Reading Charles Brasch in Oxford

Charles Brasch Landfall New Zealand Oxford McCahon Angus
Colin McCahon, The Virgin and Child Compared (1948). Copyright Colin McCahon Estate. Collection of Hocken Library, Dunedin. Charles Brasch Bequest (1973).

Charles Brasch’s contribution to the birth and growth of New Zealand culture was immense, and is still in many ways under-appreciated or unaccounted for. He was the founding editor of Landfall, the quarterly journal started in March 1947 that showed New Zealanders as well as the world what was unique about the writing, art and music produced in the country—we all know that much. He wrote poems himself, he collected the art of all New Zealand’s mid twentieth-century modernists (and then donated them all to the Hocken Library in Dunedin). He journaled fastidiously, which now, after Peter Simpson’s tireless work, gives us an account of the growth of our culture. But Brasch’s manner of philanthropy was the very best kind: he was always behind the scenes, providing money at just the right time and place where it was needed to support an artist, to publish a book or to start a fellowship. I say “but” about his philanthropy because that now means we will likely never know of or trace the extent of his contributions. Even his diary did not hear of his benevolence.

It has seemed to me then a little ungrateful that Brasch’s Wikipedia page points out, in the very first paragraph, that he gained an “ignominious third” in his Modern History course at Oxford in the late 1920s. I cannot think of any other public figure in New Zealand or elsewhere for whom undergraduate grades feature so prominently in their public biography. Brasch, however, was adamant, as he pointed out in his memoirs published posthumously: “I had not come to Oxford to get a degree”. And judging by his Oxford reading, he got from his time here exactly what he needed.

“One of the very few things I could remember of my first term was lying on my sofa through long damp grey days and reading Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, which seemed (in recollection) to set the mood of the whole term. In fact I devoured the Journal in two days… In that same term, I think, I began to read Plato…”

And just a few years later that undergraduate truant reading would serve Brasch well in one of his life’s most important moments. Sitting by his grandfather Willi Fels’ bedside during his last days—Fels, his maternal grandfather who essentially raised him and was the only one to support him in the decision to become a poet—Brasch read aloud to him the Phaedo, the recollection of Socrates’ death, excluding only those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read. It was those paragraphs he couldn’t bear to read that were then read aloud, decades later, at Brasch’s own funeral.

His reading was immense, but unfocussed. In addition to the above we know that Wilde and Pound, Brooke and Graves were particularly important during his Oxford years. Brasch published just one poem during his undergraduate years, right before he graduated and went down to London; but this didn’t stop him paying Basil Blackwell a nervous, and unsuccessful, visit about the possibility of publishing a book. His calling to poetry at times seems driven more by an aesthetic sensibility than an inborn talent. Certainly he was not anywhere near the talent of Auden, who was at Oxford at the same time, or Baxter, whose superior talent Brasch immediately recognised and supported (he never seems to have been a jealous writer; maybe this fact explains the limits of his critical success).

Brasch suggests it was partly Plato, partly a flirtation with Buddhism, and partly the lives of other writers (their vegetarian diets) that meant “notions of purity obsessed me… By fits and starts I made several ineffectual bids towards purity. The purity I believed I longed for failed to distinguish properly between what goes in at the mouth and what comes out of the heart.” Brasch, of course, as one of the inheritors to the Hallensteins clothing empire, had the means for an aesthetic life—a life of lavishness and luxury, if he so wanted. But notions of the ascetic are always strongest in those for whom it is a choice rather than a necessity. “Fortunately,” Brasch goes on in his memoirs, “my will was weak and my senses strong, so that I did not fall into puritanism, but continued in a cloud of contradictions, not knowing what I wanted except that I wanted to write poetry. Of these inner cross-currents I spoke to no one.”

The inner cross-currents of which he spoke to no one could be seen as those  tides that shaped his life. His sexuality and love life, for one thing (always tortured), but also more immediately, in his post-Oxford years, that of his vocation. Though he thought of himself always as a poet, his life and posthumous reputation seem to rest on his role as “literary editor” and “arts patron”, as Wikipedia, ever reflecting the public sense, puts it. Or, as he put it, reflecting on his most tortured period and the reaction of his father: “Was I going to be a drifter, sticking at nothing? an idler? a dilettante? I could not explain adequately, because I had not the courage or conviction to avow my secret hopes.”

Landfall certainly dominated his days, to the extent that friends at times advised him to give up the editorship if he was to keep writing poetry. The myriad tasks and constant letter-writing kept this man of leisure busy, or at least busier than Baxter, and then again we find him organising shows of McCahon’s work in Christchurch, for instance, without telling either his diary or Colin. We come up again against Brasch’s old-world decorum, more than just the result of an Oxford education of the late 20s—a fundamental drive to do for others (for a nation) what his means allowed him to, all without any desire for or expectation of credit or recognition.

