Stuff vs. Theory

In a rather acid moment, my publisher once said that all my books could secretly be titled Fun Stuff I Have Found Out. He did not mean it unkindly, or at least I tell myself he didn’t. And up to a point it’s a fair cop, guv. I came to history-writing by the back door. I was writing a biography of four Victorian women, and to understand their own particular lives I felt I needed to know more about the lives which most women of their background and time
lived. My next four books, to a greater or lesser extent, focused on exactly that: how did the people of the time live; what did they do, what did they see, feel, smell; how did they amuse themselves, what was available to them on a day-to-day basis? If we don’t
know about ordinary life, goes my brain, how can we understand what motivates the less ordinary?

The historian Robin Winks divided history into ‘three things: what happened in the past, what people believe happened in the past, and what historians say happened in the past’. This tripartite division is a good description of what history is. History-writing, however, can just as well divide into two schools: theory, and ‘stuff’. Stuff falls into Winks’s ‘what happened in the past’ category, while theory spills across the other two. But stuff encompasses more than just ‘what happened’. It is also ‘what was it like when it happened’.

Take urbanisation, for example. Theory discusses the broad sweep of city growth and the socialisation of populations. Stuff uncovers that, in the new cities, when traffic began to be
segregated according to different types of transport, carts went in one lane, pedestrians and horses in another: the division was wheels versus legs. Not an insight that alone will set the world on fire but one that, nonetheless, does indicate a mindset revealingly
different to our own.

The source-materials for stuff are also pleasantly far-ranging. I would never take Tennyson’s description of ‘streaming London’s central roar’ as evidence of ‘what happened in the past’. It might mean the city was noisy, or it might be a flight of fantasy. Nor Dostoevsky calling London a city filled with ‘the screeching and howling of machines’ – he is hardly known as being the most even-keeled of writers. But then there is Dickens. Novel after novel abounds with throw-away lines like this from Our Mutual Friend, where one character asks another, ‘Would you object to turn aside into this place… where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?’ Add in visitors’ reports of being
unable to hear a sermon in St Clement Danes on a Sunday over the sound of the traffic in the Strand, and Jane Carlyle complaint of the ‘everlasting sound in my ears, of men, women, children, omnibuses, carriages, glass coaches, street coaches, waggons,
carts, dog-carts, steeple bells, door bells, gentlemen-raps, twopenny post-raps, footmen-showers-of-raps, of the whole devil to pay…’ from her small by-street in Chelsea, and Tennyson and Dostoevsky now appear to be merely reporting.

I do understand the qualms of the theory-ers, who question whether the experiences of individuals alone can be the basis on which to formulate more abstract ideas about society. Yet stuff allows us a mosaic-style formation of a picture. One tile tells us
little: it is too highly coloured, or too pale; but combine the many, many tiles that make up stuff, and a vivid picture emerges. We can stop with these pictures – that may be all we ask of ‘what happened in the past’. But my view is that, carefully assessed and
weighed, stuff can indeed lead more naturally to theory, to understanding how the people of the past thought about what happened.

It took me a phenomenally long time to discover exactly how a doorstep was whitened in the 19th century. Every household management book assured its readers it had to be done daily, but detailed instructions were scanty, for the simple reason that it was done daily, so everyone knew how. I was finally enlightened not by a book, but by my great-aunt (born 1905). The step was scrubbed down with boiling water. After it dried, a white paste
was applied. (Details to be found in The Victorian House, should any of you kids decide to try this at home.) It was done first thing in the morning, she said, before they went to school, so she and her sister had to jump from the threshold to the path, because
walking on the step would mark the white. How, I asked, wondering, did they get back in again after school? This was the revelation: ‘You could walk on it after eleven; everyone had seen it.’

This stuff therefore has two parts. First, the step was scrubbed before it was whitened; the whitening was not part of the cleaning process. And secondly, whitening a doorstep was not about cleanliness, it was about status. The very transience of the white announced the householder’s respectability: she had cleaned that day, and would clean again the next. So here, stuff leads to theory. What happened, what people thought about it, and why.

For the book I am currently working on, an attempt to outline the development of the idea of home, I am by the nature of the subject dealing more with theory than I ever have before. For the first year, I felt like a cow in ice-skates: please let me have my stuff back, I cried. I can trace the development of artificial lighting with no trouble. I can do it with both arms tied behind my back. Please please please don’t make me write about why, as lighting
became brighter, cheaper and more accessible, window-curtains moved from being rarities to being routine, or why the trends in decoration pronounced darkened rooms more aesthetically pleasing. (Although my stuff-nature leapt upon the nomenclature. In Germany in the late 19th century, one especially gloomy tendency was known as the braune Soße – gravy – style of interior decoration.)

Sometimes I think theory is like dealing with a particularly inquisitive five-year-old. Why was there an Industrial Revolution? Because of the consumer revolution. OK, so why was there a consumer revolution? Because of the… and we’re off, an endless series of ‘whys’ pushing each question further and further back.

At other times, I am amazed not so much by the material (although that is astonishing too), as by Winks’s second category: ‘what people think happened’. Or, in some cases, what they refuse to believe happened; we refuse to move from stuff to theory. Dutch academics have produced exceptional work on 17th-century inventories, comparing the paintings of the Golden Age to the actual design and contents of the houses supposedly
depicted. There is, they show, little overlap – barely any houses had marble floors, brass chandeliers, carpets on tables, or owned musical instruments; meanwhile many items that were in common use, such as strip-matting on the floors, were rarely or barely ever painted. The Dutch of the 17th century knew these pictures did not depict reality; it is we, in the intervening centuries, who have lost sight of that.

But the fascinating thing is how little purchase this work has had, how rarely it has been incorporated into the mainstream of general knowledge, despite – or indeed because – of the popularity of the paintings. The reason for this obscurity, of course, moves us from stuff (the inventories) to theory. The pioneering curator and design-historian Peter Thornton knew of this work, but continued to argue for the verisimilitude of Dutch
Golden Age art: the departure from reality for artists ‘is never all that large’, he wrote. And how, he challenged, if there were no carpets in houses, could artists ‘find carpets on floors to depict so accurately’, taking for granted that artists paint only the world about them, that they do not own props, nor create staged settings to paint.

