Reading: Iain M. Banks — Matter (3rd time)

Still playing catch-up with my recent re-reading of a selection of Iain with-or-without-an-M. Banks. I read Matter after Surface Detail and before The Hydrogen Sonata, all of which I’ve re-read the same number of times — going with three, but it might be four.

These three, along with The Algebraist (which I haven’t yet re-read in this bout), form a quartet I think of as Banks’ third period. As I blabbed on about on Surface Detail, these periods aren’t really definitive, some works slide between periods, and some firmly in one period’s timeframe properly belong in another. Nonetheless, the last three, if only for similarity in size, cover art, and page number, I think of as a set. Of the three, it’s my least favourite — which for me when talking about Banks is like saying some great work of art by a great master is not as good as other, still greater works by the same master, all of which sit firmly, high in the rafters above the vast mass of other writers, whose greatest works merely aspire to tickle the dangling toes of said inferior great works. I’m doing some hyperbole there. If I had to choose between say, Alastair Reynolds’ Revenger or Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice and Matter, I wouldn’t even think before grabbing the former. But for sure I measure what I read by a Banksian standard, I look for things I need in a writer, how they think of the world, of people, of women and gender and identity; how they represent.

And Banks, as I’ve said before, goes in and out of this measure himself. His mainstream, non-genre novels, largely populated by white, hetero guys, for all the skill he brings as a storyteller, and for all I enjoy them, don’t really thrill me like the rest of his imagination does. Matter tends more towards that side than that thrill of recognition I find in works like Whit or Feersum Endjinn. Not that I don’t enjoy it, just I’d enjoy it a whole lot more if there were less of the mediocre male characters in it. I think one of the metanarratives of the novel (and I’m using the term in a pretty slippery Lyotard sense, and a more general sense — ’cos I’ve forgotten a more apt word — of the structural narratives in a novel) is the ease with which heteronormative guys move through the world with minimal effort and maximum reward, contrasting that with the main protagonist’s sister, who is thrown out by their father, the King, ‘gifted’ to the Culture, and only by leaving is she able to achieve a valid and liveable life.

It occurred to me, as I wrote that last sentence, that perhaps Banks could be seen, in this contrast, as proposing a utopian meritocracy (and I’m way leery about introducing this word at all), that through hard work in a society without prejudice or oppression, one could be their very best, and all those other vapid clichés. But I think Banks makes clear the contingent nature of the idea of meritocracy. Djan Seriy Anaplian is discarded by her father because she is a girl, female, and in Sarl society, fundamentally inferior. He gives her to the Culture as ‘repayment’ precisely because she has no worth, so it costs him nothing to be generous, to grant the Culture’s request, when they ask if she could join them. In working towards her potential — whether great for the Culture to have interest in her in the first place, or simply the Culture spiting the Sarl by taking the latter’s ‘seconds’, it’s demonstrated by her ascension to Special Circumstances — she travels so far from the person she was in Sarl as to be unrecognisable. The sliver of equality she might have fought for on Sarl looks awfully insignificant and meagre next to the spread of the galaxy and civilisations through which she now moves. And while she might still be sister to Prince Ferbin, and descended from the King, in reality she is as alien as the Culture itself.

Obviously I got a kick out of Matter, ’cos I’m sitting here writing half-witted philosophical essays about it when I could be watching Killjoys or Wynonna Earp. It doesn’t stint on the space opera: it’s a Culture novel, that means Minds and Ships and Drones and intrigue and shit blowing up. It’s possibly the most densely populated of his novels, with a number of Involved and Aspirational civilisations of various Levels (WTF, Frances? Go read about Culture civilisations.) all scheming with and against each other. I really need a map for it. And perhaps that the lone survivor of the novel is the Prince’s servant, Holse, who never signed up for all this, and became increasingly, shall we say, Socialist over the course, Matter‘s other metanarrative might be, “Fuck the kings and rulers and all the misery the bring on the rest of us.”

Iain M. Banks — Matter
Iain M. Banks — Matter

Overture. Intermission. Coda.

Overture.

