Art Chroncicles: Killed Negatives & the F.S.A.

Lange

Much as, for many people, Dorothea Lange’s portrait of Florence Owens Thompson, known as Migrant Mother, epitomises the suffering and endurance of the American heartland during the Great Depression, so this and other photographs that Lange took when she was employed by the Farm Security Administration in the 30s have come to be more or less fully representative of her career. This despite the fact that half a lifetime and more than half of that career were ahead of her.

After working for the FSA, she was hired by the War Location Authority to document the internment of Japanese American citizens following Pearl Harbour and then collaborated with Ansel Adams in documenting the lives of shipyard workers, men and, increasingly, women, who had moved to California to work in the booming wartime shipping industry in the final years of WW2. In the 1950s. together with her writer-son, Daniel Dixon, she produced an in-depth portrait of rural life in Ireland, before returning to America and working on photo essays dealing with inequalities in the justice system and the effects of large-scale government land projects on local communities.

Lange died in 1965 at the age of seventy, just a few months before a retrospective exhibition of her work opened at MOMA in New York. She wrote the following as a postscript to the show …

I would like to add a line to encourage persons interested in using a camera to concern themselves with making photographs of the life which surrounds them, to raise his [or her] sights to include what’s going on about us, to the camera to show this awareness.

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing [in conjunction with Vanessa Winchip: And Time Folds] is at the Barbican until September 2nd. And, running until August 26, there is a very  interesting exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, Killed Negatives: Unseen Images of 1930s America, which gives considerable insight into how Lange and the other photographers employed by the F.S.A. – Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Gordon Parks, Marion Post Wolcott et al – were directed, encouraged and generally managed by Roy E. Stryker, who worked for the Farm Security Administration as Chief of the Historical Section of the Division of Information.

As Stryker later described himself …

I’m the guy who sat in the middle … I kept the store … My goal was to write the history of the Farm Security Administration. We didn’t collect many documents. We collected pictures. Many think I went down to Washington with a plan. I didn’t. There was no such plan … I was one-half editor, one-half papa, one-half hell-raiser, one-half publishing agent, and occasionally psychoanalyst without portfolio.

He may not have had a plan when he arrived in Washington at the beginning of his tenure, but, if indeed that were the case, one soon became clear. Arthur Rothstein, the first of Stryker’s hirings, was left in little doubt …

It was our job to document the problems of the depression so that we could justify the New Deal legislation that was designed to alleviate them.

Here’s an extract from a letter Stryker sent to another photographer, Jack Delano …

Please watch out for autumn pictures, as calls are beginning to come in for them and we are short. These should be rather the symbol of Autumn … cornfields, pumpkins … Emphasize the idea of abundance – the ‘horn of plenty’ – and pour maple syrup over it – you know, mix well with white clouds and put on a sky-blue platter. I know your damned photographer’s soul writhes, but to hell with it. Do you think I give a damn about a photographer’s soul with Hitler on our doorstep? You are nothing but camera fodder to me.

As becomes clear from the photographs and letters on display at the Whitechapel, Stryker was quick to dismiss a photo that, to his mind, didn’t reinforce the impression of America in the Depression that he was after, just as he would discard an image he considered to be inadequately  focussed or badly framed. These – and this is reflected in the name of the show – he ‘killed’ by punching holes through the negative – an act which Dorothea Lange considered an act of vandalism, but that didn’t stop him. Any more than it stopped him sending strongly-worded letters to his men and women in the field, criticising them for what he perceived as their lack of technical skill. And one of the pleasures of the exhibition is deciding on which grounds – poetical, artistic or technical – Styrker had decided to make his cull.

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NB . The Stryker and Rothstein quotes come from Paul Hendrickson’s excellent book, Looking for the Light: The Hidden Life and Art of Marion Post Wolcott [Knopf, 1992] Currently out of print but ready available and, as is the case with all of Hendrickson’s  books, well worth reading.

 

CrimeMag on “Body & Soul”

BODY&SOUL

Alf Mayer’s review of Body & Soul appeared online in the June 2018 edition of CrimeMag.
Anyone wishing to read it in the original German, can do so here, otherwise you must contend with my faltering, but, I hope, basically accurate translation …

Here goes …

Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

On April 19, William Heinemann published John Harvey’s novel Body & Soul, the fourth and last book featuring former police detective Frank Elder. It is a swan song – in several ways. Harvey confirmed on his blog that this would be his last book. “Jump of your own accord,” he said, “before being pushed.”

Harvey will be 80 on December 21st of this year – something to be clearly stated and celebrated. In March, he made public that he is being treated for aggressive prostate cancer, and does not want to hide the fact that he receiving chemotherapy. “It’s important,” he wrote to me, “that you’re not ashamed of that. We need a different way of dealing with illness in our society, that is my clear opinion.”

