Back on – or just off – the Camino

I’m back revisiting favourite corners of the Camino, and also taking in places and landscapes which tantalised me last year by being just off route. Above all the monastery of San Millan de la Cogalla, where I’m writing this post.

We’re not staying in albergues, but in hotels – and some are almost smart. Do I miss the dormitories? And the snoring? Maybe not! Though I do have ambitions to walk the Camino Portugues later this year.

The monastery has claims to be the birthplace of the Spanish language, where what became Castilian was first written down by an early 12th century monk as marginal notes to a Latin codex. I knew when I first read about San Millan, in Navarrete last year, that I had to visit.

I loved and love the history of the Camino – the vast church interiors, ancient houses with coats of arms, streets winding through towns and villages as they’ve done for a thousand years, the Templar and Cluny connections, tales of battles against the Moors, my hero Sant Iago, the porch of the ruined church outside Navarrete now gracing the entrance to the cemetery on the other side of town, churches where pilgrims who might not make it to Santiago could nonetheless receive absolution  – all the powerful spiritual connections.

I’d attend pilgrim masses when I could, and light candles.

Down the road from San Millan is Berceo, the birthplace of the first recognised Spanish language poet, Gonzalo de Berceo. Another reason for visiting.

From my hotel window in San Millan woodlands stretch up both sides of the valley into the heart of the Sierra de la Demande. And a cuckoo is calling, as it has been on and off through the day.

San Millan himself was a 6th century hermit, and around him gathered other hermits, and in the 10th century a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site. There are monks here to this day, though I’ve yet to catch sight of any! There are depictions of San Millan is sculpture and paintings in Benedictine attire (hardly a military uniform!) and brandishing a strange red zigzag sword, taking on the Moors as did Santiago Matamoros. Like Santiago he was a patron saint, of Castile and Aragon, but Santiago’s status has fared better down the years.

We walked up the valley this afternoon and climbed the hillside to one of the many hillside caves. The views up to the still snow-touched peaks were wonderful, likewise the woodlands which extend everywhere. We took out all our woodlands back home in the UK for firewood and building ships and to create pasture – not so here!

If you want to be a hermit, I can’t imagine anywhere better.

The British Museum – where all cultures and all peoples meet

‘The cultures of the world are at home here, and the people who carry those cultures.’

This was the response of the new director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, lately director of the Dresden State Art Collections, to  the Pegida movement and the anti-migrant , anti-Muslim demonstrations in Dresden over the last year and more. He persuaded the state government to allow long banners to hang outside the main Dresden Museum with the words:

‘The State Art Collection Dresden. Works from Five Continents. A House Full of Foreigners.’

He’s attracted a pretty virulent response and some downright nasty chants – ‘traitor to the people’- and similar, which have unpleasant resonances. But he’s brought people from all backgrounds together, and created by all accounts a special atmosphere (‘open-hearted and warm’) around the place.

He seems to be a bit of a hero. He has an impeccable background as an art historian, but he’s more than that – ‘a citizen of the world’ – and he deserves a big big welcome.

Under Neil MacGregor the BM has already opened itself to the world – almost, given the crowds, too much so! So all power to the museum for recognising that modern museums should be all about reaching out to present and future generations – t0 the wide and not the narrow world – as well as the past.

(I’ve memories from my early teens of my first-ever gallery, the Manchester City Art Gallery, and standing puzzled but vaguely curious in front of paintings by Italian Primitives. Hard to imagine anywhere more fusty, and I was almost – but happily not quite!! – put off forever.)

(With thanks to the Economist for background information on Hartwig Fischer’s appointment.)

Camino – all about symbols

The Camino runs in, pretty much, a straight line, but I love the way it weaves itself into your life, with reminders here and there of that extraordinary heritage into which I tapped last autumn.

We stopped in Ludlow ten days ago, and visited the wonderful parish church, which has held on to its medieval heritage better than most. A palmer was someone who’d completed the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the palm was his symbol. Ludlow’s Palmers’ Guild was formed in 1284 and with wide commercial interests across the area they became very wealthy – and they put that wealth into the church.

But, curiously, I noted that another symbol of pilgrimage, which appears more than once, is the shell, rather than the palm.

