Monday, 20 October 2014

Effie Gray: Love and Muddle

Writing about women’s lives is always complicated but it is not helped by the way they keep changing their names.  Take Effie for example.  Where should her biography go on the shelf: under G for Gray, R for Ruskin or M for Millais?  And how should my name be indexed: F for Fagence or C for Cooper?

Emma Thompson’s new film has finally cut through this confusion by plumping for the title Effie Gray.  Effie was a Gray for 19 years before she married John Ruskin, and became Gray again when their marriage was annulled.  It also makes it quite clear what audiences should expect.  If they hoped to see a movie about Mr and Mrs John Ruskin, then they will be disappointed.  This is definitely a marriage seen through one pair of (moist, red-rimmed) eyes. 

Several reviews of the film, which was released on Oct 10th, have complained that Ruskin was not fairly treated.  They say that his status as a visionary critic, and decent man, have been underplayed, and instead he we are left with an image of a cold, work-obsessed mummy’s boy. I think this is missing the point.  Ruskin was a great writer.  He has shaped the way we look at architecture, history, geology, economics, and drawing.  But he was unprepared for the intimacy of marriage and found it unbearable.  Even his own father admitted that Ruskin was better on paper than face-to-face.  So it is difficult to convey on screen the glories of his writing and thinking.  But the film-makers do try.  They show him as a taste-maker, whose opinions changed the direction of British art.  He is seen writing constantly, but also clambering about on scaffolding in Venice.  Maybe we should have been shown the electrifying way he could move an audience at his Edinburgh lectures.  But writing is a solitary process, and Effie was excluded from this central part of his life.  She wanted to help him with his research, copying or drawing for him, but he was reluctant to let her be useful.  And so their lack of sympathy hardened.

One of the producers said at an early screening that the film was ‘more hysterical than historical.’  It helps if we embrace this way of seeing it. Of course there are inaccuracies and elisions.  The gorgeous figure of Paulizza, Effie’s Austrian admirer in Venice, for example, has been replaced by a dubious Italian Count.  Millais looks more like Rossetti, with a hipster beard and luscious lips.  (Portraits of Everett show him as a clean-shaven, meticulously dressed middle class fellow who never had to work in a grotty garret.)  And the cottage in the Highlands is made to seem much more isolated than it should be.  When Effie, Ruskin and Everett travelled to Brig o’Turk in the summer of 1853, they were accompanied by Everett’s brother William, as well as Ruskin’s valet.  William stayed in a hotel, just across the lane from the cottage, and other friends dropped in from time to time.  But this manipulation of the facts should not detract from the very real tensions in the confined space, which are brought to life on the big screen. 

John Everett Millais, A waterfall at Glenfinlas (Effie Ruskin), oil on canvas, 1853
This is not a documentary, but a costume drama drawn from cache of letters left by the Ruskins and the Grays.  We could quibble about Effie’s insistence on drifting about Venice without bonnet or gloves.  To many Victorians that would have been unforgiveable.  However, the decision to leave Effie’s hair down – making her look girlish and vulnerable - for much of the film makes a dramatic point.  When she decided to leave Ruskin, she smooths her hair and pulls it severely up and off her face.  Her changed appearance is a sign of her determination and her ability to take control of her own fate. 

The use of Millais’s Ophelia as the poster girl has also caused some tutting among purists.  Of course we should not conflate the Ophelia model Lizzie Siddal with Effie Gray.  Yet the more you look, the more apposite this image becomes.  Not only does it reflect the scene with Effie submerging herself in a bath, it also hints at the troubling issue of mental instability.  Ophelia was rejected by the man she loved, and this shattered her peace of mind.  Ruskin suggested several times that Effie was unhinged: he claimed she was ‘a maniac in the house’, and said she was suffering from ‘a nervous disease affecting the brain.’  So Effie may not have modelled for Ophelia, but the painting opens up several themes in her story.  And it is undeniably beautiful and eye-catching.

Effie Gray was created by the makers of Merchant Ivory films.  There is a whiff of Lucy Honeychurch about this new portrayal of a girl transformed by Italy. It is another tale of love and muddle, of misunderstandings.

