A matter of life and death

A meditation on art and ethics, or Hollywood at its most sentimental? 

For as long as there have been picture galleries, people have thought of them in utopian terms. William Haz-litt, after an ecstatic visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery, said that a gallery of pictures is like a palace of thought - "another universe built of air, of shadows, of colours".

Yet a need for pictures is equally an admission that the paradise which they describe is in fact lost, or elsewhere. This was brilliantly demonstrated in Andrew Marvell's wittily wistful poem, "The Gallery" (1650). Here the poet's soul has become a picture gallery filled with images of his mistress. However, the pictures in Marvell's gallery clearly attest to his mistress's elusiveness - and to the poet's impot-ence - for they depict her in innumerable guises, ranging from a "tender shepherdess" (his favourite) to an "inhuman murderess".

In the 19th century, a love of art was routinely understood to involve a rejection of and by the world; for the decadent Goncourt brothers, art collecting was merely "the index of how women no longer possess the male imagination". They returned from shopping expeditions for rococo objets d'art "as if from a night of sexual debauchery". The corollary to this was that human relationships were considered inimical to the production of great art. Professor Rubek, the sculptor in Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken (1899), is convinced that if he even so much as desires his model, his artistic vision will be lost. There seemed to be a straight choice - love art, or love life.

The ethics of art appreciation are central to What Dreams May Come, a deeply flawed but nonetheless fascinating and visually inventive film directed by the New Zealander Vincent Ward. The central characters are a paediatrician, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams), and his wife, Annie Collins (Annabella Sciorra), who is both a painter and curator of a modern art gallery. Their marriage, though a success on the surface, leads to disaster, with them and their two children dying violent deaths. The bulk of the film deals with their action-packed afterlives in heaven and hell, but the happy resolution of the film requires transcendence - if not outright rejection - of art and culture.

Their peaches-and-cream kiddies are the first to go, killed in a car crash. Annie usually drives them to school, but on the fateful day she has had to attend a meeting at her gallery. She blames herself and subsequently attempts suicide by slitting her wrists. However, as her pictures were already a yuppie-angst mixture of Caspar David Friedrich and Francis Bacon, we are made to believe that Annie was an accident waiting to happen. Throughout the film she is shown communicating with Chris while looking at paintings, rather than face to face. Thus art (and, of course, careerist women) gets the blame.

Chris, who had tried and failed to get his eldest son to be a mirror image of himself, is equally obsessed by painting and routinely talks of women's breasts as "Rubensesque". He is killed when he goes to help a motorist trapped in a motorway pile-up during atrocious weather. (I don't recall any art-related symptoms here - unless the pile-up was caused by an unhealthy appreciation of Warhol's car crash pictures.)

Despite his failings, Chris goes to heaven, where the special effects get big-budget and the plot becomes byzantine. Heaven, we learn, is "big enough for everyone to have their own private universe". Chris's fantasy is a gooey mixture of Monet and action painting: he slips and slides through a day-glo swamp that's made of brightly coloured oil paint. Just when we're beginning to think that Chris's heaven is more ecological disaster than ectoplasmic kindergarten, a chirpy black man ticks him off: "Fantasy's not what you need right now."

Chris soon discovers that Annie has succeeded in committing suicide and is now in hell. The rest of What Dreams May Come deals with his attempts to rescue her. Though the film never dispenses with art-inspired fantasy (landscapes by John Martin and Victorian fairy painting are both pastiched), hell is marked out as the realm of culture rather than nature - or, to be more precise, the realm of European culture. Chris's guide is a former shrink, played by Max von Sydow and the only figure in the film clearly labelled "Olde World": Sydow speaks with a strong accent and does a sort of reprise of his role in Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

Von Sydow takes Chris through a cavernous neo-classical mausoleum, claustrophobically lagged with antique leather-bound books, to a collapsed gothic pile, where a zombiefied Annie is languishing. Hell seems to be for the self-absorbed, those who think and read too much. When the couple regain heaven, it has become a flower-filled hanging garden, and they gaze longingly at each other. No oil-stained canvas comes between them now. If only soggy, simpering Robin Williams didn't bear such an unnerving resemblance to George Bush . . .

In the end, it's probably just as well that Williams does look like Bush, because this film comes with a strong conservative agenda. It ends up asserting traditional family values. The type of woman it fears most is someone like the Britpack artist Tracey Emin, who is almost a cartoon version of the destructive creator. Emin had two abortions by her late twenties. Just after her second, when she was still an art student, she took all her paintings into the courtyard of the Royal College and smashed them up with a hammer. It took a whole day and by the time she had finished her hands were bleeding. "I downed brushes," she said. "I downed the whole notion of these ideas of creativity. After termination, I couldn't tolerate the idea of painting any more."

Of course, Emin soon went back to art-making with a vengeance. The childless peintre maudit is alive and kicking.

"What Dreams May Come" (15) is on general release.
James Hall's "The World as Sculpture" will be published by Chatto & Windus later this year

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis