Tuesday, 8 May 2018

William Clarke Wontner: Appropriations

We have no desire at the present time to discuss the wider issues of so-called "cultural appropriation" and the hysteria this provokes in the ill-educated who have been taught to assess all human endeavours in terms of power relationships. Instead, this post is a deliberate celebration of "cultural appropriation" ("assimilation", "exchange" etc.) as a motif in orientalist art, which is to say the occidental appropriation of the orient in visual representation. We have today reverted to the historical norm of hostility and separation. In periods of "identity politics" such as our own everyone retreats into their respective ghettoes. From this perspective we can see once again just how exceptional was the orientalist project - the sympathetic, we might even say loving, or at least envious, embrace of the manners and customs of the East. The collapse of this ideal into a rancorous 'post-colonialism' is one of the tragedies of the XXth century. 

"Appropriation" is nowhere so blatant as in the work of the English academic painter William Clarke Wontner. Although counted as a minor artist in the Neo-Classical school under the influence of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and more directly Sir Lawrence's great protégé John Godward, with whom Mr Wontner was a lifelong friend - the debt to the latter being obvious - and although he was not, like the Orientalist painters proper, a traveller to far-off lands, he is counted as an Orientalist because his great love of eastern fabrics and fashions led him to specialise in portraits of English ladies posing languorously and dressed in the modes of the East. These strike us as somewhat awkward and incongruous today. Our images of West/East transfer are rather like the following:

This is an image not of "appropriation" or "assimilation" but of capitulation; it is a transfer between two hardened camps (ghettoes) typical of the disaffected. Such transfers speak of self-alienation and a self-destructive fetishization of the 'other'. Mr Wontner lived in a different age that enjoyed quite different cross-cultural dynamics. His paintings still glow with cultural confidence. If there is a 'fetishization' of the 'other' it is at least healthy and not self-mutilating. His paintings are still about an integral European beauty. Here are some examples:

Readers will note, as did Mr Wontner's contemporaries, his careful, faithful renderings of oriental fabrics and patterns, but his faithfulness to the European identity of his women is just as notable. The following portrait from 1916 may well have been titled The Fair Persian, but she is not a Persian, is she? The artist makes no attempt to hide the fact that this lady is a European woman posing as a Persian through the device of costume and ambience. 

Similarly, the following painting from 1900 is entitled The Lady of Bagdhad even though the lady in question is clearly not a lady of Bagdhad.

Just as the painting at the top of this page, entitled An Egyptian Beauty - one of the artist's most alluring paintings - is not, in fact, of an Egyptian beauty. It is a European beauty dressed as an Egyptian beauty. Other paintings by Mr Wontner, however, were titled without the pretense. The following portrait from his later career is entitled A Beauty in Eastern Costume, which may as well have been a generic title for nearly everything he painted. 

Mr Wontner is, then, an imitator of the Orientalists, properly considered. The nearest he has been to the east is the acquisition of some eastern fabrics and the viewing of works by artists who had actually travelled to the east and recorded its life and ways. Here is a painting from 1903 that clearly imitates that orientalist reportage:

A personal favourite of the present writer is the painting entitled The Jade Necklace, thus:

Wontner is assuredly not a great painter. His friend Godward - that martyr to classical ideals - was a great painter. Here is a detail of Mr Godward's Lycinna that shows the difference of quality. There is no question that Mr Godward is the better painter. 

But although our own age has delegitimized nearly every aspect of Wontner's work, including his dedication to feminine beauty - and, unlike Godward, his technique is not of such a high standard that his work transcends our prejudices - he remains nevertheless a painter of revealing interests. There is more going on in his work than English ladies playing dress ups. Among his interests, for example, is the conjunction of orientalist concerns with an interest in the occult and exotic spiritualities, a theme often pursued in this current blog. Here, for instance, is a painting called False Gods, in which the subject of Egyptian deities intrudes into one of the artist's standard female-in-eastern-costume portraits:

'False gods' perhaps, but the force of the painting, of course, is to make the 'false god' as attractive and as alluring as the 'East'. Mr Wontner's purpose, always, is to render the eastern 'other' erotic. Consider this painting as an example:

The seductive east. As we have noted again and again on these pages, this is counter to every notion of the Mahometan bogey constructed over long centuries of Crusader hostility. Again: orientalism is remarkable for being the first sympathetic embrace of the east by Europeans. Similarly, the artist's purpose in False Gods is to enchant the gods that normative Christian sensitivities dismiss as demonic and evil. The woman holds the god in question tentatively, to be sure, but it is clear that her dressing in the eastern manner is a prelude to deeper inquiries. Mr Wontner's women are Europeans, certainly, but they are no longer citizens of a fearful 'Christendom'. This is true of orientalist works in general. And where Wontner's interests extend outside the orientalist frame, he continues his fascination with the exotic and occult. Here, for instance, is his Fortuneteller. In the polarised decay of our so-called 'multiculturalism' this, alas, is a view of the gypsy we can no longer enjoy.  

