Friday, October 19, 2018

Dr. Browne's Ethereal Salt




Once considered to be the 'ultimate oddity’ of Thomas Browne's collected writings, the late miscellaneous tract  Musaeum Clausum (Sealed Museum) is now seen as evidence of the physician-philosopher's versatile imagination and sly humour in his last years. Ever the consummate literary showman, Browne announces to an unknown correspondent that his Musaeum Clausum consists of, ‘some remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living'. [1]

The first section of Musaeum Clausum is a scholastic wish-list of books rumoured to exist which Browne would like to read, such as the writings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Browne's one-line inventory of book-titles anticipates the highly influential magic realism author Jorge Luis Borges's declaration that, 'to write vast books is a laborious nonsense. Much better is to offer a summary, as if those books actually existed.'

Musaeum Clausum's ‘Rarities of Pictures’ section features exotic locations such as the Arctic and the desert along with physiognomic  coincidences and random art-reproductions. In 2016 the North Sea magic realism artists, Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell each realized a highly-polished artwork from the skeletal sketches of  Rarities of Pictures' [2]

In the final section, 'Antiquities and Rarities of several sorts' Browne lampoons some of the improbable artefacts of doubtful provenance collected by the undiscerning of his era. He also subtly mocks the outlandish claims of those engaged in alchemical experiments, with his own bizarre curio in the curtain-falling ‘rarity’ of-

'A Glass of Spirits made of Æthereal Salt, Hermetically sealed up, kept continually in quick-silver; of so volatile a nature that it will scarce endure the Light, and therefore only to be shown in Winter, or by the light of a Carbuncle, or Bononian Stone'.

Before revealing the medical nature of Dr. Browne’s ‘ethereal salt’ and exploring the labyrinthine symbolism of salt in alchemy, it's worthwhile looking a little closer at  Browne's curio, as it names two of the 'deities' closely associated with alchemy, Hermes and his counterpart, Mercurius.

The term 'hermetically sealed up' is a great example of how the opaque language of the alchemystical philosophers metamorphosed into early chemistry terminology. The term originates from the Egypto-Greek god Hermes and his magic ability to seal treasure chests so that no-one could access their contents. In the early days of the chemical process of distillation, the ability to make an airtight seal was highly valued and the secret of the seal was a  closely guarded one. C.G. Jung notes - ‘The adept must always take care to keep the Hermetic vessel well sealed, in order to prevent what is in it from flying away’. [3]

Hermetic philosophers such as Browne believed in the wisdom of the mythic Hermes Trismegistus,even after it was proved the Corpus Hermeticum originated from the early Christian era, and was therefore not penned by the legendary Hermes Trismegistus in ancient Egyptian times.

Browne boldly states his subscribing to the tenets of Hermetic philosophy in Religio Medici  thus -‘The severe schools shall never laugh me out of the philosophy of Hermes’. [4]

The very title Musaeum Clausum itself may allude to a Hermetic publication. As a keen bibliophile Browne kept up-to-date with forthcoming publications and may well have known that the alchemical anthology Musaeum Hermeticum, which first saw light in 1625 was reprinted in Latin in 1678.

The word clausum is also closely associated with alchemy, C.G. Jung reminding us that - ‘The vas bene clausum (well-sealed vessel) is a precautionary measure very frequently mentioned in alchemy’, while the word 'Glass'  is synonymous with the alchemical apparatus of the Vessel, Vas, or philosopher's egg. Its modern chemistry equivalent is the distillation retort. [5]

Hermes lends his name not only to the solitary figure of the spiritual searcher, the hermit, but also to the winged Mercury, the god of communication and revelation, and trickster figure who assisted and thwarted the adept in their search for gold. Known today as mercury, Quicksilver was so named from its seemingly living properties, ('quick' being an early English word for alive or living). Because of its peculiar properties, being a liquid metal which contracted and expanded when exposed to cold and heat, as capable of division as easily as reunifying itself, the chemical substance of mercury acted as play-dough upon the imagination of the alchemist when experimenting with its properties in the laboratory.

The alchemist's encounter with the numinous through unconscious psychological projection upon substances and processes whilst engaged in experiment are well-illustrated in Browne’s declaring in Religio Medici -

‘I have often beheld as a miracle, that artificial resurrection and revivification of Mercury, how being mortified into thousand shapes, it assumes again its own, and returns into its numerical self’. [6]

Salt is the only mineral rock eaten by man. Its a substance which man valued enough to risk his life and labour in dangerous mining conditions in order to acquire.  One of the oldest and most ubiquitous of all food seasonings, salt has a dual nature—preserving and corrupting, its also a disinfectant, a component of ceremonial offerings, and was once a unit of value exchange. During the Roman era, salt was  used as a form of currency, from the custom of paying soldiers in pieces of compressed salt (the word ‘salary’ originates from  salārium, ‘salt money’) hence also the phrase: ‘to be worth one’s salt’. Man’s relationship to salt has generated enormous poetic and mythic meaning, not least when promoted in  importance by the alchemist-physician Paracelsus.

Above all others, it was Paracelsus (1493-1541) with his advocation of chemical-based alchemy who influenced the development of medicine during the Renaissance and beyond. Paracelsus urged physicians to investigate nature in order to discover new  properties in the mineral, botanical and animal kingdoms whose extracted ‘essences’ could be potentially useful for healing. In Paracelsus’s voluminous writings there can also be found a moralist and theologian as profound and radical as the Reformation figure of Martin Luther (1483-1546).

Taking his cue from the Persian alchemist, Rhazes (854–925 CE) who suggested that metals contained a third, salty component, Paracelsus added to the alchemical duality of sulphur and mercury a third component, salt, perhaps in imitation of the Christian Trinity. Paracelsus maintained that everything is made out of philosophical mercury, sulphur and salt, though without abandoning the ancient Greek schemata of the four elements, effectively giving alchemists two schemata to play, speculate and experiment upon.

Paracelsus’s stress upon the importance of salt in the alchemical triad greatly influenced his followers. Martin Ruland the elder's  Lexicon Alchemiae (1612) lists a bewildering number of salts, including Sal Sapientia, the salt of the wise. Ruland’s Paracelsian advocacy of Salt can be seen in his stating-

'Therefore, he that understands the Salt and its solution possesses the wisdom of the ancients. Therefore, place your whole reliance on the Salt. Count nothing else of importance. For Salt by itself is the most important secret which all the Wise have thought proper to conceal'. [7]

Astoundingly Ruland even asserts - 'The Salt of the Philosophers is the Stone of the Philosophers', as well as mentioning  a 'Salt of Universal Harmony'. [8]

Paracelsus’s promotion of salt, along with its multifaceted qualities and many symbolic associations, attracted various alchemystical philosophers and early chemists to  both philosophize upon and experiment with salt, sometimes mixing philosophy, religious insight, medicine and laboratory work indeterminately, as in Johann Glauber's De Salium Natura (On the Nature of Salt). From the ancient Greek Pythagoreans who called the sea the 'tear of Kronos', because of its 'bitter saltness' to the late Renaissance chemist and alchemist Johannes Baptista Van Helmont (1579-1644) who believed that volatile salts composed the vital spirit or the breath of animals and plants, Salt has featured in the speculations of philosophers, alchemists and early modern chemists alike.  Indeed, it has been said that 'salt chymistry' is pivotal to the study of the inter-relationship between chemistry, natural history, physiology and medical sciences in the early modern period. [9]

In one of the six door-step size volumes of the alchemical anthology Theatrum Chemicum once resting in Browne’s vast library, the physician-philosopher may have had his curiosity about salt aroused when reading-