Effie opens the window of her hotel room, letting the light stream into her little life, just as Lucy did in A Room with a View back in 1985.  Effie’s Venice with its tolling bells, colonnaded piazzas, and curious locals is very reminiscent of Lucy’s Florence.  Perhaps Mrs. Ruskin’s roses are a nod to Mrs. Honeychurch’s battle with her windswept dahlias.  And we can certainly find echoes of Lucy’s fiancé, the uptight, aesthetic Cecil in Greg Wise’s portrayal of Ruskin.  Like Cecil, we see Ruskin admiring his beloved as a beautiful object, rather than as a flesh-and-blood woman.  Look but don’t touch is the motto of both men.  In A Room with a View, we sympathised with Lucy’s experience, her moments of revelation, rather than Cecil’s rejection and despair.  And so now we see the failing Ruskin marriage from Effie’s point of view, not her husband’s.  As in any marriage, good or bad, there will be two versions of the truth.  This new film is very clearly made by Team Effie.  The clue is in the title. 

Ruskin’s side of the story has been told many times before.  If you bought J H Whitehouse’s book, Vindication of Ruskin (1950), you would know what to expect.  No doubt the old criticisms will be levelled against Effie again – she was a flirt, ‘too forward for her years’, extravagant, petulant, hysterical.  She was undoubtedly difficult to live with at times.  She was often unwell, homesick for Scotland and craved society. She was also an unwilling pioneer, pushing for the right to be fulfilled in her marriage – as a mother, as a manager of her own establishment, as a bright woman. Maybe we could have seen a more spirited performance at times, an awareness of Effie’s charisma and erotic capital.  But, in the words of one of cinema’s great Odd Couples, ‘Nobody’s perfect!’

Friday, 29 August 2014

Effie Gray and Scottish Independence

Over the past weeks I’ve been trying to work out how Effie and her family would vote in the Scottish referendum.  Of course, the very idea of voting on a national issue would be alien to her – Effie died two decades before women won the right to vote for their Westminster MP.  But I’m sure she and her parents, and brothers, and daughters, would have debated the question over the dinner table.  Their letters show that the Grays were a vocal clan, and willing to squabble and then resolve their disagreements.  They didn’t bear grudges.  They kept talking through their differences even when they were cross with each other. 

George Gray, Effie’s father, c. 1865

So, what would Effie think about Scotland as an independent country?  She was staunchly loyal to the place of her birth.  And she returned home to Bowerswell, her family house just outside Perth, when she knew she was dying.  She always relaxed in the Scottish hills.  The Trossachs held special associations for her.  It was at Brig o’Turk that she came to realise that her first marriage, to John Ruskin, was over.  Ruskin ‘had no intention of making her his Wife’. Here she began to wrestle with the possibilities for her future. The young pre-Raphaelite, John Everett Millais, fell in love with Effie on this Scottish holiday.  He drew her obsessively in the cramped cottage he shared with Effie and Ruskin throughout the wet summer months.

 John Everett Millais, Highland Shelter, 25th July 1853

After Effie left her husband, she went straight home to Perthshire.  Back in Scotland, she swam, and strode out along the coast, regaining her strength and pondering.  Eventually, in July 1855, she quietly married again.  She and her second husband, Millais, spent their honeymoon on Arran, where Effie admitted, ‘they were very comfortable’, waking each morning to clear skies and rowing out into the bay in the cool of the evening.  In August 1855 Effie and Millais settled in Bowerswell, safe from the wagging tongues of the London art world.  Millais grew to love Scotland.  His most sensitive paintings, including ‘Autumn Leaves’ and ‘The Vale of Rest’ were set against the Scottish sunset, with Bowerswell as a backdrop and local girls as models.


John Everett Millais, Autumn Leaves, 1855-6

Effie was sure of her Scottishness even when she moved back to South Kensington in the autumn of 1861.  She kept in touch constantly with her parents, and went home as often as she could.  Her father had shares in the Dundee-London steamer service, so Effie and her children made the journey several times a year.  And every summer Millais joined them, decamping to the Highlands to fish and shoot.  Effie’s young family wrote longingly about holidays with their grandparents, when the perpetual hum of London traffic was replaced by the hum of bees.  The children associated these visits with the taste of fresh cream and honey on porridge, with music and parties, with bicycle outings, with family. 