Fortunately for us, even if we can’t know of all Brasch’s deeds, we can find the products of them—most significantly, in Dunedin, the city that was for him always home. The Hocken Library of the University of Otago possesses one of the best art collections in the country, in large part thanks to Brasch (gifts and bequests tend to snowball as more people see the stature of an institution through what has previously been donated). Rita Angus’ View from Tinakori Road  is there; so too is McCahon’s The Virgin and Child Compared, to name just two personal favourites of over 450 artworks. His personal library of over 7,500 volumes also lives at the Hocken, and so far under-explored is Brasch’s collection of international art and prints that were separated from the main bequest and given to the Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

As I sit here in Oxford, “through long damp grey days”, reading Brasch’s journals and memoirs, Dunedin comes into focus. Dunedin, and all the places and people Brasch visited and wrote of. They become centre and I am living at the margins, unable to see or read or connect with that which is most important to me (except for those few books that, thankfully, the Bodleian happens to stock). Distance indeed looks our way, as that famous line of Brasch’s poem, “In These Islands“, tells us.

Walking this evening past Brasch’s old rooms with their views out onto the Elm trees of St. Giles, it came clearly to me how a culture is built, how it moves forward, how it communicates more and more life. It gains life and communicates it because of the individuals who decide there isn’t enough of it, and who decide to devote their lives to creating more of it. It is simple, in retrospect; but looking forwards, for the young man flunking Oxford with an ignominious third, it must have looked like the most difficult thing in the world.


 

More on Charles Brasch:

Charles Brasch. Indirections: A Memoir. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Charles Brasch. Journals. 3 volumes, published by Otago University Press.

Charles Brasch. The Universal Dance: A selection from the critical prose writings. Otago University Press, 1981.

Charles Brasch. Present Company: Reflections on the Arts. Blackwood & Janet Paul Ltd, 1966.

James Bertram. Charles Brasch. Oxford University Press, 1977.

Sarah Quigley. A World Elsewhere: a critical and biographical study of the European influence on the life and work of Charles Brasch. DPhil (PhD) thesis at the University of Oxford. (One copy available at Oxford’s Weston library; I couldn’t find an online version).

Donald Kerr (editor). Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet, Collector. Otago University Press, 2003.

Oceania at the Antipodes

This year’s Oceania exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts has so far made quite an impression. Here’s The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones: “From a two-headed Tahitian god to a mourner’s costume made of pearl shells, this dazzling exhibition is like having the ocean roll under your canoe.” Five stars, he says.

But Oceania visiting the antipodes is not exactly new. Since 1945 there have been, as far as I can tell, at least ten major exhibitions of Oceanic and Pacific art in Europe and America. This time, the curation seems far more sensitive and detailed; perhaps the interest is greater, too (certainly the marketing budget is). Yet we shouldn’t forget the history of similar exhibitions to be staged—and by comparing them we might be able to glean the extent of changing attitudes, and scholarly progress, towards the art of Oceania.

Here’s a list of Oceanic/Pacific exhibitions overseas that I’m aware of, with catalogue links (when available) and descriptions from the host museums. Please get in touch if you’re aware of other exhibitions I could include in this list.

— — — —

1. 1945, City Art Museum of St. Louis: Oceanic Culture. (The entire exhibition grew out of the American experience in the Pacific during WWII, which is fascinating in itself. The catalogue is painful to read, though not unsurprising, for its stereotypes and views of cultural development).

“In the recent conflict in the Pacific, no area was of more vital importance to the ultimate victory of the Allies than Oceania, a vast region where the proportion of sea to that of land is awe-inspiringly large. Yet the myriad Pacific islands, many of them almost infinitesimal in size, were all-important to the execution of the brilliant strategy whereby with dramatic suddenness our enemy was overcome… It is important that we know more about the kind of people who gave us generous aid and among whom many of our own men found themselves living for months at a time under conditions of great hardship.”

2. 1946, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York: Arts of the South Seas. Catalogue here.

Arts of the South Seas was a singularly comprehensive exhibition of artwork from Oceanic cultures. Part of a series of non-Western, non-modern art exhibitions, it featured more than 400 works of art from Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, and Australia. In the accompanying catalogue, René d’Harnoncourt, the director of the Museum’s Department of Manual Industry, explained the impetus for the exhibition: although Oceanic art was relatively unknown in the West, there was great “kinship between arts of the South Seas and recent movements in modern art such as Expressionism and Surrealism.”

3. 1979, National Gallery of Art (NGA), Washington, D.C.: Art of the Pacific Islands. Catalogue here. (This is the only other Oceanic art exhibition that I could see referenced anywhere in the RA’s Oceania catalogue).

“In spite of the wealth it has to offer, the art of the Pacific Islands remains perhaps the least known of the world’s art to the modern audience. Throughout this mass of islands there existed hundreds of cultures, many of them sustained by only a few hundred people. The cultures developed into richly disparate modes with elaborate social systems and highly refined systems of intellectual and religious life. Most striking of all, however, is that these cultures created an extraordinary range of art styles to express and serve their beliefs. The aim of the exhibition this catalog accompanied was to highlight objects that were made before or collected at the earliest contact by Westerners, and which therefore reflect the most pristine state of the cultures.”

4. 1984, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York: “Primitivism” in Twentieth Century Art: Affinities of the Tribal and the Modern. (This well-discussed and controversial exhibition was not solely devoted to Pacific art, but included a large section of it. Interestingly neither a description or the English catalogue are available on MoMA’s website.)

