Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Love in the Days of Rage, 1988

Chapter 7.

….. She thought back to another spring when she had fallen in love with one of her teachers at the Art Students League, he one of the great teachers, a man in his sixties then, what the students called ‘an old rad,’ of the thirties generation, one of the WPA artists who went around with the old Partisan Review crowd, but at this time, her time, he was not very far away from retirement and used to like to have some of his favourite students come up to his flat on West End Avenue on Sundays and drink beer and talk about painting and politics. There didn’t seem to be any woman in residence at his house, and it was only much later she found out the truth, but then that summer back then after classes were over for the year she used to drop in now and then and usually found him alone in his huge studio and always glad to see her. Looking back now she could see that she was the one who had made the advances, although he certainly did respond with affection. But in the end it came out, it all came out that he was very gay, and there was no way around it. A very solitary man, living by himself and still living for his students, and Annie didn’t stop seeing him, but in the end she had to leave, she had to move on, with her own needs, and he gave her a silver ring set with a scarab which she still had and still wore. In addition to that he gave her much more, he showed her the artist as perpetual enemy of the state, as gadfly of the state, the artist as the total enemy of all the organized forces that bore down on the free individual everywhere, the artist as the bearer of Eros, as bearer of the life force itself, as bearer of love, in a world seemingly bent on destroying all that, Eros versus civilization, life against death. Yes, in his printmaking classes you learned not only stone lithography and drypoint etching, you also learned you had to use that art to say something important, not just a bunch of minimalist nothingness. You learned the radical tradition of the WPA artists and muralists. ‘Speak up and stop mumbling!’ he would yell at them when he bent over their work and saw that the drawing was saying nothing. And it was strange, she reflected now, how his ideas were like Julian’s, as now Julian had fallen silent, watching the musicians in the square, but suddenly then in the middle of that sunny idyll came a dissident sound from down the rue Mouffetard, the sound of drums beaten by students carrying placards who now came streaming into the Place Contrescarpe, circling the still-playing musicians and the old couple, who now stopped dancing and hurried off down the street. And the three students with drums led a straggling line around the little square, with more of them pouring in all the time, waving placards and banners upon which were scrawled and painted the first murmurings of that wild new spirit of rebellion. Among them were posters she recognized as having been done by the poster brigades at the Beaux-Arts, some by her students, some of them indeed in the style of WPA artists but with messages hardly dreamed of in the American thirties: 

Alcohol kills: Take LSD

THE YOUNG MAKE LOVE, THE OLD MAKE OBSCENE GESTURES

I’M A GROUCHO MARXIST

‘Revolution is the ecstasy of history’

MAKE LOVE AND BEGIN AGAIN

POWER TO THE IMAGINATION!

‘Nous sommes tous les enrages – Ortega y Gasset

TO FORBID IS FORBIDDEN

Open the Windows of Your Heart

MAKE LOVE NOT WAR

THE SORBONNE IS THE STALINGRAD OF THE REVOLUTION!

Chapter 11.

