The Blind Girl

I wrote this for another poetry website.

John Everett Millais’ The Blind Girl

First of all I sat for the blind girl. It was dreadful suffering, the sun poured in through the window. I had a brown cloth over my forehead which was some relief but several times I was as sick as possible and nearly argued. Another day I sat outside in a hay field, and when the face was done Everett scratched it out; he wasn’t pleased with it and complained about the showers.

Smoke from Everett’s pipe got in my eyes so I had to shut them. He told me to keep them shut. He told me not to see the beggar boy on the toll road; he told me not to see the three crows feeding on a dead rabbit or the adder by his own left boot. I laughed and said I could still see with my eyes shut. I could smell the acrid smoke rising from a factory chimney; I could hear the donkeys coughing in the field; I could hear the boy weeping. He told me to be blind.

The concertina was lent by Mr Pringle who had a daughter who had died. It was hers. He said we could keep it as it would never be played again. I smoothed my orange skirt and rested the concertina on my lap doing my best to be blind. It was difficult to keep my eyes shut on such a beautiful day. Everett said there was a double rainbow so I had to look. Everett wasn’t pleased as he was doing the face again. I stretched out my right hand and touched a wild flower growing in the grass. I knew it was a harebell as my little finger fitted inside just as if it was a thimble.

The next day the weather seeped into our drawing room and the double rainbow arched over the carpet. I had my eyes open and could see a painted lady fluttering at the window pane. I could hear concertina music softly playing.

[Part-found prose poem: Source/ Effie Millais’ journals]

Is it a Dog’s Bone?

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This article was prompted by a remark from a woman I was on a health walk with in Saltwell Park. The metallic sculpture in the park elicited the question, “What do you think of the dog-bone?”

Yes, unfortunately it does resemble a cartoon dog-bone; a comparison I’m sure was not in the sculptor’s mind when he produced the sculpture.

The next week our walking group passed nearby the sculpture which is titled, Rise, and we stopped to talk about it. I put on my art-history hat and explained about abstract art: that it didn’t ‘represent’ anything other than itself, not even a dog-bone! Someone else said, “It can be anything you want it to be.” That innocent remark begs a multitude of questions such as, “Is a work of art successful if its form is so open- ended as to be a blank space upon which we project purely subjective ideas?”

This is getting into more philosophical territory which I will leave for a possible future blog.

Another person in the group drew attention to the shiny material (steel) and he contrasted it with the weathered, rusty appearance of Anthony Gormley’s Angel Of the North. Someone else even said we should keep an open mind and not jump to quick judgements. These last two remarks made me re-assess my own opinions; was I being too hasty in thinking the sculpture underwhelming?

The sculpture is by Stephen Newby and was commissioned by Gateshead Sculpture Festival in 2006. It is what is known as a site-specific sculpture. The title is always helpful when viewing art. So, this is called Rise. We are all used to seeing engineering structures, such as bridges which use cast iron for example, yet nevertheless, appear to be light and buoyant. Think of the Millennium Bridge crossing the Tyne or the Forth Railway Bridge.

The fact that Rise is balanced on one of its four corners and consists of curves and no straight edges suggests lightness and movement. Does it make you think of ‘dance’?

I have found that by questioning my knee-jerk reaction to Rise, I have appreciated some of its qualities more. We should approach art in an attitude of open mindedness and ‘disinterestedness.’ On the other hand I always like to relate art to my own life. This is easier in content-heavy and representational art but more difficult with abstract art. Nevertheless, we can still ask such questions as, “What mood does it engender? What does it express? What effect do the materials have?” Such questions are better than “What is it?” which closes down debate and reveals a misunderstanding of abstraction.

Stephen Newby pioneered a new technique in which he somehow ‘inflates’ stainless steel. His website outlines his aims:

Realism becomes obscured and the unmalleable and clinical appearance of steel is transformed into something soft, fluid and organic.

Elsewhere he is quoted: I like to create objects that confuse the eye and give the viewer the feeling that she has found herself in another dimension.

Examples of some of his other work include a metallic sofa, cushions and an oversized metallic crisp-bag. There is also a huge metallic ‘tyre’ (Titled, Halo) outside the main Tesco in Gateshead.

Is Rise anything other than an ephemeral talking point? Will our grandchildren view it as significant art in 50yrs’ time? Maybe not; but at least it has made a few of us look at it with fresh eyes. The ‘problem’ with a lot of contemporary art is that there is so much of it. There are thousands upon thousands of sculptures all vying for position as it were. Much of it is bland and forgettable.

I hope I have given Rise a bit of a rise and that it can now dance confidently in Saltwell Park for a while.

