Thursday, 24 March 2016

#3: Las Meninas

Picture from:

It can be emotionally exhausting to wander through the Prado’s galleries. The museum specialises in 16th to 18th century paintings, particularly portraits, and many challenging gazes meet you from the walls. Without the luxury of easy reproduction technologies, painters had to convey as much as they could about the sitter in one shot, as it were, and the result is very condensed. Personality, status, profession, age, mood – in clothes, face, objects, background. 

Mary Tudor, then betrothed to Philip II of Spain, looks cross and formidable, as if she has been forced to sit and hold the red Tudor Rose and is ready to spring out of her chair the moment the sitting is over. Nearby is a portrait of the Grand Duke of Alba’s court jester: ‘only his large head, short legs and deformed hand (holding a deck of cards)… indicate his status of buffoon,’ says the label. In another room, St Peter Nolasco stares at an apparition of Saint Peter crucified upside down.

This time I am caught by Tintoretto’s Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet in a main hall, mainly for the charming scenes in the background – a crystal ship on an almost transparent sea, just sailed through a neoclassical arch; the Last Supper in a back room, sparky halos barely glimpsed. A dog sits squarely in the foreground.

A dog also appears in the foreground of Velasquez's Las Meninas (‘the maids of honour’), being teased by one of the attendants surrounding the little Infanta Margarita. She looks out from the canvas, perhaps at her parents Philip IV and Mariana of Austria, who would be standing roughly where I am now, since they are reflected in a mirror on the back wall. Another attendant leans to speak solicitously to the child, and a taller one also leans into her protectively, while glancing at us. Another servant stands in an open doorway at the back of the room, yellow light beyond. But the most challenging gaze in the picture comes from higher up, from the painter himself, staring down from behind a huge canvas he is working on (perhaps even this one?), which we see from the back. 

I fight off art history voices pointing out how, by putting himself in the picture, the artist highlights the subjective nature of representation, or makes plain the role of the painter-servant in legitimising the Spanish monarchy. What strikes me most is that this little group seem about to leave. The Infanta is still looking appealingly at her parents, but the group is breaking up and has started to chat, play and relax. There is movement, dynamism, crosscurrents, unlike Mary Tudor’s gripped posture. It is a playful portrait, of people about to disappear into their own world again, far from us.

Friday, 18 March 2016

#2: Head of Selene's horse

Head of horse from chariot of Selene, Greek goddess of the moon

This week’s object is a marble horse’s head – one which did a Grexit over 200 years ago when Lord Elgin bought the Parthenon sculptures from the Ottoman Empire (which Greece was then part of), displayed them first at a makeshift gallery in Park Lane and then sold them to the British Museum in 1816. The long-standing debate about whether the sculptures should be returned to Greece reared its head again on Radio Four last month in a discussion stimulated by the publication of Keeping Their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past Ended Up in Museums - And Why They Should Stay There by academic and cultural critic Tiffany Jenkins.

On the programme Jenkins argued that the status quo – half the remaining marbles in Athens, half in the British Museum – was ‘perfect’, since in the British Museum they are in the context of global, not national, culture and this helps us understand them in a way we would not anywhere else. This corresponds with the British Museum’s viewpoint.

Zimbabwean writer Tendai Huchu contended that museums could be ‘elaborate laundering houses’ for objects taken by colonisers, often in the name of an ideal of science given priority over the mindset of people who made and used the objects. Director of Birmingham Museums Trust Ellen McAdam brought the voice of practical experience, saying that repatriation of museum objects had to be decided on a case-by-case basis; that groups of people often wanted objects from their culture to stay in museums rather than be repatriated, and that the ‘monocultural museum’ was rather dull compared to the encyclopaedic one.

Of course, the debate touches many wider issues such as the purposes of museums, the value of authenticity and how past injustices should be responded to. My own view is that the Elgin Marbles should stay in the British Museum. I agree that objects should not be in monocultural silos and that their expanded relevance in the museum compensates somewhat for their removal. I also feel that it is simplistic to expect present generations to make up for actions of past ones.

But in saying this I am influenced by knowing the marbles myself through repeated visits over the years to that strange long windowless room which turns the Parthenon space inside out by forming a square from parts of the original frieze but with the designs facing inwards, so that we look at the Lapiths and Centaurs face-to-face – and close up. This seems to me as fitting a place for them as the Acropolis Museum in Athens (no one thinks they should be reattached to the Parthenon building itself, now a ruin).

But isn’t something being forgotten here? The objects themselves, the excitement they caused and the revolution they provoked in the way people in the early 19th century thought about art, beauty and the built environment. This is explored surprisingly infrequently compared to the question of their repatriation.

So I will leave the last word to painter Benjamin Haydon who first saw the marbles in 1808 in a ‘critical agony of anxiety’ about his huge painting of heroic Roman soldier Dentatus. The marbles helped him understand how to paint bodies in motion. He wrote later in his autobiography that he ‘saw the muscle showing under one armpit in that instantaneous action of darting out, and left out in the other armpits because not wanted.’ He learnt that ‘the end of the toes are the parts that are press[ed] down, the other joints not, consequently the flesh must rise all up about the nail, and the top of the upper joint keep its form.’ ‘When I saw… the most heroic style of art combined with all the essential detail of actual life,’ he wrote, ‘the thing was done at once and for ever.’

replica of horse’s head on the Parthenon

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

#1: Rock

This rock is half buried in the riverbank next to the stone wall which marks the end of my normal jogging route. It first drew me because of its stark black and white bands. What centuries- or millennia-old processes had formed those, I wondered, particularly the abrupt changes from black to white and back again? Why is there a wider vein of white within one of the black bands?

I started to look at it at the end of each day’s run, noting whether the water around it was higher or lower, how it was reflecting the light differently. It became a kind of touchstone, something to mark the end of a day often spent in the 2D virtual world. It reminded me of nature’s huge timescales, compared to which human deadlines are as nothing. I wish I could ‘read’ it easily – I guess it is quartz, but don’t know how old it might be, or what minerals and environmental pressures produced it.

And there are other patterns surrounding the rock – the fleeting uncapturable ripples of the water, the tiny waterfalls over little edges of stone in the river, the channels that the river makes in the earth (a mini-oxbow is emerging). And then the lines of time on the back of my own hand in the water, much closer to the ripples’ momentary timescale than to that of lengthy geological processes.

But ripple patterns are not always uncapturable. Occasionally a fleeting pattern made by water on sand is caught and fossilised as rock; I remember walking over one which had become part of a church path in Hassocks, near Brighton. The Natural History Museum also displays one. The pattern is on a horizontal face rather than in vertical layers like the quartz, and the sea has left wavy lines, without abrupt changes. A random moment has been saved, an enduring snapshot.