…… An ancient waiter actually wearing a pince-nez came bowing up, took their order, and tottered off, looking like a Degas dancing master. It was a long way from the Place de la Sorbonne. The lace curtains, the brightly polished brass railings, the discrete booths with lush leather banquettes, the elderly dame in black lace at the caisse, gave the impression of still being deep in the nineteenth century, caught forever in an impressionist painting, and one almost expected to hear the soft clop-clop of carriage horses outside. ‘I should have brought a sketchbook,’ Annie said, as she began drawing on the menu, which seemed perhaps to embarrass Julian a very little. He fidgeted. ‘Well, if you can do a Daumier or a Goya . . .’ he began. `Imagination au Pouvoir?’ said Annie, drawing the slogan at the top of the carte, and Julian decided to enjoy himself, lifting his glass of wine. ‘Go ahead on the tablecloth too! After all, it’s in the great tradition. They all did it, the impressionists did it, Picasso did it, the symbolists and dadaists and surrealists did it, they all drew on tablecloths, except they were paper tablecloths, and then of course they took the paper back to their studios and copied it on canvas sometimes, and got their whole world down on canvas, for everyone to dream about today -‘ ‘As if that world still existed,’ Annie put in, drawing on the menu. ‘Just like all these elegant people in this restaurant still think it exists – nothing but a painter’s dream forever and ever!’ Julian wasn’t laughing anymore, watching her draw contorted bourgeois figures in top hats and picture hats, writhing on the paper, hanging on the phrases of the haute cuisine, running off the elegant page, dropping off, as it were, into the real world of 1968 under the students’ revolutionary slogan ‘Imagination au Pouvoir!’ It was a cry heard around the world that year, a cry of rebellion everywhere, more than a ‘hippie rebellion’. Annie was still drawing when the soup came, and she continued, pushing it aside. ‘I have this fantasy,’ she went on, ‘this painter’s fantasy about Paris, which should really be called L’Huile-sur-Toile – Oil-on-Canvas, as they say in the descriptions of paintings in museums. So once upon a time there was this little village called L’Huile-sur-Toile – a tiny little village on a little tiny river called the Toile. Now, that was a very long time ago, maybe in the Middle Ages or earlier still. Before that, painters mostly painted on wood – huile-sur-bois – but then, L’Huile-sur-Toile started growing, and more and more painters construc-ted paysages all around the banks of the Toile, and the little town grew larger and larger and larger, with all kinds of different neighbourhoods or quartiers springing up, all built in different styles, and the styles swept the town from one end to the other, age upon age the styles changed, like the changes in architecture itself, like the changes in dress and in life-styles. There was the pastoral and then the Gothic quartier and then the baroque quartier, and eventually the symbolist and the surrealist and every kind of neighbourhood that any artist could imagine. But at first there was mostly darkness on the Toile, because it was still the Dark Ages, and they only had candles and oil lamps and no electricity, and their heads were full of shadows and superstition and darkness too. But – but gradually the light grew in the heart of the darkness, at first only a faint light in the distant sky, behind the dark landscape, behind the dark buildings along the Toile, and then it broke through over the rooftops, and flooded the Toile itself. Then the forces of darkness entrenched themselves on the Right Bank and the forces of light took the Left Bank as theirs, so that from the earliest times the reactionary Right faced the avant-garde progressive liberal Left, and each viewed the other suspiciously, each considering The Other Side to be treacherous territory, alien land. But the light kept growing, and then in the nineteenth century the first impressionists came marching down the boulevards from Montmartre to the river’s edge, all of them looking obsessively for light and nothing but light, their easels under arm. And they strolled along the Toile and set up their easels and started painting the light, and some of them crossed over to the Left but many remained on the Right, where most of them had been born in good bourgeois families. But they all were obsessed with light and many of them didn’t care where it came from or where it would lead them, they were not concerned with the sociology or the politics of L’Huile-sur-Toile. And their style swept the city and the suburbs and the countryside all up and down the Toile, as far as the eye could see in the new light, and swept even down to the far sea, through Normandy to Honfleur and back again, back past the Grande Jatte and the promenades and quays all along the Toile, and in the centre of Paris­-sur-Toile the good burghers of the city clapped their hands and danced and sang the “Marseillaise” and other stirring nationalist anthems, while the impressionists and the postimpressionists kept on painting everything in sight, including the Opera and their own dear Bourse right here. And they painted Notre-Dame over and over, although neither the Right nor the Left could really claim the Church as being exclusively theirs, since it stood in the middle of the river on the Ile de la Cite, although many times the towers seemed to tilt to the Right and at rare times to the Left. There was one gang of artists who had descended as impressionists from their Bateau Ivre high on the Right in Montmartre, and this gang of impressionists refused to stick to the same style of paint­ing with their newfound light but insisted on constantly changing their styles. Their leader was Picasso, who con­stantly broke up the old formulas and forged new styles of seeing and invented cubism and painted everything all over in cubes and then destroyed them, after which came the dadaists and surrealists and symbolists and other ists and the taxis of the Marne and the First World War, while the painters all kept repainting the landscape of the Toile over and over, until finally the Spanish Civil War ushered in the Second World War, and with the Second War came the American invaders, and they came, they saw, they conquered but then didn’t leave as they were supposed to, but stayed on to take advantage of the very good exchange on the American dollar and to take advantage of the very good light for painting. Then these foreigners and others of their ilk from all over the world also started repainting the landscape of the Toile, only this time it was no longer recognizable as the adorable little bourg it had always been. It all began to look like a huge imitation abstract-expressionist canvas by Franz Kline or Willem de Kooning while the Bourse went on looking just like it always had in impressionist pictures, with its inhabitants still looking and thinking like their impressionist portraits. And then General de Gaulle himself came in here, into this very restaurant, and he bowed and saluted and bowed again, without taking off his pillbox hat or even offering to check it, all the while murmuring to himself, “La Gloire, oui, c’est La Gloire!” And everyone rushed into the streets of L’Huile-sur­-Toile waving the tricolour and shouting, “Don’t change anything, ever! Don’t rock the boat! The Left Bank doesn’t exist!” And everyone went around acting as if the world of L’Huile-sur-Toile was perfect and no need to change anything ever, everything should go on as it always had on the avenues of la Grande Republique. But, but the students, alors, merde, the students – ces enragés, ces chienlits – were hungry and bored, and they had had enough of All That, they wanted an entirely new mix of colours, an entirely new palette, entirely new tools and new types of brushes to paint with, and they used spray paint on everything. They woke up the workers everywhere, they inspired the hunger strikers, and every other brand of forgotten humanity came pouring out of the side streets – the anarchists and the Trotskyists and the communists who hated everyone else, especially the anarchists, they all began to unite, because they were all hungry and fed up with the flat flabby ancien régime and with de Gaulle’s grandeur, which didn’t include them. They were all totally frustrated by the plutocracy that ruled the world even beyond the Toile, and they wanted to focus a huge magnifying glass on the canvas of the whole world and concentrate the new light on the very centre of the canvas until it caught fire and burned a hole right through the whole landscape!’ This time it was Annie who was fairly carried away, her voice tending to rise to a higher octave, so that now the antique waiter with the raised eyebrows came hurrying up, and Annie broke off and sat back, looking at Julian, who sat silent looking at her as if he had never really seen her before. Then he raised his glass to her, smiling in her eyes, and drank, as she spooned her cold soup. Then after a while Julian signed a chit, and they went out together into the loud afternoon traffic that crept past the Bourse, the multicoloured cars like myriad drops of paint flowing over an immense abstract-impressionist landscape whose perspective had long ago been destroyed. 

——

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1919-1997. Love in the Days of Rage, 1988. Chapter 7 / Chapter 11

Images: Interior view of l’Atelier Populaire, 1968. © Atelier Populaire d.r. Courtesy École des Beaux-Arts, Paris

Set in Paris, in May 1968. An American artist, Annie is teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts. To a background of cultural action and police presence in the streets the novella weaves the story of a love affair between Annie and Julian Mendes, an anarchist banker, with descriptions of the romantic Parisian daily life of cafes and restaurants, and references to the artistic and architectural past of the city as the scenario of political events changes around them.  

The novel presents the critical aesthetic moment of May 1968 as the point where art changed from a cycle of avant-garde movements of Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism, Symbolism, Dada and Surrealism forever repeating the language of the canvas. As Annie considers her previous career as an artist in New York she is also a symbol of a changing aesthetic reality. She links May ’68 to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the United States. A Federal Art Project (1935–1943) that funded artists as workers to produce public artworks in a social realist style as part of the New Deal program. Annie sees that the traditional nostalgic bourgeois views of the old grey buildings and stone labyrinth of the feminine landscape of Paris have been appropriated by American artists as huge abstract expressionist canvases. The studio has been replaced by a collective Atelier Populaire – a peoples studio. The École des Beaux-Arts, and art schools and institutions throughout France, were occupied by the students who produced thousands of posters and political slogans. The ideas and images were pasted on the walls of Paris, but artists began to realise that the power and potential language of art had changed as direct action and media sensation could reach the eyes of the world.