So Scotland was a place of personal refuge.  But Effie was also well aware of its political and judicial differences from England.  She was married (twice) in her father’s house.  As a Scottish wife, she understood that her legal status was a little better than a woman married in England.  She was entitled, for instance, to defend herself against accusations of infidelity. And she could demand financial support from her husband.  Unlike English brides, she retained some of her own property after marriage – at least her clothes and ‘paraphenalia’ remained hers and not her husband’s.

Effie came from a family of lawyers and bankers.  She recognised and applauded the autonomy of the Scottish legal system.  She also benefited from the self-reliance that characterised her family.  Her father, George, was an entrepreneur.  Sometimes he made the wrong call.  His investments in French railway stock at a time of political turmoil on the continent brought the Grays to the brink of financial disaster in the Spring of 1848. But he recovered, and by the 1860s was a pillar of the banking establishment in Perth.    

And here, in a nutshell, lie the answers to Effie’s reaction to Scottish independence: self-reliance, and the Establishment.  Effie and her family were conservatives.  They wanted to be accepted by their neighbours and their colleagues.  George Gray worried about the gossip in the golf-club when his girls got themselves into romantic scrapes. His reputation mattered. He made himself indispensable as manager of the Perth branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland for many years.  He founded the Standard Life Assurance Company in the town, and threw parties for the directors of the Gas Light Company, with ‘as much champagne as they could drink’.  After a few shaky speculations in the 1840s, George Gray was a substantial figure by the time Effie married her second husband.  This security, this sense of having arrived financially and socially, was underpinned by a strong political conservatism.

Effie shared her father’s aspirational attitude, and his conservative political outlook.  She was a social-climber, unashamedly marrying money.  She only had one possible career path, and that was a good marriage.  John Ruskin offered her security, family connections and the chance to make a splash in Society.  She could provide the social skills he lacked, and smooth his path through London soirées.  Effie expected to be presented at Court as Mrs Ruskin.  When she made her debut on 20th June 1850, she was admired for her dress and her poise as she curtseyed and kissed Victoria’s hand.  As Mrs Millais, she was barred from the Queen’s presence – because she had 2 husbands still alive. This did not stop her becoming good friends with Constance, Duchess of Westminster, and later, Princess Louise, the sculptor-daughter of Queen Victoria.  These friendships mattered.  They signified that the scandalous failure of her first marriage had not blighted her life.  But Effie could not afford to be politically radical. Her reputation was too fragile. Yes, she and Millais enjoyed the company of Louise Jopling, the dazzling artist, Suffragist and teacher.  But Effie did not agree with Louise’s forthright campaigning for ‘Votes for Women’. 


John Everett Millais, Louise Jopling, 1879

In fact, Effie’s only overtly political act was to join the Primrose League.  This organisation had been established in 1883 in memory of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli.  When Effie enrolled as a Dame of the League in July 1885, she vowed to ‘uphold and support God, Queen and Country, and the Conservative cause’.  Effie was a staunch Tory.  By the summer of 1885, she was also a Lady herself, since Millais had just been made Baronet. 

In these circumstances, it seems unlikely that Effie would countenance the break-up of the Union.  Disraeli and his Tory party were staunchly Unionist when it came to the question of Ireland.  They would never have dreamt that Scotland might seek independence.  Effie was a Scot who came to London to seek her fortune.  And she was successful.  Scotland was home, but London was where she shone. 

And so finally we come to the element of self-reliance.  Effie Gray was prepared to stand up for herself when her marriage became intolerable.  She learnt to thrive and think independently as a teenager – she kept house when her mother was confined by childbirth.  Her brothers and cousins, and sons and nephews all demonstrated that they could flourish in adversity.  They were flung across the Empire, to farm and fend for themselves.  Their letters home, from Melbourne or Dunedin told how they ‘were getting the wool off the sheep’s backs to send to London to convert into coin.’  Effie’s daughter Mary made the crossing from England, to Cape Town, to New Zealand and then on to Australia in 1885-6, visiting family as she went.  Mary linked the scattered outposts of the Gray clan together.  Her correspondence and her photographs show how Effie’s family embodied the idea of Empire.  They took the opportunities that were given by a Greater Britain, and they prospered. 

Walter Crane, Imperial Federation Map, 1886

It is this idea of a Greater Britain that made sense to Effie and her daughters.  They saw the virtues of thinking big.  They loved their Scottishness, but they were not limited by it.  I think Effie would vote for the Union. 