5. 1984, Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met), New York: Te Maori. (Perhaps the most important exhibition for New Zealand to be staged overseas. The Met doesn’t include any information on the exhibition on its website, nor a digital version of the catalogue. The New Yorker’s article from the time gives a sense of the exhibition’s US reception; Hirini Moko Mead’s Art New Zealand article tells of the Maori response).

6. 2006, The British Museum, London: Power and Taboo: Sacred objects from the eastern Pacific.

“The exhibition will feature several famous examples of Polynesian material including the enigmatic A’a figure from the Austral Islands, the striking feather god head from Hawaii and an intricate nephrite tiki pendant from New Zealand. These objects have had a significant impact on the development of modernist art as they were studied and admired by artists such as Henry Moore and Pablo Picasso (who had a replica of the A’a sculpture in his studio). They also continue to inspire Polynesian artists, many of whom have produced work based upon this collection.”

7. 2006, Museum of Art and Archaeology, Cambridge: Pasifika Styles. 

“Pasifika Styles was an exhibition and festival celebrating contemporary art work inspired by Maori and Pacific Island culture and historic collections. Showcasing selected works from New Zealand’s top contemporary and emerging artists, the exhibition was presented in the Museum’s galleries alongside an unparalleled collection of historic Oceanic art.”

8. 2006, University of East Anglia: Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860. (I’m lacking online information about this exhibition, but this review deals with these last 3 exhibitions).

9. 2013, Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne: Made in Oceania: Tapa – Art and Daily Life. (Article here).

““Tapa” is the Polynesian word for fabrics made from a special type of tree bark which can be painted and used for variety of purposes. Oceania, in particular, has a rich, multifaceted tapa culture, which the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum presented for the first time in Germany in a special, large-scale exhibition. The exhibition featuring international loans (e.g. from New Zealand and Australia) and pieces from its own collection compared and contrasted contemporary works of tapa. The presentation focused on various aspects, such as gender, religion, identity, migration and diaspora, and examined these further in discussions with artists and in workshops.”

10. 2018, Royal Academy of Arts (RA), London: Oceania.

— — — —

If nothing else, the list dampens somewhat the RA’s marketing claims of the exhibition’s uniqueness. But some further questions, out of this brief survey: Did it take the American war experience in the Pacific to first spark any interest, however patronising, in Pacific art? What accounts for the subsequent intermittent interest—could these exhibitions be linked somehow to global events that put Oceania/the Pacific on Europe’s metaphorical map? And why did it take so much longer for any European exhibitions of Pacific art to be staged than in America; is this representative of the provincialism of European attitudes to art from anywhere else?

In light of that latter question, the Royal Academy’s Oceania seems not so much a marking of 250 years since Cook “discovered” the Pacific, but of perhaps a decade since Britain and Europe opened their artistic sights on the rest of the world. Oceania is a fitting beginning.

Crabbed Age and Youth Cannot Live Together: On Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations

     Aria.

“It is held to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.” It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall most probably think when I am yours.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

     1. 

I daresay that if, as he sat in his studio in 1955 and prepared to record his first version of the Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould had somehow been able to listen to his own recording of Bach’s same composition twenty-six years later, he might not have been able to begin at all. His 1981 recording, completed just a year before his untimely death at 50, is everything that his youthful 23-year-old version of 1955 is not: sombre and calm to the earlier version’s unfolding energy; elongated and unhurried, shorn of the precocious rapid-fire momentum of youth; effortlessly philosophical and reflective, a grandfatherly stroll rather than the young man’s competitive sprint. To listen to Bach’s aria in the 49-year-old Gould’s recording is to glimpse, for a few minutes, the illusions of youth, to see how, as Fitzgerald put it in The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, “It is youth’s felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream.” 

But could a 23-year-old, in his prime and about to be propelled towards all that Fitzgerald’s flowers and gold represent, have been able to continue in his youthful recording had he a premonition of the wisdom of old age—a premonition, that is, of his own present illusions? Can youth maintain its confidence when it sees its own eventual, inevitable demise?

Gould himself, of course, recorded his variations on the Variations not in advance of his own life, but at the speed at which he was living. His recording at age 23 was the self-fulfilling prophecy he needed it to be, leading him to widespread recognition, its barely contained energy pushing him towards the fame he was later to have a conflicted relationship with. The aria is here reflective, as Bach’s melody demands, but Gould’s haste and precocity give it the sense of a young man’s reflectiveness. On the other hand, those of us standing at the same point that Gould stood, age 23, perhaps hear too much. I hear in Gould’s 1955 Variations all the pent up hopes that are my own, and then hear, soon after, their conclusion in the 1981 recording. From one starting point, the Variations (both Bach’s and Gould’s) are the multiform directions that life could take, each variation subtly informing path dependencies of the next, but always back, in the end, to a kind of primordial beginning. To see the inevitable reflectiveness of almost three decades’ time before I’ve even begun, and to see how all life’s variations play out ultimately to lead me to where I am now: this is my personal conclusion from perhaps too many listenings.

     2. 

The difference is thirteen minutes. 38 minutes in 1955; 51 minutes in 1981. Thirteen minutes: how much longer it took Gould to play the Variations in his old age compared to his youth. There are the same number of keystrokes in each recording, only the space between each stroke—the nothingness, the lack of sound—is extended, elongated. 

