Seeing through Fuller

Nicholas Penny

  • Theoria: Art and the Absence of Grace by Peter Fuller
    Chatto, 260 pp, £15.00, November 1988, ISBN 0 7011 2942 5
  • Seeing through Berger by Peter Fuller
    Claridge, 176 pp, £8.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 870626 75 3
  • Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain. Vol. IX: Since the Second World War edited by Boris Ford
    Cambridge, 369 pp, £19.50, November 1988, ISBN 0 521 32765 2
  • Ruskin’s Myths by Dinah Birch
    Oxford, 212 pp, £22.50, August 1988, ISBN 0 19 812872 X
  • The Sun is God: Painting, Literature and Mythology in the 19th Century edited by J.B. Bullen
    Oxford, 230 pp, £27.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 812884 3
  • Artisans and Architects: The Ruskinian Tradition in Architectural Thought by Mark Swenarton
    Macmillan, 239 pp, £35.00, February 1989, ISBN 0 333 46460 5

It has been respectable for some while now to admit to being bored by the huge, flat, ‘pure’ abstracts on the white walls of the museums of modern art. And yet non-representational paintings on a fairly large scale seem still to be what art students are most encouraged to make. Critics now incline to applaud in them evidence of a strenously physical relationship with paint. Thus Mali Morris, Lucy Ellmann tells us, works ‘with acrylic on unstretched canvas on the floor ... pulling gobs of paint a little way or densely caking colour on, with rough or gentle strokes. The paint sometimes seems to have flitted across, barely swooping low enough to make contact, where at other times it has been rubbed on in quick gestural jerks.’ The voyeuristic excitement here is reminiscent of the awestruck white man watching tribal ritual: magically, the paint itself becomes an agent. Associating art with primitive magic remains, intentionally or not, a common form of approbation with critics – as popular perhaps as what has become the routine detection of the manner in which art makes a statement about art.

Representational art has also returned to favour, much of it avowedly romantic, with raw colours and heavy, often repellent textures, presenting the sublimities of the Cave of Spleen –

Now glaring fiends, and snakes on rolling spires,
Pale spectres, gaping tombs and purple fires –

or the grotesque and erotic blended with an alarming pathos: ‘And maids turn’d bottles, cry aloud for corks.’ The sculptors, meanwhile, have been combing the fringes of modern civilisation, and are especially active, like the Surrealists, on the beaches. Tony Cragg, recently awarded the Turner Prize, made his name with relief murals composed of ‘beach-worn ship-refuse, plastic bottles, lids, frisbees, old toys, plastic milk crates’. For Waldemar Januszczak these were didactic – ‘one of the things they were about was the indisposability of plastic.’ Richard Deacon, who is with Cragg ‘the most expensive, the most written about, the best patronised ... of the new British sculptural establishment’, makes startling hybrids: ‘To produce one of his small sculptures an old brass navigational aid must have screwed a giant snail’ (Januszczak, again).

Among the recently deceased, no artist is more piously revered than Joseph Beuys, who, for his first commercial gallery exhibition, as Andrew Brighton recalls, ‘smeared his head with honey and gold, tied to his right shoe an iron sole as a companion to the felt sole of his left and took into his arms a dead hare to which he appeared to speak for three hours’. In this way, he ‘mixed personal and public metaphors, signs and symbols, words and icons’. He may have ‘climbed out of modernism’, but his performances depended upon the hushed veneration – or critical cowardice – expected in the white-walled sanctuaries of modern art. Would he have earned such applause in the theatre? What would be the reaction of his admirers if someone covered in a sticky substance muttering to a dead animal sat down next to them on the Tube or rang their front-door bell?

Among the new stars and saints to have emerged since the death of Beuys and Warhol is Jeff Koons. He is said to have been a commodity broker. But then he arranged new vacuum-cleaners in a perspex case and sold them to Charles Saatchi. ‘It is my belief,’ announces Januszczac,

that art today is largely in the business of supplying frisson, little niblets of existential uncertainty, ways of not-knowing, mysteries, small after-hours pleasures for overworked urban minds ... What you have to remember is that art today has become one of the performing arts. Art galleries are places where you go in search of a certain kind of kinky experience. Today’s art gallery is a cross between a church and a disco ... Koons and Co are actually addressing a significant late 20th-century problem ... How do you enfranchise the urban worker’s after-hours imagination? What do you give that imagination to keep it healthy, wet-nosed and happy now that the worker no longer has access to the fruits of his own labour?

