Friday, May 31, 2013

Master Drawings III: Noctes Ambrosianae

After the tranquillity of Turner's Tintern Abbey, Noctes Ambrosianae enters an entirely different realm. Painted in a gloom of darkness, it is a picture of expressionist spectators, whose leering is either a Hogarthian, rebuking portrait of the prurient mob; a modern variation on the demons in the background of a Renaissance-era Hades or the rabble who attack Christ once his life is about to end; or a prescient envisioning of a radical feminist's Male Gaze. Or, it can simply be an audience whose expressions are partly peacefully concentrated and partly mobile in reaction to the dramatic plot on a stage. 'What are they watching?' is a question which seems in some ways beside the point; demeaning and greedy, or absorbing, spectacles are not entirely rare and the artist's mass psychology might apply as well to any.

The painter was Walter Richard Sickert, whose long life evenly bisected itself into the late 19th century and early 20th century, beginning in Munich and ending in Bath. He was very young when his family left Germany and he was educated in England - in King's College School, which has among its alumni Charles Dickens's son, Leopold de Rothschild, Dante Gabriel Rossetti . . . and a band member from Mumford and Sons. He dabbled in acting, then finally launched himself into art, passing through impressionistic and expressionistic phases — in my opinion he tried to be Turner here, Lucian Freud (or is that vice versa) there, possibly Toulouse-Lautrec there, etc., though rarely at a slavish level of imitation — and in general being considered as an avant-gardist.

Writers have conjectured that he was Jack the Ripper. Firstly the voracious speculation on said murderer seems tawdry, and secondly I doubt the plausibility (albeit in the absence of evidence pro or contra) of the Sickert surmise. In Sickert's defence the Wikipedia article turns the suggestions against him on their heads; it describes how his prolific affairs and fascination with crime like Jack the Ripper's seem to have inspired sympathy and indignation at the vulnerability of prostitutes' existences in him, which he also expressed in his work. He was, at any rate, on excellent terms with Winston Churchill; this is perhaps a sign of final respectability.

"Walter Sickert" [Wikipedia]
"King's College School" [Ibid.]
N.B.: Due to copyright I am not posting an illustration of Noctes Ambrosianae here.


IN 1934 Virginia Woolf published Walter Sickert: A Conversation in London.[N.B. In some countries, probably including mine — I'm crossing my fingers that this heavy quoting from it is fair use —, it is not copyright-free yet.] It is not a conversation with Sickert but rather a dinner party conversation between various observers about him; and their reflections delve into his use of colour, his approach to fleshing out characters and their situations, general parallels between the thematically ambitious and socially conscious painter and the thematically ambitious and socially conscious novelist, and class problems.


Illustration: Southwark Fair (1733-34), by William Hogarth
It is intended to be a cheerful scene, at least according to an early 19th century tome in which it appears and which states, "it is sufficient to remark that it presents us with an endless collection of spirited and laughable characters, in which is strikingly portrayed the character of the times." [via Wikimedia Commons]

Master Drawings II: Tintern Abbey

On the occasion of the Ashmolean's exhibition, Master Drawings (May 25th-August 18th, 2013), in Oxford. Pictures selected from the Guardian's slideshow of May 24.

In the face of JMW Turner's portrait of the inner arches of the Cistercian abbey on the banks of the Wye river, it would seem obvious to discuss Wordsworth's poem from the dawn of English Romanticism; but since the feeling prevails that I am not in the right position to treat it justly yet, here is an alternative.

To address the artistic aspect first, Turner's depictions of Tintern Abbey are predominantly sown over London — in the British Museum and in the Victoria and Albert Museum as well as in the Tate. This painting may be from the Tate but the Ashmolean's (Transept of Tintern Abbey, Monmouthshire, which was first exhibited c. 1795) is highly similar; only the Ashmolean one is framed so that the dark interior side of an archway gives the edifice a brooding mood, plunged inside instead of portrayed from a discreeter distance. Obviously it's from Turner's most civilized early period; he revisited the subject peripherally in 1828 and produced something far more diffuse.

