Tag Archives: Arts

Annual Feb 4th Tribute to Writer Russell Hoban

“What most people take to be reality is a load of old nonsense invented by not very inventive minds.”

"What most people take to be reality is a load of old nonsense invented by not very inventive minds.”

“What most people take to be reality is a load of old nonsense invented by not very inventive minds.”

Every 4th February  – the birth date of Russell Hoban (1925-2011) – fans of this brilliant author write their favourite quotations from his books on sheets of yellow A4 paper and leave them in public places, and/or share them online (this is the Slickman A4 Quotation Event or SA4QE, which began in 2002.)

I first became aware of the SA4QE in about 2005 from an article in The Guardian, and have done the event ever since, often leaving quotes on A4 paper around the local village green next to the river. Doing this feels playful and subversive, a fitting tribute to a quixotic writer. I like the quotes to express what I love about Hoban – his mix of poetry, profundity and humour, his ability to veer effortlessly from the sublime to the hilarious.

“It is a strange and frightening thing to be a human being, to partake of the mystery and madness of human consciousness.”

“It is a strange and frightening thing to be a human being, to partake of the mystery and madness of human consciousness.”

I also leave smaller versions of the quotes tucked under baked-bean tins and packets of biscuits in the local village shop. I like the idea, and like to think Hoban would have liked the idea, of someone picking up a can of baked beans and finding underneath a small piece of paper that reads, “What most people take to be reality is a load of old nonsense invented by not very inventive minds.”

As I was finishing up, a woman with a golden Labrador walked past, stopped, read a couple of the quotes and looked at me. “Oh,” she said. “Oh. Oh.”

“Yes, Oh,” I said.

She smiled and walked off. I felt it was a suitably Hobanesque encounter.

'Hear the earth, ponderous with evening, turning to the night.'

‘Hear the earth, ponderous with evening, turning to the night.’

'Rising in the moony ocean night and never, never finding never until now finding the mystery of me so long dreamt of'

‘Rising in the moony ocean night and never, never finding
never until now finding
the mystery of me so long dreamt of’

More information about the event and about Russell Hoban can be found at http://www.russellhoban.org/sa4qe

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Strangely Quiet or Quietly Strange: Wim Wenders’ Photography

Backyard, Moscow, 2007

Backyard, Moscow, 2007

There is a fascination in contemporary photography with overlooked objects and places – these are framed anew though the photographic lens and their imaginative or metaphoric possibilities explored. Wim Wenders (b.1945), better known as the Director of films like Paris, Texas (1984) and Wings of Desire (1987), works in this vein, taking photographs of places that have been abandoned or are in a state of deterioration: run-down movie theatres in Arizona, boarded-up cafes in New Mexico, decaying backyards in Moscow. His work carries a sense of fragility and dislocation, the original purpose of the places or things often having been lost.

Ferris Wheel, 2008, Armenia

Ferris Wheel, 2008, Armenia

Ferris wheel (2008) is typical of the desolate isolation in Wenders’ photographs. The artist came across the abandoned Ferris Wheel in the middle of an empty field in Armenia. About how he discovers such places, the artist has said, “Everyone turns right, because that’s where it’s interesting. I turn left, where there is nothing. And sure enough, I soon find myself in front of my sort of place…[one] that is strangely quiet or quietly strange.”

Black Square, 2002

Black Square, 2002

In Black Square (2002, New Mexico), the hues of blue and red contrast with, even highlight more saliently, the decaying wall and tatty old advert, which poignantly includes the words Why Not Now. This photograph shows a deft painterly skill with colour and composition, as does Street Corner in Butte (2003, Montana), with its sharp vertical and horizontal lines and stark contrasts that render the shadows almost black. With the bleak isolation and uncanny feel here, this could be a scene from an Edward Hopper (1924-67) painting; and Wenders’ nod to Hopper is clear in films like The End of Violence (1997), in which one scene recreates the painting Nighthawks (1946).

Street Corner in Butte, 2003

Street Corner in Butte, 2003

Wenders’ photographic sensibility is akin to that in his films, and is similarly a meditation on memory, loss, time, nostalgia and emptiness, although he observes that photographs allow him to focus on something other than people: “I have sharpened my sense of place for things that are out of place”. And yet Wenders’ photographs still ‘speak’ – of “all those (people) who once were there, who lived there, who passed through, and who messed something up”.

