Male gaze

The Pianist (c 1900) by Eugène Carrière

As some of you know, I’m a pianist. Not a very good one, you understand, but good enough to accompany choirs and soloists and occasionally play in amateur orchestras and ensembles. Plus, armed with a piano teaching diploma (a licenciate, no less!) from the Royal Academy of Music, I taught piano for several years.

So it was that I was drawn to a painting — yet another in the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery — entitled The Pianist. Painted around 1900 by Eugène Carrière (1849–1906), a noted symbolist artist, it practically dared me to throw my professional musician’s and arty amateur’s eye over it.

For good measure, I want to also discuss it in conjunction with a couple of other paintings in this gallery, partly to include some thoughts in the perennial debate about what’s known as the male gaze.

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Parliament of the Apes

When I last visited Bristol in August of this year I took the opportunity to wander again around the Museum and Art Gallery, always a delight whenever back in the city I spent so much of my life in. As a way to distract from the never-ending crisis that is Brexit it is always a bonus to get a longer and more positive perspective on history and culture.

An unexpected highlight of my unhurried stroll within this temple of the Muses proved to be a temporary display of a large canvas. Entitled Devolved Parliament, it was created in 2009 by the Bristol artist known as Banksy. To the casual visitor the painting of the Commons chamber of the Houses of Parliament filled with chimpanzees may strike them as confusing or whimsical, but as with all this artist’s work there is more to this piece than meets the innocent eye.

This of course makes it an ideal subject for discussion in my series of occasional posts about the stories behind the images and other objets d’art housed in this Bristol building.

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Goldfinch boys

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Most days a flock of goldfinches come to our birdfeeder, close to the kitchen window. Unlike the blue tits, who are snatch-and-flee artists, they are happy to keep on patiently snaffling sunflower seeds. They are a joy to behold, a flash of colour with their red masks and their black and yellow gold wing markings contrasting with beige bodies.

In German the bird is known as a distelfink or ‘thistle-finch’ as it is partial to thistle seeds and teazels. Presumably because of this association with prickly plants the goldfinch is symbolic of Christ’s Passion, especially recalling the crown of thorns.

At present the bird appears in news items because of the recent movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, itself based on a famous painting. This is just one of many good reasons to discuss the songster’s appearance in a miniature portrait, one I usually make a point of viewing in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

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A thousand words

St Luke drawing the Virgin and Child

A picture is worth a thousand words, so it’s said. On that basis, I shall expend no more than a thousand words on a late 15th-century painting I recently saw on loan from the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery.

What I intend to do is draw out the narrative explicit and implicit in this late medieval Flemish image, and go a little beyond the core details contained in the adjoining gallery label.

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A real page-turner

M R Hall: The Coroner
Pan Books 2013 (2009)

When one woman has to contend not only with conspiracy, obfuscation and corruption in high places but also antagonism and intimidation from colleagues and opponents alike, you would think that it’s too much for one individual to manage. If you add in personal difficulties arising from divorce and psychiatric problems stretching out of childhood trauma you can be sure the odds are stacked against her.

And yet this is what Jenny Cooper, the newly appointed coroner to the fictional Severn Vale Dictrict in Bristol, has to face when she discovers that the suspicious deaths of two young offenders have not apparently been properly investigated by her deceased predecessor.

You might think that the flawed individual trying to right wrongs is a cliché in crime fiction, and you’d be right; but in this instance the conflicts Jenny has with both inner demons and corporate villains are entirely believable and gripping. The Coroner emerges, for all its 400-plus pages, as a real page-turner.

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Hispaniola ahoy

Treasure Island map
Map of Treasure Island, as first published

R L Stevenson: Treasure Island
Facsimile edition Fabbri Publishing 1990 (1883)

There and back again:
pirates, gold and adventure!
The sea-cook’s the star.

Revisiting a classic first encountered half a century ago is like going back to a place first known in childhood: there are mixed hopes and fears, expectations and unknowns. Will it be as you remembered? Will you be disappointed? Above all, will you like it as much?

Treasure Island (and Treasure Island, the place) lived up to those memories and, with hindsight and experience and maturity, was even richer and more (there, I’ve said it) awesome. I was awed by Stevenson’s easy command of words (he was only just 30 when he began the novel) and his ability to re-imagine a world that existed 120 years before the 1880s, when the novel that sealed his reputation was published. And I was filled with real wonder that it came across exactly as I recalled: the language, the descriptions, the personalities; and the whole was made so much more vivid by a closer reading of the sections that I had passed over in a more desultory fashion: the action around the stockade and the passage of the Hispaniola around the island.

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Patterns and Portraits

Möbius strip
Möbius strip

Diana Wynne Jones Deep Secret
Gollancz 1998 (1997)
No 2 in The Magids mini-series

I love Bristol. I love its hills, its gorge and harbours, its mad mixture of old and new, its friendly people, and even its constant rain. We have lived here ever since [1976]. All my other books [after the first nine, plus three plays] have been written here. [… ] Each book is an experiment, an attempt to write the ideal book, the book my children would like, the book I didn’t have as a child myself. — Diana Wynne Jones, in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (Greenwillow, 2012)

I used to live in Bristol. Ironically I had to move away before I became aware of Diana Wynne Jones’s writing but now, apart from her plays, books for younger children and a couple of short story anthologies, I have read all her other works save Changeover and A Sudden Wild Magic. And yet I still continue to be astounded by her writings, especially how she includes — magpie-fashion — all manner of curious things in the nest of her plotlines, and how she ruthlessly includes so much of her own life in her fiction. Including, in Deep Secret, a snapshot of her adopted town.

First things first. Deep Secret is predicated on patterns. Continue reading “Patterns and Portraits”