An Artist – Punch. March 14 1945

William Roberts, 1895-1980. Drawing. British Museum

WITH the heavy mashie-niblick I have rather a special technique. To begin with I wiggle a good deal to give my Eustachian tubes a chance of warming up to their vital task of establishing a true balance. Comparable to the run-up in the bomber world, my wiggling. Next I stand perfectly still except for my eyebrows, which. I slide up and down very slowly three times, like pistons, with terrifying concentration. This movement has often been criticized unfavourably by the crowd at Westward Ho and St. Andrews, but it puts at least three yards on such balls as I hit, and a lot of useful backwash as well.

This time there was no crowd to distract me, and vou would think a man’s head, nicely teed up on a stiff white collar, was an easier mark than a golf ball, but I found to my surprise that this was not so. My eyebrows were going under for the third time when a vision of fatherless children swept over me and I remembered that the chair-covers had only just come back from the cleaners. I flung the club away in disgust. The man, who was sitting with his back to me examining one of my Georgian tankards through a jeweller’s glass screwed into his right eye, sprang round.

“You did give me a fright ! ” he complained.

“I had every intention of laying you dead by the pin,” I said, going towards the telephone. “Put that can down and sit quiet. The last burglar who doubted my force of character is still on the danger-list.”

“You don’t look’ at all a violent man,” said the burglar, studying me with some surprise.

“The two years I spent with the cannibals when I was a lad were very formative,” I told him, as I spun the dial. “Once I’m roused there’s no holding me. I pull big men to pieces like flies.”

“I’ve been admiring your silver,” he said politely, pointing to the pile on the table.

“I hope you liked the whisky too ? “

“I must apologize for helping myself, but I got frozen fiddling with that patent catch on the window.”

“I’d have put a thermos out if I’d known you were coming. Blast this exchange!”

“These country ones are getting very uneven in their work. I sometimes think all one wants in the country is a commodity-phone, on which one could dial PUB for refresh­ment and TAX for a cab and, naturally, POL for the police.”

I suddenly felt very angry, not only with the exchange. It was four in the morning and I was in pyjamas.

“You miserable little son of a dustcart!” I cried. “If there’s one crime that sticks in my gullet it ‘s larceny. It’s so wretchedly inconsiderate!”

My burglar regarded me mildly. I forgot to say that he looked like a Cabinet Minister on the way to the funeral of an Under-Secretary, national mark, second grade.

“I hate it too,” he said, and sighed deeply.

“I suppose your heart is really in the missionary field ? “

“In art,” he said simply, and sighed again. I went on dialling, and the girl at the exchange went on sleeping.

“Do you mind if I look at your pictures while you ‘re getting through ? They may be the last I’ll see for some time.” He got up and turned slowly towards the mantel­piece. Then he whistled loudly.

“You know who that’s by? ” he asked, pointing to a small painting which hung above it. The apple of my eye. Imagine the Flying Scotsman piling up in a fish market that has joined forces with the House of Lords, a thriving marine store and an acre of artichokes, and as near as can be you have it.

“A man called Albert Skeffington,” I said.

” You know about him of course ? “

“I’ve never been able to find out anything. It was a wedding present.”

“Then you’re in luck. I shared a studio with Albert for five years. In Paris. It was the interregnum between the Absinthe and the Methylated Skeffington periods. What a painter!”

“This is extraordinarily interesting!” I said, stopping dialling.

“You ought to hang on to that. It’ll be worth twenty thousand one day. You know when he did it ? “

“No?”

“The night Rosa left him. I found him hanging over the Pont Royal about to chuck himself in. I dragged him back to the studio and talked to him like an uncle. He grabbed his brushes about midnight and worked without stopping for forty-eight hours. That ought to be in the National Gallery!”

“I’ve always thought it terrific.”

“Terrific ? It’s a classic.”

“What sort of a man was he ? “

“Short. Red beard. Had been an engine-driver. Kept hares under his bed. What mastery of the primaries! And just look at the way he disciplines his verticals!”

He was prancing up and down in a great state of excite­ment. He was rather a dear little man. I caught it too.

“My wife will be tremendously pleased to hear all this. Where is he now ? “

“I wouldn’t like to say. Poor old Albert!”

“Not dead ? “

“Long time ago. Practically spontaneous combustion. Nothing else of his, I suppose ? “

” Why, yes. Give yourself another whisky and I’ll get it.”

“This is the most wonderful thing that’s happened to me for years,” he said, rubbing his hands. And I think he meant it, because when I got back, carrying the bedroom Skeffington of the snowplough reversing through the bishops in Brighton Aquarium, he was gone. And so was the silver. But the Skeffington over the mantelpiece was still there, all right.


An Artist. PUNCH or The London Charivari. March 14 1945. Anonymous – Author byline: Eric.

Image: William Roberts, 1895-1980. Drawing. British Museum.

A comic short story which presents the traditional role of the eccentric Bohemian artist in Paris. This perspective of the artist can be traced from Henri Murger, 1822-1861, Scènes de la vie de bohème, 1847–49; George du Maurier, 1834-1896, Trilby, 1894; W Somerset Maugham, 1874-1895, The Moon and Sixpence, 1919; to Tony Hancock, 1924-1968, and the film  The Rebel, 1961, published as Alan Holmes, The Rebel, 1961.

