Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?

In Satyajit Ray’s film Charulata – a very favourite film of mine, and which I may have mentioned once or twice on this blog – the character Bhupati, immersed in politics, isn’t too impressed by the arts. At one point, he tells his more artistically inclined cousin of the dire poverty into which so many of their countrymen have been plunged as a consequence of British policies in India; and he then asks rhetorically: “Which is the greater tragedy? This? Or your Romeo and Juliet?” It is a question worth asking: why seek out tragic works in art when there is no shortage of real-life tragedy all around us? Or, to spread the net even wider, why look to art at all when we have real life? Plato posed this very same question in The Republic: the arts can but be at best an imitation of real life, and no imitation can be as valuable as that which it imitates.

So, in Bhupati’s world, it is foolish to grieve over the fictional Romeo and Juliet when there is so much happening to real people all around us that is far more worthy of our tears. And, presumably, it is equally foolish looking at painted faces created by Rembrandt when real faces created by God are even more remarkable; or experiencing bucolic joys at merely second hand through Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, when one can experience them at first hand simply by going to the countryside.

Anyone who cares anything at all for the arts may feel instinctively that Bhupati’s worldview is wrong, that it must be wrong, but it is not easy to pinpoint why. Let us not cast our nets too far here: let us, for the moment, focus on tragic art: is it not monstrous that we find ourselves emotionally moved by an Ophelia or a Cordelia, and shed for them tears that we withhold from the deaths of real people?

I do not know the answer to this, but I do know that those who are deeply and genuinely moved by tragic art, but feel little more than a passing sadness at the news of some person unknown to them dying in an accident, say, and not necessarily monsters. Every second of every day, there is some horrendous tragedy somewhere in the world: the better we know the people involved, the closer they are to us, the more deeply we feel it; but it is not possible to feel equally deeply all the terrible, heart-rending sorrows of real life. I’d conjecture that the greatest works of tragic art focus these feelings. If the sorrows of all the world are too vast for us to take on, then the sorrow we feel for a Romeo and a Juliet, an Ophelia and a Cordelia, seems, as it were, representative of all those sorrows we know we should feel for the wider world, but cannot. When Lear enters in the final scene with the dead Cordelia in his arms, I don’t know that we are weeping specifically for Lear and Cordelia: we know these are fictional characters, after all, played merely by actors. But these figures have taken on, by some mysterious process that I cannot even begin to understand, a universal aspect. The sorrow we cannot feel for tragedies in real life, because real life is too vast and too diffuse for our individual consciousness to encompass, we can feel when presented in a more focussed form. And somehow, this is something that happens in all major works of art: the specific becomes the universal; or, rather, the universal is focussed in the specific.

Some years ago, in a fascinating article in the arts pages of the Guardian, Tchaikovsky scholar Marina Frolova-Walker deplored a book in which Tchaikovsky’s symphonies were interpreted as but the passionate outpourings of a man tormented by his sexuality. Now, it may well be that Tchaikovsky’s symphonies did indeed have their source in the complex and turbulent emotions occasioned by his gayness, living as he did in a society that refused to tolerate it: it is impossible to say. But even if this were to be the case, to see his symphonies in such terms – to see them, as some still do, as, essentially, confessional outpourings of a man at war with his sexuality – is surely to diminish them. Once the specific has been transformed through art into the universal, it’s the latter that commands our attention. What should it matter to us whether or not these symphonies have their source in the composer’s sexuality? Even if we were to know this to be a fact (and we don’t), why should it matter? When I listen to Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, I am moved: I am moved not by specific thoughts of the composer struggling with his sexuality, but by the most intense expression of the deepest anguish it is possible for any human mind to feel. It is, in short, its universal aspect of this work that moves me – its depiction of an immense tragedy, not of a single individual – earth-shattering though it may be for that individual – but one in which the whole of humanity is involved.

So that would be my answer to Bhupati: the tragedy of Romeo and of Juliet is not merely the tragedy of two individual fictional characters, but is representative of that immense tragedy in which all of us, as humans, are involved. I suspect, though, that Bhupati’s reaction to such an answer would merely be an impatient and disdainful “Pah!” And he may well be right.

Affirmation and denial

I was moved by a story I read recently of a terminally ill lady who had wished, before she died, to see for one last time her favourite painting by Rembrandt. A photograph showed this lady, still in the bed that she presumably could no longer leave, in front of a late Rembrandt self-portrait; and the sense of reverence – for I know no other word more suitable in this context – that I felt on seeing this picture seemed to go even beyond the respect that is due to those of us facing the fact of our transience.


Now, to admit to such feelings is to risk being labelled “sentimental”, but I have long found that a troublesome word. The “sentimental” is usually defined as that which exhibits “false emotion”, but I don’t know if that will do: for how can one be sure that any emotion displayed is necessarily false? Most of us do not have the ability to express adequately what we feel most deeply, and when we try, what comes out, all too often, is merely vapid, but this vapidity does not in itself necessarily betoken falseness at the source, where the emotion is felt. And in any case, we don’t really deem anything as “sentimental” on the basis of what we think was intended, but, rather, on the impression it makes on us, and this, inevitably, is to a great extent subjective. However, try as I might, I cannot come up with an alternative definition that is independent of the subjective reactions of the viewer. None of this to say that sentimentality does not exist – not everything that exists can be adequately defined, after all: but it does mean, I think, that we should be careful about bandying that term around too freely. And if my being moved by the picture of the ill lady in front of the Rembrandt painting does indeed appear “sentimental”, I can only appeal to the reader’s generosity in this matter: whatever falseness of emotion the reader may detect is in the inadequacy of my expression, rather than in the sincerity of my feeling.

And somehow, the picture this lady asked to see just had to be a Rembrandt. Now, I do not claim to be any great expert on the visual arts, and my lack of knowledge possibly reflects my relative lack of perception: I have long felt that I am less keenly receptive to the visual arts than I am to literature or to music. Nonetheless, if there is any artist whose work looks unblinkingly at life, that refuses to shirk anything that may be deemed unpleasant or unattractive, and yet affirms what it sees, that artist would be Rembrandt.


“The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

I have stood in front of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride, currently hanging in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, in a state of inarticulate wonder. It depicts two figures, a man and a woman, surrounded by darkness. He is looking at her, his left hand placed upon her shoulder, and his right hand upon her breast – not lewdly, nor roughly, but with the utmost gentleness: how Rembrandt could depict the tender softness of a touch merely with paint I do not know, but there it is: the miracle is there for all to see. She acknowledges his touch by laying her hand, equally softly and gently, upon his. And she gazes, not at him, but into the distance: whatever vision it is she sees there, we do not know. The strength of the emotions felt by these two people is reflected in the richness of the paints: not even the finest reproduction can convey the thick, opulent impasto (I believe that’s the correct term, but would be happy to be corrected if it isn’t) which Rembrandt’s applies to the man’s sleeve; or that deepest hue of red that Rembrandt uses for the woman’s dress – a red that is neither shocking nor garish, but is, somehow, utterly consonant with the still serenity of the composition. What we see in this painting is an earthly love, a human love, not transformed into something other than what it is, nor even perhaps transcending what it is, but as it is, where it is, justifying itself merely by being, and defying with its presence the surrounding darkness.


