Monday, February 28, 2011

On Not Writing

Why do some people write? Because they lack the character not to write.

(Karl Kraus)

We're reduced to cliche, as well as rubble.


Not long ago I came into the possession of a guide to Lombardy and Piedmont dating back to 1914. It’s a book that interests me for a number of reasons, but I was especially delighted by the old maps of my hometown, drawn in the distinctive and attractive style of the Touring Club Italiano publications. Looking for familiar haunts, I came across the road in which my father spent all of his working life, and found a river running through it.

I knew this, of course: the blue line at the top is a tract of the fossa interna (‘inner ditch’), one of the city’s many historical canals, which was paved over in 1930 to aid the circulation of cars. What gives this a degree of personal significance is that my father always referred to the intersection between Corso di Porta Romana and via Santa Sofia as il ponte (‘the bridge’), including when he had to give directions to unsuspecting and soon to be puzzled motorists, and regardless of the fact that by the time he was born the bridge had already been removed, the waterway covered. But there they are.

I could write about this today, as I planned to: continue scanning that map, of Milan before two world wars and, which in the second brought extensive Allied bombings; of Milan before the economic miracle, and even longer before the terminal decline of its manufacturing industry. I could write about this, recycling some of the things that I learned from Owen Hatherley’s latest book, and it would be what you have come to expect of me. But I won’t. And not just because my mind has been elsewhere. Although mostly yes, that’s in fact exactly why.


The always thoughtful George D remarked in the comments to last week’s post (on slowness) that he often finds the rhythm of this blog too fast.
You say something, I chew it over, see if there's anything to digest, and it's Monday again.

I think he might have partly been referring to how each new post effectively curtails the discussion of the previous one, but I am quite sensitive to his argument generally, and aware of the contradiction between my occasional appeals to slow, considerate, economical writing and the fact that, while I don’t post terribly often compared to most bloggers, I do so ponderously, and over time it builds up to quite a lot of words and commentary. In fact it’s secretly how I like it: the pretence of slow blogging, and the space to write regularly and at length on the topics that interest me. I couldn’t get you to read the book, but somehow enough people come back every week to make it worth my while and feed my slightly obsessive habit.

And it really is habit-forming, this discipline of mine: forty-seven essay-length posts a year, on most Mondays. I will spare you the sprezzatura: it takes effort, as well as being an occupation that I really have no business finding the time for. But writing is also about cultivating a separate identity, and so I have started to see myself, over time, as something of a commentator. I could temper the immodesty if it was that kind of post, but it isn’t and I won’t: suffice to say that I find myself with this public voice and with it comes the opportunity to put certain thoughts into words but also something of a sense of duty to the moment that I think is in fact quite commonly felt amongst people in charge of tiny corners of the Web such as this one, and not entirely displaced. We say so much by the things we don’t talk about.

And so on this particular Monday I ought to be writing about Christchurch, if I was writing at all. I can readily dispense in my head with some of the objections. It’s too early. But I wrote about L’Aquila one week after it happened. Haiti, too. You weren’t there. But neither was Emily Perkins, nor was Jolisa Gracewood last September. You wouldn’t know what to say. Oh, I think I could, I have nothing but words. It’s just that they don’t measure up. So much has been written already for us to be in equal parts upset and comforted by. How do I add to that, without also taking something away?