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

'Art Happens': James Whistler and Ten O'Clock lecture

 February 1885: the Ten o’clock Lecture

A man in immaculate evening dress stepped onto the stage in Prince’s Hall, Piccadilly.  He placed a glossy opera hat on the table, set down his walking-cane and adjusted his eyeglass.  James Whistler appeared in the footlights like a figure from one of his own canvases: an Arrangement in Black and Silver. ‘It is with great hesitation and much misgiving’ he began, ‘that I appear before you, in the character of The Preacher’. Whistler had practised his lines during the past winter months, trying out turns of phrase as he strode up and down the riverbank at Chelsea.  He had perfected his principles over countless dinner-tables.  As one friend put it, ‘the only new thing was Whistler’s determination to say in public what he had said in private.’  But now he faltered a little as he cast his eye over the up-turned faces before him.  He recognised several devoted followers, some sceptics, many critics. 

What had they come to hear? Most expected a fashionable evening’s entertainment, an American eccentric showing-off.  His droll delivery meant that they underestimated the force of his attack on the art-establishment.  For Whistler’s monogram was very apt – a butterfly with a sting in his tail.

Whistler’s radical artistic manifesto struck at the heart of Victorian assumptions about beauty, Nature and the role of the artist in society.   Firstly, he declared that art-critics should leave the masses alone.  Most folk would never be enthusiastic about spending their spare time in galleries or creating the House Beautiful.  ‘The people have been harassed with Art…their homes have been invaded’ and, Whistler suggested, this has left the public bewildered and resentful.  Instead, Art should be left to those who could best appreciate it.  The true artist, Whistler said, was an outside, a ‘dreamer apart.’ Like himself.

And Art was not meant to be improving. The public were encouraged to delight in pictures that were morally uplifting. They admired naturalism, anecdote or sentiment.  Whistler summed up this approach: ‘Before a work of Art, it is asked: ‘What good shall it do?’.  In his view, this was utterly wrong-headed.  For Whistler, Art was ‘occupied with her own perfection only – having no desire to teach’.  Art was about beauty, delight, joy.

He went on to tackle another fundamental tenet of Victorian thinking. Whistler denied that art was more likely to flourish in a particular time or place.  The most beautiful things could be made in ancient Greece, or at the Court of Philip II of Spain, in Rembrandt’s Amsterdam or Hokusai’s Japan.  Whistler scoffed at the ‘fabled link between the grandeur of Art and the glories and virtues of the State’.  Beauty was wedded to individuals, not to Nations. In his words, ‘peoples may be wiped from the face of the earth, but Art is.’ 

His delivery gained strength as he took on the British obsession with painting the natural world.  An artist, Whistler believed, ‘does not confine himself to purposeless copying, without thought, each blade of grass.’ (This was a dig at the hypnotic realism of the Pre-Raphaelites.)  Whistler denounced Nature as vulgar. He acknowledged that many in the audience would be shocked by this blasphemy. ‘Nature is very rarely right’, he argued, ‘to such an extent even, that might almost be said that Nature is usually wrong.’  Only the artist could select elements from the natural world, group them, and create something harmonious.  

Whistler used a musical analogy to explain his idea. He suggested that ‘Nature contains the elements, in colour and form, of all pictures, as the keyboard contains the notes of all music’.  So drawing directly from natural examples was like saying to the musician ‘that he may sit on the piano.’  Whistler knew how to make an audience laugh, but he also kept them on their toes.  They could not anticipate whom he would lunge at next. 

In his bantering way, Whistler was taking on the Victorian heavy-weights, John Ruskin and William Morris, as well as the more esoteric art-criticism of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater.  He was paying off old debts, and sizing up new rivals. In 1878 he had been publicly humiliated by Ruskin.  In the ensuing libel case, Whistler was forced to justify the value of his art to the Attorney-General.  His paintings were described in court as ‘strange fantastical conceits,…daubs,…not serious works of art’.  He was bankrupted.  Whistler destroyed many of his paintings, sold his house and left London. He passed a chill winter exiled in Venice.  He took with him two dozen copper etching plates, reams of brown paper and boxes of pastels. He etched, though his fingers were so numb with cold that he could hardly hold the needle. He drew his bare lodgings in a dilapidated palazzo, with his companion Maud Franklin silhouetted against the open window.  He called this work The Palace in Rags. He refused to picture the buildings that Ruskin had glorified in his book, ‘The Stones of Venice’.  Instead Whistler’s Venice was ephemeral, glittering and intimate.  

