Emin to Heda: Bed and Breakfast

In the autumn of 2015, I participated in one of the University of Iowa’s excellent creative writing MOOCs – How Writers Write Fiction. Among the varied and interesting (and occasionally exasperating) advice and insights offered by a variety of authors in the course material, I was particularly struck by a comment by the Salvadorean author Horacio Castellanos Moya that the voice of a character in fiction, whether a protagonist or a narrator, reveals the ‘mentality’ of that character.

In Castellano-Moja’s view, what a character notices and comments upon, the world and experience the author imagines the character deems worthy of remark, paints the picture, for the reader, of what kind of person this imaginary being ‘is’.

For me it was one of those key-stone clicks. ‘Well obviously! Of course!…And I never thought of that!’

I encountered the idea again recently in Norbert Schneider’s commentary on Still Life in the Taschen edition of that title. That the objects selected by the painter reflect the mentality of both the painter and his milieu. The objects are deemed worthy of remark and record. The painter makes some kind of calculation that his target ‘market’ will find a representation of THOSE objects desirable (even if that ‘market’ is only the artist himself or herself).

Schneider’s book, in fact, focusses exclusively on the still lifes of the ‘Early Modern’ period – the Dutch Golden Age, the work of Velasquez and Cotan, Caravaggio and their contemporaries. Chardin is not touched upon. The dislocations of Braque and Picasso are far in the future – though Archimboldo gets to mess with our senses. No Cezanne.

For myself, in this period, I am particularly attracted to the early to mid-17th century breakfast pieces – ondbijtjes – of Pieter Claesz and Willem Claesz. Heda. Almost monochrome in subdued greenish -grey and warm earthy-golds, these pieces do not represent opulent display, conspicuous consumption or fanciful connection as in other still lifes of the period – by Kalf or de Heem for example. Despite the fabulous and sudden wealth of the Dutch Republic, in these subdued ondbijtjes what is represented is ‘the morning after’ – the half eaten pie, the flat, left over beer in the tumbler, the cowped goblet, the broken wine-glass, as for example in Heda’s Breakfast Still Life with Blackberry Pie. What a night we had last night! We set the world to rights and broke that lovely glass that Marten liked so much.

As Norman Bryson comments in the BBC documentary Apples, Pears and Paint, this is ‘consumption as destruction’ – in contrast to other ‘banquet pieces’ which celebrate accumulation with their lobster, nautilus goblets, Chinese porcelain. These are vanitas. Heda even includes a pocket watch, abandoned on the table’s edge to remind us that time is ticking by.

There is a beautiful melancholy about these pieces. They are not (quite) representations of a hang-over – there is a wistful sense a good time was had by all…and yet?

Someone bought this stuff, displayed this stuff, over the centuries cherished and curated these images…for their meaning and their artistry.

On the internet, it seems, there is a thriving interest in and market for pastiches of Dutch Golden Age Still Lifes including a sub-genre of beautifully realised photographs replicating composition, lighting, mood but not involving ‘paint’ (or painting).

In 1999 Tracey Emin installed her piece My Bed in the Tate.

The piece provoked comment, outrage perhaps – stained sheets and underwear, condoms, vodka bottles, ashtray, ‘detritus’ – fewer pundits remarking on the fluffy toy, her slippers.

I admire the reckless autobiographical quality in much of Tracey Emin’s work. I know, and have disagreed, with, others who feel she is ‘taking the piss’ but her response to the accusation that ‘anyone can exhibit an unmade bed’ was, allegedly, ‘Well, they didn’t, did they?’ And the impact of the piece was, unquestionably, greater than a painting of her unmade bed – no less ‘confessional’ – might have been.

The ‘found object’ was fair game in 20th century art from Duchamp onwards. Emin found the left over trace of herself (an inadvertent pun) …staged and unstaged…and presented it – just as Heda found and staged the broken glass, the half-eaten pie…did he eat it? An assistant? The difference is he transposed and encapsulated it in the two-dimensional ‘wrapper’ of a painting. But what do you do with an unmade bed? Saatchi allegedly kept it in a special room in his house. What can the ‘person’ who purchased it for £2,546,500 in 2014 ‘do’ with it…apart from ‘own’ it.