There were the tweets on the Tuesday afternoon, which ought to become a book some day and it would make you cry every time; there was the report that David Haywood composed the next morning at 2 am on his phone for The Guardian; there were the despatches at Public Address, mixed in with enquiries concerning the welfare of the members of the forum; there was Press music reporter Vicky Anderson, writing from the heart of the newsroom that was shaken so badly but still managed to go to print the next day, and every day since; there was the wonderful post that Emma Hart wrote as soon as the power came back in her house (‘reputation for staunchness possibly fucked forever’ – I really don’t think so); then Emily Perkins, also for The Guardian, telling the Brits about our roll of grief (Napier, Tangiwai, the Wahine, Mount Erebus: ‘people still tell these stories, and the names hold a stony, grave power’); Zara Potts (‘The park is full of people, looking at the broken skyline as the earth beneath their feet turns to liquid mud.’); Kip Brook, whose second account is possibly more harrowing than the first (‘Most of us don’t watch tv any more here, it’s too difficult and doesn’t help us cope. People from afar don’t see the full picture on tv’). Philip Matthews, three days later and then again five and six, pausing only to document the echoes in Tim Wilson’s latest novel; and the poetry of Johanna Aitcheson and Craig Cliff, and Mary McCallum and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman – the last one perhaps most of all, with his lovely tribute to Tetaki Tairakena.

For the past week we have been hanging on to these words, trying to fill our days with the voices of those who could help us understand, so that we could in turn better express our solidarity – a point made very eloquently again by Emma Hart in a Radio New Zealand interview with Lynn Freeman.
It’s partly about passing on solid information to the people of Christchurch and partly conveying how we feel to people in other cities so that they can feel in touch with us – and to give them an outlet too to say: "Look, we’re feeling for you," because that does help.
And then there are those who haven't written yet, although it is expected of them, and their silence too deserves our attention. It is heavy, like a long pause or intake of breath. It keeps us waiting, and holding off.


That was the first week. On Tuesday at 12.51pm we’ll observe two minutes of silence, and then gradually things will change as the larger community undertakes the work of reflecting critically on what happened and what is to be done. In fact it has already begun: Rod Oram for instance has written about the reconstruction, Russell Brown about the work of the media. Theirs too are carefully weighed words that signal the difficult switch into a new and necessary phase. I just don’t feel, at this point, that I could add to them either. Not yet. And so you’ll forgive me this non-post, which perhaps would be best left unpublished, except for one thing: the majority of my regular readers these days hail from overseas, and their attention has been pulled no doubt in other directions this past week – towards Libya, for one. Those voices and those writings may be useful to them, and besides they might not be aware of just how hard we have been hit. For that, I’m afraid, we also have pictures. This set, from the Boston Globe Big Picture section (how different that regularly visited page feels, when they report on your own country!), the before and after photos from the ground and from the air, and – if you’re on Facebook – this heartrending set by Brian Neller. It is every bit as bad as it looks. And if you’re under the misapprehension that we’re a rich nation and we’ll pull through, well, that may be true, in relative terms, but the costs will be staggering and we really could use the help.

So here is how you donate. The New Zealand Government has set up a global appeal, or you can give to the Red Cross (both via credit card). If you can do wire transfers, Women’s Refuge and the Maritime Union Fund are both worthy recipients, and the Wilding Foundation is the way to go if you prefer to use Paypal. Thank you.

Update: One of the 'expected people' I alluded to in the post, Cheryl Bernstein, has written, and it's a truly wonderful and moving piece.
Update 2: One more sensational post each by Cheryl and Philip.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Slow Time

Tom claimed that one book was enough to last a lifetime anyway, especially if you read it in the special way.
‘What do you mean?’ I’d asked him. ‘What special way?’
‘One word a day,’ he’d answer.

(Jeff Noon, ‘Crawl Town’)

Leaving the village behind, we followed the heady sweeps of the road up into a land of slow glass.

(Bob Shaw, ‘Light of Other Days’)

Imagine a sheet of glass the thickness of an ordinary window pane, except it has been engineered at a molecular level so that light takes a very long time to go through it – a staggering ten years, to be precise. When it comes out of the factory, the sheet is jet black. Then it is placed in a scenic spot somewhere in the Scottish highlands, and left there for the requisite ten years. Finally, when the time is up, an image appears of that landscape, by now ten years old, in the same way that the light of faraway stars belongs to the past even as it reaches us in the present.

