Sunday 26 August 2012

From Burne-Jones to Cubism

With a major Pre-Raphaelite exhibition looming at the Tate Gallery, the British obsession with Rossetti, Millais, Hunt and so on clearly continues in full spate. I'm fond of many of those paintings too, but when the Tate exhibition describes the PRB as an ‘avantgarde’, then something in me bridles. No, I’m moved to protest, the real avantgarde – a violent remaking of the fundamental conventions of painting, analogous to and sometimes in actual relationship with revolutionary politics – was in the early twentieth century, not in 1848.

Yet perhaps there are some tenuous links through from the Pre-Raphaelites to the great innovators of the 1900s. James Beechey has suggested as much in an essay on ‘Picasso in Britain’: ‘Picasso later affirmed ... the esteem in which he held Burne-Jones in particular: the wistful melancholy with which Burne-Jones imbued his female models in his work of the 1890s, his use of a reduced, almost monochrome palette, and his preference for such physical characteristics as a long neck, pallid complexion and drooping head, all left an indelible mark on Picasso’s early portraiture’ (p.11).

That Burne-Jones/Picasso link might suggest an aesthetic project for us too. The artist David Mabb has finely clashed Morris design elements with Soviet Constructivist motifs in his visual work, so how about now striking Burne-Jones themes against Cubist multiperspectivism to see what emerges? Or has Marcel Duchamp already done this for us, if we regard his Nude Descending a Staircase (pictured above) as a Cubist-Futurist reworking of Burne-Jones’s The Golden Stairs?

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Thames Valley Catastrophe

Today is the day on which, in Grant Allen’s 1897 short story ‘The Thames Valley Catastrophe’, a fissure eruption takes place along the river bed between Shiplake Ferry and Marlow, releasing vast quantities of basaltic lava which roll down the valley destroying everything in their path, including London. One can imagine that, if broadcast over the radio, this grim little tale might cause a mass-panic as frantic as that which famously took hold when H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds was broadcast in the USA by Orson Welles in 1938.

The narrator of the story, a clerk on a cycling holiday, manages to escape a horrid fate by pedalling energetically up into the hills, though there is one splendidly ludicrous scene where he has to desperately mend a puncture as the all-consuming lava rolls relentlessly towards him. His family escapes too, but the national tragedy is ‘summed up in five emphatic words: There was no more London’. In which case William Morris, who we know enjoyed Richard Jeffries’s novel After London, might well have relished Allen’s story too, had he lived long enough to read it; and it certainly chimes in well with our own contemporary penchant for disaster movies. In fact, it is surprising that no one has yet turned Allen’s tale into a film; perhaps this blog post will prompt some keen-eyed director to do so. Tony Scott of Top Gun fame, who died yesterday, might have been a good candidate.

The story’s value for us, as Morrisians, is in its effort to reimagine the Thames valley in sublime mode, as a place of awesome natural forces which sweep away a puny human civilisation; and geologically ludicrous though the tale’s premise is, it does have some fine moments of awe and terror. All of which makes us more aware, by contrast, of how Morris has modelled his Thames valley in News from Nowhere on that traditional aesthetic opposite of the sublime: the beautiful. Now I love Morris’s utopian Thames valley as much as anybody; but I am also grateful to Grant Allen’s curious tale for reminding me that that is by no means the only way, aesthetically speaking, that one can represent what Morris calls ‘our one English river’.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Collier Lads

In one way it was just accident that I was reading Florence Boos and Patrick O'Sullivan’s superb article on Devon Great Consols, the copper mine from which the Morris family made its great wealth (Society Journal, summer 2012), at the very moment that South African police opened fire with automatic weapons on striking platinum miners at Marikana and killed 34 of them. An accident of timing, perhaps; but the common factors here are the brutal hardship and dangers of the work of mining, and the brutal repression with which efforts to remedy them are typically met by capitalist mine owners. As we in the UK saw clearly enough not so long ago when Margaret Thatcher used the police as a private army against striking coal-miners in 1984.

