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P*ss-take

For twenty years or so I have taken photographs of public toilets,usually urinals. Their attraction, if that is the right expression, is their variety – today, and over time. For a biological function that doesn’t actually change all that much, there is a wealth of means to provide an – ahem! – functional service. Dear reader, you would be very surprised. Honest.

Last year in Groningen in the Netherlands I ran into what has been described as the most beautiful toilet in the world. The walls are of milk glass decorated with a photo gallery of a man and woman in “Carnival” costume enacting what the photographer called “the battle of the sexes” as part of a theme of “Birth of a star”. This is described as “fun”, and it is clear the pair are play-acting by the way they prance to the lens.

Sadly for me I guess I don’t see this as fun really. Reading the explanatory material, the pistol the man points at the woman is apparently a toy:

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But does the viewer know this? I’ve got bad vision, but that’s not entirely an explanation. Elsewhere, the woman gets her licks in with a boxing glove and a rolling pin. Here is the boxing glove:

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That makes it OK, then. And this?

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Or this?

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Here is the “star” being born:

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Dear reader: it is true I am a definite non-entity, and it is true, too, that I have written my share of erotica, and possibly your share too, even if you are viewed collectively, but this loo art just looks to me to be misogynistic, and validating violence, and the final view above has to me the suggestion of something other than a star.

This toilet has been in place for more than 20 years, and does not seem to have evoked any disquiet, or not any that I have been able to find. “It’s fun.”. “It’s beautiful”! Even, “the most beautiful toilet in the world”!!!!

As Lisbet Salander says to the man she’s got hooked up to a power cable in The Millennium Triology, “My bad.” I must be reading too much into this. My sensitive soul is too easily bruised.

Or maybe not.

It not only doesn’t bother me that in France an elaborate and intrinsically violent form of dance known as Apache dancing** is a popular club attraction, or that Rainer Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle***, involved a depiction of this art form with murder as the outcome, but I think those arts show or imply the reality of domestic and other violence. This toilet by contrast triviliases it and it is not going to stop bothering me.

Here is a toilet I think is genuinely beautiful. It is in Scotland, in the village of Rothsay on the Isle of Bute:

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Here is a quirky statement from Wellington, New Zealand. A few hundred metres from the capital buidings, it has been displaced by the not especially excellent Supreme Court building. Just love the full stop!

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Another nostalgia trip, from Glasgow:

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I would go on, but it would dilute the point. Toilets are worth having a look at, but all really isn’t fair in love and war.

Thanks for reading and looking.

 

*A “piss-take” is “Commonwealth” (including British) usage, and will be found in serious newspapers as well as in common crudity. It has a variety of meanings. Consult Wikipedia and decide which is intended here.

** Nothing to do with Apache “Indians”. Check Wiki.

***Based on a novel by Jean Genet, it is a weird film. The staginess of the action does not at all diminish or trivialise the subject. The colour palette is amazing.

 

 

 

 

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Posted by on February 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Irony in the sole

aa1Sometime on my travels I realised, with a bit of a start and a bit of shame in that it took me so long, that the ironwork in the streets where I walked was worth looking at, and hence recording. Much of it was a form of local self-promotion, using city icons or logos to show off the charms of the locality. Other bits were just interesting, nice designs and possibly nicely placed in a framework of cobblestones or mosaic tiles. Sometimes they were crowded with weeds. . .So I started taking photos of them, and at the end of my 2017 northern European journey had several hundred. The best ones, discounting the photography, are dotted around this post.

The towns and cities whose ironwork I photographed include Malmo and Stockholm in Sweden, Kristianstad, Aalborg and Aarhus in Denmark, Bremerhaven, Hamburg, Berlin, Munster, Detmold, Gotha, Erfurt, Jena, Leipzig, Dresden and Meissen in Germany, and (I think) Prague in the Czech Republic.

Why do they do it? What is in it really for the town or city, or the designer, or the worker who sets them in stones or in a larger framework? The lowest motive I can figure is to discourage theft, but there is also – and I sooooooo want this to be true – satisfaction.
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The one on the left is from Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city.  The central design is featured in a range of covers.

 

 

Last year the city was a European Capital of Culture along with Paphos in Cyprus, and it went all out. Along the shore new paving got a fine drain. Here are three images, each a bit larger to show the detail.

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It just looks like an ashtray.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It isn’t one really. Nor is it a planter. It definitely breaks up what would be a boring feature footpath.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is another Aarhus round cover, much different from most:

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Even the most pedestrian – sorry! – shape can be turned into something imaginative.

