Indirections: A Memoir 1909-1947
Chapter Twelve — Russia, Chinese Art — 33
Russia, Chinese Art
in the summer of 1934, James was planning a trip to Russia, with Ian one of the party; Geoff Cox and others hoped to go as well. In the end only James, Ian and I went. We were to spend half our time in Moscow, to see the theatre festival.
James and Ian travelled by ship through the Baltic, in order to see Helsinki (where they found the best bookshop they had ever met, with books in all the chief European languages), and from there by train to Leningrad. I wanted to visit Richard Michaelis, now living in Amsterdam with his wife and mother, and the Felses in Hanover, and then to spend a few days with Colin in Berlin, so I made the whole journey by train. As it happened, I had been for some while much preoccupied with von Hügel, whose Letters to a Niece I was reading on the journey (with Herzen's memoirs, Pushkin's stories, and a volume of Chekhov's letters). I wished I could find a confessor and spiritual adviser of such insight myself. It was ironical that I should feel the need of one at that moment; I had not wanted it before, nor did I again.
From Berlin to Riga, twenty-four hours, the railway-line traversed open low rolling country and countless woods of pine, larch and birch; there were few large towns. In Lithuania the train became almost a local one, making many long halts at which peasants got in and out. From Riga — I had a morning to see the town — only one carriage went through to Leningrad and it was sealed off from the rest of the train. I was the sole passenger, but guards kept passing through, spruce men in sober-brown uniform with green collars and gold buttons. All Latvia on that line seemed a single forest, the birch, larch and pine relieved by poplar, rowan, ash and hazel. Our engine page 235puffed slowly when we stopped at a station, like a man contentedly smoking his pipe. On that clear day of blue sky and small white clouds the country looked beautiful, but remote and primitive, a trackless land that somehow lacked character. At dusk a low thick-yellow moon floated ahead, some days past the full. We had already met a small Russian-style church, and then we were in Russia, where my bag was examined carefully, especially the books.
I had four days in Leningrad, first walking about the magnificent sad town alone — sad because of its air of poverty and listlessness. Most of the buildings were neglected — long unpainted and many decaying, with cracked or broken windows. The people in their dark clothes looked poor and drab, spiritless; the red berets many women wore gave one of the few touches of colour. Young people, we heard, were unconscious of their clothes; only the older ones minded. The shops were poor too (we saw few good ones), even antique shops and bookshops and bookstalls, many streets were cobbled, many under repair or in need of repair, cars were few and bicycles still fewer, trams crowded. The town had scarcely been touched since the revolution, while the Soviet government spent what money it could afford on restoring and modernizing Moscow, its new capital; only in the Viborg quarter and in a students' quarter were well-made new streets with new blocks of flats. But public gardens and flower beds were lovingly kept — the Summer Garden, the Smolny gardens; and everywhere we saw window boxes of petunias, oleanders, nasturtiums, and flowers and pot-plants in the windows; flower shops and street sellers offered chrysanthemums and carnations too. James and Ian arrived later; again we were able to walk about the streets as we wished, unquestioned; they had a few words of Russian, not enough to be very useful. We were taken to the Hermitage, a textile factory, an anti-religious museum in St Isaac's Cathedral.
The theatre festival in Moscow was our professed object, or rather that of the cheap tour which made it possible for us to come; but we were here above all to see the land of socialism, of which Lincoln Steffens had written: 'I have seen the future, and it works.' We had tickets for plays, operas and ballets on every one of our ten nights. By day we saw the town and its chief page 236shrines (the Kremlin, Lenin's tomb), the galleries and museums, a school, a free prison colony (formerly one of the homes for the homeless vagabond boys of the early years of the revolution which we knew about from the film The Road to Life), a home for reformed prostitutes, the show-pieces of a reformed society, its touchstones, apart from that less tangible one, the condition of the people.
