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Demotic ritual.

By Alan Wall.


‘A CONFUSION OF familiarities.’ Thus did Constantin Brancusi describe the ceaseless accrual of detail in the realist tradition in its terminal phases, immediately before its fracture by the movement that has come to be called modernism. So what was the alternative to such unfocusing proliferations? ‘Simplicity,’ said the Romanian sculptor, ‘is complexity resolved’. Not evaded then, but resolved. Such resolution required dynamic and expressive form, a form that could cut through the infinite attenuation of detail of late realism and naturalism. It occurred to the most radical artists of modernity that there was a precedent here: not their immediate precursors in the western artistic tradition, but those from ages before, who had not even been known as artists. The ‘primitives’, whose vision was unconstrained  by any protocols involving single vanishing-point perspective or three-dimensional illusionism. All those fellows had wanted was an image potent enough to convey a god, goddess, demon or figure of fecundity. Realism and its expectations was something still to come; immediate perception of expressive form was for them the sole requirement. Votive offerings were presented before the gods, not a Parisian salon.

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Time had been arriving at one of its crescendos; that at least could not be doubted. But time had also been stopped in its tracks by photography, and it was now being archived by film. And this was entirely new. The surface of modernity fractures: it has no alternative. So great are the forces pounding upon it, from the past and the present simultaneously, that it breaks up. What we find beneath this fracturing surface is not more modernity, but the seemingly archaic forms of an archetypal potency. The sky-blue surface of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon shatters, the background becomes indistinguishable from the foreground, whatever depth there is can be found only on the surface itself, and what reveals itself through that surface are two women with tribalized heads. They need not acknowledge time; they might have re-surfaced through time, but modernity certainly did not facilitate their appearance. They had been there all along. ‘Progress’ would be a meaningless term, applied here. Modernism in the arts has simply re-discovered them, and it was to engage in such re-discoveries over and over again, in its unrelenting search for form.

In the killing fields of the Great War, David Jones finds the Queen of the Forest numbering the men she is re-gathering (In Parenthesis); in the streets of London in 1921, T. S. Eliot finds the blind seer Tiresias from millennia before foreseeing the contemporary futility, and also inevitability, of casual coition (The Waste Land); on the streets of Dublin in 1904 James Joyce sees the Homeric epic playing itself out once more, finding new urban forms for the journey (Ulysses); Ezra Pound begins his epic of modernity with a classical god in a boat, amidst a confusion of Homeric mythic detail (The Cantos). The surface of the present breaks up, and archaic form asserts its longevity; perhaps even its agelessness. It cannot however be presented ‘steadily and whole’; it must be presented instead in a montage sequence, so as to preserve the truth of the form and the requirements of its representation, in the ceaseless speeding sequence of the modern; framed in the context of fragmentation that the modern requires. The windows of the train speed by, as do the individual images of the moving picture, frozen spots of time soon to move at twenty-four frames per second.

It is significant that the one newly-invented modern form is cinema, since that is constituted entirely by montage. A sequence of images speeds up; out of the differences between the images, combined with persistence of vision, emerges apparent motion and fluency. Speed is inseparable from this form’s effect: take away the speed and there is no cinema, only a sequence of stills. But both Eisenstein and Hitchcock were equally lucid about exploiting montage rather than disguising it: montage is cinema’s strength, not its weakness. And a part of that strength comes from its truthfulness to modern experience. Things break up; the train keeps moving past unknown faces; we pass by those whom we have never met and will never encounter again. It is instructive to see how many of the earliest films were fascinated with trains and speed. Cameras attached to the engine were capturing the fastest motion possible on earth at the time. Cinema is the first visual medium dependent on speed or its perception

This urban contingency was appreciated by Baudelaire, one of the first clear-eyed modernists. The contingency was the other half, the modern half, of art – so he argued in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’. What separates the cantos in Dante’s Commedia is a silent continuity of direction and purpose; what separates the cantos in Pound’s Cantos are silent, and unexplained, discontinuities. We could call this ‘the modern’. It certainly corresponds to the montage-effect of living in modernity. We hear different voices; see different visions from one moment to the next. This experiential heterogeneity finally overwhelmed Pound, in more ways than one, and in his last fragmented cantos he laments: ‘I cannot make it cohere’. The Waste Land is a collage of voices appearing without introduction in the kaleidoscopic modern city.

