ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot

Chalk drawing on the pavement at Union Square. Not that I need an invitation.

Inhale.  Exhale.  Inhale.  Exhale.  I must try that some time without using a brown paper bag.  Just kidding – but only just.  It’s been a breathless few weeks.  Now that I am coming up for air, I’d like to say, if it were not such a hackneyed phrase, that I have returned from my long and long-delayed New York trip with a suitcase full of memories.  Not that I care to be reminded about my luggage, given that, owing to an absent-mindedness brought on by physical exhaustion and an acute state of all-over-the-placeness, my carry-on case continued its journey by rail without me.

Argh.  Among other things, the valise gone astray contained a rare copy of Mr. Fortune Finds a Pig (1943), a curiosity of a mystery about which, had I not, through my negligence, forfeited the opportunity of its perusal, I would have liked to say considerably more here, especially given that its story is set in Wales, whereto its English author, H. C. Bailey (1878–1961) retired at the end of his career.

My copy of the novel, before it got lost in transit.

While in New York, I did a bit of research at the New York Public Library’s Billy Rose Theatre Division on lost recordings of Bailey’s “Mr. Fortune” stories, nineteen of which were adapted for US radio in the mid-1930s and are extant as scripts.  More about that, and the pig, some other time, the lost-and-found department of Transport for Wales permitting.  Never mind flying.  Pigs might travel by rail.

Pardon the rustling of mental notes; but as recounted here previously, fortune did not exactly smile on me during my stay in New York, entirely overshadowed as it was, at least initially, by my former partner’s heart attack and my bout of Covid, which barred me from the ICU and turned my legs to lead as I dragged myself from one testing site to another.

Rasp.  Not that my sojourns in the metropolis are ever an unalloyed joy, tinged as they invariably are with a sense of loss and estrangement.  Each year, the city I knew most closely when I lived there from 1990 to 2004, is becoming less familiar, less recognizable, and generally less worth revisiting, especially since what was particular and once characteristic is gradually being replaced by the generic and corporate.

The pandemic has speeded up this process, with many of the remaining one-of-a-kind sites going under in a sump of sameness.  A few years ago, when I researched the career of the English printmaker Stanley Anderson for a catalogue raisonné and a series of exhibitions, I was struck by the sense of dislocation some of his etchings communicate.  A kindred spirit, I am alive to Anderson’s visual commentaries on a world that was vanishing – or was made to disappear – before his very eyes.

Edward Hopper, The Lonely House (1920)

I was reminded of Anderson’s alternative views of 1920s London – of construction sites and demolitions – when I came across the etching The Lonely House (1920) in the exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney.  New York City, as the show’s curators put it with platitudinous generality, “underwent tremendous development” during Hopper’s lifetime; and instead of focussing his attention on landmarks that are more likely to stay in place than the architecturally commonplace – an assumption proven false decades later by the pulverization of the World Trade Center, an act of religious fanaticism bringing home that iconoclasm on any scale demands the iconic – Hopper “turned his attention” to “unsung utilitarian structures” and was “drawn to the collisions of the new and old” that “captured the paradoxes of the changing city.”

I am likewise eschewing the presumably picture-worthy sites in Asphalt Expressionism, my upcoming exhibition of large format, printed iPhone photographs of New York City sidewalks that, in a tourist’s pursuit of views or selfie backdrops, tend literally to fall by the wayside despite being in plain sight.

However, it is not visuals alone that vanish or material culture only that is subject to erasure.  Sounds, too, face neglect and extinction.  Unless they are voices or musical compositions, aural environments are largely unheard of in most records of our experiences, public or private.  Sounds may survive as a backing track to our home videos, but rarely do they become the main event, the real thing of our conscious engagement with sensed reality.

Continue reading “ASMR Jungle: Rambling Notes on NYC Composed Out of Earshot”

Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics

Well, it ain’t over ‘til the proverbial — and stereotypically plus-sized — diva, binary or otherwise, puts down her lozenges to launch a final attack on the lorgnette-clutching, socially-distanced crowds. In as plain a variety of English as I can bring myself to adopt: we haven’t heard the last of COVID-19. Done as we might think we are with the pandemic the US President declared over, the virus continues to catch us unawares and mess with our lives.

It sure is messing with mine right now, in a number of ways. Almost immediately on arriving in New York City two weeks ago, I caught some resilient variant of the bug I had managed to steer clear of for so long. And it caught up with me despite all vaccinations and boosters, having taken advantage of the first opportunity to have my last antiviral top-up just two days before my departure.

Imperative mood

This is my first return visit to my old Manhattan neighborhood in three years … but clearly things did not go at all as planned or hoped for. What makes matters worse is that I had intended to be of some use to an old friend and former domestic partner, who, just days prior to my arrival, suffered a massive heart attack and has been in intensive care ever since. Here I am, stuck in his apartment, just a 20-minute walk away from the hospital that is now off limits. No doubt, millions of New Yorkers felt like that during lockdown — when everything and everyone close by was suddenly out of reach.

