Beyond the Great Wave

British Museum

until 13th August


If there is one Japanese artist people in the West have heard of, other than Yoko Ono, it is Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849). This interest began soon after his death when he became the leading artist behind the late nineteenth century European cult of japonisme. This fashion produced such masterpieces as ‘The Mikado’ and led Van Gogh to reckon that to some extent all of his own work was based on Japanese art.

Hokusai’s prints first entered the British Museum’s collection just eleven years after his death and the Museum holds the 90 unpublished volumes of the catalogue raisonné of the woodblock prints. That huge catalogue suggests how extraordinarily prolific Holusai was. He also kept on changing his lodgings, ninety-three times before he died. And he kept changing his name to reflect new artistic foci, though ‘Hokusai’ was kept on as part of his brand.

All this change was not a matter of fashion but of spiritual growth. Hokusai believed that with age and experience came a greater and a mystic depth to his work, a transparency to the natural world and the invisible spiritual forces which are the life of that world. This exhibition shows this spiritual growth in the last thirty years of his life, the time when he produced his greatest works. It does so not just with the woodcuts but also through paintings, painted panels for which Hokusai submitted designs, drawings and drafts for the woodcuts.

The woodcut designs are especially rare because the woodcut designs were stuck onto the block and then cut up. A number of Hokusai’s survive from print series which were left incomplete when economic crises undermined the art market. These crises especially hurt Hokusai’s sales. His work was more precisely drawn than that of most artists and he required a very high standard of carving of the woodblock. In an economic downturn this made his work too expensive to produce so his drawings did not get as far as being carved onto the blocks.

The exhibition not only gives this kind of practical insight into Hokusai’s work, it also shows the artist himself was culturally different to what we might have presumed. Like many Japanese artists of the time, Hokusai was a Nichiren Buddhist. He continually repeated sutras while walking about and myth was important to him. In this show the last great paintings reflect on dragon myths and Hokusai had long considered himself under the protection of the Northern Star and Mount Fuji. There is also an example of the daily exorcism drawings he made as an old man, pictures of Chinese lions dashed-off with freedom and panache, then thrown out of a window to ward off devils, and saved by his pupils. And there is a red pigment on silk painting of Shōki the demon-slayer, probably made to ward off a small-pox epidemic in Edo (Tokyo), a vivid and forceful work, if ineffectual as a prophylactic against small pox.       

These late paintings are more traditional than the woodcuts but are equally fine. However, something very different is going on in the genre paintings from the early 1820s which were made for the export trade. These are brightly coloured ink and colour works on Dutch paper which at first glance look like tourist tat. But they are strange pictures and they anticipate the great prints. Here for the first time Hokusai works with unconventional viewpoints. The subject matter is also often bizarre, but only when the lower classes are involved – scenes with the upper classes are much more conventional. Three works stand out. ‘A Fisherman’s family’ verges on the Dali-esque with children hanging from an anchor and the fishermen caulking his net. In ‘New Year scene,’ there is the novelty of deep perspective and two dogs sniffing eachother. ‘Sudden rain in the countryside’ is not necessarily a picture you would want on the wall but the strong lighting was revolutionary in Japanese art and the liveliness of the individual leaves in a storm looks forward to the books of nature prints, ‘Large Flowers’ and ‘Small Flowers.’

And it is the books of prints, especially the ’36 views of Mount Fuji,’ which are the core of the show. These works did not come easily and it’s worthwhile taking a good look to see the struggle Hokusai had to reach maturity. For example, ‘The Great Wave’ had a number of wave forebears. The one on show is very stiff and rather silly. And the first prints of boats struggling against the waves are cramped and do not have the structure of the ‘The Great Wave.’ But the experiments paid off. ‘The Great Wave’ is a great print and the British Museum has put on show their finest version of the print. Though at one level the work is a symphony of blues there is a subtlety of yellows and greys in the sky which is easily missed. The rhythm of the picture lies not just in the big wave but in the correspondence between a smaller wave and Fuji itself, and the echo of ying and yang in the dark and light division of the picture. For all its abstraction, this is a typically precisely observed work both as to place, time and season, and to the fishing boats racing to bring to harbour the first tuna catch.

