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Posts Tagged ‘literature’

It is better to be beautiful than to be good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.

–         Great words from a great man.

Holding back from writing a blog comprised entirely of Oscar Wilde quotations (very tempting), I’m going to sidestep towards an upcoming show to raise a few questions. The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain 1860-1900 at the V & A is going to delve into an unexpectedly unconventional ethos. Art For Art’s Sake? Or Art For Beauty’s Sake? The latter, I feel, would be the case in point here. Under the figureheads of such artists and creatives as Gabriel Dante Rossetti, William Morris and, of course, poster boy Oscar Wilde, beauty became fashionable in the high Victorian period. Sounds obvious, and not exactly newsworthy, but the late 19th Century really was a high point for vice over virtue. It would be wrong to say that opulence was a completely new thing – just look at the Elizabethan or Medieval periods for proof – but it was used for a different purpose, that is, no purpose. Before the Victorians, decadence was often a glorification of the religious and spiritual, in iconography, ceremonies or lavish cathedrals. Decadence in the high Victorian era – not only in fashion and jewellery but also architecture and interiors – overshadowed the grim reality of life just simply because. As the V& A exhibition will showcase, there was no place in the Aesthetic Movement for any lowly chimney sweep or maid. This was a time for the house proud to let rip, and indulge in the fanciest designs in town. Before our times of rebellion and idiosyncrasy – our Raindance Film Festivals, Edinburgh Festival Fringes, Anti Design Festivals…. – let us not forget that there was a time when  perfection was everything.

But let the porcelain skin and rosebud lips not fool you – there’s a big HOWEVER here. Two words: Dorian Gray. It’s often noted that the death of Oscar Wilde was the death of the Aesthetic Movement. True, to a certain extent. But surely anyone who reads Wilde will know his distrust of surface beauty? Quotations from his novels, short stories, essays and articles are everywhere, and we all love them:

“A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”

“All art is quite useless.”

“Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known.”

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.”

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

“I can resist everything except temptation.”

….and yes, I could go on. The point is, when we read them, we have a little chuckle to ourselves. Because they’re ironic comments on society’s ridiculousness. You’re not supposed to take them at face value. Oscar Wilde’s tragedy was his obsession with a decadence which he very well knew was full of vice. He wrote about it again and again.

Let me tell you, in brief, the story of The Young King:

Once upon a time, there was a Young King. A veritable Adonis in appearance, nothing pleased him more than to simply gaze – at his own appearance in the looking glass, his coronation robe of tissued gold, his ruby-encrusted crown, his rich tapestries representing the Triumph of Beauty….and then back again to his reflection, the polished mirror held up by a laughing Narcissus made of green bronze. One night, following his coronation, the Young King had a dream. He came, in his dream, upon three scenes: a pearl diver, killed by exhaustion as he returns on the ship with the pearl for his own sceptre; gaunt weavers with sunken cheeks, at the looms in a darkened room, working on his own golden robe; hoards of men searching for rubies for his own crown, while Death and Avarice watch over. When the Young King awoke, and his servants prepare to put his robe on his back, he refused, remembering his dream. And the courtiers were amazed, and some of them laughed, for they thought that he was jesting. “There is Blood in the heart of the ruby, and Death in the heart of the pearl,” he said…..this is Wilde’s own commentary, his thoughts despite his contrary lifestyle choices.

And then, of course, there’s Dorian Gray, who sold his soul, and every bit of good in him, for everlasting youth and beauty. We know what happened next.

So it’s interesting to think of beauty in art. Oscar Wilde, in the height of the Aesthetic Movement, expressed (often ruefully) how “All art is quite useless,” because all art, in their eyes, should be beautiful and only beautiful. Nowadays, we’re supposed to engage in art beyond its surface impression – look into the concept behind, experience the process, question it and let it make us question ourselves. Beauty is pretty much bottom in the pecking order in the list of priorities. Strangely, anything ‘beautiful’ now is labelled craft, and often thought lesser because of it. Now, we prefer ugly. One example: the 2009 Turner Prize winner, a gorgeous gilt decorative wall by Richard Wright, intricately patterned in traditional and decadent style. People were mildly surprised – and why? Because it was so beautiful they couldn’t imagine it could possibly have sufficient conceptual depth to be a Turner Prize winner. In-keeping with the Wildean ethos, beautiful and good became, for a moment, mutually exclusive – they (the Victorian Aesthetes) chose the beauty (“It is better to be beautiful than to be good….”)….I guess we like to think we choose the good. And to prove this point further, we also like to value ugliness.

This October, for example, The Future Can Wait, an edgy alternative to Frieze, will be taking place in the eerie basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, in trendy East London. Its disturbing works, from performance and video to site specific installation and painting, all share a definitively un-pretty aesthetic. The grotesque and the sinister, dispelling the glossy allure of the traditional art fair, all come to the forefront in this year’s line-up of 30 artists, including The Future Can Wait stalwarts Tessa Farmer, Sam and Luke Jackson, Gavin Nolan and John Stark, as well as newcomers Dale Adcock, James Howard, Jasper Joffe, Nika Neelova and Wendy Mayer. Check it out for a taste of something different this Autumn.

Over in Piccadilly, the ominous and eerie will again reign supreme in Maurizio Anzeri’s exhibition The Garden Party, which will be set in Q, a new gallery space converted from an old-fashioned bookshop, dusty shelves in tact. Maurizio’s sculptures, made of synthetic hair, are menacing yet weirdly alluring, creating the kind of garden party to have the Victorian Aesthetes up in arms.

