Bridget Riley

Bridget Riley - Arts-Notes

|“Those who understand art only by what it looks like often do not understand very much at all.” -Sol Lewitt|

In 1965 Bridget Riley made a trip to New York City to participate in a show titled, “The Responsive Eye.” Her black and white works were already well known with one having been purchased by a dressmaker who just happened to be on the board of the Museum of Modern Art. He used the painting as the basis for a dress design, other designers quickly followed and suddenly Riley’s work was not only on dresses but lampshades and sofas. She was equally surprised and appalled by this use of her work – and received absolutely no compensation. Returning to her home in England, Riley assumed it would be decades before she would be taken seriously again. Fortunately for us, she was wrong.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Af3RgRRAGa4[/embedyt]

Riley was asked about the earliest paintings, “Were you an angry young woman?” She responded, “I don’t think it was so much that.”

Today these early works – mostly synthetic emulsion on board then soon after simply oil on canvas – are too quickly labeled as Op Art. But Riley’s intention has never been about visual tricks to entertain spectators. In fact, Riley has described her early work this way, “I think they were beautifully aggressive.” When one of the grand old men of art criticism, E. H. Gombrich, inquired about her use of ‘the pure physics of the behavior of light’ Riley simply replied, “I haven’t studied the pure physics of the behavior of light.” The paintings are primarily intended to stimulate the brain, not the optical nerves. Her work is instead grounded in the long history of painting. In Riley’s intelligent conversations concerning artists, she has studied and admired we hear the importance of Titian, Poussin, Delacroix, Seurat, and Mondrian, among others. Her observations are quite sophisticated, “Titian takes two blues and an off-white from the colors in the sky – the farthest distance – and moves them down into the foreground as a skirt, a cloak, and a dress.

“… color is wholly relative. Every hue throughout your work is altered by every touch you add in other places…” John Ruskin

Riley also discusses her progression as an artist by reflecting on the decision to move from black-and-white, to gray and then on to the color paintings for which she is now best known. She mentions the shift from black-and-white to gray was far more challenging than that when moving to color. Interestingly, many of the color paintings retain visual forms similar to some of those early black-and-white works. Despite the similarity in design, the color works have a startlingly different impact on this viewer. A trip to Egypt inspired both paintings and prints where the organization of colored stripes would influence later colorwork. Like her observation of how Titian uses colors to create “air” and cohesion in his works, Riley is very thoughtful in how she uses color in hers. Whether simple vertical stripes or wavy horizontal lines, these compare favorably to the later works featuring a mash-up of curves fragmented and interlaced diagonally.

Bridget Riley - Arts-Notes.com - Work Transition

“If you think of a square, or a circle or triangle, no matter what size it may be, you know exactly what form you can expect to see. But if you say red, yellow or blue you do not know at all what shade of colour you will be looking at.” Bridget Riley

The relationship between music and painting is another interesting topic Riley discusses. She said the impact of Stravinski’s lectures from 1939 that she read in book form became a sort of ‘bible’ to her (her word, her quote marks). Kandinsky also played in this space, but on a more esoteric level, “…we see the color green in the Key of D, only less dogmatically”. Again, for Riley color is more than something to stimulate the visual cortex. Like music, color can create feelings and emotions that are physical. Classical music, like classic paintings, can be studied across a spectrum of ideas and concepts.

“To treat them as historical documents or evidence of past concepts is wrong – they are particular solutions to continuing artistic problems…” Bridget Riley

bridget-riley-dialogues-on-artA recent review in the Wall Street Journal (1-7-2020) was effusive in praise for an impressive Riley retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery at the end of 2019. Yet, there remains a tendency to emphasize the visual over the cerebral. Over the top comments in the review included: “walking into a snail shell and discovering a turbulent seascape”; “the furious waves of Cataract 3” and; “the furious Indian reds” (are we allowed to use the word furious twice in one review?). It was a stunning show, but more because of the ideas and art history her paintings embrace, not just the optical effects. Today Bridget Riley is still making artwork that is more cerebral than visual, more lyrical than literal.

A series of interviews originally recorded in 1992 and reprinted in 1995 have been collected in an excellent new book, Bridget Riley Dialogues on Art, 2019. Most of the quotes here – hers and others – came from that book.

