Sunday, 19 October 2008

Forest Fire

Piero di Cosimo's A Forest Fire (1503). The more I look at this enigmatic painting, the more I feel there is something really weird about it. Di Cosimo was a pyrophobe who could scarcely stand to cook his food, and perhaps this externalising of a morbid fear accounts for something of the painting's nervy intensity. It's a bit like the Nerdrum paintings I was discussing below: here surely is allegory, but an allegory of what? Shades of Noah, shades of Orpheus. It's like an illustration of an episode from some strange Gnostic alternative Genesis: The Burning of Eden with the Expulsion of the Animals.

2.4 So the LORD God drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

2.5 And the LORD God bad the Cherubims to smite the tree, and it blazed up, with all the trees of Eden, with Cassia and Cedar, with the myrtle, with gopher wood and Olibanum.

2.6 And the fowls of the air arose thereat, and they fled with wings, fugitive and vagabond; and the beasts of the field also, and the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing of the earth after his kind.

2.7 And all of Eden was behind them as a flame of fire.

Saturday, 18 October 2008


Parody, notoriously, can have a corrosive effect on an original work in a way that more abstract forms of criticism don't. R. P. Blackmur really disliked Emily Dickinson and subjected her poetry to a fairly swingeing critique, but having read Blackmur doesn't spoil my enjoyment of reading Dickinson: I can simply disagree with the good critic and put him to one side. But a really effective parody will bleed mentally into the thing parodied, so that one can never afterwards encounter the original without the parody being evoked simultaneously, undermining it.

Here's a classic example. Shakespears Sister's 'Stay' is the first song I remember distinctly (it was No 1 for eight weeks in 1992), and it was rapidly parodied by French and Saunders ('Dickens Daughter'). I now cannot watch the original without it, in itself, seeming parodic: the skit has permanently punctured the fragile membrane marked 'suspension of disbelief' around the original song and video. Siobhan Fahey's glittery, black-catsuited Goth space-witch, looking like the brood-mother of the Mediaeval Baebes,* is now irreversibly blended in my mind with Dawn French galumphing around singing: 'Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall / Humpty Dumpty had a great fall...' The parody exposes that in the original which was contingent, making it seem more provisional and slapdash than it actually was. For instance, the characteristic, deliberate 'breaks' in Marcella Detroit's delivery are imitated by Saunders, but exaggeratedly and at random - she sings in this over-cur-rowded puh-lace...' for example, and inserts brief, half-hearted little 'oohs!' at odd moments, as Detroit does.

Once the parody has been seen, it cannot be unseen; thus it ultimately ends up leaching all the meaning from the original song by making us laugh, and thus being almost a kind of defacement.

The original:

The French and Saunders parody:

* but nice to see that Ishtar/Inanna archetype still vital.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Odd indeed

The art of the Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum (b. 1944) unnerves, fascinates, and occasionally repels. He paints in a highly classical manner, with an obvious debt to both Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but also to the disparate school of late 19th century Symbolists. Nerdrum's paintings are numerous: many are self-portraits (including one, undoubtedly unique in the history of painting, showing Nerdrum as a cloth-of-gold-clad character pulling up his smock to display a a doughy belly and a rather forlorn erection). Some have a scatological focus; still others depict hermaphrodites, the deformed or the mutilated, or are painstaking still-lives of enigmatic single objects such as a brick, or a set of false teeth.

Many of his paintings resemble allegories weirdly divorced from any interpretative framework, like an emblem-book written in an indecipherable language. Against stark landscapes of rock and tamped-down red earth (we recall Genesis 2:7 and the meaning of Adam, Hebrew adamah, 'ground, earth' - Adam is literally a 'groundling'), nude men and women appear caught in sinister, threatening psychomachiai.

In 'The Cloud', a hooded figure overlooks a twilit, estuarine landscape from a high vantage point. His leather snood has a vaguely Egyptian or Persian air. As often in Nerdrum's paintings, the curvature of the world is clearly visible, lending the painting a strange sense of expansive distance and simultaneous claustrophobia. On the horizon, out to sea, a monstrous, blimp-shaped dark cloud is forming, perhaps threatening the end of his civilisation, as though nuclear war had been transplanted to ancient Babylon and the wadis of the Euphrates. In 'Woman Kills Injured Man', two struggling, naked figures hurtle from right to left across the darkling canvas, the woman clutching the man's leg and preparing to stab him with her blade. Together, they make the shape of an odd, hobbled, two-headed quadruped, whilst in the background, a group of people, one with a flaming torch, stand impassively by the shoreline looking in a different direction, as though taking part in sacred mysteries.