Now imagine that you buy this sheet of glass and put it in your city apartment, in place of one of your regular windows, so that you can look out on that awe-inspiring northern landscape instead of the buildings on the other side of the street. This isn’t a still picture, but an actual view, with depth and movement and the cycles of day and night and of the seasons.

This scientific advance in nanotechnology is the premise of a very well-known short story by Irish author Bob Shaw, 'Light of Other Days', that was originally published in 1966. Slow glass is introduced here to the reader as a premium consumer product, designed not to relive the past but rather to improve on drab urban aesthetic, although Shaw turns this premise into a poignant story of personal loss.

(I won’t go into the details of that quite yet, except to say that the story contains at least one wonderfully poetic image, of the cleaners that come out at night where the glass is being farmed to polish the windows without making an impression in it.)

I’m interested however in what happens after the ten years is up, an aspect that is not directly addressed in the story. At this time the image will change into the regular view of the street outside your apartment, except ten years ago to the day. And if somebody were to look through that same window from one of the houses across the street, they would see the inside of your apartment not as it is, but as it was. My question is: what would you do? Would you swap that window for one of regular glass? Order another landscape, whether Scottish or otherwise? Or carry on with a window that keeps the wrong time?

In The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand suggests another thought experiment for changing one’s perspective on temporality: from now on instead of writing the year in dates using four digits, try using five. Until the year ten thousand, this will mean adding a leading zero: nineteen ninety-nine becomes 01999, two thousand and eleven becomes 02011 and so forth. Aiming as he did to convince technologists to take a longer view, Brand addressed the suggestion to computer programmers, but there’s no reason why it should be limited to them. In his provocative pamphlet on the death of cinema, Paolo Cherchi Usai employed the same notation as an ironic device against those who assume that the films from the first century of the life of cinema will be around three hundred years from now, let alone eight thousand.

Slow time, a long now: phrases that seem designed to negate the possibility of progressive change, let alone revolution. Were I to try to rescue slowness from this negative association, I could start form the Kunderian idea that slowness is essential to memory – and memory, I contend, is central in turn to any political project that aspires to be democratic. Kundera again, in a different book: ‘the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting’. Which is another way of saying that memory is anti-totalitarian. But is it necessarily progressive? Doesn’t the preservation of culture – an interest of both Brand and Cherchi Usai’s – connect at some level to conservatism and, conversely, aren’t revolutionary movements at least partly predicated on the erasure of traditions and modes of knowledge that underlie the power structures they seek to overthrow?

I’m no accelerationist, but I cannot deny that there is a tension there. Nor am I unaware that an appeal to slowness at this particular historical time – after Tunisia and Egypt, and whilst the Lybian forces fire rockets at the demonstrators in Bengasi – has uncomfortable echoes with the ritualistic and appalling calls for ‘restraint’ by world leaders who don’t mind repression so long as it isn’t bloody to an unsightly extent.

So, how do you advocate decelerationism, and still claim to be interested in radical political change? I would put forward that we need to do both, slow down the juggernaut of Capital that is running down the clock on the planet and construct alternative futures that are both more equitable and more sustainable. (The latter in particular is a word that urgently needs to be reclaimed from bourgeois environmentalists and injected with far more radical meaning.) But yes, it is also, partly, about what ecologists call conservation, and not just with regard to the environment: indeed so much necessary political action is reactive, aimed at resisting change and the further narrowing of the range of available futures.

I want to keep those political connotations in the air, as it were, even as I argue for slowness in a medialogical sense, as a means of undercutting the fundamental bias of electronic media for the instantaneous and the atemporal. The Net is not only always on, always on the spot, always of the moment; it acts so fast as to make the concept of time itself meaningless. It enacts the perpetual present of postmodernity even in its hunger – that must not be mistaken for historicism – to document and catalogue absolutely everything. Here is a list of all the things that happened in 1964. And here is a list of all the things that happened on the 20th of February in history. Stripped of context, the paradoxical time signatures dictated by the wikilogic suggest that things don’t happen if not casually, or according to a perplexing, inhuman causation that one might as well seek to explain via astrology or numerology.