The palm had other symbolic meanings, not least triumph and victory. The shell, very much the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage, had become a symbol for all pilgrimages.

Once you’ve walked the Camino and knowing how many routes cross-cross Europe you’re always on the look out for the shell symbols. It’s there even in biblical representations of St James with no pilgrimage associations – his supposed burial place wasn’t discovered until eight centuries after his death.

I found one in an unlikely place last week, on a muddy track, just off Offa’s Dyke. It was – a large shell-shaped fungus, of guaranteed impermanence, and a clear case of the symbol being in the eye of the beholder.

Camino reminders don’t only come fungus-shaped.

The chancel of Leonard Stanley church near Stroud has a carved capital depicting Mary anointing the feet of Christ, his hand raised in blessing. There’s a wooden head of Christ at South Cerney, a little further east into the Cotswolds, that’s comparable, and it’s thought likely this was brought back by a pilgrim to Compostela in the mid 12th century. The way the beard curls apparently gives the clue: I love that kind of detail. A curling beard another symbol? (Acknowledgements to David Verey’s Cotswold Churches for this information.)

And finally, guess what I’m cooking for supper tonight – scallops, with bacon, and it’s clear from one or two looks in my direction that it’s time I headed for the kitchen…

Woodpile revisited …into the darkness

Out to the woodpile again. I’m reminded that the wood out there, though under cover, is damp with all the rain and wind and muck there’s been in the high Cotswolds recently. So bring it in, leave it in the garage for a few days, then by the fire for a day or two more. Then on to the fire and watch it burn. That at least is the theory and tonight it’s been more than theory. The room heated, and we did with it, to new levels.

A pub meal this evening. No street lights round here and heavy cloud cover and somehow the lights on the urban horizon which normally take the edge off the dark sky perfection I love weren’t there. So we had a dark dark sky. But no stars. Just the wind and the blackness and rain whipping in.

Darkness. There’s a marvellous exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, Tibet’s Secret Temple – Mind Body Spirit in Tantric Buddhism. Hold onto your seats. What follows may be unsettling.

The temple, the Lokhang, is on an island behind the Potala Palace in Lhasa, built by a Dalai Lama in the 17th century, as a refuge and to propitiate the ‘elemental serpentine forces that Tibetans call lu’.  Wall-paintings in its uppermost chamber illustrate the Dzogchen, or ‘Great Perfection’ teachings of the 8th century Tantric master, Padmasambhava, and they are the subject of and inspiration behind the exhibition.

And they set me thinking – and take me to the darkness.

The high mountain light in an often treeless terrain has sharpness and brilliance and a stillness I’d associate with transcendence, but the rapture we’d feel as Westerners in that landscape isn’t the rapture of a Tibetan Buddhist. It’s no more than a stepping-stone: to move beyond the dualism of light and dark we have to experience dark as well as light. The darkness of a temple. And the darkness of Tantric practices associated with death, making us aware of the transitoriness of existence. Skulls and thigh bones feature. The Tibetan Book of the Dead focuses on experience in the bardo state between death and reincarnation.

My instincts rebel against this, but there’s a strict method in this apparent madness. To move beyond dualism we have to experience and move beyond fear – we have to transcend all human existence, and that takes us down to the depths and up to the heights of experience – the high mountains may open a door, but they’re not sufficient in themselves.

I’m only here touching on ideas of light and dark, no more than scratching along the surface of Tantric Buddhism. It encompasses so much more – stillness and movement, the trul khor and the six yogas – including the Yoga of Radiant Light.

Having started this post in the darkness of a Cotswold night I’ll end here – in the transcendent light of the Himalaya.

You can’t ask for more than that.

Goya portraits 

Goya portraits – at the National Gallery. As usual, I get there (if at all) in the last week, and it’s a popular exhibition, and the NG foyer is crowded and the gallery even more so. Curiously, maybe not surprisingly, we’re an older crowd, the tourists are next door in the main gallery – we are I think a mainly British bunch. One downside of crowds – you can’t get close, so checking out on dots and daubs and brushstokes can be anti-social.

