A Material World

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 26 x 25cm, Richard Hamilton, 1956, Tubingen.

richard-hamilton

This very small collage ostensibly showing a muscle-bound man and a pin-up girl with sequinned breasts is usually thought of as representative of Pop Art but it also bears some influence of Dada with its photo-montage. It was exhibited in 1956, in an exhibition in London called, This is Tomorrow.

British artist, Hamilton selected images from magazines which represented different aspects of modernity – tape recorder, vacuum cleaner, television, cinema, pornography and so on. Many art commentators think that the artist was approving of consumerism but surely he was being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, especially with the title? Be that as it may we can certainly consider it in an ironic light; what can it tell us about the values and drawbacks of consumerism? First of all, let’s take as given the many advantages of living in a consumer society compared with living in, say, 1800.

Let’s start with the collage, then, and investigate what is actually there. Firstly, are there any signs of actual human beings anywhere? I hope you’ve answered in the negative! Both simulacrums of humans are commodities – the man from a men’s health magazine and the woman from a girlie magazine. Is that a lamp shade she’s wearing? If so, more evidence of Hamilton’s humour and irony. I’ve also read that the two figures could represent a modern Adam and Eve surrounded by modern temptations!

Oops, sorry, there is a woman using a vacuum cleaner at the top of the stairs. But, wait; isn’t she a role-figure, a stereotype, a housewife, and therefore not a living flesh and blood human. Perhaps she is an android like the housewives in The Stepford Wives? You see how Hamilton’s world is slipping remorselessly into unreality? What else can we see? There is a tin of ham on a coffee table. The single item which isn’t manufactured is a plant behind the pin-up figure. Everything else comes from a factory assembly line whether it is made from wood, leather, nylon or plastic.

So much has been written about the ills of consumerism that it is difficult to know what else to say. Perhaps I should take a hint from Hamilton’s collage and collage a few random, but relevant, ideas together.

  • Recently a children’s publisher excised these words (among others) from a dictionary: acorn, swallow (as in the bird), snowdrop and substituted words such as I-Pad and emoticon

  • There are hundreds of people sleeping rough in big cities world wide every night

  • People walking on their own in the countryside today are often regarded with suspicion

  • Many people are so cut off from the natural environment that they have no idea of basic astrophysical facts such as what causes the length of the day, month or year! (See Richard Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth)

  • At least17% of forests has been destroyed in the Amazon in the last 50 years. Does the meat from cattle grazed on the newly created ranches end up on our supermarket shelves?

  • 15 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted in the UK every year (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs)

  • Between 1970 -2014 breeding birds on farmland in the UK declined by 50% (RSPB)

  • What about those indigenous people who are uprooted from their native settlements and end up in reserves as addicts or alcoholics, all because of the greed of multinationals?

  • Viruses are mutating to resist antibiotics……

Shall I go on? I haven’t even mentioned climate change!

Some of these collage items are obviously symptoms of something going radically wrong but I’d like to consider chiefly how our consciousness may have changed for the worse, mainly due to consumerism.

It is often said that consumerism has lead to a commodification of life. We are so used to paying for goods that we take the ‘transaction model’ unconsciously into areas such as personal relationships. We see everything in terms of how much satisfaction can be obtained, rather like in Mick Jagger’s song, although he actually is giving it a negative spin so his is more akin to the Buddhist view. It is as if consumerism has put the finishing touches to our view of ourselves as separate egocentric beings facing the world to see what we can get to our advantage. No wonder alienation is the defining characteristic of modernity.

It is important to realise that the problem here is not merely with the accumulation of material goods; it is also to do with psychological ‘goods’ – my status, my success, my relationships, my career. Investment in such concerns takes up an extraordinary amount of time and effort and they are perhaps more difficult to let go of than to let go of material goods. I am not suggesting that we all become hermits, only that we can shift our reasons for being alive from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘what is good to do in these particular circumstances?’ And ‘am I ceasing from causing harm in my speech, thought and actions?’ The bottom line, according to Buddhism, is that egocentric craving is the cause of our mental dis-ease. The opposite of craving is ‘aversion’ – a hatred of something; wanting things to be different to how they are. If we can change something for the better, all well and good. But often, things have endless multiple causes so we are better accepting that we cannot influence those situations very much, if at all.

Buddhism’s idea of anatta can be translated as no-self. We believe there is no such thing as a self or soul which is unchanging. This conclusion is corroborated by some neurological and psychological experiments. In Bruce Hood’s very readable The Self Illusion, after he has spent over a hundred pages describing such experiments he writes:

These studies reveal that the vast body of evidence undermines the notion of a core self, but rather supports the self illusion. If we are so susceptible to group pressure, subtle priming cues, stereotyping and culturally cuing, then the notion of a true, unyielding ego self cannot be sustained.