Continue reading “Down and Out in NYC: Movements, Pavements and Pandemics”

Enclosure Acts: Radical Landscapes at Tate Liverpool

Navigating the docklands on my way to Tate Liverpool

Just what is a landscape? It is with this question that I open the undergraduate art history module Looking into Landscape, which I have been teaching at Aberystwyth University since 2016.  In 2014, I leaped at the opportunity of trialling the module in China, where the history of art engaging with the natural and human-made environment spans many more centuries than it does in the West, and where it bears little resemblance to what Westerners tend to regard as “landscape” when referring to artistic practices rather than the outdoors.  Landscape, that is, as a genre distinct from portraiture or still life.

But I am not lecturing.  Actually, I am on research leave, which will take me back to New York – after a three-year absence from my old neighborhood and the favorite haunts that may well have become unrecognizable or ceased to exist in the interim – in preparation for my exhibition Asphalt Expressionism, about which I shall have – and have to have – more to say in subsequent posts as I ponder just what I have gotten myself into this time.

To some extent, Asphalt Expressionism – a belated follow-up to my 2018 exhibition Travelling Through: Landscapes/Landmarks/Legacies – is a response to the question “Just what is a landscape?” It aims to explore, in a series of photographs snapped with my phone camera, the terrain of Manhattan from the perspective of a walker looking down on the pavement rather than ahead, taking in the sights.  It is an alternative approach, a looking away from what is privileged or deemed worth seeing.  It is also an alternative to the tourist’s selfie, as my feet will stand in for my face in pictures that say “I was here.”

Downtown Manhattan, 11 September 2019

Unlike selfies, my photographs will not be shared first, let alone exclusively via social media, from the platforms and forums of which I have largely absented myself.  Do these images belong in a gallery? Do they need to be printed and displayed to have a life, to find eyes and minds other than mine to serve other than dead ends? 

Is the gallery the habitat for creative practices engaging with the act and art of living? I asked myself just that the other day when I went to Liverpool in order to experience – or, as it turned out, in hopes of experiencing – the exhibition Radical Landscapes.  The show, at Tate Liverpool, invites audiences to consider many of the forms that responses to the environment can take and how those responses may be motivated, whether it is primarily to make a living or to fight for the survival of the planet.

Displayed among the commodifiable images of the countryside were sculptures, textiles, installations, photographs – among them early efforts by Angus McBean, whose later works are currently on show in the exhibition I staged with students at Aberystwyth University – videos of performance art, as well as living plants and early twentieth-century scientific wood-and-papier-mâché models thereof.  So, the question arose, again and again, “Just what is a landscape?” How is that term defined here?

Radical Landscapes, Tate Liverpool, installation view

The dissatisfaction I felt walking through Radical Landscapes – well worth the walk though it is – is not so much that it does define its territory so loosely.  It is that it still insisted on calling all those responses “landscapes” and declaring them to be “radical.” “Radical Landscapes” is not an oxymoron – Peter Kennard’s Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) makes that plain – but it is certainly a misnomer.

Curators Darren Pih and Laura Bruni do provide some indications of how the theme or subject of their project was delimited by throwing a few descriptors into the mix, via the exhibition’s subtitle: Art, Identity and Activism.  Still, much of what is on show, from oils to soil, is not genre landscape.  What is radical in the creative practice of adapting to our changing environment or adopting ways of making the future survivable is activism, which may or may not yield a physical by-product displayable in a gallery space. You cannot expect to be walking a line in, say, Peru – or any line that, through radical thinking and doing, has temporarily been withdrawn between art and life or between objects and objectives – by looking at line, color and form in a cube, white or otherwise.

Peter Kennard, Haywain with Cruise Missiles (1980) detail

There is evidence of radical engagement with land on the walls, mainly in the form of documentarian photographs.  But those images only remind us how galleries, by educating us about what is or was out there, also distances us from those radical approaches.  In the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Helen Legg, Director of Tate Liverpool, makes the claim that the “gallery space for this exhibition has become inverted, with the outdoors brought inside: living sculptures, film, painting, photography and immersive installations transform the gallery into a new fertile terrain.”  For the most part, this is not achieved.  Radical Landscape is no New York Earth Room.  You can smell the difference.  Nor does it hand out shovels or seed.

Thoroughly researched and contextualised though it is, there is nothing curatorially radical about Radical Landscapes.  While the large spaces and open plan display enable stimulating interventions and juxtaposition – such as seeing Jeremy Deller’s Cerne Abbas (2019) reflected in the glass behind which other objects are mounted on the walls – it nonetheless rehearses what is part of the history it puts on view: the Enclosure Acts that, during the Industrial Revolution, did away with common land and restricts access to most of what remains of the British countryside. We can still see the countryside to which we have no access, but we can no longer experience it – unless we take radical action and trespass, invade, occupy or appropriate what has been taken from us so long ago that we are often no longer aware of that loss and the consequences of our detachment, the aftermath of which involves crises of identity and climate. 

Jeremy Deller’s Cerne Abbas (2019) reflected in a display of flower models by R. Brendel and Co.