This fascinates me. It is a paradox: the young man, who has so much time, feels the need to rush, while the old man, with less than a year to live, plays as if he has all the time in the world. I wonder if the paradox can be explained by a respect for nothingness. For the 23-year-old, the time between keystrokes on the piano sounds like time wasted, time never to be recovered or regained, and therefore time best minimised or avoided. But for the 49-year-old inactivity, or the time between actions, can be the most fruitful—it is precisely the aching nothingness of the time between each keystroke in Gould’s 1981 recording that gives the aria and particularly the aria da capo, in which the notes are strung out imperceptibly but so fruitfully, their power and poignancy. 

     3. 

Finished less than a year before his death in 1982, it is unsurprising that Gould’s final recording of the Goldberg Variations has been thought of as premonitory. The reaching pauses in the aria da capo between each perfectly formed, independent keystrokes are pregnant with all the variations of a life that remained unfulfilled: the countries not visited; the mornings wasted in busyness; the youthful dreams long forgotten; the loves not consummated. We are here back at the beginning, this time with no more variations or possibilities to be explored. The pauses ache. The sound of nothingness hurts, because we want existence to continue.

“The implication of the negative in our lives reduces by comparison every other concept that man has toyed with in the history of thought,” Gould explained to a crowd of 23 year olds in a graduation address in the ‘60s, mid-way between his two Goldberg recordings, half-way through his life. “It [nothingness] is the concept which seeks to make us better—to provide us with structures within which our thought can function—while at the same time it concedes our frailty, the need that we have for this barricade behind which the uncertainty, the fragility, the tentativeness of our systems can look for logic.”

Whether Gould’s value-free advice helped any of those 23-year-olds in his audience, I’m not so sure. I can understand his point about nothingness—most of all when I listen to his 1981 Variations—but, still standing in youth, it is intangible philosophy. Knowing what I will likely think and feel in my forties does little to change how I can live my life in the present.

     4. 

Three variations on nothingness:

Ecclesiastes 1: “Is there anything of which one can say, Look, this is New? No, it has already existed, long ago, before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”

Omar Khayyám, The Rubaiyat: “The worldly hope men set their hearts upon turns to ashes – or it prospers; and anon, like snow upon the desert’s dusty face lighting a little hour or two – is gone.”

Alan Watts, The State of Nothingness: “If you are aware of a state which you call is – or reality, or life – this implies another state called isn’t – or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness, or death. There it is. You can’t know one without the other.”

     5.

My introduction to the variation form in music came, in fact, not through music at all. Throughout my whole life, until very recently, there hung in my family home a painting by the artist Colin McCahon. It is a vertical panel almost two metres high and one metre wide, painted in raw, earthy yellow, brown and blue tones—it depicts, as a whole, an abstracted landscape, with curvaceous forms reminiscent of both the human body and geomorphic landscapes. The lines of the forms, however, could very well be read in musical terms, as if a bass line is rising and falling across a musical score, as is the case with the Goldberg Variations. And indeed McCahon encouraged this reading through his title: ours was panel I from the third series of the Landscape Theme and Variations. 

Each of the three series has eight panels. One series was split up, and it was from this series that my grandparents obtained our panel. The other two series remain together in national public collections, and seeing them still complete, the variation form was brought home to me long before I ever heard Bach’s Variations.  

 

Glenn Gould Bach Goldberg Variations McCahon Landscape Theme and Variations

Colin McCahon, Landscape Theme and Variations (Series A), 1963. Copyright McCahon Estate.

There are variations on variations on variations. Each panel contains its own variations on the theme that is ever-present, set in McCahon’s case through any panel you look at, as in Bach’s through the aria (this is the difference between the variation form in painting and music: in the former you can begin anywhere, in the latter you must start at the beginning). Each panel contains its own variations, its own forms that are reconfigurations of the common forms that are present throughout every panel in every series. Then each series has subtle variations: subtly different hues indicating a different mood or time of day, smaller or larger landscape forms suggesting different location. And then there is the possibility of a curator hanging the panels in a different order, introducing another element of variation: the visual artistic equivalent of the creative freedom Gould has in playing the Goldberg Variations.

But, prepared for Bach’s Variations by McCahon’s paintings, I was unprepared for the effects of Gould’s two variations on the Variations. It was through the difference between Gould’s two recordings—the difference between the young man and the middle-aged—that I became obsessed.

     6. 

No matter which recording of the Goldberg Variations I listen to, I always get a fright at the start of the first variation. I now know to expect it: I tense up in the final few notes of the aria in anticipation. The brooding melancholy of the aria then gives way in an instant to a flash of energy. There is suddenly excitement and a freewheeling spirt. I see dresses twirling and shoes quick-stepping. People dancing. Students smiling.

This is Bach, and the first variation is indeed thought to be a take on the Polonaise, a kind of Polish dance performed, often, at graduation parties. There is a carnival-like mood, the carefree weeks or months before graduation and responsibilities. 