There’s performance art of a kind, certainly noise, emanating from Trafalagar Square outside the gallery, and neon shines in the evening light from the ’empty’ fourth plinth. Inside I’m struck by one of the captions in the little (almost image-less) guide the gallery provides for visitors. Goya’s painting of the Dowager Marchionness of Villafranca is ‘a moving demonstration of his ability to portray old age with respect and sympathy’. She was 61 when her portrait was painted. Not even 64. Zooks! Maybe that’s what I’m missing out on – respect and sympathy.

There’s a risk the younger generations are losing touch with the history of art – and of more than just art. Goya in a Self Portrait before an Easel has a hat adapted ‘to carry candles in order to add the final highlights to his pictures at night’. Maybe we need a few more details of this kind – life for Goya and in any studio was anything but staid.

Goya would be a good subject for a biopic, that would help – with his wonderful connections as painter to the court and king on the one hand, and on the other, his ability to survive infighting and faction, Napoleon’s invasion, the restoration of the monarchy, and a deadly anti-liberal reaction under Ferdinand VII, when he escaped to exile in France. And there’s his agonised personal response to Spain, to war and to the world revealed in his two series of etchings, the Caprichos and the Disasters of War.

He was called on to paint a triumphant (though he hardly looks that way) Wellington in 1812. As ever, he was in the right place. Beside the oil painting there’s a revealing preliminary sketch, with the general looking hollow-eyed and drained.

Goya’s ‘Family of the Infante Luis de Borbon’ is based on Velasquez’s Las Meninas, his group portrait of the Spanish royal family in the 1630s. There’s a powerful realism in the Goya portrait as there is in the Velasquez, and if you’ve seen Picasso’s paintings based on Las Meninas in Barcelona, that adds another dimension. There can be something obsessive about Spanish art. In their black mantillas the ladies, duchesses and countesses, live in their own world and even a radical such as the Countess-Duchess of Benavente is portrayed in a splendid hat, dress and powdered wig.

A few years late the Countess co-commissioned from Goya ‘six scenes of witchcraft, which satirised church corruption and the backwardness of Spanish society’. Even when the reformers lost power Goya kept his connections around court. Government ministers sat for him, including the minister of finance and one Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, who rejoiced in the title (a poor translation?) of Minister of Grace and Justice. How did grace come to be in his portfolio, I’d like to know. A better post for an archbishop.

Many ministers and courtiers were his friends and that didn’t change despite a serious illness that left him deaf for the last thirty years of his life. What the exhibition doesn’t and can’t address given its specific remit is the darker side of Goya’s imagination, the satires of the Caprichos, his rage against war in the Disasters, the bleak images of the Black Paintings. It’s the starkest of divides between the public and the personal. The former about status and friendship, the latter a harrowing personal journey.

If you were a friend (and not just those in high places) you were likely to get your portrait painted, and the portraits are full of character, and a few warts, and affection. They’re people you’d want to know. An architect, a master gilder, a printmaker, and a radical priest or two. In later years when Spain implodes and Goya turns inward there are few portraits of friends, though he did survive, just, as First Painter to the King.

‘People you’d want to know’ –  there’s a full-length portrait of the Marchioness de Santa Cruz reclining, dressed in the latest flimsy fashion, and with a lyre – a very modern muse for her time. I’d like to have met her. And nearby there’s Goya’s friend, the actress, Antonia Zarate. She’s dressed, with a fine lace mantilla, like an aristocrat, but closer inspection reveals a tiny downturn of lip and an ordinary humanity beneath the ritual glamour. In ordinary attire she’d have been fun, and a little wild  – I guess, I can only speculate!

Sometimes he painted himself into his portraits – as in the family portrait of the Infante family, and in the very grand portrait of the Duchess of Alba the duchess points to the ground and the words, ‘Solo Goya’, (Only Goya). She must have connived at this. ‘The idea that this proves that she and the artist were lovers has now been set aside,’ we’re told, rather primly.

Some of the names of his subjects are to conjure with: Cardinal Luis Maria de Borbon y Vallabriga (son of the Infante and ‘raised within the church’ – doesn’t sound as if he had much choice but to be a cardinal) and Don Valentin Bellvís de Mancada y Pizarro. I feel my parents shortchanged me – and indeed I did my own children. We could have added a bit in here and there.