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On the left is a grate for an air vent in Dresden.

 

 

 

 

 

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And another grate for a drain.  Simple, yet elegant, no?

 

 

 

 

 

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An arrangement of covers with a drain in a courtyard of an arts institute in Dresden. Rust was a feature here, unlike elsewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A fire hose connection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Trapdoor. . .nice!

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Outside the Dresden opera house, a prosaic rectangle encased in a fine mossaic design.

 

 

 

 

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Cut and place.

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Just grate!

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There is probably a totally functional reason why the inset in this square a shaped like a tear, or perhaps an alien. . .you may find out, but I suspect I shall never know. It’s just beautiful to me.

 

 

 

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A mysterious design, hieroglyphic-like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Another.

If you’ve had enough of these, here is a nice range of city logo covers:

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Berlin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Munster

 

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Hamburg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bremerhaven

 

 

 

 

 

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Gotha

 

 

 

 

 

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Erfurt

 

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Leipzig

 

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Meissen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s enough, you say? OK. There probably is too much of a good thing when it comes to street metalwork, though I am not really sure about that. If you don’t like it, as Dionne Warwick famously sang, perhaps with this in mind, “Walk on by,” but remembering, with Robert Johnson, that there are “stones in [your] pathway”.

Once I got started on this, I discovered that British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is also interested in what backward people call manholes. He allows this is “odd”. I don’t know. I don’t think it’s odd. Eccentric – fine. Jeremy, you may not believe this but you and I, geographically and otherwise poles apart, share an eccentricity! Electric rust forever!

There is more! As John Major supposedly exclaimed, “Oh yes!”

While these cast iron creations are interesting and often elegant, the Japanese have leapfrogged their European counterparts. For example:

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Ironworkers of Europe! You have worlds to conquer!

Thanks for looking and reading:

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*This is a pun on the title of a novel by Jean-Paul Sartre, Iron in the soul. If Jean-Paul’s soul is out there somewhere – I have my doubts – J-P, I’m thinking of you!

 
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Posted by on February 3, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Have Merzy*

Kurt Schwitters popped into my life in Newcastle, England in 1999. I was cruising the streets looking for excitement and drifted in to a university art gallery where a Schwitters retrospective  was on. Seeing as I was and am totally knowledgeable about art in every respect, from every culture in every period in every form and by every worthwhile artist, for some reason I had never heard of him.

The exhibition was pretty strange.

Schwitters was truly different, and it’s not just me saying so. He never fit anywhere enough to be in a “school”, though he is sometimes pegged as a “Dadaist”. Other times he is a “constructivist”. But what he really was, was Kurt Schwitters. From Hannover in central Germany, he studied in Dresden for five years alongside Otto Dix and George Grosz but seemed unaware of their work or their “school”, Die Brucke. **

Later, he was involved, kind of, with the post-WWI art movement known as Dada. Some Dada members apparently didn’t take to him because he was too talented basically, and insisted on drawing things, and painting them, even rather well. But he had their idea of poking a very sharp stick up the nose of “philistine” art standards and modes, and had friendly relations with some of the leading Dadaists. He toured with a few, Wiki says, giving performances of an ill-defined nature.

He could paint. He could sculpt. He made a large number of collages, a technique he apparently claimed, resentfully, to have discovered. He was a typographer. He wrote. He dreamed up an “ur-language” he reckoned contained the basic sounds of all languages, and recorded the sounds. At the show in Newcastle, they played these and ever since I have (more than) occasionally made stupid noises, remembering Schwitters’ ur-gent vocals .

There was a CD on sale and I wish I’d bought it. “Gawk! Skirk! Dweeeb!”

I think Schwitters’ tongue was never far from his cheek. He was engaged with life in all its aspects and humour could colour anything at all.

The organising focus of the Newcastle show is on permanent display there, and it is what grabbed me about him. Much of that show was composed of portraits and landscapes from a time in the English Lake District when he was down on his luck, slapping paint onto canvas willy-nilly to make a few bob, and are not exactly terrific. But in a corner of the gallery is a wall – yes, an entire wall – from a stone shed, or barn, from the Lake District, near Ambleside.  Schwitters settled there after WWII, after being released from internment as an enemy alien and living in London. He’d taken off from Germany in 1937 after some friends had been arrested and he had been invited to an interview with the Gestapo.  His art was condemned as “degenerate”, figuring in the (actually quite popular) toured degenerate art exhibition organised by Josef Goebbels.

