Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas.

Many Nativity paintings have an air of stillness and peace. This one, by Jan Wydra,

makes me think of light and movement. The light source is not the Christ-child, but the sun. If Jesus is lifting his hands in blessing, he is older than a week or two, but rather Mary has lifted his arm like a mother looking at her newborn in amazed delight and love- and playing with him, not just contemplating. Joseph could be looking out worriedly for Herod’s soldiers.

There’s the same movement in Christ and City.

All those people are about their business, but Christ is the still centre.

 

St Albans Cathedral

A cathedral is a hodgepodge of styles, designed to intimidate, perhaps, at best to inspire with awe. At St Albans, the Normans tore down the English cathedral to build their own. Nothing says “We are the masters now” quite like that. And different parts are from different ages: the brick tower, the stone nave, then the newer, faced stone porch, tediously symmetrical. You enter the west door then, unusually, climb stairs to walk down the “longest nave in England”. The important people are at the far end. This is intimidating.

It’s not the highest nave in England, because of the Norman arches in the north aisle. They cannot support the same height. Yet there are Gothic arches in the South aisle. I found that weird, ugly and unsettling when I first saw it. I wonder how the builders felt, when news filtered through to them of the new, fashionable Gothic arch.

The earliest of the mediaeval wall paintings dates from 1215.

All are faded, some almost unrecognisable.

So the curators have set projectors, which can indicate on the site what the original might have looked like. Between restoring with new pigment and covering over the original work, and leaving the faded originals, this is brilliant and beautiful. A touch on a tablet, and she is transformed.

This is “The Leaves of the Trees”, a touring artwork inspired by Covid.


This is the latest art added to the cathedral:

The shrine was broken up, and used as infil when the East end was walled off. When the wall was taken down, it was rediscovered. It has just been restored, with a new canopy. You can see the precise way it was broken, with pillars cracked and repaired in the same place. Here is the reredos.

That’s the best nourished dead Jesus I have seen. His head could be bowed in prayer, rather than death.

Here is the sculpture, which the priest would see, facing this altar:

It is Victorian restoration: the older screen was empty of statues. At the time, crucifixes were illegal in Church of England churches. The Reformers got at the older sculptures:

And here is a Chantry chapel, a bribe to God to get a rich man out of Purgatory early. What is so oppressive as religion enslaved to the interests of the rich.

Norwich cathedral

Norwich Cathedral is filled with Dippy the diPLODocus, and ropes, barriers and closed doors to distance it from the rest, which still has church-like aspects. My train was delayed, so I went to see the cathedral. Everywhere there are signs saying “No entry to Dippy here”. Gawpers are directed to a specific entrance at the south west corner of the cloisters, then through a guide with pictures of dinosaurs and parallels with the climate catastrophe, and finally into the nave. I associate the DIploDOcus (?) with Roman arches, because of the Natural History Museum.

I wanted my picture with it, and the man left out the head.

Initially I had no idea of the illustrious guest, and found a way in through the South door. Why can’t I get into the nave? I want to see the cathedral, not some dinosaur. A volunteer on guard at a closed door into the nave reluctantly let me through, telling me he should not really. The effect is to divide a museum, the nave, from the holy bit, transept and choir, which is normally big enough for any Sunday services. Yes the nave should be a public space for the city and landward areas, but why close off the worship bits? The restrictions inhibited my relaxation into timelessness. I went out into the cloisters, and there was another barrier, aimed at shooing the pilgrims to Dippy’s relics out. Again, the man there allowed me to step over the rope.

This is what a cathedral is for: commemorating important people.

This is a very important person indeed. His crest has a helm, meaning that he went out slaughtering peasants, and a coronet, meaning he told mere barons what to do. I have no idea who he was. I prefer the roof bosses:



The cloisters could be timeless, a place for aware contemplation. See, there is a labyrinth. There are also Dippy-seers, and photographers. I did not quite get in the mood. I feel a bit resentful.

Here are some dark works about refugees:


This one is trans- breasts, but no hips. Jesus was crucified at “the place of the Skull”.