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When Similar Does Not Mean Same As

Paul Klee Bauhaus

|“…it’s fascinating to see people converging at similar visual endpoints even when starting from different places, following divergent paths, and all the while thinking about different things.”|

Paul Klee Exhibit 1993For no particular reason, I bought a handsome catalog of Paul Klee works printed in conjunction with an exhibit at the Guggenheim Museum (May 7 to September 19, 1993). Fairly limited in scope, featuring works mostly from the Guggenheim’s own collection, it did manage to convey the breadth of styles that Klee worked through, from adolescence to his early death. Always experimenting, Paul Klee used some unconventional methods to create original works, as well as multiples and prints. From sophisticated uses of color to the more primitive, and childlike imagery that he is widely known by, the guy did some really fine work.

Paul Klee PolyphonyBut the “A-Ha” moment came with two works in particular. The first was a pen and ink drawing from a Bauhaus course catalog (1929), “Five Part, Polyphony.” The second was a later painting (1939), “Rocks at Night.” Both were precursors – whether acknowledged or not – of Sol Lewitt. This suggestion is not to in any way intended to diminish the originality of Lewitt’s work.

________________________________

“By diverse means, we arrive at the same end.”

-Michel de Montaigne

________________________________

I was reminded of an essay by Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka and His Precursors. Borges reflected on the phenomenon of similarities of early artistic expressions to later ones that only become obvious in retrospect. In other words, to use Borges’ example, the relationship of writings from the Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea to those of Franz Kafka. The work of Kafka is not intended to reference Zeno, but using ideas discussed by Kafka allows us to see something fresh in Zeno. Or, put another way, reading Zeno through the lens of Kafka allows us to tease new meaning from something old and familiar.

Similarly, Lewitt took some heat in the early 1970s when his “Circles, Grids, Arcs,” series culminated (logically) with a drawing similar to the works of a French artist, Francois Morrellet. Very different sensibilities, both arriving at similar visual expressions, are not proof of plagiarism. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz anyone?

So here in the Paul Klee oeuvre was a drawing, Polyphony, of straight lines in four directions, many converging and overlapping, creating an image reminiscent of ideas explored by Lewitt years later in his many series’ featuring “Lines in Four Directions.” Then the beautiful blue painting, Rocks, which could hardly appear more alike to some of Lewitt’s “Irregular Shapes” images.

Paul Klee, Sol Lewitt

“Polyphony”, “Lines in Four Directions”, “Rocks”, “Irregular Shapes”

Stretching out a bit, some of the most beautiful of the Paul Klee paintings in the Guggenheim catalog look like carbon copies of Australian Aboriginal Dream paintings. The similarities of some Klee drawings to the work of Milton Avery and Ben Shahn is striking. Prints reminiscent of recent work by Jim Nutt seem obvious. Like Lewitt’s intersection with Morrellet, it’s fascinating to see people converging at similar visual endpoints even when starting from different places, following divergent paths, and all the while thinking about different things.

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Chymische Hockziet Enoch

Chymische Hochziet (Cover Photo)

|“Chaos is an azure line that surrounds all the world.” From the Sefer Yetsirah|

Chapter One

While reading the Sefer Yetsirah by the light emanating from a painting of Lucas Cranach I was approached by an angel whose wings were covered with blinking eyes. As it hovered above the table where I laid down my book, the angel offered me an envelope. Carefully opening the letter I discovered inside a single sheet of fine papyrus embossed in the lower right-hand corner with a single symbol. Not immediately identifiable, the curious figure reminded me of the Monad of alchemist John Dee, as it had been described by the polymath Athanasius Kircher. The angel hovered above me, the eyes on its wings moving in every direction until I realized the papyrus sheet was an invitation.

I hastily gathered up some bread, beer and the philosopher’s stone placing them in a small package. After donning a hat decorated with five flowers, I followed the angel as it flew out of my library. As the angel finally identified itself as Semyaza I felt an indistinct unease, like that, encountered as one begins a long journey.

Moving into the darkness of night Semyaza led me through a series of gates guarded by: An ancient Oriental man wearing a sky-colored robe; a sphinx made of mercury; the sacred painter of the profane, Father Giotto; and ultimately we passed a virgin named “The Magdalene” who was carefully extinguishing devotional candles resting on a small alter covered with a red cloth.