The literary editor of the Guardian must be thinking (with such condescension) of workers on night-shift, because the others are going to have difficulty visiting the galleries after the factory closes. Busy housewives might find the time to put their own machines away and take a look at Mr Saatchi’s new ones, but one doesn’t often see the users, any more than the makers of vacuum-cleaners in Cork Street or the Tate Gallery looking at this sort of thing. If Koons really is striving to provide popular entertainment, then his efforts are feeble when compared with the television commercials which are so adept at the half-ironic presentation of domestic appliances as dazzling art objects, or sublime Science Fiction.

What, meanwhile, is happening in the art schools?

Well, as far as the fine art schools are concerned, they are in my view derelict because there’s absolutely nothing to teach ... You can paint what you like. You can dig a trench down the Sahara. Everything is absolutely free. But so is technique. You can paint a picture by hammering nails in it ... I don’t know what will happen. They are a complete mess. The only thing you can actually teach is technique. There should be a chap who knows how to saw a piece of wood, to bend a piece of plastic, or weld a bit of metal.

This is the view of Victor Pasmore, one of the most senior and widely respected of British painters. It is not an account based on extensive experience: elsewhere in the same interview he admits that he has ‘no idea who the younger artists are or what they are drawing’. ‘I simply don’t know what is going on among the younger generation at all,’ he says, which isn’t surprising given that he lives in Malta. The significance of his outburst lies in the assertion that only technique can be taught. There may be a correct way to saw a plank, but when you consider the question of how to carve a figure out of a block of wood, the choice of tool and method of using it become inseparable from a decision about the character of the sculpture. One definition of art would be that its techniques cannot be thought of as merely mechanical skills. What seems to be implied by Pasmore is that artistic values today simply aren’t sufficiently secure to be shared.

It is not hard to connect this part of the interview with a passage later on when Pasmore discusses his part in the planning of Peterlee New Town, and the pavilion over the lake there, which ‘became a sort of pop hooligan’s paradise. They made a terrible noise in it and wrote graffiti on the walls.’ He went there with worried members of the Corporation, some of the dismayed locals, and the press. ‘I told them that this was exactly the sort of thing I had been trying to do myself. The children had done what I couldn’t do, they had humanised the place and made it a social centre.’ Graffiti do not humanise, but signal that a place is perceived as unsocial. They are furtively done, are usually anonymous and almost invariably violent or expressing hate. Did Pasmore really imagine a playgroup contentedly scribbling to make a cheerful equivalent to wallpaper? To confuse such graffiti with his own work, even in jest, is not going to encourage residents of Peterlee to treat his pictures with respect should they ever venture into a museum of modern art. It is, however, true that some modern art has imitated the primitive energy, the folk spells, of graffiti.

Peter Fuller’s Modern Painters, a quarterly ‘journal of the fine arts’, launched last spring, challenges many of the fashionable practices and assumptions which I have just reviewed. At first, its opponents in the art world said it wouldn’t last, then they said it should be stopped, now many of them have agreed to contribute to it. It seems to me to be getting better and more varied. It remains infuriating. Fuller is a champion of landscape painting, including some by the more strident New Romantics; he would like to see life-drawing revived; he favours figurative sculpture in traditional materials. However, he is not against non-representational painting: indeed, he is very sympathetic to it, especially when it has quasi-religious or quasi-scientific aspirations. Modern Painters gives space both to 19th-century spiritualist scribbles and to computer sculpture. Fuller is particularly interested in Ruskin’s attempts to discover a principle of beauty in the natural world-attempts animated at once by devotional awe and scientific curiosity.

Amid the graffiti, the piles of refuse and the space-age appliances, Fuller addresses us with his own apocalyptic rhetoric. ‘We stand on the far shore of a collapsed modernity.’ We must admit that ‘our most acclaimed artists’ have not ‘resolved the spiritual and aesthetic crisis’ which some Victorian painters ‘endeavoured to confront’ – oddly he singles out a trite and pedantic painting in the Ashmolean Museum of a pensive nun in a sunny garden. There are times when one wonders whether he might not himself be a work of performance art. Certainly, he has caused more of a fuss by waving his Ruskin than the blessed Joseph Beuys ever did with his dead hare. In addition to the numerous letters which fill his journal with expressions either of love or of loathing for him, space is given there to disciples recording how eminent artists and critics who have escaped abroad turn pale and totter at the sound of Fuller’s name or the sight of Modern Painters. It is Fuller’s patriotism which seems – understandably – to cause most excitement.

