Friday, 4 April 2014

2 May 1997 by Jack Thorne

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush walk through the Cross Hall of the White House before the start of their news conference, 2003 (photo taken by the US government).
Jack Thorne's play 2 May 1997 premiered at the Bush Theatre in London on 8 September 2009, directed by George Perrin. It is set on the night and morning that the British Labour party gets back into power, and explores the zeitgeist of the recent past through three stories that unfold as the voting progresses, with a nostalgic soundtrack of music from the late 1990s. Each of these tales is a two-hander taking place in and around a bed: first dying Tory MP Robert and wife Marie, then shy Lib Dem campaign supporter Ian back home from an election party with gate crasher Sarah, and finally A-level politics students and Tony Blair fans Will and Jake, waking up in the morning after crashing out in Jake's bed. 

While having only two people interacting on stage allows for a real intimacy, it does also bring limitations to the possible dynamics, although this is compensated for by a rich world of off-stage characters and also by Thorne's ability to create links between these couples who have never met each other. Sarah, for example, is roughly the same age and as similarly messed up as Robert and Maries' daughter, and precocious Jake is like a much younger version of Robert, at the start of his life, while Robert looks back over his own, with a certain bitter disappointment and awareness of how much he sacrificed his family life for politics. While the scenes take place almost simultaneously in time, the effect, therefore, is of watching a condensed three ages of man/woman.This linearity is reinforced by the bed which smoothly tracks across the stage as the action progresses. There are occasions when time and place are disrupted on stage by characters from other scenes still being on the bed when it now belongs to the next couple, but this could have perhaps been more fully exploited. For example as it was in Rufus Norris's production of Festen, where the audience saw two bedroom scenes acted out simultaneously in the same space. 

Jack Thorne would have been the age that his character Jake is in 1997, and this play appears to represent an attempt to understand life's trajectory, how an era is formed and how it comes to pass, and how the personal interacts with the political. In his exploration of this, Thorne succeeds in transforming the potentially stock scenarios of the long-suffering wife, the man who was almost great, the brittle vulnerability of casual sex, and the pain and confusion of adolescent desire into a searching piece of theatre.

Adorno and Horkheimer on the Enlightenment

Eine Mutter über dem Kinderwagen ihrer Zwillinge im Tode
erstarrt, Dresden (photo by Richard Peter)

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer wrote their seminal Dialectic of Enlightenment as the world around them was ravaged by World War II. Even before the war, Horkeimer and Adorno – both of Jewish descent – had already watched their own country of Germany destroyed from the inside by the vicious and insanely idealistic Nazi regime, and had left for the States in the 1930s. Their book, then, was written out of a deep sense of despair. It begins with the haunting words:
In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.
Here they were voicing what many others also could not help but see: the Enlightenment, which had been meant to lead us out of the darkness of the Middle Ages into an ever-brightening light of reason, intellect and freedom, had been too much for our still essentially primitive minds, and we had twisted its noble aims.The Enlightenment’s bi-products of technological inventiveness, scientific advances, fearsome organisational skills, and a blind determination to impose one’s own ‘rational’ will on others and achieve material wealth at whatever human or animal cost had created a toxic combination that led to brutal colonialism and imperialism and reached its climax with the horrors of the Holocaust.
The now-widespread use of film and photography meant the world was confronted by and could not escape the harrowing images of its own cruelty: the Nazi death camps, the blackened city of Dresden burnt skeletal by the allied bombing, and the terrifying literal erasure of humans in the allied nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in the epicentre left only their shadows. The phoenix that rose out of the ashes of this devastating war was a battered and bewildered creature.Those aligned to the centre of power had to review their unswerving beliefs in their own grand narratives. And in their weakness they were able to offer less resistance to those other, previously excluded voices, now demanding to be heard in both the realms of politics and art.
In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in his rallying speech to the nation, spoke of how Britain must defeat Adolf Hitler, or the world will ‘sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of a perverted science’. This is a striking foreshadowing of the theories of Adorno and Horkheimer.However, less foresight is shown by Churchill when it comes to looking at the state of his own nation and its colonies, rather than at Germany, as he goes on to say that, ‘If the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour”', echoing the Nazis’ belief that their Third Reich would last a miillennium. It is now hard for us to re-enter this mindset of the 1940s, when it was still possible to believe that the Third Reich or even the British Empire could endure for another ten centuries.Hitler's Reich would last just five more years, and within a generation the British Empire would be dismantled and begin to be viewed in many quarters as a dark age itself, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of a perverted science. A new era in the West had began.


Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. By John Cumming (London: Verso, 1997). This was first published in 1947.

How Brecht rejected both Stanislavski's naturalism and Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty

Model of  Design for Brecht's Mother Courage, Bert-Brecht-Haus,Augsburg, Germany (Photo Adam Jones) 
Bertolt Brecht adapted for the theatre the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky's 1920s' concept of how literature works by making the familiar strange, defined as ostranenie or estrangement, so that we question what we have once perceived as unchanging, eternal truths. In his 1949 A Short Organum for the Theatre Brecht laid out the techniques needed to create this effect in the theatre, calling it Verfremdungseffekt, the alienation effect. Key was to break the illusion of reality provided by naturalist theatre, so the audience is aware that they are watching actors playing a part. No longer absorbed in emotional empathy for the characters and the need to learn their fate, the audience is then able to engage critically with what they watch.
Brecht called this form of theatre epic, referencing classical epics, where the action is told, rather than shown, and the various episodes are to some degree self-contained, forming a montage (e.g., the various discrete island adventures of Odysseus, told in non-chronological order in Homer's Odyssey), so the audience is not too distracted by a burning desire to know how it will all end. 
While naturalism, spearheaded by Konstantin Stanislavski, attempted to create a sense of events unfolding in a linear present, and Antonin Artaud sought an intense, visceral, timeless hyper-present, Brecht wanted to create a sense of calm perspective, of watching events from a detached point of view. For example, by having scene titles on banners on stage, sometimes even descriptions of what is about to happen, these events seem already past, thus puncturing suspense. Therefore, we can think of it as Artaud wanting to reach the audience at a gut level, Stanislavski wanted to engage with our hearts, and Brecht  with our heads, or our reason.
Brecht and his wife Helene Wiegel found sanctuary from Nazi Germany in the USA, but then left following Brecht's interrogation by the HUAC over his communist sympathies. Returning to Berlin in 1949, as the Soviet puppet state of the German Democratic Republic came into being, Wiegel and Brecht set up the state-run Berliner Ensemble, which still exists today, although since 1993 it has been privatised. This theatre company  has been enormously influential around the world, particularly as it toured extensively during the communist era.