In the meantime, the world’s conversation continues apace. Twitter no longer allows you to plug into the raw feed without choosing a topic, but pick any of the trending ones and see how fast it ticks over – faster than human eyes could possibly keep up with. Instant worldwide communication has been fetishised to such an unseemly extent that one might legitimately ask: if a Middle Eastern dictatorship fell and nobody in the West was there to hear it, would it make a sound? But it would be equally stupid to deny its value in facilitating organization on the ground and allowing voices to filter out from the sites of totalitarian repression. Yet what the worldwide conversation still predominantly consists of is the sum of inanities. My inanities, which are interesting to me and presumably to the people who choose to ‘follow’ me, and yours and hers and everybody else’s. It makes no sense to call it a conversation and complain that an individual couldn’t keep up with it any more than it makes sense to call the Internet a text and then presume that a single person ought to be able to read it. Furthermore: complaining that it is too fast could well imply that I would like others to stop talking, so that I can be heard.

All of which is fair enough. Still, I do actually practice at least a little bit of what I preach, in that I limit myself to one tweet per day (although I will sometimes respond to follow ups and I took a little holiday from that rule during the last soccer world cup). This partly in recognition of how addicted I could become to Twitter if I made textbook use of it, but also out of interest in the kind of texts that could be produced in such small increments and also, initially, in a vacuum (since I don’t follow anybody so until I got my first follower I was effectively writing into the void. It would in fact be even more perverse to not follow anybody and protect one’s tweets: that would be the proper way of ensuring that you talk only to an audience of subroutines). But I think there is also some value in being temporally contrarian in order to evaluate that imperative to find out what’s happening right now and what right now actually does to our capacity for critical thought.

Slowing down one’s writing as well as one’s reading can assist in this. It’s in that spirit, as well as to answer an entirely practical question regarding how could I possibly find the time to read or reread certain works of literature, that a little over a year ago I started the Slow Dante Reading Project, in which I aim to read (and copy) the Divine Comedy at the speed of one tercet per day. Twitter offered the ideal platform for such a project for the reasons outlined above and also in that each triplet of eleven-syllable lines of Dante’s terza rima is guaranteed to come under 140 characters (whilst the Longfellow translation sloppily exceeds this from time to time). At the outset I estimated a date of completion of February 18, 2023, based on the number of tercets and speculating that I might forget or be unable to post from time to time but that it would be balanced by the occasional double daily dose when a tercet runs into the one that follows it. I’m more or less on track for that, although it remains a decidedly optimistic time frame. Will I still be around in 2023? Will Twitter? More to the point: will I lose interest?

As an exercise, it has been uneven thus far. There are days when I look forward to the next tercet, and days when frankly it’s just a chore; days when the neurotic narrowing of attention on the allotted three lines appears to actually enhance my appreciation of the poem, and others when the enforced fitfulness makes the difficult passages even harder to follow, and the effect drags on from day to day.

However I am less ambivalent about the value of other experiments that interfere with the smooth workings of the perpetual wired present: so not the cool mash-ups a-la How to Be a Retronaut or the brilliant poster art of Sean Hartter, which reinforce the pre-eminence of now and its capacity to subsume all that is past, nor the ubiquitous super slow-motion videos that dilate the workings of the physical world until they acquire some beauty and little in the way of meaning; but rather anachronistic tracks such as Samuel Pepys’ Twitter feed or the diary of the miners strike ‘replayed’ a quarter of a century later, the hauntological detritus of Found Objects, or Justin Bieber’s uncanny pop wail. Lately I’m finding particular inspiration in the almost-daily offerings of If We Don’t, Remember Me, in which cinematic quotation becomes a mesmerising art form and extreme economy of movement and expression is itself the thing that signifies. It’s a picture book that moves, a little, perplexing and at the same time illuminating, with its polished coolness and infinitesimal time loops. Each of these texts has its own rhythms, but they all call attention to their own complex dealings with time and create a reflexive space in which to think slowly.