Today the city was overgrown. Gone. Become once again forest.

Today the city is humid, tropical — if such a thing can be said to exist — the rich warm scent of overstuffed life, the rotten oily black stink of canals laden with centuries of effluent.

Today the city is shaking in its bones. Not quite in possession of itself. Rain falls. Endless, steadily, plucking at leaves in the verdant street canopy with such all-encompassingness that it fills the edges of hearing with a peaceful sshhhh… an ocean heard from afar.

Today there is no city. I wake up naked, lying on my back, limbs in somewhat disarray, looking up at the dusty orange-blue heavens. Darkness. The ground is near flat, surfaced with a fine, wind-blown clayish sand-ish humus rime I can feel acting as a dry lubricant when I push-pull my fingertips on the grit. A shiver of cold walks across me, the cold of a slight breeze on exposed skin, cold of the thrill and fear of anticipation, of the inevitable, of my death.

Noisy, dusty, orange-blue. Not smooth. Is it my eyes? Orange-blue night lit from an eruption below. From above, prick points of light, pure, faint, unvarying and unwavering sources. Patterns made clear by washing out their background. Constellations. Not a river of stars at all. The dark above pushes down, bearing its weight into the illumination rearing up from underneath. And I, I float in an emptiness between light and noise and this vault above. I am an island here. The roof of the apartment a shield at my back. The encircling silence folds back the city I hear like a torus around me, outside me. I am the hole in the middle. I am the centre of everything.

The sky above the horizon to the north-east, above and behind my left ear, is smudged as though a giant thumb had pushed and worn the night thinner. The day which barely left is returning. It circles around, dizzying. It is still night though, so enough time for this.

This is the story of my death. It takes place in the instant of falling. It is an acceleration. I remember the story as I write it, in that instant. How long do I have? That is a question, indeed. Not long at all. My fall starts on the flat roof of this apartment block, six stories up. Six high stories, so I have slightly more time than if the architecture was meaner. The ground I wake up on is the rough black tar and shingle, rolled out in sheets and pressed into the form of the roof. It is coated in the talcum of weeks without rain, ceaseless days and light, heat and cavernous vastness of sky and sun. Between me and it, a rough wool blanket. I am unclothed because I sleep the pair of hours of true night here, when the horizon to the north does not glow with dusk, the dry heat is almost bearable, and breathing is not putting face to furnace. I am naked because it doesn’t matter and there is no one to see.

As no one can see me, so can I see no one, no city. Only the endless shifting tones of blue and orange, the endless depth my eyes cannot focus on. If I were to turn my head slightly one side or the other, or slide my eyes over, the city would hove into view as a horizon, a periphery. I stay with infinity a while longer.

My mouth is dry, tongue plated to roof and whether I am terrified of what is to come or just slightly dehydrated, it doesn’t matter. In a minute or so, perhaps longer, I will sit up, pull on thin loose pants I’ve been using as a pillow, the kind you do not wear for public, pull on a thin loose sleeveless top which shows my arms and shoulders in a way never for public, and coming to standing, with the air alive over my skin, I will take a misstep and fall backwards, my headscarf a banner I am waving in one hand. Backwards and down. Into the public. Into the city. Dressed like this.

I am going to die. I should be afraid. But I already know how this ends.

I will tell you a secret: I waited longer. Until the sun was poised to shove itself over the horizon. I was feeling lazy in my death; I wanted these last minutes for myself. And another: I did not misstep. A single misstep for all that distance covered? I think not. I leaned back into that void and made it look convincing, let the world rotate around me. I am a good liar, even in dying, but I did not hide a smile from myself as I fell. It was a good performance.

Intermission.

How long do I have? How long do I need? Let’s continue.

I am still falling. My heel sank into nothing, fingers grasped for an edge. Missed. I felt terror lurch upwards in my belly as swiftly as I tumbled. I looked over my shoulder in my back-flip, to my glass-enclosed balcony, grey metal frames and rectangular panes on the shotcrete bathtub of a box protruding out into the air. I rotate some more and for a second it juts upwards, the vertical surface of the facade becomes a flat plain. Did I hope to see someone, who would see me, change my fate? Could they push me back to safety by force of their gaze, unwilling to accept what they see? What could they do other than witness my velocity? I chose this, and I am harder than the bones of this city, but that does not mean I don’t feel fear when I am in the instant of committing.

