Posts Tagged ‘art’

Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision

September 15, 2014

Virginia Woolf Art, Life and VisionAt last I made it to the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery! How has it taken me such an age? Why is it that although London is filled with fascinating things to see and do, it is so rare that one actually manages to find the time to see and do them?

The exhibition was the perfect end to my Sunday afternoon. First, I ventured to the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath, where it was only just not too cold to be bearable. My wimpishly slow descent down the ladder was forgiven by the more seasoned swimmers once they saw my enormous belly and instead began to inquire as to whether or not the baby enjoys it. Who knows, but I certainly do. Once I was finally paddling away in the freezing pond, there were so many endorphins going off that I felt as high as a kite for a good hour afterwards. Apparently, one’s body is especially good at producing endorphins when pregnant (our hypnobirthing teacher says it’s so that when the big day arrives, all the endorphins come flooding out and act as natural pain relief … ummm, here’s hoping), so add to that swimming, which also stimulates endorphin production, and you can see why it’s all too easy to feel completely out of it. So everything was still spinning somewhat when I arrived at the National Portrait Gallery a little later.

This preamble about swimming is to serve as something of a disclaimer – for a quirk of being pregnant is that emotions certainly run close to the surface, and so the fact that I found the Virginia Woolf exhibition not only very enjoyable, unusual and eye-opening, but also terribly moving, could be put down to this. I wonder, though, whether anyone can read the letters she wrote to her sister Vanessa and her husband Leonard in the days before her suicide without their eyes fogging up with tears. Both are displayed at the close of the exhibition. Here is the one to Leonard, which – by the way – is also included in the beautiful Letters of Note book:

Virginia Woolf suicide note

These letters come at the close of the exhibition, and yet they’re the first thing I mention because it seems impossible to think of Virginia Woolf without thinking of her terrible end. From the age of thirteen, she was afflicted by serious problems with her mental health, and there are references to her breakdowns throughout the exhibition – a dark thread winding throughout her brilliant, glittering life.

But really it is all the space given to Woolf’s glitter, glamour and gossip which struck me as so unexpected and enjoyable about the exhibition. There are photographs of Woolf posing for Vogue (below), and for Man Ray, snapshots of her staying with Lady Ottoline Morrell at Garsington in an outfit by the designer Nicole Groult commissioned for her by Madge Garland, fashion editor of Vogue. I’d never really thought of the glamour of Woolf’s life before. Yes, I’ve heard Woolf’s phrase ‘frock consciousness’ bandied about, but this was the first time I’d been made to pause and think something of it, of how she dressed herself and posed for the public eye.

 Virginia Woolf posing for Maurice Beck and Helen Macgregor at Vogue

Writers, of course, are observers, onlookers, and Woolf perhaps more so than most. You have only to read her ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ essay (which I wrote about a bit here) to see how preoccupied she was with the way authors fail to represent their characters by amassing details about their outward appearance as opposed to attempting to convey their interior life. Woolf was so keen an observer that she didn’t stop at the surface, she insisted on getting inside her characters’ consciousnesses. So it was surprising to see so much evidence of the way Woolf herself was seen, or indeed, how she chose to be seen.

In contrast to these beautiful posed photographs, there’s an intriguing one from 1893, when Woolf was only eleven. It shows her parents Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House, their Cornwall holiday home.

Julia and Leslie Stephen reading at Talland House in 1893

Her parents are in the foreground, side-by-side on the sofa, both focused on their reading. The background has all the furnishings you might expect – a patterned wallpaper on which hang some pictures, one slightly crooked; a decorative screen; plenty of books on the shelves – and there is also a young Virginia Stephen poking her head out, hands cupped around her chin, watching her parents, thinking.

I loved all the photographs of Woolf’s early life. There’s a wonderful one from 1886 of her playing cricket with her brother Adrian.

Virginia and Adrian Stephen playing cricket in 1886

Virginia is the wicket keeper in an enormous white hat, smock, stockings wrinkling around her ankles and a shoelace carelessly undone. She is leaning forwards, looking at the bowler, who is out of frame, palms open ready to catch, tense with the excitement of the oncoming moment when the ball will be thrown. I knew Woolf was a tomboy as a child, but even so, seeing her looking rather ragged and ramshackle, playing cricket with such glee, was an unexpected delight.