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Stark, Dark Poetree on the Wintery Road

Open road Poetree

Open road Poetree

“I don’t think I will ever see/ A poem as lovely as a tree,” said Joyce Kilmer, way back in 1913. This quote steers through my head as, on the open winter road, arboreal forms rise up, dark and stark against the burnished* sky, trees like black ideograms, like speaking silhouettes of strength and solitude.

*Okay, so I admit I jiggled with the sky colour in Photoshop. This was the original…

Open Road Poetree

Open Road Poetree

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Stuttering lights


Dusky rainy world, lights stutter across the street, surfaces of reality slip and slide, become multiple and magical.


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Odilon Redon: Dark Luminosity

redon germination 1879

Dark luminosity: that’s what for me the Symbolist artist Odilon Redon (1840-1916) does so well. Black and white lithography was an early technique used by Redon to produce what he termed his ‘noirs’; the expressive power of chiaroscuro, of strong contrasts between darkness and light in the lithographs, allowed the kind of illusiveness and mystery he sought in his art. His first 10 lithographs, Dans le Rève (In the Dream), were published in 1879 but garnered little public attention. A series of fantastical images that occupy a lonely region between the real and the imaginary, they are consistent with Redon’s pictorial world more broadly – a world of floating heads, mythic figures, shadowy beings, ghosts, cyclops, fallen angels, composite creatures. In Germination (Plate 2 of Dans le Rève, see image above), a disembodied pale head, eyes downcast in introspection, is set within a large black nimbus. The head floats in an indeterminate, nocturnal space; beneath hover (germinate?) a sequence of ever-smaller heads, the first with wide-staring eyes, the others more skull-like with empty eye-sockets; and around the heads drift smaller white spheres – perhaps seed-heads or star-forms. The mood of the lithograph is melancholy, but it carries a strange luminosity too. The artwork is  hard to interpret, although it brings to my mind, among other things, the gestation of thoughts and feelings in a space that is dark and mysterious.

Redon was part of the Symbolist movement which rejected naturalistic art and placed more emphasis on the reality of the imagination. His originality as an artist lay in the way his works suggest meaning without being specific. The use of symbolism had been important in art for several centuries, but Redon’s innovation lay in his ability to create symbolic forms that exist in their own right without any clear or definable associations. His symbols embody a mystery which diffuses through the painting. The works evoke particular subjective states – an intense emotion, a mystical sensibility, a dream fragment – but do so without one being fully aware of what this is. He described his artworks as intending to ‘arouse in the imagination [of the viewer] any number of fantasies whose meaning will be broad or limited according to his sensitivity.’ Redon’s lithographs, such as Germination, attest to his singular vision, which is both equivocal and eloquent, dark and luminous.

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Kurt Schwitters: ‘The Profoundest of Nonsense’


Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), a key figure in European Dada, originally lived in Hanover, Germany, but after being labelled as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler, fled first to Norway in 1937 and then to Ambleside, UK, where he died (unaccountably) unknown and in penury in 1948. His art, like his life, was bizarre and epic – he did everything and often, it seemed, at the same time: he made deft collages; wrote Dada poetry, ‘anxiety plays’ and bizarre stories; published a periodical; gave exuberant Dada performances; painted bad portraits which he ripped apart to make materials for his collages; and constructed the ‘Schwitters Column’, a huge, interior, fantastical sculptural form that, in its first, Hanover incarnation, eventually took over six rooms of his house. Schwitters is best known for his ‘Merz’, skilful collages made from found and thrown-away materials – feathers, tram-tickets, skittles, cut-out words from magazines, shoe-laces, feathers, dish-cloths, stones – which he affectionately returned to a place in life through his art. Although Schwitters’s accomplishments weren’t recognised in his lifetime, his collages were subsequently a revered influence on British art from Richard Hamilton to Damien Hirst. Like many Dadaists he saw art as a form of protest: “One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together”.

schwitters merz 1920

(Merz from 1920)

Schwitters was often known for his liveliness, uninhibited nature and wit – “with his incessant magical gesticulations, he seemed about to break free of the fetters of reason”, as historian of Dada, Hans Richter, observed – but some of his art, especially the Column, with its grottoes dedicated, among other things, to his dead child, hint at a darker side to his personality. No one could give Dada performances like him, though, whether he was barking wildly like a dog on stage or loudly declaiming his sound poems like Ursonate or more naturalistic poems like Anna Blume:

“….Blue is the colour of your yellow hair
Red is the cooing of your green bird
You simple girl in a simple dress, you dear
Green beast, I love your! You ye you your,
I your, you my. – We?”


