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Friday, 30 March 2007


A piece by Frieda Hughes in Monday's Times. Subject: Blakes poem, "The Tyger", taken from "By Heart, 101 Poems to Remember", edited and introduced by her late father, Ted Hughes, who, it seems, was a passionate advocate of memory excercises, not least among them the well-known technique of memorizing lists by attaching each item to an image, such that these that can then be linked to form a narrative.

Rhyme is also a useful aide-memoire, she points out, and recommends both playing her father's memory games and memorizing poems. By such means, she hopes, it might be possible to stave off the approach of Alzheimer's. It would be wonderful to think so, impossible to say she's wrong, and so maybe worth giving it a go.

She gives various other useful spin-offs that might be ours as a result of memorizing poems, the ability to recite them “hands-free” whilst doing other things, being one.
Some people, I know, recite memorized poems for stress-relief, to help them sleep, to defy the boredom of repetitive work, or simply for the pleasure they give.
Like many others, I am sure, I can still “rattle off” a great deal of verse which was required learning when I was at school - and quite a lot more that was not. Some of the required stuff, I would dearly love to be able to erase from my memory banks, but alas, that does not seem to be a possibility! Both the choice of poems, and what we were taught about them, left a lot to be desired, I fear.

Critics often bemoan the fact that children in school are no longer required to learn poetry by heart. That is, no doubt, a great loss, but I am comforted by the thought that they do get introduced to the work of living poets, whereas I, who was born just eleven years after Eliot wrote The Waste Land, went right through school (including grammar school) without knowing of his or its existence. It was not until I left school and went to art school that the world of contemporary (or near contemporary) poetry opened up for me. At school I was stuck with Lochinvar coming out of the west, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”, and the journey of the good news from Ghent to Aixe. - Not quite true; we did “do” Homer!
It seems there has been both progress and regression.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

It's been done!

I have encountered just a couple of comment-worthy news items in the last week or so, both of which put me in mind of a Punch cartoon I saw aeons ago. A sculptor atop what is obviously his Magnum Opus, a towering work of great height and complexity. Marble chips are flying from his chisel. We are on his eye-level. A diminutive figure many feet below is looking up and calling to him: "It's been done!".
It seems that Martina Navratilova has been working with artist Juraj Kralik on a painting to show at the Roland-Garros Stadium. Her part in its creation was to hit paint-soaked tennis balls at a large canvas pasted to a wall. To judge by the photograph, the result is a wonderful impression of a wall splattered with paint-soaked tennis balls. A strong feeling of déjà vu ensued, though the artists who sprang to mind (Bridget Riley, Vasarley, Michael Banks, Ibbison, Sarah Hughes) would no doubt have been offended by the comparison. Maybe this was a case of the process being more important than the outcome? Or Martina's real part had something to do with publicity for Juraj? Or Juraj hit upon (pun intended) the method as a means of achieving a degree of randomness? If the latter, he might have chosen someone with less accuracy to their hitting. But if Martina was in fact chosen for her accuracy, could not he have chosen a more efficient means of delivering the paint blobs?
The other news item was in some ways like unto it. Another German artist (if Juraj is, indeed German), H. A. Schult has produced something that at a glance looks remarkably like a certain famous Chinese army, though his figures are composed of rubbish and called “Trash People”. Impressive, but again, if one forgets the method, it's definitely been done before. I do wonder, though, if something of the title has been lost in translation: is material that has been recycled as something as useful as an installation, still rubbish? I leave it with you.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Post Script

Following my recent post I received a couple of emails (via my website - and no, there are no fractals there and I have no plans to include any) seeking further information on the business of mapping fractals. I thought it might be more useful to answer them in the form of a further post.
The maps below represent a sequence of Mandelbrot Plots, each one being a magnification of a fragment from the previous one. The section to be magnified is indicated with a small rectangle. They show, I think, the process of investigation.
These maps, unlike those in my last post, are the product of a generator, The Mandelbrot Explorer, which I have since downloaded. You can obtain it, free, by clicking on the title to this post or by popping Mandelbrot Explorer into Google.

Friday, 16 March 2007

The Most Beautiful Piece of Prose Ever - Probably.

Where the world ceases to be the stage
for personal hopes and desires,where we, as free beings,
behold it in wonder, to question and to contemplate,
there we enter the realm of art and science.
If we trace out what we behold and experience
through the language of logic, we are doing science;
if we show it in forms whose interrelationships are not
accessible to our conscious thought but are
intuitively recognized as meaningful, we are doing art.
Common to both is the devotion to something
beyond the personal, removed from the arbitrary.