Old-Fashioned Art?

Yesterday, while on a local history walk I asked the historian if he had seen the current exhibition of the Treasures From the Shipley Collection at the Shipley Gallery, Gateshead. He hadn’t so I told him there were a number of seventeenth century Dutch Mannerist paintings on show. I expressed my admiration for them and he replied. “People aren’t interested in those kinds of paintings nowadays.”

At the time I thought I was out on a limb, but afterwards I tended to agree with him. His response got me to question my own reasons for liking the paintings. Was I enamoured because the paintings were centuries old and had been cleaned to show bright and shiny colours? Was I harking back to pre-modernist times when all paintings were representational rather than abstract or conceptual? Was there even a hint of snobbery in my admiration? (I am aware that many people do not even step inside a gallery.) After all such paintings, along with the huge and impressive Tintoretto in the gallery, are examples of ‘high art’ and, that the distinction between ‘high and low art’ is anathema to art critics today. There may be some truth in this latter claim as I do believe in a kind of ‘gold standard’ in art. No amount of pleading will convince me that Andy Warhol’s Marilyn prints are qualitatively on a par with Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet, this is what post-modernist critics claim!

However, I’d like to make clear I am not a reactionary or debunker of modern art in the tradition of Brian Sewell. There is much I enjoy in contemporary art: Anthony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy and Robert Smithson to name but three which come to mind.

I’ll choose David and Abigail as one of the paintings to discuss. It was thought to be by the Dutch artist, Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), but now is designated as ‘after’ the artist.

Wtewael, Joachim Anthonisz., 1566-1638; The Meeting of David and Abigail

When I first saw it I had no idea what was going on in the picture. I had a vague idea it referenced a bible story. Even so, I admired the skill of the painter to depict people, horses, trees and buildings in harmonious colour and tone and I noted the convincing perspective. I had to wait until I got home to look up the story – those visitors with smartphones can do this while looking at the painting!

Now, here is our first hurdle. Not many of us today see the relevance of bible stories. However, I was prepared to put that to one side. Art Aestheticians often talk about the principle of ‘disinterestedness’ when looking at art. They ask us to step into the artist’s shoes and not make snap judgements based solely on personal preferences.

So, in a nutshell the story is as follows:

Nabal, married to Abigail, is a rich landowner with many cattle and crops. He is proud and selfish. David has allowed Nabal’s men to graze cattle on his land and yet when David asks for food and shelter one day, Nabal refuses. David is offended and arms his 400 men who are under orders to kill Nabal’s men. Abigail hears about the plan and sets out with friends with food and drink to meet David. They meet and Abigail says her husband is an arrogant fool and she implores forgiveness. That’s David on horseback on the right with Abigail kneeling. Miraculously, her intervention does the trick as David is moved by Abigail’s determination, compassion and generosity. (Later, poor Nabal is ‘smitten by the Lord’ and dies – oh dear, this sounds like the old Old Testament ‘eye for and eye’ justice! David then marries Abigail).

The figures on the left are Abigail’s men carrying supplies and food, and those on the right are David’s soldiers. There is hence, a perfect symbolism in the composition with Abigail ( the force for compassion) in the centre of opposing forces. The two main tree trunks form a kind of arch which frame the crucial meeting of the protagonists.

If we are to take any spiritual teaching from this archaic story today, surely we can agree that reconciliation is superior to vengeance and war. In our own time we only need to think of Northern Ireland. And, on an individual level, forgiveness is a wonderful gift. Taking a leaf out of Alain de Botton’s book, Art As Therapy, I always try and relate art works (whether paintings, novels, plays, or music) to my own life; they can add to self-understanding. (The book, Art As Therapy,  is co-written with John Armstrong. Published by Phaidon, paperback 2016.)

To my eye, such paintings are not so much ‘old fashioned’ but timeless. They may not give up their magic straight away but with a little patience and, above all, leisure and time to look in a sustained manner, they can provide so much aesthetic pleasure.

An Addendum to Ruskin: Didactic Art and Climate Warming.

global warming

To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]

Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.

The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.

Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.

In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.

It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’

As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.

Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.

Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank or position. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.

So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.

Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.

 

 

Boarding School Survival: Part 2

This third painting shows the ‘dark winds’ of karmic consequences in later life; the fire symbolises the anger and perhaps the redemptive power of self-awareness. Mortality is also an obvious theme, with the skull-like mask.

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The school I attended was burnt down many years after I left; perhaps a fitting end to the building. The seven years I spent at the school were not unmitigated hell though: I found some enjoyment in activities such as sport, art and walking in the Lake District. (Hence the mountains in the first two paintings.) However, I believe the seeds of my adult difficulties were planted and cultivated during these years. Along with other psychological wounds, I became institutionalised: of course, without knowing it at the time.

