The Image of Britain Part Deux

William L Wyllie had a successful exhibition which made his reputation, called The Tidal Thames, in 1884, but this etching is from 1924. Presumably he had seen the Monets exhibited in 1903 (see my previous post). Did he rework one of his Tidal Thames images? Or remember the Monet series?

He has drawn the Parliament much more beautifully than Monet (with two towers, Victoria tower added behind Big Ben), whilst rendering it mistily, like a great idea: the historical framework. In the foreground, solid and dirty, is the industrial present, staffed by straining workers heaving at a monstrous barge. There is a bridge, but otherwise the view is of a maritime democracy, an island at flood tide, just as Monet portrayed us.

It took a Frenchman to make the image of Britain!

Claude Monet came to London in the early 1870s to escape from warfare in France, fearing that he would be conscripted. He returned to London thirty years later at the turn of the century, now a successful sixty year old, to stay in the Savoy hotel and paint the Houses of Parliament. In 1899, 1900 and 1901 he painted them again and again, particularly fascinated by the effect of light on fog and fog on the precision of one’s perceptions. He thought that, “It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.”  Oscar Wilde said that the painters “invented fog,” a typically striking exaggeration. As my friend Francis points out, Dickens did fog very well in Bleak House half a century earlier.

Monet painted parliament in sunrises, and in sunsets; he tried to find the place on the South bank from where he could get the sun to shine directly above the parliament, reflected on the water. He continued working on the whole group of canvases on his return to France and in 1904 exhibited thirty seven of them in Paris. The exhibition was a great success.

The central image is of the Houses of Parliament, blurred by fog into an archetypal fortress shape, with a tower. Parliament is apparently surrounded by water, as if an island in the middle of the sea. As a portrait of Britain at the height of its imperial pride, the pre-eminent naval power in the world, reduced to its essence, it could not be bettered. And although the first impression is of solidity, the massy structure enduring the blasts, the aftertaste, of course, is of the strength of democracy and ancient inherited freedoms under the people’s law made in parliament.

French painters paint the quaies of the Seine, but as promenades, not as a surrounding sea. English painters paint parliament, but as a piece of intricate architecture. It took Monet to make the image and reduce it like a French chef to its intensest jus. Boiling off the steam, he repeats it into significance, its aroma arising, its resonances ringing: the sea, the parliament, the fog! In his sixties he wanted to “sum up…impressions and sensations of the past.” No doubt the idea of parliament in London’s marvellous breadth of fog, seen across the river from St Thomas’ hospital, had stuck in his mind from the 1870s.


The image for France is Liberty leading the people, with Marianne the embodiment of French liberty.

Liberty Leading the People. 1830. Oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm.

If I look for a great portrayal of Britishness I think of The Monarch of the Glen, Rowlandson’s Portsmouth Point, or a crowded Hogarth print, perhaps The March of the Guards to Finchley.



 Turner painted all around the British coastline, but perhaps the image that sticks in the mind is The Fighting Temeraire, a sad piece of nostalgia for a Britain once great. It took an obstinate, repetitive Frenchman with an outsider’s eye on our weather, to spot what was right in our noses.


Self at Ease






An ecstatic man dances, looking serene. Perhaps he is part of a group of dancers, now lost in the sea off Sicily. Perhaps he is involved in a sacred ritual of transcendence. Perhaps he is a satyr or nature spirit. Whatever the circumstances, he is beautiful, unafraid, at one with nature and at ease in the world. In the two thousand years since this man was sculpted in bronze there are astonishingly few images of human figures with those same qualities, perfectly at home in the world and feeling good.


But look at modern man!


Or Rodin’s image of man, a thinker but confused and uncertain:

Digital StillCamera

In the Renaissance, the age known as the age of flowering confidence in ‘Man,’ heroes were those who had cut the heads off their enemies: David with the head of Goliath, Perseus with the head of Medusa and Judith with the head of Holofernes.

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The most fascinating image of woman from the period may be many things but not perfectly at ease and serene, at home in a simple world of joy. In fact, the reason she fascinates us is because she makes us uneasy.

monalisa1-large_transeo_i_u9apj8ruoebjoaht0k9u7hhrjvuo-zlengrumaIn subsequent centuries portraits of aristocrats will furnish us with images of complacency, but not serenity and wholesome true confidence.


And images of the poor will be sentimental and patronising accounts of victimhood.


Where has that wonderful Greek confidence gone? Go through the centuries in a great gallery collection and ask, “How confident and at ease in the world is this person?”

As women become more liberated in the twentieth century do they glow with inner confidence?


Or is that body language too thrustingly assertive, over-confident?

Do the iconic images of modern men show us enlightened beings dancing with ecstasy? No, they are holding guns or leading an army. Elvis. Lenin.


This might be more sublime, but it is an oddly inflexible and static form of flying:


This, from Matisse, might be the nearest thing to an ecstatic dance, but you cannot see the faces.


