Wesley Pepper – portrait of an engaged artist

I believe in people, art, poetry, music, creativity and love … my art is an interaction between me and my surroundings.” – Wesley Pepper

What is the meaning of art in the South Africa of the 21st Century? Wesley Pepper is answering that question by doing art, not theorising about it.

The Johannesburg-based artist was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape

“Dark skin” – a drawing by Wesley Pepper which was included in a collection of poetry by local writers

Province of South Africa in July 1978. He studied art, majoring in oil painting and drawing, at the Free State Technicon in neighbouring Bloemfontein before moving to Port Elizabeth where he studied computer graphics at a Further Education and Training (FET) college, before moving on to Cape Town.

After a short stay back in Kimberley where he was active in an arts-and-crafts collective Pepper moved to Johannesburg in 2002.

I sold a piece within five hours of arriving here,” he says with characteristic enthusiasm.

A concern that Pepper expresses is about the commercialisation of art: “People look at the price tag before they look at the work.”

He would like with his art to challenge the conservative world-views of many South African communities with regard to art, the conservatism of blue suits and ties!

“We are a beautiful concept” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

The challenge Pepper makes is through his engagement, through postering and workshopping, through involvement with other artists, musicians and writers.

“I call my art ‘open spaces’ coz exactly of that, I involve myself in various spaces and my art is about what I experience,” says Pepper.

Together with local writers Pepper has produced three collections of poetry for which he has provided art works. He has also facilitated creativity workshops and been involved with artists’ collectives.

“I love organising people,” he says.

The collective with which he is currently involved is planning a large exhibition for 2013 – which he says will take art out of the gallery and into the street.

I asked Pepper about his views on what constitutes art, on what an artist is. His

“Hair” – drawing by Wesley Pepper

reply: “An artist (according to me) is someone who is conscious about their creativity and has the talent to ‘make art’ and make a living off it.”

“As an artist you are measured by your work and hopefully my work made a statement and that’s what defines me.”



Aimez-vous Picasso?

Picasso. Image via Wikipedia

Modern Art – do you dig it?

Much has been written about modern art. Many people seem not to really like it, claiming that they don’t understand it, or that it’s ugly. Now I know one’s taste in art is a very personal thing. And people can become very defensive about their tastes – in art and everything else they can have tastes about!

This article is just to say, hey, what we like is often about what we know, and knowing a bit more about modern art might just open our eyes and our minds to some great experiences – tactile, visual and emotional.

Modern art has a long history now, and over that history looms the larger-than-life figure of the man from Spain with those piercing, almost hypnotic eyes, Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso, known to the world simply as Picasso.

To me Picasso is the Beethoven of modern art. I know, I know – wrong era, wrong style, etc., etc.

Let me try to explain why I say this. Beethoven was really sui generis , one of a kind, although in a way all composed music since Beethoven, at least until the start of the 20th Century, is judged on his terms and against his towering work. In a similar way Picasso, for all his many faults and his wide range of styles, remains the gold standard for modern art.

Beethoven did not start all of the musical styles which followed him, neither did Picasso start all the artistic styles which followed him, but without these two great artists the history of musical and artistic expression would have been very different. In fact it is impossible to imagine music, at least that genre which is mistakenly called “classical” for want of a better shorthand term, without the brooding figure of Beethoven.

Likewise modern art would not have been what it was without the sometimes puckish, sometimes brooding, always fascinating figure of Picasso.

“Everyone wants to understand art. Why don’t we try to understand the song of a bird? Why do we love the night, the flowers, everything around us, without trying to understand them? But in the case of a painting, people think they have to understand. If only they would realize above all that an artist works of necessity, that he himself is only an insignificant part of the world, and that no more importance should be attached to him than to plenty of other things which please us in the world though we can’t explain them; people who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.” – Picasso

Another reason why Picasso is like Beethoven for me is that everything he did, however trivial or unimportant it might seem, had the quality of rightness, as if the way Picasso did it was the only way it could be done.

Leonard Bernstein, writing about Beethoven, could have been writing about Picasso, in my view. Just change a word here or there and the following passage could, mutatis mutandis, be applied to Picasso:

“The real function of form is to take us on a varied and complicated half-hour journey of continuous symphonic progress. To do this, the composer must have his inner road map. He must have the ability to know what the next destination will be – in other words, what the next note has to be to convey a sense of rightness, a sense that whatever note succeeds the last is the only possible note that can happen at that precise instant. As we have said, Beethoven could do this better than anyone, but he also struggled with all his force in the doing.” Form Leonard Bernstein, The Joy of Music, 1960. (Emphasis in the original)

The eye of the hawk; the cunning of the alchemist

Picasso created some 22 000 works (more than 16 500 of these have been catalogued and are viewable on the magnificent On-Line Picasso Project, http://picasso.csdl.tamu.edu/picasso/), some of which were sublime, others pretty tacky. They range from delicate, almost wistful drawings of birds and Don Quixote to what is arguably the most powerful anti-war statement in modern art, possibly in all art: the massive mural Guernica, expressing Picasso’s horror at the bombing of the little Spanish town by planes of the German Condor Legion under the command of Lt. Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, cousin of the infamous “Red Baron” of the First World War.

Picasso was born in Malaga in October 1881 and died in France in 1973. From his earliest days he was a great draftsman, following initially in the footsteps of his painter father Don Jose, who taught at the local School of Fine Arts and Crafts. By the time Picasso was 13, his father acknowledged young Pablo’s superiority as an artist and handed over to his son all his brushes, paints and palette.

In an interview published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1957, the journalist Carlton Lake responded to Picasso’s saying that “I don’t paint pictures in the hope that people will understand them,” by asking the artist if he thought critics and others who tried to explain art were performing a useless function.

Picasso responded with a vigorous “no”: “The critic or any intermediary must build a bridge people can walk over to join the artist.”

I guess I’m trying to build a bridge like that, because Picasso is so important to me and I would like others to understand him and appreciate him. What I think Picasso meant by building a bridge is for the critic or whoever, not to try to explain Picasso, but maybe to explain what Picasso means to them. Indeed it is presumptuous for one who is not even an artist to try to explain a great artist’s work.

