One of the most curious artworks on display at Tate Britain, is a two-dimensional sculpture by Bob Law (1934–2004) entitled “Is a mind a prison”. This piece is an obelisk-shaped tablet of lead, upon which some seemingly incoherent lines of poetry have been etched. The title of the work is a question, which in itself is unusual in the world of art: despite the fact that one of the fundamental aspects of art is the asking of questions, most paintings and sculptures have simple affirmative titles. Bob Law’s obelisk is also simple in form: it could represent a chapel, or perhaps even a spaceship, one of the notions clearly indicated in the poetic text. If we examine the geometrical shape of the lead tablet it is basically a rectangle topped by two equilateral triangles which suggest a roof structure. The words on the tablet are imprisoned within the space, just as the words in our minds are locked in. Cell within cell.
We are all on a journey, all travelling through space aboard planet earth, and in the course of our journey we will all be confronted with a series of adventures, highs and lows, as though the gods have taken offence and set out to make our homecoming as difficult as possible, just as they did for Odysseus in Homer’s poem.
Bob Law’s reference to redshift is to the cosmological effect caused by the expansion of the universe whereby light sources moving away from the observer are red in contrast to light sources that approach the observer which are blue. Expansion is process. Expansion within the space of our minds within cosmic space. Would you like to be the daddy longlegs, the kingpin, the big daddy on this trip at the end of which we will all be judged for our actions? And so on. . . .
Bob Law was known as one of the founding fathers of minimalism. However, this piece demonstrates that a minimalist technique can be highly expressive. Minimum of resources for maximum effect, Samuel Beckett might have written. Here the combination of sculpture and poetry challenges the observer to stop and to think about structures, about cells contained within cells and questions contained within questions, one art form contained within another.
On the afternoon that this piece caught my eye as I strolled through the beautiful, spacious, well-lit galleries of Tate Britain, and perhaps because of its location by a doorway, it reminded me very much of one of the Stations of the Cross that can be seen in so many churches. This in turn made me think that art galleries do, in fact, have a strong spiritual dimension, not so much because their spaces can replicate churches, but rather that underpinning the work of all the artists on display is the common link of spirituality, albeit manifest in disparate forms. Their work makes contemplatives of us, urging us to meditate on the nature of the human condition. What is it to be human, what is beauty, what in the world around us is worthy of note, what values best define the essence of human goodness, what content and what colours and shapes should be used to celebrate life even as we question its purpose?
All of which explains why the appreciation of art is so liberating and uplifting and why it is so important to incorporate it in the educational process for our young children. But it also has to be appreciated, where possible, in situ. So get down to Tate Britain in Pimlico as soon as you can and when you’re there, take your time, it’s all you have.
Everything passes in time: the theme of so much poetry because that is the abiding sensation in life. We learnt the Latin tag as children: carpe diem, live for today. And as we get older, the truth of that statement becomes ever more evident. Poetry and song take us out of the moment briefly and they celebrate the fact that we can turn the passage of time into something beautiful, into something dynamic. Hence the frequency with which the rose appears in poetry, as a metaphor for beauty and fragility, the intensity of the beauty heightened by its ephemeral nature. Nothing lasts for ever, but life is a seemingly endless sequence of things or activities which do not last forever. Poetry records the moment and the feelings of the moment and it savours the moment paradoxically forever.
After my father died, it was quite a surprise to discover a very large trove of poems he had written over a number of years. I knew that he occasionally wrote poetry, and from time to time he would share some of his poems with me, particularly if they were on topical subjects, such as the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Of the three poems below, the nature poems speak for themselves. In addition to being an accomplished musician and artist, my father’s other great passion was gardening and he took it very seriously. We had a very large, sloping garden attached to the house where we grew up and my father was constantly modifying its features, adding a water course and a pond, relocating flower beds, setting aside a small area which he used as an allotment to grow vegetables, trimming the box hedge that ran alongside the lower lawn so that it resembled a steam engine. He had a rich imagination and he could turn it to anything.