THE MEANING OF time (then as now) was problematic. For the artist at least it had come to seem that temporal progression had not transcended the primitive, merely occluded it. Realism in its refinements and attenuations had ceased to deliver the reality it had once so confidently promised, and was now seen to be merely fulfilling conventions and the appetites attached to them – Brancusi’s familiarities. But since the new technologies of photography and cinema could between them reproduce the image in all its surface verisimilitude, why then should the other arts continue to compete on this terrain? Likeness could now be delivered mechanically. So the modernists would replace realism by an art of dynamic form, which frequently found inspiration in the primitive. When Picasso emerged from his trip below ground to see the cave paintings created by the remarkable artists of the Upper Palaeolithic, he stepped back into the sunlight to say, ‘We have invented nothing’. The ‘we’ here is almost certainly meant to signify modern artists. So what might once have appeared to be the belated inventiveness of the modern, its unaccountable fracturing of the realist surface, in fact consisted of a return to the unhampered expressiveness of the primitive, the formal clarity of prehistoric art. The latest extravagant wildness, mocked in the journals, in fact constituted the most radical conservatism. And this had further implications: the originary forms, modern art proclaimed, had never in truth been superseded, so that when they returned, they returned in glory; they reclaimed their territory. They shifted from museums of anthropology and ethnography to museums of modern art. The forms thus re-discovered, it seemed, were not regressive after all but transcendent. Time had not surpassed these early forms, as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment might have thought; on the contrary, it was the early forms which had transcended time, scattered around on distant islands, or kept in cupboards in city museums. They had retained an urgency and a vitality which had finally become recursive. The implications of this were myriad, and we are still negotiating them to this day.

We could call the period 1890 to 1930 the era of high modernism. All periodizations are inane and simplistic, but this one has a certain purpose. A number of developments took place in this period, in vastly different intellectual regions, which inter-connected in a way that demands some kind of description, even where definition itself is impossible. In the visual arts, expressive form disrupted the surface of classical realism. The infinite attenuation of concordant detail was challenged and fractured by the visual insistence on a formal coherence whose expressiveness was more than happy to dispense with any ‘surface exactitude’. This was a mimesis of essential form, not of superficial resemblance. Its emergence can be charted in the career of a single artist. In 1896 the youthful Picasso painted Science and Charity. The painting observes realistic criteria; we even have a narrative content: a modern doctor sits at the bed of a sick girl. The conventions of western realism remain unperturbed. But by 1907, a little more than a decade later, Picasso has managed to create Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Here the formal inquiry is so insistent and ruthless that the heads of two of the women have been replaced by masks, and those masks might well be from the Ethnographical Wing of the Anthropology Museum at the Trocadéro. Which is another way of saying, that the mode of seeing found in these ‘primitive expressions’ is employed as having a truthfulness at least as great as the ‘realistic’ truthfulness of the western post-Renaissance tradition. We didn’t, it would appear, leave the past behind us after all: it has been travelling with us all along, effectively concealed within our psyche as well as the museum. So in discovering the new, in the simplified forms of modern art, we are simultaneously re-discovering the ancient. The recent ocular tyranny that made a fetish of surface resemblance has been abolished. The image is no longer obsessing over topographical detail; it has the courage to be topological, which is to say, to find the essential elements of the image, and dispense with the rest.

This seeming co-existence of post-Enlightenment intellectual scrutiny and image-making from a cave wall has, of course, an intriguing parallel. In the same years that Picasso was scavenging amongst the detritus of history and pre-history for clues as to the future of art, Sigmund Freud was practising his new talking-cure at Berggasse 19 in Vienna. And what did the good doctor surround himself with, as he attempted to peer into the psyches of his very modern patients with their contemporary neuroses? Gods and goddesses, sphinxes, fertility emblems, the creatures and monsters of ancient drama. Why? For the same reason that Picasso spent so much of his early time in Paris in the ethnographic wing of the Trocadéro: they were both in search of forms, forms which transcended history, forms which had not become cluttered with the mere accruals of chronology; forms, in other words, which eluded Brancusi’s ‘confusion of familiarities’, some of which might even by now have become ‘scientific familiarities’. In Freud’s case, the forms he sought were those that shape the soul or the psyche, since psyche is the Greek form of that Germanic Seele which subsequently Englished itself to soul. In the proto-Germanic saiwalo, from which both Seele and soul derive, there is the clear meaning of coming from the sea or belonging to the sea, the home of the soul before and after death. The return of Viking warriors to the waves, the return of Arthur to the lake, are returns themselves upon this theme. Freud was well aware that in iconography and in etymology, our psychological history can be mapped and traced. The fossils of our consciousness are embodied in our languages, both verbal and visual. His fellow Viennese, Ludwig Wittgenstein, described the English language as a graveyard of metaphors. It’s not a quiet place, though: this is a graveyard where many revenants arise and talk.