Needless to say, most of us rebel in the face of such conclusions. We like to think we are very much an individual with strong character thank you very much!

Hood goes on to describe an extraordinary case from the tragedy of 9/11. Tania Head had been on the 78th floor of the South Tower when flight 175 slammed into the building. She was badly burned by aviation fuel but managed to crawl to the stairs and climb down. She even encountered a dying man who managed to give her his wedding ring. She was eventually rescued by a fireman who himself lost his life by returning to the burning tower. Tania’s fiancé was in the other tower and she later learned he had died. Like other survivors Tania felt afterwards she needed to do something to deal with her own emotional turmoil and that of others. In spite of being disfigured she set up a survivor’s group and championed the group’s right to visit Ground Zero. She became a figurehead and a symbol of the human spirit . . . the only problem was that she had never been in the Tower. It was all a lie!

What has this to do with consumerism? Poor Tania Head felt so alienated from society that she had to create herself like Walter Mitty. We all have our life-narratives but if the evidence in Hood’s book is anything to go by even they are pure fiction! I would suggest that our consumer society has exacerbated this need to create and promote our fictional stories, perhaps because we feel so much adrift compared to ages where religious faith provided meaning. And I’m convinced that we have lost a connection with the rest of nature by abandoning rural life and moving into cities. That was the warning of the Romantics and there are many strands to it, even now some of the consequences of urbanisation are unrecognised and need to be investigated further.

However there is a ‘positive’ side to the doctrine of anatta or no-self. If our selves are ‘self-invented’ and we can be self-aware, we should be able to allow for our conditioning and prejudices and hence be more peaceable and non-confrontational. Also, this view does not go against having distinct personalities. We are not saying that Jones doesn’t have an earthy sense of humour, that Smith isn’t quick-witted! We can still contribute to the common good through our personalities. But we no longer have to feel threatened by others or indulge in one-upmanship. And perhaps, we may even begin to put Gandhi’s statement into action: there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet, Tintoretto

tintoretto-shipley

Priceless Painting in the Shipley Gallery, Bensham, Gateshead.

This is one artist I haven’t included in my book so I thought I’d post it here to give you an idea of how the book is structured. The idea is to have the poem on one page and the picture opposite followed by the criticism.

Not many people outside the region, realise that there is a priceless Renaissance masterpiece in the Shipley. It is Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet by Tintoretto. It is a huge oil on canvas measuring 533 x 210cm. When you walk into the main exhibition space it is facing you at the far end. Many people ignore it as an ‘old-fashioned’ narrative painting no longer relevant to today! However, as well as its overt Christian story it is also a painting about humility and spiritual fellowship. Perhaps these are among the qualities the world could do with at the moment!

Tintoretto painted it for San Marcuola church in Venice and a copy was done some time later. It is not clear which is the original now as as another copy hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid!

The Shipley version ( which may well be the original) turned up in Paris in 1814 where it was sold at an auction to a collector by the name of Baring. He sold it the next day to Sir Mathew Ridley of Blagdon Hall in Northumberland. In 1818 he gave the painting to St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle. It came to the Shipley in 1986.

The composition is typical of Tintoretto’s style: he used diagonal compositions and dramatic gestures a lot. The disciples are in conversation and removing their boots and socks ready for Christ to wash their feet. Washing feet in public was a common sight in Italy in Tintoretto’s time. The large table dominating the composition is a reminder of the ‘last supper’. Judas, the much maligned disciple leans on a pillar at the back, left of centre.

Vasari the famous art historian of the day, who wrote The Lives of the Artists, was critical of Tintoretto’s quick way of working – he implied it was slapdash. In my poem I have imagined the artist replying to Vasari.

Tintoretto Replies to Giorgio Vasari

Oh Giorgio, as I stand before Jesus now

it’s no jest – I’m humbled by his kneeling

presence, dwarfed by such magnificence, impelled

to join in at the table. How could you pass

over my loyal dog; how could you pass

over the momentous moment I’ve depicted?

I’m admittedly fast and like to let the brush strokes

show but there’s nothing dashed off or haphazard

in my design; it’s partly ordained if you’ll pardon

the expression. Remember I had to stand on my own

two feet. I’d gladly have them washed too if I could

only reach over the canvas there, where Peter is.

See how I’ve used distance and separation to depict

destiny; Judas far gone and John close by. I’m down

to earth; no angels here or anything transfigured

and the betrayal only hinted at in dim light.

There are ghoulish doctors, with bird beaks, patrolling

outside as I speak. A plague on Venice – it’s an omen

so they say but I’d rather paint what I see: tables, wash tub

and Christ’s white apron, echoed in the bright tablecloth.

Paulo Uccello Replies to Vasari

800px-Paolo_Uccello_047b

This is another in my Vasari series which I hope to include in a book. Giorgio Vasari published the 2nd edition of his famous book Lives of the Artists in 1568 in which he comments on 160 artists and architects. I can highly recommend the edited version published in Penguin Classics Translation by George Bull.

*

I knew you’d like my triads how I posed

three characters, made the cave triangular

and lanced the whole composition

into jousting triangles. I knew you’d like

my hint of supernatural powers broiling

in the cloud top right corner of the canvas.

Not forgetting the stylised dragon of course.

I knew you’d highlight my fallen soldier

deftly foreshortened; my speciality you wrote

and the way the lances disappear at a vanishing point.

* * *

But why must you spread rumours with your gossipy pen!

I didn’t stay up all hours unravelling the mysteries

of perspective and foreshortening; I didn’t tell my wife,

“What a sweet thing perspective is.”

And why did you go on and on about that abbot

feeding me cheese as if I was a mouse. Yes, I know

I wrote in my diary, “If he went on any more I wouldn’t

be Paulo Uccello, I’d be pure cheese.” But I don’t want

to be remembered as the ‘cheese artist,’ it was a joke!

* * *

Although I honour your veneration of artistic perfection

I find it difficult to forgive your epitaph – that throwaway

line after writing that Paulo painted animals, the first man

and woman in a beautiful accomplished style, that he depicted

ploughed fields, furrows, meadows, trees and other details

of country life, “in that dry and hard style of his.” In short

Giorgio, you’ve got things out of perspective: I’m shocked

you think I squandered my time and energy in obsessive

compulsive experiments with multiple vanishing points.

I’m disappointed you depict me in two dimensions living

in disgruntled old age in a hovel at the end. It’s just

not proportionate – not measured, not a balanced picture.

Blaydon Races

Blaydon races

An Extra in the Blaydon Races; a Painting by William Irving

This painting is displayed along with a key and sound commentary at the Shipley Art Gallery, Gateshead.

I’ll be reading this poem of mine as part of the Late Shows on 14 May at the Shipley.

*

I told him I wanted to be recognised, immortalised –

why he painted that bloke with his upside-down pipe

and starving whippet on his arm beats me.

He’s stealing my thunder, elbowing me out of the way,

I’m barely visible. I told him to paint my new hat

with the betting slips prominent but I’m too far away, more

an extra rather than a leading player. Surely as manager

of Spencer’s Iron Works I should be in the foreground.

My nether regions have gone; obliterated, why I don’t know

my legs and feet are up to scratch, I’m only half the man

without my twill trousers and brown leather shoes.

It’s just not on; he should have shown me his sketches

before lashing out in oils. Anyway sitting here isn’t fun

the bairn behind me’s bawling its head off; The Punch

& Judy man’s slipped in the mud for the third time.

That’s Nancy in the pink dress sitting on the grass

with her bairn asleep on her lap; hope she doesn’t

recognise me – she can talk the hind legs off

the proverbial. A newspaper’s handy that way – you

can hide behind the small print. Why did he have to

have so many bumpkins -look, there’s goggle-eyed Mally

and Fester the Jester doing a jig; centre stage please note!

There’s some right low life here, a pick-pocketers

paradise to be sure. I don’t trust that card sharper

or the Dick Turpin character on his horse. I wish

the Scots Piper would go and blow his bags

somewhere else or leg it back to bonny Scotland.

*

It’ll soon be time for the three o’clock – I’ve backed

William Irving three ways, lets hope I win some notes!

As a betting man you can bet your bottom dollar

I won’t be recognised in fifty years’ time; no I’ll just be

another extra – a portrait in oils my foot!

Mystery & Survival

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There was an online invitation to draw something which would relate in some way to William Golding’s novel, The Inheritors. To enlarge the drawing just click on it.

This sound poem is a bit of an experiment intended to go with my drawing!

 

skull bone
fa /da /fa!
skin sinew
da/ fa/ da!
earth fire
ah! ah! ee!
sassabee!
haku! haku! bear!
hunt kill eat we!
fire water earth air!

 

Still Life – Momento Mori.

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I don’t want to over-explain any of my paintings, but on the other hand I like to give a context and some pointers. You may note the obvious theme of mortality in this still life!
What about the odd jumble of birds on the seat? Much of our knowledge of nature/wildlife has come at a cost. Before the second half of the twentieth century it was common for scientists to kill animals in order to study them. Even my hero, Charles Darwin, did this on a grand scale. Audubon – the American bird artist – shot  birds in order to paint them. We are more compassionate nowadays but there is still massive exploitation of wildlife in many other ways.

I painted this in 1999.