9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
What's in a painting? The potential for disaster, for one thing. Nigel Ryan reviews Headlong, a tale of vanity and ambition saved only by a thoroughly modern moral equivocation
In search of an attribution
WhatOs in a painting? The potential for disaster, for one thing. Nigel Ryan reviews Headlong, a tale of vanity and ambition saved only by a thoroughly modern moral equivocation
Sayyid Qutb: Othe right to revoltO
Sayyid Qutb wa Thawrat Yulyou (Sayyid Qutb and the July Revolution), Helmi el-Namnam, Cairo: Meret for Publication and Information, 1999. pp150
Interpretation and beyond
Fate of A Prisoner and Other Stories, Denys Johnson-Davies, London: Quartet Books, 1999. pp222
Questioning the body, questioning the mind
Nawal al-Saadawi, TaOam Al-Solta wal Jins(The Twins of Power and Sex), Dar al-Mustaqbal al-Arabi, Cairo 1999 , pp258
A political scientist among the historians
The Social Origins of Egyptian Expansionism During the Muhammad 'Ali Period, Fred H Lawson, The American University in Cairo Press, 1999 (first published Columbia University Press, 1992). pp215
Ancient Egyptian windfall
* Egypt, Ancient and Modern by Isabella Brega, trans. C.T.M. Milan. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp135
* Egyptian Luxuries: Fragrance, Aromatherapy, and Cosmetics in Pharaonic Times. Lise Manniche with photographs by Werner Forman. The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp160
* Ancient Egypt. David P. Silverman ed., The American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp255
Al Jadid, vol. 5, no. 28, 1999, Los Angeles, Al Jadid
Sharing the self
Dikka Khashabiya Tasa Ithnayn Bilkad (A wooden bench barely wide enough for two), Shehata el-Iryan, Cairo: Aswat Adabiya (Literary Voices) General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp206
To the editor
At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani
* Al-Hilal, monthly magazine, issue no. 12, December 1999, Cairo: Al-Hilal Publishing House
* Al-Arabi, monthly magazine, issue no. 493, December 1999, Kuwait: Ministry of Information
* Al-Kotob: Wughat Nazar (Books: Viewpoints), monthly magazine, issue no. 11, December 1999, Cairo: The Egyptian Company for Arab and International Publication
* Mirrors, Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen, illustrated by Seif Wanli, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp186
* Ibdaa (Creativity), monthly magazine, issue no. 10, November 1999, Cairo: GEBO
* Sotour (Lines), monthly magazine, issue no. 36, November 1999, Cairo: Sotour Publications
* Al-Thaqafa Al-Alamia (OWorld CultureO), Kuwait: The National Council for Culture and Arts
* Adab wa Naqd (Literature and Criticism), monthly literary magazine, issue no. 171, November 1999, Cairo: Progressive National Unionist Party publications
* Qadaya Fikriya (Intellectual Issues), occasional book, issues no. 19 and 20, October 1999
* Al-OOsour Al-Jadida (New Eras), monthly magazine, issue no. 2, 1999, Cairo: Sinai Publishing House
* Nizwa, quarterly magazine, issue no. 20, October 1999, Oman: Omani Corporation for Press, Publishing and Advertising
To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index.
Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996
In search of an attribution
Headlong, Michael Frayn, London: Faber and Faber, 1999. pp394
The Hunters in the Snow
"In New York in 1990 a copy by Pieter Breughel, the Younger of one of his father's major works, The Census at Bethlehem, fetched £1,200,000. Over a million pounds for a copy. So for an original... An original that opens and completes the great cycle of the year...But I'm not thinking about the money. Truly I'm not"
Early on, Headlong contains a warning against the vanity of attempting to describe any painting in detail: use only the "strictest economy of words", attempt only "aphoristic remarks, put together unsystematically", the reader is enjoined. The advice comes from Max Friedlnder, a representative of that endangered species, the authoritative, patrician art historian, figures who haunt this novel almost as much as the elusive Pieter Breugel the Elder himself.
It is an admonition that Martin Clay, erstwhile hero of Michael Frayn's novel, would have done well to follow. "Friedlander, my beloved Max," waxes the would-be connoisseur, "even in the 1976 edition of Early Netherlandish Painting, still accepts twelve without question or discussion. But then Breugel is right at the end of his period, tacked on to Volume 14..."
The twelve in question are paintings -- Breugel depictions of, Clay at first decides, the twelve months. Only there is no evidence at all to suggest that The Hunters in the Snow, a picture whose ubiquity -- it has graced a few too many Christmas cards to retain much meaning -- ever had eleven companion pieces. In 1566 De Twelff maenden are listed as being among 16 Breugel paintings offered to the city of Antwerp in security for a debt of 16,000 guilders in unpaid tax for wine imports, but there is no reason to believe that these twelve months were actually twelve separate paintings.
By 1594, Clay discovers, 6 Taffeln von den 12 monats Zeiten were presented by the city of Antwerp to Archduke Ernst von Hapsburg, and a year later, in an inventory of the Archduke's belongings compiled after his death, the same six paintings are listed as Sechs Taffell, von 12 Monathenn des Jars von Breugel. Only five of these six, though, are known: three in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one in Prague and one in New York. It is Martin Clay's great misfortune to assume that he has discovered the sixth.
To secure a convincing attribution, though, is far from simple, not to mention the fact that the painting belongs not to Clay but to his unscrupulous, land-owning neighbour. And so begins a long haul in which Clay picks over the nitty gritty of art historical scholarship in his search for a convincing attribution, while at the same time concocting the crudest of plans to secure the painting for himself.
Was Breugel a heretic? Was he a member of the schola caritatis, a manichaean sect in the Cathar tradition, founded by Hendrik Niclaes, and if he was, what on earth was he doing as a retainer to Archbishop Granvelle, the Holy Roman Emperor's henchman in the Netherlands and, until being stabbed in the back by Philip II, its de facto ruler. (Granvelle, for all his erudition, never quite learned the lesson that you cannot trust failing imperial regimes.)
In the meantime, though, Granvelle presided over an impressive reign of terror. If things in the Netherlands were bad under Philip's predecessor, Charles V -- "he introduced the papal inquisition in 1521, and in 1535 reinforced it with an imperial edict specifying that, although unrepentant heretics were to be burnt, repentant males were to be executed with the sword, and repentant females buried alive", a not terribly chivalrous form of sexual discrimination -- they got worse under Philip II, who was barking mad, and very far from pleasant.
Beheadings, burnings and buryings alive increased tenfold in the mid-16th century, and leading the charge was Breugel's patron, Cardinal Granvelle. By 1568, when the holy office denounced the entire population of the Netherlands as heretics, Philip was sufficiently insane to order their execution en masse, "regardless of age, sex or condition".
Breugel, if he had been a member of the schola caritatis, had certainly strayed into the lion's den when he adopted Granvelle as his protector. Yet Clay is determined to unravel the iconography of the five extant paintings to show that this landscape of death, which the Netherlands had become, and through which the real Breugel must have strolled frequently, was reflected in the bucolic scenes Breugel painted. Clay pores over iconographic details determined not just to show that the five unquestioned Breugels act as a secret commentary on the contemporary history of the beleaguered province but that his painting -- or rather his neighbours, for he has not quite swindled it out of the hapless landowner's possession yet -- begins the series, and by virtue of some as yet unobserved detail, unravels the mysterious, seemingly blithe ignoring of reality, of the others.
The ensuing journey through the twists and turns of art historical research is illuminating, a far more readable introduction to Breugel and the worlds he occupied than the academic texts of which Frayn makes such free use. Of course, in seeking the attribution he wants, the attribution that will, he hopes, make not just his reputation but a lot of money, Clay is forced to concentrate entirely on details, spurning Friedlnder's advice. It is only in the parallel plot -- the attempt to swindle his neighbour and acquire the painting he wants by disposing of others less valuable -- that he begins to make unsystematic connections, but unfortunately, in executing con-tricks, the unsystematic is entirely inappropriate.
Frayn is better known as a playwright than a novelist, and makes use, at times, of shamelessly theatrical ploys. At Christies Clay attempts to off-load a Giordano, and is assumed to be its owner in a farcical episode of mistaken identity. Eventually, though, the mistakes begin to be less farcical. Tony Churt, the Breugel and Giordano's owner, turns out not to be their real owner after all. He pilfered them from his dying mother's house, to which they came, originally, as war booty, snatched, Clay decides in self-justifying rationalisation, by Churt's officer father, probably from some starving Jew desperate to sell anything, at any price.
