Rex’s Restaurant

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The refurbished Tate Britain reopened this week, including the Rex Whistler restaurant, the walls of which are lined with Rex Whistler’s painting The Pursuit of Rare Meats.

Whistler Tate 1

Here’s a brochure, dating from some point mid-century, which explains the painting. The story was a collaboration with the novelist Edith Olivier.

Whistler Tate 3

An expedition leaves the ducal palace of Epicurania, which includes the Crown Prince Etienne and Princess Claudia, led by the son of an impoverised Polish nobleman on a bicycle (a character depicted as Rex Whistler). They travel through a typically Whistler-ish Arcadian landscape, where his dark humour is often at work: “Meanwhile, a disaster occurs upstream where, due to his excitement at seeing a balloon overhead, a small boy falls into the river and is drowned”.

Whistler Tate 4

The Pursuit of Rare Meats ends with the news that, “A sad result of the expedition was the death of the dowager duchess, who took too keen an interest for her age in sampling the rare meats collected”.

The World My Wilderness Revisited

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Savagery waited so close on the margins of life; one day it would engulf all…

Wilderness Revisited

The World My Wilderness isn’t the book I was expecting now I’ve read it. We’re told this is Barbary’s story: a girl transposed to post-war London from a life shared with her mother’s villa in Southern France and bands of French resistance fighters. In England she lives with her father (a well-known lawyer), attends the Slade school, but spends most of her time in the ruins around St Paul’s.

There’s something about the urban wilderness scenes with Barbary and her stepbrother I find quite sketchy and detached: like Ealing film reels filed among the substance of her mother’s story.

Helen is widowed after the death of her second husband. She paints, drifts, gambles, plays chess with an abbé, and is working on a fraudulent collection of 12th century poetry while maintaining a sex life. “The days slide by like fruit dropping from a tree,” she tells her grown-up son. Helen echoes the well-worn theory that du Maurier’s Rebecca is the modern woman repressed and demonised by much of the 20th century; we even have her ex-husband remarried to a nice uncomplicated girl in a tweed suit.

Hitchcock Rebecca poster

Helen’s son Richie is “one of those returning warriors whose hang-over was not toughness, but an ardent and delighted reaction towards the exquisite niceties of civilisation. He liked luxury… mulled claret drunk in decorative rooms lit by tall candles, the sparkle and glitter of good talk and good glass, the savour of delicate food”.

He and his friends would be less happy “without the sense of there being massed against them a philistine, vocal army, terrible with slogans, illiterate cries and destructive levelling aims”.

Perhaps this is Brideshead Revisited syndrome, still reaching far into British culture today. It’s seductive and alluring, as novelist after film-maker rehashes the outsider on the fringe of this world, lusting after Arcadia, days of fine wine and strawberries by ancient fountains.

Years after it was plastered over by Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, it’s as alive as ever. The early 2010s has seen fashion chase a pre-war English idyll, dreams which unite even some Guardian and Telegraph readers. (It’s fascinating that new generations of the anciently well-heeled are now ‘artisans’, dressed as 1930s farm labourers, while marketing teams talk of ‘heritage lifestyle’ and package Sebastian Flyte fashions for Debenhams.)

Rose Macauley

Rose Macaulay… or a young Hugh Grant.

Macaulay uses Richie and his frontline experiences to verbalise some intense cries of pain at what the modern era could mean. It’s not necessarily the author’s voice here, but she stares direct and unwavering into the abyss for an incredible and almost biblical passage, unleashed and at odds with the tame synopsis the novel is given:

“Richie, himself trapped into barbarism for three long, unbelievable years, shrank back from it, reacted towards gentleness, towards bland tolerance, towards an excessive civility. The rich elegances of life, now so little probable, the fine decoration, the exquisite glow of colour and grace and structure, the beauty that wealth and knowledge can bring, the ivory tower of aristocratic culture, that war and peace had undermined, had set tottering, had all but brought down with a crash, to replace by pre-fabs for the multitude, by a thin, weak tainted mass culture – it was towards these obsolescent things that Richie nostalgically turned, pursuing their light retreating steps as one chases beloved ghosts. In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors, of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some continuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered or lost shape in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner – during all this frightening evanescence and dissolution the historic churches kept their improbable, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.”

Blake

William Blake: Rose Thou Art Sick

“No civilisation lasted more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what it would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on. We haven’t finished, Richie protested; we have scarcely begun, give us a little more time for beauty… but beauty vanishes, beauty passes, and he saw only her receding back, menaced and to die.”

At the heart of The World My Wilderness is the fear that effects of war and ‘the century of the common man’ will destroy art and beauty. The privileged classes are making sense of a new world where they might not fit. The life of Helen’s daughter Barbary is outside their circle and so viewed as ‘uncivilised’ – even her name suggests barbarism.

But if art is a part of civilisation (which is a theme that appears in the novel) then Barbary carries it with her wherever she goes. The London she paints is post-apocalyptic, but it has not derailed from its past and the train will call at the same stations of the class system forever more. Barbary’s will not.

