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Letters

Vol. 21 No. 11 · 27 May 1999

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Illuminating Pollock

When writing in your columns (LRB, 1 April) about the Jackson Pollock exhibition at the Tate, I made frequent allusions to the daylight there and to the advantages which I felt it gave this showing over the initial showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. All the same, the daylight of late February and early March in which I had seen it when I wrote was not pure daylight. It was augmented by electric light directed from the centre of each module down towards the floor, from which some of it bounced back to hit the walls. And this is the combination of lighting by which the public has generally been seeing the exhibition. With the advent of summer, the Museum has cut out the electric light at times when the weather has been favourable. (To be precise, on those rare occasions when the sunlight has been too strong for the pictures’ physical good, it’s the daylight that has had to be cut out or cut down.) And pure daylight is likely to be used increasingly as the show reaches its impending end. Anyone who sees it in that way, having previously seen it only in mixed lighting, is in for a marvellous shock. I have lately had five opportunities to see it in pure daylight – always the same rather special daylight that is present after six in the evening – and, having previously seen the Pollock retrospectives at Whitechapel in 1958, in New York in 1967, in Paris in 1982, and the present show in New York, each of them several times, I now feel I had never really seen Pollock before.

One thing pure daylight does, especially when it’s fading, is to bring out an inner glow in paintings. A major work by Pollock that hasn’t been looking its best in the mixed lighting at the Tate is the big black drip painting, Number 32, of 1950. I said in my review that it didn’t dance there as it did in the purely electric light, cunningly applied, at MoMA. But in the pure fading daylight it has a darkening inner glow that adds power to the jagged movement of its calligraphy and speeds this up, and it now has the elegant energy of a bucking bronco.

Another great thing about unadulterated daylight is that it doesn’t flatten the intricacies of layered paint, doesn’t separate individual colours out, as any intervention at all of electric light does. The transformation of Blue Poles is the most amazing of the results of pure daylight. Forty years ago this painting, executed in 1952, was generally considered one of the supreme Pollocks, the equal of such 1950 masterpieces as One, Autumn Rhythm and Lavender Mist. Lately it has been much less highly esteemed. The swirling vortices of the tangled bulk of the painting have seemed rather excessively, desperately, almost hysterically, energetic, while the march of the blue poles across the surface has seemed rather too facile a way of imposing order late in the day on a chaos that had got out of hand. In the fading daylight the scattered flashes of vermilion in the tangle have stopped flapping nervously about in our faces. No longer subject in this light to the optical rule that red colours tend to advance towards us, the vermilion bits have retreated into the tangled bulk which they now seem to infuse with a smouldering fire, while we are manhandled by those tight, relentless swirls of whitish and greyish paint.

Another major work that gains significantly from unadulterated daylight is Mural, 1943-44. In my review I said that, because of the way it was hung at the Tate, it wasn’t as overwhelming as in New York, that it didn’t gather us up so forcefully. But it looks about as good as it can when no electric light is there to separate the strands of colour from one another. In that procession across the huge canvas of thick curving black lines, those lines look much less black, much less outstanding, so that there is much less sense of repetition in the design, much more sense of a comprehensive alloverness. The composition now, instead of pummelling us with a succession of heavy blows, gathers our bodies up in an irresistible but rather caressing embrace.