We had guides wherever we went; but we also walked about the town continually by ourselves, without hindrance. The beauty of the Kremlin, its brick walls of soft dark-red, its white churches and golden domes, its lawns of deep-green, we were in part prepared for. What surprised me is that Moscow is hilly, and that it kept reminding me of Italy — here and there by a confusion of white buildings with roofs of red tiles and small white chimneys, by the tone of its motor horns, by side streets where new buildings were going up and sand and boards lay about (half the town seemed to be in process of rebuilding), by women with their black market bags and the unwrapped loaves they carried, and again and again by its light, a broad, softly-glowing light, still and sometimes hazy, which is not what I had looked for in dark violent tragic Muscovy. From the dining-room on the top floor of our homely, slightly dingy hotel we had a splendid view across the small Moscow River to the Kremlin and the white-washed wall and crowded buildings of the old town, the Kitai Gorod, soon to be pulled down in the cause of progress. The busy streets were hung with red flags and big portraits and placarded with slogans, white letters on a red ground, for the twentieth anniversary of the Komsomol. More motor cars were about than in Leningrad, more trams too and they were fuller; more streets were paved; a bustling purposeful town. The people too looked a little better dressed here, although they wore working clothes by day, and men did not shave every day; there was more in the shops. Men came to the theatre in khaki blouses without jackets and in Russian shirts, white or coloured; suits were seldom very well pressed, the lapels of jackets tended to flop. Women's dresses looked of poor quality, their coats and skirts often shabby; many women and most men went bare-headed, but berets or scarves were common wear for women, hats rare; men wore caps if anything. In Kharkov, where we saw black astrakhans, page 237people were far better dressed than elsewhere — that town had an air of having arrived; but in Rostov-on-Don and in Kiev too the softer climate gave a sense of relative relaxation, so that clothes seemed less important.
Official views of the condition of the country, which was held to be in a transitional stage moving towards communism, we met on all sides, especially through the Intourist and voks guides who took us, in Moscow and elsewhere, to factories, farms, other institutions, which we should not have been able to visit without them.
We remained ignorant of what we did not see; what we saw was a mere fraction of the fringes of the enormous country; if we had been fluent speakers of Russian we should still, at that time, have learned little we were not meant to know. The west did not hear until a year or two later of the terrible famine that spread in that very summer over much of rural Russia, because of the failure of the crops; when we visited a big state farm on the north Caucasian steppe east of Rostov-on-Don we were given not the faintest hint of it. The country seemed to be, for the moment, in a fairly stable condition; the headlong rush towards industrialization, with all its strains and hardships, was taken to be progress, the achievement of socialism in one country. That moment of stability, such as it was, came to an end only three months later, when Kirov was murdered in Leningrad and Stalin's terror immediately began.
At every opportunity we asked questions of the people we met, as continually of one another: how did this society work and was it in any way a model for us? The Russians professed to believe without reservation in the perfectibility of man; they were thorough Godwinians. All crime, they held, is due to bad economic and social conditions and will disappear once the classless society is achieved. Yes? I kept thinking of the Waiters in our hotel, the New Moscow, where the service was so slow that meals dragged out to intolerable length. Dressed in white, but unmistakable peasants who spoke only Russian, they were simple-minded, middle-aged, much-harassed men who would not change however conditions improved around them.page 238
Few men at any time are perfectible; no change in society can change a man's nature, the endowment he is born with — which includes the ability to go on changing and developing. Not unless you believe that in a perfect society all men will be born with high intelligence and ability and will thus be virtually equal in themselves and not only in the opportunity presented to them; and that is scarcely credible. The perfected classless society cannot help being a mockery to those whose defects and weaknesses it is unable to alter (though it may — it must — improve the conditions they live under). Men are inevitably different and unequal; their condition, life on earth, is implicitly, ineluctably tragic.
James I think would have agreed, but not Ian, who was then a convinced atheist and dialectical materialist, declaring that dialectical materialism is the historical process; yet he professed faith also in psychoanalysis and in psychological explanations of everything. To James, however, evil was real, perhaps existing, unapproved, in the mind of God. If Ian seemed the more radical, it was because he was one of 'those to whom the miseries of the world/Are misery, and will not let them rest', and was impatient of half measures in bringing about a world which promised to relieve misery — a religious rather than a political vision drove him.