The exhibition is a treasure trove. Photographs abound, as do paintings, a great many letters and first editions. What makes it so special is how intimate many of these feel. There is a note from Leonard and Virginia to Lytton Strachey announcing their engagement just saying ‘Ha! Ha!’ The in-joke is explained: Lytton, who had himself once proposed to Virginia, went on to suggest to Leonard that he marry her instead. There is a gossipy letter from Woolf to Katherine Mansfield, not talking about their work, but instead saying how Rose Macaulay came round the other day and what a very ‘harum-scarum woman’ she is. There is a wonderful letter from Leonard when he was courting Virginia, in which he writes:

If I try to say what I feel, I become stupid & stammering: it’s like a wall of words rising up in front of me & there on the other side you’re sitting so clear & beautiful & your dear face that I’d give everything in the world to see now.

It’s terribly endearing to think of these two literary figures falling in love and Leonard for once struggling with the shortcomings of words, his vision of her making him ‘stupid & stammering’.

We all know that Woolf is one of the greatest novelists of all time, and it is something of a relief that the exhibition doesn’t bother to impress this upon us. Indeed there is very little about her fiction. It is as though we are deemed sensible enough to know we should read her books to see her genius. Here, instead, we see everything else. There are posed photographs, and also snaps of her with her friends, playing cricket, chatting easily. There are her private letters, and a feast of lines which she’s thrown out with casual ease rather than labouring over so meticulously. I loved, for instance, her comment on Garsington, where she frequently stayed with Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Is the sunlight ever normal at Garsington? No I think even the sky is done up in pale yellow silk, and certainly the cabbages are scented.

For all the dark notes that resound throughout Woolf’s life, lacing this exhibition with the shadow of her eventual suicide, there is also a wonderful amount of fun, of fashion, of friends, gossip and a sense of the great joy there is to be found in day-to-day life.

Virginia Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress at Garsington

Here’s Woolf in her Nicole Groult dress, among friends at Garsington.


Girl with a Pearl Earring

September 9, 2013

Ham and High Literary festivalGreat excitement is brewing chez Emilybooks, for next week I will be interviewing Tracy Chevalier at the Ham and High Literary Festival. I would love to see some friendly unheckling literary faces in the crowd, so do come along if you fancy it. (Might I also suggest a little browse of other festival events, while you’re at it, as there are all sorts of interesting talks, from the likes of Judith Kerr, Maggie O’Farrell, Deborah Moggach, and Dannie Abse.)

Next week, we will be talking about Tracy Chevalier’s brilliant new novel The Last Runaway, which has just come out in paperback, but I couldn’t resist the excuse to read – at long last – Girl with a Pearl Earring as well.

What a wonderful book! I expect most of you know the premise – a fictional rendering of the story behind this beautiful painting by Vermeer:

 Girl with a Pearl Earring

The novel begins with Griet chopping vegetables. We quickly learn that her father was a tiler, but has been blinded in an accident, so the family has fallen into poverty and Griet is sent to be a maid in the house of Vermeer. The artist suspects she will be well-suited to the job of cleaning his studio as she has a sensitivity to colour – shown in the way she lays out slices of vegetables in a colour wheel before putting them into the soup, and also because her father’s blindness has made her good at leaving things where they are meant to be. Ironically, this need for things to be left exactly as they were is one felt just as keenly by a blind man as by a painter, who sees so well.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy ChevalierGriet sets off to this new household, different in so many ways to her own. It is Catholic, wealthy enough to afford maids and meat, and ruled over by two mistresses: Vermeer’s wife Catharina – sour, jealous, endlessly popping out babies – and her mother Maria Thins, who one senses is really in charge, certainly of the house’s finances. There are several children, but most notable is awful Cornelia – malicious, cunning and cruel in the way that only little girls can be.

Griet quickly wins the reader’s respect. Like all the best heroines, she is put in a tough situation but quietly rises to the challenge. We see this straight away when Tanneke, the older maid, shows her the laundry:

She pointed to a great mound of clothes – they had fallen far behind with their washing. I would struggle to catch up.

Rather than despairing at the task ahead, or indeed naively dismissing it, Griet assesses the situation:

Including me there were ten of us now in the house, one a baby who would dirty more clothes than the rest. I would be laundering every day, my hands chapped and cracked from the soap and water, my face red from standing over the steam, my back aching from lifting wet cloth, my arms burned by the iron. But I was new and I was young – it was to be expected I would have the hardest tasks.

Then she quietly gets on with it:

The laundry needed to soak for a day before I could wash it. In the storage room that led down to the cellar I found two pewter waterpots and a copper kettle. I took the pots with me and walked up the long hallway to the front door.

Griet displays the same calm objectivity with the rest of her new life. She notes a problem – a difficult person or task – assesses exactly what the trouble is and then quietly goes about it as best she can. A practical and clear-headed heroine.

