Managed to spend a morning in the Welsh National Museum of Art in Cardiff last week, would have lingered longer. Didn’t have a clue what was in there but came away impressed with the building and the nicely presented Welsh and international collections, which ranged from Dutch and Italian work fom the 16th Century to video art of not that long ago. I particularly liked the newly opened Contemporary galleries wherein I was delighted to find another frame-embracing painting from Howard Hodgkin, the radiant Bedtime (1999-2001). There’e nothing like seeing them in the flesh.
Interesting to see people tentatively approaching the tv screen showing Peter Finnemore‘s good humoured set of 30-odd short video films, Base camp – basically him and his mates and family mucking about in the garden (gleefully smashing the greenhouse glass in one) and never mind the artist’s rubric about place and anarchy – then the casual watcher sitting down, engrossed. A shame then, that when you click on a still from some samples of this work on the artist’s own website you get the message, “Sorry. The creator of this video has not given you permission to embed it on this domain.” Oh well.
I was particularly taken by the one where they’re all dancing as much as they can within the crowded limits of said greenhouse, the first time I’ve been able to make the imaginative link between the art on the walls and the video screen, seeing how a painting can capture the feeling of movement and the movement on the video can suggest, well, the same feeling, transcending its medium’s movement … I dunno … I felt some sort of revelation was at hand; pardon the pseudery. I can’t really explain why, but the busy Stanley Spencer triptych Souvenir of Switzerland, also on display in another room, comes to mind as an example of the sort of bustling painting I’m talking about here. Indeed, the breadth of the art on show allowed other synchronicities to come into play, the abstract Hodgkin suddenly seen as being not that far away on canvas from some of the expressionist and impressionist broad brush paintings on display elsewhere in the gallery. There’s a decent and arresting – the colours – Max Ernst (The wood), a couple of nice Pipers, Heinz Koppel’s intriguing Merthyr blues (a big painting with a Bessie Smith figure hovering over cartoon-inflected scenes of Valley life) and Kevin Sinnott‘s wonderfully titled Running away with the hairdresser (1995), full of movement. I could go on.
There’s a link here, in that Cardiff is where drummer Mick Avory of The Kinks wnt on the run after thinking he’d killed Dave Davies on stage with either his cymbal or hi-hat pedal (depending on your source) but nothing beyond that can I expand on. Dave’s ‘new’ CD, Hidden treasures, brings together, with a few other tracks, the planned and subsequently abandoned by the record company ‘lost’ solo album of 1969. And jolly good much of it is too, a decent portfolio of work that, when brought together in this lovingly remastered form (take a bow Andrew Sandoval for all his Kinks work), can only enhance the man’s reputation, independent of his big brother. Of course the lyrics still leave a lot to be desired as far as actually making any sense go, but there are some real triumphs that it’s good to be reminded of here: the loping bass and incisive then jangling guitar on the driving and airy Creeping Jean (“You don’t know what it means” … well no, but we’ll let it pass), the rousing Love me till the sun shines which sounds deserving of so much more than just the one night stand the title suggests, and the early alt-country of the swinging and splendid Lincoln County.
I went on a massive Graham Greene binge in the mid- to late 70s, fuelled by the centrality to his work of an examination of the individual’s struggle with conviction, of maintaining faith and commitment in the face of evidence to the contrary, of his being left meaningless and empty in the absence of such guiding principles, be it catholicism or communism. I’ve not turned a page of his since The human factor (1978), the last full sized novel. This month’s reading group title is his The heart of the matter (1948) and it was good to be reintroduced to the preciseness of the prose and his skill as a writer in portraying the human condition, albeit an acutely observed joyless, world weary and overwhelmingly miserable existence, which does indeed lead up to the suicide of Scobie, a white policeman, the novel’s central character, serving in a West African colony during the Second World War. His big problem, bigger even than being a career policeman in an African colony, is the Catholic God and his relationship to said deity.
Far from this being the Catholic novel it is usually described as, I would suggest it is – post-Greene – in reality, an atheist text. In a nutshell: damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Scobie ties himself in such knots. If he loves two women – never mind for him love is pity – it’s a sin and he’ll end up in hell, but then he’s betrayed God and He suffers so he (Scobie) thinks to relieve God’s pain (and the women’s) by topping himself but, because he’s a Catholic that sends him straight to hell anyway … “This is what human love had done to him – it had robbed him of love for eternity.” Yeah, yeah.
It’s not as if he hasn’t given himself the chance, even seen it clearly. Just over half way through the book, at his wife’s behest, even before he’s met the other woman, he drags himself to confession. He tells the priest:
“I don’t know how to put it, Father, but I feel – tired of my religion. It seems to mean nothing to me. I’ve tried to love God, but -” he made a gesture which the priest could not see, turned sideways through the grille. “I’m not sure that I even believe.”
So that’s his first chance. 54 pages on, he’s with the other woman:
“But I simply don’t understand. If you believe in hell, why are you with me now?”
How often, he thought, lack of faith helps one see more clearly than faith.
Exactly. It’s a big distraction, but one shouldn’t allow it to take away from the book’s real merits, the illuminating and unpleasant portrait Greene paints of a life in colonial service (he was there, after all) and his more general, reasonable if unrelenting, take on life and life only, and an altogether too jaundiced – if exquisitely expressed – view of even love as something of a trial. “It’s a mistake to mix up the ideas of happiness and love“, Scobie says, “with desperate pedantry“. Then there’s the bracing: “He felt the loyalty we feel to unhappiness – the sense that that is where we belong.” Earlier on, he had opined, “What an absurd thing it was to expect happiness in a world so full of misery.” Yes, but it can happen if you let the glimpses through, Graham, though no-one in The heart of the matter does.