“Robert Smyth’s Hungarian Wine … is a really pleasurable wine book and hedonist’s travel guide. It would make a great Christmas present for almost anyone who is interested in good wine and travel.”
A nice review from wine blogger Quentin Sadler:
A Lovely Wine Book for Christmas
Posted on 16/12/2016 by quentinsadler
I love wine and I love books and I really, really like books about wine, so when my friend Robert Smyth gave me a copy of his excellent new book I leapt into action and little more than a year later I wrote this review.
How does one “meet” a medieval manuscript? The examples explored in this book are such celebrities that effecting a face-to-face encounter needs a lot of arranging. It helps if you are a world authority like Christopher de Hamel. Having worked for years at Sotheby’s, he has handled more illuminated manuscripts than anyone else alive. Since 2000 he has abandoned the buzz of commercial sales for the librarianship of the Parker Library in Corpus Christi, Cambridge, the books and manuscripts bequeathed by Matthew Parker, a former Master of the college and Archbishop of Canterbury under Queen Elizabeth I.
It is here that he introduces us to the first of his manuscripts. Small and rather battered, it is a very early set of the gospels (in the Latin Vulgate of St Jerome) and a deeply moving document in that it may well be the very copy sent by pope Gregory the Great to Canterbury with the monk Augustine in 597. De Hamel lists the circumstantial evidence for the provenance, is largely convinced, but then leaves the question open. Then he produces his clincher: an analysis of the Latin shows phrases from a pre-Vulgate Latin version that Gregory found superior to that of Jerome. If this is right, the Gospels is the founding document of Christianity in England, provided as a gift by one of the great popes of the Middle Ages. For Parker the Gospels was especially important as a relic of an original Anglican church that had now been restored to its independence under Elizabeth. He probably found the manuscript in the library of the dissolved monastery of Augustine in Canterbury.
The Gospels of Saint Augustine is the first of the wonderful manuscripts to which we are introduced. They are chosen from century to century, a total of twelve over a thousand years, so that we learn not only about the manuscripts themselves but about the changing world that produced them, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 9th century, the shift in commissioning from monasteries to royal families in the 12th, and the retreat into private prayer from the 14th century onwards that inspired some of the most opulent manuscripts of all, the Books of Hours. While most of the chosen few are religious texts, there is an extraordinary 9th-century copy of a Classical picture book of the constellations, the Aratea (named after the 4th-century BC astronomer Aratus of Soli), as well as a collection of drinking and love songs (the 13th-century Carmina Burana), and one of the earliest texts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Hengwrt Chaucer, now in the National Library of Wales.
Some of the choices are so famous that they have become ‘iconic symbols’ of a nation. Such is the Irish Book of Kells, the only one of the manuscripts here that I have seen myself, with its intricate and delicate embroidery of illustrations. Others have to be dug out. Meeting the Visconti Semideus, a treatise on armaments and warfare presented to Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, in 1438, now in St. Petersburg, requires getting a visa for Russia, having one’s passport examined at the entrance to the library, photographs taken, papers stamped, long corridors to the reading room traversed and eventually this fine manual handed over for inspection. By now we have reached the Renaissance, and Classical allusions fit alongside exhortations to reconquer the Holy Land for Christendom. The original owner, Filippo Maria, is not named after the apostle but after Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. As de Hamel passes lunchtime without refreshment, a middle-aged woman with outsized glasses, ‘a saint among manuscript librarians’, takes pity on him and feeds him whisky-flavoured Russian chocolates.
When he meets his manuscripts, de Hamel quickly establishes an intimate relationship with them. They have no chance of hiding their blemishes, ‘erasures, scratches, overpainting, offsets, patches, sewing-holes, bindings and nuances of colour and texture’ that have often been concealed in reproductions. But he is a kindly man, forgiving of the manuscripts for the scrapes (I use the word literally as some surfaces have been scraped off the parchment ) that they have endured. They, and he, must be relaxed enough for their story to be told. They cannot conceal the style of their illuminations or the script of their text, and their origin and history is often marked by the dedications and the names of later owners—but they more than hold their own and some keep their secrets to themselves.
Much else is dependent on careful detective work. So the hand of the artist of the ‘Hours of the Virgin’ section of the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is found across a range of illuminations from the middle of the 14th centurywhose patrons are known. There is only one illuminator who, records show, worked for all these patrons, Jean le Noir, the ‘illumineur du roi’ and de Hamel concludes that the Hours (still in Paris in the Bibliothèque Nationale) were the gift of king Philippe VI to Jeanne, daughter of Louis X, king both of Navarre and France.
