well, well, well... i was leafing through wittgenstein's lectures and conversations on aestehtics, psychology & religious belief the other day. as one does. when i came across this page, which i had read a year or two before writing curious... and about which i'd completely forgotten. i think sometimes that i just wander around the world pulling a rag & bone cart, filing it with stuff and waiting for a book to dump it all in.
This blog is in a state of suspended animation
i have always loved the paintings of lucian freud. many of them at any rate. along with the pictures of peter blake and david hockney, they were the first exciting contemporary paintings i had ever seen (not very recherche; but i came from northampton; a scuplture by henry moore and a painting by graham sutherland in st matthew's church were the only modern artworks i can recall in the town). freud, of course, also painted portraits. later in life i'd spend a lot of my time drawing and painting people in one way or another and i don't know whether freud's pictures of his mother / frank auerbach / john miton et al. tapped into an obsession i didn't yet know i was going to have or (it only now occurs to me) whether it caused it. strangely he even changed my handwriting. i was briefly working for isis, a student magazine at oxford (drawing cartoon portraits, appropriately), when one of the other students received a short letter from him. i can remember vividly that it was written in a faux-naive childish hand, all lower case, the letters unjoined and the words turning downwards when he ran out of space at the edge of the page. i was mesmerised and have written largely in unjoined-up ever since and been mildly allergic to capital letters.
apart from the obvious pleasures of seeing more of a painter's work in the flesh as well as pictures i've never seen before in any form, i've always found that one of things i get from a big retrsopective is finding out what i don't like about even a loved artist's pictures, which in turn somehow defines more accurately what i do like about it. en route to the exhibition i was talking to a knowledgeable friend who said she didn't like the later paintings. i disagreed and found, half an hour later, that i had to eat my words, though the boundary between early and late fell in a place that caught me by surprise.
in short: there are many things i love about the early portraits. one of which is that they are fascinating however near to the canvas you stand. you can step back and see them purely as portraits (and most of them are utterly gripping as such). or you can step closer and enjoy the near-abstract detail of painted flesh (which is nearly always swirling with e nergy). as you move in and out these two things toggle and swap, paint-person-paint-person which i think says something profound about the nature of painting which i still can't quite put my finger on (see woman smiling, 1958-9, below). this is what starts to disappear from the paintings from the mid-80's onwards, from c. the masterpiece of two irishmen in w11 (copy and paste into google if you don't know the picture i mean). most of them look wonderful in reproduction or from a distance (the pictures of leigh bowery and sue tilley command a room) but the surface of the paintings is no longer so interesting, no longer a sensual pleasure. places where the eyes and hands have lingered (faces, breasts, genitals) are often clotted with paint, not in a frank-aurberach-y way, but in a way which feels troubled.
the ecthings, however, remain astonishing all the way through.
footnote: obviously, every big exhibition now has themed gifts for sale along with the catalogue and the postcards. in the national portrait gallery shop you can buy a small and hilariously naff felt model of one of the dogs in freud's paintings (the whippet eli, i think). i can't imagine freud sanctioning it so i assume it was an opportunistic posthumous kitsch marketing opportunity. if only they'd had benefit supervisor sleeping on a tea towel, i might have bought it.
the sunday times asked several writers for a 50 word short story last week. then said it didn't want them after all. here's mine.
two hundred kilos of explosives. some grey councilor pushes the button and the whole shitty block comes down. for a couple of seconds smoke clings to the ghost of the building and I see the kids we once were running down corridors of air not believing they will ever fall.
at the risk of seeming too proud of my own achievements (but this one was rather leftfield, if that's any excuse), i won an award last night (the st cuthbert's mill award, no less) in the rws contemporary watercolour cometition at their bankside gallery. very very satisfying to win a prize for something that's not a book (wonderful as that kind of award is). the picture is a portrait of stu west. professor stu west indeed, despite the potentially wrong-footing tattoo. it's also a great compensation for my recent discovery that the npg national portrait award does not accept entries on paper, under glass or in water-based media (see previous gripe - 'portrait award'). here's the painting (up for a second time, but in the circumstances, what the hell).
i've just finished reading a proof of patrick white's novel, which he left unfinished at his death (due, it seems, to old age, fatigue, the demands on his time created by the recent publication of his autobiography, flaws in the glass, and by the relatively smaller effort of a play he had been asked to write). backstory: thirty years ago, white was the first contemporary, living, modernist novelist whom i read, loved and wolfed down in great quantities. i hadn't gone back to him for a long, long time so i was worried that he might have changed for the worse in my absence, as both thomas pynchon and armistead maupin seemed to have done when i returned to them after a similar gap. he hadn't. the novel contains all the things i once loved about his writing. it's unfinished in the sense that it is (or so we assume) the first of the intended three parts of the novel, so it reads like a novella with an inconclusive ending, but i don't think most of white's readers are / were greatly driven by a desire to know what happens next. he's simply not that kind of writer. he is all about about language and style and vision and sensuality. thankfully, he seems to have carefully edited the text as it stands (he also, rather frighteningly, seems to have produced an exceptionally polished first draft), leaving only a couple of notes to himself and a handful of passages an editor might want to question (part of the fun of this kind of unfinished novel, is that you can play the editor).