The artist, Albert Skeffington, is described as a manic genius, a consumer of Absinthe and Methylated spirits, whose once unconsidered paintings with scenes of “the Flying Scotsman piling up in a fish market that has joined forces with the House of Lords, a thriving marine store and an acre of artichokes” and a “snowplough reversing through the bishops in Brighton Aquarium” have acquired a high market value.

John Lanchester – Capital, 2012

Chapter 39

Smitty’s assistant was called Parker French, though that wasn’t how Smitty thought of him. As was his practice, Smitty thought of his assistant as his assistant. What they did mattered much more than who they were. In fact who they were was barely relevant; in so far as it was relevant, it was, in direct proportion, annoying. The more he had to notice his assistants as people, the less well they were doing their job. If he could have got away with it, he would have quite liked to do that thing of calling all his assistants by the same name. Nigel, say. His assistant would always be called Nigel. Every year or so there would be a new Nigel. Short Nigels, tall Nigels, hairy Nigels, skinhead Nigels, Rasta Nigels – but always, in the final analysis, Nigels. That would be funny.

Smitty’s assistant, however, didn’t think of himself as Smitty’s assistant. He thought of himself as Parker French. If Parker had known what Smitty thought of him, he would have been shocked and upset, but he would have nonetheless found out that he and his employer were in full agreement about one thing: Parker wouldn’t be Smitty’s assistant for ever.

A job like today’s was one reason for that. Smitty was going to a party, an art-world party. It was in a warehouse in Clapton, and was given by a gallery owner who had been one of the first and most alert about tracking the London art world’s relocation eastward. They had been onto Hoxton, onto Shoreditch, right as they were happening, and now they were onto Clapton. The stuff on display was by one of their new clients, an up-and-coming pair of brothers who specialised in smashing things and then incorrectly gluing them back together. It wasn’t a question of whether they were going to be big. That was a given. It was only a question of just how big. For this first high-profile show, there were about ten small pieces and two big central works. The small pieces included a mound of four bicycles, some sofas, a fridge (that was quite funny because the doors had been glued on backwards), and some sets of golf clubs (also funny). In the middle stood one of their most controversial works, a number of paintings and artworks which they’d been given by other artists and which they’d chopped up and glued back together and given a one-word name three hundred and forty-four characters long which was all the individual titles of the artworks run together. Hareonagreenshutteraftersoutineperformanceonesketchesincharcoal1  baconwaswrongileftmymuminthecarparkpartsevenwinterdrea mpicturemehavingsexdoesmymumlookbiginthis(canisterofherash es)knickerpaintingifyouwantmybodyinspiredbyphilipkdicknumber twoselfportraitselfportraitselfportraitbyphotoshopspunkingupyogh urtpotbymoonlightshortfilmsstilllifewithfish was one big central piece, which had already been bought by a collector. Smitty quite liked it and quite liked the idea too. It was funny to think of how pissed off all the other artists must have been to have their work chopped up, while having to pretend to be cool about it. But that wasn’t his favourite piece in the show. The brothers had smashed a Ford Focus – or rather had found a chop shop to cut it apart – and glued it back together. The result was memorable, truly. It looked like a child’s idea of how you might assemble a car, executed by a giant whose hands were too big to make the necessary fine movements. Because bits of it stuck out and were added on at the last moment – bits that the brothers couldn’t fit in anywhere else – it also had something a little hedgehog-like about it. Everyone agreed that it was a very strong piece. It was called Can There Ever Be a Politics of the Dream? That was where the party had got its theme. The party was called Politics of the Dream, which was why there were sword-swallowers and fire-eaters by the warehouse door as people came in, and also why the waiters were dwarfs.

Smitty had been sent an invitation via his dealer – his dealer in the old sense, as it happened, who was now his dealer in the new sense – and he felt coming, so he did. He wanted to have a look around, not just to see the brothers’ work, which he already knew about, but to get the feeling of the room, of the vibe, of what was happening and what might be about to happen. Art was a business, which might not be your favourite fact about it but was a fact you were unwise to ignore. It was good to sniff around, to look at the players. Because of that, going to art parties was something Smitty loved to do. There wasn’t too much chance he would be recognised, even among an art-world crowd, because among that crowd there was a rumour – a rumour started by Smitty, as it happened, via a hint he’d got his dealer to drop – that Smitty was black. The existence of that rumour was Smitty’s single favourite thing in the whole entire world.

So his identity was protected here. At the same time, he was careful not to do the party thing too often, because if he did do it too often, people might start to wonder who he was; might start to wonder properly, not just to be faintly, briefly, idly curious. Smitty liked to play games with his anonymity, but he preferred to be the person who was playing the game; liked it to be a private game with one player, Smitty himself. So he always dressed up in a suit and tie, a not-too-smart formal suit, not a wide-boy-at-play suit, and if anyone asked him what he did, he said he was an accountant who worked for the artists’ insurers. That shut people up and made them go away pretty fast. If they didn’t, well, Smitty had an economics GCSE and was confident he could bluff his way through. Plus he always took an assistant as hanger-on and as cover. Even a useless Nigel like this one could be good cover, because Smitty looked as if he was standing talking to him while in fact he was checking out the talent in the room – the talent in all senses.

Smitty recognised about a third of the people in the room; that was about average. There were some dealers who were mainly drinking champagne, a few artists who were mainly drinking Special Brew (nice touch) and a few civilians who were either on champagne or London tap water; that was being served out of magnums with ‘London Tap’ printed on the side (another nice touch). The dealers were for the most part wearing expensive versions of smart casual, the artists were carefully superscruffy, and the civilians wore suits. Hence his disguise. There were more foreigners than usual, which was interesting; mainly Germans, Smitty thought. The word about these guys had got out quite far quite fast. Germany was a good market, as Smitty well knew. About a third of his book’s earnings had been in Germany. That was really all there was to see here. Another glass of bubbles and Smitty would be off.

