Hubert van Eyck

This painting from around 1410 shows what people are thinking. It may have been begun by Hubert van Eyck, and completed by his more famous brother Jan. Consider first the Three Marys, at the empty tomb:

The first is sad, simply mourning. The second is trusting, being told something and having faith. But the third is thinking, assessing, coming to her own conclusion.

Here is the Angel, holding forth the glad tidings:

The face is closer to the not quite human expressionlessness of earlier art, though the gesture of the arms is persuasive. The soldiers are cast into sleep.

I publish paintings because I wanted free pictures for my posts, and don’t devote enough time or energy to my own photography, but also because I love them, and want you to see at least all the beauty I see in them.

Powerful, beautiful, alive

I cannot see, in an art work, anything which is not myself; but I can see something I have not admitted to myself. The human being contains multitudes. The whole human being, the artist, speaks to the whole human being, the viewer. Content: suicide and internalised prejudice; and also overcoming that in celebration.

It seems to me that my conscious mind is a filter, preoccupied with what a human being, and in particular this human being, should be. The “shoulds” come from outside, from parents and the wider society. The brain, being part of a whole organism, calculates what others desire and what it can get away with, and produces a simulacrum of that, while underneath there are greater possibilities and desires. Primo Levi observed inmates of Auschwitz who wanted to live by the rules, a common human desire, which might be understandable in Jews- I fit in, give unobtrusive service, try not to be noticed, and thereby might survive- but in Auschwitz the rules were designed to starve and freeze the inmates to death, and so that route to survival was no longer open.

This crushed response of traumatised Jews in Eastern Europe in the 1930s, or Venice in 1516, is not the Jewishness of Naftali Bennett. Bennett, the politician of the settlers, may be a bad man, an oppressor of the Palestinians; but outrage at him can still be antisemitic, insofar as it is outrage because he is uppity.

You need a queer eye to read Francis Bacon. His lover George Dyer committed suicide in a hotel bathroom. Triptych 1973 may show him dying, that black stain seeping out being his life draining away or death coming upon him like a wraith. A straight woman guide led us to Triptych 1972, and suggested it was the same, the death, the man crushed. No. Those pools on the floor, I was sure they were cum. These figures are ejaculating, a glorious, joyous climax, more I think than most prostates would achieve, a superhuman effervescence of life. Coming, he feels immortal.

You need a queer eye because the straight might see the poor oppressed gay having a ghastly time then dying, poor soul, wasn’t it awful to be gay with all that homophobia? And I see Bacon, the gay man who knows exactly who he is, being it and showing it. Elsewhere in his work subjects have manly energy, physically and psychologically imposing, with a sense of threat, but here they are soft gay men and glorying in it.

Partly I do not listen to you because my concern is not to hear what you have to say but to maintain and affirm the societal consensus, what we should think. Or, perhaps, you would free me if I could hear you but I am not ready for that.

I want you to find this offensive- and then laugh in delight. If I am I in all my Light this is not taking physical goods which are not mine, so that others have less, so much as dancing new moves which will embolden others to dance their own.

I do not see my power, my inner Light, because I imagine it ought to be good, that is, good as the societal consensus would see good. And it is so much more than that. It could feel like a threat, or danger, because it is so alive. It wants to shine, for shining is its nature, and thereby to draw out others’ light. The Light is hard and soft, gentle and commanding, all that is possible in a human, made in the image of God, loving, creative, powerful, beautiful.

I want everyone to be uppity. I want us to dance together, showing our abundance. Jesus said let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Joy in a gallery

What should be the mood of a museum visit? Is it like going on a picnic, to school, on a shopping trip, or to church? –Cynthia Freeland.

There’s a difference between English and US English here- she’s asking about what we would call an “art gallery”, a special space for looking at Art. My first thought was, it should be like a garden, where I move, relaxed, with beautiful and sometimes unexpected things catching my attention. And it should have good cake. What do you think?

An art gallery should enrich and expand our understanding of what it means to be human, the glory, jest and riddle of the world. It should have something to delight, intrigue, confound, provoke, enlighten anyone wandering in- any child, any person who has never seen art before, any connoisseur.