And finally there’s a portrait of his friend Cean Bermudez, an art historian and print collector, who ‘shared a number of Rembrandt etchings with Goya when he was working on Los Caprichos’. A year ago I was in the same gallery, at the National  Gallery’s memorable, life-changing Rembrandt exhibition. Rembrandt painted old age like no other, but Goya has his own remarkable Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta: he looks near death, and there’s an honesty about the two figures, Goya and the doctor, which is startling. A few years later, and near his actual death, he sketched in crayon a simple self-portrait, Aun aprendo (I am still learning). It’s shown in the little guidebook, not in the exhibition: hunched with a long white beard and two sticks he is ‘still learning’.

Now this guy really does deserve our ‘respect and sympathy’  – he died aged 82, in 1828.

New Year – Vienna comes to the Cotswolds

New Year’s Day, and I’m celebrating gently at this moment listening to Strauss waltzes, polkas and marches from the Musikverein in Vienna, always a wonderful way to start the year. Full of optimism, music with a spring in its step, an abundance of gold, not least the coffered and corniced and painted ceiling, everyone super-smart dressed, the secretary-general of the UN in the audience, ballet out at Schoenbrunn, and even the occasional touch of calculated lunacy in the orchestra.

Back when I was 10 years old my soon-to-be stepmother brought me back from Vienna an EP, which I still have, of the Vienna Boys’ Choir – children’s songs, including Trara die Post ist da, which I used to sing to my children. And there they are this morning, high above the orchestra, singing in that same crisp and mannered style, and looking terribly smart.

The whole occasion is a throwback to the high days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when emperor and court would attend such events. There’s a strange sadness interwoven with the exuberance, a sense of the old Vienna, in its heyday, one of the world’s great cities, full of self-belief, with no sense of a future which took out Hungary, the Alto Adige and more from the old empire and left only Austria, and a Vienna which had to suffer the Anschluss before reinventing itself post WW2. Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes tells the tell through one family quite brilliantly.

Should we lament this world, its elites and arrogance and gilded Baroque grandeur? Of course not. But … if you get carried along by the waltzes and the dance and the ambience you can imagine it as some kind of a lost paradise. Imagine it. A little bit of Ruritania, a world of childhood and make-believe fashioned for adults.

We can’t escape ambivalence. All that pleasure, and a touch of guilt. Somehow adds to the enjoyment.

And what of this New Year? It starts as always with a bounce and optimism, probably all too quickly undone. There will be celebration, it’s an Olympic year, and triumph, the human spirit proving itself in adversity – and new crises, and the old crises – refugees at this moment waiting to cross from Turkey to Greece, and IS still working its evil.

Will the world solve old problems more than create new ones? Shift the balance of the scale a little?

I will live in hope.

Last night, half-past midnight, I looked out across the valley, from our New Year’s party, hardly a light amidst the fields and woods, but above a half-moon, last-quarter, climbing the eastern sky, and to the south Orion, and the air cold and turning frosty – the first frost of the over-mild December just expired, and the first of the new January.

Come the morning, three hours ago, pulling the curtain back, all was grey, the east now delivering a chill wind as I ran along the lanes and across the common, ahead of the promised rain….

But, damn it, there is an extra spring in my step, then, and now, a few hours later, after a village walk and Christmas cake and mince pies.

I had literally waltzed in my heavy walking boots down the hill, humming the Blue Danube, and adapting the Radetsky March. Hazel, my partner, didn’t know what to make of it, or me. I didn’t get beyond two disastrous dancing lessons in my teens, but I almost floated this time, in a clumping sort of way.

I will probably clump my way through 2016, but I will aim to do so exuberantly.

Tearing down statues

Statues have an enduring symbolism, as the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square, and the fuss over each new occupant, frequently reminds us.

In this case we’re talking about removing a statue.

There’s a Telegraph headline Saturday 19th December, ‘Politically-correct universities are killing free speech.’ An exaggeration, but it focuses attention on a real issue. ‘Universities’ are not killing free speech, but an increasing number of students are attempting to limit debate by, for example, banning speakers who do not share their views. A dangerous development, and I’m with the Telegraph all the way on this.

