e.g. Stuart Townend.) I suppose the roots of this sort of imagery were in Victorian populist evangelical pietism, but it’s hard to figure just when “Christian art” got so utterly blanded out.

Aside of the icon revival, which seems in danger of short circuiting into its own form of kitsch, some sort of recapturing is demanded. But what form should it take?

Moppets, muffets and the perpetuation of Penelope Boothby

“… kitsch is the distorted copy, or brilliant shadow, of a unique original that it transforms while replicating … Deprived of supernatural immunity, the shaken-down aura falls prey to the vicissitudes of earth bound things: it can be touched, traded, copied and tampered with; it is but a fragment of its former existence. It is kitsch.”

(Celeste Olalquiaga, The Artificial Kingdom: a Treasury of the Kitsch Experience.)

In among all the Georgian and Victorian lumber, sorry – legacy, on display at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, there is at least a good big Fuseli. Meaning Henry Fuseli, painter of extremes, connoisseur of fetishistic coiffures and prolific purveyor of mad stuff to the gentry of the Enlightenment.

It’s not Fuseli’s finest moment by a long chalk, but any Fuseli is better than none, and this one has particular interest for its part within a cultural narrative of tragedy, morbidity and sentiment that takes us from the Age of Reason to the Age of Kitsch and beyond …

Sir Brooke Boothby, Bart (1744-1824), was very much Enlightenment Man – landowner, poet, Lichfield intellectual and a mate of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Here is the Nature Boy himself, as portrayed by Joseph Wright of Derby, pretending to browse Rousseau and looking natty but philosophical in a sylvan setting – both noble and savage, in fact. (Is it just me, or is this one of the most absurd images ever conveyed to canvas?)

But Nature turned very savage on Sir Brooke when in 1791 his only child Penelope died at the age of five, a tragedy from which he never recovered. His wife left to live permanently with her parents, he neglected his estate and his financial situation went into terminal decline. He died in Boulogne as a genteel but impoverished ex-pat.

Boothby’s grief was inconsolable, and Reason succumbed to Sensibility’s iron grip. In 1796 he published a collection of 24 sonnets, Sorrows: Sacred to the Memory of Penelope, more notable for the intensity of their emotion than for the quality of the verse. He commissioned from Fuseli the painting now at Wolverhampton, and from the sculptor Thomas Banks (a member of the “Fuseli circle” in 1770’s Rome) a marble memorial which was installed in St Oswald’s church in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Its plinth is inscribed, heart-breakingly: “She was in form and intellect most exquisite. The unfortunate parents ventured their all on this frail bark. And the wreck was total.” Boothby is said to have interrupted Banks’ carving of the effigy frequently, sitting weeping in his studio.

Fuseli’s The Apotheosis of Penelope Boothby shows the dead girl’s spirit hoisted skywards by an angelic figure towards a non-specific, Deist eternity. As her father versified it:

Lo, the mild angel to receive her bends!
From the dark disk of this terraqueous ball,
The spotless shade to her own heaven ascends.
The towering Day-star, smiling points the way
To glorious regions, bright with cloudless ray!

The angel’s wings do not fit accurately on her back, the five year old is presented unconvincingly as a species of miniaturised adult, the broken urn and butterfly at the base are pedestrian, and the puckish features of the cherubic “Day-star”, though typically Fuseli, strike the wrong note here. On the credit side, Fuseli breaks all the rules by using a risky vertical composition similar to his ground-breaking The Death of Dido of ten years earlier, successfully relying on dramatic and technically demanding foreshortening. But the toning down for the occasion of Fuseli’s normal theatrical strenuosity has drained the work of conviction. The painter of a thousand bloody murders was unable to visualise effectively the death of a small child.

Hugely more successful was Banks’ sculpture, in which the life sized figure, beautifully carved with remarkable virtuosity, appears to be sleeping. It combines romantic sensibility with a quite modern directness, and notoriously affects visitors to the church even today. (A later lithograph fails outrageously to do it justice. As it happens, the theme of dead daughters, a little disturbingly, is continued in St Oswald’s by a fine window of 1905 by stained glass artist Christopher Whall, in late Arts and Crafts style, commemorating the three young Turnbull sisters, killed in a fire.)

An engraving of Fuseli’s Apotheosis and an image of Banks’ sculpture were bound into Boothby’s Sorrows. Also reproduced there was an existing portrait of Penelope, aged four, by Sir Joshua Reynolds. This was most definitely not Sir Sloshua’s sharpest effort: the child’s face does not sit well within her curls, nor her head on her shoulders. The hands are almost entirely hidden and the legs buried under a shapeless lump of frock. Even so, this modest little portrait came to take on a life of its own that even Sir Brooke could not have anticipated.

Recycled and commodified through numerous print versions, the image seems to have acquired and accumulated a new currency through the Victorian period. It may have merged in the public mind with similar (though superior) Reynolds portraits of little girls – Simplicity and Innocence – and seems sometimes to have been known popularly as “The Mob-cap”.

     
     

It clearly had recognised potency as an icon of sentimentalised innocence when Lewis Carroll used it in the late 1870’s as a point of reference for photographs of Xie Kitchin (pronounced Exie, and short for Alexandra), a “young friend” whom he photographed repeatedly – obsessively, even – throughout her childhood years in assorted costumes. In the “Boothby” poses the sitter is specifically described as impersonating Penelope; the costume is a little approximate, but the mob-cap and gloves are clearly the identifying features.

