Friday 29 July 2016

Review and Q&A: The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin

I do so love to make new friends, especially writing friends with splendid books, and so was delighted to make the acquaintance of William Rose, author of the recently published The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin

The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin centres on 1880s Paris and the growing interesting in science and its shady sister, magic. In the Salpêtrière Hospital, a mysterious patient Madeleine Seguin attracts a fair amount of interest, not only because she is attractive but also because her hysteria provides an exciting part of Professor Charcot's lectures.  Madeleine proves a draw to everyone who meets her, from the doctors and fellow patients, to benefactors, priests and the young men from the growing Symbolist movement. One artist, Louis Martens, has a particular attachment to Madeleine and is encouraged in his companionship of the strange young woman, but there are far darker forces at work...

Images of a woman under Dr Charcott's use of hypnotism against hysteria (1878)
Written in letters and case notes, The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin is just the sort of novel I love.  I have a weakness for epistolary novels and found myself galloping from one letter to the next, wanting to know the fate of the characters, to see if good would conquer evil.  The setting of 1880s Paris is wonderfully conjured and I ended up wanting to know more about the Salpêtrière Hospital and its work, not to mention the many real people mentioned in the novel.  I also found that it is not safe to Google 'Félicien Rops' at work...

Pornocrates (1878) Felcien Rops
I thoroughly recommend The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin for your summer reading.  It's exciting, fascinating and a wonderful evocation of the edges of the fin de siècle. People hover between madness and sanity, monkeys lurk in darkened rooms and the devil is waiting for you.  What more do you want from a novel?

After reading The Strange Case of Madeline Seguin, I had a few questions for William...

Q. What attracted you to 1880s Paris as a subject?

All the ingredients were there in Paris in the 1880s. I wanted to write about Symbolist artists and it was a centre for them. They were painting the ideas and imagery of dreams and the imagination. And Professor Jean-Martin Charcot was the 'Napoleon' of the huge Salpêtrière Hospital with its hundreds of (mainly) women suffering from 'hysteria'; a malady which in its own strange way also evokes dreams and the imagination. And Charcot was utilising the hypnotic trance in his treatment of these patients. The beginnings of the explorations into the unconscious mind were there and even, following his destiny, a young Freud, studying under Charcot. And the third ingredient, with a connection to the first two - there was a revival of occult practices at this time, in Paris as well as elsewhere. This brought the danger element into the story.

Q. The blend of real and fictional people in your novel works so well and had me reaching for Google to find out more about people. How did you choose who to include?

Jean-Martin Charcot
Charcot was a must as I was writing about hysteria and hypnotism. His work at the Salpêtrière Hospital was where it happened. And anyway, he is a fascinating charismatic character. He had enemies among his rivals in the scientific community, but also he was adored by many of his students. Freud named one of his children after him. People flocked to his public lectures which could take in up to 400 people. And there he would describe the treatment of his patients along with 'live' demonstrations with hypnotism. And of course Madeleine is one of those. It was all grand theatre.

Felicien Rops is the main Symbolist artist in the story who actually existed. He easily lent himself to the narrative (thank you Felicien) as he was a larger than life character who increasingly utilised the occult for his subject matter. Very dark stuff. He was also a great charmer, a man who could retain masses of information and use it in conversation, and he was also known to be very effective in his erotic interactions with women.

I wanted Huysmans, Mallarmé, Jean Moréas and the Sâr Péladan in as they were important Symbolist literary figures of the time, and because they were personalities. But particularly I wanted to use them to really try to give a sense of the Symbolist culture and its origins.

The Maharajah, Jaswant Singh 11, certainly existed and in ways fitted, and the dates all match, but I had to allow my imagination much more leeway with that one.

Q. There is a lot of art in your novel, not just from the up-coming Symbolists but stretching back in time to other periods such as Rococo. For me, this reflected how the past can influence the mood of the present. How much does the art reflect the story of the book?

Bringing in art previous to the Symbolists was to allow for a greater range of imagery and not to get too exclusively focused on Symbolism. And I enjoy writing about artworks, so there is something of an indulgence in it. So they are all works described and artists that I like. I did also feel that the Parisian, ornate residence of the Countess ought to have the benefit of a beautiful and seductive Fragonard painting! And I managed to make reference to one of Rossetti's. Had to do that, because I like his work so much! But as to reflecting the story, it is art contemporary to that time in Paris, particularly the Symbolist, that does that, though the imagery of Gérôme's 'Academic' painting of 'Phryme' also has a special significance.