We asked one of our guides in Moscow about religion. She was cautious, being no theorist (she said) nor well-read in Marx; she conceded that the party in its present materialism (a Christian could not be a member of the party) was concerned solely with bringing about a socialist society, and did not think yet of the future when it had been achieved. At that stage, James thought, there would be a return to religion; she admitted the possibility. She did not know whether Marx had made a specific denunciation of Christianity itself apart from denouncing the church. James doubted it; he believed that Christ's teaching was essentially communistic and that Christianity and communism are not only reconcilable but almost complementary. He claimed to be a socialist, a Marxist, a Lawrentian, and a Christian. How should we describe ourselves, in brief? 'Scholars and gentlemen'? no, out of date; better, we decided, 'socialists and scholars'.
Another guide, with whom James and I saw the famous page 239beautiful churches at Kolomenskoye, a few miles from Moscow (Ian was impatient of churches and museums), and who dined with us at our hotel later, gave us an older view. I had asked to go to Kolomenskoye, and she because she loved the place had offered to take us on her free day. She wore the prettiest dress by far that I had yet seen in Russia, with old and very worn shoes; a tall rather haggard-faced woman who (we learned by chance in conversation) had been at university in Leningrad at the time of the revolution. Clearly she was no proletarian by origin, and she spoke guardedly, although finding us sympathetic.
She thought that more than one-third of all Russians were still orthodox believers, including many peasants, even those on collective farms — a figure far higher than we had been led to expect. We asked her about plays and music and books. The best revolutionary play, she told us, was Vsevolod Vishnevsky's An Optimistic Tragedy: we had seen it at the Kamerny Theatre — that is, I had found it so tedious I left after the first act, while James sitting it out grew more and more disgusted by its unending propaganda. Gorky, so great a name then, she did not much admire, and thought his Egor Bulychev a poor dull play, but Mikhail Bulgakin's The Days of the Turbins excellent. Alexey Tolstoy was good in his plays as well as his novels. Chekhov's plays were performed, but were not popular, being beyond the understanding of the workers who were the chief theatre-goers — they were given concessions; Ostrovsky was easier for them because the lives of his people were nearer to their own. Of the poets, Boris Pasternak was by far the best, an individualist, who began writing before the revolution; the finest poet of the recent past was Nikolay Gumilev, shot in 1921. No modern Russian composer, she said, compared with Stravinsky and Prokofiev, who both lived abroad (Prokofiev in fact returned to Russia just about that time); Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mstensk Province she thought very bad. She was not one who foresaw a shining future, and the present, plainly, was little to her taste.
In Kiev we met a Ukrainian poet of about thirty who had taken the picturesque name of Pervomaisky, First-of-May, but was neither picturesque nor otherwise notable in appearance. With a critic called Shchupak to help him out — in fact rather to blunt his discriminations — he gave us a sketch of Ukrainian page 240literature from the tale of Prince Igor to Shevchenko and the present day, when after long suppression Ukrainian had become the official language. We asked about a recent congress of Soviet writers in Moscow, which both had attended, and the communist theory of poetry. Literature, they said, should move with life; and then — Soviet Russia will aim to produce a Shakespeare or Goethe or Byron! Revolutionary romanticism is not a distinct style but only a means of expression: style must be realistic. Dreams are realistic for a communist because he knows they will come true — they are based on fact. Lenin had said that every communist must be a dreamer. They held that conflicts of character, as in Shakespeare, spring from social, that is class differences; that until communism is world-wide, literature will deal at least in part with the struggle against capitalism; that in the future classless society the subject matter of literature will be the struggle against the forces of nature, and for the best life, the fullest humanity. No — they did not sound quite as flat as this; but in spite of our good interpreter they were not always able to make themselves very clear — perhaps our questions were not clear enough. Lyrical poetry — they told us — was ascetic during the revolutionary period, in calmer times it is happy. They too said that Pasternak was a good poet, whose work was of great technical interest; he was rather a-political, but not anti-communist. It was as if they had to make excuses for him, or for themselves in thinking well of him.
