Friday, November 27, 2015

Rodulfo's Mandala of Loving-Kindness

Peter Rodulfo is a prolific and visionary British artist. A casual familiarity with his prodigious output soon reveals a wide variety of subject-matter and thematic concerns, often expressed through a flexibility of  style and techniques. 

The diversity of Rodulfo’s artistic output includes portraiture, not only of people, but also of real and imagined creatures, along with fantasy and recollected landscapes, all of which are frequently juxtaposed within a sometimes metaphysical, yet invariably witty and humorous, single canvas. 

Rodulfo’s art may with some justification be defined as Neo-Mannerist, for like Renaissance Mannerism, his art often involves movement, a manipulation of space through elongated axes that prolong space indefinitely, a vibrant and emotional immediacy of colour, along with a spiritual intensity, which more accurately in Rodulfo’s case, has its roots in a secular New Age or counter-culture world-view. Mannerist art was a product of Renaissance humanism, and therefore naturally inclined towards an emphasis of the relationship between humanity and nature; so too 21st century Neo-Mannerist art such as Rodulfo’s, expresses the same message.

In contrast to his often crowded and busy, multi-layered in perspective art, there area number of calmer, studied and reflective art-works by Rodulfo. In his Mandala of Loving-Kindness (2012-2015) a simple message is effectively expressed, none other than loving-kindness towards each other, the animal kingdom and organic life on earth in general.

A Mandala (Sanskrit for a circle) is usually an art-work originating from Eastern religions of geometric form which invites contemplation. The Swiss psychologist C.G.Jung is credited with re-introducing the form to the Western world. The most common mandala in Western art is the tetramorph consisting of the four symbols representing the four Gospel Evangelists. Mandalas encourage and assist awareness, adaptation and integration of  the individual's place in the world. Rodulfo's quadriptych of paintings A Mandala of Loving-Kindness perfectly fits this definition. 

It should not really be necessary to even begin defining what loving-kindness is. Far from being either an abstract or esoteric concept, loving-kindness is the very foundation which will ensure humanity's well-being and survival, or alternatively, its scarcity result in humanity’s extinction. Yet, we live in an age where the challenge as to how humanity can live in peace and harmony, sharing the world’s finite resources, vital for sustaining human life, without resort to conflict and war, seriously threatens human existence. Understanding and more importantly, practising loving-kindness is imperative. Its worthwhile therefore reminding ourselves of the meaning of the wide-ranging and much abused word, namely, Love.

The Ancient Greeks had four distinct words for love: agápe, éros, philía, and storgē which roughly approximate as affection, friendship, eros, and charity. In both Christianity and Buddhism there are no less than four differing qualities to love,  Buddha himself stating, “As Brahma is the source of Love, to dwell with him you must practice the Brahmaviharas - love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.” 

One of the most celebrated expressions on love in Christianity occurs in Saint Paul’s words-

'Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.' 

In the esoteric discipline of the Judaic Kabbalah, one of the ten Sephiroth, emanations and attributes of God, is Chesed which is the Hebrew word for Loving-Kindness.

However, we live in an era where spirituality is under-valued and even denigrated, and in which materialism and economics dominates and colours the lives of many living under Government’s who wilfully encourage economic competition above common humanity - thus promoting rivalry and inevitably rudeness, hostility, intolerance and inconsideration toward others, (all of which are the antithesis of loving-kindness).

Nevertheless its worthwhile reminding ourselves of how loving-kindness can be lived - as a conscious awareness of consideration towards all one encounters in daily life as an equal and worthy of respect and courtesy, nor exempt from random or spontaneous acts of love and kindness. 

It should be noted that Rodulfo’s quadriptych imitates the template of many quaternities as a 3+1 composition consisting of 3 completely unconscious archetypal images which were created without conscious reference or influence of astrology and its symbolism, Rodulfo having no particular interest in astrology whatsoever; it was only when the artist's attention was drawn to the fact that three of his paintings from 2012 displayed possible astrological and elemental symbolism, and only then, three years later,  he consciously painted the fourth and final quarter of his mandala, entitled Befriending a Bull (2015) purely and simply for no other reason other than in order to complete his first quadriptych.

Nevertheless, because the artistic imagination often delves into the depths of the collective unconscious, where archetypal symbolism slumbers, its possible to attribute symbolism associated with the four elements (Earth, Air, Water and Fire) along with the attributes of the  so-called ‘Fixed Cross’ of astrology, namely the zodiac signs of Leo, Aquarius, Scorpio and Taurus to Rodulfo’s quadriptych. 

Rodulfo’s Mandala of Loving-Kindness can be grouped into two related pairs, the symbolism of the pair portraying bull and lion, can easily be equated to the zodiac signs of Leo and Taurus. Less obviously, the solitary figure of Girl with Watering-can, may be interpreted as alluding to the water-bearing zodiac sign of Aquarius, while slightly more tenuously, the ‘lost civilization’ fantasy involving lovers with dragon-fly zooming towards the viewer, can be connected to a related insect, that of the scorpion.

Finally, its worth noting that. Rodulfo's quadriptych mirrors the template of the Layer Monument (circa 1600) in its design, with the symbolism of the elements Fire and Water (Leo and Scorpio) above Air and Earth (Aquarius and Taurus). 

Leaving aside esoteric concepts, it is worthwhile contemplating the merits of each quarter of Rodulfo’s Mandala of Loving-Kindness individually as they were intended,  as paintings.

   Life is a pure flame, and we live by an invisible sun within us

In what is the warmest in emotional feeling of all four paintings collectively, a young girl is carried upon the shoulders of a lion who possesses an appearance somewhat reminiscent of the lion Aslam in C.S. Lewis's Narnia.  

The lion's matted and shaggy fur, along with a radiant sun are skilfully delineated. Both lion and girl embrace and gaze towards the viewer in a loving manner. The gentleness of the lion is here emphasised by a butterfly resting upon its knee. To repeat, although in all probability not consciously alluding to any particular symbolism, the artist has nonetheless linked two symbols frequently associated with each other in both esoteric and mundane symbolism, namely the solar and the leonine with its regal nature.

Of deeper doubt is its Topography, and local designation, yet being the primitive garden, and without much controversy seated in the East.

Of all four paintings in his quadriptych Rodulfo's portrait of a loving couple frolicking in water is the most sensuous and identifiable to erotic love. 

A garlanded man and adoring woman gaze deep into each other's eyes, oblivious to all around them, while a finely-detailed dragon-fly zooms towards the viewer. With its intriguing pylon structures this painting may be considered an example of fantasy landscape but in fact its a product of recollection from Rodulfo's extensive travels, he himself stating it is, "not really fantasy lands, just interpretations of my experiences in the world. "

A considerable depth of landscape is conveyed with fine draughtsmanship while the dragon-fly with its finely worked, gauze-like wings zipping towards the eye is a primary concern to the viewer. A  large lizard looking on adds to the tension of an ambiguous in its location, Eden-like vision.

 Some confined their delights unto single plants

In what is the quietest, most reflective and austere in mood of all four paintings, a young woman concentrates upon watering vegetation holding a water-can. Of particular note is her studied pose, which is worth comparing to the central figure in Rodulfo's As the Elephant Laughed, another fine example of the artist's ability to successfully portray the human figure in movement. 

A calmness and stillness is conveyed, reminding the viewer that some acts of kindness, along with most artistic creativity and individual growth are of a solitary nature, including tending for the organic and vegetable kingdom. As ever, careful detail includes a trowel in the foreground along with a finely-worked, large nautilus-like shell. Fittingly for its appended esoteric symbolism, a low eye-level accommodates a large skyscape. Depth of field is also conveyed through a shed and mountain-range in the far distance. 


