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1 Message in a bottle
The tasting notes told me to expect a "sparkling body with stone-fruit acidity, kumquat, honeydew melon and jasmine notes and a floral finish", all of which sounds delicious. What, I wondered, could provoke such a diverse and abundant medley of flavours?
I am no expert on wine, merely an enthusiast for the phenomenological enjoyment of wine-drinking, particularly in good company with well-prepared, flavoursome food. A bottle shared is a pleasure doubled. Or, in the words of the Chinese poet Li Bai, whose lyrics Mahler used in his song-cycle, Das Lied von der Erde: "A full glass of wine at the proper moment / Is worth more than all the riches of the world".
I know that Californian chardonnay is sometimes said to taste of melon, and a little research informed me that rosé from Provence also has that reputation. Jasmine, by contrast, is more often associated with dry white wine from cooler regions, German grown riesling being a good exemplar. Yet it is another grape varietal altogether –viognier – from which one may most reliably find a hint of stone-fruit. A combination of three different grapes, potentially from three different regions, might therefore be required to produce this complex balance of flavours; and, less we forget, we also have been promised kumquat.
The trick, I should now confess, is to gather, not grapes from the vine but beans from the bush. More particularly, to secure some Ethiopian coffee from Werka Wuri, a washing station located in the Gedeb Woreda, a small district in the region near the town of Yirgacheffe, internationally famous for coffees abounding with floral and citric flavours. In the Gedio language, werka translates as "gold" and wuri as "high altitude", so I am reliably informed by Caravan Coffee Roasters, from whom I obtained my beans, with their enticing description.
I repeat, I am no expert on wine: I am not confident that I could distinguish a Californian chardonnay from an Australian, nor that I could pick a Rhone viognier from a marsanne, but I am sure – very sure – that I can distinguish a glass of wine from a cup of coffee, despite the fact that the tasting notes were almost identical.
My point here is not to mock the writers of tasting notes: I am sure that some drinkers - better trained, more alert than me – regularly distinguish these flavours in both wine and coffee. What interests me is that our sensory faculties function in such a way that two radically different experiences of taste can be appropriately – that is to say, competently and credibly – described using a shared vocabulary, without anyone thinking that drinking hot black coffee and chilled white wine are otherwise similar.
Henri Fantin-Latour, White Cup and Saucer (1864)
Our experience of wine and coffee – and of food and drink more generally – is almost always the product of two rather different forms of sensory experience: taste and smell. Although we refer to tasting notes, wine tastings, and the cultivation of good taste, much of the richness and precision of our experience of wine comes not from our mouths but from our noses. We sense more variety, discriminate more finely, remember more clearly that which we smell compared to that which we taste. When the wine is poured, the knowledgeable drinker always uses their nose first. That said, to leave the wine in the glass, smelled but not tasted, would be an unconscionable waste. The gourmet engages both nose and mouth, takes times to notice the range, intensity and balance of the sensations they produce, and finds pleasure in the apprehension of the world's rich bounty through the combination of their messages.
The receptor cells on our tongues – and in the sides and roof of our mouths – can detect five main types of taste: bitter, salty, savoury (umami), sour and sweet. While these provide important high-level information about what we are about to consume, they offer us a very limited vocabulary with which to discuss the finer points of wine drinking. Our mouths can also provide us with information about a drink's viscosity – important for our appreciation of port – its effervescence – important for champagne – and its tannic qualities – important for my fellow drinkers of barolo – all of which is valuable, but hardly sufficient to sustain a meaningful conversation about the relative merits of one vintage compared to another, or of an unusual but pleasantly striking paring of wine and food.
If we think that terroir matters, we must educate our noses. Our olfactory neurones are stimulated by molecules from our drink entering the front of our noses, directly, and from the back, via our mouths. These molecules provide detailed information about their source material, which is transmitted to the brain through our limbic system, which connects our sense of smell closely with our emotions and our memories. Smelling is, by comparison with tasting, more detailed, more intimate and more memorable. It is also more amenable to training and refinement: almost everyone can easily identify sweet tastes on the tongue, but it takes practice and concentration to distinguish stone-fruits on the nose.
We start with a basic ability to discriminate tastes and smells. From an evolutionary point of view, these senses help protect us from forms of ingestion that would be harmful but, like other evolved capabilities, they provide us in addition the opportunity to enhance our enjoyment of being in the world. What is needed to prevent harm can also be put into service to create pleasure. Just as our ability to see colours or hear pitch varies from person to person, so too, owing to the individual physical qualities of our sense receptors and neurone system, we all start with our own distinctive appreciation of taste and smell. But we are all able to develop these faculties, to improve our detection of the sensory qualities in the glass - and on the plate - and to store memories of smells and flavours, which we can draw upon to make comparisons with new experiences.
