Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Big Heads

Big heads – that is, bigger than lifesize heads – loom large in childhood. Whether we grew up with Humpty-Dumpty, Mickey Mouse, the Mr Men characters or Peppa Pig, their big heads and small bodies offer the very young an alternative image of the human or anthropomorphic form – and it’s one that has nothing to do with big-headedness. ‘Don’t worry about bodies’, these big heads tell little children, ‘faces say it all.’

Big heads have featured in art, of course, across the ages. I find them sometimes friendly, sometimes disturbing. I suppose the inscrutable Sphinx has one of the most famous outsize faces ever carved, and one would have liked to know what Shelley‘s Ozymandias looked like.  According to the poem, only ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone / Stand in the desert’; nevertheless,

        Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies ...

and although the head is shattered, enough remains for the traveller to discern the ‘frown / And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command’. Rather like the Cheshire Cat’s grin, the expression – though not the face itself – survives.

In late March this year, in Paris, I sat in a small park named in honour of Georges Brassens, who had lived in nearby Impasse Florimont, originally his hiding place from the Nazis (he had managed to abscond from a forced labour camp). Brassens is revered in France today as one of the best-loved poets and song-writers of the post-war era. Schools, theatres, public spaces, even a metro station are named after him. Hence the parc Georges Brassens in the 15th Arrondissement where, in a quiet corner and silhouetted against the newly-green branches, I discovered a fine sculpture of him– a big bronze head of Brassens.

Although the neck has the hint of a collar, I think one would need more of the shoulders to call this a bust. But it needs no apology for being just a head. It is wonderful: the humane portrait of a man who was a gentle anarchist, a chanteur in the tradition of Charles Trenet, and a wryly affectionate observer of human folly – his own as much as other people’s.  Look at his high receding forehead and that slightly puzzled expression, accentuated by the wrinkle looping upwards from the bridge of his nose; eyes that seem to look inward rather than downward; a moustache, almost (but not quite) comically large, and a firm but unassertive chin. How well the sculptor, André Greck, understood this most interesting and interested of men! Julian Barnes has described Brassens as France’s greatest and wisest singer: ‘We should visit him,’ he says, ‘in whatever way we can.’ I’m glad to have done just that.

Three weeks after my encounter with Georges Brassens, I came face to face with a very different
head: this one, by Elizabeth Frink, sits outside the Exchange Arts Centre at Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Frink, who had lived in Dorset for much of her later life, has always been important to me: I count her and Jacob Epstein as the two artists who first introduced me to the possibilities of modern sculpture. In 1962, I gazed and gazed but little thought how much Epstein’s ‘St Michael defeating the Devil’ outside, and Frink’s lectern eagle inside, Basil Spence’s newly consecrated Coventry cathedral would still mean to me more than fifty years later. That they meant something to me even then I am certain: before visiting the Cathedral, I had already spent hours trying to draw these sculptures from photographs in the then just-launched Sunday Times Colour Supplement.

Frink’s Sturminster sculpture is entitled ‘Desert Head IV’. It was given to the town in 2008. In every respect it is the antithesis of the Brassens head - except that it, too, compels our gaze. The shoulders, the neck, the chin, the mouth, nose, ear and eye: all assert their right to be taken seriously. But whereas the head of Brassens is crowned by a wave of hair sweeping back from the temples, Frink’s is without hair: this head allows nothing to distract us from its monumentality. It leads with its chin; its expression is unnerving . Whereas Brassens looks inward, this Desert Head stares – almost glares – out into the distance. The eyebrow like an escarpment separating the cranium from the cheek, the slightly aquiline nose, the mouth that seems to wrap itself around from one side of the head to the other – these features together assemble a face that might have been painted by Picasso. Indeed, if you ignore the lantern jaw, this head could almost be Picasso’s own.

Then in Dusseldorf last month I came across an even bigger, more unsettling head, one belonging to a war memorial by the German artist Jupp Rübsam (1898-1978). This memorial, to the members of the 39th Fusilier Regiment, was erected in 1928 but stood for only five years before being dismantled and effectively demolished by the nascent National Socialists, who then built one of their own. Even in its original form, it must have been a disturbing presence: the helmeted head is huge, and thick-lipped. Unnervingly un-Aryan to the Nazis, perhaps. And now? Well the expression is hard to read: from beneath the rim of the helmet, the soldier’s eyes stare out, giving nothing away. This isn’t so much a shattered, as a frozen, image.

