Three Views of Karl Johans Gate

A couple of years ago I had about half an hour in the Rasmus Meyer Collection (aka KODE Three) to look at the Munchs. I knew The Scream, of course, which if memory serves is the painting destroyed in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (unless it was Melancholia) and of which I had an inflatable version. The collection — assembled by one of Munch’s first collectors — has a lithograph version, and it was great to see that. There were three other rooms, exclusively Munch.

I nearly didn’t go into the fourth room, because my art sense had said it was French Impressionism, and I was all about the Munch. But perhaps I had a little spare time, or I’d circumnavigated the rest of the floor (in proper chronological order) because I did get into that room and realised it was early Munch.

He’d been born in the Ådalsbruk in Løten, in 1863 and became a painter against the wishes of his father. After dropping out of technical college where he was studying engineering, he enrolled in 1881 at the Royal School of Art and Design of Kristiania (Oslo), where his teachers included the naturalistic Christian Krohg. Munch was trained in a naturalistic style, but he also explored Impressionism.

This looking to France was a break from the Dahl tradition of German romanticism, and Munch was to exhibit in 1889 at the Exposition Universell. He also got to see work by Paul Gauguin, Vincent van Gogh, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, discovering the use of colour to be emotional rather than realist.

This explains the style of what felt a very un-Munch-like painting, Spring Day on Karl Johan (1890), which looks pontillist in style.
Untitled

Karl Johans Gate is a street in Oslo, named for King Charles III John (1763-1844), linking the Royal Palace to Oslo Station. My best guess is the painting is opposite the Grand Hotel, looking down to the palace, just before the Rosenkrantz’ Gate junction. The figures belong in a Seurat painting, with umbrellas and straw hats, with various figures perambulating towards the trees in the open space. Figures are about to walk into the frame, suggesting a kineticism. The shadows are quite long, note, with the sun to the south west. Note how blotchy the street is, with sandy colours picked out. In the top half of the canvas, with the grass and the buildings, there are far more people, a mass of pedestrians. It is a busy scene, perhaps vital, and you can make out the parasols and hats.

I knew the name Karl Johan, though and returned to the previous (actually next) room, which contains the Frieze of Life paintings. There, as I thought, alongside Melancholy and Jealousy, was Evening on Karl Johan (1892).

Untitled

This is more clearly Munchian. The figures are not quite as stylised as his screamer, but there is a cartoon, skull beneath the skin, look to them. The men have top hats and the women straw trilbies, with black ribbons. But, to be honest, there’s a lack of differentiation between the faces. Whereas in the earlier painting, the clothing is in a variety of colours, now everyone is in black. The perspective is reversed — we are looking in the opposite direction, closer to the palace, and on the opposite side of the road. We are in the midst of the shoppers or flaneurs — these could almost be the undead that Eliot speaks of thirty years later in The Waste Land. The vanishing point is lower — more or less the centre of the canvas.

Jay A. Clarke writes: “this new technique, along with the intense colors and inventive subject, mark a decisive turn away from his impressionist experiments and toward a world — and a modern mythology — all his own.” (56) Munch goes from Impressionist to Expressionist. He has become Munch. (Clarke also suggests that Munch had seen the work of James Ensor in Brussels the previous year, and that makes sense.

I hadn’t realised then that there was a third painting in Bergen — not just in another room, but in another building, KODE Four, as part of the International Modernism wing. This is Summer on Karl Johan Street, Oslo (1933).

Untitled

That forty year gap is misleading — the painting is in a style (Fauvism, maybe?) that Munch had been using since 1908. It’s a much more spare painting, with much of the canvas blank paint. It is harder to pin down the geography — is it the grass area? — and we don’t have the perspective of the earlier pictures. The street is pink and orange, with much canvas visible , almost painted around the figures, which are painted in, quickly I suspect, largely as outlines. There are much fewer figures, and some of them merge into each other, as depth becomes a plane. I think we only have women here, but a milliner would need consulting. Figures further away are little more iCal brush strokes. The trees are authentic green, if childlike, whereas the buildings (maybe the palace?) are pink and purple.

I’m not sure what to make of this picture — it is less nightmarish than Evening on Karl Johan, but there’s a sense of the uncanny about it, because you have to decode it more. The colours are more cheerful, but there’s an air of mystery here.

Reference

Clarke, Jay A. (2009) Becoming Edvard Munch: influence, anxiety, and myth, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Monks Scream

Spoilers, innit.

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I have an awful feeling that as a child we were set the task of writing a story that ends with the words “and I woke up and it was all a dream”. At some point we were probably told not to. Lewis Carroll gets away with it, twice, but I felt very cheated by The Box of Delights. Occasionally long-running dramas will risk it — think of Bobby Ewing coming out of the shower. One problem with telefantasy is the diminishing returns of the bigger and bigger Big Bads the heroes have to defeat, before a big reset button has to be hit.

This episode effortfully winds together the series STORY ARC and what turns out to be the first of a three part story. Moffat is also back at the word processor.

On the one hand, we have Missy, facing execution by the Doctor for unknown crimes, with the latter promising to guard her in the Vault for a thousand years. (Is this the first time we know who is in there?) Margot arrives, cowled like a monk, with River’s diary and permission to kick his arse. The Doctor, whilst he has killed people, can’t be an executioner, and so it turns out Missie is not dead, but resting (beautiful plumage). And this presumably explains why the Doctor is a millennium older than he used to say.