Gabriel Kuri: Before Contingency After The Fact

Before Contingency After the Fact is Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri's first solo work in a London public gallery. It works in purely formal terms as an exploration of the sensual experience of hardness and softness, heaviness and lightness.
The lightness also echoes in the playfulness of many of the exhibits: a delicate, blown-up condom precariously supports the weight of an abstract metal form in Untitled (Extra Safe) and empty energy drink cans, with their suggestion of life-giving elixirs, are crushed by the serene dead weight of polished tomblike marble slabs in Untitled (Shelter)So it is through this lens of aesthetics and laughter that we view the dense political content of the exhibition.
Untitled (Shelter) is perhaps the most disconcerting of Kuri's installations. It appears to be laid out simultaneously for a comedy show and an abandoned religious ritual. Three squat female stone figures stand together: are they revered icons or something used to prop open a greenhouse door? The precisely lined-up matches, some burnt, some unburnt, are absurdly, childishly large but also sinister, with their Little Match Girl symbolism of a futile attempt to keep warm and evade death.
Propped against the wall, and enlarged to the same scale as the matches, are burnt, cut-up credit cards, their lines of numbers bubbling up like welts from their smooth, black skin. Now ridiculously unportable and impotent, their only function is to help clumsily de-mark a sorry little piece of territory, by creating a dark fence against the white gallery walls. 
Above the credit cards hang a pile of jackets, sweaters and shirts, so dense they form a round, sensuous, beatle-like shape. They appear abandoned, and such is their number that there is little hope of anyone returning and being able to retrieve their own garment.
Possessions that provide us with an identity - the card in our pocket with our name on that allows us to spend, to be, and then haunts our lives with debt, the clothes that declaim who we are - are here made anonymous and useless. Attempts to make a shelter, a little place to call one's own, are again rendered comically futile by the knee-high barriers used.
Kuri's exhibition as a whole perhaps suffers from - or maybe enjoys - an excess of meaning. His choice of artifacts have such a rich inner life that their significances are hard to contain. Like in Untitled (Platform), which has cigarettes and their rain of ash suspended in a slab of resin, next to other glass, stone and concrete slabs. The cigarettes are arranged as lovingly as a Victorian botanist might arrange a particularly interesting collection of burrowing insects that he has unearthed. But here we are again caving in under rampant significance. I look at the cigarettes butts and see death, desire, sex, waste, pollution, corruption.
I found it a relief to walk out into the bare courtyard garden at the back of the gallery and contemplate, or stare in exhaustion at, a solitary cherry tree. Its drifts of pink, brittle leaves banked up against black roots had a gentle, distilled, haiku-like clarity. I thought again about Kuri's work and saw that it does aesthetically have this nature-like simplicity of form. Perhaps, then, it achieves its effect by colliding formal beauty with an over-burdened, anarchic content.

Bound, a review of a play by Jesse Briton

The haunting sea shanties sung by the men appear to force them to see their conflicted lives in romantic terms, and so act with insane recklessness.

Härkeberga kyrka Church, Diocese of Uppsala, Enköping, Sweden. Medieval painting of Jonah and the Whale by Albertus Pictor (image photogaphed by Håkan Svensson)

Southwark Playhouse’s cavernous, faintly slimy Vault under London Bridge is a perfect venue for Jesse Briton’s tense play, Bound. Beneath the rumble of the trains, we fall into a watery world where six trawlermen are sailing out to sea to bring in a precious haul of fish to save their skins. The illusion of being inside a storm-tossed ship is brilliantly created by darkness and a dizzyingly swinging light, the sound of wildly flapping tarpaulin, and the men’s desperate clinging to each other and to the sliding table and chairs that make up the only set. The ocean is the invisible adversary. We never hear it – its waves; we only hear the boom of metal as the ship takes its hiding.  
That the style of the furniture belongs to the land rather than a ship sends the message that for these men their trawler – The Violet - is not only how they make their living, but is their home, and their fellow workers a surrogate family. Their hard, antisocial livelihood has taken its toll on their relationships on land, leaving them lonely and emotionally cast adrift and irrevocably bound into each other’s lives by ties of love and hatred, need and obligation. 
At least that is the case for five of the men. The sixth man is that classic staple of theatre: the ignorant outsider with whom the audience can enter a strange new world. Polish Kerdzic (played by the deftly comic Thomas Bennett) knows nothing of the realities of life on a trawler, nothing of the harsh economics that are driving the fishing industry to its grave, and nothing of the volatile relationships of the hardy, damaged men he first meets at the harbour. Kerdzic doesn’t have the best start: the others treat him initially with undisguised hostility because he’s an agency worker, undercutting their own rates, and the ship’s owner Woods suspects treachery when he learns that Kerdzic’s brother is on the crew of his rival’s ship, The New Hope. Kerdzic’s response to Woods’ interrogation is to rapidly descend into a kind of cringing, confused Manuel (immortalized by Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers), adding a good splash of slapstick to the drama, until looming disaster gives him the chance for gravitas. 
John McKeever brilliantly creates in Woods a man who is both a bully and compassionate, who is charismatic and manipulative while increasingly unable to control even his own emotions. He begins with a gorgeous but manic smile, and descends into a twitching wreck, yet still determined to hang onto his contested leadership. 
The play is punctuated by the men’s communal singing of sea shanties that resonate around the vault, telling of centuries of hardship and beauty, of loyalty and bravery in the face of the bountiful but cruel sea’s whims. As I listened to these haunting shanties, it seemed that they didn’t only reflect what was happening on stage, but that they created the action. They force the men to see their own conflicted lives in romantic terms, and so to act with an insane recklessness when a tragic turn of events calls upon them to be the heroes of their own beleaguered stories.

