Thursday 15 December 2011

Meretricious Tosh

Can mental illness inspire great art? This was not a matter I meant to address when I went to Cardiff yesterday but, while Mrs Blog completed the Christmas shopping, I popped into the National Museum to look at a temporary exhibition of David Jones (1895 - 1974) and the question got an answer of sorts.

Welsh visual arts in modern times have mostly comprised soulless, homoerotic or Soviet-style schlock portraits of the "heroic working man", equally soulless and alienating landscapes often including barbed wire, and some third-rate conceptual projects. Boring!

Jones is an exception. His watercolours and occasional oils show intimacy with the Welsh landscape, inviting your engagement and exploration. He has a unique and instantly recognisable style which merges drawing and painting in a striking way. And he uses colour freely to convey mood, delightfully unconcerned with realism.

And yet...

Jones is not a great painter. He got bogged down with spiritual and mythic stuff which lost him valuable focus on simple themes. His work does not develop over his career. In short his pictures all look like the early work of a very great artist. Jones' poetry similarly showed great promise but that promise was never fulfilled.

Why is that? The answer seems to lie in Jones' service with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in particular at Mametz Wood, where an entire division of Welsh volunteers with no experience and worse equipment and leadership fought for five grim days during the Battle of the Somme (1916).

It is said that many who served in the First World War lost their youthful innocence in the carnage and came home older than their years. But horrible suffering doesn't help young people grow up. It was a common experience in the forward positions on the Western Front to hear wounded and dying comrades crying out to their mothers to come and help them. Many never grew old because they died there but many others were unable to move their lives forward into maturity because they were traumatised by their experience.

Jones came out severely damaged. He clung to his parents who helped as best they could; he sought out father figures like the sculptor and typographer Eric Gill; he had several break-downs and spent long periods unable to work at all; he could not relate successfully to women, causing him life-long unhappiness (he several times illustrates sexuality as a woman lifting her skirt coyly - surely the product of an Edwardian school-boy's imagination not that of an adult?); like others trying to come to terms with their war-time experience he turned to a half-baked spirituality; and photographs of him in old age show a mixture of anguish and boyish innocence.

Great art requires groundedness and accurate and truthful observation, things which mental illness obstructs. This doesn't mean that people who experience mental illness can't be great artists: Vincent van Gogh proves that point but then he was clear that his illness was a hindrance not a help (see this post).


Following these sombre reflections and a satisfactory ingestion of raw fish at Yo Sushi we use the Orange Wednesday 2 for 1 deal to see the new flick "My Week With Marilyn" about the making of the feeble and lumbering comedy "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957). This is based on Colin Clark's highly suspect "memoir" of working with Ms Munroe in which we are asked to believe that she relied heavily on his moral support and intimate friendship. She goes skinny-dipping with him and lets him sleep in her bed - chastely we are relieved to observe because otherwise this adolescent fantasy would have gone too far.

Young Colin's job was actually to fetch tea for Laurence Olivier and the other actors and I doubt he got more than a few polite "thank yous" from the then Mrs Arthur Miller. I suppose he was jealous of his older brother naughty Tory grandee Alan Clark about whom you just couldn't make it up (see
this post). The film is meretricious tosh but quite fun for all that.