Archives for the month of: June, 2012

Helen Edmundson’s play focuses on two years in the Shelley/Godwin lives, 1814-1816.

It is a turning point in Mary Shelley’s life. She meets and falls in love with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and as a result becomes estranged from her father. It is also when she begins to write Frankenstein.

There are six characters, Mary, her step-sisters Fanny and Jane, her father and radical philosopher William Godwin, her step-mother, and Shelley.

The play opens with a re-enactment of the attempted suicide of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecroft. Her mother survived the attempt, and later died shortly after Mary’s birth. Her presence, or perhaps absence, overshadows much of the play, as Mary Shelley is increasingly drawn to her mother’s life and story:

‘Mother may not be here, but she still teaches us what it is to love.’

Love, falling in love, being loved, being rejected by the one you love, is a dominant theme throughout.

William Godwin clearly loved his first wife. His relationship with his second wife appears ambivalent at best, and unspoken comparisons to Wollstonecroft are almost audible. Mary finds love with Shelley, and her sister Jane is besotted with Byron, later becoming pregnant by him.

But love also brings much suffering. Fanny was Mary Wollstonecroft’s daughter from her relationship with a man she loved but ‘nothing would come of it except heartache and loss.’ His abandonment of Wollstonecroft prompted her attempted suicide. Fanny lost Shelley to her sister Mary, and later commits suicide, ‘putting an end to the existence of a being whose birth was unfortunate, and whose life has only been a series of pain to those who have hurt their health in endeavouring to promote her welfare.’

Mrs Godwin, William’s second wife, embittered by life and men, warns her daughter Jane:

‘None of them are worth it.’

It is a complex and tragic story, overshadowed by the death of a child (Mary and Shelley’s daughter), by suicide, by drownings, by the hangman’s rope (‘a fellow creature and now he’s dead’). It is also about the suffering of debt, imprisonment and impending bankruptcy.

But love prevails despite tragedy. For Jane, despite her treatment by Byron, ‘there is no life but loving’, and Mary who enacts her mother’s dream life through her existence with Shelley, believes utterly in the power of love, although also admitting that loving is beautiful, but complicated. Yet it is also this very complicatedness of things that compels Mary, which she sees as her ‘curse’, her ‘inability to leave the world unfathomed.’

Mary Shelley, The Tricycle, Kilburn, to July 7.

Helen Edmundson. Mary Shelley. London: NHB, 2012.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Oxford English Dictionary defines suffering as:

‘the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship’

Someone today questioned my use of the word for this blog, disliking its negative connotations.

The word certainly has religious associations, of penance, of agony, of the tortured soul…

But here, suffering for me is not necessarily something negative, but is inextricably linked to the fact of being, of living, of experiencing life and its defining challenges. Suffering can accompany illness, physical and mental, but also the day to day negotiations of being, and mattering, in a world where one day we will cease to be. As such, it is undefinable and intangible, and therefore the experience can be a lonely and unshared one. Just sometimes, the arts manages to say it, to draw it, to scream it, and that expression of the otherwise repressed and unexpressed, may not lessen the suffering of humanness, but may perhaps make it a less lonely place to be.


June 25, 2012

‘Old age is not an illness, it is a timeless ascent…’

Mary Sarton, quoted in Harriet Walter’s Reflections on Images of Older Women (London: Facing It Publications, 2011, p.186)

I love this quote, as it blatantly challenges what society appears to increasingly aspire to, the body that defies age and ageing. We seem to go to endless lengths to hide/mask/deny our age, ignoring our bodies relentless, and necessary, need to age, and to wither. Along the way, we forget to celebrate what it is to be human, and to age.

Thus, it is refreshing to see this year’s winner of the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, Aleah Chapin’s nude painting of a family friend, Auntie. It is an unashamedly proud work of art. ‘Auntie’, with grey, slightly dishevelled hair, stands before us, smiling fondly and indulgently, completely at ease, and comfortable in her skin. It is an ageing skin, and the painting speaks of a reality and a truth that transcends our notions of ‘youthful beauty.’ It is a beautifully seductive, and brave (though it should not need to be, but critics have not universally applauded its honesty) piece. I applauded the decision to award the prize to Daphne Todd in 2010 for the portrait of her dead mother, and I am again heartened and reassured that, amidst so many pressures to do otherwise, we can embrace and celebrate the vulnerability, fragility and beauty that define us, at every age.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

This Russian arthouse piece, directed by Aleksei Fedorchenko, has just arrived in London cinemas. It is short, just 77 minutes, but nonetheless inspires much for the viewer to think about and linger on.