Bound premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009.

Women Take to the Stage in Restoration Theatre

Womanizing King Charles II bans boys from playing female parts, deciding it is much more pleasant to watch beautiful women like Margaret Hughes.

Portrait of Margaret Hughes (c.1670) by Sir Peter Lely
The white male’s total domination of public theatre did not begin to come under threat in England until the mid-seventeenth century, when the once-excluded and marginalized began to gain access to the stage, with women blazing the trail. This would prove to be a long, drawn-out process, with battles still being fought in the twenty-first century. One useful definition for who comes under this elusive label of ‘marginalized’ is offered by Gayatri Spivak in her seminal Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present
The marginal in the narrow sense are the victims of the best-known history of centralization: the emergence of the straight white Christian male of property as the ethical subject.
Seventeenth-century male actors do not neatly fall into this dominant category; their livelihood depended rather on the grace and favour of this variety of man. Actors’ reputation for licentiousness and low living had an inbuilt marginality. But the placing of them as representers of the whole spectrum of humanity – males and females of every ethnic identity – can be read as an extension of the power of these straight white Christian men of property; even while these actors wear women’s clothes, black up their faces, their white masculinity beneath these disguises asserts the apparently natural order.

Men playing women’s roles came to an abrupt end with the re-opening of the theatres after the English Civil War. The first female actor appeared on a commercial stage on 8 December 1660 as part of Thomas Killigrew’s King’s company, and was recorded in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry of 3 January 1661, although her name is not given. In typical Pepys' enthusiasm for all areas of his life, this remarkable event is given as much space as he gives to what he had for dinner:
Thence to Will's, where Spicer and I eat our dinner of a roasted leg of pork which Will did give us, and after that to the Theatre, where was acted 'Beggars' Bush', it being very well done; and here the first time that I ever saw women come upon the stage. From thence to my father's.
From this point there was no going back. In 1662 Charles II issued a royal decree that all female roles should no longer be played by boys but by women, thus instantly creating an unemployment black hole for pretty young boys. The cross-dressing party was over, at least for the time being.
Charles, who was famously fond of women, had also become used to seeing them act during his exile on the continent, as the practice was already widespread in France, Italy and Spain. As an indication of how such a custom had been viewed by the earlier Jacobeans, Thomas Nashe published a pamphlet in 1592, Pierce Penniless, his Supplication to the Devil, in which, possibly tongue in cheek, he boasts that English players were: ‘not as the players beyond sea, a sort of squirting bawdie comedians that have whores and common curtizans to play women’s parts’. But in an increasingly Puritan England, the idea of boys performing as women had come to be considered equally scandalous. William Prynne’s post-Jacobean 1633 pamphlet Histriomastix is an attack on the English stage in general and on this use of boys in particular:
Those players wherein any men act women’s parts in woman’s apparel must needs be sinful, yea, abominable unto Christians’. But, even-handed to the last, he also regards French women performing on the stage as ‘monsters’.
While the identity of the first female actor is uncertain, Margaret Hughes is seen as a likely contender (pictured above). Certainly it was her who performed as Desdemona for the King’s Company in 1663. The company had a prologue and epilogue especially written by a Thomas Jordan to explain, and highlight, her presence. In the prologue, Jordan exploits the titillating possibilities of the situation by stating that he can confirm Desdemona is a woman as he has seen her ‘drest’, in the sense of being in a state of undress and having her costume put on:
I come, unknown to any of the rest / To tell the news, I saw the lady drest.
This rather undermines the high moral tone of his epilogue where he defends Hughes’ right to perform on the stage without being seen as a mere prostitute, insisting she is ‘as far from being what you call a whore, / As Desdemona injured by the Moor’. Jordan then directly appeals to the female members of the audience, saying:
But ladies, what think you? for if you tax / Her freedom with dishonour to your sex, / She means to act no more, and this shall be / No other play, but her own tragedy.
The tragedy, then, perceptively recognized by Jordan, is to be made invisible, which is tragic both for the individual – here Hughes – and for her whole gender, if it is excluded or self-excludes itself from the stage, from being able to act. Just as Othello smothers and silences his Desdemona, so that she is erased from the metaphorical stage of life, so these early female actors dread being erased once more from the physical stage of London theatres.
However, they need not have worried: it may have been a rocky ride for them, where they faced much prejudice and sexual abuse en route, but women were never again to be banished into theatrical obscurity. So, Charles II's rampant lust actually did women a great service.
Copyright Catherine Rosario

Why the story of Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp reaches deep into our psyche

London Olympics 2012 (photo by Will Clayton)

We called him Bladerunner, but he reached us because he was like one of the androids that the bladerunners hunted down: those doomed, beautiful creations that are more intensely human for being incomplete, crafted using both bionics and what can be stolen from other animals, so they are not handicapped, as others are, by a frail human body. When Pistorius runs, he appears not to touch the ground. His jaguar blades glide above their earthly shadows.
Now we see a new Pistorius, but no less startling: the man who had stunned us with his speed,  in court accused of murder, discomforts us with his preternatural, abject stillness. The Magistrate Desmond Nair, looking upon Pistorius with his blonde head bowed - a stone angel - exclaimed that he looked 'like some kind of species the world had never seen before'.
Freud recognised how both the myths that have been immortalised by great painters and poets, and the fairytales that have lived in the memories of children, provide a form of reality distilled, where we can see the confused wanderings of our own lives laid out in simple, shining paths, as we identify with the hero or heroine as they face the cruel world. Does Pistorius enthrall us not only because of his extraordinary being but because his story so perfectly fits one of our most loved fairytales? Cinderella.
In the Brothers Grimm version of the tale, Cinderella has a mother who, as with Pistorius, dies when she is a child but who is a constant presence, allowing Cinderella to overcome every hardship and obstacle. What ultimately secures her happiness, her completion, is those slippers which are gold in Grimm's version, but brittle glass in Charles Perrault's later version. No longer trapped, neglected at home, she can not only go to the ball, but once there she is no wallflower but steals the limelight with her extraordinary grace at dancing. When the prince comes to find the owner of the left-behind slipper, her two stepsisters mutilate their own feet, believing that is the only way they can fit in the slipper and so win.  Just as able-bodied athletes feared that their complete limbs ruined their chances of beating Pistorius.
Cinderella got her prince; Pistorius, his princess, who was a woman who herself had overcome  serious injury and an early violent relationship in her own Cinderella story. There the story should have ended. It is a wrench for us now to see it turned upside down. To see his palace as a fortress where, white, privileged and wealthy, he apparently lived in permanent fear of attack, in a country scourged by poverty, racism and violence.
We pore over clinically drawn plans of his bedroom, a room which days early was his most intimate space, as if this awful, real event was a game of Cluedo, and examine the murder weapons. Given far more information than we would have been allowed if this were in Britain, we become detectives, pondering whether or not he deliberately killed Reeva Steenkamp, although an additional question remains as to whether, if this was all a terrible mistake, it is right to shoot repeatedly at an intruder.
We have a deep love of watching the mighty fall, but battling with that is the desire to believe that this compelling man, in whom we have projected our own vulnerability, could not have committed such a crime. That his journey is still one of victim to - even if flawed - victor, not victim to oppressor.

