Sunday, September 03, 2017

The Tale of Tales

Loosely based upon one of the earliest of all European collections of fairy-tales, Italian film director Matteo Garrone's adaptation of Giambattista Basile's The Tale of Tales is a triumph of cinematography. Starring Salma Hayek and Toby Jones, Garrone's Tale of Tales (2015) is sumptuous in costume, decor and location and exemplary of magical realism in cinema.

Early in the first of three overlapping stories, the childless King and Queen of Longtrellis consult a ghoulish necromancer who mysteriously declares- 

'the equilibrium of the world must be maintained, every desire and action corresponds to another, every life calls for a life, birth is always stained by death, death in turn is simply one element of birth'.  

These philosophical aphorisms alert one to the fact that the fairy tales collected by the Neapolitan courier and poet Giambattista Basile (1566-1632) The Tale of Tales (Lo cunto de li cunti) are far removed from the sentimental fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75) and even further removed from the syrup and saccharine servings of modern-day Disney adaptations. 

Taking the advice that the heart of a sea-dragon must be found and cooked by a virgin in order for the Queen to become pregnant, the King of Longtrellis duly embarks upon an aquatic hunt. This first story although deviating from the original plot, nevertheless, like each one of the three overlapping stories of Garrone's  Tale of Tales remains in essence faithful to the moral of Basile's fairy-tale collection. All three stories focus upon the deceptive world of appearances and the fatal consequences which occur when obtaining false desires.

Besides being well-acted, notably in the roles portrayed by Salma Hayek and Toby Jones, the Neapolitan flavour of Basile's tales is conveyed well in costume, decor and location. The Tale of Tales was filmed entirely in Italy, including  at Naples at the Royal Palace, at the Palace of Capodimonte and its gardens, at Apulia's Castel del Monte, Sicily's Donnafugata Castle, Gole dell'Alcantara in Alcantara, Abruzzo's Castello di Roccascalegna, Tuscany's Moorish castle of Sammezzano  and the towns of Sorano and Sovana. All of which are atmospheric backdrops contributing to the film's stylish narrative.
In the second tale of The Tale of Tales, the fatal mistake of misdirected desire is once more focussed upon. The King of Highhills (Toby Jones) is distracted by a flea while listening to his daughter accompanying herself on guitar while singing. He captures the flea and lovingly nurtures it. The pet flea grows to monstrous proportions to become a secret hobby of greater importance to him than the future of his daughter. When the flea dies the King concocts a bizarre challenge for the hand of his daughter in marriage which backfires with fatal consequences when an ogre visits his castle to take up his challenge.   

In the third story featured in The Tale of Tales the dissolute and lustful King of Longtrellis (Vincent Cassell) also hears a woman singing and becomes obsessed with seducing her.  However, unknown to him, the voice he hears belongs to one of two  aged and withered sisters. Unable to see his obsessive love he persuades her to grant him the favour of at least poking a finger through a hole for him to kiss (some quite overt Freudian symbolism going on there). Once obtaining his full desire and disgusted at her true appearance, he orders his guards to commit an act of defenestration upon his rejected lover. Caught mid-flight in the branches of a tree she is suckled by a sorceress and transformed into a beautiful young woman.  

In Basile's fairy stories the staple diet of fairy tales world-wide can be found, seemingly impossible tasks to be performed, humans transformed into animals such as cats, doves, foxes and whales which talk, dramatis personae of dwarves and ogres, cruel step-mothers, magicians and sorceresses, peasants and Kings, true love found and tales of rags to riches. Basile's stories also include moral aphorisms such as, 'Ingratitude is a nail, which, driven into the tree of courtesy, causes it to wither' and, 'One hour in port, the sailor freed from fears, forgets the tempests of a hundred years'. as well as astrological aphorisms one character uttering, 'He is a madman who resists the stars',  another says 'Praised be Sol in Leo !' The pipes of Pan, with their seven reeds one larger than another are also mentioned. 

Such is the sophistication of Basile's tales in their construction that in the 2007 Penguin translation of his tales, the translator observes - 

Each tale is introduced by a rubric that sums up the story and a preamble that includes a summary of the audience's reactions to the previous tale as well as reflections on the teaching of the tale to come (often leading to discussions of favourite Renaissance and Baroque topics such as fortune and virtue, wit, envy), and concludes with a moralizing proverb, often from Basile's Neapolitan wit [1]

'Heaven sends biscuits to him who has no teeth'.

Basile's plots often reverse expectations, his language is described as - 'an unusual stylized Baroque version of the Neapolitan dialect, at times mellifluous, at times coarse and provocative; his critical commentary on his era was so far ahead of his time that it still has a bearing on contemporary society'. [2]   

'Basile's tales are inhabited by supernatural creatures and propelled by forms of magic entirely disassociated from any religious system, at a time when the strict orthodoxy of the Counter- Reformation influenced public and private expression. The Tale of Tales is a work that simultaneously  evokes the humus of seventeenth century Naples- its landmarks, customs and daily rituals, family and professional life - and conjures forth a fantastic world whose originality still holds strong attraction today'. [3]

Giambattista Basile (1575-1632)
Another critic describes Basile's tales as -'bawdy and irreverent but also tender and whimsical; acute in psychological characterization and at the same time encyclopaedic in description; full, ultimately, of irregularities and loose ends that somewhat magically manage to merge into a splendid portrait of creatures engaged in the grave and laborious, gratifying and joyful business of learning to live in the world - and to tell about it. '[4]

Basile's dark and baroque fairy-tales are equal in importance to those of Charles Perrault (1697) or the Brothers Grimm (1810); indeed The Tale of Tales contains the earliest literary versions of many celebrated  fairy tales  - Cinderella, sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel among others. Throughout the past two centuries, in particular, the Brothers Grimm highly influential collection of fairy tales, almost every nation and culture from Russian to Lapp to Aborigine have sought to collate a definitive collection of their own fairy-tales. It was not until the 20th century in Italy that a definitive collection of fairy-tales were collated. Basile was a key influence and source to Italo Calvino's masterly compilation Fiabe Italiane (Italian folktales) of over 200 Italian fairy tales, which  Calvino describes thus-
Taken all together, they offer, in their oft-repeated and constantly varying examinations of human vicissitudes, a general explanation of life preserved in the slow ripening of rustic consciences; folk stories are the catalog of the potential destinies of men and women, especially for that stage in life when destiny is formed i.e. youth, beginning with birth, which itself often foreshadows the future; then the departure from home, and, finally, through the trials of growing up, the attainment of maturity and the proof of one’s humanity. This sketch, although summary, encompasses everything: the arbitrary division of humans, albeit in essence equal, into kings and poor people; the persecution of the innocent and their subsequent vindication, which are the terms  inherent in every life; love unrecognised when first encountered and then no sooner experienced than lost; the common fate of subjection to spells, or having one’s existence predetermined by complex and unknown forces. This complexity pervades one’s entire existence and forces one to struggle to free oneself, to determine one’s own fate; at the same time we can liberate ourselves only if we liberate other people, for this is the sine qua non of one’s own liberation. There must be fidelity to a goal and purity of heart, values fundamental to salvation and triumph. There must also be beauty, a sign of grace that can be masked by the humble, ugly guise of a frog; and above all, there must be present the infinite possibilities of mutation, the unifying element in everything: men, beasts, plants, things. [5]

In contemporary study of the fairy tale, Jack Zipes, the most industrious scholar in the field, has developed a politically committed, cultural materialist perspective which explores the multiple ricochets between historical facts and mentalities (including class and gender values) with fairytale scenarios. His extensive criticism, from Don't Bet on the Prince (1986) to his recent The Irresistible Rise of the Fairy Tale (2007) has simultaneously helped give fairy tales greater stature as literature and led to sharp controversy about their pernicious or liberating influence upon audiences, especially the young.[6] According to Zipes -

'In the fairy tale man is freed from the mystery's obligation of silence by transforming it into enchantment; it is not participation in a cult of knowledge which renders him speechless, but bewitchment. The silence of the mystery is undergone as a rupture, plunging man back into the pure, mute language of nature; but as a spell, silence must eventually be shattered and conquered. This is why, in the fairy tale, man is struck dumb, and animals emerge from the pure language of nature in order to speak'. [7]

Fairy tales have attracted the attention of many great artists, poets, illustrators and composers. Adapted for theatre as the framework for countless Christmas pantomimes and the inspiration for various composers (some of the greatest ballets of all-time are based upon fairy-tales, namely, Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty as well as Stravinsky's ballet The Firebird) the literary genre of the fairy or folk tale continues to be a source of inspiration, entertainment and interpretative discourse throughout the world. 

