Saturday, 25 February 2017

Of Devils and Darkness: Kaunas, Lithuania

[This is an anecdote from a trip I made with my son Keith in 2008 which took in Lithuania, Belarus and Poland.  I wrote it for a travel competition in 2014.  Keith described the experience in his 2016 book Baltic Lenin: A Journey into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania's Soviet Past.  Unfortunately I didn’t think to photograph the church so have included a snap of Keith surveying the rooftops of Kaunas.]

We were headed to Belarus and only stopped in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second city, because the cheapest route involved going via Lithuania and that’s where the plane landed.  Potentially a drawback, but Kaunas turned out to be full of surprises.  We started with the Devil Museum, showcasing images of the horned one from around the world in their infinite variety; you wouldn’t want to fall foul of this little lot and have them poke you with their pitchforks.  The museum devoted to folk music and instruments seemed tame in comparison, welcoming as it was, and sadly time was too short to permit a visit to the museum of Lithuanian medicine and pharmacy.

Yet even devils could not compare with our oddest experience in Lithuania.  That wasn’t the lettuce accompanying our fried breakfast, or the loose-leaf tea without a strainer at the Devil Museum (diabolical!) but the crypt of the Garrison Church, dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.  We had strolled in to look at the architecture and splendid decoration, but after a while our attention was attracted by an elderly chap standing near a door in the corner who gestured us over.  He pointed down a spiral staircase and urged us to descend into the darkness below.

His English was as bad as our Lithuanian so he was unable to explain the attraction of going into the bowels of the church with the lights off.  Having seen some of those horror films in which tourists find themselves minus vital organs in out-of-the-way places I hesitated.  Just for a moment though: ‘hell’ I thought (clearly the influence of those wicked devils), ‘Lithuania’s in the EU, what’s likely to happen in a city you can get to by budget airline?’  Two ladies had gone ahead of us and it seemed only right that we should show some of the old bulldog spirit and do the same.

So we descended, expecting to find some light, but instead remained plunged in musty-smelling pitch darkness.  We bumped into something, then something else.  There were all these things hanging down, and wherever you turned they were in your way.  I started thinking about those horror films again, the fear of the unknown.  What were they, what were they made of, and why were they here?  We became disoriented and claustrophobic.  With no idea where we were going, bemusement turned to mild irritation as we wondered how long it would take to find our way out.

Then my companion had a burst of inspiration and took out his mobile phone.  By its illumination we could see that the place was full of white dangling obstacles, like thin punch bags, foam-covered pillars and rubber kitchen gloves sticking out from the walls.  It was surreal, and grubby, but not threatening.  Attracted by the glow, we were shortly joined by the two ladies who had preceded us, equally glad to be able to see what was going on.  Together we found some stairs in the opposite corner to those by which we had entered, and were soon back in the welcome daylight, to the obvious annoyance of the custodian who knew we had cheated.

We were relieved to be out of the stygian gloom, but were left feeling baffled.  Only later did we realise we had been in the Museum of the Blind, an environment designed to show what it is like to be without sight and have to rely on the other senses (stretching the concept of the museum somewhat, we thought).  We had failed the challenge, though had we been aware of what the purpose was we might have met it with more confidence, rather than thinking we were having a trick played on us; in its eccentric fashion it certainly made us aware of the difficulties the blind face every day.  Belarus presented its own variety of strangeness, but nothing to compare with that peculiar crypt.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

‘A Century of Photography, 1840-1940’ at the National Portrait Gallery

Adelaide Passingham, by Eveleen Myers

This one-room exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery presents a small selection of images from its quarter-of-a-million strong collection, supplemented by loans from New York-based dealer and collector Stephan Loewentheil.  The explanatory panel states that they were ‘chosen to illustrate photography’s expressive power’, a rather vague remit which allowed the curators plenty of latitude.

There are photographers famous and not so famous, including Julia Margaret Cameron, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Hill and Adamson, Frederick Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn, George Washington Wilson, Man Ray, Edward Weston, Cecil Beaton and Lucia Moholy.  In a display case is the recently acquired album, containing 70 prints, compiled by Oscar Rejlander.  He is best known for his composites made from multiple negatives but he was an accomplished portraitist and an influence on Cameron and Dodgson.

One of the most striking photographs, from the early 1890s, is of Adelaide Passingham by Eveleen Myers (née Tennant), wife of psychical researcher Frederic Myers.  It is done in a style similar to Cameron’s but Passingham looks very modern with her blouse half-unbuttoned and hair loose.  Olive Edis, who recently had a major exhibition at Norwich Castle devoted to her, is represented by one of her delicate autochromes.  In a room that is mostly mono it stands out, but not as much as Madame Yevonde’s remarkable 1932 portrait, employing the Vivex colour process, of redhead Joan Maude wearing a red blouse and red lipstick, photographed against a red backdrop.

Some of those depicted are famous: D H Lawrence, Edward Carpenter, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his outsize chains (perhaps a slightly obvious inclusion), Hallam Tennyson (Rejlander also photographed him but the one on display is by Dodgson), Aubrey Beardsley, Aldous Huxley, Sir Leslie Stephen and his 20-year old daughter Virginia, later Woolf (Cameron’s great-niece), Walter de la Mare, Margot Asquith; while others are less eminent, such as Wilson’s 1854 ‘The Old Gardener Simpson … and his wife’, a title suggesting the wife was a bit of an afterthought and old Simpson did not require a first name.

The exhibition’s introductory panel asserts:

‘The photographs in this room have been chosen to illustrate photography's expressive power. The best photographs show us not just what a person looked like, but also provide a window on their character, giving us a sense of what it might have been like to be in their presence. This is one of the great paradoxes of photographic portraiture – that something of a person's spirit, thought, and feeling might be glimpsed in one, carefully chosen moment in time.’

I doubt they provide a window on character, unless we already have an idea of it from other sources, because the persona an individual projects might be a misleading one and is influenced by the degree of artfulness employed by the photographer.  But even if we cannot gauge their personalities we can imagine what it would have been like to be in the subjects’ presence.  Further, the artefacts themselves possess an aura not available with reproductions, making these photographs worth a visit to the NPG.  I just wish it had been a larger selection.

The free exhibition, in room 29, runs from 17 October 2016 to 1 October 2017.