Detail from “The Jewish Bride” by Rembrandt, courtesy Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. “The miracle is there for all to see…”

More than this I fear to say, for fear, once again, of appearing sentimental. So afraid are we of this terrible charge, we prefer to present ourselves as hard-bitten cynics, as sceptics and detractors, and misanthropes and sneerers, rather than try to express, however inadequately, what we sometimes most long to say. But this lady whose last wish it was to see her favourite Rembrandt painting was, presumably, beyond all this. She did not have to say anything, of course, but she knew that what Rembrandt conveyed was more than just a momentary diversion, more than just a fashionable currency of lifestyle. For this is what a great artistic vision can come to mean: it justifies itself merely by being. And if that sounds sentimental, I have to ask, as ever, what precisely we mean by the term.

However, even while I was moved by the lady’s dying wish, I could not help wondering whether the affirmative nature of Rembrandt’s vision is among the principal factors – or, indeed, whether it is a factor at all – in determining the immensity of his artistic vision. For not all works affirm. Many, indeed, deny. I do not necessarily mean tragic works, for it is a commonly acknowledged truth that even the most despairing of tragedies can affirm. And conversely, there are comedies that can deny: what better than the comic mode, after all, to deflate, to reveal our aspirations as mere affectations, our beliefs as delusions, and to tell us that there is nothing serious in mortality? The dichotomy that increasingly seems to me more important than that of the tragic and the comic is that of affirmation and of denial. The self-portrait that the lady so wanted to see in her dying days is, in many ways, a tragic work: Rembrandt paints his failing flesh as it is, with no attempt to hide the nearness of his own extinction; and yet, despite the tragic foreboding, it affirms: even when that extinction comes, even if there is no afterlife that is promised us by religion, the very existence of that flesh, failing though it is, is, in Rembrandt’s vision, its own justification. This painting, however tragic we may take it to be, is a defiant affirmation of the significance of life. But there is another kind of art that does quite the opposite – that denies; and I am not sure that this art is any lesser. At least, not for this particular reason.

We may find in literature also this dichotomy between affirmation and denial. Tolstoy, in War and Peace, wrote, effectively, a hymn to life; Flaubert, on the other hand, saw all human activity as futile. (Except for his recording of that futility: that, if nothing else, was important.) But does that difference alone make Tolstoy a greater artist than Flaubert? I don’t think so. And this leaves us with a conundrum: it is easy to understand, or even feel, reverence for works that affirm; one may understand why it may be one’s dying wish to experience again, for one last time, such works of art. But can any reverence be felt at all for the naysayers? And if so, why?

I have puzzled over this for many years now, and, not having come across any answer yet that satisfies me, have convinced myself that there is no answer. However, I was fascinated by a characteristically thoughtful essay I came across recently by Theodore Dalrymple that seemed to me to touch on these very themes. In the course of this essay, he compares a charming painting by Joshua Reynolds of a child, her arms around her beloved pet dog, smiling at the viewer, with the extremely disturbing images of contemporary artist Marlene Dumas. Dalrymple is, I think it fair to say, a cultural conservative, but the essay is far from an easy and predictable praise of the past and condemnation of the present: or, at least, if that was what Dalrymple had intended, he doesn’t make things easy for himself. The painting he has chosen from the past is one that many nowadays may describe as “twee” or – that word again – “sentimental”; and the contemporary artist whose work he has chosen is, in Dalrymple’s own words, “unquestionably … an artist of great talent”. He refuses, however, to see tweeness or sentimentality in Reynolds’ painting – and rightly so, I think: the charms and the delights of childhood, the uncomplicated happiness and innocence of one who has yet to experience much that disturbs either, are aspects of human life that are every bit as important as are the darker elements, and every bit as worthy of the artist’s attention. But it is when we come to the works of Marlene Dumas that the whole issue becomes considerably more complex, because her images of childhood seem drenched in a pervasive sense of evil. Dalrymple describes these images eloquently, and, following the link he provides, I was reminded as nothing so much as Dickens’ horrific and horrified description in A Christmas Carol of a similar evil lurking in the forms of children:

Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Dalrymple pays generous tribute to the power of Dumas’ art, but questions the value of presenting in one’s art such unremitting horror and ugliness. While I am broadly in sympathy with him on this matter, it does seem to me that Dumas’ art, for all its ugliness, has an important place. After all, presentation of such horror and ugliness is nothing new in art: as we have seen, Dickens himself – that epitome of all that is warm and jovial – was no stranger to it; and neither, of course, was Goya, whose “Black Paintings”, and series of prints The Disasters of War, take us into a physical and spiritual hell in which, to judge from the stories still dominating our news headlines, we remain still mired. To insist that artists must turn away from such ugliness and horror is no better than the insistence that Reynolds’ painting, focussing solely as it does on beauty and charm, is somehow “sentimental”.

Of course, Dalrymple does not insist on this at all: he is too sophisticated a writer for that. But his questioning of what value there can there be in an art that only denies is, I think, entirely legitimate. Is it possible, after all, to imagine anyone close to death wishing to see for one last time Marlene Dumas’ art – or, for that matter, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son? No, I don’t think so. But that does not make it inferior art. Goya’s denial has, it seems to me, as much a claim to artistic greatness as does Rembrandt’s affirmation. But why this should be, I do not know. It is possible, I think, to understand why even the darkest of tragedies may inspire in us the reverence that is due to the greatest works of art; but why any reverence should be due at all to that which denies, remains, for me at least, a mystery.


“Saturn Devouring his Son” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

It is the conclusion to Dalrymple’s essay that I fiund particularly striking:

While some would no doubt accuse Reynolds of having avoided the less refined aspects of his society (a charge that could be levied against hundreds or thousands of artists), Dumas is guilty of a much greater evasion, caused by a fear of beauty. In a perceptive note in the catalog of her exhibition, by the critic Wendy Simon, we learn of this fear. Simon draws attention to “the extreme ambivalence we now feel towards beauty both within and outside art,” and continues: “We distrust it; we fear its power; we associate it with compulsion and uncontrollable desire of a sexual fetish. Embarrassed by our yearning for beauty, we demean it as something tawdry, self-indulgent, or sentimental.”

Is it true that we nowadays fear “beauty”, that we have “rejected” it? We still, after all, swoon to colourful sunsets; many are prepared to travel half way around the world to see the Taj Mahal. But in art that we produce? After all, no serious artist would paint like Reynolds nowadays. I do not mean this merely in terms of style: styles, of course, can and must change. What I mean is that no serious artist would nowadays depict the uncomplicated innocence and charm that Reynolds depicted, without even the slightest hint of the shadows that lie in wait. I am, of course, far from being an expert in modern art, and would be happy to be corrected on this point, but, when I consider all the various branches of the arts, it strikes me that there has been very little produced within, say, my own lifetime, the last half-century and more, that could rightly be called “affirmative”. It is not denial per se that perturbs me: for whatever reason, denial has its rightful place, in even the very greatest of the arts, and is nothing new. What perturbs me more (and I think it perturbs Dalrymple also) is our shutting out of affirmation.

