Archive for the ‘General’ Category

A politician is said to be the only animal capable of sitting on a fence while simultaneously keeping both ears to the ground.

Personally, I think they are most easily identified by their ability to talk endlessly without ever saying anything.  A recent politico-meme which, like upside-down Union Flags, is impossible not to notice, when noticed once, is the use of the word ‘exciting’ when they wish to talk about something while never actually conveying information.  Exciting developments; exciting new projects; exciting *and* interesting concepts; exciting strategies.  Swedes do it too: anyone who says “spännande” more than three times in an interview is more than certainly bluffing.

The photographic equivalents are not hard to spot.  Fish shot in barrels do not die, they merely go round, and round, and round.  Churn for churn’s sake.

However, even the most hard-bitten peddlers of wet leaves on rocks and old grannies from exotic holiday destinations, even the most career-tracked bright-eyed and bushy-tailed political intern, cannot match spambots for sheer unadulterated fluff.

Thirty seconds after posting on the blog, it starts.  I promised myself never to blog about blogging, but these little masterpieces of chatty vacuity deserve to be shared.


achiltibuie in rainstorm


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Exciting stuff.



Kertesz was a coppice man too


You will have to excuse me if I sound a little dizzy and lightheaded, I have just discovered RMN.

R.M.N.: Réunion des musées nationaux, which is French for ‘kiss goodbye to your good intentions”.  A cultural mega-site with it’s own photo archive of art and culture from national and municipal museums across France, as well as a few others like the Prussian Kulturbesitz and the British Museum.



De Stael takes time off from footie for a different British favourite



A strangely familiar scene by Hokusai


I would recommend some search terms, but I know my readership: some of you need no encouragement while others would be offended were I to suggest you did not know the name of your own obsession.  And then there are those it would be irresponsible to encourage. Like me.

The black sheep of the contemporary arts family is commonly supposed to be beauty, but if you are truly determined to be erased from the Blackberries of your creative friends and relatives you should try putting in a good word for charm.  The drama-free, accessible beauty of small gestures and quiet moments, charm is simply too nice, an embarrassment best left to historians of the eighteenth century and the home styling pages of middlebrow newspapers.  True art is not supposed to be comfortable or easy to live with – it should challenge! address! engage! – and the vital processes of discourse and narrative are expected to convince by argument and assertion, not rely upon the suspect crutches of easy sociability and gentle persuasion.


Charles Rennie Mackintosh. La Rue du Soleil, Port Vendres 1926

From the Hunterian Art Gallery


Charm has an obvious and close relationship with kitsch, and the art world’s wholesale embrace of the lowborn and tacky might make the rejection of charm seem like an inconsistency.  The difference however is real, and is at base a distinction of class: charm is the kitsch of the chattering classes.  Celebrating authentic kitsch is a way of elevating the decoration of unexamined lives, and it allows the artist as anthropologist to gather credits for revealing overlooked truths.  Works with a self-aware artistic charm however, are already recognised for their explicit art value – canonised even – and are found, not in obscurity, but framed in reproduction over a thousand sofas. They present an artist or critic with nothing to do except admit to having joined the consumerist mainstream.  There is a certain macho element to the rejection of charm, but also a combination of aristocratic yearning for singular art objects and the playground desire to be part of the exclusive cool set.  All of which leaves these works dangling, acknowledged perhaps as icons, but so ubiquitously appreciated as to be irrelevant.

However, an appreciation of charm can be much more than a milquetoast taste for girls on swings or a way of taking refuge in a tidy list of uncontroversial art talking points.  Charm has a serious and deep-seated link with aesthetics, particularly with the Gesamtkunstwerk idea that your life and the environments you create about yourself should represent a holistic approach to making and enjoying art.  As a refusal to be seduced by melodrama and the lure of the exceptional, charm crops up regularly in the ebb and flow of contemplative and expressive forms of art.  From Sung scholar poets to Gilpin’s picturesque and the eighteenth century cult of sensibility, charm is always there, and at its best it proceeds well beyond its caricature of a sincere prettiness to an informed appreciation of subtlety and nuance.


Eric Ravilious Chalk Paths 1935

(Reproductions from Gorgeous Things)


In my personal work I find myself returning to the subject of charm repeatedly.  Partly because my obsession with pattern and form leads naturally to the applied arts and the makers of designer consumables; partly because my concentration on plants and agrarian landscapes has me sharing subject matter with the unpretentious, undemanding home decoration market; but mostly – at least at the conscious level – because many of the works I group under the heading of charm have an explicit concern with the interaction between the past and the present.  This last point is my own yardstick, used to separate the kitsch sheep from the art goats: the harder an artist works to eliminate the marks of the present, or to squeeze their work into a preconceived notion of how the world ought to look, the less interest I have in their work.  My favourites have what Kitty Hauser in her book “Shadow Sites” calls an archaeological imagination:

“The difference between a preservationist and an archaeological sensibility is often one of emphasis: while preservationists tend to mourn the disappearance of a historic landscape, campaigning for its conservation, the archaeological imagination perceives the presence of the past in a landscape despite the incursions of modernity.  To preservationists, modernity tends to be an irremovable barrier in the way of aesthetic pleasure, whereas to those who see the landscape archeologically, it is a barrier that can be seen through, over, or round: the past may no longer be so evident in the modern landscape, but its increasing invisibility does not make it sensuously unrecoverable.”