Similarly, Radical Landscapes takes from the field of creative practice – from the domain that the radical insist on being public – and parcels out what now can only be contemplated at a remove, not lived.  “Developed,” as Legg reminds us, “in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, when access to fresh air and green space took on special significance,” Radical Landscapes casts those venturing out to experience it as witnesses, not as participants. We end up looking at where life ends by ending up as art – at historical practices preoccupied with land whose future we are shaping by our actions and apathy alike.

“See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face

Marlene Dietrich (1951) by Angus McBean, SoAM&G, Aberystwyth University
Purchase: Adrian Woodhouse (2016)
Funding support: ACE/V&A Purchase Grant Fund and The Art Fund

Of all the pictures currently on display in Make/Believe, the latest in a series of annual exhibition projects I create for staging by students of my curating class at Aberystwyth University, Angus McBean’s 1951 photograph of Marlene Dietrich is my favorite. 

What draws me in is the blankness of Dietrich’s face, her eyes looking not at us but beyond us, at nothing in particular, with a lack of any definable expression, emotion or urgency. The vacant gaze, bespeaking an unavailability and a refusal to engage, suggests the subject’s control over an image that is all surface: like theatrical curtains, the lids may come down on those eyes any moment now, shutting us out entirely.

It is a blankness that is not nothingness, invested as it becomes with the spectacle it makes of our longing.  It is a blankness that is not openness; it gives nothing away while it commands our attention and inspires our awe at its sublime perfection – a perfection that belies the sprezzatura, the rehearsed effortlessness and nonchalance of the performance.

Nothing here encourages us to imagine what those eyes are looking at; nothing that invites us to see anything through those eyes.  Those eyes are the event in a face – a site – that is all look.  I am glamor, this face says, and what else, what more could you – or anyone – possibly be looking for!

The photograph holds me because the look withholds so much. What we are not getting is a portrait of the sitter, then in her fiftieth year.  This photograph, clearly, is not of Dietrich, the person.  It is the image of a mask that is already a persona.  In this masquerade, as intriguing as anything conceived by Cindy Sherman in her film stills, the image is a simulacrum – the fiction of a fiction of a fiction.

Continue reading ““See what the boys in the [dark]room will have”: No Highway, Angus McBean, and Dietrich’s Face”

Make/Believe: Photographs of/by Angus McBean

The illusion of the stage. The magic of the movies. The glamour of fashion. In a career spanning half a century, Angus McBean (1904–1990) turned instances of make-believe and masquerade into enduring records of enchantment.

Poster design by Neil Holland, from a photograph of Angus McBean by Robert Greetham

McBean was born and raised in South Wales. His father had worked in the collieries. Encouraged by his mother to make art his life, McBean moved to London. After working in banking and retail, he became a theatrical mask-maker and designer before achieving international fame as a photographer.

This year’s exhibition at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, showcases McBean’s work in advertising, his commissioned portraits, and his annual Christmas cards. It offers rare glimpses of McBean’s private life, holidaying on the continent, as captured in two unique photo albums. Also featured in the exhibition are portraits of McBean at home, in later life, by the contemporary photographer Robert Greetham.

Make/Believe installation view

Not all the personalities on view in this exhibition – Marlene Dietrich, Ruth Draper, Audrey Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Claire Luce, Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Welsh icon Ivor Novello among them – are as familiar today as they once were, even though some of them, including Rosemary Harris and Maggie Smith are acting to this day. All of them, like McBean, lived by their passions, whether performing on stage and screen or playing on the tennis court, as Wimbledon champion Helen Wills Moody did.

Make/Believe installation view

McBean’s photographs were made in the pre-digital age of the medium. Using scissors and paste, montage and collage, as well as elaborate sets and props, McBean employed every trick of the trade to bring out the beauty, vitality and personality of his subjects. His photographs were staged, not taken.

Drawing inspiration from Salvador Dalí, whose exact birthday he (incorrectly) claimed to share, McBean ‘surrealized’ many of them. ‘This thing of truth doesn’t really come into it,’ MacBean said in late life of his portraits.

Make/Believe installation view

The theater, to McBean, was ‘fantasy.’ It was ‘what you wished it to be.’ It was also the refuge McBean needed at a time when being queer was a crime. During the Second World War, he endured a two-and-a-half-year sentence of imprisonment and hard labour. His work is a testament to the imperatives of making, believing, and make-believe.

Make/Believe, which draws almost entirely on the School’s collection, opened to the public on 16 May 2022 and runs until 30 September 2022.

Curators: Hannah Beach, David Eccles, Helen Flower, Ellie Hodnett, Mayu Maruyama, Ekene Okoliachu, Lucija Perinic, Joanna Reed, Katerina Vranova, Portia Sastawnyuk, Anna Slater, and Helena Zielinska. with support from Senior Lecturer Harry Heuser (text and concept) and Senior Curator Neil Holland (staging and design).