Learning requires us to attend closely to what our noses are telling us, and this is not always easy. Several years ago, I participated in a wine tasting event in California. After four whites, we tasted four reds, one of which puzzled many of us. It was hard to put into words what was wrong, but what we saw in the glass and what we felt in our mouths and noses were incongruent. Characteristically, we gave priority to our vision, and tried to think of a red grape from the region that might have that lightness, that hint of butter, that suggestion of oak, which the wine presented. Finally, the host confessed that we were drinking a fifth white – a local chardonnay – that had been dyed to look like a red wine. He assured us that if we had been blind-folded we would have picked the grape, but we had all allowed our sight-perception to over-rule our tasting memories: a trick of the eye causing a failure to remember.
All this proves – some might say - is that we should read the label on the bottle, which will tell us where the wine came from, which grapes were used, the year that it was made, the approximate alcohol content and, perhaps, some tasting notes that will prepare us to discern flavours that some other, more knowledgeable person, thinks are there. What is the reward for all the investment of time and energy – because paying attention to our senses of taste and smell in a sustained way over many years, must consume a considerable amount of intellectual energy - that it takes to educate our palate? Why not simply rely on others to tell us what to expect, what to enjoy, what to look out for?
The quick answer is that relying on others to tell us what to experience is almost always a bad idea, particularly once we get beyond early childhood. I am happy to defer to the expertise of horticulturalists and oenologists about the cultivation of vines and the technical production of wine, and to neurologists and philosophers about the way in which the brain interprets the sensory information sent from the tongue and nostrils. I am not happy – not at all – to defer to anyone else when it comes to what I feel when I smell and taste the wine from my glass. My experience of the world is my experience: I am its owner; I am its authority. I want to understand it better, more thoughtfully, more deeply, but this is work that only I can do.
There are two reasons to think that relying wholly on the taste judgements of others is a mistake. (I say "wholly", because the process of improving our taste involves listening to and learning from the judgements of others: connoisseurship cannot be learned from books but requires practice and – at least to a certain extent – apprenticeship.) One reason concerns the role of the memory in the cultivation of our sense of personal identity, which in turn plays a central role in the development of our sense of happiness in life. I will return to this point in section 4. A second reason concerns the intrinsic pleasure of drinking wine (or drinking coffee, or eating flavoursome food), preferably in the company of others. If we are to participate fully in our own lives, and to share companionably the lives of others, we need to be able to develop for ourselves the ability to capture the breadth of flavours in the world.
There are some who drink to forget, for whom the principal pleasure of alcohol consumption is the alcohol: it numbs the senses, dulls the memory, takes away the pains of living, at least for a while. This is a way of life to be avoided, to be pitied. But it would be a mistake – albeit one made seductive by the dogmas of religion and the prohibition movement – to assume that modest consumption is always the prelude to over-indulgence, to argue that the only responsible attitude to pleasure is to avoid it entirely from fear of excess. Too little can be as bad as too much. As Aristotle taught, the virtuous life is lived at the mean, with just the right amount, taken in just the right way, and for just the right reasons.
Much of the pleasure of drinking is social, reminding us of another of Aristotle's great themes: friendship. When we share wine and food in the company of others, we jointly connect our senses – of smell and taste – with our shared world. Drinking and dining together provides us a means of opening our minds and our hearts, alerting us to the great range of taste combinations in the world, and to the pleasure of discovering how these combinations are perceived by others, whose tastes overlap, but also differ in interesting ways from our own. Wine reveals to us to the variety that is in the world and, at the same time reminds us of our common humanity, that everywhere others also take great pleasure from exploring this variety. By becoming more alert to the richness of our own experience we are better placed to understand, and respect, the wealth of experience of others.
There is an old Latin saying, in vino veritas: in wine there is truth. Conventionally, this is taken to mean that because the consumption of wine lowers our sense of restraint, reduces our control of impulse, that under its influence we are more likely to say what we really think, or to disclose information that we might otherwise have kept to ourselves. I suggest that there is another meaning to this saying, perhaps more profound, which is that in our experience of educating our taste we come closer to the truth of the world. Not only do we learn to embrace more attentively the precious fruits of the earth, but we become better able to share more deeply with our drinking companions the qualities of these sensations: we come closer a true understanding of our habitats and our friendships.
That said, now it's time for me to see if I can locate that hint of kumquat.
