Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Making of an Appreciative Eye

Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus has undergone a resurgence of interest; a revival that hasn't been seen since Andy Warhol and Monty Python, except instead of eliciting new artists to imitate, the focus is very much on how to interpret this icon in the modern age.
Are the dated interpretations to be believed? Like Plato's school of thought, or should a new perspective now be given to its symbolism? Do we know much more about the artist and the century in which it was painted?
I only ask these questions; it is not for me to answer. I am no historian of art or student of, despite the intrigue some works stimulate. I see only beauty: the way individual brush-strokes make up the entire image, the way a face or figure has been caught or positioned, the way colour has been used to produce rich, bold hues or pastel shades. Occasionally, this is accompanied by a desire to learn more about a certain piece or about its creator, but usually I'm content to look and less concerned with what it might mean. I do not care to delve deeper if in doing so it could destroy or alter my appreciation.
To study art would certainly deepen my understanding, but it would change the emotional impact. I like to dip in as the mood takes me and not presuppose the objective of the work or the artist, so that when I choose to learn I surface learn: use the resources at my fingertips or glue my pupils to programmes scheduled fortuitously at the same time my interest has been engaged. Lazy learning, but apt for someone who doesn’t wish to critique or become an authority, and who wants to form her own unbiased opinions.
Why do we have to pull art apart? All art, but mostly paintings and literature. That was precisely what put me off doing English Lit. as an A Level or taking it up further on down the line. The idea of reading selected classics, discussing their themes, and analysing passages, as well as the writer's soul, would quite extinguish any enjoyment I might actually get from just reading. And although I've come to appreciate the visual arts rather late, I feel much the same way.
I very seldom want to guess the artist's motives, whatever cubism they are said to belong to: impressionism, surrealism, pop art etc., because I'm of the view there doesn't necessarily have to be any, or at least not one that has to be critically appraised. It could have been the fall of light at a certain time on a certain day or an observation that suddenly took hold; it could have been in the likeness of and staged with models, or commissioned by a patron. And though it's of interest to note the historical or religious references, and compare the results with that of their contemporaries, the overall technique and effect can speak for itself.
Interpretations too will vary depending on the school of thought, as well as individual taste. Art is always evolving so that for example what was once considered blasphemous might be less so today; what was once declared an eyesore might now be seen as beauteous. We are always reclassifying: updating ratings and value, and therefore modernising our own attitudes to the rebirth of trends. Those that mimic do not undermine the worth of the original – the artist or the work – as the versions they produce can, in fact, do the opposite: pin the art and artist firmly on the map and raise its status to icon.
That is what is said, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, of Botticelli's Birth of Venus: it's considered iconic. I don't disagree, but I do with some of the fantastical interpretations which attempt to give it a feminist spin, to empower women to see the beauty in their own bodies, because I wouldn't have said this was a good example. Venus, posed in full-fronted nudity, isn't strictly uncovered, and nor does she, to me, exude the naked confidence we are told is essential. This adult woman emerging from the sea is a modest Venus, not entirely innocent of her nakedness, nor sure that she wants to be so admired.