In part, Thornton’s rejection of the research may have been one of age. He had relied heavily on paintings and engravings for his great histories of interior decoration; to accept the symbolic nature of supposedly realist works as he reached his eighties would bring into question a lifetime’s work. But his refusal mirrors the seemingly inexplicable obscurity of such fascinating material.

His refusal is ours. We really don’t want to know that these paintings are not realistic. From their re-popularisation in the 19th century, these paintings have been a major component in what we think of when we think of the word ‘home’. We want those tranquil, golden-lit rooms to have been real, to be, now, a place that once existed, and might therefore exist again. If we accept they are imaginary, we must accept that our own notions of home are, in part, imaginary too.

Is this theory correct? I don’t know. But what I do know is this: stuff doesn’t lie.

This article first appeared in The Author.

Wheeldon: Winter’s Tale, ENB: Lest They Forget, BRB: Pagodas

Choreography may be the most difficult of all performing-art forms. The dance-lover is all too aware that the standard theatre or opera repertoires contain thousands of works. Dance, by contrast, has a repertoire that numbers only in the hundreds, and most companies commonly draw on only dozens of works.

For England’s three largest ballet companies to produce new pieces within months of each other, therefore, is unusual. That the works come from four of the most artistically acclaimed choreographers is exciting. That all four men (as usual, they are once again all men) have produced top-quality work is cause for celebration, and more than a little relief.

Christopher Wheeldon has seemed to be artistically stalled for some time. The abstract one-act pieces with which he first made his name two decades ago have become increasingly difficult to differentiate. His first narrative piece, Alice in Wonderland, for the Royal Ballet in 2011, fell between stools, insufficiently dramatic, and also without much choreographic invention. Three years on, however, it appears that Wheeldon has suddenly, with brio, taken a huge artistic step forward.

With the same creative team as Alice (design by Bob Crowley, music composed by Joby Talbot, lighting by Natasha Katz), Wheeldon has taken The Winter’s Tale, a story apparently as intractably word-based as Alice, and dazzlingly rendered it into movement as shape-shifting and ambiguous as Shakespeare’s original. Here the dance-language is as firmly divided as Shakespeare’s division of Sicily and Bohemia, Sicily being expressionism; Bohemia, classical joy. Leontes (the first cast’s Edward Watson, doing his Mayerling / Metamorphosis routine once too often, was surpassed by the second evening’s Bennet Gartside, in a more nuanced performance) is a creature of writhing, crawling jealousy; Paulina (the astonishing Zenaida Yanowsky in the role of her career, deftly stealing every scene in which she appears) is the rigorously upright moral centre, her duty to her queen and the truth overriding her anguish at the deceit they require. Then Wheeldon places the forthright movement of Antigonus (Bennet Gartside) to bridge the gap between this world of intense emotionality, and Bohemia’s simpler pastoral, where Florizel (Steven McRae) and Perdita (Sarah Lamb’s more contained first cast performance again surpassed by Beatriz Stix-Brunell’s charmingly seductive second night) frolic winsomely together with a lovely pair of shepherds. (The “bear” that pursues Antigonus is ingeniously incorporated into a giant wave in the storm that strands the pair on Bohemia’s shores, although on first viewing it appeared only to be visible from some parts of the house.)

Wheeldon’s choreographic division is marked well by Crowley: the Sicilian court, apart from a Caspar David Friedrich blow-up to reference Romantic angst, is white and cold, what the Renaissance would have looked like if only the Medici had had the nous to hire John Pawson; the supersaturated colours of Bohemia produce the second act’s coup de théâtre, a lushly green tree, all soaring branches and spreading roots, taking over the entire back of the stage (and summoning the audience’s first unmediated applause of the evening). The return to Sicily, then, is all the more poignant as we leave the light and sun behind, via a dramatic boat chase cunningly created by Crowley, to Paulina’s recognition of Perdita (through an emerald pendant rather than a “fardel”), which may be one of the most dramatically moving moments of narrative dance since Kenneth MacMillan’s Mayerling.

This is not to say the piece is perfect: Wheeldon has difficulty bringing a scene to a dramatic close, and most fade away in a whimper; the balance between dance and exposition is uneven, Act I being overloaded with plot, Act II with pure dance; and there are several longueurs where earlier scenes are recapitulated dramatically or choreographically, and could effectively be cut (it’s a long evening). Joby Talbot’s score, on a single hearing, appears undistinguished and lacks the textures Wheeldon and Crowley find.

The real problem, however, is dance’s automatic acceptance of magic, which means Shakespeare’s dramatic climax, Hermione stepping down from her plinth, has little emotional impact. In an art-form jam-packed with vision scenes, this is just one more. While the first night’s Hermione, Lauren Cuthbertson, played the scene straight, the second cast’s Marianela Núñez was more profound, performing the same steps, but making clear the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s “reconciliation”, as Gartside’s Leontes, too, understood that second chances are not always what they appear.

Reality is also a starting point for English National Ballet’s contribution to the First World War centenary. In a mixed bill, Liam Scarlett has produced, to Liszt’s Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, a meditation on the machinery of war. No Man’s Land is set in a derelict munitions factory. A zigzag ramp among the shattered windows and abandoned work surfaces creates a point of entry that echoes the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère, that nineteenth-century vision of predestined death. Scarlett’s choreography frequently allows the men and women to dance side by side, equals, instead of the more fashionable partnering style where the men fold and manipulate their women, and is delicately lovely and dramatically potent at one and the same time.

There is no delicacy in the programme’s closer, Akram Khan’s new piece, Dust, a shriek of rage of horror. Dust is awkwardly shaped, ostensibly unfinished and apparently clumsy – and may be one of the best new works to have been created in decades, a work of traumatic, epic power. Beginning in silence, a single anguished figure (Khan himself) writhes and twists across the floor, while the corps, drawn up in a line, gathers ever closer until – bang – they clap, and clouds of dust arise, brilliantly lit by Fabiana Piccioli. Only then does Jocelyn Pook’s evocative vocal score begin, as the line of dancers link arms to create a wave, a machine, a piston – a beautiful, and fantastically eerie moment. As the men move back to the trench behind them, heading up and over, the women are left behind in a percussive dance, both fierce and mourning.