I came upon the piece of prose upon which I still lavish superlatives, must have been twenty years ago. Perhaps more. It was in a book called "The Beauty of Fractals" by H.-O. Peitgen and P.H.Richter, a book which for some years became a sort of Bible to me. There was back then a bit of a fad for fractals. They were cool. Made possible by the advent of the computer in home and school, it was not long before every teenager had one on his bedroom wall. Or so it seemed. They were part of our fascination with Chaos Theory and the intriguing idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Hong Kong might cause a hurricane to hit the Florida coast. For me, fractals and everything about them are as fascinating now as they were back then. They have not lost their magic. They bring together art, science, mathematics, technology and music (There is such a thing as fractal music.)and represent a form of geometry we had not seen before. Some had intuited it, but no one could see it before computers opened their window on it. It was as unbelievable as much that was happening elsewhere in science and had already happened in the arts.

The geometry they taught me at school was Euclid's. It was about shapes in two and three dimensions. They had sides and areas that we could measure and/or calculate. (That was the point of it all.) Fractals possess none of that. They have neither sides nor areas that are measurable. The perimeter of a fractal is infinite. Incalculable. A computer allows you to zoom in on your chosen fragment and to see it as under a magnifying glass, a microscope if you will, even an electron microscope. And however much you magnify it, it is as if you were still looking at the original, your starting point - except that its spirals, whorls, folds, spikes and vortices have become ever more complex. In places it may appear to be disintegrating into dust, but the detail is infinite. You will never get to the end of it.

Example: Take an equilateral triangle and place centrally on each of its three sides, another, similar, but with sides one third the length. You now have a Star of David. In the center of each of the new star's twelve sides place another equilateral triangle, its sides again reduced to one third of the previous triangle's. You get the idea. You now have 48 sides requiring triangles with sides again reduced by two thirds. And again on each of the resulting 192 sides. And on through all eternity. The length of the shape's perimeter expands infinitely, yet the triangles you keep adding will never collide with each other. Furthermore, if you were to draw a circle around the first triangle, to touch all three points, your fractal will never stray outside that circle - and you will never draw the complete fractal, not this one nor any other you might attempt by whatever method.

The fractals I have drawn here were all produced by an on-line fractal generator, of which there are many. There are also down-loadable versions. There is much experimenting to be done, and anyone can do it. You do not need to be a mathematician. I have chosen fractals from what is known as The Mandelbrot Plot. For the mathematicians among you, they are fragments from the graph of Xn+1=f{Xn} - but, as I say, you do not need to understand that. The variety of results is - you've guessed it! - infinite, the product of where on the plot you decide to search and the parameters you choose. (The fractal generator pages will lead you by the hand.) Happy hunting - oh, and whose pen was it crafted my opening lines? Albert Einstein's.

Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Minority Interests

I have received an interesting e-mail (from my website) suggesting that my comments about the unpopularity of watercolours (most recent post) could equally well be applied to poetry, another minority interest. To which I am tempted to answer: “No, no, no, no, yes.” They are, it is true, both minority interests, but when we speak of watercolour painting having few followers we are surely speaking of it having few practitioners, whereas in the case of poetry it is readers who are in short supply. The writing of poetry (in this country at least) is in good shape. Indeed, it seems at times that there are more people writing poetry than reading it. Perhaps we would do well to devote some thought to the reasons why this might be so.

Ruth Rendell has made the point that “there are people enjoying poetry, but they are the ones who stayed in touch. Getting in touch from scratch is hard. "Death of the Reader" But why should that be so? Why should it be so much harder to get in touch with poetry than, say, with film, novels, plays, music or painting?

There are two obvious suspects to consider when looking for the culprits responsible: on the one hand we have the poets themselves, and on the other those convenient fall guys, the reviewers and critics. I will begin with the latter: their first offense is to be too few. They simply are too thin on the ground, the reason being that newspapers simply do not give wall-to-wall coverage of what is going on in the arts in general, never mind in the Cinderella art of poetry in particular, but worse than that, many would say, and Neil Astley is one of them, that reviewers very often write as though they are writing, not for their readers, but for their doctorate dissertation. At best they write as though for a specialist poetry magazine. What should be their primary function, to help their readers decide whether or not this latest volume is for them, and to help them over any intrinsic difficulties with the verses, seems secondary.