So it should be welcoming, to everyone. No-one should feel excluded. Any faint lingering traces of the idea that this is for educated people, for people with good taste, rather than for everyone should be expunged. It should be enticing. There should be eye-catching things round every corner, to draw you through. It should be mindblowing. We might have our understanding of the world completely changed.

I hope it could overcome resistance. There is resistance- “That’s not Art!” imagines that Art means technical skill in painting and sculpture, the ability to make a face look like a face in a photograph, rather than the ability to make a face that a person can read and feel with. There is fear, that these connoisseurs are looking at things I will not understand. Well, possibly- an understanding of the meaning of the colours in certain icons, or the symbols used to indicate saints- Peter carries keys, for example- can enrich viewing such paintings. Arguably, truly great painters have produced something new, and lesser artists copied their betters, and so some sense of the development of Art has value, but progress is not linear. Instead it is an expansion, in many dimensions, with people finding new possibilities and their idiosyncratic way, or revisiting the old and finding something new in it.

It should be a place we escape words. Words mediate our experience of the world, and come between us and the thing in front of us. You do not see what is around you because you are thinking. Words move through your mind, and you pay attention to them instead, even if they are the same words as flowed through you yesterday and last month. I love to escape words. It is an experience I know and value. There must be a wordless experience before there can be new words or new understanding. So I enter an art gallery with the intention of relating to some art object- probably many- and allowing it to communicate to me, without judging, or at least permit my mind to see possibilities in it without seeking to define them.

The child or adult entering a gallery for the first time needs a certain level of trust in the guide taking them there, or the society which values the gallery, to be open to such experience. So the gallery should do all it can to win such trust. Not understanding is OK- but the viewer must perceive the possibility of understanding, and a route to understanding, without too strict an idea of what understanding might look like.

I have strong memories of art in my teens grabbing my attention and engaging me. Then I saw that there was something that would repay my attention. Now delight is quotidian for me, enraptured by the flowers in a Burne-Jones forest, but also perception, being brought face to face with a man standing over his wife, just killed in war.

Go to a gallery! They are wonderful places!

Beautiful. Striking.

And now for some art. These are images I have found beautiful or striking, suggested by things I read.

I found The Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach in New Philosopher magazine. Is that armpit hair, straggling down longer than her elbow?

The naked Maja.

A “Maja” was a lower-class Spaniard who wore exaggeratedly Spanish dress, and mocked rich Frenchified Spaniards. Note the way she gazes at the viewer.

This is by Jenny Holzer. Do you agree with her?

In the waiting room

In the waiting room, there are tiny canvases, about six inches square, with foreboding messages. Protect yourself against the dangers! Some are addressed to children, some to women:

With the glitter, even with the Rothko colours that could go either way. “Hello”! How lovely! But-

If you find a new friend, it is too good to be true. “The man I met was nothing but a scam.”

Bully and victim.

Disconnected. Mental. Hate. Confused. Fake. Insecure. Disgusting. Vulnerable. Stop.

The word on Olly’s phone is “Target”. Is it too much?

All too much? After the session, in the supermarket I hear a man snap out an order- as if he has had to fire his underling for stupidity and uselessness, but the underling has been made to work her notice by his managers specifically to belittle and insult him, and he has not the grace to rise above it but wants to make everyone else as miserable as he.

“Put the milk in the buggy!”

Surely, that could not be his partner? That could not be their child, in the pushchair?

I retuned the radio from the local station to Radio 3. “Hello,” said someone behind me. I ignored her. “Would you like us to move the tree?” The potted shrub was tickling my neck. “Maybe later,” she said.

Franz West

Franz West’s sculptures are playful and anarchic.

I brought my stool just to the point where I am standing, and looked up at the loop, back and forth at the waves of this structure. Then I found the point against the wall where, sitting on my stool, I could capture that virus-model or whatever it is through the loop. I had not really noticed how the other pink thing enhances the picture.

Then I asked a woman to sit on the stool so I could be in the photographs. She pointed out how colour-coordinated I was, so I took my jacket off, then really played the game, taking several, trying to make a composition. I don’t know how to alter the depth of field on my phone: it focused on the brightest thing, the light reflecting on the virus, and was slightly out of focus on me.