That combination of precision and abstraction is seen above all in the contrast of ‘Red Fuji’ and ‘Pink Fuji.’ The ‘Pink Fuji’ gives us design and beauty and a real sense of early morning as compared to the more famous but cruder (because of wear to the woodblocks) later printing. It’s not as famous as ‘The Great Wave’ but ‘Pink Fuji’ is as great work of art which shows detail and skill at the service of vision.

The show is closed between 3rd and 6th July for rotation of some of the light sensitive works.

Owen Higgs




The Dream of Gerontius

John Henry Newman


A conversation that I had recently with a lawyer of my acquaintance led me to buy a copy of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ by Blessed John Henry Newman.  The reason I did this was that the lawyer had recently taken on a new client who happened to be a medium. This client had had a conversation with the lawyer in which the medium spoke of her beliefs about the ‘spiritworld’, a profoundly unChristian view of life after death as reported to me.  At the same time I noted on a GCSE exam paper for this year the following question: “Ghosts and mediums show that non-religious people should believe in life after death.” Discuss. (Edexcel GCSE Religious Studies 5RS01/01 – 2017) It seems as though belief in the ‘Spiritworld’ is all about!

I had first come across the Dream whilst at Chichester as the Elgar Oratorio and recall using my knowledge of that in a seminar about death and judgement, saying something like ‘I can only speak poetically about death and judgement as Newman does in the Dream of Genrontius’, to the approval of Fr. Halliburton the then Principal.  So, what was it that Blessed John Henry Newman had written that impressed itself upon me then, and now?

For any unfamiliar with the poem or the oratorio the Dream concerns the death of an old man and his journey to the place of judgement.  On this journey the soul is first helped to let go the bonds of mortality and then is taken by his guardian angel to the place of judgement.  Along the way the soul questions the angel about what is to happen, hears the prayers of the priest and his friends gathered around his death bed, and is verbally assaulted by demons, while choirs of angelicals sing of the faith in which the man has died.  The climax of the poem comes when the soul says, ‘I go before my Judge’. In the Oratorio this moment is expressed in a mounting crescendo which ends with a profound silence out of which the soul cries, ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep there let be be’.  The soul is gently laid in the ‘penal waters’ of purgatory while the souls there sing in confidence Psalm 90, ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge from one generation to the next’. The whole poem is deeply imbued with the faith of the Church in the goodness and mercy of God.  The climax of the poem expresses the Christian hope of resurrection open to all who call and look upon the mercy of Almighty God. Charles Kingsley, Newman’s adversary in the period immediately before the writing of the Dream wrote, ‘I read the Dream with awe and admiration. … I must feel that the central idea is as true as it is noble … : the longing of the soul to behold Deity, converted, by the mere act of sight, into a self-abasement so utter, that the soul is ready, even glad, to be hurled back to any depth, to endure any pain, from the moment it becomes aware of God’s actual perfection and its own utter impurity and meanness.’  This is the central idea of the Dream: when we see God in His utter perfection our own tawdriness is shown for what it is, vain pomp and bombast. And then, with Gerontius, we will cry, Take me away. As St. Paul expresses the truth of it, ‘Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.’ (1 Cor. 13: 12. Jerusalem Bible)

In the Dream of Gerontius Blessed John Henry Newman has given to all Christians a vision of our journey to the Place of Judgement after death, in which is God, clothed in blinding light.  In a very real sense it is not God who then judges us, but we who momentarily looking upon God convict ourselves; ‘I shall know just as fully as I am known.’ There is here no spiritworld as spoken of by the medium nor the ghosts and mediums of the exam question.  There is rather a sublime confidence that the mercy of Almighty God who, in Christ and the Holy Spirit, longs for all humankind to see Him, to know Him, to be known by Him and so know themselves without shadow that they may live in the love of the Most Holy Trinity for all eternity.  You will not spend £10 or so better.

David Fisher





Garsington Opera


What ends with a tired little boy in a winged gold lamé jumpsuit sitting in a recently-vacated coffin surrounded by three dozen bottles of booze? Annilese Miskimmon’s Semele, that’s what. I shoehorned myself into a dinner jacket after a generous friend invited me to join his party at Garsington Opera’s now not-so-new home at Wormsley Park in mid-June. The modern pavilion – all glass, light wood, and metal – is a thoroughly pleasant place to spend a summer’s evening, with fading natural light and seats comfortable enough to stave off concert-bottom. The air-conditioning keeps the place beautifully cool, which is particularly helpful after the dinner-interval.