Phryne before the Areopagus (1861) Jean-Léon Gérôme
Q.  I am a big fan of Samuel Richardson, so I loved the fact that your novel is a collect of letters, but how did you come to choose a epistolary novel?

One of the aims of the narrative was to have a collection of documents: letters and case reports, concerning Madeleine, the central character. The fact that they exist is in itself part of the story. So in that sense it had to be epistolary. But that felt comfortable anyway and I enjoyed writing it in that style. I have had in mind Richardson, and also Bram Stoker's great novel 'Dracula', which is written in that style, and also 'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins, which I read for the first time quite recently and couldn't put down.

Q. What are you writing next?

Well, the next one is gradually progressing, but in early stages. I have become very interested in the nuns of the Carmelite contemplative order. It is I believe, the most closed and austere of them all. And the idea of those vows for life! So what happens when such a nun finds herself dreaming of Cupid? When the pagan mythology creeps into her night and her day dreams. And there can be a way (I think) of making reference in the narrative to the paintings that have depicted such scenes.
I can hear Pan rushing through the undergrowth!

A Clinical Lesson at the Salpetriere (1887) Pierre Andre Brouillet
The Strange Case of Madeleine Seguin is available from Amazon UK (here) and USA (here) and from all good book shops.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Pity the Blind...

So, here we are at my 600th post which is a strange milestone.  I've been at this blog-business five years now and I still really love chatting with you and have heard from so many wonderful people. I wanted to do something meaningful for post 600, and was recently looking at this picture...

The Blind Girl (1856) John Everett Millais
It's an image you are probably all aware of because it is one of Millais' most famous images (after the all-conquering Ophelia obviously). I've always loved it and will at some point get round to doing a post all about it and the two lasses in it, but just for now I want to concentrate on the subject.  The scene is of two girls, one of whom is blind. She has paused with (presumably) her sister to shelter from the rain under her shawl.  Whilst her sister peaks at the spectacular double rainbow, the wonder of nature is made even more pathos-drenched by the elder girl's gentle touch of a blade of grass.  That seems to be the extent of her awareness of the splendour of the natural world.  All around are beautiful sights but she can't see any of it, from the tiny, perfect butterfly to the broad arc of colour in the sky. Around her neck is a sign that says 'Pity the Blind', but is that what we are being asked to do?

The Blind Beggar Ralph Hedley
If we go by the art of the period, the blind were indeed to be pitied.  Repeatedly they are shown begging, destitute and dirty.  Criticism for The Blind Girl included one viewer bemoaning how dirty the girls were and there was an agreement that the girls, undoubtedly beggars were to be regarded with sorrow.  In fact, the number of images of the blind as beggars is overwhelming.  Lack of sight equated to lack of life chances, reliance on others and the assumed pose of hat outstretched awaiting the drop of a coin from an unseen benefactor.

The Blind Beggar James Burras the Elder
If such a thing existed in Victorian times, you could argue that the snowy, wild-haired old blind man with cane and hat presented was a bit of a trope.  Unkempt yet with an attempt at a dignified appearance, this is a man who has fallen on hard times and lost his sight.  How has he lost his sight?  By the reliance on charity, it may be offered that his lose of eyesight is linked to his age as it is hard to imagine a blind beggar would last long without family, friends or the welfare state to assist.

Blind Grannie James Elder Christie
There does seem to be a bevy of elderly visually-impaired subjects, left utterly vulnerable not only because of their age but also their disability.  Blind Grannie is a knuckle-biting image of a grandmother 'seeing' the face of her granddaughter through the tracing of her face.  Let's hope the young 'un's not a biter...

The Blind Beggar Walter William Ouless
The majority of the blind subjects I came across, especially the elderly, were men.  Maybe this was because women were already seen as vulnerable and helpless whereas the image of a man having brought low by age and infirmity had added impact.  Coupled with this is that an awful lot of the images include a companion for the beggar, a human version of a guide-dog, presumably a family member.  This is very often a girl who is now responsible for the well-being of the former patriarch of the clan. In Ouless' work, an impressively-bearded old beggar is led by a rather attractive young lady.  He is large, imposing yet has his head bowed meekly.  She is small, slight but looks at us in challenge.

The Blind Beggar James Flewitt Mullock
In many of the images, the seeing companion of the blind beggar is a child and it leads me to wonder if a Saint Christopher metaphor is being offered.  These children are responsible for keeping people on the safe path, they will not lead you astray (unlike that dog who looks easily distracted).  There is something about the child companions of the blind beggars that makes me suspect a Jesus-in-Disguise thing is going on here...