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Harper McAlpine Black

Sunday, 6 May 2018

A Eunuch's Dream

The name most synonymous with the sensual values of what has come to be known as orientalist art, which is to say the portrayal of the East (and especially the Mahomatan East) as both beautiful and sensual - this defying all the conventions of the hostile estimations of former times whereby that world was regarded as irredeemably cruel and misguided and monstrous - is Jean Leon Gerome, and by extension his many students and imitators. Foremost among them in terms of skill and breadth, surely, is Jean Lecomte Du Nouy. Perhaps only second to his teacher, Monsieur Lecomte Du Nouy shaped the repertoire of orientalist imagery - in French art, certainly - and brought the techniques of Academic figure painting to orientalist subjects. He was resolute in this. Born in 1842 he lived until 1923 and witnessed all the intrusions of modernism into French painting; despite distinctly modern interests he stayed faithful to XIXth century classical values and formal style even as Academic painting went into decline. He was not tempted by the new waves sweeping through French art. 

The overlap between these different paradigms in the early XXth century is remarkable. When we look at a Picasso, or some other work of modernism now, we have little sense of how artists such as Lecomte Du Nouy were still working concurrently, valiant against the in-coming tide. The Academic masters have been eclipsed. This is especially true of the orientalists. Not only have their realist values and methods been eclipsed by the degradations of modernist abstraction (which are actually psuedo-primitivist and quasi-African in most cases) but their choice of subject matter has been disparaged by resentment fueled post-colonial and Marxist ideologies such that their entire enterprise has been delegitimised. Many pages of this current blog are devoted to this issue. Our purpose, in part, is to re-evaluate and rescue orientalist painting from this tawdry fate if only by celebrating its best representatives and their most notable works. 

Surely the most outstanding and startling painting in the oeuvre of Monsieur Lecomte Du Nouy is now to be found in the Cleveland Museum of Art and is known as The Eunuch's Dream. The scene is old Cairo. A eunuch reclines on a rooftop smoking an opium (or hashish?) pipe and, languishing, has an erotic vision, although it is ruptured by a child wielding a knife, an emblem of castration. 

It is an arresting picture, capturing the tortured eroticism of the very oriental institution of the eunuch. The artist accompanied Monsieur Felix Clement to Egypt in 1865, then barely twenty-three years old. After the journey he set about depicting the opulence and customs of the Egyptians. He painted The Eunuch's Dream in 1874, a mature reflection of his Egyptian sojourn. In many ways it is his preeminent Egyptian work. 

Here are some details:

The eunuch languishing. He is not a black eunuch such as often appears in orientalist paintings - an entirely accurate historical matter since the Arabs routinely used negroid Africans as eunuchs. The ethnicity of this eunuch is hard to determine, except that he is not caucasian. It is little known that the Coptic Christians were the main suppliers of eunuchs to the Arab rulers in Egypt up until the early XXth century. The Copts were in the business of capturing, castrating and training young boys to be sold to wealthy Arab households. The boys were usually castrated around the age of seven or eight - certainly young enough as to mutate the hormonal changes of puberty. Yet a eunuch was never entirely sexless, just incapacitated. This is the theme of this painting. As beautiful and as alluring as the female apparition may be, an ethereal fantasy, the castrating angel is close behind. 

The erotic vision, a transformation of the vapors of the drug. The drug is the vehicle of the vision. This is one of the most interesting devices in the painting; the smoke from the pipe takes shape as the phantasy. The connection between such substances and voluptuous visions is a point of fascination for orientalist painters, as much as for writers and adventurers. This is an era prior to puritanical crusades against drugs. The criminalisation of opiates and narcotics in the West coincided with the close of the orientalist era. Here, in this painting, there is not a hint of that squeamishness.

The knife-wielding cherub, with the tip of his blade illumined by one of the brighter stars in the sky. 

In the background, the stork, its stance on one leg emblematic of castration and incapacity (just as is lameness in other contexts.) 

The artist's signature and handprint. 