Yet shattered the sculpture most certainly was. And now only two bits of it remain – if one may call this huge bust a ‘bit’. The head and shoulders rest on a concrete block which itself stands on an oblong brick plinth. Placed beside the head is a rescued section of what was once presumably a body: But whose body, and which section? Were you to imagine the soldier’s huge head on top of what looks like a section of rump and thigh, you’d have another (and thoroughly bizarre) kind of sphinx. It makes no sense, but this is perhaps its point. This big head was retrieved and re-erected in its present location in 1978 as a memorial ‘Gegen Terror und Intoleranz’.  Upon which subject, in its present disembodied form, it speaks eloquently – though its lips never move.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) (Paris) Head of Georges Brassens, by André Greck;  (ii)  (Sturminster Newton) Desert Head IV, by Elisabeth Frink; (iii) (Dusseldorf) War Memorial, dismembered and reconstituted, by Jupp Rübsam.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Little Bean

By rights, I should have been a younger brother. My mother was a wartime bride, married in July 1941 at the age of 19. She and my father (who was twelve years older) spent their honeymoon in Somerset, well away from the bombs that had been falling on south London, my mother’s home up to that time. Soon after, she was pregnant; but before the end of the year she had lost the baby and undergone surgery. It was to be eight years and two more operations later, before I was born. I only remember my mother speaking of this once, but she knew the child she had lost was a boy so, in the days long before scans, this must have been a late miscarriage or an early stillbirth. With the reticence of her time and class, she revealed few details, and never spoke of how she must have felt, then or in the years that followed.

Until very recently I have hardly ever thought about this child who could have been my brother – or, indeed, about miscarriage and stillbirth, which are about as close as we still come to taboo subjects these days. They are rarely written about in fiction, where one is more likely to read of abortion than of miscarriage. I think the only novel I have read in which miscarriage plays a significant part is D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, and perhaps this contributed to the decision to ban the novel when it was published in 1915.

At the end of the story, Ursula Brangwen, having broken off her difficult engagement to a young army officer, Anton Skrebensky, finds she is pregnant and writes, offering to marry him after all.  But she doesn’t know that he has already left England; nor does she know that he, on the rebound and out of anger at the way she has treated him, has married his Colonel’s daughter, sailing with her to join his regiment in India. Walking alone across fields near her Nottingham home, trying to make sense of her life, Ursula encounters some horses in a field. The animals start to pursue her and she only escapes by running to the edge of the field and scrambling desperately up a tree, then falling back to earth on the far side of a hedge. She is ill and delirious for a fortnight, wrestling with the reality and the implications of being with child:

The child was like a bond round her brain, tightened on her brain. It bound her to Skrebensky.  But why, why did it bind her to Skrebensky? Could she not have a child of herself? Was not the child her own affair? What had it to do with him? Why must she be bound?

Gradually her delirium and despair give way to a deep sleep during which she sloughs off the old world to which her family, the mining town in which she lives, and Skrebensky himself had belonged. When she recovers, she has lost the child but gained a vision of a new life to come. The irony is heavy – some would say typically heavy-handed – but it prepares us for the climactic, eponymous, utterly-Lawrentian symbol of the novel:

And the rainbow stood on the earth. She knew that the sordid people who crept hard-scaled and separate on the face of the world’s corruption were living still, that the rainbow was arched in their blood, and would quiver to life in their spirit …. She saw in the rainbow the earth’s new architecture, the old, brittle corruption of houses and factories swept away, the world built up in a living fabric of Truth, fitting to the over-arching heaven.

In Madingley Church, near Cambridge, there is a touching and unusual memorial to a child who had been born and who died on a single day. It carries a verse epitaph in Latin, penned by the child’s father in 1636. 300 years later this threnody was translated by the poet Frances Cornford:

Bring roses, singing girls, soft pansies strew

To decorate these little ashes new; 

Nor with one cry or longing tears invade

The sleeping stillness of an infant maid, 

Who in one showery day was here and gone, 

To God’s invariable peace passed on. 

He whispered to her soul; without a stain

She, to His goodness, gave it back again.

The alabaster memorial depicts a tiny child, snugly wrapped from head to toe in a blanket, asleep and
lying on a pillow, facing the onlooker. Above and on either side two angels hold a Crown of Innocence over her head. I have always found this tribute to a child so briefly alive as not even to be named one of the most moving examples of parents’ determination to memorialize a victim of what is nowadays known as neo-natal death. Within ten years of this baby’s death, however, the memorial had been smashed by Puritan iconoclasts who chopped off the angels’ heads and prised the memorial off the wall, breaking it in two. But the family recovered the shattered fragments and sometime later – presumably after the Restoration – paid to have the memorial repaired and replaced in the church. It’s an extraordinary emblem of the enduring significance of a life that hardly even began.

These reflections are prompted by a recent death in our family. It happened the day before the mother was due to have a twenty-week scan that would have revealed the sex of the child whose parents had up to then only called it affectionately ‘Little Bean’. As now we all call him. You can read his story, and how his parents are planning to memorialize him, here.  I hope you will; if you do, you’ll see some of the messages friends and strangers have posted – none more apt and affectionate than this, from Winnie the Pooh:

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

Adrian Barlow

Postscript: Little Bean’s parents have now completed their charity fund-raising cycle challenge, riding from Trafalgar Square to the Eiffel Tower in 25 hours. You can read about their achievement here.

[illustrations: (i) My parents on their honeymoon, Dulverton, Somerset, July 1941 (ii) Memorial in Madingley Parish Church. Photos © the author.

You can read an earlier post of mine about Madingley in Time of (Civil) War.