The Blind Beggar Josephus Dyckmans
I wonder if the fact that Dyckmans' child companion is a little girl adds to the fact that they are a very fragile pair.  He can't see and she is in danger of being kidnapped into some sort of chimney-sweeping/child prostitution ring at any moment.  The pair in Dyckmans' work have a dignity beyond their pitiable condition but they are doomed.  The woman behind them knows it, they know it, we all know it.  They are one cold night away from being found frozen to death on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral.

The Blind Girl Beatrice Offor
Images of blind women tend to be a slightly different deal.  There are a number of women on their own, like the lady above, who seem to be more self-sufficient than their male counterparts, not to mention younger.  Beatrice Offor's young woman is having a bit of a read in the street - is she reading the Bible aloud?  That is a massive book for a young woman to be heaving through the streets and as it seems to be in braille I can't imagine it is something that she has just come across. Developed from a failed military code system in the early part of the 19th century, Braille was expanded in English in 1905, possibly around the time this painting was created. What on earth is she doing?  More to the point, is she getting paid for it?

Blind Mary (1881) James Clark
Again, reading plays a big part in this image of a blind lady, who despite her age and infirmity sits upright in her seat, her eyes closed but her expression alert.  Her daughter (I presume) has paused in her reading and in between them is a child, presumably the grandchild of Blind Mary.  The inference might be that young or old, sighted or otherwise, everyone enjoys being read to.  The clock behind them indicates that they are joined by the passing of time, but basically there is no difference in them.  The old person is just the young person after time has passed.  The woman on the left looks across at her past and her future.

The Blind Fiddler John Robertson Reid
The Blind Girl above also highlights another aspect of portrayals of the blind in Victorian art.  On the blind girl's lap is a concertina, indicating that she earns a living through her talents rather than depending on the pity of others.  Likewise The Blind Fiddler shows an elderly man being led by his granddaughter to a suitable place to busk.  Is it compulsory to have a small dog with you?  It's not like the dog is any great use in terms of leading the blind chap.  Maybe he dances while the man plays his violin?

The Blind Singer (1900) Felice Castegnaro 
I used this picture recently in my post about singing.  A blind child stands behind a friend or sibling and literally sings for their supper.  I suppose the profusion of blind musicians is to show how the lose of one sense does not affect the chances of excelling in a sublime art, and in fact might make the performance of music more meaningful.  After all, music cannot be seen, it can be just as well appreciated (if not more so) with eyes closed as with eyes open.

The Blind Girl (1901) Robert Brough
So, why my personal interest?  Well, for those who follow this blog regular it will come as no surprise.  My daughter is registered partially sighted due to her oculocutaneous albinism.  She has very bad eyesight and for the first part of her life couldn't see anything at all.  We were told she was blind. I found this to be devastating as I take vision for granted and have a love for certain things that are purely visual.  My heart was broken imagining how terrible it was that my daughter would never see all the paintings I loved, she'd never see flowers, clouds, my face.  I think that was the thing that utterly killed me - my daughter would never see me smiling at her.  Until she was about two years old she didn't see, yet her enjoyment of the world was experienced through touch, smell, sound and shoving things in her mouth.  She would smile when she felt her cuddly knitted cow, Mona Moo.  She would laugh when we blew raspberries on her stomach.  She would go into ecstasies when she ate chocolate.  She finally got glasses that were strong enough so that she could just about see things but her eyesight will never be particularly good but that is just one sense.  There is no reason to pity her, she has the other four senses sussed in ways I don't.  Like the girl in Brough's painting above, my daughter Lily-Rose is a person of wonder and magnificence.  I love how the detail of room is in shadow as we see the girl's face and the flowers she is smelling.  They are luminous in the darkness but the scene is no less beautiful.

We pity the blind because we fear how we would manage if we were robbed of our most immediate sense.  We pity the blind as we would pity anyone who was unprotected in a cruel world.  The blind girl in Millais' picture is literally more in touch with her surroundings than her sighted companion. Maybe we should also pity ourselves if we cannot appreciate the beauty on offer through the four other senses...

Friday 15 July 2016

Book Review: Julia Margaret Cameron by Herself, Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry

A year after all the hub-bub of her 200th anniversary, Julia Margaret Cameron is still inspiring new writings on her work as well as reimaginings of old ones. This new pocket-sized book from publishers Pallas Athena is a wonderful example of this...