In the same interview Picasso said: “Perhaps it would be better if all critics were poets and wrote poetry instead of pedantry.”

So I’m going to try to be a poet and share my feelings about the great man, feelings that have meant much to me over the years.

The Three Musicians (1921)

One of the first of his paintings which grabbed my attention was one of the two famous “Three Musicians”, a cubist painting from the so-called “synthetic cubism” style, painted 1921. I saw this work (in reproduction only, unfortunately!) in a small book about Picasso which my brother Chris brought home one university vac. It grabbed me because I reacted immediately to the mysterious feeling of the painting. What was that strange figure to the right of the painting? He seemed to overshadow the other two and yet I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked him. There was something ominous, something brooding about him, and yet the colours and composition were pleasing, even light-hearted. What was going on here?

I loved especially the way the pages of music looked, the blue and white background with the black notes.

Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs)) painted in 1905

The next painting that I loved was the Saltimbanques (Full title: La famille de saltimbanques (Les bateleurs))painted in 1905. This group of circus people just moved me – it had to do with the colouration, those pale muddy colours with the contrasting reds and blues, the static feel of the image which made it feel to me somehow sad, nostalgic for something I didn’t know. They just looked and felt right to me, as though they just should be like that.

And yet the painting also had a feeling of mystery for me – what was the story behind this picture, who were these people and what held them together, apart from the frame of the picture? Two things in particular fascinated me – the little girl with her basket and the almost transparent classical-looking jar at the right knee of the seated woman. And why was she seated when all the other figures in the painting are standing?

Then I started reading about Picasso living in the squalid tenement known as Le Bateau-Lavoir (the laundry-boat). And so many other artists as well, whose names I was coming to know through reading about Picasso. I became aware also of the periods of Picasso’s art – the Blue, Rose, Cubist and neo-classical, to mention some of the labels that have been applied to his art.

Bull’s Head (1943)

Picasso used a sometimes bewildering variety of styles throughout his career, now figurative showing a clarity of line which has been compared with that fine master of line Ingres, to a total abstraction or what has been called by some a deformation. The great Picasso expert and critic Roland Penrose (in The Sculpture of Picasso, 1967) wrote that Picasso “has always been willing to probe our complacency about the identity of an object by showing that in certain circumstances it can mean something surprisingly different from the accepted interpretation.” So that ordinary, everyday objects can take on a wholly different aspect and meaning. Picasso used a bicycle saddle and handlebars to create a bull’s head (Tête de taureau) in 1942/3, making it impossible for me ever since to see either the bicycle components or a real bull’s head without seeing the other.

Penrose continues in the same paragraph: “With the eye of a hawk and the cunning of an alchemist, Picasso assembled a series of important sculptures made from a rich variety of objects collected from beaches and rubbish dumps. Apart from their aesthetic values they induce a metaphysical enjoyment that is not far distant from the doubt and disquiet provoked by Hieronymus Bosch.”

The effect of the radical changes brought about by World War One

Another artist brought to mind by this kind of assemblage of artefacts not normally thought of as “artistic” which we find in both the painting and the sculpture of Picasso is that great poet Thomas Stearns Eliot who similarly brought many different things together to create his art, notably the poem which so dramatically, so eloquently and “rightly” captures the zeitgeist of the first half of the 20th Century, “The Wasteland.”

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – the painting which ushered in the cubist style

Critic Mary Karr points out how this poem expressed the way technological advances, particularly in warfare as seen in the First World War, “heaped lifestyle changes on the Western world more radical, perhaps, than written history ever recorded” (in The Wasteland and Other Writings, 2002).

Karr points out that these cultural shifts and revolutions have a deep effect on the art of the time: “So expect a text as fragmented as a clattering, bouncy ride through London or New York must’ve been; a text disorientating as a modern battle was to the soldiers of the Great War. The poem’s made of bits and overlays, snatches of speech and song – various dictions and noises and tones. Just as cities were.”

Picasso, like Eliot, Beethoven and even Bosch, was a person very much of his times and so his art accurately reflects those times, and his struggles to come to terms with them. As anyone with any sensitivity must struggle with what is going on around them.

What makes an artist great, whether Beethoven or Eliot or Bosch, is the authenticity that they achieve in responding to the world around them, how honest and vulnerable they are. And Picasso is totally himself, can never be other than he is. And this shows in every line he draws, every spot of colour he applies, every bronze or clay shape he creates.

Which is not to say that he doesn’t at times play with his audience. Obviously he has a sense of humour which comes through – who would have thought of a toy car as the head of a baboon (La guenon et son petit)? And yet how right that is now that Picasso has done it!

The last word from the master

For me the fascination of Picasso is in much more than his obvious skill as painter and sculptor – it is in how, with his constant changes and sometimes grotesque juxtapositions of objects and ideas, he constantly keeps the viewer awake. As Karr said of Eliot, he “meant above all to keep the reader riveted to the text and concentratedly alive.” Picasso seems always to be saying to the viewer, “Don’t be taken in or seduced by what you see – think about it and make something of it for yourself.” Anything less in art is dishonest. Or as he said himself, rather concisely: “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”

Appropriately, I think, the last word belongs to the great man himself:

“The different styles I have been using in my art must not be seen as an evolution, or as steps towards an unknown ideal of painting. Everything I have ever made was made for the present and with the hope that it would always remain in the present. I have never had time for the idea of searching. Whenever I wanted to express something, I did so without thinking of the past or the future. I have never made radically different experiments. Whenever I wanted to say something, I said it the way I believed I should. Different themes inevitably require different methods of expression. This does not imply either evolution or progress; it is a matter of following the idea one wants to express and the way in which one wants to express it.”