Before Elder there was his detective Charlie Resnick, whom Harvey followed through twelve novels, one of which, Darkness, Darkness [Unter Tage, 2017], he adapted for the stage in Nottingham – see my CrimeMag interview from 2016.

Darkness, Darkness 1

 

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Playhouse

But having set Elder aside, as he had thought for good, Harvey mentioned that he had a new idea for him which he wanted to develop in order to see what happened. And now that idea has become a farewell that has everything.

A hammer of a book!
Had John Harvey only written this one, we would remember him forever.
Jump before being pushed indeed!
Old and tattered but still full of juice.
Not a gram of fat too much.
Poetic and brutal.
An ending that freezes the blood.
Chords that reverberate for a long time. Like a masterly piece of jazz that will not be forgotten and which one knows on first encountering will always return.
Body & Soul.

John Harvey, like Elmore Leonard, began his career with Westerns. It’s been over 40 years now. He talked about it In his first column on CrimeMag. He was one of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, with, amongst others, a series called Hart the Regulator, ten volumes published by Pan in paperback between 1980 and 1983. “In those days we wrote ‘em fast!” Hard, short, fast stuff. Pulp.

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But not only that. Not many crime writers, like him, have published three volumes of poetry. Not many people know and understand as much jazz and can write about it. [Recently here at CrimeMag: “Looking at Lester”] And not all of them have such slender-beautiful language. Pulp. Poetry. And jazz.

Ghosts

Whooosh, the brushes dabbed across the drum skin. Broiing, the deepest string on the double bass. And then the tenor saxophone. All this is Body & Soul. Harvey knows how to pluck strings, when to use which instrument. When and how the resonance chamber of his novel fills with strength-grief-pain-beauty-hardness-heart. Often you sit there and all you can think is: Masterly!

“Oh Frank, it’s just a song.”

Frank Elder is the dark side of Charlie Resnick. His somewhat short-tempered patience tears easily. After a police career in London, a demoralizing divorce and a fierce family tragedy, he has retreated to far-off Cornwall, where he occasionally helps the local police. When his alienated 23-year-old daughter Katherine comes to visit – “No questions, Daddy! Otherwise I’ll be gone,” – he has to control himself so as not to stare at the bandages on her wrists. Even more, not to ask. He goes to a pub with her, maybe there’s music there. What kind? Jazz, probably, he says. But you don’t even like jazz, says the daughter.

Frank Elder is not Charlie Resnick, sitting on a park bench at the end of Darkness, Darkness, pondering on Thelonious Monk and how well he can paint pictures on the piano. Instead, Harvey gives Elder a scene in which he walks away from a bar singer called Vicki, who has taken an interest in him, and who sings, as if just to him, the Billie Holiday version of the book’s title, Body & Soul.

My days have grown so lonely
For you I cry, for you dear only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul …

I spend my days in longing 
I’m wondering why it’s me you’re wronging …

My life a hell you’re making
You know I’m yours for just the taking
I’d gladly surrender
Myself to you body and soul.

A piece about perseverance, about spurned love in defiance. Charlie Resnick would ponder whether the instrumental version by Coleman Hawkings of October 11th, 1939, or the later version by Ben Webster would be better. Elder leaves as Vicki sings the lyrics, goes down to the water, his hands and thoughts numb until Vicki comes and stands beside him. Here is the beautiful passage …

A blues next, then an up-tempo chase through, ‘What a Little Moonlight Can Do’, and then … 
 “This is a song I learned from a recording by Billie Holiday that she made way back in nineteen forty and which I first heard when I was eighteen or nineteen and I’ve been plucking up the courage to sing it ever since. So fingers crossed and here goes. ‘Body and Soul.’”
A few bars of sparse piano and the lyric … My days have grown so lonely … Nailing Elder from the first line, a threnody of helplessness, love and despair. Vicki’s voice by the final verse, the final chorus, beaten, defeated, little more than a whisper. Silence. And then the applause. Elder walked out in the night.
Walked towards the harbour, lights on the water.

Oh Frank, Vicki says to him, as she stands beside him and looks for his hand, it’s just a song, it does not have to be true love, at our age. When he puts an arm around her waist, he does not have to look at her to know she is smiling. Shall we go in your car, she says, or mine?

On another occasion, these two life-worn adults talk about how movies, books, and songs tell us about our own broken hearts, how they teach us what we should feel – Ernest fucking Hemingway, as Elder calls him, and all the others who have shaped our ideas of love and pain. And how, in the end, we are alone.

And all the more painfully, we experience through Harvey’s art a young woman being sacrificed again: Frank Elder’s daughter, kidnapped and tortured and raped at sixteen, barely escaping from death, saved by the father, though ultimately that was of little help; now she is twenty three and strangely ambivalent; sometimes seeking help yet dismissing closeness; rugged, leaping, vulnerable. And most importantly: just mute.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!”