Waving not Drowning: the Four Waves of Feminism

Cover of Life magazine v. 61, no. 1582 (1913 February 20) shows a Susan B. Anthony-like figure in classical dress thrusting an umbrella at a man in a toga. Another woman holds sign reading 'We want our rights' (cover art by Rea Irvin).

Here are the four waves of feminism in a nutshell.
First Wave
This was women in the western world campaigning to have the same political and legal rights as men, particularly the key right to vote. Though this movement gained its intense momentum in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, its roots go back at least as far as Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. An extreme example of a First Wave feminist act is Britain's Emily Davison throwing herself under the King's horse in 1913, as part of the suffragettes' campaign for the vote.
Second Wave
This was a more culturally broad spectrum of women still fighting for equal rights, including now in countries emerging from colonialism, but also concerned with understanding their personal, sexual and reproductive life in political terms, encapsulated in Carol Hanisch’s slogan ‘the personal is political’. Beginning in the 1960s and still existing today, Second Wave feminists seek to establish what it means, essentially, to be a woman, albeit in all its varied forms. This desire causes tensions amongst Second Wave feminists, particularly in the accusation that white, middle-class women attempt to speak for all women, thereby silencing other female voices. Black lesbian Audre Lorde famously likened such women to white slave owners of the past, having poor and often black women clean their houses while they go off to conferences to speak about women's liberation.
The more extreme wing of Second Wave feminism had a separatist agenda where women sought to live in as complete a separation as possible from men, to the extent of replacing their heterosexual relationships with lesbian relationships. The difficulty of reconciling separatism with the other allegiances women have, for example to their race or class, caused tensions within the movement.
The excavation of a specifically women’s history – the search for traces of this hidden within a dominant male history - is a key part of the Second Wave of feminism. Rewriting the past rewrites the present. Even if we had no knowledge of any history at all, we are, of course, still formed by the past. But by our conscious effort of retrieving the past, we make ourselves doubly formed by it. Hence the need to make sure that what we retrieve - whether by 'we' we refer to women, survivors of colonisation, the American right wing, or any other group - serves and nourishes our present image of ourselves.
Third Wave
From the early 1990s, beginning in the USA, these identity politics of the Second Wave became questioned by academic feminists such as Judith Butler, in the sway of post-structuralism’s insistence that the idea of a stable identity – an essence – is an illusion that we create through language, as is the idea that women, or anyone else, can construct any coherent history within which to place themselves in order to create some reassuring teleology (i.e. a meaningful journey).
While the First and Second Wave sought, and seek, to move women and other excluded groups from the margins to the centre, the Third Wave deconstructs the very concept of centre and margin, regarding this binary opposition as yet another example of us using language to structure, and thereby deny, the fluid chaos of existence. While this has liberating possibilities, the sheer difficulty of post-structuralism and its undermining of absolutes means it's hardly the kind of discourse to spur women to revolutionary action.
Fourth Wave
Particularly from the late 1990s, there has globally been a return in some quarters to an essentialist concept of women that focuses on their traditional identity as nurturers and as being more connected at a spiritual level to the natural world than men. This is no longer seen as a limiting identity forced on women by men, but as enabling women to take on crucial roles as mediators in healing political strife and in environmental causes. The key concern, then, is not women’s issues per se but the fate of the entire human race and of the other species with which we co-exist. Jane Fonda's environmental activism is an example of this Fourth Wave feminism.
Against feminism
Feminism does not, of course, speak for all women, but feminist thought has had a considerable impact on how women critically engage with the world, including in how they relate to men and their own sexual desire. For some women this has been to persuade them that they must vociferously attack what they see as the damage done by feminism. Their main criticisms are that feminism's insistence that women should put first their needs for fulfillment in all arenas of life has destroyed the stable family unit and undermined sexual morality, with these both wreaking havoc on society. The result is a world where children grow up feral and where women can no longer rely on the protection of male relatives.
These criticisms come particularly from right wing and religious quarters. However, serious tensions are developing in the traditional, albeit often strained, alliance between the left and feminism, where the support by sectors of the Left for anti-imperialist Islamist movements has led to advocating profoundly unfeminist agendas, such as the institution of male-biased Shariah courts, and an unwillingness to condemn 'honour killings' of women who dare to defy their husbands and families.
It's complicated
While dividing feminism into four waves provides a degree of clarity, the reality is that when you have a movement that makes a claim to speak for half the human population, cramming it into a nutshell is always going to be difficult and offer only a partial view.
Further Reading
Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (Routledge, 2004).
Global Feminist Politics: Identities in a Changing World, ed. by Suki Ali et al. (Routledge, 2000) (for more information on Fourth Wave feminism).
The Second Wave Feminist Reader: Feminist Theatrical Writings, ed. by Linda Nicholson (Routledge: 1997)
Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, ed. by Stacy Gillis et al. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)
Votes for Women: The Virago Book of Suffragettes, ed. by Joyce Marlow, (Virago, 2001)
Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (Chatto and Windus, 1990).
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (Dover Publications, 1996). First published in 1792.
Copyright Catherine Rosario

Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with an Angel) by Gauguin

Gauguin's lifelong desire was to present both the exposable and the hidden in women's bodies and minds.

(Location: Scottish National Gallery)
By organising its recent exhibition of the French Post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) by theme rather than chronologically, London’s Tate Modern problematized the traditional divisions made between his paintings from tropical and French locations, between the apparently exotic and the apparently familiar. Instead what is foregrounded is his lifelong desire to present both the exposable and the hidden in women’s bodies and minds, wherever he found them.
Looking over the shoulders of other visitors in the crowded galleries to see Gauguin's bared and yet elusive dark women transformed the experience of seeing these pictures. There could no longer be the illusion of sharing an intimate moment; instead we were cast into the role of group voyeurs, uncomfortably aware of each other's presence as we jostled for a glimpse of these iconic images. We came late to a painting from early on in Gauguin’s career: Vision of the Sermon (Jacob Wrestling with the Angel) from 1888, where the voyeurism is also built into the painting by having us peer over the demure bonnets of Breton country women in the painting's foreground that attempt to block us out with their white blankness. So we are caught in a form of double voyeurism, looking over both real shoulders and these 'monstrous helmets', as Gauguin called these bonnets.

But it soon becomes clear that we are actually peering inside rather than past the women’s shrouded heads, seeing the vision that they see, existing on the same two-dimensional plane of the painting. This story from Chapter 32 of Genesis and Chapter 12 of the Book of Hosea describes an experience that happened to Jacob on his journey back to Canaan, when he struggled all night with a mysterious being. It has offered painters throughout the centuries, such as Delacroix, Leloir and Bonnat, the chance to produce homo-erotically charged works of art where a man and a muscular angel are locked in a struggle unseen by other humans. Gauguin breaks this mould by having this fight witnessed – produced - by the intense psychological state of the women, returning home after hearing a sermon on Jacob's encounter.