The third poem, is about his marriage to my mother and the risk she took by agreeing to share her life with him; and he recognizes the trust that her decision involved. It was, in the end, a marriage that lasted a lifetime, and only death eventually separated them. And it was a marriage that made them, that defined their adults lives. And it was the absolute cornerstone of their emotional lives. They were both schoolteachers, my father a graduate and my mother virtually self-educated. But in their day, people perceived them as a couple, as an inseparable, loving couple. The union was strong, the family unit was strong and every other aspect of life appeared to be subordinate to the love that had brought them together.
It has to be said that my father was a dreamer, and in the photo accompanying this piece, taken when he was still at St Joseph’s Academy in Blackheath, I believe it is possible to see the dream in his eyes. Nothing wrong with being a dreamer or a poet! My father’s dream was realized in his marriage to my mother and in the six children they had. All his other endeavours, professionally or artistically, were a celebration of the love he gave and the love he received.
Late autumn sunset Humped copper-coloured cloud, like billowing canvas Ponderously sailing over tree tops towards the dark, Attended by a fleet of widely scattered skiffs. Sun-tinted filmy sails against a sea-blue sky. Scarcely a movement of twig or leaf below Save a rustle in the high top elms And saffron fronds of silver birch Draped around its pianola-music bole Standing on uncut emerald grass Green-spiked like springing wheat. Caught by the western glow Two apples hang upon a topmost branch Unplundered reassure of Hesperides.
I stood upon a river bank Whose current carried tumbling leaves. The water moved but I was still. It passed, to merge into the sea. Travelling in rippling rapid speed Over rocks it foamed its urgent pace, Then slackened, scything cuts at bends, Its path confined to journey’s end.
And then I knew it carried me: For as I gazed upon its flow Time had gone upon its stream, Seconds, like bubbles, here, then gone – A paradox of life itself. For while, at times, we are quite still Or feel increase in our life’s motion The seconds ever bear us on To lose ourselves within the ocean.
Till death do us part
When first they met the sea was calm He told her tales of wonder and delight That lay beyond the harbour walls She longed to put to sea : they two alone, Sailing among enchanted isles. It was a prospect that entranced Intoxicated and allured. And yet she feared the deep. He was no master mariner, But once before had lost a ship (And, near his skin, so bronzed and muscled)
What if it should . . .
She looked into his eyes And cast aside her fears. She knew that she would go.
They only took what each would need He told her what; they jettisoned the rest. And so they sailed into the deep water: Where they had berthed the currents swirled, Carrying to and fro, among the eddies, The flotsam, so lately and so lightly tossed away, Drifting till it was cast up stranded on the beach – Brief witness where a ship was tied; Up-anchored, they sailed, and left it all behind.
I must have been fourteen when I started working as a Saturday delivery boy for a butcher in the medieval village of Old Bexley. I can still remember the day I first entered the shop, the pungent smell of raw animal flesh, the bloodied clumps of sawdust over the floor, and the three butchers with their traditional blue and white striped aprons, wielding their knives, carving and chopping meat as they chattered amongst themselves.
I’d been taken there by Peter Murphy, who was the son of my godfather, Jimmy Murphy. Our fathers had been friends since their childhoods and both had attended the same secondary school, St Joseph’s Academy, in Blackheath. Jimmy Murphy was originally from Arklow in Ireland, where my paternal grandmother was born. As with my own family, there were three boys and three girls in the Murphy family, and I was closest to Peter, the eldest of the boys, who was probably five or six years older than me. Peter attended St Mary’s Grammar School in Sidcup, and when I started there in September 1961, my parents had asked him to take me to and from school. So each morning he would call for me on his way and we would walk down to the Black Prince pub where we would catch the bus. Similarly, he would wait for me at the end of the school day.
Always a jovial character, it was not difficult to get on with Peter, but the age difference was significant, and after a couple of months, we both tired of the arrangement. At the end of the day I’d give Peter the slip and go off with my friends to play football in the park across the road from the school. This was undoubtedly a great relief to him.