'But if Thales of Miletus chose to call that stone of Hercules, the magnet, an animate thing, because we see it attract and move iron, why shall we not likewise call salt, which in wonderous wise penetrates, purges, contracts, expands, hinders, and reduces a living thing?’  [10]

In the alchemical anthology 'The Rose-Garden of the Philosophers' (Rosarium Philosophorum, c.1550) one reads-

'Who therefore knows the salt and its solution knows the hidden secret of the wise men of old. Therefore turn your mind upon the salt and think not of other things; for in it alone (i.e. the mind) is the science concealed and the most excellent and hidden secret of all the most excellent and most hidden secret of all the ancient philosophers’. [11]

C.G. Jung reminds us - 'Whenever an alchemist speaks of “salt”, he does not mean sodium chloride or any other salt, or only in a very limited sense. He could not get away from its symbolic substance, and therefore included the sal sapiente in the chemical substance.  [12]

'Salt was considered to be an arcane substance by the sixteenth and seventeenth-century alchemists, in ecclesiastical as well as alchemical usage, salt is the symbol for Sapientia and also for the distinguished or elect personality, as in 'Ye are the Salt of the earth'.  [13]

And that- 'Salt was associated with Christ through the sal sapientiae association. In antiquity salt denoted wit, good sense, good taste, etc., as well as spirit. Cicero for example remarks: “In wit [sale] and humour Caesar.....surpassed them all."  [14]

The philosophical aspect of Salt features in what is perhaps one of C.G. Jung’s most memorable sayings. Juxtaposing two of salt's attributes, its bitterness with sal sapiente, the salt of the wise, Jung makes the profound spiritual observation-

'Tears, sorrow, and disappointment are bitter, but wisdom is the comforter in all psychic suffering. Indeed, bitterness and wisdom form a pair of alternatives: where there is bitterness wisdom is lacking, and where wisdom is there can be no bitterness'. [15]

In Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-76) Browne notes the place of salt in folklore, in religious ceremonies and the Bible. Salt also features in Pseudodoxia in the chapter entitled Of Crystall and in several of Browne's 'chymical operations', including his experiment as to whether magnetism increases or decreases in fresh or salty water; while speculating upon the origins and causes of colour Browne displays his familiarity with the primary concept of Paracelsian alchemy, stating -‘The Chymists have laudably reduced their causes unto Sal, Sulphur, and Mercury'. [16]

As a medical doctor Browne knew, as he states in Pseudodoxia - 'there being in everything we eat, a natural and concealed salt, which is separated by digestions, and doth appear in our tears, sweat and urines, although we refrain all salt, or what doth seem to contain it’. [17]

Well-informed of events in the medical world, Browne certainly also knew of the success his contemporary Johann Glauber (1604-1670) had with salt. The German-Dutch alchemist and chemist Johann Glauber was the first to produce salt extracted from Hungarian spring water. This naturally occurring salt is water soluble, has a bitter taste, and is sometimes used in medicine as a mild laxative; it's also used in dyeing. Glauber's salt, the common name for sodium sulfate, occurs as white or colorless crystals which upon exposure to fairly dry air effloresces, forming a powdery  sodium sulfate. Glauber’s production of sodium sulfate, which he called sal mirabilis or "wonderful salt", was an effective but relatively safe laxative and a popular alternative to purging (emptying the digestive tract being a treatment for many diseases) which brought him fame and the honour of it being named "Glauber's salt".

Browne was aware of Glauber's Salts not only from his owning a copy of Glauber's  De Salium Natura  but also from his eldest son Edward Browne (1644-1708) who visited 'old Glauber' while in Amsterdam in 1668 on his travels, and dutifully informed his father of the fact in correspondence. [18]

Alchemist-physicians such as Paracelsus and Glauber paved the way for future advances in medicine in their experiments with the properties of salt. The medical world began using saline around 1831. Today saline solution, a mixture of sodium chloride in water has several uses. Applied to an affected area its used to clean wounds and to treat dehydration from illnesses such as gastroenteritis and diabetic ketoacidosis, as well as used to dilute medications to be given by injection. In alternative medicine the light emitted by crystal rock lamps is believed to have therapeutic benefits and currently is a popular form of home lighting. Its also known today that excessive consumption of salt is the cause of many serious medical conditions including high blood pressure.

Its in Pseudodoxia Epidemica that clues to the true nature of Dr. Browne's 'ethereal salt' can be found. Adhering to the Paracelsian principle of the three primary substances of nature, namely sulphur, mercury and salt, Browne writes-

'For beside the fixed and terrestrious Salt, there is in natural bodies a Sal niter referring unto Sulphur; there is also a volatile or Armoniack Salt, retaining unto Mercury; by which Salts the colours of bodies are sensibly qualified, and receive degrees of lustre or obscurity, superficiality or profundity, fixation or volatility. [19]


Dr. Browne's 'ethereal Salt' is in fact none other than medicinal smelling salts for sal volitalis was the alchemist's name for ammonium chloride. It's alluded to here by Browne as  'Armoniack Salt'.

Chaucer knew of sal ammoniac, and mentions it  along with sublimed mercury, vitriol, saltpetre,  arsenic and brimstone in his Canon Yeoman's Tale. An early form of smelling salts or sal ammoniac was Salt of hartshorn (ammonium carbonate). Hartshorn salt, also known simply as hartshorn, and baker's ammonia was used in the seventeenth century as a forerunner of baking powder, but there can be little doubt that Browne’s interest in Sal Volitalis, was of a medical nature and not for baking.  One can be confident Dr. Browne's 'ethereal salt' is smelling salt, for in his commonplace notebooks there are notes on how to prepare harthorn, the active ingredient for the manufacture of Sal Volitalis.

'As is observable in gums, hartshorn...... Wherein it is presumable the water may also imbibe some part of the volatile salt.... in half a pint of jelly of hartshorn there is not above two drachms......Much hartshorn is therefore lost in the usual decoction of hartshorn in shavings and raspings, where the greater part is cast away.......The calcination of hartshorn by vapour of water is a neat invention, but whether much of the virtue be not impaired, while the vapour insinuating into the horn hath carried away the tenacious parts and made it butter' [20]

Smelling salts release ammonia gas, which triggers an inhalation reflex, irritating the mucous membranes of the nose and lungs, effectively rousing someone who has fainted or suffered a shock, back into consciousness. In an age of violent social change and Civil War, when news of fortunes and lives lost was frequent, there'd have been call for Dr. Browne to revive those who had fainted from bad news, during pregnancy or even from excessive blood-letting.

In alchemy Volatilis, the Latin word for flying, was how the alchemists described the vaporous fumes rising from their distillation vessel. In alchemical symbolism the fixed and the volatile are depicted as a pair of birds, one wingless, the other with wings, that is, one bird able to fly, the other grounded and 'fixed'. Keeping the contents of the Vessel (i.e. the mind)  'fixed' was one of the alchemist's great challenges, and often disaster struck during their 'chymical operations' and their endeavours came to nothing.

C.G. Jung describes the alchemist's challenge of attaining unity of mind, or unio mentalis  thus-

‘The volatile essence so carefully shut up and preserved in the Hermetic vessel of the unio mentalis could not be left to itself for a moment, because this elusive Mercurius would then escape and return to its former nature, as, according to the testimony of the alchemists, not infrequently happened’. [21]

Browne’s fixation upon the Quincunx pattern in The Garden of Cyrus (1658) may be interpreted psychologically as none other than a symbol of totality and wholeness - the Unio mentalis or self-knowledge of the alchemists. The Quincunx assumes a spiritual significance in The Garden of Cyrus as Browne's personal mandala, the symbol agent through which he believed he'd been permitted divine revelation, a glimpse into Nature's highest arcana and thus acquire the philosopher's stone - the Unio mentalis or self-knowledge of the alchemists.