However, even as we see the vision it still eludes us. Borrowing from techniques used in Japanese prints, Gauguin works in flat blocks of colour and creates the effect of looking down at the wrestlers from a high viewpoint, which confuses our sense of perspective, so we are unable to grasp the distance between the wrestlers and the women. The hot red of the background forces the scene forward while the smallness of the figures throws them backwards. This disorientation serves Gauguin's consistent objective of exploring how a mental state, and overwhelmingly for him it is a woman’s mental state, can be simultaneously revealed and yet remain beyond the reach of the observer. The voyeur's desire to possess their subject entirely - and so in effect cease to be (only) a voyeur - is tantalisingly offered as a possibility in Gauguin's art, and then withdrawn.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St Matthew (Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo)

The hallucinatory realism of Pasolini's film creates a deceptive effect of immediacy, of witnessing actual events as they unfold.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, portrait by Italian artist Graziano Origa, pen & pink, 1976

Neo-Realist poet, writer and film director Pier Paolo Pasolini made his startling film The Gospel According to St Matthew (Italian: Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo) in 1964 when he already had a reputation for producing controversial work. A decade later he would make his notorious critique of fascism – Salo or 120 Days of Sodom – banned in many countries for its graphic depictions of sadistic sexual abuse. The Gospel, however, is restrained in its use of violence, despite the ripe opportunity for gore offered by Jesus's gruesome death, most fully exploited so far in Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ.

Although a radical Marxist throughout his adult life, Pasolini's childhood was steeped in the Roman Catholic Church and he insisted that his film would not be an attack on Christianity, but a devotional work that he wanted screened in parish churches throughout Italy at Easter time – an idea that had the more conservative priests spluttering into their cappuccinos and reaching for the garlic.

Pasolini's hallucinatory realism in this film creates an effect of immediacy, of the witnessing of actual events as they unfold through documentary-style techniques like the use of a hand-held camera, which is hauntingly effective when it records the grief of Christ's mother at the crucifixion - a part played, incidentally, by Pasolini's own much-adored mother. Iconic scenes are approached from casual, apparently accidental angles: the nativity scene is shot from several feet above, looking down on the holy family, and the interrogation of Jesus is half-obscured by the heads of the onlookers. We, as the viewer, become implicated as one of the crowd straining to see his humiliation. The rough, threadbare clothes of the people, the heavy, unwinged, unhaloed angel Gabriel, and the bleak landscape shot in subdued monochrome are in stark contrast to the white shining robes and golden light that are staples of the 1950s’ biblical epics.

This film, then, appears to replay the sixteenth-century Reformation’s project of stripping religious representations of all their artifice and show, of their sensuous surfaces, their gold-leaf haloes, their glut of angels, their reveling in Christ's agony, and returning them to an austere, muted reality. The Reformists feared that the people had become so dazzled by the beauty, and beautiful violence, of these images that they had come to fetishize them, to see them not as representations of God, but as mini-gods to be worshipped in their own right. 

Their solution was to order a spree of destruction, with the torching and defacing of religious paintings and icons throughout Northern Europe.
But it is this very immediacy – this ‘realism’ – in Pasolini’s film that leads to a sensory deception that is also in danger of, ironically, being a form of fetishization: Pasolini wrote how he was determined to use 'no screenplay' but only dialogue that is ‘strictly that of St Matthew,’ but this causes him to border on fetishizing Matthew’s gospel, so that Matthew’s account of an event displaces the event (Jesus’s life) itself; it submerges it.

The risk of this happening – of a text being mistaken for the thing itself – is ingeniously avoided in the New Testament by the use of four witness accounts, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, offering diverging perspectives, so there is a distance between these fragmentary texts and the thing they describe, which remains beyond them, elusive, something that the texts can only point towards.

The implicit promise offered to the faithful in Corinthians 13 is that this distance will be dissolved at the time of the apocalypse, but not before. "Now we see through a glass darkly, but then, face to face." A classic case of dangling the promise of jam tomorrow, but the intense realism Pasolini’s film creates, at least in the hallucinatory moment of watching it, is the fiction for the viewer that the distance between them and Christ has collapsed: that he is on the cusp of stepping through that darkened glass. It is an extraordinary sensation.

The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (Italian: Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo). Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini. Titanus Distribuzione S.p.a, 1964. Running Time: 133 min.

Copyright Catherine Rosario