The film opens as one of the two main characters, Aist (Igor Sergeev), buys a pair of birds, ‘buntings’. He is unsure what has drawn him to the birds, but they triggered a vague memory that eludes him. The birds, in their cage, accompany Aist on his journey throughout the rest of the film.

The film focuses on a pair of human friends, Aist and Miron (Yurly Tsurilo). Miron’s young wife, Tanya, has just died (we never find out why) and he asks his friend to accompany him on a journey that concludes with the cremation of her body and returning the ashes to the sea.

Both men tenderly wash and prepare Tanya for the journey. Rituals connect the dead woman to life, and the journey feels like an interim space, between bodily death and the final relinguishing of what remains as it is returned to the sea.

The journey involves bleak forlorn landscapes and ‘orphan’ villages. The birds’ cage sits between the men as they travel. Although the film has many long and silent takes, the men also talk, often deadpan-like, even when Miron introduces Aist to ‘Smoking’, a practice where the newly widowed shares details of his sex life with his wife.

At one point, we are reminded that ‘only love has no end’. It is unclear how happy Tanya was in her marriage to Miron (in fact, there may have been something between the dead woman and Aist), but this is not a film of cliches. The end is unexpected, though perhaps not surprising in a film that weaves a path between living and dying, a melancholic and sad place, yet perhaps not so tragic.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

As this is the centenary of Vaughan’s birth, a number of exhibitions have celebrated his creative, and hitherto neglected, artistic genius. I recently visited a wonderful exhibition of the Selsey-born artist’s work at the Pallant House Gallery, just before it ended. But, fear not, there is more to come! The Osborne Samuel Gallery in London is also holding a centenary exhibition in November 2012, to coincide with the publication of a new monograph (

One of my favourite pieces is Neapolitan Bathers (1951). It is thematically representative of Vaughan’s work, as it depicts, like many of his paintings, male nudes against a landscape (He believed that most artists have one idea, and ‘mine is the human figure’). In this painting, two men are together, yet separated, one crouched over, the other moving away yet at the same time extending his hand as a gesture that invites. It is a work that, like much of Vaughan’s art, transcends homoeroticism and instead speaks of the human condition itself – of connecting and not connecting, of man’s vulnerability and fragility, and ultimately of tenderness.

Vaughan’s later nude images tend to be faceless, even headless. But, and herein lies a tension within his art, the depictions veer towards the abstract, yet the images are anything but formless. Instead, they are clearly human and male, yet at the same time anonymous and without identity.

The Assemblies series, of which there are nine, often depict crowds, individuals huddled together, yet a sense of togetherness, of connection does not seem to exist.

There is something profoundly sad and melancholic about much of Vaughan’s work. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that creates that feeling. What you see has an impact that extends beyond the image itself. The Singer (1947), for example, presents a young boy who, rather than singing seems to be silently screaming, is particularly haunting. I am also aware, having read Vaughan’s journals, that he himself felt like one of life’s spectators rather than participants. We cannot know, or should not even speculate, on Vaughan’s thoughts as he painted what we now see, but for me a sense of aloneness, and of sadness, lingers.


Sunday, June 17, 2011

The artist Keith Vaughan wrote his last diary entry on November 4, 1977, the day he committed suicide. He had just taken the capsules and whisky:

‘I am ready for death though I fear it.’

’65 was long enough for me’

When he commenced the diary, at the age of 27 in 1939, he felt alone and with ‘no great liking for life’, yet with a ‘mule-like persistence in continuing the struggle.’

The diary entries over the next 38 years or so document this personal struggle, the written record growing out of a sense of ‘failure to live my life.’

Vaughan’s eventual suicide is perhaps not so unexpected, as death is a prominent and recurring theme in his writings. Throughout, he feels under the sentence of death, his heart ‘beating like a metronome in a coffin.’ His role in life, he judged, was to survive, belonging to the Survivors group, whose energy has been exhausted by the struggle of surviving, leaving in its wake an ‘apathetic existence’. Even before he entered the ‘Cancer Era’ in 1975, he mused on voluntary extermination camps, for those who have just had enough…Yet, with the cancer diagnosis, the proximity of death seems to take on a calmer, less threatening significance for Vaughan.

Though death and mortality feature prominently in Vaughan’s writings, there is also much more. Particularly in the earlier postwar years, up to 1965, Vaughan’s poetic prose allows the reader to see the art, even before it happened. His exquisite descriptions of both (male) strangers and of landscape shows what an observer he was, perhaps proving his own view of himself as one of life’s spectators rather than participants. He describes wartime London, and the arrival of sand, imagining how it must increase the weight of the city…and Hampstead Heath, near where he lived all his life, ‘blighted by a plaque of bull-dozers, their grinning steel faces burrowing into the sand like diabolical ostriches.’