‘I believe that one day, perhaps very soon, the true nature of British Neo-Romanticism will be rediscovered,’ he cries. And then, looking down from the gothic vaults to the sinners silently gathered before him, he lowers his voice: ‘We have to find the courage to admit the mistakes of the last thirty years. If the institutional patrons in this country would only focus upon what we as a nation have always done best, they would soon find their galleries filled with an enthusiastic audience once again.’ There is no need to import shoddy novelties from Paris or New York; the British landscape tradition is still alive. And it has a special meaning for a polluted world. It encourages ‘an imaginative and spiritual reconciliation between man and nature’. As so often with patriots, it is expected that foreigners will pay unpatriotic attention. Europe and America have ‘much to learn from us’.

Those of us who came along hoping to hear a serious challenge to the prevailing orthodoxies of the art world, and perhaps to see eggs chucked at the officials who gave prizes to Gilbert and George and at the critics who acclaimed Julian Schnabel, begin to wonder whether we might be mistaken for part of the congregation – or is it a rally? – and find ourselves having to kneel, or sing the National Anthem. The subject of art schools is raised. Will Fuller have some ideas for reforming them? In how many of them, he wants to know, ‘is British art history taught as such? How many art students are encouraged to see themselves as the heirs of Moore, Piper, Sutherland, Nicholson and Hepworth, let alone of Reynolds, Constable or Turner? And yet we wonder why our national tradition appears so enervated.’ Reynolds, Constable and Turner were all passionately patriotic and the first two were capable of the most crass disparagement of foreign contemporary art, but the tradition to which they belonged was emphatically European. They venerated Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Claude, Cuyp and would have laughed at the proposal to confine the curriculum to native artists.

This strain of writing is unfortunate because it makes it possible to dismiss Fuller’s serious and well-presented case, made most clearly in his contribution to The Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain, to the effect that the late Forties were a period of great cultural optimism in this country when initiatives were taken which reflected both a patriotic spirit and cultural pride, as well as a sense of the obligations which the experience of the war had inspired. There certainly seems to have been a confidence about the steps then taken, whether by the Arts Council, or in art education in schools, which has vanished today.

As part of his stress on British tradition, heritage and lineage, it is important for Fuller to deny the importance of Moore’s debt to Picasso and to Surrealism and to attach him to native traditions. How Moore’s study of non-European carvings, which Fuller does not deny, or his later interest in Ancient Greek art, which Fuller emphasises, accords with the idea of Moore as so centrally British is not clear. In this connection we note that Mrs Thatcher loves Henry Moore’s work and has not only got some of it for Downing Street and Chequers, but has found that it makes good presents for foreign heads of state. She has also had his tapestries displayed against light oatmeal fabric on the walls of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre in order to devise a setting where the ‘right solutions for Europe’ might be found.

Fuller’s declaration that Europe and America have much to learn from us was published in the Salisbury Review in 1987 and then republished in Seeing through Berger, the extended version of Seeing Berger, in which he describes how he ceased to be a Marxist disciple of Berger’s and was converted to Civilisation by Berger’s bête noire, Lord Clark. There is much debate about how right-wing Fuller has become. In some not specifically political respects, he is proud to be a reactionary, but he has never ceased to express his distaste for the present government and makes some effective polemical points by drawing parallels between the cynical philistinism of the New Right and the dismissive treatment of museums and of the spiritual claims for art made by Berger in his Ways of Seeing. Fuller reprinted Mrs Thatcher’s speech at the opening of the Henry Moore exhibition at the Royal Academy (in which she declared her love for his work and explained how she used it) but placed beside it Patrick Heron’s recollection of the painful meeting between Moore and Thatcher when she was Minister of State for Education.

Modern Painters allows the art which Fuller dislikes to be defended and even gives his critical opponents space in its pages. Everything I have quoted in the first part of this article comes from the journal. In addition to interviewing Victor Pasmore and John Piper, whose art he admires, although with qualifications, Fuller has interviewed Anthony Caro on his work for, and relationship with Henry Moore, although he believes that Caro has done great damage to British sculpture. In the fourth issue he prints Grey Gowrie’s appreciation of Francis Bacon, written for the catalogue of the exhibition of Bacon’s work in the Soviet Union, when the first issue contained an attack of his own on Bacon’s art, as life-diminishing when compared with Graham Sutherland’s (the comparison also forms the centrepiece of Fuller’s essay in The Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain). He has published both a strong attack on Julian Schnabel and a favourable notice of his latest exhibition. Fuller is more liberal as an editor than as a polemical author, but then editors calculate the publicity value of controversy. On the other hand, the fact that he allows Januszczac space must make his disciples worry about his sincerity. In return Januszczac lets Fuller review in the Guardian.