References and works consulted:

Bersnstein, Leonard (1960): The Joy of Music. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson

Daix, Pierre (1965): Picasso. London: Thames and Hudson

Karr, Mary (2002): The Wasteland and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library

Lake, Carlton (1957): Picasso Speaking. The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1957 Volume 200, no. 1 (pages 35 – 41). Accessed 30 December 2008:  http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/flashbks/picasso/speak.htm

Moffat, Charles (n.d.): Pablo Picasso from http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/cubism/Pablo-Picasso.html retrieved on 30 December 2008.

Penrose, Roland (1967): The Sculpture of Picasso. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.

Read, Herbert (1965): A Concise History of Modern Painting. London: Thames and Hudson

Copyright Notice

The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, is by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2012

Falls of Halladale – a colourful ship’s story captured by Jack Spurling

The “Falls of Halladale” painted by Jack Spurling

Two mutinies, a man presumably lost overboard, two women crew members and a wreck off the coast of Australia are just some of the colourful incidents in the life of this four-masted, iron-hulled barque which was painted in 1927 by marine artist Jack Spurling.
The painting by Spurling, while spirited, gives little indication of the rather dramatic life of the ship itself, which started at Greenock on the river Clyde in Scotland in 1886, where she was built for the Falls Line of Glasgow by shipbuilders Russell and Company.
The ship was just over 2000 gross tons and had a length of 83.87 metres, a beam of 12.64 metres and a draught of 7.23 metres. Her hull was of iron and her masts and rigging of steel instead of the more usual wooden spars and hemp ropes. Another innovation included in her design was the provision of “bridges” which allowed the sailors to move in relative safety even in rough weather when seas would regularly break over the decks.
The Falls of Halladale was built to carry general cargo, a highly competitive and rather rough trade in those days.
In 1896 under the command of a seasoned sailing ship skipper Captain William Fordyce from Lerwick in Shetland made a record-breaking run from Swansea in Wales to San Francisco in California, taking only 39 days from Cape Horn to her destination, which was,

Captain Fordyce

as reported by the San Francisco Call of 24 January 1896, “equal to steamer time.”
On that same trip a seaman, Charles Anderson, reported for duty when the ship sailed, but was somewhat inebriated and on the first watch call the next day was missing. It was presumed that he had during the night gone up to the forecastle and been washed overboard.
In March 1899 the Falls of Halladale sailed from Tacoma in Washington State bound for Cape Town and the crew mutinied, claiming they had been “Shanghaied” but after about five hours the men went to work and the ship was under sail for South Africa.
On route to South Africa more incidents occurred – first the mate was washed into the scuppers by a large wave and suffered a broken collar-bone and a dislocated shoulder; then four of the crew became ill.

The ship sailed from Hamburg, Germany, in June 1900 with the two women in the crew. They were Capt Fordyce’s wife, who was 58 at the time, and her daughter Jeanie who was at the time in her 20s. They were signed on as “Purser” and “Assistant Purser” with wages of one shilling a month. They apparently spent much of the two years they were aboard the ship doing needlework!
On 25 July 1903 the ship, now under the command of Captain D.W. Thomson, sailed from Liverpool with a cargo of pig iron, salt, soda and some general merchandise, according to the San Francisco Call of 14 March 1904. The ship ran into rough weather in September 1903 off the islands of Diego Ramirez south west of the notorious Cape Horn. The weather continued foul for three weeks and they struggled to round the Cape.
At last in January 1904 they made land at Invercargil in New Zealand by which time the crew was becoming mutinous. Eight crew members, under the leadership of on Thomas Mooney, had to be put in irons and, after the ship had received fresh water and supplies from the shore, anchor was weighed and they set sail once more for San Francisco.
To the newspaper Capt Thomson said of this experience: “I have been going to sea for a great many years and this was one of the most tempestuous voyages I have ever experienced. The storms off Cape Horn were of terrible violence and for three weeks we were almost practically at the mercy of the terrible succession of hurricanes we ran into. Of course the vessel must have suffered from the terrific strain she was labouring under, and from the terrible seas that kept pounding on her decks. It is impossible for me to state anything about the cargo, but naturally it must be more or less in a damaged condition. We have a quantity of salt in sacks on board and this, of course, has suffered. The soda must also be damaged. The experience at Invercargil was a bitter one, and it was a hard fight for me to keen the crew in order.”

People from the nearby town of Peterborough came out to see the wreck of the Falls of Halladale. Image via Wikipedia.

Unfortunately for Capt Thomson an even more bitter experience was to befall him two years later. On 14 November 1908 Thomson, on a voyage from New York to Melbourne, Australia, estimated he was safely off the coast of Victoria but could not verify his position due to heavy fog. By the time the fog lifted he could see he was much too close inshore but it was too late to do anything about it and the ship ran onto the rocks under full sail.
All 29 crew members were able to get ashore, but there was no hope of salvaging the cargo and the ship sat on the rocks with all sails still set, becoming a sight for the residents of near-by Peterborough. They would come out to picnic on the hills above the wreck, which has since been declared a historic wreck site.
Capt Thomson was charged by a Court of Marine Inquiry in Melbourne which found him guilty of gross misconduct and imposed a small fine and suspended his master’s ticket for six months.
A sad end indeed for a colourful ship.
The painting is in oils on canvas laid on board and measures 86.4 cm. x 106.7 cm.

Tall ships and a short skirt – the maritime paintings of Jack Spurling

Jack Spurling was the pilot who sailed many a pretty clipper ship through memory straits and anchored her again before the eyes of those who knew her best and loved her most.” – from the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 September 1933: obituary of Jack Spurling written by “Redgum”.

Born John Robert Charles Spurling on 12 December 1870 he preferred to be known simply as “Jack”.

Spurling’s painting of his first berth as a seaman – the sailing ship “Astoria”

As a youngster he haunted the London’s East India Docks at Blackwall near his parent’s home where he sketched the ships he saw there.

Redgum” in the Obituary quoted above mentions an incident when the young Spurling, always “nosing” around the ships in the docks, was asked by the captain of the ship “Mermerus”, Captain Cole, what he was doing.

Spurling replied, “I like to watch the men at their work. Some day, sir, I hope to go to sea.”

Captain Cole allegedly told Spurling to “keep away from ships, for, as sure as God made little apples, they will get you.”