In 1938 Paul Engelman took a series of remarkable photographs of Freud’s apartment. What we see, in rich concentration, are Buddhas and Egyptian gods; a torso of Aphrodite; the print of Oedipus and the Sphinx by Ingres; Michaelangelo’s Moses: it appears as though the fragments and the emblems of the past surrounded and confronted him at every turn. He had transformed his home and his consulting rooms into a cave, crammed with the memento mori of ancient talismans. In seizing upon a notion like ‘the Oedipus Complex’ he is, in effect, saying that the underlying form was there all along; it merely needed decoding into the language of modernity. The present here is a palimpsest beneath which lies a constellation of primary forms. These forms have potency because of what psychoanalysis came to call cathexis: i.e. the investment of energy by the psyche in a specific psychic object, image or configuration of memory.

We might look at the operation of cathexis when Picasso stared at the Ethnographic Wing of the Trocadéro in Paris. ‘The masks weren’t just like any other pieces of sculpture. Not at all. They were magic things…we hadn’t realized it. The Negro pieces were intercesseurs, mediators; ever since then I’ve known the word in French. They were against everything. I too believe that everything is unknown, that everything is an enemy! Everything! I understood what the Negroes used their sculpture for….The fetishes were…weapons. To help people avoid coming under the influence of spirits again, to help them become independent. Spirits, the unconscious (people still weren’t talking about that very much), emotion – they’re all the same thing. I understood why I was a painter. All alone in that awful museum, with masks, dolls made by the redskins, dusty manikins. Les Demoiselles d’Avignon must have come to me that very day, but not at all because of the forms; because it was my first exorcism painting – yes absolutely.’1 In the Catholic Spain of his youth, Picasso had been surrounded by images for veneration, as well as ex voto offerings to keep the evil spirit away. He had been brought up in a culture where images had a potency which Enlightenment thought would have deemed superstitious.

In Les Demoiselles d’Avignon space has risen to the surface of the painting, so that ‘background’ and ‘foreground’ lose their separation. In principle a section of female body does not appear to occupy a different space from a section of lighted background. The painting is self-consciously a painting; it is not offering us the kind of illusionism which Science and Charity did a decade before. We are not being offered the substance of illusory space. Nor are we offered narrative or allegorical content, though in the first sketches Picasso had retained some: a sailor, a medical student with a skull. But he cut them out. Here he is discovering the new formality of modernism, which does not provide itself as a window on to something else, either a realistic vista or an allegorical grounding, but instead proclaims itself as what it is: a material form, with formal limitations and formal possibilities. These figures have a terrifying force: masked or not, they represent an undisguised sexuality, as though the materiality of the painting and the materiality of its subject have both emerged after a lengthy hibernation, a hibernation which has been going on, in one form or another, since the Renaissance.

The surface is now the actuality of the medium, and it has gained a ritualistic force through its divestment of surface detail. It is precisely the ritualistic use of the masks that attracts and fascinates Picasso. What the images have lost in urbanity they have gained in psychic resonance. When in 1913 the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was performed in Paris, the same principle could be observed: the violent formality of the music had undoubtedly dispensed with Brancusi’s ‘confusion of familiarities’, and the dance of the girl enacted a form (human immolation to guarantee fertility) which was age-old. From the bassoon’s first startling statement of the theme, all artistic politesse had been dispensed with. The form in both cases amounted to a simplification, which is another way of saying that there was an underlying form to be discovered, once the clutter of recent tradition had been dispensed with. The product of that dispensation, what emerges from the wreckage of late ‘realism’, is what we call modernism.

