Until 13 March 2016
Frank Auerbach is Britain’s greatest painter and – like Lucian Freud, our last greatest British painter – he is German. Like Freud, Auerbach is also a consummate Londoner. One of the pleasures of this show is his feel for a London that was lost in the seventies: down-at-heel inner London. His London is not the London of Belgravia’s hot money, or the hipster colonies and watering holes of trustafarians. Auerbach lives in the dingy London of ‘Black Books’ and ‘The Sweeney’: his stamping grounds are Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill. He paints undivided terraced houses with interesting garden sheds for children to explore, back in the time before video games. He also paints parks that look down towards the City, and indoor municipal baths.
This might suggest that Auerbach is a backward looking, nostalgic artist. He isn’t: not nostalgic, anyway. But he is backward looking in that he is immersed in the great painterly tradition. Fifty years ago he was at the cutting edge of that tradition, and this show is clearly that of a ‘modern’ artist. So Auerbach doesn’t always make it clear what he’s painting, and, like Turner before him, elements of his landscapes are not ‘there’ in real life. But it doesn’t take much looking to see Van Gogh and Constable in these pictures. Indeed, there is a clear continuity of sensibility between Constable’s sketches of Hampstead Heath and Auerbach’s paintings of Primrose Hill. There may even be a whiff of Canaletto. Not, of course, the grand set piece Canalettos; but the back street, backwater Canalettos that are so satisfying.
Seeing what Auerbach is up to, or where he is coming from, is one of the ways into his art. Quite deliberately, his paintings require work from the viewer in an attempt to create the moment of vision that Auerbach believes is the key to great painting. He wants his pictures to be timeless, like the greatest works of Titian or Rembrandt. He doesn’t always succeed; but neither did they. Always, though, there is a strong sense that what Auerbach is after is not a photographic, minute realisation of his subject matter, but a statement of what the subject looks like through the medium of paint.
That is part of his continuity with the tradition. But unlike Titian (certainly) and Rembrandt (to an extent), Auerbach seems to have cheered up over time. You wouldn’t guess it from photos of the artist, but his paint has become lighter. Where once thick impasto created the effect of a dark, bass relief, his latest work is leaner, if only to stop critics asking why he uses so much paint.
Another feature of Auerbach’s work is his very limited range of subjects: be it the site of his landscapes, or the individuals he paints. His work has many subtle variations on the same theme, most obviously the portraits in this exhibition. His sitters are mainly family members, journalists, and curators. It would take a very good eye to spot the subjects of the paintings in real life (not so the graphite sketches). What is Auerbach trying to achieve here? It’s not the expression of character in the sitter’s eyes, but the turn of a body, the angle of the head, a characteristic pose that he is after. And this he is very good at. The early portraits are very much just that – early works when he couldn’t afford too many colours – and they are all very grim and post-war (Auerbach lost his close family to the concentration camps and at first struggled to make his way in 1950s Britain). The later works, though – like this show as a whole – are well worth a look: a good, long hard look. That is what Frank Auerbach demands of us, and what he deserves.
BLESSED ROGER CADWALLADOR
The search for the Marches’
Gracewing, 143pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0852448670 £9.99
Despite its subtitle, this book nevertheless gives a full and well-documented account of the life and work of Roger Cadwallador (15681610), as well as the time in which he lived. It is a very good book, little undervalued by comparison with Evelyn Waugh’s biography of Edmund Campion: and this is the high praise I mean it to be.
It has an interesting cover that depicts Cadwallador on the scaffold, about to be hanged by a hangman who does not look as though he relishes his task. This is a church window from St Ethelbert’s in Leominster, and there is some reason to believe it might be a fair likeness, as it seems to be taken from a painting kept at the Royal English College in Valladolid. It represents Cadwallador as a fit, intelligent, sensitive gentleman cheerfully awaiting his end; and this indeed is what he appears to have been.
His father was a small landowner, who may have been – like many another – a secret Catholic who attended his parish church in accordance with the law but held privately to their Roman Catholicism. There is a suggestion that some men relied upon their wives to bring up their sons in the ‘old faith’.
Perhaps this was true in young Roger’s case. He was a studious boy with a natural talent for Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, attended an English Grammar School – where his linguistic skills were fostered – and was always also contemplative and thoroughly acquainted with the Scriptures. He later entered the English College at Douai, in Flanders.
It seems to me as if the hatred of Catholics might have started to wane in Cadwallador’s time as a missionary, as he kept out of sight and tended faithfully to his loving flock. But the law was still the law, and incidents occurred to stir things up against such men. There is an excellent consideration of the Gunpowder Plot, started by some rather unwise Jesuits; the Essex Rebellion; and the disappointing of Catholic hopes on the accession of James I.
All this is related in detail, even excitingly, and the tale of Cadwallador’s incarceration – in cruelly foul conditions – is detailed and moving. At this point the author’s own work sickened her, and it became almost impossible for her to read. Cadwallador was hanged, drawn, and quartered; but refused to deny his maker, and consistently compared his pains and humiliation to those of his Saviour.
THE BOOK PAGES
Gracewing, 464pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0852449687 £20
Edward Short is an Irish Roman Catholic who lives in New York. His book reviews published here show him to be well read, perceptive, conservative, opinionated, erudite, a sound Catholic and a clear writer. He is never dull, and every one of his essays held my attention even though they were sometimes about people I didn’t know and didn’t wish to know. He is not ashamed of his prejudices: he doesn’t like Luther, has no time for Protestantism, and seems to prefer an unashamedly triumphant Catholicism to the modern variety.
Short admires Pius XI and Pius XII, doesn’t like his fellow Irishman W. B. Yeats, and sees Gladstone as a muddled liberal. He finds James Joyce’s writing compromised by his lack of belief in God; and even Churchill – whom he admires – is finally judged lacking for his atheism. He is occasionally fair when Anglicanism produces poets like T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, or scholars like Rowan Williams; but what he values about them is clearly their Catholic ethos, their appreciation of the whole tradition of the Church, and their grasp of its eternal verities.
If he firmly dislikes some of his subjects, he writes with passionate approval of others. His essay on Thackeray made me want to read Vanity Fair. His enthusiasm for proper philosophers (as opposed to the moderns like the ‘impossibly lecherous Freddie Ayer’) reminds me of the importance of clear thinking that is deeply rooted in Western tradition. Seeing things from a Catholic perspective makes him a good judge of writers like Gerard Manley Hopkins and Evelyn Waugh.
Short’s essay on the architecture of St Peter’s Basilica is magnificent: it reminds us that it was built by deeply devout architects, and shows how appropriate it is to the genius of Catholicism to have at its centre a sprawling baroque church that encapsulates the rich variety and incompleteness of Catholic life. His essay on Graham Greene is one of the best, and shows how that adulterous and partly agnostic novelist still manages to capture truths about Catholicism that most novelists miss: good and evil are realities in life, and God is found mixed up in them. Scobie (The Heart of the Matter), Pinkie (Brighton Rock), and even drunken priests can show us the merciful grace of God better than many conventionally well-behaved Christians.
It is Short’s appreciation of Catholic values that makes his writing so refreshing. Natural theology cannot be changed with fashion, but is enduring. The theology of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas goes on opening up our minds to understand new truths; whereas more modern theologians pass quickly away.
Most of us struggle to keep up our reading. This would be a good Lenten book, with essays of a bite-sized length that are always clear, entertaining, and informative. The variety of subjects covered – churchmen, architects, industrialists, poets, philosophers, and writers – ensure one never gets bored. It is splendid.
Nicolas Stebbing CR
HOW TO BELIEVE
ISBN 9781472907448 £16.99
How to believe is a striking title, and its author has striking qualifications as an academic philosopher versed in religion and psychology. The book, a sequel to his acclaimed Why believe?, helped me to understand my own belief in God, and also to understand non-believers better.
Cottingham starts by contrasting views of reality from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), revolted by a universe where ‘nothing matters’, with the exulting in God shining through creation in a passage from theologian Jonathan Edwards (1723). The truth of things is a transformative unconcealing (aletheia) or disclosure, dependent both on the approach of the subject and whatever is objective. The fact other subjects see things differently might not disprove objective truth but point to it – since the thought that reality disappears as the people who view it so variously pass on – is philosophically uncomfortable.
Atheist writers like Philip Pullman seem over-rigid in refusing to accept truth disclosed from beyond the natural realm, which science would be helpless at unlocking. One of many helpful analogies is that of the difficulty psychotherapists have with intellectuals and academics, whose command of information balks at painful self-scrutiny. If we are to believe, there must be a certain relinquishing of control – but without loss of intellectual integrity. Belief is left-brain and right-brain. A powerful image the author uses is of spiritual progress being helical with faith and action, moving us forward together in two dimensions. You have to commit to move on in life, even if life without a faith-commitment remains valuable.