Luckily the young Spurling did not take the captain’s advice and a few years later went to sea aboard the “Astoria” bound for the East.

In Singapore Spurling fell from a yard arm and sustained injuries which necessitated a long stay in hospital and when he was discharged he joined the Devitt and Moore company, eventually gaining his second mate’s ticket. He then joined the Blue Anchor line as a second mate and did service in steamships in the colonial trade.

After some seven years at sea Spurling left to join the theatre where he was kept busy in the musicals of impresario and theatre owner George Edwardes, who in turn worked with Richard D’Oyly Carte and the famous light opera composers Gilbert and Sullivan.

Advertisement in “Blue Peter” for the Spurling prints. Annotations by my late father Murray McGregor who was passionate about ship recognition.

His paintings came to the attention of the editor of the shipping journal Blue Peter, Frederick Hook, who placed several in the magazine where they attracted a great deal of favourable reaction from readers. Hook then commissioned Spurling to contribute more paintings for the journal, which also proved extremely popular, so that the journal in the 1930s offered 77 of Spurling’s paintings as “artistically mounted, ready for framing” colour prints at two shillings each.

The most famous and popular of the tall ships were the tea and wool clippers which Spurling painted with unparalleled skill. Indeed he was renowned for being exceedingly accurate in his depictions of the riggings of these ships.

The editor of the Blue Peter offered a reward to anyone who could fault the rigging on one of Spurling’s paintings – the reward was never paid.

Two of the most famous ships painted by Spurling were the “Thermopylae” and the “Cutty Sark”. “Thermopylae” was built in Aberdeen, Scotland, and launched in 1868. She was built for the Aberdeen White Star Line and was designed to be very fast in order to get tea from China to London in as short a time as possible for her owner, George Thompson. Getting the tea from China to London quickly was good business and turned a tidy profit for the owners of tea clippers.

A rival of George Thompson was the former sea captain turned ship owner John “Jock” Willis who wanted a ship to beat the “Thermopylae”. He got marine architect Hercules Linton of Glasgow to design a ship to beat “Thermopylae”. This ship was to become one of the most famous sailing ships of all time and was launched in November 1869 and christened the “Cutty Sark”.

Spurling’s 1924 painting of “Thermopylae”. “The picture shows ‘Thermopylae’ sheeting home the fore lower topgallant sail in a strong breeze” (from the “Blue Peter” caption to this picture).

Nannie chased Tam on his horse Maggie but only managed to pull Maggie’s tail off. The ship “Cutty Sark” was designed to pull the tail off the “Thermopylae”!

These two famous ships were engaged in a famous race from Shanghai to London in 1872 – actually the only time they were to race each other.

The “Thermopylae” got to London first as the “Cutty Sark” lost her rudder and had to go into Table Bay for repairs which took 13 days. However, she reached London just six days after “Thermopylae” and was declared the winner because of the speed which she had achieved – some 17.5 knots.

Spurling, apart from the accuracy with which he painted the rigging of the tall ships, was also able to create a sense of drama in his paintings, especially in his treatment of the sea in various conditions.

As “Redgum” wrote in his obituary of Spurling: “Only the groans of the ships and the howl of the gales beat him. Whatever could be drawn he would set down.”

Apart from his treatment of the sea – which is always superb – his paintings usually have some intriguing details like the clothing of the sailors or a flock of seagulls whirling around the stern of a tall ship at full speed with all sails set.

Spurling’s painting of the “Cutty Sark”

By the time he died on the last day of May 1933 – or as “Redgum” put it rather poetically, “dropped below the horizon a little before nightfall” – Spurling had a reputation among people who love ships and the sea somewhat akin to that of his near-contemporary and fellow seaman John Masefield who was to become, after some time spent (though much less than that spent by Spurling) “before the mast”, the Poet Laureate of Britain and who’s poem “Sea Fever” is well known:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.”

 I imagine that Spurling, at the end of his life, would have appreciated the last two lines of the poem: “And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.”

He certainly told many a “merry yarn” in his wonderfully evocative paintings of ships and the sea.

“Awfully Weirdly” – the short, sad life of Aubrey Beardsley

In his short, sad life he was controversial. More than 100 years after his death, he seems  not much less controversial. But he still manages to weave a spell for anyone interested in art, particularly Art Nouveau and the art of illustration.

Beardsley by Valloton

Beardsley by Valloton

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, dubbed by his contemporaries, often not too kindly, “Awfully Weirdly”, was born on 21 August 1872 in Brighton, England. His mother, Ellen, was the daughter of a Surgeon General of the Indian Army and his father, Vincent Paul, the son of a tradesman.

Aubrey’s family moved to London in 1883 and he was soon thereafter sent to Bristol Grammar School where he wrote and performed in a play with some of his fellow-students. He also at that time started to draw, and some of his cartoons were published.

In 1892 he began to study art at the Westminster School of Art, having been advised to take up art seriously by Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and French artist Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes.

Two things which made Beardsley so controversial were his strange, unconventional drawings and his intense interest in sex, at a time when the society in which he moved was still extremely Victorian, prudish in matters of sex, to say the least. His style flouted the norms of “decent” society, society which could accept art which amounted to the erotic so long as it was cloaked in conventional, usually “classical”, forms.

As critic and editor Derek Stanford has written (in his introduction to Aubrey Beardsley’s Erotic Universe, Four Square, 1967), “Working in black-and-white, he brought to this narrowly limiting medium an immense resonance of suggestion; and it is this power of suggestion which makes him the superb eroticist that he is.”

Stanford explains why Beardsley was, and still is, a haunting, perplexing artist, whose images still have the power to hold the viewer’s attention, and stay in the memory long after they have been looked at.

The reason is that Beardsley is an eroticist par excellance, but not a pornographer.

There is always debate around the difference between the two, and Beardsley is an excellent subject with which to explore the difference, as he produced works which could be called erotic, indeed, the bulk of his output tends to be in this category, but he also produced a small number of clearly pornographic images, mainly in support of a play, Aristophanes’ Lysistrata which was published in 1896.