The one real boon of Griet’s new life is her contact with art. She is let into Vermeer’s studio to clean – a place where the children, his wife and the other maid are not allowed:

It was an orderly room, empty of the clutter of everyday life. It felt different from the rest of the house, almost as if it were in another house altogether. When the door was closed it would be difficult to hear the shouts of the children, the jangle of Catharina’s keys, the sweeping of our brooms.

This room is a special place, a quiet sanctuary. She savours her time alone cleaning in there, and slowly it becomes hers as much as it is Vermeer’s. It is an interesting take on Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, for while the studio isn’t Griet’s own space, she asserts her presence and comes to share it with Vermeer.

Vermeer notices her artistic eye and it’s not long before he asks her to assist him, teaching her how to grind the colours and mix the paints, and explains elements of composition and colour to her. He arranges it so that she can sleep in the studio’s attic to give her more time to help him. There is a key moment when she sees what is needed in one of his paintings before he does, and rearranges it for him.

‘I had not thought I would learn something from a maid,’ he said at last.

As a counterbalance to Griet’s settling into her new life, Chevalier lets us watch the threads of her old life slowly unravel. Every Sunday she visits her family, and we see the relationships fracture. Meanwhile, Griet is pursued by the butcher’s son. While our practical heroine can see how he would provide food for her poor family and how kind he is in the way he cares for and helps her, she is repulsed by the blood under his fingernails, and – we can see, before she admits it to herself – he doesn’t equal her enigmatic, and clean-handed, master Vermeer.

While Chevalier builds everything up to a moment of taboo-breaking romance between Griet and her master, she is too intelligent an author to give in to this tension. Instead, a more subtle relationship is formed between them, erotic yet chaste, in which they come together over their work rather than physically. We know that Griet will eventually pose for him, and we sense that this could be her undoing…

While Griet’s position as a maid from a poor family is emphasised throughout the book, so is her agency and her ability to negotiate her own path. Chevalier describes the middle of the Market Square:

There the stones had been laid to form an eight-pointed star set inside a circle. Each point aimed towards a different part of Delft. I thought of it as the very centre of the town, and as the centre of my life.

We are always wondering which way Griet will go. There are new directions offered throughout the book, but there are just as many occasions when a way is closed to her. Not long after she has gone to the Catholic quarter to  Vermeer’s house, she learns that the area where her own family live has been quarantined because of the plague, and so she may not go back. She is allowed into Vermeer’s studio, and yet she is locked in there at night for fear of her stealing the mistress’s jewels. She may help Vermeer, yet we wonder how far along that path she will be allowed to go. When she is posing for Vermeer, his friend warns her to be careful:

Take care to remain yourself … The women in his paintings – he traps them in his world. You can get lost there.

Characters and circumstances conspire to trap Griet, to close off a path and to bully her into submission, either to the lusty advances of a man, or the mean actions of a woman. And yet Griet – our quiet, practical heroine – manages to cool-headedly resist and remain herself, treading her own path, albeit with just enough nearly getting lost to keep you gripped.

Daphne and Tracy Chevalier

And what did Daphne think? Well, poor Daphne is having some trouble with her left eye, and now goes about with it closed, poor thing, giving her a somewhat piratical look. She will be going to the vet to have it flushed out next week, but in the meantime I think her vision of the world is a little wonky and perhaps reading a book that makes such a contrast between a blind man and an artist, with so much thinking about art and composition and colour was rather an insensitive choice. Also, as a strict vegetarian, all the descriptions of the meat at the market were quite upsetting for her. Nevertheless, she agrees that Chevalier has a fine prose style and, as we know, Daphne, like Griet, is not afraid to go exploring, and will always find her way out of a trap!

Incidentally, Vermeer also came up in Proust (see last week’s post). Swann is writing an essay about him, although I very much doubt that Charles Swann would have come up with anything as fun, engaging and gripping a work as Tracy Chevalier.

The Writers Series

April 8, 2013

On Saturday, the husband and I went to Roche Court for the opening of an exhibition by Sarah Pickstone.

Once we had at last arrived (Roche Court is wonderfully hidden away), and pulled up on the gravel outside a pretty nineteenth-century house, we were told to slip around a tall hedge to get to the lawn. A feeling of secrets, special private nooks and crannies, things hidden away to be chanced upon or else unwittingly missed pervades the place.

The parkland around the house is dotted with sculptures, which sparkled in the light. Everything was dripping with bright yellow sunshine; it was the first day I’ve felt hot all year.

We all thronged on the lawn, feeling the sun on us and feeling utterly peculiar. It was as though we’d simultaneously jumped back a hundred years to a time when people did hang around on the lawn, talking amiably, drink in hand; and jumped forwards several months to an inconceivable summer where we weren’t all cold all the time.