But not to look so high as Heaven or the single Quincunx of the Hyades upon the head of  Taurus.

It was not until 2015 some three years after the completion of the first three paintings in the quadriptych that the artist's attention was drawn to the fact that certain elemental and astrological symbolism could be designated to each respective painting. Rodulfo then completed the fourth and final painting of his mandala with no artistic motive other than to complete a quadriptych of related canvases. 

However, as the psychologist C.G. Jung noted, many quaternities involve a  3 + 1 structure, one being of a singular, distinct nature to the others, in this case, a conscious creative art-work to compliment three others. 

Like his painting of Lion and young Girl an animal and human are depicted in a relationship of loving-kindness. The bull stands proud and protective with large bovine eyes gazing directly to the viewer.  Set in what appears to be a lush water-meadow, Rodulfo's Befriending a Bull highlights the artist's ability to depict not only the human and animal form but also intimate inter-action and mutual respect. 

Loving-kindness in its entirety involves not only kindness towards others but also all of the animal kingdom which inhabits and shares the world with humanity. Sadly however, like the earth itself, mankind has exploited the animal kingdom, yet here the trusting and dignified bull questions the viewer as to whether he deserves exploitation. 


A big thanks to Dawn Wilson  for her Photoshop skills and patience.

The captions  I've chosen to  accompany each painting originate from the Christian-hermetic philosopher Sir Thomas Browne's literary mandala Urn-Burial (top left painting) and The Garden of Cyrus (final three).

Monday, October 19, 2015

Sir Thomas Browne and the Kabbalah

Today is the birth and death anniversary of the seventeenth century English literary figure, Sir Thomas Browne. Its rewarding to look at aspects of the Christian hermetic philosopher and Janus-like sage of Norwich’s little explored relationship to the kabbalah.

Its only recently that the many prejudices and misapprehensions which once surrounded the vital role and influence which esoteric ideas such as astrology, alchemy and the kabbalah wielded in intellectual history have finally eroded. So it’s only now possible to acknowledge Sir Thomas Browne’s interest in the kabbalah as an integral component of his status as one of 17th century Europe's most learned scholars of comparative religion; while his Discourse The Garden of Cyrus (1658) reveals him to be none other than one of England’s leading literary exponents of the kind of hermetic philosophy which the Elizabethan John Dee (1527-1608) and his eldest son Arthur Dee (1579-1651)  both vigorously pursued.

One of the most valued of all hermetic traditions amongst adepts such as the Dee's, was the mystical Jewish teachings known as the kabbalah, in which number and letter assume mystical and magical significance. It was believed necessary to acquire knowledge of the Hebrew language by devout scholars such as Browne, primarily in order to read the word of God as revealed to his prophets in the original written form, namely Hebrew. A familiarity with the 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue (an indispensable document assisting the study of Browne) swiftly reveals names of leading Hebrew scholars of Browne's day, along with Latin and Greek, Hebrew and even Ethiopian dictionaries are listed as among the vast range of contents once in his library. 

Rather unsurprisingly there are also some jolly thumping big books on the kabbalah listed as once in Browne's library [1]. The two leading humanist scholars who first promoted esoteric topics worthy of enquiry in the Renaissance, Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) and his successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463–1494) are both represented as is, 'the supreme representative of Hermeticism in Post-Reformation Europe', Athanasius Kircher (1602-80). (Incidentally, I've often wondered why no-one has made much of the coincidence that Browne shares his birthday with Marsilio Ficino. Coincidence itself being a topic of interest to the Norwich doctor).

While Ficino attempted to reconcile the wisdom of Hermeticism and Plato with the teachings of the Church, his successor, Pico della Mirandola (1463-94) focussed on promoting study of the Kabbalah. Pico della Mirandola was the first to seek in the Kabbalah proof of the Christian mysteries. Besides Greek and Latin he knew Hebrew, Chaldean and Arabic;  his Hebrew teachers introduced him to the kabbalah. One of the most startling of Mirandola’s  proposals was that no science gives surer conviction of the divinity of Christ than "magia" (i.e. the knowledge of the secrets of the heavenly bodies) than esoteric Jewish teaching.  Mirandola was an influential figure in the history of Western esotericism and would be taken seriously a century later in England when declaring, 'Angels only understand Hebrew' by would-be Angel conjurers. John and Arthur Dee.

However, the pre-eminent book which influenced the development of Christian kabbalah and which is listed in Browne's library, was by Francesco Giorgi (1467-1540). His book De Harmonia Mundi (1525) is a complex synthesis of Christianity, the kabbalah and the angelic hierarchies.

The seminal British scholar of esoteric philosophy, Francis Yates (1899-1981) wrote of  Giorgi -

'Giorgi's Cabalism, though primarily inspired by Pico della Mirandola, was enriched by the new waves of Hebrew studies which Venice with its renowned Jewish community was an important centre. Cabalistic writings flooded into Venice following the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Giorgi grafts Cabalist influence onto the traditions of his order. He develops that correlation between Hebrew and Christian angelic systems, already present in Pico, to a high degree of intensity. For Giorgi, with his Franciscan optimism, the angels are close indeed, and Cabala has brought them closer. He accepts the connections between angelic hierarchies and planetary spheres, and rises up happily through the stars to the angels, hearing all the way those harmonies on each level of the creation imparted by the Creator to his universe, founded on number and numerical laws of proportion The secret of Giorgi's universe was number, for it was built, so he believed, by its Architect as a perfectly proportioned Temple, in accordance with unalterable laws of cosmic geometry'.....In Giorgi's Christian Cabala, the angelic hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius are connected with the Sephiroth of the Cabala... The planets are linked to the angelic hierarchies and the Sephiroth'.[2]

It was while in London, engaged in a diplomatic errand that the Franciscan monk Giorgi met the Elizabethan magus John Dee. There is thus a quite distinct traceable link between the Renaissance founders of the Neoplatonic, Neopythagorean and Cabalist traditions, namely Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola via the Franciscan monk Giorgio and his advocacy of the Cabala to John Dee via his son Arthur Dee to Sir Thomas Browne. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that that both John Dee and Browne each possessed a copy of Giorgio’s highly-influential work De Harmonia Mundi. Unless that is Arthur Dee bequeathed his father's copy of De Harmonia Mundi  to Browne [2] but that would be no less of a strong link!

Browne’s respect for the Kabbalah can be discerned in his encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica where one encounters the somewhat indignant exclamation - 

Astrologers, which pretend to be of Cabala with the Stars (such I mean as abuse that worthy Enquiry) have not been wanting in their deceptions; [4] 

Browne’s understanding of the kabbalah included an awareness that in the Hebrew alphabet each letter also denotes a number, of either fortunate or unlucky disposition thus-  

Cabalistical heads, who from that expression in Esay (Isaiah 34:4) do make a book of heaven, and read therein the great concernments of earth, do literally play on this, and from its semicircular figure, resembling the Hebrew letter כ Caph, whereby is signified the uncomfortable number of twenty, at which years Joseph was sold, which Jacob lived under Laban, and at which men were to go to war: do note a propriety in its signification; as thereby declaring the dismal Time of the Deluge. [5]  

There’s also evidence in Pseudodoxia Epidemica that Browne was familiar with one of the earliest and most influential of all kabbalistic texts, the legendary Book of Splendour. Also known as the Zohar (Hebrew: זֹהַר, lit. "Splendor" or "Radiance")  the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought it consists of commentary on aspects of the Torah (the five books of Moses) mythical cosmogony and mystical psychology. The Zohar also contains a discussion of the nature of God, the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of souls, redemption, the relationship of Ego to Darkness and "true self" to "The Light of God", and the relationship between the "universal energy" and man. [6]