Mining has always generated a culture of its own as well as a combative politics, so, as a gesture of solidarity with the dead South African miners, let us recall one notable nineteenth-century English representative of that culture, the so-called ‘collier-poet’, who William Morris refers to in a letter of 21 May 1889 as ‘my friend Mr Joseph Skipsey’ (pictured above). Skipsey’s miner father had been shot dead by a special constable, and he himself subsequently worked in the Northumberland pits for many years (just north of my own family in the County Durham pit-villages). One of his best-known poems is ‘The Collier Lad’, of which I give the first stanza here as a taster:

MY lad he is a Collier Lad,
And ere the lark awakes,
He's up and away to spend the day
Where daylight never breaks;
But when at last the day has pass'd,
Clean washed and cleanly clad,
He courts his Nell who loveth well
Her handsome Collier Lad.

There's not his match in smoky Shields;
Newcastle never had
A lad more tight, more trim, nor bright
Than is my Collier Lad.

I admire the dash and spirit of the poem, but it also looks sadly naive in the face of the violence capitalism is always prepared to unleash against miners and their families.

Monday 6 August 2012

Curiosity on Mars

I didn’t particularly time my re-reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s stunning Mars trilogy – Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), Blue Mars (1996) - to coincide with the arrival of NASA’s rover Curiosity on the red planet’s surface this morning, but still, I’m glad it’s worked out that way. I like to toy with the notion of William Morris, at around 160 years old (as he easily might have been if he had received the gerontological treatment developed on Mars in the course of the trilogy itself), reading the work when it first came out. What would he have made of it, what pleasures would it have held for him?

His passion for Icelandic lavascapes would surely have sensitised him to the awesome geology of Robinson’s Mars, but it is as the author of chapter XVII of News from Nowhere – ‘How the Change Came’ – that Morris might most strongly have responded to the trilogy in its great effort of political (quite as much as scientific) thought, as will any contemporary reader of Morris who thrills to the narrative energy of the English revolutionary process between 1890 and 1952-54 in that chapter.

The first Mars rebellion against transnational capitalist domination from Earth goes down in blood and violence in 2061. ‘Next time you have a revolution you’d better try some other way’, Kasei angrily tells the First Hundred at the end of that disaster, and the second and third volumes then narrate the slow, complex, decentred process whereby an underground movement gradually rebuilds itself and painfully struggles towards new, more adequate models of revolutionary action, which do indeed succeed second time round from 2127 onwards. So if an older Leninist model of revolution no longer seems apt to our own complex postmodern societies, and yet we do not want to remain trapped between the reformism of social-democracy and spasmodic revolt (last August’s riots, the Occupy movement), then we will need to attend carefully to the thought-experiments which Robinson is conducting on his fictional red planet. For the author of the Mars trilogy is indeed a worthy successor to William Morris as a deep thinker about systemic social change.

Friday 3 August 2012

Eleanor Marx Exhibition

It’s good that the Kelmscott House museum is running a series of exhibitions devoted to women in and around the Morris circle: May Morris until recently, her friend Mary Sloane in the near future. Might I suggest that we add to this list Eleanor Marx (1855-98), who with Morris was a founder member of the Socialist League in December 1884?

What might an Eleanor Marx exhibition look like, and what activities would it celebrate? Her childhood love of Shakespeare in the Marx household might be seen as anticipating her adult literary work as first translator into English of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and enthusiast for and translator of the plays of Henrik Ibsen in the late 1880s (she even co-authored a sequel to The Doll’s House). Her political activities would feature prominently too, first as secretary to Karl Marx himself, then in her own right in the 1880s and 90s: supporting strikes, organising international conferences, helping to organise the Gasworkers’ Union. And I suppose her tragic personal involvement with Edward Aveling would need to come in here too.

The point of such an exhibition would be not just to celebrate an extraordinary woman, but to raise a crucial and still pressing issue: the relationship between the political avantgarde (1880s socialism, in this case) and the artistic avantgarde (Flaubertian modernism, the Ibsenite New Drama). This vexed issue would come up still more sharply in later years РRussian Futurism and the Bolshevik Revolution, Bertholt Brecht in Weimar Germany, the Tel Quel group and les évènements of 1968 in France Рbut for us in England its first appearance was in the heady 1880s, and Eleanor Marx as activist, translator, theatre-goer and writer was at the very shaping heart of it.