But that there are likely to be difficulties must surely be the major reason for poetry's unpopularity. Most people, I think would put post-moderns, in the dock for that state of affairs. It has, they would say, put poetry beyond the grasp of the ordinary reader, and by “ordinary reader” they would mean the non-academic, non-specialist, non-research reader. Post-modernism has made poetry impenetrably obscure and at the same time has robbed it of the sensuality, the lyricism and all that would have made the effort worthwhile. Recondite references, compacted syntax and the like, together with a lack of help from those who should provide it, make such works seem elitist and remove them from the general orbit.

Yet there is a potential audience out there. W.H.Auden was one who was often credited with being elitist, yet when “Four Weddings and a Funeral” hit the screens his “Stop All the Clocks” received enthusiastic acclaim from a broad spectrum of the (usually) non-poetry-loving public.

More often when a poem or a poet's body of work receives such acclaim it is as much for the poet as a person as for the work. John Betjeman is one who springs readily to mind. The public took to its heart a lovable old English eccentric and accepted, even got to love, the poetry along with the poet. In one sense this is no doubt but another example of the current cult of personality, and as such it is worrying, but it at least suggests to the general public a more positive image of the poet than the traditional individual: half tramp, half nutter and lost to the world.

Meanwhile, back in the ivory tower, there has, over recent years, been a huge increase in the number of poetry readings and competitions. Poetry has become a more vital part in the many Literature festivals. There has been a significant increase in the number of poet-in-residence posts and in the amount of poetry published, both in hard copy and on the net. And if much of it is of a deplorable quality, the same could no doubt be said for all the other arts, both now and at any time in the past.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Watercolour Needn't be a Wishy-Washy Medium

Okay, I put my hands up to it, I pinched the title from an article by Grayson Perry in The Times (March 7). As it happened I had, over a short period of time just before that, heard or read several examples of watercolours being badmouthed for their many failings. Here at last, I thought, catching his headline, is someone making a case for them - well, wouldn't you? (Disappointingly, as it turned out, Grayson decided to sit on the fence with a yes, but narrative. I have to forgive him though, for - and this seems as good a ime as any to say it - I find him the most lucid and interesting of any critic or commentator I have come across with a regular column. I wish I could write as well. His page is always the first I turn to.)

The article set me thinking about the reasons for the unpopularity of watercolours - which for some reason he did not go into. Unpopular, that is, with professional or serious painters as opposed to amateur and "Sunday" painters, for it has always been popular with the latter - and there, I think, we have the first strand of the problem. Grayson referred in his piece to a downsland encounter with a group of these watercolourists, and to the clink of brush in water jar as they squinted at the view. It is a telling image encapsulating the attitude of many (most?) "serious" artists. (I recall its prevalence among the students at art school towards the "amateurs" with whom we had to share some evening classes - and an embarrassing encounter with a guy call Epstein, but that's another story, and if it is to be told, must await another post.) Feelings of superiority are a sad, but I think an important part of the problem.

Watercolour's reputation for impermanence may also be a factor. I am not sure that it is that much less permanent than the way in which oils are sometimes used, and certainly most watercolour works would be considerably more permanent than much that has reached the galleries (and private customers) over recent decades, but reputation counts for a lot in such matters.

That watercolour is difficult to manipulate may also be a factor, though you might have thought that this would affect the amateur rather more than the professional, who ought to be more sure in his technique and more capable of overcoming the medium's limitations. Still, the fact remains that if you are not happy with something you have done in oils, you can just scrape it off and start again. Watercolours do not allow you that luxury. You really need to get it down the first time and then leave it. Start to correct or fiddle with it and the thing goes muddy and looks awful. It just will not co-operate.

The point is often made that watercolours do not lend themselves to the large scale or the grand gesture, and there is some truth in this, but as Graysn Perry's title suggests, it does not absolutely have to be like that. Artists have produced watercolours with dimensions of twelve feet and more - and their works have not always been wishy-washy. Think of some of those produced by William Blake, Paul Klee, Turner (le God), David Cox, Francesco Clemente (a great favourite of mine and mentioned by Grayson Perry), Eric Ravilious (esp. his war paintings), Samuel Palmer (an all-time favourite of mine) and the recent experiments of David Hockney. I could go on, for there really are far more than some would like you to believe.

