At the age of 14, Rene witnessed his mother, being pulled out of the river;  her lower body was exposed and her nightdress was over her head concealing her face.  Was it her, and if it wasn’t where had she gone, what had happened?   But Rene never talked about it;  he didn’t trust words.  He just expressed it through the medium he had control of; painting.  He was an artist philosopher.   Perhaps all ‘creative’ artists are.  What is art, if not visual metaphor?   

Rene Magritte just took it further.  His painterly skill allowed his imagination the freedom to use the image to describe the thought.  His images express the way the mind connects ideas.  They have a dream like quality because that’s how our mind sees things when we are not fixed by the consciousness of real time and space and the rules of language.  So like dreams, his images break the rules, size is relative, shape distorted, there are impossible associations.  In The Dominion of Light, he merges light and day, street lights illuminate a street against a bright afternoon sky,  a bird flies over a dark sea, its shape filled in by a bright cloudy sky.   A crescent moon is placed in painted in front of the dark tree,   the artist creates the woman by painting her, the landscape on the canvas becomes the view, the window pane breaks up into pieces of the landscape viewed through it, a  couple kiss with cloths over their heads, an act of intimacy between two people who are concealed from each other.   

The theme of concealment dominates his work.  He creates illusion by representation.  Magritte liked a mystery, the anonymous detectives in bowler hats coming to arrest and assailant, the woman’s body on the operating table, the same bowler-hatted figures of differing sizes descending like rain in front of the buildings of his home town.   

Magritte wasn’t so much looking for meaning, he was more interested in the process of how we represent ideas; he wanted to express ideas as he perceived them.  Our mind, as the extension of the vast neuronal network that is our brain, makes connections between ideas and actions and feelings.  Having conceived of a certain way of thinking, we return to it again and again, establishing neural connections like paths through the forest.   But our mind’s reality makes connections which are impossible in the real world.  Magritte shows us the way our mind thinks about things.  So a pipe is not always a pipe but represents something much more potent, a carrot morphs into a bottle, a bird becomes part of the sky, clouds are like object and thoughts. 

Magritte recognised how words condition our thought, fixing and channelling the meaning, so he experimented with different words for objects.  Words tell us what an object is, but our mind sees other connotations.  Poetry plays with this idea.  It explores the power of words, but also their limitations.  Freud and Jung explored the same territory in their papers on symbolism and dream, but at least Freud had the honesty to admit that ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar’.    

Magritte, The Pleasure Principle,  is currently being exhibited at Tate Liverpool on Albert Dock. 

The idealistic Konstantin, humiliated by his famous mother, the actress Irina Arkidina, his play publicly dismissed as ridiculous, tries to shoot himself but instead shoots a seagull and presents the corpse to Nina, the daughter of a neighbouring landowner, whom he adores.  Nina is disturbed and disgusted, but shows it to the sinister Trigorin, a famous writer and house guest, who notes down the metaphor for future use.   Nina is in thrall to Trigorin.  She sees in him an opportunity to escape the cage of the family estate and take flight as an actress.  She follows Trigorin to Moscow, becomes pregnant and is rejected by the writer who is being kept by Irina. The baby dies, her family lock their gates against her, and she is transformed into the kind of tragic heroine that the painter, George Frederick Watts depicted in his allegorical studies of hope and poverty. She becomes the seagull.    

Watts had taken as his child bride the teenage actress, Ellen Terry, in order to protect her from the same fate, or so the story goes.  The marriage failed.   It was supposedly never consummated. According to the amusing fiction by Lynne Truss, Watts just wasn’t interested in her that way.  Released from Watts’ protection, Ellen soared upwards to become the most famous actress of her generation. 

The Seagull possesses the usual Chekhovian themes; the country house, a self indulgent Russian bourgeoisie, decadent, bored and in decline,  the threatening clouds of the oncoming revolution  And the actors have the same familiar roles, the ageing actress and matriarch playing to the balcony while the theatre crumbles around her,  the elderly and ailing uncle, the owner of the estate, representing old Russia about to vanish forever, the frustrated and bullish farm manager, fed up with the old ways and wanting progress,  the desperate young author, the naive and fragile girl, and the doctor, perhaps Chekhov himself, a reflective observer, not entirely engaging with it all.  Soon all will be scattered.  Seen from this perspective, the seagull presents a broader perspective on the oncoming crisis,  a fragile but beautiful way of life soon to be chopped down like The Cherry Orchard.  Of course, the characters seem hysterical and self centred, they are all in love with love as a form of escape, the end of their world is coming; what else can they do?  It wouldn’t be theatre if they all behaved sensibly and worked together. 