Make/Believe installation view

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Uninvited (1944), the Sensed and the Understood

“Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood, / The land of spices, something understood.”  As I shared with members assembled for “Redefining the Sacred,” an English Literature class I took many years ago as a graduate student at CUNY, these lines from George Herbert’s “Prayer” never fail to get to me.  The last two words alone have more awe and wonder packed into them than I could hope to experience stepping into a gallery surrounding me with Sublime landscapes.  “[T]hey express both my longing and my not-belonging,” I wrote then.  

Trying to make sense and use of the “Sacred” for my queer atheist self, I reflected on my Protestant upbringing and that yearning for communion, for a community forged by a certain “something understood,” as experienced, or so I assumed, by the Catholic peers from whom I, along with half of my high school class, was segregated during religious instruction.  Compared to the austerity of Protestantism – which in my family had congealed into a work ethic that made sweat and pain criteria for an entitlement to praise and recognition – the Catholics were joined in majesty and magic.  Wondering about it from without, I felt both suspicion and envy.

A still image of an animated presentation slide exploring Uneasy Freehold in the context of Uneasy Threshold

That is a roundabout, even misguided, approach to the make-believe of The Uninvited (1944), a Paramount picture based on the novel Uneasy Freehold (1941) by the Irish writer and Republican activist Dorothy Macardle (1889–1958).  But The Uninvited is a queer film in more than one sense.  It is a movie about absent mothers, false and true, and about siblings who, by taking possession of a possessed house, become caught up in a mystery whose solution may prove more destructive than a secret kept.

The Uninvited is a ghost story that at once meshes and transcends the tried Hollywood formulas of 1940s murder mystery, psychological thriller and so-called “gothic romance” to arrive at a hybrid in which solution does not mean death to belief by detection or psychoanalysis.  True, there is an end to a particular case of haunting – but the spirit can linger since it is not a spook that is a means to an end.

“The supernatural is dealt with seriously in this dynamic, suspenseful melodrama, chock full of fine acting that will hold audiences glued to their seats for its entire 93 minutes,” a reviewer of the Paramount picture The Uninvited predicted in the 5 January 1944 issue of Variety.  

Yet while the critic welcomed a movie that necromances what Blithe Spirit or Topper make light of without feeling heavy-handed or weighted down in the attempt, there was room for doubt as to its prospects.  “Once in, they’ll like it,” the reviewer declared, but getting audiences into the seats to stay “glued” there was less than a dead cert due to the film’s “unusual and controversial subject.”

What the trade paper hints at but refrains from stating, is the treatment of motherhood in The Uninvited, a treatment that is in keeping with the spirit of Dorothy Macardle, a politically engaged writer whose fictional freehold, haunted by two restless mothers, both past their final rest, is a metaphor for an Ireland in which the role of women in society was being codified and curtailed in the 1937 constitution.  As Abigail L. Palko points out in “From The Uninvited to The Visitor: The Post-Independence Dilemma Faced by Irish Women Writers,” Macardle, proudly Irish though she was, saw her work as an activist and writer come under attack by a government whose constitution “recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the State a support without which the common good cannot be achieved.” 

The Uninvited gothicises this threat in its haunting of a young, motherless woman by a memory of what she believes to have been a good mother.  What sets her free is the exorcism of that spirit, disabusing her of a vision that kept her from maturing.

While none of that political context is retained in the film adaptation, The Uninvited nonetheless resonated with women who identified differently, so much so that concern was raised by the League of Decency at the time about its attracting “large audiences of a questionable type,” as Rhona J. Berenstein explored in “Adaptation, Censorship, and Audiences of Questionable Type: Lesbian Sightings in Rebecca (1940) and The Uninvited” (1944)” (1998). The Uninvited manages to negotiate the Production Code in such ways that the familiar specter of the Hays Office is does not have the ghost of a chance to spoil the party like an officious inspector who comes unbidden but must be accommodated.

Now, I did not know anything about the histories of Ireland, Hollywood or the Gothic/gothic when I first watched The Uninvited.  As is almost invariably the case, though, the film spoke to me about my own sense of otherness.  And even though I never watched it surrounded by an audience of “questionable types,” or friends of Cornelia Otis Skinner, it invited me to question what membership might mean. 

The moment I realised that the Fitzgeralds, the pair who happen upon and fall in love with a haunted house, are not husband and wife but brother (Ray Milland) and sister (Ruth Hussey), I sensed that the narrative of a young person (Gail Patrick) in search of answers about her mother would take me where fairy tales had taken me years earlier: a territory the navigation of which could make my everyday journey seem less treacherous as I came to terms with the inability to belong, the feeling of being a changeling in my parent’s house.  

Dreamlike without being unmoored, The Uninvited seemed to welcome me with a spirit of understanding, of “something understood.”

”Uneasy Threshold”: Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) and the Demise of the Gothic

Just what is ‘gothic’? And how useful is the term when loosely applied to products of visual culture, be it paintings, graphic novels, movies or the posters advertising them? Aside from denoting a literary genre and a style of architecture, in which usages I recommend setting it aside by making the ‘g’ upper case, the term ‘gothic,’ understood as a mode, can be demonstrated to take many shapes, transcend styles, media, cultures and periods.  It can also be demonstrated not make sense at all as a grab bag for too many contradictory and spurious notions many academics, to this day, would not want to be caught undead espousing.  Those are the views I take on and the potentialities I test out with students of my module Gothic Imagination at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University.