Heidi Stober soared as the lovestruck, ambitious, and doom-courting Semele, with some magnificent virtuosic coloratura work. She often appeared on stage holding a feather, presumably to signify an off-stage liaison with Jupiter. This was a little confusing, I thought, as surely she couldn’t have been rolling about with him in his guise of an eagle. How would that even work? But then you never know with those Roman gods, so I let it pass.  

Robert Murray as Jupiter, the willing object of Semele’s desire – “the shape-shifting king of the gods”, as the programme called him – came particularly into his own in the da capo section of Where’er You Walk, the one tune from Semele that everyone remembers. His was a powerful but not overbearing presence throughout. Meanwhile, David Soar as Somnus (he doubled up as Cadmus earlier on) managed to combine gravity with humour: at one point his rich, sonorous voice offset his battle with a frisky and suggestive duvet; while Christopher Ainslie, whom I last saw giving a tour-de-force performance in Bach’s St John Passion at Cape Town on Good Friday, was on superb light form as Athamas.

But Christine Rice’s Juno stole the show: all rage and vengeance, with just the right amount of frumpiness, and her glorious mezzo range used to full effect. She was always either heavily pregnant, about to give birth, or nursing a new-born; and usually surrounded by a gaggle of little girls in pink dresses – making the point (if a little heavy-handedly) that she was the goddess of childbirth. This was lost on a lady behind me, who whispered to her companion ‘but what’s the point of all those children?’ It was even written in the programme: some people are beyond help. Deeply nonplussed by the arrival of Bacchus, Juno’s thunder rippled even to the closing moments of the final act – a stunningly effective performance.  

Jonathan Cohen – of Arcangelo and Les Arts Florissants, and making his Garsington debut – very properly directed the music from the harpsichord. The chorus was on fine form, and it was good to see a former Christ Church lay clerk among the basses. A chorus can make or break a performance like this – and particularly this one, with polyphonic choruses that are notoriously difficult to stage – but they pulled it off well. The words were as clear as a bell, which is not something that should be taken for granted.

Sensible staging, attractive scenery, and some witty mise-en-scène prop placement helped the action move along, with a liberal sprinkling of special effects. Firecrackers went off, chandeliers rose and fell, and in the first scene a giant heart of roses toppled as Semele fled from her impending marriage to Athamas. Old-school gimmicks, perhaps; but strangely satisfying, even if other reviewers have been a bit snooty about them.

This was a seriously competent offering: musically accomplished, and at the same time funny and even camp – at one point the chorus appeared as air stewards with golden wings on their caps, and the gold lamé was not restricted to baby Bacchus – but not to its detriment. The moral of the tale still came over loud and clear: be careful for what you wish.

Garsington’s season continues with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia, and the premiere of Roxanna Panufnik’s Silver Birch.

Serenhedd James





Catholic Dissident

Peter Stanford

Hodder & Stoughton 434pp hbk

ISBN 978 1473621664 £20


This year is being used to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, taking as its starting point the date on which Martin Luther is thought by some to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg. Remembering, even celebrating, this date has received mixed reactions across the Church of England; with some evangelicals enthusiastically celebrating and producing Reformation resources, and penning articles calling for a new reformation, while others in the Anglican fold will allow the anniversary to pass without a mention. No surprise, you might say, for a Church which is so broad it is being stretched to breaking point (ND, Dec 2016).

The reaction of the Roman Catholic church, however, has been far more interesting. Following on from the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, and the subsequent 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran and RC churches, the German Catholic bishops have hailed Luther as ‘a religious pathfinder, gospel witness and teacher of the faith.’ Far from being an example of local bishops going ‘off message’, the German statement fitted in well with papal announcements such as Benedict XVI’s that ‘Luther’s phrase “faith alone” is true’, and Pope Francis’s positive-minded clarification of Luther’s intentions as one seeking to ‘to renew the Church, not divide Her’.

Into this context comes a biography of Luther by the RC writer and journalist Peter Stanford: previously editor of the Catholic Herald, and contributor to the Tablet and the Daily Telegraph. Stanford confesses to being intrigued by a man whom he finds hard to like, but cannot help admiring. After all, in Luther, we have a man who quite literally changed the world in which he lived, and in doing so shaped the Europe in which we live today.