The Seagull is currently playing at the Arcola Theatre in Stoke Newington; not an area I know well but accessible via the London Overground.  The theatre is a converted warehouse.  The set and seating are rough and ready but the cast and direction is as accomplished as many productions you might see in the West End.  Geraldine James plays the actress and matriarch.  The doctor is played by Roger Lloyd Peck, recently seconded from the Dibley parish council.  Chekhov billed the play as a comedy but nobody in Stoke Newington was laughing.

The Watts Gallery opened at Compton on the North Downs outside Guildford on June 18th.  It is said to be the only major gallery in the country devoted to a single artist.  Watts was immensely popular in his heyday; two rooms were devoted to his paintings in the newly opened Tate Gallery at Millbank but the fashion for Victorian art changed and by the nineteen fifties you could pick up his paintings for less than a hundred pounds.  His museum at Compton fell into disrepair but was rescued by coming second in the BBC’s Restoration programme and then getting a 4 million pound lottery grant.  Watts’ paintings are not exactly cheerful.  The most famous are allegories of themes like hope, poverty and despair.  They are sombre and intense; Watts saw his mission to produce work that encourage young people to think about moral issues.   

Lynne Truss didn’t treat Watts kindly.  In her novel, Tennyson’s Gift, which described with humour the characters that circled the bard of Farringford, she portrayed him as self obsessed and sexually repressed.  Who knows, if he had been more responsive to Ellen’s allures, she may never have felt the need to escape to the stage.    

Art is not just a pleasing arrangement of shapes, textures and colours; it can only be properly appreciated in its cultural context.   So-called ‘Conceptual’ artists use imagery to explores a theme that resonates with and provides insight into contemporary culture.  In an age of internet dating and casual sex, Tracey Emin dares to explore female lust.  Damien Hirst, on the other hand, expresses a more ordered corporate theme, in which feelings, emotions are put into boxes and bottles and categorised.  But isn’t all art conceptual?  Maybe historical notions of art were much more limited to religious imagery, myth, society portrait and landscape, but like classical musicians, each artist interpreted those concepts according to the fashion and spirit of the age.   Likewise The Romantics, Turner’s misty decaying ruins alongside the engines of the industrial revolution, the pre-Raphaelite expression of the Victorian tension between spirituality and sexuality expressed the way the artist saw them as an instrument of the prevailing culture.  But increasingly art has come to represent political and social themes.  The Spanish artists, Picasso’s Guernica, Miro’s burnt canvases screamed their outrage at the horrors of the Spanish Civil War.  Perhaps photojournalism occupies the same niche nowadays.  One well constructed image is worth a thousand words.

So art changes as the social environment changes.  But the artist also helps to create that environment by conceptualising aspects of culture in images and structures.  So art is a medium to help people gain insight and understanding of their culture as expressed through the expressive perspective of one individual.  

Of course, the creation of the artist says as much if not more about them as it does about the culture (though they are still a representative of the culture).   Successful artists can be and often are self centred to the point of obsession; you might say they have to be.  And in a narcissistic age,  some art has self indulgent to the point of boredom.  Do we really want to know so much about Tracey’s soiled bed, used condoms or how many men she fucked in her tent?  Are we interested in the relationship with Louise Bourgeois’ father and her governess?   In as much as it informs us about aspects of culture and psychology we are.  Louis Bourgeois depicted a whole psychoanalysis in her art.  Joseph Beuys went one stage further; he invented a fantastic personal narrative through his art;  catapulted from his crippled Stuka when it crashed in deep snow in Crimea in 1944, he claims to have been rescued by Tartar tribesman, who kept him alive by wrapping his broken body in felt and animal fat and feeding him milk.  His art reflects aspects of that incident as well the boundary between fantasy and reality.   

Other artists use their experience to express something wider, more general, while maintaining the  template of their formative life experience to fashion a recognisable identity-in-style.  Henry Moore drew large female figures with holes in them to represent his fixation on the beloved, though at times distant mother; there were gaps in their relationship. . 

Some artists are more blatently commercial in their adherence to culture; they generate shapes, ideas that people want.  Anish Kapoor creates large reflecting surfaces, bulges, wax installations, that people enjoy.  ‘Art is not meant to be controversial’, he recently declared.  He likes to be liked.       

 Art doesn’t so much create the object, it creates the environment, the mental space through which the rest of us can think about their own existence.  In doing so, it both represents the culture and helps to create it.  The process can be transformative, but for some artists it can become iterative and hermetic, the unending scratching, etching of an itch until something changes to change the focus; war, famine, love.  

