THE CULT OF BEAUTY
The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900 Victoria and Albert Museum
2 April–17 July 2011
Admission £12, concessions available
‘ALL ART is quite useless… the Grosvenor [Gallery] is really the only place… every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist.’ Those phrases plucked at not quite random from the beginning of The Picture of Dorian Gray so easily sum up the ‘art for art’s sake’ of this exhibition. Before he wrote that book, Wilde had been hired to tour the States and explain what the Movement was about so the Americans could ‘get’ the jokes in G and S’s Patience. And he had written ‘House Decoration’, an article which translated the Movement into a ‘lifestyle’ sales piece. No surprise then that the opening chapter of Dorian Gray reads like a shopping list for the Movement.
And yet Wilde was not typical of the Movement. He was the most celebrated self-promoter amongst a set which thrived on self-promotion, but he was a literary man amongst painters, draughtsmen and craftsmen, and he went clean-shaven. Most of the people in this show, men and women, were hairy – long-haired women or whiskery men. They look very Victorian, which they were, even if they were exotic and Italian. Only at the end with Beardsley and photos of pretty Sicilian rough is there a hint of the self-conscious decadence which Wilde loved to personify. The rest of the show is long on mistresses.
Take away the tittle-tattle though, and what’s left? If we judge the art by the quality of the art, which surely is what the Leightons and the Rossettis and the Whistlers would have wanted, is it any good? The paintings on show are a mixed bunch. Many are detailed and very colourful and the colours often have a real life and strength to them. The influence of Japan is there in some flattened perspective and off-centre decoration. The early paintings feature women with strong, up-tilted jaw-lines and other kinds of eccentric beauty. And the standards of classical painting and sculpture have been subtly altered in favour of Victorian takes on ancient or medieval art. But the men are handsome and the women fascinating and there aren’t many poor people, as Morris complained about Whistler’s Thames nocturnes.
Amongst the craftwork, and this movement prized the craftsman against mass production, Rossetti’s bookbinding is attractive and there is a strong sense of careful design in the household articles – the tea services, fire irons and so on. This is life for the artistically inclined upper middle classes and very nice it is too.
A number of the pictures on show were great favourites of college friends and are still the kind of thing you find in the clutter of female undergraduate rooms. And the three Whistler Symphonies in White are attractive and the picture of Carlyle possibly makes him look softheaded even though the tones of gray are beautifully modulated.
In short, the art is very much a progression within the Victorian era which is no bad thing but does not justify the pre-publicity claim that this was revolutionary art. And if is it true that as the publicity says the movement lacked religious themes and that it overturned the Protestant work ethic, the lack of a worldview amongst artists who lived in a London which suffered the same poverty and degradation as parts of today’s Calcutta suggests not greatness of spirit but a lack of moral seriousness. Dickens’ Hard Times gives a more humane and satisfying take on the evils of Manchester capitalism than Wilde’s guide to soft furnishings.
At the purely artistic level, considering that just over the Channel the period of this exhibition is also the period of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, the Movement seems provincial. Even the Japonisme of Whistler, the stand-out artist of the show, is tame compared to Van Gogh and Gauguin. A telling detail here is the ceramics on display and in the paintings. These are blue and white Chinese ware, export ware rather than the plain, slightly imperfect connoisseurs’ pieces which were beginning to be collected at the end of the Movement.
The Movement was just behind the curve whether in painting or ceramics. Its aestheticism was not modern and minimalist, it was late Victorian. And if it was as heartless as it liked to claim, that disdain of moral purpose has its legacy in the Shopping Channel, not in a tradition of making beautiful objects.
The exhibition is well organized. The recreation of the Grosvenor Gallery is more limited than the publicity suggests. The recreation of Whistler’s ‘Peacock Room’ is a computerized recreation, the original is in the States, but it does give a sense of the finest late flowering of ‘greenery-yallery.’
The show also has Millais’ Mrs Jopling, one of the most attractive portraits of the Victorian era, and a more interesting painting of her than Whistler’s Harmony in Flesh Colour and Black: Mrs Jopling. She makes Whistler’s pale young women look insipid and suggests that after all Wilde wasn’t so clever when he wrote, ‘every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist.’