Yet for me they sit ‘together’ – Heda’s ondbijt and Emin’s bed – as representations of the aftermath of experience and consumption…consumption as destruction. And, in some sense, in Emin’s case the object of consumption was her self even as it made her reputation as an artist.

It is a common-place that we are said to live in a ‘consumer society’. The economics of late-capitalism (what a hopeful touch that word ‘late’ is!) demand continuous consumption and exorbitant waste. Durability is anathema. The evanescent is paradigmatic. The dematerialised – streaming video and audio and one-click digital downloads – replace the painted, the sculpted, the printed, performed and the real – recording, replication and dissemination are privileged over creation and performance – unique creations become asset-categories or events – bankably particular. This blog, of course, exploits the same evanescent facility…if you want to see Heda’s painting, it’s in Dresden.

But if consumption is destruction doesn’t that make a consumer society a destructive society? And if this is so, isn’t there more need for the vanitas as a genre in our art…to remind us, gently, of the cost of that ‘good night in’? Shouldn’t we value that reminder?

Saltfish Forty, Glenbuchat Hall, Glenbuchat, 19th Feb. 2016

Saltfish Forty. They’re a bit Orcadian,” my daughter said when I told her I was going.

Well….yes.

But what does that mean in the modern world of traditional music. True, Brian Cromarty (guitar, mandola, vocals) has broad flat vowels when he speaks to this ‘Sooth’ audience and Douglas Montgomery has an ‘island’ sense of humour – but the music, like all that is best about ‘traditional’ music, is eclectic, cosmopolitan, skillfully-inflected, modern, affectionate.

There are Orcadian rhythms and motifs worked into the craft of the playing but the ‘tunes’ include Shetlandic, Mainland (Scottish) and Canadian pieces, Western Swing and 12-bar blues. For this is North Atlantic music. (if Texas can be co-opted for now as a North Atlantic Province – delete Florida and Louisiana – it’s all about the Gulf Stream after all!).

I note in myself, as a musician of ‘limited accomplishments’, an interest in mid-20th century jazz and (Celtic) traditional music when I play. No pop nostalgia or rock anthems. I go back – and come forward. These genre share – I think – a quality of syncopation, appropriation, openness – and an established aural tradition. Learn by ear – then improvise. The orchestral score and the cover band ‘nail’ the tune – ‘the karaoke blues’ as Brian Cromarty sings in one of his pieces – but trad and jazz flow. As transatlantic music should.

The Orcadians were on the mainland here – Glenbuchat on Donside – Strathspey territory I suppose – with its own local ceilidh traditions, a strong fiddle heritage (Scott Skinner et al) and the Old Blind Dogs as the local headline group with a network of excellent ceilidh bands and associated groups such as Clachan Yell, Danse Mccabre, Clype and The New Distillery Band. This is, I feel, my home territory – odd for someone who has never felt quite at home anywhere. Here, in the West of Aberdeenshire, where the land lifts onto the Grampians, the sense of community is strong and the community I know is a community that dances.

It was a sell-out event, about a hundred people of all ages – teens to octogenarians – seated at trestle tables, whisky, wine and beer, crisps and cashew nuts. Tie-dye and printed fabrics on the walls – fairy lights. A stage. Two men. Fiddle, guitar, mandola. (and a rough box of a stomper Douglas Montgomery swears he made himself). And the sound comes. The music comes.

Netherbow and The Glassel Jig. The Red Diesel Reels. Reiländer. Some Canadian jigs. A tune from Shetland.

Provenance is tentative…Cromarty speaks of where the tune was found…as if it were a piece of driftwood. This song, he says, ‘I found…I’ve changed the tempo, the key, the tune…and some of the words.’ So he teaches us all the chorus to sing along to…La-la-la – La- la- la. Oooo-ooo-ooo-aaa-aaa-aaa. And we sing along to a tale of lost love, drowned sailors, mermaids and such. It is traditional. Now it is part of our tradition.