Celebrating the power of the imagination the fairy story is a literary genre which may be considered as exemplary of magical realism. In the modern-era, Cinema with its combination of sound and moving image is another medium through which magical realism can be convincingly experienced.

In the Mexican film-director Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (2006) the worlds of fascist Spain and the dark fantasy world his adopted daughter Ofelia explores are juxtaposed to eventually collide, with tragic, yet redeeming consequences. Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, along with The Tin Drum (Schlöndorff 1979) The City of Lost Children (Caro and Jeunet 1995) Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001) Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze 1999) Amélie ( Jeunet 2001) The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (Brothers Quay 2005) The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry 2006) and many of the films by Terry Gilliam are among my personal favourites. There is however nowadays an increasingly amorphous and mushrooming of the term 'magical realism' and an ever-lengthening list of films which critics claim are exemplary of the generic term, thus rendering the label near meaningless.   

The psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung both occupied themselves with the inner meaning of fairy tales and folk motifs, and each had disciples who dedicated full-length studies to the analysis of fairy tales. The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung (1875-1961) wrote two major studies on fairy-stories, 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' and 'The Spirit  Mercurius' which analyzes the Brothers Grimm's 'The Spirit in the Bottle'. Jung interpreted fairytales, along with alchemy and dreams, as conduits to the unconscious psyche, noting-  

'Fairytales seem to be the myths of childhood and they therefore contain among other things the mythology which children weave for themselves concerning sexual processes. The poetry of the fairytale, whose magic is felt even by the adult, rests not least upon the fact that some of the old theories are still alive in our unconscious. We experience a strange and mysterious feeling whenever a fragment of our remotest youth stirs into life again, not actually reaching consciousness, but merely shedding a reflection of its emotional intensity on the conscious mind'. [8] 

According to Jung, 'As in alchemy, the fairytale describes the unconscious processes that compensate the conscious, Christian situation...the fairytale makes it clear that it is possible for a man to attain totality, to become whole, only with the spirit of darkness, indeed that the latter is actually a causa instrumentalis of redemption and individuation'. [9] 

'Myths and fairytales give expression to unconscious processes, and their retelling causes these processes to come alive again and be recollected, thereby re-establishing the connection between conscious and unconscious'.  [10] 

C.G. Jung believed that - 'It is extremely important to tell children fairy tales and legends, and to inculcate religious ideas into grown-ups, because these things are instrumental symbols with whose help unconscious contents can be canalized into consciousness, interpreted and integrated'. [11] 

The function of the fairy-tale according to Jung is - 'to tell us how to proceed if we want to overcome the power of darkness: we must turn his own weapons against him, which naturally cannot be done if the magical underworld of the hunter remains unconscious'. [12] 

It was however Jung's disciple, Marie-Louis von Franz (1915-1998) who took fairy-tales seriously enough to devote many years of her life exploring their psychological symbolism. von Franz's books remain fruitful reading for those wishing to study fairy-tales from a Jungian perspective in  greater depth. [13]

In conclusion, returning our attention to  Basile's fairy-tales  - In an interview at the Cannes film festival in 2016 the Italian film director Matteo Garrone quoted Calvino's description of Basile as a kind of 'deformed Neapolitan Shakespeare' and  described his own film adaptation of Basile's tale as being fantasy with horror. In what must surely have been a labour of love, i.e. to restore a neglected work of Italian literature, Garrone's film is to be applauded for raising the profile of Basile's little-known collection.


[1] Giambattista  Basile  The Tale of Tales Penguin Books Wayne State University Press 2007
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Italo Calvino  - Italian Folktales  pub. 1956 trans. 1980
[6] Once Upon a Time - A short history of fairy tale - Marina Warner OUP 2014
[7] Ibid.
[8] C.G.Jung Collected Works Vol.  17 para 43
[9]  CW vol. 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' (1945/48)
[10]  CW 9 ii: 280
[11] CW 9 ii: 259
[12] CW 9 i: 453 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' (1945/48)
[13] The Feminine in Fairytales - M.L. von Franz - Spring Publications 1972
The Psychological Meaning of Redemption Myths in Fairytales - M.L. von Franz Inner City books 1980.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Wooden Prince

First performed in Budapest, a full century ago on May 12th 1917,  Béla Bartók's ballet-pantomime The Wooden Prince is based upon a fairy-tale which focuses upon the themes of love and loneliness, the contrasting natures of men and women, the artist's relationship to creativity and the triumph of love over adversity.

The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945) is arguably one of the unhappiest examples of a composer who learned to live with neglect. Throughout most of his career, discouragement, the struggle to find an audience, failing health and chronic poverty, dominated his life. It was only after his death in 1945 that public recognition of his musical genius occurred.

In 1914, the writer Béla Balázs, who also wrote the text for Bartok's opera Bluebeard’s Castle, found the composer, “in a gloomy and hopeless state of mind. He was thinking about emigration, or of suicide.” The Wooden Prince was a composition in which Bartók’s fortunes seemed, at least temporarily, to change. Balázs suggested to Bartók the idea of a musical pantomime. Composition began in 1914; it was the first serious work Bartók had attempted in many months. Progress was sporadic, but he persisted, inspired by the promise of a staged production. It may well have been the subtext of Balázs's pantomime about the fate of the creative artist which inspired him.

The orchestral score of The Wooden Prince is the largest ever employed by Bartok. The composer calls for four flutes and two piccolos, four oboes and two english horns, four clarinets, E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, four bassoons and two contrabassoons, three saxophones, four horns, four trumpets and two cornets, three trombones and tuba, two harps, celesta, glockenspiel, xylophone, triangle, castanets, cymbals, side drum, bass drum, tam-tam, and strings. Its total performance time is approximately fifty minutes.

Termed a symphonic poem for dance by the composer, each individual dance of The Wooden Prince varies sharply in character. Highlights of the orchestral score include a terrifying Tolkien Ent-like march of trees, a jazz influenced dance upon waves featuring three saxophones, a playful dance of the princess in the forest scored for solo clarinet, harp and pizzicato strings, and a vigorous comic dance in which Bartok caricatures the movements of the wooden dummy prince lurching through abrupt shifts of tempo with a pulsing, repetitive rhythmic stamp.

The Wooden Prince reveals a number of influences upon the composer's maturing style. Its brilliant, original and colourful orchestration may have resulted from Bartok’s encounter with the repertoire of the Ballet Russe who visited Budapest with the Hungarian premieres in 1913 of Stravinsky’s two new ballets, The Firebird with its libretto based upon a conglomerate of Russian fairy tales, and the puppet-drama Petrushka.

The tone-poems of the Austrian composer Richard Strauss were also an influence upon Bartók who reportedly was stunned when first hearing Also Sprach Zarathustra (1890) at its Budapest premiere in 1902. Other influences include Bartok's careful study of Debussy’s scores at his friend and fellow composer Zoltan Kodály’s suggestion; and the discovery of Eastern European folk music, which had given him a second career as a pioneer ethnomusicologist.