All this made Parker very unhappy. Smitty was right to think that his assistant wasn’t exactly convulsed with respect for him. In Parker’s opinion, Smitty’s entire oeuvre was based on a mistake. Once you ignored the particulars of what Smitty did – which, in Parker’s view, you could easily do, without missing too much – what Smitty’s work was really about was anonymity. He was all about being anonymous, about the idea of, and consequences of, being anonymous. Warhol only had one idea, about the commodification of the art image; and he got that idea in all its implications, from every possible angle. Smitty too only had one idea, about the possibilities and consequences of anonymity. But his idea was, in Parker’s opinion, a load of bollocks. People did not want to be anonymous. More: anonymity was one of the things that they liked least about life in the modern world. They wanted to be known, they wanted to be named, they wanted their fifteen minutes.

‘It’s not about being invisible,’ Parker would say to his girlfriend Daisy when he talked about what was wrong with Smitty; which was fairly often. ‘He’s got it backwards. Art should be about making people visible. Making things visible. It’s about attention,’

She knew well enough not to say anything, just to stroke the nearest available body part.

Parker knew just how being unknown, unacknowledged, unseen, presses on people; he knew because he felt the pressure inside himself. He felt it as an aspect of the city, of the crowds and the blankness and the attention always going elsewhere, up and out towards dreams of celebrity and fame, down and into the reveries of the self; and never where it belonged, some small but loud and passionate part of him secretly felt: towards him, Parker French.

‘Yeah, we’ve done this,’ said Smitty, draining his glass and handing it to one of the dwarfs. Parker knew what that meant: we are leaving immediately. Smitty’s absolute indifference to most other people could seem a form of geniality, the affability of an older man, but Parker knew that Smitty wasn’t at all genial, not even a little bit. Parker put his half-full glass on the same tray and the two men headed unnoticed for the warehouse exit.

John Lanchester – Capital, 2012

Capital presents a chronicle of characters in a south London street where various tales interlink to reflect the capitals changing demographic of ‘ordinary’ and ‘new’ Londoners representing themes of gentrification, disparate income, lifestyles and diverse nationalities. The residents of Pepys Road are participants in an allegorical story linked by their urban habitat.

The story involves the successful and anonymous performance artist, Smitty – a parody of the Young British Artists (YBAs) and the era of Brit Art that emerged in London in the late 1980s and of the artist ‘Banksy’. Smitty attended Goldsmiths’ – the institutional epicentre of Brit Art. The YBAs were noted for their provocative attitude and their appropriation of the money and celebrity connected with the art world which changed the hierarchical position and public perception of the artist. Smitty is described as a ‘natural barrow boy” from a modest social background. His assistant, Parker French, has the privileges of education and social position, but his jealousy at Smitty’s success as an artist causes him to take revenge in the form of a sinister art prank which implicates Smitty and threatens his anonymity. The narrative on art in the novel is fermented through a campaign of graffiti, petty vandalism, CDs with 40 minutes of amateur film of Pepys Road, dead blackbirds in jiffy bags, and postcards with the slogan “We Want What You Have”. The phrase acts as underlying motto summarising the resentment and envy at the materialist disparity of the capitalist economy. 

In Chapter 39, Smitty and Parker French attend a gallery opening in unfashionable Clapton in the East End of London. The exhibition describes the work of a “pair of brothers who specialised in smashing things and then incorrectly glueing them back together” which resembles the style of work produced by real-life artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, and Michael Landy. John Lanchester writes with an intimate understanding of the creative processes and styles of the contemporary world as well as the physical locales and the seemingly anarchic entreprenurial modus operandi of the contemporary artist. “We Want What You Have” is a motto describing the ability of the artist in turning the world upside down – to be an individual in a hierarchical society.

Art in Fiction video: Oliver Goldsmith – The Vicar of Wakefield, 1766

The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, written in 1761 and 1762, and published in 1766, became one of the most widely read books in English literature. The novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a Yorkshire vicar, Dr. Primrose, and his family.

Chapter 16. The family use art, which is opposed by still greater.

The narrative provides an unparalleled description of the commission of a family group portrait by an itinerant painter plying the artist’s trade in the English provinces in the mid 18th century. The excitement and discussion of the costume and composition is enjoyed by the whole village. The social cachet and class distinctions, or minor snobbery, of having a portrait painted are keenly understood. The Vicar of Wakefield, Dr Primrose, adopts a theological intellectual pose, while his wife Deborah and their six children choose to be depicted as Venus, cupids, a shepherdess and an Amazon. The local Squire Thornhill, was included as Alexander the Great. The painter, or travelling limner, who ‘took likenesses for fifteen shillings a head’ is not considered important enough to be named.

Chapter 20. The history of a philosophic vagabond, pursuing novelty, but losing content.

The young Vicar of Wakefield, Dr Primrose, is instructed in the tricks of the art trade in Paris, and teacher on the Grand Tour of France and Italy. The narrative suggests that there was little confidence in the connoisseurship of the art dealer or in the role of guide on the Grand Tour. 

Art in Fiction video: Teju Cole -Open City, 2012. Chapter 12

Teju Cole, born in 1975, is an American writer, photographer, and art historian. Open City is a documentary novel that explores layers of urban history and migrant experience set in post 9/11 New York. The narrative is seen through the eyes of Julius, a young Nigerian-German psychiatrist who, in solitary walks, traverses and discovers New York.

He writes about the mental associations  that emerge through observation of the culture and architecture of the city and describes the thoughts of Julius as he thinks and reflects about art and memory and history and the crosscurrents of art, photography, music and literature – in short the human condition.

He has been described as an aesthetic cosmopolitan. The visual arts and visits to galleries and museums are integral to the book. Chapter 12 describes an exhibition of photographs by 20th century Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi at the International Center of Photography.