For all my fascination with Egypt and the Levant, Italy remained for me the paragon of countries, that one which nature and art had combined to make supremely beautiful. And Italian art, above all the art of the Renaissance, I took as the norm and model of art. Acquaintance with Egyptian and Islamic art, greatly as I admired them, did not change my view, nor did the Indian work I had seen casually at South Kensington; African, Maori and Pacific art I knew little and thought minor; I had not considered any other view. I was quite unprepared for the great exhibition of Chinese art which came to Burlington House at the end of 1935, an exhibition of more than three thousand objects including paintings, sculpture, bronzes, jades, metalwork, page 241pottery, porcelain, lacquer, textiles, calligraphy. It gave a glimpse, if no more — an intimate, living glimpse — of a large part of Chinese civilization from the earliest times. Its effect was overwhelming.
Of China and Chinese art I knew nothing. I had seen a little in London, but little enough, and when so many things pressed upon me I needed strong reason to explore one subject rather than another. Japanese art meant, to me, the colour prints I knew at home and had seen later in the British Museum and elsewhere, besides sword-guards and other small objects. Hiro-shige's rain and moonlight scenes, Hokusai's Great Wave of Kanasawa and his views of Fuji in their sharply personal style, Motonobu's Shoriken Crossing the Sea on a Sword* — these I loved, but they were intimate work, hardly public like Renaissance art. I had no thought-out idea of what art should be and do; I absorbed what I saw, taking each style, each artist, as I happened upon each. Now for the first time I came upon an art of the very greatest scope and quality, presented at once in concentrated form, so that it made the strongest possible impression. An art which seemed to challenge all I had so unquestioningly accepted, because it expressed, implicitly but unmistakably, a philosophical view of the world radically different from that of Greek and of Renaissance art.
Two aspects of Chinese art in that exhibition struck me. First, that it was a thoroughly social art, which both grew out of and formed part of everyday life. Not an art of church and court, but rather an art of intimate daily life, both religious and secular, expressing the abounding curiosity, responsiveness and inventiveness of a whole people in all their doings through many centuries. Second, it was an art expressing no organized religion, but a universal instinctive piety or respect for the world and humbleness towards it which showed itself in every activity, in everything made.
Italian art, like Greek, like Egyptian too, is both an art of statement and an ideal art. Its subject matter makes it remote from our experience. Piero's statuesque figures, Michelangelo's heroic and agonizing ones, Bellini's and Raphael's Madonnas, Signorelli's struggling groups, the formal altar-pieces, the Vene-page 242tian banquets, the great historical scenes sacred and profane — all these are far from our lives even when we respond to the speaking human quality of the persons shown. We cannot imagine ourselves in their situation; nor shall we ever have such beautiful and tragic faces, such radiant bodies, clothes so rich and brilliant. True, the portraits of young men and women and of older people too may speak to us nearly, so that we recognize our kind in these often unknown individuals and love them — still we can never see ourselves living with them. The human figure is the most important subject of painting. It usually occupies the foreground of the picture. When figures are set in landscape, as in Bellini's Madonna of the Meadow in the National Gallery, Titian's Sacred and Profane Love, Giorgione's Concert Champêtre and generally in these painters and in Piero, Botticelli, Perugino, Raphael, Mantegna, Cima, Antonello and so many others, the landscape may be present for its own sake, because of its beauty, yet always in relation to man and for his enjoyment, as an extension of or setting for man and society. It has been argued that in Giorgione, in The Tempest above all, the landscape exists in its own right; but by including a town and bridge and broken architecture The Tempest is humanized or social landscape, unthinkable without man. For the Italians, it is man who discovers and delights in nature and is thus its measure.