Now, five years on, Whistler was ready to answer his critics.  He had regained a foothold in the London art-world, with his one-man exhibitions at the Fine Art Society.  He was re-establishing his name as a portraitist. Whistler combined the verve of Velasquez with a sharp critique of modern manners.  His painting of Lady Archibald Campbell caused a sensation at the Grosvenor Gallery in the summer of 1884: her shiny yellow boot and black stocking could be glimpsed beneath the hem of her dress as she whisked her skirts away from the picture frame.  Whistler’s female figures were supple and ambiguous.  He designed many of the gowns worn by the women who sat for him and he chose to dress them gorgeously in translucent layers of tulle and soft pleated silks.  He disliked the current vogue for ‘Aesthetic Dress’.  Whistler deplored the uncorseted, ‘unbecoming’ robes in sad colours that made young women look lanky and dishevelled.  One reason for his dislike was that the campaign for ‘Dress Reform’ was so publicly championed by Oscar Wilde.  Both men liked nothing better than a verbal sparring match. 

Wilde had lectured on ‘Beauty, Taste and Ugliness in Dress’ to audiences across Britain in 1884-5, from Leeds to Dublin, from Bury St Edmunds to Newcastle.  So it was partly in response to Wilde’s successful speaking engagements that Whistler decided to book the Prince’s Hall in February 1885.  Whistler had heard Wilde there, delivering his ‘Impressions of America’.  Now an American-born artist would take to the stage to lecture about the British, their failings and follies.  Whistler’s line about the public’s reluctance in the face of Art – ‘they have been told how they shall love Art, and live with it…their very dress has been taken to task’ – was a jibe directed at Wilde.  Their wit was competitive.  Their friendship, formed in 1881, was now wearing thin. But the rivalry was still, to some extent, stage-managed. 

Whistler asked Helen Carte, wife of the impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, to arrange the booking of the lecture hall.  As she was in the throes of producing The Mikado, Whistler took to wandering over to her tiny office at the Savoy Theatre in the evenings.  There, in the winter lamplight, they discussed Whistler’s plan. He wanted his audience to enjoy an un-hurried dinner before coming on to the lecture.  Ten o’clock in the evening seemed like a civilised hour to start. Whistler recognised that this timing alone would raise eyebrows among the industrious middle-classes.  He evidently did not expect his audience to have to rise early the following day.  But as he consistently explained in the lecture, Art was not a matter for the masses, but for the Few. 

Whistler was of course aware of the paradox.  He was preaching the gospel of the artist set apart from society before a large paying audience.  And he was prepared to take his ideas on the road.  He gave the same lecture on three more occasions in 1885 – Cambridge, Oxford, and again in London – and then had the text privately printed.  It was an edition of 25 copies, a trifle that could be passed off to friends.  His Ten o’clock lecture was a triumph of self-publicity, it made him a celebrity, a gift for the cartoonists with his monocle and his tuft of white hair carefully arranged among the black curls.

But, for all the swagger, Whistler was in earnest.  He derided Ruskin, as he would later deride the poet Swinburne and indeed Wilde, because they could do nothing but talk.  They could not make an image appear upon the canvas as Velasquez did when he ‘dipped his brush in light and air, and made his people live within their frames, and stand upon their legs.’  Critics were parasites. The true artist did not want his pictures to be read as novels, decoded for their morals.  Painting was about form, colour and composition, not about subject.  Whistler gave his works musical titles – Arrangements, Harmonies, Symphonies – to deflect attention from the thing in the picture, and to focus on the way it was painted.  His canvases could be consumed as a piece of music is consumed, the audience concentrating on the formal aspects of the art, its shape, its rhythms, its mood.  Whistler was not interested in story-telling.  When he was questioned about one of his landscapes, a Harmony in Grey and Gold, Whistler wrote, ‘I care nothing for the past, present or future of the black figure, placed there because the black was wanted at that spot.’  Narrative was unnecessary.  Morality, history, faith, patriotism, pity were irrelevant. 

