Embarrassment

Is everyone like that? “I don’t know how long to look, or what to say,” said the man in the art gallery. Look if you are captivated, look away if you are uninterested, “say what you feel, not what you ought to say”. I imagine him trying to think what others who knew more than he would say, getting it wrong, and being laughed at. If you say what you feel, it is not wrong- at least, not in a gallery. “Normal is what everyone else is and you are not.” It’s hard to imagine other people trying to think what the cognoscenti would say, and trying to imitate it, and failing. It’s only me that could possibly do that. It’s only me, that anyone would ever laugh at.

And yet, there he is, saying he does not know, and pride has stopped him learning. Or self-effacement. His wife’s an artist! Would she never have told him what she saw in art? The horror at appearing not to know, that embarrassment, stopped him asking. Perhaps she never thought he would listen to her, because that would mean appearing not to know.

I went to art galleries because I knew that was the cultured thing to do, and it was good to appear cultured, then more and more I went to galleries because I love them. I don’t care what to say. Sometimes, “Wow” does. Possibly, “That smile looks enigmatic because the eyes and the mouth are expressing different emotions”. I have ticked off the Mona Lisa from my list, while I was going round galleries from an idea that I ought to, that that was the cultured thing to do.

Needing to appear to know makes doing the work to know unbearable. Curators know the power of some images, and will give a vista: you look through an opening, it catches your eye on the far wall of the next gallery, and you have to go and look- a bit like love at first sight. Art galleries can do that. You know so little about art you don’t even know what you like, and then you are captivated.

It’s easier to write this post when I think- other people might be like that too. Not everyone, around every situation- sailors know ships, artists know art, parliamentarians know parliament- but around most situations where there might be expertise, some people will know, and some will be uneasy, because they don’t, and imagine everyone else does. I’ve tried bluffing and been caught out.

There must be a sensible thing to do in this situation and I don’t know what it is, and when I do something else, people will laugh at me, or despise me, or exploit me. Who? Well, the Normal people, that is every single other person. But if only I felt like that there would be no word for it, and there is. It’s called embarrassment. I understand the oldest use of the word is for a debtor, who is embarrassed when they cannot pay. Pause to look it up. No, apparently: that use is “L19” and the play “Embarras de richesse” was performed in 1753. But the definition “perplexed” does not capture the harsh pain of it. “I will be found out!”

Embarrassment is the obverse of false pride, never wanting to be seen wanting. If I can admit ignorance many will be willing to teach me. I might give an exchange, teaching them something, or might accept the gift.

Fear of Embarrassment is one reason I fear to go out. The normal people- everyone else- will see me, and despise me. Pride, shame, stop me taking action, for fear of embarrassment. I think I inherit it from my mother, with her fear of her weird sexuality being found out.

That thing I could do is good enough. No-one will see it and despise it, because they won’t know the details or care enough to try to puzzle them out. What if it does not work? It will work well enough. It will be over soon enough.

I know a bit about art, enough to bother reading that Paolo Caliari, painting in Venice, was known as Veronese, the man from Verona. But who could not look up at this and see drama in it? It may help to know the cherub with a bow is Cupid, not necessarily to know it was commissioned by the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II for Prague Castle. If your response is simply, “Wow”, your friends will not feel the scorn you fear from them, and no-one else will care.

I have been wrestling with the thought of this post all day. How can I express the pain of embarrassment, and not write something which is unbearable to read? By dancing round the pain, and making a joke of it.

Christ is Risen

Queuing for the supermarket
is like walking a labyrinth.
Every few moments, some mindful steps.
Ribbons wind the path, and we turn in sunshine.
Blossom and birdsong are beautiful.
Over the fence,
a path curves into the woods,
in cool green light.