While I am passing my balcony, now rotated to the steep angle of a mountain’s flank, and the almost risen sun wobbles bright reflections like water on the uneven glass, I will tell you a little more of what’s going on.

This is a discussion on identity. self, other, authenticity, original. It is also a discussion on morality of identity. It is a story of someone who is — in the vast churn of events — unimportant. When the behemoth of history rolls atop her, she won’t yield; she will be the debris on those large and significant enough to be torn and gouged and routed and erased, to be washed away when the mess is hosed down. She is nothing, Somehow that makes her fortunate, because in this sense she is mostly too unremarkable to be noticed. Though unnoticed, she is dragged along with all the rest in the undertow, and while important and earth-shattering things happen around her and to her, in the final measure, they don’t signify at all.

It’s not a story of a young woman who comes from nowhere and becomes the fulcrum of events; it’s the story of a someone who comes from nowhere and loses her life to things beyond her comprehension, things she had no idea were even in play, for no reason, purpose, or meaning. Sometimes it’s nice to tell such stories though, of the ones who aren’t heroes or prime movers, even if they end up in a weighted sack in the canal or thrown off a roof, because sometimes these stories tell us more about what happened than the history we are left with.

I see the orange and blue dawn break into sunrise as real as if I were looking at it in the reflection of one pane. It hovers there as I do.

One more thing as I continue my descent: When I say, ‘discussion’, I mean war. And just because it’s decided this is a particular type of story, does not mean I will not lean into the punch until I change it, that I will not use this story to unravel and sunder that history entirely. I am the irresistible force and I glory in mayhem.

Coda.

And here am I, still falling. I am not dead yet. Not yet. Close though. Nearly there. If I reach with my toes, I will scrape the ground. It is as if I was jumping. I am the same height as the faces which stare at me, the idea of shock yet to boil across their expressions, almost beginning the thought of getting out of the way, of flinching, of reacting. They’ve seen me. They are too slow.

The sun has not reached here yet, in the canyon of apartments, in the street which is itself a gully or cutting, making space for the dark, oil and rust girders of rail bridges that suture its length. Even in this rainless summer water leaks from joints and cracks in the sidings, it is a city built on water and marsh after all. I would feel colder if there was time, and I do feel the first register of the transition to shade, as much as I have the capacity to attend to any sensation now. I see the light change, and hear the city. These things I don’t need to interpret. They are as present and real as it is possible to be here.

If this was a photograph there would be a cluster walking eastwards, part of a family facing the viewer like a portrait, staggered heights and varied dress, shop windows curtained in the morning on the left, and there’s the entrance door to my apartment, countersunk into the façade. Tram tracks inscribe the centre of the road on the right, mirroring their overhead lines, opening out to the empty ghost of the shunting yards those bridges run to. In the background, more of those rail bridges, and the road dips to pass under. You might notice the uneven rectangles of concrete slabbing making up part of the footpath, edges, corners, and fractures worn smooth, or the grey cobbles, each the size of a child’s fist, each struck into the sand by a hand wielding a metal hammer, the clinks filling the city like birdsong in summer. You might, because it looks like I am springing upwards. Why would I be leaping in front of them? Am I impromptu performing for them? You can’t see what they see because my back’s to you. Are their emerging expressions shock at my state of dress? Laughter at my physical joy? Confusion at who shows arms or shoulders, or hair loose in the morning? I can draw this moment out for as long as I need, but I am done.

I look at that quartet. They are a poisonous family, helmet to boot in matt black, not walking this street in the early morning, but blocking the entrance to the stairs leading to my apartment and the larger, double doors to the courtyard. If I could look around corners into the side-streets, I’d see more at other entrances, sealing up my egress. I am no small prize. I look at each of them in turn as I hover in this instant, remembering their faces and distinguishing characteristics. They are un-numbered, of course, and all look so very alike, yet each has unique marks, the kind crows love to pick over and horde.