Attached to the lovely old house is a beautiful modern gallery, in which Sarah Pickstone’s The Writers Series is displayed.

Sylvia by Sarah PickstonePickstone has thought about how Regent’s Park influenced various women writers, and captured that feeling in her paintings of these writers. Amongst those she’s painted are Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sylvia Plath, George Eliot, Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. What a feast!

I was standing around, dazzled by the sunshine and the ethereal yet striking paintings, in this strange park in the middle of nowhere – seemingly in a different time, a different world altogether to the manic rush of London life, which I’d left just a couple of hours ago – when Marina Warner gave a talk to open the exhibition.

She spoke, as you’d expect, very well. She talked about how Pickstone’s paintings echoed sepals, petals and butterfly wings, delicate and feminine parts of nature. She also talked about the etymological roots of ‘time’ and ‘temple’ being one and the same: tempus. She said that when experiencing brilliant art, it’s akin to being in a temple where time slows down. Here she is in the London Review of Books saying something similar:

The words tempus and temple share the same root; the connection suggests that the function of a sacred space is to make time stop or stretch, or render its passage palpable to the worshipper/visitor. Galleries and museums explicitly recall temples in their architecture, and they can also double as national mausoleums: they function socially in comparable ways (‘temples for atheists’), providing an occasion for assembly, for communal experiences, for finding meanings. Above all, it’s striking how crucial the idea of developing our sensitivity to time has become in contemporary artists’ work. ‘I do not think I am slowing down time,’ Tacita Dean, one of the most delicate time machinists of all, said recently, ‘but I am demanding people’s time. In a busy world, that is a big demand, but one of the many reasons why art matters is its ability to stop the rush.’

Certainly, on Saturday, Sarah Pickstone’s art in the setting of Roche Court stopped the rush.

Woolf by Sarah PickstoneI particularly loved her painting of Virginia Woolf, not least because I’ve read more by Virginia Woolf and thought more about her over the years than any of the other writers depicted. It struck me that this idea of painting slowing down time is the sort of thing Woolf would have said herself. It reminded me of a moment in Between the Acts, Woolf’s last novel, when she writes about two paintings in the dining room of Pointz Hall, either side of a window. One is of a male ancestor; the other is of a lady, bought just because ‘he liked the picture’:

He was a talk producer, that ancestor. But the lady was a picture. In her yellow robe, leaning, with a pillar to support her, a silver arrow in her hand, and a feather in her hair, she led the eye up, down, from the curve to the straight, through glades of greenery and shades of silver, dun and rose into silence. The room was empty.

Empty, empty, empty; silent, silent, silent. The room was a shell, singing of what was before time was.

Through looking at this painting, a true work of art, letting one’s eye go ‘up, down, from the curve to the straight…’ one reaches silence. Woolf wrote an essay on Walter Sickert in which she wrote ‘there is a zone of silence in the middle of every art’. This shape of a silent centre, an empty middle is echoed in her depiction of a moment as:

a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us.

This seems very relevant to Sarah Pickstone’s work, which is at once ‘luminous’ with the bright streaks of colour and ‘semi-transparent’ with so much of the surrounding canvas so pale. Around Woolf’s head is a shape that could almost be an envelope, and her face is unexpectedly blank – emptiness and silence at the heart of this envelope, as opposed to the luminous patterns on her dress.

Between the ActsIn Woolf’s writing about painting, she echoes Marina Warner’s observation about tempus. The painting in Pointz Hall leaves the room ‘singing of what was before time was’. Silence becomes singing, and time is transcended; the experience is strangely time-less, or perhaps prehistoric – an idea which comes up again and again in Between the Acts (more about this in this post about Dungeness). Roche Hall isn’t so far from Stonehenge.

I love this passage about the painting. I thought perhaps I’d better see what Virginia Woolf wrote about Regent’s Park.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf Volume IVShe wrote about Regent’s Park in Mrs Dalloway and also in Flush, but I wondered if she’d written about it less formally anywhere else. I browsed through the index of her diaries and found a few mentions. Regent’s Park seems to be a place where she went to try and walk off her black moods. I was drawn to this unusually joyful entry from 6th June 1935:

There is no doubt that the greatest happiness in the world is walking through Regents Park on a green, but wet – green but red pink & blue evening – the flower beds I mean emerging from the general misty rain – & making up phrases…

How appropriate that her experience of the park is so visual – ‘green but red pink & blue’ – a palate of colours blurred by the rain. It reminds me of her description of the painting in Between the Acts:

glades of greenery and shades of silver, dun and rose into silence.