Of all Gould’s variations on the Variations, it is perhaps here that I see the greatest difference. In the 1955 recording the energy is unrestrained, our ears barely able to keep up with Gould’s fingers. The carefree nature of the variation is unfettered. But in 1981, the tempo has slowed. Now, it is as if the Polonaise is being recollected through the memory fog of many years—the memory is still there, but tinged with regret for those days having passed. Or, perhaps, it is the Polonaise now transmuted to the music of a regal procession rather than a student prom.

     7.

Cicero’s earliest surviving work is thought to be his youthful De Inventione, written when he was just twenty-one or twenty-two. It is a work of oratorical lessons, the kind of book Cicero might have produced to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject before having to put it into practise. He looks back across time, writing a kind of history of oratory to be used in the present. 

Inventione is rediscovery. Rather than our modern notion of invention as creation, inventione for Cicero was the sense of discovering arguments from the past that might be used in his oratory in the present. He combined the best of what he thought had been argued in the past to write a manual for his future oratory. Only, he soon came to regret the work. Cicero’s later De Oratore was the book he wrote to supersede his youthful treatise. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, as the more we learn, surely, the more we come to repent for our prior views. 

Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a work of inventione. From the Polonaise of the first variation to the quodlibet of the last, Bach’s work is a plundering from places and genres and time periods. It is as if through this kind of inventione he can show us the full variety of variations that are possible, and all the ones that have been possible. 

Edward Said’s point in his essay Glenn Gould, The Virtuoso as Intellectual, is to think about the combination of both Bach’s and Gould’s inventione. Gould, he argues, is not just playing Bach’s Variations, but is “inventing” them himself, in that classical meaning of “invention”: “So what Gould seems to be attempting at such moments is a full realization of a protracted and sustained contrapuntal invention, disclosed, argued, and elaborated, rather than simply presented, through performance.” And, moreover, it is Gould’s unique choice to focus on the recording studio rather than the concert hall that allowed the full extent of this inventione: “Hence his insistence throughout his career that the very act of performance itself had to be taken out of the concert hall, where it was limited to the implacable chronological sequence and set program of the recital order, and planted in the studio where the essential “take-twoness” of recording technique—one of Gould’s favorite terms—could be submitted to the art of invention—repeated invention, repeated takes—in the fullest rhetorical sense of “invention.”

I wonder, in light of this, what Gould’s own relationship to his two Goldberg Variation recordings was. To even consider doing another recording was he, like Cicero, coming to repent for the inventione of his youth? Was the 1981 recording a final statement, the work he hoped people would henceforth listen to? Or was his relationship to them more complex—was he aware of the multifaceted natures of human beings across time, and see that it was the combination of both recordings that would lead to all manner of discoveries in a twenty-three year old three decades henceforth?

Rhetorical questions, of course. But here’s the issue. Hearing simultaneously both of Gould’s recordings, I am shown the inevitability of youthful views being superseded. And that’s why I asked, to begin, whether Gould could have gone on with his recording at age 23 had he been able to hear the recording of almost three decades later. Why, too, should I trust my present listening of the Goldberg Variations when, through Gould, I can anticipate a different interpretation in mid-life?

     8. 

At the very beginning of a musical education, I’m left wondering why it is that Bach and his Goldberg Variations seem uniquely capable of leading the mind to these broadest questions of life, ageing, and death—the very fundamentals of our lives, in other words. For hearing a live performance of Shostakovich, or Brahms, or Mahler, or Tchaikovsky, as I’ve done in recent weeks, did not lead to the same point. There were visions of human grandeur in these composers—Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, for instance—but not the meditative reflectiveness of Bach’s Variations. In the symphonies I heard Picassoesque visions of humanity, as perhaps in his Guernica—triumph and suffering; in Bach, I hear the sounds of Giacometti’s Walking Man—the solitary awareness of mortality, or nothingness, and all that we have before it, which is life.

I have two variations of an answer, from Edward Said. The first is to do with the nature of counterpoint, exemplified in the Goldberg Variations with the common baseline and varying melody. Said writes: “The contrapuntal mode in music is, it seems, connected to eschatology, not only because Bach’s music is essentially religious or because Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is highly fugal. For the rules of counterpoint are so demanding, so exact in their detail as to seem divinely ordained.” The answer here might be that my lack of understanding of Bach’s counterpoint makes the Variations a mystery to do with life itself. The Variations inject some mystery into the over-explained, technologised world I’ve grown up in. This is not to say that I yet understand Mahler’s symphony either—but the unassuming simplicity of the Goldberg Variations, with Gould sitting alone, hunched over his piano, makes the mystery all the greater. With so many instruments in an orchestra, the mystery appears overtly as mystery.

The second variation of this answer is to do with Gould himself. It is only half an answer, for other, non-Gould recordings of the Variations still lead to, in large part, the same reflectiveness that Gould’s do. But here is Said: “This process of proceeding brilliantly from microcosm to macrocosm and then back again is Gould’s special accomplishment in his first Goldberg: by doing it pianistically he also lets you experience the sort of understanding normally the result of reading and thinking, not simply of playing a musical instrument.” I see no reason why this is not true, perhaps to an even greater extent, in Gould’s later 1981 recording. The microcosm of the theme, the aria, is made multiform in the same way that a human life is: from one starting point, so many possibilities, so many variations, and back, ultimately, to a point somewhat near where one started. The Variations reflect the nature of a human life, and Gould’s gift was to understand them in this way, leading us along as if we were reading a novel, or philosophy. 