I like this art work, an engraved door with lines from Eliot. It is hard to see the whole thing, but I take it by the handle, and move it back and forth to examine it. In the chapel I find some contemplation.

Ely Cathedral

The lady chapel has a powerful feminine energy, focused by a human Goddess above the altar. I love it.

Elsewhere, though, the chapel shows signs of Reformation: the original pigment on the figures, and the way their heads have been struck off. Beware men with hammers who know the Will of God. They will pick up guns if they can.

These hundred glass feathers, Solace by Layne Rowe, are inspired by the pandemic.

Cathedrals should commission new art. Here is Mary Magdalene recognising the risen Christ:


and here is Christ in Majesty:

In the chantry chapel, endowed by someone for monks to say masses endlessly to get him out of Purgatory quicker- hope he’s not in Hell, chantry-magic does not work for the damned- there are other alcoves without a figure.

This is the Octogon, at the centre of the building, above the altar. The nave is visible.

If I had not photographed it, I would not have seen how enthusiastic these thurifers are. With a long chain, the censer would normally not reach a higher angle than a swing pushed by a careful nanny. With a short chain, held by a priest, it can reach the horizontal, but never this high. Mercy!

The nave ceiling was repainted in the 19th century. Here is Christ in Majesty:

Here is a far more conventional Mary, left holding the baby:

I don’t like tombs in cathedrals. Christianity should not be about death and the dead- we are not ancient Egyptians- but I have a soft spot for this reclining bishop. He looks comfy:

This is the West porch. All its alcoves are empty. I wonder if they always were. See also where part of the building has fallen or been demolished, taking away symmetry, and how even the doors dwarf that tiny human, and my bicycle:

The arches both sides of the nave show their age:

The face of this chap on the floor looks Mediaeval in style, but I don’t think he would be that well-preserved if so:

Beauty and Cruelty

In the 1550s, Titian painted seven great paintings for Philip II of Spain. Philip, who drove the Netherlands to revolt and succession by imposing the Spanish Inquisition on them, who channelled the wealth of the New World into building the Escorial palace and pointless wars, who burned thirty-one Protestants in the main square of Valladolid in 1559, displayed paintings in which Gods exercised their power without remorse or pity over helpless humans, in pictures where the viewer is invited to take pleasure and amusement in the victims’ pain. The paintings show the skill of one of the greatest artists, and are beautiful.

Jupiter descends to impregnate Danae, in a shower of gold.

Jupiter, in the form of a bull, carries off Europa. A putti mocks her, mimicking her movement.

Actaeon, hunting in the woods, comes upon Diana and sees her nakedness.

Diana hunts him down with his own dogs, which rip him apart. This painting was never delivered and is not always included in the set.

Diana punishes Callisto, for her pregnancy to Jupiter.

Adonis, the hunter, pulls away from Venus, who loves him.

Andromeda, chained to be eaten by a sea monster, sees Perseus coming to her rescue.

All show naked women. In three, the woman exercises power, and in four she is its victim.

My blog is now ten years old.

The Orrery

Joseph Wright of Derby made the drama and magic of science a fit subject for art. The Orrery, showing the motion of the solar system, is named after some lord or other because only one man can stick food between slices of bread for the first time. Just as in An experiment on a bird in an air pump, the scientist here is an entertainer in the red robes of a learned man,

irritated by the note-taker,

who is not writing down that Saturn orbits outside Jupiter, but stealing his material.

I love the children’s wonder.

The two young people are gazing at the planets, not each other.

Jess de Wahls

Jess de Wahls’ patches are no longer stocked by the Royal Academy shop, because of complaints about her transphobia. In 2019 she wrote in a 5000 word transphobic essay that she had no problem with trans women expressing female, but objected to our assertions that we are women or entitled to women’s rights.

She is an artist, born in East Berlin in 1983. Once, she ran a vagina sewing workshop at Tate Modern. In 2019 after her transphobic essay she lost her job dressing hair at the Soho Theatre. An exhibition in Australia was cancelled. And now she has lost some work for the Royal Academy.