From Chapter 5, Harvey changes the narrative more often. We no longer follow only the ex-cop Frank Elder, but also his daughter, and then an increasing number of police officers, men and women, as the narrative strands increase, setting the heart racing. At first, the adrenaline rushes are isolated and controlled until, in Harvey’s hands, this tremendously taut book leaps alive like a wild animal. It is a long time since I have felt my heart beating as strongly when reading as here.

Frank’s daughter, Katherine, has been having an affair with a painter twice her age for whom she has been modelling and this has opened up old psychic wounds, throwing her off balance. Frank Elder travels from Cornwall, five and a half hours by train to London, wanting to be closer to Katherine. He visits an exhibition by this painter, Anthony Winter, and recognizes his daughter. Painted on large format canvasses. Exposed. Spread. Tied up. Like a prisoner. In front of one of these pictures his nausea rises as he stares at a thread of blood running from the young woman’s vagina.

“That’s my daughter, you sick fuck!” He roars, knocking down the painter. A few days later he is under suspicion of murder, the artist having been killed in his own studio. A father who sees his daughter naked like that in a painting – of course, he gets angry, says Elder at his interrogation. “It was the paintings. His. Winter’s. There on display. ”

Then there are new developments. Surveillance cameras show a female figure near the studio; it could be Elder’s daughter, suspicion weighs heavily upon her. The conflicts are piling up. But just half way through the book, when everything is already violent enough, once again there’s a strong drum roll. Adam Keach, the 30-year-old convicted murderer, kidnapper and rapist who previously assualted Katherine, has escaped in an accident involving his transport between prisons. And immediately he is on a mission. He wants to take revenge on Elder, who put him in prison seven years before, and he wants to grab his daughter again. Finish what he did with her then.

“No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

So the past returns with lightning and thunder. The emotional mutilations of that time overlap with acute lines of conflict; Kate’s rude relationship with the despotic and now dead painter is but one of the unequal power relations in the book. Harvey, however, does not paint everything black and white, he varies his themes within the orchestration of his novel. There are other readings of unequal and uneven relationships, be it the ex-girlfriend of the murdered painter who has returned from Cyprus, be it Elder’s relationship with his own ex-wife or with former colleagues. In many shades the shadows and wounds of the past push into the present, reflecting the psychological costs of crime and the smaller malignancies that one experiences in everyday life. “How do you cope with this, how can you forget what this girl has experienced?” – “You cannot do it.”

In many variants, it is always about how to deal with life. Father-daughter relationships are questioned, and also how parents and children move away from each other. As the epigraph of the book, from Grahams Greene’s Our Man in Havana,  states “The separating years approached them both, like a station down the line, all gain for and all loss for him “.

Charlie Resnick had jazz for such moments of nothingness and Harvey offers this kind of music to Frank Elder as well, but in this dark universe it is only of limited help. “No last minute rescue this time, Frank …”

You sit with this book and, as you read, marvel at how John Harvey, master and commander of language that moves between the dust-dry of the everyday and poetic oscillation, achieves his means. There are ultra-tough police interrogations and word battles, the agonizing silence between parents and children, the professional talk of police officers surveying their cases; there is the world of galleries, models and the genius of artists; and there is the sophisticated and soulful police novel – manhunt, thriller. There are discreet and hard sounds. There’s a lot of lacuna. Poetry. There are landscapes, city and provincial. There are many inspiring miniatures. Art galleries, art house cinemas, old colleagues, an investigator who is half of a lesbian  couple: all of these disciplined and economically set in an exciting style.

Glancing at her again, Hadley was struck by an image, a flicker of memory, one of those films from the sixties she and Rachel luxuriated in once in a while – or had before Hadley’s promotion to detective chief inspector cut their leisure time by half. Glistening black-and-white, 35-millimeter prints at the BFI Southbank or the recently refurbished Regent Street cinema, a cocktail in the bar beforehand, supper afterwards. Rachel, a film buff since her university days. Bergman, Bresson, Godard, Kieslowski and Kaurismaki. And Alice, Hadley thought, was almost a dead ringer for Jean Seberg in “À Bout de Souffle” : the wide eyes, the dark eyebrows and off-blonde elfin-cut hair. Alice wearing black as usual, black jumper, black trousers, black shoes. Glancing now at the GPS, two more turns before drawing up outside the Wilton estate.

… Then the two investigators are with Katherine and the tone of the book changes. As it does quite often. Again and again. Like a breathtaking concert with John Harvey as the conductor, guiding our responses.

F&B 1

The Body & Soul UK hardcover also features the first few chapters of Flesh & Blood, John Harvey’s first Frank Elder novel, which is now back in paperback. One will want to re-read everything immediately after finishing this.

