Painting Set Free
10 September 2014–25 January 2015
Admission £15, concessions available
John Ruskin believed that after 1845 Turner developed a mental disease which affected his painting. Ruskin was so influential that contemporary dealers dated many of Turner’s late works ‘ca. 1845’ so that they might slip under the wire before the artist went potty. But there is no evidence that Turner did suffer from any mental disease. Speculative science is not the answer. The only way to deal with late Turner is to take a good look at him. Tate Britain’s latest Turner exhibition and the exhibition catalogue – especially Sam Smiles’ fine article – is a good place to start.
But there is a genuine problem with these late works. Turner’s contemporaries often didn’t like them. They were in fact so unpopular that after Turner’s death many of them were packed away in the Tate and not given a proper viewing until the Sixties. We can see why it took a long time for people to like them. The subject matter was either radically new (steam engines) or old hat (dream classical cities). Either way it wasn’t popular, though some critics did get him; just read Thackeray on Rain, Steam and Speed.
A further problem with Turner’s late works is that we don’t always know whether he thought they were complete or if they needed more work or if they were dead ends. So we cannot be sure of their status, and, pace reader-response theory, the artist’s intentions do count.
Even when we can be sure the works were finished, their indistinct forms and lack of detail have provoked opposed reactions. Turner’s contemporaries wanted less atmosphere and more content. But in the Sixties these works were hailed as precursors of modern abstraction. Neither does justice to Turner, though in their way his contemporaries were more perceptive. Turner was, by and large successfully, painting what interested him, which was light and atmosphere. And this was based on very definite subjects, even if in the end Venice looked like Margate and vice versa. Painting was set free to the extent Turner chose to paint what he wanted, which was a highly personal mix of old and new, and how he wanted, which included slapping on paint and using his hands on it, like Titian or Rembrandt.
Of course sometimes the critics were right. There are some failures. The room of square framed pictures is simply garish. War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet pictures Napoleon in a semi-allegory of an artistic feud. The colours are just too much and because of his reflection in water Napoleon looks as if he is on stilts. But hanging next to it is its companion and part of the same artistic feud, Peace – Burial at Sea. This is one of a series of fine seascapes which features old sailing ships, the distinctive impasto white contrasted with black and grey and blue, and at the centre a burning fire.
Not all of Turner’s oils are so accessible. It can be easy to miss the point at a first glance but sometimes the way into what the artist is about is to focus on some revelatory point in the canvas. So, a picture of modern Rome – contrasting very favourably with a fantasy reconstruction of old Rome – can be approached by the large columns on the right of the work. These are quite precise both in outline and in the extraordinary capture of evening light on marble. Once the eye has concentrated on them, the rest of the picture falls into place. It is one of the pleasures of this very large show when just that sort of detail catches the eye and the artist’s vision suddenly makes sense.
Later than the Rome pictures is Norham Castle, often treated as a forerunner of Impressionism, but greatly influenced by Claude and a mistier version of some of Turner’s Petworth paintings. Here Turner gets the balance just right. He avoids making the work too much of a wheel of colours while catching, or creating, a beautiful atmosphere.
It is, though, the watercolours which are the most consistent highlights of this show. Apart from the choice different types of paper and the techniques which include the use of scratch marks (in water!), there is the application of those techniques with the speed of a skilled calligrapher and the hard-looking which culminates in Blue Rigi. Before that triumphant peak, there are pictures from a trip down the Mosel – don’t get too close to them – which mix tone and colour and paper which make you see Germany with Romantic eyes. But Blue Rigi is the highlight. It is a small painting of a mountain Turner had often sketched and painted. There is a full range of technique on display. Figures are put in place to set the whole thing off. But what is exhilarating is the mist on the mountainside. That is what its wispy cloud looks like. No wonder Turner was disappointed to get only eighty guineas for it.
THE TRUE HEROD
Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 216pp, hbk
978 0567575449, £20
As Margaret Vermes notes in the Foreword to this, Geza Vermes’s last volume, it is a collection of thoughts and notes and partially written pieces. In bringing the material together it does continue to have a slightly disjointed feel, but that does not stop the volume being fascinating to the scholar and amateur alike. Vermes was truly the master of biblical narrative and he brings together a vast array of sources in this short volume on one of the most interesting of the figures in the Bible – and indeed the one about whom people get the most confused (which Herod is which?).