In conclusion: what of slow glass? With native 3D displays around the corner, I think it would be easy to imagine it remediated electronically: it would after all be but an extension of the desktop wallpaper or the digital photo frame, with the added ability to change the landscape, or switch it on and off according to whim. But what it would lose in the bargain is the view from the outside in that leads to the moving denouement in Bob Shaw’s story, as the visitors discover that the mother and child they could see through the window of the salesman’s cottage in the Scottish Highlands have been dead for some years, and what’s left of them is a likeness slowly seeping out of the glass. What would be lost, in other words, is the very thing that undermines the digital fantasy of absolute control over time, that we can exorcise its ghosts and recycle it into a commodity.

People interested in reading somebody who can actually write about politics are encouraged to read this extremely acute piece by Benjamin Noys on acceleration vs. deceleration. I came to it with culpable lateness as I Googled "decelerationism" not an hour ago. Great stuff.

The snail clock image comes from here via here but that doesn't clarify its actual origin so if anybody knows and they could tell me I'd be grateful. Ta.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Toy Story

An ordinary piece of personal hauntology. I rediscovered this book on a trip home last year, and flicking through it I had one of those rare moments of recollection – not of the book itself, but rather of how I saw it as a small child.

Il mondo dei giocattoli (‘The World of Toys’) originally belonged to my sister, as far as we have been able to piece together, but seeing as she was nearly eight years old by the time it was published, the pre-literate pen marks on the first page must have been mine.

I find the scribbling over words as opposed to pictures fascinating in children, an early step in the understanding and mastering of those signs. However I don’t remember any of that, but rather how captivating, unsettling and deeply strange the illustrations by Guido Bertello were to me at the time. I remembered some of them so well upon rediscovering the book, I must have pored over them again and again all those years ago.

There were scary pictures.

Wonderful pictures that seemed to come to life in front of my eyes (I swear I could see those cars moving).

And pictures full of mystery and foreboding.

I also remember – at least I think I do – those blocks of texts as pictures, meaning nothing to me but still visually interesting and quite possibly magical. The memory of unknowing is very hard to manufacture: you can’t just look at the Latin alphabet as an adult and pretend you can’t see letters in it, even if the words are in a language you don’t understand. You could look by analogy at an entirely foreign script but then you’d still know how language works, the kinds of things it can mean, how it cannot jump from the page and directly influence the physical world. Whereas perhaps pre-literate children are all secret gnostics – I wonder about that sometimes.

So anyway what I did last year was read the book for the first time and no, it wasn’t magical. Quite uninspiring, actually, and hardly the kind of narrative that would captivate a child. The narrator and an unspecified group of children (including ‘you’) find themselves on a foreign planet inhabited solely by toys. Some peculiarly becalmed and disjointed adventures ensue as the party explores this world and its several communities – the animals, the dolls, the trains and so forth – each encounter giving the narrator an opportunity to educate the reader on the history of the toy in question. Did you know that the earliest clay horses on record date back to over 4,000 years ago? That sort of thing, followed by very generic descriptions of children having fun, notoriously one of the hardest things to do well in literature, and likely to pale in comparison with the actual memory of one’s own childhood play.

I don’t have many toys from back then, none in fact outside of a wooden train set on wheels. However I do remember some from a few years later, and I was surprised to spot them some time ago in the background of an old photograph. This one.

The best enlargement I can manage is rather grainy but it will have to do.

The crane, the ambulance, the traffic light – I loved them dearly, played with them constantly. Oh, and one more.

