Jewels in the Skull

Phaidon Art BookThe Art Book, Phaidon (Second edition 2012)

An A to Z of artists, mostly painters, occasionally sculptors, installers and performers, with a few photographers and video-makers too. You can trace the development, culmination and corruption of high art all the way from Giotto and Fra Angelico through Van Eyck and Caravaggio to Auerbach and Twombly. But the modernist dreck heightens the power of the pre-modernist delights. A few pages after Pieter Claesz’s remarkable A Vanitas Still Life of 1645 there’s Joseph Cornell’s “Untitled” of 1950. One is a skull, watch and overturned glass, skilfully lit, minutely detailed, richly symbolic; the other is a wooden box containing a “frugal assortment of stamps, newspaper cuttings and other objects with no particular relevance to each other”. From the sublime to the slapdash. Over the page from Eleazar Lissitzky’s Composition of 1941 there’s Stefan Lochner’s The Virgin and Child in a Rose Arbour of 1442. One is like a child’s doodle, the other like a jewel. From the slapdash to the sublime.
Hirst Skull and landscape
And so it goes on throughout the book, with beautiful art by great artists following or preceding ugly art by poseurs and charlatans. But some of the modern art is attractive or interesting, like Bridget Riley’s eye-alive Cataract 3 (1961) and Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted skull For the Love of God (2006). Riley and Hirst aren’t great and Hirst at least is more like an entrepreneur than an artist, but their art here is something that rewards the eye. So is Riley’s art elsewhere, as newcomers to her work might guess from the single example here. That is one of the purposes of a guide like this: to invite – or discourage – further investigation. I vaguely remember seeing the beautiful still-life of a boiled lobster, drinking horn and peeled lemon on page 283 before, but I wouldn’t have recognized the name of the Dutch artist: Willem Kalf (1619-93).

Willem Kalf, Still Life (c. 1653)

Willem Kalf, Still Life (c. 1653)


Elsewhere, I was surprised and pleased to see an old favourite: John Atkinson Grimshaw and his Nightfall on the Thames (1880). Many more people know Grimshaw’s atmospheric and eerie art than know his name, because it often appears on book-covers and as illustrations. If Phaidon are including him in popular guides with giants like Da Vinci, Dürer, Raphael and Titian, perhaps he’ll return to his previous fame. I certainly hope so.

Finding Grimshaw here made a good guide even better. The short texts above each art-work pack in a surprising amount of information and anecdote too. What you learn from the texts raises some interesting questions. For example: Why has one small nation contributed so much to the world’s treasury of art? From Van Eyck to Van Gogh by way of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan Vermeer, Holland is comparable to Italy in its importance. But only in painting, not sculpture or architecture. There aren’t just patterns of pigment, texture and geometry in this book: there are patterns of DNA, culture and evolution too. Brilliant, beautiful and banal; skilful, subtle and slapdash: The Art Book has all that and more. It puts jewels inside your skull.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Ai Wei to HellHow to Read Contemporary Art, Michael Wilson
Eyck’s EyesVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari
Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming

Vermilion Glands

Front cover of The Inner Man The Life of J.G. Ballard by John BaxterReaders’ Advisory: Contains Self-abuse and reference to Mancas.

The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard, John Baxter (W&N 2011)

“B” is for Bataille, Burroughs, and Ballard. I’ve never read Bataille, I can’t stand Burroughs, I used to love Ballard. Nowadays I have strong doubts about him. Vermilion Sands, yes. Crash, no. Vermilion Sands is surreal, haunting, funny, endlessly inventive, and extravagantly intelligent. Crash, by contrast, is silly and sordid. The last time I tried to read it I quickly gave up. I couldn’t take it seriously any more. It’s a book for pretentious, wanna-be-intellectual adolescents of all ages who like Dark’n’Dangerous Sex’n’Violence. A book for Guardian-readers, in short – the sort of people who continually use and hear the phrase “in terms of”, who believe passionately in Equality, Justice, and the Fight against Hate, and who desperately, desperately, wished they’d been able to stimulate the largest erogenous zone in their bodies by voting for Barack Obama in 2008.

What is that erogenous zone? Well, though not all liberals are Guardianistas, all Guardianistas are liberals, so the largest erogenous zone in a Guardianista’s body is his-or-her narcissism. Guardianistas are also, alas, the sort of people who write biographies of J.G. Ballard. John Baxter is most definitely a committed component of the core community. As a big admirer of Mike Moorcock, Britain’s biggest bearded Burroughsian lit-twat, how could he not be? This is part of why I now have doubts about Ballard. I don’t like liking things that Guardianistas like and I don’t like the fact that Moorcock was mates (on and off) with Ballard. On the other hand, I do like the fact that Moorcock and the Guardian boosted Burroughs big-time back in the day and that the Guardian now bigs up Cormac McCarthy and his Dark’n’Dangerous Sex’n’Violence. Good, I think: they all deserve each other. Perhaps one day, in some drug-stoked, depravity-soaked über-orgy of trans-transgressive hyper-homoeroticism, they’ll all manage to climb up each other’s arseholes and disappear from history.