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Art in Fiction video: Teju Cole – Open City, 2012. Chapter 3

Teju Cole – Open City, 2012. Chapter 3

Teju Cole, born in 1975, is an American writer, photographer, and art historian. Open City is a documentary novel that explores layers of urban history and migrant experience set in post 9/11 New York. The narrative is seen through the eyes of Julius, a young Nigerian-German psychiatrist who, in solitary walks, traverses and discovers New York.

He writes about the mental associations  that emerge through observation of the culture and architecture of the city and describes the thoughts of Julius as he thinks and reflects about art and memory and history and the crosscurrents of art, photography, music and literature – in short the human condition.

He has been described as an aesthetic cosmopolitan. The visual arts, galleries and museums are integral to the book. There are discussions of Jan Van Eyck, medieval German wood sculptors, Diego Velázquez and Paul Claudel. There is an extended description of the colonial era painter John Brewster at the American Folk Art museum.

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Art in Fiction video: Alan Holmes – The Rebel, 1961

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Art in Fiction Video: Alan Holmes, The Rebel, 1961. Alan Holmes is a pen name – the initials A.H. are also those of the actor Anthony Hancock, and is a book based on the comic film of  The Rebel with screenplay by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson made in 1961. The film is an English satirical take on the Bohemian pretensions of the art world in Paris.  Tony Hancock is The Rebel who leaves the conformity of suburbia and routine office life and the daily commute on the 8.32 to the City. The Rebel arrives in Paris to become a Bohemian artist in smock and beret. He adopts a pantomime approach to the idea of the artist genius – He makes action paintings, that satirise Jackson Pollock, with titles – Exhaust Fumes on a Wet Thursday Night; and Sodium Light on a Left Buttock, and announces new art movements – the Infantile School and Shapist movement. He attends an Existentialist vernissage with long haired poets, girls with green and orange hair, green faces and  green lipstick.

Alan Holmes-The Rebel,1961

https://youtu.be/nmEroBFpyvI

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Art in Fiction Video – Will Self – Great Apes, 1997

Will Self – Great Apes, 1997

Set in a gallery opening in the YBA era of the 1990s – the artist wakes up in a world where chimps have evolved to be the dominant species with self-awareness, while humans are the equivalent of chimps in our world.

Thanks to The GAP Arts Project 100 Stories Deep for the invitation to take part in the 100 Stories project. Thanks to Haqi Ali – Director of Photography.

Art in Fiction Video – Don DeLillo – Baader-Meinhof, 2011

Don DeLillo – Baader-Meinhof, 2011.

Set in a museum of contemporary art, MoMA, New York, in a gallery displaying a series of fifteen paintings by Gerhard Richter – 18 October 1977 – showing the dead bodies of the leaders of the German revolutionary Baader-Meinhof group. The main activists in the group Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensllin and Andreas Baader were held at Stammheim prison, and all were found dead in the cells with their deaths attributed to suicide.

In Don DeLillo’s story a man and a woman have a conversation about the paintings which becomes an aesthetic engagement – a questioning of the subject matter and the motivations of the subjects – that emerges through the duration of looking at the paintings. The woman’s feelings for the paintings change from complicated emotions to confusion to love.

Thanks to Haqi Ali – Director of Photography

George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four, BBC TV, 12 December 1954

Winston sat back against the window-sill. It was no use going on. He was about to buy some more beer when the old man suddenly got up and shuffled rapidly into the stinking urinal at the side of the room. The extra half-litre was already working on him. Winston sat for a minute or two gazing at his empty glass, and hardly noticed when his feet carried him out into the street again. Within twenty years at the most, he reflected, the huge and simple question, ‘Was life better before the Revolution than it is now?’ would have ceased once and for all to be answerable. But in effect it was unanswerable even now, since the few scattered survivors from the ancient world were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision. They were like the ant, which can see small objects but not large ones. And when memory failed and written records were falsified — when that happened, the claim of the Party to have improved the conditions of human life had got to be accepted, because there did not exist, and never again could exist, any standard against which it could be tested. 

At this moment his train of thought stopped abruptly. He halted and looked up. He was in a narrow street, with a few dark little shops, interspersed among dwelling-houses. Immediately above his head there hung three discoloured metal balls which looked as if they had once been gilded. He seemed to know the place. Of course! He was standing outside the junk-shop where he had bought the diary. 

A twinge of fear went through him. It had been a sufficiently rash act to buy the book in the beginning, and he had sworn never to come near the place again. And yet the instant that he allowed his thoughts to wander, his feet had brought him back here of their own accord. It was precisely against suicidal impulses of this kind that he had hoped to guard himself by opening the diary. At the same time he noticed that although it was nearly twenty-one hours the shop was still open. With the feeling that he would be less conspicuous inside than hanging about on the pavement, he stepped through the doorway. If questioned, he could plausibly say that he was trying to buy razor blades. 

The proprietor had just lighted a hanging oil lamp which gave off an unclean but friendly smell. He was a man of perhaps sixty, frail and bowed, with a long, benevolent nose, and mild eyes distorted by thick spectacles. His hair was almost white, but his eyebrows were bushy and still black. His spectacles, his gentle, fussy movements, and the fact that he was wearing an aged jacket of black velvet, gave him a vague air of intellectuality, as though he had been some kind of literary man, or perhaps a musician. His voice was soft, as though faded, and his accent less debased than that of the majority of proles. 

‘I recognized you on the pavement,’ he said immediately. ‘You’re the gentleman that bought the young lady’s keepsake album. That was a beautiful bit of paper, that was. Cream-laid, it used to be called. There’s been no paper like that made for — oh, I dare say fifty years.’ He peered at Winston over the top of his spectacles. ‘Is there anything special I can do for you? Or did you just want to look round?’ 

‘I was passing,’ said Winston vaguely. ‘I just looked in. I don’t want anything in particular.’ 