So nothing really changes. The three Breugel's in Vienna, presented to Ernst von Hapsburg by the good burghers of Antwerp -- a thank-you, presumably, for their city having been sacked not once but twice -- are to all effects and purposes pillaged goods. But Clay's intentions are more noble. He is unravelling an art historical knot, contributing to knowledge, aiding scholarship, helping civilisation on its way.
"No major painting by Breugel has come on the market since The Corn Harvest was acquired in Paris by the Metropolitan in 1919," Clay tells us. "In 1955 a small, very early work, Landscape with Christ appearing to his Disciples at the Sea of Galilee emerged from the castle of an unnamed family that had owned it for the previous century and a half, was identified by Tolnay, and in 1989 it was sold at Sotheby's for £780,000 pounds. In New York in 1990 a copy by Pieter Breughel, the Younger of one of his father's major works, The Census at Bethlehem, fetched £1,200,000."
But such figures, Clay protests, are merely incidental.
"Over a million pounds for a copy. So for an original... An original that opens and completes the great cycle of the year...
But I'm not thinking about the money. Truly I'm not."
And sometimes, truly, he isn't.
Having perfected a narrative voice, Frayn allows Clay to go his bumbling way. An affair with his neighbour's wife, all the better to see 'his' painting, which for some reason is moved from the breakfast room, where it had served as a firescreen, to bedroom, where it becomes a mattress support, truly has nothing to do with desire, except sometimes.
He doesn't tell his wife of his convoluted schemes, not because she might question them but because, sometimes, truly, he does not want her to worry.
And he really does feel that the Breugel, if indeed it is a Breugel, must be wrested from the hands of his neighbour, philistine member of a philistine class, for the greater good of mankind.
Clay's headlong pursuit of knowledge, his increasing obsession with unravelling the mystery, becomes intently focused on a tiny figure, in the background of the painting which, for a variety of reasons, often painfully farcical, he never quite has time to see. A cleric arrives at one important juncture, and Clay is forced to vacate the bedroom, only to be attacked by dogs. But then the cleric turns out not to be a cleric, but a rival art historian, and Clay's quest becomes ever more urgent, lest he be pipped at the post.
Sometimes our hero's moral relativity becomes too painful, the contortions through which he puts his moral sense too acute. Yet on the brink of abandoning his schemes he inevitably pulls back, convinced, he convinces himself, of the overwhelming nature of that first moment of recognition, when he laid eyes on the painting and knew, immediately, what it was.
And is it?
We can really never be sure. And perhaps that is no bad thing. Such certitude wasted the Netherlands, and belongs to mad Spanish kings, or else is exploited by figures like Cardinal Granvelle, Philip's provincial Reichskommissar. And if Clay's equivocation becomes at times immensely irritating, it eventually saves the day, or at least salvages from it what can be salvaged.
Headlong, finally, becomes an intensely moral novel, one concerned with the untenability of absolutes. The old masters, Auden famously wrote of Breugel, knew about suffering. As Icarus falls into the sea, the galleon sails impassively by, the peasants get on with their farming, and nobody really notices. But Breugel noticed, Clay wants to argue, and he recorded, somehow, somewhere, in the background, in a significant detail.
Auden notices Breugel noticing others not: a tortured formulation, but perhaps the best for which we can hope. Clay would seek to make his Breugel as well known as Auden made The Fall of Icarus, a slightly distorted version of which, incidentally, adorns the cover of Frayn's novel. But alas, his ambitions go up in flames, as fate intervenes -- impassive, and as always, pitilessly cruel towards the vanity of ambition, as Icarus learned to his cost.
Once bitten, twice shy. Following his series of misadventures Clay settles down, almost reconciled in the marriage he almost wrecked, to attempt to complete the study of the impact of nominalism on early Netherlandish art that he had been attempting to complete when he first clapped eyes on the painting that proved, almost, his undoing.
Martin Clay, then, begins and ends Headlong as an iconologist. And iconology, he tells us within just a few pages, "teaches that plain iconography has to be read in conjunction with a wider conception of style and artistic intention -- that its real meaning is the opposite of what it appears to be."
Which, of course, might just explain those placid landscapes amid so much carnage.