This diminution in the intensity of the black lines in Mural is typical of the tendency for lines in general to be much less emphatic in pure daylight. Describing One: Number 31, 1950 in my review, I was very insistent about the soaring quality of its arabesques, of the contrapuntal interplay of its complex of lines. The lines are much less evident in pure daylight. They are very present in that they are sometimes very menacing, in that they seem to be lashing out in our direction like the stalks of triffids. But when we see them like that, it’s almost out of the corner of our eye. When we gaze straight at the picture we don’t see lines much, we don’t see traces of gestures, trails of paint, we see structures, perforated with air but firm, or we see surfaces analogous to the rough surfaces of a Giacometti sculpture. We see structures which, while aerated, are dense, which, while firm, are somehow always changing and reforming, configurations which are bursting with contained energy but here and there exploding. And everything is in relief, fairly low relief. The forms reach out towards us. They reach out, they do not pull us in. This is not a composition like a Monet lily-pond, which envelops us; it is a composition that confronts us. It is out there, quite near, decidedly menacing, but separate. The constant movement of its forms pulls us this way and that: not as if we were trapped on a Big Dipper but through its magnetic pull in one direction, then another. Nor is it like a landscape: its texture is too unparticularised. it’s more a metaphor for the universe. it’s metaphysical, perhaps an incarnation of the concept of the Heraclitean flux. And it carries a fantastic charge of energy, but it doesn’t express emotions. It isn’t agonised or exhilarated; it’s cool. It isn’t anything that Abstract Expressionism seems a suitable name for, if Expressionism implies a kind of art that conveys particular human passions beyond a passion for painting.

Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950 remains Pollock’s most mysterious work, and more than ever. I tried to explain its mystery before by saying that it was the one work by Pollock in which ‘within the animation which pervades every inch of the canvas there lies an absolute stillness.’ But what is seen in pure daylight makes that terribly simplistic. The work seems to be inhabiting a domain beyond animation and beyond stillness. Something is going on that seems very positively indescribable. My friend Arabella Stuart, talking about how inexplicable it is, suggested that one thing it seems to have is a sort of veil of gauze somewhere between its surface and your eye, and that if, as you looked, you moved quickly from side to side, you felt you could get in behind that veil. It makes a lot of difference where you stand: the canvas gets too small if you’re more than eight or ten feet away. The work presents a very strange coexistence of endurance and evanescence. There seem to be explosions going on here and there all the time. Yet it all looks utterly indestructible. It has a strange air of seeming to be in the course of consuming itself. At the same time it appears to have a density that is impenetrable. We are well accustomed to notions of religious feeling in the Abstract Sublime. There is not a lot of that here, but there is a feeling of the metaphysical. I had the same sort of feeling during my first encounter with Las Meninas, which happened in the mid-Sixties when it was still hanging in that small corner room with a mirror. Perhaps it has something to do with silvery pinkness.

The experiences I have been describing – including the one at the Prado – depend on there being no presence whatever of electric light. Painters tend to like that state of affairs when looking at pictures. The reason they like it is not that it reproduces the conditions in which the works were painted; it’s nothing as academic as that. They like it because, regardless of whether the thing came into being in daylight or in artificial light, colour always looks more alive in pure daylight, and all the more so when the light is fading.

The public, however, tend not to like seeing pictures in pure daylight, and particularly in fading daylight, and this is why they tend to be denied the vast privilege of doing so. They are denied it because they protest when they get it. When I arranged for parts of the Bacon exhibitions I did in museums in Venice in 1993 and Paris in 1996 to be lit entirely by natural light from windows at the side, a sizable proportion of the visitors plagued the unhappy guards with their complaints. It is a fact that the majority of the people who visit museums want to see the paintings look like colour reproductions, bright and glossy and dead, and to achieve this they want all the lights to be turned on. They know that what they then see is a distortion, or else they wouldn’t take clothes they are buying to the entrance of the shop to see them by daylight, but when looking at art they want that distortion.

I do not know how many opera houses around the world pay attention to any letters they get complaining that the singing should be louder, that voices should be amplified by the use of electricity. What is sure is that the majority of museums fail to resist precisely analogous pressures.

The Pollock exhibition goes on until Sunday, 6 June inclusive. At their late openings, every Saturday till 8 o’clock, the Tate intend to ensure that it is seen in fading daylight until 7 o’clock.

