R is for Rothko

In the TV series Mad Men, word has it that the senior partner in the advertising firm has a new painting hanging in his office. A secretary and several of the junior executives sneak into the office to look at it. It’s a Mark Rothko. Later, one of the junior executives is called into the senior partner’s office for a discussion, and an awkward and inconclusive conversation about the painting ensues, during which the senior partner hints that the painting will increase in value…

What is the meaning of Rothko’s large canvases of “fuzzy blocks of colours” anyway? I know that I can stand in front of a Rothko for an hour with an incredible sense of tranquility. I also know that that is unlikely to be what the artists intended. “If you are only moved by colour relationships,” he said, “you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” But as with any work of art – so runs an argument – once it leaves the hands of its creator then the audience takes over ownership and, by interpreting it, takes part in the creative process. As an observer my reaction to a Rothko is as valid as any other’s.

What does it say to you? Or, more to the point and considering it phenomenologically, what does it cause you to say, to not say, or to think, or to feel? What associations come uninvited in the wake of settling your eyes upon it?

#Juneteenth

It’s 19th June, Juneteenth, a national holiday in the U.S.A.

It’s also my birthday. I don’t want to make this all about me, and I don’t want to reduce African-Americans’ contribution to the world to music. That is not my intention as I nevertheless honour the people whose work was my aural wallpaper when I was a teenager.

I belong to that generation of white British youth who heard the records brought over by Black GIs and were stunned. This music became what we played at home and what we danced to in our clubs. It was almost underground, because it got very little airplay on radio in the UK. It took the effort of Dusty Springfield to organise a tour of Tamla Motown artistes in Britain, and even that amazing event got comparatively little publicity…

So hail to the African-American heroes of my youth, some of whom are pictured above – Otis Redding, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Muddy Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, John Coltrane, John Lee Hooker. That’s only a few. I dare say you’re thinking “What about so-and-so?” Please do add more names in the comments section if you wish.

At the time I was listening to these wonderful performers, one hundred years and more had passed since the abolition of slavery in the U.S.A. Notwithstanding that century, the fact that African-Americans might have been emancipated but they were nowhere near being liberated was signalled by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Half a century on from that time, we have Black Lives Matter, and we have to ask just what the heck has actually changed in 150 years?

Black Lives Matter. They matter so much. They always have.

What is human intelligence?

Still from Stalker, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, Mosfilm 1979.

Valentine and Noonan are speculating why aliens visited Earth. It is this exchange that leads Valentine to describe the effect of their visit as the reaction of beasts and insects to the aftermath of a human picnic:

“I have to warn you, Richard, that your question falls under the umbrella of a pseudoscience called xenology. Xenology is an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. At its core is a flawed assumption – that an alien race would be psychologically human.”

“Why flawed?” asked Noonan.

“Because biologists have already been burned attempting to apply human psychology to animals. Earth animals, I note.”

“Just a second,” said Noonan. “That’s totally different. We’re talking about the psychology of intelligent beings.”

“True. And that would be just fine, if we knew what intelligence was.”

“And we don’t?” asked Noonan in surprise.

“Believe it or not, we don’t. We usually proceed from a trivial definition: intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from his dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural acts.”

“Yes, that’s us,” agreed Noonan.

“Unfortunately. Or here’s a definition-hypothesis. Intelligence is a complex instinct which hasn’t yet fully matured. The idea is that instinctive activity is always natural and useful. A million years will pass, the instinct will mature, and we will cease making the mistakes which are probably an integral part of intelligence. And then, if anything in the universe changes, we will happily become extinct – again, precisely because we’ve lost the art of making mistakes, that is, trying various things not prescribed by a rigid code.”

“Somehow this all sounds so… demeaning.”

“All right, then here’s another definition – a very lofty and noble one. Intelligence is the ability to harness the powers of the surrounding world without destroying the said world.”

Noonan grimaced and shook his head. “No,” he said. “That’s a but much… That’s not us. Well, how about the idea that humans, unlike animals, have an overpowering need for knowledge? I’ve read that somewhere.”

“So have I,” said Valentine. “But the issue is that man, at least the average man, can easily overcome this need. In my opinion, the need doesn’t exist at all. There’s a need to understand, but that doesn’t require knowledge. The God hypothesis, for example, allows you to have an unparalleled understanding of absolutely everything while knowing absolutely nothing… Give a man a highly simplified model of the world and interpret every event on the basis of this simple model. This approach requires no knowledge. A few rote formulas, plus some so-called intuition, some so-called practical acumen, and some so-called common sense.”

“Wait,” said Noonan […] “Don’t get off the track. Let’s put it this way. A man meets an alien. How does each figure out that the other is intelligent?”