John Nash The Flooded Meadow


Hauser’s book concentrates on the last great serious-minded generation of British artists, working before Pop and post-modernism doomed them and their concerns to a tragically irrelevant uncoolness.  In my own youth this school was both everywhere and nowhere: everywhere in the form of superseded design elements on coronation mugs, illustrations for children, and the covers of unloved secondhand books; nowhere when it came to arts reporting or discussions of contemporary activity.  To my regret, I have only recently started to try and visit the shrines of the movement like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, or Coventry and Liverpool Metropolitan cathedrals, and at least part of the reason has been a personal version of the gut prejudice against the perceived triviality of charming art.

It is ironic then that I find my own visual explorations of the land around me leading me to a close affinity with an art movement I have always respected, but have rather taken for granted, and never really loved.  In particular, the landscapes of Eric Ravilious and John and Paul Nash now have a force and relevance that surprises me given my prior neglect.  Perhaps it is just a question of growing up.



Paul Nash  The Orchard  c.1914


What I have always loved is the line-strong, semi-abstract feel of prints, etchings and engravings, and the tones and overall look of watercolour paintings, so it is possible that gravitating to the English New Romantics was inevitable.  Paul Nash in manifesto mood describes this preference as typically English:

“English art has always shown particular tendencies which recur throughout its history.  A pronounced linear method in design, no doubt traceable to sources in Celtic ornament, or to a predilection for the Gothic idiom.  A peculiar bright delicacy in the choice of colours – somewhat cold but radiant and sharp in key.  A concentration, too, in the practice of portraiture; as though everything must be a likeness rather than an equivalent; not only eligible persons and parts of the countryside, but the very dew, the light, the wind as it passed.”

I see a similar approach in the graphic arts of many of the early C20th European folk-romantic movements, as well as in much Chinese and Japanese painting, so I am not convinced that in my work I am merely reproducing an inherited English aesthetic.  What is clear is that Nash’s comments are directly applicable to my photography.


Paul Nash The white horse at Uffington



Paul Nash Boat, Atlantic

Both photographs are from “A Private World“, a portfolio assembled by John Piper from Nash’s negatives after his death.  Available online as part of the UK government collections, or reprinted and for sale at Abbot and Holder.


Nash himself took many photographs and regarded at least some of his photographic work as on an artistic par with his paintings and watercolours.  This excites me, not because I want to join in the usual supine photographic joy when an acknowledged artist condescends to treat photographs with respect, but because what I find most attractive about the formal aspects of this school of art turns out to be largely a matter of seeing.  Painters are usually described as having the freedom to put anything into their work they care to imagine, and it becomes easy to console myself that their paintings are more interesting than my photographs because they are not constrained by the particularity of an actual place and time.  That Nash’s photographs have so much in common with the composition and design of his paintings entirely negates this, both as an excuse and as a discouragement.

It is no secret that I am fascinated by how the past lives on in the landscape, both as physical forms, and in the unquestioned mental attitudes associated with tradition and habit.  My desire to acknowledge and recognise the past is tempered by an intrinsic suspicion of the consumerist heritage industry, and it is a relief and a pleasure to have finally woken up to the existence of an artistic movement with similar concerns.  I already see myself as a sort of neo-pictorialist, and just as soon as I graduate from charm school I will be adding neo-New Romantic to my list of working titles.

Whenever artists start to talk about how their work is exploratory or documentary I instinctively think of vomit.  Not, you understand, as a gut reaction to the whole idea of documentation, but as a reminder that even the most survey-minded exploration is selective, and that the selection is often the result of a mixture of peer pressure and habit rather than the workings of a conscious, open mind.

Norovirus is the new Touch of Flu, something children seem to get every winter, and adults too if they are unlucky, or incautious.  The proper English name doesn’t seem too threatening, but the colloquial name, and the name used in Sweden, is “winter vomiting disease”, which gives some hint of the anti-social effects this virus can have.



Helene Schjerfbeck The Convalescent (1888)

There was a time when nursing sick children was a simple matter of holding their tiny hands, mopping their brows, and waiting for the fever to break.  Antibiotics and socialised medicine added the stress of wondering whether to bother the doctor, and finding ways to pour bitter fluids down reluctant small throats.  Now, parents around the world have added mopping up and rapid changes of bedding to the list of routines to be performed in the bleary middle watches, and the light-sleepers have learned just how much subsequent effort can be saved by leaping out of bed with jug and cloth at the ready at the first hint of deep coughing.  At low moments, or after a succession of false alarms, this can seem like a wholly gratuitous development in the tit-for-tat evolution of minor human diseases: it is not even as if the virus uses regurgitation as a way of transmitting itself.