Tamara Rojo, the company’s director, leads the women, and she scythes through space like a blade. David Bintley, in his new version of The Prince of the Pagodas, initially created for the National Ballet of Japan in 2011, and now brought to his home company, also creates strong women. Here is no sleeping princess, waiting passively for her prince. Bintley’s Princess (the lovely Momoko Hirata), deprived of her rights by her evil stepmother (Elisha Willis, enjoying the licence to chew the scenery) takes herself off to find the Salamander Prince (Joseph Caley) she has dreamed of, before together they fight their enemies to set the kingdom to rights.

The evening is full of splendid moments: Rae Smith’s gorgeous sets, half shimmering homage to Yukio Ninagawa, half in-joke Gilbert and Sullivan; Bintley’s tightly woven filigrees of choreography, not merely for his principals, but also a sublime Act II opener for a corps of clouds scudding across the stage, as well as possibly the best dancing sea horses it has ever been my privilege to watch.

That the moments never cohere to an artistic whole is attributable to Benjamin Britten’s score, which shifts all too rapidly from sinuously beautiful to staidly stereotyped. Many choreographers have tried to harness this intermittently glorious score; all have failed. Bintley has, however, failed better than anyone else. A notable achievement.

TLS, 24 April 2014

Richard Hamilton

RICHARD HAMILTON, Tate Modern

RICHARD HAMILTON AT THE ICA

RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints 1963–2007, Alan Cristea Gallery

Mark Godfrey Paul Schimmel and Vicente Todoli, editors, RICHARD HAMILTON (352pp. Tate. £29.99)

Jonathan Jones, RICHARD HAMILTON: Word and Image: Prints 1963–2007 (155pp. Alan Cristea Gallery. £25)

Richard Hamilton was a relative unknown when in 1956 he produced the collage for which he is still, perhaps, most famous: “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” (The original is too fragile to travel, and a print version produced by the artist in 1992 takes its place in the Tate’s show.) The piece was included in the Whitechapel Gallery’s seminal This is Tomorrow exhibition, and it would be difficult to claim that the British art establishment ever overlooked him again: the Tate’s current retrospective is its fourth since 1970, and includes some 200 works covering an almost sixty-year career. With two installations from the 50s re-created at the ICA, and fifty prints on show this month at Alan Cristea, this is a useful opportunity to take stock, three years after the artist’s death.

In a world that jostles for firsts, Hamilton has frequently, and plausibly, been put forward as the first Pop artist. “Just what is it . . .” with its rich panoply of consumer objects contains not only the first appearance of the word “Pop” (on the muscleman’s badminton racquet), but also a tin of ham, eight years before Andy Warhol’s soup cans went on show in New York in The American Supermarket exhibition. In a letter around this time, Hamilton defined Pop’s preoccupations, as a school that is: Popular, Transient, Expendable (easily forgotten), Low-cost, Mass-produced, Young, Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous and Big business. Most, apart from “easily forgotten”, can be found in “Just what is it . . .”

And then, over the next five decades, it seems as though the artist set out to test the boundaries of all of those categories in turn. In terms of technique, Hamilton produced installations, oil paintings, prints, drawings, photographic works, computer-manipulated images, industrial design, multiples and collages. He was also one of the early enthusiasts to work substantially in the interstices between techniques, what he called the “marriage of brush and lens” as he painted over photographs, or manipulated layers of mechanical reproductions.

His subject matter, too, was both wide-ranging and unusual. His work adheres to very traditional genres – still lifes, portraits, landscapes, conversation pieces, agitprop and religious subjects – but his most steadfast commitment was to the products of the modern world. In this he was (apart from, in different ways, Warhol) working almost entirely on his own. David Hockney’s subject matter would not have surprised an eighteenth-century artist, allowing for the substitution of river-bathing with swimming pools; Roy Lichtenstein’s would have been (mostly) familiar to the Impressionists. But toasters? Toothbrushes? “Just what is it . . .” included a television, a tape recorder, a vacuum cleaner, a magazine; when Hamilton revisited the idea in 1994, the new print now showed a computer, a microwave and a video-recorder. A 2004 work, “Chiara and Chair”, returned full circle, to 1956’s vacuum cleaner, even as computer-aided perspectival possibilities allowed the artist to take his exploration of the modern interior further.

The two great subjects that spanned Hamilton’s career were consumerism and the industrial world, and space, and how it can be interpreted. “I would like”, he said, “to think of my purpose as a search for what is epic in everyday objects and everyday attitudes.” In this search, he turned initially to James Joyce and Marcel Duchamp. Joyce taught him that he “did not need a style of working”, while from Duchamp he took the idea of the artist not merely as craftsman, but as someone who chooses objects, and by his selection, and scrutiny, turns them into art. A third influence, it seems to me, was Le Corbusier: in Hamilton’s work the “machine for living” appears to be both the artist’s eyes and the screen, whether film, television or, latterly, computer.

The first big step forward was in the 1960s, when Hamilton moved on from the constricted perspectives of “Just what is it . . .” to a series of interiors, a subject that would continue to provide him with creative impetus until his death in 2011. “Any interior”, he said, “is a set of anachronisms”: the objects that fill our houses, whether purchased or inherited, create layers of time. In the transformation from lived space to artist’s vision, further layers of potential are imposed on the subject.

At this stage, Hamilton worked with photocopies and photographs, cutting and rescaling elements to create perspectival shift, to build mood as well as shape. In “Interiors I” and “II”, and “Desk”, he inserted a cut-out photograph of the B-movie starlet Patricia Knight into an office of terrifying instability: the black, thrusting rectangle that is the side of the desk suddenly wavers; the desktop, at one side solid enough to hold a pencil so realistically reproduced that any nineteenth-century copyist would have been proud, on its other side slithers away into white nothingness; in the second version, the desk itself vanishes, and only its identifiable angular thrust remains: the smile of a deskbound Cheshire Cat.

In the 1990s, computers gave Hamilton the ability to go further, producing two brilliant series, Seven Rooms and Annunciation. In Seven Rooms, Hamilton engaged with the idea of the installation, but reconsidered it for our computer age, to become what might be thought of as non-site-specific-site-specific work. He photographed a series of rooms, and the images were digitally printed onto the gallery walls; this print, complete with gallery wall, was then in turn photographed, and printed onto canvas, some overpainted, some not. Rehung as they are in the Tate, the viewer sees a Russian doll installation in two dimensions. The distancing forces us to examine not merely the life on show, but how lives are lived. These repetitions and reiterations become a way of considering the expressive capabilities of scale, perspective and harmony, in emotional as well as technical terms.