The massive form of the Sultan Hasan mosque in the background, and in the far distance, the pyramids of Cheops. The mosque is merely an architectural signature that places the image at a certain location in old Cairo - it is likely that the artist was quite exact about this and had a very particular rooftop in mind - yet perhaps the truncated form of the mosque, which is peculiar in only hosting two minarets rather than the standard four, is another undertone of castration and inadequacy. Certainly, the painting is carefully constructed as a commentary of emblems and symbols on this theme. 

Somewhat later, Monsieur Lecomte Du Nouy returned to this picture and painted a companion, this time a simple dream - necessarily erotic since an "oriental" dream (the title of the painting) is by definition voluptuous. Once again we find the agency of drugs - the hookah - but now the device of the smoke rising up as a phantasy has been muted. Instead, the apparition is projected as a celestial visitation to the dreamer in his reverie. The image is not nearly so striking as that of the eunuch, to be sure, but once again it is remarkable in his entirely positive depiction of oriental sensuality. The Mahometans are not debased brutes or monsters, and there is no hint of any sense in which their sensuality is a threat to Christian or European values. This is, once again, a wholly sympathetic and benign view of the oriental world. This is typical of the orientalists. The erotic visitant is no succubus. The artist is far removed from such medieval categories. Sexual phantasy is not being presented as a moral danger. The artist is properly fascinated by the deliciousness of oriental sexuality and its inner world. 


Harper McAlpine Black

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Tamam Shud: the Bobbington Theory

The recent and rancorous case of Russian spies (in fact double-agents) poisoned in the United Kingdom stirs recollections of one of the most mysterious cases of all, that of the so-called Somerton Man, who was found dead on a beach in Adelaide, Australia, in 1948. It is widely believed - though this is far from established - to be an instance of a spy murdered by poison in the context of Russian/Western intrigues. As of this date, May 2018, it remains entirely unsolved with the identity of the deceased, precise cause of death and background to the incident all perfectly opaque. Many formidable minds have tackled the mystery to no avail and it is not likely to be resolved any time soon.

The body of an unidentified man was found propped against the retaining wall on Somerton beach, Adelaide, at approximately 6.45am, 1st December 1948. The man had no wallet and all the name tags of his clothes had been removed. There was no sign of violence or of a struggle and no obvious cause of death. He was a strong, athletic man with strongly developed legs but hands showing no signs of manual labour. His nationality is unknown but many reports - though these are questionable - described him as having an eastern European appearance. He was carrying cigarettes, (with a half-smoked cigarette resting on his collar and another cigarette behind his ear), a comb, an unused train ticket and a bus ticket.  The first police reports suspected suicide.

All subsequent attempts to identify him failed. He matched no missing person, either in Australia, Britain, the United States or Europe. The police made an extensive search. An autopsy determined that he had almost certainly been poisoned, but the poison had dissolved and could not be ascertained. (An inquest decades later concluded it was "probably" digitalis.) The mystery deepened further when he was connected to an unclaimed suit case at the bus station where he had bought the ticket, and even further when a more extensive examination of his clothing discovered a hidden 'fob' pocket in which there was a slip of paper bearing the words 'Tamam Shud'. This latter item became the distinguishing point of the case. Thus indeed is the unidentified man sometimes named 'Tamam Shud' since his real name is unknown. 

It was then established that 'Tamam Shud' were the concluding (Persian) words of Omar Khyyam's collection of quatrains, the Rubaiyat. The words mean 'The End' or 'It is Finished'. This again might suggest suicide, except some evidence in the case points in other directions. A common theory - almost entirely conjecture - is that the man in question was a spy involved in post-war subterfuge possibly involving British rocket and weapon tests at a South Australian air base and that secrets were being passed via coded messages using the Rubaiyat. A web of evidence suggests there is more to the case than meets the eye, but the whole matter is far from clear. It became even more opaque when the copy of the Rubaiyat from which the words 'Tamam Shud' had been torn was handed to the police. The book had been tossed into the back seat of a car parked at Somerton beach. A code (of sorts) was found lightly pencilled in the back. It has never been 'cracked'. It is as follows: 

There was, moreover, a phone number pencilled in the back of the book as well, and it was found to belong to a woman who lived less than a mile from where the man was found. The woman in question told police she knew nothing of the man, but strangely she did admit to having given a copy of the Rubaiyat to a lover years before. This lead went cold when that lover was found to be alive and well and living in Sydney and was able to produce the said copy of the Rubaiyat. All the same, the fact remains that the deceased can be positively connected to the woman by her phone number. Why did a man who died on a beach less than a mile from her house have her phone number in a discarded copy of the Rubaiyat along with what appears to be a sequence of coded letters? 