By that time a big deal for him was installation art. He’d made an installation in a room in his family’s house in Hannover that spread and threatened to take over the entire building.

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It was called “The Cathedral of Erotic Misery.”  The erotic was a theme of Schwitters, and the “merzbau” wall, though it is not visible in the photo below, is no exception: suggestive elements abound. Sadly, the Hannover installation was bombed during the war.  In Scandinavia, he made one in a corner of a barn that has also not survived, and in Ambleside, aided by a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, he did it again. When the wall in England began to crumble, it was transferred to the gallery in Newcastle.

Well, I was gobsmacked by this wall. It was eerie. A lot of it was made from rubbish Schwitters picked up as he walked to the shed and back from his flat in Ambleside.  . . taken and plastered in among other bric a brac. He didn’t finish it before he died in 1948, the day after he was granted British citizenship.

I had never seen anything like it.

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Schwitters life after 1937 was hard, and in 1948 he was virtually unknown. Now he is represented in every major gallery in Germany I have visited, there have been “merzbarn festivals” in England, and a space he transformed in Norway has been rescued and shifted to a museum.

He was a one-off, genuinely unique and everything I have seen by him is a reproof to those (like me) who are often too shy to be themselves, to try. . .to go on learning how to be.

Schwitters was endlessly creative. He made thousands of collages, and they are far from bad. In internment on the Isle of Man in Britain, unable to find the right material for plaster, he used porridge. A friend said it stank terribly, went green with mould and who knows what bacteria. . .but there is was, a work of smelly art.

American artist Robert Rauschenberg said that when he saw an exhibition in New York in 1959, he’d “felt like he did it all for me”. Schwitters can grab you, just like that.

The “merzbau” as the wall was called is now recognised as “installation art”. This is something important these days in the art world, and like Schwitters’ work is often conceptual before it is actual. In Schwitters case, we know that he had the talent to draw or paint or sculpt; for many of today’s installation artists, that is not so obvious. For example, in Scotland while I was living there a decade or so ago, an artist filled an empty room with ping pong balls.

Cool! For me, this is at once silly and liberating. If someone can fill a room with ping pong balls and call it art, and even make a few bob from it, who am I?*** Nobody, sure. But also I am the one who will make a sculpture out of dead hoovers, that’s who! Is the cheque in the mail?

Where was I? Ah. Kurt Schwitters. The fellow got so much under my skin that my second novel, Evilheart, has a character named Schwitters, supposedly distantly related to to Kurt. . .now, fifteen or so years later, is another chance to pay a bit of homage. . .

Gotheborg in Sweden has a wonderful art gallery with a hall devoted to self-portraits, and yes, there is one by Schwitters:

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The gallery has a notice wisely suggesting that artists may not have painted themselves as they really looked, and this one, like so much of what Schwitters was about, is hard to tell.

Here is one photo of the man:

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In life he was said to be a positive person, friendly and engaging, and the photo suggests it is so. “Erotic” this and that maybe but hey. . .nice. Middle class even! Here is another photo:

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Now, that looks more like “my” man, my Kurt – still friendly, still engaging, but mischievous,  a bit eccentric.  Like your unworthy correspondent.

Kurt Schwitters is a challenge to each of us, even if you had never heard of him until you read this post, dear reader, and even, if like myself, your talent is questionable at best. He is no longer forgotten – you can read more about his life in wikipedia, and search google images for a huge number of his works.

Kurt!

*The third post springing from my euro-trip in summer 2017. Schwitters coined the title “Merz” for his work, which is pronounced in English as “Mers”, since in German “z” is said “s” and “s” is said “z”. He took this from the name of a bank that is still around, Commerzbank, after finding a torn bit of newspaper with “merz” on it. I think he was making a sly statement, funny but serious, as with so much of his output. “Have Mercy” is a song by Don Covay that was recorded by the Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix was a sideman on the original recording.

**Otto Dix was also a remarkable painter, whose wartime experiences led to some very upsetting work, especially a huge triptych on war now in Dresden’s Albertinum “Neue Meister” gallery.  Grosz was also a left-wing surrealist. Google images will show.

***Those who follow the British Turner Prize will know many similar examples.

 

 
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Posted by on January 20, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Ovartaci *

Louis Marcussen was born in a small town in Jutland, Denmark in 1894, the son of a dyer. Something was not right with the family – of 10 children, several were blind and half died early in life. Louis survived, trained as a painter and decorator, and after taking Spanish lessons, embarked for a great adventure in Argentina at the age of 29.

Whatever happened in Argentina, it wasn’t good.  Later Louis said the suffering he endured there had a positive value as it “toughened” him for what was to come. He stayed several years before returning home, working his way as a stoker on a coal-burning freighter.  Back with the family, he was apparently difficult, and after he pointed a defective rifle at his blind brother Knud, the family contacted health officials, and one day, while he was wallpapering a room, he was jumped and hauled off to a mental hospital in the Aarhus suburb of Risskov.

He died there, 56 years later.

Aarhus – Denmark’s second largest city, with around a quarter million souls – has what is claimed to be one of four women’s museums in the world, and I encountered Louis’ work there – a pipe, apparently made of the foil from a toothpaste tube.

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But Louis was not known as Louis Marcussen. He was Ovartaci, and he was no longer a man, but a woman.

The next day I trooped up to Risskov to encounter more work at a museum named after Ovartaci in the place she lived for half a century.**

It is hard to know what to make of this extraordinary life.  Despite a wealth of detail provided by various psychiatric professionals and art critics, Ovartaci remains an enigma to me, and possibly everyone who runs into her.

Dear reader – you can choose between the idea that Louis Marcussen believed in reincarnation and that in all his previous lives he had been a woman, that a terrible mistake had been made, that he wished to have corrected, or you can take the “analysts'”  idea that he regarded his lust for women as “dirty” and that to deal with this lust he needed to have what is now known as “gender reassignment”. Whatever, he convinced the authorities to castrate him, but when this didn’t meet his needs or expectations, and he could not persuade his minders to help, he cut off his penis. After a failed attempt using a razor blade, he succeeded with a chisel in the asylum’s carpentry workshop. Eventually authorities allowed “reassignment”, a vagina created when he was around 60, and Ovartaci died the woman she (according to me as well as to her) knew she had always been:

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Here is a chart of “available” genders from the Aarhus women’s museum:

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Which one, or ones, was Ovartaci?

Ovartaci’s life as a psychiatric patient is as puzzling as anything else about her. It is hard not to be suspicious of psychiatric professionals who overpowered someone while papering a room for the crime of brandishing a rifle that wouldn’t shoot, and kept that person incarcerated for more than half a century. The available details about Louis’ and Ovartaci’s behaviour are too sketchy to be really sure of the actual justification for keeping her locked up.  Yet Ovartaci spent many of those years as a sort of special case, less locked up than might be assumed, able to leave the facility and wander about the city.  Her keepers seemed well-disposed towards her, taking her to their homes and bringing their children to meet her in the hospital. Eventually she was allowed to buy a bicycle and travel further afield.

Ovartaci was also encouraged in art, producing at least 800 works ranging from pipes to dolls and other sculptures to paintings. Around 1960, a psychiatrist arriving at the Risskov facility recognised Ovartaci’s talent as genius, and not only encouraged it, but recorded long conversations eventually edited and published.

It is true too that by being a patient Ovartaci never needed to worry about food and lodging. If much of her work was made using whatever was to hand, she was also able to sell it, and to buy paints and other materials, and was able to decorate much of the hospital as well as her own room. She was able to study and learned Chinese and much else.

But is “not as bad as it might have been” good? Underneath all the positives there is something about Ovartaci’s life that makes me angry, and ashamed.

Before Ovartaci’s death in 1986, exhibitions outside the hospital featured her work, and after it, art as therapy led to the naming of the exhibition hall for patients’ work the Ovartaci Museum. However Ovartaci may have thought about that, I am not sure how I feel about it. Here is a painting by a later patient:

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This too makes me angry and ashamed.

Here are some paintings by Ovartaci:

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Ovartaci said, “I served my apprenticeship here in Aarhus.. .the orders we received were, that nature puts no colours wrongly side by side. The essential thing is to pick this up and learn from nature, as it does not put wrong colours together. That is what humans can do, these baroque and often so frightening, terrifying paintngs; they are not found in nature.”

Ovartaci made dolls that some critics say were not meant as “art objects” but as friends.*** She made them in various sizes and smaller ones went with her when she left the hospital; she could take them on her bike. She gave them names and talked with them.