Stanford explains the difference between erotica and pornography thusly: “The pornographer’s business is solely to state; even in his fantasies he must be literal. In contrast, the erotic artist conveys his effect largely by suggestion. And what he suggests must be more than the erotic fact itself.”

In 1997, William J. Gehrke, then chairperson of the MIT Lecture Series Committee, explained the difference between pornographic and erotic films in this way: “Pornographic film has as its primary purpose the graphic depiction of sexually explicit scenes. It generally depicts these scenes in a way that is degrading to women or, less frequently, to men. It tends to perpetuate the myth that rape and sexual assault are appropriate forms of behavior. Erotica, on the other hand, seeks to tell a story that involves sexual themes. Sexually explicit scenes in these films serve a secondary role to the plot. Erotic film displays sexually explicit scenes in a more realistic and equal fashion that is not degrading to either gender.”

Beardsley’s work provides nice examples of the fine line that exists between the merely obscene and the high art of the erotic.

Beardsley contracted tuberculosis at age seven, and his struggle with ill health dominated his life. As Matthew Sweet wrote in The Independent of 15 March 1998, “Sex was a profound influence on Beardsley’s work, on the company he kept, and on the progress of his illness.”

Beardsley died in France on 16 March 1898, having been received into the Catholic Church the year before. He was 25 years old, and as far as anyone knows, still a virgin, despite his intense interest in all matters sexual. There was a rumour that his sister Mabel and he had had an incestuous relationship, but this was never proven.

Oscar Wilde by Beardsley

Oscar Wilde by Beardsley

Although he kept company with known homosexuals, including Oscar Wilde, it is fairly certain that he was not himself homosexual.

For one who was so sickly and whose life was so short, Beardsley managed to produce a large number of works of art of unquestionable value and great, if sometimes strange, beauty. And in his short lifetime he managed also to have a great influence on Art Nouveau and the art of illustration.

Yellow_book_coverBeardsley was associated with various publications including the Yellow Book, a famous British literary and artistic journal of the 1890s. Many of the leading artists and writers of the day were published in this journal, including Max Beerbohm, Arnold Bennett, George Gissing, Henry James, H. G. Wells, and William Butler Yeats .

In this article I will discuss only ten of Beardsley’s works, drawing on comments by Stanford.

rosegarden_eThe first of these is the lovely Mysterious Rose Garden, which, according to Stanford, “conveys a sense of Beardsley’s elaborated gospel of sin.” The drawing, “is eminently successful, depending on the contrast between the naked, slender figure of the woman and the voluminously full figure of the ‘Dark Angel’ clad in a swirling loosely skirted robe and bearing his long-tipped staff and glowing lantern.” It is indeed a haunting image of great beauty and not a little disturbing for all that.Venus_between_Terminal_Gods

In “Venus between Terminal Gods” Beardsley’s use of what Stanford calls “disguised or concealed eroticism” is so subtle that it could easily be missed. Stanford draws attention to the floral pattern creeping up the gown of Venus “which terminates just where her thighs meet.” This illustration was to have been the frontispiece to Beardsley’s unfinished novel Venus and Tannhäuser which was published posthumously as Under the Hill, in 1907.

The_Black_CapeOne of Beardsley’s most famous pieces is “The Black Cape”. In this work the influence of Japanese print makers is clear, even to the mark that Beardsley used as his signature. The balance and swirl of this piece is ravishing to the eye, in spite of its being in sober black and white.

Beardsley had, even before his reception into the Catholic Church, a strange relationship with religion generally, and the Church in particular. His attitude was expressed in two drawings, the “Large Christmas Card”, which was a loose insertion into the first issue of the Savoy, another literary journal with which he was associated, and “The Ascension of St Rose of Lima”.christmas card

The “Christmas Card” shows an insipidly pretty Virgin holding the Holy Infant, who looks more like a very young Anglican choir boy than a new-born child. The drawing is rich in typical Beardsley-fashion floral draperies against which the face of the Virgin and the figure of the Child stand out in stark simplicity. The Virgin is given more “holy” attributes than the Child, but in spite of them her prettiness leads one to thoughts of rather more mundane than sacred love. It is, to say the least, ambiguous.rose of lima

Less ambiguous is the image of love in the St Rose drawing. Here the love is clearly profane which makes the picture almost blasphemous. Indeed, in Stanford’s words, “the saint’s closed eyes and smile, in the embrace of the heavenly bridegroom, speak more of sexual than celestial levitation.”

Beardsley did a series of illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, of which we will consider six here, the Toilette of Salomé I and II, The Eyes of Herod, Stomach Dance, the Dancer’s Reward and the Climax.eyes of herod

“The Tetrarch has a sombre look. Has he not a sombre look?” the first soldier in Wilde’s play asks.

“Yes, he has a sombre look,” says the second soldier. Meanwhile Herodias is becoming quite unsettled by the way Herod the Tetrarch is looking at Salomé: “You are looking at my daughter. You must not look at her. I have already said so.” This is the scene depicted in the drawing “The Eyes of Herod.” Beardsley does not leave the viewer in much doubt as to what Herod’s eyes are taking in.toilette I

The two Toilette scenes show Salomé getting ready to dance for Herod: “I will dance for you, Tetrarch.” Then, “I am waiting until my slaves bring perfumes to me and the seven veils, and take off my sandals.”toilette II

The voice of Jokanaan is heard, saying “Who is this who cometh from Edom, who is this who cometh from Bozra, whose raiment is dyed with purple, who shineth in the beauty of his garments, who walketh mighty in his greatness? Wherefore is thy raiment stained with scarlet?”

Herodias is horrified by the prophet’s words and tries to get Herod to go back into the palace: “I will not have her dance while you look at her in this fashion.”

But Salomé dances and Herod, entranced, asks her “What wouldst thou have?”