Art, to some extent, equilibrated his life. It commenced as an escape from life itself, then functioned to sublimate ‘sexual energy.’ Later, as he struggled to create and to paint, he blamed his decreasing libido, which left nothing any longer to sublimate…He mused on what art does to its creator. Does it destroy him? Or is creating an alternative for those who are otherwise disqualified from life?

Vaughan has much to say about war. He was a conscientious objector, joined the St John Ambulance, and later was a translator in a POW camp. For him, war was an abomination, a tragedy:

‘Just call at the office and sign your name and immediately you’re somebody instead of nobody. The diabolical deception of war.’

He was profoundly affected by war, and it left him with a deep sense of death’s decay, amongst many other emotions. It also left him with the sadness of partings, the many friends he made during the war, and also the death of his brother Dick.

Vaughan read widely, and deliberated much on what affected him. Thus, his diaries share his thoughts on Rimbaud, Freud, Laing, and many others.

He was also aware that he was repeating himself. He re-read his diaries, and was struck mainly by two recurring themes: firstly, the mismatch between his creative outpourings and ‘success’, and his overwhelming and persistent sense of personal frustration, emptiness and creative lethargy; and secondly, the ‘blanket of depression and boredom’ that enveloped him and that featured so prominently throughout.

Life, to Vaughan, at least in a biological sense, was overvalued. It was also a cheat, and a game that was impossible to win: as you climbed further up the ladder of success, you look down and see how much you have lost.

Keith Vaughan, Journals, 1939-1977. London: Faber & Faber, 2010 (Kindle edition 2012).

Next, the art…


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Clearly, this blog continues to be a work in progress…and it has been really interesting for me to see what territories I have wandered off into and explored. It feels as if I have wandered quite a bit, and illness (although it depends how you define it…) has not been central to many of my posts.

So, in order not to mislead and to confuse, I am renaming the blog, to Suffering and the Arts. This feels better and more appropriate, as my main preoccupation seems to be that of ‘Humanness’ and Suffering, often associated with illness, but not always…

Hopefully, you will bear with me while I explore further…


Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Turin Horse is a Hungarian film by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, released in 2011, and now showing in London. It is a long, heavy, and deeply melancholic experience. Yet worth it.

The film is black-and-white and shot in only 30 long takes. The story concerns the day-to-day lives and routines of an elderly man, his daughter, and their horse. They live in rural Hungary, in a stone cottage, with oil lamps, water from the well, and in almost complete isolation.

The film opens with a Nietzsche anecdote, or perhaps fable, relayed by Tarr: Nietzsche witnessed the brutal beating of a horse by its hansom cab owner, and intervened. He threw his arms around the horse, and sobbed. Overwhelmed and distressed by the experience, Nietzsche never recovered and spent the rest of his life demented, or so the story goes.

We move to the opening scene of the film, as an elderly man drives his horse home, in a storm. He is met by his grown-up daughter, and together they stable the horse, the first of many routines we witness as we observe their lives over the following six days.

The old man cannot move his right arm, and his daughter helps him dress and undress twice a day, every day. She cooks their meals, always the same: a boiled potato, which they skin with their fingers and eat on wooden plates with salt, and rarely finish.

The daughter rises each morning to get water from the well.

The daily routine is monotonous and relentless.

The wind and the storm are unrelenting. The routine is unrelenting. The staring is unrelenting: the father at the daughter as she dresses him, both of them staring out of the only window, at the same bleak landscape, endlessly, every day. The sound is unrelenting, of the wind, and of the silence between father and daughter, who almost never communicate.

Some change does occur. The horse becomes unwell and stops eating. The well dries up. The three main characters, man, woman and horse, attempt to leave, but fail and turn back, unable to fight the wind. The routine re-establishes itself, this time with an increasing sense of doom and foreboding.

There is a profound feeling of melancholy, of decay, and of death in this film, as if the routine and repetitiveness and hardship of just existing is too much to bear. First sensed by the horse, this feeling of the unbearableness of being is also experienced by the human characters.