Even when they don’t topple over, Carroll’s photos of children always wobble on the edge of uncomfortable. On this occasion, there is, thankfully, nothing even subliminally sexualised; Miss Kitchin merely looks well bored with the repeated indignity of posing in stupid costumes for this annoying family friend, though by virtue of the situation Carroll exercises a degree of fantasised ownership that we would certainly want to question. But did he use the Boothby reference with full conscious knowledge of the premature death of the original Penelope? That would add a whole extra layer of creepy oddness … Propping up a dead family member for a “post-mortem” photograph was a common Victorian practice, as documented on numerous websites.

But in any case, distance alone was enough to grant the image a measure of morbidity. The Victorian era, that age of mourning, multiplied and commodified memories as souvenirs at the same time as a “progressive” sense of discontinuity with the past redefined all its inhabitants as separate in their deadness. Divorced from actual, personal grief, such an image of “Penelope Boothby” embodied, as a false or appropriated memory, as a kitsch object, a thinned and generalised version of that sentiment.

Carroll was not the only Victorian retailer of images of childhood who was alert to the value of this one, and shortly afterwards in 1879 it was cleverly recycled by John Everett Millais, who had long since sold out on his earlier Pre-Raphaelite values. He had already used the mob-cap and gloves in his Early Days of 1873, which kept something of the matter-of-factness of the original. This time Millais retained and amplified the core values of the image, while astutely addressing the limitations of the Reynolds by unfolding the legs, feet and gloved forearms. He also replaced the open and direct gaze of the original with a subtly downcast coyness, which has, to my mind, an unpleasant hint of adult guilt and guile. Millais plonked the child on a log next to a few cherries and titled the finished article Cherry Ripe. He was onto a winner here, and the image achieved popularity alongside Bubbles on merchandising for Pear’s Soap, where it presumably served within the Victorian mind-set as a signifier of purity.

     
   

A few years later Millais cranked out a Little Miss Muffet, in which the child wears a bonnet rather than a mob-cap. But at this point a strange conflation seems to have occurred, with the majority of stock images of Ms Muffet thereafter featuring mob-caps and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Penelope Boothby and/or Cherry Ripe. Many still do, over a century on, and in the fancy dress trade, a mob-cap is known today as a “muffet hat”. (As Google-image will bear out, this is even true of some of today’s mildly pornographised adult-ironic costume versions, which serve to reinforce the disturbing notion that there is something sexy about a frightened girl. But this may be as far as we want to go in that direction …)

   

There is an uncanny appropriateness about the conflation of Penelope Boothby and Miss Muffet, given that the spider – unexpected, dark, descending, perceived as deadly – is a clear symbol of sudden death. In a thousand modern nursery rhyme images, mob-capped shades of Penelope confront the announcement of their imminent decease; this moment of knowing, perpetually re-lived, confirms with hindsight the invisible but tragic irony of Reynolds’ original image. And yet, in an extraordinary kind of inversion, this happened precisely at the historical point where the original Boothby identity, mediated via Millais, became lost to public awareness. It is as if the image of the dead child has taken on a life of its own, one of purely private self-awareness concealed within a public, but ignorant, visibility. Or rather as if the unbearable truth could only be released within the unconscious life of the image.

Meanwhile, hovering above the minimalist furnishings of phantom penthouses in digitally generated mock-ups on Chinese “custom oil painting” websites, Penelope Boothby continues to replicate herself, a revenante exiled in a post-modern afterlife of diminishing quality, perpetually in search of new meaning.

     
   

The worrying kitsch of W F Colley

Of the smattering of prints and drawings that grace our staircase, one of my favourites is this pencil sketch by the Birmingham artist and lithographer William Frederick Colley, which I found going for a small song in a Leominster antique shop:

I know nothing of Colley except that he was born in 1907, died in 1957, and was a member of the RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society of Artists), though that wasn’t necessarily a big deal, to be frank. He was also an artist member of the Senefelder Club, a lithograph subscription scheme. His surviving prints seem mostly to date from the 1930’s, though the styling of the faces in this drawing suggests the ‘forties or ‘fifties to me. I imagine that this montage of panto scenes was a design for a lithograph. It’s signed with his monogram on the leg of the cat (a bit Louis Wain) at lower left. The drawing has something of an expressionist feel, and features such as the up-lit shadows on the audience faces, and the way that the witch’s head jigsaws exactly into the space over the main character’s shoulder,  give it a bit of a sinister edge, which seems calculated.

Dancer c1930

Workmen c1930

Cart Horse 1933

Spring 1935

A comparable spookiness in some of his earlier work seems to be less than calculated, judging by this selection of prints culled from auction sites etc. His style and content were vernacular and must have been aimed at the popular end of the market. What effect there is of modernism can be seen mainly in the heavy, gradated sweeps of the lithographic crayon across the stone, laying down strong sub-cubist tonal forms, which have led to his work sometimes being tagged as “Art Deco”. But at times this tonality is so strong that the effect is predominantly dark and rigid – and inadvertently so, we suspect. The bleating lamb in Spring ends up as anything but innocent, while his Gazelle, which seems to have attempted a heraldic decorativeness, has taken on a distinctly demonic air. In fact, all Colley’s muscular animals are a little worrying …

Lilies c1935

The Farmer 1935

The Bull 1936

Gazelle

This gap between intent and effect takes some of his work into the category of kitsch, but a kitsch of accidental malevolence, rather than one of sentimental melancholy, of nostalgia or of totalitarian wholesomeness. Having said that, Moonlight achieves petit-bourgeois sentiment nicely, and is entirely successful in its polite nods to Frances Hodgkins et al. And Colley has a nice line in chunky, Paul Nash-like trees.

Gypsies in Autumn 1939

Young Colt 1941

Moonlight

Monkeys

It would be good to find out more about him, but I doubt that I will be visiting the RBSA, given the £20 per enquiry that they ask. I wonder what might be in the vaults at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery? Comments and any further info welcome.