Picture Credit: The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli

Thursday, 23 June 2016


The mystery of a street, unknown or familiar, is the same as encountering an enigmatic person: incomprehensible not only to themselves but to others. They were made in that mould and just are. That's how they formed and that's how they'll always be like a abstract sculpture, devoid of manipulation, which doesn't mean neither will weather but each will remain just as puzzling as they were at their conception.
The original concept was good, but it was an idea which none of the creators knew how to shape and so the material was allowed to be whatever it wanted. To flow where it wanted like bubbling lava or to come to a halt and accumulate in a towering mass; to meander and set with twists and turns that could infuriate and beguile; and to choose anomalies above a more favoured conventional design of the times they lived in.
Anything developed in that way will not desert its originality: how it came into being and how it's since learned to live. It will age, as anything living does, concrete or transient, yet it will always honour what from the outset it was. Its humble beginnings – the innocence of its truest nature, from whence it sprung.
Art is living and breathing; living and breathing is art.
Any object that first took form as a mantle of art lives and breathes.
Everything screams, just as everything retains memory, and burrows in those remembrances. Nothing is completely without a sensory experience of some kind or another.
Indecipherable streets surround us, and yet comprehend the meaning of things. Silent though they remain, without the features we consider human, as witnesses to the passing of time, until that time wrecks them; takes its revenge at its appointed hour. Drills down into them, tears up paving slabs, and plugs the square chasms with an alien substance. A sticky substance that suffocates rather than breathes. A dark substance that doesn't record but bleeds black clotted blood.
A hard levelled surface with no distinctiveness to speak of. No dust that flies, no chips, no cracks, no wobbles. Nothing to differentiate it if God forbid its even bleakness has formed a new path over historic walkways like an unfurled black carpet for commoners for all occasions. Each path alike in its solid black uniformity and therefore in keeping with the homogenization of the modern world. The placement of ourselves, which proved easier on paved, sometimes cobbled, streets, disorientating, and further hindered by its inexpressiveness.
A flat expanse that knows not how to communicate nor recognise the language of feet, nor when it's in shade or sun. Unresponsive, cheerless tar has no stories to tell. It just is. And is too young to be inquisitive. It's still learning to breathe. And is too firm once set to be influenced by individual pieces that have grown wise through use and age, and yet can still be moved. It's more accepting of what is and does not question. Its existence is dull and unmoved.
Unaffected by happenings on its drab streets, by the ordinary, the melancholy, the wonderful exchanges that take place on and around, by the different feet these exchanges are propagated by, and by the softened sound of several footsteps, rushed or unhurried, light or ponderous, which transverse its surface with no intervals.
Old, old, old streets, paved or otherwise, could tell much about such occurrences as could the people who walked them and the people who walk them still, where they are still part of the scenery. Still very much a part of local life. As old as the Bard, of Shakespeare himself, had he been living.
Depersonalised, streets are like people persuaded to homogenise their behaviour: they have no aura of mystery.

Picture Credit: Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, 1914, Giorgio de Chirico

Thursday, 16 June 2016


My spacious cell is open-plan, on one level with two huge triple-glazed windows that daylight streams through from which I can watch the sun rise and set and the skies change. I stand before these panes without bars wrapped in a blanket or duvet with only my pink striped pyjama legs showing, gazing out on the abandoned pub garden and car park below.
At certain times all is quiet. There's no hum of engines, no shrieking car alarms, and no raised chortles and droning voices. You can actually hear the feeble chirp of town-dwelling birds and the swoosh of aeroplanes as they disappear to sunnier or wintry climes. In the distance, the eye can see one or two of these descending, preparing to land at Heathrow; I imagine the passengers buckling up and the crew doing last-minute checks, whilst the pilot and co-pilot, in communication with air traffic control, safely guide the plane downwards so that it touches the runway at a decent speed with barely a perceptible jolt. Unless you really look, you forget how far the eye can see, what it's able to discern if you focus fully; stop for a moment and appreciate seeing the world from an above ground level height. A height that birds think nothing of for to them it's low, merely a stage to the dizzying ascents they accomplish with the flapping of wings, and as if to prove this, overhead, visiting seagulls wheel and glide, preferring an expanse of sky where there's less obstacles.
That is my position. There you'll find me if you dare to look up, studying the outside from behind three sheets of glass, oblivious to your regard. If for an instant my gaze drops and by chance you catch my attention, I won't engage or reciprocate. I do not care for obtrusive curiosity nor do I willingly meets its demands: strike a pose or suchlike. My standing here is not for your amusement, to be openly gawked at, though you at some point might be mine, but then I have the advantage. I can conceal my interest and my searching gaze, as I conceal myself from the world at large. We are coequal only in that we are bystanders going about our business. There, the similarity ends as we are divided forever by our differing perspectives: I choose to look out, mostly to the horizon, whilst you prefer to look in at apartment life as if we were doll-like figures in an open-fronted doll's house. Open for all to see. Your attentiveness legitimised, blatant though it might be, and which causes us to pull our curtains across during daylight hours.
Who is the gaoler in this situation? You, on ground level, or me, some fifty feet above?
Do you confine, even define, my movements or do I? And which out of us is the more voyeuristic?
The argument of the seemingly caged is that curiosity in the world around them is natural when their interactions are limited, whereas those enjoying the freedoms outside would declare that self-inflicted imprisonment is most unwise as we're social beings. Essentially, what it boils down to is that people cannot help but stare at other beings much like themselves who are contained in what from the outside looks like a box on its side with a see-through lid. One can never hope to understand the other, particularly if there's no domineering force: no overbearing mother, no autocratic father, no dictatorial husband, no related or unrelated other fulfilling that role. Therefore, the person submitting is both prisoner and keeper. One and the same, and they know it.
We all fabricate our own gaols, some are more creative than others, some don't have visible walls, others need structure, a concreteness to them or at least the appearance of. Those really in confinement, so sentenced due to wrongful conducts, often like the routine because modern living is hard. It makes too many demands which some of us just aren't made to cope with, and so instead of bearing it, soldiering on, we devise an escape route. We dig a tunnel to an inner safe haven where the world can be kept at a more comfortable, more manageable distance and only ventured into when the mood takes.
Self -imprisonment is a holding back but freedoms such as others enjoy brings risks that are greater: they don't instruct, they destroy.