Contemporary reality, it appears, can be conveyed more effectively by the employment of ‘primitive’ forms than by the employment of post-Renaissance realism. Here we should perhaps pause and think about this word ‘primitive’. What does it actually mean? What does it mean in the historical context of the modernist moment? Another way to pt this is to ask simply: where did all the fetishes and masks in the Trocadéro actually come from, and how were they being read? They were read, at least to some degree, through a set of assumptions, and an economic and political power, which brought ‘the savage’ into existence. The savage as a concept and a perception can only exist by way of comparison; in the very act of calling this group savage I identify myself as being evidently otherwise.

Anthropological fieldwork had created its own object of study, ‘the primitive’, a mode of being which had, by definition, escaped the transformations of modern European history. Like Freud’s Unconscious, ‘the primitive’ did not acknowledge time; and in another parallel, it appeared to foreground desire over all other competing forces. It appeared then to offer a gallery of archetypes, a set of forms uncorrupted by post-Renaissance illusionism, or the nagging conventions of social propriety. Here surely was an escape from Brancusi’s ubiquitous ‘confusion of familiarities’. The realm of the fetish and the intercesseur is the realm without restriction; here Coleridge’s ‘shaping spirit of imagination’ simply wishes into being whatever it momentarily desires. Here the projection of classical Freudian theory and the projection inside a cinema coincide.

And yet the modernists, Picasso amongst them, lived in modernity. Their forms, their aesthetic rituals, might be primitivist but the goings-on in the street outside the window were not. There were motor cars. If such art was to be not merely ritualistic but also demotic, then it had to incorporate the contemporary life by which it was surrounded. How could it do this? The most immediately available technique was montage, since montage in painting is a structural expression of the juxtaposition of dissimilarity within a single framing manoeuvre. Moreover, montage not only finds dissimilarity in juxtaposition, but similarity too, a similarity which requires an enlargement of the original terms to make it perceptually possible.

What is the actual effect of cinematic montage? A series of still images is sped into sequence at the rate of ‘x per second’. The viewer sees movement where there is in fact a reel of discrete and static images. In this sense, montage and juxtaposition are the very essence of cinema. But the word has, of course, come to have a different, more elaborate meaning, too. By sequencing one image after another we thereby create a more radical juxtaposition which elicits an interpretative response. A much-quoted instance is the sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potempkin when the stone lion couchant rises and finally becomes a stone lion rampant. This is stone statuary: the observing eye knows this. And yet, inserted into an account of the oppression of the Russian poor, these images transmute into an emblem of the people’s rising. The montage here permits a gap between two sequences of images, so that through the gap, between the poles of juxtaposition, meaning will be produced. Montage insists upon the generation of interstitial interpretation. All montage posits a certain imagistic dissonance which, in ultimate combination, goes on to suggest an overall consonance; a certain radical pattern-recognition is demanded of the viewer. The minute we see the rising stone lion as emblematic of the revolting Russian proletariat and peasantry, the dissonance between actual historical people and stone statue is re-harmonised into two expressions of one theme: insurrection against oppression and a dormant strength which, should it be roused, will soon enough demonstrate its potency and menace.

How did montage work in Cubism? In its synthetic phase, by grafting different aspects of representational reality onto one another as collage. A musical instrument is represented by cut-out portions of coloured paper; a section of a newspaper is pasted on to the same space and drawn upon. There is here a collation of representational spheres and surfaces which is insolent in its audacity. The conflation of radically different modes of representation – music, drawing, the written word now printed and distributed as newsprint, linoleum employed to represent the wickerwork of a chair – forces us to confront the materiality of any representational mode, just as the analytic Cubist technique of approaching an object simultaneously from different angles in space-time, constructing and reconstructing the visual object, forced us to see how we build reality optically: how it is not simply ‘given’, but exists in the multi-dimensionality which is space-time. What Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses calls the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’, the formal thusness or quiddity of any mode of representation or perception, is here presented to us as a collage of possibilities. Each mode to some degree subverts its alternatives; though from another angle, it also confirms them. Since they are all provisional and partial, each must accept its fragmentary part in the whole.

