Sunday, 17 July 2011

33 New Bond Street W1

The scaffolding has come down from the new Richard Green gallery, revealing a neo-Classical facade by George Saumarez Smith of Adam Architecture. It is pure Soane, with his typical Grecian incised pilasters and acroteria.
The main decorative element is a relief in three panels by Alexander Stoddart, depicting the last voyage and death of Odysseus as foretold by the spirit of the blind seer Tiresias (who appears on the left of the main panel).
The work is in stark constrast to Henry Moore's screen only a few yards away. Moore rejected a relief, saying it would be "using the position only as a hoarding for sticking on a stone poster."
Stoddart has no problem with stone posters. His relief is not just a poster, it's a polemic, an allegory of the descent of art into modernism. He kindly explained the symbolism for me:
Dear Chris,
In my work Odysseus tends to mean one thing in the emblematic line – and that is classical art itself. In this function Odysseus appears in the friezes I made for the new Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace some years ago, and here in New Bond Street the same thing happens.
Many years ago, in the solitude of my studio, I set myself the mental task of figuring out an emblematic scheme of decoration for a gallery of modern art. I asked myself how this might be done, and how the idiom of neo-classicism might approach this imaginary commission. In view of the extreme lengths modern art has taken to distance itself from its origin in Greece , the Prophecy of Teiresias, found in the Book of the Dead in the Odyssey, sprang to mind. This is where the ghost of the Theban prophet describes a scenario in the aftermath of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca in which, after the great slaughter of the Suitors, he must take up his oar and travel away again; away and away into a land of cornfields, where the people do not use salt in their cooking. There he will be stopped by a man on a path and asked why he carries a winnowing fan on his shoulder – and by this mistaking of the most commonplace object to be found in Greece, Odysseus will know that he is in a land where the sea is unknown and so is as far from Greece as can be imagined. (Ultimately, Homer is describing a place north of the Black Sea, in the heart of the Ukraine or suchlike steppe.) When the man asks him this, he should stop, plant his oar in the ground and make of it a makeshift altar to Poseidon, the god against whom he originally transgressed when he put out the single eye of the Cyclops, son of Poseidon. Before this “altar” (an oar, set in the middle of the endless prairie; an image of considerable pathos) Odysseus must make sacrifice, after which he will return to Ithaca to die in his bed. The three panels on the building represent this story, this prophecy. 
The allegory is simple. Odysseus (art) enters an era inaugurated by a great slaughter (the Great War). After this, art travels to a region completely alien to Ithaca ( Greece ), where the customary things are entirely unknown (modernist culture). The oar (the Grecian Thing) is set up in a geographically distant location, as the very building upon which this allegory is played out, as it happens, sits in a time and culture terribly distant from the original conditions (the pathos of the oar in the steppe). Odysseus returns to die in his bed – and here a prophecy upon a prophecy appears; for the resolution of the struggle in rest and dying strikes to the heart of what a return for our culture to the proper terms of art will necessarily entail – namely the recovery of the non-stimulative function of art; the will-stilling, renunciatory purpose of aesthetic experience, and the re-integration of death into our culture, as against the overwhelmingly philistine life-lust of the last century’s parade of cultural mischief. 
In this last respect the work is highly Schopenhaurian; art is a “Sabbath” in the penal servitude of the world’s willing; a momentary arrestment of the Ixion’s Wheel of life-affirmation; a little death. True artists are those who take the pessimistic stand; they comprehend the nature of the world’s suffering. But they are not “pessimistic” in the vulgar, optimistic sense; in fact, to be true they must try to be cheerful and ready to pat the dog! Pessimism, in the proper philosophical sense, is in fact a eudaemonology; a programme for the happy life. Optimism, on the other hand, is a programme for the setting up of camps, and optimistic people are so often wilfully miserable in demeanour. But look how the Dali Llama (God bless him) smiles so! This is because Buddhism is the most pessimistic of all the world outlooks. I believe that there are two waves of modernism, the first (to which I belong) commencing with the emergence of the Ossianic materials in the age of Mengs, Gluck and Winckelmann, climbing to the absolute zenith of artistic achievement in Liszt and Wagner, then declining in a wan sunset with Pound, Eliot and MacDiarmid. The second wave starts with Duchamp’s toilet and ends in Emin’s bed, forming a rainbow of uniquely scatological character, coloured brown. This second wave was contrived to counteract the achievements, and more importantly the effects, of the first; it was done to re-assert Nature over the counter-natural triumphs of past culture. In the way of elegy, the sculpture scheme in New Bond Street invokes the last hurrah of the first wave, in that The Wasteland, by Eliot, has as the sole candidate for its narrator, the prophet Teiresias; “I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,/ Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see/ At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives/ Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,/ The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights/ Her stove, and lays out food in tins.” The sculpture-scheme’s title is, in fact, “The Prophecy of Teiresias.”
All best,


Anonymous said...

Thank you for introducing me to the work of Alexander Stoddart which I find excellent. I shall look out for more examples.

I was also cheered by his reply to you that gave a solid foundation to my own, necessarily vaguer, feelings about the directions taken by art in modern times.

Capability Bowes said...

Much as I like the reliefs, I'm afraid that I found that "explanation" completely impenentrable, and confirmed my belief that "art" can be dressed up in such weird clothes that she becomes unrecognisable to The Common Man but becomes a mere plaything of the "cognoscenti". The "explanation" reads like some of Brian Sewell's worst excesses. Waffle like that just alienates people.

AnnapolisKen said...

Thank you for putting these images and descriptions up here. Odysseus's mission inland with the oar to establish an altar and sacrifice to Poseidon is a key episode in the Odyssey, but there are few images of it from antiquity or modern times. Can you speak to the copyright status of the images here? If possible, it would be great to upload them to Wikimedia Commons for widespread use in mythology classes.
Thank you!