Schwitters began work on the first Column, the Merzbau, in his house Hanover in 1923 and finished it around 1933, a project that grew and grew, threatening to take over the entire building – he once joked it would eventually reach Berlin. It was destroyed in a bomb raid during the war but the photos that remain show a massive, angular, white construction, bizarre and disorienting, comprised of a series of grottoes, shelves and columns with many inserted objects – collages, found things, personal items, artworks. The grottoes were dedicated to fellow painters (eg Arp, Mondrian), themes (eg war, love), writers (eg Goethe), and family members. The Merzbau was more a living, changing document of his and his friends’ lives than a sculpture, which he constantly added to – a lock of hair, half-smoked cigarette or child’s watering can here, a china egg, lump of string or artwork there. The Merzbau was part folly, part temple, part modernist fantasia. In exile in Norway he began another Column and finally a third, the Merz Barn, in a barn in Ambleside, UK. Some of the strangest works of art ever constructed, the Columns marked him out as someone with a truly original vision, a man who may have courted apparent ‘nonsense’ but did so in the profoundest way, and a quintessentially artists’ artist – Herbert Read, the famous UK critic, described Schwitters as “a parallel to James Joyce”. His work on the Ambleside Merz Barn only lasted a few months as by then his health was rapidly declining and he was only kept alive by the emotional and financial assistance of his new partner Edith Thomas. He was dedicated to creating the Merz Barn until the end: “We must keep on playing,” he said, “until death confines us.”

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Littleness in the Bigness

A boy on a bicycle rides along a difficult path, between a corridor of tall cow parsley and other vegetation; woods rear up in the distance and a hint of storm menaces the sky. I don’t know who the boy is – it was a serendipitous snap as he just happened to pass when I was sitting a distance away. The line of an e.e. cummings poem came to me as I watched: “man plays with the bigness of his littleness”, which evokes human hubris with deceptive simplicity. The boy in this photograph, though, is the inverse of that line – he plays with his littleness in the bigness. For me, the photograph seems to be about the humility and innocence of a boy alone in the engulfing largeness of the surrounding world, a world which appears intimidating but which he negotiates through determined play. I liked the photograph best in sepia as here the foreground vegetation and background woods joined up in a continuum, and the sky took on a more perilous tone.

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Photographs Dense with Experience: Eugène Atget’s Paris.

atget paris st

Misty mornings in parks, the shape of statues echoing that of nearby trees; long cobbled streets that invite the eye to wander down them; mannequins in shop windows that appear oddly animate. These are some of the 10,000 images that Eugène Atget (1857-1927) took of Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century, which are both visual documents of the city and carriers of a poetic sense of place. Atget’s photography was a quiet, personal obsession – this was long before the advent of the ‘photo-essay’ in contemporary art, in which a subject or world is photographed multiply and explored in depth. Atget didn’t even consider his work as art although his work was lauded by the Parisian avant-garde, by Man Ray who saw in his work a latent surrealist sensibility, an unexpected evocation of the unconscious life of the city; by Andre Breton who published him in Le Revolution Surrealiste and in his own books.

atget parc cloud

Atget used old photographic equipment with very long exposures so his photographs are often devoid of people. This allows the form of the city to be clearly seen, its architecture and arched bridges, its sweep of streets and stairwells. Yet the empty city still bears a palpable, if mysterious, presence of real lives lived and so invites narratives, stirs the viewer to imagine. Atget’s images also appeal through their nostalgia. They were memory traces of a vanishing world – he worked in the old parts of Paris being bulldozed to make way for wide modern boulevards. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at MOMA in New York, believed that the way Atget blended documentation and a distinct personal vision made him the first real modernist photographer: “The pictures that he made…are seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true” (from Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs).



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