This is a bleak film, but, having some awareness of Tarr’s work, I was not surprised. Yet I was mesmerised by it and touched, despite the fact that he makes no attempt to endear the characters to us. There is no attempt at empathy, as the father and daughter remain anonymous and detached, even alien, to the end. But it remains thought-provoking and moving nonetheless, reflected by what it says about the weight of the routines of our lives, the silences that encompass them, the sheer heaviness of just existing, and how difficult it can be to alter our path.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

This exhibition at The White Cube Mason’s Yard (until June 30) contains two of Salcedo’s installations, A Fleur de Piel (2012) and Plegaria Muda (2008-10), each occupying an entire floor. They are both instantly impressive and deeply moving, almost shockingly so, and the feelings they engender linger and haunt long after you leave the gallery.

The Colombian sculptor constantly draws our attention through her work to human suffering, challenging us to bear witness to acts of violence, to victimisation and to inequality. Shibboleth, the architectural installation that occupied the Tate Turbine Hall in 2007, consisted of a fissure in the concrete floor, which commenced as a thin crack at one end that gradually widened and deepened as it progressed across the hall. The installation was about racism, and the fissure, which Salcedo saw as bottomless, represented the gap between white Europeans and the rest of the humanity.

Her work often involves the transformation of familiar objects into something sinister and shocking. In Untitled, Salcedo removed the doors from a wardrobe she had bought in an antique store, placed a chair within the frame, and then sealed off all the openings with cement, thus fusing all the elements together, creating a concrete tomb-like structure.

Salcedo’s work is explicitly political, frequently a response to killings and disappearances, including her own family, in troubled and unsettled Colombia.

In the current Plegaria Muda installation, the title roughly translates as ‘mute prayer’, the theme of death and loss continues. Salcedo commenced the project in 2004 when she was researching the lives of young people in Los Angeles’ ghettoes. Later, the work was more clearly influenced by the discovery in Colombia of the bodies of 1,500 young men, who had been lured into the army and killed. The installation contains 45 out of the original 162 units that comprise the complete work. Each unit, the approximate length of a coffin, is a sculpture containing two wooden tables, one on top of the other, surface to surface, separated by a slab of earth. The uppermost table has shoots of grass pushing through.

As one negotiates around the ‘coffins’, it feels like a graveyard, silent, eerie, and anonymous. Yet each sculpture is unique and slightly different, reminding us that no-one need be nameless, or forgotten.

The second installation, A Flor de Piel, also deals with suffering, and loss. The work consists of an enormous shroud, make of thousands of connected rose petals – ‘neither fresh not withered’, each of which represents a victim of torture. It is extraordinarily beautiful, and fragile, and utterly tragic.

I was unsettled by this exhibition. Rightly so. Through her art, Salcedo presents human suffering, man’s inhumanity to man, not as stories from another era, but as today’s truths. Acknowledging, remembering, not forgetting, will not undo the atrocities, but may just encourage us to consider what our silence might be colluding with.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

This year is the centenary of the birth of the British artist, Keith Vaughan. He died as a result of a drug-and-drink overdose in 1977, at the age of 65.

Vaughan was initially part of the Neo-Romantic revival of the 1940s, headed by Graham Sutherland, and a group that included artists such as John Minton, Michael Ayrton and John Craxton, before developing his own idiosyncratic style. The peak of his career was perhaps the Whitechapel Gallery retrospective in 1962.

There are currently two exhibitions of Vaughan’s work, one at Agnew’s Gallery London and the second at Pallant House Chichester, both of which I plan to see.

I am currently reading Vaughan’s journals, 1935-1977 (Keith Vaughan. Journals 1939-1977. London: Faber, 2010). The artist himself published the initial entries, from 1939 to 1965, in 1966. Alan Ross edited the later journals, from 1967 to Vaughan’s death in 1977, which were originally published in the London Magazine in 1983. The currently available version, edited and prefaced by Ross and published by Faber, contain approximately 1/4 of the total 62 journals.

The earlier journals are hopeful, and focus mainly on art. The later entries read more like the ‘chronicle of a decline’ (Ross), where Vaughan’s creative output features less, and appear to be predominantly late night, often drunken, outpourings on illness, suicide and failure. Once he entered what he himself called the ‘Cancer Era’, he prepared for death.

The journals are divided into five sections, 1939-43, 1944-46, 1948-59, 1960-65, and 1967-77.

I have only just commenced reading the journals, but I am already seduced. In the preface, written in 1966, he muses on why he started writing:

‘Its purpose was therapeutic and consolatory.’

‘…it was an attempt to analyse and understand a state of total confusion and defeat.’

He also states:

‘But introspection is a luxury which can be indulged only when the framework of one’s life is reasonably ordered and secure.’

I look forward to immersing myself in more of Vaughan’s words, and art, this week.

I shall report back…