In the last image above, a howling, immobile woman is being buried alive by a man with a rifle. Why can't she move? Is she somehow paralysed, like many of the maimed - legless, armless - individuals who appear in Nerdrum's paintings? The man, the red flaps of whose hat resemble the horns of the demons in Michelangelo's Last Judgement, has gone about his task in a strange way, placing the woman's feet in the hole before he has dug something big enough to put all of her in. He appears to be turning to her, perhaps telling her to stop screaming. One suspects an existential allegory: if the woman runs away, she will be shot with the rifle, and will be dead instantly; but if she stays where she is, the man will eventually smother her, and she will be dead eventually. The gravedigger may be death himself, and the painting an image of the human condition.

The painting is also beautifully structured, the horizontal, prostrate form of the woman contrasting with the sharp downward plunge of the spade, and the crooks of elbows and knees echoing each other. The curved emptiness of the hole in the bottom left is mirrored by the rock arch framing the top right, with the pivot of the man's knee acting as the focus of the composition. It is an intolerably gloomy and unsettling painting: the woman's tightly-drawn up arms seem parodically to echo the shape of a butterfly, the psukhe which both is and is not going to escape from the larval form of the woman's body.

Nerdrum's paintings can be viewed here.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Margery Kempe

This piece of joy was brought to my attention the other day - Margery Kempe goes to the MLA, done throughout in beautifully-sustained Middle English. Poor Margery. Medieval England's holy housewife and globe-trotting hysteric is transported unexpectedly to modern-day Baltimore and the conference of the Modern Languages Association. The mutterings of Medievalist PhD students strike her as black magic and necromancy - the 'eke' in 'and eke sum to seynt blume' is hilarious.

Than sche askid the clerkes to which seyntes thei prayid, and nat oon seyde a holy cristen seynt. For sum seyd thei prayid to Seynt Agamben, and sum to Seynt Schischek, sum to Seynt Foucauld and sum to Seyntes Deleuse & Wauttaure, and sum to Seyntes Jamison and Egleton and eek sum to Seynt Blume. And lo thys creatur had gret feere and terror for thes weren nat holy cristen seyntes. Hir names weren al straunge and were nat writ in ony legendes of seyntez and thus thei weren assuredly the names of devylles and feendes of helle. And thes clerkes seyd thes devils gave hem grete powers for to undirstonden textes and to gloss hem, and also gave hem poweres to deconstructen thinges and to unpacken thinges and to see the privee menynges of wordes. Than the creatur knewe that al the semynge holiness of thes yonge clerkes was but devocioun to ower goostly enemy, and hir gret piles of papir were but devylles writtes and hir gret tomes weren but grimoyrez and bokes of necromancie. She tok hede to listen to the murmuringez of the clerkes, and thei al spak of “My dissertation addresses the pressing question of...” the which ys nat a prayer but an incantacioun. And than she fled doun-stayres to get a frappucino for she was so soore adraad so sche cam to the elevatours.

Whoever wrote this is a clever bugger.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Fovea Hex

A link from James at Théâtre Phantasmagorique put me on to this: go here at once and listen to the song While You're Away. Sounding like Kristin Hersh reincarnated as some otherworldly bean sí, Clodagh Simmonds' voice is eerily double-tracked (Paglia's allegorical repletion there), plying a slowly descending vocal line against a wax-and-wane string pulse that provides the only beat. The orchestration grows ever more lush and heartbroken, carried on star-sparkle, bird-song and cold night winds. Limpid, lambent and pellucid, and genuinely extremely beautiful.

The atmosphere of the song is startlingly like that of this poem by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.

* * *

James' eloquent review of the whole EP is here.


I'm typing this overlooking the Scholars' Garden at my college. I've slid the window open so far that I am as near to sitting typing in the rain as possible. I can see: dripping green barred with grey mildew, livid skies, dark, wet trunks. Lawns leaf-scattered. Puddles swelling in the paths; a bush of blue-grey rue humped against the holly, red-berried, darkly gleaming. Beech boughs rise and fall in the wind like fingers over a keyboard. On the dark twist of the topmost linden branch, a few yellow leaves are clinging, fluttering like a shoal of tiny yellow fish nibbling a spray of black coral. The wind makes a far-off sigh like the sea.

Thursday, 2 October 2008


Readers may recall that I and my friend Stripy Mark went to see Thomas Adès's Tempest at the ROH last summer. Subsequently more clips of the opera have appeared on YouTube, and this one - Ariel's aria 'Five Fathoms Deep' - is a good example of the eerie beauty and weirdness of the muisc. Cyndia Seiden, singing spectrally, inhumanly high, utters a long, slow series of notes which constantly seem to be about to break out into ravishingly wistful loveliness, but never quite do. The recording is scratchy, and Meredith Oakes' libretto is still rubbish.
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