On twitter and even The Times, she is incited to sue the Royal Academy for Beliefs discrimination. Well, the RA was not providing her with a service, or employing her: only buying some stuff she made or designed. That is not subject to the Equality Act. The Times should employ fact checkers. On twitter, random people who have never willingly entered an art gallery are incited to complain to the RA. So then it becomes a poll: are there more transphobe bots to attack the RA than trans allies to support it?

That transphobic essay is no longer on line. Who knows what was in it. It could have been as vile as JK Rowling’s. Why now? An artist, not of Tracey Emin or even Charlotte Prodger levels of fame but whose art has won her a platform, loses an income stream, and Janice Turner of The Times writes a broadside. It’s the usual propaganda. Transphobe’s virtues include “immense thought”, she’s “funny, outspoken… freethinking and bold”. Trans allies are “merciless”, or envious.

I am trying to think my way into it. I spend little time in art gallery shops, hardly any in the gift section. How would I feel, seeing Jess de Wahls’ patches there, if I knew about her essay? Would it be yet another thing making the world a slightly less tolerant place, increasing my fear?

I hope not. Tate, RA, National Gallery are safe spaces for me, where most people are tourists or nice, middle-class types who like Art or feel they ought to, and are not going to be overtly hostile to a trans stranger. There is less chance of someone shouting out “It’s a fucking bloke” in the Bridgewater Hall than on Princess Street. (Why pick there? Because that experience lives with me twenty years later.)

If I recognised the patches and knew who Jess de Wahl was, at worst they would be a symbol of the pervasive anti-trans hate in the world. A stack of The Times in a newsagent is a far more visceral symbol of that, but The Times, or JK Rowling, cannot be cancelled. I am desensitised to such symbols of transphobia in my world. Were I not, I might not go out at all. Just possibly, that Jess de Wahl patch would be a symbol of transphobia which would be the last straw.

The confected anger at this cancellation is terrifying me. I look at the Guardian Opinion section today, and Kenan Malik is on about culture war again. Free Speech!! He is mostly on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay which is the only thing on her site, which before was a normal author website. I don’t think Chimamanda is transphobic, even though she attacked a nonbinary writer. So on balance I count it a loss to cancel the patches. The hate explosion has affected far more trans people than the patches would have. Malik again frames this as “trans activists” rather than ordinary trans people against “feminists” rather than transphobes. As Janice Turner says, it could be envious embroiderers who want their work in the RA gallery shop instead.

I also agree with Janice Turner (though she claims she got this from Adichie) that calling out transphobia on twitter is an outlet for base feelings such as “amorphous rage”. The closest Adichie gets to this thought is “the delusion that malice and opportunism is principled feminism”. Of course, transphobia is also an outlet for rage- punching down at a safe target, rather than responding to your real oppressors. I hate twitter wars so much I almost hate the rage and self-righteousness of trans people and allies as much as that of the transphobes.

Completely abandoning fact for propaganda, The Times reported that a transphobe had “called for” the EHRC to “launch an inquiry” into the RA. It did not bother to check whether Equality legislation applies to a shop stocking goods. The hate raced through Radio 4 and The Telegraph.

23 June. Coming back to this, I can’t see a clear ethical position I can commit to. One part of me says, Rupert Murdoch must not be able to prevent action for trans rights. That The Times will hate every action to support trans people, and create a controversy, which the BBC will take up, is not a reason for not supporting trans people. Then, is it supporting trans people to discontinue that product line? What should de Wahls’ essay be compared to- an essay supporting white supremacy fits. Like a white supremacist, she is saying that other people are less important than her and people her readers should care about, and a danger to vulnerable people.

Excluding her embroidered patches from the shop is equivalent to complete ostracism. Would you have nothing whatever to do with a white supremacist?

Should a white supremacist working in, say, the production of embroidered patches, have them discontinued, judged on the morals of the producer rather than the quality of the product? Should the producer lose income because of their vile opinions? The RA have shown Caravaggio’s work- but Caravaggio will never kill another man again, whatever the RA do.

People campaign, march and demonstrate for white supremacy. Should our disapproval of such campaigns only run to arguing when they state their views? Or, worse, only when they assault a minority ethnic person? What is worse, trying to bar one trans woman from one changing room, or trying to ban us all, for ever? Does the effectiveness of the attempt make a difference?