I flick between states, looking forward, and looking up. A saccade of head and eyes. There’s a trio of torsos in silhouette peering over from where I just departed. I do the same to them, peering back, picking over their details and storing them for later.

When I said I was being lazy, wanting those last minutes ending dawn to myself, there’s a little more to it than that. I was waiting for them; and I was making them wait. I was waiting for the city also. I wanted the slow unravelling of night, to feel each instant shifting the temperature, brightening, the city coming awake. I won’t visit this exact version of the city again, and even though I am here only for work, I have grown attached to this home. My body thrived here. It drinks the warmth and dryness of the day, persevering through the heart of the inferno, I can feel it opening up and becoming itself in ways the cold climate I come from closes down. I can feel the heat and light change my thinking, change who I am. The pulse of the seasons, more than four and the movement between each, is a different time and life than the abrupt quarters of the north I am used to. So I want this last morning for myself. It is an agreement I make, with myself, for the work I do: some moments are for me alone.

Those three, peering down. I heard them trampling the stairs, six boots in complex rhythm. This is also why I slept on the roof, so I could feel and hear them coming, so I could choose my line of escape. After the clattering reaches my apartment, I heard them pause, then more carefully, apprehensively, take on the last, steep and narrow flight to the wooden door leading to me, the vertical on a right-angle triangle protruding out of the roof.

This is where I sit up, unpillow my pants and slide a leg into each, walking my hips in, pull on my singlet, fold my legs under and push to standing. The first of them is turning on the tight, half-way landing, and looking up the last run of steps to see light through the ill-fitting door. I wait a while more, letting my blood equalise, seeing the city as it is, poised on the cusp of daybreak, still pouring a torrent of light upwards from itself, streetlights, windows of early-risers and the up-all-night, running lights of trams and trains, spiked with bursts of lightning as their rails jump on the overhead lines, factories and industry that never pauses, gouting illumination and torches from their flare stacks, patches of darkness in parks and empty land. If I was higher I could see this streak of lightlessness and the bifurcation of gas light and electric marking the city’s partition.

My last morsel of waiting. I hear them cluster on the upper landing, see the first breath of the door moving, and I cover the distance from centre to periphery in a blink. I have my scarf in my hand, and as they push open the door fully, they will see its trail flutter down past the edge, prey leading the predators. They will see my wool blanket, hear the snapping departure of my scarf, and run to the brink, to see me looking back at them as I touch down. I know who they are now, in this world. I will pass that on, and see it used against them wherever else we find them, used to expand the trawling. What they will say now, here, is the story I prepared for them: “She ran and slipped. We lost her. Nothing is recoverable,” and the city will slam shut.

Time enough for one more thing.

Where did I write my story in this moment of falling? Here. It is inscribed on me. In me. I am cut and pared and flayed with my life. Lives. Open me up and look inside, more again. I am rearranged. By the time I hit the ground I will already be gone. I have written myself out. I am long already barely here. Another ghost. I have given my body because it is all I am, all I have. Will I live? This me in this city? No. I am still fighting against that arriving truth even as I embrace it. Will I be known, in my entirety? Even the microbes in my gut, the ecosystem like a halo around me? All this, yes. When I land it is not me who will end, who will shatter, but the city. This is war and I am a weapon. I destroy worlds.

I see the sky for the last time, orange and blue. A fluttering of lips and breath, quick as I can, words faster than falling, my exit. My toes compress and stub into the flecked grey granite cobbles, and the city’s gone.


A short explanation: I’ve been working on a novel, on and off, for more than a couple of years now. It’s a science-fiction novel, also bound to the cities I’ve lived in: Berlin, and Guangzhou in particular. I don’t have one of those pithy, one-sentence lines of what it’s about; I’m not sure even a paragraph would suffice, so I’ll stick with saying it deals with history, and identity, and how these are created. As it’s sci-fi, naturally it takes place on a different planet around a different star, sometime in the near-ish future, and tries to imagine an archaeology of the world I’ve lived through and studied.