Alf Mayer

John Harvey: Body & Soul. William Heinemann, London 2018. 304 pages, GBP 14.99.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alex Prager at The Photographers’ Gallery

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Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 Alex Prager

If one of The Photography Gallery’s ambitions when setting up it’s current pair of shows  (until 14th October, 2018) was to establish the widest possible contrast between two artists’ practice, they could hardly have chosen better than to focus on Tish Murtha [whom I wrote about in my previous blog post] and Alex Prager. Murtha is firmly in the school of documentary realism, black and white, working class, political, small scale in image, universal in reach and meaning. Prager, in contrast, is high colour, glossy, large scale, concerned with politics of gender and deeply indebted to film imagery and technique – not any kind of film, but that exemplified by Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk – technicoloured melodramas that simultaneously present a heightened version of real life at the very same time as they foreground the means they use (colour, lighting, mise-en-scene) to point up its falseness, its fakery. Gendered Hollywood fairy tales. [Like all fairy tales?]

Shots like the one above were made on a sound stage using up to 150 extras.
Images such as the one below, which could almost be a production still from The Birds, make explicit not just Pragers’ obsession with Hitchcock, but her obsession with his obsession – young blonde women under threat, held under the camera’s gaze.

The section in The Photographers’ Gallery regular booklet series, Loose Associations, which deals with Prager’s work, includes extracts from feminist film critic and academic Laura Mulvey’s key 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, which dissects the ways in which classic Hollywood film positions women at the ultimately passive receiving end of the all-powerful male gaze. And that’s a three-way: male behind the camera; male within the narrative; male in the audience. Hitchcock – for Prager, whose concerns, one suspects, are similar to Mulvey’s  – is, of course, the perfect subject, the perfect example, perfect for them both, in that he is transparent as to both ends and means. After several viewings, it seems to me, it’s difficult not to see Vertigo, for instance, as an object lesson in just how male dominance of the female in terms of image, action and emotional response can be achieved.

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The Big Valley: Eve 2008 Alex Prager

It’s no surprise that Prager moved from photography – the kind of large scale, pre-planned and well-resourced still photography that is well displayed on two floors at TPG – to film itself. Short films with large crews and real stars. For Touch of Evil, commissioned by the New York Times, she managed to nab a host of A-listers including Jessica Chastain, George Clooney, Kirsten Dunst and Rooney Mara. The ‘star’ of Face in the Crowd, one of the films showing at TPG, is Elizabeth Banks, playing an attractive blonde woman (what else) forever, seemingly, trapped behind a wall of glass, while around her – the film is shown on three screens, central, left & right – various crowds are shown on the beach, at a ball game, crowds from which individuals are intermittently seen in close up, expressing their doubts and fears to camera.

Is it possible to look at Prager’s work and see only the surface, enjoy the size, the visceral pleasure, the high-gloss slickness of it, and not be concerned with what rides beneath? That, after all, would be the mainstream Hollywood way. But here we’re not submerged in the dark. We’re in a gallery and this is art. As well as responding on an immediate love, we’re expected to think. And we do.

 

Tish Murtha at The Photographers’ Gallery

Circumstances dictate 50/60 minutes of slowly walking back and forth, standing, staring, is about all I can manage right now, which means I’ll be back at The Photographers’ Gallery more than once before it’s recently opened brace of shows closes on October 14th.

On the second floor is a cross-section of the work of Tish Murtha, a too-little-known (until now) and under-represented member of that group of British documentary realist photographers of the 70s & 80s who saw their function as being to show the rancid decay of working class life and community under a Conservative government. Men laid off. Heavy industry in decline. Mass youth unemployment.

Murtha grew up, one of ten children, on a housing estate in the Elswick area of Newcastle, got herself to college, got a camera, got a place on David Hurn’s Documentary Photography course at Newport College of Art in South Wales. Newport – Newcastle : in many ways not so very different. “I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids,” she allegedly said at her interview.

Looking at the work – kids, mainly kids – youths in unemployed abundance – I was reminded of something I’d quoted in my last piece on this blog about another artist from the north-east, the poet Barry MacSweeney …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political.

Except that, political as it clearly is, and some pictures do depict a moribund sense of despair, there is little or nothing that I would describe as vicious in Murtha’s depictions of the places and people she knew and whose backgrounds she had shared. What I see is understanding, compassion – two-shots showing love, togetherness, fortitude – a young girl, perhaps eight or nine years old, staring back at the camera as if asking what can my life be, can I be like you?

David Hurn suggests an affinity with the work and ambition of the American photographer, Lewis Hine …

I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected. I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.

Tish Murtha does both.

Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991 was curated by Val Williams and Gordon MacDonald, with Karen McQuaid, and with the co-operation of the Tish Murtha Archive, which her daughter, Ella, has managed since Tish’s death in 2013. It is showing, together with Alex Pregar: Silver Lake Drive, at The Photographers’ Gallery, London W1F7LW until October 14th, 2018. 