“No idea,” Valentine said merrily. “All I’ve read on the subject reduces to a vicious circle. If they are capable of contact, then they are intelligent. And conversely, if they are intelligent. Then they are capable of contact. And in general: if an alien creature has the honour of being psychologically human, then it’s intelligent. That’s how it is, Richard. Read Vonnegut?”

“Damn it,” said Noonan. And here I thought you’d sorted everything out.”

“Even a monkey can sort things,” observed Valentine.

__________ 

Taken from pp.129-131 of Roadside Picnic by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky, tr. Olena Bormashenko. Orion, 2012. (Original Russian version 1972).

“Only lesbians look good in suits.”

“Only lesbians look good in suits,” ran a comment in the chat box of an online lecture I recently attended. The lecture was on the history of lesbian fashion – I attended because I knew there would be an overlap with my own research project – and it was fascinating from beginning to end. The chat box comment was a reaction to a slide showing an image Stormé DeLaverie, and if anyone ever looked good in a suit, then Stormé did. No argument about that.

But I thought I would take a wry look at that comment in the light of two images – the two I have juxtaposed above. 

There is more than half a century between each photograph, yet instantly there are points of similarity. Both subjects are wearing suits, both suits are recognisably in a 1960s aesthetic, with three buttons and narrow lapels, trouser legs of a length that allows them to hang straight; both subjects carry their suits stylishly, both rest a hand casually in a trouser pocket, both gaze pensively away from the photographer. 

Young Stormé sports a contrasting waistcoat/vest, a peg collar shirt, a slim necktie, and a pair of shiny Chelsea boots. The middle-aged other is wearing Ray-Bans, an open-necked sports shirt, a pocket handkerchief, and a pair of penny loafers. Each presentation is loaded with its semiotics. As for those that pertain to Stormé, may I suggest spending an afternoon reading Eleanor Medhurst’s blog – Dressing Dykes – all about lesbian fashion. If you don’t come across a post directly referring to Stormé, you will nevertheless not have wasted your afternoon! As for the other subject, the semiotics may not strike you instantly; you may shrug and say, “It’s just someone in a suit.” These days it’s not unusual to see someone wearing a suit with an open-necked shirt. It’s less usual for that shirt to be a gingham Ben Sherman with a three-finger collar. There are other markers – the silk handkerchief worn in a “puff,” the fastening of the top two buttons of the jacket, the incongruity of casual loafers with a suit – that bespeak an adherence to a period of fashion in a way that is not simply re-enactment. The model, given their age, is not pretending to be beautiful, but is definitely not content simply to be part of their invisible generation, wishing rather to stand, with subtlety, a little way outside it.

I’ll keep things short today, and leave you with this problem, then: define “looking good” in a way that does not depend on the eye of the beholder. Best of luck.

__________

Any advertisement on this page is a product of the platform, and should not be considered an endorsement by the blogger.

An iconic photograph of the 20c: “Das ist Hitlers Werk”

I was looking through my family’s papers, a few years ago, when I came across a propaganda leaflet from World War 2. It was in German, and would have been produced to be dropped from a plane over Germany, or over German-occupied territory, with the intent of affecting the morale of Wehrmacht personnel. It was headed “Das ist Hitlers Werk,” 

The big, black letters of the title had been placed above a horrific picture. Rather than reproduce it here, I shall provide a link to it in an endnote.* The photograph is probably by Belgian photographer Maurice Anthony, and the subject matter is a dead soldier lying in a trench, most likely during or after the Battle of Ypres in World War 1 – Anthony was from the town of Ypres. The dead man has fallen backwards with one hand flung back as though to shield his face, but both hand and face have been stripped of flesh; his right leg appears to be missing.

The stark caption, as you have probably gathered, translates as “that is Hitler’s work.” There are two ways to interpret the phrase. The first is obvious: it is propaganda, it is using an image in a misleading way, an image that has no connection with the conflict that is ongoing at the time. The second interpretation is more subtle, and has to do with the use in German of the word “Werk;” the phrase could be taken to mean “this is what Hitler is working towards,” “this will be the consequence of what Hitler is doing,” or “this is the world that Hitler wants to re-create.”

The photograph itself has stayed in my own memory since the mid 1960s, when it was used as one of the title images for the TV series The Great War in the 1960s. Of all the iconic images I have shared here, this is the one I would much rather forget. 