The garage! It had a little petrol pump, with a nozzle and a number display and everything. Is it a stage you go through when a toy has to be as exact a replica as possible, before you move on to more abstract forms? I look at our youngest now, manoeuvring cars on the floor or a wall, his cheek pressed against the surface so that he can watch it up close and it will seem real. I remember this.

I liked dolls, too, but mostly what I liked about them was the minute detail of the accessories. I had a little caravan (or was it my sister’s?) that you could open and inside it had furniture and everything. Il mondo dei giocattoli mentions dollhouses and makes the point that they also served the purpose of educating the future ladies of the house as to the proper place of things, of the order that they themselves would some day be in charge of safeguarding. And perhaps in that exactness of toys there is an element of control, the desire of mastery over the physical world and other beings.


My family and I saw an exhibition in Rome many years ago on the funerary furnishings of Crepereia Tryphaena, an aristocrat who died at the age of 20 and was buried alongside an ivory doll with jointed legs and arms, a proper ancient Barbie.

It was the custom at the time for upper class women to sacrifice their doll to Venus before their wedding, as if to relinquish their childhood and control over the puppet-self. Crepereia didn’t have time to go through with that particular self-effacing ritual, and being buried with the doll at once signalled and crystallised her person status – still a child – at the time of her death.


Nowadays you can go on collecting toys well into adulthood but their meaning shifts somewhat. They are no longer objects of play, or if they are – for instance in the case of indoor plane or Scalextric enthusiasts – it’s serious play, with trophies and rules and competitions and governing bodies, because adult play in order to be socially acceptable must be highly normated, or have financial incentives (if you’re a collector), or resemble work (if you’re a builder of scale models).

Which is not to say that adult play is joyless, or that childhood play isn’t serious. But there is a mystery in the latter, a strangeness that is so very hard to recapture, and that I can or think that I can recall a glimpse, the flavour of it, looking at the illustrations of Il mondo dei giocattoli: where what I see aren’t just toys – resembling things, standing for things, at various levels of abstraction – but also something that is animated, that I can control and yet controls me. At first you just push the miniaturised car, your cheek firmly against the ground, but soon the car starts pulling you, to the places where it simply must go, obeying rules that are outside of you both. Thus the image from Il mondo dei giocattoli that has been seared in my memory all these years, more than any other.

A smiling Harlequin hovering above a green ‘Mondial Car’, neither of them just supposed to sit there, both purportedly needing human hands to be brought to life, yet don’t they also contain their own stories – the fast car, the cheeky puppet? And so perhaps the ghost in the toy is the servo-mechanism that guides our fictions and binds our imaginations, the invisible pattern of all childhood play, everywhere. Perhaps we know from a tender age that we play as much as we are played with.


In the two previous posts on the latest Toy Story I chose not to go into the detail of the incinerator sequence, but I think we’re safely past the spoiler stage now, and I want to comment briefly on what makes it so unusual and why it may be relevant.

In the sequence, having miraculously escaped a garbage shredder, Woody and his companions find themselves facing death by fire, their predicament seemingly hopeless. But that is not the unlikely part. Indeed, eventual safety comes by means of the kind of deus-ex-machina device that a child could readily come up with, and likely would. No, the reason why we find ourselves wrong-footed here is that we are allowed to contemplate for so long the annihilation of our heroes, and they their own. It’s like one of those impossibly long falling scenes (indeed, it is a falling scene). It violates the laws of genre, making you look around the theatre to see how others are reacting. When you turn back to the screen, you find that the characters themselves have ceased to seek a way out, resolving instead to hold hands as they descend resignedly into the fiery maelstrom. And I’d submit that this violates also the rules of play, where you’re allowed to evoke death, but not to sustain its gaze. They stare at each other, and into the camera, at the void.

For a whole fifty seconds, a cinematic eternity, enough to allow the tiniest doubt to creep in that it may all go wrong after all, the way a children’s movie is not supposed to, and a childhood game never could.