My memory of all the circumstances is a bit hazy, but I assume Peter had been working for the Bexley butchers for some time; so when he decided to move on to better things, he asked me if I was interested in replacing him, which of course, I was. I was a scrawny looking lad in those days and as I walked into the shop beside Peter, the manager eyed me up as a rather unpromising piece of meat before reluctantly agreeing to give me a trial. That first Saturday, Peter showed me the ropes. The delivery bicycle was one of those old-fashioned affairs with a very large basket at the front. It was extremely heavy, even before the basket was loaded, and quite high, so that even when the saddle was adjusted to its lowest height it was still so high I could barely touch the ground with the tips of my toes. “And watch the brakes,” Peter warned me. “They’re very poor and you need to slow down well in advance if you want to stop.” “Couldn’t you ask them to do some maintenance on it,” I asked. Some questions in life can be answered silently, with just an appropriate facial expression: that was one of those occasions. Notwithstanding, we eventually left the shop and loaded the basket. I had my own set of wheels with me, a cycle which I’d cobbled together over months from parts I’d found abandoned in the street at different times. Peter led the way on the delivery bike and we spent most of the morning distributing quality cuts of beef and lamb and a few boxes of eggs to some of Old Bexley’s finest. There were a couple of very steep hills on the round, one in particular on Parkhill Road which ran down to the Blue Anchor pub. “This one is treacherous,” Peter warned. “Remember, with the weight of the bike and a loaded basket, the brakes are useless, might as well not have any. So you need to be especially careful.” I nodded, but felt sure I could handle anything. “And,” he added. “If you need to turn the bike around be sure to make as wide a turn as possible or the handlebars will lock and the bike will slide from under you. Next thing you know, you’ll be lying in the road with your meat and eggs scattered all over the ground.” On a later occasion I had cause to wish I’d paid more attention to all the sound advice he had given me: but such is the folly of youth, full of confidence until the cropper comes!
But this piece is not about the cropper. The incident I wish to describe took place after I’d had several uneventful Saturdays working for the butcher’s, and it concerns the second wife of the actor, Sir Roger Moore, the former Saint and seven-times James Bond who is currently doing the rounds promoting his one-man show in London. At the time of this story, he was living in Bexley, having just married the popular Welsh singer, Dorothy Squires: not that I knew this when I saw the name of Dorothy Squires on the list the butcher handed to me a few Saturday mornings into the job. Dorothy lived at The Mount, a large detached house in Wansunt Road just off Vicarage Road, the continuation of which led to Dartford Heath. The house was actually the last of the addresses on my round that day, and by the time I reached the front door I was feeling rather pleased with myself. No accidents on the bike, not an egg broken, no sweat. It was a beautiful summer’s day, the air was full of honeysuckle and lavender, birds were singing and I would soon have a little money in my pocket once I returned the delivery bike to the butcher’s. I remember a long gravel path curved down to the house which to me looked more like a palatial mansion. I leant the bike against the wall and took out the package of meat. Then I rang the bell. I waited for an answer. And I waited. One minute, two minutes passed. But nobody came to open the door. Beginning to feel a little impatient, I rang the bell again, twice. Suddenly I heard the clump of footsteps, then the sound of a chain being loosened, the sound of a key turning in a lock, twice. The door opened just enough to see a blonde lady in a flimsy nightdress and dressing gown. It was Dorothy, I’d seen her on TV. She scowled at me when she noticed the package I had thrust towards her. She didn’t take it. “Don’t you know,” she said in a lilting, rather posh Welsh accent, “that there’s a tradesmen’s entrance at the side of the house, boy? You’re not supposed to ring here.” I looked down at the ground and shook my head, and felt my freckled cheeks flush with embarrassment. “No,” I muttered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” “Well you do know now,” she said. “So remember next time!” And with that she snatched the meat from my hands and slammed the door in my contrite face.
Years later I read a description of a similar occurrence, in William Faulkner’s 1936 novel, Absalom Absalom, in which the doomed hero, Thomas Sutpen, suffers humiliation, as a fourteen year old, when a black butler refuses to allow him to enter the mansion of the planter Pettibone by the front door. The young Sutpen vows after that incident that one day he will be the owner of a similar mansion, set in a similar plantation with blacks working for him. And it is the psychological damage caused by this childhood snub that motivates Sutpen to achieve immense material success and leads ultimately to tragedy. Happily, the rebuff I received from Dorothy Squires failed to leave such a pyschological scar!