Combining previously published material (The Annals of  My Glass House and On a Portrait by Cameron, and Woolf and Fry's essays) with an introduction and notes by Tristram Powell, this is a handy compendium of material to give you a fairly thorough education in the woman who pioneered art photography in the 19th century. After a plethora of books recently, we are not exactly short of material on Cameron and the various interpretations of her many, many photographs, but speaking as an art historian there is no better place to start than with the words of the artist herself, not to mention her art works.
The Echo (1868)
The inclusion of Virginia Woolf is both understandable (she was Cameron's great niece and wrote about Cameron both directly and indirectly) and interesting as Woolf was rather conflicted over her great aunt (as she was over an awful lot of things, in my opinion). Roger Fry is a lot more straight forward: 'photography, at least in Mrs Cameron's hands, can give us something that only the greatest masters were capable of giving...' (p.75) He doesn't wholly approve of her genre pictures (except maybe The Rosebud Garden of Girls) but in that way he reflects much of the modern criticism of Cameron's work.

The Rosebud Garden of Girls (1868)
There are 69 photographs (most of them full-page) in the 192 page book, well produced and commented on. Despite the size, or maybe because of it, the intimacy of many of her photographs seems enhanced. You are unlikely to learn anything new but then that isn't the point of the book, although I did enjoy the little facts about each of the models in the plates section. This is a portable companion, perfect for holiday reading or slipping in your bag for quick reference or sneaking reading in the sunshine. If you want the ultimate big-daddy of all Cameron books, download the complete photographs free from Getty, but in terms of pleasure, portability and ease, this is an absolute gem.

Lionel Tennyson (1869)
I have a lot of Cameron books, probably too many in Mr Walker's opinion, but I can see me dipping into this little book, not only over the next few months as I write my Mary Hillier book, but in the future when I need a Cameron fix.  It's well presented, nicely priced and good quality, and who needs more than that in a book?  I can see me buying a number of these as Christmas pressie stocking-fillers, if that isn't a terribly wrong thing to say in July.  Anyway, I happily encourage you to wildly blow your £8 on a copy too, it's smashing.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1870) Henry Herschel Hay Cameron
Many thanks to the lovely people at Pallas Athena for sending me a copy, it was a splendid surprise.

To buy your copy of Julia Margaret Cameron visit Amazon UK (here) or USA (here) or a bookshop near you.

To download your free catalogue of her collected photographs visit here and thank Getty verily for their generosity.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

While Cheeks Burn, Arms Open, Eyes Shut, and Lips Meet!

I was utterly horrified recently to discover that I do not appear to have done a post on kissing.  How on earth has this happened?  How have I managed to trundle on for five years without doing a snogging post?  I offer my gravest and most expansive apologies for this oversight and wish to rectify this alarming oversight herewith.  Pucker up, chums, and brace yourself...

The Kiss (The Lovers) (1907-8) Gustav Klimt
Let's just get this out of the way - there is no way I could do this post without dragging out Klimt and his golden couple.  I like the idea that this is Apollo and Daphne, with Daphne transforming back from being a tree as her lover embraces her.  Although they are separate figures in the patterns that make them up, they morph into one gilded shape. The chap is kissing the cheek of his beloved rather than her lips, or maybe she wanted look to the side and get her face in the picture.  T'uh, that's women for you.
Stealing a Kiss Pierre Outin
Still, the chap in The Kiss is doing better than this chap who is just getting some ear action.  I'm sure the master and mistress of the house would be delighted to know about the shenanigans going on downstairs, especially as dinner seems to be going over the floor.  No wonder the dog looks happy.

The Kiss Henry Stock
It's not only the slightly different perspective that makes this picture one of my favourite romantic images.  I seem to remember it was a front cover for a Thomas Hardy novel, which probably isn't a good thing, but I think it is so dreamy and romantic and the woman's eyes are just wonderfully rendered.  His hand is in her hair and the contrast in their skin is so striking.  It is so intimate in its focus and so very romantic.

The Kiss Silvio Allason
Just as Stock's couple seem relaxed and happy, Silvio Allason's lovers have a bit of a problem.  Something has come between them and you have to wonder if the gate is a metaphor for other obstacles such as family disapproval.  It's either that or an old-fashion form of contraception.  I hate to draw attention to it, but I don't think it would be very effect because the holes look quite big.  The shame of it, getting pregnant through the garden gate...