Illustration: The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window (1794), by J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851)
(pencil and watercolour on paper, 3.58 × 2.55 cm, in the Tate Gallery, London)
[Source: Wikipedia]

Monday, May 27, 2013

Master Drawings I: Jerome

In honour of the incipient Master Drawings exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford, I have decided to append a string of texts or books to some of the pictures which I find most striking, culled from the exhibition slideshow on the Guardian website.

The first is Lucas van Leyden's rendering of Jerome, the saint who is said — historically speaking — to have roamed the Mediterranean brink from somewhere between 347 – 420 A.D. Van Leyden was, aptly enough, of Leyden in the Netherlands; he lived from 1494 to 1533 and thus was a contemporary of Albrecht Dürer, who drew his picture.

The text is from the Golden Legend (Jacobus de Voragine, c. 1275), as it was transferred into English by William Caxton in the 15th century and edited by F.S. Ellis into the tolerably comprehensible modern tongue.

Illustration: Saint Jerome (1521) by Lucas van Leyden, from the Ashmolean [Source: Wikimedia Commons]

St. Jerome and the Lion

"ON a day towards even1 Jerome sat with his brethren for to hear the holy lesson, and a lion came halting suddenly in to the monastery, and when the brethren saw him, anon they fled, and Jerome came against him as he should come against his guest, and then the lion showed to him his foot being hurt. Then he called his brethren, and commanded them to wash his feet and diligently to seek and search for the wound. And that done, the plant2 of the foot of the lion was sore hurt and pricked with a thorn. Then this holy man put thereto diligent cure, and healed him, and he abode ever after as a tame beast with them.

Then St. Jerome saw that God had sent him to them, not only for the health of his foot, but also for their profit, and joined to the lion an office3, by the accord of his brethren, and that was that he should conduct and lead an ass to his pasture which brought home wood, and should keep4 him going and coming, and so he did. For he did that which he was commanded, and led the ass thus as a herdsman, and kept him wisely going and coming, and was to him a right sure keeper and defender, and always at the hour accustomed he and the ass came for to have their refection5 and for to make the ass to do the work accustomed.

ON a time it happed that the ass was in his pasture, and the lion slept fast, and certain merchants passed by with camels and saw the ass alone, and stole him and led him away. And anon after, the lion awoke and when he found not his fellow, he ran groaning hither and thither, and when he saw that he could not find him he was much sorrowful and durst not come in, but abode at the gate of the church of the monastery, and was ashamed that he came without the ass.

And when the brethren saw that he was come more late than he was wont6, and without the ass, they supposed that by constraint of hunger he had eaten the ass, and would not give to him his portion accustomed, and said to him: Go and eat that other part of the ass that thou hast devoured, and fill thy gluttony.

And because they doubted, and they would wit7 if he had so eaten, they went to the pastures of the town to see if they could have any demonstrance of the death of the ass, and they found nothing, and returned and told it to Jerome, and then he commanded them to enjoin him to do the office of the ass8. Then they hewed down bushes and boughs and laid upon him, and he suffered it peaceably.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

To the Young (and Catholic) Amongst Us

I wanted to translate the 'tweets' of Pope Francis's Italian Twitter account, from April 26 - May 3, 2013, copied them into Google Translate, and found that I rather liked the result in literary terms.

(Of course these tweets come in an official English version, too. Still, I assume, for no direct reason, that the Italian text is the prototype.)

In terms of the content, the virtues of prayer are a familiar theme, of course. But I like the mixing of partly quite traditional, partly not so traditional thoughts.

In any case, I am still happy about the new Pope, particularly since being baptized Catholic, and thereby associated with the Church, is an uneasy thing at times from a moral standpoint.


It would be nice, in the month of May, to recite the Holy Rosary together in the family. Prayer makes even stronger family life.

I think of those who are unemployed, often because of a selfish mentality that seeks profit at any cost.

Dear young people, learn from St. Joseph, who has had difficult times, but he never lost faith, and has been able to overcome them.

We have faith in God! With Him we can do great things, therein he will make us feel the joy of being his disciples.

How nice if each of us in the evening could say: Today I made a gesture of love for others

The Holy Spirit transforms us and really wants to transform, through us, the world in which we live.

Dear young people, don't bury the talents, the gifts that God has given you! Do not be afraid to dream big things!


In the Italian, the same quotations: