until 2nd April
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) was one of the most influential artists of the last sixty years. In the heyday of American Abstract Expressionism he anticipated and developed Conceptual, Performance, Pop, and Multi-Media Art. This show, which later travels to New York’s MoMA – a guarantee of the quality of the exhibits – is the first major retrospective of Rauschenberg’s work after his death. It is an excellent introduction to his work and a severe challenge to visitors who don’t like modern art.
It is also a very large show. The catalogue is suitably meaty, comprising a series of roughly chronological essays that vary between the extremely helpful to the stuff of Pseuds’ Corner. But it’s hard not to like a show that includes the warning “This artwork splashes. Please take care.” The artwork in question is the “Mud Muse” (1968-71), a metal tank filled with 1,000 gallons of bentonite clay mixed with water. The clay and water spurt, bubble, and fizz. It is not laugh-out-loud funny – though this is the kind of show to attract people who delight in the ludic and the wry. The point behind this carefully-constructed piece is that, for Rauschenberg, art is literally the stuff of life. It’s not there to be put on a pedestal, or hung on a wall, or made up of sacred materials. Rather, art uses anything and involves everyone – which can be rather hard work after a day at the office – and doesn’t have to be fixed; indeed it can’t be, if it’s going to involve people other than the artist. In this way art is perpetually new, because it is created every time someone interacts with it. And it is real because it involves stuff picked off the ground. It doesn’t have to be just painting or sculpture, but it can mix the two – hence Rauschenberg’s “Combines” – or even also music and dance as in his collaborations with Merce Cunningham, a recording of whose “Minutiæ” is on show.
“Minutiæ” is a good way into Rauschenberg’s work. It is not so po-faced as some of the other works, which include dance; and it is quite easy to see the way colours and movement and space are set off against each other. This work owes much to the influence of Josef Albers, formerly of the Bauhaus, and latterly Rauschenberg’s teacher at Black Rock College.
Other Alpers-influenced works are the early Black and White Paintings. The show has Rauschenberg’s “Untitled (Black) Painting” and one of the White Paintings. These monochrome works are unlike their foreshadowings by Malevich or the yearning of Abstract Impressionists. They have no spiritual content except insofar as they explore the extreme emptiness of no colour. They are quintessential expressions of a particular twentieth-century sensibility: one without ideals, albeit a sensibility which until 1968 had hopes for the future and was essentially optimistic.
At the same time as he made the Black and White Paintings, Rauschenberg organised – painted is not the word – two seminal pieces, which are on show at the Tate. “Automobile Tire Print” is the print of a car tyre, drawn across black paint over twenty pieces of paper. The method of production is, of course, a challenge to the viewer; but the result is interesting if not entirely on a par with the great Chinese masters of penmanship. The other important work of this period is “Erased de Kooning Drawing”, which is what it says it is – though harder to make than it sounds, since de Kooning gave Rauschenberg a sketch in graphite, chalk, and ink. It succeeded as a publicity-conscious challenge to what makes a work of art.
After entirely black or white works, Rauschenberg produced Red Paintings. These explore further Alpers’ ideas about colour, and place them within the context of ordinary living. In their use of colour and stuff these works relate closely to the Combines, two of the most important of which are amongst those on show at the Tate. “Bed” is what it says it is, a bed that is both sculpture and painting. It has lasted longer than Tracey Emin’s. Alongside “Bed” there is “Monogram”: a goat on a base with a tyre around it. It was two years and more in the making. It includes a tennis ball as a stool, and is a great example of Rauschenberg’s combination of fun, and hard work, and overall seriousness.
At his best, Rauschenberg captured a child’s eye view of the world – an untrammelled sense of space, and shape, and colour. There is a freshness to much of the work on show, which reflects his disciplined movement on from one area of work to another, and which his many later imitators often lack. He may not be to everyone’s taste; but the viewer should give Rauschenberg the time he deserves.
National Portrait Gallery
This was a good exhibition to get to know Picasso. That was useful, because he is an artist of such variety and reputation that it is hard to know where to begin. All too often shows and critical writing about Picasso assume knowledge of the successive Blue and Rose and African-influenced and (Analytical) Cubist and Surrealist and Neo-Classical periods; and commentators love to drop the names of the various wives and mistresses. This show, if not entirely free of such snobbery, provided a good base camp for the viewer who wanted to scale Picasso’s huge œuvre.
There were eighty exhibits; and almost all of them portraits. The biggest loans by number were from the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. There were important pictures from MoMA, Philadelphia, and the Pompidou Centre, as well as significant works from private collections. The most important works were in oil; but there were a large number of drawings, often caricatures, and bronzes and some works on tin. There was even a home movie.
Taken together, the Gallery had assembled a good coverage of the different periods of Picasso’s output without overwhelming the viewer. This helped make plain the character of the artist. To begin with, his extraordinary ability in a whole range of media. The son of a painter, Picasso’s technique is characterised by speed and facility and compositional strength. Only the 1918 “Portrait of Olga in an armchair” looked weak, in the sense that the perspective is mishandled. However, that may be because Ingres’ “Portrait of Madame Rivière”, to which it is related, is even poorer in the handling of its sitter’s arms.
One aspect of Picasso’s facility is his skill as a caricaturist. Some of the most brilliant works on show were caricatures of artistic friends – Stravinsky, Poulenc and, above all, Cocteau – which are more memorable than the later and famous Surrealist paintings of the 1920s and 30s. Picasso’s playfulness in these pictures barely masked his sharpness. The exhibition clarified how this fed into some of his Surrealist works, and makes the emotion in them more apparent. Once you see that the Surrealism is not a kind of realism as in Dalí but a kind of caricature, then Picasso becomes easier to grasp.
The caricatures showed two other aspects of Picasso’s art. First, his great interest in such forebears as Poussin, Rembrandt, Manet (in Spanish mode), El Greco and, above all, Velázquez. The caricatures of these artists’ works are part of an intense competition and conversation between Picasso and the past, something which helped form him as a painter – even if many of the caricatures were not that interesting in themselves.
The second aspect of the caricatures which stood out was their crude humour – humour indebted to the works of Toulouse-Lautrec and the brothel scenes of Degas, so with an arty side. But it did raise the question about Picasso’s relationships with women. Indeed, it is hard not to ask the question just what kind of a relationship did Picasso have with his wives and mistresses. He is a brilliant and innovative artistic thinker; but so often there is a coldness in his portraits compared, especially, to Rembrandt. The curators of the show made some play of the fact that Picasso rarely worked up his portraits of women with the women actually in his studio. His artistic vision was rooted in real life, but then went where it pleased. So the Matisse-esque picture of Marie-Thérèse Walther makes his mistress cow-like in her bigness and docility. The great 1923 portrait of Olga Picasso is painted with such delicacy that the oil looks like pastel. Beneath the neo-classical pose Olga shows strain – her family was in difficulty in the U.S.S.R. and the marriage with Picasso was breaking up – but for all the artistic insight there is no feeling of sympathy. This portrait compares sadly with the 1954 “Jacqueline with a Black Scarf” where the obvious influences of El Greco and the memories of the duennas of his youth cannot take away the suspicion that in old age Picasso had finally met a woman of whom he had to be careful.
There were three other great oil paintings in the show. Two were of Montmartre characters: the sinister clown/criminal Bibi-La-Purée and the even more sinister journalist Gustave Coquiot, whose portrait was a symphony in green-tinged lechery. Above all there was the 1906 “Self-Portrait with a palette”, from Philadelphia. At one level this is Picasso just dressing up, as Rembrandt used to do. In other pictures in the show he appeared in his top hat and tails, or in the Sunday leisurewear of the successful bourgeois. In this picture we have another self-creation: the artist as a proletarian, a short, muscular worker. But this pose is transformed by the head, which has Picasso’s hard stare set in an African mask. The painting is pared down, and the colour pale and limited to the kind of grey and white interior dreamed of by designers. But it is all at the service of the artist-subject. The artisanal get-up simply and effectively highlights what a powerful and dynamic character Picasso was.
Memoirs of a City of London Vicar
Bretwalda 240pp £10
Readers of New Directions will relish the opportunity to curl up and enjoy this astringent memoir of a city of London priest. Peter Mullen loves the Lord, the Scriptures, the Prayer Book and the tradition of the Church, and he is affectionate about his former city churches: St Michael’s Cornhill and St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. But he is scathing about almost everything else: the decadence, triviality and bureaucracy that now, he believes, pervade life in Britain; almost every aspect of modern Anglicanism and above all the bishops of the Church of England, ‘intellectually and… spiritually vacuous’, ‘well-known’, he writes ‘for their sordid and underhand way of proceeding’. Several of them are mercilessly put through the mincer. Remarkably, given Mullen’s love of the BCP, even Archbishop Cranmer himself gets it in the neck at one point for butchering the Catholic liturgy, in particular the funeral rite: ‘is there any hell hot enough for a man who removes a people’s religion?’
Unreal City contains Mullen’s reminiscences about his ministry in the City of London, but incorporates sermons, reviews and more extended comments on particular issues. These are almost all interesting but there are jerky transitions between them, and indeed sometimes the font size (and at one point the font itself) abruptly changes. It might helpfully have had either a more overtly scrapbook format (perhaps with pictures), or alternatively have been presented as a shorter memoir, followed by a selection of essays. All of his terrible poetry should have been excised, as should a few passages where rhetorical flourish descends into rant. Similarly, a decent editor would have ironed out the numerous glitches in the text. These are particularly unfortunate because they come from an author who prizes linguistic felicity. Mullen exposes, for example, here and elsewhere, how the economically phrased performative utterance ‘with this ring I thee wed’ cannot satisfactorily be replaced by the clunky ‘I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage’. Moreover, just occasionally he seems to depart from his own rigorist standards: inviting lay celebrities to preach in his churches and theming the choral Sunday Masses ‘around the character and needs of each particular (livery) company’.
Looming over the entire narrative is the figure of ‘the bearded wonder’: the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Bishop of London. At Mullen’s institution, we hear that the bishop preached ‘in his thespian style, surely one of the last of the great 19th century hams’, but the narrative speaks of a sense of betrayal that someone whom the author had viewed as an ally and a patron should, as he sees it, have ‘deliquesced into the fully paid up modern churchman he is today’. The judgment is sealed when Bishop Chartres compels the author to retire when he reaches the age of seventy. Mullen perhaps surprisingly does not analyse how and why it was that over his significant episcopate, Chartres apparently came to support so unreservedly the HTB movement, to the extent that it now sets the tone for the entire diocese. The ironic result was that this über-Anglican figure came to be the principal sponsor of a group that sits as lightly to the Church’s liturgy as figures of yesteryear such as Robinson and Nineham did to her doctrine, and groups such as Inclusive Church do to her moral tradition. The story of how Bishop Chartres came to this position needs to be properly told, and not just occluded with verbiage about mission, success and numerical growth.
I read Mullen’s book just after reading another memoir: Pope Benedict’s Last Testament. Benedict is a no less stern critic than Mullen is of many contemporary trends in the Church and in the world. And yet his book evinces, in a way that Mullen’s sometimes fails to, the confidence and hope that, one way or another, the Lord will give his unprofitable servants grace to to preserve and faithfully pass on in their fullness (and not in some attenuated form) all the gifts she has received for the good of broken and divided cities and nations.
PARABLE AND PARADOX
Canterbury Press 106pp £10.99
Whenever anyone offers me a book of poetry I get a sinking feeling. If it is religious poetry I feel like a drowning man to whom someone has just thrown an anchor. So when I was asked to review Parables and Paradox I was tempted to reply ‘sorry, but poetry is not my thing’. This is not true. I love poetry; in fact I find it necessary to my existence. I even like bad poetry and I’m a fan of McGonagall; so I am not able to account for my aversion to certain collections of religious verse. I think that whereas I can laugh at McGonagall when he takes himself seriously, when Christian poets do so I want to scream. Of all poets it is those who write on religious subjects who are the most earnest of all.
However, I’m glad that I did not let prejudice have its way in this instance. Malcolm Guite’s collection is beautiful. I did not find a single poem that left me unmoved. When I looked at the first poem I knew that I should read it aloud and instantly I experienced it as ‘good’. The deep theological issues from Colossians 1 are reflected in Everything Holds Together in a beauty and profound simplicity:
Everything holds together and coheres,
Unfolding from the centre which it came.
And now that hidden heart of things appears,
The firstborn of creation takes a name.
Described as a companion volume to his bestselling Sounds of the Seasons, Parable and Paradox is a dialogue with the Word of God in Scripture. At the heart of it is a collection of fifty sonnets based on the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. The description of these given on the back cover describes them as: both those that kindle the heart immediately and those ‘hard sayings’ that stop us in our tracks or dare us to see the world differently.
This is an excellent summary of the whole volume. As I encountered each poem I did find my heart kindled almost as if I was meeting an old friend and then I was surprised by the content. This was usually matter that modern poets shout at us or bang our ears so that we will understand what Jesus really meant. In Guite’s poetry there is no preaching, no harangue and yet you are convinced that you are hearing an authentic ‘word of the Lord’.
The style of the book is ‘easy reading’, written in verse and rhyme with no attempt to be smart. One can sympathise with the modern tendency to abandon rhyme, because verse can so easily become doggerel and in the post-modern atmosphere there is a revolt against the discipline that rhyme imposes. Guite’s work is neither doggerel nor unnatural, but it is poetry to be read aloud – whether to an audience or to oneself. The sounds of the words and the rhythms of the verse mingle with doctrine and story, and the result is metaphysical meditation.
Nevertheless it remains plain person’s poetry. It is down –to-earth: there are no florid phrases, and no unnecessary adjectives or adverbs.
How do I illustrate all of this? Each time I read a new poem becomes my favourite. So I have settled for one of the Seven ‘I Am’ sayings:
I am the Resurrection
How can you be the final resurrection?
That resurrection hasn’t happened yet.
Our broken world is still bent on destruction,
No sun can rise before that sun has set.
Our faith looks back to father Abraham
And forward to the one who is to come.
How can you speak as though he knew your name?
How can you say: ‘Before he was, I am’?
Begin in me and I will read your riddle
And teach you truths my Spirit will defend.
I am the end who meets you in the middle,
The new beginning hidden in the End.
I am the victory, the end of strife
I am the resurrection and the life.
I commend the book to you – enjoy it and you will enjoy yourself.
John Gribben CR
THE VIRGIN EYE
Towards a Contemplative
View of Life
Instant Apostle 416pp £9.99
Christians are falling by the wayside through ignorance of spiritual disciplines that cultivate the inner life; and it is hard to counter this in such a stressful world. Robin Daniel’s posthumous book is a substantial resource for picking up ideas and inspirations that can make a difference. Written up by his widow, Katherine, The Virgin Eye gathers the fruit of a lifetime of Christian service rooted in prayer and the listening skills and the psychological insight involved in counselling.
I was immediately captivated by his analogy of Cathedral closes, which captures a repeated counsel, namely of making space around things to make more of them. ‘Before and after Mass – silence. The alternative is spiritual suffocation’. By stopping to pray before and after tasks, spiritual or social, we attain a Spirit-given freshness. Similarly – and here the psychologist speaks – time spent in owning the shadow-side of self is repaid in a greater capacity to give of self to God and neighbour.
I was amazed and delighted to find no fewer than 7 pages of questions for self-examination, which I intend to use in preparing my next sacramental confession. They, like the book, are attractive in being less a defeating harangue and more of an invitation to positive living. As Robin Daniels expresses it in one of the prayers that end each chapter, ‘Self-forgiving may I be forgiving of others with patience. May I be like the sun – warm, light, comfortable, and showing the same face to everyone.’
Quotations from St Francis de Sales include ‘seeing God’s eyes upon you filled with incomparable love’, and counselling ‘practising little virtues with a heroic spirit’. Alexander Pope is also quoted on the humility both to help and be helped: ‘There is a pride in giving and a pride in not receiving.’ Mindfulness is examined with both Christian and psychological insight that’s also applied to wisdom about maintaining close relationships.
The advice given on contemplative prayer is designed to refresh such disciplines so as to see the world afresh with the eyes of a child: ‘the virgin eye’ by which we can more fully see God in all things, especially trials. I valued the book, which is paradoxical in its richness continually inviting simplification – for we are made rich not only by what we have, but also by what we let go.
Book of the Month
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe
Jacana Press 647pp £25
ISBN 978 1431423187
Naturally enough, the Middle East crowds Zimbabwe out of the media, apart from an occasional report. This book, written by an evangelical Presbyterian barrister raised and still living in that country, should be widely read. Matthew Parris, another Zimbabwean, wrote enthusiastically about it in The Spectator last year.
Other white Africans have given us readable accounts of their PID (post-independence depression), such as Michael Auret in From Liberator to Tyrant, Peter Godwin in Mukiwa, and Judith Todd in Through the Darkness; but David has been generously endowed by the Spirit with the theological virtue of Hope. I confess to being an admirer of his.
When we first met, David was a junior partner in a respectable legal firm that provided the Diocese of Matabeleland with its Chancellors and Registrars – and which never charged us fees. He was a fun-loving, rugby-playing newlywed – not at all my image of an elder of the Kirk. His speciality came to be justice and human rights.
When an archdeacon was taken by the secret police; when a parishioner was tortured; when a group of young men were pulled off a bus and summarily executed by soldiers, with their bodies inexpertly buried on church land; we turned to David. We were not the only ones seeking his help: great queues formed at his chambers, including Christians of many denominations, people of no faith, members of different political parties, and individuals devoid of politics. His caseload was a wearying weight of atrocity, corruption, crime, horror, and injustice; and even – when it came to the massacre of the Matabele people – genocide. Because of all the work he did as for God, several attempts have been made on his own life; but he writes without purple prose or self-glorification.
A happy aspect of life in Bulawayo was ecumenical cooperation and harmony, with even Quakers and Seventh Day Adventists involved. When it came to drought relief, human rights, or approaches to government, believers worked together. If Roman Catholics came to take the lead in much of this, it was because they had the money and the personnel. David’s own evangelical faith was no barrier to friendship with heroes like Archbishops Henry Karlen and Pius Ncube and their Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, whose devastating report Breaking the Silence never got much attention.
For all too brief a time there was a coalition government of the ZANU-PF and the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change. David became Minister for Education, Sport, and Culture, and made some headway in reviving schools.
The book is not all woe. There are accounts of an idyllic childhood in a country of natural beauty and benign climate, bachelor booze-ups, a happy marriage, an inspiring interview with Nelson Mandela, cricket matches, and an incident in which David’s daughter was nearly eaten by a lion. And all through the book’s adventures the Saviour sustains, and Scripture ministers grace.
Robert Mercer CR