David Sylvester
London W11

Ideological Gymnastics

In her richly informative article on Paul Lafargue (LRB, 13 May), Susan Watkins makes the point that, once he became a member of the Chambre des Députés in 1893, Jean Jaurès ‘envisaged a far broader role for the Socialist Party than Lafargue and Guesde had done. Taking a position on the Dreyfus question, on social reform, on internationalism and the war, it would speak not just for Zola’s France but for a section of Proust’s as well.’ So far as the ‘Dreyfus question’ was concerned, the shameful fact is that Lafargue and Guesde had refused to take up any public position on that profoundly political miscarriage of justice, on the grounds that, since the wretched Captain Dreyfus was, as an Army officer, self-evidently a member of the bourgeoisie, he had no moral claim on proletarianists such as themselves. So much, you might say, for the purportedly universalist principles of 1789, of which Lafargue and his kind saw themselves as the heirs. Their ideological gymnastics in this conjoncture, all too familiar though they have become in the course of the present century, make depressing reading and will surely have been in the mind of Julien Benda when he eventually came to write La Trahison des clercs.

Neil Forster
London N1

Susan Watkins told me several things I did not know about the extended Marx family, but her piece about Paul Lafargue also contained a few errors. Wilhelm Liebknecht was a leader, but not the leader of the SPD. It is generally accepted that Freddy Demuth was Marx's illegitimate son, but the main evidence, a typewritten copy of a letter from Engels's housekeeper to August Bebel (the SPD leader), only surfaced in 1950 and is less than convincing. Will Susan Watkins's forthcoming novel throw any new light on the matter?

G.A. Parish
Croydon

Something of a Struggle

According to Mark Ford, the miners in Tony Harrison’s Prometheus are ‘all figured as salt-of-the-earth types, while Hermes
… sums up everything Harrison dislikes about New Labour’ (LRB, 13 May). Having thus oversimplified it, Ford proceeds to criticise the film for being too simplistic: ‘the contest for the audience’s hearts and minds between the Old Man and Hermes is so obviously set up in the Old Man’s favour that it never manages to generate any convincing intellectual tension or dramatic suspense.’ But isn’t the fact that Ford found himself ‘rather tempted to side with Hermes’ evidence of some kind of conflict? We recoil from the Old Man’s jingoism over the Dresden bombing; it’s hard to dismiss Hermes’ ecological arguments as just so much spin. V offers ample evidence of tension between Harrison’s classical education and his coal-mining roots, between Hermes and the Old Man, and this tension persists in Prometheus. it’s impossible to dispute that Ford found the film ‘rather dull’, but that matter of taste doesn’t justify his representing it as a bit simple-minded. I find D.H. Lawrence something of a struggle, but that doesn’t mean he’s no good.

George Braddon
London SE1

Only in the Balkans

In his superb article on Western attitudes to the Balkans, Misha Glenny (LRB, 29 April) declares that Bram Stoker’s Dracula ‘unwittingly reveals an English paranoia’ about invasive foreigners. But in an essay in Signs Taken for Wonders (1988), Franco Moretti has shown that the revelation was far from unwitting. In my cultural history Gothic, published last year, I bolstered Moretti’s reading with further evidence that Stoker in the 1890s meticulously planned ‘a fable of national insecurity’ to arouse anxiety about the threat of capitalist aliens to British business.

Richard Davenport-Hines
Ailhon, France

About six years ago, Robert Kaplan, the author of Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History, wrote an article in the Globe and Mail newspaper here in Canada in which he listed the books that he thought were necessary reading on the Balkans, giving a strong recommendation to Bram Stoker's Dracula.

Doug Smith
Winnipeg

Journey to the Dome

Perhaps Iain Sinclair should not be so pessimistic about the Dome's likely effect on London life (LRB, 13 May). During the Great Exhibition of 1851 the Government was so worried that the huge numbers of workers attending would use the occasion to revolt that special constables and troops were put on standby. How appropriate if the New Labour Dome were to spark an anti-Government protest as people ponder how much tax they paid for a monument that they can't even get to.

Keith Flett
London N17

Far from Lewisham, Blair Peach was actually topped in Southall, at the junction of Lady Margaret Road and Uxbridge Road. Recently, on what I believe was the 20th anniversary of this évènement, the site was cordoned off by the police. When I asked one bored police officer why, she would not (or could not) say.