But Guardianistas don’t just like Burroughs and McCarthy: they like Ballard too. They write books about him. Fortunately, The Inner Man isn’t a good book. That would have been disturbing, believe me. The dedication is by far the best thing in it: “To the insane. I owe them everything.” And guess whose lines those are? After that, it’s mostly Baxter and mostly dull. When it’s not, you’ll usually have Ballard to thank:

Novels sent to him in hope of endorsement got short shrift. He enjoyed describing the satisfying thump of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as it hit the bottom of the dustbin. (pg. 47) In September 1995, the Observer, for a piece about odd bequests, invited him to answer the question, “What would you leave to whom, and why?” Jim said, “I would leave Andrea Dworkin my testicles. She could have testicules flambés.” Anti-pornography campaigner Dworkin was a close friend of Mike and Linda Moorcock but a bête noire of Ballard’s. (pg. 308)

I think Ballard was right in his cod-bequest for Dworkin and bum’s-rush for Rushdie. And if Baxter had the same sense of humour and mischief, The Inner Man would have been a much better book. Okay, it’s not that bad, because I managed to finish it, but that was disappointing in its own way. I’d almost have preferred a boldly, flamboyantly pretentious Ballard bio full of solecisms and mixed metaphors to a plodding, mediocre one like this. I like sneering at and feeling sniffily superior to Guardianistas. And all I’ve got to go on here are occasional lines like these:

Like another diligent civil servant, he [Ballard] was Agent 00∞: licensed to chill… (pg. 3) But in surrealism, as in most things, Jim was drawn to the extremity, the dangerous edge, the abyss which, as H.G. Wells warned, will, if you stare into it long enough, stare back at you. (pg. 36)

It’s puzzling that Baxter misattributes such a famous quote and that his editors didn’t spot the misattribution. It’s also puzzling that Baxter doesn’t seem to like Ballard much, to be very interested in Ballard’s life, or to be very enthusiastic about Ballard’s writing. Born in Shanghai, incarcerated (and half-starved) under the Japanese during the war, trained as a doctor: Ballard had an unusual early life for a writer and one can only admire Baxter’s ability to keep the interest out of it. Baxter devotes much more attention to Ballard’s time in advertising and life in suburbia. Yes, the contrast between this apparently staid existence and the wildness of Ballard’s veridically visceral visions is interesting, but it’s obviously related to his early experiences in China. Baxter has got those out of the way within the first 26 pages of a 377-page book. When he himself takes visionary flight, he doesn’t do so to Ballard’s advantage. Why did Ballard turn down the chance to be published in “a series of de luxe limited editions of fantasy classics” by Manchester’s most maverick messiahs, “the radical publishing enterprise of Savoy Books”? Baxter conducts an interview with his own imagination and reports back with this:

He may have felt that involvement with Savoy and [David] Britton – who had already served two prison terms under the Obscene Publications and Dangerous Dogs Acts – risked once again placing him in hazard, as had been the case with “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”. (pg. 321)

Eh? Yes, he “may”, but simpler explanations are to hand. Either way, Baxter says the rejection meant that “a sense of grievance” now “permeated his relationship with” the messianic Mancas. Again: Eh? The grievance would have been one-sided, there was never much of a relationship, and although Savoy “put a lot of effort” into persuading Fenella Fielding to record extracts from one of Ballard’s books (no prizes for guessing which), they put in the effort without first asking Ballard if he was interested. When the recordings were made and they did ask, he “refused to cooperate”. It was now that grievance began to permeate the relationship.

Reading about this important episode in Ballard’s career, I felt another feeling begin to permeate me. A familiar feeling. Yes, “S” is for Savoy (B), Sontag (S), and Self (W). All three turn up in this biography, variously offering to publish Ballard, heaping praise on him, and having dinner with him. All three are part of the Guardianista demographic in one way or another: Self nails his colours firmly to the gasbag when he speaks of a “scintilla” of an “affectation” that forms an “armature” (pg. 341). All three add to my doubts about Ballard. If people like that like him, should I like him too, like? I think if Ballard had been born ten or twenty years later, the question wouldn’t arise. A younger Ballard would have been sucked fully into the macroverse of Guardianista subversion, radicalism, and counter-cultural twattishness and I’d never have liked him at all. As it was, he was too big to entirely fit. Crash got sucked and does suck. Vermilion Sands didn’t and doesn’t.

And this biography? Well, it could have been much worse. Yes, it’s dull but that may be partly because Ballard himself is such an interesting and memorable writer. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the danger in literary biographies is that the biographee is likely to be a better writer than the biographer. The implicit comparison will always be there and Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008), is likely to remain better, and briefer, than anything a biographer ever turns out. But Baxter tells you about things that Ballard doesn’t, possibly because they’re not true. Like the air of menace Ballard could project and his occasional violence towards his girlfriend Claire Walsh, who “appeared at parties with facial bruises, usually hidden between sunglasses” (pg. 187).

And “girlfriend” is the word: Baxter reports that Ballard “always” and “anachronistically” used it of Walsh (pg. 171), rather than (he implies) the smarmy Guardianista “partner”. Good for Ballard. But bad for Ballard in terms of engagement with issues around the bruises, if true. As George Orwell said:

If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear. (“Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dalí”, 1944)

It would have been better that Ballard hadn’t punched his girlfriend, just as it would have been better that Caravaggio hadn’t been a murderer. But if they hadn’t been violent men, with more than a touch of psychosis, they might not have produced such interesting art. I don’t think Ballard is as significant a figure in European art as Caravaggio, and even if he is, he and his art won’t have as much time to be significant in. One way or another, Europe is now entering its final days. We are about to reap the whirlwinds so diligently sown for us by the Guardianistas and their continental cousins. And science is busy measuring mankind for its coffin. Ballard saw and wrote about parts of this future, but I now prefer his surreal side to his sinister and his dreams to his depravity. It’s bad, v. bad, that Will Self hails Ballard as “My single most important mentor and influence.” But Self (thank Bog) didn’t write this biography. He didn’t write Vermilion Sands either. He couldn’t. Ballard could and did. He could and did write other good stuff. I don’t love him any more, but, despite the Guardian and the Guardianistas, I will continue to read him. Lucky Jim, eh?