“Wonderful,” said a friend. “You woman of so many talents. I’d lose the last sentence…” Well. I wanted to share the idea, of walking in the queue being like in a labyrinth, but for me it evokes a specific place. The police are telling people not to buy inessential items or sunbathe in parks, and they have the power to impose on the spot fines, so if you want to enjoy sunshine, doing nothing at all, a supermarket queue is a permitted place. This one has trees, so even if a carpark is not beautiful there is beauty there worth my attention. And across a steel fence of sharp uprights a few inches apart, there is the Greenway, with the contrast of light through a scrap of mature woodland. There is a contrast in the last three lines, in the lowered intensity of words matching the difference of the vision. So there.

There is no afterlife. If “He descended into Hell”, as the Apostle’s Creed says, it is here, in this life on Earth, and if Jesus saved people from Hell as apocryphal Gospels state and the Orthodox Church celebrates in icons it is now, and how better when people are afraid of a pandemic?

I remember my first labyrinth. The path was marked in different coloured square tiles, and was square so that repeatedly one turned a 90° corner, facing a different vista, bushes, trees, grass, and angle of sunlight. I did it slowly, barefoot in March, in about 2007. It did the job, bringing me into the moment, contemplating the beauty, out of Hell. From that place one can begin to see what needs to be done in the moment now. I probably didn’t have covid two weeks ago, but I don’t know if I picked it up yesterday; and the sun is so hot in my back yard that I sit in the shade. A siren. Is it a police car come for someone who bought something inessential, or an ambulance taking away a sufferer? Someone tells me her child brought it home from school and they all had it, and were fine after a week. Someone has died. A neighbour shouts at his daughter for eating chocolate before tea.

Here is an icon of “The Harrowing of Hell”. Christ breaks the walls to rescue the imprisoned, while angels hold Satan down.

Western European art tended to go more for Last Judgment scenes, with sinners falling unequivocally and finally into torment, but there are some examples. In this by a follower of Bosch, the devils resist, and only some people take notice. Click for a larger version.

In this Cezanne, Christ saves individually and personally.

Another follower of Bosch. Most of the people are untrusting. The woman covering her nakedness makes me think of Eve.

I went to the supermarket
and came home with a poem.
Would the police deem it essential?

Anger and sadness, depression and motivation

-Part of you is dreadfully sad. You have this deep well of sadness in you. When you are motivated to do something that succeeds, you notice and hold that achievement. I am wondering what happens when you don’t, whether you judge yourself or care for yourself and feel the disappointment.

Of course I would like only success, and failure, sooner or later, makes me withdraw. “We tried that once and it didn’t work”- I have noticed people not trying something a second time when trying again seemed worthwhile to me, and I notice that I stop trying too. I could not bear yet another failure, so I stopped. Trying was too painful, but I needed to be screaming before I acknowledged the pain, and by then I could not try again.

-We can see the positives, achievement and celebration and success and doing is very much our culture, but not so good about seeing the other side of things, or fearing trying again, failing again. Fail better, said Beckett’s Krapp, showing the difficulty of it. I dwelt on this until we met again two weeks later. What stops me feeling the sadness, or the pain, is my anger. My anger is directed inwards, at me. What do I have to be sad about? I demand, disdainfully, contemptuously. It is like my other internal conflicts- the anger pushes down, the sadness pushes against it, I exhaust myself but do not move.

Richard Rohr wrote Your life is not about you– the ego at the centre of the Universe. It is about God. It is about a willing participation in a larger mystery. At this time, we do this by not rejecting or running from what is happening but by accepting our current situation and asking God to be with us in it. I thought, The spiritual lesson is learning the opposite of what you believed- I was worthless, not the centre of the Universe at all. Learning the different aspects of truth- my value as a unique being, my ordinariness as one among billions- I need a different corrective to the one Rohr administers.

What does the anger say? I sympathise more with the anger (as it is righteous, with something soft and weak). I am proud of it, so I bring it into consciousness and accept it. It seems appropriate. My anger tries to be stoic, accepting trouble and keeping on (except that it fails at that). I admire stoicism: Marcus Aurelius was seeking the Good Life, was the moral philosopher whether talking of getting out of bed or facing death. And my anger denies the sadness- go away and stop bothering me. It blocks the sadness from consciousness. Stop whining! it commands, and the whining becomes quieter though no less effective as a block to action.