Strong throbbing stomping rhythms. It took until half way through the first half before the women (and a few men) began to dance. The rhythms could not be resisted. In the beginning people clap, then tap time with their feet, their fingers, glasses, beer cans. And then the women dance. For it cannot be denied. We are dancing to Orkney, to the North Atlantic drift, to Western Swing and Blues, to jigs and reels, strathspeys. It is all traditional and re-invented in the moment, at this moment, now. It is alive. We are alive. Musicians bring this gift of life. Outside the night is dark and full of stars. Driving back, I saw an owl on a post. It turned its head to watch me pass.

Capital:On Growth and its Discontents

In Capital, Thomas Piketty argues, based on analysis of available historical records, that global growth rates prior to the 18th Century CE were probably in the order of 0%-0.2% GDP per annum. Between 1700 and 2012, he calculates, global growth rates were, on average, 0.8% GDP with significantly higher rates (up to 3.5%) in the middle of the 20th Century.

Picketty argues that a growth rate in the order of 1% ‘implies major social change’ since material circumstances – and therewith power and property relations – shift dramatically from generation to generation at these rates of growth.

He, moreover, argues that the spectacularly high growth rates of the 20th century are associated with two phenomena – the rebuilding of infrastructure destroyed in the two world wars and the technological catch-up of formerly colonised areas previously asset stripped for resources (agricultural products, minerals, slave labour). He questions, with I think good reason,that such growth can be sustained outwith periods of regeneration and with a level technological playing field.

Given his focus on income and wealth, he is less engaged, I think, with the enormous injection of ‘low cost’ energy which fossil fuel exploitation enabled this growth, the ultimate ecological costs of which have never been incorporated into the ‘pricing model’. We have grown ‘wealthy’ by accumulating debts, not to banks or sovereign funds, but to future generations and vulnerable populations – debts which, given our mortality, cannot be foreclosed on and on which we will probably default.

Piketty fractionates growth into two components – population growth and productivity growth. The material and technological benefits of the latter enable the former. For a while, in the 19th and 20th centuries, more and more of us produced faster and faster. As a consequence, each generation lived in a different world, with different expectations, from that of their parents. Coal, oil and gas drove massive social change and the dominant market mechanism, capitalism, required constant innovation and repackaging to attract the interest and appetite of each succeeding generation. Instability and change is the essence of modernity and was fuelled almost exclusively by burning fossil hydrocarbons which cannot be renewed in ‘human’ timescales.

I was interested, reading John Berger’s essays on Durer, Caravaggio and others in Portraits, to reflect the shifts in emphasis in European art in the early modern period just preceding the take-off in growth rates. Artists like Durer and Michelangelo looked backwards to the world of their fathers or to classical ideals – were mannerist and idealist – modelling the present on the past whilst incorporating technological and craft development (including a burgeoning self-awareness) into their practice.

Later or more Northern (proto-capitalist?) artists focus on the real person and his or her material possessions – Caravaggio’s Madonna del Palafreniere really is/ is really Maddalena di Paolo Antognetti in contemporary (17th century) clothes, Mrs. Arnolfini’s green woollen dress is state-of-the-art and Willem Claesz. Heda’s ondbijtjes are straight from the kitchen the night before – it’s now stuff, it’s new stuff – and from there it picks up the pace.

Art and ideas about individual autonomy and material prosperity (and their associated political institutions) in Europe precede the invention of the steam engine, maybe inform the desire to build such a device which decouples the proprietor from the vagaries of climate, location, weather – but it is not until we start burning coal on an industrial scale that the inter-generational upheaval which we call ‘growth’ takes off.

Still – we are here today. We know what we know. We have created what we have created, discovered what we have discovered, dug up (and burned or smelted) what we have dug up. Murdered, maimed, exploited and enslaved. We are where we are. It is what it is. Unjust. Unfair. Unwise.

Sometimes we have thought it magnificent (sometimes I have) – though perhaps that is no more than youthful boastfulness after an outrageous party. “Man, I was SO drunk last night! We trashed the place!”

There are issues, for me, of climate justice, of inter-generational justice, of personal responsibility – all of which, understandably, I’d like to avoid if I could. Who wouldn’t…faced with the scale of the problem, faced with the magnitude of the debts and the ease with which some can evade our creditors?

Art and economics. Sustainability.