Students are now taking exception to statuesto the dead as well as the living. They’re symbols of an oppressive past and we’ve recently seen the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes (arch-imperialist) at the University of Cape Town. Pressure is now being put on an Oxford college, Oriel, to remove a statue of Rhodes on a building (funded by a legacy from Rhodes) which fronts the High Street. The fact that most of Oxford was until very recently completely unaware of the statue’s existence is incidental.

There are arguments against the statue – Rhodes is indeed a symbol of colonial past, but there’s a powerful counter-argument that symbols, whether oppressive, controversial, militaristic, pacifist – whether statues, paintings, buildings – are important. We don’t want to sanitise our past, or interpret it according to the dictates of the present. (A friend of mine suggests another argument for its removal  – it is very ugly.)

Oriel are well aware of the arguments on both sides, and will be launching a listening exercise before deciding the statue’s fate.

They will have been surprised to read Saturday’s Telegraph leaders which asserted: ‘Shockingly college dons back the idea.’ (Maybe some do but the leader implies it is college policy.) The Telegraph’s front-page story also asserts that the college’s ‘plans’ have been ‘derailed’ by the realisation that the statue is on a listed building, and its removal requires planning permission. That the college was well aware of the planning issue is clear from the statement it issued last Thursday: the Telegraph article is the Saturday morning following.

There’s also an article on the leader page by Daniel Hannan, who read history at the college, as indeed I did a few years before him. He writes: ‘Oriel has rushed out a statement to the effect that it is talking to planning authorities about removing the effigy because ‘it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of…colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents’.

The college’s statement was carefully considered, and in contrast to Hannan’s article which reads as if it was rushed out to meet a deadline. Oriel we must remember is in the real world, attracting and extending a welcome to students from all corners of the globe.  As it argues in its statement, [the actions] ‘we are announcing today demonstrate our continuing commitment to being at the forefront of the drive to make Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds, and to address directly the complex history of colonialism and its consequences.’

All terribly politically correct, but it’s risky territory these days, when it’s all about attracting students and funding, if you don’t listen to the clamour on streets and social media.

Are high prices good for art?

There’s a debate in the current Royal Academy  magazine that asks the question, ‘Are high prices good for art?’

One side of the argument: ‘Art is hip, art is hot… art is embedded in the national consciousness.’ There are far more art-connected jobs. Whether the art is ‘good’ or not will be for future generations to judge.

And the counter-argument: collectors of contemporary art ’mostly don’t have good taste’. We have a kind of art which reflects the taste of those who buy it. Also, art is an investment, and bought in the belief that it will hold its value, so there’s a vested interest in not talking it down. That will be for future generations.

I love the buzz around the Tate Modern. Art is not only hot – it’s cool. There are extraordinary levels of invention. Often they’re scooting up backwaters: the public vote with their feet and move quickly through, hardly comprehending. Who has the patience for video art slowly revealing itself? Not many by the numbers you see sitting in those darkened rooms.

That’s the real world of art. There’s one hell of a buzz out there. And someone out there will be passionate about video art. But when a Saatchi picks them up, or an unknown Arab potentate, no longer. It might as well be that latest Ferrari, the most expensive car ever, which is pre-sold and never seen. Spin-offs and copies sell to the rest of us for extraordinary prices. Remember the prices of the various bits of Damian Hurst merchandise which someone thought we might buy when we exited the Tate Modern exhibition? Would anyone be so daft as to fork out tens of thousands of pounds? Maybe.

It’s a schizophrenic world out there. Yes, money feeds back in and elevates the status of art. And yet it taints it terribly.

It’s only another form of patronage of course. Painters and craftsmen and architects achieved sublime beauty in the name of religion. Do we or do we not rejoice in the creativity married so closely to the opulence at Versailles? How democratic should art be? (There’s a nice diversionary tack!!) Artists want to be discovered, want to win a public, create a market, and they will produce inevitably more of the same if that sells well. The William Blakes of this world who wilfully defy all conventions, they are the rarity.

In the end where would we be without all this money that floods and distorts and devalues? And where would we be without all that noise and all that buzz which matches up against silence? Art and all the buzz of art exists in a sacred space. But remember also – silence is the ultimate sacred space.