OF GODS AND MEN
Artificial Eye, 122 mins £9.99
THERE ARE two sorts of films set in monasteries and convents: one sentimental and pious; the other bracing and meditative. The latter includes Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, or Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story, and now also Of Gods and Men.
This is a story of our time, and is based on the true story of the martyrdom of seven Monks of the Cistercian Monastery of Atlas in Algeria (of the same congregation as the Caldey Island community).
The film starts by establishing the routine of the eight monks as they go about their prayer, work and service in the austere Cistercian Monastery. Luc (Michael Lonsdale) is a kindly, experienced doctor, who holds daily clinics for the villagers with the assistance of the eldest brother, the ancient Amédée.
Others work in the garden, assist a labourer to build a wall, help an old lady to apply for a passport to visit her son in France, and bottle honey from their open hives to sell in the nearby market as ‘Miel de l’Atlas’. Their Superior, Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson), is the intellectual of the group, seen at his desk, writing surrounded by books.
The Monks mix easily with the Arab population, and we see them attend Muslim prayers conducted in the local dialect. This quiet, undemonstrative existence of contemplation and useful activity is disrupted by an escalating series of events that puts the monks’ lives in danger and forces them to examine the nature of their vocations, turning the film into a kind of thriller.
Twenty Muslim men stormed the monastery on 26 March 1996, and took the first seven monks they found because they had been told to go and get ‘those seven monks’. They were taken away from their home and held captive for some time.
While captive, they were accused of various crimes and punished for being Christian. Abbot Christian had written a letter in 1995 that began ‘If it should happen one day – and it could be today – that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country:
He went on to ask the reader to ‘associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity. My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value’ The seven were killed on 21 May 1996, and their deaths were announced on 23 May 1996.
Of Gods and Men climaxes in a quite incredible ‘Last Supper’ sequence, in which the monks share a festive meal to the accompaniment of Tchaikovsky’s Grand Theme from Swan Lake, playing on an old tape machine in the corner. The camera does nothing but pan slowly around the table while this happens, minutely watching these men’s careworn faces as they absorb the mystery of their own deaths.
One cannot help but be moved by this film. The liturgical purists among you may find fault, but this is not the point of the film. It is a story of fidelity to a place and a way of life.
It is a slow, but thoroughly engrossing and thought-provoking film. The acting and direction are both superb. It makes a refreshing change to see a film which puts faith into its proper context. A definite must for all.
HOW CAN WE KEEP FROM SINGING? 3
Songs for your Liturgies: Compiled by CJM Music CJM Music, £10.99
HOW CAN We Keep from Singing? is the third collection of songs in the popular series from CJM music. The collection m is made up of songs and acclaations featuring work by well-known contemporary liturgical composers including Bernadette Farrell and Bob Hurd.
All three CDs in this series provide a valuable reference point for individuals or groups looking to expand and develop the liturgical music used in their parishes or schools.
Unlike the previous two discs in the series, this recording features a fullband –including drums – on several tracks, but CJM describes it as ‘retaining the simple, accessible arrangements.’
Whilst there is an element of simplicity, some of these tracks do have certain complexities and a wider instrumentation than some other CJM resources. For example, Rejoice ‘n’ Sing volumes one and two hold much more potential for re-creation in a parish or a school because of the simple arrangements.
The music retains its beauty and effect in a liturgical setting whilst being reproduced on a church organ or piano. Some of the music from How Can We Keep from Singing? maybe more difficult to translate from a full band to a pipe organ and parish choir.
The music is, however, intended specifically for use in that setting. Cleverly, the track listing moves comfortably within the liturgical context of the Eucharist from start to finish. Although it is not directly prescribed for the different elements of the liturgy it is an intentional, structural tool to point users in the right direction and to encourage the CD to be used as it was designed, as ‘songs for your liturgy.’ The CD contains gathering songs, music that would be suitable as part of a penitential rite, Gospel acclamations, intercessory prayers, offertory music, communion anthems and songs for the sending out. However, despite the clear potential for Eucharistic usage, all of the tracks would be fitting for another liturgical context or a more informal setting.