Whether or not the apocryphal origin story of the Goldberg Variations is true—Count Kaiserling stopping in Germany and requesting a composition from Bach, to be played by Goldberg at night to alleviate his insomnia—I can’t help but feel the Variations are early-morning music or late-night music. The unassuming quality of their reflectiveness makes them suited, in my view, to these times of day alone. Leave the symphonies to early evening; Bach alone, for me, at the very beginning and the very end of the day.

     Aria da capo.

“Because I have reached Paris, I am not ashamed of having passed through Newhaven and Dieppe. They were very good places to pass through, and I am none the less at my destination. All my old opinions were only stages on the way to the one I now hold, as itself is only a stage on the way to something else… Here have I fairly talked myself into thinking that we have the whole thing before us at last; that there is no answer to the mystery, except that there are as many as you please; that there is no centre to the maze because, like the famous sphere, its centre is everywhere; and that agreeing to differ with every ceremony of politeness, is the only “one undisturbed song of pure consent” to which we are ever likely to lend our musical voices.”

— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth

 


 

Thanks to Professor Andrew Hui at Yale-NUS College for giving me the space and time to write this essay, and for all his reading suggestions. 

Julianne Thomson’s Spin Exhibition at Yale-NUS College

Julianne Thomson artist Yale-NUS College Singapore
Julianne Thomson’s The Leanover

As an art student, how do you navigate the perennial tension between the ‘rules’ you are taught and the thing that drew you to art in the first place—the ability to express yourself creatively? For that matter, how does any student navigate the tension, learning from the past without mindlessly and slavishly copying?

Julianne Thomson is a final-year art student at Yale-NUS College, and Spin is a body of work she produced for her ‘capstone’ project, the last work all seniors complete before graduating. If there is ever a time when those tensions between individual creative freedom and the strictures of an educational environment come to the fore, this is it. Yet what makes Julianne’s work fascinating is the self-consciousness with which she broke the artistic ‘rules’ she was taught—she subtly pushes the rules and eventually breaks them, but all the while does so knowingly and overtly. This is much more nuanced than youthfully railing against your professors’ strictures. It is at once a nod to the professors and a nod to the students, a foot in both camps. 

Spin was conceived from the depths of autobiography—a tragedy at a beach in Indonesia involving a close friend—but no autobiography is needed to approach these works. The Leanover (2017-18) is the star of the show. Moving fluidly between abstraction and representation—you see a face one minute, nothing but swirls of colour the next, and a body a minute later—this work is a statement of colour and texture. A background pushes forward against the flowing, emerald-like lines of blue, but then seems to draw back again. Yellow, red and blue dominate the canvas but are applied in such a way that they still appear wet and liquidy, drips flowing from top to bottom, and ‘waves’ moving laterally. Part of this is to do with the ‘rules’ Julianne is breaking by applying acrylic (‘lean’) over oil, which helps her gain such a marbling effect: technically, art students are taught the ‘fat-over-lean’ rule where acrylic should always be applied under oil for the sake of the longevity of the work. Breaking the rules were necessary for the watery effect Julianne needed: the art student moves from student to artist. 

Blue Spin is a more gestural and emotional work than The Leanover, colours less gentle and brushstrokes stronger. Again a sense of liquid is overwhelming, the swirls, shapes and textures emphasising the fluidity of the paint. But then you see it: bottom-right, a vertical slice through the canvas. This is no Lucio Fontana-like meditation on the nature of space and the canvas, however: this is a mark of aggression and pain, not the studio-conceived minimalism of Fontana’s works. Near the puncture in the canvas one can still make out the marks of Julianne’s feet which stood on this canvas, stomped on it, in frustration. This painting bears some of the pain from which it was conceived, for those who look carefully.

A year is not all that long with which to produce your first complete body of work—the first time, too, that you have to hang your own gallery space, with all the decisions and logistics that involves—and there is an expected unevenness to the exhibition. Some works, like The Thick, the largest canvas in the exhibiton—a low-hung, horizontal banner—are as individual works still needing resolution. We can still see the process and the struggle taking place before time ran out and the works needed to be hung. But to find anything else would have been disappointing: this is the very beginning of an artistic journey, the somewhere-between-primordial-and-emerging marks of the early stages of an artistic career. In this context, the visible search for resolution in some works is a reminder of how much more there is to come, ultimately with the more general resolution, polish and power of The Leanover.

Walking around Spin I had the overwhelming impression of liquid and water both as subject and form—liquid as in a sense what these works are about, but also liquid as what enabled these works. From the emerald-blue marbling in The Leanover, to the repetitions of wave-like forms horizontally in The Thick, to the sense of looking through a layer of liquid in Over The Archipelago, it is fluid and water that seems to wash over the room. Fluid kills, and it gives life: remember the pain in Blue Spin, but the sense of joy some of these paintings give. So as you then walk out of the exhibition and see the pond at the heart of Yale-NUS College’s campus, and as you join the stream of people flowing around, this meditation on liquids and surfaces seems all the more pertinent.