You may go behind the curtains to play with four sculptures of metal and plaster. The video shows what you may do. So I did, taking a plaster blob on an iron poker, throwing it about and seeing how far from myself I could lift it. Closing the curtains, so I was alone with the sculpture, was important.

Before, I went to Tate Britain for the last day of the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition, and a brief look at Don McCullin. I saw from a very different Finsbury Park two beautiful young men in a pub sizing one another up, ready for verbal rather than physical combat I think. Later, from a war, I saw a starving woman’s deformed breast given to her starving child. The whole will repay my sustained attention, and there are members’ hours every weekend, but I just dipped in to get a vague idea of it. I love the idea of feeling a photograph you take so that the audience will feel it too. I hear his wrestling with his privileged position, getting money and fame from others’ misery, yet being the necessary witness documenting that suffering.

After taking the boat, I went to the Pierre Bonnard exhibition. I had not heard of him! These pictures are beautiful, and I hated the self-portrait from around the time of his life-long partner’s death. He was crushed, and he showed his misery.

At St Pancras, I heard a pianist play Rachmaninov, the Bells of Moscow Prelude, Beethoven and Mozart, much better than the usual players. I played Metamorphosis II, though without repeating all the arpeggiation.

Identity Politics

Is “Identity politics” destroying beauty and truth in Art? Writer and art critic Sohrab Ahmari argues particularly trans and gender variant issues are clogging galleries with worthless pieces.

Why is there identity politics in Art? It is a reaction to failings in the art world. All art is political. I love The History of Art by EH Gombrich, but it has only one work by a woman. Here it is.

Women’s art addresses issues important to women from a woman’s perspective. Men will benefit from seeing this, by gaining empathy and understanding. Almost ignoring women’s art, Gombrich missed out the perspective of half of humanity. Artemisia Gentileschi’s rapist said she could recover her honour as a woman no longer virgin, by marrying him. See the glorious contempt her female subjects have for the men:

Ahmari says political work is not beautiful. Identity politics is fundamentally opposed to free speech and free thought… art that deals with race, gender, sexuality, power and privilege dominates the art scene. He contrasts this with a Caravaggio:

The beauty of Italian art in the 17th century is clear. Both these paintings show real people, in complex poses. Their faces are expressive. The boy reaches out for fruit, and is unexpectedly bitten, perhaps a metaphor for a dose of the clap.

Ahmari wants art to describe the world as you really see it rather than putting everything through a political frame. Yet the experience of unwanted sexual attention is the world as Gentileschi experienced it, and any man should see is widespread.

It is not clear that the “identity politics” work, dealing with the women’s issue of unwanted sexual attention, is less beautiful. However, the skills of representation are so widespread now, when many illustrators could show a wide variety of facial expression and human posture, that art has moved on. Gombrich shows how the greatest painters learned them from scratch, over centuries, but now they can be taught in amateur sketching classes.

Contemporary art is beautiful in a different way. Charlotte Prodger’s Turner Prize-winning piece is beautiful. In her video she talks of being misgendered. I relate to it. My experience is in her art. It may not be Ahmari’s experience, yet art about how trans and gender variant people experience the world directly speaks to us, and enables others to see our point of view- it enlarges their empathy and understanding.

Ahmari claims not to be criticising autobiography in art, using one’s own life, but you need to say something about the human condition as well, not just about yourself. Well, Ahmari does not get misgendered, but he probably gets misunderstood and misrepresented. If he approaches Prodger’s work with empathy and imagination rather than judgment, he would see the universal message in it.

In the programme, Alexander Adams says publicly funded art tends to have a very narrow political view. There should be art that is critical of multiculturalism, critical of immigration, critical of transgenderism. If he can point to any good art critical of immigration I would like to see it. I am reminded of the Great German Art exhibition, running concurrently to the Degenerate Art exhibition. We hear again the idea that the Trans Lobby is fantastically powerful, shutting down debate, and yet here are all the free speech advocates, endlessly inveighing against us.