Europe in particular owes Luther: for breaking the stranglehold of the late medieval Catholic Church over all aspects of life, religious or otherwise; for his championing of ideas of individual responsibility, freedom of conscience and worship; and for showing how powerful, well-entrenched elites can be confronted and vanquished, if only you have the courage. [p.6]

Stanford argues that, in creating and shaping the modern world, Luther has also come close to achieving his aim of reforming of the Catholic Church; albeit over a longer time-period than he might have wanted. The post-conciliar reforms that have led to mass being said in the vernacular, the laity receiving the Eucharist in both kinds, and even the acceptance of married priests – in cases where Anglicans and others have ‘crossed the Tiber’ – is, declares Stanford, all pure Luther.

But – given that there are more books and papers written about the reforming friar than anyone other than Jesus – why has Stanford produced another biography? Simply because he feels that while the academy has focused upon Luther, the only other groups to have done so are those who have used him for their own purposes: producing either hagiographies, or overly critical works designed to allow Luther’s challenges to be ignored. Someone ought to produce a biography that allows Luther to speak unencumbered by what followed, and thus allow the man to be judged based on what he was trying to achieve, rather than those with their own axes to grind.

Stanford has, therefore, three goals in mind: to enable the reader to understand Luther’s complex personality; to his explain his theology at a popular level; and to place Luther and this theology in its historical context, thus attempting to show why and how Luther had the effect that history records. Stanford’s biography, then, attempts to bring Luther to the people having been stripped of the myths and accretions of the past five centuries: he bases the book solely on Luther’s own works, and the Tischreden or Table Talk from the last quarter of Luther’s life. Such an approach certainly isn’t afraid to sacrifice some sacred cows of Luther mythology in the process, such as the nailing of the 95 Theses to the door at Wittenburg, or Luther’s famous ‘Here I stand, I can do no other.’

Stanford largely achieves what he sets out to: this is an accessible, easy-to-read biography that introduces the reader to complex theology, history, and sociology without allowing the narrative to get bogged down in technical niceties. One gets a sense of Luther as an interesting man of his time with both attractive and ugly characteristics, which when combined with courage and a sense of divine calling, culminated in a man unafraid to take on the world and win. This is a biography for those who wish to dip their toes in Christian history without wading in too deep; and should have a wide appeal. If you mark the Reformation anniversary in no other way this year, read Stanford’s biography to gain a fresh perspective on a pivotal moment in the history of the Church.

Mike Print



Help in Facing Death and Dying

Philip Giddings and others

Wilberforce 181pp pbk

ISBN 978 0995683204 £8


Most people know how they would like to die: suddenly, without any idea what was happening, but with sufficient warning for their closest relations and friends to be at the bedside; lying there, but during a long walk in some part of the countryside that is special to them; at home, but surrounded by nurses and sedated. The problem is, of course, that we cannot have it all, yet the wildly unrealistic hopes we have for our demise – and for the deaths of those we love – are to blame for the problems we have when it comes.

That we keep our hopes for death hidden, and thus unexamined, is a problem; and, as Philip Giddings says, ‘silence will not do’. Silence may not do, but what will? Giddings, a distinguished former synodsman, whose wife died suddenly while the book was already in production, gets it right when he says that ‘words seem necessary, yet inadequate.’

Regrettably, the words Christians find when confronted by death are especially so. If our contemporaries encounter the Christian religion at all, it will be in the context of birth or death. For most of them, death. It is, for all the Fresh Expressions and Ash Wednesday cupcakes (ND, March 2016) with which the Church of England tries to tempt people back to faith, the best opportunity for explaining the Christian faith to non-believers we have. It is maddening, then, that the Church of England should be the country’s largest single provider of humanist funerals.

Talking about death is something all Christians should be ready to do, and this book can help. Giddings contributes the most moving parts; but even his chapters have good, practical, advice for talking to the bereaved. Elaine Sugden, an oncologist, writes very usefully about the diagnosis of a fatal disease and talking to children about death. Her insistence that ‘it is important at the outset to use the words “death” or “died”’ is salutary.

Martin Down, in an excellent chapter on ‘talking about life after death’, confronts the mess Christians have caused by being too cautious in doing so. ‘For an opinion to deserve respect’, he points out, ‘there must be some evidence or reason to support it.’ Christians must not ignore the Resurrection of Jesus. The historical evidence for this distinguishes Christian hope for life after death from the ignorance and superstition with which we are surrounded.

In the task of combatting spiritualism and the refusal to confront death, a book like this is a very necessary weapon.

Tom Carpenter