Spin is the exhibition one hopes for from an art student about to become simply artist. Its reflections and its lessons on learning as a student and knowing when to move beyond your lessons are ones relevant to all of us in such a context—and they are, when looking around the exhibition one last time and glimpsing The Leanover, inspiring.

Julianne Thomson Spin Yale-NUS College The Leanover

Julianne Thomson’s Blue Spin, left foreground.

The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Ubiquity

If what was lost from a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction was its ‘aura’, then what is lost today in the age of digital ubiquity? Few works of art are reproduced at all, but most are made digitally permanent and multiform—created not with paints and canvas or woodcut or lithography, but often with strokes of the finger upon a screen. In those cases where oil paint is still revered, the artwork is photographed once and then seems to exist not in space but within a billion screens. 

‘Aura’, the attachment of an art object to its tradition, is certainly lost, but what more? What is lost when works of art are primarily viewed not as material objects—whether reproduced as a print or as a painted ‘original’—but through a 4-inch screen? What is lost when the principal means of viewing art is through Instagram posts? (I was planning to fly to Art Basel, the centre of contemporary art, but decided not to since the galleries displaying there had posted photos of their booths online).

I’m asking about the gulf between an artist’s print like a photograph or a lithograph and that same lithograph viewed through an Instagram post. Even a film has lost its material existence on a tape or a slide. Benjamin could write those fifty years ago that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” But now in the age of digital ubiquity this fragment seems to hold true to our own day and not Benjamin’s: the digitally reproduced artwork is severed from time and space in a way that a perfectly reproduced lithograph is not. The roll of tape that holds a Dziga Vertov film still has its unique existence at the place where it happens to be, as does any number of reproductions of, say, Goya’s Caprichos. But a photograph of that same Capricho? Just where, exactly, does it happen to be?

Maybe it’s something like spirit—aura, but with feeling and heart. A mechanically reproduced artwork seems to me still to have something like spirit, even if it has less aura than the ‘authentic’ painting it is based on: you can pick it up, you can move it, you can hang it, you can damage it, you can gift it. Even a printed photograph carries with it the material traces of its existence, though it may not have the authenticity or the aura of seeing Guernica, say, in the flesh (the room at the Reina Sofia in Madrid even seems to smell of the paint). But an artwork discovered through a screen has lost more than ‘aura’, more than the connection to its tradition, as Benjamin describes it—in losing its materiality, even the materiality of a print or a copy, a work of art in the age of digital ubiquity has lost all relationship to the artwork’s past or its future. It’s as though it has been severed from time itself, bound to exist forever and everywhere, but refusing to carry with it the history of its creation or its existence. 

National Gallery, a Film by Frederick Wiseman: A Brief Review

I happened to read a review in The Guardian of Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 movie National Gallery before I saw the film. That review’s title is devastatingly brutal: “A crushingly dull documentary that lacks an eye for art.” It is such a harsh  headline that I almost decided not to spend the three hours watching—but I’m grateful I ignored it, because Wiseman’s National Gallery is a masterfully subtle meditation on the role of the world’s great galleries. The film can even be called art itself.

Wiseman’s genius with National Gallery is to document the institution, on the one hand, but on the other to demonstrate the experience of being at such a gallery. The scenes change quickly, and we never really quite get shown a painting for long enough to take it in. The camera angles are at times awkward, or someone happens to wander in front of a painting at the wrong time. There is a lot of talking. There is no music. There is bickering among gallery administrators, and some of these scenes run on for absurdly long lengths of time. But far from being boring, Wiseman gets in subtle humour, letting glimpses of paintings speak for him. A rapid montage of a range of facial expressions in paintings had me laughing out loud, so perfectly were the expressions timed to correspond to the at-times absurdity of such an institution—or simply the beauty of the constant looking-at and being-looked-at. All of this, down to the person wandering in front of a painting at just the wrong time, is exactly the universal and unalterable experience of being in a museum like the National Gallery.

Wiseman’s is a respectful but honest documentary of the National Gallery, and it is artful in how it gets across the essence of the experience of the world’s great museums. Ignore that review in The Guardian—if anything, the reviewer lacked an eye for the subtle art of this film. Far better is the review in The New Yorker; and better yet, just go watch the film.

On Te Papa’s Toi Art / New Zealand’s Need for a National Art Gallery

New Zealand National Art Gallery - Te Papa Toi Art - Parekowhai Detour
Michael Parekowhai’s Detour and Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels installed in the foyer to Te Papa’s new Toi Art on the day of its opening in March 2018.

To be clear, Te Papa’s recent expansion of its dedicated art space for displaying the national art collection is an improvement on the old space. The 35% expansion was needed and is to be celebrated, as are the thoughtful spaces and details designed by Warren and Mahoney Architects. But the improvements are, in the end, a bit like expanding and redecorating a leaky home—it does not matter what you do on the inside when the institution and structure itself aren’t serving their purpose. So Toi Art, as Te Papa has termed the redesigned art gallery, does absolutely nothing to negate the need for a stand-alone national art gallery; and in fact, after seeing the institution’s choices of what art to display there, it becomes a glaring symbol of why we need one.