The libretto of The Wooden Prince tells of a handsome young prince who sees a beautiful princess playing flirtatiously among the trees. He impulsively falls in love with her and struggles to win her heart. In his way stand the wishes of a fairy who wishes the prince to belong alone in her magical nature world, and who uses all her powers to prevent him from reaching the princess. In the third dance, termed a 'grand ballet', the forest itself, and then a river are summoned to turn the prince away from his goal, while in the distance the princess sits at her spinning wheel in the castle, oblivious to his effort. To gain her attention the prince fashions an image of himself, that he can lift above the trees for her to glimpse. He takes his crown, his sword, and, eventually, his golden hair, arranges them on a dummy, and watches as the princess instantly stops sewing and dashes down through the forest to find this handsome prince she has seen . The princess falls in love not with the real prince, but with the wooden dummy he has made, resulting in the dejected prince retreating into solitude. The wooden prince is brought to life by the fairy. The princess is disappointed once the dummy breaks down, catches sight of the real prince, and succeeds in regaining his heart. The prince abandons solitude for the embrace of lover. As the curtain falls the story ends with the lovers, now certain of their affection, standing quietly gazing into each other’s eyes.

Opening in the key of C major with distinct reference to the music of Richard Wagner's Rheingold, the introduction of The Wooden Prince displays great psychological mastery as its music slowly transforms from a mood of calm and tranquillity to one of full-blown tension and crisis.

Early in the ballet there is an uncanny evocation of a vast green forest and 'Water- music' in which Bartok vividly conjures a direct image of nature, applying the lessons of his impressionistic phase from the music of Debussy. The French composer's influence can be heard in the third dance of the ballet, Dance of the Waves which features three saxophones. 

The Belgian inventor Adolphe Sax's great contribution to music, the saxophone is featured in various other orchestral works, in particular those of French composers including Bizet in his L'Arlesienne suites dating from the 1870's, Ravel's Bolero (1928) as well as his orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (1922) and Debussy's Rhapsody for Saxophone and Orchestra (1903). Others who composed for the saxophone's distinctive voice include Rachmaninov in his Symphonic Dances (1940), his last ever composition, Vaughan Williams in Job, A Masque For Dancing (premiered in concert form in October 1930 at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival), Alexander Glazunov in his Concerto for  Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (1934) and Benjamin Britten in his Sinfonia da Requiem (1941).

One would have thought the saxophone to be the perfect instrument to depict a bustling metropolis in Bartok's subsequent work The Miraculous Mandarin, a story of sex, crime, murder and robbery, but in fact it's in the third dance of The Wooden Prince, entitled Dance of the Waves, with its three saxophones, that one of the earliest allusions  in orchestral music to jazz can be heard. 

The full sequence of dances in The Wooden Prince is as follows-

Part 1  [Prelude before the curtain rises]   [Awakening of Nature]

First Dance -  Dance of the princess in the forest.
Prince falls in love with her.

Second Dance -  Dance of the trees.
Trees, brought to life by the fairy, prevent the prince from reaching her.

Third Dance -  Dance of the Waves.

Fourth Dance - Dance of the princess with the wooden doll.

Fifth Dance - Princess pulls and tugs at the collapsing wooden prince.

Sixth Dance  - She tries to attract the real Prince with seductive dancing.

Seventh Dance - Dismayed, the Princess attempts to hurry after the Prince. Prince and Princess embrace. Nature returns to a peaceful state.

In addition to the Italian story-teller Carlo Collodi's world-famous tale of the adventures of a wooden doll who becomes a boy, Pinocchio (1883) there are several ballets which feature a dummy or mannikin.

Leo Delibe's comic ballet Coppelia (1870), Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker (1892) based upon E.T.A. Hoffman's dark tale of 1816, and Stravinsky’s ground-breaking score for the Ballet Russe, Petrushka (1911) all feature a puppet or doll-like character. In the frenzied courtship dance of the princess with the puppet wooden prince Bartok utilizes exotic pentatonic harmonies and vigorous rhythms which are imitative of  music in the score of Stravinsky's ballet, Petrushka

A rare Hungarian video-clip of the moment the princess meets and dances with the wooden prince gives an idea of the intricate relationship between orchestral score and its choreography.  

In the ballet's apotheosis the melody featured at the moment of the couple's final coming together is the Hungarian folk-song Fly, Peacock, quoted by Bartók in his First String Quartet and which Zoltán Kodály also quotes in his Peacock Variations.

The librettist of The Wooden Prince, Béla Balázs stated that the wooden puppet symbolizes the creative work of the artist, who puts all of himself into his work until he has made something complete, shining, and perfect. The artist himself, however, is left poor. as in that common and profound tragedy in which the creation becomes the rival of the creator, or the bitter-sweet dilemma in which a woman prefers the poem to the poet, the picture to the painter.

For the American music-historian Carl Leafstedt, the character of the Prince in Bartok’s ballet-pantomime is one of a symbolic chain of lonely selves which populate Bartok’s stage works. These include - Bluebeard, Judith, the Prince, Mimi and the Mandarin -  all of whom are character’s seeking, and sometimes finding, however briefly, the release from solitude and the wholeness which love can bring. Leafstedt also noted - ‘Bartok extends and makes dramatically convincing, the prince’s gradual resignation and his ensuing embrace by Nature, as the fairy commands all things in the forest to pay homage to the disconsolate man. In so doing he enlarges the work’s symbolism: the prince’s grief is not merely a transitory grief over a lost opportunity, but a life-altering moment of realization. He sees, with a clarity never before experienced, the emptiness of humanity’s pursuit of love, and in that moment of realization gains symbolic admittance into a realm lying beyond reason, beyond suffering, where man, alone, can lay down the burdens of his soul on the breast of Nature. This apotheosis forms the emotional centre of Bartok’s ballet; it is surrounded on either side by the quicker, more extroverted dances of the princess and wooden prince. [1]

The literary genre of the fairy tale has become increasingly scrutinized and analysed. Taken seriously by the psychologist C.G. Jung, notably in  his two essays dating from 1948, 'The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales' and in his analysis of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale The Spirit in the Bottle in his The Spirit Mercurius 1948). Jung viewed fairy tales like myths to be spontaneous and naive products of soul which depicted different stages of experiencing the reality of the soul.

Jung's close associate, Marie-Louis von Franz (1915-98) considered fairy tales, along with alchemy, as examples of how the collective unconscious compensates for the one-sidedness of Christianity and its ruling god image. For Jungian analysts fairy tales are the 'purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes' which represent the archetypes in their simplest, barest and most concise form'. 'In this pure form, the archetypal images afford us the best clues to the understanding of the processes going on in the collective psyche'.

Marie-Louis von Franz  speculated - 'I have come to the conclusion that all fairy tales endeavour to describe one and the same psychic fact, but a fact so complex and far-reaching and so difficult for us to realize in all its different aspects that hundreds of tales and thousands of repetitions with a musician’s variation are needed until this unknown fact is delivered into consciousness; and even then the theme is not exhausted. This unknown fact is what Jung calls the Self, which is the psychic reality of the collective unconscious'.

An attentive reading of  the complex orchestral score of Bartok's The Wooden Prince reveals a multitude of 'copy-book' motifs found in the soundtracks of numerous Hollywood films, including the genre of cartoon or animation. This is none too surprising for some of the most gifted of European composers, including Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, and Bohuslav Martinu, as well as Bartok, sought asylum in America before and during World War II. Their influence upon the development of American music cannot be under-estimated.

With its psychological motifs, impassioned moments and stark rhythms which originate from Bartok's study of Eastern European folk music known as Verbunkos, The Wooden Prince can now be recognised as not only an example of how European orchestral music  influenced future  music-making in America, but also as an orchestral work as radical and innovative as Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) in 20th century music. 

Although productions of The Wooden Prince as a ballet are few in number today, it remains in the Hungarian dance repertoire to the present-day, as can be seen in the following video-clip.