The word ‘fragmentary’ alerts us to the fact that the realities of modernity (one can hardly speak of a reality, since the singular would be misleading) are inherently fragmentary. Speed of communication and transport, the conveyance of ever-increasing amounts of information, and the incessant contingency of urban life, between them mean that all the fragmentary parts never can add up to one single stationary whole. A wholeness here would have to be chosen or willed, by subscription. Aesthetically at least, it would appear to be an option, rather than an ontological ordination. Cinema is the new artistic form of this new period of history, and it depends on speed for all its discrete images to cohere into narrative.

In painting and sculpture, the primitive at least appears to provide a certain wholeness; it dramatises reality into a singularity of form. Against this form the scattered contingency of our everyday, modern, demotic reality can be juxtaposed. And juxtaposition allows for the portrayal of the luminous object, whose foil can be an urban incoherence. André Breton’s Surrealist manifestos make it plain that he saw Freud’s Unconscious as the home of the imagination. Once again we have dispensed with Brancusi’s ‘confusion of familiarities’. Instead we have a realm of luminous juxtaposition in which desire, untrammelled by propriety or the requirements of chronology and scale, places side by side whatever it chooses to retrieve from the old mansion of perception and memory. How often in Surrealist scenes the dream-landscape is littered with incongruous but luminous objects. In their synchronicity, Surrealist panoramas share something with the interior space of the museum, without which they could not have existed.

This primitive form is often ritualistic, irrational, ‘savage’ perhaps; it does not acknowledge the constraints of civilisation, nor, in Freud’s phrase, its discontents. But it can have no life, this ritualistic, even fetishistic form, if it is being employed in the context of modernity, without the demotic bustle which provides the contemporary energy for any form of art. However atavistic some of the archetypal forms in The Waste Land might be, the poem has a vivid and contingent immediacy because of the dialogues in pubs and bedsits: ‘When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said/ I didn’t mince my words, I said…’ Part of the demotic immediacy here was provided by Pound, who inserted the word ‘demobbed’. But it is undoubtedly this demotic energy tied to the ritualistic longing represented by the final words ‘Shantih shantih shantih’ which illuminates and electrifies the language of that poem in a way that was never to happen in Four Quartets. In a parallel of which Eliot was only too aware, the form provided by Homer in Joyce’s Ulysses allows the linguistic exuberance of the demotic life on the streets of Dublin to articulate itself within a formal shaping those streets could not themselves provide.

What is still so intriguing about the war-time paintings of Paul Nash and Nevinson is the conflict between abstraction and the documentary impulse. A painting like Flooded Trench on the Yser, 1915, could easily be (in effect is) an exercise in Vorticist jagged abstractionism, except for one thing: the title. All that is left out of the visual field of information rushes back in through the words on the frame. The surface of European reality, its actual terrain, has been shattered by the forces of modern technology in conflict. Nash was quite explicit in his letters about what he saw there: a vision of the inferno. Modernity had invented (or re-invented) hell. Once again the surface of modernity breaks up to reveal archaic form immediately beneath it.

Of the two great pioneer Cubists, Braque went to the war and had to be trepanned for his injuries. Picasso characteristically managed to stay out of the fighting, but when he saw French armoured vehicles rumbling through the streets, he realised that they had been painted with Cubist camouflage devices; he knew then that he had made his contribution to the war effort after all. Could aesthetics and economy, aesthetics and politics, even aesthetics and war, actually be separated any more? Have they ever been, in truth?

Art, however ritualistic, cannot live for long without the demotic. Rouault’s whores forever rebuke his judges. David Jones’s In Parenthesis is the great modernist work it surely is partly because of the ceaseless cross-over between mythic and ritualistic pattern, and the demotic life and talk of infantrymen. Joyce moved his epiphanies from inside the Roman Catholic churches to the Dublin streets outside, even the red light district, in a quintessential modernist manoeuvre, though one that has plenty of precedents in literature and art: in Caravaggio, Shakespeare and Browning, for example. We still return so frequently to the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson because the language of the streets lives on so vividly inside them. But Shakespeare, like the modernists, was also in pursuit of the marvellous; the last plays are full of that elusive category. The voices in the street must be turned into ritual, and such ritual can only be achieved through form.