Semyaza bade me farewell, leaving me before the entrance to a great courtyard. Here a group of angels, whose faces were dirty with soot, bound me tightly with rope and left me alone in the darkness, awaiting dawn. The morning light revealed a gallery on the west side of the courtyard. It slowly filled with 999 sacred falcons, all bred in the gardens of the Temple of Behkdet in Egypt. A priest wearing a gold mask shaped like an ibis declared loudly that the falcons had deemed me to be not entirely unworthy. As such, I would be allowed to witness the terrible spectacle of a Chymische Hockziet. With this proclamation, the priest turned to leave as the sky filled suddenly with shrieking birds flying in every direction and I was reminded of the eyes on Semyaza’s wings. Then the ropes that had held me fell away and again I was alone.

Chapter Two

The angels with dirty faces returned and I was given a handsome pewter goblet filled with a powerful smelling, blood-like liquor and told to drink. Closing my eyes as I slowly sipped from the goblet, a feeling of heat spread throughout my body. A vision of a royal sepulcher in all its sublime glory appeared before me. I was led to a magnificent library like that of Borges imagination and felt bliss.

Upon leaving the library I found myself in a small, enclosed garden. Spying a large three-tiered fountain, I first drank and then bathed. Refreshed, I went down a dark, spiraling stairway furnished with rare tapestries and beautiful paintings, though I was saddened to realize none were by Nicholas Poussin. The stairs ended at a great hall whose walls and high ceilings appeared to be made of flames. In the center of this awful place rested the skull of Adom Kadmon with a serpent crawling in and out of the eye sockets. The name Lilith had been painted on the snake’s back in silver.

A door at the far end of the flaming hall opened to the shore of a raging ocean. A single ship being tossed about on the waves awaited me. Boarding the boat I found no one else there. My only recollection from the voyage was passing an island around which nine muses slept fitfully as they floated upon a green foam that remained undisturbed by the rough seas. Arriving at a place very cold and seemingly without color, I was carried off by four wingless angels, each with an aleph painted in gold on its forehead. They laid me on a blue cushion in the middle of a vast stone floor that had no walls. Sitting there in the numbing cold I gazed at the endless ocean until midnight, when I fell into a troubled sleep.

Chapter Three

It must have been very early the next morning when priests, dressed as gods from Ancient Egypt, woke me up and led me across the vast pavement. Arriving at an undecorated stone building, I was asked for my small package of offerings as well as the five flowers still decorating my hat.  In return, I was given Occam’s Razor, which I carried tentatively into the building. We entered a room, identified in small letters carved above the door as the Nuptial Hall, where I took a seat among mostly empty pews.

A battered wooden alter rested against the east wall and in front of it stood Enoch, whose hat was now decorated with my five flowers. He stared intently at the opposite wall and I turned to see his bride to be, the sweet Shekinah, making her way slowly toward the altar. The room was growing increasingly hot and I realized the sun was now shining brightly through long, thin windows and casting alternating stripes of light and shadow across the room. A priest who reminded me of the Pharaoh Akhenaten rose from the front pew and turning around with his back to the bride and bridegroom began speaking in a sonorous voice of love. As he spoke, cherubs descended carrying a massive crown, made of many precious stones, that was held above the heads of Enoch and his sweet Shekinah.

Suddenly a great cacophony erupted as the angels with dirty faces flew into the room carrying the blue cushion I had slept upon the previous evening. Then just as quickly, the room became completely silent as Semyaza entered with the pewter cup I had brought here the day before. Handing it first to Enoch, and then his sweet Shekinah, the couple took turns partaking of the evil red liquid before smashing the goblet against the stone wall. Semyaza picked up the broken pieces of the pewter cup and placed them on the blue cushion. When his sweet Shekinah kissed Enoch gently on the stomach I sensed the ceremony was over. As if leading a royal procession, Enoch and his bride left the Nuptial Hall at the head of the few attendees.

Only Semyaza and I were left in a now deserted room. The angel pointed at the floor beside the wooden altar where I noticed a large, beautiful painting by Max Beckmann of a woman lovingly embracing a mandolin as she lay asleep. Semyaza asked that I lay down on the painting where I proceeded to again fall into a troubled sleep. As the sweet Shekinah and her groom sailed away aboard the ship that had brought me to this place I dreamed of my long passed youth and wept softly.

Chapter Four

Trumpets sounded as these visions faded from my memory and all that was dark became light.

 

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Art Police

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The Art of Life and Death

David Fandila The Matador

|The bull and its blood symbolize a call to nature at its most brutal, pure and irrational. -Jose Antonio del Moral|

If you are not a fan of bullfighting please move along. My interest in defending this sport is exactly zero.