It may have seemed on that February evening that the audience were merely watching a butterfly flapping its wings, and causing a small stir in Piccadilly. But the repercussions were breath-taking. Whistler’s lecture brushed away the old certainties about what to paint, how to paint it and how to write about painting.  Whistler imagines the artist as ‘differing from the rest, whose pursuits attracted him not.’  An artist was not bound by the laws of realism.  An artist could decide when a work was finished: it may look like a sketch to the uninitiated, but according to Whistler, ‘the work of the master reeks not of the sweat of the brow – suggests no effort – and is finished from the beginning’.  An artist worked for the pleasure of the few, not for the many.

This was a manifesto showing how art could be made modern.  Art is uninhibited by history, uninterested in explaining itself to those who cannot see.  It is concerned with the vision of the artist, not the expectations of the patron or the critic.  Art is swift.  It is eclectic.  As Whistler put it, ‘Art happens’. 

Monday, 30 June 2014

Pop Goes the Artist

New Lecture for summer 2014


Something a little different - 20th C American, rather than 19th C British Art. Recently I've had a chance recently to look closely at some fascinating works of Pop Art.  And it all ties in rather neatly with my work on music and the visual arts.  So here's a taste of Pop culture:

Bob Dylan's Pictures:

‘The press never let up’, Dylan wrote in his autobiographical Chronicles: Volume One (2004). ‘Once in a while I would have to rise up and offer myself for an interview so they wouldn’t beat down the door.’ Dylan answers his critics by creating his own headlines.  In his world, Robert Zimmerman can transform himself: as he told his audience in 1964, ‘I have my Bob Dylan mask on.’

Throughout his career, Dylan has been accused of borrowing, cutting and pasting.  His 2001 album Love and Theft acknowledged as much in the title.  Joni Mitchell infamously called him a plagiarist. ‘Everything about Bob is a deception’, she said in 2010. But many others take different view.  He is beloved by cultural historians who write academic essays about intertextuality and his use of the ‘embedded’ quotation.[i]  (These very essays can then be parodied by Dylan and his collaborators, Luc Sante and B. Clavery, in the catalogue for the Revisionist Art exhibition held at the Gagosian Gallery, New York in 2012). Dylan is both a jester and an alchemist, transmuting base-metal into gold.  He has always woven old tunes, or fragments of poetry, or snapshots into his own creations. In Dylan’s lyrics we find echoes of Ovid and T. S. Eliot, Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  In his songs, we hear snatches of Dust-Bowl ballads, Plantation-era spirituals and Irish laments.  We are unfazed by contemporary musicians sampling recorded music. But this sharing of songs was second-nature to Dylan, learning his craft in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village.  In the folk tradition, both in the USA and in Britain, songs are passed around, new verses added, tunes played faster or slower, sung with anger or with yearning.  Each performance revises the original.  So ‘The Girl from the North Country’ (1963) is Dylan’s take on Martin Carthy’s ‘Scarborough Fair’.  Carthy approved the process of transformation. ‘That was … completely legitimate,’ he said, ‘Bob never hid anything. And he made his own song from it. That's what folk music is all about.’[ii] Sometimes it is the tune, sometimes the story, sometimes the chord structure:  Dylan’s art has always been underpinned by appropriation and reworking.

The tales told in traditional songs also resurface in his works of visual art too, his prints and drawings.   Greed, guilt and jealousy. Exile and tragedy. Outlaws and temptresses. The folk stories are spelt out in banner headlines.  These blatant texts also take us back to Dylan’s starting-point, when he wrote ‘finger-pointing’ songs, protesting about politics and fame. The words splashed across faux magazine covers are the grandchildren of the slogans he held up to the camera in the 1965.   

Dylan’s choice of medium – the silkscreen print – is another gesture towards 1965.  This was the year that he came into contact with Andy Warhol.  At the time, Dylan was close to Edie Sedgwick, a young woman who starred in many of the underground movies made at Warhol’s Factory.  That summer, Warhol persuaded Dylan to sit for one of his Screen Tests, a trial by camera.  After enduring his silent, slow-motion portrait, Dylan toured the Factory.  He saw Warhol’s monumental silver screenprint of the Double Elvis (now in MOMA, New York), and he took it home. Later Dylan acknowledged Warhol as ‘the king of pop.’  But, he went on, ‘One art critic in Warhol’s time had said that he’d give you a million dollars if you could find one ounce of hope or love in any of his work’.[iii]  The silkscreen medium strengthens this sense of emotional detachment.  The prints are handmade objects, each differing slightly from the next.  But the expanses of unmodulated flat colour make it hard to see the artist’s hand at work.  And the process of photographic screenprinting (used by both Warhol and Dylan) reinforces the distance between maker and object.  For Warhol, silkscreen was the ideal instrument for challenging consumer society and celebrity culture.  A commercial artist by training, Warhol turned the art of the advertisement back on itself.