AT THE SAME time that the Cubists were discovering a form of greater primacy than any which realism or naturalism could afford them, modern physics was making its own discovery that reality is not an arena of infinite attenuation either: it is dictated ultimately by form. The quantum states tell us that nature itself is formally shaped. Between one quantum state and the next there is nothing, except that ‘nothing’ here is a logical illusion, seeming to make intellectually palpable an absence which is mere impossibility. Faced with the dereliction of description at this point one can only echo Wittgenstein: ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. The book in which this statement occurs was published in the same year as The Waste Land.

When in 1913 James Franck and Gustav Hertz conducted some experiments to find out if they could change the planetary orbits of atoms, what they discovered was that atoms didn’t have planetary orbits, at least not in the sense that classical physics would have predicted for a Newtonian planetary system. A considerable amount of energy was required to make any difference at all to the atoms and the orbits of their electrons. Although they couldn’t formulate it in this way at the time, what had been discovered was that there is a threshold of energy between the ground state and the first excited state. Such a scandal of discontinuity appalled many scientists, since it contradicted everything they had believed up to now. An electron can either remain in the ground state or receive sufficient charge to jump to the next state up, one of the states of excitement, but it can’t go anywhere in between. Which is another way of saying that there is nowhere in between. There is no formless place, no no-man’s-land between one form and another. There are forms and no forms. Energy simply can’t leak out of one form on its way to another. No intermediate non-formality obtains. Form and energy are indivisible in science, just as form and content are indivisible in the arts.

What E.H.Gombrich has called ‘a preference for the primitive’ in the arts of modernity has been in truth a preference for form over surface detail, for radical pattern-recognition over the accrual of realistic minutiae, for an economised formal dynamic over ‘a confusion of familiarities’. These artists were choosing formal supremacy over a ceaseless amassing of agglomerated detail. They were saying that the imagination too has quantum states, forms and shapes which in the focus of their patterning show forth reality.

There is something uncanny about the parallel and the simultaneity. As the surface of modernity shattered, the modernists found form (ancient, primeval or timeless, but assertive and vigorous) beneath the breaking surface. Starting with Planck’s discoveries in 1900, quantum mechanics discovered that underlying everything is form, form which can never be negotiated away: the form of the quantum states. Energy can take one form or another, but it cannot negotiate anything in between; there is no ‘in-between’ to be negotiated. The shift in the arts known as the modern movement and the movement of the modern mind in physics coincide. The discovery here too was that reality is not a vast system of infinite attenuation, a seamless continuity of negotiation, but a series of radical shifts and breaks called quantum states. Reality at its heart is not liquidly fluent, but granular; it arrives in discrete packets of energy. The energetic form is always either thus or thus; it either takes this form or that – there is no in-between, no attenuation between one quantum state and another.

This might provide us with a clue in regard to what is going on when we look at the disintegrating surface of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon: form is breaking through, a form of ruthless assertiveness, with no soft edges, and no readiness to be attenuated into a negotiated shape. Here form is meaning; decorative detail a distraction. Adolf Loos, the modernist architect, declared decoration a crime.


IN THE PREFACE to The Anathemata, David Jones quoted Nennius: ‘I have made a heap of all that I could find.’ One cannot read the phrase without thinking of Eliot in The Waste Land: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’. The narrative has broken down; in fact the narrative has now become an account of its own fragmentation. In which case, it is a question of selecting the fragments that are most effective; that have the strongest form in chaotic circumstances. Perhaps even the fragments that might be expected to function as intercesseurs in Picasso’s sense; or at least to have some liturgical validity.

Jones speaks of making a work from ‘mixed data’. His sources were made available to him ‘by accident’. Contingency is inescapable, given his modern condition. The title page itself describes the work as ‘fragments of an attempted writing’. And the structural modes of The Anathemata, alternating prose and poetry, acknowledge shifting differentiations in the register of modern experience which can only be expressed formally. A homogeneity of tone and structure would amount to a misrepresentation: it would be a mendacious mimesis. To capture the fragmented reality, form itself must share in the fragmentation, not by breaking up in itself, but by accepting heterogeneity and dissonance as its context: there is not necessarily any negotiation between these strong forms, any more than there is a mediation between the quantum states. We either have this form or that one. They co-exist as contrasts not reconciliations. Hence the appropriateness of juxtaposition and montage.