Remarkably, C.G.Jung states- 'The quinarius or Quino (in the form of 4 + 1 i.e. Quincunx) does occur as  as symbol of wholeness (in China and occasionally in alchemy) but relatively rarely'. [22]



The ‘Disappointed Alchemists’ club

It's possible Thomas Browne had someone specific in mind when conjuring his image of a volatile 'ethereal salt’. The alchemist Sir Robert Paston, resident at Oxnead Hall, some dozen miles north of Norwich (not quite Browne’s neighbour geographically) wrote to him about his laboratory experiments in April 1669 -

Honoured Sir, On Saturday night last, going into my laboratory, I found some of the adrop (that had been run four or five times in the open air, and every time its aetherial attracted spirits drawn from it) congealed to a hard candied substance......Upon about half a pound of this I cohabated some of its aetherial spirit, which it notwithstanding tinged red, and I am now drawing it again, for I think I had better have exposed it in its consistence to the open air again.....and by grinding, exposing, and distilling, it may at last go a white and spiss water, such an one as philosophers look after, or at least be fit to receive, and to be actuated with (....) and saline parts of the aetherial spirit, when that operation comes in hand if  it affords us any that way. [23]

And again in September 1674-

'I have little leisure and less convenience to try anything here, yet my own salt will set me on work, having now arrived to this that I can with four drachmes of it dissolve a drachme of leaf gold...  I am going to seal up two glasses, one of the menstruum with gold dissolved in it, and another of the menstruum per se, and to put them in an athanor, to see if they will putrefy, or what alteration will happen. I have at Oxnead  seen this salt change black as ink, I must, at the lowest, have an excellent aurum potable, and if the signs we are to judge in Sendivogius’ description be true, I have the key which answers to what he says, that if a man has that which will dissolve gold as warm water doth ice, you have that which gold was first made in the earth'. [24]

In his brilliant study on the 17th century painting known as The Paston Treasure Spike Bucklow notes-

'Paston was assisted in his laboratory by Thomas Henshaw (1618–1700) (who used the pen-name "Halophilus" meaning ‘salt-lover’). Together they  attempted to discover a formula for the fabled "red elixir", another name for the philosopher's stone, which alchemists believed could transmute base metals into gold'. [25]

And - ‘So, Sir Robert's recipe for 'Manna' was playing with extraordinary potent cosmic forces. It all hinged upon a mysterious salt that mediated between the 'fixed' and the 'volatile'. Clues to the exact identity of that salt lay hidden in the maze and opinions varied. Brickenden gave Sir Robert details of 'a salt for infinite health and riches' that could be gathered from drops of dew gathered in May. But many, including Charles II's alchemist, thought the 'universal salt' was gunpowder's key ingredient - saltpetre. Sir Robert's recipe for making salt,  Spiritus salis, was evidently important because he wrote it in Latin. [26]

Like Robert Paston who suffered a  'whirlpool of misfortunes’, Browne in his old age may, for want of a better description be described as a ‘disappointed alchemist’ that is, one who devoted less time on alchemical experiment and more time in prayer and meditation.  As Spike Bucklow perceptively puts it-

'Alchemy was not suddenly found to be ‘wrong’, but the Norwich science of Arthur Dee, Thomas Browne and Robert Paston was quietly sidelined by the London science of the Royal Society. The differences were mainly social and political. The Norwich practitioners read signs, like Polynesian canoeists, Yarmouth fishermen and Navy tars, the London practitioners started to use instruments and charts, like naval officers'. [27]

The Paracelsian neologism ‘Spagyricci inscribed on Browne’s coffin-plate supplies the true nature of Browne’s alchemy. As ever, Martin Ruland, a physician who served the esoteric-loving Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, assists enquiry with his Lexicon Alchemiae (1612)  definitions of -

SPAGIRIA - 'The Spagyric Art, is that which treats of the separation of the pure from the impure, so that after the refuse matter has been rejected, the virtue which remains can operate. It is the Art of Distilling and Separating'.

Browne's moral probity is well-defined by the next entry of -

SPAGIRUS– 'Any man who can separate the true from the false, set the good apart from the bad, and the pure from the impure, rejecting duality and cleaving to unity'. [28]

Technically speaking, Browne was a spagyricist, that is, one who believed that the calcined essences of plants could be useful in medicine. Historically speaking, the spagyrists were active just before the iatrochemists, the true beginning of purely chemical medicine, as opposed to those searching for hidden 'quintessences'  extracted from the natural world.

Browne’s continental medical education acclimatised him towards Paracelsian medicine to a far greater degree than many of his British contemporaries. Some have suggested  he was unsympathetic to Paracelsian medicine, but the long list of books by continental Paracelsian physicians, an edition of the complete works of the Swiss physician listed in Browne’s library, the Paracelsian neologism 'Spagyricci’ inscribed upon his coffin-plate, and the many references to the Swiss physician in Browne’s writings, all suggest otherwise. Although often critical of mystical aspects of Paracelsian thought, Browne was a follower of Paracelsus, a highly-critical follower, but follower nonetheless.

An even closer analogy to Browne's science than Paracelsus, can be found in the ideas of the Belgian chemist, alchemist and physician Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580-1644). Van Helmont, like Browne, is a transitional figure in the history of science. Though Van Helmont was skeptical of specific mystical theories, dismissing much of Paracelsian mysticism, nevertheless he refused to discount magical forces as a valid explanation for some natural phenomena. Van Helmont, like Browne regarded all science and wisdom to be a gift from God. Browne's estimate of Van Helmont along with Paracelsus, can be seen in his stating in his late work Christian Morals -

'many would be content that some would write like Helmont or Paracelsus; and be willing to endure the monstrosity of some opinions, for divers singular notions requiting such aberrations'.  [29]

Evidence of Browne's joining the ranks of 'disappointed alchemists' can be gleaned from his late writings. Because of its alleged Egyptian origins alchemy was sometimes known as ‘Cleopatra’s Art’ amongst many other names. Alluding to the alchemical feat of palingenesis, that is, the revivification of a plant from it ashes, Browne concludes The Garden of Cyrus in disappointment at this particular alchemical feat.

'And though in the bed of Cleopatra can hardly with any delight, raise up the ghost of a Rose'.

Committed throughout his life to the Christian faith, Browne endorsed Christianity above alchemy as a philosophy for developing one’s inner self, when, making allusion to alchemy as 'Vulcan’s Art' he states in his late work Christian Morals-

Vulcan’s Art doth nothing in this internal Militia: wherein not the Armour of Achilles,  but the Armature of St. Paul,  gives the Glorious day. [30]

Browne's real alchemy is in the word, in particular the sonority, rhythm and symbolism of his 1658 discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus with their plexiform relationship in polarity, truth and imagery. Together they are Browne's literary philosopher's stone, of which one critic perceptively notes -

'Mystical symbolism (of this kind) is woven throughout the texture of Browne's work and adds, often subconsciously, to its associative power of impact....there is nothing vague or wooly about Browne's mysticism,...Every symbol is interrelated with the overall pattern'. [31]

Although the diptych discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus (1658) appear to the undiscerning as if  two identical white crystalline substances, when 'tasting' their differing essences, Urn-Burial  is  discovered to be the bitter salt of Christian Stoicism, a sprinkling of which is necessary for spiritual well-being in the face of disease, suffering, death and the grave. (Indeed, Salt is mentioned in Urn-Burial in Browne's description of adipocere, or grave wax, his solitary credited scientific discovery). In complete contrast, the 'light' half of the diptych The Garden of Cyrus is fructose sugar, with its excited rush of ideas, playfulness and sweet delights in the pleasures of nature. 