2 Lullaby and the ceaseless roar
We walk steadily uphill together. The peak is only 2km from the car park, but we have 530m to climb, which takes us 50 minutes. Although the sun is bright, the breeze is fresh and cool, streaming off the Atlantic to our west. Our body heat - generated step-by-step, stride-by-stride, as we slowly rise, higher and higher, along the narrow quartz-strewn path up the mountain - soaks us in sweat. I can feel the water drips running down my face, back and legs. I lick the salty residue from my lips.
Errigal is fully exposed to the weather. There is no shelter, no hiding place. My ears fill with the steady pulse of the wind. A small passing cloud coats us, briefly, with snowflakes, cooling and cleansing our faces as they melt on impact. We reach the summit: we sit, we drink water and the pace of our heartbeats starts to slow. We admire the views, which are spectacular. This is a great place for a good conversation, but when we stop talking there are no other human sounds audible, only the gentle hum of nature.
Descending is easier on the lungs but harder on the knee and ankle joints, our leg muscles no longer stretching out to propel us upwards, but tightening and tensing, holding us back from slipping on loose rock, keeping us balanced as we drop back towards the moorland below. The wind becomes gentler – now a modest breeze that tickles the skin - and quieter too. We can hear the call of birds, an occasional car in the distance, and the steady trickle of brackish water in a mountain stream, that makes its way down the slope, skipping over the rocks, alongside us.
Mount Errigal, Co Donegal
Two days later, now alone, I walk across the dunes to the beach. The wind wraps around me, in my ears and eyes and hair, surrounding me with the sound of the sea, exfoliating my skin with minute particles of salt and sand, flavouring my journey. The grass is spongy and springy: no need for walking boots here, light trainers will suffice. The dunes rise and fall, like giant molehills, but the walking is fast and easy. Where the path is sheltered from the wind the sun warms my face - the air temperature today is higher than average for mid-May – confirming that Spring has arrived. Earlier this morning I heard a cuckoo.
The beach curves around the coastline. To reach the far end will take me 25 minutes at a brisk pace. I take off my shoes and feel the fine sand, firm and moist on the soles of my feet, and I hear the cries of gulls above the rushing of the air, and the rhythmic patterns of the waves blown repeatedly against the shore. If I were to look closely, I would see flecks of white everywhere – sheep in the fields, shells in the sand, birds on the wing, foam on the waves and clouds in the heavens – and I could enjoy the endlessly variegated blues of the sea and sky, but my senses are already overwhelmed by the white noise of the wind and ocean in my ears. My head is full of their vast sound.
Prompted by powerful sensations, my mind engages, searching its archives, making connections with previously stored experience. It replays the lyrics of a song:
I am drawn to the western shore
Where the light moves bright upon the tide
To the lullaby and the ceaseless roar
And the songs that never die
My memory links the words, the tune, the image of a shell on the cover of the compact disc, with this moment, this place, this feeling. For me, this is the western shore that will always be the subject of the song, this is the beach where the light will dance on the surface of the sea, these will be the connections that will never die.
Tramore, Co Donegal
It is time to swim; or, rather, to confront the waves as they surge relentlessly from the north-west, knocking me over, plunging me under, my eyes stung, my mouth, ears and nose cleansed by brine. My skin is everywhere taut and alert, stimulated by the force and temperature of the water, strong and cold - very cold - wrapping me, rolling me, pushing me down and lifting me up. When I manage to empty my ears of saline, and lift my head into the sunshine, once again I feel the wind across my face and hear the sea. The horizon line recedes into the silence of empty space, but the tidal flow advances incessantly in full voice.
The ceaseless roar of the wind and the lullaby of the ocean will stay with me forever, but the song does not remain the same. Amid the repetitions - wave after wave, gust after gust – are countless minor variations: subtle changes according to the direction of the jet stream and water currents, the gravitational pull of the moon through its cycle and the rotation of the seasons: variations of tone, of pace, of rhythm, of melody, each asserting its unique individuality through minor differences, while also reinforcing their shared characteristics within the soundscape. The music of the beach - repeated patterns, marginal deviations - is unlike anything else, but it mostly reminds me of Philip Glass: no, not the 1975 opera, but the piano études.
A few weeks previously I had attended a musical event at Tate Modern, during which an orchestra of professional musicians was joined by a choir and a band both comprised of people who are or have recently been homeless, to perform together. My friend who works at With One Voice - the international arts and homelessness movement, which organised the event – had encouraged me to come and listen. They played Gavin Bryars's Jesus' blood never failed me yet continuously, from 8pm in the evening until 8am the next morning. The sung lyric – recorded by an unknown homeless man, in 1971 – lasts for about 25 seconds, which means that the tape loop plays approximately 1728 times during the performance, with the instrumental and vocal accompaniments providing a series of musical variations around this repetitious central theme.
