Flirting with Gods

THE MYTHIC METHOD: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950. Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, 22 October 2016 - 19 February 2017

Not so long ago I was a citizen of 28 countries. Now I'm about to become the citizen of one, and that one fast contracting. Pretty soon I might not be a citizen of Northern Ireland or Scotland. I'm a citizen abandoned, left to lament on a cold and lonely shore.

Like Ariadne.

Who's that, you say? Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos while she was sleeping on the beach. (But don't worry, she was found and married by Dionysus, and thus was able to look forward to a future full of wine and ecstasy.) She is the subject of a famous classical statue, probably a Roman copy of a Greek original, now reclining in the Vatican.

Why is this interesting? The statue of Ariadne, Greek via Rome, was something of an obsession of an Italian painter, Giorgio de Chirico, who painted the statue in a variety of bleak, stark, mysterious, empty, suggestive situations, like jejune stage sets, the actors having taken a tea break. He developed this style while living in various cities in Northern Italy during the first world war, the war not that far away. His style fed into that which became Surrealism, until he fell out with the Surrealists.

As later exploited by those same Surrealists, his paintings suggest some deep, profound meaning, just out of reach, a meaning which, the moment you grasp it, you wake up and forget it. And maybe it was never there in the first place, an infuriatingly empty gesture, but fascinating for all that.

His works are sort of nuts, in the way the war was nuts, in the way the Dadaists and the Surrealists made of meaning an utter absurdity. We all went to war for something incredibly important but woke up to find it was all just ridiculous. Completely banal. A great nothing.

You were saying something about this being interesting. Ah yes, the classical. The great paradox. No matter how hard you try you can't get your head around it. Poor old EM Forster didn't dare set a novel in Greece. (In a desperate gesture he set one in India, which shows how disturbed he was.) He even has his characters discuss how they daren't go beyond Italy.

No such scruples for the artists in this exhibition. They plunge right in, devil take the hindmost.

All joking aside, however, as the father of an 18 year old, it seems to me world events are taking a distinctly worrying turn. And these paintings do nothing to soothe my anxiety. Quite the reverse.

These artists weren't to know, the Great War behind them, that more and worse horrors were just ahead. But that doesn't really excuse their taking the wrong side in the debate. (With a couple of notable exceptions of course.)

So, what is this great paradox?

Greece is the home of democracy. We all know that. Greece is also the source of the Greek myths. Gods and men interchangeable, gods procreating with mortals, gods walking amongst the mere human, some men (and women) were gods.

These two concepts, democracy and the ubiquity of gods, would seem to be contradictory.

Democracy, think the US, their Congress building, the White House. Gods, think Mussolini, Hitler, Donald Trump. (Something else, apart from the god-complex, they share would seem to be an inability to see the funny side of themselves, unlike de Chirico, whose self-portraits are very definitely self-deprecating.)

The spirit of de Chirico hangs over many paintings in this exhibition like Banquo's ghost, his elegant and eloquent absences replaced by many unfortunate presences, people impersonating mythic ideas like guests crashing a party which no-one with any sense would want to go anywhere near. (In the way of the terrible society-do photographs by Madame Yevonde included here, hopefully in a spirit of gentle parody, though I suspect not.)

Henry Moore has the advantage of the Second Great War (if you could call that an advantage) and manages to square the circle with his visions of ordinary Londoners, sleeping under blankets in Tube Stations during the Blitz, the blankets suggesting both togas and shrouds. This is what flirting with gods has brought us to, equality in death.

No such clemency for Wallis Simpson, in a portrait by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst. If a portrait says as much about the painter as it does about the sitter then neither emerge with much dignity. This is a full-on, full-faced fantasy of superiority, a terrible, or terribly embarrassing, expression of wild expectation and absurd ambition. I can't do better than quote Timothy Egan, columnist in The New York Times, in reference to Donald Trump: 'feeding nuts to squirrels in the park of [her] own delusions' (NY Times, Oct 21, 2016).

The Mythic Method has been curated by Simon Martin, Artistic Director of Pallant House Gallery, and a specialist in the history of Modern British art, to 'offer a stimulating reassessment of a neglected and significant aspect of Modern British art'.

There is something in this exhibition which speaks directly to the anxieties of our own time, a reminder of how easy it is to stroll unheedingly into something truly terrible.

Paul Corcoran