__________ 

CONTENT WARNING – Graphic imagery. the linked photograph shows a dead body. tinyurl.com/HitlersWerk

Daphne du Maurier: the boy in the box

I am often tempted to think, when I look at someone like Anne Lister or Radclyffe Hall, that the reason they were able to stand out, in difference, in the face of society, was due in no small part to their privileged position. I wonder how many hundreds of working-class people, over the centuries, felt things in themselves that they had no vocabulary to describe or question, no point of reference to navigate from – how many women, for example, married, bore children, and died simply because life had nothing more to offer. When we see a photograph, on the internet or in a book, of someone in a uniform or a dress, and read a bio of how they lived for x-number of years contrary to their observed sex at birth, we forget how exceptional they were, not necessarily in who they were but in their being able to be visible. We never wonder how many other people lived their lives in puzzlement, wondering what was “wrong” with them, and not having anyone to talk to about it. I know, I can remember life before the internet – most of my life has been before the internet – and how difficult it was to find answers to one’s questions about sexuality or gender, even to find anyone to ask.

But privilege is no guarantee of freedom to explore, to act, and whatever a person’s origins, we must grant them their experience. One twentieth-century writer who always fascinated me was Daphne du Maurier. By no means a modernist, she nevertheless managed to conjure up a kind of otherness in her fiction. Her most famous novel was Rebecca; often thought of as some kind of gothic romance, it is in fact a tense psychological story, the ‘action’ of which mostly takes place in the unnamed protagonist’s imagination. Her short stories Don’t Look Now, in which a husband, left behind in Venice when his wife has to dash back to England, imagines that she has returned to the city and is avoiding him – he doesn’t realise he is psychic and is glimpsing scenes that will not happen until after he is brutally murdered – and The Birds, in which flocks of birds terrorise a coastal village, were both made into films, as was Rebecca. She wrote other quirky stories, such as The Blue Lenses and The Chamois, that were full of dread and unease.

It occurred to me the other day, that I had seen countless photographs of her, but in very few was she smiling. Even photographed in the company of her husband Lt. General Sir Frederick “Boy” Browning, whom she supposedly adored, with whom she had three children, and with whom she enjoyed moving in court circles as Lady Browning, there wasn’t a flicker. She even seemed mournful in the company of her children.

It was in those photographs with her children, taken at Menabilly, the stately house in Cornwall of which she was the tenant from 1943 to 1969, I was struck by how masculine she looked despite her long hair. She seemed to dress habitually in a tweed suit, slightly too big for her as though it had been tailored for a male figure. I knew that she had come to prefer being there to accompanying Boy to London, to prefer spending long periods without him. That was an experience she drew on for her best-known stage play, The Years Between, in which someone who believes herself to be a war widow for many years, is shocked to find that her husband is alive, having spent those years as an agent in enemy territory. We may think we recognise dysphoria when we hear about it, but how it must have puzzled and distressed someone who had no reference point for it.

Author and journalist Lisa Hilton had this to say, when writing a preface to du Maurier’s novel Mary Anne:

The compatibility of writing and femininity was always a treacherous issue for du Maurier herself, who often said that she wished she had been born a boy, a wish her father Gerald confessed to sharing in a poem he wrote for her as a child. Daphne felt ambivalent about her roles as a woman and a writer, an ambivalence that was reinforced in later life by her sexual feelings for Ellen and Gertrude. The first time she met Ellen, Daphne confessed that she felt “a boy of eighteen again with her nervous hands and a beating heart.” “Again” is the telling word. As a child, Daphne had apparently convinced herself that she was a boy, and her biographer Margaret Forster comments on the devastating psychological consequences of puberty on this belief.[1]

“Ellen” and “Gertrude” in the above passage are the wife of du Maurier’s American publisher Nelson Doubleday and the actress Gertrude Lawrence.[2] The web site moviediva(dot)com, in a review of the movie version of the novel Frenchman’s Creek, in which the female protagonist dresses as a cabin boy on a pirate ship, says “Daphne was shy and imaginative and felt as a child that she was really a boy, a conviction dashed by puberty. Attracted to both boys and girls she loathed the idea of being ‘Venetian’ family code for lesbian. But, she wouldn’t be Venetian, if she were really a boy.”[3] She referred to herself as “the boy in a box,” creating an alter ego for herself with the name Eric Avon. But later “she ‘put the boy in a box’ as she would say, and decided to do the conventional thing and get married. Unsurprisingly marriage and motherhood did not suit her.”[4]

One of the few photographs I have seen of Daphne du Maurier smiling, is the one that accompanies this article. She is sitting back in a chair with a book on her lap; she is not reading, but rather her gaze is distant. She is dressed in what appears to be an officer’s tunic from the Napoleonic Wars, a gesture of flamboyant transmasculinity.[5] After her death in 1989, some early poems of hers were found behind a framed photograph of herself in a swimming costume, posing like the “Spirit of Ecstasy” on the bonnet of a Rolls Royce. Her willingness to find some way – in her writing if nowhere else – to confront convention, can be seen in the one titled “The Happy Prostitute,” in which she challenged the idea of a sex worker as “tired and old, selling myself with sorrow, just to gain a few dull pence to shield me from the rain,” and spoke instead of her happiness.[6] The other, an untitled poem, expressed loneliness, and a longing for the carefree days of her youth, which were “bliss.” Despite everything, she did have a sense of what it was to be happy, or to have been happy.

