In the Key of Blue by John Addington Symonds

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I probably overspent a little on this charity-shop purchase, the third edition (published 1918) of In the Key of Blue by John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a personal selection of writings first published in 1893. First edition copies sell for over a thousand pounds so this was an opportunity to acquire something close to the original without breaking the bank. The book is significant for two reasons: on a decorative level the cover design is one of my favourites by book designer (he preferred the term “book builder”) Charles Ricketts. The first editions have the design blocked in gold on cream cloth (below); a few copies were made with blue cloth but Ricketts apparently changed the colour after worrying that reviewers would joke about “Reckitt’s Blue” a popular laundry product. The contraposed curves of the leaf shapes pre-empt the Art Nouveau style which only started to emerge a year or two later.

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The other notable feature of Symonds’ book is its being one of the more outspoken manifestations of the author’s advocacy for what he called “a man’s love for a man”. Symonds was a pioneer of what are now called gay studies: in addition to accurately translating the love sonnets of Michelangelo which previous translators had heterosexualised, his 1873 study A Problem in Greek Ethics sought to show 19th-century readers that the Ancient Greek culture they so admired had an indisputable history of same-sex relationships running through its core. This was only one side of Symonds’ work but it was an admirably continual thread. I often think of Symonds and Oscar Wilde as twinned in this respect: Wilde made frequent use of Greek attitudes as a justification for his views on love; both men had to perform a careful balancing act, trying to advocate the unacceptable without drawing too much attention to their own proclivities. If Wilde was the public advocate for Uranian desire then Symonds was a kind of think-tank man, labouring behind the scenes to bring to light the historical precedent. Finally, both men were connected by Charles Ricketts, a friend of Wilde’s who designed and illustrated a number of Wilde’s early editions.

In the Key of Blue was published in the last year of Symonds’ life by which time much of his previous equivocations had been abandoned. In homoerotic terms it’s far more out of the closet than pre-trial Wilde ever dared to be. The title piece is a poem which presents eight studies of an unnamed “you”, a figure seen by the poet in various Venetian settings, painted in a range of colours with blue as the dominant tone. I have the poem in another book; taken alone as it is there it seems mildly homoerotic—the ecstatically observed subject is obviously male—but remains ambiguous enough for any subtext to be a matter of interpretation. In the collected edition Symonds adds additional text that picks apart the poem, explaining the origin of each setting. Thus we learn that the mysterious “you” is a 19-year-old Venetian porter named Augusto whom the author had befriended. The explanatory paragraphs discuss the artistic intent of the poem, its depiction of contrasted tones and colours, while the circumstantial details quietly remove all the ambiguity from its paean to male youth.

Elsewhere in the book, there’s a discussion of male love among the Greeks, culled from Symonds’ earlier researches, then in Clifton and a Lad’s Love, written thirty years earlier, we have another piece of alternating poetic verse and prose description. Part seven of the poem could hardly be less equivocal:

I saw a vision of deep eyes
In morning sleep when dreams are true:
Wide humid eyes of hazy blue,
Like seas that kiss the horizon skies.

Then as I gazed, I felt the rain
Of soft warm curls around my cheek,
And heard a whisper low and meek:
“I love, and canst thou love again?”

A gentle youth beside me bent;
His cool moist lips to mine were pressed,
That throbbed and burned with love’s unrest:
When, lo, the powers of sleep were spent;

And noiseless on the airy wings
That follow after night’s dim way,
The beauteous boy was gone for aye,
A theme of vague imaginings.

Yet I can never rest again:
The flocks of morning dreams are true;
And till I find those eyes of blue
And golden curls, I walk in pain.

Anyone wishing to read In the Key of Blue can find most of Symonds’ work online. Project Gutenberg has all his major texts available while the Internet Archive has a scan of the 1918 edition, albeit in slightly better condition than my copy.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The book covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Greek games
Charles Ricketts’ Salomé
Achilles by Barry JC Purves
Der Eigene: Kultur und Homosexualität
Charles Ricketts’ Hero and Leander

Google Art Project revisited

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The Deluge (1834) by John Martin.

One of John Martin’s Biblical cataclysms succumbs to a Turner-like nebulosity at the Yale Center for British Art, something that can now be viewed in detail thanks to Google’s expansion of its Art Project. 151 additional galleries have been added, and the collections of those already present expanded, which means there are now 30,000 paintings and other art objects waiting to be examined. The examples here are those picked from a very cursory look at what’s on offer. Good to see the Musée d’Orsay is now one of the featured galleries where I ignored all the Van Goghs, Monets and the rest in order to select one of Gustave Moreau’s Salomés. Blake’s Ghost of a Flea is actually a lot more visible in its online state than in the original. Many of the works in the Blake collection at Tate Britain are so fragile the lights are kept low to avoid damaging their pigments. Most of Blake’s paintings are also very small, Ghost of a Flea included. Even peering at it up close doesn’t yield as much as the opportunity we now have to explore its frosted craquelure.