If the creatives of the late 19th Century were the Cult of Beauty, what does that make us now? The Cult of Ugly? Does that make us more ethical human beings? I fear not. Though an unshakable fan of Oscar Wilde and all his writings (well, most), there is one thing I have to disagree with him on: beauty and morality are not mutually exclusive. Neither are ugliness and sin. Nor are sin and morality, even. I’m afraid you just have to look past the surface, and, sometimes, step out of your comfort zone. Never judge a book by its cover, and never judge an artwork by its exterior. Even if it’s an ugly one.

Images:

Lady Lileth, Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The Picture of Dorian Gray

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (c) Stark

(c) Maurizio Anzeri

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If you’re chatting loudly enough for me to hear, as far as I’m concerned, it’s not a private conversation.

The Bugged initiative, a new project in celebration of eavesdropping, has got me very excited indeed. On the 1st July, writers (in the loosest sense imaginable….meaning anyone who can hold a pen….meaning YOU) are being asked collect snippets of conversation you’ve heard during the day and pen them as either poetry, prose, or script – poems of up to 60 lines, stories up to 1,000 words, flash fiction up to 150 words, scripts up to five minutes long.

The judges are National Poetry Day director and Glastonbury festival website poet-in-residence, Jo Bell, and novelist and playwright David Calcuttthe, and they’ll be selecting the best to be posted on the Bugged blog, and the very best to be published in October in a printed anthology.

Think of the yawnsome hours spent in sweaty tube carriages, noisy buses and stuffy waiting rooms – languish no longer….pick up the pen and write! Some people are naturally inquisitive/ ear-sensitive/ nosy, some people are natural writers…..in this project it is advantageous to have both venerable qualities – but if you’re not in this camp, there’s a great collaboration to be made, I’m sure of it.

Things to remember:

1. “Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try.” Fran Leibowitz advises you not to pen your own life…try someone else’s instead.

2. As Daphne Du Maurier once said, “Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard.” Try not to piss anyone off tooooo much. Discretion is the magic word.

3. Submissions open July 2nd, and close August 15th. Keep an eye out (and an ear) right here.

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Somewhere between asleep and awake, in the moments where story time ends and dreams crystallise…..that is where you will find the worlds of Anni Leppälä and Susanna Majuri. Apparently everything Nordic is in Vogue these days- de rigeur, a la mode – but these images defy trends.

Both women, recent graduates from the prestigious Helsinki School of Art and Design, have been causing a stir with their thoughtful and provoking photographic narratives. Leppälä has just been voted Artist of the Year in Finland; Majuri was winner of the Gras Savoye Award at Les Recontres d’Arles in 2005. Both are currently on display at Purdy Hicks Gallery at Bankside, and I really do think you should all go and see the exhibition. I don’t often get this carried away.

As much as I try to find some suitably abrupt truism to fit the images, it’s Majuri who puts it best: “I want to narrate feelings like in novels.” Not meaning to bracket the two artists together- their processes and theologies are quite different –this is one thought where they agree.

By capturing the moment, and by interrogating it, Anni Leppälä’s work exposes what is lost by the photograph: moments, those precise objects meaning to be preserved. Stilling time, she explores the relationship between the past and the present, often using children as her subject to convey what are both temporal instances and potential geneses of stories. In Reading (2010), the girl’s red hair covering her face as she reads allows the viewer to question – what is she reading, what is her expression, and what is she thinking? The same goes in Light (2009) and Yearly Growth (2009).

When I look at Susanna Majuri’s work, it’s a little less playful, a little more muted. Something unnerving hits deeper than the impression its characters give out through the pre-Raphaelite poses, the pseudo-Victorian dress and the Classical settings. Yes, on the face of it, I see the drenched florals of a girl’s dress in Vesiputous (Waterfall) (2009) as a reminder of J.W. Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott and even more so John Everett Millias’ Ophelia. But what strikes within is somewhere in-between that feeling you get in Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (click here if you haven’t read it, though you really shouldn’t ruin the ending for yourself) and the one surrounding Cathy’s final moments of madness in Wuthering Heights. Little Father Time and Wuthering (“Withering”) Heights seem aptly named in this context. Even figures embracing together under the pools seem dissolved in utter isolation. The painterly light Majuri sheds on her subjects is at once tranquilising and disturbing, her figures ethereal yet completely suffocated.

Side-by-side, there is a juxtaposition between the works of the two artists which can be understood in reading their statements for the Helsinki School:

Majuri: “I throw myself into a fictive reality in the shootings. My heart beats wildly when I can feel the presence of surprises.”

Leppälä: “…when you try to conserve or protect a moment by stopping it, by photographing it, you inevitably lose it at the same time.”

And yet the final lines of each sing a similar hymn:

Majuri: “The language is a map and draws around us, unknown and familiar. I believe in a single image. It breaths strong.”

Leppälä: “How to stop a feeling, a memory? By binding it to visible objects, facades of material things, attaching it to a room’s walls, the surface of photographs. Like translucent skin with unforeseen memories beneath.” Here you can see what they both find so exciting in the stillness: the possibility of a narrative, which speaks directly to the viewer.

Finding a link in their faceless subjects – Leppälä’s children shrouding their faces with thick red hair, hands, ears of wheat; Majuri’s figures stilled beneath rushing waters – both interrogate the moment. What is found is both loss and promise.

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