Today we may be skeptical of the scientific credentials and achievements of alchemists such as Paracelsus, Sir Thomas Browne or Sir Robert Paston and take their science cum granis salis, with a pinch of salt; nevertheless, their collective spirit of enquiry paved the way for future generations of scientists; we may therefore agree with Virginia Woolf -

'Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne, but those who do are the salt of the earth’.
















Part 2 to follow on the Carbuncle and Bononian Stone.

Notes

[1] 'Ultimate oddity' from C.A. Patrides 'Approaches to Sir Thomas Browne': The Ann Arbor Tercentenary Lectures and Essays edited by C.A. Patrides  pub. University of Missouri 1982.

A manuscript of Musaeum Clausum was found amongst the papers of the Collector and Natural philosopher Walter Charleton (1619-1707) It may have been written for his having delivered the Harveian Oration at the Royal Society of Physicians in 1678.

[2] See    Four 'Rarities in pictures' from Dr. Browne's Musaeum Clausum

[3] C. G. Jung Collected Works vol 14: paragraph 200

[4] Religio Medici  Part 1:12
[5] C.W. Volume 12 : 21
[6] Religio Medici 1:46
[7] Ruland Lexicon Alchemiae. Listed in Browne's library p.22 no. 119
[8] Ibid. Other books by Paracelsian physicians in Browne's library include Theodore Turquet de Mayerne (S.C. page 25 no. 98, page 51 no. 103,104) Joseph Duchesne (S.C. page 33 no. 8 page 34 no. 63) Alexander Suchten (S.C. page 51 no. 128) Petrus Severinus (S.C. page 18 no. 50 page 20 no. 23, 24, 25, 26) John French (S.C. page 51 no. 118) Johann Glauber (S.C. page 43 no. 10) and Gerard Dorn (S.C. page 25 no. 118)

[9] ‘The Salt of the Earth: Natural Philosophy, Medicine, and Chymistry in England, 1650-1750 (History of Science and Medicine Library) Anna Marie Roos Brill 2007

[10] C.W 9ii: 143 Jung quoting Chrysippus Theatrum Chemicum vol. 1 listed in Sales Auction Catalogue page 25 no.124

[11]  C.W  12:359
[12]  C.W  9 ii:247
[13]  C.W  9 i :575
[14]  C.W  14 :324
[15] C.W 14: 330
The bulk of Jung's writings on salt  are in his  Mysterium Coniunctionis : An Inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy (1955-56). Chapter 5  p.183-239.

[16] The index to Kevin Killeen's highly recommended paperback edition, the Selected writings of Thomas Browne (21st-Century Oxford Authors OUP paperback  edition 2018) With a great introduction and index which lists over 30 references to salt in Browne's writings.

Browne's experiments with salt and snow Bk. 2 chapter 1 Of Crystall.  Experiment with magnetism and salt water Bk. 2 ch.2 Concerning the Loadstone.
  
[17]  P.E. Book 4 chapter 10

[18] Johann Glauber De Salium Natura S.C. page 43 no. 8 Amsterdam 1658 Keynes Selected correspondence letter no. 22  dated 22nd September 1668

[19]  P.E. Book 4 chapter 10
[20] Wilkins  1835 edition Commonplace notebook
[21]  C.W14:742
[22] C.W.  18: 1602
[23]  Wilkins 1835 edition
[24] Ibid

[25] The Anatomy of Riches:Sir Robert Paston's Treasure Spike Bucklow Reaktion Books 2018. Highly recommended.

[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid.
[28]  Martin Ruland's Lexicon Alchemiae  (1612) Sales Catalogue p. 22 no 119
[29] Christian Morals  Part 2:5
[30]  Christian Morals Part 1:24
[31] Peter Green  Sir Thomas Browne Writers and their work no. 108 Longmans, Green and Co. 1959

See also

Paracelsus and Browne

Carl Jung and Sir Thomas Browne

Notes on Pictures

*  Photo:  A Salt Crystal magnified
*  Alchemical symbols for Sulphur, Salt and Mercury.
*  Painting 'The unconscious Patient'.- Rembrandt's early painting, is one of a set of five oil paintings depicting the senses completed c. 1624 or 1625. They are his earliest surviving works, and are of identical size. The Sense of Smell shows a physician reviving a swooning woman by placing a handkerchief soaked in a volatile salt under her nose, in order to bring her back into consciousness. It was only reidentified in 2015. The whereabouts of the painting representing the sense of taste, is unknown.

*  Painting: 'An Alchemist seduced by Luxuria'  anon. circa 1580
* Photo -Alchemical flower Stand with four tubes and glowing flower of fern.       Dina Belenko Photography


Monday, September 17, 2018

Portraiture and North Sea magical realism at Skippings gallery



The unique combination of portraiture and North Sea magic realism art by the established artists Mark Burrell and David Gooch is currently on show at Skippings Gallery, King Street, Great Yarmouth, until the end of  September.

This is the very first time the two friends have exhibited together since first meeting twenty years ago, although they've given each other constructive criticism of each other's art throughout the decades. Indeed, Mark Burrell says of David Gooch - ‘He has one of the sharpest pair of eyes I know and can always spot a weak point in a painting even if its only half a centimetre wide’.

In a harmonious synchronization of perspective and geometry, imagination and intimate feeling, Burrell’s relatively large-scale work Girl at the Window (90 x 80 cm) depicts a young girl with her back to the viewer, caught in a moment of quiet reflection, gazing upon an extensive landscape. She looks towards the setting sun and a small tidal island; a craggy rock with a house, gothic in architectural style, is perched upon its grassy knoll. Surrounded by an extensive estuary, a viaduct connects island to mainland. A crescent moon appears in the twilight.

As often in his art, a spectacular cloudscape is depicted. Though highly-stylized, Burrell's cloudscape is based upon close observation by the artist, in particular, the refractive light upon clouds at sunset. The setting sun, located with pinpoint precision on the horizon, greatly enhances the carefully calculated perspective of the canvas. A cat and  flowers placed in a vase upon the window-sill emphasise the feminine domesticity of the scene. A slightly darker element, linking the gothic architecture of the mysterious island house occurs in the form of a pair of shadowy, twin portraits which frame each side of  window. 

Explaining the long evolution of his Girl at the Window, Burrell states-

‘It was reworked from a canvas 40 years ago. The Salvador Dali influence has now gone, the Dali bread became a girl, and the Vermeer jug turned into a cat. The figure just grew, it wasn’t there before in the old painting; it was isolated, full of decay. There are  paintings by Caspar  David Friedrich and Salvador  Dali entitled ‘A Girl at Window’, but neither of these has the shape or colour or feeling I was after, which was all about light, and the landscape being inside and outside being connected, not solitary.

‘While Friedrich’s Girl at the Window deals with the body in relationship to a cold interior, I, however, was thinking more about the psychology of landscape connecting inner and outer space, and of course a landscape without a figure can create such silence in a work.  This is nature abundant and happy meaning,  no longer afraid and depressed but thankful to be alive in the world, so it’s a landscape about mental states, then and now, and is autobiographical.’

Symbolically speaking a view from a window is a change or alteration in perspective (from a closed wall  indoors to being presented with a framed view) and hence its suggestive of an alteration or change of awareness or consciousness, a necessary adjutant to all mental and spiritual growth.

A tentative Jungian interpretation would suggest the canvas alludes to a psychological achievement, that of recognition and integration of the anima  (inner feminine within male psyche) to the self. This is expressed in the painting's imagery in the relationship between the unknown girl gazing upon the house perched upon a rock, its central focal point being mandala-like in the fantastic landscape.

