Backstage at the Moulin Rouge

Well no, no really, but we’ve go two really fine exhibitions going on in Bath at the moment – one is an exhibition of posters – many of them by Lautrec – at the Victoria Art Gallery, and the other at the Holburne Museum is a large collection of Grayson Perry’s early works.

I love Lautrec’s work; I love its vigour, the sweep of his line and the way he seems to make something beautiful out of tawdry, demi monde Paris. There’s a whole argument about the relationship between truth and beauty that I won’t bore you with, but Lautrec never had the rather cruel, forensic eye that you see in say Grosz or Beckmann and I think it’s because he was an outsider himself. I don’t want to write an art history essay here, but looking at the poster of the dancer La Goulou (“Greedy Guts”) there’s something about the drawing of the look on her face, described very economically in profile, that shows  compassion for her. I can imagine Lautrec sitting sketching in the wings and watching her perform to the crowded audience, and noticing something in her eyes that suggests she is simply working. She’s not engaging with the crowd, she’s certainly not flirting with them, she is not owned by them or dependent on them, not out for hire but just working. Lautrec gives her a kind of nobility.  He does that a lot in his posters – you can see that his characters aren’t taken in by the superficial glamour of what they do. The booze, the prostitution, the infidelites are all there but they don’t define the performers.  You notice that he’s far less sympathetic to the punters and that may be because he was an outsider too.  Disabled by a childhood injury – I can imagine that his bones were broken near the growth plates and they just stopped growing – he would have known what it felt like to be stared at, what it felt like to be regarded as both fascinating and horrible at the same time. And of course he had a gift that meant people had to engage with him on his terms. In a world of outsiders he was just another one; but he was totally accepted in the favela of the cabarets, the bars and the brothels.

Grayson Perry has the same ‘outsider’ quality. We went to see his work the day after the exhibition was opened and it was absolutely heaving with people.  He’s immensely popular, especially – it seems – with the over sixties, judging by the crowds. We liked his work very much – apparently quite a proportion of his earliest stuff was bought by people who lived around here. My biggest impression was just how hard he worked; it seems that ‘being yourself’ demands the kind of fierce concentration that few people would be prepared to give.

And then there’s Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seagull’s Cry” which I’ve been raving on about for long enough. I took a look at some of the reviews that came out when it was published – all of them very positive, but this one by Alex Preston in the Financial Times struck me as rather odd.

The poet Michael Longley said that nature was a way into, rather than an escape from, politics. “My nature writing is my most political,” he wrote. “Describing the world in a meticulous way is a consecration and a stay against damaging dogmatism.” The more you read The Seabird’s Cry, the more you recognise that this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre — but a powerful polemic, a call to arms. Science, Nicolson writes, “is coming to understand the seabirds just as they are dying”. He asks us to save the seabirds, but to save them through a radical sympathetic shift …

Now nature writing is undergoing a true renaissance at the moment; the list of fine writers on the natural world is long and distinguished, but to write – “this is not nature writing — generally a trite and provincial genre”  is, if you’ll forgive me, a particularly suburban and smug remark based on a false syllogism:

  • Nature writing is generally trite and provincial
  • This writing is not trite and provincial
  • Therefore it is not nature writing

The flaw is in the premise – as usual –  and Alex Preston clearly has no idea what is going on in the world.  I suppose you could call Gilbert White provincial but only in the strict sense that Selborne isn’t in the East End and inhabited exclusively by currency dealers and hipsters. In theology this kind of prejudice was known as “the scandal of particularity”. Nothing exists except as a shadow of its essence, he might argue, and therefore to concern oneself with the absolutely unique and material beauty of the dandelion in the crack on the pavement outside my flat is to miss (so he might say) its dandelionarity.  Surely you might expect a novelist to understand that no-one wants to read a book about stereotypes!

Nicholson’s chapter on the Guillemot makes for harrowing reading as he describes the way that the social mores that historically held these bird communities together through constant reinforcement, broke down as the food sources moved away from the nesting sites due to global warming. Deprived of the abundant food, the guillemots began to turn on one another, chicks were slaughtered by neighbouring birds that once might have fostered them. Reading the chapter, it was impossible not to extend the sense of danger to human communities as well.  Once the social bonds are broken there may well be hell to pay in the most literal sense.

And back in the very real and particular world of horse shit and hotbeds I’m pleased to report that ours has risen from 10C to 30C in less than a week. In Lautrec’s day the market gardens of Montmartre relied on hotbeds to grow early salad crops for export to London. Jack First’s great book on hotbeds – all you need to get going – quotes McKay whose book, published in 1908 said:

The French sent over to London up to 5000 crates of lettuces with 3 dozen lettuces per crate, 500 crates of carrots with a dozen bunches per crate, plus 100 crates each of asparagus and turnips and 50 crates of celeriac – every day – and all between Christmas and March.

All that and there was still time to go down to the Moulin Rouge and watch La Goulue.  I could get used to it!

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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