‘It’s just as well,’ said the other, ‘because I don’t suppose I could have satisfied you.’ He made an apologetic gesture with his softpalmed hand. ‘You see how it is; an empty shop, you might say. Between you and me, the antique trade’s just about finished. No demand any longer, and no stock either. Furniture, china, glass it’s all been broken up by degrees. And of course the metal stuff’s mostly been melted down. I haven’t seen a brass candlestick in years.’ 

The tiny interior of the shop was in fact uncomfortably full, but there was almost nothing in it of the slightest value. The floorspace was very restricted, because all round the walls were stacked innumerable dusty picture-frames. In the window there were trays of nuts and bolts, worn-out chisels, penknives with broken blades, tarnished watches that did not even pretend to be in going order, and other miscellaneous rubbish. Only on a small table in the corner was there a litter of odds and ends — lacquered snuffboxes, agate brooches, and the like — which looked as though they might include something interesting. As Winston wandered towards the table his eye was caught by a round, smooth thing that gleamed softly in the lamplight, and he picked it up. 

It was a heavy lump of glass, curved on one side, flat on the other, making almost a hemisphere. There was a peculiar softness, as of rainwater, in both the colour and the texture of the glass. At the heart of it, magnified by the curved surface, there was a strange, pink, convoluted object that recalled a rose or a sea anemone. 

‘What is it?’ said Winston, fascinated. 

‘That’s coral, that is,’ said the old man. ‘It must have come from the Indian Ocean. They used to kind of embed it in the glass. That wasn’t made less than a hundred years ago. More, by the look of it.’ 

‘It’s a beautiful thing,’ said Winston. 

‘It is a beautiful thing,’ said the other appreciatively. 

‘But there’s not many that’d say so nowadays.’ He coughed. ‘Now, if it so happened that you wanted to buy it, that’d cost you four dollars. I can remember when a thing like that would have fetched eight pounds, and eight pounds was — well, I can’t work it out, but it was a lot of money. But who cares about genuine antiques nowadays even the few that’s left?’ 

Winston immediately paid over the four dollars and slid the coveted thing into his pocket. What appealed to him about it was not so much its beauty as the air it seemed to possess of belonging to an age quite different from the present one. The soft, rainwatery glass was not like any glass that he had ever seen. The thing was doubly attractive because of its apparent uselessness, though he could guess that it must once have been intended as a paperweight. It was very heavy in his pocket, but fortunately it did not make much of a bulge. It was a queer thing, even a compromising thing, for a Party member to have in his possession. Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect. The old man had grown noticeably more cheerful after receiving the four dollars. Winston realized that he would have accepted three or even two. 

‘There’s another room upstairs that you might care to take a look at,’ he said. ‘There’s not much in it. Just a few pieces. We’ll do with a light if we’re going upstairs.’ 

He lit another lamp, and, with bowed back, led the way slowly up the steep and worn stairs and along a tiny passage, into a room which did not give on the street but looked out on a cobbled yard and a forest of chimney-pots. Winston noticed that the furniture was still arranged as though the room were meant to be lived in. There was a strip of carpet on the floor, a picture or two on the walls, and a deep, slatternly arm-chair drawn up to the fireplace. An old-fashioned glass clock with a twelve-hour face was ticking away on the mantelpiece. Under the window, and occupying nearly a quarter of the room, was an enormous bed with the mattress still on it. 

‘We lived here till my wife died,’ said the old man half apologetically. ‘I’m selling the furniture off by little and little. Now that’s a beautiful mahogany bed, or at least it would be if you could get the bugs out of it. But I dare say you’d find it a little bit cumbersome.’ 

He was holdlng the lamp high up, so as to illuminate the whole room, and in the warm dim light the place looked curiously inviting. The thought flitted through Winston’s mind that it would probably be quite easy to rent the room for a few dollars a week, if he dared to take the risk. It was a wild, impossible notion, to be abandoned as soon as thought of; but the room had awakened in him a sort of nostalgia, a sort of ancestral memory. It seemed to him that he knew exactly what it felt like to sit in a room like this, in an arm-chair beside an open fire with your feet in the fender and a kettle on the hob; utterly alone, utterly secure, with nobody watching you, no voice pursuing you, no sound except the singing of the kettle and the friendly ticking of the clock. 

‘There’s no telescreen!’ he could not help murmuring. 

‘Ah,’ said the old man, ‘I never had one of those things. Too expensive. And I never seemed to feel the need of it, somehow. Now that’s a nice gateleg table in the corner there. Though of course you’d have to put new hinges on it if you wanted to use the flaps.’ 

There was a small bookcase in the other corner, and Winston had already gravitated towards it. It contained nothing but rubbish. The hunting-down and destruction of books had been done with the same thoroughness in the prole quarters as everywhere else. It was very unlikely that there existed anywhere in Oceania a copy of a book printed earlier than 1960. The old man, still carrying the lamp, was standing in front of a picture in a rosewood frame which hung on the other side of the fireplace, opposite the bed. 

‘Now, if you happen to be interested in old prints at all-‘ he began delicately. 

Winston came across to examine the picture. It was a steel engraving of an oval building with rectangular windows, and a small tower in front. There was a railing running round the building, and at the rear end there was what appeared to be a statue. Winston gazed at it for some moments. It seemed vaguely familiar, though he did not remember the statue. 

‘The frame’s fixed to the wall,’ said the old man, ‘but I could unscrew it for you, I dare say.’ 

‘I know that building,’ said Winston finally. ‘It’s a ruin now. It’s in the middle of the street outside the Palace of Justice.’ 

‘That’s right. Outside the Law Courts. It was bombed in — oh, many years ago. It was a church at one time, St Clement Danes, its name was.’ He smiled apologetically, as though conscious of saying something slightly ridiculous, and added: ‘Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s!’ 

‘What’s that?’ said Winston. 