Browne tantalizingly alludes to Moses de León (c. 1250 – 1305) known in Hebrew as Moshe ben Shem-Tov (משה בן שם-טוב די-ליאון),  the Spanish rabbi and Kabbalist considered to be the author of the Zohar in this remark-

' M. Leo the Jew has excellently discoursed in his Genealogy of Love: defining beauty a formal grace, which delights and moves them to love which comprehend it. This grace say they, discoverable outwardly, is the resplendent and Ray of some interior and invisible beauty, and proceeds from the forms of compositions amiable.' [7] 

Although its recorded that as early as 1934 Joseph Blau wrote upon Browne’s interest in the Kabbalah, amazingly,  only in 1989 was it recognised that the leading scholar of Hebrew and the Kabbalah in 17th century Germany, Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-89) has an interesting relationship to Browne.[8] The German scholar Von Rosenroth devoted many hours of his somewhat short life, completing what must have been a true labour of love, translating in total over 200,000 words of Browne’s colossal encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica into German, completing his task in 1680 for publication in Frankfurt and Leipzig. Whether Browne was informed of this translation, late in his life isn't known, but it seems unlikely he wouldn't hear of it.

Browne’s esoteric inclinations are given full vent in his phantasmagorical discourse and supreme literary work of hermetic philosophy in English literature, The Garden of Cyrus (1658),  including his interest in the Cabala.

The opening paragraph of chapter 3 of The Garden of Cyrus sees Browne move swiftly on from examples of the Quincunx pattern in gardening and art, to those in nature. In a paragraph of humorous and cosmic prose, he alludes to a French contemporary, the Hebrew scholar, astrologer and librarian to Cardinal Richelieu, Jaques Gafferel (1601-81). Browne was particularly interested in Gaffarel’s best-selling book, which had been translated into English as Unheard of Curiosities in 1650 in which the French kabbalist proposes an alternative to the Babylonian-Greek circle of animals or Zodiac.

Using the stars quite differently from the Babylonian-Greek circle of animals or Zodiac, Gaffarel describes how the letters of the Hebrew alphabet can be traced in the stars of the night-sky. Browne includes Gaffarel along with esoteric concepts of the 'music of the spheres' and the cosmic harmony of Pan's pipes as worthy of credulity thus-

Could we satisfy ourselves in the position of the lights above, or discover the wisdom of that order so invariably maintained in the fixed Stars of heaven; Could we have any light, why the stellary part of the first mass, separated into this order, that the Girdle of Orion should ever maintain its line, and the two Stars in Charles's Wain never leave pointing at the Pole-Star, we might abate the Pythagorical Music of the Spheres, the sevenfold Pipe of Pan; and the strange Cryptography of Gaffarell in his Starry Book of Heaven.

In his wide-ranging discourse of analogies and correspondences connecting the number five and quincunx pattern in art, nature and 'mystically considered’ Browne lets rip in rapid, near breathless enquiry, making note upon gardening, generation, germination, grafting, heredity, birth-marks, physiognomy, astrology, chess and skittles, archery and knuckle-stones, Egyptian hieroglyphs, architecture, optics, the camera obscura, acoustics and the healing power of music, among other topics of interest to the worthy 17th century Norwich physician.  

Given its free-ranging imaginative associations its almost predictable that the alphabet mysticism of the Kabbalah is included in this unique and idiosyncratic literary work. Browne speculates upon the properties of the letter He, the 5th letter in the Hebrew alphabet. His kabbalist enquiry includes one of the earliest recorded usages of the word ‘archetype’ in English.

The same number in the Hebrew mysteries and Cabalistical accounts was the character of Generation; declared by the letter He, the fifth in their Alphabet; According to that Cabalisticall Dogma: If Abram had not had this Letter added unto his Name he had remained fruitlesse, and without the power of generation: Not only because hereby the number of his Name attained two hundred forty eight, the number of the affirmative precepts, but because as increated natures there is a male and female, so in divine and intelligent productions, the mother of Life and Fountain of souls in Cabalistically Technology is called Binah; whose Seal and Character was He. So that being sterile before, he received the power of generation from that measure and mansion in the Archetype; and was made conformable unto Binah. [9] -

Its also in the 'mystically considered' chapter 5 of The Garden of Cyrus that Browne speculates upon the healing power of music upon the mind, using kabbalistic analogy thus-

Why the Cabalistical Doctors, who conceive the whole Sephiroth, or divine emanations to have guided the ten-stringed Harp of David, whereby he pacified the evil spirit of Saul, in strict numeration do begin with the Perihypate Meson, or si fa ut, and so place the Tiphereth answering C sol fa ut, upon the fifth string: [10]

Remarkably, Browne's Quincunx and the frontispiece illustration accompanying the discourse have been analogously compared. In the Heaven of Indra, there is said to be a network of pearls, so arranged that if you look at one you will see all the others reflected in it.

Curiously the Sephirotic Tree of classical kabbalah and the Quincunx pattern as illustrated in the frontispiece of The Garden of Cyrus have both been viewed as examples of 'stepped-down versions' of Indra's Net. In Hindu mythology the god Indra has a net which has a multifaceted jewel fixed at each knot, each jewel in turn reflects all the other jewels which are suspended in the net. The image of Indra's net is sometimes used to describe the interconnected relationship of the entire universe, not unlike either the Sephiroth tree of the kabbalah or Browne's intention in citing numerous examples of the Quincunx pattern in art, nature and mystically.

Browne however was not a solitary figure in his interest in the kabbalah in 17th century England. The Cambridge Platonists, in particular its leading members, Henry More (1614-87) the author of Conjectura Cabbalistica (1653), and Ralph Cudworth (1617-88) also had a keen interest in the mystical Jewish tradition of the kabbalah.

Well I hope today, on the anniversary of Sir Thomas Browne's birth and death (how Ouroboros-like is that) that this little essay convinces my reader of Browne's very real interest and understanding of the kabbalah. It is, however , because of his having interests in early modern science in tandem with topics such as the kabbalah, that Browne's place in European intellectual history remains ambiguous and paradoxical today ! 


[1] The 1711 Action Sales Catalogue was finally published in 1986 thanks to scholarship of the Yale University, American academic and Dean Emeritus of Yale University,  J.S. Finch (to whom I enjoyed a correspondence with until his death).

[2] The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age Frances Yates pub. RKP 1979

[3] De Harmonia Mundi  Venice 1525 1711 Sales Auction Catalogue page 2 no.33

[4] P.E. Bk 1 chapter 3

[5] P.E. Bk 1 chapter 4

[6] Wikipedia

[7] P.E. Book 6 chapter 11

[8] Alchemy of the Word: Cabala of the Renaissance Philip Beitchman pub. State University of New York Press, Albany 1989

[9] Genesis 27 verse 15 discusses the adding of H to Abram's name.
 Text here in chapter 5 includes a reference by Browne to - Archang. Dog. Cabal. Archangelus Burgonovus  (The apology of brother Archangulus of Burgonovo in defense of cabalistic doctrines against Rev. Peter Garzia’s attack on Mirandula from Hebrew wisdom, source of the Christian religion). Basel 1560, Bologna 1564. Also mentioned in Pistorius’s Artis cabalisticae scriptores Basel 1587

[10] 1 Samuel 17 verse 40

This post dedicated to Karmel Lee, for her encouragement and inspiration.