Some art will travel; either because it expresses a universal theme, like love, or because its meaning is so meaningfully abstract, so that people from different cultures bring their own meaning to it.   Shakespeare travels and so does Turner.   Is this what makes art great?   Is this the function of art; to create the space for the thoughts of others to enter.  In our instant, media culture, people are often considered clever because they say what everybody else is thinking and wish they had said it.  They re clever because they make everybody feel clever.   Is that what artists do; set down a challenge that makes the rest of us feel clever by gaining insight?  If so, they don’t necessarily do it deliberately.  

‘They tell me it’s great art.  To me, it was just another scribble’


It’s always good to talk to my brother; he is an artist and gets me to think out of the box!

Gabriel Orozco is like his ball of plasticine, Yielding Stone 1992,  rolling along, always on the move, always picking up new ideas, things from the streets, imprints, objects, impressions.  He installs whatever he thinks is interesting, often distorting them to remove their utility, change their function, so that they engage more closely with the viewer as a work of art, a receptacle for meaning.  In one installation (Lintels 2001),  he gathered the plaques of felt from the filters of spin dryers, with their residues of hair, nails, grit and paper, and hung up on wires like washing lines.   When this was exhibited in New York in November 2001, the ash coloured skins of lint with their message of the transience of human life, took on a poignant significance; something about the residues, the impermanence of life.  In Carambola with pendulum 1996,  he distorts the billiard table and suspends one ball on a wire so that it swings over the table. The players make up their own rules; hit the other white ball into the swinging red, strike the red so that it swings high over the edge of the table, position the other white ball so that it is in the path of the red.   In Dial Tone, 1992, he slices the pages of the New York phone book and places the anonymous digits next to one another on a 10 metre roll of Japanese paper.  It’s a measure of the city.  In La DS, 1993, he cuts a Citroen car in three pieces, removes the central section and rebuilds the car in an aerodynamic form without an engine.  It’s beautiful, creates an impression of a contender for the land speed record, but totally useless.   

Orozco loves to play, to invent, he is fascinated by the meaning in everyday things, as a child would.    While he was artist in residence in Berlin, he bought a yellow Schwalbe, a motor scooter, and then roamed the city looking for a partner, another yellow motor scooter, photographing the pair wherever they met (Until you find another yellow Schwalbe 1995).  In a five star hotel in India, he was given three rolls of toilet paper, so he fixed them to the arms of the fan in his room, so that the paper streamed out with the rotation like pennants, and danced to it, Ventilator 1997. 

Orozco explores the pattern of things, their organisation from chaos, their reordering into art.  He collects the bits of blown out tires he finds at the side of the motorway and arranges them like black crocodiles on a white sheet of paper, Chicotes 2010.  In Black Kites, he imposes order on death by inscribing a geometrical black and white grid on a human skull.  As a child, he was obsessed with planetary motion, the orbits, ellipses, circles.  This obsession appears in his work,  in Samurai Tree and Atomist Series 2006 and Four Bicycles; there is always one direction 1994, in which he slots four bicycles together, so that the wheels rotate in different directions. It might be a comment on the ambivalence of life.       

There is something touching and personal in Oroczo’s work,  he is not afraid of expressing his childlike self, exposing his vulnerability.  This is perhaps most movingly expressed in My hands are my heart, 1991, in which he shapes a lump of clay, of the same colour as his skin, with his hands then has this photographed against his chest, exposing, as it were, his heart.

‘You’re rather like Diogenes in his barrel’,  David declared on his fourth visit to my little cottage in Edensor.   Was that a compliment?   Well, on the principle of the glass being half full, I decided that it was.  I quite liked the idea of being perceived by the medical fraternity as a hermit, living the thoughtful life, so unworldly that I would ask the Dowager  (the nearest we have here to Alexander the Great,) to get out of the sun.  Though I did wonder if I have rather corrupted the ascetic image by becoming a bit too busy with politics and The Gut Trust.   

We spent the first hour grumbling about how our regulated society was stifling research, inhibiting education, undermining government, taking away the art and enjoyment of life, but risk aversion was part of a cycle.   In medicine, it was probably triggered by the dreadful revelations about Dr Harold Shipman; in economics,  by the greed of the bankers.    

A nervous society finds its ways of getting rid of those who will not conform to its stringent regulations.  We are both reading The Hemlock Cup by Bettany Hughes.   It’s about Socrates’ life, but takes as its starting point, his death.  Accused of being a free thinker and corrupting the youth by speaking against the Gods, Socrates was condemned to take his own death by drinking a cup of hemlock.   My old friend, Maurice, was incarcerated in a mental institution last year on the grounds that he was a danger to society.  Always resentful of authority,  Maurice was targeted by the police and neutralised.  Even the spurious interpretation of a brain scan using nuclear magnetic resonance was used to reinforce the case against him.    