And it seems perfect for Sarah Pickstone’s painting, with its ‘misty’ background coupled with the pinks, greens, blues, yellows and silvers of the figure. Her painting of Woolf in Regent’s Park is a beautiful rendering of how Woolf experienced both painting and Regent’s Park.

I don’t really know what happened on Saturday. Just a couple of hours outside London and I was in a different world altogether, doused in sunshine, silence, space, and beautiful paintings to reflect upon. It felt very Woolfian, to be flooded with so much colour and light and beauty in such a strange moment that seemed to bend time.

I shall leave you with Pickstone’s painting, Orlando. This hero/heroine of Virginia Woolf was perhaps the greatest time-bender (as well as gender-bender) of them all.

Orlando by Sarah Pickstone

Images © The artist and New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Park

The Old Ways

July 10, 2012

In the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition, amongst the gems of first editions, scrawled upon typescripts, and radio interviews (including Daphne du Maurier reading her diary entry for the occasion when she first saw the real Jamaica Inn!), there were some video clips of various wild writers in various wild places talking about British landscape and literature.

Robert Macfarlane was among these celebrated writers, which was a happy coincidence, as I have been reading his new book The Old Ways. It’s a beautiful big hardback, too precious a thing to be carted around in my bike bag with my oily lock and leaking packed lunch. So, quite unlike All Passion Spent, which I read all at once, I read The Old Ways discretely, chapter by chapter, half-centimetre by half-centimetre, over a few weeks. The book is split into sixteen chapters and each explores a different path, so it’s rather a good one to read like this. Rather than the sudden rushing gush that comes with reading a book all at once, this gradual process meant that it seeped into my consciousness, drip by drip, permeating down slowly but surely, etching its mark gently but repeatedly. It’s meant that I’ve had some very nice, lyrical, Macfarlaneish thoughts buzzing around the back of my mind over the past weeks.

Amongst all the brilliant ideas, beautiful descriptions and fascinating people who are strewn liberally across the pages of The Old Ways, I particularly like the links Macfarlane explores between walking and thinking. He points out that the verb ‘to learn’ etymologically stretches back to the proto-Germanic liznojan, which means ‘to follow or to find a track’. So following paths is a way of learning and our language is full of instances in which these ideas mingle together. Macfarlane writes:

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains. We think in metaphors drawn from place and sometimes those metaphors do not only adorn our thought, but actively produce it.

I like the idea that as we tread on a path, we are also stepping along ‘lines of thought’, or following ‘streams of consciousness’; wandering is a way to ease wondering, and walking a way to ease talking.

He also writes how treading a path connects you to the ghosts who have stepped that way before you. Macfarlane quotes Richard Holmes, who compares writing a biography to:

a kind of pursuit, a tracking of the physical trail of someone’s path through the past.

And so Macfarlane sets out to walk where Edward Thomas (see here and here for more thoughts about him) walked, following the Icknield Way amongst others, conjuring his ghostly presence from the chalky landscape.

But my very favourite thing Macfarlane said was in the British Library video clip. Up popped his head, which, having spent so much time reading his book, felt like seeing a familiar face in a crowd. Then he said, we have a:

densely storiated landscape.

I LOVE it.

I love the way the slippage between stories and striations brings to mind layers of stories, laid out like successive stripes across a rock. Of course it made me think of the novel I’m writing about a derelict house, where each trace reveals a story from a different time. And it also made me think of experiences I’ve had of feeling connected to a piece of literature by virtue of being in the place where it was written. Listening to Moonfleet while driving down to Dorset, for instance, or reading Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water while in Harris.

But it was when I was looking at Chart for the Coming Times, an exhibition now on at Rowing Projects, a friend’s new gallery on Holloway Road, that the phrase ‘densely storiated landscape’ seemed most apt.

Chart for the Coming Times is a collaborative work between Portuguese artists Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela as part of their ongoing project, Gradations of Time over a Plane. This installation’s centrepiece is a video, luminously, Bergmanesquely filmed around the chalk cliffs of Seven Sisters, East Sussex. The cliffs are an astonishing sight.

From afar you can see the deep black striations ruled across the white chalk. They look like lines on paper, ready, perhaps, for stories to be written upon. And the very pleasing thing is that that is exactly what has happened. We get a close-up and see that the cliffs are covered with names, which people have carved into the chalk. Stories have been engraved on the striations.

These cliffs are continually being eroded, and so these graffitied names, these words on the striated paper, are ever disappearing. Except for one little patch, which the artists have taken a cast of, and preserved indefinitely in a time capsule, which they ritually buried nearby.