It is impossible for Dylan to work with silkscreen without comparisons being made with Warhol’s productions.  However, Dylan’s use of the technique is deliberate and singular.  He plays with the disjunctions between the text, the image and the mechanistic manner in which each work appears to be made.  This is a collage, but we cannot see the joins.  He has sampled brand identities, seamlessly overlaying them with impossible statements.  The medium, despite all its associations with Pop and the Factory, is made to take second place to the collision of words and pictures. 

Dylan never makes it easy for his audience to understand his message.  He told us back in 1965, ‘You have to listen closely’. [iv]  But however hard you listen, it can still be difficult to disentangle his meaning.  The sleeve-notes for Highway 61 Revisited, to take just one example, are impenetrable: ‘the songs on this specific record are not so much songs but exercises in tonal breath control…the subject-matter – tho’ meaningless as it is – has something to do with the beautiful strangers’.  The saloon piano on Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues may be out of tune, his voice ‘a thin, wild mercury sound’.  Yet this album is a masterpiece, with a jagged, apocalyptic climax that sweeps past Ophelia, Cinderella, Einstein and Casanova.  Dylan defies categorisation: no-one sings like him, no-one writes like him.  He throws up smokescreens.  Even in his autobiography, he slides from decade to decade without stopping to explain.  We struggle to keep up with his train of thought. We should not expect his pictures to be straightforward.  That is not his way. 

Dylan has always been a magpie.  As a young singer-songwriter, he gathered and sifted, adding new words to old tunes, changing key, mood or instrument, restless, ears open.  But as he said in 2004, ‘You can’t do something forever.  I did it once and I can do other things now.’[v]  As he moves into the world of painting and print-making, he is still a magpie.  This time, his sources are visual.  Images are unpicked and rewoven.  They have been troubling him a long time.  Back in New York in 1961, he stayed in an apartment full of books and magazines and guns, things that caught his eye: ‘books about Amazon women, Pharaonic Egypt, photobooks of circus acrobats, lovers, graveyards’.[vi]  These are the eclectic images that resurfaced, forty years later, when he wrote his own life-story, or at least one version of the truth.  And they are the same images that haunt his print-making..  

Bob Dylan’s art is not constrained by medium.  Texts, pictures and tunes intersect and reverberate.  As he wrote, ‘Folk songs were the way I explored the universe, they were pictures and the pictures were worth more than anything I could say’.[vii]  Some projects are left as songs without words.  Others are double works of art, with text and image sitting uneasily together.  It is the unease, the unresolved tension, our inability to predict what will happen next, that makes Dylan’s work consistently exhilarating.

 And if you want to find out more, click here:

[i] See for example, Christopher Rollason, ‘Tell-tale signs – Edgar Allan Poe and Bob Dylan: towards a model of intertextuality’, Atlantis, Dec. 2009, p.41

[ii] Martin Carthy interviewed by Matthew Zuckerman in 1995, quoted  by Zuckerman in ‘If there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now: The Folk Roots of Bob Dylan’, posted, 20 Feb 1997

[iii] Chronicles: Volume One, p.174

[iv] Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, p.1

[v] Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, p.122

[vi] Chronicles: Volume One, p.41

[vii] Chronicles: Volume One, p.18

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Forthcoming events:

Sat 8th February:
The Ruskin Society birthday lunch with illustrated talk
'The Model Wife?: Effie, Ruskin and Millais'
contact for more details

Weds 12th February:
Jodrell DFAS
'The Invisible Woman: into the heart of Dickens'

Sat 22nd Februrary:
York CityScreen
'The Invisible Woman' pre-screening talk, 3pm
contact for more details       

Weds 26th March:
Belfast DFAS
'The Invisible Woman: into the heart of Dickens'

Weds 2nd April:
Melksham DFAS
'The Invisible Woman: into the heart of Dickens'

I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.