The only place where I can find images of human faces which can compare with the Greek dancing satyr’s for confidence is in East Asia:

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These are the faces of people who know that they are in the right world, and accept it as it is, with gratitude. They are perfectly adjusted to their reality and have no fear.

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Samsara in scabrous drawings: George Grosz’s Ecce Homo


The intolerant fanaticism in this face reveals a mind driven by anger and hatred and ignorance. The ‘three fires’ of Buddhist teachings are perfectly illustrated in George Grosz’s faces. Samsara in the Buddha’s teachings is the world of the unenlightened, as perceived by those people unable to escape craving and anger, and unwilling to accept impermanence. The Buddha described, “…beings wandering and running around, enveloped in ignorance and bound down by the fetters of thirst.” George Grosz was not illustrating this proposition consciously, but his eye, soured by his experience of the First World War and the gross inequalities of Weimar Berlin, skewered suffering humanity, struggling with its primitive drives and passions, and lost without any more noble conception. Here they are:

Grosz Beauty, Thee Will I Praise 1919


These are people with no self-awareness, drowning in the waves of samsara. If ever a painter expressed the debilitating effects of desire it was surely George Grosz. His is a complete dharmic vision of lives lived in a state of haunted ignorance, in a frenzy of craving for what can never satisfy. The woman in a red hat with one rolling eye is the epitome of delusional suffering. She is not going to find her fulfilment like this, craving for what you cannot keep. But all his people are lost, confused; animals driven by crude appetites.






And a power structure of ignorance, brutishness and hypocrisy:


It is not clear how Grosz views the victims: the beggar and the man about to be beheaded, but only one character in the whole series of prints appears to have any perception of the ways in which people are tormenting themselves with futile desires and hostile passions, and he is also deeply compromised in his self-awareness:


It is a self-portrait of Grosz, but Grosz was only in his twenties at the time and portrays himself as an older man, and one who seems to know the terrible appeal of consuming sexual passion.

I use the terms samsara and dharmic about this vision, but Grosz would not have had a Buddhist world view.  At the time he would have happily called himself a Dadaist, and, with less confidence, would have acknowledged himself a bit of a Communist. In hindsight, in his autobiography A Small Yes and a Big No, he wrote, “My own hopes were never vested in the masses… What the masses had in plentiful supply was hatred, fear, oppression, deceit, derision, smut and calumny… I had lost all hope in the ‘lower’ classes and, in any case, had never joined in the beatification of the proletariat, not even at times when I pretended to certain political views. The war was a mirror;” [he is writing about the period 1916 to 1922] “it reflected man’s every virtue and every vice, and if you looked closely, like an artist at his drawings, it showed up both with unusual clarity.”

He described the war as “four horrible years” which filled him with “utter disgust.” I think his perception of this manic samsara was not so much politically shaped, and certainly not shaped by Buddhism,  but revealed to his mercilessly accurate artist’s eye in a particularly febrile time and place. First, the artist’s eye: “I began to draw from nature in the Japanese style, that is I made quick little sketches of people walking about, reading newspapers, eating in cafés and anything else that appealed to me.”

Berlin in the aftermath of the war was the place, and he writes about it with loathing: “The times were certainly out of joint. All moral restraints seemed to have melted away. A flood of vice, pornography  and prostitution swept the entire country…  Men in white shirts marched up and down, shouting in unison: ‘Up with Germany! Down with the Jews!’ They were followed by another group, also in disciplined ranks of four, bawling rhythmically in chorus: ‘Heil Moscow! Heil Moscow!’ Afterwards some of them would be left lying around, heads cracked, legs smashed and the odd bullet in the abdomen… The city was dark, cold and full of rumours. The streets were wild ravines haunted by murderers and cocaine peddlers, their emblem a metal bar or a murderous broken-off chair leg.”

His historical perspective is apocalyptic: “As the geo-politicians stepped into the shoes of the humanists, the enlightened age that had begun with the Renaissance ground to a halt, and the age of a blind, ironclad ant, completely indifferent to the fate of individuals, the age of numbers without names and of robots without brains, came into being.”

His artist’s eye, as one can see in his self-portrait, was sharp, ruthless, but deeply implicated  and painfully aware. “I made careful drawings of all these goings on, of all the people inside the restaurant and out, deluding myself that I was not so much a satirist as an objective student of nature. In fact, I was each one of the very characters I drew, the champagne-swilling glutton favoured by fate no less than the poor beggar standing with outstretched hands in the rain. I was split in two, just like society at large.”

I do not claim that Grosz was promoting my Buddhist understanding, but I say that his portrayal of the unsatisfying world people create of their craving/desire, hatred/anger and delusion/confusion, as described by the Buddha, is unsurpassed. He had the eye, educated by disgust at the war, and contempt for the political degeneration of his times, the greedy wealth and horrible poverty, and he had the wonderful skill to set it all down so that we can actually see what is going on in the minds of these suffering characters, imprisoned in the human condition without understanding it. His own collusion makes it all the more poignant. He is not outside sneering, but inside, grinding his teeth.