As the gothic cannot thrive being crammed into a series of seminars, let alone been exsanguinated or talked to death in academic lectures, I created an extracurricular festival of film screenings to explore the boundaries of the visual gothic beyond genre and style.  The fourth film in the chronologically arranged series, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), demonstrates that the gothic struggles to thrive as well when its sublime powers are expended in a game of wartime chess.

The fourth entry in a series of Universal B-movies that began in 1939, prior to the end of US isolationism, as feature films, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is a formulaic whodunit in which the gothic is an accessory to crime fiction, and in which suspects, some more usual than others, are lined up like cardboard grotesques for deployment in a mock-Gothic extravaganza executed on a budget.

Now, as a lover of whodunits and epigrams, I do not object to formula or economics.  I can appreciate budget-regard even when I long for that rara avis.  For the gothic, however, a cocktail consisting in measures equal or otherwise of solvable mystery and final-solution mastery is a cup of hemlock. Granted, the attempt to serve it and make it palatable to the public creates a tension of intentions that may well give motion picture executives and censors nightmares.

I discuss such messaging mixers in the context of radio plays in a chapter of Immaterial Culture I titled “‘Until I know the thing I want to know’: Puzzles and Propaganda,” in which Holmes and Watson also feature.

After all, at the same time the pair set the world aright in twentieth-century wartime scenarios, Holmes and Watson continued to solve crime in the gaslit alleyways of late-Victorian and Edwardian London, or suitably caliginous settings elsewhere in the British Isles, in pastiches in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were heard on the New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio program that aired in the US at the same time:

As Sherlock Holmes director Glenhall Taylor recalled, the series was one of several sponsored programs whose “services were requested by the War Department.”  The charms of an imagined past were to yield to visible demonstrations of the responsibilities broadcasters and audiences shared in the shaping of the future.  To promote the sale of defense bonds during the War Loan Drives, Bruce and co-star Basil Rathbone appeared in “special theatrical performances,” live broadcasts to which “admission was gained solely through the purchase of bonds.”  (Heuser, Immaterial Culture 189)

To be sure, Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is less overtly propagandist than the previous three entries in Universal’s film series, all of which are anti-fascist spy thrillers.  Adapted, albeit freely, from a story by their creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the case they took on subsequently recalled the titular detective and his faithful sidekick from Washington, DC, and released them back into their fog-shrouded habitat in and for which they had been conceived.

And yet, whatever the setting, in motion pictures Holmes and Watson continued to face adversaries that were recognisably anti-democratic – stand-ins for the leaders of the Axis.  The villain of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, diagnosed as egomaniacal by Holmes, is no exception. 

Much of the action of Sherlock Holmes Faces Death takes place in an ancestral pile that has been temporarily converted into a convalescent home for wounded soldiers.  Those inmates may have their idiosyncrasies, as all flat characters do, but, to serve their purpose in a piece of propaganda, they cannot truly be plotting murder, unless there are exposed as phoneys, in which case the reassurances of wartime service honored and government assistance rendered would be called into question.  

The unequivocal messages the Sherlock Holmes films were expected to spread in wartime did not allow for such murky developments.  A post-war noir thriller might sink its teeth into corruption; but the Sherlock Holmes series did not exhibit such fangs.

Variety thought this entry ‘obvious stuff.’ Less obvious to me, reading Variety, was
how much Ella Fitzgerald contributed to the success of the film at the box office.

Nor could the recovering soldiers be shown to be so mentally unstable as to kill without motive; according to the convention of whodunits, even serial killers like Christie’s Mr. ABC follow a certain logic that can be ascertained.  The heiress of Musgrave Manor may be momentarily distraught, the butler may be exposed as an unstable drunkard – but the soldiers, whatever horrors and shocks they endured on the battlefield, can only be moderately muddled.

Most of the recovering servicemen – in their fear of unwrapped parcels or their fancy for knitting – are called upon to provide comic relief, bathos being a key strategy of the domesticated gothic. In the Sherlock Holmes series, that is a part generally allotted to Dr. Watson, a role he performs even in this particular installment, in which his expertise as a man of medicine is put to use for the war effort. Inspector Lestrade serves a similar purpose, which is probably what made the ridiculing of military personnel seem less objectionable to sponsors, as it made them look fairly inconsequential to the crime caper unfolding. Aligning those men with Watson and Lestrade assists in eliminating them from the start as potential suspects.

While missing legal documents and cryptic messages are certifiably Gothic tropes, the gothic atmosphere in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death is fairly grafted on the proceedings with the aid of visuals. There are genre Gothic trimmings aplenty in – secret passages, a bolt of lightning striking a hollow suit of armor, and pet raven assuming the role of harbinger of death – but there is no real sense of menace as, guided by the infallibly capable hands of Sherlock Holmes, we negotiate with relative ease the potentially treacherous territory of a mansion as makeshift asylum and contested castle.