The island, in particular, one composed half of rock and half of architectural design is a good symbol of the Self, which also consists of the known and unknown, of raw nature and refined culture.

Not only is Burrell familiar with Jungian psychology but also with a 20th century English author who wrote extensively on spiritual matters, stating-

"I've read a couple or three of Aldous Huxley's novels, every page rich and involved. His last novel 'Island' (1962) I read whilst actually on an island, not realising at the time how related it was to Buddhism, and the invasion of Tibet. A brilliant book. I  think he described meditation once as the poor man's snooze, but later came to realise its benefits."

The unusual topographical features of St.Michael's mount in Cornwall and St. Michel's mount in Normandy, France are landscapes which are suggestive of spiritual sanctuary, as does the fantastic landscape and intimate vision of Mark Burrell's Girl at the Window. 


Mark Burrell’s distinctive tonal palette, skilful draughtsmanship  and meticulous attention to detail is clearly visible in each and every one of the paintings in this Skippings exhibition. Equally adept in realism, as his portraits demonstrate, as in his realisation of magical landscapes inhabited by strange, yet somehow familiar characters, the wide spectrum of Burrell’s subject-matter now ranges from his native Lowestoft, to the caricaturing of international politics, to the highest flights of imagination, creating a personalised microcosm in which emotion and feeling are heightened through a highly original colour palette; a flourishing field of vision no less. 

As the Spanish cultural historian  Ortega Y Gasset states - 'Art has no right to exist if, content to reproduce reality, it uselessly duplicates it. Its mission is to conjure up imaginary worlds. That can only be done if the artist repudiates reality and by this act places himself above it. Being an artist means ceasing to take seriously that very serious person we are when we are not an artist'. [1]


Portrait of Peter Rodulfo by Mark Burrell
Burrell's portrait of fellow leading artist of the North Sea magical realism, Peter Rodulfo, captures not only the external features of the artist's ageing eyes, resultant from decades at the easel, along with his high-cheekbones, hinting of Rodulfo's remote Slavic ancestry, but also the artist's well-known inner qualities of warmth, humanity and sense of humour. 

Others portraits by Burrell in the Skippings exhibition include a portrait of David Gooch, a self-portrait and a portrait of his partner, Donna. His understanding of the art of portraiture is exemplified in his stating -

‘Portraits for me are all about the character of the sitter, the inner life, without that element a portrait is just a technical ability.  I love the flesh, soft parts, bone gristle, reflections in eyes, texture, and how much a face can change in just a day, changing and shifting form with different emotions’.

At the private viewing on Saturday 22nd September I finally meet David Gooch. Genial and  informative, like Burrell, Gooch is  also Lowestoft born and bred. I'm instantly surprised at the wide diversity of Gooch's exhibited art. Easily equal and gifted to Burrell in technique and style, Gooch's most recent paintings are also in the genre  of portraiture. More than  simply factual accounts of the face,  they show something of the inner workings of the individual. His portrait of his friend Mark Burrell depicts the artist at the easel wearing his studio hat, worn whilst working to protect his eyes from intrusive glare.  

As the art-historian Ortega Y Gasset once more, states-

A traditional painter painting a portrait claims to have got hold of the real person when, in truth and at best, he has set down on a canvas a schematic selection, arbitrarily decided on by his mind, from the innumerable traits that make a living person. What if the painter changed his mind and decided to paint not the real person but his own idea, his pattern, of the person ? Indeed, in that case the portrait would be the truth and nothing but the truth, and failure would no longer be inevitable. In foregoing to emulate reality the painting becomes what it authentically is: an image, an unreality' [2] 

In David Gooch's and Mark Burrell's respective portraits of the two leading artists of North Sea Magical realism, a valuable record of two mature artists, now approaching the peak of their artistic development is documented. 

Portrait of Mark Burrell by David  Gooch

In addition to his portraits, a number of landscapes by David Gooch  are included in the exhibition.  Gooch's sharp eye for landscape scenery has been inspired and developed through his travels to Cornwall, Yorkshire, Spain and France. His tonal palette, predominantly of cool colours, contrasts well with Burrell’s heightened colour in this exhibition, but whether cool or illuminated, what unites Gooch's art with his friend Mark Burrell's, is a shared love of portraiture and of landscape,  real and fantastic.

As ever, its worth stressing, digital photos simply don't give anywhere near the full flavour of  a genuine art-work in either colour, dimension or ambience even. Far better to visit Skippings gallery in Great Yarmouth before September ends, to acquire a true appreciation of these two artist's works.


Tuscan view by David Gooch

Notes

 [1]  The Dehumanizing of Art and other essays on Art, Culture, and Literature. Jose Ortega Y Gasset Princeton University Press 1968
[2] Ibid.





Saturday, June 30, 2018

Dr. Browne's Nose



   'Just one sniff and you'd wish you were one huge nose!'

'Delectable odours and abominable scents' - Olfactory study and imagery in Sir Thomas Browne's writings.

Evidence can be found in the collected writings of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) that each and every one of the  seventeenth century Norwich physician's five senses were well-developed and refined, yet restrained. In an age of few pleasures his 'Notes on the cookery of the Ancients'  with its passionate utterance-

'I wish we knew more clearly the condiments of the ancients, their sauces, flavours, digestives, tasties, slices, cold meats, and all kinds of pickles. Yet I do not know whether they would have surpassed salted sturgeons’ eggs, anchovy sauce, or our royal pickles. [1] 

suggests he enjoyed the sensory pleasure of taste, whilst Browne's fathering of eleven children hints of his being not totally immune to the most basic pleasures derived from the sense of touch.

Of the higher senses, the innate musicality of Browne's prose, in particular the discourse Urn-Burial (1658), with its 'vast undulations of  sound'  and 'full organ-stops' along with the hymn-like final paragraphs of  The Garden of Cyrus, testify to a good ear for rhythm and harmony, fundamentals of music-making, while Browne's frank declaration -

I can look a whole day with delight at a handsome picture, though it be but of an horse'. [2]

his appreciation of the beautiful in art and nature, usage original optical imagery in his prose along with the numerous perspicacious botanical observations in the central chapter of The Garden of Cyrus, are all evidence of a highly-developed visual sensibility.   

As with each of his other senses, there's evidence that Browne's olfactory sense was acute.  In Browne's major writings various references to smell occur, either in a medical capacity as a physician and early scientist, or in the form of olfactory imagery. 

Browne's era was one in which primitive sanitation, numerous diseases and variable personal hygiene standards thrived. For these reasons,  like many others, he was highly appreciative of fragrances. It is difficult for us today to imagine  the intensity of the various malodorous smells of his day. Many of the smells of Browne's era are now long lost to the sanitized and relative odourlessness of modern life. 

Its worthwhile reminding ourselves of a few basic biological facts. The nose is a sensory organ constantly exposed to the environment; its 50 million receptors are the only part of the brain which are not encased within the skull. The nose constantly receives impressions, many of which are involuntarily. Smell is capable of awakening and unlocking long forgotten memories of specific places, times and feelings. Smell can also evoke extremely strong feelings, ranging from disgust and repugnance to well-being and euphoria. The role of pheromones in sexual attraction is now well recorded, while the nose's 'intuitive deductive' capacity was of paramount importance to early man in distinguishing between edible food and warning away from poisonous substances. But although the nose is capable of differentiating between thousands of different smells, the sense of smell remains the least understood of all the senses, in particular its relationship to emotion and memory. There is no theory yet which can entirely explain olfactory perception.