A National Art Gallery must serve a specific function, and it is a function very different to the role that both private museums and smaller galleries play (to say nothing of dealer galleries). A local gallery, whether it be the Suter in Nelson or the City Gallery in Wellington, must provide for the dual need of displaying the visual tradition of its place as well as reflecting the times that its visitors now live in. Most of the time, especially in rural communities, the institution may well be the only dedicated art space in the town or city, and so must provide multiple functions. The Auckland Art Gallery is an exemplar of a local gallery, with a permanent international collection and exhibitions, rotating exhibitions of New Zealand art, and the constant addition of contemporary exhibitions from New Zealand and abroad.

A National Gallery meets a different need, and its functions must therefore be very different. Its role is to reflect the tradition of the nation (showing, too, how that tradition is derived from elsewhere in a long history) and to make this visual tradition accessible to both citizens and foreign visitors. It is necessarily located in a specific place, and that this place is the capital city is taken for granted. But its function is practically irrespective of both its time and its place since it reflects the needs of the nation as a whole. The National Art Gallery of New Zealand should, at heart, be concerned with making our visual culture plain. It is necessarily an historical institution, because it is only with the passage of time that the cultural tradition can be understood and assessed—it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we can determine what has made us who we as a people now are.

Toi Art, out of some perverse need to be seen as “relevant” and “contemporary” (never mind that those are goals antithetical to organising and making accessible our national cultural tradition) has viewed as its competition the Auckland Art Gallery, forgetting entirely that it exists in a category with no competition. There is, after all, just one National Art Gallery. And so, to open the new exhibition spaces, Te Papa commissioned Michael Parekowhai to create a contemporary conceptual piece that would comment on museums and their role, as if it were a local gallery needing to fulfil many different functions at once. Parekowhai’s Détour dominates the single entryway to Toi Art: a visitor will see an array of metal tubing, like construction scaffolding, attached to which (hanging down, or being thrust forward) are paintings and artworks from the National Gallery vaults. Between the artworks are giant plastic creatures—an elephant, for one, and what seems to be a monkey-cum-Tiki.

No less an artwork than Colin McCahon’s Northland Panels are attached to Parekowhai’s Duchamp-inspired contraption, amidst Frances Hodgkinses and Theo Schoon photographs, to name just a couple. This happened to be my first time seeing the Northland Panels in its material form, after having grown up seeing reproductions—an exciting moment for an art historically interested New Zealander. Far from making McCahon’s inspiring and emblematic canvases accessible to New Zealanders and to visitors, Toi Art’s choice of display both interfered with any clear view, and risked the material future of McCahon’s canvases for generations after mine. The way the scaffolding structure was placed meant that visitors to Toi Art are ducking under and between different metal poles to see different artworks, and one of these poles was placed directly in front of McCahon’s canvases. The panels are “paintings to walk past”, as McCahon described them, but Parekowhai’s artwork seems determined to make this impossible. Even worse, in the time I was there I witnessed a shoulder brushing the fourth canvas (they are displayed completely unprotected), while the only docent nearby was busy telling frustrated visitors that they could not duck under a nearby pole lest they damage the Hodgkins hanging from it.

My criticism, to be very clear, isn’t about Parekowhai’s artwork, which, in a different context and with different artworks attached to the contraption, I might thoroughly enjoy. My criticism is that Te Papa’s confusion of its role not only hinders New Zealanders from being able to clearly and directly access and understand the kind of visual culture that artworks like McCahon’s Northland Panels represent (and I certainly could not enjoy or understand the panels as they deserved to be), but the institution’s choices even risk those artworks’ existence for future generations. Détour is, quite simply, an enormous and glaring symbol of the problem with the National Art Gallery’s inclusion within Te Papa. Parekowhai’s giant plastic elephant (appropriately titled Standing on Memory), which rears itself up on top of the contraption, seemed to me in the end to represent the weight of the institution risking crushing all the art beneath it—and, if not crushing it, then being simply so distracting as to render all other traces of our visual culture irrelevant. (I wonder, even, if Parekowhai has used his commission to subvert Te Papa with this kind of message; but if so, that idea seems to have been largely lost).

And there we see that the problem with the National Gallery’s inclusion in Te Papa isn’t about space or budget at all. It is instead that the very role of a National Gallery has been forgotten and confused within a larger institution, and that the context of viewing our visual culture within a larger museum—after you visit the Earthquake House, before you go see the Giant Squid—undermines the very goals of promoting and making accessible that culture. There is a legitimate criticism of the common ‘sealing off’ of ‘high’ art from the rest of culture, but if there is one place where this sealing off might be defended it is at the National Gallery. It is necessary there because the National Gallery is the preserver of visual culture of last resort—there is nowhere else to finally understand what it means to be a New Zealander through our art, or to study and research a collection as large, broad and significant as the National Gallery’s. Most of us will see the Northland Panels and other masterworks of our culture just a few times in our lives, and having McCahon’s work levelled to the same status as the giant squid does no viewer any favours, nor does it do New Zealand any favours in the eyes of the many foreign visitors who come through Te Papa’s doors.

Toi Art does nothing to reduce the need for a stand-alone national gallery. It simply brings into relief the absolute necessity of one.