Wednesday, 26 January 2011

The story of Courbet’s Origin of the World, part seven

I finally found a picture of the man who commissioned and paid for Courbet’s Origin. There’s no date on it but it looks like it was taken around the time of the picture. There’s no photographer’s name on it, either, so it probably wasn’t by Auguste Belloc, who took the picture that Courbet based his painting on.

It’s not the original image, I’m fairly sure. I also have a very grainy photocopy of a far grainier original — in which Bey’s hand is on the left. So it’s probably been flipped. The curtain has been moved, too — and retouched to green. Which is the colour of the curtain with which, it’s said, he concealed his painting. The colour of Islam, of course. Théophile Gautier described Bey’s collection as ‘the first ever to be formed by a child of Islam’.

So we have a Muslim — in contradiction to his religion’s eternal ban on representational art — collecting the most modern versions of representation. ‘A magnificent gallery of pictures despite the law of the Prophet which forbids the representation of figures,’ L’Artiste magazine commented in January 1868 — when Bey’s collection came to auction, with the introduction to the catalogue written by Gautier.

In particular, of course, Bey’s magnificent gallery contained one image which represented something which had never before been represented in a public form — well, semi-public. Then he hid that representation with an abstract representation of his own religion — which notably sought (seeks, come to that) to forbid it.

One could read that symbolic act as a deliberate irony: the curtain itself as an enactment of Islam’s censorship of the human (or godly) form. An irony which was, in turn, compounded by the picture’s title, itself a challenge not just to Islam but to all religions — all of which, in my experience, posit far less visceral origins of the world.

If that makes Bey sound like a conscious radical, he was — certainly in his politics. ‘While in Paris he had been planning the extreme liberal reforms which he felt had to be put in effect if the Ottoman Empire was to be preserved . . . a constitution and an egalitarian regime,’ according to the fullest account I’ve found of Bey and his art, a 1982 piece by Francis Haskell in the Oxford Art Journal.

In Paris, by the way, Bey lived near the new Opera. He would, though, have departed the city — to become the Ottoman ambassador in Vienna — before the ink was spilt on the La Danse sculpture (then expended on it by newspapers). He rented rooms from Lord Hertford whose own gallery of paintings became the Wallace Collection — housed in the former family town home in Manchester Square, London W1.

Actually, it’s more complicated that that . . .

Next up A break from Courbet and a one-shot return to alleys etc

Monday, 24 January 2011

Through the dark alley-ways and passages of London*

I like an alleyway. Well, you do if you live in a city. Knowing the alleys is one of the ways you distinguish yourself from — okay, can make yourself feel superior — the out-of-towners.

I like the fact that I can walk most of the way from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Rd station without touching Oxford Street. It makes me feel I know where I am.

Yesterday, I found a new alley. Two, actually.

I’d heard of one of them before but found it quite by accident. It runs from Finchley Road down the side of Finchley Road and Frognal railway station. Despite having lived not far away for a very long time, I’d never walked down it (or up it) before.

It’s called Billy Fury Way, named for the Scouse popster born Ronald William Wycherley — whose Sound of Fury 10-inch album should be in every home, if only for the cover picture.

Why? Again, I’d forgotten but it was the oddest of reasons. Someone — who knows who — realised/decided that there were alleys which didn’t have names. Which meant . . . the police couldn’t record crimes committed there. ‘I’m sorry, sir, I know you’re dead but there’s nothing we can do. You can’t just die nowhere. Therefore you can’t be dead. Evening all.’

So it was decided to name the local alleys. Billy Fury? Because he recorded at the nearby Decca studios — now the base for the ENO, I think. So: West Hampstead, the rockabilly connection.

The alley? Long and dark, with no way out most of the time, but a wonderful short-cut, with trainspottery views on both sides. The whole of the side wall is painted a dramatic black, giving it a distinct threatening air — not unsuitably for an alley, I guess. They’re not meant to be warm, sunny and welcoming. On a fairly busy Sunday afternoon, I had it all to myself. It emerges almost opposite West Hampstead north London line station.

Cross the road, past the Thameslink station — such a small locality, so many stations — and there’s the second alley. This one runs down to the bottom of my friends’ house. I’d walked this one before, several times. But now it has a name, too. Black Path — from, I guess, the black-painted wall motif which continued on from Billy Fury Way. Fantastically prosaic, too.

Which got me thinking of two things . . .

One, daft street names (and signs). In London . . . Crooked Usage (in Hendon) and Amen Corner (near St Pauls). In Truro, Squeeze Guts Alley — there’s one in Whitstable, too, apparently. In St Ives, there’s a Teetotal Street and a Virgin Street — yet it still manages to call itself a holiday resort.

Two, London and songs generally. Here a couple . . .

Ray Davies. I’ve seen it written that the Krays liked this so much they asked — well, you know what I mean — the Kinks if they could manage them. But that can't be true, as it wasn't written till the 1990s.

* A line from the Ray Davies song.

While I’m about it, here’s a picture of the house next to my gran’s. That’s it on the right — it’s not me going in, though. Once uncle and his family lived next door. Another the next house along. A cousin next to that etc etc. The house straight ahead is 97 Evering Rd, Stoke Newington. That’s where the Krays killed Jack The Hat McVitie. (They lived a few streets away, in Cazenove Rd, so it wasn’t much of a journey home for them.)

Caetano Veloso ‘I cross the streets without fear . . .’ What sounds dumb and cliched isn’t. Veloso was in exile here from the Brazilian military dictatorship. ‘A group approaches a policeman. He seems so pleased to please them.’ I moved (back) to London the year this song came out, 1971. To my shame, I never even noticed Caetano Veloso moved in, too.

And finally, thinking of songs and London and alleys, some Sondheim . . .

‘There's a whole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren't worth what a pin can spit
and it goes by the name of London.’

(Just asking, Mr Sondheim, but where can you buy a spitting pin?)

Next up Back to the Origin of the World