Monday, October 05, 2015

The Macclesfield Psalter: A Medieval Norwich Gem

Spike Bucklow's The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art (2014) is a scholarly, yet accessible analysis of medieval illuminated manuscripts. It includes a chapter on the recently discovered Macclesfield Psalter, a fascinating gem of medieval Norwich artistry.

The Macclesfield Psalter (Book of Psalms from the Old Testament) was produced around 1330. It contains 252 illustrated pages and is recognized as  an important discovery of a medieval manuscript in Britain. Amazingly, it was only discovered in 2004 after laying unidentified for centuries, when the library at Shirburn Castle was catalogued for sale. Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum tried to buy it, but the initial bid was won by the Getty Museum of Malibu, California, for £1.7 million. The American museum had to gain permission to export the Psalter.  A temporary export bar was placed on the Psalter until 2005. The Fitzwilliam Museum, assisted by an £860,000 contribution from the UK Government's National Heritage Memorial Fund raised the £1.7 million needed to keep the Psalter in the United Kingdom. The Macclesfield Psalter is now owned by the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, however it is not currently on display as it's being restored.

The Macclesfield Psalter is noted for its vivid images, grotesques and humour. Its illustrations include amongst other curiosities, three-headed monsters with hairy noses, a dog in a bishop's costume, an ape doctor giving a false diagnosis to a bear patient, rabbits jousting and riding hounds, an armed knight confronting a giant snail and a giant skate terrorising a man. The newly-coined adjective 'pythonesque', alluding to the surreal animations of Terry Gilliam, is sometimes used to describe the Psalter's bizarre and occasionally obscene images; but in fact it is quite the reverse. Gilliam has recently confessed he copied from a book of medieval marginal illustrations as a source for animations for the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

There was concerned debate about which of the Psalter's pages would be appropriate for Queen Elizabeth II to view when she visited the Fitzwilliam in 2005.

The pages of the Macclesfield Psalter offer an intimate view of the medieval world and the beliefs, prejudices, follies and sentiments of its people. Doctors, priests, minstrels, mummers, farmers, dancers, tricksters and beggars mingle in the margins just as they would have done on the busy streets of medieval Norwich. The livelihoods of Norfolk’s farmers and Norwich’s weavers, seamstresses and dyers were closely connected to the Psalter through the flow of various materials, and as such it is testimony to the highly-developed crafts and skills which thrived in Norwich, a city of European stature in trade, commerce and artistic creativity during the Medieval era. If Norwich had not been a very wealthy city during the 14th century then materials such as gold and saffron would not have been obtainable in the illumination of the Psalter.

According to author Spike Bucklow, a senior research scientist at Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge, the Macclesfield Psalter was created by two equally gifted painters who worked and responded playfully to each other's ideas. Their patron was a member of a rich and powerful Norfolk family whose identity remains unknown. The painters’ workshop, Bucklow conjectures, was located in the parish of Saint George's at Tombland (from old Danish tomb empty and Land Space) in Norwich. The list of pigments found in the illuminations contained nothing that could not be obtained from in a Norwich workshop circa 1335. Indeed, the artist's studio in Tombland was located only a few minutes walk from the nearby church of Saint John Maddermarket, a quite specific allusion to the madder plant, once essential to the dyer's art.

Bucklow notes, 'the two anonymous artists who illuminated the Psalter purposefully left pigments off their palette to challenge and stretch themselves. They restricted their palette with supreme confidence knowing that lovers can see their beloved's beauty in even the most tarnished of mirrors.'

The two artists of the Macclesfield Psalter embedded several layers of meaning into their riddle-like art, some of which remain enigmatic and unsolvable to this day.

Bucklow continues - 'The most obvious part of the Psalter's visual form is its strange collection of everyday and hybrid creatures. Appreciating the form simply involves recognising that the painters wanted the reader to be able to revel in a riot of possibilities, whether apparently normal or abnormal. The sheer exuberant variety of animal, vegetable, mineral and monstrous decoration suggests a limitless imagination.'

However, he rejects the ideas of certain 1960's orientated counter-culture historians who claim that the many bizarre images in the Psalter were the product of painters who had ingested grain infected by ergot, a hallucinogen similar in effect to LSD.

What is certain is that from their everyday dealings in Norwich, the patron and painters of the Psalter were guided by Dominican Friars who eagerly integrated the ancient Classical world view with Christianity. They knew that everything in the material realm was limited and constantly changed either in time or space.

Crucially, throughout The Riddle of the Image Spike Bucklow displays a rare understanding of the alchemical imagination. He explains, for example, the spiritual significance of colour to the medieval artist, in the use of mosaic gold as opposed to 'true gold' thus-

'It is also appropriate that the 'likeness of gold', mosaic gold, was an alchemical pigment attributed to Moses, a legendary Old Testament father of alchemy. As a fabricated alchemical hybrid (of tin, sulphur, quicksilver and sal ammoniac) mosaic gold is also appropriate for the marginal creatures which are of course, also fabricated hybrids.'

Bucklow's understanding of the alchemical imagination, his ability to illuminate the seemingly long lost mind-set of medieval artists, in conjunction with his scientific background along with his ability to discourse in an erudite yet accessible style, makes his The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art a fascinating read. Further chapters on the Wilton diptych, the Westminster Retable and the Thornham Parva Retable simply confirm the importance of his ground-breaking research and study.
                              *    *   *   *   *  *  *  *

Neptune's  Creatures of the Deep: Sir Thomas Browne and Jorge Borges, North Sea Magical Realism and  the Macclesfield Psalter. 

An interest in the strange creatures which once existed in the medieval imagination was revived and catalogued in the 20th century by the influential Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). In his Book of Imaginary Beings (1967) Borges lists over 120 mythical creatures alluded to in classical antiquity, medieval folklore and world literature, finding it useful to consult the encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646-72) written by the Norwich physician and Hermetically-inclined philosopher, Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) when discussing hybrid creatures such as the Amphisbaena (a two-headed serpent), Basilisks, Mandrakes, and the utterly weird so-called vegetable lamb of Tartary.

And in fact Sir Thomas Browne was one of the Argentine writer's favourite authors. Borges alluded to Browne in almost every one of his books, from his earliest to his last publication in his long life.

There are, I believe, at present two local contemporary artists, both of whom possess rich and fertile imaginations, which in tandem with well-developed painting techniques, are equally adept at dredging bizarre creatures from the depths of their unconscious psyche as inventively as the two Medieval a illustrators of the Macclesfield Psalter, almost seven hundred years ago.

Currently located in coastal towns twenty miles east of Norwich, North Sea Magical Realist artists Peter Rodulfo and Mark Burrell are inspired by the moods, hues and hidden depths of the North Sea, the working life and social culture of their respective coastal town of residence (Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft) as well as marine life in general, amongst other varied sources of inspiration and influence they each have.

Both artists also in their own inimitable way, occasionally conjure imaginary creatures equally bizarre as those in the Macclesfield Psalter, or alluded to in Browne's encyclopaedia Pseudodoxia Epidemica  or even collected by Jorge Borges ; as is evident in Mark Burrell's unsettling fish-man and the cuttle-fish character among the  crew of Peter Rodulfo's recent work, Waiting for the Captain.

'Waiting for the Captain' 120 x 100 cms. Peter Rodulfo (2015)

                       Mark Burrell's 'Fishman'(Unfinished)

Books consulted

* The Riddle of the Image: The Secret Science of Medieval Art
   Spike Bucklow Reaktion Books London 2014

* Julian's Gospel: Illuminating the life and Revelations of Julian of Norwich.  Veronica Mary Rolf  pub. Orbis Books New York 2013
- includes a highly informative  chapter on Medieval Norwich.