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Barry MacSweeney : Hellhound on His Tail

Desire

Coming in at a little over 340 pages, Desire Lines,  Barry MacSweeney’s Unselected Poems, edited – scrupulously and caringly – by Luke Roberts, and published by Shearsman Books, pays testimony to a poet who was driven by his own devils; by the need to wrestle his verse into a shape that would allow him best to express his most loving and bitter feelings, his growing anger at the changing state of the nation, and the never-ending quest for an often savage and particular beauty. Even then, as Roberts acknowledges, there is no way in which this volume could hope to bring together all of MacSweeney’s work uncontained in the ‘official’ selected, Wolf Tongue: Selected Poems, 1965-2000, edited by Neil Astley and published by Bloodaxe in 2003. He simply wrote too much.

Wolf Tongue

Robert’s intention then, as he states in his introduction,  is to “give the reader a deeper understanding of MacSweeney’s achievements” and “restore to view the volatility with which MacSweeney composed, read, and handled his poems.” What we might also find here is an answer to the sad conundrum Roberts refers to in his opening paragraph – why it was that having emerged on the crest of “the great poetry renaissance of the 1960s, he died with hardly any of his work in print?”

One of the reasons for this can be found in the fact that much of his work was published – sometimes, it might be argued, too hastily and not very well – by independent presses, while other poets were following a more cautious and orthodox route. But MacSweeney had suffered from the treatment accorded from some quarters to his first collection, The Boy From the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, which was overhyped by its mainstream publisher Hutchinson in an attempt to jump onto the Mersey Sound bandwagon, with MacSweeney as some kind of youthful cross between the Beats and Roger McGough. But – no disrespect to either poet – another McGough, MacSweeney was not.

I first met Barry MacSweeney towards the end of the 1970s when he was one of the tutors on an Arvon Foundation poetry course in which I was a participant, and it was difficult not to be swept up into his overwhelming pursuit of what he saw as the ‘real’, the authentic, his absolute disdain for the fake or the weak. Along with the American poet, Alan Brooks [also met on an Arvon course] I had recently started editing and publishing Slow Dancer magazine and we were keen to include as much of Barry’s work as we could.

The first piece that we published, in Slow Dancer No. 4 [Early 1979], remains one of my personal favourites. “Blackbird : Elegy” dedicated to William Gordon Calvert, was one of three elegies MacSweeney had written at that time for his Northumbrian grandfather, some finding its way later into the poem sequence Blackbird that was published by Pig Press in 1980 – though this itself was pre-empted by, as it states inside its plain maroon cover, “a very limited preprint edition rushed out for a reading by Barry MacSweeney & Elaine Randell, Castle Chare, Durham, 8.00p.m. nov. 9th 1979.”

This is how the version published in Slow Dancer begins …

curlew chatter
crescent beaks
ragged wings swoop
snipe song

we catch a hen
playing lame
long way from Kent
to your rough ash slot
which pours
& fills this skull

schooled in grind
taught with pennies
tall on th’earth
purity strength
not fascist Aryan
dangerous claptrap
wild Allendale rosehip
whose fruit-blood dries
on my stones
lichen is amour
against those sores
moss grows
in cracks
we don’t know

Blackbird dedication

Blackbird

By the time of Slow Dancer No. 7 [late 1980] times – and MacSweeney with them – had changed. As Luke Roberts states …

After Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government was elected in 1979, MacSweeney’s work became more vicious and despairingly political. The three offcuts from Jury Vet printed here marked the first appearance of MacSweeney’s new style in print. Published by John Harvey’s Slow Dancer magazine in 1980, these punk-inflected odes herald the nightmare of the Thatcherite decade. They are violently problematic works. “Blood Money” also appeared in Slow Dancer [No. 12/13, 1983] and looks on with disgust at City Council politics in Newcastle.

In the context of the above it should not be forgotten that MacSweeney’s first job was as a reporter on his local evening paper in Newcastle – “Reporting gave me a sense of what words could be: economy and just get down to the needed things, with no frills.” His training as a reporter and a digger after facts lay close to the root of Black Torch, a major poem sequence about coal mining in the north-east that was published by New London Pride in 1978 and is included in Roberts’ selection. Reviewing it in Slow Dancer No. 7, David Murray, lecturer in the Department of American Studies at the University of Nottingham, had this to say …

Black Torch represents a poet giving rapt attention to his political and physical environment and at the same time facing and solving problems of formal organisation in a long poem. Using primarily written and oral accounts from the mining communities foe Northumbria and Durham, he combines and juxtaposes miners talking, historical documents and his own personal memories. Crucially, though, the personal elements do not subsume the rest.

MacSweeney’s reliance on local speech in the poem works brilliantly, Murray says, quoting the poet himself on his preference for its usage in this context …

… it is longer lasting, it’s durable, it’s harder, it’s springier, it’s more elemental, it comes out of all sorts of historical, geographical and social conflicts.

