Monday, 30 May 2011

Simon Turner - Rain(e)ing on Craig's Parade

Obviously, I knew I probably shouldn't have expected a balanced appraisal of the Vorticists from Craig Raine (the occasion: an exhibition at Tate Britain starting mid-June), as if there's anything that our Craig does with any degree of competence, it's robust critical invective (and very entertaining it is too).  Besides anything else, he's entitled to his opinions, and I don't have any real disagreement with the main thrust of his argument: the Vorticists were, as Raine asserts, rather belated and parochial in comparison with their continental cousins in the Cubist and Futurist camps, even if individual artists and writers - Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, CRW Nevinson - were exceptional, and need to be judged on their own merits.  However, I did want to address a couple of minor points in the article which gave me pause.

[1]: The dismissal of Nevinson.  Raine, early on in his article, provides a list of artists affiliated with the Vorticist movement - including CRW Nevinson - and rather high-handedly asserts that none of them were "touched by talent" (not 'genius', note, but 'talent').  I can't speak as to the quality or otherwise of the majority of the artists in Raine's Rollcall of the Talentless, as I'm largely unfamiliar with their work, but Nevinson, frankly, deserves better than this.  During the First World War, he spent time at the front, and produced some of the most startling and enduring art of the conflict: he's second only to Paul Nash in this regard.  If his post-war work failed to match up to the high standard he set himself in wartime, this fact should in no way tarnish the achievement of those visual dispatches from the front.  There's an exhibition of Nevinson's Great War paintings at the Imperial War Museum which is running until the end of June, if anyone's interested in making their own minds up as to Nevinson's contribution to Modernism.

[2]: Problematic points of comparison (i).  Raine, it must be said, can 'do' analogy (apparently he wrote an epoch-defining poem some decades ago about a guy called Martin writing a post it note for his parents, which was composed almost entirely of analogies), and in his description of Gaudier-Brzeska's 'Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound' he proves this again, comparing the back view of G-B's monumental sculpture of the poet to "a scrotum and an impressive glans".  Not only did this make me laugh out loud, but it succeeded, neatly and economically, in getting to the heart of the dick-swinging, chest-beating, hyper-macho dogma underpinning the Vorticist movement.  All well and good; but in the same appraisal, Raine notes how G-B has managed to tame Pound's notoriously wild mane of hair, so that it "resembles a Zadie Smith turban", which phrase rather stuck in my craw.  Why not simply "turban"?  To draw Zadie Smith into the analogy feels gratuitous, a motiveless judgmental sneer at Smith's (entirely practical and reasonable) sartorial choices.  Must do better, Mr. Raine, must do better.

[3]: Problematic points of comparison (ii).  During a discussion of two works - one by Gaudier-Brzeska, the other by Brancusi - both entitled 'Fish', Raine pulls this arresting phrase from his writer's toolkit: "Brzeska's Fish has some of the ugly angularity of modern Israeli jewellery".  I'm not sure if I can see the function of this.  Is modern Israeli jewellery any more 'ugly' and 'angular' than its equivalent from any other country?  Not that I can see: a great deal of modern jewellery seems to be almost uniformly hideous, regardless of its national origin.  Is it any uglier or more angular than a motorway pileup or a building site or a Portsmouth multistorey carpark?  Or, indeed, anything in the world to which the adjectives 'ugly' and 'angular' can be attached?  Again, as with the jibe at Zadie Smith noted above, this feels to me like a burst of directionless opprobrium, serving no other function (as far as I can tell) than to elicit snorts of elevated derision from the no doubt hyper-liberal and entirely prejudice-free readers of the Guardian Review ("Ugly angularity is exactly what one would expect from modern Israeli jewellery, isn't it, Crispin?"  "Of course, Jocasta.  Another Fairtrade latte?"), which amounts to little more than Pavlovian bell-ringing dressed up as normative and reasonable critical opinion.  Frankly, I would expect more from the mainstream media. 

In spite of Raine's rather flailing attempts to dampen my enthusiasm for the Tate's exhibition of Vorticism, I'm still planning on finding time in my diary to make a visit.  I'd urge you to do the same.  I can think of far less productive ways of spending my time: stewing impotently for days on end over Craig Raine articles and then venting (equally impotently) on my blog, for example.       


Sam said...

Thanks for this Simon. I, too, was irritated by his easy dismissal of Nevinson. I also think some of the others he writes off, e.g., Wadsworth, are at least worth a look.

The Editors said...

Hi Sam,

I'd missed Wadsworth's name in Raine's list, actually. His work's very interesting: the woodcuts, in particular, are of very genuine value, modern and ancient simultaneously, suggesting that the Manichean narrative of rupture inherent to Modernism's mythos masks a more complicated actuality: a jagged continuity rather than a clean and savage break.

In other news, there was a much better account of the Vorticists in the Times over the weekend by Simon Mawer (you'd probably have to subscribe to read it online, damn Murdoch's eyes). It's far fairer than Raine's small-minded, mealy-mouthed dismissal, though Mawer's a little over-enthusiastic in his rhetorical flourishes.

Simon @ Gists and Piths

Sam said...

Hi Simon,

Thanks. I'll have to check out the Times article.

oliver dixon said...

Good points well made, Simon - I agree that Raine's piece failed to do any kind of justice to Vorticism or demonstrate any understanding of its contexts within Modernism.Like his poems, it was more preoccupied with brandishing flashy tropes (many of which as you imply don't even stand up to scrutiny) than developing a coherent argument or offering felt responses to the artworks in question. His belittling of Vorticism's avant garde forays (as limited in some ways as they may have been)is hardly surprising - isn't it ironic how when Raine's 'Martian' poetry first emerged in the early 80's it was seen as rather daring and audacious, almost neo-Modernist in a Pasternakian sort of way, whereas now its rhetorical prodigality seems the aptest counterpart to Thatcherite excess and indulgence, what Andrew Crozier called "thrills and frills on the edge of normative discourse"?