What if cultures were not as hermetic as we sometimes imagine them to be? What if the modern foundations of “Western culture” were based, in fact, on influences from the “East”—and vice versa? What if, let us imagine, someone as renowned as Michelangelo had travelled to somewhere like Constantinople—had built there a bridge, both literal and metaphorical, had seen the Hagia Sophia, had read at Ottoman Sultan Bayezid’s library—and had come back to Rome filled with the grandeur of all he had seen? That is precisely Mathias Enard’s premise with this novella, first published in French in 2010 by Actes Sud and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
The young Michelangelo in 1506 is invited by the Sultan to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. This there is historical evidence for. Giorgio Vasari mentions it, Michelangelo’s friend Ascanio Condivi recounts it, and, even more compellingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for exactly such a bridge (never built) still survive at the Museum of Science in Milan. A sketch for a bridge in the Ottoman archives was recently attributed to Michelangelo, but is not definite. The facts Enard truly has, and which he seems to structure the story around, are letters from Michelangelo to his brother Buonarroto, as well as sketches and plans of the Hagia Sophia sent to Rome. These are quoted intermittently in the story, but seem to be where Enard’s imagination leaped off from.
I first heard of Mathias Enard with his novel Zone, famously written in a single sentence. I haven’t read it, and perhaps Tell Them of Battles was meant for me, an easier read as a way in to Enard’s imagination and his reverse-Orientalism. The novella is easy to read, enticing, and I spent perhaps as much time researching Michelangelo and Constantinople after finishing the book as I did reading it (not copious amounts of time, as I read the book in two sittings).
Fitzcarraldo Editions is publishing what I believe is some of the best contemporary fiction and non-fiction, but something I’ve noticed is at times a strange ordering to the texts—almost over-vigorous editing. Here, Tell Them of Battles begins with a sub-plot, a non-consummated affair Michelangelo has with an androgynous dancer. The text is here the most overtly “literary” in the novel (“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn,” the book begins), but it takes time for this storyline to develop, with it interspersed almost evenly throughout the text. It seemed to me that it had been written in a different order and edited later, feeling by the end slightly stilted. And this is the same feeling I had with the concurrent storylines in Dan Fox’s Limbo and Joshua Cohen’s Attention, both also published by Fitzcarraldo in late 2018. A minor gripe, but the publishing house’s style and its founder Jacques Testard’s preferences seem maybe a little too visible through these different books.
Enard does what fiction does best, imagining alternative histories and lives. That he does so with an implicit project as his aim—a kind of counter-Orientalism—seemed strange to me at first but, having read this book, makes more sense. It is not a totalising vision of world cultures, collapsing one into another in order that we can see a single “world culture”. I think it’s far more subtle than that, showing how individual lives and even individual encounters subtly and softly nudge what cultures are and what they mean. This I find appealing—but it is secondary, because Tell Them of Battles is simply imaginative and enjoyable to read.
There are more pleasant places to spend early January than Berlin, but, finding myself there on a particularly bleak day, the thought of visiting the brutalist church that now houses König Gallery seemed to offer some respite. Perhaps only in Berlin would that be said of brutalism—nevertheless, it was palpable relief I felt to step off the wind-and-sleet blasted boulevard and into the gorgeous gallery spaces. I came for the architecture, but stayed for the art.
What I knew of König Gallery before visiting was this: in 2015 they moved into the old St. Agnes Church after renovating it, and now displayed art in two separate gallery spaces, the former chapel and the nave. I also knew that the owner and founder, Johann König, is legally blind (a childhood accident involving gunpowder). These two curious facts were enough to make me think of visiting the place when I had a free afternoon before flying back to London.
What I knew of Rinus van de Velde before visiting the gallery was, on the other hand, precisely nothing, not even his name. In retrospect, this made my unexpected encounter with his art all the more invigorating—it was the art on its own terms. Normally I would research an artist before visiting a new show, ensuring I knew at least the basics of biography and style, but here I walked into the first room figuring I would read the exhibition pamphlet after looking at the art.
The first “room” of the exhibition was more literal than normal. Van de Velde had constructed a room inside the room that is the former church nave: past the gallery reception, you walk through a threshold and into a smaller room that immediately gives the impression of some kind of gamer’s or coder’s lair. The light is dim, cigarette butts are haphazardly put out in an ashtray, computer screens give off their glare, and other contraptions let you know that the person who inhabits this room knows far more about all this technology than you do. The entire room is constructed by the artist using cardboard, wood and paint. Nothing is “real”, not the computers nor the cigarette butts, but everything is real enough that you feel you’ve entered a different space, a different frame of mind, a different world. You can walk around the room, jostle with other bodies (it’s not a large space), and some people tapped on the computer keyboards to see if anything would happen.
And who does inhabit this room? Looking for clues, I walked out the other door to this room-within-a-room, on the other side from where I entered. The brutalist architecture is back: a poured concrete floor with its stains and cracks intact, and beautiful brick walls. The floor ends a few centimetres away from the wall which gives the impression that the wall is a plane continuing through the floor, and this sense of verticality contrasts wonderfully with the horizontal brickwork. This room is one I could spend a long time in even if it lacked art on the walls—but again, I came for the architecture, and ended up staying for the art.