25. Canterbury Quadrangle, St John's College, from Came to Oxford (Basil Blackwell, 1952) by Muirhead Bone
29. Willi Fels at Stockholm
31. Waitaki schoolboy, pencil sketch by James Bertram
four views of charles brash
34. At Mapua, 1938, ink sketch by Toss Woollaston Hocken Library
four views of charles brash
35. Jack Bennett in Auckland, 1931
37. John Mulgan as candidate for Rhodes Scholarship, 1931
41. North House, headquarters of the Egypt Exploration Society dig at Tell el Amarna, 1933-4 Hocken Library
46. Double portrait of Charles Brasch and Robert Maddox (Roger Cox) by John Crockett (see p. 352) Hocken Library photograph
47. Portrait of Charles Brasch as fire-watcher by Fred Manner Hocken Library photograph
49. Iris Wilkinson (Robin Hyde) working outdoors at Bishop's Barn Hocken Library
51. Denis Glover at Troon, Ayrshire, 1942
53. Tim Thompson as First Officer, Merchant Marine, Sydney, 1944
Houses temples paths bridges boats men and animals appear as a matter of course in these landscapes; man and his works are part of nature. But nature was not created for man's sake, for his use and enjoyment, nor is it shown in painting for that purpose — although man may indeed use and enjoy it, in itself and in paintings. Nature is the world, is reality, and is also a symbol of an unseen reality behind or within appearance. The title of a landscape after the Sung painter Tung Yuan illustrated in one of Osvald Siren's books, Pavilions on the Mountains of the Immortals, suggests the Chinese view. I do not recall clear sunlight in a classical Chinese painting, as in scenes by Titian and Giorgione and so many other Italians; clouds, mist, the haze of distance, muffling snows, soften every landscape, as if to say, the world is not open and clear and known, and as it were accountable to us, but existing in its own right, living by laws of its own, for ends we may possibly come to understand if we too submit to them, yet not amenable to us.
Christianity misleads us if it says — as some Christians have said who had not taken the Old Testament to heart — that the world was created for the sake of man, and that nature ought to be subject to man. George Herbert put this view in extreme form in his poem 'Man';
For us the windes do blow,
The earth doth rest, heav'n move, and fountains flow.
Nothing we see, but means our good,
As our delight, or as our treasure:
The whole is, either our cupboard of food,
Or cabinet of pleasure.
— but this still leaves man free to ravage the earth in his service, page 244for his own immediate unthinking ends, as he began to do in earnest with new mechanical means some fifty years after Herbert's death and continued unchecked until our own day, when at last he found that he was fast poisoning his mother earth and endangering his very existence. The Chinese were wiser.
That, as the world serves us, we may serve thee,
And both thy servants be
This was spelled out for me in the books I began to read on Chinese art and philosophy, legend and history. Something very close to it was expressed in other work I was reading at about the same time, in Tagore and other writers on Indian matters. Wordsworth was not far away, nor Leopardi. But I had not before found that theme expressed so multifariously in the painting, sculpture, poetry, philosophy and other arts of one coherent civilization. The experience flooded and warmed my imagination; it set everything I felt and knew in a different light; it made clear many things I had felt but not understood. Fundamentally, it forbade me to despair of the world and myself, although I often despaired of myself and was coming to despair of the world, and was to go through both despairs many times in the future. It was not at all a revolutionary experience, but a confirmatory one.
At once I began writing poems on Chinese subjects suggested by paintings and bronzes. I did not consciously choose and decide to; it was simply that I was full of things Chinese, images and ideas, and my mind as always overflowed into poems. But the poems were failures, whether because the impulse was too shallow or because I was not able to express at once experience that affected my way of thinking and responding rather than simply offering me a host of new visual images. James's departure for China gave me a further stake in the country. He, Ian and I had gone together to the Chinese exhibition; he must have gone at other times too; his appreciation was no less than mine, but the experience of Chinese art was not new to him. The Chinese exhibition gave me a new understanding of the world. That seemed little help to survival in it; I was not among those naturally fit to survive; yet Chinese art in some obscure way toughened my fibre, increased my powers of endurance, perhaps by making me more sure of my roots.page 245
Joy Seovell and I got to know each other slowly after she came down from Oxford and we were both living near Primrose Hill. She was writing both verse and fiction and, very poor, needed any extra money she could earn to keep going. For a while she had worked for Rose Macaulay, who had been kind and generous and had tried to get Joy's poems published; then on the weekly Time and Tide, until it had to economize; in the end, she went to work as Alfredo's secretary. Editors did not like her work because it was quiet and unfashionable; its direct truthfulness and grace and beautiful economy made too little noise to win their attention, yet it seemed to me among the truest poetry then being written. Joy was too retiring to approach editors herself; she was no party-goer; the very few editors she did happen to meet were struck by her great loveliness and only then began to notice her work. So she appeared in the thirties in Time and Tide, the Week-End Review, Life and Letters, the New Statesman, the Adelphi, largely thanks to Ellis Roberts, who for a while was editor or literary editor of several of these or else close to them; but her poems were far more often rejected than accepted. Nothing came to her easily, neither living nor writing, and she received perhaps too little encouragement to go on writing prose; poems were forced out of her, fruit of necessity. Because of that she did not want criticism, did not wish to criticize, which seemed to her irrelevant, impertinent, an intrusion on the person; I occasionally remarked that a phrase or line in one of her poems was out of key, or inadequate, but to her it formed part of the whole and could not be changed. I had to accept that. And what did it matter, when she was writing poems so personal and inimitable as 'Swans':
What do you carry in wings cupped so carefully,
Speaking of tenderness? We carry life.