And yet- I was cooking yesterday, with the radio on, and suddenly there’s Jess de Wahls interviewed by a friendly interviewer. If there had not been objection to her patches, almost no-one would have heard of her. Her transphobic essay had been taken down.

11.30am: The Royal Academy has apologised to de Wahls, and is in talks on stocking her patches. Yesterday the Times reported on the “fear” she suffered after the discontinuance- my fear delights them, and there will be no reports on that. Google “Royal Academy” and the first thing you see is their site. The next is “Top Stories”, all about de Wahls as victim, martyr, persecuted by trans activists.

Here is the RA press release. It refers to free speech and free thinking. Yes, art has to be about free expression. What about antisemitic art and speech? What would it think of that? De Wahl’s long blog post is back online. It attempts to create fear, anger and derision at trans people.

The Wedding at Cana

Jesus turned water into wine. The monks of the San Giorgio Monastery commissioned a painting of the event, eleven yards wide, to hang in their refectory. Napoleon stole it, and it hangs in the Louvre.

Here the miracle is demonstrated. The gentleman is painted lifesize.

They are a lively lot, but I am not at all clear what they are doing.

I doubt such Corinthian columns were in style in Galilee.

I think this is the happy couple. As Jesus is at the centre, they are shunted to the side.

People ignore or distract the musicians. They are not valued as they should be, and not by Veronese, either: a bow could not play that lute.

It hangs opposite the Mona Lisa, so most people pay it no attention.

Real and conventional feelings

How does it feel, to be real?

I am scrolling facebook, feeling the things one feels scrolling facebook. At a joke I feel happy. At something moving, I feel moved. At something political, I feel the feeling appropriate for my tribe- anger or hope, derision or inspiration. Other tribes feel the same feelings at different stimuli. These are simple feelings I share with many people. It is easy to know the right feeling, and to feel good at feeling it. So facebook is a warm comfort-blanket, insulating me from reality. I could be plugged into the Matrix.

There is something I promised to do. Scrolling, I am only dimly aware of it. I will do that later, and that makes me feel mostly OK about not doing it though later never comes. The conventional feelings get in the way.

I close my computer. How do I feel about what I promised to do? I do not want to do it. I feel fear. I sit with that and discern underneath that is a feeling of hopelessness: I find myself creating arguments why doing it is counter-productive, and though I promised I would be forgiven for not doing it. And also self-loathing, at perceived uselessness, which is exacerbated by scrolling facebook. I am writing this today because I did what I promised, just in time. Yesterday I did not, because I got into arguing with a transphobe on facebook.

Doing it, I have fantastic things going through my mind and realise they are symbols or indicators of anger. The anger, now, is at something particular, and energy for the task I am completing. It is so good when that happens. I take care to complete the task: this requires love. Doing it at another time, I gave myself encouraging pep-talks. Do you still feel the fear? Yes. It’s not enough to stop you doing it, though. There is the feeling being and something else giving the pep-talks.

This is human. When I find myself bullying myself, that is probably a bad thing, but an inner dialogue, from two different points of view, can be advantageous: just as a group of people will make a better decision than individuals, so an individual may make a better decision having worked through different ways of thinking about a problem.

The only motivation is desire. If the desire is merely to survive, it wears us out. I need desire in my life that is more inspiring.

A Tory party leaflet, before the local elections. Vote Conservative because of the vaccine, it says! Ha! We have vaccine success because of public enterprise, with only a tiny input from business required by Tory ideology, because that particular public enterprise has not been Toried yet. Bribe-taking, body-piling, trans-hating, racist, lying Tories!

Looking for the art-work for this post, I had an experience I have not had since the last time I went to the National Gallery, over a year ago. With this Vermeer on my screen, I was overwhelmed with delight at the beauty of the pure colours, and their relationship to each other- that blue of the table-cloth, and the yellow of the sleeve, as an abstract composition before I spend time on the skin, and then the facial expression. It is ravishing. I get that experience with real art in galleries, and rarely with copies on screens. If you don’t get that with this picture, I hope you have it, somewhere in your life.