One of the earliest studies on smell was by the Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BCE) who wrote a tract entitled 'On Odours'. Olfactory descriptions abound in the Deipnosophistae or 'Banquet of the philosophers' by Athenaeus (circa 200 CE), a favourite read of Browne's by all accounts [3] whilst the Latin word 'Sagacious', originally meant not only clever but also possessing a keen sense of smell.

Although smell, or  more accurately, scent was extensively used in the rituals of religious worship in the ancient world, early Christians and later those of a Puritan persuasion, associated perfumes and highly scented fragrances with the Roman Empire which had persecuted their religion, so they often censored and disapproved of the usage of incense in ritual worship and personal use.

Renaissance Scholars and poets were aware that olfactory imagery was employed in Classical Greek and Roman literature in order to describe beauty, ugliness, moral worth and virtue. Olfactory imagery can be found in the writings of many English literary figures including Shakespeare, along with Browne's contemporaries, Milton, Donne, Herbert and Herrick.

In the twentieth century the power of smell has been explored by writers such as Marcel Proust, and more recently by Patrick Suskind in his novel Perfume (1985). The artist Guy Bleus (born 1950) is credited as one of the first to systematically use scents in the plastic arts. In 1978 he wrote the olfactory manifesto The Thrill of Working with Odours in which he deplored the lack of interest in scents in the visual arts. Since then he has exhibited smell paintings, mailed perfumed objects and made aromatic installations; he also created spray performances in which he sprayed a mist of fragrance over his audience.

Browne's first usage of olfactory imagery can be found in his spiritual testament Religio Medici (1643), in this particular case in order to illustrate a paradox of the human condition, the conflict between the emotions and reason, a subject not without relevance in much current-day political debate. 

'In all disputes, so much as there is of passion, so much there is of nothing to the purpose, for then reason like a bad hound spends upon a false sent, and forsakes the question first started. [4]

In his quirky encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) Browne  makes one of the earliest modern scientific observations on smell. He notes that every man may have a proper and peculiar savour; that the sense of smell is acuter in dogs than man, and that the Greek philosopher Theophrastus recorded Alexander the Great to be sweet-smelling. After speculating upon how diet and ill-health may make some people smell unpleasant, the learned physician vigorously attacks  a common belief of his era that any single Nation of people can smell bad, in particular, the anti-semitic slander. Using two of the three determinators to ascertain truth, namely Reason and Experience, Browne argues that such a belief is irrational and a harmful prejudice. [5]

It was the Renaissance alchemist-physician Paracelsus (1493-1541) who urged the medical practitioner to enquire into the properties of Nature, thus when a Spermaceti whale was reported beached upon the Norfolk coast, Browne duly set off from Norwich to investigate it. In a famous descriptive chapter, which incidentally influenced the American author Herman Melville's description of a whale in 'Moby Dick', Browne wrote of the putrefying Spermaceti carcass-

'But had we found a better account and tolerable Anatomy, of that prominent jowle of the Spermaceti Whale , then questary operation, or the stench of the last cast upon our shoar, permitted, we might have perhaps discovered some handsome order in those Net-like seases and sockets, made like honey-combs, containing that medicall matter'. [6]

Browne's scientific investigation however was thwarted by 'insufferable fetour denying that enquiry', the creature's 'abominable scent'  agitating the physician's olfactory sensibility. Browne concludes his chapter upon the Spermaceti whale with learned humour, thus-

And yet if, as Paracelsus encourageth, Ordure makes the best Musk, and from the most fetid substances may be drawn the most odoriferous Essences; all that had not Vespasian's Nose, might boldly swear, here was a subject fit for such extractions. [7]

Browne's allusion to Vespasian's nose [8] originates from an anecdote recorded in Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars. When Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, complained to his father of a tax he'd imposed upon public Urinals Vespasian showed Titus a coin from the first day's tax, then asked him, 'Does it smell bad my son?' Titus replied, 'No father!' To which Vespasian allegedly retorted, 'That's odd it comes straight from the Urinal!'

Its also in Pseudodoxia Epidemica  that an early reference by Browne to plastic surgery upon the nose occurs in the passing remark- 'we might abate the Art of Taliacotius, and the new in-arching of Noses'. [9] 

This remark is explained thus - 'An early form of plastic surgery, as it were: surgical grafting, especially of noses. Such operations were fairly common and quite successful'. [10]

Smell, or more precisely, fragrance is quite naturally featured in The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in which Dr. Browne lyrically exclaims-

...whereto agreeth the doctrine of Theophrastus. Arise O North-wind, and blow thou South upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out; For the North-wind closing the pores, and shutting up the effluviums, when the South doth after open and relax them; the Aromatical gums do drop, and sweet odours fly actively from them. [11]

Numerous botanical observations are placed at the heart and central chapter of The Garden of Cyrus - including an observation indicative of Browne's appreciation of the olfactory sense -

'That the richest odour of plants, surpasseth that of Animals may seem of some doubt, since animal-musk, seems to excel the vegetable, and we find so noble a scent in the Tulip-Fly, and Goat-Beetle'. [12]

The Garden of Cyrus concludes with what has been described as one of the most eloquent expressions of the simple medical fact that the sense of smell is diminished in sleep-

'Nor will the sweetest delight of Gardens afford much comfort in sleep; wherein the dullness of that sense shakes hands with delectable odours'; [13]

Finally, late in his life, Browne wrote a highly unusual work entitled Museum Clausum, (circa 1675) an inventory of lost, rumoured and imagined books, pictures and objects conjured from the learned philosopher-physician's rich and fertile imagination. One particular object listed in miscellaneous tract 13 suggests that Browne recognised and identified smell's ability to alter and raise consciousness, anticipating modern-day alternative medicine such as aromatherapy even.

18. A transcendent Perfume made of the richest Odorates of both the Indies, kept in a Box made of the Muschie Stone of Niarienburg, -
.

 'both the Indies' is alluded to by Browne's contemporary, the alchemist Thomas Vaughan (1621-1665) in his writing-

'He who journeys through this great and wide sea may touch at both Indies.' [14]

The 'union of the Indies' is in fact a lesser-known symbol of totality in alchemy which is commented upon by the psychologist C.G.Jung thus  -

'As I have explained elsewhere, it leads to the four quarters, here indicated by the two Indies - East, West, - and by the turning of the compass to the north'. [15]

The slightly modified Latin quotation by the Roman poet Catullus which accompanies the bizarre curio reads -

Deos rogato Totum ut te faciant, Fabulle, Nasum.

which when translated states -

 'Just one sniff, Fabullus, and you'd wish you were one huge nose ! [16]


 *     *    *    *    *    *    *    *     *    *    *    *    *       *    *    *      


This post is dedicated to the eminent Brunonian scholar Dr. Kevin Killeen with thanks for his illuminating talk on Thomas Browne, 'the cusp of Life and Death' delivered at the Chapel, Park Lane, Norwich on June 27th, 2018.


Notes

[1]   Link to Notes on cookery of the ancients
[2] Religio Medici Part 2 Section 11
[3] Several books by Theophrastus are listed in the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of Dr. Browne and his son Edward's libraries, as is Athenaeus whom Browne writes of in his Latin essay (translated) 'From a Reading of Athenaeus'
[4] R.M. Part 2 Section 3
[5] P.E. book 4 chapter 10
[6] P.E. book 3 chapter 26
[7] Ibid.
[8] In Religio Medici Browne states, 'What a βατροχομυομαχία, and hot skirmish is betwixt S. and T. in Lucian?' (R.M. Part 2 Section 3) The new edition of Browne's Selected Writings edited Kevin Killeen (OUP 2013) corrects the misprint  in C.A. Patrides  Major Works Penguin 1977  from 'Note' to  'nose'.
[9]  P.E. Book 3 chapter 9
[10]  James Eason, webmaster of the excellent University of Chicago Browne online site.
[11] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 4
[12] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 3
[13] The Garden of Cyrus Chapter 5
[14] quoted by Jung in 'Aion' Cw vol. 9 ii para. 206
[15] Ibid.
[16] Museum Clausum (1686)

See also

Carl Jung and Browne

Browne on Art and Paintings

Saturday, April 14, 2018

'Walk through Walls' - Rodulfo's Yarmouth Collection



Within a few years of relocating his home and studio the visionary artist Peter Rodulfo (b.1958) has assembled an extraordinary portfolio of artwork which focuses upon the architecture and landmarks, street-life and social activities of Great Yarmouth. Rodulfo's Yarmouth Collection was exhibited at Skippings Gallery in Great Yarmouth  from April 14th until the 20th April 2018.