the book is the story of eirene / irene / reenie, a half-greek 'reffo', desposited in australia during the second world war by her mother who leaves her first with her temporary marzipan-fleshed guardian, mrs bulpit, then with her chain-smoking, gin-drinking aunt. substantial parts of it are wonderful, written with that drunken hallucinatory quality i'd always loved in his novels, where points of view and times and places, internal and external landscapes, slide effortlessly into one another and the reader is never quite sure what is happening. indeed i'd forgotten how much he owes to virginia woolf, not least in the way that the literal world keeps blazing up into something brigher and truer and stranger. being patrick white, he also has a queasy fascination with flesh and bodliy fluids, sweat, semen, spit, of which you don't get a great deal in woolf (though there is a diary entry in which she likens letter-writing to having a crap, in that one thinks one has finished 'then another coil comes out'; an image which has, unfortunately, been seared permanently into my memory).
in short, if you've read patrick white, you can read this without being disppointed, if you don't know white's work, read some, then read this. afterwards, like me, you'll start to wonder why on earth he's slipped off the anglo-american lierary radar (post-colonial snobbery is, of course, partly to blame).
the hanging garden is going to be published in april by that fine imprint, jonathan cape. no cover yet, so you'll have to settle for a picture of white himself. don't let it put you off...
i'm painting writers at the moment. this will eventually be paul farley...
recently i put my name, if that doesn't sound too grand a statement, to the campaign, inspired by the booker's controversial swerve towards 'readability', to establish 'the literature prize' which would be awarded to novels which were simply great literature irrespective of their accessibility, an idea of which i wholly approve, partly because i enjoy being challenged and stretched by novels and partly because 'readabie' novels are well served by other prizes. but even at the time i found myself slightly at a loss to find many good examples of good, challenging, contemporary literary novels which might compete for the prize and be excluded by other prizes. no names, no pack dril, but even those recently published novels touted as 'experimental' didn't seem to make great demands on the reader. if that sounds snobbish, bear with me...
last week i took part in a talk, organised by the reading agency and based around the publication of stop what you're doing and read this (see the entry stop... below). the last essay in the book (which i disagreed with for various reasons, but don't get me started) sang the praises of 'deep reading' and raised the possibility that we were, as a society, in danger of losing this precious ability.
then i found myself reading middlemarch (again) and dombey and son (for the first time), and it struck me that, if anything, we have already lost, or simply fail to exercise, the ability to 'read deeply'. like many other popular victorian novels, they are (in many passages) more syntactically complex, have a wider vocabulary and are peppered with more arcane cultural references than pretty much any popular, contemporary, literary novels. i'm serching for counter-examples here but having trouble. david foster wallace, perhaps, though he was always rather niche. toni morrison, in parts?
of course, all of this also applies to many popular novels written before the nineteenth century. it also applies to poetry (try reading the ring and the book, all 21,000 lines of it, browning's best-selling work). it also applies to much theatre. not just shakespeare, but even victorian melodrama, the east enders of its day.
it's easy enough to find reasons why contemporary writers may not write in this way: a reaction against the supposed elitism of high modernism (though i've never really been swayed by this argument), the smaller proportion of time we are able to devote to reading (though some very thick books are incredibly popular and summer holidays are both more common and more devoted to lounging), the influence of the school of carver (though that influence was never universal)... more mysterious, to me at least, is the seeming difference in the reading experience. we now live in a culture with wider education and in which many more books are published and read. were nineteenth century readers more intelligent than us? surely not. did the habit of reading aloud (many of dickens' novels would have been heard, rather than read, by a large part of their audience) make challenging language more accessible? were readers satisifed by not comprehending every part of a text, and willing to persevere in spite of this? i'm still waiting to find the academic who can explain this to me, though i suspect that some of the mystery will remain, simply because the subjective experience of being a reader 150 years ago is largely irrecoverable.
two conclusions... one, i do wish critics, educators and defenders of the fine art of reading would stop patting themselves (and us) on the back quite so much and put the modern reading experience in a slightly more humble historical perspective. two, i would like to see a genunely literary prize established, but i'd like to see more novels competing for it by pushing the boundaries of 'readability'.