Maria Rumi. Il mondo dei giocattoli. Milano: Mondadori, 1969. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

European Monsters

It begins with the image of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, aged 37, resting languidly and almost casually onto a sofa of ancient marble. The setting is the Roman countryside, ca. 1786. Next to the great poet, the broken fragment of a bas-relief is artfully covered in fruit-bearing vines. Johann Tischbein has painted this. Then some time in the 1840s the portrait comes into the possession of the Rothschild family, who in 1878 donate it to the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, in time for the opening of its new building. The museum in turn had been founded following a bequest by Frankfurt banker, merchant and prominent art collector Johann Friedrich Städel back in 1817.

Art and capital amongst the ruins: this is Europe. The story of how the painting came to be, how it was bought and sold, and where it ended up – in the principal art gallery of one of the financial nerve centres of the continent – is a European story. And the European Masters touring exhibition, comprising 96 works by 70 artists from the Städel collection, is an impressive art history sampler, covering all the key movements – which conveniently are also the only ones deemed worthy of committing to memory – of the 19th and 20th century, from neoclassicism and romanticism to expressionism and modernism; but it is also, and much more compellingly, a series of windows on history, as if the visitor were sitting on a train that travels through time, contemplating at first nature and civility and the wonders of light and impression, later a progressively darker, more disjointed and suffocating landscape as the train pulls into the final station that is World War II. Apocalypse the first, the end of that world: at once the peak of European influence on planetary destinies and the time of its bloody Fall.

Seeking to find in the likes of Tischbein’s landscape with German poet a presage of the eventual rise of Fascism is a deeply instrumental reading, but also one that is underscored by the museum’s own historical circumstances, highlighted in the exhibition’s literature for the benefit of the visitor: more specifically, its closure and the confiscation on the part of the Nazis of a number of its holdings, many of which were made to embark in another, far more sinister touring exhibition so that they could demonstrate to the public the un-value of degenerate art. And the chosen time span gives yet more impetus to the teleology: for if the Goethe portrait is the earliest painting on display, the latest is Beckmann’s Frankfurt Main Station of 1943, as if to say that the train ride is by now something more than a metaphor, and that there is no future at the end of the line. The journey, then, links the great writer and high mark of pan-European culture – bridging the glories of Europe’s pre-Christian humanism to its enlightened, secular present – with the inexorable progress towards madness and mass murder, which reaches its destination with the punctuality of a train schedule.

The extent in which the art of these two centuries holds up a mirror to the fall of Europe or is itself a symptom of it becomes a further cause for imaginative reflection. What is it that so fascinated Anselm Feuerbach and his contemporaries with figures of patrician Roman ladies at a time of upheaval and revolution? Conversely, where is the art that responds to these great social movements? Feuerbach’s Roman woman in a white tunic (1862-66), above, which greets you on a giant promotional banner even before you get to the exhibition rooms, is one of the show’s chief attractions, and finds a more contemporary echo in Max Klinger’s Portrait of a woman sitting on a rooftop in Rome (1891).

It’s a really curious image of aestheticised isolation, this, as if art couldn’t operate at street level, whereas in fact this is only true of the art that found its way into the Städel collection – Rome itself at this time had its share of painters interested in popular subjects, as has been true of most epochs. But in the world of the Masters, society, camaraderie, family life only find exquisitely genteel expression through the likes of Evenepoel’s Parisian Café d’Harcourt (1897) or Auguste Renoir’s La fin du déjeuneur (1879).

It is Renoir who is reported in the exhibition’s audio guide to have said: ‘Why shouldn’t art be pretty? There are enough unpleasant things in the world.’ It’s hard to judge that statement out of context, but equally as hard not to draw a contrast with his own son’s masterpiece, La règle du jeu, so wonderfully laden with ominous premonition. And so the search for the monsters of Europe looks also for the absence of signs, for the depictions of the calm that fail to warn us about the impending storm; or, worse, insists on seeing those signs in the savage beauty of nature, especially when it is pitted against the insignificant scale of passing humans.