Montage here is expressed as shuffling. Here is Jones again: ‘I find, for instance, that what is now sheet 166 of my written MS has at different times been sheet 75 and sheet 7. What is now printed represents parts, dislocated attempts, reshuffled and again rewritten intermittently between 1946 and 1951.’ In The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote of the era of modernity: ‘All that is solid melts into air’. Jones says something remarkably similar: ‘The times are late and get later, not by decades but by years and months. This tempo of change, which in the world of affairs and in the physical sciences makes schemes and data out-moded and irrelevant overnight, presents peculiar and phenomenal difficulties to the making of certain kinds of works…’ The reason for these ‘phenomenal difficulties’ is that the artist works with signs, and we have to ask, as more fortunate artists did not: from what do signs gain their validity? These signs cannot work without what Jones calls ‘a requisite now-ness’; this we might call the demotic aspect of all demotic ritual. It is hard now for the artist to employ signs which have genuine validity, and also the ‘now-ness’ that the demotic ensures. He and his friends had begun to refer to this dilemma as ‘the Break’. He is frank in saying that he does not know whether there is a fundamental conflict or incompatibility between the world of the ‘myths’ and the world of the ‘formulae’, or if there is only a temporary one, brought about by specific historic conditions. If myth can contain modernity, then there is no ultimate incompatibility; if, however there is such an incompatibility, then myth, if used in art to shape contemporary experience, must be doing it a disservice: it is being untrue to that ‘now-ness’ which is purports to represent. Myth here seems to represent a wholeness of vision, that unity of experience and perception indicated by the old Doctrine of Signatures, or hoped for in Coleridge’s coinage ‘esemplastic’ – the imaginative force that shapes dissimilarities into unity.

Jones, in one sense the most traditionalist of writers, acknowledges that the tradition as perceived from modernity cannot be made whole: ‘I regard my book more as a series of fragments, fragmented bits, chance scraps really, of records of things, vestiges of sorts and kinds of disciplinae, that have come my way by this channel or that influence. Pieces of stuffs that happen to mean something to me and which I see as perhaps making a kind of coat of many colours such as belonged to “that dreamer” in the Hebrew myth…You use things that are yours to use because they happen to be lying about the place or site or lying within the orbit of your “tradition”.’

The surface of modernity breaks up and we perceive archaic form beneath it. The notes to The Anathemata are disruptions of the text; the surface of the contemporary language must snap to allow more archaic forms through, to facilitate the form of words which misuse or oblivion has effectively rendered a palimpsest. So, lest the smooth surface hide too easily the occulted forces trying to find their way through, we find ‘lattices’ in the text immediately footnoted: ‘Cf. the derivation of the word chancel, from cancelli, lattice bars’.’


IN THE REMARKABLE story entitled ‘The Unknown Masterpiece’ Balzac anticipated modernism and its dilemmas many decades before they actually happened. His fictional painter Frenhofer is visited by the unfictional painters Poussin and Porbus. The studio is in the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris, where Picasso was later to have a studio himself, even insisting that its spiral staircase must mean it was the same apartment as that of Porbus. Picasso was obsessed by this story and produced engravings and etchings for a special edition commissioned by Vollard; it continued to preoccupy him throughout his life.

Frenhofer is a master, the only student Mabuse ever had. He has learnt all the great techniques of the western tradition and can deploy them to remarkable effect. And yet he seems contemptuous of his own achievement here. For ten years he has been working on his portrait of Catherine Lescault. No one has seen this portrait, which has replaced any actual relationship in the aged artist’s affections. So desperately do Poussin and Porbus wish to see the painting that Poussin talks his youthful mistress Gillette into being a model for Frenhofer. So great is her beauty that she is used as a means of bargaining with him, so that the two painters might have sight of the ‘unknown masterpiece’. When finally they come to see it, they can see only incoherence, an anarchy of lines and form, except for a radiant foot emerging from the morass. ‘They stood petrified with admiration before this fragment which had somehow managed to escape from an unbelievable, slow and progressive destruction. The foot seemed to them like the torso of some Venus in Parian marble rising from the ruins of a city destroyed by fire.’2

This fragment of modernity is escaping the ‘fire’ of Frenhofer’s unremitting concentration. He will have nothing to do with the superficialities of illusionistic art: ‘To be a great poet it is not enough to know your syntax to perfection and to avoid grammatical errors’. It is not the copying of the superficialities of nature that he pursues, but the search for essential form: ‘The mission of art is not to copy nature but to express it! You’re a poet, not some paltry copyist!’