In Theoria Fuller combines his polemical writing with more sober cultural history. Much of the work explores Ruskin’s ideas about art and nature and traces the roots of his aesthetic ideas in the religious and scientific thinking of his day. It is done with sensitivity and imagination, and corrects the emphasis of other accounts. Just as Ruskin’s exact religious and scientific position needs more clarification, so, too, does the interest in mythology which became so important in his later writings. Dinah Birch provides this in her admirable study, Ruskin’s Myths. In addition to charting his changing attitude to Greek art and literature more fully than anyone has ever done before, she offers a most revealing examination of his attitudes to Greek myths in relation to the theories of Max Müller, Carl Müller and others. She has also contributed an essay on his solar mythology to The Sun is God, a collection of essays, of mixed quality, concerned with mythology in art, literature and science in the last century.

No writing about the past can be uninfluenced by topical concerns. I suspect that the tolerance inculcated by teachers of English literature for the blend of fragmentary and oracular pedagogy with oblique confession in modern poetry may have helped condition Birch’s sympathy for the high-minded self-indulgence, the dotty and at times distracted character of much of Ruskin’s later writings. Gillian Beer, in a scintillating, funny and touching contribution to The Sun is God, which concerns Darwin’s work on earthworms and Victorian anxieties about the death of the Sun, admits parenthetically that her imaginative pursuit of the latter question has been influenced by modern anxieties about nuclear war. What is troubling about Fuller is not that he finds an echo of his own problems in Ruskin’s work but that he hopes to find a solution there, and wishes to make Ruskin part of a tradition which has been betrayed.

When he leaves Ruskin he is less sure of his ground – or rather one wishes that he were unsure of it. Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean, he informs us, ‘opens with a description of the pockets of pagan resistance to triumphant Christianity’. It does not. He goes back to the later Middle Ages (here and in Seeing through Berger) and draws our attention to the iconoclasm in Ely Cathedral. ‘If we wish to understand how British culture could produce a Shakespeare, but not a Rembrandt, this is as close as we are likely to get.’ This suggests the disadvantages of a narrowly British education, for there was extensive iconoclasm in the Low Countries. Far more serious than this is his treatment of the avant-garde artists of the late 19th century, especially in France.

‘Even in revolutionary Europe, many of the great 19th-century painters, although they were subsequently marshalled in the modernist cause, can best be understood as reactionaries, as men in revolt against modernity, rather than as the “avant-gardists” they were later described as being.’ This is to equate the socially progressive character of the ‘Modern movement’, a term devised for a school of 20th-century architecture and design, with ‘modern art’ and the ‘avant-garde’ in general, although the term ‘avant-garde’ was always understood metaphorically and no serious commentator has ever depicted those late 19th-century painters to which Fuller refers as enthusiasts for ‘modernity’ – not that we are encouraged here to distinguish modern ideas from modern things (anarchists did not invariably admire Eiffel’s tower). ‘There was no greater influence on Degas than Ingres,’ Fuller announces in triumph. ‘For many Cézanne was the father of modern painting; but he rather saw himself as doing Poussin again – only this time from nature.’ But we all know about Degas and Ingres (not a very close relationship, but one that Degas was fond of claiming) and about Poussin and the Old Masters (although, as Theodore Reff has pointed out, the very improbable reference to Poussin, by whom Cézanne was in fact little influenced, was put into Cézanne’s mouth after his death).