Simon Cockshutt
London W5

Who owns John Sutherland?

Those who share John Sutherland’s worries about copyright ownership (LRB, 7 January) may be interested in a ruling made in a Paris court on 14 April. It concerned a two-year archive that the Figaro has set up on the Minitel, an on-line service which has existed in France since the early Eighties. The Syndicat National des Journalistes and eight Figaro writers argued that the fee they’d been paid covered the first, paper publication only, and that any subsequent reissue should give rise to further payment. The judge agreed, and pointedly extended her ruling to any publication ‘sur un nouveau support résultant de la technologie récente’, a clear sign that the Internet would be treated no differently. She gave Figaro a month to sort things out, with a 10,000 franc fine for each subsequent day of non-compliance, and appointed an expert to fix the rate of remuneration for such republications. Without this payment, reissued texts are to be subject to the law on forgery.

Mat Pires
Paris

Having your grouse

Rosemary Hill, described on your contents page as a ‘contributing editor of Crafts magazine’, has clearly taken off ill-spared time from her crewel-work in order to criticise Girlitude, an autobiography, for containing too much ‘self-absorption’ (LRB, 13 May). I believe I am right in supposing that a quilter, tatter or rugger would be surprised to find their products dismissed as ‘home-made’ by a literary critic. But perhaps Ms Hill simply suffers from a chip on her stoneware?

Emma Tennant
London W11

Civilian-Cleansing

Tariq Ali's grudging endorsement of the Army takeover of WAPDA, the Water and Power Development Authority (LRB, 15 April), runs counter to his well-known opposition to the role of the military in Pakistan; moreover he has not spelled out the circumstances in which WAPDA was handed over to the military. The Army has had to tighten its belt during the current economic crisis and has tried to cling onto power in different forms, with the result that the civilian administration has been coerced into relinquishing a state-controlled institution – a source of public revenue. In the WAPDA takeover, 35,000 soldiers answerable to the Army Chief of Staff replaced long-term civilian employees. WAPDA is not the only place where this civilian-cleansing is going on. Pakistan's railways are next on the target list. Only by taking direct charge of these departments can the military ensure a smooth flow of domestic revenue into military coffers. On his fleeting visit to Pakistan, Ali failed to notice that support for military action is thin on the ground.

Arif Azad
Index on Censorship
London N1

What’s going on?

Moira Macdonald writes that she is astonished each fortnight to find that yet again no woman has managed to write a poem which the LRB considers worth publishing (Letters, 13 May). I have been a subscriber to the LRB for only 12 months or so but during that time I have not read one poem in the LRB that was worth publishing there or anywhere else. Each time I read one of these ‘poems’ I can feel the earth moving under my feet. I think it must be all the great poets of the past turning in their graves.

Stephen Kellie
Liverpool

Now, there’s a novelty

Writing about Morecambe and Wise (LRB, 15 April), David Goldie unaccountably describes as ‘absurd non-sequiturs’ lines like ‘My auntie’s got a Whistler – now, there’s a novelty.’ Such gems are not in the least absurd, nor is their status as sequiturs in doubt in the mind of anyone who gets the joke: the sexual double-entendre has long been standard fare in the British music hall and its descendant, the British TV comedy show. How would Goldie describe the following gag from the Isaac Newton routine? Eric and Ernie are sitting under a tree. Eric says that this is where Sir Isaac was sitting when the apple fell on his head. Ernie wants to hear more. ‘Yes it’s true,’ says Eric. ‘One day Sir Isaac was sitting under this very tree, examining his equations.’ Ernie swivels round in alarm and the audience falls about.