This is the crux of it and such questions make it a tantalizing mystery. It is not our purpose here to rehearse all the details of the case, unusually fascinating though they are. The full details and lists of all the sundry 'clues' are commonly available at numerous websites, in the relevant wikipedia articles as well is in the following short video:

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Instead, in this post we merely want to give some credit to an early but largely forgotten theory - that of a Mr Bobbington - regarding the meaning of the 'coded' letters cited above. Many ingenious theories have been formulated to explain the death and many solutions to the code - some of them quite fanciful - have been proposed. Speculation has been so rife it can be hard, indeed, to find a sober point of view. Since there are so few certainties in the case it has become awash with wild theories. The nature of the 'code' is no exception. The best code crackers in the world have not been able to shed much light upon it: this invites cranks and conspiracy theorists peddling all manner of bizarre proposals.

The Bobbington theory, however, is altogether sedate and has numerous virtues. It is worth revisiting. It was offered in the years following the discovery of the deceased but has since been obscured by a host of more flamboyant proposals. Mr Bobbington is described in an article in the Daily Mail newspaper from shortly after the case came to wide public interest as "an expert on Omar Khyyam..." who believed that the Rubaiyat itself provided the answers to the mystery. This strikes the present writer as not an unreasonable likelihood, and since no other theories have proved sustainable Mr Bobbington's solution deserves some fresh attention.

Here is the relevant newspaper article in which the Bobbington theory first appeared:

Mr Bobbington favours a suicide scenario rather than something more nefarious as the cause of death. In fact, he proposes that the Somerton Man may have "willed himself to death" in the same manner as the pessimistic Persian poet. The arguments for suicide are less sensational than the arguments for espionage and murder but are substantial. As already noted, the first police reports after the body was discovered suggested it was a case of suicide. The crux of a suicide scenario is that the Somerton Man was yet another lover of the woman who lived nearby the beach and that she had given him a copy of the Rubaiyat as well. (The theme of Omar Khyyam, let us recall, is life is short and sad, so live well and enjoy.) In this scenario the Somerton Man arrived in Adelaide to visit her but found her living with another man. Heartbroken, he ended it all on Somerton Beach. 

The one thing about which expert codebreakers agree concerning the mysterious letters in the back of the Rubaiyat is that they are almost certainly acrostics, which is to say each letter is the first letter of a word. They are not encryptions as such. They do not conform to the patterns of any known type of code. Too few proposed solutions take account of this. Mr Bobbington, however, proposes - not unreasonably - that the letters are mnemonic acrostics for a verse (a rubaiyat) that the dead man himself composed as a type of suicide note. It is a proposal that has the virtue of at least being contextual. There is no need to introduce Russian spies and British rockets; we merely need to note that the letters are found at the back of a copy of Omar Khayyam and so to consider it likely that the letters have to do with the poems of the book. It was very common, in fact, for enthusiasts of Omar Khyyam to invent new verses - it is a feature of the genre - and this is what Mr Bobbington (a Khyyam expert who was fully aware of this fact) proposes the heartbroken lover to have done. He then provides a possible reconstruction of the new verse, made in Khyyam's manner:

My road goes on
And day after blighted day
My tortured brain is madly planning
A woeful end to play

My life is a burden, Omar
And I am quite convinced
I'II take today my troubled soul
And mortal sins to God, A. B. 

One of the neat features of the Bobbington proposal is that he explains the 'x' that appears above the letter O in the 'code'. He concludes that it stands for 'Omar', the legendary poet himself. Assuredly, there is - and will ever remain - too little to go on for this to be confirmed, but it does provide a good example of what the letters might mean in the context. Modern readers can hardly take account of just what a following, and what place in romance, the Rubaiyat (popularized through Fitzgerald's translation) had in people's hearts back then. No one reads Omar Khyyam anymore. It is therefore hard to give a proper account of its significance in this case. When readers investigate the case further, however - if they are willing to put aside the more salacious espionage scenarios - they will find that the Bobbington theory is as good a solution as has yet been proposed and indeed is better than most.