It is important to secure 19th-century artists from the distortions imposed upon them by those who claim descent from them, but Fuller’s discussion of these matters degenerates into statements such as the following: ‘Even the voluptuous beauty of Auguste Renoir’s painting depended upon his refusal of the modern age.’ An odd claim to make of an artist who in his finest work rejoiced in vulgar cafés, suburban boating, busy new boulevards, even if in later life he prefered to imagine housemaids in a vague Arcady. ‘Indeed Renoir’s hedonism not withstanding, the parallels with Ruskin are surprisingly close.’ In like manner did Ovid prosper in the Middle Ages. The way that a passage such as this places Ruskin in the mainstream of European thought again suggests the disadvantages of a narrowly British education. Far quainter, however, is the proposal that the ‘intellectual attitude’ of Degas, Renoir, Cézanne and the like ‘was closer to that of Maurice Cowling than to Nikolaus Pevsner’. It’s as if a boy had supposed that, because one of his schoolmasters won a medal in the war, he must have been a hero whose exploits were familiar to all adults. Peter Fuller was an undergraduate at Peterhouse where Cowling is a don.

It was in 1967 in Peterhouse library that Fuller came across Ruskin’s The Political Economy of Art. The discussion of Ruskin and his contemporaries has not progressed very far in Theoria before Fuller re-introduces himself as the co-subject of the work. He tells us about his first essay on Ruskin (which he has kept) and how, unwisely, his ‘generation of revolting students’ had their eyes ‘turned constantly towards ideas and events taking place across the Channel or the Atlantic’. To pay heed to Ruskin in these circumstances is made to seem a remarkable, even a heroic act: ‘as a cultural force at that time he was not an echo, let alone a voice.’ Fuller concedes that some attention was given to Ruskin by Raymond Williams, but ‘I don’t think there were many who took his exhortation to study Ruskin seriously,’ although there was ‘even then, plenty of academic scholarship focused on the unresolved details of Ruskin’s sexual and marital history’. A few pages later we are boldly informed that ‘Ruskin had been forgotten ... Certainly, when I went to London in 1968, soon to work as a professional art critic, no one as far as I can recall read Ruskin, at least not in avant-gardist New Left circles.’ The ‘at least’ is an engaging concession.

Having read this, I turned to my book shelves and found that in 1967, when I was still at school, I owned no fewer than three anthologies of Ruskin’s writing intended for the general reader and the undergraduate: Clark’s Ruskin Today (published in paperback in that year, having first appeared in 1964), Rosenberg’s The Genius of John Ruskin (published in the UK in 1964), and Herbert’s The Art Criticism of John Ruskin (published as an Anchor paperback in 1964). The Sixties and the early Seventies also saw much notable Ruskin scholarship. The best one can say about Fuller here is that his egocentric distortion is thoroughly Ruskinian. It reminds us of how Ruskin convinced himself that he had ‘discovered’ Botticelli and managed to make it seem as if no one for centuries before him had been stirred by Tintoretto’s pictures in the Scuola di San Rocco.

Ruskin’s influence on the ideas of architects and planners in the early part of this century has recently been examined by Mark Swen arton in his Artisans and Architects. After carefully reviewing the ideas of Webb, Morris, Lethaby, Unwin and the less-familiar A.J. Penty, he goes on to argue (not entirely convincingly) that, contrary to the orthodox view, ‘not only did modernism develop historically from a basis in Ruskinian thought, but there remained within modernist thinking powerful legacies of the Ruskinian system.’ One would welcome an exploration of Ruskin’s influence in the same period on the visual arts generally. To a sophisticated champion of modern sculpture like Stanley Casson, writing in 1930, the doctrine of truth to material so influential on the younger generation was ‘based on those dreadful theories of our “Folk Art” enthusiasts who would give every hoof-handed yokel a part in the Arts and Crafts of the land, with the result that sculpture under such circumstances would degenerate into little more than stick-whittling (with a due regard always to the knots so that they could be conveniently welded into the design)’. Fuller would certainly welcome further investigation of this implied association of the early carvings of sculptors such as Henry Moore with the ideas propounded by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice. It is to be hoped that such an investigation, if it is carried out, is more scrupulous than his own research into the 1960s.

The fabrication of traditions in order to endorse some new tendency in art or politics should not be a concern of responsible historians. The method, moreover, is at variance with that of Ruskin, who championed Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites largely because they had broken with tradition. Artists need standards and ideals, heroes even, and these Fuller may supply, as Ruskin certainly did. He urges artists to be serious: they are to leave graffiti to the hooligans and to television commercials the provision of ‘kinky’, ‘after-hours’ distractions. But it is surely also essential that artists should not be encouraged to think of themselves as prophets, or visionaries, or magicians, even though there have been great artists who were prophets and visionaries. Fuller, who seeks so ardently for spiritual light, and who is tempted to conceive of himself as a prophet, may not agree.