There is a documentary about bullfighting, The Matador, by Seavey and Higgins, that follows a very young (and now very famous) Spanish bullfighter, David Fandila, over a three-year period as he struggled to complete 100 corridas in a single season. A cursory glance at the reviews found the film to have been well received when it premiered in 2008, and this in spite of the subject. While I found the story of “El Fandi” more engaging than the story-telling, it certainly offered up some great bullfighting video and even better quotes; from Jose Antonio del Moral, “The bull and its blood symbolizes a call to nature at its most brutal, pure and irrational.”

Enrique Ponce 1Many casual comments become quite compelling when scrutinized, including agreement from El Fandi, that he is not an artistic bullfighter. This observation is not without merit, since a comparison to, for example, Enrique Ponce provides a clear contrast in styles. Ponce performs with an elegance of posture and movement that even a first-time viewer would likely define as classical. Whereas El Fandi demonstrates a theatrical, often coarse flair more akin to an entertainer. This difference in approach is not just about technique. It is about the purpose of the spectacle found only in a corrida.

El Fandi states unambiguously his desire to deliver a memorable performance, to “bring the audience to ecstasy.” Being a great bullfighter in the traditional sense appears less interesting than being an inspiring entertainer. del Moral offers another observation to David Fandila 3this point, “…but it is a beautiful savagery with an artistic payoff.” By comparison, he refers to ballet, where the movement of the human body is regarded as artistic expression. Yet for El Fandi, it is the elegance displayed in the face of death that defines the artist. While a whiff of fear will destroy an otherwise masterful performance, El Fandi chooses to exaggerate his bravado, delivering a show that forcefully reminds the viewer of the high stakes being wagered with each corrida. His technique is less about the form (classical) than in the delivery (entertaining).

It is also worth noting that the documentary does an excellent job of reminding the viewer that the bulls can give as good as they get. The remarkable scene of El Fandi being gored, immediately undergoing surgery, then returning to the ring forty-five minutes later to continue fighting is unsettling to the extreme. And a vivid reminder of what separates the truly great from the rest of us mere mortals.

The MatadorFinally, it is worth knowing that a bull only fights once, if it survives it is put to pasture. Speaking about the bulls that survive the corrida, a young David Fandila talks about the “inner calm” he senses when in the presence of these winning champions. Interesting observation from a guy whose death in the ring is the only way for a bull to enjoy an “inner calm.”

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Kipling and the Man Who Would Be Surprised

Rudyard Kipling 1

|The wheel of the world swings through the same phases again and again.|― Rudyard Kipling, “The Man Who Would Be King”

For no particular reason, I’ve again been reading the collected works of Rudyard Kipling. Rudyard Kiplng jungle book pngMostly he is remembered today (if at all) for two memorable movies based (loosely) on his short stories, The Jungle Book and The Man Who Would Be King. Yet the remaining trove of poems, ballads, mysteries, short stories, and novels are all equally compelling. Luckily, weighing in at around 900 pages, there is much to enjoy.

So imagine my surprise in discovering that the lyrics to the Frank Sinatra classic, On the Road to Mandalay (from 1957’s Come fly with me), are in fact a Kipling poem penned about a century earlier. Equally fascinating has been the number of old chestnuts still in circulation that finds their origins in a Kipling work – “He was a better man than me,” indeed. And I’ll bet many folks of my generation (and their kids) have fond and vivid memories of Walt Disney’s animated version of The Jungle Book. Even though the story of Mowgli is but a small part of a larger work.

The Man Who Would Be King

Yet it was the revelations around both the short story and the movie, The Man Who Would Be King, that inspired this note. First, while the movie has long been a favorite, it has now taken on an added luster. After the first viewing, this movie was an inspiration for my long serving friend David and me to pursue Masonic studies, though in the book this theme is not nearly so prominent but remains important. Second, the pairing of Sean Connery and Michael Caine proved to be a stroke of genius. What a great movie.

However, I had been unable to appreciate just what a tremendous job had been done by John Huston (think, The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart, who was originally cast to play Peachy) when preparing the screenplay. I continue to run across lines from other Kipling stories totally unrelated to The Man Who Would Be King that are included as dialogue in the movie, such as the line “Straight as a beggar can spit.” Additionally, the added scenes allowing a short story to fill a feature-length movie were brilliantly conceived, and a couple of them I actually missed when reading the original story. Clearly, Huston was just as interested in recreating the world of Kipling as he was in retelling this one short story.