While restoring one of the larger versions, a curator discovered that the head came apart. Inside was a sheaf of poems written in Spanish. Here is an English translation of one, published as “poems o the future”:

Life on Earth
Is suffering
Filled with false hope,
Expectances
And bitter experiences.
The disgraceful birth
Is to blame for our fate.
Calamities
And helplessness,
Dreadful fear of the moist poison.
Fear
Of illness,
Epidemics.
Fear
Of malicious men,
War, earthquake, lightning, revolution,
Starvation and destitution.
Fear
Of witches, illusionists
And fascists.
Fear
Of the result
Of our decisions,
And it hurts to be separated
When in love,
And it hurts to be coupled with something
Ugly and disgusting
Fear
Of the deceased
And of ignorance.
Fear
Of the life
To come.

 

*The second post from my summer 2017 European adventure. Thanks for reading.

**Ovartaci was at the Risskov facility for 45 years; s/he spent a further 11 at another.

***Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka also made a doll of a girlfriend – Anna Mahler,  ex-wife of Gustav Mahler and Walter Gropius – who dumped him. Kokoschka took the doll to dinners and parties and talked to it as if it was Anna. Eventually he destroyed it.

 

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

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Anita Ree*

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Anita Ree painted this self-portrait in 1910.  The photograph does not do justice to the beautiful palette of the artist. Discounting its  erotic nature (as google images does by cropping it) it is a masterpiece, though there is no reason to discount it. The sweetness of Ree’s expression is  marvellous. There is a beauty of form too. And yet. . .the backdrop of prickly pears, a watery sweet fruit that if not handled properly can indeed prickle, makes a more provocative theme.

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Anita Ree painted this self-portrait in 1929.  Gone is the delicate palette and in its place a stark and difficult look, and on her face, the tragedy that had become her life.

Four years later, Anita Ree committed suicide. She was 48 years old.

These paintings, and a few others, are part of the collection in the Hamburg city art gallery, where I saw them in summer 2017.  They are among the most memorable works of my European tour. I found them very upsetting.

It is not surprising that she was unknown to me. Though baptised in the Lutheran faith as was common by Jewish Germans at that time, she was denounced by the Nazis for her Jewishness. Lutheranism didn’t save her. Her social life became difficult, and then impossible. After the Nazis took power in 1933, she killed herself. Her paintings were labelled degenerate, removed from galleries where they were displayed and mostly destroyed. Murals suffered the same fate.

The paintings in the Hamburg gallery were saved by a groundskeeper, who hid them in his apartment until after the war. Other works were in private hands enabling a retrospective  that is presently (January 2018) at the gallery.  http://www.hamburger-kunsthalle.de/en/exhibitions/anita-ree

Among the paintings on display:

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*This is the first of a series of posts rising out of my European trip in 2017. They are selfish in a way – what grabbed me, upset me, moved me. . .and who am I? Nobody, that’s who. But maybe you too, dear reader, will be prompted by my interests and enjoy some of them.

Thanks for reading this one.

 

 
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Posted by on January 12, 2018 in Uncategorized

 

Yours! All yours!

Hello dear readers. It is Christmas time, when people including those who are not Christians, give things to other people. Traditionally in some Anglo countries, they waited until the day after to trot round their friends’ places with their prezzies, and this is known in the country where I live, New Zealand, as Boxing Day, though the giving part tends to be on Christmas Day. Anyway, wherever you are, and whatever you are up to, I hope you have the very best holiday time, with friends, family and loved ones, and that you not only enjoy, but contribute as you should to the material and spiritual betterment of the entire planet. That should be our species’ role in the overall picture.

As part of this wonderful spirit, the online publisher where my books appear for sale, Smashwords, has an annual end-of-year bonanza. In my case, the usual apparently exorbitant 99 cents price of my novels is slashed to nothing at all. Nothing! Free! to a good, a bad, or an indifferent home. This lasts from about now to the end of the year.

Be in quick!

All the best for the rest of the year and 2018. Hey – for the rest of time! Why not?

 

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

“Nurse! Nurse!” “Why, doctor!”*

(Here is a post I had meant to finish before traveling to Europe for the northern summer from New Zealand, where I live. Finally! It is not so good as I would like. It is true that I am not a scholar, in Shakespeare or anything else, but I do not need to be.)

Anyone interested even a little bit in the work of William Shakespeare knows there is a lot of sex talk. There isn’t any sex, as it wasn’t the done thing in those days, though there are moments, as in Romeo and Juliet, when the deed is done just out of view. But the range of sexual allusion is astonishing, as it must be, I think, for the Bard to be who he is – the greatest writer ever.