This book is divided into three parts: the first deals with an overview of biblical history, the second is about Herod the Great himself and the third concerns itself with the descendants of Herod up until the end of the first century AD. As you might expect from a scholar of Vermes’s stature, this book is well researched and covers a huge area of material. It is however very readable and easy to understand. Vermes sets out the historical background with brevity and clarity that should be very welcome by all readers.
This book has a wonderful cast of characters from Herod himself through to Mark Antony and Cleopatra as well as of course Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Vermes handles the biblical material well when dealing with Herod Antipas and does take some of the material with a pinch of salt. Herod Antipas may have been unable to control his passions when it came to John the Baptist, but he had a passion for architecture and left a legacy in buildings at Tiberius by the Sea of Galilee.
It is perhaps Vermes’s short account of the life of Herod Agrippa I who reigned from 41 to 44 AD that I found most interesting. The varying accounts of his life make for interesting reading. To the Christians he is a tyrant and yet to the Jews he is a faithful and pious leader. We may never know quite which account is true and whether Agrippa’s tyrannical side may simply have been designed to appease the Romans. When he died he was mourned by the whole Jewish nation; the tale of his death portrayed ‘fancifully’ by Christian writers is less so portrayed by Josephus. All in all Vermes concludes with a masterstroke worthy of such a biblical scholar: ‘on the whole the transformation of the young rascal and adventurer into a repentant and kind middle-aged man seems more probable than the abruptly nasty and violent figure presented in the New Testament’.
The book is well illustrated with photographs and drawings of archaeological discoveries. Vermes is not afraid to ask the difficult questions and to push boundaries. This is no orthodox history; rather it gathers together pieces of a jigsaw to help us understand this period of history in the Holy Land. I for one will be taking this volume with me on my next trip to the Holy Land.
TOTUS TUUS, MARIA
Personal Consecration to Our Lady Following the Spiritual Teaching of St Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort Florian Kolfhaus
Gracewing, 168pp, pbk
978 0852448380, £7.99
There are only three times as many pages in this book as there are words in its title, subtitle and alternative subtitle (‘Twelve days of preparation for consecration to Our Lady – Deepening the spiritual life in accordance with the teaching of St Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort’) from the Italian original. Mgr Kolfhaus is a priest of the Diocese of Regensburg,
where the then Fr Joseph Ratzinger taught at the university and served for a period as its vice-president, and later, as Pope Benedict XVI, delivered a notable address entitled ‘Faith, Reason and the University – Memories and Reflections’. This work was commissioned by the Regensburg Institutum Marianum as both an exposition of St Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort’s Marian spiritual teachings and also in honour of Pope St John Paul II who, under St Louis-Marie’s influence, chose as his apostolic motto ‘Totus Tuus’ – wholly yours. The work was first published in German and then rendered in Italian in 2011 before its English publication this year.
It is a work of practical spirituality, and a twelve-step programme. Kolfhaus’ Prologue identifies St Louis-Marie’s intention as the making of saints, the subject of his ‘True Devotion to Mary’ or ‘Golden Book’. St Louis-Marie and Pope St John Paul share the conviction that in Our Lady we see the purest path to sainthood, to communion with God. St Louis-Marie believed that ‘saints are formed in Mary.’ This strand of Marian spirituality rests upon theological considerations regarding the grace of Baptism and life in the Trinity.
Whereas St Louis-Marie’s devotional work commended a thirty-three-day preparation for consecration to Our Lady, Kolfhaus here condenses that programme into twelve stages. The first three days constitute preparation by self-examination: the remaining nine are given over to a novena of prayer. Each day begins with an Invocation of the Holy Spirit, followed by a reading from Scripture and a reflection upon it. Then, on the first three days, there comes an examination of conscience – in respect of one’s relationship with God, neighbour and self – an act of penitence and a closing prayer. After the Scripture reading and reflection during the days of the Novena the reader then prays a decade of the Rosary, with an additional selection of spiritual readings, including nine hagiographical writings. These are beautiful and apposite additions to the Marian devotions, focusing in turn on Sts Maximilian Kolbe, Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort, Bernadette Soubirous, John Bosco, Aloysius Gonzaga, Thérèse of Lisieux, Maria Goretti, Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney and Bl. Jacina and Francisco of Fatima – each renowned for their own spiritual character, each likewise devoted in a special way to Our Lady.
Totus Tuus concludes with the form of the Act of Consecration to Mary and further advice on the necessary intention to pray daily the Rosary or at least a decade thereof.