Your neck well-nerved, easy and exquisite,
Whose is its immortal gesture of pride?
We in another world, further than stars,
Go on our own way. You need not hope to know
Whether our hidden feet enjoy their strength.
Whose pride joints your neck then, whose love curves your wings,
Who in my eyes consents?
page 246 The creeper rounds the stem and sees itself.
The god looks down upon his hands, two swans,
Asks what they are.
But now, beyond question, the swans sail on together,
Wing answering wing, as parting of a breath
Is close to its indrawing.
And the god in one sees himself in the other,
For his self-knowledge is the sailing of two swans.
But the swans do not know themselves possessed.
They go on their own way in their distant world.
She had long intervals, gulfs, of not writing, and almost regularly believed she had been silenced for good. She seemed to herself to exist only in her poetry, to have no raison d'être except to write — which was exactly what I felt of myself. She thought Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet (I had lent her my translation) too ideal, only for the artist who is a saint; they made her feel a trifle guilty — which was the effect her poems had on me, because she seemed so much more faithful to her vision, truer to herself, than I was able to be, and I felt my poems and myself trivial by comparison. She believed in the usefulness of evil within oneself to keep the good alert and trained; the prick of misery within or around guarded one from superficiality.
There was in Joy a strong element of stoicism and agnosticism; she rejected the (I gathered) rather dour Yorkshire Anglicanism she had been brought up in — her father was a parson — with the comfort of its promises. But its puritan strain and a Viking ancestry had combined to form in her a human being of unexampled delicacy, of rare perfection; she was a flower; frail and strong, a flower of wind-moulded rock, or of carved wood, like no one else I have ever met. Several phrases from poems of hers expressed her aptly:
All things are hidden
In their open being ('Spring')
When we are dead, with that same, same still art
The snowdrop will unfold its heart,
Will break to three from unity
Though none will see the petals start ('A Mystery').
We saw each other a lot, walking across Primrose Hill between page 247St Edmund's Terrace and Ainger Road, where she lived for about three years in an oldish decaying terrace house; she kept her room very clean, but seemed not to notice the dust on her books, the sooty London dust which accumulated so quickly that it lay on every window ledge and table at the end of the day and dirtied handkerchiefs in a day. When I left for my last winter in Egypt I persuaded Lel to ask Joy to stay with her in the flat, which would save her rent for a few months. We went to plays together, concerts, the ballet, even to political meetings, and often walked in Regent's Park. Although so exquisitely and delicately made, Joy seemed most at home out of doors; I imagined her on Yorkshire moors, walking freely for hours and loving the wind. Some of her poems were prompted by Primrose Hill and the Park, which I saw partly by their light, especially the lake and its trees, its gliding white swans, rope-necked, aloof, its alert little clean-diving tufted ducks, and the crowd of gulls moving in the water as quickly and adroitly as they balanced on their wings in a high wind.
It was with Joy I walked most and chiefly shared London; she made me more aware of weather and light and atmosphere, of the trees and birds of the Park and Hill, of streets, houses, people and their lives. Not a Londoner, she had come to London because of the chance of work there, because her friends came, because one could live there as one chose, without question; and London adopted her so that she came to seem a native; she wanted to write a book about it. When she married the ecologist Charles Elton and went with him to live in Oxford she inevitably forfeited the pressure of London; was that a loss to her, I wonder? She and Charles were strangely alike, he being slight, fair-haired, pale, as quiet and gentle as she, each with the force of gifts and disciplined nature.
* See poem 'Shoriken' in Home Ground