There has been an attempt to ascribe the manuscript of the Hengwrt Chaucer, the next manuscript to be met, to one Adam Pinkhurst whom Chaucer had urged to copy his texts more carefully. Pinkhurst is indeed recorded as a scribe, the dates fit and there is some resemblance between the scripts ascribed to Adam and that of the Chaucer. De Hamel thinks long and hard and finally decides they are not one and the same. In recompense he leaves the National Library clutching a mug and coasters bearing the illustrations he has just been studying in the original.
There is so much to treasure here. One can follow the intricacies of the Book of Kells for hours. I was fascinated by the planetarium from the Aratea as it shows the planets Venus and Mercury in orbit around the sun (which is in orbit around the earth, as are Saturn, Jupiter and Mars). Quite by coincidence I had come across the view of the 9th-century Irish scholar Eriugena that the sun did revolve around the earth but the planets Jupiter, Mars, Venus and Mercury revolved around it. No doubt this hypothesis is common knowledge to historians of astronomy but it was quite new to me and I am grateful to de Hamel for giving me a source to put alongside Eriugena.
Tracing the increasing sophistication of the illuminations is a pleasure in itself. The illustrator of the Morgan Beatus, a 10th-century text of interpretations of the Apocalypse from Spain, has created a fun toy box of a Noah’s Ark, the animals shown on a series of shelves with the family at the top, Noah reaching up to the dove. Two hundred years later, in the opulent Copenhagen psalter, the figures are now full of emotional responses. Perspective arrives, the army of the Visconti march across mountain passes with valleys below. Colours become rich and one can even pick out details of clothing. The scenes of everyday medieval life in the Spinola Hours (now in the Paul Getty Museum high up on its flattened Los Angeles hillside) are particularly enchanting.
And so one could go on. Please put this book at the top of your Christmas wish list.
Meetings with Medieval Manuscripts, Allen Lane, 2016, reviewed by Charles Freeman
Also recommended: Stella Panyatova (ed.),Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, June to December 2016, to celebrate its first 200 years. It has a wealth of information on the techniques of creating manuscripts.
Abstract Expressionism emerged in the 1940s in the United States and remained a predominantly American phenomenon. Its main characteristic, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Art, is the “desire to convey powerful emotions through the sensuous qualities of paint, often on canvases of huge size.” The Baroque movement of the 20th century, then? A Counter-Reformation against intellectual, social- and community-minded –isms, with all their rules and strictures, and a headlong, self-conscious race into the arms of feeling.
The genesis of the movement is well illustrated in the first room. Two early figurative works by Mark Rothko are hung on the right. Both date from 1936. One is his Self-portrait: the fat, red twisted lips and dark blind circles of eyes hidden by dark glasses strike a disreputable and sinister note. The other work is Interior, where a pair of ghostly white and faintly grotesque classicist sculptures flank a dark doorway populated by a huddle of brown-clad, white-faced, stricken-looking people. Normality and the conventional are shown distorted and turning ghoulish.
There is a scene in the film Funny Face where the character played by Audrey Hepburn, feeling angry and put upon by the character played by Fred Astaire, says: “Isn’t it time you realised that dancing is nothing more than a form of expression or release? There’s no need to be formal or cute about it. As a matter of fact, I rather feel like expressing myself now. And I could certainly use a release.” And then she dances. Wonderfully well. It is the only really good scene in the film.
Abstract Expressionism is like that. An emotional response to an external trigger. Dark times (world war, economic depression) cannot be argued away by reason, logic or objectivity. Objects turn ugly. What we can use is colour and gesture.
The exhibition rooms are crowded with visitors. The air hums with their whispered reactions. There is talk of “creative revelation” and of “traumatic experience”. These are personal responses. The artworks themselves are personal responses. Here we are as an audience, being called on to respond personally to a series of personal responses. This is art as me-journalism. And when the artist’s response succeeds in triggering a response of our own, either in reaction or in sympathy, the result is extraordinarily powerful. This is the ideal time to be looking again at these works, in an age so politically polarised that we can scarcely even sit at the same table as people who don’t agree with us. We need Abstract Expressionism to save us from fetishes and propaganda.