The Kiss of the Siren (1882) Gustav Wertheimer
Looking at snogging pictures, you predictably end up with quite a few mermaids snogging sailors to their doom.  If you have ever been snogged to your doom, I trust you didn't enjoy it too much, you saucy bunch. Anyway, our white-bottomed siren is kissing some chap right out of his boat to what I assume is a watery grave.  He doesn't look too bothered about it, but then she is awfully comely.  I hope this sort of thing doesn't happen too often as I suspect half of you would be over the side of that boat without a thought for my page view figures.

The Kiss (1859) Francesco Hayez
Second only to The Meeting on the Turret Stair by Frederic Burton for castle-snogging scenes, Francesco Hayez's The Kiss has no utterly tragic back story and our couple have managed a proper full-on pash.  There is a glimpse of his stocking-clad leg (steady on) and his hat is smashing.  I'd probably kiss him too.  Who am I kidding? I definitely kiss him, I kiss everyone.

Romeo and Juliet (1886) Julius Kronberg
Naturally, Romeo and Juliet get a good showing in snogging art and the balcony scene is a safe bet (Parting is such sweet sorrow, shut the gate and I'll see you tomorrow).  Kronberg's Romeo is sneaking a crafty snog before he climbs down what appears to be an emergency ladder.  Nothing like coming prepared...

Romeo and Juliet (1884) Frank Dicksee
Possibly the finest of the doomed teenage lovers has to be Dicksee's offering with the pair sharing their final kiss as he scarpers. Look at those thighs!  Ahem, apologies...

Paolo and Francesca (1902) Christopher Williams
Another doomed couple seen in happier, smoochier times are Paolo and Francesca, pictured embracing which admittedly ends up in eternal damnation and the suchlike but was good while it lasted.  It's nice to see them snogging rather than in a skewered heap which is their other traditional pose. What is it in us that makes us love doomed love?  Why are couples who are being rather naughty and will imminently die violently far more picturesque than couples who love quietly and without stabbing?  Is it the depth of Romeo and Juliet's love that is celebrated or that it was so short?  Is their mayfly desire somehow more precious than decades of love?  Do we find Paolo and Francesca swoony because they are about to be kebabed together for all eternity on a sword courtesy of her husband?  Do we all secretly want to kiss someone who is forbidden, do we live vicariously through doomed lovers, knowing great and perilous sexy love, pursuing our own desires even if it kills us?

In Bed (The Lovers) (1892) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
I wonder if Victorian art's fascination in kissing stems from the fact that it couldn't show anything further.  This image by Toulouse-Lautrec is surprisingly graphic and modern as it is easy to have a sneaky suspicion that the couple aren't married (well, not to each other any ways) and they are in bed, naked. NAKED!  This rumpled couple in their comfy bed are as erotic as it gets, with his rosy earlobes and her golden bracelet, they are a million miles away from the more staged love of the traditional Victorian scene.

The Kiss (1868) Carolus Duran
Take this pair, for example.  There is nothing wrong with them, I especially love the way he cradles her head.  I think one thing that becomes obvious from studying images of nineteenth century snogging is that a good number of artists had a thing about shoving their hands in ladies hair.  I suppose it probably stems from the fact that a woman's hair would only be 'unbound' in an intimate situation and so it took on an erotic, fetish quality.  In everyday life, a woman's hair was something you could see but it would be all rolled up and not something you could plunge your hands into, like a billowing, silky sea.  In many a Victorian painting, if a gentleman is going for a kiss, he's also fondling her tresses at the same time.

A Kiss Under a Parasol Ludek Marold
Also, as a courting couple, kissing was as far as it was meant to go (and not too much of that either, thank you very much).  Obviously, real life probably wasn't that chaste, but the ideal was that the most you could hope for, pre-marriage, was a torrid kiss behind an umbrella after you have purposefully lagged behind at a picnic.  These days it seems that you are meant to greet completely strangers stark naked as an ice breaker (if adverts for the latest tv gameshow are to be believed) and I have some hair-raising stories about the near compulsory nature of casual promiscuity which is both encouraged and condemned in confusingly equal measure.  There is something extremely attractive about a world where a quick kiss behind a hedge with the one you love is the height of romance. It certainly takes the pressure off, so to speak.

The Kiss (1886) Auguste Toulmouche
So, in conclusion, kissing is a good thing and there should be more of it, within reasonable and legal bounds.  Whether you are kissing your spouse, your lover, a clown at a party or whoever, may you be loved and treasured, with minty breath. 