The Yarmouth Collection takes as its springboard observations made by the artist on walks throughout the town. Rodulfo's paintings depict the coastal town in both well-known and little-known guises. The walls which the artist invites the viewer to walk through are those of indifference and inattentiveness to one's everyday environment. Viewing the many gems of Rodulfo's Yarmouth Collection one not only acquires a new awareness of the sights and attractions of Great Yarmouth but also a deepened appreciation of the technical brilliance, wide stylistic diversity and protean imagination which the artist now commands, Rodulfo himself stating -‘Looking is like a language. The best art doesn't need a dictionary, but for general usage a context is needed’.

The attractions and architectural treasures of Great Yarmouth are the context of the Yarmouth Collection - its Marketplace, Regent Road, King Street, the Star hotel, St. George's Park, the Hippodrome Circus, Atlantis Tower, Nelson's Monument, Britannia and Wellington Piers all feature in the Yarmouth Collection.

The chequered fortunes of what geographically speaking was once little more than a narrow peninsula of shingle sandwiched between the North Sea and the River Yare, is clearly visible in Great Yarmouth’s  varied architecture. On  South Quay there's a 13th c.Tollhouse and  a 17th-century Merchant's House, as well as Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings. Behind South Quay there’s a maze of alleys and lanes known as "The Rows" while Yarmouth’s medieval wall is the second most complete Medieval town wall in the country. With eleven of  its eighteen original turrets still standing, its more extant than nearby Norwich's surviving medieval city walls.  

Rodulfo shares with fellow leading member of North Sea Magical Realism, Mark Burrell (b. 1957) an interest in the interaction between architecture and social activities; the townscape of Burrell’s hometown of Lowestoft  is often the setting of his luminescent paintings. As with Burrell however, its the overall ambience and mood of a location rather than meticulously reproducing architectural detail which interests Rodulfo. 

An ambiguous, even unsettling atmosphere is evoked in Approach to the Pleasure-Beach (below).  In equal measure of light and dark, cheer and gloom, an overcrowded boat is seen ferrying people to a Pleasure-Beach, some of which resembles the Bolton bros. fun-fair. With its sombre sky and churning water along with overcrowded boat, the viewer is left to wonder about the lengths people will go to in their pursuit of pleasure. The painting's background includes Yarmouth's 'Golden Mile' complete with the Atlantis Tower, Waterways boating-lake, windmill and approaching train.


Portraiture of Yarmouth’s leading cultural figures also occurs in the Yarmouth Collection. The proprietor of the Hippodrome Circus, Peter Jay, along with his bearded and bespectacled son Jack Jay, the current Ringmaster, can be seen mingling among the performing clowns and trapeze artists of The Day the Clowns Left (77 x 61 cm ) (below) as well as a pair of giraffes who rubberneck into the frame.

Great Yarmouth Hippodrome was built in 1903 by the legendary Circus showman George Gilbert. Its Britain's only surviving total circus building, one of only three in the world. The painting's title alludes to the fact that clowns are to be dropped from the performing artists of the Hippodrome Circus, because they are now considered to be too scary for a family audience.


Another leading figure in Yarmouth's cultural life, the artist John Kiki, a founding member of the 'Yarmouth six’ art-group is portrayed in On the Corner (below) with its grinning coffee-cup faces, vertical word COLUMBIA and surly-looking seagull peering from behind it.  John Kiki can be seen standing beside a yellow van in the lower right corner of the canvas, while in the lower left  corner stands a hill-top Greek village, a visual reference to Yarmouth’s long-established Cypriot-Greek community.















Rodulfo’s Quayside view of Yarmouth (below) far from either a pastiche or homage to Jan Vermeer’s famous View of Delft (1661) simply highlights an intuitive artistic perception - that Vermeer’s Delft and Yarmouth town share distinctive qualities of light, as well as cloud formations; both towns being situated on low land encompassed by water with a  full hemisphere of sky above (major contributing factors for Norfolk’s famed sunsets).

The skilful reproduction of cloud and sky reflected in the river Yare in Quayside view of Yarmouth is of particular note. The artist  himself stating of this  quayside view -

'I just thought the view is beautiful, but most people would walk by without a glance, as I am sure Vermeer’s contemporaries did, when walking past his view of Delft'.


Great Yarmouth itself is no back-water in British art history. Almost every major artist of the Norwich School of Painters which flourished exactly two centuries ago has an association with Yarmouth. Many Norwich School artists visited Yarmouth in order to paint beach and marine subjects; others, such as J.S.Cotman, resided in the Town attempting to make a precarious living, other Norwich School artists such as Joseph Stannard embarked from Yarmouth in order to view major art-collections such as the ‘Golden Age’ Dutch masters on display in Amsterdam; later in his short life the tubercular Stannard was sent to Yarmouth by family and friends in hope that the salubrious sea-air would restore his health. For many years John Crome visited Yarmouth weekly as an art- teacher, he also sailed from the sea-port in order to view the art-treasures newly on display in Paris which had been plundered by Napoleon in his military victories.


Another allusion to European art-styles occurs in a painting which features two of Yarmouth's tallest landmarks, the Britannia Monument (44 metres in height) and the Atlantis Tower (56 metres in height). A naval Admiral's hat, a crane stacking container cargo, seagull and traffic cone can also be seen in this relatively small painting sized 36 x  49 cm. (Top of this post). 

The Britannia Monument is a tribute to Lord Nelson (1758-1805) which was completed in 1819, some 24 years before the completion of Nelson's Column in London. The Monument shows Britannia standing atop a globe, holding an olive branch in her right hand and a trident in her left. Originally planned to mark Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile, its installation was delayed due to insufficient fundraising which resulted in it not being completed until after the Naval hero's death. Now surrounded by an industrial estate, Rodulfo links the monument's current environ to the settings of the paintings of Giorgio De Chirico (1888 -1978) who greatly influenced the Surrealists and whose paintings often included arcades and towers, stating- 'When thinking of monumental surrealism of course De Chirico springs to mind’. This being the primary reason why the painting references the  distinctive style of the Italian metaphysical artist.

In Yarmouth Market Place (148 x 117 cm)(below) the vibrancy of one of England's oldest and largest marketplaces is represented through swirling activity and a cheerful and pleasing tonal palette. Market produce of fruit and vegetables, flowers and clothes, along with  gangways and shoppers, are all depicted in what may be termed Rodulfo's multi-layered perspective. Gate-crashing into the picture are two seagulls, near ubiquitous to Yarmouth town, one humorous, the other slightly threatening. They also contribute to the general hustle and bustle of Yarmouth Market Place, and can be seen in various other paintings of Peter Rodulfo's wholly original Yarmouth Collection.

















'Rainy Bank Holiday' (with Atlantis Tower)


Friday, March 02, 2018

Shostakovich's String Quartets






The intimacy and privacy of the String quartet became a favoured medium for the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75). His cycle of fifteen String Quartets  may be considered equal in profundity, wit and technical brilliance to Beethoven's String Quartets.