Then comes the fateful, terrible answer: “I would that they would bring me in a silver charger … the head of Jokanaan.”The_Dancers_Reward

The Reward” is brought to Salomé, dripping gore, and in “The Climax” she makes to kiss the gory head: “Yes, I will kiss they mouth, Jokanaan. I said it. Did I not say it?”

climaxA really horrifying climax in which the illustration, by its starkness captures the horror and strange fascination of it. There is in Salomé’s response the horror of necrophilia, the wild abandon to the lusts of death: “If thou hadst looked at me,” she tells the dead head, “thou hadst loved me. Well I know that thou wouldst have loved me, and the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.”

A few minutes later Herod’s slaves kill Salomé on Herod’s order. A fittingly gory end to a gory, sadistic scene.

Is this pornographic or erotic? Is there more than a hint of sadism here?

By his juxtapositioning of the beauty of his drawings and the ambiguousness of what they appear to show, Beardsley is confronting the viewer with questions – what is good and what is evil? What is sacred and what profane? His drawings challenge us not to accept things at face value, but to dig deeper. At the very least the simplicity of medium is contrasted with the richness of what is portrayed and this causes us to look more deeply at the images.

Because of the depth of the questions raised by Beardsley the images have the power to linger in our minds far longer than the insipid acceptable paintings and drawings of the time, which have little power to hold us because in the end they are so literal. So which images are pornographic and which erotic?

One Man’s take on the Jazz Audience Discussion

The contributor of this piece is jazz activist Ron Washington.  Besides being a stalwart jazz diehard and tireless observer of the scene, he is proprietor of Ron “Slim” Washington Productions, which provides jazz and other music for festivals, clubs and restaurants.

How Can a “Music of the Spirit” Die?

Jazz is dead! Here we go again; i.e. the recent Wall Street Journal article by Terry Teachout declaring that no one is listening to jazz and featuring a prominent cartoon of a “black Jazz musician” being wheeled out on a cart speaks volumes to a continued bourgeois, arrogant Eurocentric lack of understanding of jazz.

Mr. Treachout’s methodology is the classic case of someone going out to investigate the flowers, but never getting off the horse to “smell the flowers.” Hence the article is so “lightweight” I had to keep a paper-weight on it to keep it from elevating and floating away on its own. Put another way, as Amiri Baraka in his latest book “Digging” would say, “The lack of knowledge about America’s richest contribution to world culture is a reflection as well of the deadly ignorance which stalks this country from the New York City Hall to the halls of Congress to the corporate offices to academic classrooms, like a ubiquitous serial killer…”

Treachout uses a number of useless (without context!) numbers from a National Endowment of the Arts survey to conclude that only those with their head in the sand cannot see a larger picture of “lack of mass support for jazz” leading to its demise. There were fewer people attending a jazz concert; the audience is (graying) growing older; older people are less likely to attend jazz performances today than yesterday; and the audience among college educated adults is also shrinking. On the surface, this kind of approach can scare or misinform a great many people into following the ever present “jazz is dead” attacks upon the music. This kind of approach is not the approach of someone who wants to help jazz survive, but one that serves to drive people away from exploring and learning about jazz.

How about we come at the non arguable “less than healthy’ state of jazz another way? Once again we call on America’s foremost jazz critic for guidance. Why not investigate and raise the question as to the “domination of US popular culture by an outrageously reactionary commercial culture of mindlessness, mediocrity, violence and pornography means that it is increasingly more difficult for the innovative, serious, genuinely expressive, or authentically popular artist to get the same kind of production and the anti-creative garbage that the corporations thrive on.” (Digging, Amiri Baraka). I suggest that this is the inquiry that the Wall Street Journal should be making into the subject matter, the health state of jazz. But when you’re part of the problem, it’s difficult. From the standpoint of the WSJ, jazz’s mystery can/cannot be solved by market forces. “Look here are the numbers!”

From the great work “Blues People,” to his other book, “Black Music,” and the latest contribution from the peoples’ critic, “Digging,” there is one thing that stands out. Amiri Baraka insists that the music, from blues to jazz, is a creation and reflection of the struggles of the Afro-American people. The music is an expression of a people’s culture and cannot be separated from such. Jazz, Afro-American in origin, universal in content and expression, is nonetheless tied to a people, expressing their greatest fears and joys, hopes for the future and repository of the past, that it can said, “the music is the people.” Hence the music can never die, because the people live. Bill Cosby is quoted in Digging as saying, “There’s a wonderful story I like to tell. It’s the end of the world…gray, blowing, turbulent… and there is this tombstone that says, ‘Jazz: It Broke Even!’ The music has its high and lows, but it can never die.”

Art is a reflection of a people’s culture. As Baraka says, “Whether African Song, Work Song, Spiritual, Hollers, Blues, Jazz, Gospel, etc., no matter the genre, the ideas contained in Afro-American art, in the main, oppose slavery and desire freedom.” (Digging). For jazz to die, the entire history and Afro-American people would have to die. This is the content that an interloper like Treachout cannot understand.

But since jazz is what the great trumpet player Ahmed Abdullah calls, “the music of the spirit,” it can never die. While the WSJ declares jazz dead, refuses to get off the horse and smell the flowers, the music continues to thrive and fight for its life, for its expression. In New Jersey , new small clubs are opening up all over the place, anchored by Cecil’s in West Orange . You have the work of Newark’s own Stan Myers, who has run a successful Tuesday night Jam session at Crossroads for years;  Papillion, Skipper’s, the Priory, Trumpets, John Lee’s annual concerts in South Orange, and countless other venues all testify to the fact that the “spirit” is alive.

Jazz is not popular culture. To compare and demand that Jazz be equated with the lowest common denominator cultural expression, packaged for the most extreme exploitation by monopoly capitalism is to have no understanding of the music. By its very nature it is “rebel” music. Treachout complains that it is not the music of the masses, of the youth, as determined by corporate measuring sticks. Well of course. I like hip-hop but I’m not going to any concerts. That’s youth music. Not particularly challenging.

When we say jazz is “a music of the spirit,” sitting in on a jazz program has the possibility of elevating the listener to heights never experienced by a poplar culture event. For many it is a shared communal experience, as witnessed by the common clapping in appreciation of a musical interlude, or the strictly individual experience of the music. Some can appreciate the full recipe of musical virtuosity on display, some may connect deeply in an emotional way with the music, some relate to the democratic display of the skills of the musicians, and some may not have liked the particular performance.