And remember, if there is no-one around for a snog, don't let that hold you back...

Vanity Auguste Toulmouche

Thursday 7 July 2016

Review: Peacock and Vine: Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work

"We were in Venice in April and I was drunk on aquamarine light."
(Peacock and Vine, p.3) 

Since Possession I don't know any 19th Century fans who don't get a bit excited when A S Byatt publishes something that pertains to the Victorian.  Whilst I was not a fan of The Children's Book, I couldn't deny it had rich and immersive descriptions of Victorian artistic life down to the teacups. When I heard Byatt was publishing a book that involved William Morris I was naturally hyperventilating...

Not a novel but the musings of Byatt using the careers and lives of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny, men of 'genius and extraordinary energy' as Byatt describes them, to shed light on the nature of passion, pattern and inspiration. Described as an 'essay', the little book explores the differences and similarities between the men through their work and motifs.  The book is split into six sections including the houses they lived in, fabric, birds and pomegranates, bookended with an introduction on them both and suggestions for further reading.

William Morris at work (1890s)
Morris is related to us via extensive quotation from Fiona Macarthy's biography.  Surrounding him are the influences of nature as escape, the 'cruel' caricatures by Burne-Jones and Rossetti, the prolonged affair of his wife and Rossetti that drove him from his home.  Byatt visits the houses that are shrines to him, to Kelmscott and the Red House, feeling his presence in the design of the rooms, the embroidery, the patterns.

Mariano Fortuny in Djellabah and Turban (1935)
 Fortuny, by contrast, came from artistic aristocracy in Spain. His parents were the well-spring of his interest and inspiration, from his mother's passion for fabric and his father's art and armour collection.  The home bore signs of artistic theatricality and so it seems natural he would pursue and innovate such beginnings into invention and beauty.  After his father's death, the family moved to Paris and then to Venice, partly because his mother wanted to detach her son from a divorcee, Henriette Negrin.  Henriette moved too, become wife, muse and artistic partner to the designer.

Henriette Negrin Fortuny (c.1905)

Jane Morris (1865)
The women expose the similarity and difference between the men.  Both were accomplished craftswomen, needle workers, artisans, involved with and offering direction in their husband's vision.  Byatt describes the Fortunys as existing in a domestic bliss closely tied to their work, creating together.  The Morris relationship is seen as more fractured, Jane's part less natural and easy, impeded by her sexual appetite elsewhere.  Where as Henriette is part of Team Fortuny, Jane is less easy to define, overshadowed in loyalty by her daughter, May.

Autochrome Photograph of a Fortuny Gown for Vogue, 1912
I liked the comparison of the influence on fashion, not a side of Morris that is usually argued as strongly as his many other talents.  Morris' contribution to rational dress through Jane's gowns are shown alongside Fortuny's iconic Delphos gown. Despite being an easy column of pleats it was a dress made for standing still and looking magnificent rather than anything else.  Still a trade secret, the fine pleating evoked ancient Greece and was made for travelling, happiest when rolled like a skein of yarn in a specially-made box. Jane's gown, by contrast, were about comfort, about freedom, converting an existing fashion form and subverting it.  Whilst Fortuny reached South for inspiartion and Morris reached North, both reached back in time, before restriction, before the need to render women helpless in corsets and hoops.

Detail of a Delphos gown, complete with glass beads on the hem to weigh down the light fabric
Both men were respecters of craft, men who mastered and practiced crafts and took pride in handcrafting.  Both travelled and found artistic identity in different cultures and the material culture therein.  Byatt brings us the clear differences but speaks eloquently of shutting her eyes by the side of the Venitian canal and seeing Morris by the Thames, the aquamarine of Venice and the grey-blue of the English countryside.  They were men who lived a generation apart (Morris being of an age with Fortuny's father) but sharing ideals and paths in terms of what they desired from their work and the way they approached it.  One was a socialist, one an aristocrat, one reached North, the other South, but somehow because of their energy (which never seems like an adequate word for Morris) they stand out among their peers and have more in common with each other than others of their time.