I cycled home still thinking about this storiated cliff, being eroded with people’s names and with the force of the sea. It was only when I was half-way home, somewhere along Holloway Road, that I remembered that I was cycling along what was probably once a holloway, an example of one of the ‘old ways’ about which I’d been reading. I thought of all the cattle that once were driven along this path, trampling it deeper into the ground as they passed, now replaced with the rumble of busses and cars, bolstered up by tarmac. Now it’s part of the A1, a big, grizzly main road, but it is still a path of sorts, and its origin survives, captured in its name. And I thought that just the name – Holloway Road – is a story in itself, conjuring the layers of time that passed during its transition from holloway to road.

The lights changed and off I cycled, feeling a little dizzy at the thought of Holloway Road being the very essence of London’s storiated landscape.

Ravilious in the rain

March 6, 2012

The first picture that struck me in the gorgeous new Ravilious book, Ravilious in Pictures: A Travelling Artist, was Wet Afternoon. That’s Edward Thomas, I thought, looking at the man strolling down the muddy hedge-lined track, the green-grey sky streaked with stripes of rain.

Well, of course it isn’t Edward Thomas. He was long dead by 1938, the year Ravilious painted it. And yet there is something about the watercolour that summons the spirit of Thomas so much. It makes me think of the first stanza of Thomas’s poem, ‘Like the touch of rain’:

Like the touch of rain she was

On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes

When the joy of walking thus

Has taken him by surprise:

For there is certainly something joyful about the man in the picture, who looks to be almost hopping or skipping, or at least walking jauntily, undeterred by the inclement weather. Perhaps it is Thomas’s ghost. Perhaps it is Ravilious himself. Or perhaps he is just one anonymous man in a long line of Englishmen who delight in treading through the countryside, most happy and himself with the damp bluster of English air on his face and mud on his boots. As Thomas points out in his striking simile, however awful it seems to be walking in the rain at first, suddenly, surprisingly, one can find it rather wonderful.

But James Russell points out in his introduction to A Travelling Artist that Ravilious found the rain could be a bit of a pain, forcing him indoors when he’d far sooner be out in the landscape, using his watercolours. One of the happy side-effects of the rain-forced retreats are the interiors he was forced to paint. I like the way these often show a preoccupation of the outside world, as experienced from the inside.

Both November 5th and River Thames give the feeling of being an onlooker, of looking on a scene from the vantage point of a window above. Yet the dynamism of the scenes is infectious, crossing the barrier of the window and into the quiet room inside. (Incidentally I gave rather a lot of thought to windows in this post about Mrs Dalloway and the Tate Modern.)

My favourite of Ravilious’s inside/outside pictures are where the window itself is actually shown, such as in Room at the ‘William the Conqueror’ and Belle Tout Lighthouse. The first is intriguing in any case due to the strange dark patch in the middle of the foreground, where Ravilious had initially painted a chair. I expect most of you know by now of my preoccupation with the stories held in houses, how much history can be written in such small traces. Well here is rather an interesting trace. A chair was here, and then it wasn’t, yet it’s left its mark, its imprint. Looking at that patch, it’s impossible not to imagine Ravilious moving the chair there and then perhaps a friend coming in and sitting on it for a while, talking to him over a beer which he found ‘as good as any I ever tasted’.

But, aside from this intriguing dark patch, what I love about these two paintings are the way the outside and inside influence each other. The colours are continued – the bluey grey of the exterior landscape in Room is echoed in the curtains and the floor mimics the sea, both in the colour and in the long lines.

The outside colours are inside too in Belle Tout Lighthouse. Here I love the way the light streams in, making the window frames cast shadows that remind one of the path outside. And, despite the brilliant sunshine, you can image the cold wind blowing outside, the exposure of being out there. Inside, however, you are protected. Perhaps you can hear the wind whistling, yet you are able to bask in the filtered sunlight.

The windows of the lighthouse are quite similar to those in my flat and all yesterday morning I felt the same effect here. It was cold, the wind was howling, rattling the windows, and yet the flat was incredibly bright. There was the same feeling of being connected to the outside and yet protected from it. When one’s view is so taken up with what’s outside, it can be uncanny to feel somehow separated; part of it and yet removed from it. The table at which I’m sitting, for instance, looks out on sunny roofs outside. My view of the roofs and chimneys is utterly connected to my table, to my experience of being in my flat. And yet, those roofs are far away and separated not only by distance but by windows too. Sometimes the connection can make one forget the separation, and to be reminded of it so forcefully in Ravilious’s paintings feels somewhat shocking.