Ron Washington, September 10, 2009


Art and the search for meaning

“A picture is worth a thousand words” – this is a popular and frequently-heard saying. And yet it cannot be taken at face value. Philosophers and artists have during the past hundred years or so argued about the purpose and content of art, ever since art theoreticians like Roger Fry, Clive Bell and Herbert Read contended that art should not convey any message other than the formal contents of the work of art itself, the form, line, colour, texture of the work itself.

These three philosophers of art were reacting to the extreme sentimentalisation of art of the Victorian era, where art became the servant of “prettiness” and bland subjects that did not require any depth of thought but just a superficial reaction of pleasure, much like what we would today call “comfort food” gives us when eaten – no nourishment for body or mind, just a pleasant taste.
Which brings us to the question of the “purpose” of art – or does it not have any purpose outside of itself? What would life be like without beauty around us? What is beauty?

Painting of bisons in the caves at Lascaux

Painting of bisons in the caves at Lascaux

Indeed there is also the question, “Is art good for us, or bad for us?” The Puritans and some fundamentalists would argue that art is a distraction which takes our minds of the serious business of life, and feel this so strongly they would ban it from any places where this seriousness is pursued, like places of worship or work.
The answer given by such people gives us a clue that art has an impact, quite a big impact, on our lives. The earliest people made paintings and drawings of sometime haunting power on the walls of caves, depicting the life around them and their responses to that life, practical or spiritual. They clearly needed to surround themselves with these images, the images enriched their lives in some way, they invested these images with meaning which could not be gained in any other way.
Likewise mediaeval monks in their monasteries created works of art in the manuscripts that they wrote out, embellishing the words with exquisite miniatures of scenes from life or myth, which added to the meaning of the words themselves. Clearly these monks in the otherwise austere lives found these embellishments not only added to the manuscripts but to their own lives as well.
With the dawn of the modern era in the 19th Century art became more and more separated from this kind of context and came to be pursued as “art for art’s sake.” This is a concept which would have been unthinkable to the cave artists or to the monks creating those magnificent manuscripts.


From the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

In the 20th Century this was taken to extremes, but perhaps necessary extremes, when one thinks about the poor, meaningless stuff that was favoured by the Victorians, the “comfort food” type of art.
magritte26The ultimate challenge to the “comfort food” art was the art of the modernists like Hans Arp and the surrealists like Rene Magritte who painted a tobacco pipe and then labelled it Ceci n’est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe) and did the same with the painting of an apple. This is a direct challenge to the viewer’s normal interpretation of such a painting, or image. If asked, “What is it?” the viewer will naturally respond, “It’s a pipe.” However, clearly it is not a pipe. Asked about it the artist said “Try stuffing it.” It is an image and can be read in many different ways – it can be appreciated for the colours, the lines, the texture, the “feel” of it. But it cannot, ever, be used. Likewise the apple could never be eaten, only looked at.
So what is meaning in art? Another artist, Paul Gauguin, painted a huge canvas which also took on the issue head on. This painting is frankly philosophical in intent: “I have completed a philosophical work on a theme comparable to that of the Gospel,” he wrote to his friend Daniel de Monfried in 1898. He called the painting “Where have we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” and the painting was large, like its theme. It measured six metres in length and almost two metres in height.
Gauguin had high aspirations for the philosophy expressed in this painting, which he saw as having a definitive and moral result, “the liberation of painting, already freed from all its fetters, from that infamous tissue knotted together by schools, academics, and above all else by mediocrities.” It is a painting dense with meaning, but the meaning needs to be teased out, it cannot be simply assumed. It is, in Herbert Read’s words, “a correlative for feeling and not an expression of feeling.”

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

This painting would seem on the surface at least to be light years away from paintings such as those of Piet Mondrian, which are simply grids made on the canvas by lines of grey or black, with the spaces between filled with white or primary colours, seemingly at random. These paintings cannot be “read” like a story, so what are they about, what do they mean? Mondrian called his style “neo-Plasticism” and it related to the neo-Platonic “positive mysticism” of Dutch philosopher (Mondrian was also Dutch) M.H.J. Schoenmaekers and the teachings of the Theosophical Society. This philosophy was an attempt to penetrate the reality behind nature and to give it expression. As Herbert Read said of Mondrian’s approach, “Art becomes an intuitive means, as exact as mathematics, for representing the fundamental characteristics of the cosmos,” (in A Concise History of Modern Painting, Thames and Hudson, 1959).
Mondrian_Composition_II_in_Red,_Blue,_and_YellowSo while the surfaces of the two paintings are worlds apart, the meaning coming from the intentions of the artists can be seen to be related, in that both artists saw their works as having a spiritual dimension, the meaning was external to the painting, though neither literal nor literary. The paintings referred to no external “Gospel” or myth, but to the understanding of the artist.
The viewer’s life and understanding is therefore enriched by contemplating the work of art and connecting his or her experience and situation to that of the artist. This is no “comfort food” but good, wholesome, hearty fare, well-cooked and needing to be thoroughly digested for the goodness to be available to the consumer. And like such wholesome food, time and effort put into the contemplation is rewarded with a sense of completion, of healthy and lasting fullness, quite different from the quick and transient satisfaction which comes from “comfort food”.

From the Algarve to the Cape of Storms

“There is nothing – absolutely NOTHING – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”
From Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows

One of my favourite books as a young child was The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. My father had a passion for ships and all things to do with sailing and the sea. He particularly loved the quote at the beginning of this article, using it often in both formal talks and informal conversations.

We had a bed-time routine of him reading to me some story, preferably an uplifting one, before I went to sleep.

The Manse at Blythswood where I lived with my parents from 1955 to 1960

The Manse at Blythswood where I lived with my parents from 1955 to 1960

At the time we lived on a Church of Scotland mission institution in the Transkei region of the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa called Blythswood. It was relatively far from most amenities and there was no electricity supply there so when the sun went down candles and paraffin lamps provided light for meals and reading.