You do not really need a book review to judge the merits of this title, which doubtless lie in the spiritual benefits afforded through engagement with the twelve days of prayer. Perhaps I or someone else will be able to write about these at a later date. But in literary terms it is a fine collection of Marian spiritual writings, sometimes let down by the translations.
IN LOVE AND WAR
Faber and Faber, 352pp, hbk
978 0571279456, £14.99
If you have ever visited Florence, then this novel is for you. If you haven’t visited Florence, this book will have you planning your first visit to this wonderful and romantic city. It is full of romance and intrigue as well as an Anglo-Catholic flavour in the shape of a guest appearance by St Mark’s Anglican Church in Florence. The description of Mass there is wonderful and it is a treat to read. There we can be sure of the Catholic sacraments in an Anglican context. I did have to put the book down and muse on how Anglo-Catholicism seemed to have fun over the Church of England. Now we seem to be in the grips of ‘Catholicism lite’: surely that must some day come to an end?
This is a novel about ideas. Esmond Lowndes is sent to Italy following an indiscretion with another male student in Cambridge in order to represent his father, one of the leaders of the British Union of Fascists, in creating links between the BUF and Mussolini. Quite why anyone would think sending a young man to Florence would have any effect on dampening his sexual desire is another matter! We are introduced to a wide range of Englishmen abroad as well as the beautiful Fiamma who is a member of the resistance. Esmond is shocked when he sees the true face of fascism, not a political way of life that makes the trains run on time but a brutal dictatorship, and he joins the resistance as well in order to counter the fascist threat. There is a beautiful vignette when the British community come face to face with a hint of the brutality of Mussolini’s blackshirts. They gather to hang a portrait of the new King in the British Council building; the meeting is disturbed by the blackshirts and the picture torn down. The seeming order brought by the fascists is in that moment disturbed and brought into sharp focus and a little too close to home. This happened around the world as British men and women felt the foundations of Empire shake in the mid to late Thirties.
This novel is wonderful for its descriptions of people and places. Indeed, Florence is in many ways the true star of the book. As the novel progresses, our hero and heroine take on the evil head of the secret service and the book, like all good adventures, takes a final twist as we are guided through one final daring escapade. It had me on the edge of my sun-lounger! In Love and War is fast-paced, funny and in places thrilling. It is an excellent example of the historical novel.
SPCK, 160pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0 281 07246 0, £12.99
‘The priest must be a mystic, a contemplative, a person of prayer…who must be, in every fibre of his being, formed by prayer’ (Robert Barron). This quotation captured for me the essence of Andrew Mayes’ tour de force on Jesus, ministry and priesthood. Amply illustrated from Scripture, tradition and contemporary stories from ministry, Another Christ is an inspirational volume including chapter by chapter questions for reflection and prayer exercises. The latter, from clenching and unclenching your fists, throwing stones into the sea, to sitting in the dark then singing Wesley’s hymn to ‘fire from above’ especially caught my imagination.
Fr Mayes has worked in the Holy Land and is well equipped to take us back to Jesus in the days of his flesh as builder, hermit, rebel, mystic, reveller, jester, iconoclast, revealer and enigma, liberator, traveller and mentor. His book reads well and moves through these headings about Jesus with an eye to ministry and priesthood. Though the Godward-ness of priesthood prevails, his biblical exposition leans to the prophetic and is, as promised, unsettling and disturbing as well as heartening and inspiring for twenty-first-century priests and ministers.
The hermit life of Jesus is set forth as the key to survival for him and for priests. ‘The hardest thing is to live simply’, but without that ministry cannot breathe or tell of Christ. Priests are not called so much to walk the corridors of power ‘but to find a scruffy and bleeding Christ in the broken and marginalized, and to honour him in them’ (Matt. 25). ‘Is my spirituality about self-fulfilment or about empowering sacrificial living?’ With such questions Fr Mayes provides a Jesus-centred conscience examination for clergy that is imaginative, inspirational and hard to duck. In his presentation of Jesus, intimacy meets ultimacy. As in the days of his flesh, Jesus challenges dualistic thinking that puts outer compliance before interiority. Christ is iconoclast before he is icon, assailing Temple ritualism and Sabbath legalism as well as false ideas about people and ministry. There is a searching section on the destructive ‘What would they do without me?’ tendency found among priests set on being achievers not receivers, workaholic and perfectionist, incapable of relaxation.