Picture Credit: Winter - Study of Flying Drapery, Edward Burne-Jones

Thursday, 9 June 2016


Nobody of my acquaintance knows me as I was then, in those youthful formative years. A large chunk of time lost, not yet to myself, but there's little point in remembering when there's nobody to reminisce with or correct me. You can regale strangers with stories, but it's not the same as turning to someone and saying “Do you remember when... or that time...”
Of course, each generation has a collective memory - we live through and share the same times: the same trends, the same happenings the same youthful bubble, but still only some of these will echo, strike an everlasting chord after that moment has long passed.
When I speak of 'lost' friends, I don't mean lost as in dead as that might have once meant through illness or wars, but to some extent they might as well be buried. I don't feel their loss or their lack of presence – I never have – but I miss the concreteness they could provide to my remembrances. Did I really exist in that time? Was it all a lie, an elaborate falsehood I created which I made so real that I convinced myself of its truths?
Some would say that's exactly what life is.
In having no familiars from that time to verify I only have myself and, possibly, my distorted memories to rely on. How can I be sure the evidence I give or provide myself with is reliable? Perhaps none of us ever really are. Sure, that is.
It's strange to feel a part of you has been obliterated, and not just in your mind but in others too. Some of the faces you remember may not remember you at all as you made no lasting impression whereas you might have been a keen observer; a archivist of details: names, school plays, sports days, lunch time jaunts, and holidays. Some moments pass us by, some moments we cling onto, or try to, with or without assistance. And then, of course, we all recall things differently, in the same way that we can disagree on the colour of a shirt or dress. Even couples argue over trivial points when they were both somewhere together. The method of recording information seems to vary despite having the same storage device. What we take note of is individual and dependent on our leanings; whether we walk through life blind or with our eyes wide-open.
I can't claim to have walked through life (under half of it if I make eighty) with my eyes unsighted or staring; I've done both as I'm sure we all have, seen when I want and not when I haven't, and not realised exactly what I've recorded until much later. Sometimes years later.
Then again, perhaps there's some truth in the belief that memories of youth grow sharper with maturity.
Whatever the reason, it's led to this poignancy that nobody then knows me now. As I was not as I am. I wonder if anyone from then recalls me now as I do them, and in what way. Their recollections may not be kind, more funny-peculiar, and if that's the case perhaps it's better I don't know them for it would only spoil those time-worn images, or remind me of the person I used to be, before the boisterousness left and the teenager took over, before the stress of GCSEs, before the harsh reality of forging new friendships and college, and long before the complexities of office work. It's impossible to speculate how or where you feature, if at all, in other people's memories. I could just as easily be a faceless and nameless shadow amongst hundreds.
People are not indelible or permanent fixtures, in life or in our recordings of them; those that don't make a mark get forgotten. Replaced when others of more importance come along. It's just a fact, nothing to get upset about. However, there will come a point when you'll want to remember and be remembered, yet find you're the sole bearer of those faces and places which time has for others blotted out.