Sometimes this outside/inside tension is extended to strange places that seem to be both outside and inside at once. Most striking, to me, is Strawberry Bed, in which Ravilious portrays a space that is outdoors, yet also undercover, the netting forming a permeable barrier between the sky and the ground. Russell points out the ‘hallucinatory detail’ of the nets and also ‘the peculiar quality of the space beneath’. It really is an extraordinary picture. There is a similar feel to his painting Geraniums and Carnations which is filled with diffuse grey-white light but this time the effect is from a glasshouse. And, again, it is the ceiling of the glasshouse where the eye is drawn; this point of connection and separation is where the pillars are pointing and the flowers are climbing towards.

I’m sure you’ll find your own points of intrigue and fascination in this book. It really is a lovely thing, wonderful to leaf through, full of beautifully-reproduced paintings at which one can happily stare and dream over for hours.

Eyes upon the street

June 7, 2010

When I woke up on Saturday morning I was thinking very hard about windows.

The previous night I went to see the Exposed exhibition at the Tate Modern and then, instead of going to a big amazing party in Hackney, stayed in and watched a BBC adaptation of Mrs Dalloway on iPlayer. I am sure this is the onset of middle age. Everything muddled together in my head overnight and resulted in this preoccupation with windows.

‘Window’ evolved etymologically from the Old Norse: vindr – ‘wind’ and auga – ‘eye’. A root which brings to mind what Jane Jacobs wrote in The Life and Death of Great American Cities:

There must be eyes upon the street

For windows enable exactly that – one can be inside, separate from, yet looking out on to the street.

This function of a window strikes me as particularly applicable to a moment just before the end of the BBC version of Mrs Dalloway. The party, for which Clarissa Dalloway has spent all day preparing, is in full swing. A doctor arrives very late and apologises for his tardiness, explaining that one of his patients has just killed himself. We already know this, because we have seen his patient – Septimus Warren Smith – kill himself earlier on. Clarissa is upset by the doctor bringing death into her party and goes into a small quiet room next door to come to and recover. She goes to an open window and looks down upon the street, watching carriages coming and going, people arriving and leaving her party.

It is Kafka’s endorsement of a window as a way of making life bearable for a solitary man:

… he will not be able to manage for long without a window looking on to the street. And if he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his window sill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony.

Mrs Dalloway has gone to her window a tired woman, but the movement of the street helps her recover, brings her back ‘into the human harmony’, ready to face the party again.

But there’s more to this window scene than just a swift recovery. For Septimus killed himself by throwing himself out of window, impaling himself on the railings below. Indeed, in the film, Mrs Dalloway looks out of the window, looks down and, after watching the street, sees some railings. She finds herself imagining what must have happened to Septimus. In the book, Woolf writes:

Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.

So windows, then, are not just an eye upon the street; they are a boundary between home and street. A boundary which can be too easily transgressed – a transparent line which, if stepped across, if one is so moved to escape the interior world and desperate to join the street, leads to death.

This window scene is a contrast from the opening of the novel, in which Clarissa remembers when she was eighteen, stepping through French windows into the outside:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.

But even then, right at the beginning of the book, windows bring tension and foreboding:

… feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen …

For Woolf then, windows are an escape – ‘a plunge’ – a bursting out of the oppressive interior and out into the world, into the street. But this optimism is shattered with Septimus’ death, when he moves from the inside, through the window, to the street.

In Exposed at the Tate Modern, there are photographs of people killing themselves by jumping from buildings. These are tragic enough, but more chilling are the photos of the crowd gathering around, watching the spectacle.

There is one of a young man in South Africa, Amos Gexella, looking back anxiously at the camera poised on the edge of the sixth-floor balcony of a building. Blurred on the street below are crowds of people. Apparently, the caption tells us, an estimated 2,000 onlookers yelled ‘Jump! Jump’. Two hours later he rolled off the parapet to his death.

In Mrs Dalloway, Septimus waits until the doctor (Holmes) arrives before throwing himself out of the window to his death. Immediately beforehand, he catches sight of an onlooker:

Coming down the staircase opposite an old man stopped and stared at him. Holmes was at the door.

Septimus’ suicide depends on witnesses, just as the death of his friend Evans, during the war, is made all the more horrific by his witnessing it and his repeated hallucinations of that horrific moment.

When Clarissa learns of Septimus’ death, she sees an onlooker too. In the book of Mrs Dalloway (not the film), when Clarissa escapes her party she doesn’t immediately look out of the window. All the reflections on death take place within the quiet room. It is only afterwards that she goes to the window:

She parted the curtains; she looked. Oh, but how surprising! – in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! … She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone.