A liturgical grouping is vital for the way this recording is intended to be received. There also seems to be quite a significant message for the Church today which emerges from within the music.
The CD begins with a song which calls for the Church to ‘listen and draw near.’ Opening with the track ‘God Is Still Speaking’ perhaps reveals another intention of this grouping of liturgical music.
CJM Music is committed to teaching and inspiring those who work with liturgy and their new inset course Let Us Proclaim the Mystery of Faith works closely with the concept that ‘the key to a good celebration of liturgy in School or Parish is ‘full, active and conscious participation’’, and that the Church must be open to change and development in liturgy.
This recording demonstrates the musical possibilities in liturgical contexts; and proves that CJM continues to have a unique and valuable ministry in calling liturgists to recognize that ‘we live in a time of great change and opportunity.’
A RETREAT WITH THOMAS MERTON
A Seven Day Spiritual Journey Esther de Waal
Canterbury Press, 114pp, pbk
978 1848250666, £12.99
THIS BOOK, first published in 1992 and reissued this year, was a groundbreaker – providing written and visual material (Merton’s photographs) for a ‘home made retreat’. It has been reviewed over the past twenty years by such spiritual giants as Richard Holloway who ‘warmly recommends this book.’ The Tablet also called it ‘exceptionally beautiful.’ Esther de Waal writes very clearly, with an assured balance that is born of a confident mastery of her material. It is a very finely crafted piece of work, and is an important part of her portfolio which also includes commentaries and adaptions of the Rule of St Benedict. I know several people who have greatly benefited from her contribution to the library of ‘practical spirituality’.
Merton is a fascinating figure full of contradictions; the hermit who loved company, the western monk and a scholar of eastern mysticism; the person of the enclosure who travelled widely. He insisted that ‘books about prayer’ were no substitute for prayer itself and then wrote a few himself! He was in many respects a liberal but spoke with certainty and directness with authority about the spiritual life. One suspects that he was a ‘spiritual director’ of the old school, rather than a ‘prayer guide’ of the new.
De Waal speaks quite candidly about her own response to Merton’s writing. In her admiration and gratitude to him I couldn’t work out whether there was a hint of hagiography or just a highly developed personality cult. One feature that struck me is that in using Merton as a ‘primary source’ it means there is very little mention of Scripture and almost a complete absence of direct references to the New Testament.
Nevertheless there are some real jewels embedded in the text which is very clear and complemented by Merton’s black and white landscape and still life photographs.
As I read it, I kept asking myself ‘who would I recommend this book to?’ I came up with a short list of middle-class, middle-aged women! This is not a book that one could put in the hands of someone who didn’t read books, and couldn’t understand expressions like ‘the lacunae and limitations of personal awareness.’ But there are plenty of this particular sort of reader about; which is why it has run into three editions.
IS THE ORDINARIATE FOR YOU?
Some Considerations for Thoughtful Anglicans about the Ordinariate Proposals Contained in and Offered by Anglicanorum Coetibus
Anglican Association, 27pp, pbk
£2.50 from the publishers
THIS WELL-PRODUCED pamphlet sets out, in its own words ‘to ensure that, if you are in the process of deciding whether you should accept the Roman Catholic faith, you should fully understand what such a decision will entail’. It is not a defence of Anglicanism (with which most of its authors are more or less radically disgruntled) but a dissuasive against Catholicism, which the same authors view with a detached and patrician disdain. They simply cannot credit that so many people buy such tosh.
‘Thoughtful Anglicans’ will be surprised less by the contents of this paper – with most of which they will be familiar from books and articles dating from the middle of the last century – than by its omissions. They will, perhaps, find this caricature of Catholic Faith not only dated but unrecognizable.
This is an account which majors on the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council and nowhere mentions the second. It quotes in full the Professio Fidei Tridentina of 1565 (the so-called Creed of Pope Paul IV), and does not even acknowledge the existence of the Catechism of the Catholic Church of 1994.