In the extract below from Absalom Absalom, by William Faulkner, the use of an ethnic term which has now become offensive is retained:
And now he stood there before that white door with the monkey nigger barring it and looking down at him in his patched made-over jeans clothes and no shoes and I dont reckon he had even ever experimented with a comb because that would be one of the things that his sisters would keep hidden good-who had never thought about his own hair or clothes or anybody else’s hair or clothes until he saw that monkey nigger, who through no doing of his own happened to have had the felicity of being housebred in Richmond maybe, looking-” (“Or maybe even in Charleston,” Shreve breathed.) “-at them and he never even remembered what the nigger said, how it was the nigger told him, even before he had had time to say what he came for, never to come to that front door again but to go around to the back. “He didn’t even remember leaving. All of a sudden he found himself running and already some distance from the house, and not toward home. He was not crying, he said. He wasn’t even mad. He just had to think, so he was going to where he could be quiet and think, and he knew where that place was. He went into the woods. He says he did not tell himself where to go: that his body, his feet, just went there-a place where a game trail entered a cane brake and an oak tree had fallen across it and made a kind of cave where he kept an iron griddle that he would cook small game on sometimes. He said he crawled back into the cave and sat with his back against the uptorn roots, and thought. Because he couldn’t get it straight yet. He couldn’t even realise yet that his trouble, his impediment, was innocence because he would not be able to realise that until he got it straight. So he was seeking among what little he had to call experience for something to measure it by, and he couldn’t find anything. He had been told to go around to the back door even before he could state his errand, who had sprung from a people whose houses didn’t have back doors but only windows and anyone entering or leaving by a window would be either hiding or escaping, neither of which he was doing. In fact, he had actually come on business, in the good faith of business which he had believed that all men accepted. Of course he had not expected to be invited in to eat a meal since time, the distance from one cooking pot to the next, did not need to be measured in hours or days; perhaps he had not expected to be asked into the house at all.
Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) was a French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal [The Flowers of Evil], published in 1857, which was undoubtedly the most important and influential poetry collection to appear in Europe in the 19th century. When it was first printed, the book was prosecuted for alleged obscenity.
Addicted to sex and drugs, Baudelaire eventually succumbed to syphilis, but in his famous preface to Les Fleurs du mal entitled “Au lecteur” [To the reader] he listed all manner of vice and accused his contemporary society of monstrous hypocrisy, stating in effect ‘none of you are any better than me, my brothers.’. A number of versions of this scathing text can be read at: http://fleursdumal.org/poem/099, but here are the first two verses in a translation by the American poet, Robert Lowell:
To the Reader
Folly and error, sin and avarice, Labor our minds and bodies in their course, Blithely we nourish pleasurable remorse As beggars feed their parasitic lice.
Our sins are stubborn, our repentance faint, We sell our weak confessions at high price, Returning gaily to the bogs of vice, Thinking base tears can cleanse our every taint.
The prose poem I have translated below is taken from the posthumously published Petits poèmes en prose (1869): the most successful and innovative early experiment in prose poetry of the time. Here the mood is that of world-weariness, ennui, or spleen and the title is borrowed from a poem by the English poet, Thomas Hood.
Anywhere Out of the World
This life’s a hospital in which every patient is possessed with the desire to change beds; one would like to suffer in front of the stove, and another believes he’d recover his health by the window.
It always seems to me that I’d feel well wherever I am not, and this question of displacement is one I’m forever discussing with my soul.
« Tell me, my soul, my poor frozen soul, what do you think of going to live in Lisbon? Must be warm there, and there you’d liven up like a lizard. That city’s on the coast; they say that it’s built of marble and that the people there so hate vegetation that they tear down all the trees. There you have a landscape to your taste! a landscape made of light and mineral, and liquid to reflect them! »
My soul says nothing.
« Since you’re so fond of taking it easy, while observing the bustle, would you like to live in Holland, that beatifying country? Maybe you’d have some fun in that land the image of which you’ve so often admired in the art galleries. What do you think of Rotterdam, you who love forests of masts, and ships moored at the foot of houses? »
My soul remains silent.