But is self-expression anything more than simple self-indulgence? Yes, if the self-expresser is equipped with the vocabulary to interpret his or her feelings productively. All (or almost all) of the artists represented in this show are very well equipped, and their eloquence elicits a productive response. The solemn, Beaux Arts neoclassicism of the exhibition rooms is a perfect foil for this art.
The problem, though, is that too many feelings are being expressed. And too few walls are available to harbour all the wealth of feeling that is outpoured. The result is a clamorous hubbub. And there are very few places to sit down. But perhaps this is a quibble. You need to give yourself time. This is not a show to see in a hurry.
The work of Arshile Gorky had a formative influence on the AbEx movement and an entire room is dedicated to him. He does not use the medium of abstraction to express emotions or ideas; he is rooted in Surrealism and his paintings send audiences scrabbling for figurative interpretations. The exhibition points out Gorky’s “knack for camouflaging forms so that their identities hover between the recognisable and the cryptic.” This means that we are perpetually trying to see forms in all his works, forms that will provide the meaning and the interpretation, like looking for recognisable shapes in clouds. We do this with The Orators, which the wall text tells us is an “artfully obscured scene of figures around the funeral bier of Gorky’s father.” The figures are either obscured too artfully or not obscured enough. We spend too long intellectualising, trying to make them take comprehensible shape. If we aren’t careful, we can talk a lot of rubbish about art like this. Fortunately AbEx didn’t linger there.
For a while perhaps it looked as if it was going to. Willem de Kooning, in his figurative phase, makes us sit and watch while he wrestles with the age-old male dilemma: Women. Do you worship them or make fun of them? Thankfully he emerges from it to give us his best work (and the finest two pieces in the room dedicated to him): Villa Borghese (1960) and Untitled (1961), generous patches of lemon yellow, blue, green and pastel pink, which evoke sunshine and tranquillity. Franz Kline’s violent black slashes across white backgrounds evoke cast-iron bridges, steelyards and gantries. They are like photography gone backwards into painting. One enjoys them in silence, they are all about atmosphere. So is Milton Resnick’s beautiful, wintry Octave, which strikes the viewer like a grey day at Giverny.
Monet is not the only artist echoed and challenged by these painters. Picasso also looms large. And Jackson Pollock’s Summertime 9A looks like a Mondrian pulled so tight that the black lines have stretched and buckled: released, they spring back into a knotted, rhythmic tangle, clotted with the yellow, red and blue areas of infill.
Age-old scriptural and mythological figures are abstractly explored by Barnett Newman: Adam, Eve, and Ulysses (1952). Tempting as it is in Ulysses to interpret the strongly divided planes of blue as representations of sea and sky, Newman has chosen to make his axis a vertical one. So we are left more with a mood and a feeling than an idea, and the result is restful. Vast landscapes are evoked by Clyfford Still. Ad Reinhardt puts a frame around black nothing to turn it into something, a thing to go on a wall, like a sort of anti-mirror, sucking all reflections in, giving nothing back.
And what about Rothko, who famously hoped to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch” who dined in the room where his Seagram murals were to hang? If they had ever been hung there, I doubt he would have succeeded. His Self-portrait or Interior would have appalled the sons of bitches. De Kooning’s Woman II would have had them running for the door. Rothko’s colour-field rectangles such as No. 4 (Untitled) couldn’t possibly. Here is an artist who set out with such aggressive intent, aiming to “defeat” the walls with the plenitude of his art. Yet the result is tremendously relaxing and satisfying. It is daring but it is not terrible. The whole gamut of human emotion is there, but there is no dissonance. Each tableau speaks like a still small voice of calm. Expressionism, when it is figural, is grotesque. When it is abstract, it is not, however belligerent or morbid the emotions that engendered it. The Rothko paintings, in the central octagon, are as gorgeous and uplifting as any juxtaposition of tragedy and ecstasy in a Baroque canvas of sacred apotheosis. Where they triumph (and where other Abstract Expressionist artists fail) is that they leave you with nothing to say. You can only feel.
The scale of these works, in terms of the value of their content, is in almost every case equal to their size. The “sensuous qualities of paint” are also important. What strikes one forcibly is how old-fashioned the works are. There is no dilettantish daubing at play here. We are dealing with a masterly handling of the medium. What people are responding to is not just the call on their emotions but also the sheer skill of the artists. No one would ever look at one of these works and say, “I could paint that.”