Strange as it may seem, no one talks of watercolour's advantages - other than its "convenience", for "sketching" en plein air, for example. I say "strange", because one of them is the way in which things can happen unexpectedly as you paint, often suggestively. Not every artist would want that, of course, but I would have thought that it might have fitted in very nicely with the world view of many artists from the Moderns onward. If you are a Klee who likes to take a line for a walk it might be more to your liking if it could be a walk during which exciting things happen. Equally, if you happen to be an artist who knows before he starts the statement he wants to make or, if you prefer the more grandiose term, begins with a vision, then again watercolour might fit you purpose admirably.

This, I suppose, is the crux: artists choose a medium that will suit their world view, their vision, whatever. If simple, direct qualities are called for, then watercolours might be the chosen option, but in fact it seems that most artists prefer the grand sweep, the dramatic gesture, the large scale, and that's fine, but over the course of a couple of centuries or so, painters in watercolour have built up an accepted language for their medium, a way of working, a menu of techniques, a grammar of appropriate speech which has become too constraining. They guard it jealously, as grammarians always do. What we need is another Cox, who perhaps will need to be even greater than the first, to throw off the shackles we have placed upon the medium.

Some links you might like to try:

Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente
William Blake

and speaking of taking a line for a walk....

Paul Klee in the Naples Aquarium

The world of Jean Anouilh was shapeless or
Was shaped by art. In oceans behind glass
Klee watched a world transform itself, saw grass
That jived in mating rites, a flower claw
Its prey and mossy stones traverse the floor,
MacDiarmid-style. Aspect, that old impasse,
He watched waymark the ways for him to pass
To take his line on walks to metaphor.
All those unfolding qualities of squid
And frond, brought forth, along with melodies
In counterpoint, by time, he caught in space,
Fanned-out or stacked as motifs in a grid
Of sea-dark tints, and unfurled by degrees
Through shape and shade to spirit's earthly face.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

What You See Is Not What You've Got


Perception was a subject they knew well,
those for whom the term “Impressionists”
was meant as denigration, those who took 
to heart what we know vaguely, but forget:
the way a line between a white cloud and the sky
does not exist; how nothing that we see exists,
how lines - the finest line you could conceive - consists
of an infinity of lines that interweave and dance
in ways we could not know; the way the world 
is never with us, even in our finest hours;
or how a light wave of a certain wavelength lights,
not structures that are seen, but those within, 
that see; the way grey (possibly) and straggly 
forms of nature blossom in the mind
as under glass, or they 
are moulded by deft dendrite fingers 
on familiar armatures.


Imagine one content to catch
the fleeting moment, see him sat
before a fairground booth called 
"Great Conundrum Hall", 
It is a place of skewed perspectives, 
angles craftily awry. Here visitors 
grow tall, diminish, by simply walking round the room,
he sees them shrink by coming close 
or move away to gain great height. 
What does he think, what does he feel?
Amusement? No. Dumbfoundedness? Not so. He knows
how surface is the only substance. But suppose
his wife or lover should appear and walk the boards instead,
what then? This is a changed scenario: he sees
the room distort, the figure steady and unchanged.
The structure's scale is altered as she moves
because he knows how that which holds
our love is solid; all the rest is flux and flow.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

An Intellectual Terrorist

A few days back The Guardian carried a deliciously daliesque account of the efforts of a Michael Rieders to track down some Dali D.N.A. He was sent by would-be little helpers - and, no doubt, would-be little publicity seekers - a moustache, toilet seat, hat and glasses, plus other equally unlikely objects. Eventually, he settled for a pair of nasal tubes which had been used to feed Dali during a stay in hospital following a fire in which he had been badly burned. Rieders wanted the D.N.A. in order to "get nearer to" the object of his study, hopefully to obtain clues relating to his genius and to authenticate some works whose attribution was suspect.

This post is not concerned with the the hunt for, or use made of, his D.N.A. The article simply made me stop and think for a moment about the artist, and to wonder if it wasn't time that I tried to sort out my feelings towards him and his art, for they are as mixed and illogical as any of his paintings - though by no means as detailed and exact. (It goes without saying that I shall not achieve that exalted purpose within the confines of this humble post, but perhaps I can make a start - and then maybe keep you posted!) So how, I wonder, should we appraise a work such as"The Great Masturbator" or a collection of fluid timepieces?The Persistence of Memory In what terms? Answers on a postcard please.

