For quite a while now, it’s been my habit to begin the year – my reading year – with either Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf, occasionally both: one of Woolf’s novels, most often To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway; two or three of Mansfield’s short stories – ‘The Garden Party’, say, or ‘Prelude’; ‘Daughters of the Late Colonel’ or ‘At the Bay’. This time around, everything else being different, I felt like a change. Though nothing radical. Something from roughly the same period, the early 20th century.
England, My England, a collection of ten short stories by D. H. Lawrence, was first published in 1922; the copy that I have – one of Penguin’s uniform edition with tastefully rural photographs by Harri Peccinootti – I bought at Hatchard’s in Piccadilly in 1974. Still a long way from Oradea, which, if you were uncertain, is a university town in the north west of Romania, close to the Hungarian border. But I urge patience. No sooner had I finished reading the second story – ‘Tickets, Please’, which begins with a bravura description of the journey made by a Midlands tram into the industrial countryside and back again: two jostling, skittering 11-line sentences with a pair of shorter sentences applying the brake in between – than I thought the perfect companion for my reprise of Lawrence would be Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage, in which he does everything possible not to follow his alleged purpose of writing about Lawrence and ends up writing about him with perception and a great deal of humour. A quote from Lawrence himself, at the beginning of the book, gives us the idea …
“Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid – queer stuff – but not bad.” D. H. Lawrence, 5 September, 1914
The title page of my copy was signed by Geoff – in green ink – matching the cover – with a sprawling dedication which refers to the “many memories … of our Romanian quest … especially of your drumming.” Drumming? Okay, take a step or so back. Try to explain.
In the spring of 1997, I was one of a group of writers setting out on a British Council sponsored visit to the University of Oradea to take part in a three day seminar, an exchange of work and views with Romanian (and, as it turned out, Moldovan) colleagues. Myself and Geoff Dyer aside, our group included the poet George Szirtes, the short story writer, Helen Simpson, and the academic and critic, Valentine Cunningham, who had recently written a very positive review of one of the Resnick novels for the Times Literary Supplement and, I suspect, was behind my inclusion. It was Cunningham, also, who had the trumpet. Have horn, will travel. In this case, aboard BA2894 from Gatwick to Bucharest and hence by well-appointed coach across country to Oradea. If he had known there would be a band on hand at our welcoming dinner, I don’t know – perhaps he took his trumpet with him everywhere on the off chance – but once he had discovered that George Szirtes could play the piano – admittedly only 12 bar blues in the key of, I think, C – and that way back in the early 60s I had played drums in a ‘trad’ jazz band at Goldsmiths College, he had no hesitation in leading us up onto the stage the moment the band announced the interval. What occurred for the next thirty minutes or so is something of a blur – much as it was at the time. All I know is that I performed my basic function of keeping time, with only the occasional cymbal flourish or snare drum paradiddle, and Valentine played some decidedly tasty trumpet.
Could our visit get any better? It could, and did, and one of the highlights was listening to Geoff Dyer read from Out of Sheer Rage, which had me – at the appropriate moments – helpless with laughter.
Amongst the writers whose work I enjoyed discovering were the Romanian poet, Romulus Bucur, and a young Moldovan poet, Julian Fruntasu, and thanks to some financial help from the British Council, I was able, through Slow Dancer Press, to publish their poetry in Britain for the first time. Typeset, of course, in Romanian Bookman Light.
The following year, together with a different group of writers, including the poet and novelist, John Burnside, I was pleased to return to Oradea with copies of the two pamphlets, present them to the poets, and listen to their inaugural reading. My only small sadness on this occasion, no welcoming band, no trumpet, no last chance behind the drums.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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 …
Like all lists, this is biased, of course; partial, of necessity; it’s intended to be something to argue over, disagree with vehemently, send you to your local bookstore or the library shelves – or on line if you must: these are the books – fiction and non-fiction but not poetry – that have given me the most pleasure in the past sixteen (almost) years; the ones I could most look forward to rereading – and, in some cases, already have.
Hunts in Dreams : Tom Drury (2000) Assorted Fire Events : David Means (2000) Mystic River : Dennis Lehane (2001) The Lovely Bones : Alice Sebold (2002) That They May Face the Rising Sun : John McGahern (2002) Sons of Mississippi : Paul Hendrickson (2003) The Master : Colm Toibin (2004) Runaway : Alice Munro (2004) Eventide : Kent Haruf (2004) Gilead : Marilynne Robinson (2004) The Ongoing Moment : Geoff Dyer (2005) The Broken Shore : Peter Temple (2005) The Year of Magical Thinking : Joan Didion (2005) The Lay of the Land : Richard Ford (2006) Watch Me Disappear : Jill Dawson (2006) This Book Will Save Your Life : A M Homes (2006) Winter’s Bone : Daniel Woodrell (2007) So Many Ways to Begin : Jon McGregor (2007) Home : Marilynne Robinson (2008) Red Dog, Red Dog : Patrick Lane (2008) American Rust : Philipp Mayer (2009) The Children’s Book : A S Byatt (2009) Truth : Peter Temple (2009) Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It : Maile Meloy (2009) The Good Soldiers : David Finkel (2009) Even the Dogs : Jon McGregor (2010) Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter : Tom Franklin (2010) How to Paint a Dead Man : Sarah Hall (2010) The Summer Without Men : Siri Hustvedt (2011) Hemingway’s Boat : Paul Hendrickson (2011) The Forgotten Waltz : Anne Enright (2011) This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You : Jon McGregor (2012) May We Be Forgiven : A M Homes(2012) N-W : Zadie Smith (2012) The Testament of Mary : Colm Toibin (2012) Dare Me : Megan Abbott (2012) Benediction : Kent Haruf (2013) 10th December : George Saunders (2013) Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel (2013) Lila : Marilynne Robinson (2014) Fourth of July Creek : Smith Henderson (2014) The Blazing World : Siri Hustvedt (2014) A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing : Eimear McBride (2014) Another Great Day at Sea : Geoff Dyer (2014) Our Souls at Night : Kent Haruf (2015) Between the World & Me : Ta-Nehisi Cotes (2015) Manual for Cleaning Women : Lucia Berlin (2015) The Argonauts : Maggie Nelson (2015) Willnot : James Sallis (2016) Pond : Claire-Louise Bennett (2016)
The fascinating and comprehensive exhibition of Paul Strand’s photographs and films currently at the V&A – in particular, the fence photo below – got me thinking about a piece of mine that appeared on my earlier mellotone blog – Sittin’ in the Park with Geoff Dyer (well, almost), which riffs on benches, park and otherwise, fences, and Dyer’s (excellent) book on photography, The Ongoing Moment. For those of you who missed it the first time around, here it is again.
For all that my recent visit to the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the William Morris Gallery has to be counted something of a disappointment, let it not be thought my journey to the furthest reaches of Walthamstow was wasted. For there, behind the gallery, resplendent in early Spring sunshine and calling to me, as it were, was the newly redeveloped Lloyd Park.
Infiltrating myself between the mums-and-buggies crowding out the gallery tea room, I quickly purchased a pre-wrapped sandwich and bottle of water and headed down to the park in search of an empty bench. More mums; more buggies; more small children than you could shake a stick at. (A strange idiom, but, in this context, perhaps appropriate.) Then, just when I’d come close to giving up and entertained risking my new black jeans on the Lloyd Park grass, there, opposite the tennis courts, I spied an elderly couple slowly vacating a bench.
No sooner had they stepped away, than I had slipped into their place, divesting myself of coat, hat, scarf and shoulder bag and spreading them liberally to either side. This bench is occupied.
After a burst of hefty thwacking, the two young men on the court directly across from where I’m sitting pack up their things and go, to be replaced immediately by an almost identical pair – sun glasses, sports gear, Nike trainers, high slashing serves and wild returns. The sandwich is smoked salmon and avocado on seeded bread; not a combination I would have immediately thought of (something of a Resnick sandwich perhaps, putting on, for a moment, my other hat) but excellent and at £3.50, these days not too bad a deal. A couple more bites and I lean back and take out my book, which happens to be The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer’s book on photography, which I last set aside, exiting the tube earlier that morning, at page 129.