These three sections I originally thought split the novel as overture, intermission, and coda, though it’s possible there could be more, or less, or it all gets rolled into one. The person on the roof I have very clear ideas of how they look and live, and anyone who knows me moderately well, or visits here enough to know my positions on things, can take as given aspects of this person without me explicitly saying here. I get explicit in the story — for me at least.

A couple of other things: She really does write out herself on herself, it’s not a metaphor or some such, think of it as a sub-atomic encryption and compression of data onto whatever strata is closest to hand, which happens to be herself. She doesn’t kill herself, it’s not suicide — though I’m aware it read like that, particularly before I rewrote and lengthened the coda — the best way I can describe it for now is an elaborate deception by someone who is playing multiple levels of subterfuge. There’s more than one of her, way more than one. The city really does change entirely from day to day (or on its own inscrutible timetable), and I lose track with how many versions of the city are extant.

Reading: Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata (3rd time)

The currently last of my recent partial re-reading of Iain M. Banks’ novels (also Iain without the M.’s novels). No one imagined this would be his last Culture novel. As far as Culture novels to go out on, it’s the right one. I imagine if Banks had known his impending demise was a year or more away, he might have written a banging Culture space opera monster of the Excession kind, which may or may not have been as satisfying or poignant as The Hydrogen Sonata, my Book of the Year in 2013. Indeed it might be exactly that bonkers space opera, having all the requisite elements of ship Minds, interstellar intrigue spanning 10 000 years, improbable bits of planets (both Ablate and the Gzilt homeworld, Zyse), and that great Banksian thing, Subliming. Plus four-armed musician, Vyr Cossont. (Four arms in order to play the work of the title on the Undecagonstring or elevenstring.) Proper sci-fi space opera this, and absolutely one of Banks’ best.

Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata
Iain M. Banks — The Hydrogen Sonata

Reading: Iain M. Banks — Surface Detail (3rd time)

One of the number in my partial re-reading of Iain Banks’ (with or without the M.) novels. I read Surface Detail after Whit, when I was trying to find a good follow-on to that quiet, delightful work of beauty. I tried a couple of pages of The Algebraist, but it didn’t quite fit: I needed to stay with his novels where women are at the front.

Surface Detail is one of his later novels, what I think of as his third period, starting with The Algebraist — though as with all attempts at Banksian division, some of his third-period novels aren’t so dissimilar from his second (The Steep Approach to Garbadale, and Stonemouth, belonging more with The Crow Road), but whatever, when I was reading those last four M. novels — Culture novels the lot of time — I thought they formed part of a recognisable evolution and period in his story-telling.

This is one of his heavily, obviously political works, dealing with slavery, racism, rape, and is something of a deeply satisfying revenge fantasy. What happens when a brown woman returns to exact retribution on her enslaver? It’s also another story, like Whit, where Banks deals with religion, selfhood, identity in computational afterlife Hells. What happens when we shut down Hell?

I’m not going to write a 2000-word essay here like I did on Whit or Feersum Endjinn, but maybe to mention one theme I find carried through all his novels, that of the idea of the benign intervention. This is an idea deeply rooted in European colonialism and racism — even within the ethics underpinning the EU and Human Rights, and it’s one Banks chewed over his entire life. When is it permissible to intervene? Should intervention happen at all, or should we just adopt a neutral observer perspective? And this for him is both an abstract thought experiment for an “in play” interstellar civilisation, which can lay at least partial claim to prior neutrality (having no previous involvement in a newly contacted civilisation), as well as for the reality he watched in his lifetime: the invasions of Iraq, the Yugoslav Wars, the effects of colonialism both in former colonies and in the UK.