Bibliography and Notes

Bartok Orchestral Music  John McCabe BBC pub. 1974

[1] The Cambridge Companion to Bartok  edited by Amanda Bayley pub. CUP 2001 includes - The Stage Works: Portraits of loneliness  by Carl Leaftstedt


The Wooden Prince and Cantata Profana - Chicago Symphony Orchestra and chorus conducted by Pierre Boulez  DGG 1991

Naxos - The Wooden Prince - Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop 2008


Top - A photo of Nikolay Boyarchikov's 1966 choreographic version of  The Wooden Prince at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, Saint Petersburg.

Next - Cover of 1917 Budapest publication of Béla Balázs The Wooden Prince.

An essay for Carl living in Hungary.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Mark Burrell's 'The Trump Show: Let's Make America Great Again'.

In the British artist Mark Burrell’s painting Lets Make America Great Again (2017) the negative emotional and psychological traits of America’s controversial President, Donald Trump are satirized.

Realized in the medium of alkyd resins, Burrell's artistic imagination is clearly alive and well, enhanced as ever through skillful draughtsmanship and a meticulous attention to detail. These talents, in conjunction with the artist’s sensibility, insight and occasional dark humour contribute to create a provocative art-work.  Donald Trump is portrayed as an overgrown baby in the care of a hooded baby-sitting member of the KKK who is pushing a pram on the edge of a cliff. Meanwhile, the American flag is in flames as Trump in his pram stuffed full of dollars and lit by coloured bulbs, sounds off his horn, only to emit bubbles in vain.

With its extensive landscape, rock formation and setting sun background Let's Make America Great Again  alludes to the Romantic 'Wild West' landscapes of the American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), in particular the sweeping landscape of his Emigrants Crossing the Plain (also known as On The Oregon Trail). By utilizing Bierstadt's famous painting as a template for his own art-work, Burrell effectively contrasts and parodies America of the 19th century, a nation built by aspirational, freedom-loving emigrants, to an America of the 21st century and a President who advocates the construction of walls to prevent emigrants entering America.

Albert Bierstadt  Emigrants Crossing the Plain 1869

Finer details of Burrell's Let's Make America Great Again include - the hammer and sickle in the American flag, a letter saying Trump loves Putin, and a meteorite heading towards the White House. Its background features two contrasting scenes, to the right, a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene of hell in which a factory belches thick pollutant smoke, to the left, a heavenly woodland scene in which a copse of trees bathe in the golden light of a setting sun.

The allusions are stark and disturbing. The fate of a nation seems balanced between a heavenly and hellish future in the hands of a man-child. By placing Trump in a pram there's more than a hint of the recently-elected American President's well-documented record of  immaturity and childish temper tantrums.

Like many similar-minded artists, Burrell has exercised his artistic talents to speak out on the behalf of a mostly silent and unrepresented majority of sane-thinking people. In his own words -

'I felt compelled to paint a picture of my concerns of which I think millions of others in the world are also fearful'.

In Let’s Make America Great Again (65 x 75 cm.) Burrell is following in the footsteps of a long established tradition of British art, that of political commentary through satire. Its a tradition which historically spans from the cartoons of James Gillray (1756-1815) and Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) to the Victorian humour of the magazine Punch to the latex puppetry of Peter Fluck and Roger Law in the British TV show Spitting Image (1984-96).

One weapon of the artist and cartoonist alike is that of satire, defined as the mocking of characteristics and personality traits, often of politicians and those in power in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intention of shaming individuals, corporations, government, or even society itself into improvement. Satire's greater purpose is constructive social criticism, it uses wit to draw attention to issues affecting the world and society today. [1]

Trump’s fatal combination of psychological traits, perceived by many to be those of arrogance and ignorance, are rich pickings  for comedians, artists and satirists alike. They are also psychological traits which are often attributed to Americans in general, either through prejudice or misunderstanding of cultural norms, but also occasionally correct in assumption, hence the view of the stereotypical American throughout the world. Arrogance and ignorance may be considered charming and excusable attributes in a child or baby perhaps, but hardly ever acceptable in a septuagenarian leader of a world superpower.

The very real anxiety for millions of sane-thinking people today, politics apart, is simply, how could someone with a well-documented unstable personality have become elected as the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations ? Burrell along with millions of others' concerns are very real, especially when the danger of a thermonuclear war is threatened through the fatal combination of one individual with immense power being psychological unstable. Never before as much as now has the world urged America to ensure there is a rational mind fully in control of its nuclear arsenal.

Burrell’s artistic desire to to portray ‘the raw emotions behind the mask’ in which an insane-looking Trump appears little more than a monster blighting a beautiful country, succeeds on several levels; Let’s Make America Great Again is simultaneously a satirical portrait and indictment of Donald Trump’s psychological and emotional stability, a near hallucinatory and apocalyptic-impending landscape allusive to the world's future as one of heaven or hell, and not least, a worthy addition to a life-time portfolio of art conjured with steadfast industriousness in tandem with free-ranging imagination.

The title of Mark Burrell's painting (detail, above) originates from a frequently repeated statement made by Donald Trump throughout his election campaign - 'Let's make America great again'. The statement can only be rhetorical. How can America be 'made great again' when it already is ?

Perhaps President Trump means make America great again as one of world's nations with the greatest inequalities of wealth distribution ? America's already great at that. Perhaps he means 'Make America Great Again' in terms of military expenditure ? America is also great at that. Its expenditure in military hardware and defence outstrips the rest of the entire world combined, and at the the present time of writing President Trump has  completing a series of arms deals with Saudi Arabia totaling more than $300 bn. Perhaps President Trump means make America great as a world distributor of pornography ? It already is. Perhaps he means make America great again in the number of people incarcerated in prison ? America's already one of the greatest at that too. Perhaps he means 'Make America Great Again' in terms of America being a world leader in consuming the world's resources ? Again, its already great at that. One strongly suspects Trump's election slogan appeals most to those with a weak identity and suffering from insecurity in the face of a rapidly-changing world.

The indisputable facts remain - the American population which represents only 5% of the world's total population consumes an astounding 26% of the world's energy. America also consumes a staggering 30% of the world's resources and is the world's largest single emitter of carbon dioxide, 'Greenhouse gas' emissions which cause climate change and global warming. Phenomena which are scientifically proven but which worryingly, for all those who care about the world’s future, the current President denies. At the present time of writing Trump has withdrawn from the crucial Paris climate agreement talks, as if one nation could isolate itself from environmental concerns which affect the world.

Accordingly to Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies, the authors of Why do people Hate America, it was the acclaimed British dramatist, screenwriter  and Nobel prize winner, Harold Pinter (1930-2008) who stated in 2002 -

The US has ‘exercised sustained, systematic, remorseless and quite clinical manipulation of power world-wide, while masquerading as a power for good’. It is ‘arrogant, indifferent, contemptuous of International Law, both dismissive and manipulative of the United Nations: this is now the most dangerous power the world has ever known - the authentic “rogue state”, but a “rogue state” of colossal military and economic might’.   [ 2]

Along with the commonly-held perception of many Americans appearing as arrogant and ignorant, the briefest of inventories of commonly-held grievances against America and its people includes - resentment at thinking themselves the centre of universe, an unhealthy diet and epidemic obesity, a gargantuan consumption of the world's resources, the export of trash cultures, an obsession with war, diplomatic meddling in other nation's affairs and acting unilaterally on the world-stage of politics. [3]

The tragedy of today is that much of the world has long looked up to and respected America as the upholder of humanitarian and democratic values, only to be bitterly disappointed by American protectionism, unilateralism and rabid nationalism in the policies of its latest President, Donald Trump. 

Mark Burrell’s The Boy who was Happy to be Himself (2017) is a witty response to America's export of 'Trash culture', in particular Hollywood and its machismo superheroes. Quintessentially gothic in its evocation of a mysterious atmosphere, its an artwork which is humorous but with a serious message as well. 