It seems to me very much the case that when it comes to our artistic endeavours, we are, in critic Wendy Simon’s words (quoted by Dalrymple in his essay), “embarrassed by our yearning for beauty”. Indeed, it seems to me to me that, in many cases, we take a delight in ugliness, as if mocking this yearning for beauty that so embarrasses us. And should any of us dissent from this unremitting denial, there is that term that always shuts us up, that accusation to which there is no answer: sentimental. Even when trying to express what we feel about something as ineffable as Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride, we find ourselves compelled to use the word “unsentimental”, as if pre-empting the criticism we know is bound to crop up.

Some readers may be wondering at this point why I am so glibly conflating beauty with affirmation, and ugliness with denial. It is a fair point. Beauty does not, of course, always equate to affirmation: after all, Flaubert’s great novels of denial are undoubtedly “beautiful”, however we may define that term. But ugliness, it seems to me, can be nothing other than a denial. Of course, much depends upon our definitions, but since even the finest of philosophical minds have struggled in defining these terms, I don’t know that I would like foolishly to rush in here. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that anything that affirms is, inevitably, beautiful: it is beautiful precisely because it does affirm. The couple in Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride are not particularly beautiful as people: neither has what we may call “film star looks”. Of course, there’s beauty in the composition, the colours, the handling of the paint, and so on: without Rembrandt’s genius in such matters, the painting would merely be an attempt at affirmation rather than the real thing. But Goya, too, displayed the very finest of genius in all of these areas, and yet I don’t think anyone could ever describe his “Black Paintings” as beautiful without stretching the definition of the word to something beyond everyday recognition. If we can think of The Jewish Bride as “beautiful” and withhold that term when describing Saturn Devouring his Son, the reason is purely in terms of the respective visions these two paintings convey: the affirmation in one case is “beautiful”, but the denial in the other isn’t, cannot be. The relations between affirmation and beauty, on the one hand, and between ugliness and denial on the other, are complex, and while the correlation may not be perfect, it does, I think, exist. The embarrassment that Wendy Simon had noted about our yearning for beauty seems to me to be an embarrassment for the very concept of affirmation itself.

Dalrymple further says:

Our view of the world has become so politicized that we think that the unembarrassed celebration of beauty is a sign of insensibility to suffering and that exclusively to focus on the world’s deformations, its horrors, is in itself a sign of compassion.

Indeed. And the “celebration of beauty” that seems to us a “sign of insensibility to suffering” seems to me identical to the affirmation that, when it comes to the arts at least, we seem no longer able to believe in.

In the introduction to the old Penguin Classics edition of Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale, translator Robert Baldick tells a revealing anecdote. Once, when approached by an admirer of that novel, Flaubert, though pleasantly surprised by the admiration, expressed his feeling that his novel would never be widely liked. What people expect from art, he said, is this – and he brought together the fingertips of both his hands to form a peak; “but I,” he continued, “gave them this” – and he turned his fingers downwards to indicate a bottomless chasm. Flaubert, I think, was wrong on this point: we are all children of Flaubert nowadays, and that bottomless chasm, the denial, is what strikes us now as the only truth: everything else is merely sentimental.

But this is not, I think, the whole story. Even the greatest of naysayers can, if they are sufficiently great artists, affirm. Even Dickens, having presented to us children in whom angels may have sat enthroned but in whom devils lurk, could end that same novel with untrammelled joy. I, for one, cannot deny him that joy (though many do) because it has been hard won: Dickens had looked unblinkingly into the abyss before he could reach this point. Goya too, perhaps the greatest naysayer in all art, painted towards the very end of his life The Milkmaid, a work that seems to radiate a beatific and visionary light. I have only seen this painting in reproduction, but, sentimental old fool that I no doubt am, even reproductions can move me beyond words. In his “Black Paintings”, in The Disasters of War, Goya had travelled through Hell itself: we cannot now deny him this hard won joy. And if we can respond still to such joy, if some of us can still as our last wish ask to see again a painting of Rembrandt’s, then, it seems to me, there is still room even in our modern world for art that affirms. We need that affirmation now as much as we ever did – not the easy affirmation of the feelgood movie, which is as insubstantial as the easy denial that is so often mistaken for the truth – but an affirmation that is deeply felt, and hard won.


“The Milkmaid” by Goya, courtesy Prado, Madrid

Putting a bit of passion into the arts

In an age where the arts are largely regarded as no more than signifiers of lifestyle choices, it is good to see some evidence of passion. The last time I wrote here about a protest at an art gallery, the protest was nothing whatever to do with art, but, rather, some infantile nonsense about wearing a kimono. But this protest actually is about art: people are protesting against the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (an institution that must surely be tired to death by now of protests) exhibiting paintings by Renoir on the grounds that … well, on the grounds that “Renoir sucks at painting”, and that exhibiting his works is nothing less than “aesthetic terrorism”.

I’m not really a fan of Renoir myself – I find his paintings too saccharine, too chocolate-boxy – but I’ve always put that down to personal taste. I have never doubted his technical mastery (but then again, what do I know?), and there have even been occasions when I have put all my reservations behind me, and found in some of his works elegance and charm – qualities that, I realise, mean more to me now than they used to in my younger years. I continue to have reservations about Renoir, but I must confess I have never thought of protesting on this matter.

“Les Parapluies” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, courtesy of National Gallery, London

I’d guess this is intended to be funny. Or, perhaps, as a friend suggested, this may be some sort of “performance art”. For surely to God no-one in their right minds can carry banners saying “God Hates Renoir”, and mean it seriously! I mean, they wouldn’t … would they?

So what else could we be protesting about? There’s little point protesting outside bookshops about their selling Dan Brown books – that would merely be stating the obvious, as no-one thinks of Dan Brown as a quality writer in the first place. It would be like saying Plan 9 from Outer Space is a crap film – we all know it’s crap, and indeed, its very crappiness is its attraction. Best to pick on a writer who is admired and acclaimed – Dostoyevsky, say, or Woolf. Wouldn’t it be great to launch a protest outside a bookshop demanding that, on purely aesthetic grounds, they stop selling Crime and Punishment immediately? Or to gather outside an art cinema demanding that they stop showing films by Jean-Luc Godard?

Let’s go for it! Let’s inject some seriousness and passion back into the arts!

Appropriating culture

Recently, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, in front of one of the exhibits – a charming painting by Claude Monet of his wife dressed in a red kimono – visitors were invited to try on a similar kimono. I wasn’t entirely sure what the purpose of this was: it seemed, to say the least, a somewhat unorthodox approach to art appreciation. But since it seemed harmless enough, I didn’t think too much of it – although I couldn’t help reflecting that if the gallery were to adopt a similar approach to appreciating Rubens’ nudes, say, they may possibly be overstepping the mark. Beyond that, I didn’t really have any great thoughts on the matter.