Alan Gabbey
Barnard College, New York

Žižeked

In Alan Bennett’s Forty Years On there is a much wittier twist on Goering and his Browning than Malcolm Muggeridge’s reaching for his culture when he heard the word ‘gun’ (Letters, 29 April). It comes in the spoof memoir of Virginia Woolf’s literary soirées: ‘She was talking of her contemporaries, how she had spoken last week with Hemingway and how Ernest had said: When I reach for my gun I hear the word culture. How easy it seemed for them, she thought, and how hard it was for her.’ I don’t know if that makes it a ‘leftist slogan’ or not.

Seamus Perry
University of Glasgow

When did Pompey die?

In his review of Ann Wroe’s apparently whimsically digressive book on Pilate, Frank Kermode writes (LRB, 15 April): ‘Pompey’s desecration of the Temple is described, though it happened a generation after Pilate had gone home.’ Consultation of any Roman history will show that Pompey died in 48 BCE. Schuerer’s History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ shows that Pompey broke into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, 63 BCE. According to Josephus, Titus captured the Temple Mount in CE 70 and when, against his orders, his soldiers set fire to the Temple Titus just had time to inspect the interior.

Lewis Smith
Newark, Nottinghamshire

All Antennae

I enjoyed Jeremy Bernstein’s recollection of Arthur Koestler’s banter in Reykjavik (Letters, 15 April). Putz is German/Yiddish slang for ‘penis’ – literally ‘prick’. I am reliably informed that the diminutive ending ‘-li’ is characteristically Viennese. However, since Putz is a noun and not a verb I’m not sure how much further this gets us in the quest to retrieve Koestler’s meaning.

David Cesarani
University of Southampton

Golden Imbeciles

In his review of the Oulipo Compendium (LRB, 29 April), John Sturrock devotes a paragraph to Raymond Queneau’s ‘titanic’ work Cent mille milliards de poèmes and to an English translation thereof by Stanley Chapman featured in the Compendium – albeit with the pages left uncut, which rather defeats the work’s combinatorial purpose. Readers may be interested to know that an English version of Queneau’s work was published in book form in 1983 by Kickshaws, in my own adaptation, under the title One Hundred Million Million Poems. In our edition, the sheets were cut into strips, as in the original French work, so as to allow individual lines to be recombined at will – the whole point of the exercise.

Hand-set and printed in a limited edition of 500 copies, it soon went out of print. But no commercial publisher, British or American, was prepared to risk his/her arm to bring out a regular edition in English, unlike German, Swedish and other publishers, who have since issued successful commercial editions of their own.

John Crombie
Paris

Unfair to Sherborne

What I want to know is why a ‘schoolmaster from Sherborne’ would glance up when he hears V.S. Naipaul use the word ‘sucking’ (see A.N. Wilson’s review of Paul Theroux’s nasty-sounding book – LRB, 13 May). Because he thought Naipaul said ‘fucking’? But then why would Naipaul have said to Theroux: ‘They are fucking your energy.’ Not much point in that.

And how did Theroux know that the man in the corner seat was a ‘schoolmaster from Sherborne’? I have good reason to know that Sherborne comes before Salisbury, so Theroux wouldn’t have seen him get on, and he doesn’t sound like the sort of man who’d care two hoots who his fellow-travellers were. Theroux just wants some innocent stooge to be ‘frankly gaping’ along with himself at the end of his anecdote. A slur on Sherborne and on schoolmasters.

Ivor Potts
Sturminster Newton, near Sherborne

Back to the Ironing Board

In his review of my novel The Music Lesson (LRB, 15 April), Theo Tait criticises my depiction of the dramatic actions of an IRA splinter group on the grounds that ‘the fit with contemporary Irish politics’ is ‘offensively loose’, adding that in the late Nineties the narrator’s aim – ‘to force powerful people to pay attention and take decisive action at last’ – is a ‘curious objective’ against a ‘background of Nobel Peace Prizes, Presidential grandstanding and constant headlines’.

The people of Omagh would not feel that IRA splinter groups are beyond further discussion. The day I read Tait’s review, Sinn Fein’s chairman was quoted in the New York Times as saying: ‘Our view is that the Good Friday Agreement is in free fall.’

Katharine Weber
Bethany, Connecticut

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