* The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges (1957 revised and expanded 1968) pub. Penguin 1974

This post for Tchenka, for kindly lending me not only her copy, but also her wisdom;  both of which  I am indebted in gratitude. 

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mark Burrell: North Sea Magical Realist artist extraordinaire

Lowestoft Floods 1953

The absurdly slow and long bus-journey from Norwich to the coastal town of Southwold through the darkest interior of Suffolk was well worth enduring for an early viewing of Mark Burrell’s latest work which is currently being exhibited at CraftCo, until the 28th September.  

Mark Burrell (b. 1957 Lowestoft) is an established artist who has developed his distinctive style and unique vision from decades of industrious creativity. Nationally, Burrell’s work has featured frequently on British TV. He was awarded first prize on the programme Moving Art and won the Lucy Memorial Prize at the Royal Overseas League. Internationally, he has exhibited at the Interart Gallery and the Williamsburg historical Art Centre at New York. 

Choosing to work in alkyd resins, giving his canvases a stained-glass luminescence and sometimes restricting his tonal palette in order to create a highly-charged emotional atmosphere, Burrell’s art is strongly feeling orientated. His often dark, near Gothic and sometimes disturbing art is however, not without great beauty and charm also, as is evident in his Memories of a Merry-Go-Round (below).

Burrell’s resourcefulness is such that the closely-knit community of his home-town of Lowestoft has supplied him with an abundance of artistic inspiration. His imagination vividly delineates childhood fears of a ghosts-on-the-washing-line-in-the--moonlight variety. (The Freudian terror of hearing one's mother is, 'going to visit the Fish-man' (fishmongers) to a child's imagination, another example). His personal memories of growing up at the now long-gone Beach village, Lowestoft, in particular, have provided him with fertile subject-matter.

In his Lowestoft Floods 1953, (top) Burrell conjures the  events of the North Sea Flood. Taking a bird-eye perspective of the cataclysmic surge tide, local landmarks are featured, along with a sense of the chaos of the event. There's perhaps a nod in style in Burrell's canvas to the primitive simplicity of English art as exemplified by Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) (it was while alone in the winter of 1937, when resident in Southwold, Suffolk, that Stanley Spencer begin a series of paintings entitled The Beatitudes of Love). What's certain is that it's a work of considerable artistic imagination for Burrell was not actually born until several years after the event; however, local folk-lore recollection of the disaster in conjunction with Burrell's fertile artistic imagination and draughtsmanship, contribute to a highly-imaginative reconstruction of the effects of the 1953 North Sea storm tide upon Lowestoft.

Far from viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles, Burrell considers the world today to be a sometimes dark place. Sharing this view-point with the German artist Otto Dix (1891-1961) who he admires, the influence of the Neue Sachlicheit (New Objectivity) artist can be discerned in his Midnight Circus (below). 


Mark Burrell, along with fellow North Sea Magical Realist artist, Peter Rodulfo, is also receptive to the ideas of C.G.Jung (1875-1961).  In particular the Swiss psychologist's essays The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature, in which the psychic processes and archetypal structures involved in artistic creativity are discussed. Jung's essays, especially On Picasso (1932)Burrell considers to contain the most perceptive of all psychological observations upon artistic creativity he's ever read. 

With words applicable to both Burrell's and Rodulfo's art, C.G. Jung declares in The Spirit of Man, Art and Literature, -

'Whoever speaks in primordial images speaks with a thousand voices; he enthrals and overpowers, while at the same time he lifts the idea he is seeking to express out of the occasional and the transitory into the realm of the ever-enduring'.

and 'All art intuitively apprehends coming changes in the collective unconsciousness'.

Its no sweeping hyperbole to state that Mark Burrell is quite simply the greatest creative artist to flourish from the coastal-town of Lowestoft since the days of the composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76). He's also of a calm, thoughtful and affable disposition in his personality. We therefore cordially wish him along with fellow North Sea Magical Realist artist Peter Rodulfo, many more years of good health and inspiration.

The White Violin

There's a distinctly Mark Chagall-like quality to the two beautiful paintings above; however the photos taken by myself at the CraftCo. Southwold exhibition barely do justice to the glowing splendour of Burrell's work. Nevertheless they're worth posting, if only to inspire the reader to visit the current exhibition and view the far greater originals for themselves ! 


Many more of Mark Burrell's paintings at Mark Burrell Art
See also - 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Taraf de Haïdouks

Taraf de Haidouks (Band of Outlaws) are a collective of Romanian musicians who are now celebrating their 25th year with a world tour. They will be performing in Wales in August, Stockholm, Sweden Friday 18th September, Lille in France, Friday 16 October and Mexico City, Mexico,Sunday 25th October this year. Given their scheduled world tour it was a lucky event  for fans  to catch them at the Theatre Royale, Norwich, as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Although now three months ago, the memory of hearing these Romany musicians perform with astounding virtuosity remains fresh, helped by re-hearing their CD back catalogue on ipod.

The Norfolk and Norwich Music Festival itself has an illustrious history. British composers such as Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Arthur Bliss and Benjamin Britten all had world first premières of their music performed at the Festival. In more recent times composer/performers such as Philip Glass, Ute Lemper, Michael Nyman, John Cale, Laurie Anderson, Terry Riley, Ray Davies and David Bedford have all performed at the Festival.

Taraf de Haidouks hail from Clejani, a village which is noted for its traditional Romany musicians who have passed their skills down from generation to generation for decades and even centuries. Taraf de Haïdouks began their music career when Belgian promoter Stephane Karo travelled to Romania in the late 1980s in search of a group of musicians he had discovered on an obscure recording. However it was not until the downfall of the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918-1989) that travel restrictions for Romanians were lifted and the current interest in Romany music with bands such as Taraf de Haidouk began. The lyrics of their Song of the Dictator describes the events leading up to the overthrow of the Romanian dictator.

Song of the Dictator

Green leaf, flower of the fields
What are the students doing ?
Into the cars they step
Towards Bucharest they head
Into the streets. They shout
'Come out Romanian brothers,
Let's wipe out the dictatorship'.

Ceasescu hears them
His ministers call for
a helicopter which takes him away
What do the police do ?
In his steps they follow,
In a tank they bring him back,
In a room they lock him up,
and so his trial begins.
His blood pressure we take,
And the judge condemns him:
'Tyrant, you have destroyed Romania'.

Romany culture has an interesting, if slight association with Norwich for the author George Borrow resided there in his youth. Over the course of his travels, Borrow developed a close affinity with the Romany people of Europe. Descriptions of Romany folk and their culture feature in each of his books including the autobiographical Lavengro, and The Romany Rye, in which Borrow  recollects his time with English Romany gypsies.

Borrow's travels included Russia, Portugal, Spain and Morocco. Wherever he travelled he acquainted himself with the people and languages of the various countries he visited. Fascinated by gypsy music, dance and customs he even became familiar enough with the Romany language as to publish a dictionary of it. When in Moscow Borrow visited Russian gypsies camped outside the city. His impressions formed part of the opening chapter of  The Zincali: or an account of the Gypsies of Spain (1841). But it was while walking on Mousehold Heath, a large area of heath and woodland on the north-eastern outskirts of Norwich, adjacent to Lavengro and Gertrude Road, that George Borrow first encountered gypsy culture. His friend Jasper Petulengro  (meaning blacksmith) revealing his gypsy soul to him - 

"There's night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet things; there's likewise a wind on the heath. Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"

Petulenegro also says in Lavengro perhaps even while standing on the steep chalk hill which leads up to Mousehold heath, with its fantastic view of Norwich, as imaginatively depicted here by Alfred Munnings (above ) -

There's the wind on the heath, brother; if I could only feel that, I would gladly live for ever.