It was a truly immersive experience. Initially my attention was centred on the recorded song but was then diverted by the changing combinations of instruments and voices performing live. After some time, as these became familiar, predictable, anticipated, my attention shifted to the subtle changes – intentional or mistaken – introduced by the performers. Then, as both theme and variations became routine, the experience became more hypnotic: the music was everywhere in the room, but it was also nowhere special; it enveloped me, filling my head, but it allowed my mind to wander, to search for connected memories, to bring to the surface of my consciousness thoughts and feelings that otherwise might remain submerged beneath the routine busyness of my conscious life.
After three hours, my physical reception of the music had transformed my sense of place and time: I was suspended in a moment in which all regular distractions were absent. The experience – swimming attentively in sounds - was mesmeric and visceral. In today's world, music is ever-present but always in the background, lulling us without really bothering us, providing comfort but never touching us. Listening to recorded music is a very different experience, a second-order pleasure. To feel the music on our skin we need to be in the presence of the performers.
Our memories work mysteriously, unpredictably, unreliably, surprisingly, suggestively. These profoundly physical experiences – climbing the steep mountain path, splashing in the cold, cold sea, and listening to the meditative music performance – reminded me of an essay by Montaigne, On the art of conference, which is in Book III of the collected Essays. I did not have either of my printed copies to hand, so I re-read it on an electronic device, which feels different and slightly inauthentic. But the quality of the writing was as I remembered.
The most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind, in my opinion, is conversation; I find the use of it more sweet than of any other action of life; and for that reason it is that, if I were now compelled to choose, I should sooner, I think consent to lose my sight than my hearing or speech.
I was struck by this remark, since I am sure that most of us would, if we were now compelled to choose, consent to lose our hearing or speech than our sight. Montaigne makes an unexpected choice, but - as always - he has cogent reasons. He values conversation above the reading of books because it engages us more fully. "When anyone contradicts me", he writes, "he raises my attention, not my anger." And later, "'tis a dull and hurtful pleasure to have to do with people who admire us and approve of all we say."
Spending time in the company of others, who question, challenge, counter-suggest, oppose, examine, cajole and tease us, is a great sensory pleasure as well as the cornerstone of friendship. It is not just their company - their being-with-us - that matters, but their constructive resistance - their being-against-us - that counts. We need our friends to be present, to hear their voices immediately in our ears, not mediated by some form of information communication technology; we need to feel them on our skin, to be touched in our hearts. Their engagement with us is both a comfort and a stimulant: they remind us who we are and that we are alive.
These are the moments that feed our memories, creating reserves of happiness and goodwill upon which we can draw when we are alone, or separated, or simply reliant on mediated communication using electronic messages. Like letter writing in an earlier age, the use of text and email today is a valuable lifeline, keeping us connected to our network of friendships; but it is always only a poor substitute for being with them in the same room. Nothing can recreate the pleasure of the immediate, real, physical presence of a friend. Montaigne is right to say that conversation is sweet; a glass or two of wine shared during conversation makes it sweeter still.
I chose not to stay at Tate Modern for the full twelve-hour performance. After three hours I made my way home, tired from the effort of paying close attention, but rewarded and renewed by the physical and psychological demands of the task. It is not a great piece of music; not as good as Philip Glass for sure. Even so, the value of the experience – the lesson in listening – was evident. The next morning, I woke early, walked back to the gallery and heard the final hour. When the orchestra and choir finally stopped, their marathon performance over, the silence was immense. I will remember this event for a long time, not because of the brilliance of the playing, nor the aesthetic qualities of what was played, but because of the message – creating one musical voice from the elite and the excluded – and because the telling of this story was itself an exercise in effort and endurance. I was there and I was fully absorbed by my experience of others making music.
Listening, done well, is hard work, like walking up a mountain, like plunging into the ocean. It makes demands on our reserves of energy as well as on the acuity of our senses. We do not learn much from chatter, but we can learn to listen better and to sense the depths that lie beneath the surface of language. We can train ourselves to hear more. In the immediacy of the company of friends we develop the ability to hear the subtle variations of unpredictability as well as the regular repetitions of consistency; it becomes possible for us to be robust as well as to be gentle; we are able to ascend to greater heights of shared understanding and respect. Friendship is a labour of the senses and of the memory.
