Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Carlo Ginzburg, Wooden Eyes: Nine Reflections on Distance (Verso, 2002)

In these nine reflections on the idea of distance and historical inquiry, Carlo Ginzburg, the noted historian and intellectual makes his way through a variety of fascinating topics from diverse fields with great ease and coolness. The concept of distance is examined from several perspectives. In in the first essay, entitled 'Making It Strange: The Prehistory of a Literary Device', he opens by discussing Viktor Shklovsky's Theory of Prose and his definition of art as a means of experiencing the process of creativity. The artifact itself is quite unimportant. From here he takes us on a wonderful journey from Proust, Marcus Aurelius, Antonio de Guevara (who?), Montaigne, La Bruyère, Tolstoy and many more as he examines the idea of ostranienie or de-familiarization. This gives some idea of the range that Ginzburg provides in his meditations. This only works when the author has complete control over his argument and over his material, and both happily coincide in this book.

A long chapter on 'Myth: Distance and Deceit' takes us from Plato to the Nazis without time for breath in between; another on 'Representation: The Word, The Idea, The Thing' opens with a fascinating discussion of funerary practices in the late middle ages and the use of effigies of the dead and examines the idea of an oscillation between representation as substitute and as mimetic evocation. One of the most facscinating meditations, Chapter 4, 'Ecce: On the Scriptural Roots of Christian Devoational Imagery' opens with a marvellously stimulating discussion of the role of Old Testament (and prophetic) citations in the Gospels, and wonders if it is useful to use the term testimonia to describe these citation strings. His conclusion is that it is the citations that generate the narrative and not the other way around.

Further chapters are: 'Idols and Likenesses: A Passage in Origen and its Vicissitudes'; 'Style: Inclusion and Exclusion'; 'Distance and Perspective: Two Metaphors'; 'To Kill a Chinese Mandarin: The Moral Implications of Distance'; 'Pope Wojtyla's Slip'.

I look forward to keeping this book closeby and returning to it and ruminating further on the many fascinating things Ginzburg has to say. I recommend it.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

The Francis Bacon Studio, The Hugh Lane, Dublin

After Bacon's death in 1992, his heir, John Edwards, wanted to donate his studio and papers to a gallery where it the studio might be re-housed and studied. Edwards approached the Tate, who apparently dithered for several years. Edwards turned around and offered it to the Hugh Lane. They did not dither. The studio was dismantled and rebuilt in Dublin with forensic precision, every item catalogued and meticulously photographed. The result is a huge digital archive of everything, books and pictures, thousands of objects that have made their way into his work in one way or another. Being an Irishman, it is very appropriate that the Studio return to the city of his birth. And going to a gallery that houses a collection bequeathed by Sir Hugh Lane that itself had some trouble finding a home seems oddly poignant and appropriate. Dublin did not make the same mistake twice, it would seem.

The Studio, at number 7 Reese Mews in South Kensington, was not just his studio but also where he lived. Perry Ogden was asked to photograph the studio before it was to be moved to Dublin. These are now on display and comprise shots not just of the studio but also of his kitchen and his bedroom and living space. I found these images very affecting I must say. There was a stunning simplicity about the space, and just a few photographs dotted around of those most important to him. There were many photographs too of his own work, and it is clear that in his living space he meditated often on his own iconic work. In his later years he became very wealthy and owned various other properties, but this was where he lived and worked for thirty years. And despite the money to complicate his life with beautiful objects and posh fixtures, he has a tiny studio with his bath in the kitchen and his bed in his living room.

There is something extremely interesting about seeing an artist's workspace. Over the past few months The Guardian have been doing a Writer's Room series in which a writer will talk a little bit about their own workspace. Bacon does refer to the mess he works in and how important that mess is. The studio has been rebuilt so that you take one step inside it, with a perspex glass door keeping you out. A couple of other peep-holes allow views of other parts of the studio. It is disconcerting too to watch the empty studio, with ripped canvases and torn bits of paper all over the floor. Like seeing a room full of potential creativity rather than seeing something Bacon meant us to see.

There are several paintings on display, a highlight being the work you can see in the photograph above, a figure that appears to be Bacon himself. It is a typical work but clearly quite unfinished. And that was one of the most moving points of the Bacon Studio. He was still working, and had more work to do.


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