Set at night in a urban street in moonlight with a broad wash of midnight blue, the centre-stage of The Boy who was Happy to be Himself  depicts a floodlit bill-board with three life-sized superheroes. The slogan Coming to you Soon is inscribed above them. With his back against these figures, and seemingly oblivious to them all, a boy is seen engrossed, reading a book. Beside the boy there's a book-stand with the words ‘The Magic of Books’ inscribed upon it. Meanwhile, life goes on in an intimate street setting - a bonfire is attended and chimneys smoke, someone taking an evening walk carries an umbrella which mysteriously provides light. A masked schoolboy standing beside the billboard gazes towards the viewer. A tower-block of flats can also be seen, allusive to a landmark visible from Burrell's studio in his home-town of Lowestoft.

A  hallmark of Burrell’s art is its unique colour tonality, an instance of which occurs in the reflected colours of the paving-stones in the foreground of The Boy who was Happy to be Himself, effectively making the ordinariness of paving-stones appear magical, a superb example of magical realism, no less. Another attribute of Burrell's art is its skillful draughtsmanship, the viewer's eye perusing the scene in this case is tugged between a calm street background and intriguing foreground imagery.

Burrell's art encourages the viewer to look and look again, and in doing so discover new layers of allusion, meaning and detail. A closer inspection of its superheroes reveals Batman to be obese and thus barely capable of acrobatically swooping across the night-sky while Superman's youthful vigour has long past, his receding hairline suggestive of an ageing Dad-with-Slippers adventurousness, while the Norse god Thor has a glazed and manic expression, suggestive of a Viking berserker barely capable of intrepid North Sea navigation. Uninterested and unimpressed by any of these three superheroes, a  boy with his back turned against them reads a book. The contrast between the ability to think for oneself and not allow the Hollywood film industry to shape one's view of the world, is stark.

Burrell’s humourous painting is not without a serious message. Hollywood’s film industry with its pervasive influence upon the human imagination cannot be over-estimated. There are few in the world today whose imagination has not been manipulated by its relentless agenda of advertising American values. Hollywood's influence  is often far greater than consciously realised, contributing towards what may quite rightly be termed as none other than American cultural imperialism. Hollywood's domestic market consumption in turn may well contribute towards an acclimatising and hardening of American youth towards war, conflict and economic competition against the world at large, rather than relate and understand cultures and people beyond the American border.

The superheroes Batman and Superman originated from 1930's America, an era of economic depression and rampant crime, and as such are the product of American wish-fulfillment to eradicate social problems without any realistic understanding of the dominant cause of most social problems then as now, namely, grossly unfair wealth distribution. Hollywood itself is a multi-billion dollar industry which is little sympathetic to  its impact upon the environment or its consumption of the world’s quite finite resources.  Its hard to comprehend the facts. Warner Bros. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) has a supposed $410 million price tag. Superman Returns (2006) cost $246 million to make, Man of Steel (2013) cost $228 million and grossed $668 million worldwide, The amazing Spider-Man (2012) cost over $238 million, grossing $752 million, Superman Returns (2006)  cost $246.4 million and returned $391 million for its financial investors, Spider-Man 2 (2004) cost $250 million and made $783.8 million.

But are any of these badly misinterpreted Nietzschean Ubermensch worthwhile emulating in any way ? The predictable and formulaic plots of many Hollywood films are inevitably the product of scripts written with investors in mind and who simply want a large financial return on their investment without any concern of artistic integrity. One questions with Burrell, whether Hollywood's consumption of the world’s quite finite resources, purely for entertainment purposes, often of quite a childish nature, can ever be truly justified.

Recent  political propaganda which satirizes the British Prime Minister Theresa May and her election slogan (Strong and Stable). 

The inclusion of the Norse god Thor in The Boy who was Happy to be Himself produces a startling cognitive dissonance when juxtaposed to all-American superheroes. Burrell's Thor has a manic look about him, reminiscent of the stentorian British actor Brian Blessed (b. 1936) or wild-man  Oliver Reed (1938-1999). Its a look suggestive of one whose brain may be burnt-out from drinking vast quantities of mead or from ingesting too many fly agaric mushrooms as the Viking Berserkers were inclined to do.

Thor's joining the ranks of American superheroes is a good example of cultural appropriation. The Norse god was a sacred figure who existed thousands of years before Hollywood, yet has been used by American filmmakers as an example of a super-hero and as such is an example of what is termed as 'cultural appropriation'. Examples of cultural appropriation, that is, the 'borrowing’ of symbols associated with a specific cultures include amongst numerous examples, Mohawk hair-styles, Tartan kilts and Rastafari dreadlocks, all of which are worn by those not part of the culture from which they originated, but appropriated as badges of identity. Cultural appropriation and its widespread abuse by Western culture is discussed in depth in the Palestinian historian Edward Said in his ground-breaking work Orientalism (1978).

Incidentally, understanding of the Viking era was considerably enhanced when in 1938 at Woodbridge in Suffolk, just 40 miles south of Burrell's home-town of Lowestoft, the site of two 6th and early 7th-century cemeteries was discovered by archaeologists. One cemetery contained an undisturbed ship burial, including a wealth of Anglo-Saxon artefacts of outstanding art-historical and archaeological significance. The Sutton Hoo Viking burial site remains one of the most important of all archaeological discoveries of  the Viking era (500-1100 CE).

With self-deprecating humour Burrell confesses to 'getting tired of American propaganda', such as produced by Hollywood, whilst admitting to indulging in a little propaganda of his own. He also suggests it may be the Buddhist-orientated spiritual self-help guide, the international best-seller The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle which is being read by the young lad in his painting.

Holding no illusions about the reception of his new painting, Burrell states -

'Some will pick up subliminally my message, others will think it just another funny pic'.

Burrell also reflects on how certain motifs in his paintings featuring candles, tea cups, fun-fairs and flags and which are often set during evening or night, have altered little over the past 40 years.

The 'message' of The Boy who was Happy to be Himself seems to be - the easiest way to emancipate one's mind is simply to read, preferably in printed book form (still arguably the most efficient way to absorb information) to find out for oneself in order to think for oneself, independent from influences such as the near world-wide dominance of American culture.

Mark Burrell's The Watchers (36" x 30") is a sharp indictment of the City bankers, debt-collectors, government bully-boys and jobsworths in general in Britain today who are busy devastating the lives of the disabled, vulnerable and unemployed without a thought or care of the damage they cause, whilst 'only doing their job'.

Painted in 2009, the year in which the harsh realities of the world Recession began to be assimilated by millions of people with a noticeable decline in living standards, Burrell's The Watchers features a combination of two of the artist's strongest attributes, namely, skillful portraiture and a social conscience. Not unlike the German artists George Grosz (1893-1959) or Otto Dix (1891-1969), both of whom documented the social injustices and inequalities of Germany's Weimar Republic (1919-33), Burrell  is also well-capable of utilizing his artistic talents in order to produce hard-hitting social commentary. In the artist's own words -

'People are being constantly abused by the state and the unemployed are being used as scapegoats. People need to look a bit harder. Its a heavy unfair system full of legal forms of corruption'.

Much of the Western world's current economic and social woes can be traced back to the era of Thatcher and Reagan and their adoption of the economic model advocated by the so-called Chicago school of economics as represented by Milton Friedman and the Austro-British economist Friedrich Hayek. Basically, Neo-liberalism (which is neither new or liberal) is an ideological knee-jerk reaction against socialism which rejects the responsibilities of the Nation-State towards its citizens. Indeed, when the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925 - 2013) first came to power she allegedly slapped a copy of Hayek's book, 'New Economics' onto a table, saying, 'this is what we believe in'.

Since the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers in 2008 resulting in a debt being passed onto the rest of the world and paid for by those who were not responsible for the banking failure, the economic policies of Neoliberalism have been found wanting, in particular in a fair distribution of wealth, resulting in a certain amount of on-going brutalization in sectors of Western society, as depicted in Burrell's The Watchers. One certainly wouldn't want to bump into any of these characters down a deserted street !