There can be little doubt that George Borrow with his fascination with gypsy culture would have enjoyed Romany-styled music by bands such as Taraf de Haidouks and the brass ensemble Fanfare Ciocărlia

There's a strong vein of Romany stereotype, as if in the foot-hills of the Carpathian mountains, with the castle of Count Vlad Dracula in the distance, in the slightly spooky, near shamanistic invocation, Hora Din Caval.

To a highly-modernized western society, one appeal of Taraf's music is that it speaks of a long-lost nomadic, wandering life, living close to nature, aware of changing fortune, communally sharing life's joys and sorrows, as well as experiencing injustice and persecution for one's beliefs, non-conformity and misunderstood life-style. 

Taraf  perform music which is constructed upon unusual Balkan folk rhythms, tonality and instrumentation;  each and ever musician in Taraf is  a consummate master of his respective instrument, which includes the highly-characteristic sound of the Cimbalon, as well as violinists, flautist, accordion-players and bassist. Together they share jokes and banter on-stage, encouraging each other to produce some remarkable solo performances as well as ensemble, often playing poignant melodies with syncopated rhythms at incredibly fast tempo. 

The evening's music-making was further enhanced by the appearance of the glamorous Viorica Rudareasa who first recorded with Taraf  on Dumbala in 1998. Dancing in her high heels (no mean feat)  on the evening Viorica sang numbers from the band's latest album Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts (2015) including - 

The evening was memorable personally on another account. While sitting in the rear row of the stalls of the theatre I could not but help notice a group of young men energetically bobbing their heads up and down in time to the highly infectious rhythms of Taraf de Haidouks. On closer examination with my opera glasses I was pleased to realise I share a similar taste in music with my son and his friends. The very best music unites and transcends the generations.


* Musiques de Tziganes de Roumanie (1991)
* Honourable Brigands, Magic Horses and Evil Eye (1994)
* Dumbala Dumba (1998)
* Band of Gypsies (2001)
* Maškaradǎ (2007)
* Band of Gypsies 2, with Kočani Orkestar ( 2011)
* Of Lovers, Gamblers and Parachute Skirts ( 2015)

Wikilink - Taraf de Haidouks

George Borrow and his novels

This one for Carl and John.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Aelita & The Heart of a Dog

"Touch my lips with your lips, the same way they do on Earth" commands Aelita,  Queen of Mars.

The early years of Soviet Russia witnessed bold experimentation in the arts. In particular, Science-fiction was hugely popular during the 1920's in Russia,  especially the novels of H.G.Wells, whose short stories often describe an advanced society shaped by scientific progress. Speculation upon scientific discovery and themes found in H.G Well's novels, inspired Russian novelists such as Mikhail Bulgakov, Aleksei Tolstoy and Alexander Belyaev to discuss the moral implications of scientific discoveries, both real and imaginary to a fast changing Russian society. Science-fiction also found expression in Russia in the newly emerging art form of mass entertainment, the cinema. 


First screened in 1924, Aelita was one of the earliest of all science-fiction films. It tells of Los, a engineer living in Moscow who dreams of Aelita, the Queen of Mars. He builds a spaceship to take him to her, and they fall in love. However, Los soon finds himself involved in a proletarian uprising to establish a Martian Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Los's imaginary trip to Mars concludes with the engineer consigning the manuscript of his literary fantasy to the fire, solemnly uttering the Communist Party sentiment, 'We have more serious work to do'.

Intended as ideologically correct mass entertainment which could compete both in Russia and abroad with Hollywood, while also being art-house cinema of a quality equal to German Expressionist films such as Fritz Lang's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the film critic Ben Sonnenberg wrote of Aelita-

"It has interplanetary travel, romance, murder, theft and fraud, a comic detective, thoughts about mankind's future in space (also comic) and political comment. Its scenes here on Earth are, well, earthbound: the acting is naturalistic. Its Mars, by contrast, is out of this world". 

The strength of Aelita as a film rests upon three solid foundations, a well-written script, its overall direction, and the originality of its set, decor and costumes.

Directed by Yakov Protaznov (1881-1945) the ‘King of Russian silent film’ Protaznov had already directed over 80 feature films between 1911 to 1918 when he was persuaded to return to Russia from France and Germany where he was developing a new career. Protaznov's skills as a film director successfully linked Russia's hitherto isolated film-industry with important trends in contemporary world cinema. Aelita's influence can be seen in films such as Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and later in the American Flash Gordon serial (1936).

The most original feature to modern viewers of Aelita are its Martian-style sets and costumes which were coordinated in the distinctive avant-garde style of Russian Constructivism by the Franco-Russian designer, Alexandra Exter (1882-1949).

The producers of Aelita struggled to acquire scarce resources such as 70,000 feet of negative film, aluminium and celluloid to build Mars and one of the most impressive cast and crew ever assembled in the 1920's for a film. The opening night of Aelita was unprecedented in Russian film. The theatre facade was decorated with 'giant figures of Aelita and Tuskub,the princess and King of Mars, surrounded by illuminated columns and geometric shapes approximating to the films 'Martian' decor and illuminated with flashing lights'.

The huge success of Aelita was propelled by factors such as the re-publication of Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's mathematical calculations which proposed that spaceflight was a real possibility. Tsiolkovsky's speculations sparked newspaper stories in 1924, the year of Aelita's release, about rockets and spaceships that would be carrying people into space. 

There was inevitably an ideological backlash to the success of Aelita. Criticized for its excessive budget and attacked for its Western-style escapism, commercialism and ideological compromise; with the emergence of another style and direction to Soviet cinema, notable from Sergei Eisenstein (1989-1948) Aelita was swiftly dropped from distribution and circulation. 

Today Aelita is regarded as a film of international significance. Its not rocket science to realize that its contribution to popular interest in space travel helped to plant the seeds of Russia's early dominance in the space race. The first generation of Soviet space engineers, Sergei Korolev (1907-66) and Valentin Glushko (1908-89) for example, were inspired not only by Tsiolkovsky's mathematical calculations, but also by science-fiction such as Aelita. The rocket engineer Vladimir Chelomei (1914-84) even named his proposed mission to send people to Mars Aelita, after watching the film as a 10 year old boy.

The script of Aelita was based upon a story written by Aleksei Tolstoy (1883-1945) upon his feted return to Russia in 1923. Tolstoy, like several other Russian authors, was inspired in his writing Aelita from reading the science-fiction of H.G.Wells.


The English author H.G.Wells (1866-1946) is often credited as being 'the father of science-fiction'. Because his novels are written in a clear, unsophisticated style, with few unproblematic nuances of meaning in translation, (unlike authors contemporary to him, the writings of D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, for example),  Wells's short stories and the novels The Time Machine (1895)  The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898), were hugely popular with Russian readers as exciting adventure stories which involve discussion upon future scientific and technological progress. They subsequently influenced several early Soviet Russian science-fiction writers.  

H.G. Wells's novels became first available in  Russian translation as early as the 1890's and became even more popular after the 1917 Revolution. He visited Russia several times, both before and after the 1917 Revolution and during the era of Stalin. A great admirer of Russian culture, upon his first visit to Moscow in 1914, he attended a performance of Chekhov’s The Seagull with Olga Knipper and Stanislavsky in leading roles, declaring the play to be a revelation to him and that even if he had not known the drama he would have understood everything just by watching the wonderful acting.