I make marks. I have a sense that I should be doing more to sustain us. I desperately want to type ‘we’ rather than ‘I’…’we should be doing more’…but I have no right to. And more to the point I am not sure who/what ‘us’ is in the sentence – mark-making creatures, the conversation, the human race, life on earth? The cockroaches will outlive us here no matter what. I have no desire to live on Mars (or for my grandchildren to)…so it must be something to do with the conversation here on earth, which includes, in the marks, in the notation: all of us, cockroaches, unicorns, the duck-billed platypus, the great auk. As science elucidates the probable physical but not the cultural or ecological effects of the fossil-fuel bubble, I have ceased to believe the conversation can be sustained with growth rates in excess of 1%. The ecological damage is too great, the inter-generational churn too excessive. We need to slow down, stop changing so fast, growing so fast. Just be. And the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground.

Ed Miliband, former leader of the UK Labour Party, penned an article for a recent London Review of Books (Vol. 38, No.3). He too quoted Piketty, and a number of other sources, to argue that increasing inequality – the economic dynamic, ongoing since 1980, whereby the rich get richer and the poor get progressively poorer – is not only ‘unfair’ (which he correctly says is a bad thing) but that it is also ‘bad for growth’ This is a short-sighted political argument pandering, still, to what is believed to be acceptable to the ‘electorate’. It is a junkie’s argument.

In the individualistic culture which has cascaded (rather than evolved) through the inter-generational chaos of the last 300 years, it is hard to say unfair is ‘unfair’. ‘Life isn’t fair’ – etcetera, etcetera. But, unless community, cohesion, fairness, collective and inter-generational responsibility dominates the discourse, the mechanics of growth will tear us apart, atomise us, first socially and then, perhaps, physically.

The question is – therefore – what marks will best sustain ‘us’?

Three Degrees of Separation

When I was a child I knew a woman named Jenny Urquhart. Her family had a holiday house on Arran, next door to the cottage my parents rented for 2 weeks each summer. She seemed a good, gentle woman though her sons were brash, competitive…boyish I suppose. She was married to a man name William who, inexplicably to a working-class Scottish boy like me, was keen on cricket.

And then there was the other Mrs. William Urquhart I encountered at the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Galleries as a boy.
Ann Patton, Mrs. William Urquhart – in a painting by Henry Raeburn.
I thought her quite exquisitely beautiful. My type I suppose. Painted 200 years ago, I suppose she must have been dead for most of that interval. And by this sleight of hand, (the word magic I then felt existed between my Mrs. William Urquharts) do I then have three-degrees of separation from Henry Raeburn?

It’s all in the eyes with Raeburn, the paint is magnificently vague except around the face and then – the eyes.

Raeburn was born in 1756 – 11 years after the defeat of the last Jacobite Rebellion at Culloden and the subsequent suppression of the Gaidhealtachd by Sassenach interests (Scots and English) and almost 50 years after the Scottish magnates had sold out and foisted the Act of Union on a generally unenthusiastic population in 1707.

According to the literature, Edinburgh society was liberated and transformed by the decamping of the Scottish magnates to London. The day to day political business of managing Scotland fell to ‘the middling ranks’ of Scottish society – the lairds, lawyers, professors – and the political vacuum and flight of the aristocracy left these middle-classes with the question of how to comport themselves in the absence of cultural ‘models’. It could be argued that this sudden liberation enabled ‘the Scottish Enlightenment’.

And one of the hallmarks of that enlightened society was a propriety characterised by stoic self-command, serenity and moderation. Moreover, in a mercantile society sucking in income from estates, slave plantations and imperial racketeering, it didn’t do to offend…complaisance was the order of the day at home, in the town, no matter what methods might be used in the country and abroad to fund an enlightened manner.

Raeburn was the son of a ‘shady character’ with interests in textiles and quarrying. He was first apprenticed to a silversmith before branching out into portrait painting. To sharpen his craft he visited Rome in 1784, funded by the income from an advantageous marriage to a widow, Ann Edgar.