I don’t have an answer for any of these questions this thought experiment invokes, I’m not sure it’s even possible for us on Earth, with the last 500 years of colonialism and genocide to argue for anything other than a rigorously enforced “stay the fuck out” policy — and yet the very nature of the current “in play” actors means that unless “stay the fuck out” is unequivocally respected by all, it only serves to let a different colonialism in. So I’m left with a novel that manages to adroitly simplify this enough to give a vicarious thrill of revenge, restitution, and a (mostly) happy ending. I wonder if that’s also where Banks ended up, that there are no simple, easy, obvious solutions that don’t ultimately collapse into authoritarianism, and we can only have small victories in isolated instances which nonetheless matter greatly to the people involved.

Iain M. Banks — Surface Detail
Iain M. Banks — Surface Detail

The National Gallery

All the art I saw in The National Gallery.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 0, Gallery A

Level 0 is in the basement of The National Gallery. Or feels like it after the airy heights of Level 2 and the Sainsbury Wing. It contains a cruciform quintet of rooms, with a couple more off one side I blasted through. This was “Running out of time!” territory and “Really need to get to airport, Frances.” Gallery A, though, how could I not?

Honoré-Victorin Daumier’s Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was before all that, but appears at the end here, as chronologically it makes more sense, and was in one of those other small rooms. It’s a bit of an orphan. I would gladly steal it and have it break me into a smile every morning.

So much good art here! Gallery A is a rotating exhibition of the Gallery’s collection, and spans much of the last seven hundred years. On its own it could be a small town museum, like Musée des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes with its walls of Rubens. And there’s a Rubens here: A Roman Triumph, which is frankly bonkers, more or less in keeping with him. A lot of mediæval and Renaissance Italian art, the dominant region for these periods in the gallery. It speaks of how vast and strong the collection is that some of these are only worthy of being in Gallery A and not upstairs.

Amidst all the mediæval art, Agnolo Gaddi’s The Coronation of the Virgin caught me for the delicate colour that needs to be seen up close, as does Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints, almost sculptural in its flatness, like a bas relief. Yes, Rubens, elephants and a huge, thronging crowd of musicians, dancers, animals probably going to be slaughtered, fire, smoke, noise, they’re all well amped for a party, definitely one of my favourites of his.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition though each such different works in style and technique. It’s the grotesque, visceral movement in both, frozen and posed, like a scene in a film. And I felt like I’d already written this exact sentence before realising there is an almost identical one by him in the Level 2, 1700–1930 collection, from a slightly different angle, like two moments in time by photographers standing side by side.

I was by then running late for the airport and now have been writing all day, so in both instances this where I stop. Abruptly.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1700-1930

The last of The National Gallery‘s Level 2 collections, starting with Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Self Portrait in a Straw Hat. I took far too many photos and edited far too many and trying to write about the art at a commensurate level of ill-discipline is — probably for the best — not happening, so I’m just making quick notes on some I liked. This one because it’s a woman artist, and museums do such a weak job of representing us on either side of the canvas, particularly once we get to the 1700s, plus she was talented as her self-portrait evinces, and looks like fun.

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo’s The Lamentation at the Foot of the Cross reminds me of Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition, also brutal and moves the setting back to the Middle East. His father, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, has The Banquet of Cleopatra nearby. As with many of the Italian artists doing large works, it owes a heavy debt to Veronese, including having a little person in the scene.

William Hogarth’s Marriage A-la-Mode: 4. The Toilette is kinda grotesque and mainly I included it for that, and not in a praiseworthy way.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Canaletto as he’s better known, makes a solid appearance. I first saw him in the Gemäldegalerie and sometimes I feel a little ashamed for liking him so much, but I like Fast & Furious, so what do I know? There’s several of his, Venice: The Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo, The Feast Day of Saint Roch, and Campo S. Vidal and Santa Maria della Carità (‘The Stonemason’s Yard’) with a woman working stone in the sun. Following him is Pietro Longhi, who I thought was Canaletto at first — same time and place. Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice for the strange masks, and the Rhino.