« Perhaps Batavia would appeal more? There, of course, we’d find the spirit of Europe married to tropical beauty. »
Not a word. « Could my soul be dead ? »
« Have you reached such a degree of lethargy that you’re only content to be ill? If so, let’s flee to those countries that are analogues of Death. I know what we need, my poor soul! We’ll pack our trunks for Tornio. Let’s go farther still to the far end of the Baltic; or farther still from life, if that’s possible; let’s settle at the Pole. There the sun only grazes the earth obliquely, and the slow alternation of light and darkness suppresses variety and increases monotony, that semi-nothingness. There we’ll be able to take long baths of darkness, while to amuse us, the aurora borealis will from time to time send us its pink sprays, like a display of fireworks from Hell! »
Finally, my soul blows it top, and wisely cries out to me: « Anywhere! anywhere! as long as it’s out of the world! »
In March 1977 I arrived in Caracas and was immediately contracted by the Venezuelan Ministry of Culture to select and translate an anthology of modern Venezuelan poetry. Among the poets I chose to include was Eugenio Montejo (1938-2008) whom I met shortly after starting the project. I met many poets in the course of the next three months, but none more gentle and unassuming than Eugenio.
Years later Eugenio was to become famous when Sean Penn spoke some of the words from a poem he had written in the film 21 Grams, directed by the Mexican, Alejandro González Iñárritu.
The earth turned to bring us closer it turned on itself and within us until it finally brought us together in this dream as written in the Symposium.
I completed my work in Caracas in May 1977. Since that time I have not looked at the translations below, nor have I revised them. At the time I had shown my versions to Eugenio and he had been pleased with them and that was enough for me. Outwardly, Eugenio was the stereotypical professor of literature: yet his poetic voice was the most original of his generation.
To be here, for years, on the earth, with the clouds that arrive, with the birds, suspended in fragile hours. On board, almost adrift, closer to Saturn, more distant, while the sun goes round and pulls us and the blood runs on in its ephemeral universe more sacred than all the stars.
To be here on the earth: no further than a tree, no more unexplainable, lithe in autumn, bloated in summer, with what we are or are not, with the shadow, the memory, the desire, till the end (if there is an end) voice to voice house after house, whether who gains the earth, if they gain it, or who hopes for it, if they wait for it, sharing at each table the bread between two, between three, between four, without forgetting the leftovers of the ant that always travels from remote stars to be present at the hour of our supper although the crumbs are always bitter.
What can a table do by itself against the roundness of the earth? It already has enough to do allowing nothing to tumble, allowing the chairs to converse softly and in turn to come together on time.
If time blunts the knives, dismisses and brings diners, varies the topics, the words, what can the pain of its wood do?
What can it do about the cost of things, about the atheism of the supper, of the last supper?
If the wine is spilt, if bread is wanting and people grow absent, what can it do but remain motionless, rooted between hunger and the hours, with what intervenes though it should wish?
The stones intact in the river absorbed in the bank, sitting alone, in conversation. The stones deeper than childhood and of more solid scenery. When they see us they lift their faces now cracked and they do not recognise us, you have to speak to them so loudly!
They have no notion of masks and journeys, they perceive time through touch, they believe that our image in the water was erased in the sands downriver.
In the afternoons the shadow of an aeroplane passes over them and they are unaware that they go in the suitcases on board, that they are our only luggage, so tightly have they shut their eyelids.
Not all poetry yields its meaning immediately, and why should it? Just as you can stare for hours at an abstract painting, so too, a poem can be a source of meditation. What does it actually mean? And what does it matter what it means? That is not to say that the words do not matter. But often the conscious logical mind is too earth-bound, too stuck in the trivia or fatigue of daily life to be able to get to the heart of a feeling. It is important sometimes to let the mind go with the flow, to detach from the rational Cartesian world with its arid formula of I think, therefore I am. Clearly Descartes had scant understanding of the role and the power of the unconscious mind!