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Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness (1604–1605) Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio.

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The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819) by William Blake.

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The Apparition (c. 1876) by Gustave Moreau.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Ambassadors in detail

A Picture to Dream Over: The Isle of the Dead

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The Isle of the Dead (second version, 1880), Kunstmuseum, Basel.

In the sudden flares of light over the water, reflected off the sharp points of his cheeks and jaw, a harder profile for a moment showed itself. Conscious of Sanders’s critical eye, Father Balthus added as an afterthought, to reassure the doctor: “The light at Port Matarre is always like this, very heavy and penumbral – do you know Böcklin’s painting, ‘Island of the Dead’, where the cypresses stand guard above a cliff pierced by a hypogeum, while a storm hovers over the sea? It’s in the Kunstmuseum in my native Basel –”

The Crystal World (1966) by JG Ballard.

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A 1982 recording.

Today’s post is another guest piece over at Tor.com where I run through a history of some of the works in different media inspired by Arnold Böcklin’s The Isle of the Dead (1880–1886). The four versions of Böcklin’s painting are favourites of mine so I’ve touched on this subject a couple of times before but this is the first time I’ve gone into any detail examining their influence. Many artworks have become highly visible in the past century via copies, parodies and imitations: think of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, or Michelangelo’s David and The Creation of Adam. What’s fascinating about The Isle of the Dead is that it’s not one picture but four versions of the same scene, and they’ve all been very influential not as parodies but as direct inspirations for other artworks—musical compositions, feature films, a novel—yet few people would recognise the artist’s name. My post only scratches the surface by running through some of the more well-known works but there’s a whole website devoted to the subject for anyone wishing to investigate further.

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The Call of Cthulhu (1988).

Modesty prevented me from mentioning my own work in the Tor post but I’ll do so here. Among the many references ladled into my adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu there’s the 1886 Leipzig version of Böcklin’s painting in the background of a panel. A prefiguring of the end of the story and also an excuse to add to the list of works acknowledging one of the great Symbolist paintings.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Isle of the Dead in detail
Arnold Böcklin and The Isle of the Dead

Ecce homo redux

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Piss Christ (1987) by Andres Serrano.

If the news of the past few weeks has felt like a re-run of the 1980s—ongoing recession, government cuts, riots in London, Tories casting aspersions on the undeserving poor, the threat of another royal wedding—then add to the list of déjà vu moments a flurry of outrage concerning art and religion in America that’s like a recapitulation of the Helms vs. NEA spats of 1989. On that occasion Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ was in the firing line, accused of being a blasphemous portrayal. This week it’s been the turn of a video installation of a short film made the same year, A Fire in My Belly, by David Wojnarowicz, a work featured in an exhibition I linked to a couple of weeks ago, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC. A Los Angeles Times piece previewing the exhibition also connected Hide/Seek and the earlier attacks by the right against the NEA, ending by saying “Times and attitudes change”. Well, not always…

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A Fire in My Belly (1987) by David Wojnarowicz.

Piss Christ notoriously shows a plastic crucifix immersed in urine; A Fire in My Belly is a 30-minute film which features among its blizzard of images a crucifix besieged by marauding ants. Wojnarowicz’s work wasn’t even mentioned in the LA Times piece but this week’s furore has made it the focus of the entire show after the gallery withdrew the video following protests from the usual suspects, the Catholic League and a right-wing politician, Rep. John Boehner. The complaints are the standard bluster about blasphemy (again) and taxpayers funding “filth”. None of the complainants appear to care that Wojnarowicz’s film is a tribute made by a gay artist to his friends as they were dying from AIDS during the 1980s, a disease which also killed him in 1992, they see the work only as an offensive act. It’s too much to expect anyone reacting with such fervour to consider that the artist may have been comparing the suffering and treatment of people with Aids in that decade with Christ’s suffering on the cross, to do so would be to admit that the artist might have a point. In response to the work’s withdrawal the Transformer Gallery in Washington DC has been screening the film and organised a protest at the National Portrait Gallery. (Update: They also issued an open letter urging the reinstatement of the work.)

Continue reading “Ecce homo redux”

Centaurs

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Elatus from Pandaemonium I (Centaurs) (2010) by David Trullo.

One of a series of centaur portraits by Spanish artist David Trullo. Placing characters from Classical mythology in contemporary settings makes a change. The title Pandaemonium I implies further series so I’m curious to see how Trullo follows these.

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Battling Centaurs (1873) by Arnold Böcklin.

Centaurs had a flush of popularity in Germanic art of the 19th century; Franz Stuck painted them a number of times and Jugend magazine is littered with many often grotesque representations. I’ve never seen an explanation for this resurgence of interest. Is it because a man/horse hybrid is a potent symbol of masculine power? Arnold Böcklin’s painting is one of the better examples and suits its title more than Michelangelo’s famous sculpture in which the hybrids are lost in a tangle of writhing bodies.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Mermaids
The Masks of Medusa