Daphne du Maurier, like the countless unknowns, survived only by making compromises to live in gender-normative society. Sometimes I find my mind drawn to seeing her as the protagonist of The Blue Lenses, who looks in the mirror only to see herself as a frightened doe; at other times I see the would-be dashing soldier at Salamanca or Waterloo, and I honour the vigour and variety of her writing. Beyond the cabin-boy episode in Frenchman’s Creek, there is little in her writing to tell of transmasculinity. In the frightened doe in The Blue Lenses, or the unnamed girl thrust into decaying aristocracy in Rebecca, or the self-haunted husband in Don’t Look Now there is however a wonderful sense of being the “other,” the exception. The boy might have stayed hidden in his box, but that offspring of genius did not.

 

__________

[1] Lisa Hilton, Introduction to: Daphne du Maurier, Mary Anne (Virago, 2004). vii-viii.

[2] Wikipedia reports that the children of both du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence objected to the suggestion that there was anything but friendship between the two women. Lawrence’s biographer, Richard Aldrich, went into detail about their friendship but made no mention of anything more intimate. However, Lisa Hilton is not alone in referring to du Maurier’s attraction to Lawrence being, at least, a catalyst for her feelings about her gender, quoting above from Margaret Forster. The issue being openly discussed, and its being referred to in du Maurier’s own words, this hardly counts as an “outing.”

[3] “Frenchman’s Creek,” moviediva, 2015, tinyurl(dot)com/MaurierMoviediva

[4] ibid.

[5] Picture credit: The British Library. I am reminded of the young Stephen Gordon, in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, who enjoyed dressing as Admiral Nelson.

[6] Sebastian Murphy-Bates. “Two Never-before-seen Poems by Novelist Daphne du Maurier…” The Mail Online(2019). tinyurl(dot)com/MaurierMail.

Jazz icons – iconic photography

Ella Fitzgerald at the Downbeat Club, NY, 1948, by Herman Leonard.

As much as this is a study of Ella Fitzgerald at the height of her scat-singing career, it is also a study of Duke Ellington. The singer dominates the photograph, but mainly as a dark block in the left-hand quarter. The full light of the scene is on the face, hands, collar, and cuffs of the man at the table – he is the centre of the composition, albeit offset, and he draws the eye. Because his musical milieu is big-band jazz, and probably for racial reasons too, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington is under-acknowledged as one of the great 20c composers of music in the USA. His compositional skills were outstanding. Yet here he sits, this musical genius, utterly enrapt, utterly delighted by the singer’s vocal flexibility and improvisatory skills. One can only imagine what he is hearing and how it is interacting with his own musical sensibilities.

Who else is at the table? Well, I certainly recognise, behind Ellington’s left shoulder, Benny Goodman, “The King of Swing” who, during the era of segregation, led one of the first racially integrated jazz groups. If I cared to, I could do some detective work. But I think I had much rather retain my first impression of this picture…

Q is for Quinn

Marc Quinn’s seven sculptures that make up Emotional Detox (1995) occupy a white space. To walk amongst them is to encounter a Pompeii of torture, each body rendered not in volcanic residue but in the material of Roman curses, common lead. We intrude on physical pain, on torsos hacked from their lower halves, on hands hacked from their arms in the act of clawing their owner’s face, on heads detached and hastily placed back on (the right? the wrong?) neck and shoulders, where they threaten to topple. 

They are casts from the artist’s own body, assembled deliberately flawed, seven to suggest the Deadly Sins – but if we stop before one and speculate “Is this Lust? Avarice?” it is because we want to divert our mind from the agony portrayed, put it to one side while we intellectualise. Far more honest to lose ourselves in the horror of coming back from an addiction that grips both the psyche and the body, to lose ourselves in each great pain that reminds us of, and calls up from the black well of memory, the ranks of pains great and small that we have been prey to. These pains could be natural, and thus forgiven, faced stoically, but for the fact that there are rectangular holes carved into the torsos. There is a four-square deliberation here! If there is catharsis here too, it is the fact that there seems to be no shame in the pain, it is not hidden, it is displayed in awful, blunt, beautiful candour. 

__________ 

Images from marcquinn.com