While this is where Hamilton’s significance will, in future, surely be seen to lie, the Tate retrospective reminds us of what a skilled craftsman he was too: an early oil, “Chromatic Grid” (1950), with its swirly pinpoints; or “d’Orientation” (1952), and the Trainsition series, show a lovely delicate colourist in watercolour and gouache.

But this hand-on-canvas work was soon left behind. Hamilton was far more interested in ideas, and these found their expression most often in prints. His 1970 series, Kent State, uses an image from the recent killings at Kent State University, when students protesting against the Vietnam War were shot by the Ohio National Guard. Hamilton selected one image, a student lying paralysed on the ground, replicating it over and over, his heavily mediated framing device never allowing us to forget that the work is not only about a government murdering its citizens, but also about the dissemination of that knowledge.

Hamilton described how he first came across the Kent State image on television, sandwiched between The Black and White Minstrel Show and Match of the Day, and his consequent reluctance to use it: “It was too terrible an incident . . . to submit to arty treatment. Yet there it was in my hand, by chance – I didn’t really choose the subject, it offered itself. It seemed right, too, that art could help to keep the shame in our minds”.

His concern to separate entertainment from an exploration of a state’s abandonment of morality appears to have passed the Tate by. Hamilton elsewhere warned that “Political or moral motivation is hard to handle for an artist”, but so it is too for those who show the art. Here, however, the curators have chosen to display the Kent State pictures across from Swingeing London, Hamilton’s series showing Mick Jagger being arrested for dope smoking, and another series, Fashion-plate, collages of women’s faces taken from fashion photographs. Absent Hamilton’s thoughts on art and morality, the suggestion presented by this hanging is that all three series have some sort of equivalence. (The quotation instead is to be found in the very good Alan Cristea catalogue. The Tate catalogue, hefty even by modern museum standards, has splendid reproductions, but the essays take a lot of space to say remarkably little, while Cristea’s carefully selected quotations from Hamilton himself are consistently enlightening.)

More generally, the Tate’s panels supply minimal information, not even a single biographical outline. That is left to the ICA, which has on show recreations of two installations Hamilton made in the 1950s. There we learn that Hamilton was born in 1922 (although, mysteriously, there is no mention of his death in 2011). As was common for working-class children at the time, Hamilton left school at fourteen, finding employment as an office boy in the advertising department of an electrical engineering firm. He received wartime training in technical drawing, and then worked as a mechanical draughtsman creating templates for tools – that is, making reproductions, the subject that was to consume him.

The ICA’s concise but well-rounded display of his graphic design work shows yet another facet of this protean artist. His typographic skills were not merely comprehensive, but joyous – a poster advertising a Francis Picabia show is an object lesson in how to make grey fun. Alan Cristea Gallery’s selection of fifty prints is similarly astutely pared down, offering an almost flip-book-like ride through six decades.

For Hamilton produced vastly, prodigiously. Often an engagement with new techniques took decades to come to fruition. The late Rooms series is a masterful summation of a lifetime’s work. So, too, are his photographic self-portrait projects, some in the style of Francis Bacon, others tiny Polaroids taken by his friends over a quarter of a century. Other areas are less successful. The Tate has devoted an entire room to what it primly refers to as his “scatological” period (in reality, brightly coloured prints of turds). In retrospect these works appear to be more experiments in new printmaking technology. Similarly, his incursions into politics, whether a portrait of Tony Blair as a gunslinger, or a triptych of reflections on the Troubles, are clearly heartfelt, but their didactic finger-waving brings them perilously close to kitsch.

Hamilton was a trailblazer, and his best work belongs with the very best, a fizzing, dazzling reminder of what a great intelligence brought to post-war art. A pity, then, to dilute it with so many dead ends and false beginnings.

Published in the TLS

Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones: Literature, Modernism and Dance (360pp. Oxford University Press. £55)

In 1930s literary London, ballet was everywhere. Virginia Woolf, several Stracheys, the Bells, E. M. Forster, H. G. Wells, John Middleton Murry and Katherine Mansfield, Aldous Huxley, the Sitwells and T. S. Eliot all attended the Ballets Russes. Louis MacNeice’s Les Sylphides appeared in 1939, and in the same year Henry Green’s Party Going used the same ballet as a structural underpinning. It wasn’t just the intelligentsia, either. Compton Mackenzie wrote two novels with a dance protagonist, and even Eric Ambler’s Cause for Alarm (1938) contained a reference to Diaghilev.

All the more peculiar, then, that those who have since studied modernism, both in the visual arts and in literature, have barely acknowledged the movement’s links to dance. Where is the equivalent to Adorno on Stravinsky and Schoenberg? Where the monographs to match those on Cubism, or the modern novel? If the link between the “Demoiselles d’Avignon” and temporality in fiction is worth examining, why not between that same painting and Nijinsky’s Sacre du Printemps?

A few dance writers have attempted to bridge the gap, but almost no literary specialists. Now Susan Jones, a Conrad scholar as well as, before that, a dancer, is ideally placed to take the subject forward, as one who can see how, “At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is”. For the relationship between dance and literature is not merely “one of the most striking but understudied features of modernism”, but one of reciprocity: dance drew on modern literature as much as modern literature was shaped by dance.

Until now, literary theorists seem almost deliberately to have turned away from movement and its presence in their subject. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, there is a famous scene generally referred to by scholars as “the image of the African woman”, even though Marlow is plainly describing movement, not a static “image”, a woman “treading the earth proudly” until “she stopped . . . . Suddenly she opened her bared arms and threw them up rigid above her head, as though in an uncontrollable desire to touch the sky . . . . She turned away slowly, walked on, following the bank, and passed into the bushes to the left”. Everything in that moment is about movement, even as its acquired tag reduces it to a tableau.

Similarly, Gilles Deleuze wrote absorbingly on Samuel Beckett’s three languages, languages of names, voices and images, but despite Beckett’s fanatical care for stage directions, Deleuze never appears to have contemplated the author’s language of movement. Yet Beckett’s knowledge of dance was formidable, and formidably integrated in his work, which drew on Eurhythmics, music hall, ballet and commedia dell’arte. In a more populist vein, Sjeng Scheijen’s acclaimed biography of Diaghilev (2010) referred to the designer, librettist and composer of Parade as its “three creators” with, apparently an afterthought, “Massine as choreographer”. It is not Scheijen’s blind spot that so intrigues: it is that so few – or no? – reviewers even noticed the blind spot. Oversight is the norm for dance.

Jones locates the origins of the modernist nexus of dance and literature in the nineteenth century, with the performances of the only now critically reassessed Loïe Fuller, and with Stéphane Mallarmé and Nietzsche’s writings. Fuller was an innovator, creating mesmeric effects through swirling steps and long silks which were manipulated with her body and with hidden sticks, highlighted by new techniques of lighting. Only a year after her first dance performance in 1892, Mallarmé was already describing her art as a model for literature, both dance and symbolist poetry using compressed forms of expression, with Fuller’s “écriture corporelle” permitting a “poetics of potentiality . . . a signifying practice that in its most abstract and ideal form dispenses with the generation of verbal meaning”, the dancer’s gestures creating an indeterminacy that allowed each viewer to create their own meaning. Three decades earlier, Mallarmé’s “new poetics” had concentrated on “not the thing itself, but the effect it produced”; now Fuller’s “bodily writing” gave the poet a way to become the poem.

Fuller had no formal training. Classical dance was Apollonian, an art of courtly symmetry, restraint, gravity and balance, while the new dance forms that were emerging embraced the dissonance and conflict of the Dionysian, and, possibly most importantly, rhythm over melody. “Now the world of nature is to be expressed in symbols”, Nietzsche wrote; “a new world of symbols is necessary, a symbolism of the body for once, not just the symbolism of the mouth, but the full gestures of dance . . . . Then the other symbolic forces will develop, particularly those of music, suddenly impetuous in rhythm, dynamism, and harmony.”

The struggle between the Apollonian and Dionysian might be said to have created twentieth-century dance, and literature. Modernism turned to the ancient, to ritual, to express itself, with its dichotomies of attraction and repulsion, of the individual and the community. One of the most compelling sections in Jones’s book is her analysis of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces, recognized by the dance world as a masterpiece on a par with the “Demoiselles d’Avignon”, or Mrs Dalloway. It was, she demonstrates, a complement and response to Nijinska’s brother’s more famous (in reputation, although in reality lost) Sacre du Printemps. In both, a female is sacrificed to the greater community through ritual, and rhythm takes precedence over melody, dissonance over assonance. Both concentrate on symbolic forms, flattened, two-dimensional shapes, scenes rather than narrative, and primitive designs – in Nijinska’s case, constructivist art, in Nijinsky’s, Roerich’s quasi-pastoral primitivism. Both incorporate Mallarmé’s “poetic impersonality”: movement was “pure, self-contained”, not a conduit for dancers to express themselves. And in both the stylized choreography required the “active engagement on the part of the viewer to complete its meaning”. When movement stops, Nijinska wrote, “an illicit ‘intermission’ begins”, not a pause, “for a pause is also movement – a breath, as it were” – that is, Woolf’s “still space that lies about the heart of things”.

This is only one small example of the many cross-fertilizations that Jones so ably explores. Her chapter on Eliot breaks new ground, whether it is the discussion of Petrushka and “The Hollow Men”, or Murder in the Cathedral and Antony Tudor’s Jardin aux lilas, the two pieces staged at the Mercury Theatre in tandem. Tudor’s poetic evocation by elision of “what might have been” displayed in moments of frozen gesture may well have influenced Eliot’s still points. Both men similarly returned to the past – Eliot to the Elizabethans, Tudor to the Edwardians – to create a new present. Her chapter on Beckett is equally enlightening.

But it is these chapters that make other sections of the book so frustrating. Jones has chosen to structure her book chronologically around the development of modernist aesthetics as writing, and thus privileges literature over movement. Given that most of her readers will have a better grasp of the history of literature than of dance, this is unfortunate, as the book dashes ahistorically through the dance world wherever a literary strand takes her. It also forces her into many repetitions, some even word for word.

Another, more uncomfortable reality is the ephemeral nature of dance. Jones devotes a long section to Andrée Howard’s The Sailor’s Return, another vanished work. A few of its scenes were filmed, and there is a programme synopsis. But that is all, and yet Jones discusses the piece as though it can be intimately studied: “Howard’s use of textual detail helped her express in dance the fine gradations of tone and register in the novel”. This may be so, but I would like to know how Jones knows.

What modernism means, for dance, too, is a vexed question, and one that needs to be confronted directly. One of Jones’s definitions is that, as with modernist literature, narrative and character are treated in a non-linear, non-realist fashion. But as early as 1841, Act Two of Giselle was already reaching for the abstract, as was Act Three of La Bayadère in 1877, and Ivanov’s white act for Swan Lake in 1894. Jones discusses the changes to Balanchine’s Apollo from its inception in 1928, when it had a prologue narrating the birth pangs of Leto, and a set with a tumulus up which Apollo climbed to reach his apotheosis as “Musagète”, to the 1979 version which omitted both birth and tumulus. But to describe the loss of the climb, as she does, as a shift from the Dionysian (as demonstrated in the physical manifestation of the upward struggle) to the Apollonian (achieved) is to ignore a number of productions which to this day contain a set of stairs, up which Apollo and the muses continue to progress.

That ultimately encapsulates the difficulty of dance scholarship. There is no one, definitive, Apollo, and thus its meaning, or even its style, is elusive. And this example can be multiplied endlessly. Jones sees the choreographer Léonide Massine as a stark modernist, which in his choice of collaborators he certainly was, working with assorted Cubists, Fauves, even Dalí, and among the first to use symphonic music for dance, “and yet”, she laments, “his impact on modernism in a wider field has been overlooked”. This might be, I would suggest, because his choreography was not modernist at all: working with modernists does not make you yourself modern. As Eliot harked back to the Elizabethans, so choreographers of real modernism – Fokine, Balanchine – frequently invoked the past, while old-fashioned choreographers like Massine, who resisted a deeper modernism, superficially embraced all the current tropes.

