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This is Illyria, lady: shipwrecks and a black horizon

Just off the Dubrovnik coast is an installation called Your Black Horizon by Olafur Eliasson that first made its appearance in 2005 at the Venice Biennale and now finds a permanent home on the island of Lopud. Set back several hundred metres from the harbour and behind some straggly botanical gardens, it’s a windowless pavilion designed by David Adjaye. Inside in the blackness is a thin, dazzling horizontal line of light that burns on to the retina. Unknown The idea, I think, is to renegotiate landscape art in that you leave the work with that image in your eye and reproject it onto the real horizon. We’d spent the day on boats, swimming in the Adriatic, so it wasn’t quite part of the script, and in fact we came across the installation entirely by accident. It’s not necessarily comfortable being in pitch blackness with just one dazzling line – no sense of the size of the space which disappears. Groping for the exit you feel lost, like a pre-modern traveller with no maps.images-1

Early modern representations of Croatia, whether as Illyria in Twelfth Night or the Dalmatian coast in travellers’ tales, inevitably revolved around seafaring. Across the Croatian coastline, even now, there are traces of shipwrecks in touristed areas. On the island of Hvar, just off the coast from Split, there’s a lovely little Franciscan monastery that was founded in the 1460s after a captain survived a storm at sea. John Locke’s account of his journey down the Adriatic coast in 1553 on his perilous way to Jerusalem, reported in Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations (STC 12626a), makes clear that the going was treacherous. His party tried to ‘beare in againe to Ragusa, for to know the newes of the Turkes armie, but the winde blew so hard and contrary, that we could not.’

Lopud island was a sixteenth-century centre of shipbuilding that supplied the city-state of Ragusa – modern-day Dubrovnik – which equipped Spain with ships for the Armada. The early modern name of the city was corrupted into the word ‘raguesee’ and thence ‘argosy’. Like Venice, it was a mercantile republic; no Orsino here. Jean Bodin’s 1576 Les Six Livres de la République (translated into English in 1606 by Richard Knolles) is approving:

“But sudden and complete change is dangerous, and in order to avoid replacing all the officers of the realm at the same time, to the interrupting of public business, it is best that colleges of magistrates should be renewed by succession of persons, one at a time. This is done in the Republic of Ragusa, where the Senate is perpetual, but the senators, who form the sovereign judicial body, only hold office for one year at a time, but do not all go out of office together, but successively, so that the change is hardly noticeable. After a certain period they may serve again.”

Ragusa’s stability even more striking given its delicate position of being a client state of the Ottoman empire, the bridge between the Venetian and Turkish spheres of influence.

“This citie of Ragusa paieth tribute to the Turke yerely fourteene thousand Sechinos,” noted John Locke, “and euery Sechino is of venetian money eight liuers and two soldes, besides other presents which they giue to the Turkes Bassas when they come thither.”

A hundred years later, James Howell was marvelling at the diversity of the inhabitants. ‘In these Territories which the Turk hath ‘twixt the Danube and the sea, and ‘twixt Ragusa, and Buda, Christians are intermixt with Mahometans’ (Epistolae Ho-elianae 1650).

But Howell’s account of Ragusa’s economic and civil prosperity was shortlived. New merchant routes to the Atlantic were being opened up, and in 1667 an earthquake devastated Ragusa and its islands. An Illyrian golden age was over.


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Henri Scissorhands: Matisse and the ghost of Louis Aragon

Jazz: Pierrot's Funeral

Jazz: Pierrot’s Funeral

Dancers, bees, swallows, sharks, sword-swallowers, mermaids, stars: even first thing on a Sunday morning, the Matisse exhibition at Tate Modern felt like a live show. Jazz (1947) was his first venture into cutouts, or ‘drawing with scissors’, as he put it. It features assemblages of dancers, elephants, clowns, pierrots, knife-throwers and most famously, Icarus – and is accompanied by Matisse’s swooping handwriting on the nature of his work. The process of creation is foregrounded throughout. Tate runs films on a loop of Matisse cutting into paper, and the speed and the dexterity with which he wielded the huge tailor’s scissors are remarkable. The famous blue nudes, too, are presented as if on a loop, staged on different walls around the room, allowing the viewer to circle from I to IV, and assess their variations.

Découpage is about the rough edges. It bears the marks of its construction. This performative element is signalled in this exhibition, which also features Matisse’s designs for ballet and the chapel in Vence. When he was commissioned to design the chapel he didn’t just stop at the stained-glass windows; his work extended to the chasuble worn by the priest, an adroit linking of man and place – or in the Catholic terms that the atheist Matisse would not have acknowledged, the linking of the human with the sacred space, which sees the priest as vessel.

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Chasuble for the Vence chapel

Tate presents the work in clear biographical terms. Shadowed behind these visions of light and colour and memories of the South Seas is the enclosed space of the artist’s, one of which you occasionally catch a glimpse through Matisse’s figurative inclusion of a door or window to the garden beyond his room.

Ah, yes. The suffering artist in his room, the poignancy of his frailty, the picture of the door leading to a world that was denied to him. It’s all a bit close to the familiar trope of the tubercular/syphilitic artist (Van Gogh, Maupassant, et al) that riddles French cultural history. The pathos is a plangent counterpoint to the vibrancy of the colour, but I’m not sure we should be too hung up on Matisse’s immobility, since his cloister midwived a radical reinvention of his art.

Matisse’s friend, the avant-garde communist poet Louis Aragon, who is referenced numerous times in the Tate commentary, would have had none of this mimsy biographical approach. Aragon came to visit Matisse in the 1950s. In Henri Matisse, Roman, Aragon’s lengthy compilation of his memories of the artist – itself a bit of a découpage, by all accounts – he meditates on the relationship between painting and writing and argues for the work, not the man, to be considered. It all sounds suspiciously formalist for an intellectual who was so high up in the French communist party; his uncoupling of the art from the artist doesn’t entirely fit in with a Marxist aesthetic in which literature and art cannot be understood independently of its material production. But then, Aragon’s socialist realism never quite held fast. His collected essays on art written between the 1920s and 1960s and called – yes – Collages (1965) show him incessantly wrestling with the political and aesthetic problems of art and representation.

Anyway, Tate’s nod to Aragon’s dialogue with Matisse is an important reminder of the milieu in which Matisse operated prior to the Second World War and after his Fauvist period. Paris in the 1920s and 1930s was a laboratory of modernism; jazz was arriving, Russian, American and German emigrés thronged the Left Bank and the Surrealists had changed the game in art and poetry. You get a sense in the Tate exhibition of this creative explosion with Matisse’s scenery and costume design for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s Rouge et Noir, choreographed by Léonide Massine to Shostakovich’s first symphony, but it doesn’t go near to expressing the ferment of ideas that was taking place at the time.

What really connects Matisse and Aragon is their interest in the relationship between art and poetry, and also a shared fascination with collage. Aragon’s early poetry conspicuously used collage techniques before his conversion to communism. Both men were trying to invent a new language, and in Aragon’s terms this went hand in hand with a political project (although like so many intellectuals he became disillusioned with orthodox communism after the invasion of Hungary in 1956.)

Just as Aragon mused on art in his essays, Matisse – who read poetry every morning before he worked – put out engraved illustrations of poetry that run the gamut of French literary history: medieval (Charles d’Orléans), Renaissance (Pierre de Ronsard) and nineteenth-century Symbolism (Stéphane Mallarmé). The backstory of the Matisse exhibition, then, is a sense of joint artistic enterprise and ardent experimentation in the mid-twentieth century Paris. It sure puts the Bloomsbury Group in the shade.






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Peter Lely, A Lyrical Vision, Courtauld Gallery (1)

The Lely exhibition at the Courtauld got me thinking in a number of directions – so many, in fact, I’ll have to do separate posts on them.


First, a bit of biography. Lely’s arrival in London from Haarlem coincided with the beginning of the English Civil War. He would become dominant in the 1640s and 1650s following William Dobson’s retreat to Royalist Oxford, attracting patrons such as the Earl of Northumberland (I’ll post on this later). Lely is best known as a society portraitist of the 1660s, a kind of Mario Testino of the Restoration  – although in his 1650s picture of Cromwell he famously kept the Lord Protector’s warts in, as apocryphally requested. However, this is not the focus of the Courtauld show; the ‘lyrical vision’ in the title of the exhibition refers to the pastoral, musical and allegorical paintings of his pre-Restoration, narrative period.

The most prominent pictures are musical (I’ll also be blogging about those later). The narrative paintings are Biblical (The Finding of Moses, Reuben presenting Mandrakes to Leah) or mythological (The Rape of Europa, The Infant Bacchus). The only representative of secular literary tradition is Boccaccio, which appears in the Lely exhibition in Cimon and Efigenia, or Cymon and Iphigenia in the Decameron. Inevitably, this sent me off to read Boccaccio’s tale.

Cymon, the boorish, semi-imbecilic son of a great nobleman in Cyprus is the despair of his family, but is suddenly transfigured on beholding the sleeping, half-naked Iphigenia. Whether or not the text explicitly parodies a conversion narrative, it’s clear that erotic contemplation is here a transformative act, both in aesthetic terms (“he changed of a sudden from a husbandman into a judge of beauty”) and moral. In fact, sexual awakening becomes a short cut to an otherwise laboriously acquired humanist education: “He not only modulated his gruff and boorish voice to a degree of smoothness suitable to urbane life, but made himself accomplished in singing nd music; in riding also and in all matters belonging to war, as well by sea as by land, he waxed most expert and hardy”.  Take that, Castiglione.

What I’m puzzling over is the Courtauld’s insistence on Lely’s being part of a pastoral tradition, at least as would have been articulated in England in the seventeenth century. The catalogue references Sidney’s Arcadia, but I’m having difficulty finding anything in the early modern artistic tradition that relates to Sidneian pastoral at all; if anyone can point me in the right direction I’d be grateful.

You can barely move for renderings of Ovidian subjects in seventeenth century art – Lely’s Rape of Europa is just one example. One of my essays for my Renaissance Studies MA tackled the changing cultural representations of Danae in the 1590s, if you’re interested

So when I saw the Boccaccio-derived painting I thought there might be a minor tradition of depicting more contemporary texts, but there doesn’t seem to be any, and certainly not English texts. It’s one-way traffic; Sidney’s romance is absolutely stuffed with episodes where art carries the erotic charge.  I can think of three just off the top of my head. There’s Pyrocles falling in love with Philoclea’s portrait, an extended moment that also functions as a convenient narrative spur which takes the two princes to Arcadia. There’s also Helen’s melancholy attachment to the picture of Amphialus. And the one that is uppermost in my mind is the episode in the Iberian jousts when Phalantus challenges all-comers “The conditions of his chalenge were, that the defendant should bring his mistresse picture, which being set by the image of Artesia (so was the mistresse of Phalantus named) who in six courses should haue better of the other, in the iudgement of Basilius, with him both the honors and the pictures should remaine.” .(Book 1, chapter 15)

The reason that this episode is uppermost in my mind is because Roger Boyle lifts this wholesale for an early episode of Parthenissa (1651) where his hero Artabanes jousts with the challenger Ambixules. I have an abundance of theories why, but I digress.

Anyway, what the Courtauld describes as pastoral consists of landscapes and sleepy nymphs. I always thought that water nymphs were part of Diana’s chaste train, but Google Images throws up a pretty lascivious painting by Cranach, and Lely’s sated, fleshy beings (Nymphs by a Fountain) are suspiciously heavy with slumber– and have very dirty feet. Check out the picture above..

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