3 In the gallery
Visitors to the 'Van Gogh and Britain' exhibition, currently at Tate Britain, are welcomed to the show by a painting of a middle-aged woman, wearing a white blouse and a black dress, seated at a dark green table with two pale green books in front of her, against a rose coloured background. She stares back at the viewer, her head resting on her left hand, her left arm resting on the table, her expression neutral but engaged. This version of L'Arlésienne, painted in 1890, is on loan from the Museu de Arte de Săo Paulo. There is a similar painting, also made in 1890, held by the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome, in which Madame Ginoux smiles. In another version from the same year, now in a private collection, the wallpaper is pale yellow with a floral pattern, the blouse is pale green, the dress pale pink and the books on the table are red.
In June 1912, Robert Walser saw yet another version of L'Arlésienne, this one painted in 1888 and now held by the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Madame Ginoux, in three-quarter profile, stares ahead, avoiding the viewer's gaze; a black ribbon falls from her hair onto the back of her chair; the wall behind her is bright lemon-yellow. A book lies open on the table before her and she appears lost in thought: but what is she thinking?
In a short article, published in Kunst und Künstler, Walser struggles to find anything substantive to say about the painting, despite his obvious admiration for it. It is, he says, "just a picture of a woman in everyday life", but the mysterious quality of the brushwork has a "grandeur that grips and shakes you". Six years later, in an article published in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Walser remembers the painting and his reaction to it. He thinks at first that we should "pity the artist who had squandered such great industry on so low and charmless a subject", but then says that the painting is a sort of masterpiece: "The colours and brushwork possess the most extraordinary vitality, and formally the picture is outstanding."
Then Walser imagines Madame Ginoux speaking to him, telling him about her childhood, her family, her schooldays and her friends. He considers her life: ordinary activities, quotidian experiences and emotions, the passing of the months and years. And then, he continues:
One day a painter said to her – himself just a poor working man – that he would like to paint her. She sits for him, calmly allowing him to paint her portrait. To him she is not an indifferent model – for him, nothing and no one is indifferent. He paints her just as she is, plain and true. Without much intention, however, something great and noble enters into the simple picture, a solemnity of the soul it is impossible to overlook.
Walser's process of creative imagination – what Madame Ginoux's life was like, what van Gogh saw and felt, which he tried to capture in his portrait – is one form of active looking, one form of sensory engagement that fine art, at its best, provokes.
Vincent van Gogh, L'Arlésienne: Madame Ginoux (1888/9)
Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York
There are other ways of seeing. Writing in the Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1935, Daniel Catton Rich described the influence of Japanese print makers on van Gogh's painting style. He says: "Van Gogh's greatest work in the Japanese manner is undoubtedly the startling portrait of Mme. Ginoux…" and goes on to describe the version of this portrait that had so impressed Walser, noting the probable influence of Sharaku's work:
Sharaku, through his heightened simplifications, his distortion of feature for emotional effect may easily have suggested similar qualities for "L'Arlésienne". At any rate the use of a vivid background (here yellow; in Sharaku yellow, mica or silver) which, instead of absorbing the figure thrusts it forward; the brief strokes for eye, deliberately lengthened nose, and mouth – all these altered in proportion to gain new power – the angular, rhythmic silhouette, the play of flat masses of colour (note the expanses of black and white, visibly stressed) all suggest that the Dutch artist may have consulted one of Sharaku's amazing prints.
When Catton Rich looks at the painting, he does not imagine Madame Ginoux's childhood experiences; instead, he sees how techniques characteristic of one form of image making in one culture, have been borrowed and adapted for a different form of image making in a different culture.
Walser and Catton Rich both admire the version of L'Arlésienne that now belongs to the Met. despite the very different ways in which they describe their experience of looking at the painting. Their interpretations are not rivals but complements and, taken together, they illustrate an important truth about looking – both looking at art and looking at the world – namely that "we live and move in what we see, but we only see what we want to see" (Paul Valéry). Paradoxically, what we know about the world is principally determined by what we see in the world, but what we see in the world is principally determined by what we already know about the world. All our visual perceptions are judgments and - just as in the best traditions of case law - each judgment is grounded upon a set of pre-existing beliefs and assumptions. We never look unprecedentedly.
In the 1860s - around the time that large numbers of Japanese prints started to arrive in Paris and other European capitals - changing forever the way that Western artists saw the world, and changing the way they painted the world that they saw – leading British artists and art historians were almost universally dismissive of the work of Sandro Botticelli: "puerile ostentation"; "bad drawing and worse painting, and such revelling in ugliness"; "coarse and altogether without beauty". Walter Pater, whose collection of essays, The Renaissance (1873) is seen as a landmark of modern aestheticism, devotes a chapter to Botticelli and writes that, "his name, little known in the last century, is quietly becoming important", but even he describes him as "a secondary painter" (see Frank Kermode, Forms of Attention, 1985). One hundred and fifty years later this all seems to be nonsense. Botticelli's place in the premier ranks of Italian Renaissance artists seems assured: but only because tastes have changed, and because few of us think about the history of the canon. Standards of beauty are not timeless: what we see is mostly what we are taught to see.