As the historian Jennifer Homans has reminded us, dance, with its ephemerality of performance, is an art of memory, not history. Most of dance has vanished into the great unremembered. Where work has survived, and can be analysed – Les Noces, for example – Jones is a peerless guide, moving us back and forth between art forms with a dizzying virtuosity of her own. More generally, the great strength of Literature, Modernism, and Dance lies not in (the impossible) re-creation of the invisible, but in Jones’s exemplary account of how performances and performers endowed artists in other genres with ways to think about their process.

First published in the TLS

‘Everybody Dies’: bodies in art

Sam Mendes’s current production of King Lear at the National, starring Simon Russell Beale, is fascinating in many ways, perhaps the most notable being the ramping up of the body-count of this bloody play. In most stagings, the Fool disappears, his death referenced in a passing sigh, “my poor Fool is hanged”; at the National, he is beaten to death in front of us. Goneril and Regan, too, both die onstage, contrary to the stage directions, as does Gloucester, whose heart “bursts smilingly”. Add in Lear, Edmund and Cordelia, and that’s quite a pile-up.

But this steep body-count isn’t a modern invention. There are 66 deaths in just 11 of Shakespeare’s plays. (Titus Andronicus has a hefty 14, The Winter’s Tale has only one, if you assume that a man who “exits, pursued by a bear” isn’t going to get very far.) In fact, that Shakespeare and blood go hand in hand is so well known that the National’s bookshop sells a poster entitled “Everybody Dies”, with handy pictograms of the fates of Romeo, Juliet and their unfortunate friends.

So the recent pout from the playwright David Hare, who has called the high death rate in contemporary crime-drama “ridiculous” seems wilfully obtuse. “At what level of reality is this meant to be happening?” he huffed.

The obvious answer is, at no level. That’s why it’s called “drama”, not “reality”. Aeschylus, who knew a thing or two about drama, reminded us to “Call no man happy until he is dead” – we can’t know how a person’s life turns out until it’s over. Since one of the joys of drama is that it gives shape and coherence to the random events that constitute our lives, death is a dramatic necessity.

It’s not as if this is a secret. Almost all opera could be subtitled “Dead Women”. Elizabethan drama would have to pack up and go home without murder: “When the bad bleeds, then is the tragedy good”, says the central character in The Revenger’s Tragedy, before killing his enemy by giving him a poisoned skull to kiss – oh, that old trick – and for good measure pimping out his sister. In The Spanish Tragedy, two of the characters die before the curtain rises, but nevertheless have speaking roles.

If we were to stipulate that reality was the starting-point for drama, where would crime-fiction, films and mini-series be set? Not in Europe or North America for a start, with their death rates hovering between 5 per 100,000 (ultra-violent US), 1.8 (calm Canada), and 0.6 (safe Sweden). Monaco would be out: 0 per 100,000. Sorry, Mr Bond, no Casino Royale for you, you’ll have to head to Honduras instead: 82.1 per 100,000.

Hare, promoting his new BBC drama, Turks & Caicos, says that he wants to “restore tension”, like Hitchcock who “never killed anybody”. Say what? The Hitchcock I know had no problem killing his characters, from the 1920s The Lodger, which begins with a woman being murdered, through Rope (the victim not merely strangled, but then stuffed in a box on which dinner is served – more “reality”, no doubt). And unless I’ve misread Psycho all these years, Marion doesn’t get out of that shower, dry her hair and find a good place for brunch. There is even a film-clip on YouTube where, to save time and trouble, 36 Hitchcock films have been spliced into 2 minutes and 50 seconds of murderous denouements.

Chekov’s gun is a famous theatrical dictum: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” This is more a warning against dragging in material that isn’t going to be used. But it also returns us to Aeschylus. Until the end is known, until we get to the ever-after, no story can be judged. And art, finally, is judgment. Reality is death. None of us gets out of here alive.

First published in The Telegraph

Royal Ballet: Triple Bill

It is possible to see Gloria, Kenneth MacMillan’s howl of rage at the wanton waste of the First World War, as the final piece in a great arc of expressionist dance, from Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (1913), through Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces (1923), to Gloria (1980). The first two works portray a mythicized peasant life, where women are ritually sacrificed for the benefit of the community. The violence they depict, overt in Le Sacre, sublimated into ceremonial in Les Noces, is the violence of their century.

In Gloria, the communal violence is no longer beneficial, or ritualized, but mechanized, the slaughter of millions, so many that the living and the dead can no longer be separated. The vast armies of the dead walk (dance) as one, their numbers stretching away to the horizon. The score, Francis Poulenc’s Gloria, by turns lighthearted, sorrowful and resigned, lays down a palette from which MacMillan paints a vision of both hope and despair: a trio of men find companionship even as they dance with death, before the two main soldiers and their silvery companion – the angel of death? – join the nameless millions as they quietly line up to go over the top. The last soldier looks into the trench, into the pit, before he joins them, not quietly, but leaping, arms outstretched, crucified, the final sacrifice of humanity.

MacMillan achieved the highest aim, knitting the music, sets and costumes (of dusty, brutalized grandeur from Andy Klunder) and lighting (John B. Read) so tightly with his choreography that they form a single unity of vision, as Nijinska did with Natalia Goncharova and Stravinsky in Les Noces. (Nijinsky too may have done so, but the choreography of Le Sacre, despite attempts at restoration, remains unknowable.)

This collaborative vision is what Wayne McGregor too looks for, and for his new work, Tetractys –The Art of Fugue, he has elected to work with Bach (and Michael Berkeley), Tauba Auerbach for sets and costumes, and his regular lighting designer, Lucy Carter. The most enjoyable elements are Auerbach’s neon glyphs, which are raised and lowered over each segment of dance, a beautiful, playfully engaging schematization of the music. But they stand out, and stand alone, barely integrated into a whole.

Each work begins for McGregor with a single, usually theoretical, idea. Each is then mined for half an hour of dance, before being discarded as a new idea provokes the next work. It may be why it is hard to discern any development in McGregor’s work. We’ve had the form of atoms for Atomos, the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge and Richard Serra’s word lists for UNDANCE, virtual reality, PTSD and controlled explosions for Live Fire Exercise, and so on. For Tetractys, it is geometry and numerology, number theory and other games that Bach may, or may not, have been playing with in his mysterious Art of Fugue.

What it isn’t is a serious engagement with the music. The more standard piano and harpsichord arrangements of this work were apparently not considered, or not considered appropriate. Nor, apparently, was the lovely string quartet arrangement (which would also have linked to the four lines of the tetractys). Instead we have Michael Berkeley’s orchestral rendering of two canons and four fugal constructions: perfectly nice, but without much colour.

And in front of this the usual McGregor vocabulary of frantic scurrying, extreme distortion and hyper-extensions plays out, much as it has in all his previous works. A second viewing might have brought a deeper reading, but it was not to be. Dance can be an extreme sport, and in the matinee Natalia Osipova hit her head hard enough (against her partner, apparently) to sustain a concussion. Although she carried on to finish the performance, the evening show had to be cancelled. (That the Royal Ballet cannot field a second cast is astonishing, but in keeping with what appear to be financial constraints elsewhere; the piece’s muddy lighting suggests that onstage technical time was limited.)

The bill opened with Frederick Ashton’s final major work, Rhapsody, choreographed in 1980 for Mikhail Baryshnikov, full of glitter and dazzle, but an odd, unbalanced piece, the male principal’s style set entirely at odds with the rest of the dancers. The Royal has regularly revived the work, although its constant redesign of sets and costumes (originally William Chappell, then Patrick Caulfield, then Jessica Curtis) suggests a level of discomfort with it.

While Valentino Zucchetti debuted admirably, at the moment the Royal does not have a virtuoso of starriest star quality, someone who gobbles up space, who brutally demands attention. Steven McRae, more experienced, led the first cast, and young James Hay, a soloist, performed nicely in a matinee. But at the moment there is a dearth of dazzle in the Royal.

First published in the TLS

Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, and people-trafficking

Tamara Rojo was, for many years, one of the Royal Ballet’s foremost principal dancers. She has proved equally surefooted as the newly ensconced director of English National Ballet. After an initial season of smartly programmed triple bills, Le Corsaire is her first commissioned work, a way of throwing down the gauntlet, announcing that ENB is playing in the big league. This full-length work from the classical tradition showcases her new star, Alina Cojocaru, whom Rojo adeptly poached after that luminous dancer’s abrupt and messy departure from the Royal Opera House.

Rojo has said that she chose this work in part because it is not in the repertory of any other British company. It can be, as such, “owned” by ENB. And that it has three, rather than the more conventional one, virtuoso male roles was no doubt a factor too. La Bayadère, a similar choice, is regularly danced by the Royal, and has far fewer soloist parts.

The choreography is nominally by Petipa, but much of it is in reality the work of Konstantin Sergeyev, with the famous pas de trois (usually performed in galas as a pas de deux) choreographed for the virtuoso Vakhtang Chabukiani in the 1930s. Anna-Marie Holmes, who mounted this production, has smoothed out many of the bumps between styles, and the dance flows well – the romantic pas de deux for Medora (Cojocaru) and Conrad (Vadim Muntagirov) that follows the more athletic pas de trois gives Act Two, in particular, a depth and richness that are relished by Cojocaru and Muntagirov (with, in the pas de trois, the excellent Junor Souza as Ali; he is now not only stylishly virtuosic, but has an elegance and fineness of bearing that mark him out as something special). The delicate “Jardin Animé” classical scene in Act Three, when the evil pasha (the splendid Michael Coleman) dreams that his concubines have become a dancing garden, highlights the delightfully precise Shiori Kase, a perfect Petipa heroine.

Rojo has also roped in Hollywood, in the person of the designer Bob Ringwood (Empire of the Sun and the Batman franchise are among his credits). All too often at the moment, theatre or film designers are asked to produce ballet without any experience of the requirements of this different art form, and their sets and costumes impede rather than impel the evening. Ringwood has the background in performance art (Swan Lakes and a Raymonda), and his designs are accomplished, drawing on Bollywood as well as nineteenth-century pastiche Orientalism in art and architecture to create what seems an oxymoron, a coherent fantasy-land. (Special mention must be made for the zenana of Act Three, which encloses the concubines at the end of the “Jardin Animé”: both frightening and elegant, a really efficient piece of staging.)

But there are downsides to Corsaire that are difficult to overlook. Artistically, the libretto and the score are highly problematic. The title and the characters’ names are from Byron, but the plot is standard pirate abduction-rescue melodrama fodder, repeated over and over to permit lots of dancing. Meanwhile, the score is a patchwork, from good composers on a bad day (Delibes) to adequate (Adolphe Adam, Minkus), to bad-to-terrible (Cesare Pugni, Drigo, Yuli Gerber, Albert Zabel, Prince Pyotr II van Oldenburg and Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schnell; and, although ENB doesn’t list him, I think the work of Prince Nikita Trubetskoi also makes an appearance).

Ultimately, even the music pales into insignificance when considering the problems of the plot. For it is impossible to overlook the fact that Le Corsaire is about slavery, about selling people (mostly women) for cash. Holmes has carefully removed the anti-Semitic stereotypes that continue to linger in the Russian versions: no longer are the slavers hook-nosed, but now “merely” avaricious. But she cannot omit the selling itself: it is Corsaire’s core. Transforming the pasha from despot to comic character seems sensible, but do we really want to laugh sympathetically with a slave-owner? And while the production works hard to allow us to think the pirates are “good” while the slavers are “bad”, the plot does not really allow it. Medora begs Conrad to release the slaves his pirate band has captured, which he does, but she, and everyone else on stage, is apparently comfortable with him as the owner of the slave Ali.

How classics of previous ages are reinterpreted to meet the values of our times is always a renegotiation: we no longer watch blacked-up Othellos, and Shylock is a perennial problem. Yet somehow these questions are not being considered in dance. Is it the lack of language that makes the performances seem other-worldly, not part of our own moral universe? I don’t know what the answer is, but I am concerned that no one, ENB included, appears to think that there is a need to ask the questions.