This might be thought to be slovenly were it not for the nagging suspicion that it is deliberate. Rome, for the authors of this pamphlet, is not the Scarlet Woman (who might at least be challenging or interesting), but a comfortable old Aunt Sally at whom can be shied all the old reliable brickbats.
It is hard to see how any of this will be helpful to ‘thoughtful Anglicans’, for it signally fails to address the very questions they might be asking: questions which are as much about the Churches of the Reformation as they are about the Church of the Counter-Reformation.
Papal infallibility is no greater issue for many than Synodical infallibility (and perhaps less so, since the one is defined and limited, the other still untrammelled and expansionist). Appeals to the authority of the undivided Church sound hollow indeed when unilateral changes are made to the orders of that Church – changes which the Roman Pontiff asserts to be beyond his competence and authority.
In short this is a sad little book, which reeks of past controversies and offers little if anything to the crisis of the times. If Victor Meldrew were a churchman, this is the pamphlet he would write.
THE ENGLISH VICARS APOSTOLIC – 1688-1850
Nicholas Schofield and
Family Publications, 256pp, hbk
978 1907380013, £19.95
FROM THE authors of The English Cardinals (2007) comes another well-researched, engaging and attractive title, this time on the English Vicars Apostolic, the bishops who served the Roman Catholic population in England and Wales from the reign of James II until the restoration of the diocesan hierarchy by Pope Bl. Pius IX in 1850. Thirty-two colour illustrations accompany the text, which is itself elegantly presented. The format of the book consists of short biographical portraits of these men, some over just a couple of pages, others meriting more extensive entries.
The portraits are organized into chapters on each of the geographical districts (London, Midland and Central, Eastern, Northern, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Western and Welsh) served by the Vicars Apostolic: whilst this allows the reader to follow developments in these regions over a period of time, because of translations and appointments between the districts, one sometimes has to jump between sections in order to follow the career of an individual bishop.
This approach nevertheless works well, as little material is repeated across chapters and articles. Suggestions for further reading are appended to each article, and a more extensive general bibliography follows at the end of the book. Fr Schofield provides an informative introduction. The fortunes of the various Vicars Apostolic varied almost as much as their characters: under the harshest penal laws Roman Catholic clergy faced persecution and imprisonment, but gradually the Church achieved toleration and respect within English society. The bishops and their priests did heroic work, often with scant resources, but with solid faith and determination.
The authors present a charming mix of the strictly historical and the anecdotal, and succeed in conveying the personalities and idiosyncrasies of their subjects. Disputes between regular (religious) and secular (diocesan) clergy were frequent (with only a handful of the bishops drawn from the religious orders), and particularly interesting are the relationships between the Vicars Apostolic and the Holy See, with some of the bishops listed here keener than others to assert the independence of the Catholic Church in England from Rome, whilst still others were especially concerned to integrate Catholic faith with loyalty to the English monarch.
This work is carefully referenced, but for all its academic rigour is nevertheless quite accessible by the ordinary reader, although not all the technical terms are always fully explained. The length of articles means that The English Vicars Apostolic can easily be put down and taken up again, but on the other hand the subject-matter is interesting enough to keep one sufficiently attentive to get through the work in one sitting. One might not automatically think this a subject upon which to write a book that will appeal beyond the academy; however, Nicholas Schofield and Gerard Skinner have done just that.
THE PHILOKALIA AND THE INNER LIFE: ON PASSIONS AND PRAYER
James Clarke & Co, 401pp, pbk
978 0227173428, £28
UNDERSTANDING OUR inner world has always been seen as a step towards improving it. That world is one of thought as well as prayer, resourced by psychotherapy as well as the spiritual disciplines. In this book the age-old spiritual wisdom of the Orthodox Philokalia is presented with all its insight on the inner life.
The presentation by spirituality professor and psychiatrist Christopher Cook has an eye to contemporary wisdom on mental well-being and the common ground it has with the Christian spiritual tradition.