Picture Credit: Girl by the Window, Edvard Munch

Thursday, 2 June 2016


There was a burst of gunfire. The male presenter looked in the direction of the mountains and the camera followed. “Do not worry, it's the shepherds,” explained the Greek host with a nonchalant expression, “in Crete we like our guns.” And as evening came on more rounds were fired.
That televised scene, that exchange imprinted itself without me realising it. Yes, I'd been a little surprised, not thinking the Greek were so gun-toting or so enamoured of them, but not enough, so I thought, for it to become lodged. My brain obviously thought otherwise, took a greater interest in that fact than I had acknowledged, so that I recalled it months later. Long before my recounting of it here.
What was the reason for this recall, the original recollection?
My brain detonated. As if a bullet had ripped a hole, and I, the waitress couldn't keep the soup in the soup bowl. It liberally and indiscriminately spilled its contents. But you have to understand I hadn't been shot from the outside, by someone waving a revolver; the shot had come from inside and if there had been a demonic figure in there brandishing a gun I'd be the last to know. It does seem unlikely that this could be so, but also that I wouldn't know or that I'd be the last to discover the fact, especially if other people had their suspicions, though the brain (as I admit now) would be the ideal place to hide.
Maybe it wasn't a pistol at all, but a rifle or a crudely made bomb. Again I have no first-hand experience of such weaponry or such items sold for gang warfare of the type you pull out whenever you feel threatened. I'm English; guns make me nervous, even if it's the police carrying them, which means I can only compare with what I've seen and heard through a screen, whose effects might be further neutered or exaggerated by my interpretation of how that might sound or how it might feel to be hit. However, it's sufficient to say that whatever fired the shot or exploded that day I was the prime target. Perhaps on any other day I would have been too, unless there was a trigger: something outside of myself that sabotaged the normal firing of information in my brain and effectively pulled the pin out.
All meticulous and miscellaneous filing suddenly stopped; the system blown to pieces. My eyes momentarily blinded by a bright flash so that I was only aware of my terrified heart, then my ears begun to ring deafening the thudding and my head began its strange hypnotic song; a song that months later is still playing on a constant loop, just fainter and fainter, and yet will not be sent packing. My doctor has diagnosed it as tinnitus but I'm not so sure, it's unlike any tinnitus I've had before; this has a tune like something my grandmother used to sing and soothes and annoys in equal measure, plus it seems to come from inside my head, not my ears, and yet my doctor declares her diagnosis can't be wrong: heads don't whistle.
Why should you be concerned about that, the damage done and the long road to recovery, when it's the moment of detonation that always grabs people's interest? What you really want me to do is continue my description of what being in the thick of it was like.
It was nothing like you're imagining. There was no billowing smoke, no burning flames, no tumbling bodies, no oozing blood that trickled then streamed; aside from the loud crack of the blast, which it appeared only I seemed to hear, I appeared uninjured, but struck dumb according to eyewitness accounts.
Not so, as inwardly I was fully thinking, feeling and present, in awe of what I was bearing witness to. My eyes, by now adjusted to the dark, were mesmerised by a shower of coloured sparks which would dart away if followed, and all that remained of the intestines of my brain (whole, the brain looks like compacted guts) was a debris of bolts, screws, and broken glass - basically everything I ever thought and every stored useful or useless nugget of information was in that rubble.
In one fell swoop the world as I'd conceived it had been razed to its ground level, to that of a child.

Picture Credit: Exploding Raphaelesque Head, 1951, Salvador Dali
'If intelligence does not exist at birth, it will not exist at all.' - Dali -