Wednesday, October 9, 2013



Christopher Heathcote popped in to the Bookshop recently, as he does, with photo-copies of his latest articles for Quadrant magazine, namely 'How Ingmar Bergman Filmed Munch' (April,'13) & 'Kenneth Clark and the Exodus of the Modernists' (June, '13).   Previously I've read & enjoyed 'Did Grace Cossington Smith Read Virginia Woolf' (November, '11), 'When Antonioni Met Rothko' (January/February, '12), 'John Brack & the Allegorical Still Life' (April, '12), 'Albert Tucker and Existentialist Paris' (July/August, '12),  & 'When Beckett Commissioned Giacometti' (January/February, 13). His penchant for quirky equations, as these titles demonstrate, proclaims the lively mind of a raconteur, which is precisely why I welcome his visits & commend his articles to readers at large. 

Not the first place one would look for art commentary but, as I understand it, author & editor have struck a chord and so the articles flow. The opening paragraph of the Cossington Smith piece might offer a clue to Christopher Heathcote's & Les Murray's accord. "Did Cossington Smith read Virginia Woolf? It's a question that has niggled me for years. The art history profession tends to tackle visual art as if it is an insular, self-absorbed activity with only direct creative influences coming from other visual works. Paintings are shown to beget more paintings. But artists not only go to exhibitions. They listen to music, they watch movies and television, they attend various forms of theatre performance, and they read magazines and books, sometimes even novels touching on art."  Indeed : art & artists not in the ivory tower but necessarily the swim of life, the informal song & dance. By the way, the Cossington Smith article is informed by an artist's practical facility; Heathcote's erudition regarding implements & application enhances the critique.

I should have anticipated the disappointment I otherwise keep at bay while reading Heathcote's account of my favourite period of modern British art, after all the "exodus of the modernists" refers to the idea that Britain via Kenneth Clark, as champion of the provincialism (read philistinism) underscoring its mid-century production, "had just had its chance to embrace the international vanguard. There had been a genuine opportunity to establish London as the artistic capital following the fall of Paris : Paris was no longer the centre. But the innovators [C H mainly refers to Mondrian though the innovation of the locals is his more substantial issue] had been repelled. So they went to New York, taking the prospects for modern art with them." Heathcote's analysis of Ben Nicholson's fraught relationship with Kenneth Clark is disturbing in terms of patronage & the potential for tyranny, even so it's unfortunate that he's so amenable to the conspiratorial reading : Clark as malevolent influence upon English art which, but for him --oh yes, he admits there was also the Blitz --would have followed the International Style down to the last Modernist letter…

For my part I'll always contend that Modernism's glorious adventure is misrepresented if denigration of the contraries manifests as the attempt to expunge from any of its territories a national accent or locality (either as idiom or character after Paul Nash's famous  quip, quite properly quoted by C H, "whether it's possible to 'go modern' and still 'be British' is a question vexing quite a few people today"). Besides being a doomed project (as though, for example, modernist art in France & the USA isn't also French or American respectively), where else but the local does Australian art (of which Heathcote is a keen supporter) reside? And why should Australian or British art, under consideration here, be exempt from the respect each deserves & the pleasure & inspiration each confers? No doubt at all in my mind that the relationship of local & international (or global as that conglomerate's currently appreciated) is the all pervasive cultural & economic & political discussion of the day.

It occurs to me that Christopher Heathcote writes as a modernist partisan, thus the palpability of his evocations & cited history; but I wonder why he doesn't avail himself of a typical post-modernist second look. How about a reconsideration of "sentimental figuration" & narrative, even that which he derides as "illustrative, cheerful and quaint"? And where to now the notion "progressive"?

That said, his suggestive & instructive details & sub-plots, elicited from exemplary wide reading, confirm what I call scholarship. These rich details both stem from insight & facilitate it. Take, for example, his superb paragraph about Henry Moore's drawings of the people in the war-time London tube. "What his abstract drawings were about was the pity of war. And he conveyed what no photograph could by using the organicist forms of biomorphic surrealism. Building up the weird bodies from clusters of undulating lines upon darkened grounds, Moore suggested several things at once. His cocooned figures are civilians sheltering in tunnels, and corpses laid out in murky catacombs, as well as worm-beings in a stifling burrow : they are the vulnerable living, yet also potentially the massed dead, and creatures of a ghastly underworld."

It's commendable that he's a readable critic & commentator, eschewing jargon, using the intellect & senses possessed by anyone willing to contemplate a subject. I imagine his Quadrant articles one day making an excellent book. With the greatest respect, then, two & a half cheers for Christopher Heathcote!

[13/7 - 12/8/13]


John Tranter said...

Hi, Kris. You say "Quadrant magazine... Not the first place one would look for art commentary but, as I understand it, author & editor have struck a chord and so the articles flow. The opening paragraph of the Cossington Smith piece might offer a clue to Christopher Heathcote's & Les Murray's accord."

Last time I looked, the editorial board of Quadrant runs like this: "Editor, Keith Windschuttle. Deputy Editor, George Thomas. Literary Editor, Les Murray. Editor Quadrant Online, Roger Franklin..."

Les Murray has never been the editor of Quadrant, though some may think of him as the éminence grise of that staunchly right-wing rag.

best, John Tranter.

collectedworks said...

Well hello John... Re- LM, might well be he has wider brief than masthead suggests... I'd say he has...
Re- 'right wing rag' : if there was a 'left wing' perhaps that epithet might ring truer! These days the more commentary from all positions there is to read the better I like it. Christopher's articles published in Quadrant are a credit to that mag.
In Weymouth I dip into every paper & journal at the Library, buy one of the rags from WH Smiths, take it with me to the Phoenix for closer read as i sip hot choc & munch an Eccles. And feel the better for it!
Thinking back on some of the Australian Left's characterizations of opponents back in the 60s appalls me : not only what was sometimes stated of an individual but that no other opinion would check or balance it. The young ignoramus i was in Melbourne in the 60s was a sucker for all kinds of smear & slander. I suspect a young[er] Melbourne audience/readership today are similarly impoverished & potentially misled!
It comes back to me that one often found a better (that is inspiring & challenging) critique in the poems, reviews & essays of the day (60s, 70s, 80s) than the political rags.
Good to talk with you!
Best wishes,