The climax, which tries to cast doubt as to Holmes’s perspicacity, plays out in a dimly lit cellar. It is here that the gothic could potentially take hold if the plot had not preemptively diffused the dangerous situation hinted at in the film’s title. The trap for the killer below has already been laid above-ground on the newly polished surface of a giant chessboard, in a display of strategy choreographed by Holmes himself. By the time the game moves underground, it is no longer afoot; rather, it is fairly limping along.

Gothic and propaganda can mix; genre Gothic fiction often served political purposes. Gothic and whodunit are less readily reconciled. Although John Dickson Carr tried hard to make that happen, often in an antiquarian sort of way, the Victorian Sensation novelists and the had-I-but-known school of crime writers come closer to achieving that.  But the handling of all three of those form or raisons d’être for writing – Gothic, whodunit and propaganda – by the jugglers employed here, at least, is not a formula designed to make the most of mystery and suspense. As I concluded in my discussion of the “identity crisis” of the wartime radio thriller, “propagandist work was complicated by the challenge of puzzling and prompting the audience, of distracting and instructing at once.”

Sherlock Holmes faces death, all right, but the demise he encounters is that of the gothic spirit.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Old Dark House (1932), “wildest Wales” and the Benighted Kingdom

Much has been said about the titular edifice of Universal Studio’s 1932 melodrama The Old Dark House, the third in the series of films I am screening as part of my Gothic Imagination module at Aberystwyth University.  Directed by the queer English Great War veteran James Whale, and adapted from J. B. Priestley’s 1927 novel BenightedThe Old Dark House is often argued to be a commentary on Imperial Britain during the so-called interwar years (that is, the period between the two World Wars, Britain having been involved in plenty of other international conflicts besides): an ancient but crumbling family home – run by aging and morally corrupt imbeciles and cut off from the world by water.  It has been called, more than once, a “metaphor for … England.”

And yet, the story is not set England but in Wales, and the novel and film alike exploit and perpetuate the stereotypes of what, presumably, constitutes Wales and sets it apart from neighboring England: the wild, the uncivilised, the superstitious and unenlightened.  Wales, according to Priestley and Whale, is gothic territory.  It is the stuff of romance – or the English definition of romance – meaning that when the English want to go primitive, they think Wales.

Here is what the dreamer Penderel, himself a war veteran, says about Wales as he is being driven around in his friend’s motorcar one dark and dismal night:

I don’t want to go to Shrewsbury.  I don’t particularly want to go anywhere.  Something might happen here, and nothing ever happens in Shrewsbury, and nothing much on the other side of Shrewsbury.  But here there’s always a chance.

The Hollywood ending aside, the film is remarkably faithful to the novel, retaining much of Priestley’s dialogue.  While I am not sure just how many US American viewers back then would have understood the reference to the border that Shrewsbury represents, both Priestley and Whale would have known that, when the name “Shrewsbury” is dropped, the meaning “borderline” is implied.  Arriving at Shrewsbury – and this is the party’s intention – means traversing the Welsh Bridge over the Severn and arriving back in England.

The party in question – Penderel and his friends, the married and bickering couple Margaret and Philip – has lost its way in what Priestley lets Philip describe as “wildest Wales.”  The colonial attitudes toward Wales as both enchanted and benighted – as a place where there is ‘always a chance’ – the chance of an improvement in infrastructure excepting – are at the heart of this modally gothic narrative.

When the drunkard Welsh butler Morgan opens the door upon their unannounced arrival, he “produce[s] from somewhere at the back of his throat, a queer gurgling sound” that Penderel cannot translate.  Priestley tells us that “Penderel knew no Welsh.”  And yet, he says with confidence, in the book and film version alike, that “Even Welsh out not to sound like that; it was as if a lump of earth had tried to make a remark.”

Wales, to be sure, was just that to England, or many in England, a mute lump of Earth to be exploited for its resources.  It is not Wales that is gothic – or Gothic – but the perspective of the English that, fascinating as they may be with the wildness of Wales – impose their views on the nation they invade like “travellers in a foreign country,” as Priestley has Penderel see it.

Morgan, as we soon learn, cannot communicate in any spoken language.  He is a personification of Wales infantilised, gesturing like “some prehistoric monster.”  Wales, the source of mined ore – of coal and slate and lead, silver and gold – as well as Water, was often seen as little more than potential to be unearthed and funnelled for the benefit of England. The tradition was deemed to be expendable.

In The Old Dark House, as in Benighted, the nightmare vision makes way for daylight.  What we experienced was a Phantasmagoria staged by the visiting English.  The travelers depart, whether enlightened by what they experienced or just glad to have survived it.  The perspective of the hosts is not considered.

