The Royal Academy have paired Bill Viola‘s huge video installations with Michaelangelo‘s exquisite muscular Christs, serene Virgins and flailing horses. Viola’s triptych of Man slowly surfacing through water is flanked by women, one splayed and crying giving birth, the other, his mother, insensate, dying. This “deeply spiritual” portrayal of life’s journey seemed crudely gendered: man the artist, man the observer, man the not-bloody-get-on-and-do-something-useful, not even hold a hand or wipe a brow. Michaelangelo’s drawings are remarkable. His tiny still images dwarf Viola’s great moving tableaux: the soft strokes of chalk building shapes in four dimensions. Still, even placing them behind me, Viola’s intrusive art resulted in my having irreverent and ridiculous thoughts. The great master draughtsman was on his own journey of self-discovery. Mary cradle’s her son’s body but her face is calm, never touched by childbirth or mourning. That itinerant rabbi is strangely ripped and, interestingly, beardless. In drawing after drawing He rises straight up from the tomb, his body erect in the morning after the cold sleep of death.
I found myself outside the exhibition, drawing the 10 foot high cast of the marble from the courtyard of Palazzo Farnese in Rome. My observation went to pot, my brain contradicting what I saw: I gifted him with head and genitals in proportion to his huge muscular body whereas on the statue both seemed ridiculously small. He leans on his huge knobbly war club, which is hooded by a draped hide, bringing to my mind a woman’s inner lips. What did the sculptor mean to show? It just made me laugh: are we men being trolled across the centuries by what appears a hilarious parody of male prowess?
Upstairs, I drew a cast of an ancient torso, shorn of limbs and head, which is placed in front of a drawing for a never completed painting of Thetis bringing the grieving Achilles his armour. Once again, my eye failed me and I lost the sense of depth, such that the impressive sculpture and the hero’s whitened face appear to lean in conspiratorially.
…King rules or barons rule; we have suffered various oppression, but mostly we are left to our own devices, and we are content if we are left alone.
We try to keep our households in order; the merchant, sly and cautious, tries to compile a little fortune, and the labourer bends to his piece of earth, earth colour, his own colour, preferring to pass unobserved.
Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons: winter shall come bringing death from the sea, ruinous spring shall beat at our doors, root and shoot shall eat at our eyes and our ears, disastrous summer burn up the beds of our streams and the poor shall wait for another decaying October.
Murder in the cathedral: part I. T.S. Eliot
There are catacombs in Birmingham. The doors are sealed with lead and the stone facings bearing the inscriptions have mostly crumbled away. Two tiers are arranged as a three quarters circle enclosing a flat arena. On one side, steel pilings push against the stone, holding back time. The show is roots and growth: the audience and the actors are silent.
This was a sketch of a few minutes, a quick run with a pen, a few strokes of chalk.
“A heap of broken images where the sun beats”
Destitute women, sex-workers, his lover and his wife modelled for Schiele in sexually explicit poses. They stare out at me from the paper, disputing my male gaze. Schiele was jailed for a time, initially arrested for harbouring a runaway teenage girl but actually condemned for allowing access to his erotic drawings. He also drew arresting self images, naked and anguished. His drawings of women seem much more self-exploration than titillation for others. Schiele’s attitudes and actions were steeped in patriarchy, but his erotic art was revolutionary, visibly challenging the restrictive norms of his time and still challenging today. Sex and gender are powerful, at the heart of family, politics and use of resource, and are the bedrock of art. Once North European invaders saw the very different lives of Pacific peoples as primitive, with mixed disgust, lust and romantic wonder. The themes of sex and gender run through the Oceania exhibition but it is hard to guess at the intent and meaning of the original crafters, or the interpretation and feelings of those who first looked at and felt the objects.
This was one part of a carved frieze of frigate birds and tunoid fish at the Oceania exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts. Though this was made by Pacific peoples, it reminded me of gannets diving off the Scottish coast.
In my teens, I was fascinated by a television documentary about cricket in the Trobriand Archipelago, in Melanesia. Matches are played by teams of no fixed size with ritualised violence and dance accompanied by sexualised taunting, charms and incantations. Under colonising powers and the influence of missionaries, cricket replaced warfare, but with a character unique to these islands.
My mother told me about Bronislaw Malinowski, the Polish anthropologists who studied the Trobriand Islanders, sensationalising, for repressed Western European readers, their (often) female-led and polyamorous relationships as “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia”. She told me that Malinowski’s description of matrilineal descent challenged Freud’s concept of the oedipal relationship between a boy and his parents: in the Trobriand Islands a young man resents and challenges his maternal uncle not his father, and these strained relationships are about power not sex.
I studied social anthropology as an elective year during my medical degree. The great social anthropologists of the early twentieth century, like Malinowski, were creatures of their time and of colonialism. Even so, Malinowski brought wisdom and insight to bear on his subjects of study. Western economists believe in the paramount nature of money, linked to a founding myth about individuals making rational choices over resource use in an ancestral marketplace. Anthropologists, by contrast, demonstrate the diversity of exchange systems and their purposes. The photograph above shows a stick navigation chart showing seas and currents. Malinowski first described the ritual exchange of trinkets between Melanesian peoples separated by hundreds of miles of dangerous ocean, dignifying these voyagers as the Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Across a vast network, red shell disc necklaces were gifted clockwise and white shell armbands anticlockwise. This exchange network was (is?) the foundation of political authority across the islands, the means by which a man gains and displays prestige, not by acquisition but by giving. The Wikipedia entry on this Kula exchange network references later studies of which I had been unaware: Malinowski had neglected the economic and political power held by women in Trobriand society: renown won in the Kula network was balanced by the value of landed property held by women.
Many of the museum artefacts from Oceania were objects of great prestige given or exchanged freely. In their very nature, though, perhaps it was never the intention that these treasures should leave the gifting network to find a resting place under glass. Conversely, we have been gifted the privilege to be included in some way in that Oceanic culture.
I joined the artist who blogs as Outside Authority at the Royal Academy of Arts a couple of weeks ago. We made three forays into the “Oceania” exhibition of artefacts from the Pacific diaspora, one to Renzo Piano’s achitectural display “The Art of Making Buildings” and had a timed ticket into the Klimt/Schiele “Drawings from the Albertina Museum, Vienna“.
OA and I have made previous drawing expeditions together but with longs gaps between. At New Year two years ago, we draw water in Cromford in the cold. As so often, later, I reworked sketches to find the picture I failed to capture outdoors. Many months later, we visited the Kathe Kollwitz exhibition and, reflecting on that experience, we wandered, drawing, through Birmingham. As usual, my medium was soluble ink, moved around with water and covered over with conte crayon. That day, I adopted an idea from OA to limit myself instead to using just three felt tip colours.
However, smudging the sketch with water had led me to be lazy with the lines. In recent sketches I have used water-fast ink, line and block, to render tone and texture, denying myself the option to alter the picture with water. This was the approach I took to drawing the Oceania artefacts.
I much admire the work of the German artist Susanne Rempt who blogs under the appropriate monicker Sue Blackpenart. She frequently draws artefacts in museums and her drawings have such simplicity and carry so much narrative. On occasion, she illustrates the thought-provoking posts and fiction published by blogger CakeorDeath. He has posted several times about the importance of the Pacific peoples’ art to the western Surrealist movement in the twentieth century. Susanne’s influence is obvious in my drawings. In the first two of these drawings I started with and later erased pencil lines, but in the third, like Blackpenart, I committed myself directly in ink.