The anger is inside me now, the anger is me, though it may be learned from the culture or the family, from voices outside. I don’t remember it, particularly, as an outside voice, condemning me- perhaps I learned it from others’ example.

Then I find the sadness, and I want to process it. I have the idea that if I could simply feel the sadness it would have told me all it needed to tell me, I would have learned from it all I needed to learn- not Don’t do that! but Take care doing that. And I have the idea that I am simply coaxing the sad part of me- I will listen to it for a time then say, that’s enough time now, come on- wheedling- coaxing- now take action. At which the sadness or the sad part digs its heels in again. It’s too painful right now. Rest a while more.

The anger is me. The sadness is me. Consciously I am more in the anger because it feels right, and it feels effective. Kicking my own backside was my way of motivation. Get on with it. It did actually work, for a while, it got me out of the house, going to work, achieving some things. Now if it works, if I get out of bed because I kick myself, I am wearied by it, it is heavy, an effort, it gives no joy. Anger and sadness are in stalemate.

-Where is your agency? she asks. Where’s the rest of you? I see your appreciation of culture and awe and beauty and there is something in you which wants to go and appreciate these things.

Well, that was my social training. My Dad showed me that culture required effort. We listened to Bartok string quartets expecting not to enjoy them- for them to be so alien, so complex, that my first feeling would be distressed boredom. Then with concentration and repeated listening the drama of the work, its progression and feeling, would reveal itself. I had this experience aged about 14 with The Silmarillion. I struggled through it, and found it weird, and the third time I read it I enjoyed it. Now I have The Mirror and the Light. It has huge sales, and I imagine more people will buy it than read it because they do not appreciate the effort it requires; but it will reward that effort. I am re-reading Bring Up the Bodies, knowing the characters better than I did. Its sequel is a 900 page novel which will be worth savouring.

In the same way I walked up the stairs in the National Gallery with a stool, because standing still too long is uncomfortable for me, turned right into the first gallery, turned left to the first painting and sat in front of it. That Veronese is fabulously beautiful. I retain it in my mind, and think of the legend of St Helena. And it is an effort. I need to concentrate, and I need to go and seek it out.

The anger is conscious, the sadness comes to consciousness. Partly it is an intellectual exercise, working out what might be there, partly it is trust in you as the expert who sees sadness in me, and partly it is inklings of feeling, peeking out from the woods, or surfacing briefly from the depths.

The anger is directed inwards, against myself, because I am weak and without status. If my anger is expressed outwards I will be squished. I got this from my family, and perhaps from their experience as human beings in the pecking order. I am at the bottom of the pecking order. Well, when I am sucking up to this admin worker, Oh, you lost a stone! How strong willed you are, how determined! What an achievement! Rather than about time, you’ll ruin your knees otherwise you fat slattern.

I have value only for what I can achieve, rather than in myself. So I need the opposite of Rohr’s lesson. I don’t blame my parents, it’s sins of the fathers, just the situation being passed on, like a mother rabbit bending to lick her kits, and the rabbit parasites march down her nose and onto them. It’s just what happens.

-Where is your agency? she asks again.

I have desire without action. I passionately want to be seen. And I want not to be seen, to hide away at home. My friend said it was as if I wanted to blend into the background in the most eyecatching way possible, which he might have wanted for himself. One of the best ways of hiding in plain sight is the steady achievement of the quiet efficient worker, who does what is expected.

-When do you feel these things rather than intellectualise about them?

When you talked about my sadness I felt irritation. Feeling the sadness- it’s too much to bear in consciousness, and I need to intellectually accept that, it’s part of the process of unearthing it.

HELP ME!

-That does not feel real. It feels like an intellectual exercise.

Well, yes. I am acting. I can only say that within several sets of quotation marks, and you can hear the quotation marks in my voice- but I am acting myself. That is what I want to say to you, perfectly sincerely, and I can only say it as an act.