Though it can serve as one, a bench is not a bed. Nor is it a chair. Chairs move around, congregate in different ways, reconfiguring themselves according to the demands of the social situation in which they find themselves. In their limited way they even enjoy a bit of travel – chairs on the terrace of a Paris café go inside for the night – but the bench has no inner life like this. The bench sits it out, waiting for dawn. As such, its nocturnal life is potentially more romantic than the chair’s
Yes, here I am, sitting on a bench in Lloyd Park, reading Geoff Dyer’s thoughts about a bench. The bench. Famous benches that, thanks to photography, we have known. A coincidence? Of course. And true. (You don’t, for a minute, think I make this stuff up?)
Brassai’s bench, for instance, a solitary figure sheltering from the Riviera sun in 1936 … and it’s companion, Dyer suggests, taken by Lartigue just a few years earlier, just a short way along the coast, Renée at Eden Roc. All right, they don’t exactly share a bench, but railings, umbrellas, the same Mediterranean sun …
This is one of the ways in which Dyer takes us through the history of photography, not in a clinical way, nor in a manner that is a ready prey to theory, but by a tracing of image, the images that so many photographers share, sometimes in what seems like conscious nods in one another’s direction, sometimes as if unaware. The bench, the open road, the window, the car, the beggar, the musician, the naked woman, the hat.
This is André Kertesz in New York in 1962, photographing a man, a broken bench, some background.
Like so many photographs, a chance moment? What did Cartier-Bresson say? Something about the held breath, the captured moment of fleeting reality. The man, what is he doing, standing there with his hands clasped behind his back? His gaze, where is it directed? At the broken bench? The two women sitting on another bench in the background? The line of cars? The line of our vision, I think, takes us through a slight curve from front to back; a line that follows those lines already trod, the uneven line of benches to the right; the line of sight of the man, presumed from the angle of his neck, towards the first of the women, the woman in white.
We don’t know, until we are told, until Dyer tells us, that the man, a friend of Kertész, is blind; nor that the women on the bench are Kertész’s wife and the mentally unstable younger woman she has befriended. The man is seeing nothing: the scene is one that Kertész has staged. Knowing none of this, are we are tempted, nonetheless, to see the bench, in part, as metaphor? And knowing everything , knowing the truth, something of the truth, behind the photograph, does it become less of a great photograph – if that’s what it is – or more?
So many questions. So many benches. Benches in Budapest, the French Riviera, Central Park. As it sit reading, I become more and more aware that everyone – everyone, it seems – the tennis players, the couples passing by, the young woman talking excitedly into her mobile phone – is speaking in a language that may be Russian. Polish, possibly, or Russian. Some Eastern European language that evades me, as most languages do, and for a moment it would not be difficult to imagine myself somewhere else, some other bench …
But, of course, the moment passes. I finish my sandwich, close the book. Page 139, Paul Strand: White Fence, Port Kent, New York, 1916. Just time before moving on, getting off the fence, as it were, for a bench or two of my own … oh, and a fence …
The major discovery for me this year has been the work of the American writer Paul Hendrickson: having started with Hemingway’s Boat, his most recent book – a brilliant, spiralling accumulation of stories about Hemingway and, yes, his boat, but, more importantly, his family, friends and acquaintances – I read through his other work with equal enjoyment and fascination.
This was part of a tendency, unusual in my past reading history, to get more pleasure from non-fiction rather than fiction. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, for instance, an account of being embedded with a battalion of American military personnel in Baghdad, I found utterly compelling, humane and, where individual soldiers were concerned, non-judgemental. Thank You For Your Service, in which Finkel follows some of those same people back into civilian life, is high on my list of books to read in the New Year.
Finally, to note that this list doesn’t include books I’ve re-read during the year and which, since they include such as Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady, Colm Toibin’s The Master, Mrs Dalloway, and a pile of Hemingway short stories, would have just about taken over.