Or, as he says in the poem, his words …

have come from the north to feed you
iron voice brazen tongue red dust

Black Torch

Slow DancerNo. 14 [Autumn 1984] was, as declared on its cover, a MacSweeney Special,  with some 18 pages [unfortunately printed on purple paper and less than easy to read] given over to his work, preceded by an appraisal by the poet and visual artist Maggie O’Sullivan. Here we have the poem “Wild Knitting”, which begins with an epigraph from Elvis Costello – “Everyday, everyday, everyday, I write the book” and ends “This State of the Nation bulletin for Lesley MacSweeney, April – August 1983, Bradford.” There are extracts from “Jury Vet – Started  September 1979, Abandoned October 1981 – and, importantly, I think, sections from Ranter, a major work in progress which MacSweeney prefaced with …

Undefinitive takes
of Shivering Primrose
and the wind’s dark
beat & Ranter’s Reel
from the version of
the Ranter saga that
was started February
1984 and is soon for
publication in full

A promise fulfilled when it was published by Slow Dancer Press in 1985.

McSw Special

Ranter

Barry MacSweeney died in 2000. With the publication of Desire Lines, his work will further live on.

Art Chronicles: A Trip to the Mayfair Triangle …

Cross Regent Street into Mayfair – having first fortified yourself with a short latté and cinnamon bun in the Nordic Bakery on Golden Square – and immediately you’re in a world of high rents, high fashion and ostentatious money. [If you’ve ever played Monopoly you’ll know what I mean.] And now, more than ever there’s art. That’s art with a hefty price sign and a capital A. There were always small and slightly exclusive galleries along Cork Street and its neighbours; and, of course, there’s the Royal Academy, recently much-expanded, to the south on Piccadilly. But in recent years the big movers and shakers in the art market have moved in with a vengeance. Hauser and Wirth – who have galleries in New York and L.A., Hong Kong, Zurich and Gstaad – and on a farm in Somerset – now have a double gallery on Saville Row, across from West End Central Police Station [and just a little way up from where my good friend, the late Tony Burns, laboured in the tailoring trade.] Gagosian, with galleries in Rome, Paris, Hong Kong, Geneva, New York, San Francisco and Beverley Hills, have opened no great distance away, on Grosvenor Hill; and Victoria Miro, having previously been in Cork Street, returned to Mayfair in 2013 with a gallery on St. George Street, immediately behind Sotheby’s on Bond Street; this is in addition to a vast double gallery converted from a former piano factory between Hoxton and Islington in North-East London and an intimate canal-side location in Venice,

Our first stop on this particular morning is at Hauser and Wirth, where one gallery is currently showing work by Swiss artists from the 1930s to the present day, curated by Gianni Jetzer; the other has an exhibition of photographs by August Sander, Men Without Masks. My guide and companion, who has previously visited both, suggests we leave the Swiss for another day.

August Sander’s central ambition was to create a picture of Germany in the first half of the last century, doing so in the main through a vast number of portraits which ranged widely across class, occupation and gender. His basic method was to photograph his subject full-on, often against a neutral background, and in the majority of cases with the subject looking back directly into the lens. It suggests a kind of neutrality, removes any too obvious trace of the photographer himself, allows the subject, as it were, to own the picture, command the frame. This is me: this is who I am. Well, that’s the illusion, that’s the idea – Men Without Masks, indeed.

Almost all the examples of Sander’s work I’ve seen previously have been quite small in scale and what is exceptional about this show, which is on till July 28th, and makes it especially well worth visiting, is that these, in the main, are in a larger, full-scale format.

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Man of the Soil

 

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Member of Parliament

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Sisters

You don’t have to spend long with the work to be conscious of the influence Sander had on photographers who came after him; on Diane Arbus, on Walker Evans. Nor, looking a the portrait of the ‘peasant woman’ below is it hard to see the inffluence on Sander of artists like Cezanne.

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Peasant Woman

Moving on, the current show at the Gagosian [till July 28th] is Howard Hodgkin’s Last Paintings, comprising the final six paintings he finished in India before his death in 2017, and twenty others not previously shown in Europe.

I remember – and how’s this for a brazen display of one-upmanship and name dropping? – a conversation I had about Hodgkin with Geoff Dyer some twenty years ago, when we were travelling by coach across Romania as part of a British Council delegation of writers. I’d been luxuriating in having an open ticket to the exhibition of Hodgkin’s work at the Hayward Gallery, making the point quite strongly that the more opportunities I had to see the paintings, stand in front of them and look at them properly, the more I liked them. Ah, said Geoff, well I think I feel precisely the opposite.

Which shouldn’t have been enough to make me revise my opinion, though I suspect that it did – or, at the very least, got me to consider the possibility of revising my opinion, which, in fact. I think I did in time, and might even have done so without Geoff’s prompting. I was certainly feeling pretty agnostic by the time of the Time & Place paintings shown at Modern Art Oxford in 2010, though my positivity was partly reclaimed by some of the later pieces  in Absent Friends at the National Portrait Gallery in 2017.