Hollywood would return to a fairy-tale Wales in The Wolf Man a decade later, in which Welsh landscape and culture, rendered unrecognisable, become the other when England was seen as the real, the upholder of values, in its fight against fascism.  To this day, visitors prefer to be enchanted by Wales, an old dark house whose perceived darkness is to a large extent a product of an English or Anglo-American imagination.

“Uneasy Threshold”: The Lodger (1927), Trespassing and the Unhomely

I am not an academic.  I am a human being.  That’s not just me misquoting The Elephant Man.  It is a cri de cœur expressive of what is at the core of my identity as a creative person who happens to have transmogrified into an art history lecturer. To interrogate what that even means, I teach “Gothic Imagination” at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University. 

As part of that class, I present an extracurricular series of film screenings exploring the boundaries of the ‘gothic’ beyond the furnishings of the genre ‘Gothic.’  That ‘gothic’ is a term so broadly applied and ill-defined as to render it practically useless is a by now thoroughly predictable way of opening a debate about its practical uses.  Then again, the gothic has little to do to with practicalities.  

I have no intention to make the term, “salonfähig,” that is, reverting here to my native German, to make it acceptable or viable in an academic setting.  Rather, I use the word, which I am applying to visual culture instead of literature, to contest progress or avant-garde narratives traditionally espoused by academies in order to suggest alternative histories and alternatives to the teaching of art history.  Attention to the popular, presumably lesser arts is essential to this strategy.

The first series of screenings, coinciding with my previous iteration of “Gothic Imagination,” was titled “Treacherous Territories.” The phrase was meant to capture that challenge of defining and the dangers of inserting a mutable term such as ‘gothic’ into the lecture theaters and seminar rooms that cannot quite accommodate, let alone confine it. 

The current series, “Uneasy Threshold,” continues that playful investigation.  What, for instance, carries a mystery or a romance over the threshold of ‘gothic’? What is that threshold? And what is the ‘gothic’ interior – the environment in which ‘gothic’ may be contained both as a subject for discussion and as an experience to be had by the viewer of, say, a crime drama, a thriller, a film noir or a horror movie?

As a literary genre, the Gothic began in and with a house – in Strawberry Hill and with the Castle of Otranto, both conceived by Horace Walpole long before Frankenstein, Jekyll/Hyde and Dracula came onto the scene.  Those names are on the letter box of the Gothic mansion of our imagination, and I do not mean to evict their bearers; but might there be room as well – be it a closet, a cellar or a boudoir – for a few hundred other, less usual suspects, such as the title character of The Lodger (1927)?

The Lodger insists on moving in on the party assembled at the Gothic castle, just as the Lodger – who may or may not be a serial killer called The Avenger – emerges out of the fog. edges himself into the home of the Buntings, and comes to preoccupy their thoughts and nightmares.  Invited, perhaps, but deemed suspect or queer all the same.

When the Lodger first made his appearance, in 1911, in a short story by Marie Belloc Lowndes, the figure was already lodged in the collective consciousness of urban dwellers who, like the author, were old enough to recall the Whitechapel Murders of 1888 or else were raised with the legend of Jack the Ripper, an alternative to a nursery rhyme all the more terrifying for having neither rhyme nor reason.

The Lodger transforms the story, which Belloc Lowndes turned into a novel, by pouring more sex into the mix.  That the layered cake did not quite rise to Hitchcock’s satisfaction was, legend has it, due to the casting of Ivor Novello in the title role: a queer Welsh matinee idol who, Hitchcock argued, was not allowed to get away with murder but was to be pronounced blameless by virtue of his status as a star. 

Whether or not that is the true reason for the direction the movie adaptation takes, it does not make the story any less intriguing – or gothic.

The Lodger is the story of a home that becomes “unhomely” – German for “uncanny.”  The lodger is no architect or bricklayer; rather, he transforms the dynamics of the group of people dwelling in the house he enters.  Blameless he may be, but he is an Avenger all the same, as Sanford Schwartz points out in “To-Night ‘Golden Curls’: Murder and Mimesis in Hitchcock’s The Lodger” – not the killer, but the victim of the killer avenging her death, a victim-turned-vigilante who, misunderstood, dreaded and feared, becomes the subject of her other lover’s revenge. 

 It is the other, ostensibly sane and safe lover, a police officer, who trespasses – who abuses his power – to trap the innocent man who threatens his supremacy as a prospective husband. The handcuffs he suits to his own pursuits prove harmful to his lover’s trust and nearly cause the death of his rival even after that rival is proven innocent of crime.

The Lodger is gothic as James’s Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) is Gothic.  It is a story of injustice and sanctioned tyranny.   Like Frankenstein’s creature, the Lodger is hunted and tormented. Law, reason and morals are being questioned; and the pillars of civilisation are proven to be unsafe as houses.

The next time I am (re)viewing The Lodger, the film will be accompanied by Neil Brand at Gregynog Hall, 6 Nov. 2021, when I shall be in conversation with the playwright-composer about silent film music and the language of pre-talkie cinema.