‘Oh- “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s.” That was a rhyme we had when I was a little boy. How it goes on I don’t remember, but I do know it ended up, “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” It was a kind of a dance. They held out their arms for you to pass under, and when they came to “Here comes a chopper to chop off your head” they brought their arms down and caught you. It was just names of churches. All the London churches were in it — all the principal ones, that is.’ 

Winston wondered vaguely to what century the church belonged. It was always difficult to determine the age of a London building. Anything large and impressive, if it was reasonably new in appearance, was automatically claimed as having been built since the Revolution, while anything that was obviously of earlier date was ascribed to some dim period called the Middle Ages. The centuries of capitalism were held to have produced nothing of any value. One could not learn history from architecture any more than one could learn it from books. Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets — anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered. 

‘I never knew it had been a church,’ he said. 

‘There’s a lot of them left, really,’ said the old man, ‘though they’ve been put to other uses. Now, how did that rhyme go? Ah! I’ve got it! 

“Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s, 

You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s — ” 

there, now, that’s as far as I can get. A farthing, that was a small copper coin, looked something like a cent.’ 

‘Where was St Martin’s?’ said Winston. 

‘St Martin’s? That’s still standing. It’s in Victory Square, alongside the picture gallery. A building with a kind of a triangular porch and pillars in front, and a big flight of steps.’ 

Winston knew the place well. It was a museum used for propaganda displays of various kinds — scale models of rocket bombs and Floating Fortresses, wax-work tableaux illustrating enemy atrocities, and the like. 

‘St Martin’s-in-the-Fields it used to be called,’ supplemented the old man, ‘though I don’t recollect any fields anywhere in those parts.’ 

Winston did not buy the picture. It would have been an even more incongruous possession than the glass paperweight, and impossible to carry home, unless it were taken out of its frame. But he lingered for some minutes more, talking to the old man, whose name, he discovered, was not Weeks — as one might have gathered from the inscription over the shop-front — but Charrington. Mr Charrington, it seemed, was a widower aged sixty-three and had inhabited this shop for thirty years. Throughout that time he had been intending to alter the name over the window, but had never quite got to the point of doing it. All the while that they were talking the half-remembered rhyme kept running through Winston’s head. Oranges and lemons say the bells of St Clement’s, You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St Martin’s! It was curious, but when you said it to yourself you had the illusion of actually hearing bells, the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten. From one ghostly steeple after another he seemed to hear them pealing forth. Yet so far as he could remember he had never in real life heard church bells ringing. 

He got away from Mr Charrington and went down the stairs alone, so as not to let the old man see him reconnoitring the street before stepping out of the door. He had already made up his mind that after a suitable interval — a month, say — he would take the risk of visiting the shop again. It was perhaps not more dangerous than shirking an evening at the Centre. The serious piece of folly had been to come back here in the first place, after buying the diary and without knowing whether the proprietor of the shop could be trusted. However-! 

Yes, he thought again, he would come back. He would buy further scraps of beautiful rubbish. He would buy the engraving of St Clement Danes, take it out of its frame, and carry it home concealed under the jacket of his overalls. He would drag the rest of that poem out of Mr Charrington’s memory. Even the lunatic project of renting the room upstairs flashed momentarily through his mind again. For perhaps five seconds exaltation made him careless, and he stepped out on to the pavement without so much as a preliminary glance through the window. He had even started humming to an improvised tune — 

Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St Clement’s, 

You owe me three farthings, say the — 

—–

George Orwell, 1903-1950: Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949. Part 1, Chapter 8. Published by Secker & Warburg, London 1949.

Winston Smith is venturing around an insalubrious ‘prole’ neighbourhood of London where people are described as squabbling and pugnacious. Wandering “into a sunken alley where a few stallholders were selling tired-looking vegetables” he recognises a junk-shop where he had bought a blank book with paper of rare quality, a penholder and a bottle of ink. He finds himself outside a dingy, unnamed pub and clandestinely hurries inside into a “hideous cheesy smell of sour beer” and “stinking urinal”. He engages in conversation with an old man, asking about the idea of freedom and the quality of life in an earlier age. The man reflects disconnectedly on the Revolution of 1925 and describes the inequalities between the capitalists (and a few lawyers and priests) and workers. Winston reflected that people “were incapable of comparing one age with another. They remembered a million useless things, a quarrel with a workmate, a hunt for a lost bicycle pump, the expression on a long-dead sister’s face, the swirls of dust on a windy morning seventy years ago: but all the relevant facts were outside the range of their vision.” The squalid street-life and mundane conversations of the proletarian city are contrasted with pleasure and purposeless of fragments of art, antiques and bric-a-brac decoration leftover from an earlier time as Winston steps inside the old junk-shop where he had bought the book which used as his diary. The appearance of the proprietor, a Mr Charrington, suggest a cultured intellectual man, maybe a literary type or musician. Winston is attracted by the remnants of beauty and impulsively buys a piece of coral in a glass paperweight. The conversation with the shop-owner arouses feelings in Winston of “a sort of nostalgia, a sort of ancestral memory.” A print of a building is identified as what once had been the church of St Clement Danes. “The centuries of capitalism were held to have produced nothing of any value. One could not learn history from architecture any more than one could learn it from books. Statues, inscriptions, memorial stones, the names of streets — anything that might throw light upon the past had been systematically altered.”  Mr Charrington mused about churches in London that had been destroyed or turned into museums and mentioned St Martins in Victory Square, which Winston knew “as a museum used for propaganda displays of various kinds — scale models of rocket bombs and Floating Fortresses, wax-work tableaux illustrating enemy atrocities, and the like.” Winston leaves the shop without buying the picture while resolving to return to buy the engraving of St Clement Danes and “further scraps of beautiful rubbish.”

Images: George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949. Published by Secker & Warburg, London 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four, BBC TV, 12 December 1954. Adapted by Nigel Kneale; Directed by Rudolph Cartier; Starring: Peter Cushing, André Morrell, Yvonne Mitchell, Donald Pleasance