I found Mayes’ chapter on ‘Jesus the revealer and enigma’ particularly helpful in its treatment of the emphasis on secrecy surrounding Our Lord in the Gospels. He quotes Robert Barron: ‘The priest of Jesus Christ is, first and foremost, a mystagogue, one who bears the Mystery and initiates others into it’. We are to be spiritual sleuths helping people connect with God, with one another and with the cosmos. ‘Thomas Merton says that the gate of heaven is everywhere – our role is to help open the door…to roll away the stone and unleash the energy and wonder of the risen Christ’. Priests are called to inspire a longing and a thirst in people for something more. ‘Without a doubt, the mystery of our religion is great’ (1 Tim. 3.16).
The encouragement this book brings to refresh spiritual interiority is coupled to its prophetic vision for the transformation of society. There is a rousing call to tackle pessimism and fatalism (‘Insha’ Allah’ – ‘If God wills it’) breaking spirals of gloom. It is a book worth reading, especially by priests since it both affirms the Mystery we serve and challenges blindness to the biblical portrait of Jesus who is set as model for all Christians.
Another Christ captures the eternal freshness of Jesus.
THE POINT OF VIEW OF THE UNIVERSE
Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics
Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer
OUP, 420pp, hbk
978 0199603695, £30
Henry Sidgwick ought to be the most famous son of the Yorkshire market town of Skipton. Instead, he remains virtually unknown. Born in 1838, he was destined to be a man of solid intellect. Being also a person of integrity, he resigned his fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge, because of doubts about the Thirty-Nine Articles (his father was a clergyman schoolmaster). He continued his work there, however, and became one of the pioneers of women’s education and a cofounder of Newnham Hall. A supporter of gay rights and of religious freedom, he was in general ahead of his age, a liberal when the word meant something.
His great work is The Methods of Ethics, probably the most powerful exposition of a system of ethics based on reason alone ever written. As an intellectual achievement, it has influenced Anglo-Saxon moral philosophy at least until the millennium or, as this book suggests, well into this century. Unfortunately, it was also a heavy book. So reasonable and fair-minded is Sidgwick, and so keen to cover every side of each argument, that the end result is dull and dense.
If moral judgements are to be held and shared by all men and women (that is the hope and ideal), then they must be expressed in a manner that is universal in application. Hence Sidgwick’s phrase which is the title of this book: ‘the point of view of the universe’. He took it as a self-evident truth that the good of one individual is of no greater importance than the good of any other: ethical judgements must, therefore, be objective truths that each of us can know by rational means.
It is an approach to ethics that is sadly undervalued. Rigorous analysis of the terms we use in our moral judgements would sharpen our appreciation of the values involved. We surely spend too much time on the content, arguing about goals and values, often in quasi-religious terms (think, environmental debates and arguments about global warming), when we should be considering the forms of the argument. The legacy of Sidgwick needs to be better known.
We should, then, welcome this book. This gives an interesting challenge, for the principal commentator is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. This is the man who makes Richard Dawkins look like a cuddly pussy-cat. This is the philosopher who asks: which would you save first in a fire, a human baby or a socialized, adult monkey? And who answers: the monkey. This is not provocative exaggeration, he has clear and cogent arguments as to why an adult monkey (because of her socialization) is of greater value, or more important, than a human infant. You and I, of course, imagine a fire in a stable in Bethlehem, and are horrified.
Am I the one being provocative now? It does show that the rational debate about the forms of ethical argument, hugely important as they are, do not cover absolutely everything, however much we may wish it so. There is always an element of the subjective that intrudes upon the objective, even when our task is to remove it. We seek the objective, as Sidgwick taught us, precisely in order to talk more openly one to another; but we cannot truly talk one to another unless we bring in the subjective, that (objectively) should separate us.
Is Peter Singer the right man to elaborate Sidgwick’s careful work? That is the interest of this book. Myself, I think some of his conclusions are outrageous, but he is a clever man, with a quite superb writing style. This is a challenging book for ND readers.
Who has the last word? As I said earlier, Sidgwick was a man of great integrity. At the end of his life’s work, he admitted his failure (which to me is his great strength), ‘The prolonged effort of the human intellect to frame a perfect ideal of rational conduct is seen to have been foredoomed to inevitable failure.’ He was right not to bring God into the argument, and yet without him he knew he had failed. There is something poignant in his old atheism of the late nineteenth century, when he suggested the words for his own funeral, rejecting the CofE service for the simple, ‘Let us commend to the love of God with silent prayer the soul of a sinful man who partly tried to do his duty.’