Through their familiarity in exploring the little understood world of the imagination, the British artists Mark Burrell (b. 1957) and Peter Rodulfo (b. 1958) the co-founders of the North Sea Magical Realism art-movement are equally adept at adjusting the focus of their artistic imagination. Its thus relatively easy for them to venture into new territory such as the arena of political commentary.

The artist Peter Rodulfo has also been known to make a satirical statement in his art concerning politics in England today. In his A Barrel of Laughs painted in 2013, some 4 years before the British Referendum upon continuing membership to the European Union, Rodulfo astutely identifies the prime culprit who instigated the fiasco and farce which continues to embroil British politics. Surrounded by pigs, suggestive of the phrases 'Pig-headed' and 'Pig-ignorant' the Far-right politician Nigel Farage (b. 1964) is seen in a barrel, perhaps an allusion to his tub-thumping, jingoistic and rabble-rousing tendencies, certainly not because he is in any way whatsoever A Barrel of Laughs, as the colloquial British phrase puts it.

Of particular note is the great care taken in A Barrel of Laughs in its draughtsmanship and depth of perspective, resulting in an extensive landscape with a finely wrought cloudscape.

Humour and playfulness in general are frequently encountered in much of Rodulfo's art. Although satire is most often associated with literary forms, it also occurs in the visual arts. Because satire often combines both anger and humor, as well as the fact that it draws attention to controversial topics, it can be profoundly disturbing, not unlike the thinly-veiled racism of the central character featured in Rodulfo's A Barrel of Laughs.

Nigel Farage’s hobbies includes predictable pre-occupations of the Far-Right, an unhealthy obsession with World War II in which, contrary to his rhetoric, he took no part whatsoever, the historical event occurring long before he was born. He also likes to tour battlefields in preparation for a history book  which he plans to write for schoolchildren.

Underlying much of Farage's and fellow Brexiteer's ideology is the delusional belief that English exceptionalism can take on and beat all Europe. In essence, the founding myth of the Britain which exists in Farage and his followers minds is simply a way of justifying their xenophobia. For Farage and his followers, the Second World War was not about fighting against the Nazis, but purely and simply about fighting against foreigners. They may say "Nazis" but in reality they simply mean "Germans". The supreme irony being which is lost on Farage and  followers of the Far-right who incessantly harp on about a war in which they did not participate as they were not even alive, is that the second world War War had as its imperative the objective of the elimination and defeat of the Far-Right in power in Europe at the time.
Unlike Nigel Farage, Peter Rodulfo is well-read enough to describe as erudite. Indeed, in 2016 Rodulfo proposed the seventeenth century literary figure Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) to be an ancestral member of the North Sea Magical Realism art-movement. Browne's elective affinity to the art-movement is founded upon several factors. Firstly, geographically (Browne is recorded as botanizing upon Great Yarmouth's sand-dunes and throughout Norfolk's extensive coastline). Secondly, as an artist possessing unique imaginative gifts in concept, imagery and symbolism, and finally and not least, as one whose contribution to the visual arts is far greater than is commonly known. For example, one of several techniques employed by political cartoonists includes that of caricature, a word which derives from the Italian of caricare—to charge or load, thus caricature essentially means a "loaded portrait". According to the Oxford English Dictionary the word 'Caricature' was introduced into the English language by Sir Thomas Browne. Its one of hundreds of words which the seventeenth century polymath and literary artist is credited as the first to employ. Browne's definition of caricature being, 'When Men's faces are drawn with resemblance to some other Animals, the Italians call it, to be drawn in Caricatura', while also advising his eldest son Edward Browne - 'Expose not thy self by four-footed manners unto monstrous draughts, and Caricatura representations'. [4] 

However, in Rodulfo's painting it is as much the word-play of the plural of pigs, the word 'swine,'  which means 'a contemptible or unpleasant person' in the English language which may be applicable to Farage than the specific art of caricature itself.

Rodulfo's satirical painting A Barrel of Laughs voices the concern of all sane and politically literate people in England today, namely, how far previously unacceptably right-wing views have permeated into British politics. Indeed there remains little for Nigel Farage's single - cause political party UKIP to campaign for, now that their goal has theoretically been achieved, namely the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Project.

The British philosopher A.C.Grayling speaks on behalf of many, including doubtlessly Rodulfo, when stating of Nigel Farage -

"I think he’s a bounder. He’s a cad. He’s an embarrassment. I cringe at the thought of how he behaved like a football hooligan and a lager lout in the European Parliament. What an advertisement for the best of the English character. I have no time for him at all. I think he is an embarrassment and a waste of space".

When distinguished academics such as A.C. Grayling raise the concern that Brexit is beginning to look like a right-wing coup its surely time to heed the early warning signs of a nation sleep-walking into fascism, chanting in their sleep, 'It couldn't happen here'. It could, and is happening.

The North Sea Magical Realism artists Mark Burrell and Peter Rodulfo are united in their concern over recent political elections in the USA and GB. Their art goes some way towards highlighting and combating the exploitation of the politically illiterate, indoctrinated through a right-wing media and those whose misanthropic politics of greed and hatred are alarmingly vociferous in America and Great Britain today.

Recommended Reading

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle pub. Yellow Kite 2001
Meaning in the Visual Arts by Erwin Panofsky pub. University of Chicago 1955
Why do people hate America ? Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies pub. Icon Books 2002
Orientalism - Edward Said 1978

*High quality prints of Mark Burrell's 'Let's Make America Great Again' are available from the artist.

Contact  Mark Burrell Art   to purchase.

*All three paintings discussed here are exhibited at Burrell's Open Studio's week-ends  
June 10th / 11th, 17th / 18th and 24th / 25th.


[1] Wikipedia
[2]  Granta Spring 2002
[3] 'Why do people hate America ?' by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies pub. Icon Books 2002.
[4] Christian Morals pub. post. 1716

Monday, May 08, 2017

Browne on Art and Paintings

Scattered throughout Sir Thomas Browne's collected writings there can be found various remarks and observations relating to aesthetics and the visual arts. Furthermore, a familiarity with the social circles frequented by Browne provides clues to identifying paintings which he personally may have seen.

Browne's life-time encompassed the 'Golden Age' of Dutch Art. It was an era in which painters of the genius of Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) Rembrandt (1606-1669) and Johannes Vermeer (1635-1675) flourished. Browne's life-time also witnessed a decline in Anglo-Dutch relations as the newly-established and independent Republic developed its own trading and commerce. No less than three naval wars between the Dutch and English occurred in his life-time, the last resulting in a tragedy for his family.

With its extensive coast-line the county of Norfolk, along with the city of Norwich have a close geographical and cultural proximity to the Netherlands. It should not therefore be too surprising that paintings by Dutch master artists were acquired by Norfolk and Norwich gentry throughout the seventeenth century.  A clue to Browne himself owning a Dutch painting occurs in a footnote in his little-explored commonplace notebooks

'Being in the country a few miles from Norwich, I observed a handsome bower of honeysuckle over the door of a cottage of a right good man; which bower I fancied to speak as follows' ........

There follows a Latin poem in which Browne in a rare example of his poetic skills gives voice to honeysuckle. The verse concludes with a footnote -

'Alluding to the fable in Ovid of Baucis and Philemon entertaining Jupiter and Mercury in their cottage; whereof hangs in my parlour from a draught of Rubens'. [1]

Peter Paul Rubens painting of the gods Jupiter and Mercurius visiting the house of Philemon and Baucis (c.1630) depicts the fable as told by the Roman poet Ovid in Metamorphoses of Baucis and Philemon who unwittingly entertain the gods Jupiter and Mercury in their cottage. The charitable act of hospitality, encouraged by all world religions for humanity towards strangers is endorsed in Christianity thus- ' Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. [2]

Its interesting to think that this painting may have been a constant reminder to Browne to live as far as possible in an hospitable way, no easy aspiration in an era which encompassing the English Civil war (1642-51) was often inhospitable in extreme.