The National Gallery has all these works online, and Wikipedia has most of the artists, so I’ve been repeatedly wondering why I committed to so many photos and words. I think it’s because this is my experience of a museum or gallery I visit, and blogging serves as a kind of external memory. As well, in editing the photos I spend a long time looking at them all, revisiting my trip, looking at details, reading about the artists. So what was a short afternoon in the Gallery while heading airport-wards becomes days of looking at art as I do the editing and writing. This is for me what visiting a museum or gallery is, what being an audience in these places is, how I experience art. Perhaps too, long periods of unemployment combined with a tendency to get very involved in a task lead me to currently enjoy visual art like this. To be clear: it’s work. It’s not always fun, sometimes it’s to be endured, or I get through by persevering. I don’t know ‘what it’s for’ except for itself.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1600-1700

Pushing on through the centuries in The National Gallery. I’d been blasting through, sated on mediæval stuff and just wanting to not leave without walking through every room, even if nothing moved me. We’re getting into Baroque here, and to be clear, my interest in European art diminishes from here on, really until the Expressionists and Post-Impressionists. It becomes wallpaper of rich white men who were doing all the colonialism and other barbarity; women dwindle and largely vanish, and the diversity of previous eras is replaced by a monotony of aggrandisement.

But there’s still a few pearls here, like Juan de Valdés’ The Immaculate Conception of the Virgin, with Two Donors, which — as with so many of my photos — fails to capture the depth and beauty, but just pretend the photo is as striking and profound as it actually is.

Later there is Mattia Preti’s The Marriage at Cana, a homage to Paolo Veronese’ Les Noces de Cana in the Louvre. It’s compositionally very different, and the use of light, contrast, and depth is closer to El Greco, than Veronese, as well as the naturalism. But what struck me is the figure pouring the wine, a black youth or maybe a little person. His face almost in profile and with the exception of the outline of his ear is a solid dark brown, there’s almost no variation in colour or tone. Nearby is Luca Giordano’s A Homage to Velázquez, with a similar figure in the bottom-left corner, not quite as singularly painted as Preti’s but pretty close, with again his ear highlighted, and faintly the contours of his face.

Lastly, Carlo Dolci’s The Adoration of the Kings. I think I traipse around Europe just looking at these. I love his white turban and the floral embroidery; he’s particularly finely dressed is our Balthazar here.

I’m writing these posts only slightly slower than I saw all the art, so next stop is the 1700–1930 bunch.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1500-1600

These were the last images I edited from The National Gallery, large works by Paolo Veronese, El Greco, Jan Gossaert and others.

The same room in the Louvre that houses the Mona Lisa also contains that colossal, 10 metre wide by 6 high Les Noces de Cana by Paolo Veronese, as well as the smaller but equally superb Esther et Assuérus. The National Gallery has his The Adoration of the Kings (which required a lot of editing to deal with light glare in the top, right corner), The Consecration of Saint Nicholas, and The Family of Darius before Alexander. And I reckon there’s a lot of the same people in all of them. I think the person with dwarfism on the far left with the toy dogs might be the same person as in the Louvre works, or Veronese had a habit of including little people in many of his works I’ve seen.

Jacopo Tintoretto’s Christ washing the Feet of the Disciples is another work that suffered from glare, which I mangled until it looked passable, but the photo doesn’t convey the sublime light, which comes from both the left-front, and softly from behind, giving them all a golden halo. Sometimes it’s just the lighting in a painting that really moves me. Bronzino’s An Allegory with Venus and Cupid is quite the opposite, so stylised, posed, and far from the more photographic naturalism of Tintoretto. And same for whoever did Leda and the Swan, which is both grotesque and dreamlike, and gets an inclusion because of Orphan Black.

El Greco. My first outing with him was in the Gemäldegalerie’s El Siglo de Oro, and I would have spent the whole day just sprawling in his brilliance. Here there’s his The Adoration of the Name of Jesus and Christ driving the Traders from the Temple and pretty much I could have spent the afternoon with him (again a lot of work to compensate for glare, especially on the latter work). Beside him is Bartholomaeus Spranger’s glorious The Adoration of the Kings and it’s worth mentioning these two plus the Titian, Diana and Actaeon are not haphazardly thrown together. Spranger and El Greco knew each other in Rome, both were protégés of Giulio Clovio, and were influenced by Titian. So despite the significantly different paths they took, there’s a similarity. The use of light and the oval face of Mary, the colour and draping in the robes, there’s a lot of El Greco in Spranger.