The Enlightenment of Job in Plate 11

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William Blake

The Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng T’san is full of bracing shocks. “Try not to seek after the true,” it counsels. (What?) “Only cease to cherish opinions.” (Eh?)

The “one great barrier of our faith,” Joshu’s MU koan, is a meditation upon “Nothing,” an invitation to stop clinging to all the somethings that one believes, the cherished opinions, and to float free. It is a hard path, to relinquish deeply rooted cultural ideas. Mumon instructs, “make your whole body a mass of doubt… Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes you have held from the past.” In our own English culture is there any equivalent to this stripping down of all one’s cherished beliefs to discover enlightenment?

London’s great mystic engraver-poet William Blake, late in his life, in 1817 when he was sixty, illustrated The Book of Job as part of his ambitious project to offer, “The Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no.” His modest plan was to rescue the Bible from the priests and moralisers and recreate it as a call to imaginative transcendence, thereby redeeming Western civilisation! His radical re-interpretation of The Book of Job culminates in a MU-like recognition. In Plate 11 of the 21 plate series of engravings, Job in his despair confronts his own notion of holiness and realises with a terrible shock that he has projected himself into his false picture of a cruel God. Later plates in the series explore the implications of this insight for his view of the world and his new sense of a human and humane divinity.

The Bible story starts with God and Satan having a bet. Satan bets that if he torments Job enough Job will curse God. God bets that Job will remain constant. The horrible torment duly unfolds, and Job is brought to the point of despair, to curse the day he was born, and to complain of God’s injustice. Job’s friends are “miserable comforters” who argue that Job must have deserved his suffering. God’s ways are mysterious but he must be right whatever tortures he inflicts. A debate about the justice of God’s cruelty ensues, a grim theme, but adorned with some of the most memorable poetic phrasing in the King James Bible.

Blake re-interprets this story in the light of his mystical vision, deconstructs the ghastly God character that Job and his friends believe in (“God is only an allegory of Kings,” Blake had written), ignores the fruitless debate on the justice of suffering, and rejects the morality of cruel punishment. Blake replaces Job’s conception of God as an internalised authoritarian parent or ruler, a self-projection of disgust, with the words of Christ in the St. John gospel: “Ye shall know that I am in my father and ye in me and I in you… If ye loved me, ye would rejoice…” Blake took these sentences seriously. He believed that, “God only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.” In his combative way, he proclaimed that, “those who envy or calumniate great men hate God; for there is no other God.” “…men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.” “There is no other God than the God who is the intellectual fountain of Humanity.” What people all over the world are really praying to, he asserts in The Divine Image in Songs of Innocence, is “the human form divine.”

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.


Twenty five years before his Job designs Blake had coined his phrase “mind forg’d manacles” for the ignorance of people who need to be liberated from their rigid and repressive ideas. Plate 11 shows Job affrighted with a nightmare, chained by devils, when his God appears to him. Blake uses this psychic drama to reverse the values of the Bible story and show the moment when Job realises that the God he has worshipped is a mirror image of himself, with a cloven hoof and a serpent body, bullying him with the tablets of the law. Blake finds an apt quote from St. Paul: “Satan himself is transformed into an Angel of Light and his Ministers into Ministers of Righteousness.” In Blake’s vision, this is a trick with which Job has tragically fooled himself, and by implication one with which the Christian church has also fooled the faithful of Europe; they have turned a loving sense of the holiness of life into a monster of authoritarian control.



What follows this realisation? “Suddenly Mu breaks open,” writes Mumon. “The heavens are astonished, the earth is shaken… At the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom.” The way that Blake represents this new freedom is to quote from The Book of Job its wonderful language for the greatness of God, which we Chan practitioners would call koans of Suchness: “Hath the rain a father? or who hath begotten the drops of dew? … Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?” And in Plate 14 Blake illustrates a phrase from Job, “When the morning Stars sang together, and all the Sons of God shouted for joy.”


The torment is over. Job finds joy in the creation again. The terrible storm in his head caused by clinging to a brutal and controlling vision of God, and trying to justify hideous sufferings as the work of God, has been relinquished. Blake’s Job is released into a new relationship with the world around him, which Mumon would call Great Freedom. “Only cease to cherish opinions,” wrote Seng Ts’an, and D. T. Suzuki wrote: “The essential discipline of Zen consists in emptying the self of all its psychological contents, in stripping the self of all those trappings, moral, philosophical and spiritual with which it has adorned itself ever since the first awakenings of consciousness. When the self thus stands in its native nakedness, it defies all description.”

Blake had seen the world like this, stripped of its trappings of belief and unclouded by conditioned perceptions. His insight was that, “Everything that lives is holy.” That the body and the soul are not distinct. That, “Energy is Eternal Delight.” That, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Mumon described this infinite, which he called the Great Freedom: “…you enjoy a samadhi of frolic and play.”

I wish poor Blake, soldiering on unappreciated and alone against the armies of ignorance, could have read Mumon and Seng T’san. He would have understood instantly. He would have laughed with delight.

George Marsh 2013