Shakespeare wasn’t alone in his time in dwelling on sex. Most or even all of his contemporaries waxed lyrical. Thomas Middleton, for example – check out his Chaste Maid in Cheapside, in which the only thing chaste is the word in the title. While the sexual attitudes of the time may be charted through dramatic evidence, it is also true that theatre companies competed with other entertainments aiming to satisfy different kinds of bloodlust – bear-baiting and cockfighting among them. Getting bums on seats meant giving the punters spectacle and juicy bits.

Today there are still those who find the amount of sexual imagery and allusion unsettling**, but there are also those who find it fascinating. Gordon Williams has made a career out of tracing sexual references and innuendo in the literature of the time, and has produced a three volume dictionary (and more), but he is far from alone.

Demitra Papadinis has boldly – and as she says, “frankly” – annotated several of Shakespeare’s plays focusing on the sexual, giving readers the original First Folio texts to relish and prove her point. If all the references she finds were to be taken out, the Bowdlerised** complete works would engrave easily on the head of a pin, with room for the Iliad and Odyssey in Greek and translation.

Papadinis makes no apology for readings that might give a remark by a character five or six simultaneous interpretations, and why should she? We are dealing with the master. Let it be.

Papadinis is very far from thinking all the references to sex in Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists are positive, or erotic and it is clear they are not. A great deal is actually negative and often refers to disease. To read Troilus and Cressida in the David Bevington Arden edition is to discover a wealth of detail relating to syphilis as the clown Thersites spews invective at his fellow Greeks. Yet T & C is arguably a comedy. *** Whether it be or no, the sexual allusions can easily be missed as our language and meanings have changed over the centuries, and they affect the overall reading of the play.

Just so with Romeo and Juliet. After studying Troilus and Cressida, a few years ago I witnessed the performance of the scene between Juliet and the Nurse, who has returned from a meeting with Romeo, played as funny, and that’s all. It’s a big laugh when the Nurse says “Fie how my bones ache, what a jaunt I have had.” (Act II, scene five, line 30.)

The reality – I mean this – is that the Nurse has syphilis. An audience of Shakespeare’s time would have recognised immediately in the Nurse’s complaint of her aching bones that she was syphilitic, yet so far as I am aware no edition of the play picks up on this, though to her credit Papadinis recognises that it may refer to sexual disease. It does. The scene is humorous, but also tragic: the Nurse’s rambling as Juliet tries to get sense from her is also a sign of the mental degeneration associated with the disease. As Shakespeare wrote it, it is funny and very sad at the same time. Say I: it is the precise moment when the play, which until then had been pretty comic despite some ominous gestures (principally from Tybalt),  begins to reveal its tragic momentum.

There were hints of the Nurse’s illness earlier. Her rambling trip down memory lane with Juliet’s mother near the beginning is a clue but more significantly, Mercutio, meeting with the Nurse and her “man”, the clown Peter, mocks her appearance as of a prostitute and the fact she has lost her hair. It’s a quick quip from the jester Mercutio, foreshadowing the Nurse’s return to her charge. Mercutio elsewhere pokes fun at other sufferers who “cannot sit at ease on the old bench. O, their bones, their bones.”

Syphilis in Shakespeare’s time was a much different illness than we tend to think of it today****. It was a new sickness for Europeans, imported from the “New World” by Spanish sailors, and spread via the Spanish-owned “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies” which included the Italian “boot”. “Neapolitian bone-ache” raced up the peninsula to infect the whole of Europe remarkably quickly and incredibly virulently. Attempts to stop its spread into England were fruitless, and before 1540 the disease, already known simply as “bone-ache”, was well-established in the sceptered isle.

In Europe as a whole, syphilis affected millions upon millions of people. Apart from making the victim’s bones ache, hair fell out, and even parts of bodies lost en route to an early death. Sir William Davenant, a mid-17th century poet and playwright who may or may not have been a natural son of Shakespeare^,  shed his nose to the disease. It has been argued that Shakespeare himself died of syphilis. Plainly there is no proof of this, but his profession would lay him open to it.

The effects led to new or revived^^ industries including wigs and cosmetics as sufferers sought public (and pubic^^^) disguises for the ravages of the disease, and to increased emphasis on sexual fidelity (read on).