Notice when we are happy, when we play, when we frolic, when we are in love, when we have experienced a sense of achievement, whenever we are overcome by any powerful emotion, it takes us out of the moment, releases us from the tyranny of time. So we might wonder why these parallel forms of existence occur. Who has never wished that a moment could go on for ever? Who has never prayed for a seemingly endless state of discomfort or pain or sorrow to pass? In which realm do we live our true, authentic, fully human life? So many poets down the ages have observed the innocence of nature, the instinctive forms of life that appear to know no suffering, and longed to live likewise, free from the yoke of mortality. I believe that that is the function of art, to lift us out of the pedestrian, to lift us up into the spirit so that for a moment we drift above ourselves as though in an out-of-body experience and allow ourselves to be carried along in a different flow, to be timeless for a time. Be a butterfly!
In this photo, which I’ve used in a previous post, I am sitting in my highchair, aged eighteen months. Behind me you can see the door to the shed where my father kept his gardening tools, especially the lawnmower, along with some of the army debris he brought back with him when he was demobbed, his collapsible canvas camp bed, for example. There were boxes containing spares for his motorcycle, spark plugs, replacement lamps for his headlights. His Wellington boots always stood just inside the door and I would often take them out and totter around the garden wearing them even though they came up to my thighs. The shed has lots of memories. It was lit by a single bare electric light and it was always damp inside. It had been built in 1947, at the same time as the house we lived in, but the builders had rushed the shed and forgotten to put in a damp course which meant that humidity rose up through the bricks and the door frame was rotting and hinges were rusting. The shed window consisted of four panes of glass, two of which on the part of the window that opened, were cracked ever since I could remember, and were never replaced.
The flowerpots on the sill are testimony to my father’s abiding passion, which was cultivating his garden. He grew vegetables, beans, tomatoes, as well as roses and a whole variety of seasonal and perennial flowers. He loved to sit in his garden at the end of a long day and smoke his pipe in silence contemplating the handiwork of his green fingers. Gradually, over the years, the garden evolved, as the family’s financial circumstances improved, but he never stopped adding new features, a watercourse, a greenhouse, new varieties of rose. It was his principal relaxation.
You can barely see it, but behind the pram on the left of the photo there is a door to another part of the shed, which was a separate storage area. It had several wooden shelves inside and there my father would store the apples from our many fruit trees and which we would consume in the course of the cold winter months. The most productive tree was a Bramley which bore beautiful, huge, slightly tart apples which were ideal for apple pies and crumbles, two of my father’s favourite desserts and which my mother cooked to perfection.
The pram itself is interesting: if I was eighteen months old, my brother Michael would have been a baby and was therefore somewhere in the house in his cot at the time of the photo. When we shopped with my mother I would sit in the pram with Michael and she would wheel two miles up Gravel Hill to the nearest shops in Bexleyheath. We went there to buy cheese and meat which was still rationed after the end of the Second World War until rationing was finally abolished in 1954. There was also a sort of community hall behind Christ Church, an Anglican church on the Broadway, where families with young children went to collect their free concentrated orange juice. When Mark, my second brother was born, my mother would sometimes take all three of us in the pram, but eventually I was big enough to walk by her side, holding on to the pram handle. Large-wheeled, well-sprung prams went out of fashion when the Maclaren stroller or foldable buggy was invented in the mid-1960s, but nowadays fashion has changed and these beautiful, sturdy, hand-built wooden prams are once again in demand. When Mark was a baby he would often sleep in the living room in the pram during the day and when he woke he would find a way to rock the pram so that it travelled the length of the living room and back. I can remember the living room walls were deeply scored by the knobs on the side of the pram.
When I was a little older I would often keep tabs on my father who at certain times of the year would disappear into the shed for hours. One evening in mid-December, I put a chair outside the shed window so that I could climb up and peer in. There I saw my father working away at a wooden fort or stockade that he was building for my brother Mark as a Christmas present; it was his own design, the pieces of which he had shaped with a tenon saw before gluing them together. When he noticed me, he called me into the shed and made me promise not to say a word to my brother. The next time I saw the fort it was being unwrapped on Christmas morning.