Although sometimes evoking a Kafkaesque atmosphere of anxiety, dread and fear induced by life in the Totalitarian era of Stalin, (Shostakovich on a number of occasions was under extreme pressure to conform to Communist Party aesthetics), nevertheless the composer managed to preserve the highest degree of artistic integrity in his String Quartets in which the 'Other Shostakovich', someone quite separate from the 'Official' State War hero and composer of the patriotic  Leningrad' Symphony, are  featured.

As Alex Ross notes-

'The 'other Shostakovich' was a gnomic, cryptic, secretly impassioned figure who spoke through chamber music (twelve string quartets from 1948 on) .... The string quartet became his favourite medium: it gave him the freedom to write labyrinthine narratives full of blankly winding fugues, near-motionless funeral marches, wry displays of foolish jollity, off-kilter genre exercise, and stretches of deliberate blandness. One of the composer's favourite modes might be called "dance on the gallows" - a galumphing, almost polka-like number that suggests a solitary figure facing death with inexplicable glee'.[1]

'Like the Second and Third Quartets, the Fifth begins with a sonata form movement with exposition repeat. In its virile Beethovian energy, this magnificent movement resembles the first movement of the Second Quartet, with a sense of militant resistance, which had not appeared in Shostakovich's music since that work eight years earlier, though the second subject is a graceful waltz. Segueing to its central slow movement, the quartet retreats into an icy muted B minor. ....this threnody for crushed aspirations and deformed lives also recalls the 'ghost music' of the Third Quartet'.




In contrast to Beethoven's expanding the canvas for a String Quartet, Shostakovich in his 7th String quartet (1960) telescopes the format, returning to the length of an early Haydn String Quartet.  Lasting little more than 12 minutes, the length of many single movements of a Beethoven Late quartet. It includes acerbic wit and fiercely contrasting dynamics, along with an enigmatic opening phrase.




Known in the USSR as the 'Dresden' quartet, the Eighth Quartet was composed in three days during the composer's visit to the ruined city of Dresden in July 1960...Shostakovich had supposedly been so shocked by the devastation he saw that poured out his feelings in music, inscribing the work 'In memory of the victims of fascism and war'. .....the composer told friends that, far from concerning the dead of Dresden - victims not of fascism but of Western democracy working to Soviet military request - the quartet was actually a musical autobiography. 'Everything in the quartet ais as clear as a primer. I quote Lady Macbeth the First and Fifth Symphonies. What does fascism have to do with these ? The Eight is an autobiographical  quartet, it quotes a song known to all Russians: "Exhausted by the hardships of prison".

Alex Ross notes -  'The personal motto D S C H, which sounded so pseudo-triumphantly in the finale of the Tenth Symphony, is woven into almost every page of the Eight Quartet. It appears alongside quotations, from previous Shostakovich works, including the Tenth Symphony, Lady Macbeth, and the First Symphony, not to mention Tchaikovsky's Pathetique, Siegfried's Funeral Music from Gotterdammerung, and the revolutionary song "Tormented by Grievous Bondage". .....The final pages of the score trail resemble in a curious way, the mad scene in Peter Grimes , in which the fisherman is reduced to singing his own name : "Grimes! Grimes ! Grimes!". It is the ultimate moment of self-alienation' [3]




Shostakovich and Britten

During the 1960's Shostakovich became a friend of  the composer Benjamin Britten (b. Lowestoft 1913-76). Both composers shared a liking for the music of Gustav Mahler,  both worked within the framework of Western tonality and respected each other's work sufficiently to quote each other in their respective compositions. The theme of the Outsider in society is prominent in both men's music, not least in Shostakovich's later string quartets. Both composers also died tragically prematurely. 

In his highly recommended book on 20th century music and its relationship to politics, 'The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century', the musicologist Alex Ross provides the historical details on the two composers friendship thus-

'In September 1960, when Dmitri Shostakovich came to London to hear his Cello Concerto played by Mstislav Rostropovich, he was introduced to Benjamin Britten. In the following years Britten and Pears made several visits to Russia and the friendship between the two composers blossomed when Britten and Pears traveled to A Soviet composer's colony in Armenia, where Rostropovich and Shostakovich were staying.

Ross notes -'Despite obvious differences in temperament- Britten was warm and affectionate with those whom he trusted, Shostakovich nervous to the end - the two quickly found sympathy with each other, and their connection may have gone as deep as any relationship in either man.

Britten had long admired Shostakovich's music, as the Lady Macbeth-like Passacaglia in Peter Grimes shows. Shostakovich, for his part, knew little of Britten's music before the summer of 1963, when he was sent the recording and score of the War Requiem. He promptly announced that he had encountered one of the "great works of the human spirit". In person he once said to Britten, "You great composer; I little composer". Britten's psychological landscape, with its undulating contours of fear and guilt, its fault lines and crevasses, its wan redeeming light, made Shostakovich feel at home.

Both men seem almost to have been born with a feeling of being cornered. Even in works of their teenage years, they appear to be experiencing spasms of existential dread. They were grown men with the souls of gifted, frightened children. They were like the soldiers in Wilfred Owens poem, meeting at the end of a profound, dull tunnel.

In 1969 Shostakovich capped the friendship by placing Britten's name on the title page of his Fourteenth Symphony.

Dmitri Shostakovich with Benjamin Britten

Alex Ross summarises Shostakovich's String quartets thus -

'The creations of Shostakovich's sixties, a time of increasingly deteriorating health, form a group of their own,....Here, turning away from confrontation with the State and dogged by the possibility of sudden death following his first heart attack in 1966, he focused with growing austerity on eternal and universal subjects: time, love, betrayal, truth, morality and mortality. Withdrawn and cryptic, these compositions are often compared with Beethoven's own late period. ......It  is as if  the composer has seen too much evil, suffered too much duplicity. His withdrawal from the world in his late works seems at least partly to have been founded on a growing mistrust of humanity per se. From those who knew him it seems that Shostakovich's philosophy, at its simplest, was to value the individual and fear the crowd, the heartless collective. Like Britten, he ponders in old age a kind of Noh theatre of moral parable, chiseling away the superfluous to expose the essential human beneath, bereft of its camouflage of vanity and pretence.....The desolate psychological terrain of Shostakovich's late-period music overlaps everywhere with that of Britten's. [5]

Another reviewer of Shostakovich's String Quartets states- 'The quartets are neither minor in their scope or ambition. They all have something to say about the nature of human existence and folly, collectively or as individuals. There are brief moments, more perhaps towards the later quartets, where bitterness and dark intimations of mortality give way to a peaceful acceptance.  There are no happy endings, only surrender to the inevitable, alone in the knowledge of the truth of what we are and what we have been'. [6]

 It's been suggested  that Shostakovich, faced with close scrutiny from Officials, adopted the role of the yurodivy or holy fool in his relations with the government; this persona features in his String Quartets. Austere, increasingly terse and morose, they also bear witness to the intense emotional strain the composer endured throughout his life in compliance with the Soviet authorities. Far from being exclusively expressions of the Russian Soul, they're recognisable as giving voice to the loss of Faith, alienation and existential angst suffered by many in the West in the twentieth century.

Notes

[1] The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century  Alex Ross 2007 Farrar Straus and Giroux
[2]The New Shostakovich Ian MacDonald Pimlico 2006
[3] The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century  Alex Ross 2007 Farrar Straus and Giroux
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid
[6] Anonymous Amazon reviewer.

The most detailed and scholarly online writings, far surpassing my effort, on each and every one of Shostakovich's Fifteen String Quartets can be found here.