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.
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.
Behold the human.
The civil authority presents the person, bound and crowned with thorns, to the crowd. This is Jacob Epstein’s statue, positioned on the wall of the ruined cathedral.
Twin charred beams that had chanced to fall upon one another were wired together as a cross by a stonemason walking over the rubble: many others were later manufactured of nails from the building, wrecked by bombs and fire in November 1940.
This edifice, the medieval ruins linked to the modernist cathedral, humanity rebuilding from war’s destruction, is a myth in stone, spinning a narrative and tugging at the heart. A life ago, I learned it is spiritual faith that moves us, and this does not require narrow belief in superstition. I was moved then by witness, not my own, which sat in the street sharing food with homeless people, crossed into rowdy pubs, found the story in each person’s ended life, stood in comradeship on the picket line and preached liberation at the pulpit.
A conversation with Portrait of Wildflowers blogger Steven Schwartzman had turned to the artist John Piper. Many of his pieces are built of strong black drawn lines, then enriched with colour. He is an inspiration. He designed stained glass windows for the new Coventry cathedral.
These are not them. These were designed by Lawrence Lee. My daughter had charge of the camera and afterwards I realised we had no more than a glancing shot of Piper’s baptistry, drowned in daylight.
The old cathedral is seen through, and reflected in, the nave’s west window, engraved with figures of the patriarchs, the disciples and saints, with lots of angels. It’s an boys’ night out with the token girl in the middle.
This is another Saturday view of St Paul’s church in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. The tools here are brushpens delivering waterproof ink, a limited selection of watercolour pencils and a waterbrush. The exercise is to draw sparingly but build texture with pen marks.
The night before we had gone to a Birmingham Jazz gig in the 1000 Trades pub in the Jewellery Quarter. The singer was Fini Bearman, supported by amazing jazz pianist Tom Cawley and bassist Calum Gourley and the songs were lyrical, syncopated versions of Bowie classics.
I was moved to draw, but also to stop to just watch and listen.
Here are the few sketches I did that evening.
This is another Saturday sketch from St Paul’s Square in Birmingham again using ink marks to build texture and tone without wash or water. It is clear there is more work needed to use just the varied marks themselves to narrate the scene.
I have switched inks to a permanent black carbon which may permit watercolour over it once dry. I also want to use less colour, adding a few simple strokes in key areas, not colouring in the whole picture. Less is more.
This is a sketch of “Raku Angel”, a ceramic sculpture, held together with bolts and nuts, one of Stephen Adams’ steampunk stoneware “Machines of Loving Grace” on display at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.
The idea behind the sketch was to focus on building the texture with marks from the pen, without resorting to the waterbrush to flood and smooth the ink. Afterwards, I drew lightly into it with conte crayon.
Also on display was work by Birmingham Arts Circle inspired by the written word, of which my favourite was Sue Howells’ “Crow” for which she drew on Dylan Thomas’ description at the start of Under Milk Wood “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing boat-bobbing sea”.