However, I was surprised to find that this seemingly trivial matter had led to angry protests. It seemed to me a bit of an over-reaction, frankly: sure, trivialisation of arts seems constantly to be happening around us, and is something to be deplored, but, while one may approve of passion being displayed on behalf of the arts, it did seem to me too minor a matter to protest about. But I was very badly mistaken: the passions aroused had nothing to do with trivialisation of the arts, because, as we all know or should know by now, the arts are a trivial matter anyway, as they are really nothing more than signifiers of lifestyle choices. No – the passion was all about something called “cultural appropriation”. As one of the placards held by the protestors said: “It’s not racist if you looks cute & exotic in it besides the MFA supports this!” This may or may not be making a case against “cultural appropriation” – I wouldn’t presume to judge – but at least it does make the case – very eloquently, I think – for the importance of teaching grammar in schools.

Now, if I were indeed the cultural elitist I have frequently been accused of being, I would have dismissed all this with a derisive snort. However, my curiosity was aroused, and I made some effort to find out just what “cultural appropriation” is, and why it should be deemed so reprehensible. Seemingly, “cultural appropriation” is the adoption of elements from other cultures: that bit I am sure of. What I am not so sure of is why it should be considered reprehensible: in some of the sites I found in the course of my internet searches, this adoption is in and of itself a Bad Thing; in some other sites, it is considered bad because those elements of other cultures that are being adopted are being trivialised. But these objections to trivialisation were all, as far as I could see, in the context of popular celebrity culture, in which most things are pretty trivial anyway: I can’t say I understood this objection very well. If trivialisation is what is being objected to, then one might as well turn one’s guns on the entire edifice of popular celebrity culture! But that is clearly not feasible: quite apart from anything else, were it not for this culture, what would the Guardian newspaper fill its Arts pages with? As it is, they can’t even run a feature on Titian, and make the unexceptionable though obvious point that our modern concepts of feminine beauty are very different from what they used to be, without talking at length about Kim Kardashian’s arse.

The other element that recurred in the course of my admittedly not very exhaustive researches on this matter is what I suppose I should call – simply because everyone else is – “cultural hegemony”. It is seemingly wrong to adopt any aspect of a culture of people who are, or have been, or are perceived to be, oppressed. I couldn’t find any coherent justification of why this, in particular, should be wrong: it seems to be regarded as something so self-evident as to be axiomatic. Maybe if I had persevered a bit more I would have found a coherent argument on this matter, but, to be honest, I didn’t feel up to persevering, as much I had read in the course of my researches into this matter I could not really understand. Now, I like to flatter myself that I have, in my time, read, and what’s more, taken in some often very difficult prose – the late Henry James, for instance, or Virginia Woolf, or James Joyce; but something like this frankly defeats me. I grant it’s all my fault, and that if I were to persevere, I would be able to absorb and no doubt enrich my mind with all sorts of new ideas; but, having read this piece over a few times, and finding myself none the wiser and not even better informed, it seemed best simply to acknowledge my own limitations: some things are obviously just not for me.

Not having absorbed all that has been said and argued about “cultural appropriation”, what I am about to say may well be very naïve, but I’ll say it anyway as it is something I fervently believe. And it is this: cultures thrive by interacting with each other. Look back on any period in history, and we’ll find the same story: we can see how cross-currents between different cultures have enriched us all; we can see how medieval trade routes spanning China, India, Persia, the Arab world, and Europe, had resulted in intellectual and cultural exchanges to the immense benefit of all concerned; we can see how Indian cultures were sparked back into life after long stagnation by contact with the West; how van Gogh incorporated what he had learnt from Japanese prints into his own artistic vision, and how Picasso’s was shaped by what he saw of African masks; how Debussy and Britten had made use of Balinese gamelan music; how Gustav Holst had set to music hymns from the Rig Veda translated into English, and how Indian actors perform on Indian stages Shakespeare’s plays translated into Indian languages; and so on, and so forth. The entire cultural history of mankind is the story of cultures interacting with each other, borrowing from each other, or, if you like, appropriating from each other, and enriching each other in the process. Far from decrying this, it is all to be welcomed, and celebrated.

But all this does seem to me to be swimming against the tide: the contention that “cultural appropriation” is a Bad Thing – an entirely unexamined and unargued contention, as far as I can see – appears to be regarded as self-evident, and I suppose it’s only a matter of time before courses are offered at our universities on Cultural Appropriation Studies. Well, why not? We already have faculties of Gender and Media Studies, where it is seemingly possible to obtain a master’s degree by “perform[ing] Foucauldian readings of Japanese anime porn”.

In the meantime, I think it’s best for me to return to my library, and pull up the drawbridge. It’s not that I don’t want to interrogate and discourse with the outside world, but neither seems possible when there doesn’t exist at least some common ground.

“Caravaggio: A Life” by Helen Langdon

Many use the adjective “theatrical” as a pejorative, but as someone who loves the theatre, I can’t say I do. As I understand it, the word refers to a heightening of the audience’s response not merely in an artificial manner – all art is artificial, after all – but in a knowingly artificial manner: we are aware as we experience it of the artifice of the creation – of the artist (or the author, or the composer, or whoever) pulling the strings in order to intensify our response. Indeed, our awareness of the artist pulling the strings is part of the intended effect. This can, I accept, lead merely to the meretricious, especially when the material is slight, or is treated in a superficial manner. But when it isn’t, when the material itself is substantial in its own right and the treatment is more than superficial, then the artist’s presence, if sufficiently striking, can enhance the work.

Some seven or so years ago now, the National Gallery in London had hosted an exhibition of some late paintings of Caravaggio, and I remember vividly the effect of walking into that first room. No reproduction could have prepared me for something such as this. There, looming out of the darkness, was a vast canvas, almost three metres in height, of the Flagellation of Christ. At the centre was Christ’s almost naked body, lit as if by a fierce spotlight, his hands tied behind him, and his head, crowned with thorns, hanging limp; to the right of the picture, one of the executioners presses on Christ’s calf with his foot as he tightens the bonds; while to the left, another executioner, a man who, to judge from the vicious sneer on his face, enjoys his job, grabs Christ by the hair with one hand, while holding the scourge in a clenched fist in another; and a third executioner, in the forefront at the bottom left, is tying the rods together in preparation for the beating. These are working men doing a job: their job just happens to be inflicting pain. But it is that lighting that is so theatrical – that relentless spotlight picking out these figures from the profound dark that surrounds them, and covering them in a light of the most dazzling brilliance.

"The Flagellation of Christ", courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

“The Flagellation of Christ”, courtesy Pinacoteca di Capodimonte, Naples

I remember going from room to room, amazed. Nowadays, the adjective “amazing” merely signifies “very good”, but I actually was amazed: never, on seeing these paintings in reproduction, had I imagined that their real presence could make so visceral an impact. These were all late works, painted in Naples, Malta, and Sicily, while Caravaggio was on the run: in Rome, he was wanted for murder, and there was a price on his head. Of course, any work of art should be judged purely on its own terms, but once something such as this is known,  it is not possible to un-know it: like it or not, it is not possible to look on these highly charged tragic works, these meditations on violence and mortality and terror, and, sometimes, even of tenderness, without having in the back of one’s mind the thought that these were the creations of a man who had himself killed, and who feared for his own life every day. In one picture, David holds the severed head of Goliath. David is but a boy, and his face, though expressive more of sorrow than of triumph, is relatively bland. It is the dead head that seems a living thing. The strength of character is all in that dead and battered head of Goliath, and here, Caravaggio had painted himself. How is it possible to see this painting and keep from one’s mind the circumstances in which it had been painted?

It was that last room of that exhibition that particularly affected me. Here were three paintings rarely seen – two from the Museo Nazionale in Messina in Sicily, and the other from the Musée des Beaux Arts in Nancy in France. The Sicilian paintings depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds, and the Raising of Lazarus, while the painting from Nancy depicted the Annunciation – all familiar subjects in Western art. But never had they been treated like this. In the Annunciation, the angel seems to be entering the space of the painting from our own space, and, his back to us, his shoulder and arm are brightly lit by a white light supernatural in its radiance. Before the angel, Mary, dressed in a deep blue, bows in deep submission, at once accepting and weighed down by the burden placed upon her. Mary appears again, of course, in the adoration of the Shepherds, this time in red. Here, she is not, as in most paintings of this subject, joyfully showing her divine child to the adorers: she is, instead, clutching the newborn baby in her arms, and is collapsed on the dirty floor of the stable in utter exhaustion, as if unaware of the shepherds who have come to pay homage. The shepherds themselves are ragged working men; the stable is dark and dingy and filthy. These figures take up less than half the space of the canvas; the rest – especially the vast space above the figures – is in almost complete darkness. And similarly with the raising of Lazarus: the top of the figures’ heads come up to just above the half-way mark of the height of the canvas, and all above is a cavernous, dark emptiness. These figures are seen in an unearthly, ghostly half-light, as if inhabiting some vague region between life and death. Christ’s face is in darkness: the light, from behind Christ and outside the frame of the picture, catches the back of his shoulder, and the top of his sleeve as he points towards the resurrecting Lazarus. Around Christ’s head is a complex of several other heads: Christ’s head stands out from theirs not by being in the light, but by being in the dark. One of the heads behind Christ strains forward to see what is happening; two workmen in front of Christ, holding the stone which is to cover the grave of Lazarus, seem to be looking over their shoulders to somewhere behind Christ, towards the source of this mysterious light that illumines the scene. The body of Lazarus is stiff with rigor mortis; the flesh is greenish, and the arms outstretched, as if crucified. Only the right hand has begun to move: it is at an angle from the wrist, and is receiving divine light. Pressed close to his face is the face of his sister, loving and tender even in the face of Death itself.

"The annunciation", courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

“The annunciation”, courtesy Musee de beaux arts, Nancy

These three paintings in the last room seemed to contain an entire world. It was a sensibility that was entirely new to me. It presented a world that is profoundly dark, where pain is as intense as it is inevitable, and where divine power, whatever power there is that is greater than our own, fills us with awe and wonder, but not with joy. And yet there is in all this human tenderness. There is the tenderness with which the rough and ragged shepherds view the newborn child, the tenderness of Mary who, even in the utter exhaustion of childbirth, holds the beloved child close to her heart; and there is that unforgettable image of the sister of Lazarus (who is either Mary of Bethany or Martha), pressing her living face close to the face of her dead brother, her love persisting even beyond this greatest of all mysteries. These are visionary works. And yet, how could such a vision belong to a man who was a common brawler and murderer?

"The Adoration of the Shepherds", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Adoration of the Shepherds”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina


I came out of that exhibition barely able to think, but when I did recover my faculties, I found myself thinking that I must get to know more about this artist. So why it took me a full seven years to come round to reading Helen Langdon’s acclaimed biography I don’t know. I suppose it’s because I’m not really a great reader of biographies: I am interested in the work, not the man. But Caravaggio is so fascinating a person; and it is so hard to think of the works without thinking also of the man behind them; that I was prepared to make an exception: what kind of man was this Caravaggio?

"The Raising of Lazarus", courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

“The Raising of Lazarus”, courtesy Museo Nazionale, Messina

Well, as far as can be judged, he was a thug, a brawler, a bully, and a great quarreller; he was a man quick to take offence, and  given to almost gratuitous acts of violence; and he was, possibly, a neurotic. As with his almost exact contemporary Shakespeare (Shakespeare was only seven years older), we don’t really know that much about Caravaggio’s life; we know that, like Shakespeare he was born in the provinces – in Caravaggio’s case, in a small town near Milan; that, again like Shakespeare, he came to the capital city to make a career for himself; and, once again like Shakespeare, his art developed from gentle and sensuous lyricism of his early works to a visionary tragic intensity that has not since been surpassed, or possibly even equalled. But that’s where the similarities seem to end. Shakespeare, to the great dismay of his biographers, seemed to have kept a low profile while in London, and was sufficiently level-headed and business-like to make a fortune and retire back to his home town; Caravaggio, on the other hand, seemed to spend his time whoring and brawling, and, while Shakespeare was buying himself the biggest house in Stratford, Caravaggio was fleeing from place to place, armed even in bed at night, constantly in fear of his very life.

Helen Langdon’s biography of this spectacularly unbalanced man is very level-headed and sober, almost to a fault. She gives wonderfully vivid depictions of the milieux which Caravaggio inhabited – from the plague-ravaged Milan of his youth to the violent and sexually licentious streets of Rome – but generally, she is not prepared either to speculate, or even to consider certain possibilities. She is not interested, for instance, in whether Caravaggio was gay: she reminds us that homosexuality was a capital crime in those days, that the awful punishment for sodomy – burning at the stake – was enforced, and that, under such circumstances, even if Caravaggio had been gay, he would hardly have advertised the fact. And indeed, there is no evidence except in his paintings – from the sensually painted young men in his early works with their delicate, androgynous beauty, to two rather explicit paintings of male nudes –  the Victorious Cupid in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, and St John the Baptist in the Musei Capitolini in Rome. The male nude is of course hardly a new subject in art, and in both these paintings, the pose is very obviously taken from Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine Chapel; but the sexually enticing and blatantly provocative nature of these Caravaggio’s nudes can hardly be mistaken. Of course, we live, thankfully, in more tolerant times, in which gay culture is not just tolerated but celebrated; but these paintings of Caravaggio remain disturbing because they indicate not homosexuality, which does not trouble us, but pederasty, which does. If any photographer nowadays were to exhibit such sensual images of naked boys, far from celebrating them as art, we would, I fancy, have the exhibition closed down. And yet, disturbingly, these paintings are undeniably masterpieces.

We have other reasons also to find Caravaggio a disturbing figure. Rome in those days was a dangerous and violent city, and, from the surviving evidence, Caravaggio seemed to revel in it. Even as a successful and much sought-after artist, he seemed to delight in low-life, moving from tennis court to tavern to brothel, often deliberately quarrelling and provoking fights. Reading through the pages of Langdon’s biography, the wonder is not that he eventually killed someone in a brawl, but that it took him so long to get round to doing it.

And yet, all the while, he was producing masterpiece after masterpiece. The turning point came in around 1599-1600 – at around the same time as Shakespeare was writing Julius Caesar and As You Like It and Henry V and Hamlet – when he painted for the Contarelli chapel three extraordinary paintings relating to St Matthew, and, for the Cerasi Chapel two paintings – the Crucifixion of St Peter, and the Conversion of Paul – which flank and overwhelm by their extraordinary intensity the central painting by Annibale Caracci.

Just about everything he painted after that was a masterpiece: The Supper at Emmaus (currently at the National Gallery London); the Deposition (currently at the Vatican Pinacoteca), and the almost unbearably moving Death of the Virgin (currently at the Louvre in Paris); possibly the most poignant depiction I think I have come across in painting of the sheer pain of loss; and many, many others.

And then, of course, those last few years of his desperate life. Little is known. Why, for instance, did he leave Naples in such a rush? Why, after his welcome in Malta and his success there (he was made a Knight of the Order of St John), did he end up in prison? How did he get out of prison? (The story goes that he made a daring solo escape, but Helen Langdon is sceptical: it is more likely, she suggests, that he had powerful friends who helped him get away.) Why, in Sicily, did he sleep armed with a sword? Why did he hurriedly leave Syracuse immediately after completing the Burial of St Lucy? Was he, perhaps, being trailled by his enemies from Malta? (Certainly, he had good reason to fear: he was savagely attacked and almost killed in Naples only a few months later. Who attacked him, and why, remain unknown.) And, perhaps the greatest mystery of all, how is it possible that such a thuggish and violent brute could have painted – especially given the state of mind he must have been in – works of such visionary intensity?

Caravaggio’s death in 1610, aged only 39, is part tragedy, part farce. A pardon had been arranged for him in Rome, and he was on his way back. But when his ship stopped at the town of Port ‘Ercole, the governor of the town, either not aware of the pardon or not knowing who Caravaggio was, had him imprisoned. And by the time Caravaggio could buy his way out of imprisonment, his ship, containing paintings he was intending for Rome (and now lost), had vanished. Desperate to recover his precious paintings, Caravaggio trekked overland, through disease-ridden marsh-land, to catch up with the departed  ship; and in the process, he caught fever and died. While his contemporary Shakespeare was no doubt in the process of buying with his carefully accumulated wealth the largest house in Stratford in which to spend his well-earned retirement, the violent and unstable Caravaggio was feverishly shivering to death somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The enigma remains. I look at the face of the dead St Lucy in the painting now in Syracuse: she is lying on the bare earth with her face turned towards us, filling our hearts with infinite pity; and I ask myself how a man who habitually and gratuitously inflicted violence upon others could ever sympathise so entirely, at least in his art, with this innocent victim of that same violence.

There is no answer to these questions. If we consider what little we know of Shakespeare’s life, all we see is a provincial who comes to the big city and becomes a success, carefully accumulates wealth and invests shrewdly, and then returns to his home town to spend his retirement in a big house. In short, we encounter a middle class bourgeois with middling aspirations. And yet, this seeming mediocrity created Falstaff, Hamlet, Cleopatra, plumbing the very depths of the human soul. And meanwhile, the brutish and neurotic Caravaggio, thug and murderer and possibly pederast, conveys the most intense and dark visions of awe and terror and pity.

Perhaps it is a mistake to expect geniuses to be different from the rest of us. They come in all shapes and forms, much as the rest of us do. Some of them may indeed be noble and generous; some may even correspond to the popular image of the genius as a misunderstood and tortured soul; while others may indeed be as mediocre and as unremarkable, or as nasty and as violent, as their less gifted fellow humans. Perhaps there is no real difference between geniuses and the rest of us. Except, of course, for their genius.

A somewhat rambling post, on failed metaphors, the woodcuts of Dürer, and the Mann-James spectrum

It all started over at the Wuthering Expectations blog. Its estimable writer, Tom, found himself somewhat unimpressed by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, and, as I had rather liked the novel when I had read it some fifteen or so years ago, I felt I had to say a few words in its defence. But it is not easy to engage in discussion fn a novel one had last read so many years previously with someone who has read it only recently; and so, instead of engaging on specific points, I decided to make a broad-brush argument.

Oh dear, there I go again, introducing unwarranted imagery drawn from the world of visual arts: it should be a primary rule of writing that one should never draw a metaphor or a simile from an area one knows little about. And, not being by any stretch of the imagination an expert on the visual arts, I should never have claimed, as I did on Tom’s blog, that Buddenbrooks was drawn in firm, clear lines; and neither should I have drawn a parallel with the woodcuts of Dürer.

You may see for yourself how the conversation went. I ended up claiming after a while that woodcuts did not allow for shading, and that its effect had to come from the correctness of line. But Dürer’s woodcuts do have shading, Tom responded, citing as evidence the famous woodcut of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht  Dürer

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Albrecht Dürer

This was hard to argue against: there certainly was tonal variation in there. And yet, surely a woodcut is restricted only to black and to white, and to no shade in between. I brought down from my shelves a book containing reproductions of Dürer’s woodcuts, and yes, there was an extraordinary variety of tone throughout: while each of the lines was placed to absolute perfection, the effect did not depend on these lines alone. So I found myself looking closely at these areas that appeared to be shaded. The shading was not a consequence of applying shades of grey: black and white were indeed the only tones available. The apparent shades are achieved by the closeness of the lines, and by various types of cross-hatching.

Is this what I had meant when I had brought Dürer into the discussion? It’s hard to say. The human mind is adept at justifying itself in retrospect, and convincing itself that it had intended what, at the time, it hadn’t.

And I did what I should have done earlier – contacted a good friend of mine who just happened, rather conveniently, to be an art historian specialising in the Northern Renaissance. She confirmed to me that the woodcut is restricted to black and white only, but, when apprised of the background to my question, felt that there was indeed shading in Dürer’s woodcuts. Not through different shades that may be obtained through varying the pressure on the brush or on the pencil, but through varying the closeness of the lines, and their thickness. And so on: there were virtually an infinite number of tricks up the old boy’s sleeve. It depends on how one defines “shading”.

Well – that’s an easy get-out clause for me, isn’t it? “It’s a question of how you define it.” No – I decided not to go for that one. I’d stick to my guns: the tonal variation only looks like shading, I insisted, but it can’t really be called shading since there is no shade other than black and white; what tonal variation we see comes from an immensely skillful manipulation of the black and the white, rather than from any actual shading as such.

And that’s what I had meant in the first place. No, really. That’s what I had meant, and no mistake.

And I was hoping Tom wouldn’t ask “If that’s what you’d meant, then why didn’t you say so?”

Fortunately for me, he preferred to talk about literature rather than about art. The depiction with firm clear lines was something he attributed to Flaubert rather than to Mann, although he did agree with me that the smudging together of tones and doing away with anything resembling outlines are best exemplified by Henry James, especially in his later works. Nothing in these works is clear. The vague, ambiguous states of our mind shade with the finest subtlety from one tone into another, barely aware of the passage, and refusing resolutely ever to be pinned down or defined. It can be maddening for the reader, and yet no other author has captured with such painstaking delicacy the infinite fluidity of human consciousness.