This imaginative study succeeds in drawing out the spiritual riches of Philokalia which is a collection of texts from forty spiritual authors who wrote between the fourth and fifteenth centuries to help Christian disciples rise above self-indulgence to be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ [2 Peter 1.4].
Inner life is prey to our passions and the identification of these in Philokalia and psychotherapy is charted. Inner life is also the key to both psychological health and our growth into God, to ‘the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ’ [Ephesians 4.13]. Just as psychotherapy is concerned to counter demoralizing influences such as depression so the Christian spiritual tradition counters the listlessness of ‘accidie,’ the ‘demon of the midday sun,’ in one of Cook’s cited parallels.
The idea of the self gaining integration through the pursuit of God is literally way beyond psychotherapy. The two sources of wisdom are coming from very different places. Nevertheless theproject of comparison gives a great pretext for unpacking the riches of Philokalia compiled over eleven Christian centuries. Can the soul experience God directly? Is purity of heart only found in those who know their impurity? What shock therapies are exercised in the spiritual life?
These are some of the areas engaged with in a rich resource that demonstrates how we can change our thinking and our behaving by drawing on the insights of psychology and Christian spirituality. Cognitive therapy is seen, for example, to have parallels in the counsel of Christian spiritual direction as when directees need shaking into decisive action for their soul’s benefit. The recitation of Psalms and use of the Jesus Prayer are ‘praying cures’ that have some affinity with the ‘talking cures’ of psychotherapy in the common aim of overcoming negative thinking.
This book succeeds as a taster for a rich spiritual resource as well as a reminder of the essential yoking together of psychological and spiritual well-being.
WALSINGHAM AND THE
Gary Waller Ashgate, 250pp, hbk
978 1409405092, £55
THIS BOOK is a continuation of Gary Waller’s previous explorations into the history and literature of Walsingham (see ‘Book of the Month’, ND May 2011). This book follows a sequential pattern charting the history of the Shrine. It is not, however, a straightforward history as it is woven through with stories of Walsingham written across the last five centuries. Many of the stories are fascinating and it is interesting to see which authors have been chosen. There is a great exploration of the writings of Erasmus, and considerable interest in the Pynson Ballad and the N-town plays. The writings of Sidney and Raleigh are quoted. The Victorian author Agnes Strickland wrote a sort of ‘Canterbury Tales’ story about Walsingham called ‘The Pilgrims of Walsingham’, which can only be accessed as a reprint-on-demand publication, so is very obscure, but merits a chapter in the book. The final authors are more modern. Hopkins, Eliot and Lowell are pre-eminent, as are the novels of A.N.Wilson.
Although aspects of the history such as the dissolution of the Abbey are well documented, much of the rest of the book is concerned with an invented and imaginary history of Walsingham. Gary Waller calls this ‘Imaginings’, and refers to the ‘invented traditions’ of Walsingham.
The book is written from the standpoint of feminist theology. Mary is seen almost as a sex object. References are made to gynaecological hints in all sorts of places. Gary Waller calls this gynotheological imagination. I must admit that I had never seen the semicircular arches in the Holy House as anything except arches, but who knows what underlying unconscious thoughts were in the architect’s mind. I encourage you to dip into the book to find Gary Waller’s explanation! The book concentrates on the womanhood of Our Lady. There is little or no reference to the motherhood of Mary. As in the previous book there are indications of sexual impropriety at the Shrine which caused its downfall in the sixteenth century. There are questions within the book about the stance the Anglican Shrine takes over the ordination of women to both the priesthood and episcopate. It is interesting to note that there are no similar questions asked of the Roman Catholic Shrine. It is a scholarly book written from a secular point of view.
Gary Waller admits that he has been fascinated by Walsingham for many years and in his preface writes that he ‘is skeptical (sic) but intrigued’ by Walsingham. This is a book which could be read with interest by academics, but not a book which I would recommend for any pilgrim intending to visit the Shrine. I imagine that many reading this book who know the Shrine well would be left asking a number of questions of the author. As Waller says in the last chapter, ‘The authorities of medieval (and contemporary) Walsingham would probably regard my interpretations as foolish nonsense.’
Betty Jarrett ND