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“Patrick in Italy” 1991-93

While remaining to some degree resistant to Hodgkin’s frequent assertion that his work is representational rather than abstract, there’s perhaps enough in a painting such as Patrick in Italy (above) to agree that it works on a level partly of metaphor, partly a gesture (well, several) towards a kind of representation. [Oh, Lordy! Is that what metaphor IS anyway? Discuss. Or, better, don’t.] And actually, I don’t too much care. I’m responding on a level outside the purely intellectual. Like most of Hodgkin’s best work, the painting’s appeal is overwhelmingly sensual. It’s about the paint and the way it’s applied. About colour. The richness of colour. [No wonder he was obsessed with India.] It’s the richness that wins one over; the sensuousness of the texture, the brilliance of the paint, the warmth, the – yes – the sexuality of it.

The other painting that stopped me in my tracks at the NPG was this …

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“Blue Portrait” 2011-12

One of my favourite pieces in the show and, as a portrait, for that’s clearly from the title what it claims to be, one almost entirely given over to metaphor. Two broad brushstrokes, swipes, if you like, down and across a piece of wood, Hodgkin’s memory of Selina Fellows, standing at the bar in a brilliant blue dress at the Museo Nacional Centre de Arte Reina Sofia in 2006. The painting was made in 2011-12. I love it. Loved it then – sorry, Geoff – love it now. And the paintings that I most enjoyed at the Gagosian were of the same ilk, shared many of the same components: they were small, smaller than the rest, unfussy, simple – the richness that made pieces like Patrick in Italy so close to overwhelming, so irresistible, has been reduced to this. Urgent. Quick. Two compatible colours overlapping. Late work. Among the very last.

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“Darkness at Noon” 2015-16

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“Don’t Tell a Soul” 2016

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“Over To You” 2015-17

Which leaves the final destination on our tour of Mayfair: Victoria Miro. And first, another small back story. In 2016 my partner gave me as a birthday present [78th, since you ask] the catalogue for Women of Abstract Expressionism, a show organised by Denver Art Museum and due to travel from there to Charlotte, North Carolina, hence to Palm Springs and finally to the Whitechapel gallery in London in the summer of  2017. Oh, my God! Those painters – Mitchell, Frankenthaler, Hartigan, Krasner, de Kooning – whose work I have long loved and admired, all too often at a distance, along with more than a dozen others from the 1940s to the 60s. I could not believe it. And I was right not to. For whatever reasons – and when I asked, they  played their cards politely close to their chest – the show would not come to the Whitechapel. Which made it all the more exciting when Victoria Miro advertised Surface Work – “a celebration of women artists who have shaped and transformed, and continue to influence and expanse, the language and definition of abstract painting.” Perhaps this would fill the gap left by the missing show from Denver?

Sadly, no. For one thing, there was relatively little from the period when abstract expressionism was at its height [The curators should get some kind of award for sourcing the only Joan Mitchell that could be described as dull] and much of the work on display in the twinned galleries on Wharf Road was more recent, some of it contemporary, and to my  eyes not very good at all. An argument, rather, in favour of the point of view that it is nigh on impossible to create something original and worthwhile in abstract expressionism now. That moment has gone. The only artist who claimed my attention favourably was Elizabeth Neel, with a piece of work created especially for the exhibition. I can’t show it here, but these images give an idea of her style …

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“American Standard” 2009

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“Fixtures Morning to Evening”

So it was that I arrived at St. George Street with a mixture of hope and apprehension. Could they have been saving the best for last? Uh-huh.

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Helen Frankenthaler: “Winter Figure with Black Overhead” 1959

There it is, smack in front of you as you enter. Not the rich, stained, echoes of landscape Frankenthaler, but energetic, darting – skating – quick and alive; unlike anyone else and so immediately recognisable. And she’s in smart company.  To her right, a painting by Alma Thomas, who was the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York – though even then she had to wait until the age of 80 – and whose work was shown in London recently as part of the excellent Soul of a Nation show at Tate Modern. Thomas moved into abstraction relatively late in her career, and here are two examples, not from this show.

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Alma Thomas: “Fall Begins” 1973

 

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Alma Thomas: “Orion” 1973

On the wall to Frankenthaler’s left is “End of Winter”, a strong, dark, swirling painting by Betty Parsons, better known for running the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York, which she did from 1946 to 1982, but clearly no mean artist herself.

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Betty Parsons : “End of Winter” 1958-59

And beside her and instantly, I think, recognisable for the brownish-orange colour palate and the heavy use of line, an oil and paper collage on canvas by Lee Krasner …

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Lee Krasner: “The Farthest Point” 1981

There’s more, and we look at it but fleetingly; this, I think, is a good place to stop. My companion assures me he knows where there’s a Pret large enough that we can be assured a seat even at what is now the busiest time of the day. And as we head out I’m already tossing up between the normally dependable, and relatively cheap, egg and cress or maybe the also dependable but more expensive chicken and avocado …

More Criminal Openings …

Going back to the opening of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as I did in my last post, made me think of the distinctive ways in which other crime books begin. Some, like the Hammett, are short and punchy, grabbing the attention at the same time as having a close to perfect satisfaction of their own … others are longer, a deliberately complex sentence that winds you along its length and so into both the style and the narrative, others are paragraph length that draws you in more carefully and often then stays in the memory, sometimes after the book itself has been read, enjoyed and set aside.

Here is a selection of my favourite single sentence beginnings,some of which will be familiar, others perhaps less so …

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

James M.Cain : The Postman Always Rings Twice

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Jackie Brown at twenty-six, with no expression on his face, said that he could get some guns.

George V. Higgins : The Friends of Eddie Coyle

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When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

James Crumley : The Last Good Kiss

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Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.

James Sallis : Drive

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When she was killed by three chest knife blows in a station car park, Megan Harpur had been on her way home to tell her husband that she was leaving him for another man.

Bill James : Roses, Roses

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And here are two of my favourites of the longer variety, each humorous in its own way; the first is, of course, a well-known classic, the second by Brian Thompson, a writer whose forays into crime writing, Bad to the Bone [Viking, 1991] and Ladder of Angels [Slow Dancer, 1999] deserve to be better known and appreciated than I think they are.

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid-October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard set rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blu suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

Raymond Chandler : The Big Sleep

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Mrs Evans was teaching me the tango. As it happened, I already knew the rudiments of this exciting dance, but never as interpreted by Mrs Evans, naked save for her high heels and some Mexican silver earrings – a present, she claimed, from Acapulco. The high heels were there to add grace and I suppose authenticity, but even with them on, the lady’s head barely reached my chin. We swooped about the room, exceedingly drunk, to the most famous tango of them all, the Blue one. It was past two in the morning and the rain that had been forecast had arrived as grounded cloud, moping blindly about the streets, tearful and incoherent. But we were okay – we were up on the third floor, looking down on the damned cloud and having a whale of a time. Mrs Evans was warm and sit to the touch and her make-up was beginning to melt. For some reason a piece of Sellotape was stuck to her quivering bottom, and as we danced I tried to solve this small but endearing mystery. It came to me at last; it was her sister’s birthday and earlier in the evening she had parcelled up a head scarf, some knickers and a Joanna Trollope paperback.

Brian Thompson : Ladder of Angels

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Criminal Openings … Dashiell Hammett

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A recent retweet by writer Megan Abbott took me back to the opening sentences of Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, Red Harvest, published in 1929 …

I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit.

It’s all there: the directness, the way it buttonholes you instantly, a hand taking hold of the lapel of your jacket while the voice speaks confidently, not over-loudly, into your ear. And the poetry, the poetry of the vernacular, the rhythm of real speech.

The first sentence in his first novel. I wonder how many times he rolled the sheet of paper out of the typewriter, read it through, tossed in over his shoulder, lit another cigarette, set a fresh sheet in place and tried again? I wonder if he’d been testing it in his head at a little after four, four-thirty, those mornings it was impossible to get back to sleep? I wonder if he had it all pat from the start?

Hammett’s first novel, thirty-five years old. He’d been an operative for the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, a private detective working for an vast organisation with government connections. He had twice enlisted in the army, WW1 & WW2, and it was during the first of these periods that he was diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would seriously affect his well-being for years. When he was no longer with the Pinkertons, realising, perhaps, that henceforth he would be physically less active, he enrolled at a Business College and set about learning the business of writing. The timing was right. A new pulp magazine called The Black Mask printed his first story, “The Road Home”, in 1922 and a year later the first of a number of stories featuring his nameless hero, the Continental Op. It is the Op around whom the action centres in Red Harvest and its successor, The Dain Curse, a bluff and largely unforgiving figure who would be to some degree romaticised as Sam Spade in Hammett’s best known novel, The Maltese Falcon. Sam Spade, private eye:  shamus, a private dick.

For just twelve years, from 1922 to 1934, he wrote stories set firmly in a world he knew.  Then it was over. Whatever had drawn him, driven him to writing had gone. Perhaps it was simply that there was no longer any financial need. Perhaps, for a while, Hollywood fame following the success of John Huston’s version of The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, seduced him. Perhaps his on-again, off-again, alcohol-ridden relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman, in some creative way, emasculated him. He tried to write ‘straight’ novels, but they faltered into failure,unfinished; he set out to write plays but only succeeded in assisting Hellman in shaping hers. Or was it, more simply, that he had done all he could as a crime writer, all that interested him, and after five novels and over a hundred stories there was no place for him to go?