Through his friendship with Maxim Gorky, H.G.Wells was introduced to, and discussed political matters with some of the highest-ranking Communist Party officials, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Well's high reputation among some Party members was such that Anatoly Lunacharsky, the first Soviet People's Commissar of Education, responsible for culture and education, in an introduction to a new six volume edition of H.G. Wells's writings in 1930, declared him to be, 'one of the best psychologists in contemporary literature'. And to this day H.G.Wells novels are listed on the Russian State education reading list.

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of H.G. Wells admirers was Mikhail Bulgakov (1888-1940) who published his novella The Fatal Eggs (Роковые яйца) in 1924. Also known as The Red Ray (Луч жизни) Bulgakov's story tells of an eccentric zoologist who accidentally discovers a ray which accelerates the growth. One influential source behind Bulgakov's short story was H. G. Wells's The Food of the Gods (1904) in which two scientists also discover a way to accelerate growth. Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs even references The Food of the Gods in a conversation held between the zoologist Persikov and his assistant Ivanov who declares-

Do you understand, Vladir Ipatych,” he continued excitedly, “H.G.Wells’s heroes are nothing compared to you... and I thought that was all make-believe.. Remember his Food for the Gods !”
"Ah, that’s a novel, " Perisov replied.
"Yes, of course, but it’s famous!"
"I've forgotten it, "Persikov said. "I remember reading it, but I've forgotten it".

Bulgakov's short story The Fatal Eggs concludes in the death of a horde of giant snakes from cold weather, not dissimilar to the death of the aliens in Well's The War of the Worlds. One interpretation of Bulgakov's The Fatal Eggs is that, like the 1917 revolution, scientific experiments can set into motion events which become increasingly uncontrollable. In late 1924, Bulgakov wrote in his diary of his short story - 'Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? ... I'm afraid that I might be hauled off ... for all these heroic feats.' Bulgakov's fear of being admonished by Soviet officialdom were realized following the ban upon his subsequent novella, The Heart of a Dog (1925).

Inspired from a reading of H.G.Well's, The Island of Doctor Moreau in which Doctor Moreau, an eminent, but discredited scientist, creates human-like beings from animals through vivisection; the novel debates a number of philosophical themes, including pain and cruelty, moral responsibility, human identity, and human interference with nature. In a new Russian translation of The Island of Doctor Moreau in 1930, Mikhail Zavadovsky, a biologist and specialist in mental processes enthusiastically exclaimed of H.G. Well's portrayal of the human mind and its capacities-

'The central idea of this novel is that human will and knowledge will achieve this goal when, with a scalpel in his hand, man will be able to change and reorganize living organisms'.

H.G.Wells himself in an essay entitled The Limits of Individual Plasticity (1895), expressed a firm belief that the events depicted in The Island of Doctor Moreau are entirely possible if vivisection experiments were ever tested outside the confines of science fiction.

Heart of a Dog

Ever since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) Science fiction has been closely linked to tales of medical horror. Mikhail Bulgakov, a qualified doctor, in his novella The Heart of a Dog (Собачье сердце,1925) tells of the genius Professor Preobrazhensky (preobraz being a word-play upon the Slavic word for transformation) who, one winter's day, entices a stray dog to his home in order to conduct a hideous experiment. Operating upon the dog, Preobrazhensky implants the pituitary gland and testes of an unknown person into the dog Sharik.

Although Professor Preobrazhensky warns his devoted assistant Bormethal against trying to create a genius artificially  .. 'what if the the dog had been given the pituitary gland of a great man, a Spinoza, instead of a criminal, alcoholic itinerant balalaika player?' he asks, nevertheless he proceeds with his experiment, with both grotesque and comic consequences.

There is a claustrophobic feel to Bulgakov's novella. The action rarely leaves the confines of his seven room apartment. His servants obey him without hesitation and he himself represents the old order of Russia, authoritarian and respectful of foreign culture, attending the Bolshoi theatre and forever humming to himself an aria from Verdi's Aida ' On the Banks of the Nile' while conducting his surgical experiments. 

Bulgakov's novella has similarities in its thematic concerns with the European legend of Dr. Faustus, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as well as H.G.Wells The Island of Doctor Moreau in its discussion upon the moral integrity of scientific experiments. According to one literary critic the message of The Heart of a Dog is that man must recognize the existence of limits to his powers; that there are realms, divine and natural, where he cannot tread without the danger of creating something blasphemous and unnatural- without carrying out a Satanic act. This idea was antithetical  to Communists, whose entire agenda was based on the notion that God does not exist, that nature was infinitely plastic, and that they could create a new, better man.

Bulgakov's novella displays Gogolian-Chekhovian buffoonery, ridiculing attempts to create a new Soviet superman and Communist party rhetoric such as- 

"Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman."

Because of his sharp, thinly-veiled criticism of Russian communism, Bulgakov's novella was immediately banned by Soviet officials and not officially published until 1987, almost 60 years since it was first penned.

The literary critic James Meek detected in The Heart of a Dog the influence of H.G. Wells, Gogol and Bulgakov's friend and contemporary Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937) the author of We (1924). Zamyatin's highly-influential science-fiction novella depicts a future dystopia in which those rebelling against totalitarianism are surgically operated upon in order to make them obedient to the State. Zamyatin's novel predates and in all probability influenced the dystopian themed novels of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1931) and later in 1949 in George Orwell's 1984. 

Alexander Belyaev

The cross-referencing and shared influences between Russian and British science-fiction writers reached a new zenith in the author Alexander Belyaev (1884-1942). Belyaev also catered to Russian hopes and fears for scientific discovery to dramatically transform lives. His first story, Professor Dowell's Head ((Голова Профессора Доуэля, 1925) concerns itself with a head transplant. Subsequent stories feature a man with transplanted shark-gills, Amphibian Man ( (Человек-Амфибия, 1928) The Air Seller (Продавец воздуха, 1929) in which a gigantic air-machine literally hoovers up all military opposition, and KETs Star (Звезда КЭЦ, 1936) a tribute to the recently deceased Russian scientist,  Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935).

Alexander Belyaev first read H.G. Wells when convalescing from tuberculosis as a young man and eventually met his literary hero in Leningrad in 1934. Like many Russian writers Belyaev lived a short, tragic life, dying from starvation in the Soviet town of Pushkin while it was occupied by the Nazis. (Yevgeny Zamyatin died in poverty of a heart attack in 1937 aged 53, Bulgakov died from an inherited kidney disorder aged 48).

In Belyaev's death one of the greatest examples of a love of literature transcending narrow Nationalist interests occurred. A Nazi officer and four soldiers carried Belyaev's starved body from his home and conducted a burial. The officer spoke a short eulogy at his grave, saying that when he was a boy, he had loved reading the writer's books translated into German.

Today, in a continuing reciprocation between Russian and English science-fiction writers, English readers are indebted to the translator Maria K. the pen name of Maria Igorevna Kuroschepova (b. 1975) for introducing Belyaev's works to a wider audience. 


Wikipedia (Aelita, H.G. Wells, Alexander Belyaev and The Heart of a Dog)

'The Reception of H.G..Wells in Europe', edited by Patrick Parringer and John S. Partington published by Bloomsbury Academic 2013
Chapters 'H.G.Wells in Russian literary Criticism 1890s-1940s' and 'Future Perfect: H.G.Wells and Bolshevik Russia, 1917-32'.