-What stops you being as opposed to acting?

Lack of practice. Uselessness and inadequacy. A deep lack of trust, in myself and in the world. Those are the things that come to mind immediately.

-Is the better self totally intellectual?

No. But the feeling self, anger and sadness, is tied in such knots I can barely perceive it. Or there are feelings flooding through me, and I cannot speak them. I might type or write them.

-Does this practice, of seeking art, music and literature out, and working on them, apply to anything else?

It applies to ideas. I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Implicit Bias in order to understand implicit bias better. I found it a struggle. I want to understand. I’d like to walk down the street buying stuff, but I can’t see how to get to there from here. I want to meet people and get to know them, and I do, sometimes, talking to people with different experiences to see through their eyes. People learn what is fun by convention, then do that for fun because they don’t know any better, but by exploration we might find something rewarding.

St Pancras II

At the South end of St Pancras station stand the parting couple, embracing, a stolid sculpture based on Brief Encounter. Normally I enter on the lower level, so had not before noticed the plinth:

It is full of life. The faces are ordinary and heroic and beautiful, sometimes worn or old but unbowed.

Around them the tunnels and arches of the station swoop, in foreshortened relief.

What text distracts her from her hug? Or is the hug an imposition?

Commuter trains are as crowded as ever.

So crowded, so noble and determined they make me think of refugees.

A Sikh among the workers laying the track.

Further on is John Betjeman, standing on the floor not a plinth, hurrying for a train, but in this light he is too dark for a photograph. There are texts in the stone along the walk-way, quotes from Betjeman:

Here where the cliffs alone prevail
I stand exultant, neutral, free
And from the cushion of the gale
Behold a huge, consoling sea

A gentle guest, a willing host
Affection deeply planted-
It’s strange that those we miss the most
Are those we take for granted.

Beyond the throb of the engines is the throbbing heart of all

Rubens

Looking at these paintings, I at first thought the difference between them was the photographic reproduction rather than the painting itself.

I studied the strange way the carter is riding one of a pair of horses, the group of three figures, the markings on the flank of the central cow. Eventually I saw how the rainbow is further from the tree in the upper picture, which is in London, than in the lower, in Munich. Only then did I notice the greater relative height of the lower picture. The greater clarity could be a trick of the reproduction. Colours are not always perfect.

I wondered at recreating such a complex scene. Sunlight strongly picks out the trunk of one of the trees on the right, and in both paintings the trunk is a similar shape. The upper one is much larger, 53″ high rather than 37″. Did the artist paint the same scene, happy to paint the same people, cows, trees, in order to demonstrate different light? The London picture seems to have a clearer, colder Northern light, and clearer detail, in faces and leaves.

The painting was a few decades before Newton’s work with prisms. I note the colour of the rainbow and wonder at it, I must look at what colours I actually see, rather than merely expect, next time I see a rainbow.

Only when I am writing this do I see the lower picture is the copy, not Rubens but “after” Rubens. Even then this site ascribes it to Rubens. Suddenly I see the two pictures differently. The clarity, I now assume, is greater technical skill. The upper picture is simply better.

Merry Christmas!

Blessings and delights to you for Christmas.

In a beautiful wilderness, with a beautiful innocent lamb, John the Baptist is in contemplation.

Jesus here is a pudgy baby, but he has a direct gaze. He can see into your soul.

Mary has her hair uncovered, which is unusual. I read that’s Judas lighting the candles. John the Baptist as a baby is on the right, and Anne, Mary’s mother, reads a book.

The Entombment

I love her face. She is in the moment, concentrating on the task in hand, and her misery does not get in the way. The necessity of completing her task may give her some relief, by giving her something else to think about.

She is practical and loving, in mindful presence. She is not unfeeling, but her feelings do not get in the way.

Wikipedia identifies these as Nicodemus the Pharisee and Mary of Clopas. Nicodemus has the same look of loving practicality, looking at the beloved, now lifeless face. Mary of Clopas and Mary Salome, below, stifle tears and cries.