It is indeed ‘surprising’, incredibly unexpected, to look out of a window, expecting to see the street and instead to be confronted with someone else, another observer, another person staring out of their own window. You lose your position of privilege, of exclusivity – you’re no longer the only person looking. (In the film, Clarissa also sees the old lady opposite, but only after she has looked down on the street.)

What about when the process is reversed? What happens when instead of looking out of the window on to the street, one looks from the street back into the window.

There is a striking example of this at the Tate Modern’s Exposed. Two photos from Shizuka Yokomizo’s ‘Stranger’ series are on show. Yokomizo wrote anonymous letters to several subjects asking if they would stand, with the lights on, at a particular window at a certain time of night, so that she could photograph them from the street. If they chose not to participate they could close the curtains, and if they chose to open the door to meet her then she wouldn’t use the photo. The encounters lasted for ten minutes, and nothing else was exchanged.

In the ‘Stranger’ photos the first thing I noticed was that appendage to a window: the window frame. Because here window frame and picture frame are almost perfectly aligned. Looking into a window yields only a small glimpse of the occupant’s home and private life. But, as with many portraits, photos, still-lifes, one is tempted to infer as much as possible from the details that are on show. Everything in the frame gains significance just because it is included.

One feels as if one is intruding, looking into someone’s home through their window. The window panels and frame also act as bars, preventing entry, blocking a complete unhindered view. And it is this feeling of intrusion that is played with, encouraged, in many photos that highlight voyeurism. Merry Alpern’s Dirty Windows series – also on show in Exposed, and mentioned by Geoff Dyer in his fantastic The Ongoing Moment – are good examples.

The photos are of a back window of a sex club, showing blurred and alluring images of women in various stages of strip-tease. Dyer makes the point that the sex club was off Wall Street, and as we look at bejewelled thronged bottoms, we are really seeing the ‘murky, grimy backside of finance’. (I bet the banker who was so horrid to me at that party goes to that kind of place all the time.)

In Mrs Dalloway – both film and book – windows are two-way. They are a method of looking in and looking out; of moving from interior to exterior and back again, between characters, between different aspects of London. As Woolf flits from one character’s thoughts to another, so seamlessly, so smoothly, so windows are sheer, smooth linking devices, ways of joining people, openings.

The sun became extraordinarily hot because the motor car had stopped outside Mulberry’s shop window; old ladies on the tops of omnibuses spread their black parasols; here a green, here a red parasol opened with a little pop. Mrs Dalloway, coming to the window with her arms full of sweet peas, looked out with her little pink face pursed in inquiry. Everyone looked at the motor car. Septimus looked.

Windows are ways of looking. Looking out and looking in, or even looking between, from window to window. Perhaps the most haunting window was the photographer W. Eugene Smith’s. Geoff Dyer describes Smith’s liability to obsession, spending years on the street and taking too many photographs, documenting so much that it became meaningless. Eventually Smith limited himself to his window, wanting to create a series of shots entitled As from my window I sometimes glance. But he did not ‘sometimes glance’, instead he sat there obsessively for more than twenty hours at a time, taking thousands of photos.  His window was close to his workspace and darkroom, so he was able to produce prints very quickly. He pinned them up on panels that he erected across his loft, dividing the room into a maze of alleys and streets. As Dyer points out:

The photographer didn’t want to go into the streets; instead, by dint of obsessive Borgesian twists, the street moved into the home.

And perhaps this hints at the riskiness of windows, their untrustworthiness. Smith’s window was supposed to be his protection from the street but instead it brought the street to him, enabling it to invade his interior space. Windows don’t provide an escape in Mrs Dalloway, they lead to death, or to a view of another observer at their window, a kind of distorted mirror. They don’t provide honest views of people and their homes in Yokomizo’s ‘Stranger’ series – the frames block entry, only allowing views of specific sections.

And, perhaps it’s rude, but I’d like to end with a photo which I think of as an insult to windows.

I came across Edward Steichen’s photo Sunday Papers in Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. Annoyingly the copyright must be assiduously protected as I can’t find a picture of it online anywhere. The photo is a view out of a window but there is no street. Most of the frame is filled with a brick building. In the centre of all the brick is another window, wide open, but you can look in only far enough to see a man, not even looking back at you, but reading the papers. He is frustrating the window. Because of this man, you can’t see in through his window and you might as well not be able to look out of your window as, aside from the man, you can only see a brick wall. But the man is reading the newspaper – he has found a different view, a different way of having eyes upon the street. And, I’m afraid, he’s saying it’s better.