and one final thought, which is some small compensation, if compensation is needed. despite my lack of knowledge about the history of science, i suspect that, throughout the nineteenth century, most educated readers would have been able to understand most scientific papers, apart perhaps from those in mathematics and the more mathematical areas of physics. that's not true now, of course. but... the rise in popular science books in recent years has been astonishing. and whilst julian barnes might not stretch you intellectually (that's a fact, not a value judgement, and i'm choosing him only becaue the sense of an ending won the booker) you don't have to walk more than a few steps in waterstones to find books about particle physics, cosmology, biology or neuroscience which will make your head hurt. i don't think it's an exaggerration to say stephen hawking's a brief history of time or the emperor's new mind by roger penrose would make the ring and the book seem accessible to most readers.
perhaps 'deep reading' has simply moved to the other end of the bookshop...
i really wanted to like this. i love hockney's early drawings, etchings and paintings. i love his photographs. I love his writing about photography and i am indebted forever to his book on the uses of lenses and mirrors in art which completely changed the way i look at many paintings. i love his eagerness, his breadth, his hunger for experiment, even his avuncular curmudgeonliness. but the works here are bland and facile, sunday-painterly in places. in many places, actually. precisely how and why is highlighted by a small gallery of earlier handscapes works. adrian searle, writing in the guardian was right in saying that the mark-marking in the new pictures is monotonous and dauby (i quote from memory). and the ipad drawings / paintings seem a logical extension of this new work because even the paintings have a flatness of surface which looks not greatly different in reproduction. but the mark-marking in the early landscapes is varied and energetic and the surfaces, consequently, much more alive. in fact, the exhibition reminded me that it is the mark-making which has always been the best thing about his pictures. look at the early ecthings - the brothers grimm, a rake's progress - and you'll see that he can draw as well as picasso when the wind is in the right direction. the sheer zest of his early royal college paintings (a vew of switzerland and rocky mountains with tired indians - i may have got the titles wrong; it's the only exhibition i've gone to in a long time for which i haven't wanted to buy the catalogue). even the mullholland drive pictures where different sections are all painted using different techniques. this section also contains three photographic joiners, two of the grand canyon and pearlblossom highway which were, for me, the best things in the exhibition.
i was going to paste an image here. then i clicked onto david hockney's 'authorised' website, the front page of which insists that you tick a box to confirm that you agree to the statement: this site and contents are copyright david hockney and may not be reproduced anywhere at any time in any form, which must be the sourest, least generous and most unwelcome welcome to a multi-millionaire's website i have ever seen.
so here's a picture of a fantastic self portrait by marlene dumas (het kwaad is banaal, evil is banal, 1984) which is better than everything in the hockney exhibition put together.
i am constantly amazed by our ability to become rapidly blase about technological near-miracles which would have seemed mind-bendingly inconceivable a few years previously. yesterday i watched puss in boots with my son and a friend of his (it was, by the by, rather good and i iaughed out loud on several occasions). there was utterly convincing fur. lots of it. there was an utterly convincing bowl of milk hurled onto the floor in close-up. there were utterly convincing mouths of which we saw the utterly convincing interiors. there was 3d which was not so convincing in my case because i have eccentric fixation in one eye, but i still have to buy and wear those bloody glasses to stop the screen looking fuzzy, but there was 3d nevertheless. these things were impossible only a few years ago. in 2004 i wrote a tv adaptation of raymond briggs's fungus the bogeyman and the whole project was, frankly, hobbled by the impossibility of doing any kind of liquid in cgi, and unpleasant liquids of all kinds are an essential part of the whole bogey world. but now...? for brief periods i sat watching the film godsmacked by what i was seeing. seconds later, of course, i returned to a passive mindless state of blase acceptance.
later in the evening i played, or rather attempted to play, my first xbox game. l a noire (this mostly involved failing to steer a police car). again, brief periods of gobsmackedness, followed seconds later by another dead pedestrian. i remember playing asteroids as a student on those glass pub-tables-come-games-consoles. white lines on a lack background. irregular polygons moving around and getting broken up. period
(in my defence i would like to say that i also read a few chapters of middlemarch and made some bread this morning).
which is perhaps why sci-fi is different now. there's simply no mileage in suggesting how thrilling the future might be, because we know that when we invent matter tranport we'll be using it to get instantaneous deliveries of green beans from kenya and whining about the fact that a coiuple of them are a bit brown.
second serving (see gaylord draxo below; and apologies to speakers of any language in which any of these are acceptable and humdrum names and therefore not funny at all):
byrom gorner, derrin dorrit, ramon babcock, farlay peebles, fransisco hee-sub, christof pup, ginger dupree, bordy nora, baird olvin, anurag moose, humus grub, flavius shu, grubbs homan, pollock dusty, lalo mundeep, cinderella clementina...