Jesus’s mother with downcast eyes holds his hand, supported by John, the Beloved disciple, whom Jesus told to care for his mother.

Each face has thoughts and feelings readable and relatable on it. Fifteenth century artists used the stories in the Bible, which everyone would know, to show real human beings responding to real situations. In Marys’ grief they could feel their own. I can use the picture to find my complex relationship with feelings, of those acting or watching. It is linen, fragile, and faded from original brilliant colours.

National Gallery

Am I too trusting? Probably.

One of my myths, my stories for understanding who I am and how I came to be this way, concerns The Adoration of the Magi by Pieter Bruegel. When I was 18 I had a poster of it on my wall, which I got from my father’s magazine. It was a pose, to show I am an intellectual, and I hated it. The people are so ugly!

Here is a higher resolution image.

However after living with it for a few weeks, I saw it differently. I saw looks of wonderment on the characters’ faces, and loved them. They were ordinary people, amazed at the miracle of the Incarnation. And, I reached this understanding in a moment of inspiration, when the painting changed utterly for me, in an instant!

I had my first Art epiphany with an Epiphany.

So I was shocked to read the National Gallery companion guide, which argues the painting is a satire. “The crowd has eyes only for the rich presents.” I had to go and see, and I asked H to come too, to check.

And, yes, indeed the people are looking in awe and wonder at the gifts. One might be looking at Caspar, who is Black, and one of the soldiers looks out at us, but the soldier in the middle is definitely looking at the gold, and not the baby.

Still, I think it is a gift, always to think the best of people. It takes a lot to convince me they are not well-meaning, community-minded souls. Certain Tory MPs have convinced me, but they had to be revolting to manage it.

Fortunately in the same room is Jan Gossaert’s treatment. These Kings have a proper attitude of reverence.

In another, the people seem to be going through a tedious court ritual, going through the motions, rather than seeing God Incarnate. Or, perhaps, in a dog eat dog Italian court they cannot show any sign of weakness or feeling.

We liked the Botticelli, though. A fully clothed woman and naked man is unusual. And the Justus of Ghent is just my thing- a man kneeling at a woman’s feet, even if she is the personification of rhetoric. This is meant to be seen from below: when I sit on the floor and look up at it, I see it better.

There is so much beauty here! It delights me. These paintings 1250-1500 in the new wing are designed to evoke feelings of awe, wonder and reverence, and in me they do. When I want to leave, arted out, I have to stare at the floor to avoid being distracted.

The Cubic Structural Evolution Project

To get to the Quaker meeting I left the house before eight, and cycled up steep hills and into stiff winds. Then at the station the replacement bus was full, and a man had suggestions of what the incompetents managing the service should have done. Do we get compensation? Yes, but only £6.75.

A woman offered me a lift in her car. She’s off to see Romeo and Juliet, at Sadlers Wells, choreographed by Matthew Bourne. He always manages to surprise her with new ways of expressing story in dance.

“You’re obviously very creative,” she said.

Yes, that’s why I wanted to tell you of her.

“I’m not creative myself,” she said. I protested. You talk to your grandchild, don’t you? You’re interacting, sparking off each other. She agreed and enthused.

“The 9.42 will get me to my meeting on time,” I announced.

“No pressure, then,” she said. She got her silent husband to let us out at the drop off point before parking. If they rowed about her generosity they did it after I left.

On the train the big shaven-headed bloke in jeans and white t-shirt talked of going to Mass and his grandmother’s power of attorney. At Meeting I looked at the food bank box and thought of connection- mine with these people, through them with my fellow benefit claimants.

I had not known what was in the Turbine Hall, and went over to look. I had not intended to join in but got chatting to a mother and daughter who explained it to me.

“I want to go back to the bar,” said the mother.

“How old are you?”

“Eleven,” said the child, who looked younger.

Oh, she’ll be alright! No one will mind!

“You have to take towers down or there will be no bricks to build with,” says the mother. I joke about playing Godzilla and the daughter is horrified.