Yours, Harper McAlpine Black

Friday, 27 April 2018

Vintage Daughter - a little shop in Malacca

With such an illustrious colonial history – Portuguese, Dutch, British – and a host of ethnic syntheses – Chinese, Malay, Arabic – Malacca, a city at the crossroads of east and west, is understandably rich in antiques. The centre of the old city, Jonker Street, is rightly famous for small vintage stores that very commonly are also cafes. Here you can find a myriad of old oddments and collectables, in some instances going back centuries. The city has been a bridge between cultures since well before the times Europeans ventured to south-east Asia in pursuit of spices and trade. It remains so today: it features as a trading hub in modern China’s plans for a new maritime ‘silk road’. Tourism, of course, brings its own degradations, as always - and so will Chinese money - but the spirit of the old city (one of the great historic cities of the world) still lives in the little shops in the laneways and ‘jalans’ away from the tourist traps. There are treasures to be found and bargains to be had.

One of the true delights waiting to be discovered is a café/collectables upcycle shop called ‘Vintage Daughter’. It is run by a Miss Ling and her family, with her father doing the cooking. It is the best of its type. It is a welcome journey into another time and another world. The pictures on this page are all of Miss Ling's cafe. It is a capsule of old Malacca - not the Malaccan heritage dressed up for the tourists, but genuine old homewares and bits and pieces of an authentic past. 

The Chinese came to these parts beginning in the Xth century, but arrived in numbers in the XVth to XVIIth centuries. Those that settled became known as ‘Peranakan’ (perra – na – kan) and developed a distinctive language, cuisine and culture. They prospered, especially, by becoming intermediaries between the colonial rulers and the local Malays. In particular, they found common cause with the British and Peranakan culture was Anglocized up until the arrival of the Japanese during WW2 and Malaysian independence thereafter. The British, of course, imported the paraphernalia of British culture wholesale – books, furniture, artifacts, household items, all the trappings of the mother country. These are now floating around in the secondhand trade; beautiful items of the British colonial era, along with their imitations. The Chinese (Peranakan), too, devoted their prosperity to items of fine taste and domestic leisure. Malaysian independence (and Islamic ascendancy), along with the pervasive tastelessness of later modernity, has brought much of that rich past to a close, and so stores are replete with Chinese odds and ends as well. Miss Ling loves to surround herself with all of this nostalgia. You can immerse yourself in her café and listen to jazz and The Girl from Ipanema and enjoy cups of thick, dark black nanyang kopi.

The past has a warmth that nourishes in a way that the shiny new cannot. (This is a theme of 'Out of Phase', after all.) Nostalgia is not an empty sentimentality. It is a positive commitment to continuity, heritage and ancestry. It is funny, is it not?, how places such as these attract Bohemians who otherwise shun conservative creeds. It is the same in Australia from whence comes the present author - leftist radicals congregate around the 'heritage' regions, buy old homes and collect antiques. (Conversely, so-called 'conservatives' fund and cheer the bulldozers that wipe away the past to replace it with shopping malls of steel and glass and crass Americana. Such are the paradoxes of our political divides.) 

We need hardly mention that family and ancestors are essential Chinese values. 'Vintage Daughter' is a family business in the richest and most immediate sense. The deep presence of a past when life was full of fine things - even when life was comparatively poor and hard - is everywhere. This is, of course, the meaning of 'upcycle'. What the shallow modernist would cast away as junk has been rescued and restored to a present virtue. This is very much the philosophy of the store. Miss Ling has ventured into the commercial worlds of Perth (Australia) - she studied media at Murdoch University - and the brash hurly burly of Kuala Lumpur, but she prefers (by philosophy and temperament) the quiet creativity of Malacca. It is her home, but she is inspired by its historical soul. This is reflected in the way she photographs all the items in her store. The photographs are, firstly, to record the items as they come in and to put them up for sale on-line, but they are also small works of art in themselves. Most of the photos on this present page are hers. (This post is as much about her photographs as about her cafe.) 

There is intellectual nourishment, as well as the warmth of pre-loved things. 'Vintage Daughter' features a wide selection of old books, most of them in English or Chinese. There are a lot of textbooks whose only value now is their age, but there are also some lost treasures to be found by dedicated bibliophiles:

And you can smoke! (Malacca is yet to succumb to the puritanism that has blighted the West, although UNESCO ties its 'World Heritage' funding to smoking bans in cities such as this. In Georgetown, up the Malacca Straits from here, UNESCO has made it a condition of funding that citizens of the town are to be forbidden from smoking not only on the streets and in the cafes, but in their own homes!!) 

And then there is the food. Beautiful food, presented beautifully on beautiful crockery with beautiful utensils. It is a small family cafe with a limited menu located on Jalan Bunga Raya - around the corner from Little India, not on the main paths of the tourist trade - but the charming Miss Ling gives perfect attention to every element of her presentation. 

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Photographs of photographs. The store features an extensive collection of old photographs (and maps too!) 

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Harper McAlpine Black