A S Byatt at the Fortuny Museum, Venice
You don't need me to recommend this book, it's A S Byatt and you're bound to buy it anyway and possibly have already.  It is a slight book, small in size and only 184 pages long but lavishly illustrated throughout.  If I have niggles they are ones I always have about Byatt's work, primarily that she finds sex difficult to talk about, so the passages about Rossetti and Jane Morris are awkward.  I also do not agree with some of her (or rather Fiona MaCarthy's) opinions on Morris' treatment by his so-called friends which I feel are more complex than pure cruelty.  Where the text excels for me are where Byatt speaks of the feeling and mood of places, her feeling of personality through space, colour and material.  What I found slightly off-putting was that she seems to have felt the need to back everything up with quotes from other people's work when it wasn't necessary all the time.  It was as if she lacked the confidence to just give her opinion without supporting evidence, even when it came down to how she felt about a place.  However, her writing is easy and enjoyable, like listening to a friend telling you about her travels and it is always a pleasure to be with her. 

I now want to know more about Fortuny, and I want to go to Venice in a nice frock.

To buy Peacock and Vine visit Amazon UK here and US here or your local bookshop.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Stretching, Reaching, Holding and Alone

Sometimes you are looking at a work of art by a certain artist and you are suddenly struck by a theme, a pattern that runs through their art.  It might be a colour, it might be a figure, but you have a sense of the person behind the art saying something to you so quietly that you never noticed before.  It might be a reflection of how you are feeling in that moment, it might be that you had to feel that way to recognise it in the art of another.  All of a sudden you see familiar paintings in a whole new light.

Why is everyone in Edward Burne-Jones' art always reaching for each other?

Perseus and the Graiae (c.1875-90)
Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration and as I will show there is a whole section of people who are in isolation, but a thread through Burne-Jones' art is the act of stretching, of reaching to touch another person, to hold them and find strength in the joining of hands.  To start with the Graiae in his epic Perseus cycle, the three women, not old in his imagining, share an eye and reach and pass the eye between them.  Their power is in their connection, but also they need each other, and their continuous movement, to exist.  When Perseus, in his beetle-black armour, echoes them and interrupts their movement by removing the eye, he breaks the chain and the women will cease to move, to reach and connect. Does that mean they will cease to exist?

Laus Veneris (1869)
Stretching on its own tends to signify frustration and want.  Think of the male figures on The Wheel of Fortune (1870), stretched against their will, yet waiting for the touch of the goddess.  Venus in Laus Veneris stretches languidly as she awaits a lover.  Without the presence of a lover she reaches round and ends up caressing her own hair, but her legs remain in contact with her handmaidens, all of whom invade each other's space in their various tasks.

Dorigen of Bretaigne Longing for the Safe Return of her Husband (1871)
Also known as Dorigen Cursing the Rocks, it shows Dorigen, a character from Chaucer's Franklin's Tale watching for her husband's return over a treacherous sea.  She has fallen to her knees in fear but stretches as if she can draw him safely to her, her arms open wide to catch him, yet her stretch is only as wide as the threatening rocks outside.

Pilgrim at the Gates of Idleness (1884)
Often, Burne-Jones seems to show a longing for comfort and security in the touch of others, even if it is destructive.  The Pilgrim in Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose is drawn to the beguiling figure of Idleness as she reaches for him.  Her contact, her offer, is temptation as contact is surely the point of existence.  When it is offered it begs to be reciprocated. The slightest reach is often the most tempting and Idleness knows that she does not have to try hard to bring the Pilgrim to her. 

The Garden Court from the Briar Rose Cycle (1885-90)
Even in sleep, Burne-Jones' figures reach for each other.  Briar Rose is filled with stretched out men and women, their hands brushing each other in sleep, together yet dreaming.  Their sadness is that they are so close yet need magic to bring them to life and make that final move to be together again, to be conscious of how close they are to each other.

The Golden Stairs (1880)
If ever a painting personified the need for contact without fulfillment it is possibly The Golden Stairs. The girls mingle, touch, reach but remain separate.  They are aware of each other, they flow together as one grey-white stream of movement down the stairs like a giant feminine slinky, yet do not actually hold on to each other.  The only break comes between May Morris and her violin and the girl with the tambourine, otherwise they flow off together through the door to who knows where.

Princess Sabra Drawing a Lot (1865-7)
Possibly Burne-Jones saw strength in a train of women, or maybe that is how he saw women, united in an impenetrable line, a perfection of the merest touch.  As Princess Sabra waives her safety to draw her lot, she becomes just one of the people and the same as her servants.  They are a flow of young women, joined like a train in this moment of peril as the princess receives her fate. The girl behind her reaches for her and she takes her hand.

Courtesy and Frankness in the Garden of Idleness (1880s)
Again from the 'Garden of Idleness' series, two positive female personifications join their fingers in a delicate gesture of togetherness.  When people join their hands in Burne-Jones paintings it is a moment of truth, of immense power and trust.  It is always a considered gesture, thoughtfully  and often cautiously bestowed and received with true meaning.