All art is political. It either underpins or subverts current power structures. It either silences or gives a voice to disempowered groups. In the programme, Tiffany Jenkins says I think the arts have been asked to solve social problems. So they’ve been asked to improve the lives of communities by raising their self-esteem, by making them feel good about themselves. I don’t think the arts can do that. But I loved the exhibition Art in the Age of Black Power: Black people, standing tall and proud despite oppression. Seeing these heroes must have inspired Black people looking at these works, and I, with my white privilege, can delight in that heroism and resistance.

Ahmari mentions the controversy over Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till. He ignores the point that Black artists are underrepresented in white-run art galleries. When we are equal, we can share each others’ stories, but the powerful should not use the stories of the weak for their own gain.

My experience as a trans woman is generalisable to universal human experience- of the tension between being yourself and fitting in; of feeling and hurt and delight. Art by trans people seen with sympathy can enlarge the understanding of its audience. It is not “identity politics” to show art by gender variant people, but simply Art- seeing the universal in the particular, enlarging our understanding of what it is to be human. As Ahmari says, probably most of the art created now will not be around in fifty years’ time- but the best will survive, and will include art by minorities. Because not only white western men can be artists.

Conversations at the Transvestite club

After taking my clothes off in front of you, how should I start a polite conversation? I only used the changing facilities, a cramped crowded room, once: after that, I always drove down dressed. I don’t think I thought about it at the time, it did not register as peculiarly unpleasant, and it felt a bit of a risk to be leaving my home dressed female, but I only used the changing room once.

I found the Ebstorf Map here, and it bowls me over. The header picture shows Scotland at Jesus’ feet, on the edge of the World. Sometimes I find faces in illuminated manuscripts indistinguishable, sometimes strangely expressive of I-don’t-know-what. East is at the top of the map, and Eden is East of India.

I think I met Barbara at my first visit to Northern Concord. A wonderfully generous, kind, and deeply hurt woman, she quickly became a friend. She proposed wandering the streets of the Village, and visiting the other pubs, and though even Concord, unfamiliar, didn’t seem a particularly safe space yet, I went.

Jerusalem was always at the centre of the World. It is just east of Italy: I can work out few of the names and the arrangement is strange, but I see Sicilia. Are those Greek islands? The Mediterranean is hardly wider than the rivers.

Others became my friends, all of whom decided to transition. I realised that we had approached friendship from an unusual angle: normally you would start talking about indifferent subjects, and the weather is the clichéd English choice, then what we think, what we feel, getting deeper as the process worked. At the club, we talked of cross-dressing, which was deeply significant for us, emotive, personal, and to make a friend we still had to do the work of building up a relationship. When her son was diagnosed as autistic, the minister was so relieved, as her wife had been accused of causing his strangeness by her coldness. She was not to blame.

I had an aborted conversation this week. The man was introduced to me as an author of science fiction. I said I liked some science fiction, and named Iain M Banks, though not Octavia Butler or Margaret Atwood. It was a weak gambit. He said yes, Iain M Banks is quite good. I drifted off. I have no idea whether he is internationally famous, or unpublished. So here am I talking of the Ebstorf Map, a thing I find beautiful and wonderful, hoping to entice you into concord. Don’t you find it fascinating? What do you notice in it? Here at the far South is Africa. I note the people there are naked, and pale skinned.

Though Jesus is quite dark, and the colours may have faded over eight hundred years. That’s His hand, over the encircling Sea. Conversation is a risk: We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.

I really enjoyed meeting you, in probably the worst way to start a friendship with my friend’s wife. I got undressed- that’s the best metaphor I can think of for a counselling session in which I decided to participate fully, showing my divided self, all the different voices within me, to someone who is pleasantly professional. Revealing herself would not be therapeutic. So now I may meet you socially, and have to find some way of making your acquaintance. I feel I am at your mercy, which I find uncomfortable, being a controlling person.

The Ebstorf Map, an alien and familiar way of seeing the World. Is it not glorious?

Merry Christmas, with Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones

Anticipating, slightly: the Epiphany is 6 January. I have not seen this tapestry, but found tapestries of his I have seen gorgeous. This fabulous thing is 3.77×2.58m.

Only his mother, in her maiden bliss
worshipped the Beloved, with a kiss

His Annunciation has the Angel descending from on high
and the woman not abashed

I note it appears to follow the rules of perspective found in the Renaissance, and the vanishing point is a star.