Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Enemy Books: Clarissa

WHILE the much more challenging effort of achieving the next 'Master Drawings' blog post grinds onward very slowly, I thought it would be nice to begin featuring books which I cannot stand for whichever reason.

Having the feeling that I can only embarrass myself by hurling serious invective at books which are classics and whose virtues are clearly too lofty for me to understand; having the feeling that perhaps when I am older my opinions will change diametrically; and having the feeling that these books at least enjoy originality or a certain distinction at the crest of a burst of literary fervour and Zeitgeist; I have decided to avoid proper 'posts' and only introduce them briefly and as inaccurately as mood suggests.

But the main point of an Enemy Books series is to invite readers to leave a comment to describe the beauties which they find in the work. (Even if the Enemy Book blog post in question is months old.)

Agreement with my invective is also welcome, however, and so are suggestions for a next enemy book.

***

Context and Rating

FOR the dubious honour of the first Enemy Book, I hereby name Clarissa by Samuel Richardson.

Completeness of Ordeal: Did not finish.
Birthdate of Enmity: ca. 2005.
(It was part of a largely unwise attempt to search amongst Jane Austen's contemporaries and favourite books

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Master Drawings V: Cain and Abel

The fifth part of a series, exploring literature which springs to mind when looking at works in the Master Drawings exhibition which is running in England from May 25 to August 18, 2013. This time the arts-and-literature pair is Francisco Goya's Cain and Abel and an American author's "Woodman, Spare That Tree!" The painting is not apparently much written about, though I was able to read* that it was created around 1817-20, and not much photographed. So other paintings will have to suffice for this blog post.

To begin, a potted biography of the artist:

Goya's earliest paintings, like La cometa from 1777 or 1778, are residue of the Rococo era in their peaceful boisterousness, but his style changed considerably and with conviction. Not as successful as he had hoped at first, he lived and worked in Italy as well as in Spain; then he gained recognition in the 1780s and at last became a court painter in 1789. Despite his comfortable situation he was clearly by no means complacent; according to the wisdom of Wikipedia, "His portraits are notable for their disinclination to flatter, and in the case of Charles IV of Spain and His Family, the lack of visual diplomacy is remarkable.[Footnote: Licht, Fred: Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art, page 68. (...)]." Around 1793 he lost his hearing and this seems to have been a watershed for the mounting darkness in his artistic efforts, too. With the turmoil of politics and armed conflict as Spanish subjects became fodder to the juggernaut of the Napoleonic Wars in 1807 and until 1814, war scenes began to be a focus. Even before that he had drawn tortuous scenes of prisoners. Nevertheless he had continued as a painter under the French occupation — though one of his projects at the end of these years was a uniformed oil-on-mahogany of Wellington — and harboured some sympathies for the Revolution; and apparently relations to the royal family were lastingly strained. He died in the year 1828 in Bordeaux.

Illustration: Colossus by Francisco de Goya (1746–1828)
(Painted 1808-1810, oil on canvas, 116 × 105 cm; in the Museo del Prado [via Wikimedia Commons])

ON the one hand,

Friday, June 07, 2013

Master Drawings IV: A Seated Girl

Amongst the paperbacks which were once kept in the basement of our house, and which belonged to the collection which my father and uncles and aunts had read when they were little, there is a book, first published in 1957, by Gillian Avery, entitled The Warden's Niece

It is what first came to mind when I looked at the drawing "A Seated Girl" by the Welsh painter Gwen John, amongst the other works in the Ashmolean Museum's Master Drawings exhibition.

The book is, fittingly enough, set in Oxford, and describes it quite as reverentially and as much in the absorbing fourth dimension [i.e. time in the sense of its historical states of being, which are tied into its contemporary presence] as, for instance, Elizabeth Goudge's Towers in the Mist. Though published after the Second World War, it is set in the 1870s and begins by exploring the heroine's unpleasant stay at a boarding school for young ladies, then following her escape to Oxford and specifically to her uncle's home at the university college where he is Warden. His neighbour and friend, Professor Smith, has three sons around Maria's age; the youngest of these, who is something of a troublemaker, is about to embark on Greek and Latin under a tutor, and so Maria joins him. At the time women in higher education were a rarity, as the book emphasizes without diverging into comment; but whether it is through progressive convictions or through indifference to matters outside the sphere of their own scholarly research, no one bothers to throw up serious impediments to Maria's learning. (At least, no one consciously does; prohibitions on straying from home for any purpose do interfere a little with scholarly exploration.)

Setting the plot — which is well described elsewhere, so I will content myself with the general adumbration above — in the Victorian Age seems to have been a rather peripheral element in the novel, since aside from its prolific traditionalist detail of cucumber sandwiches, dragonlike housekeepers, pre-Daimler travel, and the singularity of feminine education, it could fit quite as well into the 20th century.

Illustration: "Portrait" (c. 1915) by Gwen John (1876-1939)
From Wikimedia Commons.

When I was little I found it an enigmatic, strange and somewhat cold book; the descriptions of old churchyards and aged portraits of dead children and fenced-in houses were menacing. Now I think it was a silly impression. The world it describes is still perhaps an insiderish one, though the book hasn't aged too badly. When I went to see Oxford at around the age of twenty in 2005, I had the impression that the heart and soul of the university campus is 'Keep Off The Grass'; whether I was imposing ill-assorted North American ideas or not, this experience is similar to the one of limitations which lies within The Warden's Niece. I suppose I also saw the magic in similar places: the Saxon tower, the fa├žade of the Sheldonian Theatre, the lawn of Christchurch (?) College, and particularly in the courtyard and amongst the Roman busts and Saxon-remnant-filled vitrines of the Ashmolean Museum.