Wednesday, August 16, 2017

316. The 2017 Alphabet: M

M is for Muse.

Muse of my native land! loftiest Muse!
O first-born on the mountains! By the hues
Of heaven on the spiritual air begot:
Long didst thou sit alone in northern grot

Initial 'M' designed by Charles Ricketts
Letters have distinct horizontal and vertical features that we can recognize easily. Bars and stems, ascenders and descenders can be identified quickly. 

The initial 'M' was designed by Charles Ricketts (see illustration above), and used only once, in 1898, in the first volume of the Vale Press edition of the poems of John Keats. 

The initial was listed, erroneously, as a 'W', by Maureen Watry in her book about the Vale Press. Mysteriously, an annotation stated that this initial 'W7' occurred as a letter 'M'.

Obviously, it was used as an 'M', because it was designed as an 'M' in the first place.

We can compare the 'M' to a 'W' initial that can be found in the second volume of Keats's poems.

Initial 'W' designed by Charles Ricketts
If we compare the shoulders of the 'M' and 'W', we see that the 'M' doesn't have the pointed shoulders that most of Ricketts's 'W' initials have. They have been topped with a stem, as is the custom.

Initials 'M' and 'W' (details), designed by Charles Ricketts
There was no mistake on Ricketts's part.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

315. A Suffragette Attaque on Painting: Mary Richardson versus Diego Vélazquez

The discussion about the destruction of individual art works raises questions that are never easy to answer. Some works of art are victims of terrorist acts, disappear during wartime bombardments, are attacked by confused people, or by the artist in person, for whatever reason.

On 10 March 1914, suffragette Mary Richardson (1882/3-1961), planted a knife in a painting by the Spanish artist Diego Vélazques (1599-1660). It wasn't personal, it was an intensely motivated political act of violence, while suffragette protests were becoming increasingly frustrated by a failure to achieve equal rights for women. 

Vélazques' painting was known as 'The Toilet of Venus', 'Venus at her Mirror', 'Venus and Cupid', or the 'Rockeby Venus'. Painted between 1647 and 1651, it was considered a treasure  by the National Gallery in London where the attack took place, more than 250 years after its conception.

Diego Vélazquez, 'The Toilet of Venus' (National Gallery, London)
There may have been many reasons for the attack on this particular painting that is considered to be one of the first female nudes in art history, depicting a woman from behind, showing her as an object of lust. The god Amor holds up a mirror reflecting her face.

Later, Mary Richardson was asked for her motives, and she said:

I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.

A recent radio show broadcast (a rebroadcast in the Netherlands of a Belgian program) discussed the destruction, and the restoration, of the painting.

Should the original painting be restored, or should a damaged painting be kept as is, to show its history, damage included, to bear witness of its changing place in society, and its transient political meaning? Or should the destructive act be ignored, and the painting be allowed its blissful, brilliant original state.

Is a painting like a stone, or is it part of an ongoing debate?

Diego Vélazquez, 'The Toilet of Venus' (National Gallery, London, 1914)
What about Charles Ricketts's stand on this subject? I suppose we can guess that he was against the attack, for art's sake. His diaries are clear on this. 

He doesn't use the name of Mary Richardson, and calls her 'a' suffragette.

News of injury to Rokeby "Venus" by a Suffragette. I do not think we realize yet the new element of danger, which is daily increasing, owing to the spread of education, which leads too often to an exaggerated sense of the importance of the ego. Sabotage, suffragette outrages, all spring from deception following on emancipation. Old Matthew Arnold's question, "Freedom for What?" is the burning question which smoulders under all effort at improvement or change.

He was convinced of 'the imbecility of the act' which he saw as 'a dim stupid wish for retribution', and he didn't support the idea of art being held hostage by revolutionaries.

A work of art was to be seen as something much more elevated than any other element of daily life. Art was Ricketts's religion. To touch a painting was to touch the face of a God.

Still, when his friend Shannon needed nursing, he sold important, treasured paintings to pay the bills.

In Ricketts's time, it was found that the destruction should be undone, and the surface of the painting should be restored, and never again show the traces of the knife.

In August 1914, Ricketts noted that the painting was 'very well restored', and that it was 'looking exceedingly well under a new coat of varnish'.