With the next viewing of The Man Who Would Be King, it will be the first look through a new lens. And what grander adventure is there than to enjoy discovering something so familiar still has mysteries to uncover.

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Random Thoughts on Art: Explaining Creativity

|Eric Fischl does a fabulous job explaining not just how he goes about the creative process, but how his creative process came to be what it is.|

Eric Fischl - Bad BoyEric Fischl’s 2013 autobiography, Bad Boy, is quite the piece of work – literally. His name was familiar to me, though his paintings were not. One of the New Kids that came of age, and fame, in the early 1980’s by putting figurative back into contemporary art. Julian Schnabel and David Salle being his contemporaries. The book is split pretty evenly between his personal history, professional life, thoughts on art, and making for often-uncomfortable reading. Finding some modicum of peace in this world depends on ensuring your personal demons don’t get the upper hand. Mr. Fischl seems to have fought the hard fight and won.

The reason to read this book, though, is the fabulous job Eric Fischl does in explaining not just how he goes about the creative process, but how his creative process came to be what it is. While it has been argued (mostly, it seems, in reviews of the book) his self-introspection borders on navel-gazing in the worst possible sense. That view is completely wrong-headed.

Eric Fischl’s conviction of the artist as a storyteller resonates strongly with me. To hear the artist as a young man was motivated by the works of both Mondrian and Max Beckmann is aEric Fischl - Page 341 - Bad Boy testament to his longstanding desire to understand art in all its richness, contrast and complexity. Though disagreeing with, for example, his assessment of artists like Sol Lewitt, Fischl still makes a solid case for how the ideas of what really good minimalist artists were trying to say were hijacked by the intellectually lazy.

In contrast, Fischl is adamant to a degree harmful for many of his personal relationships, that the artist must have something to say. More important, the artist must have something to say that someone else actually wants to hear. The failure of Art to retain its place of pride as a shared cultural touchstone is correctly blamed on hubris. On page 341, Fischl makes the following comment, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard artists saying, ‘Fuck the audience.’ But I thought: Why fuck the audience? Why not involve the audience?”

Reflections on The Name of the Rose Eco UmbertoThe many, brilliant passages where Fischl discusses his creative process, for both individual works as well as his overarching philosophies, are illuminating, and oddly familiar. In 1983 the author Umberto Eco published a very small book, Postscript to The Name of the Rose. In the fifth chapter, Eco uses almost identical words to describe almost identical examples of how an author goes about creating an interesting narrative – interesting for both the writer and the audience. A touchstone for the creative process?

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Random Thoughts on Art: The Calligraphic School of Painting?

|The late hard-edged paintings by both of these artists inform each other, but the calligraphic-like images show another alignment of thought leading to a similar solution.|

works by Piet Mondrain copyWhile reviewing some black and white photos of painting exhibits from the late 1930’s that featured the work of Piet Mondrian, I was struck by the resemblance of the paintings from this period to calligraphy. Frankly, it appeared to be very much in the genre of Japanese art where the calligraphy is the art. In these old photos, the blocks of color become black fill for horizontal and vertical lines of varying widths, with many appearing to be some unknown and cryptic alphabet.

Ad Reinhardt works

Ad Reinhardt 1940s

The similarity to work by Ad Reinhardt from 1948 to 1951 was pretty striking, and not something I had noticed before. The late hard-edged paintings by both of these artists inform each other, but the calligraphic-like images show another alignment of thought leading to a similar solution. With so much focus on Mondrian’s later, iconic work, other than a 1987 catalog from a Mondrian exhibit in Japan, his calligraphic works don’t appear to have been much reproduced. Nor have I seen examples on display at museums with respectable collections of Mondrian’s paintings.

Piet Mondrain - Composition with Grid #1

Piet Mondrain – Compostion with Grid #1

And while we’re talking about curious similarities between artists, Piet Mondrian created a series of paintings in 1919 that appear to me as precursors to work by Sol Lewitt. Specifically, Composition with Grid 1 and Composition with Grid 4 (called lozenge paintings; a square canvas with the corner oriented to the top). For Mondrian’s development, these paintings are the bridge between earlier geometric paintings and the later, more famous paintings of irregular grids with blocks of primary colors.