It’s a book that could work from many perspectives, from the reactionary bigot to If…-style revolutionary. When first published, the conventional view might have called Helen lazy and immoral, but she emerges as the compass of the novel. Her time has come, and her daughter is surely a proto-beatnik. They’re carrying art and beauty into the future while convention withers, but whether the art and beauty is for all is another question…

Incendiaries in the Suburbs, Henry Carr, 1941

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Henry Carr, Incendiaries in a Suburb, 1941, IWM

A painting from the Imperial War Museum in London. Many of the pictures they hold seem on the fringes of what tends to get shown in galleries: like an overlooked subculture – or maybe it’s just that these images are being viewed in one place. Nevertheless, there’s something quite interesting about the fact that these paintings often deal with people dealing with everyday tasks, albeit within the context of a shattering period of history. There are women in factories, queuing for rations, men and women from every class engaged in the processes of war and aftermath. It’s not just the images of generals or battle which some perceive about the museum.

Evelyn Dunbar, The Queue at the Fish Shop, 1944, detail, IWM

Evelyn Dunbar, The Queue at the Fish Shop, 1944, detail, IWM

Often these images have been labelled as ‘recordings’ and not put on an ‘art’ pedestal. Perhaps the gatekeepers of culture of much of the 20th century saw little profound in images of people going about the detail of everyday life, of what would then be termed the lives of ‘ordinary’ people. (Yet even in the 1970s, an oft-repeated TV documentary series called ‘The Family’ filmed an ‘ordinary’ family with a real sense that looking at this ‘ordinariness’ was something unusual to put before a viewing public. Not to say directors like Ken Loach, kitchen sink dramas and Coronation Street didn’t exist to challenge this of course.)

That, however, is a WhistlesintheWind ramble. I just wanted to post a nice postcard from my desk and then do some work. I love the Henry Carr image – the city sky is beautiful, but with a bitter taste because it’s the work of the worst aspects of humankind and not sun or moon or weather. You can stare into the painting and see so much in a moment captured, not to mention the red post box exaggerating the routine and calm of order shattered.

Needles in haystacks still shine

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If you were born in a more distant decade of the 20th century, then you might have grown up with the sense that creative effort is not fully formed until it is printed, made into a record, hung in a gallery, or screened in a cinema. Until the advent of the ‘personal computer’ (a charmingly archaic term) it was difficult to create print that looked professional: in other words, like something you’d read in a book.

This created a mythic place in the imagination – a portal guarded by shadowy gatekeepers who could bless creativity with a validated state.

Only once work had passed through their cabbalistic hands was it transfigured. Until this happened, people could only desire the title of their craft: painter, actor, poet. For a writer, typesetters and printers worked with hot metal and ink, the alchemy for their particular validation. You couldn’t do this sort of thing on your own, even with a typewriter.

It’s said that creators are solely creators, and need someone to help their work find an audience (or – hushed tones here – sell it). I was sitting in a café not long ago overhearing a meeting between a couple of artists and someone who was going to market their work. The artists’ meek attempts to get a better deal were berated, having tied themselves to particularly harsh terms, and to my mind, were being fed upon.

And yet, creating is a process that doesn’t always sit happily with articulation, seeing opportunities, finding an audience. To be ‘validated’, in the way we inherited from pre-digital ways of doing things, someone has to pick the work out and take it through the portal. It needs tremendous drive, confidence, energy – and time. Lots of time.

Before the internet, we couldn’t see all the creativity and talent going on behind closed doors in village, town or city. We relied on what we were given by the papers, the library, two or three TV channels, the radio and galleries. It created a perception that these outlets brought the artists into being: other creators were forever ordinary.

There was a column for photographers in The Guardian recently, where unremarkable photos were transfigured by dubious text articulating their value for us. But with the internet we have easy access to any number of ‘unvalidated’ talents and can see that photography is no longer a mysterious skill. There are so many questions about how we respond to art here, and what it is, that I’m entering a viper’s nest. But any image, any work, must speak with its own voice.

Ability to create is within all of us, and there are far more people out there who do it, and do it well. Does it matter if photographers become ten-for-a-penny? Or if there are hundreds of female singer-songwriters with a love for Victorian fiction, electric guitars and a mandolin? Only that less people can earn a living from it.

We’re told that the world is now fluid, that there aren’t any boxes to contain anymore. Creativity cannot be fenced off as the preserve of a few – ideas, songs, images, paintings all flow fast as spilled water.

It’s a massive democratisation of the ‘validation’ process in art and artistry. Industries once needed to create things in a professional manner are being swept away, replaced by a few buttons that will make ideas just as perfectly manifest. If you weren’t born into this technology then it can take longer to realise what has happened.

I’m not suggesting the old punk take on art of anyone-can-do-it. It’s the idea that gatekeepers aren’t needed to validate all the work going on. They are still there, with an ability to articulate and sell, but their words create an illusion of visibility, respect and quality.

Music festivals let us discover bands that might exist in a tiny bubble, and yet through their artwork, web spaces and so on, they can create a world of the imagination for us to connect with. It’s barely making a living for them, but their art has been given form, and can equal the visions of any marketing machine that surrounds bands with a huge corporation behind them. A reviewer telling me it is good or not is now an irrelevance.

Thousands can flock to an event, directed by the gatekeepers, and twitter their attendance to their peers. But is it a more valid experience than following the grandmother taking pictures for the first time and posting them on the internet? Isn’t art about interpreting the world and our lives, and reaching out and making connections?

If her photos make us stop, think, or see something anew, then isn’t she validated already? And it is these voices that are the most beautiful: existing without concern for peer pressure or trend, or appropriation by a tribe.