A coat that was meant to keep its recent history hidden, and that mimicked the original skin of the painting. Nowadays, a restoration would also show where repairs had been necessary.

And the label would mention, apart from the artist's name, the name of the painting's enemy.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

314. The 2017 Alphabet: L

L is for All.

All bought from Pertinax?

Charles Ricketts, initials in Michael Field, The World at Auction (1898) 
In 1898 the Vale Press published a new play by Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913), writers collaborating under the name of 'Michael Field'. For this book, The World at Auction, Michael Field wanted to have an image of Pylades on the title page:

Let your title-page be as it is, but opposite to it there must be Pylades. His is the one figure that appears in each play of the Trilogy. So – if you would have us kind to those vengeful doves – by all that is slim & fleet & long & supple, dream that dream of Fortune & the dancer, just as you saw it, dream it into lines, into existence.(*)

Ricketts didn't deliver that image. He opted for masks, Fortuna, and an illustrated initial 'A' that depicted three mythological half human-half goats. Two of these fauns are enjoying the grapes, one has fallen asleep.

The play was the first of their so-called Roman trilogy to be published. According to the historical chronology it would turn out to be the second episode about the decadence of Rome that the Fields likened to the London of their own times.

Ana Parejo Vadillo, who published several essays about these plays (**), remarked that the central question in The World at Auction 'is what happens to art when consumption replaces all forms of social relations and interactions. Or, to put it another way, what happens to beauty in a culture where everything, including the metropolis, is for sale.' The storyline serves two narratives: one focusses on society, the sale of the late emperor's possessions, including the Praetorian Guard that had assassinated him. A certain Pertinax - mentioned in line one - tries to find buyers for this auction. Implied is that the whole state, Rome, is for sale. The second narrative is about art and love. The new owner of the Guard is the merchant Didius Julianus, whose daughter Clara buys the love of Pyladus, a court dancer and pantomime. In the end she wants to control all his movements, forbidding him to play in public, and intending to reproduce 'his dancing figure in marble, motionless statues', as Vadillo states. He refuses. 

The opening page that Ricketts designed for the play is full of classical references. The initial 'A' with the three fauns alludes to Dionysos, and thus to the figure of the Dionysiac artist Pyladus. The longitudinal sections to the left and right contain images of pomegranates, garlands, pylons, an incense burner, a horn of plenty, and a sphinx. A pair of  interlocked rings refer to the two women authors, while the horn of plenty and some other images refer to the story of the play, and to Fortuna, the goddess of fortune and fate.

There are fifteen lines of texts, divided by the initial 'A'. It was designed for this play, and has never been used again by Ricketts. The same goes for the initial 'L' that, printed in red, fills the space next to the large 'A'. 

Charles Ricketts, two initials 'L'
in Michael Field, The World at Auction (1898)
In her book about the Vale Press Maureen Watry listed these initials 'L' as one: L2. This is incorrect. The initial is not printed twice. Ricketts actually designed two similar, but different initials, with curves and dots. The upper one has a dot in the bottom right corner, the lower one has a curve; but in fact, all these small decorations are variations.

Ricketts had them printed in red. Some ornaments, another small initial 'A' (also specially designed for the book), and the introductory text on this page were also printed in red to counterbalance the heavy black wood-engravings.

Ricketts loved to design the Michael Field books, and went to great length to accommodate their wishes, while, at the same time, he succeeded in expressing his artistic freedom as an artist, and a designer. His designs are never decorations, they are comments. 

The four initials on the opening page, the large 'A', the small 'A', and the two different 'L' engravings, were not only especially designed for this play, but their exceptionality was revered, as they were never used again.

(*) Quoted from Michael Field, ‘Works and Days’, BL Add MS 46786, fols. 46v [entry by Edith Cooper], see Ana Parejo Vadillo, '"The hot-house of decadent chronicle": Michael Field, Nietzsche and the Dance of Modern Poetic Drama', in: Woman. A Cultural Review, 26 (2015) 3, pp. 195-220.

(**) See Ana Parejo Vadillo, 'Outmoded Dramas: History and Modernity in Michael Field's Aesthetic Plays', in: Michael Field and Their World. Edited by Margaret D. Stetz and Cheryl A. Wilson. High Wycombe, The Rivendale Press, 2007, pp. 237-249.