As Mondrian was trying to reconcile the linear depictions of ocean waves and building facades with his irregular blocks of colors, this series provided a more satisfying result than paintings like Composite in Kleur B from 1917. Yet these Mondrian works can be difficult to associate visually with the later and more famous paintings he is known by today. Similarly, it can be argued that Lewitt’s early efforts with strict cube forms also led to later works featuring pyramids and random forms, far removed from the dogmatic images associated with minimalism. Interesting that Mondrian moves from loose, figurative works to precise geometric paintings of lines and grids while Lewitt moves from precise black and white works informed by the cube to loose, color-filled images of wavy bands and irregular shapes.

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Random Thoughts on Art: Abstract Expressionism

jackson-pollock

|As Einstein taught us during the formative years of these two important artists, nothing can be analyzed in and of itself, but only in comparison to other phenomena.|

Jackson Pollock has always appealed to me more in theory than practice. The idea of an Action Painting is intellectually stimulating and supportive of the notion that the thoughts behind a work can be more significant than the final outcome (an idea Sol Lewitt took to beautiful extremes). Yet then there’s that awkward moment, when confronted by one of Pollock’s major drip paintings up close and personal, magic happens. The painting comes to life, a beautiful example of practice fully manifested and theory be damned. An encounter with Greyed Rainbow from 1953 is a forceful reminder of how powerful some of Pollock’s paintings are.

Jackson Pollock Greyed Rainbow

Jackson Pollock – Greyed Rainbow – 1953

A new twist on enjoying that painting was the opportunity to compare the Pollock to a work by Willem de KooningExcavation from 1950, while both were on display a few seasons ago at the Art Institute of Chicago. Roughly the same size, the two paintings made a stunning pair. Though both are considered paragons of Abstract Expression, the aesthetic and intellectual underpinnings of their work are not easily reconciled. Nonetheless, they still manage to deliver stunning similar results, but through different means of execution.

Willem de Kooning - Excavation - 1950

Willem de Kooning – Excavation – 1950

The deliberateness of de Kooning’s strokes provides an interesting contrast to the splash and drip of Pollock. That this Pollock also includes touches of a pale yellow that also permeates the de Kooning allows for thoughtful comparison. Viewed as a pair the two paintings serve as bookends to the notion of how an Action Painting is created. As I seem to recall from art school days, early on Pollock sometimes started with a figurative entity then layers on the paint until the subject was obliterated. A return to using figurative elements late in his career was accompanied by a much darker color pallet. de Kooning, on the other hand, never fully abandoned using figurative elements in his works – especially representations of the female form (sort of). de Kooning also tended to offer a brighter overall appearance (once past the black and white paintings of the 1940s).

Indeed, on close examination, it is not hard to look at the de Kooning as a sky filled with clouds that can be imagined as objects (sort of). Whereas the Pollock can only be viewed as an exercise in pure abstraction (paint for paint’s sake). Yet both land firmly, and reside comfortably, in the world of Abstract Expressionism Action Paintings. As Einstein taught us during the formative years of these two important artists, nothing can be analyzed in and of itself, but only in comparison to other phenomena.

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Gentlemen Adventurers

Privateering as an Investment Strategy
(Hint: The Only Yields are Literary)
By: Gerry Scott

Du Globe Terrestre Figure XCIV

A depiction of a Sailing Vessel from Description d’Univers, by Allain Manneson Mallet, 1683.

A friend’s generous and thoughtful gift of a print depicting a late 17th century sailing ship led me to consider what I might contribute to his site by way of a thank you.  Since the site deals with thoughts on art, jazz, and investments, and frequently discusses books that deal with those subjects, I thought bringing his readers’ attention to three books on the unlikely union of high-seas adventure in pursuit of wealth and English literature might be appropriate.

In the early 18th century there was a great deal of interest in England in the possibility of reaping financial reward from trade with what was then known as the South Sea, on the model of the success of British trade with the East Indies.  At the time the South Sea comprised the southern Pacific Ocean that washed upon the shores of South and Central America from Tierra del Fuego (and Cape Horn) as far north as California.  While there was indeed wealth to be made in trade with the region, there was a major flaw in the scheme for British investors in that it overlooked the strict proprietary interest the Spanish Crown maintained over its colonies.  So, despite the formation of the South Sea Company along the lines of the Honorable East India Company, and the extraordinary investment in it that ultimately led to the financially disastrous “South Sea Bubble,” it was highly unlikely that there would be much financial gain for British investors in the company’s stock.