Three large canvases (the largest is over four metres horizontally) hang in this room, one on each wall. All are black-and-white charcoal drawings. And this is still Van de Velde’s room: because we passed through his constructed room, we enter this further gallery space in exactly the frame of mind that he wanted us to. Ahead of you is the work that gave its name to the exhibition, where we see a crowd of people, some gesticulating and yelling, others looking dejected or resigned. The jackets and name-badges that some of the figures wear give credence to my first thought that this is a scene from perhaps the New York Stock Exchange trading floor. And below the work in a horizontal strip is written, all in capital letters:
I’VE LIVED FOR SO MANY DAYS NOW. THAT’S WHY I AM ABLE TO BATHE IN A CONSTANT PERFECT REGULATED HARMONY. I CAN CALCULATE AND PREDICT WHAT IS ABOUT TO COME AND WILL HAPPEN IN FUTURE DAYS. THIS SETTLES MY THOUGHTS. IN MY BASEMENT I CONTROL THE OUTSIDE WORLD ON MY SELF-MADE COMPUTERS. CAUSING STRESS AND ANXIETY AMONG THE ONES WHO DON’T SEE THE PATTERNS.
Is the inhabitant of the room depicted in the scene? Or is he just the mastermind of it? Maybe he has hacked into the NYSE cameras and is looking on this mass of people from the comfort of his private island somewhere. Maybe he’s like a James Bond villain. Maybe he’s just a millennial geek. Certainly he is philosophical and self-reflective, as the canvas on the left-hand wall shows us: we catch this man in flagrante, a woman on top of him, the contents of his room strewn over the floor. But here the text beneath the image (a constant in all of Van de Velde’s drawings) reads,
ONCE IN A WHILE I RETURN AND FIND MYSELF A THING THAT STRIVES TO PERVERT, CONFUSE AND OVERTHROW EVERYTHING. WHEREFOR ALL THIS NOISE, THE STRAINING AND STORMING, THE ANXIETY AND WANT? WHY SHOULD A TRIFLE PLAY SO IMPORTANT A PART, AND CONSTANTLY INTRODUCE DISTURBANCE AND CONFUSION INTO MY WELL-REGULATED LIFE.
From afar, the artist’s charcoal drawings seem perfectly rendered—almost like a black-and-white photograph on the front of a newspaper. Move closer, and the forms collapse into one another as your eyes focus on details. The canvas is so large that the figures appear life-size, and the way Van de Velde has blurred and blended the lines (he uses his hands and sometimes even his elbows) gives him the ability to hint at gestures and expressions without fully developing them. In this medium just when you think you’ve got a hold of what is depicted, you wonder if that grimace is not actually just someone with their eyes closed. The works gain energy from the ambiguity of the lines—as in the work I just described, where the man’s face looks not at the woman’s breast above him, but to the left, maybe into the distance or perhaps just into his deepest thoughts.
My favourite was the work on the right-hand wall. Ostensibly a seascape, the light shimmers and moves over the surface of the water. Of course, the “light” is made up of those parts of the canvas that the artist has not drawn on. I thought of one of Anselm Kiefer’s small seascapes I recently saw in London, and of another small seascape by Colin McCahon. But this surpassed them both, for its reserve (it is just smudged charcoal lines!), its melancholy effect, its movement as you move closer and then further away. Here, beneath the drawing:
AFTER ALMOST TEN YEARS NOW I REALISED THAT I GAINED SOME HERE AND LOST SOME THERE.
Read this, and suddenly what appeared as a melancholy image (I thought of this Bitcoin bro James Bond geeky villain dangling his legs over the side of a jetty and looking down into this water) comes across as self-reflectively ironic. This coder villain seems to realise the banality of his melancholic statement, even as he says it or thinks it nonetheless. I could almost see him smirking, wryly laughing at himself. This is a step beyond the postmodern irony and cynicism we’ve come to expect. I think it’s testament to how fully Van de Velde constructs these worlds—the coder’s lair, the ambiguous expressions, the literary text beneath the images—that we can be drawn ever more deeply into them.
We are told, in the exhibition pamphlet, that the room Van de Velde has constructed is in fact the set for a film he has been working on for over two years—and that it will screen by the end of 2019. I already look forward to seeing it. But I hope, whatever it contains, that it doesn’t give away too much of the character behind this room and these drawings. Because it is our own relationship to the questions raised by them that give the drawings so much life. That’s why I felt that the weakest part of the exhibition was the fourth drawing, back by the gallery’s reception: a self-portrait of the artist, Jackson Pollock heroic with cigarette in his mouth, with the text beneath musing on a lost love. It almost gave us too much—but only almost, because I still went back to the other room and enjoyed the drawings even more on second, third and fourth viewing.
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.
This year’s Oceaniaexhibition 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.”
“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.”
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).
“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.”
“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).
““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.