Difference Reconciled: Ceri H. Pritchard’s Paradoxes

Ceri H. Pritchard at his solo exhibition Paradoxes, MOMA Machynlleth, 18 Sept. 2021

Some creative sparks managed to rekindle themselves during the pandemic; stoked up by a keenly felt sense of do-or-die urgency, they keep generating alternative realities – or alternatives to reality – out of the deepest blue of mind-numbing, soul-crumbling chaos.  While I do not quite succeed in numbering among those motivated mortals, visual artist Ceri H. Pritchard certainly does.  

In front of Metamorphosis I at MOMA Machynlleth, with a temporarily unmasked Ceri H. Pritchard

His prodigious output, mordant wit and renewed openness to experimentation are on full display in his latest of a slew of solo shows.  Ceri H. Pritchard’s Paradoxes opened on 18 September 2021 at MOMA Machynlleth, one of Wales’s most distinguished contemporary art galleries, and is on view there until 13 November 2021.  I have been keeping up with Ceri’s work and am excited to see it transmogrify.  I said as much, or as little, in the introductory text panel I was glad to contribute to his exhibition:

Ceri first invited me into his studio in 2015.  A few years earlier, I had co-authored monographs on his parents, figurative painter Claudia Williams and the late landscape artist Gwilym Prichard.  At the time, I was as yet unfamiliar with Ceri’s decades-spanning international career.  It was an unexpected, disorientating encounter – in his parents’ house, no less – with what Ceri here terms ‘Paradoxes.’  

I was perhaps too quick to label his paintings ‘neo-surrealist’ in an effort to get an art historical handle on the uncanny with which I was confronted: an otherworldly territory strewn with the detritus of modernity, with outcast and less-than-easy chairs, outmoded models of disconnected television sets, and displaced floor lamps shedding no light on matters.

Resisting further temptations to make sense of it all by trying to place the work, I did not initially consider – but subsequently discussed with Ceri – how his conspicuous enthusiasm for colour and his partiality for patterns is prominent as well in his mother’s work, although in subject and mood Ceri’s paintings could not be further removed from Claudia’s figure compositions expressive of the bond between mother and child.  

And yet, the patterns in Ceri’s paintings, too, suggest blood bonds – biological ties, be it the universality of our molecular make-up or the common experience of life and death in the strange new age of COVID-19.  Those repeated shapes bespeak at once commonality and change, circulation and evolution – and they remind us that what we share can also keep us apart.

Gwilym Prichard, Landscape (1960), detail

The mostly unpopulated landscapes painted by Ceri’s father, Gwilym, meanwhile, showed a preoccupation with home and belonging, with the uncovering of roots in ancient soil rather than the representation of the iconic sites of his native Wales.  Ceri’s work, too, is concerned with home – but his approach to the question of belonging to particular cultures and traditions – is entirely different.  It is the paradox of being at home with dislocation and familiar with estrangement.

Claudia Williams, The Toy Basket (1989) detail

The paradoxes that Ceri’s work communicate are not the consolidation of a calculated career move, an effort to set himself apart as much as possible from the tradition represented by his artist parents.  They are felt, not fabricated.  Ceri’s practice is informed by an international outlook, a transnational engagement with diverse cultures, high and low, in France, Mexico and the United States.  The unresolved tension of paradox at play in his compositions reflects and responds to decades of being abroad and of returning as an artist whose paintings redefine the tradition of what it means to be living and working here and now – in twenty-first century Wales.  

Upon first seeing Ceri’s work, I felt as if I were about to be let in on a secret: canvases that were still underway, waiting – ready or reluctant – to come out into the open.  Catching up with his evolving work in his studio years later, in the middle of the pandemic, I sensed a renewed purpose, a conviction of having arrived at something worth the departure and of forging ahead, destination unknowable.  

This is a body of work distinguished by something other than its now familiar set of iconography and ready tropes packaged for public exhibition.  There is continued experimentation both in subject and technique – not just a recycling of a haunting image repertoire but a repurposing of found materials as well and an increasing openness to change and chance.

Ceri H. Pritchard, The State of Things (2021)

That air of mystery has not dissipated since I opened Ceri’s solo exhibition The Strange Edge of Reality at Tenby Museum and Art Gallery in 2016.  And although encounters with art may become less personal in a museum setting, an institutional space can also contribute to our sense of discovery by making us become more aware of alternative approaches and canonical outliers we may not have expected to find there. Surprise, mystification, and a darkly humorous take on what it means to be alive at a time it seems impossible for future generations to get nostalgic about – all that may be experienced here, but also the realisation of being prompted to become part of a compelling narrative in the making.

Rather than look at Ceri’s paradoxes as puzzles to be solved it might be useful to regard them as open invitations to question our assumptions about culture, heritage, and about art produced in Wales today. 

‘Mysteries,’ are ‘like the sun,’ the metaphysical poet John Donne wrote, ‘dazzling, yet plain to all eyes.’  And not unlike the metaphysical poets, Ceri’s compositions yoke together opposites to achieve a kind of reconciliation, a discordia concors (harmonious discord), even though, in Ceri’s case, the aim is not harmony: it is to become reconciled to remaining unsettled.