There was, however, another tried and true way for loyal Britons to reap financial rewards from Spain’s colonies on the South Sea.  This method was known as privateering, in which a civilian ship captain would outfit a vessel as a warship, similar to that shown in the print, and sail it on behalf of the British government against the sovereign’s foes, seizing enemy merchant ships and plundering them along the way.  While this might sound like piracy, it was made perfectly legal by the ship captain obtaining a Letter of Marque from his government.  It was a plan that adventurous English sea dogs had followed since the days of Sir Francis Drake.

It was this second scheme of investment that a group of London merchants decided to follow when they banded together and outfitted two vessels as privateers, the Speedwell, and the Success.  The resulting voyage of the Speedwell was to ultimately play a role in the creation of one of the best-known English narrative poems of the 19th century, while the voyage of the Success would present a brief moment in time, only recently discovered, when history and literature intersect in an extraordinary way.  Each of the three books dealing with these vessels has a role to play in recounting the events.

A Privateer's Voyage Round the WorldOf the three, the account written by one of the privateer captains is especially engaging.  A Privateer’s Voyage Round the World by George Shelvocke has been reissued in the Seafarer’s Voices series by Seaforth Publishing.  If you are unfamiliar with the series but are interested in accounts of life at sea told by those who lived it, then this series is well worth your notice.  Each volume is an abridged and edited version of the original, with footnotes and a useful introduction.  Vincent McInerney, who served in the merchant marine and worked for the BBC, provides the notes and introduction to Shelvocke’s account.

Shelvocke, who had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy before undertaking his privateering voyage, originally published his account in 1726, four years after his 1719-1722 voyage.  He did so largely to counter legal charges (including piracy, ironically) brought against him by the Gentlemen Adventurers after his return to England, and to refute the character assassination job done against him by the former commander of marines aboard the Speedwell, William Betagh, who had published an account the previous year.

Shelvocke’s work is an interesting tale of lashing storms, a troublesome and untrustworthy crew, outlandish battles fought at sea and ashore, great privation and near starvation, and even a shipwreck on a deserted island, the same island that Alexander Selkirk – the model for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe – inhabited.  But Shelvocke’s work is more than an adventure story, for he takes pains to include descriptive passages of the things he has seen that address natural history, anthropology, and geography, helping to place him in the category of the literary gentleman-scholar and appealing to Europe’s keen interest in reading travel literature describing the wider world at the time.

What gains Shelvocke’s real contribution to literature, however, is a brief passage in which he records that while rounding Cape Horn, his second in command, Simon Hatley, in a melancholy fit, shot a solitary albatross that has been accompanying them for several days.  Some seventy years later, William Wordsworth was reading Shelvocke’s book at precisely the time that his friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge was working on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and was in need of a deed that would render the protagonist of his poem cursed.

The Speedwell VoyageThe second book of the three is The Speedwell Voyage by Kenneth Poolman, who served in the Royal Navy during World War II and went on to work for the BBC.  Poolman blends Shelvocke’s narrative with that of the antagonistic Betagh and the journal of George Taylor, Chief Mate aboard the Success to give a fuller account of the voyages of the two vessels.  While the differences in the interpretation of events between Shelvocke and Betagh, as each strives to tarnish the other’s image as much as possible, is unresolved, the harrowing stories of both vessels make interesting reading.  Additional insight is also given to the curious relationship, or lack thereof, between Shelvocke and the commander of the Success, Captain Clipperton, who may likely have been unhinged.

The Real Ancient Mariner RFThe third book to deal with the voyage is The Real Ancient Mariner, Pirates and Poesy on the South Sea by Robert Fawke.  The author has set himself the task of trying to flesh out the life and career of Simon Hatley, Shelvocke’s melancholy second in command who gains his place in history by potting the unfortunate albatross looking for companionship in desolate seas.  And, remarkably, he succeeds in putting quite a bit of flesh on Hatley’s bones.  In doing so, he casts a wider historical net describing earlier voyages, the privateering literature of the day, and discovering, along the way, that during the brief time that the Speedwell and the Success cruised in company, Hatley was aboard the Success to represent Speedwell’s interests and so were the models for two other literary characters, Alexander Selkirk, the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, and William Dampier, whom Jonathan Swift used as inspiration for his Gulliver.

For interesting nautical reading with a literary flair, these three books each pay dividends.

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