It would be easy – but wrong – to assume that Catton Rich looked at van Gogh's painting only from the point of view of an art historian, whereas Walser looked only as a storyteller; easy – but wrong – to think that scholarship is an obstacle to emotional response. Knowledge of art history helps us to contextualise a painting – the visual content, its symbolism, the structural features of the image and their meaning for the artist's contemporaries – and this in turn allows us to judge both its success in formal terms and its merits compared against the wider canon. So too, our emotional responses to paintings are always – yes, always – conditioned by what we think we know about the object in our view, by our upbringing, our culture and our prejudices. We can change the way we look at art, just as we can change the way we look at the world, but to do so we must educate our sense of sight: we must train ourselves to see better.
Two years ago, I sat in a room in the Kunsthaus, Zürich with my oldest friend (by which I mean, the person who has been my friend longer than anyone else). We were looking closely at two Claude Monet 'water lily' paintings, both very beautiful. It was a weekday in February and the gallery was quiet. We sat, undisturbed, for many minutes, staring at the huge canvases. We talked about how we each felt when we first discovered Monet's painting when we were teenagers; about the way in which the popularity of impressionism and the ubiquity of its most famous motifs have jaded our reception of them; and about the thrill or our unanticipated re-discovery of them - their complexity and grandeur - in this room, together on this day.
Art is a shared pleasure: we learn to look more carefully when we look in company, drawing on the insights and emotional response of others, whose judgments and honesty we trust. It is not possible to educate our sense of sight alone, because the world that we see is a shared world, it's objects and their meanings – and their representation, directly or abstractly, in painting – themselves the product of collective undertakings by many people over many generations. There can be no solitary, private visual language because paintings are full of signs, and "every sign supposes a code" (Roland Barthes). And what is true of painting is true of the world: it can be seen truly only when in company.
Recently I have visited exhibitions of work by Patrick Heron (at Tate St Ives) and Pierre Bonnard (at Tate Modern), both of whom painted gardens as a way to test the possibilities of the dissolution of form, the abandonment of perspective and generation of pictorial intensity through the adjacencies of colour. Some of this I know because I read the catalogues, some I understand because of what I see when I look attentively at their canvases; some I remember from gardens I have visited, when the light is clear and sharp, but the borders of the flower-beds are not. In each exhibition, I was reminded of that day in Zürich - of a shared experience of beauty and of a long and valued friendship – because Monet's presentation of the water lilies in his garden pond at Giverny, seems to me to be a significant harbinger of colour field painting. And, in consequence, a significant contribution to my understanding of and emotional response to the natural world: as painted forms dissolve, so the physical world manifests its complex reality.
The education of the eye is not just about the accumulation of art historical knowledge and cultivation of aesthetic taste; it is also the foundation of ethical judgement. By learning to look carefully at the world we can teach ourselves and others to see the social world differently, leading us to treat people better, with greater sympathy, with more respect. I think of Lucian Freud, the preeminent portrait painter in recent British art history, whose quest to capture 'the truth' of those who sat for him in his studio was legendary, and whose large canvases present the human form with candour, without illusion. He is rightly admired for his work. But … but when I remember his major retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002, when I look through art books devoted to his work, I do not see my social world: I do not see London, I do not see Notting Hill, where Freud lived. I see only pale flesh.
Next summer Tate Britain will host a major show of work by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, also a British portrait painter. Her paintings are of fictional people in neutral nondescript spaces. What makes her paintings 'true' is not the resemblance of the image to the person, for there is no person to resemble. Rather they depend on the plausibility of the image: the look, the stance, the gesture, the colours of face, clothes and background. All her portraits that I have seen are of people of African heritage, and in this sense her work challenges the dominant aesthetic of British art galleries, and the dominant ethic of British society. She paints people who are mostly unseen, unrepresented, unheard and unwelcomed. She is less acclaimed than Freud for her technical prowess, and I think this assessment is fair: her work at its best is very strong, but the quality is mixed. But she presents a truth of our society that Freud shied away from, for which reason I look forward to her show next summer and the chance to look and learn more about the people who populate my world, my London.
Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 1pm, Mason's Yard (2014)
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Van Gogh was commercially unsuccessful, suffered from mental illness and killed himself in his late thirties but he changed the way we see the world: not just how sunflowers look in a vase, or how stars shine in a deep blue Mediterranean sky - although he helped us to see both of these natural phenomena anew - but also what an ordinary working woman might look like as she sat at a table, reading and thinking. He died poor but he has enriched our view of our natural and social worlds, if only we take the time and trouble to see.
4 Who are you?
Today, I made madeleines. In the past I have always used a recipe by Clair Ptak, which reliably produces delicious results, but I thought I would try an alternative, by Sabrina Ghayour, with an additional Persian flavour: finely chopped pistachios. They turned out reasonably well, which is to say, they were a pleasure to eat although perhaps not as visually impressive as in the past. Now I must consider whether to repeat the new recipe a few times, improving my technique as I get used to the slightly different ingredients and instructions, or whether to revert to the former recipe with which I am more familiar.
This is a recurrent problem, as in cooking so in life: there is comfort in repetition but there is excitement in variation: what is new, innovative and unusual, keeps us engaged and alert, but what is old, traditional and habitual keeps us secure and calm. Some of us cope better with disruption, but all of us need it from time to time, not just in our diet but also in the way we feed our minds: what we read, listen to, look at, where we go and with whom we talk. Finding the optimal mix of theme and variation is one of our great challenges in the quest for happiness and fulfilment.
Even though I prefer to consume them with a short-black coffee rather than a tisane, eating madeleines invariably reminds me of reading Proust: not the famous scene at the start of the first volume, Du côté de chez Swann, but the sequence of involuntary memories which occurs in Book III of the final volume, Le temps retrouvé. The narrator - now ageing, infirm and despairing of ever starting, let alone completing his great literary work - returns to Paris after the end of the First World War, and heads to a social event hosted by old friends. He slightly loses his footing and regains his balance on uneven paving stones; he hears a spoon knocked against a plate; he wipes his mouth with a starched napkin. In each case, something very ordinary, albeit unexpected, creates a connection with a moment in his past, a moment that is remembered as one of significant pleasure for the place where it occurred and delight at the feelings to which his mind returns.
Proust writes, in characteristically lengthy, complex and insightful prose:
Yes, if a memory, thanks to forgetfulness, has been unable to contract any tie, to forge any link between itself and the present, if it has remained in its own place, of its own date, if it has kept its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or on the peak of a mountain, it makes us suddenly breathe an air new to us just because it is an air we have formerly breathed, an air purer than that the poets have vainly called Paradisiacal, which offers that deep sense of renewal only because it has been breathed before, inasmuch as the true paradises are paradises we have lost.
Thus the great paradox of the novel is established at its conclusion: the narrator has been motivated to start writing the text that we are now reading only because he has been jolted out of his lethargy by the provocation of memory, but what he has just remembered, and the joy it brings him, was always, as he lived it - over seven long volumes – more a source of disappointment than of pleasure.
Milton's portrayal of Adam and Eve in Eden reads as dull and uninspiring by comparison with his description of Satan leading the rebel angels into civil war in heaven. It is Satan who first lost his place in paradise but, unlike Adam, he did so with great panache. By contrast, Proust fails to make the narrator's life exciting, except in those moments when he unexpectedly stumbles across residues of lost time: the rediscovery of his past generates greater excitement than he experienced during the living of his life.
Was our past truly a paradise, or do we choose to remember it that way because what we have lost is our sense of its reality?
Paul-César Helleu, Marcel Proust on his deathbed (1922)
History is said to be written by victors; likewise, memory is accessed by survivors. When we go to the archives of our minds, we mostly find what we want, what we like, what we hope to remember. Like the waves of the sea as the tide comes in, creeping up the beach metre by metre, removing the hollows and peaks, the undulations formed by wind, by footprint or by spade, smoothing the sand like icing on a cake, so too we supress evidence of our former unhappiness and dissatisfaction, and deep down below the placid, even-tempered surface of the past we bury the ugly debris of our lives. Our memory functions like a picture post-card, a snap-shot idealisation of a former world that was never quite as good as we later seek to persuade ourselves.
The madeleine, therefore, is not the key to a locked door, which when suddenly flung open, grants us access to distant, long-forgotten truths; rather it is an amuse bouche, the tantalising first taste in a feast of nostalgia, of embroidery, of fabrication, of indulgence. We can, if we wish, vary the recipe – add pistachios! – but we cannot avoid our perfidious predisposition to misremembering.
