Psycho-sexual self help with a side order of violence

Grayson Perry’s graphic novel is introspection at its most terrifyingly candid.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Think back, for a moment, to something you wrote 20 years ago. Perhaps you were a wee young thing scribbling esoteric tales of dragons on the back of some left-over Christmas wrapping paper. Perhaps you were a precocious university student handing in a dissertation. Perhaps you were a novelist, or a journalist, or an avid letter-writer. Perhaps you merely kept diary. Whatever it is, look hard at the page. Capture it in your mind. At best you’re pleased, even tickled by the feather of nostalgia. At worst you wince with embarrassment. The piece of writing has become a time capsule. You are peering down a microscope at your former self. Do you like what you see?

Twenty years ago, Grayson Perry wrote A Cycle of Violence, a graphic novella set in 2023 that has since acquired semi-cult status and which tells the story of a champion cyclist’s decent into moral depravity. The protagonist, Bradley Gaines, is a kind-hearted, multi-Tour de France winning celebrity who succumbs to his “inner demons”, repressed childhood memories that return to haunt him at the height of his success. These demons take the physical shape of Bradley’s abusive mother, who hovers above him like a sadistic ghost tormenting him with insults. “You will not be rid of me through your anger,” she screeches. “I feed on your anger, because I am part of you.”

Bradley’s no match for unaddressed mummy-issues and soon falls victim to the darker side of his nature, giving up cycling and hurtling head-first into a rampage of sexually-motivated violence. He takes to picking up chicks in his mega-fly human-powered hot rod before taking them home, tying them up and macerating them with his manhood. Such liaisons often end, unsurprisingly, in tragedy.

Originally privately published in a batch of only 300, the 2012 re-issue is the first trade edition of the book. But why go back to it now? Why invite the scrutiny? Many artists might prefer to keep work produced in an experimental, pre-success era locked away in the closet of history – but not Perry. I suppose we shouldn’t be that surprised. This is, after all, the artist fondly known as “the cross-dressing potter”, who has publicly confessed his sexual fantasies (which include transvestitism and humiliation), who has a tendency of naming his ceramic vases things like “Saint Claire 37 wanks across Northern Spain”.

Re-reading, and indeed re-publishing, a piece of work certainly makes for fascinating introspection. The Turner Prize-winning artist professes that at the time of writing things in his life were tough. “In 1992 I had just become a father and was coping with the stresses of caring for a newborn," he writes in the introduction. "I had left art college a decade before and my career had not yet taken off. I was horribly insecure and, maybe, a touch bitter. I was certainly less self reflective, I expressed myself with little impulse control.”

He adds:

The physicality of parenting relationships reignites very primal somatic memories. Looking after a child cannot help but take us back to our own childhood. Again and again I feel I am, like many artists, lashed to a wheel that forces me to constantly recycle my biography, each version coloured a little differently.

It’s very easy to read the novella as exactly that – a fantastical rehashing of the artist's own history. Born and raised in Essex, Perry’s childhood was marred by his mother’s affair with the milkman and his father’s subsequent abandonment of the family. The milkman, who eventually became Perry’s stepfather, was often violent. As a teenager he went to live with his real father. He also began compulsively cross-dressing. Upon his stepmother’s discovery of this “addiction”, Grayson was sent back to live with his mother and chaotic stepfather.

Armed with this knowledge, the childhood of Bradley Gaines becomes a funhouse mirror – distorting Perry’s own reality to theatrical heights. Bradley’s mother is a “vain woman” who gives birth to Bradley in a pair of stilettos and is fond of referring to him as a “mistake”. Bradley’s father is a gentle, woolly jumper-wearing  car mechanic fond of “wholesome snacks”. One day his mother meets Gary, a high-octane motor head with great hair, and soon Mother files for divorce from Father on the grounds he is “bloody boring” and “a complete fucking wimp.”

Young Bradley is thrust into a parallel childhood universe from hell that revolves around watching his mother and stepfather wanking each other off, getting slapped for throwing up in Gary’s awesome car, and being called a “pathetic pouf” whenever he cries. Mother even puts him in a dress as punishment for acting like such a “girl” about life. As readers, we soon come to realise that at the root of Bradley’s future “psycho-sexual” transgressions is a childhood spent deploring all things feminine - from his own mother to the girlishness inside him that he is forced to condemn. As a full-grown “real man”, Bradley’s cock becomes the singular proof that he is not a woman. It also becomes his weapon for attacking the feminine aura he finds so alluring, and ultimately so unacceptable.

Analyse that

One of the most interesting things about Grayson Perry is his long-professed love of therapy. Throughout the years he’s extolled the virtue of the practice, citing his six years of treatment as the “flowering” of his artistic practice, even jokily remarking that it may have been what won him the Turner prize in 2003. He’s married to a psychotherapist, Philippa, and has called therapy “a clear eyed way of the looking at the world”, and often discusses his work with respect to a pre/post therapy division. “In my art pre-therapy, I was leaking madly about my issues,” he told the Guardian last March. “Now I do it with awareness.” A Cycle of Violence, as noted in the introduction, is a typically pre-therapy piece:

I gave this little book to my therapist in the first few weeks of our work together. Maybe I thought it would be a helpful window into my mind.

It might be easy, then, to dismiss this book as a sexed up exercise in self-reflection. Indeed, in many ways it is so ludicrous that it almost loses credibility. Even the author struggles with some of the more brutal pages: “It is the sadomasochistic content of cycle of violence that leaves me feeling uncomfortable today,” he writes. “Re-reading the work I feel now like a boring social worker visiting a family problem.”

But to dismiss it as entirely Freudian drivel would be a mistake. From the sticky recesses of these lurid pages, something authentic emerges as Perry’s little book begins to tackle genuine issues of sexual identity. Beneath all the blood and bicycles and nipple clamps, there is substance here.

The most important question the book asks is: Where does our sexual identity come from? Sex is everywhere in Bradley’s world. His own derangement is played out in a brilliantly witty visual landscape. From phallic shaped bicycles seats to aprons adored with vulvas, Bradley’s sexual mania is a claustrophobic reality that closes tighter and tighter like a kinky fist. Sexuality is an exaggerated, ominous force. Bradley’s penis is an over-sized truncheon. Similarly, the vagina is an angry orifice, drawn as a yawning chasm of despair waiting to gnaw at pleasure like a set of rabid molars. Sex is no safety net but rather a brutal game of gender politics. Love scenes take on the appearance of a duel, two exaggerated genitalia battling for dominance.

Cycle of Violence can be read as an examination of sexual archetypes. Women come in two varieties: big busted and nurturing, or lusty and manipulative. Men are either weak victims or well-hung winners. Within the pre-established fantasy world of the novel we can dismiss Perry’s characters as absurd. But in the real world, such archetypes haunt us in much more subtle forms. I doubt there are many who do not feel the tension between “masculine energy” and “feminine energy” raging inside them. Is it any wonder that Bradley ends up so imbalanced? Is it any wonder we’re all so confused? For a more nuanced exploration of these ideas, you could read Jung’s didactic of the anima and the animus (in which he describes the "fundamentally unconscious" gender counterpart that exists within each of us). But Perry’s rather un-nuanced investigation of the sexual dialogue is, in a way, equally compelling. It uncovers the truth we'd find peering into our own mind if all the self-censoring were removed.

In the end, it's therapeutic intervention that comes to Bradley's rescue. With the help of an experimental unit for the psycho-sexually disturbed and a nudist healer named Rufus, our hero faces up to his “many painful and deeply scaring memories” and accepts his inherent male-female duality. “You mean I can be a cry baby sissy?” Bradley asks tearfully during an around-the-campfire feelings sharing session. “Hell yes,” replies Rufus. “But remember you’re a man whose crying Brad, so that makes crying manly.”

A Cycle of Violence is disturbing, offensive, poignant, wholly original and very, very weird. But ultimately, it is unashamedly honest, and this makes it very brave. Not often do we see sexual identity discussed in all its messy, confused, candid glory – even less often do we see it dredged from the past in a public way by an artist at the very height of his career. If I were Grayson Perry, I’d look back on this one proudly. And maybe wince a little, too.

A Cycle of Violence by Grayson Perry is released by Atlas Press.

 

Bradley's repressive mother comes back to haunt him in Grayson Perry's "A Cycle of Violence"

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle