New objects, old preoccupations
The exhibition has been and gone.
I have been expanding outward, embracing new things.
I have been able to read fiction again and found two new authors who I think will be important to me.
Tessa Hadley’s novels remind me of Elizabeth Taylor, such a subtle, loving noticing of relationships. A little girl sees her father trudge past the window of the house at dawn, but he doesn’t come in. After that she cannot bear the page in her nursery rhyme book about Doctor Foster going to Gloucester. Why is that the image I have retained? Intellectually it is something about the way we appropriate art forms to contain the unbearable – sometimes the painful root memory is severed as with this avoided nursery rhyme, in other cases memory seeps in; allowed into a little annex, a safe room where something can be known and not known at the same time. What emotional association prompted me to pick that image from the book I don't know.
Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton has roots going in all directions - I thought it was extraordinary. There is a scene where Lucy recognises something in a sculpture, she keeps returning to look at it but finds it only “gives her what she needs” if she sees it furtively: a glimpse in passing rather than an intentional confrontation. I think the sculpture is Ugolino and his Sons by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux.
I have seen Rodin’s grisly interpretation of the Dante story: children offering themselves up as food for their imprisoned, ravenous, father. Lucy’s father was imprisoned by his traumatic war memories, and consequently his children were impoverished, abused and socially ostracised. The scene in the museum brings out both the vulnerability and powerlessness of children dependent on unreliable parents and how hard it is to confront self-knowledge head on. Strout’s oblique writing style embodies this – as if each powerful rush of connection in the novel takes place through several briefly aligned doorways.
I read another of Strout’s novels: Olive Kitterage – which constructs the character and life of Olive – wife, mother, teacher of maths - by interweaving her life with those of other inhabitants in a Maine town. In some chapters Olive is the main character, in others she features only as a passing object in other people’s lives. Olive’s presence often makes a difference to other characters: intervening or witnessing with rare compassion or just offering a capacity for thinking which stays with people. At a time of personal crisis (and most of the stories involve characters at a time of loss) – a young woman remembers Olive saying to her class “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you are scared of your hunger, you will just be one more ninny like everyone else” – and that odd precept, baffling at the time, has reverberated over the years and finally helps the character to act. That is the only mention of Olive in that chapter. Irwin Yalom would call that “rippling”: through our positive acts we exist/live on in the memories of others. As in Lucy Barton, emotional hunger and how it is sated is a key theme in the book – one of the stories/chapters is even called Starving. Olive says to the anorexic girl, You are starving, I am starving, we all are… Junk food fills the void of emotional disconnectedness – a man routinely brings home a donut for his wife when there is nothing else left to give in their stale marriage.
While I invigilated my exhibition I dipped into Margot Waddell’s Inside Lives – reviewing the emotional life cycle from infancy to old age from a Post–Kleinian perspective. I was interested in the chapters on maturity and old age, how in moments of stress, even the most mildly together adult can still erupt into infantile insanity.
Olive doesn’t always connect with other people, she is awkward and abrupt; in one story she is only just a “loud voice” passing through a room. And, although she can be wise and compassionate to others, in her own family relationships Olive is volatile, even monstrous. Her son’s viewpoint is icily “objective” on that count. There are a couple of moments in the book where she explodes into childish tantrums or spiteful acts of destruction. These are triggered by small incidents to which she responds with disproportionate venom. When she overhears her new daughter-in-law jeer at her outfit Olive sneakily vandalises her wardrobe. When her son and his second wife neglect to point out that she has spilled ice cream on her blouse – Olive feels relegated beyond a relationship of care; she has become an old woman to be observed disinterestedly as an object of disarray, without sufficient love or sense of her aliveness and dignity to point out the stain for her to remedy. Somehow that is catastrophic. At this point her husband Henry is unreachable in a nursing home (silenced and blinded by a stroke). The only way Olive’s ensuing and escalating tantrum can be contained is by the security staff she baits at the airport on her way home. Seeking containment by authority figures when intimate relationships fail recurs in another story; Rebecca, helplessly garrulous after bereavement, anticipates the solace of silence through that phrase of arrest – you have the right to remain silent: “it would be worth the arrest if they put it like that” she thinks as she prepares to commit arson.
I felt shaken when I finished this novel – I had deeply entered so many lives and felt from all those loosely, but vitally connected viewpoints,
I have been to see several exhibitions too. I recognised my imagery in the Annette Messager exhibition at the Marion Goodman gallery. I felt some of her sculptures could have been mine. Which sounds arrogant but we seem to have a similar visual vocabulary - fabric objects, dolls, nets.
I enjoyed Claude Cahun at the National Portrait Gallery and I liked Gillian Wearing’s series where her eyes look through mask portraits recreating three generations of her family. I went to Margate to see Entangled – I felt envious, I would have liked to be in it! And at Camden Arts Centre – an artist who was in it – Geta Bratescu. I liked the various pieces moving either materially or temporally from black to white/white to black.
Lots of images of her face too, repeated, mirrored. And a strange video, Bratescu with chalky white face, gathering, sifting, moistening soil, patting it into a bun – and eating it.
In Rotterdam – I went to Mad about Surrealism at the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen – that was a real joy. I loved the mix of reverence (for dreams, strangeness, symbolism) and irreverence (playfulness, iconoclasm) and the methods for incorporating chance. I took a few photos and realised afterwards they were all of birds – Ernst, Cornell, Carrington and Dali, The Cornell bird in the exhibition was illuminated by a little light bulb.
I included a Bird Woman in my exhibition. I have never quite been sure about it.
But listening to the message of the Rotterdam photographs I thought I would try to make another version - the next one will be a great maternal bird, dropping babies like an exploding Artemis of Ephesus.
And also in Rotterdam - unexpected beside the canal - this beautiful Giuseppe Penone floating bronze tree.
I saw Giacometti at Tate Modern– I liked best his surreal phase, those frame “houses” containing sculptures, stages on which abstract forms interrelate as proto-personages, playfulness with an undercurrent of violence. The text on the wall said it all
“I have made sculptures that can move!...These are more joyful works and I had a lot of fun making them… I have absolutely no idea how the next one will come out, and it’s a very pleasant feeling”
It is odd how much less I have to write about visual art - even though that is my mode of expression.
As I write I am recalling another novel where a character has a significant encounter with a sculpture in a New York museum. William Maxwell’s wonderful So Long, See You Tomorrow, refers to Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 am.
The narrator describes seeing Giacometti’s skeletal building with its flying bird, pendant spine and “mother” figure, and relates it to a memory of playing in the unfinished structure of his new family home after the builders departed each day. This home-to-be is a sad place (the lonely motherless boy is a recurrent character in Maxwell’s novels) but in it the narrator formed a brief friendship with another boy, Cletus, who comes at dusk like a figure in a dream to play on the climbing frame of the house. Was he an imaginary playmate?
The novel alludes to an interview with Giacometti where he describes the way the sculpture evolved: completely resolved in his imagination and executed in just a day. It was made in response to the end of an intense relationship with a woman: during the nights together they made precarious palaces from matchsticks.
The image of the palace sculpture becomes a place to which the narrator (an old man now) returns – the crepuscular dream building embodies his yearning for the boundaries between past and present to collapse, for the mother still to be there, to meet again the boy Cletus – and be forgiven. Did the narrator link his own life with the victim of a scandalous tragedy because empathy with and guilt towards anther decimated boy was easier to bear than facing up to his own heart shattering loss? Did he ever really meet Cletus? Again the feelings are locked up and inhabit a “found” sculptural object.
When I came to the end of therapy at the end of my Goldsmith’s training, I remember saying that in the time regained, with the course over and the therapy ended, I was really looking forward to being able to read lots of fiction. My therapist accused me of escapism – of not wanting to look at myself. I think she was wrong – I am able to find and recognise deep and true things about myself (and others) through brilliant fiction like this. That would seem to link with Strout’s image of the sculpture from Lucy Barton – look directly and, you can’t get in, come at it from the side, set it up so you can separate yourself from it and you can feel your emotion even if it seems to be somebody else’s? Have you failed if you never say I?