Ironically the school motto was, We Seek the Truth; this would become an unconscious mantra for the rest of my life. As an adult, I became quietly obsessed with finding a spiritual refuge, first joining a Gurdjieff Group in Bradford in the 1970s, attending Krishnamurti’s talks in the 1980s and many years later embracing Buddhism.

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The last picture shows the beginnings of release from suffering – among many interpretations here, even depression could be seen as a mask. ‘Buddha-nature’ is the intrinsic ‘goodness/perfection’ at the heart of all of us and that which Buddhism says cannot be harmed by circumstances. The burning school could be seen as ‘burning up the painful memories’ – once I acknowledge these painful feelings, in a spirit of deep acceptance – very difficult, as anyone who has experienced abuse will know – I can, hopefully, live without anger or resentment. It’s an ongoing process. (Meditation and living an ethical life are the two main supports of Buddhist practice. (Ethics here includes how we treat ourselves and others. Buddhist practice involves the transformation of hatred, greed and delusion into compassion, generosity and wisdom.)

Perhaps you could say that I wouldn’t have been so determined to find a spiritual path if I hadn’t been subject to the school heartache and trauma. I have had to ‘dig deep’ to find any sense in life and I believe I’ve put Carl Jung’s assertion into practice. His life’s work and psychology is based on recognising the shadow self; integrating and transforming it within the whole psyche. He wrote:

No tree grows towards heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.

Buddhism has a similar image; the lotus blossom whose roots reach down to the mud (symbolic of hatred, greed and delusion). After sufficient time, the flower opens in immaculacy above the water.

We are cautioned in Buddhist practice not to get stuck with ‘our story.’ We have to move on from the hurt and not see ourselves as victims. This is not always easy and I have found paradoxically that going over and over my past circumstances has enabled me to get it into perspective. Today, I can live in the present moment more often without the past intruding, and, as you may read in my other blogs, appreciate the simple things in life such as bird-song or walking in the countryside with friends.

Boarding School Survival: Part 1

 

Mental Health has become more prominent on the socio-political agenda in recent years so it feels the right time to write this more personal blog.

Boarding School Survival Syndrome is a recognised psychological condition rarely talked about. It is similar in some ways to Post Traumatic Stress Diagnosis. Here is one comment about it:

[Children] who were sent away to boarding school from their family homes often learnt to endure unacceptably brutal interpersonal practices … When these kinds of trauma emerge in adulthood in the form of stress related disease, inability to sustain meaningful intimate sexual relationships, and mental and emotional breakdowns, adults often don’t even know how to begin to acknowledge their long-hidden pain to themselves, let alone talk to someone else (such as their medical practitioner) about their suffering. This, as we know from the psychological research evidence, often leads to further psychosomatic difficulties in terms of overworking to the point of burnout, multiple serious health problems, and drug and alcohol misuse.”

Petruska Clarkson BMJ, Vol. 322, 31/3/2001, reviewing Nick Duffell (2000) ‘The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System‘.

And, to reiterate some of the common symptoms:

  • problems with relationships

  • fear of emotional intimacy

  • sexual problems

  • substance/alcohol abuse

  • inability to express feelings

  • learning quickly to suppress painful feelings

  • workaholism/career addiction

  • depression and other mental health problems

  • fear of spontaneity/unable to enjoy life

  • fear of authority

Just as not all war combat personnel will experience PTSD not all ex-boarders will experience these symptoms to the extent that their lives are seriously impacted. However, even some of those who don’t have explicit symptoms may well have buried the hurt so deep within themselves that neurosis will possibly surface eventually.

It was not until my late thirties that I recognised, or acknowledged, I had depression and not until much later that I really made the link between my going to a boarding school and my mental ill-health. You are lucky in the UK(and probably financially well-off) if you manage to get psychotherapy; I had to deal with the trauma by myself.

There was no pastoral care, or what today we call safeguarding, at the school I attended from age 12-19yrs. Some of the teachers were sadistic and psychological abuse was common.

I did these paintings when I was 72 and they ‘process’ the emotional damage in a sequence. The first one shows a boy alone – this is the crucial point; on no account did you let on that you were homesick, or sad, to others. It is even the case that you didn’t let on to yourself that you were sad or stressed!

 

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The second shows the anguish and feelings of abandonment: again completely private and suppressed. I was influenced by Munch’s Scream when creating the main figure in the composition and in painting the background.

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The next blog will show the final two paintings and conclude the description.