Another quality investigated is aesthetics. Cottingham suggests that thoughts about beauty are inseparable from awe and moral transformation, since beauty and goodness don’t stand apart from us but have the power to invite change in us. Meditation that captures the present moment, or sees the self merged with the cosmos, may be comforting; but it is illusory, blind to the disclosure of both poles of the human condition: wretchedness and redeemability (Pascal). People need a ‘cleansing of the doors of perception’ (Blake) found through immersion in worship and spiritual disciplines. ‘To understand the sacred properly is to understand its obverse side – the possibility of desecration… the rearranging of the world as an object of appetite obscures its meaning as a gift’ (Roger Scruton).
This book is engaging, carefully written, and works both to affirm life as gift and taster of the Giver and to expose and challenge the materialist and Buddhist presuppositions of many in our age. ‘Belief in a personal Being who is the ultimate ground underlying the mystery of being in the universe and the source of its meaning and value, is just such a vision, a transformative vision that brings into salience features of the world that simply drop out of view in the quantitative printouts of particle interactions, or in the Buddhist-style conception of reality as an impersonal flow of conditions that arise and pass away, leaving our own deepest individuality and selfhood as nothing more than an illusion.’ Hard words, but they are well amplified in the 155 pages of ‘yes – and’ talk from someone who knows language, logic, and the Lord.
‘Our days are not for “being happy in”, as [Philip] Larkin self-pityingly and querulously demands… not for self-importantly pursuing our ‘projects’, which we arrogantly declare to be the source of value and meaning… [but] for learning, for hoping, for growing, for waiting, for turning towards the good even in the depth of sorrow, for lifting up the heart in expectation and in love… all that is needed is an openness of heart in order for the remedy to be received for what it is: a true and precious gift.’
PRAYING WITH ST TERESA
Jerome Lantry OCD
Teresian Press, 148pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0947916169 £5
AND THE OUR FATHER
A Catechism of Prayer
Aloyius Rego OCD
Teresian Press, 181pp, pbk
ISBN 978 0947916176 £6
As I am typing the reviews of these two short books, I have in front of me a postcard that was given to me by a Palestinian Christian the first time I went to Bethlehem. On it is printed the words of Lord’s Prayer written in Aramaic, the language that Jesus used.
To all Christians the Lord’s Prayer – the ‘Our Father’ – is the prayer that carries the essence of Jesus’ teaching. It is no wonder, then, that more than half of St Teresa’s masterpiece The Way of Perfection is taken up with reflections on that prayer.
2015 marked the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of St Teresa of Avila. As part of their celebration of this event, the Discalced Carmelite Friars have reissued a revised edition of Praying with St Teresa, and a new book, St Teresa and the Our Father, which is not only an excellent guide to the teachings of St Teresa, but is also a very useful introduction to prayer in its own right.
In Praying with St Teresa, Fr Lantry reminds the reader that St Teresa wrote The Way of Perfection for her Carmelite sisters who asked her for some advice on prayer. Aware that prayer and life are inseparable, St Teresa began by suggesting practical ways in which we too can live out a life of prayer – and not merely by moving our lips when saying the words. Fr Lantry is a pastor first and foremost, and his approach to helping the reader understand St Teresa’s teachings on prayer is impressively practical. He suggests ways in which we can develop the will to pray. These have been put together in a very helpful appendix compiled by the editor, Fr James McCaffrey, called, ‘Praying in the Footsteps of St Teresa’.
St Teresa and the Our Father expands on this practical theme. Fr Rego examines how St Teresa takes the headings of each petition in the prayer and helps the reader to explore how each of them can be taken into the heart and daily life. For example, the notion of ‘Heaven’ – as in the words ‘who art in heaven’ – does not apply solely to the afterlife, but to the ‘little heaven of our soul’ where God dwells already. Our task is to reflect each day on how we are to be more conscious, in our thoughts and actions, of how God’s ‘heaven’ can be found in us.
Another very helpful section of this book is where the difficult petition ‘lead us not into temptation’ is explored. Fr Rego shows us how St Teresa identifies two types of enemy that bring temptation to us: the obvious things and people she calls the ‘public enemies’; and the ‘devils who disguise themselves as angels of light’ – ‘traitorous enemies’ – who are in many ways the more dangerous to our souls.
These two books will yield much to those who are already familiar with St Teresa’s work, and also to those who have yet to discover her spiritual teachings.