Ten years previously, Rome was visited by another artisan painter seeking to improve his professional skills – Francisco de Goya y Lucientes – born in Zaragoza, the son of a gilder. Goya, on his return to Spain, worked his way up through ‘the creative industries’ toiling in the royal tapestry works (as a designer) before becoming a court portrait painter. Goya painted the Spanish aristocracy of his day, not only Bourbon royalty (with some of whom he was on good terms) but many illustrado and, after the revolution, franscesado magnates. But that is not, I suspect, why or for what we have heard of Goya. Goya, today (though not in his lifetime), is known as the creator of the Caprichos, the Disasters of War and the Black Paintings.

When I was a child, at about the time I encountered Mrs. William Urquhart, one of the few books in our home was an old, hardbound copy of Classical Myth and Legend, illustrated with colour plates of 19th century genre paintings. Perhaps, as a boy in early adolescence, I was ‘interested’ at first in the nearly-naked nymphs, but the images that stuck, that stay with me till this day, are of Clytemnestra, emerging from the bathroom with a blood-smeared labrys and Saturn eating his son – one of Goya’s Black Paintings. If Jenny Urquhart is my link to Henry Raeburn, is poor parenting my link to Goya then?

And what of them both – Raeburn and Goya?

Contemporaries – ten years apart at birth, Goya outlived Raeburn by five-years, dying in Bordeaux in 1828. Both were portrait painters, visited Rome, lived through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and their immediate aftermath.

In 1790, Raeburn painted a double portrait of the Fergusson Brothers, Robert and Ronald – two young boys, Robert drawing a bow, Ronald gazing towards the viewer.

In 1812, Goya painted the portrait of Arthur Wellesley, subsequently Duke of Wellington, hero of the Spanish ‘Wars of Independence’ (or the Peninsular War as the British termed it).

Ronald Fergusson was highly praised by Wellesley for his services during the Wars of Independence. They knew each other. Three degrees of separation.

And indeed many of the martial figures, in tartan trews and scarlet swagger, Raeburn painted later in his career had served on the Iberian Peninsula during those wars. Yet Raeburn did not produce Caprichos or the Disasters of War. Goya did.

Well he wasn’t there…it can be argued. He was safe in the New Town in Edinburgh experimenting with interesting contre jour effects, painting lairds and professors, nabobs and blushing brides – like the future Mrs. William Urquhart. Spain, struggling to free itself from a French occupying army (and settle back into the comfortable certainties of the monarchy and the inquisition) was far away from Scotland and enlightened Edinburgh – except…despite Yo Lo Vi, Robert Hughes (at least) has argued Goya wasn’t ‘there’ either. Not at the moment the body was impaled, the women were raped, the children were starving, the cannon was fired, the heretic garrotted. He wasn’t there when Saturn tore his children limb from limb. But he imagined it, piecing together the truth from the available facts. And commenting.

Henry Raeburn’s life spans the period from the suppression of the gaelic speaking regions after 1746 through into the clearances of the 1820s. Deprivation, violence and despair were just over the hill, on the estates of some of Raeburn’s sitters, through-out his working life. Yet no-one in the Scottish Enlightenment depicts, condemns…even reports in such vivid, timeless terms as Goya did.

The Highland Clearances are a complex issue and/but they were not exceptional. I am always amazed at the way all cultural memory of the enclosure of land and dispossession of the population has been supressed (or repressed) in the South of Scotland and in England.

Everywhere tenants and peasants were evicted, dispossessed, their commons enclosed and privatised in the cause of ‘improvement’ by ‘enlightened landlords, lairds and lawyers. For the Scots Gaels it came a little later and they were, relatively, farther from the growing industrial centres which sucked in and mangled the indigent poor. They were closer to the ships and the sea lochs so many of them left. But it happened and it was happening in Raeburn’s lifetime…and Walter Scott wrote Rob Roy McGregor instead and dressed King George in tights.

Goya sold few of the Caprichos in his lifetime. The Disasters were not published till 40 years after his death and the Black Paintings remained on the walls of the Quinta de Sordo…this wasn’t about the market for art…it was about ‘noticing’.

This is not to blame or condemn Raeburn…why would he care…dead these 195 years…but to reflect on my noticing that they shared a world, had only three degrees of separation, that some of Raeburn’s sitters were and had been’ there’ – there where the bodies were impaled, the dead lay unburied, the destitute sought refuge where they could. Not much changes in the world.