Pieter Bruegel the Elder  Gluttony

The physical act of being sick has never been especially popular in visual art, although it was a staple of satirical and moralistic prints well into the nineteenth century.  A few cartoonists continue the tradition set by Rowland and Gillray, but as a rule both high and low contemporary art has consistently overlooked this particular aspect of the human condition.

Being sick, and illness in general, have become like war and death.  They are something that happens to other people – other helpless people who we pity, but cannot aid.  As is usually the case with the picturesque pathetic, distance escalates the seriousness of the situation depicted.  At home we get to see fever-cheeked children and mothers-to-be with morning sickness, while TB and meningitis outbreaks show up in neighbouring countries and horrors like ebola and sleeping sickness are afflictions of the distant other.  The rare rabies patients in the local hospital are accorded respect, dignity and privacy, which is well and good, but it gives the impression that they do not exist and that the disease is someone else’s problem.



James Tissot A Convalescent (1876)

Convalescence used to be a standard trope in writing and pictures, but it is now usually regarded as obsolete.  This is partly because modern medicine has made many chronic diseases curable, and Sanatoriums and Spas have become subdivisions of the wellness industry rather than the tools of front-line treatment; but it is also because we have changed our self-image to one that is more denying.

Images of convalescence divide neatly into two classes.  The first is comprised of pictures of hope and reassurance: children on the mend, pallid ladies on their way back to health, soldiers smiling from their beds.  The second class is the call to charitable action which runs right through the history of photography from the slums of Lewis Hine to James Nachtwey’s disease-resistant TB.



Russell Lee Mexican Boy Sick in Bed, San Antonio, Texas (1939)

In both cases modern western society prefers to tell itself that the problems represented by the pictures have been solved, at least locally.  Endemic disease is a problem for foreign countries, and social reform has either happened, or been made irrelevant by rising living standards.  Where a problem persists in mutated form, it has been pushed into the private realm: poverty stays in its own home and the unemployed queue indoors rather than down the street.



Nurses with convalescent soldiers, Hickwells, 1915

The case of convalescent soldiers is particularly instructive.  At one time photographs of military personnel recovering from their wounds was a standard part of the compact between governments, their armed forces and the general public.  Smiling recoverees projected the message that war was survivable, even if a few people did get hurt.  It reassured combatants and their families that they would be looked after properly should the worst happen, and it reassured non-combatants that men and women in service were being cared and provided for as dignified human beings, and not simply sacrificed as numbers on a board.

The recent World Press Photo competition winners illustrate well just how much has changed.  In a news media where photographs of injured Americans or allied forces are non-existent or actually forbidden, there have never been so many gruesome photographs of foreign dead.  There is something very disturbing about the way the press acquiesces in the US and British Governments’ efforts to present their middle-eastern wars as casualty-free while awarding prizes and much page space to grisly images of dead Chinese, Burmese and Kenyans.

In many ways, nothing has changed since Felice Beato aestheticised the Opium Wars and the suppression of the Indian Mutiny into a triumph of the Imperial British over lesser races.  Some may take that as a sign the human nature hasn’t changed much over the last hundred and fifty years.  I find myself reflecting on the equally persistent strain of self-delusion that runs through our pictures of ourselves, and instinctively, I think of vomit.


This blog’s blogroll is a small one.  Like most others who enjoy skiving off work by surfing the net I have a large constellation of sites I visit regularly in search of distraction or amusement, but those in the blogroll are the ones that regularly make me think, or challenge my complacency, or both.

All are worth a visit, but Wood s Lot is special because it bucks the seemingly universal trend towards ever more simplified and edited sources of information. Although it is cunningly disguised as a collation of fragmentary links and severed chunks, the blog as a whole presents a consistent and coherent engagement with art, literature, politics and the world of thought.  In particular, as someone frustrated by the insularity of the photographic world I find Mark Woods’ mixing of many different visual arts – painting, illustration, photography and more – both refreshing and a relief.

So when Wood s Lot picked up on my Rachel Brown post, and followed up with a link to my Sand Boils photos, I felt rather like a small child seeing the Presidential cavalcade stop, and the great man getting out of his limo to congratulate me on my flag waving skills.

In honour of this moment, and to ensure that no good deed goes entirely unpunished, I have restored the whole Sand Boils essay that I wrote to accompany this set of twelve photographs.  If nothing else it will perhaps help to unbaffle the poor souls who bothered to wonder what the title had to do with the pictures, as well as those unhappy few who stumbled fruitlessly into my website as a result of googling for the Army Corps of Engineers.

Essay here: Sand Boils



This is to be my commonplace book: a diary of ideas, musings and works in progress.  Occasionally a home to rants and Jeremiads and curmudgeonly mutterings.  More often to thoughts sparked by things seen, read or heard.  Links too – lots of links – and photos, naturally.