Its quite possible that Browne’s painting may have originated from the studio of Rubens rather than by the hand of Rubens himself. Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) made much use of sub-contracted artists as well as those of his own large workshop. Painters of the calibre of Van Dyke often studied in master-artist's work-shops.

It has been calculated that an estimated 1.3 million Dutch pictures were painted from 1640 -1660 alone, many of which originated from master-artist's work-shops. This volume of production meant that prices were fairly low, except for the best known artists.

Van Dyke became the chief assistant to Rubens, the dominant master of Antwerp, and the whole of Northern Europe. Ruben's influence on the young Van Dyke was immense; indeed, Rubens referred to the nineteen-year-old van Dyck as "the best of my pupils". When Van Dyke arrived in England to establish a successful career, he found, as the German composer Handel almost a century later, that while the English were wealthy and appreciative patrons of the arts, nonetheless they lacked many of the skills associated with nurturing and developing the arts.

In Browne's psychological self-portrait Religio Medici written after completing his medical studies in the Dutch University city of Leiden in 1629,  the recently qualified doctor wittily confesses  -

'I can look a whole day with delight upon a handsome picture, though it be but of an Horse'. [3]

Browne’s candid admission to delighting in contemplation of a painting exemplifies his refined appreciation of beauty, a  psychological feature of his which is often overlooked by critics and biographers. However, the rigours of establishing a medical practise in order to provide for his ever-growing family, along with his pursuing interests such as conducting ‘elaboratory’ experiments, bird-keeping, antiquarian studies, letter-writing and reading, along with living conditions in 17th century England in general, could hardly have permitted the learned doctor with the leisure-time to contemplate a painting a whole day. Such an expressed sentiment is more wishful thinking than any opportunity for doing so, yet also suggest Browne possessed a strong inclination to contemplate artistic beauty.

It's also in Religio Medici that one of the most popular of all Browne’s many quotes, now frequently cited as an internet meme can be found -

Nature hath made one world, and Art another. In brief, all things are artificial, for nature is the Art of God. [4]

Although the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue of  Sir Thomas Browne and his son Edward’s libraries announces that, ‘Books of Painting and Sculpture’ are to be auctioned, no such books are listed in the Auction Catalogue. The 1711 Auction Sales Catalogue has been described as indispensable for understanding and appreciating Browne’s vast and omnivorous reading, book-collecting and erudition. However, the fifty-odd pages of the facsimile document, along with an introduction and indexing by Princeton professor of English literature Jeremiah Finch (1910-2005) was not published until as late as 1986.

Without a reliable record of art-books once owned by Browne one is left with only fleeting allusions to artists and art-books in his writings. In  Pseudodoxia Epidemica  for example, he tantalizingly alludes to owning a famous edition of  Michelangelo stating -

But this absurdity that eminent Artist Michael Angelo hath avoided, in the Pictures of the Cumean and Persian Sibyls, as they stand described from the printed sculptures of Adam Mantuanus. [5]

The bulk of Browne's art-criticism can be found  in his encyclopaedic endeavour Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646). Its fifth book, entitled,‘Of many things questionable as they are commonly described in Pictures’ includes criticism upon the veracity of depictions of mermaids, gryphons, unicorns and basilisks, as well as speculations upon colour and the causes of blackness in nature.

Defining painters as, 'the visible representers of things, and such as by the learned sense of the eye, endeavour to inform the understanding’. [6] Browne laments in his quest to ascertain truth, ‘nor is the hand of the Painter more restrainable than the pen of the Poet'. [7]

The  essence of Browne's art aesthetics occurs in his stating-

Art being but the imitator or secondary representor, it must not vary from the verity of the example; or describe things otherwise than they truly are or have been. For hereby introducing false Idea's of things it perverts and deforms the face and symmetry of truth. [8]

No less than three chapters of the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica are devoted to the cause of Blackness. Firstly, in consideration of skin colour, the cause of so much irrational hatred, prejudice and suffering throughout centuries, then in relation to colour. Browne arrives at the conclusion that black is equal in beauty to any other colour.

Browne's deep interest in colour is evident in his regretting, ‘we remain imperfect in the general Theory of colours', whilst also speculating - 

Thus although a man understood the general nature of colours, yet were it no easy Problem to resolve, Why Grass is green? Why Garlick, Molyes, and Porrets have white roots, deep green leaves, and black seeds? Why several docks and sorts of Rhubarb with yellow roots, send forth purple flowers? Why also from Lactary or milky plants which have a white and lacteous juyce dispersed through every part, there arise flowers blew and yellow ? ...Why shall the marvel of Peru produce its flowers of different colours, and that not once, or constantly, but every day, and variously? Why Tulips of one colour produce some of another, and running through almost all, should still escape a blew? And lastly, Why some men, yea and they a mighty and considerable part of mankind, should first acquire and still retain the gloss and tincture of blackness ? [9]

Browne's sensitivity toward colour can be seen in the following extracts. Firstly, in notes taken from his 'elaboratory' experiments -

'And this is also apparent in Chymical preparations. So Cinnabar becomes red by the acid exhalation of sulphur, which otherwise presents a pure and niveous white. So spirits of Salt upon a blue paper make an orient red. So Tartar or vitriol upon an infusion of violets affords a delightful crimson. Thus it is wonderful what variety of colours the spirits of Saltpeter, and especially, if they be kept in a glass while they pierce the sides thereof; I say, what Orient greens they will project: from the like spirits in the earth the plants thereof perhaps acquire their verdure. And from such salary irradiations may those wondrous varieties arise, which are observable in Animals, as Mallards heads, and Peacocks feathers, receiving intention or alteration according as they are presented unto the light. [10]

Secondly, in a detailed description of a bird written for the ornithologist Christopher Merritt.

The head neck throat of a violet colour, the back upper parts of the wing of a russet yellow, the fore part of the wing azure succeeded downward by a greenish blue, the lower parts of the wing outwardly of a brown, inwardly of a merry blue, the belly a light faint blue, the back toward the tail of a purple blue, the tail eleven feathers of a greenish colour, the extremities of the outward feathers thereof white, with a eye of green. Garrulus Argentoratensis [11]

Finally, in a humorous description involving the colour green. Once more from his little-explored Commonplace notebooks-

The picture of Signor Verdero in a proper habit. A suit of a mandrake or nightshade Green. A cloak of a Thistle colour faced with Holly green. A Burdock green hat with an hat-band of poppy leaf vert, set with emeralds and Beryls and a plume of parrot green feathers. Stockings of an Ivy green with sage coloured garters. A Rue coloured sash or girdle with Brake green fringe. Pantoffles of cabbage colour laced with sea Holly or eryngo green. Ribbons all about of fig laurel and Box green. [12]

Visual imagery is integral to Browne's discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) in which a rapid procession of objects, patterns and botanical observations exemplary of the quincunx pattern are paraded before the reader. Browne's extraordinary free-ranging imagination cites evidence of the number five and quincunx pattern in art, nature and mystically in  diverse fields such as -

Biblical scholarship, Egyptology, comparative religion in particular the Bembine Tablet of Isis, mythology, ancient world gardening and plantations, geometry, including the Archimedean solids, sculpture, coins, architecture, paving-stones, battle-formations, optics including the camera obscura, zoology, ornithology, the kabbalah, astrology, astronomy and not least, botany,  including many 'occular' descriptions of cinque-foiled flowers and speculations which anticipate modern-day studies in genetics, germination, generation and heredity.

Quite appropriately, and in stark polarity to the serious and gloomy melancholy of Urn-Burial, The Garden of Cyrus is the playful and cheerful half of the literary diptych and as such mentions past-time games including Backgammon, Chess, Skittles, Knuckle Stone and Archery while remote out-of-orbit topics to orthodox learning touched upon in the discourse include - the healing power of music, 'celestial physiognomy', and 'the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starry Book of Heaven'.