He is surrounded by the tradition which he is in the process of transcending: ‘Anatomical statuettes in plaster, fragments and torsos of antique goddesses, lovingly polished by the kisses of time over the centuries, lay strewn about the consoles and shelves’. Like Freud, then, at Berggasse 19, tradition surrounds him as fragmented clutter. It becomes clear that the painting is no longer a painting of the mistress (if she ever existed); she now is the mistress. She has become one with artistic form, the ultimately longed-for object: ‘You do not go intimately or deeply enough into form, you do not pursue it – through all its flights and detours – with enough love and perseverance. Beauty is a thing severe and difficult of access which does not allow itself to be attained in that way. You have to await the right moment, spy her out, press her and grasp her tightly to force her to surrender’. This is the true pursuit of art: ‘Undefeated painters do not allow themselves to be fooled by all those shifts; they persevere until nature is forced to lay herself bare and stand revealed in her truest spirit’.

Cézanne was also obsessed with this story, and at times Frenhofer speaks as though he were quoting that most dogged of painters: ‘Nature consists of a succession of rounded forms enveloping each other. Strictly speaking drawing does not exist!’. Cézanne too attempted to reduce nature as perceived and portrayed to a series of geometric inter-relationships. He too was an embodiment of the wish to seize form, rather than dally with superficial appearance. There is also what appears to be an allusion to the Impressionist principle of optical combination: ‘From close up the work seems fuzzy and lacking definition, but take two steps back and the whole thing consolidates itself, acquires its own space and stands out…’

In Frenhofter Balzac created a remarkable prolepsis of the modernist artist.

Picasso (who insisted that all the important early modernist work started with Cézanne) illustrated the story with etchings and engravings in which the painted image becomes an apparent chaos of unintelligible lines, which is what both Poussin and Porbus see when Frenhofer’s canvas is finally revealed to them. Picasso seems to be at the very least doodling with the idea that there was a fair amount of Frenhofer in himself, though the notion of Picasso devoting ten years to a single painting, while creating nothing else, does not bear examination. What does bear examination, of course, is the crisis of representation which modernism both expressed and initiated. In the engravings and etchings generated by the Balzac story Picasso exemplifies the crisis: he portrays both painter and model in a traditional, visually intelligible form. It is the activity on the canvas that has become unintelligible. See, I can function both in and out of the tradition, Picasso seems to be saying; out of the tradition here means that rectangle of ‘art’ in the centre of the representation. Frenhofer has concentrated all his energies here. The response of his devotees is to call it unintelligible. But then Picasso had to roll up Les Demoiselles and put it under his bed for many years. Even his faithful bande-à-Picasso – Apollinaire, Salmon and Jacob – simply didn’t get it.


THE IMAGE IN modernism’s most extreme expression becomes an image of itself; it is the mimesis of its own process of creation. It has absorbed its original referent into the boundaries of its own signification. The background and foreground merge in Les Demoiselles so that form can be fully expressive. The object is approached from all angles in Cubism so that the painting itself, as constructed representation, can show itself to be the ultimate object of its own inquiry. A series of optical possibilities converge one upon another. All the demotic elements -  newspapers, bottles, wickerwork chairs, linoleum, love notes – are assembled into this ritualistic object, within whose ‘sacred space’ only the rules of art apply. Within these borders, the work proclaims, a festival of perception is now possible. The work has become entirely itself. Its demotic aspect is the montage of ‘now-ness’ which it represents; one half of what Baudelaire insisted the authentically modern work had to be. It has transmuted, in its autonomy from what Jones called ‘the utile’, into its own sacred space; its own ritual.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. He lives in North Wales. His poem sequence, Raven, has just been published as a chapbook by Shearsman Books and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.


  1. John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: 1907-1917 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1996), p.24.
  2. Text from ‘Gillette or the Unknown Masterpiece’, by Honoré de Balzac, translated and introduced by Anthony Rudolf. Menard Press, 1999.
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