DVD sleeve notes to 1991 Kino International release of Aelita by David Shepard


Top- A still from Aelita
Next - Photograph of H.G. Wells
Next -Photograph of Mikhail Bulgakov circa 1910
Next - A  1988 production in sepia of The Heart of a Dog
Last - A Photograph of Alexander Belyaev

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Bolt

Dmitri Shostakovich's ballet The Bolt (1931) is a riveting example of experimentation in music in the Soviet Union before the Stalinist doctrine of socialist realism restricted artistic freedom of expression. According to the musicologist Francis Maes -

The most important creative work of this period was that of Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975). Together with Myaskovsky he wrote music of lasting significance during the first Soviet period, that is, the period between 1926 - the year of his first symphony - and 1936, when the Party leadership shackled his creativity.....Shostakovich was a passionate  champion of Soviet modernism. In Shostakovich’s early work, Soviet culture received its clearest musical expression, as witness the astonishing First Symphony, the daring symphonic experiments from the Second to the Fourth Symphonies, the ballets The Golden Age, The Bolt, and The Limpid Stream, the operas The Nose and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. [1]

The one and only performance of The Bolt was on April 8th 1931. Immediately after its first performance it was banned and not performed again until 74 years later in 2005. Following its ban Shostakovich rescued material from the music score of 2 hours duration to create a condensed thirty minute concert suite. Its through the orchestral suite that the music of The Bolt (opus 27a) is known today.

The ballet's thin plot, by Viktor Smirnov, reveals why The Bolt failed to impress the critics and why it was banned. The protagonist, Lazy Idler, is a drunken lout, who upon being sacked from his factory post, seeks revenge on his employers by convincing a hapless sidekick, Goshka, to throw an enormous-sized bolt into one of the working lathes. The scheme succeeds and the lathe short-circuits. Lazy Idler points the finger of blame at an upstanding member of a team of Shock workers, Boris, but the guilt-ridden Goshka confesses to his role in the crime. Lazy Idler is detained by the factory guards, inspiring a celebration among the foreman and laborers, who cheerfully return to the production line. [2]

The musicologist Gerard McBurney stated of The Bolt - "The waspish and delightfully colourful score bowls along like a children’s cartoon-film, every number full of drama and parody and fine take-offs of serious and popular music of every kind." McBurney succinctly identifies two strong characteristics of Shostakovich's music, namely, the cinematic and the art of parody.

It was through the economic necessity of having to provide piano accompaniment to silent-films as a teenager at Leningrad cinemas that Shostakovich acquired his driving, dramatic style, so readily adaptive to the rapid action of cinema. Works such as the programmatic 11th and 12th symphonies which aurally depict the historical events leading up to the 1905 and 1917 revolutions, and the Piano Concerto no. 1 for trumpet and strings (1933) which includes rapid passages of cartoon-like humour are characteristic of Shostakovich's 'soundtrack narrative' style. But above all, it's Shostakovich's ability to mimic and parody musical styles which The Bolt is an early example of. Sarcasms, quotes and quips follow in swift succession, while the musical styles associated with jazz, folk-song, military marches and the tango, as well as the parodying of western sentimentality, are included in The Bolt.

The first and last movements of The Bolt suite reveal the full extent to which Shostakovich's mastery of orchestral technique had already developed. In the opening movement of the  suite, Beethoven's well-known 'Fate or 'Destiny' motif is quoted, only to be swiftly answered by the factory whistle. The Bolt also includes some fine examples of Shostakovich's witticisms, notably in the hilarious Drayman's Dance which celebrates the joy of alcohol and drunkenness. It is occasionally performed as an encore, including by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra following a performance of Shostakovich's 5th symphony at St. Andrew's Hall, Norwich in 2003.

Besides highlighting the taboo subject of industrial sabotage, The Bolt asks the difficult question of what's to be done with the non-conforming individual who doesn't meet official productivity quotas and fails to conform to State ideology, refusing to march to a dictated beat. There are three possible options open to Governments in the face of non-conformity, namely, ignore, integrate, or eliminate; the hallmark of a totalitarian state such as Stalin's being to eliminate.

The set designer of The Bolt, Tatiana Bruni (1902-2001) gives a valuable first-hand account of the only performance of the ballet.

At the time the dress rehearsals were open to the public at large. the theatre seemed overcrowded. As soon as the curtain opened, applause rang out, when the factory started to move, the applause transformed into an ovation that did not let up until the end of the spectacle. the dancing chapel and the individual costumes delighted the public. I swear by all that is sacred that this took place. The catcalling of the opposition (manifest philistinism!) was drowned out by the applause. But the spectacle was withdrawn. It was performed just once. We somehow became responsible for a "failure". They rebuked us in the press. I've remembered the title  of  one article. 'Bolt and chattering formalists'. Not one sketch was left to me,  some of them were destroyed in the theatre by particularly zealous "socialist realists".....We were unaware at this time art had veered sharply to the side of realism. The 'terrible'  words 'socialist realism' had appeared. [3]

Socialist realism was made the official doctrine of the Soviet Union in 1932. It was a doctrine which demanded traditional forms of representation. The Bolt, with its Constructivist leanings and bold choreography was consequently branded a failure and the director of the Mariinsky Ballet at the time, Fedor Lupukhov was forced to resign from his position.

Following the ban on The Bolt Shostakovich used subject-matter less controversial in his music, in the hope of not drawing attention to himself. He wrote a number of film scores, a genre in which he was active throughout his life. However, when in 1936 Stalin visited the theatre to hear the phenomenally popular opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk Region Shostakovich was denounced personally by Stalin. The cat-and-mouse game played between Shostakovich and Stalin is well-documented. Some of the casualties of Great Terror of Stalin's era in which many of Shostakovich's friends and relatives were imprisoned or killed include -  his patron Marshal Tukhachevsky (shot months after his arrest); his brother-in-law Vsevolod Frederiks (who was eventually released but died before he got home); his close friend Nikolai Zhilyayev (a musicologist who had taught Tukhachevsky; shot shortly after his arrest); his mother-in-law, the astronomer Sofiya Mikhaylovna Varzar (sent to a camp in Karaganda); his friend the Marxist writer Galina Serebryakova who served 20 years in camps; his uncle Maxim Kostrykin (died); and his colleagues Boris Kornilov and Adrian Piotrovsky, both of whom were executed.

Shostakovich's response to his denunciation resulted in his profound and monumental 5th symphony in D minor  op.47 (1937) which carries the title A Soviet artist's response to just criticism.  According to Wikipedia -

During the first performance of the symphony, people were reported to have wept during the Largo movement. The music, steeped in an atmosphere of mourning, contained echoes of the panikhida, the Russian Orthodox requiem. It also recalled a genre of Russian symphonic works written in memory of the dead, including pieces by Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky. For an audience that had lost friends and family on a massive scale, these references were apt to evoke intense emotions. This was why the Fifth Symphony was received and cherished by the Soviet public unlike any other work as an expression of the immeasurable grief they endured during Stalin's regime.

Shostakovich wrote music for one more ballet, The Limpid Stream in 1936. The genre was left open to development by  the home-sick and somewhat politically naive Sergei Prokofiev upon his return to Russia to create what remains the most well-known and loved of Soviet ballets, the traditional in style, Romeo and Juliet (1940). But it is Shostakovich's The Bolt which epitomizes the hope and optimism experienced by many Russians in creating a new, fairer society in the early years of the Soviet Union's history.

Coincidentally there is, until the end of February, an exhibition of costumes, designs and photographs of the first production of The Bolt at the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design ( GRAD ) based in London.

The 2006 DVD of the World premiere production of The Bolt with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, the Bolshoi Ballet and Orchestra of the State Theatre Bolshoi, Moscow is a joy to watch.


[1] Maes, Francis; Arnold J. Pomerans and Erica Pomerans (translators) (2002) A History of Russian Music: From Kamarinskaya to Babi Yar. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[2] Simon Morrison's notes to the Bel Air 2006 DVD production of The Bolt
[3] Ibid.
[4]  New York Times review of 'The Bolt' and GRAD exhibition