Alexander Adams: What is Critical Theory and Why Should I Care?

Alexander Adams

“Was Lt Columbo’s name really Frank? We’ve all seen the freeze-frame close-ups of Columbo’s ID badge which states that his first name is ‘Frank”. But should we consider this canonical?”

I’m becoming more and more confused by this ‘canonical’ business. The above is from Columbophile website. I love his joke about the Jewish lady who was walking down the street when she met a flasher. He whipped open his raincoat and she bent down to have a closer look. ‘Huh!’, she said. ‘Call that a lining?’

At Browse and Darby on Cork Street for a small show of paintings called Off the Radar selected by William Packer. Some of these artists I remember from the Royal College. Leonard Rosoman was supposed to be my personal tutor. He is represented here by a rather good portrait of Jamie Scott. During his time as my tutor he never spoke a word to me. I asked Cyril Reason, another tutor, about this and he explained that Leonard was frightened of me. Jean Cooke I also remember. She was a nice woman but suffered from John Bratby. The only thing I remember her saying is “Ooh mi cystitis is really killing me this morning”. Her picture Up the road and pigeon die is worth a look.

Deep in the bowels of the Sainsbury wing at the NG is an exhibition of the work of Mantegna and Bellini. The Venetian Bellini was one of the earliest artists to use landscape as an important ingredient of a picture and he did it in a less ‘wooden’ style than heretofore. The Paduan Mantegna was married to Bellini’s sister so they were kind of rivals. Mantegna was rather more formally and classically inclined, best known for his Triumph of Caesar. It’s good to see this series again, and illuminated much better than they were recently at the Royal Academy.

The Feast of the Gods by Bellini is a good example of the way artists used to collaborate. It was touched up later by Titian, and then Dosso Dossi. The Assassination of St Peter Martyr, which is in the National Gallery, demonstrates the importance landscape held for him, about two thirds of it being taken up by a forest. The Drunkenness of Noah, also by Bellini, shows a near naked Noah sprawled out with three attendant figures. The central one behind him has a facial expression of slavering lechery, similar to that of the chief skinner in Ribera’s St Bartholemew, but more of that later.

Bellini made a copy of Mantegna’s Presentation of Christ in the Temple. He did it from a tracing. What they did to babies in those days was extraordinary. The baby here being proffered to the priests is wrapped up tightly in white bandages and apart from the head would have been unable to move. It’s a wonder they didn’t gag it for good measure. Is this what’s meant by swaddling? Minerva expelling the vices from the Temple of Virtue by Mantegna is interesting mainly for his depiction of the vices. There’s a wonderful fat one in the bottom right corner.

The drawings are very interesting, especially Mantegna’s Virtus Combusta. The description of it in the catalogue is delicious: ‘Pen and brown ink and point of the brush on a brown ground, heightened with white, the black background over red on paper.” Poetry. Blindfolded Virtue is being led to a pitfall by sundry malefactors. There are many other beautiful drawings. The Virgin and Child with Angel by Mantegna – tonally exquisite.

There’s a priest in these parts who wanders around in a floor-length cassock, with a squarish hat and a pimple on top. He’s very furtive looking with a purplish complexion, and terribly thin. An obvious self-flagellant and wearer of the barbed wire garter. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s got hairy palms. The other day he was bending down to talk to a small boy and I felt like Alfred Hitchcock who, upon witnessing a similar scene, wound down the window of his limo and shouted “Run! Run little boy! Run for your life!”

“We have seen in our times men sent to the flames or the hangman’s hands on the grounds of their rejecting the holy word of god as the prelates interpret it. These prelates have lifted up their eyes as they were swooning with joy at the salvation of the sinner, though deeply regretting the agony inflicted. They love the pain of others for in it their own power is made manifest. It’s the one thing that man wants. Not knowledge, not virtue, but power.” So wrote Machiavelli. Some of the horrors of the life religious are on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in a show of paintings by José Ribera.

One of the chief horrors (still common in the Middle East) is the strappado. The miscreant has his hands pinioned behind his back and is hoisted by the wrists, sometimes to a great height. Occasionally they would be suddenly jerked down a bit, just for jolly. The arms would steadily assume a vertical position as shoulder dislocation advanced. At what point death would ensue is uncertain. Perhaps they did them a favour and let them drop. Still it was for their own good, to protect them from eternal damnation in the fiery pits.

Ribera was also preoccupied by the gruesome fate of St Bartholemew, who was flayed alive. There are several versions of this theme but the best is in the first room. Unfortunately it has been covered fairly recently in high-gloss varnish, which renders close scrutiny impossible. You have to stand well back to avoid the glare. There are many ways to varnish a picture and many different varnishes – you can even get a matt one. The one they’ve used here is most unfortunate. But it is a great picture.

The chief skinner is shown sharpening his tool with a look of enormous relish, almost lechery, and this motif recurs in all the other versions. Most of the pictures in this show are to do with inflicting pain. St Peter was crucified upside down and Ribera went to great lengths to figure out how this was achieved. Not easy. The base of the cross is notched and morticed to allow the passage of the ropes attached to the ankles of the unworthy saint before he was hauled up and planted head down. It looks like his head would have been fairly close to the ground so bystanders must have been tempted to give him a good kicking, or maybe not as this would have shortened the agony.

Writing about pictures with such enormously powerful subject matter is a difficult business. I suppose you can consider Caravaggio in aesthetic or compositional terms, but not these. And for a religious person they must be something else altogether; they are after all devotional items. Perhaps to get inside Ribera you have to go to the drawings, many of which are on display here. It seems clear that the sadistic tendency was there all along, it was inherent in Ribera’s make-up and he managed to harness it to religiosity.

Regular readers will be aware of my friend Mistress Trish, who runs a dungeon down in Warren Street. It might be a good idea to take her along to Dulwich to give her a few new ideas. She’s got a houseboat and one of her clients has been enquiring about keelhauling. I advised her against it, for that way madness lies … and quite a bit of trouble. I recommended she stick with walking the plank.

Like the universe the cosmic conceit of the art trade is expanding forever. Some of us thought that the gravity of logic or aesthetic sensibility would somehow cause it to slow down and contract, but no such luck. There must be some weird dark matter involved. The joke persists, as can be seen at Tate Bankside.

“I’ve suffered for my art, and now it’s your turn!” could well be the motto of the artist responsible for the new display in the Boiler Room. There’s absolutely nothing in it until you get to the bottom of the ramp. There, gangs of schoolchildren are cavorting on the floor, which has been laid with some sort of heat sensitive tiles reacting to foot or body pressure, leaving a mark behind. Off to one side is a smallish room to which you are admitted after having your hand stamped with a long number. Inside it’s like a Turkish bath but the steam is something akin to a mixture of menthol eucalyptus vapour which promotes the tears you should shed for the plight of refugees. I felt like erecting a large sign reading “Art is not Elastoplast”.

Oh, just one more thing. I popped into the National Portrait Gallery to see the BP prize. A little man told me it had finished the previous week. “You’ll have to go to Wolverhampton,” he quipped.