At least we cannot if we choose to remember alone. One of the great benefits of good friends is that they don't allow us to get away with complete self-deception: to use the argot of youth, they help us to "keep it real". They are a necessary corrective against our deep-seated tendency to embellish our past, to accentuate the positive, to hide away the detritus that we have accumulated through life, to forget. They force us into a more honest engagement with our former lives and, thus, with our true selves. When we remember the "good old days" they force us to calibrate more accurately: they are mirrors, lie-detectors, weighing scales. They insist on the re-telling of times past as they were, not as we would like them to have been. Good friends make for more honest memories.
One of the notable features of contemporary Western societies is the mass self-deception of older people: not everyone, for sure, but for many. We see very large numbers voting for politicians who are irresponsible and irrational, for policies that are unobtainable and unsustainable. Rather than wisdom, the defining characteristic of the average older voter is credulousness. Why? Not fake news, but fake recall. As we grow older, we tend to romanticise the times in which we came of age; we tend to forget the hardships of the past and dwell only on the achievements; we repudiate the optimism of youth in preference for the complacency of the superannuated; we endorse heritage and disavow progress; we look back, as we say in England, through rose-tinted spectacles. In short, we gild the past and trash our grandchildren's futures.
Whether we read Hesiod or Moses, the idea that the modern world has emerged through a process of steady decline – from an Age of Gold or from a Garden of Eden - remains a dominant cultural meme, regardless of all the evidence to the contrary. Decade by decade, life gets better for most people, but most people continue to believe that life gets worse. Progress is slow, costly, tentative and reversable; nonetheless progress occurs, and lives improve. In his celebrated novel, Soldiers of Salamis, Javier Cercas gives one of his minor characters these lines, which have always struck a chord with me:
People today are much happier than they were in my day, anyone who's lived long enough knows that. That's why, every time I hear some old man fuming about the future, I know he's doing it to console himself because he's not going to be able to live through it …
Older people, in general, like to believe that the past, which they were part of, was far more desirable than the future, in which they will play no part.
For which reason, not only do we need friends to remind us of who we were and, thus, who we are; we also need friends with a good mix of ages to protect us from the conceit of imagining that the years of our prime were indeed a Golden Age; that we were born in Eden, from which our children, and their children, and their children's children, even unto a hundred generations, have been duly expelled. As I grow older, I have learned to value my friends of long-standing who can remind me how I came to be as I am. I have also learned to value new friends, younger friends - my daughter's friends - who cannot remind me of anything, but who continue to insist that this is their world and they will do a better job of running it than my generation managed. A well-diversified portfolio of friends helps us to be more honest about both the past and the future.
Friends have another important role to play too: they help us to make good memories by helping us to live good lives. Friends are our collaborators, our accomplices, our company. They see what we see, whether in the gallery, the street, or from the summit of a mountain; they read the books we read and help us to think about them; they listen to the same sounds, in the concert hall or on the wind-swept dunes, and feel with us the tingling sensation on our skin, from the sun and the rain; they eat and drink with us, sharing their favourite tastes and exploring new flavours, unusual combinations, different varietals. With friends, our sensory experience is widened, deepened and intensified. We engage with the world more fully and more rewardingly when we do so together.
The education of the senses represents a challenge, a demand on our limited resources of time, energy and concentration. Yet, to taste, smell, hear, touch and see the world in all its richness is not possible without the cultivation of our sensory faculties. The harder we work at opening our minds to the widest range of life experience, the better able we are to enjoy the world and its diverse possibilities. And memory is the key to maintaining the consistency of our identity through our lived experience of the world: each new experience is valuable in the context of the experience that comes before; each judgement – of preference, of comparison, of quality – is grounded by its relation to other, prior judgements. We accumulate and we sort; we develop dominant themes and we entertain variations upon them; we take pleasure in the old and the new, because all our experience is ours. And when we are tempted to believe that madeleines always tasted better in the past, we need our friends to remind us that they were there too, and that we are wrong.
I am in a gallery in Shoreditch, having just listened to a talk given by an artist friend. Soon he and I will go for a drink, but meanwhile he continues to network, so I wait for him. There are around twenty people in the gallery, mostly chatting with each other in small groups of two or three. I turn my gaze once again to his paintings and drawings, one of which I now own. I notice a woman who is not talking but looking: she looks at the artworks from a distance and then from close-up; she looks carefully, thoughtfully, actively; she is an engaged observer. I wonder: Will she also look at the world as attentively she looks at art? Will she also hear the roar of the wind and the ocean? Will she also train her palate to appreciate the taste of good food and wine? Will she also understand the value of investing in the deep friendship that helps us to regulate the ambivalence of memory and to construct the elements of a happy life?
There is only one way to find out.
© Mark Hannam 2019