It seems the strength of the disease lessened over time so that the epidemic of the 16th and 17th centuries became less apparent, though treatment until the 20th century and penicillin never amounted to a cure. The Nurse’s name may be “Angelica”, used as a (also fruitless) herbal remedy. Among latter day sufferers were political rogues Adolf Hitler and Lenin.

Does this matter in terms of the play? I think so. The Nurse as syphilitic – which I think is unarguable – may explain things that are otherwise left at best moot, beginning with the relationship between the two lovers. Early in the play the Nurse says her wish in life is to see Juliet married “once”. She wants her charge to marry a virgin, and thus not fall prey to her illness, and her tarted up mission to see Romeo  is a comic episode designed to satisfy that desire. Juliet wants simply for the arrangement she has made with her newfound love to be settled; the Nurse wanted to see if Romeo was sexually inexperienced and is relieved to discover him just so. The play earlier implies it, that Romeo is a newcomer to love and its pursuit, as Benvolio’s gentle treatment of his friend reveals.

Paris, Juliet’s suitor through her parents, seems more likely to be sexually experienced and thus plausibly syphilitic, though the Nurse, obedient to the wishes of Juliet’s mother, urges him on her after Romeo is banished for killing his lover’s cousin Tybalt. Romeo is portrayed as not only younger, but in the first flushes of lust. His infatuation with Rosaline,  Benvolio (meaning “Goodwill”) treating him as a tyro, the older Capulet’s referral of him as virtuous, all suggest not merely youth, but virginal youth.

Within all this, Juliet is revealed as mature in ways that Romeo is not. She rebukes herself for cursing her new husband after  her hotheaded cousin Tybalt is killed by him and goes on to rebuke the Nurse for urging Paris on her, destroying Juliet’s trust. While Romeo exalts his bride in long soliloquies and in dialogue with the Friar, Juliet’s attitudes are not simply empathetic, but practical. She may have seemed easily swayed, but  while a teenager, is adult compared to her husband.

In this we are again struck by Shakespeare’s attitude to women’s place, in this early play as later. He does not accept the idea that woman should be mounted on a pedestal as many of his contemporaries, in thrall to the “Virgin Queen” (see sonnet 130), but as wiser, more temperate, and sadly, tragically, victim. Juliet ends her life as her sole lover has ended his but only after struggling to find a solution her husband initially, foolishly, rejected. Elsewhere in his work Shakespeare seems to subscribe to the romantic view of relationships as lovers meet, fall in love, and stay happy ever after, but to me it is fair to argue that this is in a context of sexual and romantic relationships he could only chart but which is, say I, changing.#

The moral of Romeo and Juliet is played out by the remorse of the warring Montague and Capulet families and was a motive of the Friar’s and the Nurse’s in joining the two together.  The Nurse, who needs to keep sweet with the Capulet family, is swayed this way and that as she tries to help Juliet.

So all this, stemming from a revealing (to me) remark by the Nurse, missed by a few centuries of scholarship. Much of my argument is circumstantial. But the truth of the Nurse is not to be dismissed. Poor woman.

Thanks for reading.

*An exchange between Jack Nicholson and Ann-Margaret in the Mike Nichols-directed, Jules Feiffer-scripted film Carnal Knowledge. Jack  in glass-encased shower calls out to his new lover, who somehow discovers his erection in the steam. . .

**Thomas Bowdler and his sister Henrietta gave their name to the English language as they attempted to purge Shakespeare of sex. They lived two hundred years ago, but their shadow falls even over contemporary scholars. It  is hard to believe, but it is true.

***See my post “Toiling with Troilus”.

****See Johannes Fabricius, Syphilis in Shakespeare’s England. Gordon Williams in his 3-volume dictionary, says that examination of pre-Columbian bones throughout the world finds evidence of syphilis only in the New World and Oceania.

^Sir William’s parents owned an Oxford tavern where Shakespeare stayed while travelling by foot between his home in Stratford and London. Sir William is reported to have betrayed his biological origins when inebriated.

^^Wigs had been popular in classical times but their use fell away until the Renaissance and syphilis.

^^^The merkin was/is a pubic wig for intimate concealment.

#This is a central theme of my fiction, which readers are welcome to buy and read online at Smashwords – US99c each, cheap! See also my posts “Toiling with Troilus” and “Grand Larssony” on this blog. Recent revelations and developments in human relationships, especially in the United States, seem to suggest my interpretation is the right one.

 
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Posted by on December 18, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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