So, although my comments on Dürer may have been ill conceived, I wondered if I could be on to something here: could it be reasonable to speak of a Mann-James spectrum? Of clarity and precision at one end of the scale, and of endless smudging and obfuscation on the other?

Sadly, as soon as one starts to consider where on this spectrum various other writers may stand – Austen, say, or Hardy, or Joyce – the metaphor breaks down rather quickly. I suppose it is in the very nature of similes and of metaphors to break down beyond a point, since if X were to be precisely like Y in all respects, then X would equal Y, and not be a mere representation of it. But this metaphor breaks down a bit too quickly to be of much critical use. But while the spectrum between the poles remains unclear, I don’t know that I’d wish to jettison my initial conceit (in all senses, perhaps, of that word): for there is a firmness and clarity of line in Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, rightly or wrongly, recalls to my mind Dürer, who in a single precisely drawn line could express more than most artists could in an entire canvas painted with oils; and there is in James’ The Golden Bowl the subtlest and most delicate of shading from one microtone to another, with never a hint of a containing outline. I find myself unable to go much further beyond this, but at least the whole exercise has made me return to the woodcuts of Dürer with a renewed wonder and awe. And that can’t be a bad thing.

So here, to finish with, is Dürer’s woodcut Melancolia. And yes, however he achieved it, however one defines it, there is shading in here. It’s a miracle booth of technique, and of artistic vision.

[Ps Please note, Melancolia is an engraving, and not a woodcut, as I was careless enough to have stated above. Please see comments below.]

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

Melancolia by Albrecht Dürer

The late greats

Liszt’s famous summary of Beethoven’s career – “L’adolescent, l’homme, le dieu” – accords well with what we perhaps feel ought to describe the career of any great artist: for surely, the more an artist experiences of life, the more profound and wise their vision of it must be; and the closer they are to death the more clearly they must see beyond. Even though a moment’s reflection reveals such thoughts to be sentimental drivel, we find it difficult to escape that vague notion that there is, that there must be, something special about the late works of an artist. We almost imagine that closeness to death confers upon a great artist the ability to glimpse beyond, and we look in those late works for a greater awareness of mortality; a sort of transfigured farewell, of sense of the ethereal, of the other-worldly.

For those readers who have read the paragraph above thinking “Speak for yourself, mate!” I suppose I should offer an apology: it is possibly not “we” at all who look for other-worldly wisdom in late works – it is “I”. But it is not unusual to substitute the first person plural for the first person singular as a means of pretending that one’s personal concerns are of more general interest, and I certainly am not above such a cheap trick. So “we”, I think, remains. We look for transcendent wisdom in late works; and what we look for, not unsurprisingly, we often find.

Take late Shakespeare, for instance: leaving aside those inconsequential late collaborations – Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen – Shakespeare finished his dramatic career with three plays – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest – that look beyond the tragic towards a state of almost mystical reconciliation in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end. Surely there’s something a bit other-worldly about that, no? Or late Beethoven, when he had entered his dieu stage, according to Liszt’s formulation: who has ever listened to Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, or those late string quartets, without hearing sounds that seem to come from some other world? There’s Mozart as well – writing music of transcendent serenity in his clarinet quintet, his last piano concerto, his clarinet concerto, and meditating on death as only a dying man could in his unfinished Requiem Mass. There’s Schubert, who composed a string of masterpieces in his last year when he must have known he was dying, each of these masterpieces haunted by the shadow of death. There’s Mahler, whose Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony seem almost to depict a passage from this world to the next. Ibsen’s late plays, too, seem increasingly to move away from the realism he had himself pioneered into a world where all solidities seem to melt away. Or there’s Tagore, whose very spare, almost minimalist final poems, written in extreme old age on what he must have realised was to be his death-bed, express a spiritual turmoil and an anguish that render them almost too painful to read. All of these artists reacted to death in different ways – but can it be doubted that they were all, in these late works, meditating on their mortality? Similar observations can no doubt be made in the visual arts: could Titian’s Pietà, for instance,have been painted by anyone other than by a man of genius on the point of his own death?

We must, of course, be careful here. Any artist who practises his or her art over a long period of time undergoes changes in style, in approach, and even in themes: this is because we all change over time, we all have new concerns, new perspectives. That an artist’s style in old age is different from that of his younger self is nothing too surprising. Artists renew their art: those who cannot inevitably decline in their artistry, and are eventually remembered primarily or even solely for their earlier work (Wordsworth is a very obvious example of this). And yes, artists may – as, no doubt, we all may – consider death more intently as they closer they come to it, but it is sentimental to imagine that mere proximity to death can give one greater insights into its nature. Yes, it is true that the works of Schubert’s last year, written in the shadow of death, were haunted by it: but then again, so is his D minor string quartet (“Death and the Maiden”) which was written some five or so years before his death when he was still in his mid-twenties. It should really not be surprising that people who think profoundly about life should think profoundly about death also, and that closeness to death is not a necessary condition for the latter. For instance, I cannot think of any novel that more closely concerns itself with death than does Anna Karenina: and yet, it was written in Tolstoy’s vigorous middle age, in his late 40s, when he was in his prime of health and still had another thirty and more years to live.

There are so many other examples one can think of. Beethoven’s late works were written in his 50s, and, as far as I know, there’s nothing to indicate that Beethoven was aware of his approaching death at the time. Indeed, the great slow movement of his late A minor string quartet explicitly celebrates his recovery from illness. (In the score, the movement is headed “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart” – A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode). Neither is there any evidence to indicate that Mozart, aged only 35, was aware of his impending death when composing what we now think of as his late works. And if Mahler’s final works are about death, it is hard to think of any of his works, even his very first symphony, that isn’t. That his late style was different from his earlier style does not necessarily make it more profound: great though that 9th symphony is, is his magnificent 2nd symphony any lesser a work of art simply because it was composed earlier?

But despite all that, we – all right, if you insist, I – cannot help but look for that extra wisdom and profundity that we – I – feel ought to be present in late works. Hell, I even listen to Wagner’s Parsifal once in a while to see if this final masterpiece (for masterpiece it clearly is) makes sense this time round. I listened to it again lately: but once again, it eluded me. Obviously the old bore meant something by it all, but I can’t get anything more out of it than a series of extraordinarily beautiful sounds. I tried reading up on it a bit this time: I found buried away in that cluttered little room I call my library Lucy Beckett’s much acclaimed Cambridge University Handbook on Wagner’s Parsifal; and I also came across this very interesting website on the opera. But I must admit, I am none the wiser. Somewhat better informed, perhaps, but none the wiser. (Nonetheless, I do recommend both book and website to those who are more receptive to this strange work than I appear to be.)

But what can one say about a late work, written by an artist approaching his eighties and who knew that this work was to be his last, but which, far from wandering awe-struck into the ethereal shades of the other world, rejoices all the more firmly in the solidity of this one? Of a work written by a man who has known personal grief and tragedy, but who, on leaving life, could only express for it his unreserved love? Who meditates not on what may or may not come, but looks instead to what is, and celebrates it with all the vigour and vitality and exuberance and unshadowed joy that one more usually, though perhaps erroneously, associates with youth? Yes, I am thinking about Verdi’s Falstaff. And I am thinking also that I must write a post on this miracle some day – if only I knew where to begin…

The caves of Elephanta

It’s about an hour by boat from Bombay Harbour. Or Mumbai Harbour, depending on what you prefer to call that city. The city itself is not, to put it kindly, very picturesque, but just an hour’s boat ride away, we enter quite another world: the caves of Elephanta Island.

But these aren’t ordinary caves: these aren’t caves created by the workings of nature. These caves, like the much larger Ellora on the Indian mainland, have been carved out, quite insanely, by human hand. The whole edifice is one vast sculpture, sculpted directly into the rock face itself, some fifteen or so centuries ago.

I was there last weekend. After disembarking from the boat, we walked along a pier, and then up the slope of a hill, on steps flanked on both sides by bustling cafes and by souvenir stalls. And then, we were faced with the “cave” – a large, man-made, pillared opening into the rock. 

Coming inside from the bright sunlight, all seems dark at first. But then, as the pupils dilate, there emerges slowly from the darkness a vision – a vast, magnificent vision of Divinity, of the Trimurti, the Trinity comprising Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, the three faces of the God Shiva.

One does not need to believe in Hinduism, or indeed in any religion at all, to find oneself overawed. After all, even many an atheist has been overawed by the vision of Sistine Chapel, or of Chartres Cathedral. And here, too, one is brought face to face, if not with Divinity itself, then, at least, with a human vision of Divinity, that is no less splendid for being human. It is a vision that overwhelms with its magnificence, and with its serene grandeur.

There are times I think God is the noblest work of Man.

The finest decade: 1601-1610

Looking through the history of Western culture, has there ever, I wonder, been a decade quite as rich in achievement as the first ten years of the 17th century?

Shakespeare was, in this decade, at his very peak. Exact dating is difficult, but it appears that by 1601, the start of the decade, Shakespeare already had behind him Hamlet and Twelfth Night. What followed was every bit as remarkable – Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra. In comparison with works of such order, even plays such as Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida or Coriolanus – works that would be considered towering works of genius from any other writer – are often, in this context, regarded as “relatively minor”. By the time the decade ended, Shakespeare was engaged on his final trio of dramatic masterpieces – Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. And amongst all this was the publication in 1609 of one hundred and fifty four sonnets – works that ensured that even if Shakespeare had never written a single play, we’d still be thinking of him as our greatest writer.

And also in this decade, over in Spain, Cervantes published the first of the two parts that make up Don Quixote, and began work on the second. If, as is said – I can’t remember by whom: indeed, I think I just made it up – that the four principal pillars of Western literature are Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, it is surely remarkable that two of them were at their peak at the same time.

And let us not forget the King James Bible. It was published in 1611 – this year is the four hundredth anniversary of that momentous event – but much of the work on it would, I imagine, have been done in this decade. (And yes, I know, much of it is a rehash of Tyndale’s Bible, but still…)

In addition, Ben Jonson wrote in this decade some of his finest work – most notably, The Alchemist and Volpone. And towards the end of the decade, John Donne started work on his Holy Sonnets. (While his other poems are often hard to date, it is most likely that many of them were the products of these years.)

There was other fine writing as well – the Jacobean era was, after all, the most glorious period of English drama; and inSpain, there was the prolific Lope de Vega. It is an indication of the sheer stature of Shakespeare and Cervantes that literature even of this quality seems to be in their shadow.

Rubens: Descent from the Cross (Antwerp Cathedral)

Other areas of the arts were flourishing as well. The young Rubens was already well-established, and in the final years of this decade, was engaged on those two massive works now in Antwerp Cathedral – The Raising of the Cross, and the almost unbearably moving Descent from the Cross, in which the body of Christ seems to be falling and soaring at the same time. Meanwhile, inSpain, El Greco was putting on to canvas his very personal and idiosyncratic mystical visions. Equally idiosyncratic and personal were the late paintings of Caravaggio: having killed a man in 1606, Caravaggio spent the last few years of his brief life on the run, and found himself in Naples, Sicily, Malta, unable to settle anywhere for long. Before his untimely and mysterious death, his strange and violent death-haunted imagination put on canvas some of the most intensely tragic and powerful of visions.

Meanwhile, if we turn to music, Monteverdi composed Orfeo, among the earliest and greatest of all operas, and, in 1610, the monumental Vespers. In England,  William Byrd was composing at the height of his powers: his two books of Gradualia were published within these years.

Science was not left behind in this either. Just before the start of this decade, in 1610, William Gilbert published his astonishing discovery that the earth itself was a huge magnet; and the decade ended with Galileo observing with his new-fangled telescope the moons of Jupiter, and the phases of Venus. In between, Johannes Kepler formulated and published his ground-breaking Laws of Planetary Motion.

It seems unimaginable that all this could happen within the space of just a few years. Suddenly, the world seemed to cast off its old clothes, and enter a new phase. Was there something in the air? One tries to find connections between all these achievements, even though one knows that such connections are, at best, fanciful. Shakespeare and Jonson knew each other, and, one imagines, they would have known the other dramatists and poets in London at the time; but mostly, all these great men of genius were working independently. But fanciful or not, it’s hard not to see some of Shakespeare’s tragic spirit in those late paintings of Caravaggio. And, although the sun-baked plains of La Mancha are as far as can be imagined from the deep claustrophobic gloom of Glamis Castle, one can imagine Don Quixote agreeing with Macbeth that “Nothing is but what is not”.

At much the same time as Shakespeare was writing King Lear, El Greco was

El Greco: View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum New York)

painting Toledo during an apocalyptic storm. (Dating of this painting varies: some date it to the late 1590s rather than to the 1600s, but let’s not allow such little details to get in the way!) Storms of such elemental violence could, no doubt, occur inEngland as well: every time I read those storm scenes of Shakespeare’s play, I find it difficult to banish from my mind El Greco’s tempestuous vision.

And then I look at Carvaggio’s painting of the boy David holding Goliath’s head. The living David seems rather bland – a smug, self-satisfied lad, lacking much in the way of character. All the character is in Goliath’s head, which, though severed, seems

Caravaggio: David with the head of Goliath (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

still a living, sentient being. This decapitated head is Caravaggio’s self-portrait: here, he pictures himself conquered by a mere boy. (“To the boy Caesar send this grizzled head…”) And, though defeated, though decapitated, I can almost hear Caravaggio agreeing with Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, that “’tis paltry to be Caesar”.

But of course, this is all mere fancy. The air of that decade was nothing special: it wasn’t so different from the air we breathe now. But when I think back on what was achieved in those few years, and I cannot help but be struck with wonder. It’s almost as if all the finest aspects of human genius were concentrated into that brief space of time.