A thousand years is a long time in Bristol. You’d think an Oxbridge college would be better. He presumably sat out the various Dalek, zygon, cyberman invasions.

The main plot involves the present day Doctor being asked by the Pope to come and read a mysterious heretical manuscript, Veritas, which has caused all but one of its previous readers to commit suicide. Ooooh, shades of the Ringu movies. There’s a bad taste joke to be made here about the Doctor’s visual impairment and a visit from the Holy See, but I’m not going to make it.

We have another illustration of the distinction between Classic and Nu Who: One thru Seven (as the kids call them these days) either kept it in their trousers or were discreet about their sex lives. They lived like monks, meddling or otherwise. More recently, perhaps through the experience of the Time War, and realising YOLTT, we’ve learned of all kinds of shenanigans — this time with Pope Benedict IX, who it turns out looks like Angelina Jolie and was a woman. The real Benedict, who oddly enough just turned up in a documentary I was watching the other day, was 20 when he achieved popedom and was pope three times (to be pope once, might be considered a fortune, but thrice…) He also seems to be the first pope who repeatedly (or reportedly) engaged in same sex relationships. Hmm.

Bill, for reasons that are no clearer than she’s on the opening credits, is picked up, interrupting a date (and I wonder if this is going to be a thing — we are repeatedly informed she is a lesbian, but she won’t be allowed past first base), and they head to the Vatican with all these Italian-speaking priests. That’s odd, because there’s the convention that the TARDIS telepathic circuitry translates stuff into English. It’s also going to be interesting because the Doctor is still visually impaired and it’ll be hard to read a manuscript — perhaps Bill can read it to him.

But whilst the Doctor is preparing a little light read, Bill and Margot disappear through a crack in the wall and find a white room with more rooms, through which they find the Pentagon and then CERN. In case we aren’t clear it’s CERN, CERN conveniently has a publicity stand for CERN in CERN’s lobby. The scientists have been emailed a translation of Veritas and have learned that they are actually in a computer simulation — their reaction is to decide to blow themselves up because, well, particle physicists are especially gullible to emails from the Vatican. OK, that’s not fair, they realise that they can’t pick random numbers. Mass suicide seems an overreaction.

Margot and Bill escape to the white room and Margot steps the other side of the projector and is pixelated, whilst Bill follows the drips of blood to another zone, the Oval Room with a dead president. The Doctor’s been bleeding from his meeting with the mysterious and messy monks in the reading room, the chief one sounding oddly like David Archer after a long day shouting at Josh and Kenton. The monks are mentioned in the book — the simulation is a practice invasion of Earth, repeatedly run and rerun.

Yes, this is a mind-bending idea, in a Philip K. Dick-lite way, and for a moment you might glimpse that all of series ten has been a simulation — perhaps explaining how most of the episodes have been better than series eight and nine.

Hit that freaky deaky reset button.

Somehow the monks know about the Doctor and the TARDIS, but not the translation circuits (hence the Italian, I’m told bad Italian) and the sexuality of Benedict IX. Was it wise to include the Veritas in the simulation?

And somehow the Doctor can hack the programme to send the PDF of that book to the real world version of him — but then we already know he can program whilst visually impaired.

So, at the risk of invoking or interrupting STORY ARC!!!, we’re prepared for an invasion of meddling monks, who might get away with it if it weren’t for those pesky time travellers.

False Memory Syndrome (Number 94 of a Series)

Last night I went to Winchester again.

As best as I can make out, we went in 1984, when we were checking out universities for my big bother and we stayed in Lymington so that we could take a look at Southampton. In fact, I think we went to the New Forest twice — I believe my father was considering retiring there. So we saw the Mary Rose and we went to Salisbury and we were disappointed by Stonehenge…

And Winchester.

I think I remember the statue of King Alfred, but above all I remember a narrow medieval street, yellow and grey, possible sandstone walls, and a door off the street into the Great Hall. There was a lot of traffic — I recall a bus almost running us over — and it was pissing down, real cats and dogs.

In the Great Hall, a couple of metres off the floor, was a huge round table, allegedly that of King Arthur — but, oddly, even though I was avidly reading about pyramids and the Bermuda Triangle and UFOs in the Bible, I cried BS.

So, an invite to speak to A Level philosophers at Winchester College gave me a reason to return after thirty years and take another look. I didn’t expect to remember much of the town, and, indeed, nothing seemed familiar.

winchester great hall 1a

That narrow street has gone.

Indeed, the Great Hall is in a square, set back from the road. The buildings to the right are pre-twentieth century, the courthouse adjoining is evidently 1970s Brutalist, with a flight of steps.

“Did people used to enter from the other side?” I asked.

No, that’s the barracks.

The table also seems to be higher than I recall, which is odd since I’d be half a metre taller, so it ought to seem lower. The door to the building has moved.

I am convinced that Winchester has changed, but the museum staff must have been sworn to secrecy.

(Am I conflating the Great Hall with a visit to a cafe or a long since lost secondhand bookshop? Is my memory of the Merchant Adventurer’s Hall in York bleeding into it, although I don’t think either side is straight onto a street?)

And in the evening, it began to piss it down again, real cats and dogs. Yes, familiar.

It only seems appropriate that I’d been invited to Winchester to talk about Philip K. Dick and was going to discuss the questions of what is real and what is human. It gave me a new introduction for the talk.