The future city is very beautiful now. Those are huge towers, wonderfully varied, from only a few different brick types. I have not really noticed adult Lego hobbying before. I was aware of its existence but only seeing what is possible in real life makes me alive to it. Children make structures at ground level, but I want to contribute and be Noticed. When the towers have taken so long to build, and such inspiration to imagine, how can I compete? I will build a bridge.

That’s difficult with the short bricks available. The round towers can only sit on the table, not build on bricks. I am Creating: constrained by my materials, inspired by other work. My bridge has a hinge in it, making it considerably weaker but more able to place between towers. It is irregular, Brutalist among these neo-classical forms. Inadvertently I knock the top off a tower as I try to affix it, and am abashed; but I do not have time to rebuild it even if I knew how.

It is ungainly, detracting from the Beauty! No, it is a piquant or picaresque contrast, adding to the whole work. I hadn’t seen a bridge there before, but noticed someone creating one later. Future cities need bridges! Writing next day I don’t know if my bridge still exists, but my posts are web archived, and perhaps archeologists will find silicon with this photograph, just before the Sun as a red giant engulfs the Earth.

Then I go to gaze into the eyes of the Goncharova Christ, which is why I came to London. I can’t find it in a postcard or online- possibly like an icon it is holy, so restricted. The grapes on His vine are rich and strong.

I want to take a tower apart and put a slab of blue bricks in! It would not need to be large, and it would stand out like the Sun in Impressions- Sunrise!

With biscuits and cheese, and two cups of tea at Meeting, I don’t need to buy food in the gallery. I am with Christ and the Queen of Heaven when I am chucked out.

Paula Rego

The woman’s face shows calmness and certainty. She is richly dressed in a full long gold-coloured skirt and black close-fitting jacket. We look up at her, not only at the picture hung on the wall but in the world of the picture, whose perspective suggests a view from her waist height. In her right hand she carries a sword. She is an angel: of vengeance, it seems. That crease at the right of her mouth, turning upwards: she has no malevolence, just one clear task.

In her left hand she carries a sponge, which the caption refers to the sponge held up to dampen Jesus’ lips at the crucifixion, but I more prosaically think of as cleansing. I love to gaze up at this strong woman.

She is part of a series, after a novel. The next picture is of a paedophile priest, face and body twisted on a bed. The caption indicates he is in sexual arousal, I would not have imagined that explanation. Rego is angrier than I, not clinging to comfort, clearer seeing. There is no avenging angel in the novel.

There are women at the backstreet abortionist’s, anticipating the treatment or curled in a ball after it, with faces and postures that could be completely broken or in grim determination.

The exhibition starts with works from the time of the Salazar dictatorship, with an intense anger in “when we had a house in the country we’d throw marvellous parties then we’d go out and shoot negroes”, or “Salazar vomiting the homeland”. A host of solitary figures on the canvas are twisted and distorted, not relating or related.

And then there are the men. Her husband had MS, and ran her father’s business into the ground, and she portays him curled on a bed in a skirt, with women in control. Or two girls dressing a dog. The dog has no fight or resistance left. They control him.

Or, “The Maids,” based on a play. That’s a man’s face, not an “androgynous” one as the caption says. He sits, in women’s clothes, unaware or acquiescent of their knowingness and control.

The exhibition ends with a picture of the artist painting a sleeping man. The caption suggests that this reverses the usual order, but she might be read as femininely attentive, carefully looking up at him. On her face I read professional absorption, calmly executing a task. Her calf is firmly supporting her, and is emphasised in my view. I look at that strong calf in the court shoe with slight heel.

Strong women, without illusion, doing what must be done, and passive or useless men. I find these women intensely beautiful, as role model or imagined partner.

The works, mostly in pastel on paper mounted on aluminium, are wonderfully smooth of surface. I chatted to a worker at the gallery. Normally, she says, hanging an exhibition, you just get on with it, fixing the pictures to the wall like a carpenter on a building site; but here they unwrapped the pictures and were increasingly overwhelmed, delighting in them.