David and I have reached an appropriate stage of seniority when we can with impunity comment on what we see as the failings of the medical establishment.  But this privilege has been hard won.  We are both first born and have both shouldered the burden of our parents’ ambitions for most of our lives.  David commented that it was not until the age of fifty that he escaped the straitjacket imposed by a reputation in medical research and felt free to indulge his interest in philosophy.  At around the same time, he became aware of his parents not just as projections of himself, mum and dad, but more objectively in the context of their own lives.  My trajectory ran parallel to his.  At 49, I started to retrain as a psychoanalytical psychotherapist and at 53 I retired and began writing my book.  Perhaps this was our age of reflection,  the time that we could at last be ourselves,  rail about the restrictions bequeathed to us by our parents indulge in a more liberal intellectual life. 

Does late middle age constitute a similar age of reflection for others besides the eldest sons of ambitious parents?

Sorry to moan, but I’ve got flu.   At least that’s what I think I’ve got.   It could be the return of the auld trubble – the malaria, but it doesn’t quite fit the pattern.  I begin to feel wobbly and shivery about dusk every afternoon, not every other day like I did with malaria.   My back and the muscles of my shoulders ache and I have a fairly superficial pain just above my nose where the sinuses are.   I’m coughing thick yellow phlegm and expelling the same gunk through my nose.  And I feel so tired I just can’t do any more.   No, let’s call it flu.  That’s what a lot of medicine is, after all, informed guesswork.   And before you ask, I didn’t take up the government’s offer of a flu jab this winter. 

I went to see the quack this morning.  The snow had all but thawed, but the wet ice outside the surgery was treacherous.   Was this an opportunist way of creating new business by a new entrepreneurial NHS?   Anyway, Dr Watson agreed enthusiastically with my deductions and I now have a bottle or crimson and custard minibombs to assist my waving immune system, a caution against unwise excursions into the mountains and more concern that the stress may have aroused dormant histiocytes.  I get the blood tests back tonight.   

It’s amazing in a way how a non specific infection like flu can bring on the gamut of unexplained symptoms; the exhaustion, fatigue, depressing muscle ache, the anorexia and early satiety, the bowel aches and pains, shortness of breath, the lot.   It’s like the virus switches on a non specific pattern of illness not unlike that induced by trauma, grief or disappointment, the chronic loss of hope that erodes life force.  I didn’t hear from my daughters this Christmas.  Maybe that’s what’s got to me

I came across a lovely few lines by Emily Dickinson on hope

Hope is that thing with feathers,

that perches in the soul,

and sings a song with no words

and doesn’t stop at all.


Only that particular yellow bird had gone off to feed in another garden. 

Time to re-stock the feeders.

In one video,  the artist stopped people in the street and asked them to look into the camera and say  ‘Je t’aime’ (I love you).   Her subjects found it so difficult.  Their body language was so defensive.   They laughed, looked away, crossed their arms, shuffled their feet, lit a cigarette.  Some just couldn’t do it at all.  Just three words, but these three words carried such heartfelt hope and desire that uttering them, even to somebody they had not met before and would not meet again, carried a dreadful risk of rejection and destruction.  As they composed themselves to do it, their faces  became softer, more child-like, more appealing, more vulnerable. Their gazes lingered on the camera as they tried to assess the risk. It was as if saying I love you stripped away a defensive mask and made them appear loveable.  The words meant so much.    

So much human expression is defensive posturing.  It feels so dangerous to reveal our needs and desires.  We need love so much, yet are terrified of its power to subsume all the meaning in our lives and potentially destroy us.’ If we ever doubted love’s affect on the human psyche, just look at these faces. Strangely, it is the men not the women who seemed more vulnerable and frightened.  Perhaps they have more to lose.      

‘Emportez moi’ (Sweep me off my feet), at the MecVal Centre in Paris, is a brave and powerful  evocation of the power of passion to bewitch and destroy, to throw us off balance into the white waters of emotion in ways both wonderful and painful, always at the risk of losing ourselves. 

The works include videos on the interplay of harmonised gazes and movements, the tenderness of a caress, the passion of a kiss, the ecstacy of multiple orgasm, the spontaneous lament of lonely men in a late night bar (crying over you), even the poignant tableau of the two parakeets, who died for their love.  As mediums for longing,  impulses, illusions and abandonments, they  express sorrow and solitude as much as they do hope, expectation and ecstacy.    

As the programme for the exhibition points out,  ‘perhaps the true subject here is the deeply human appetite for encounter; the search, the desire, transport and the vertiginous sensation of possibility.’

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