Gregory Corso was a key member of the Beat movement, a group of convention-breaking writers, including William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who were credited with sparking much of the social and political change that transformed the United States in the 1960s. Corso’s spontaneous, insightful, and inspirational verse once prompted Ginsberg to describe him as an “awakener of youth.” Although Corso enjoyed his greatest level of popularity during the 1960s and 1970s, he has continued to influence contemporary readers and critics.
Writing in the American Book Review, Dennis Barone remarked that Corso’s 1989 volume of new and selected poems, Mindfield, was a sign that “despite doubt, uncertainty, the American way, death all around, Gregory Corso will continue, and I am glad he will.”
My own poem was inspired by a short poem (“For Lisa 2”) written by Corso and dedicated to Lisa Brinker, his eventual wife and surrogate mother to his son, Max. I used this wonderfully evocative text many times while teaching creative writing in Brazil.
For Lisa 2
I saw an angel today without wings with human smile and nothing to say
Imagine a poetic gift of such intensity that his wolfish eyes were capable of penetrating the core of a palm tree so as to observe infinitesimally its actual
growth. That brooding, not-guilty gaze he acquired in the years when barely out of adolescence he served a jail sentence, there learnt to read, learnt there to write poems. Yet prison was no
place for the angels he would later catch sight of, in diners, on street corners, sometimes with an unlit cigarette in their mouth, sometimes not, but always a beauty to behold. He made
no secret of love, but truly believed in the coming together of two bodies as a celebration of being. Friendship was second nature to him: poetry was his first.
Educated at Winchester College, John Latham (1921-2006) commanded a motor torpedo boat in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the Second World War. After the war he studied art at the Regent Street Polytechnic and later at the Chelsea College of Art and Design. He was married to fellow artist and collaborator Barbara Steveni.
According to the Tate Britain display caption: This work was titled Film Star because it appeared in Latham’s film Unedited Material from the Star. It incorporates books whose pages have been painted in twelve colours. Because the books can be opened at different pages, the work can exist in different states. The film consists of static shots of opened books. During production, Latham would stop filming at various points, turn the pages of the books, and start filming again. When the film is shown, the books appear suddenly to open, close and change colour.
There is something erotic about the red version of the books, as though the books are about to swallow, to devour the observer, the reader of the painting/sculpture. This sensation would be heightened when watching the animated film. The human presence on the canvas appears to be signalled by what could be a spinal cord and eyes so that we are in fact looking at a portrait. But perhaps that’s just my interpretation. Why not pop down to Tate Britain in Pimlico and see for yourself!
There are so many things to like about this piece, but what struck me, having observed it in situ in the gallery, was the speed with which most visitors glanced at it and moved on. Art appreciation deserves more than a knee-jerk reaction! Latham is inviting us to share some time with his work because its content and its energies cannot be appreciated in haste. He knows that our time is precious, all time is precious. We could all be doing other things rather than traipsing round an art gallery, we could be living and loving in other ways, travelling in other directions. But then, why visit a gallery if we are not going to take the art seriously, if we are just going to shoot through the rooms clocking one exhibit after another as fast as we can?
Art bundles time and energy. As consumers of art our task is to unbundle it, using all our powers of perception and the generosity of our hearts and minds. Furthermore, the creation and appreciation of art should be central to the education of young people and not be relegated to the status of an optional, peripheral activity on the curriculum.
Why does Latham include so many books in his composition? Books are artefacts, physical objects and they can encompass all manner of printed material, hagiographies of film stars, biographies, histories, literatures etc. The book is a fundamental building block of culture, a cornerstone, and over the course of time, the dominant books will reflect the dominant ideology. Books can be instructive, destructive, they can be articles of rebellion and they can be persecuted, they can shape and they can deform opinions, they can be lauded and loathed, they can be best-sellers, stars in their own right and they can go in and out of fashion. Plastic arts can be encapsulated within the pages of books and in Latham’s sculptures books can be incorporated into his compositions as found objects, underlying the phoniness of rigid divisions between the arts. At the heart of it all is the word and the image. Art subverts received ideas and conservative thinking. Art is a weapon of liberation insofar as it operates on the consciousness and can set it free. Plastic, conceptual and literary art all share this power. Hence the reverence that artists tend to have for writers and vice versa. We’re all in this together, all for one and one for all.