Artists have responded well to Browne's visual imagery. The British artist Paul Nash (1889-1946) contributed no less than 32 illustrations for a new edition of Browne's discourses Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus in 1932.

Among Browne's many friends were the Bacon family who resided on the Norfolk/Suffolk border at Gillingham. Browne, by all accounts, socialized with the Bacon's to such an extent that in his dedicatory epistle to The Garden of Cyrus to Nicholas Bacon he was able to declare

'You have wisely ordered your vegetable delights, beyond the reach of exception'.

A warning-note of the wide-ranging subject-matter to be encountered in the discourse is also sounded in the epistle -

'That in this Garden Discourse, we range into extraneous things, and many parts of Art and Nature, we follow herein the example of old and new Plantations, wherein noble spirits contented not themselves with Trees, but by the attendance of Aviaries, Fish Ponds, and all variety of Animals, they made their gardens the Epitome of the earth, and some resemblance of the secular shows of old'.

Royalist supporters kept a low profile during the days of Cromwell's Protectorate of England, occupying their time in harmless pursuits such as antiquities or gardening, while in the wider world England found itself in conflict with the newly-emerging Dutch Republic's economic power and global trade.

The conflict of the Anglo-Dutch wars and British resentment towards the new European power, in words strikingly prescient for present-day political events, such as British prejudice and hostility towards the European Project, and its near-obsession with ‘sovereignty’, are perceptively articulated by the art-historian Simon Schama, who noted of the Dutch Statesman Johan De Witt (1625 -1672) a chief negotiator for the peace treaty of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67).

‘British enmity, on the other hand, he knew to be chronic and rooted in the very nature of the Republic’s existence, or at least  its prosperity. The problem, he supposed in common with many of his compatriots, was that, in matters of trade, the British were poor losers. Unable to match the Dutch in resourcefulness, industry, or technical ingenuity, they were prepared to bludgeon their way to wealth by the assertion of deliberately bellicose principles and by interfering with the freedom of trade. Peevish envy had turned them into a gang of unscrupulous ruffians who would stop at nothing to burglarize the Dutch warehouse, pretending all the time that some cherished issue of sovereignty had been infringed. [13]

Sir Thomas Browne had particular reason to regret the war between the Dutch Republic and England. It was sometime during 1667 that the Browne family received news from the Admiralty that midshipman Thomas Browne (b.1646) who participated in the Naval sea-battle of Lowestoft in 1665  had been reported as lost and his whereabouts unknown, in all probability losing his life at sea following a naval battle.

Its quite possible that Browne once viewed The Supper at Emmaus by the artist Cornelis Engelsz (1575–1650). A combination of still-life and Biblical scene, it was painted when the artist was aged 37 and at full maturity and was probably acquired by Sir Nathaniel Bacon, the grandfather of Nicholas Bacon, during his European tour in 1613.

The Supper at Emmaus (c.1612) has three figures in its foreground who indulge in earthly pleasures, symbolised by the details of the fish, game, meat, vegetables, bread, wine flagon and dairy produce, all of which are painted with meticulous detail. In the background in an adjacent room the figure of Christ is seen breaking bread with two disciples. The viewer is simultaneously reminded of earthly pleasures and The Last Supper.

Another painting which Browne may have had the opportunity to view occurs through his association with Robert Paston (1631-1683) a scientist, politician and a member of Norfolk's gentry. In correspondence to the Norwich physician-philosopher, Robert Paston informed Browne of his alchemical experiments, doubtless to an eager ear-

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. [14]

Its entirely possible that upon hearing this news Sir Thomas Browne could have made the short journey ten miles north of Norwich to Oxnead. He had done so before in 1668 when informed by Robert Paston of the unearthing of urns at nearby Buxton, part of the Paston's Estate.

The Paston Treasure (c.1675) was commissioned by the Paston family to record their collection of treasures. It was painted by an unknown Dutch artist who travelled to Norfolk for the commission.

The central message of  what is a sophisticated work of art, complete with its rich vanitas symbolism, depiction of collectable art-objects, musical instruments and exotic fruit from around the world, seems to be that the human figures in the painting, both girl and boy, are caught in the very moment of disruption from their respective activities, thus highlighting the uncertainty of this world. A parrot has alighted upon the page of the music-book which the young girl holds, thus preventing her from reading music and singing. Similarly, a pet monkey has sprung onto the shoulder of a startled negro servant, hindering him from his duty of pouring a flagon which he holds in one hand. It's more usual to see such imagery in the humour and morality of 'topsy-turvy' homes depicted by Jan Steen (1626-79).

The importance of The Paston Treasure lies in the international scope and interest of the objects which it portrays, reflecting both exotic nature and the skills of man, as well as the continents of  Africa, the New World of America and China. It has been described as a microcosm of the known world in the 17th century.

The Paston Treasure is the subject of a forthcoming book by senior research scientist, conservator and art-historian, Spike Bucklow. In his ground-breaking book The Alchemy of Paint: Art, Science and Secrets from the Middle Ages (2010) Bucklow highlights how, during the Middle Ages there existed a deep and intimate relationship between rare substances, pigments for painting, colour and the artist, which has now long been lost.

Paradoxically, as much a chemist as alchemist, Browne also took a deep interest in the properties of substances from nature. In Pseudodoxia he writes of a spermaceti whale stranded upon Norfolk's shallow beaches, noting of the extracted ambergris,  'it mixeth well with painting Colours, though hardly drieth at all. [15] A similar interest in materials useful for the painter can be seen in Browne's correspondence to his eldest son Edward, in which he advises, 'Enquire after smalt, a stone whereof they make blueing for painting and starch.' [16] A further interest in art materials occcurs in his requesting to Edward, 'I wish you would bring over some of the red marking stone for drawing, if any very good'. [17]

Smalt was an important pigment in European oil painting, particularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was popular because of its low cost and its manufacture became a specialty of the Dutch and Flemish during the 17th century. Smalt's origins lie in the blue pigment used by the ancient Egyptians, known as ‘Egyptian blue’ and  Cobalt blue used in colouring glass.

But perhaps the most solid contribution made by Browne to the visual arts occurs in his introducing new words into English language. The word 'caricature' being perhaps the most impressive of the art-related words which Browne is credited with first usage according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Other art-related neologisms introduced into English language by Browne include the words 'circumference' - 'colouring' - 'cylindrical' - 'illustrative'- 'irradiancy' - 'pictorial' - 'rectangularly' - 'reticulate' and 'rhombodial'.

All of which suggests Browne's interest and contribution to the visual arts may be far greater than previously imagined.


[1] Keynes : Collected works of Browne  Faber and Faber1964
[2] Hebrews 2:13
[3] R.M. Part 2:12
[4] R.M.  Part 1:16
[5] Pseudodoxia Epidemica  Book 1 chapter 9
[5] P.E. Book 5 chapter 11
[6] P.E. Book 1 chapter 9
[7] P.E. Book 5 chapter 19
[8] Ibid.
[9] P.E. Book 6 chapter 9
[10] P.E. Book 6 chapter 13
[11] The miscellaneous writings of Sir Thomas Browne.Faber and Faber 1936
[12] Commonplace notebooks Faber and Faber 1964
[13] The Embarrassment of Riches Simon Schama Fontana 1989
[14] Correspondence dated September 10th 1674 in Vol. 3 of the Collected works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkins Pickering and Co. 1834
[15] P.E. book 3 chapter 26
[16] Correspondence dated April 28th 1669
[17]  Correspondence dated Sept 22th 1668

Books consulted

Notes on the Natural history of Norfolk. Jarrold and sons 1902
The Works of Sir Thomas Browne ed. Simon Wilkins 1842
The Art of the Dutch Republic 1585-1718  Mariet Westermann 1996
The Embarrassment of Riches Simon Schama Fontana 1989

Useful Wikilinks

The Dutch Republic

The Paston Treasure

The Paston Treasure::Microcosm of the known world

One for Peter R.