Johan Christian Dahl. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in December 1820 (1826).

But isn't this reading of mind terribly simplistic? Didn’t the febrile formal experimentation that accelerated so steadily from the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth reflect a dissatisfaction with our ways of seeing, and didn’t the fascist – in decrying those radical artists – implicitly validate those efforts and give them an anti-totalitarian value?

Pablo Picasso. Portrait of Fernande Olivier (1909).

No: you look again up close at the impressionist’s brushstrokes and remind yourself that the politics of representation are not exhausted by the choice of subject. You also recall that Renoir senior wasn’t a man of independent means, and that unlike most of his colleagues he had to sell his paintings in order to make a living: a certain jollity was demanded of him. You look at how Picasso peeled off and sliced up the human figure to create beautiful monsters, and are reminded of the unabashed genius of those times, and in that genius, the imprint of another humanity. Because finally seeing a teleology in this particular collection of artworks also implies that fascism was the inevitable endpoint, the only future that could come out of those converging pasts, and as a European citizen who is still fond of certain aspects of my culture and of some of its intellectual and social traditions, I am not quite ready to make that concession to history.

Rather, as in the case of Haneke’s White Ribbon, I think it might be said of European Masters that it poses certain questions, this time regarding the relationship between art, ideology and history, questions that cannot be properly understood – let alone tentatively answered – without giving some consideration to the role of finance capital in establishing the institution and the tensions inherent in the paintings’ double life as both cultural and financial assets. According to this other narrative, Europe is no longer primarily the cradle of fascism, but of capitalism, and the monsters in the title of this piece suggest a likeness to the Monsters of Rock: as in thoroughly marketed touring attractions, still laying claim to the power to challenge and defy but in fact carefully sanitised, made to perform within a rigid time frame and in the most controlled of conditions.

Here we don’t just acknowledge the conspicuous roll of powerful sponsors – Accor, Deutsche Bank, DHL, the Goethe Institute, Siemens and that most unfailing of Te Papa’s partners, Visa – but also that show within the show that is the gift shop experience on your way out. So not only the catalogue, which until the end of the exhibition is yours for the recessionary price of $19.99, or the small collection of monographs on the principal artists; not only the postcards and the posters and the inevitable key rings, or the reproductions encased in acrylic bricks that handily double as potential murder weapons; but also a baffling selection of branded consumer products which bear no relationship whatsoever with the artworks: the European Masters Soap, the Nail and Hand and Cream, a range of paint and pencil sets, and my personal favourite – the European Masters 100g black forest chocolate tablet, yours for the modest price of $9.99 (which is to say that you can either get two or the catalogue).

A truly flavoursome-looking object, I think you’ll agree, and also one that made me regret not having visited the gift shop at the start, so that I could look at the paintings with those wonderful wares in mind. Pretzel chocolates, tea towels, coasters – this is what’s left of European Mastery. We’re just trying to recoup some of the costs now, of creating and sustaining for three thousand-odd years a civilisation that could eventually come up with a Beckmann or a Picasso.

Image from a Visa promotion associated to the exihibition.
The painting used is August Macke’s Little Walter’s toys (1912).

I am these days a European out of Europe. Looking at an exhibition like this – in spite of my scant foreknowledge of many of the painters involved, the Germans in particular – I get a sense of stifling familiarity, of claustrophobia; the moment of recognition is rarely accompanied by a sense of joy, even when I get to point out mount Vesuvius to my nine-year-old son. I am looking at a heavy past, and how it weighs on the range of available futures. I recognise the feeling from when I lived there, walking streets that were steeped in that past, and where you couldn’t get away from the masters nor the monsters.

The European Masters exhibition will be showing at Te Papa until 27 February 2011. Prices as per this table. If you're interested in the audio guide but wish to save a cool $7, you can download it in mp3 format here