Later there’s Quinten Massys, firstly with The Virgin and Child with Saints Catherine and Barbara, another work on cloth, and yes, I still love the soft, muted colours and delicate contrast. Beside that is his famous An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’), about which and whom so much has been said, and — as is frankly predictable for art historians — so much is shameful. So here’s what I’m seeing. The current position is she was suffering from Paget’s disease, rather than being a particularly nasty caricature of an old woman who didn’t know when to put away being a young maiden. I’ll go further and say she knew exactly what she was doing, wearing unfashionable clothes, holding the flower to signify she was available to a suitor.

Often when I read museums describing their own work, or art historians debating, there is an absence of the idea a subject has self-awareness, that they could be — with the artist — laughing not at themselves, but at those who see them as merely a constellation of disease and infirmities, as less than ideal, lacking in beauty, ugly, to be mocked. Like the Portrait of the Bearded Helena Antonia in Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu, or the little people in Veronese’ paintings. Yes, there was an element of the exotic at play, as with representations of Saint Mauritius, or Balthazar in The Adoration of the Magi, yet there’s something more, just as with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, where there’s a queer femininity that is unmistakable, one which he lived amidst. It does both the sitter and the artist a disservice to hold fast to the mean idea the latter was only there to mock the former and the former was too stupid or vain to realise. It feeds the pernicious trope that we who are not good and normal enough are not deserving of love and desire.

Here’s another version of the painting: There was no mockery or laughing at, either of her or others. She was desirable and desired, and had many lovers despite her age, and her dress and accoutrements signify this unambiguously — they were fashion in her youth and here denote her place and standing and history.

And speaking of Magi, two magnificent piece by Jan Gossaert (and Circle of ~) finish this century. And my photos don’t do them many favours. But feast your eyes on them anyway, particularly the last one, so opulent and grand. For me, this is the high point in European art until the Expressionists rolled in.

Gallery

The National Gallery — Level 2, 1200-1500: Sainsbury Wing, Northern Europe

For a city about as far from the Mediterranean as it’s possible to be and still be in Europe, not as much Northern European mediæval art here as Italian. I’m still surprised at this in The National Gallery. And as with all the Italian art in my previous post, I’m just mentioning a few things that attracted me to the works I both photographed and later liked enough to edit and post here.

The Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden: I’m consistently a fan of him. If I ever want to argue for the importance of Northern European mediæval art with someone for whom all art begins and ends in Italy, I just need to mention his name. The Exhumation of Saint Hubert is from the same period as much of the Italian works, mid-1400s, yet could never be confused with art from south of the Alps, as with Portrait of a Lady. Maybe it’s the muted colours and absence of swathes of gold, as well as the different arrangements of figures, use of depth, and structuring of scenes. The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints, probably by Michael Pacher is another that has this distinct northern style, along with Master of Cappenberg’s (Jan Baegert?) The Coronation of the Virgin, where it’s the rich tapestry in the fabric and the almost flat, formal, symmetrical composition.

The Master of the Saint Bartholomew’s The Deposition is strangely three-dimensional and animated. It was the two bringing Jesus down off the cross that first drew me in, but the odd proportions of all their bodies, the slightly large heads that seem vaguely detached from their necks, and how you go through the scene to this empty space behind the cross and before the gold screens, yet the foreground is definitely ground, cracked and broken, so in no way a staging — all these contradictions. And in closeup, all their fingers are like spider’s legs and they’re all posed, as if shortly after they’ll break and have a drink and bite to eat before resuming the tableau. The Master is also responsible for The Virgin and Child with Musical Angels with its own unique set of weirdnesses. Lastly is Dirk Bouts’ The Entombment, one of those soft, muted pieces I love so much, on linen, and like fresco a distinctive, fragile technique. It’s sparse and austere, like lightless northern winters.

From here, jumping forward to the Renaissance for the hundred years from 1500 to 1600.