So some of my earliest memories are of going to bed with a hissing Coleman or Hurricane paraffin lamp beside my bed and my father reading stories to me from Arthur Ransome, A.A. Milne, Fennimore Cooper and sundry others of the “Boys’ Own Paper” sort.

From these came my fascination with small boats. Where my father was really keen on the big ships, especially of the naval variety, I was fascinated by small craft, rowing boats and dinghies and the like. I was always interested in boats that could navigate small bodies of water, rather than the wide open sea.

Boats in Sagres harbour

On a visit to the Algarve in southern Portugal some years ago I found the small boat culture there very interesting, especially the colourful “paint jobs” many of the boats had, which contrasted strongly with the rather drab paint of the boats with which I was familiar from holidays in Cape Town and other South African sea-side resorts. The boats I knew were mostly painted green or black or a combination of those two colours.

Of course the maritime culture of Portugal, and in particular of the Algarve, is of interest to anyone who studies South African history, as the first white travellers to our shores came from this area, in all likelihood. While in the Algarve the party I was with spent a good deal of time at Sagres, the small fishing village on the south-western-most point of Europe (the Promontorium Sacrum, or Sacred Promontory, from which the village derives its name), where the man well-known as “The Navigator” lived and died more than 600 years ago.

The Navigator (o Navegador in Portuguese) was one of the “Illustrious Generation” (Ínclita Geração in Portuguese) of Princes of the Royal House of Avis, whose mother was the English Princess Philippa, who was in turn the daughter of the famous John o’ Gaunt. So a link was forged between England and Portugal which has remained strong until now.

The Navigator, whose full title was The Infante Henrique, Duke of Viseu, was the third child of King John I of Portugal and the Queen Consort Philippa, and in spite of his honorary title of “Navigator” did not himself do much in the way of exploration. Rather he set up a school of navigation and other seafaring skills on Sagres Point, which inspired the explorers Bartolomeo Dias and Vasco da Gama to sail around the southern-most tip of Africa, Da Gama eventually continuing to India, thus cementing Portuguese dominance early in the colonial race, a dominance which was, however, very soon challenged.


This bold exploration of seas uncharted and unknown to the Europeans was celebrated by the great Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoens in the epic poem Os Lusiadas:

The entrance to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsular

The entrance to Hout Bay on the Cape Peninsular


“I am that mighty Cape, occult and grand,

Stormy by nature, and ‘Of Storms’ by name:

Geographers have never mapped this land,

Into these seas no old explorers came.

Pointing south, last sentinel I stand

Of Africa’s long coast. Who comes to tame

This seagirt spine of crags till now unknown?

Your challenge puts a tongue in silent stone.

After setting sail from Lisbon in August 1847 Bartolomeo Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope in late January 1488. He and his ships anchored in the bay they called Sao Bras, now known as Mossel Bay, and there occurred the first violent clash between Europeans and African indigenes in South Africa. This was a fateful day which foreshadowed many, many more to come in the centuries which followed. The clash resulted in the death of one of the indigenes who thus was the first African in South Africa to be killed by a white person. It was 3 February 1488.

When Dias and his men left Portugal they took with them four African women taken from West Africa, who “were to be put ashore at various places on the African coast with instructions to fo into the interior, there to sing the praises of the Portuguese king and the ‘grandeur of his kingdom’” (This from the book Frontiers by Noel Mostert (1992)). One of these women was put ashore at Algoa Bay, near the present city of Port Elizabeth. Mostert notes of her: “Few figures in the African story strike me as being more dramatically sad than this pitiful wretch, taken from her world in West Africa to Lisbon, possibly as a slave, taught the Portuguese language and the mercy of Christ, embarked upon that incredibly vile and arduous voyage into the unknown, and then summarily abandoned within sight of natives of unknown disposition towards strangers. They would be back, the Portuguese assured her, to hear her news. In this bizarre fashion the story of European contact with southern Africa began.”

Dias and his men and ships sailed on for a further three days or so before the men forced Dias to turn back to make the return voyage to Portugal. Along the way they went ashore west of the Bushman’s River mouth, at a place now called Kwaaihoek. Here Dias erected, on 12 March 1488, a padrão, a limestone cross, of which three had been brought with them from Portugal. He dedicated this padrão to St Gregory.

Great South African poet and author Guy Butler wrote a narrative poem called Pilgrimage to Dias Cross (Cape Town, David Philip: 1987). He describes the scene thus:

“And there beside his pillar of stone

The swarthy discoverer stands

“His truculent men who sweated to raise it,

Tightening, easing ropes through palms,

Are snoring long since.

Is his sleepless mind

Still on the East, his Prince’s hunger

For spices and converts? Or does he foresee

His cold homecoming, demotion

To third in command? About him cling

Silent conspiracies. Records are lost.

The name of his ship? No soul knows.

Mere scraps of gossip, disguised facts.”

And later in the poem Butler writes:

Dias drew away from that pillar

With pain and passion, as much as if

He’d left a son in exile there for ever:

Remembering the peril to his person,

To all his men and ships; embittered that

Their voyage should yield no other fruit

Than a branchless little tree of marble planted,

Its name soon lost on the charts.

So ambiguous was the first recorded encounter between Europe and southern Africa, so fraught with meaning in the light of the subsequent history of the sub-continent.

The brightly coloured boats of the Algarve are symbolic of the cultural riches that are the birthright of everyone, European and African, who have been touched by the maritime exploits of the people of the Algarve. Picturesque they might be, but they carry a weight of history and memory for me.

Where I am now, the person I am, is made up of all these strands of history and memory, culture and genes, threads that weave a pattern, a rich tapestry, full of colour and life, that make up my consciousness, my awareness.

To quote Butler again:

“No culture is large enough to contain

The fullness of being of those who comprise it.

History’s noise seems endless like the sea’s.

“We are the traffic on its surface,

The life that sweats and labours,

The singing voices on the shore.”


(All photos above by the author)