Love and the Pilgrim (1896-7)
The last major work Burne-Jones created was Love and the Pilgrim, showing the figure of Love drawing the Pilgrim out of Idleness and the brambles, towards an uncertain finale.  The Pilgrim has to trust Love, to take the proffered hand and be drawn out into the landscape which does not seem promising.

The Heart of the Rose (1890s)
The last scene in the drama shows the Pilgrim being brought to a beautiful woman, the 'Rose'.  His trust in Love has been rewarded and the decision to take Love's hand has resulted in this moment of peace between them.  Their touch is barely there, only their fingers are joined, but it is enough.

Clerk Saunders (1861)
The difficulty comes in anything more than gentle touches.  Although the art of Burne-Jones longs for connection, hands that reach to touch, to brush and catch, there is discomfort in closeness.  In Clerk Saunders May Margaret looks alarmed at the passionate embrace of Clerk Saunders.  This is understandable as he has been killed by her brothers (much in the same vein as Isabella and the Pot of Basil).  He embraces, she repels alarmed.  He has died for her, she does not want him.

The Tree of Forgiveness (1882)
When Demophoon abandoned Phyllis, her loneliness and despair was such that she was turned into a tree.  On his return, Demophoon embraced the tree in remorse and magically brought Phyllis back to life.  His surprise is understandable, his horror possibly less so.  Her hands are locked around his body and he is eager to escape.  He felt guilt over his absence but her presence, so close to him, attached to him, causes him to flee once more.  This time he is going to take her with him as he has no choice, she will not be letting go.

The Depths of the Sea (1887)
The epitome of this fear of total intimacy has to be The Depths of the Sea.  The mermaid has caught her love, she will never let go but her love has killed him, her embrace and possession of him has destroyed the very thing she wanted.  So what is it you want Edward Burne-Jones?  You crave touch but not possession.  You see security and strength through hands touching but destruction through bodies touching.  In Love Among the Ruins the couple cling together in the ancient ruins, but it could be read that the man is trying to loosen the insistent embrace of his lover.  Too close is too much.  His works sing 'I want to touch you but be able to draw away.  I want you there but not too close.' Love is a delicate balance of presence and absence, of reaching and touching but never claiming wholly. However, it is better than being alone.

Danae and the Bronze Tower (1872)
Standing apart in a Burne-Jones painting denotes extraordinary sadness.  Danae watches her father build her prison where she imagines she will be alone forever.  This is not the separateness of a portrait, of a single subject piece, this is the removal of a person from others, of someone standing apart because they are being disconnected or do not feel part of the whole.

Venus Epithalamia (1871)
Venus stands apart from the crowds in a very similar attitude to Danae, as people revel in the rooms beyond.  It is her wedding day to Vulcan but she is unhappy.  The spiral staircase of revellers seen through the doorway makes me think of The Golden Stairs as if Burne-Jones is hinting that this is where the musical young ladies are going, to play at the wedding. The sadness is in the detachment Venus feels to her own wedding, a supposed pinnacle of love. Love is a blind fool, weddings are meaningless, the bonds that bind us together leave us staring vacantly at our own lives from another room.

Georgiana Burne-Jones (1883)
What has Burne-Jones done?  What has he shown us about the meaning of love and the importance of people?  I don't think it is a coincidence that the woman who clings to the man so dearly in the previous pictures has the face of his erstwhile lover, Maria Zambaco. Her wholehearted, headlong rush into love with him ruined all in its path.  If she is the woman in Love Among the Ruins, is it their love that has decimated the landscape and left them the only inhabitants?  Burne-Jones saw the grim, relentless hold of love, locking its arms around you, wrestling you to your doom and he struggled to break free, or at least that is what he wants us to believe.  It was the woman who pulled, the woman who lunged and clasped him. He strove for connection, for the brush of fingers and he provoked an onslaught of desire which dragged him under until he drowned.  In The Depths of the Sea was he alluding to Maria's attempts to drown herself which he had to bodily restrain her from, did he fear she would drag them both under and the seductress would have claimed him forever?

Georgiana Burne-Jones sits alone, her children together in the next room, Margaret at Phillip's back as he paints.  She is detached from them, isolated, alone, merging with the darkness.  She is the flower pressed in the book, kept beside the illustration, detached from all context because of the actions of the fingers that plucked her and kept her, slowly drying and turning to dust.