Published in the TLS, 16 January 2014

Hannah Höch, Whitechapel Gallery

Two large collages bookend Hannah Höch’s career. First, the cumbersomely titled “Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands” (“Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany”, not on show in this exhibition), a centrifugal spray of creation which made her reputation when it was exhibited at the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920; and, half a century later, the grid-like “Lebensbild” (“Life Portrait”, 1972–3). Together they display this astonishing artist’s many preoccupations and her range of approaches.

Born in 1889 into comfortable upper-middle-class circumstances, Höch arrived in Berlin to study at the School of Arts and Crafts, in the feminine disciplines of glass design and embroidery. The good girl soon vanished in Berlin’s post-war ferment, however, as she began a relationship with Raoul Hausmann, then at the centre of the Weimar Dadaists. In the early pieces, one can feel the young artist’s excitement as she drinks in influences – Henri Matisse, Raoul Dufy, then the Fauves, Paul Klee, the Russian Constructivists. Her chosen medium swiftly became collage, and, more specifically, photomontage, as the new print culture made cheap photographs available to recycle into art. Höch’s originality was to take the rhythms and patterns from her applied-arts background, and splice onto it the compulsions and concerns of modernism. “Weiße Form” (“White Form”), in 1919, is underpinned by Constructivist theory, but the forms, which themselves resemble sewing patterns, are laid out in an almost Cubist shape, pressed over a delicate spider-web tracery of embroidery. It was a powerful statement of intent. “I would like”, she wrote, “to blur the firm borders that we human beings, cocksure as we are, are inclined to erect around everything.” And she did.

The same year, “Porträt Gerhard Hauptmann”, a collage depiction of the playwright and Nobel Prize-winner, continued her anatomization, now not merely of art-forms, but of cultural achievement. A famous photograph of the Dada Fair in 1920 showed Raoul Hausmann ready to declaim, with Höch by his side, leaning in submissively, head inclined, shoulders bowed. But it is her collage, not his, that hangs in the background. Her portrait of Gerhard Hauptmann suggests that this gender inequality had long been clear to her: Hauptmann’s head is divided in two, his unsmiling mouth and eyes bracketing another, smiling, female mouth and eyes. “Da-Dandy” shows a man’s profile in red and yellow; inside, his head too is filled with women.

The critic Adolf Behne thought Dada an art of advertisements, photographs, ticket-stubs, “iron crosses, razor blades, cords, braid” and newspaper: pieces of modernity, of masculinity, and of a country emerging from war. It produced, he wrote, an “uncanny suspense”. “Uncanny” in German is unheimlich, un-home-like, unlike-the-place-women-are-supposed-to-be. Höch begged to differ. Women were to the fore again in her series “Aus einem ethnographischen Museum” (“From an ethnographic museum”), where ethnographic elements were conflated with photographs of women from topical magazines, the resulting figures set on plinths, their race and gender displayed for examination by experts. Doing and being done to, self-reflection and self-display, otherness, all are here.

Long before it became an adage, the personal was political for Höch. “Staatshäupter” (“Heads of State”) puts at its centre a photograph of the Weimar Republic’s president, Friedrich Ebert, and its minister of defence, Gustav Noske. These two men, responsible for the brutal suppression of the Spartacist uprising, are here not in formal dress but on the beach, in saggy bathing trunks. Behind them, mockingly cartoonish butterflies, beach balls and a bathing belle cavort, while what may perhaps have been cut from a photograph of a piece of furniture looks like a slightly shocked sea monster staring at a paper sea.

Despite this overt political engagement, Höch has been too frequently dismissed as a woman consumed by “women’s” concerns, photomontaged out of art history. Most accounts of the period omit her entirely, or damn her with patronizing faint praise. Only in the past few decades has her reputation in Germany begun to approach the real merit of her work, and this exhibition is her first in Britain. In part, however, Höch removed herself from the story. In 1926 she began a relationship with a Dutch poet, Til Brugman, later moving to the Hague to be with her. She left the art world once again, in 1936, when she became seriously ill, and again, as the Nazi grip on culture tightened, she left the centre of Berlin for a quiet suburb.

In 1946, however, she re-emerged. She was, she said, “Uninhibited, in the sense of being unburdened”, and her openness to new schools and styles returned unabated, as she returned physically to the materials she had gathered before the war, to her store of clippings, cuttings and patterns. One room at the Whitechapel Gallery is devoted to these albums of images. Ralf Burmeister, head of the archive that holds Höch’s work in Berlin today, queries in his catalogue essay whether these scrapbooks are in fact an achieved work, or simply Höch’s filing system. By giving them their own room, albeit the show’s smallest, the curators have come down on the side of the former. Whether or not this is the case, the bound books can be shown only in limited fashion, and the space could have been better used to show some of Höch’s paintings, none of which figures in this “overview”.

Technology improved colour reproduction, and after the war Höch’s work took on a new visual richness

Technology improved colour reproduction, and after the war Höch’s work took on a new visual richness. The curators and catalogue essayists see, too, an increasing tendency to abstraction, but the world remains ever-present in her work. “Friedenstaube” (“Dove of Peace”), which marked the end of the war, continues her engagement with politics, as barrels of guns turn into letter punches, or perhaps it is vice versa: is she saying information is power, or that power constrains information? The essayists suggest that Höch’s anger is new, but the exhibition as a whole shows that this wonderfully angry woman had long had much to be angry about. No one did, or does, want to know about women and their anger. No one but a woman could – or would – have produced “Der Traum seines Lebens” (“The Dream of His Life”, 1925), a soubrette dressed in frills, bows and flower-bedecked headdress, cut up, cut apart. What is “his dream”? Her face, her legs, her ankles, her breasts.

Towards the end of her life, Höch said, “Plants are simply beautiful. Humans and animals – questionable”. But she went on asking questions. In “Lebensbild”, created when she was well into her eighties, she anatomizes herself as severely as she did others. The eyes, so important in her earlier works, here soften, but the hands come to the fore. A hypnotist’s hands in one of her albums, held to his temples, now move down, to be held judgementally, in front of her, right at the centre of the work; at the top, in the same judicious pose, they cover her eyes; at the bottom, once more, they now hold – a crystal ball?

Hannah Höch may not have had a crystal ball in which to see her terrible century play out. But that this furious, fastidious, feminine artist was there to witness, to record and to report is our great good fortune. That it has taken the best part of a century before she received even a measure of her due is her age’s shame, and ours.

Published in the TLS