Illogical? Is that what I meant? Yes, I think it is, but to describe a person's reaction to a Dali painting in such terms raises an interesting point. Surely, if anyone is to free us from the tyranny of always being rational, it should be the artist. Not every artist, of course, but certainly one of Dali's ilk. Yet what happens? The moment such a work is offered for appraisal, we (critics, of course, but not just critics) try to squeeze it into one of our rational straitjackets as though we are dealing with a dangerous lunatic.

The background to the Dali oeuvre is known well enough. Indeed, I suspect that the man, his life and his milieu have all been studied and analyzed more assiduously than his works, and not just by the academics. Perhaps that is the problem: Dali the man gets between us and Dali the artist. (He has been given a thorough going-over from time to time by the Freudians, of course, but then who hasn't - and he was one of them, after all.)

Perhaps it is time to state my position, so far as I have one. I am what the churches used to call (and still do, for all I know) a seeker. I find that for me poems and novels, for example, improve with (I could almost say need) a spot or two of surrealism, magic realism, or some non-rational element in the same way that a dish is improved by the addition of a pinch of salt, a few herbs or whatever. Life, I find, has its non-rational aspects, its surreal moments, its touch of magic, so why not art? It's when I find my feet leaving the ground and I am left completely without reference points in the known world that the difficulties arise. Okay, not a very thought-out position, but I owned up to that early on.

Surrealism began as something between a movement and a fashion, but in literature. So it was a poet, a French poet as it happened, André Breton, who defined the role of surrealism as being to express “the the function of thought dictated in the absence of all control exerted by reason, and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations...” Surrealism, he said, “is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of association...”. Those forms, he maintained, had been neglected by us in the past. Well, perhaps, though surely we have all at times been aware of something in the inner life that was nattering away about being superior to the dictates of reason and the intellect, was in fact bypassing them. And if that is so, how can we appraise that something using the very tools that it claims are inferior to it? Perhaps the only possible response is a purely subjective one? “I like it.” “It does something for me.” “It leaves me cold.” etc.

Early on in his career Dali tried academism (I think we may say that it survives in the detail and exactness of his mature work), Impressionism, Futurism and Cubism. The final direction of his work seems to have been fixed by reading Freud. His first experiments with surrealism included a script for the film “Un Chien Audalou”, but the principles that he used there (with reasonable success) to create threat and shock, when applied to his paintings, produced only mirth.

The principles behind his image-making became known as “The Paranoiac-Critical Method”. It was a method in which the artist would fool himself into believing that he was insane. (Dali claimed to have gone beyond this point and to have made himself actually insane. “I don't take drugs. I am drugs,” he once famously said.) He believed that schitzophrenics are able to see things that are hidden from the sane among us, and so he created a method of creating their "superior" states of mind in himself. He called this the “systematic objectification of delirious associations and interpretations”. It produced for him, among other mind-boggling experiences, the metamorphoses of form in which solid objects melt, giving us, for example, the celebrated liquid clocks. It also produced the transposing of figure and ground by which latent forms would manifest themselves as clearly as those resulting from nothing more than normal sensory perception.

According to Dali, individuals going about their ordinary, everyday activity of interpreting the world around them in terms of ordinary sense data, could as easily be confined as the mentally ill, and on the same basis as them: for their refusal or inability to reflect upon, and critically examine, the obsessive ideas behind their own interpretations of the world. For Dali, criticism was itself a creative act - and as such, totally irrational; sensory perception was merely the assigning of meaning to sensory data in which a whole range of meanings might attach themselves to the same image. It was this phenomenon that was responsible for the famous double image, which was not to be understood as two images, but as two meanings ascribed to the same image. At its simplest it can be seen in the two white faces which, as you look at them, become two black candlesticks. By an act of will the viewer may see either the white areas as figure and the black as ground, or vice versa. In the one instance he will to see the image as representing two white faces, in the other it will reveal two black candlesticks. The next step is to see both candlesticks and faces, not alternately but simultaneously, and to hold both “meanings” in mind in such a way that they begin to influence each other, the increasingly modified “meanings” going for ever to and fro between them like the reflections between two facing mirrors, accumulating more data - and therefore more meanings - with each pass..

Dali's one goal in all this, pursued with a religious fanaticism, was the complete undermining of normal reality. In fact, to totally discredit it. He was, to coin a term for him, an intellectual terrorist, a suicide bomber blasting nitrous oxide through the hallowed halls of art.