Thursday, November 24, 2011

Derain's London



The best painted view of London in my opinion is Big Ben by Andre Derain. This 1906 Fauvist jewel of a painting struck me deep upon my first setting eyes on it. The brilliant luminosity, the casual dabs of warm colours set against a vast expanse of cold blues and greens – it’s a mesmerizing artwork. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament are blue – cool, detached and distant. The sky and the water are part-blue, part-green. It’s a vision of a city bathing in dusky nonchalance. The sun’s gingerly rays are subdued, not by clouds or the London smog, but by the city’s inherent alienation. They can be seen only as a wayward reflection on the Thames.
This was the London back then. It is the London of today too. Like a badly-kept diary, the city hosts our most intimate experiences and ponderings, at once deeply private and precariously public.

Derain’s image is a universal one, irrespective of the time of day, or season.

Having had to constantly commute around London for years, I’ve come to understand the alienation of the big city, as written about in books and shown in films. These days, with the advent of Kindles and Blackberries, it’s decidedly worse. You board a train and every passenger around is glued to the one or the other, or both. You enclose yourself, trying to escape the suffocating mass of others around you, wishing you were home already. At first I was annoyed by this spectral anonymity – cold and impersonal, like Derain’s Big Ben. By the end, I had adopted the same method, only with an actual book instead of a Kindle.

But whether it is on a train or on the Tube, the sight of a row of people buried in their iPhones, iPads or Blackberries, texting away or playing games is somewhat unsettling. Not that there is anything wrong with it of course, but it is the true face of the big city – its most candid image. No historical landmark or cultural monument can claim to represent the city more authentically than this image. This daily hustle is its pulse. Sure, there are the parks – these are the pages written in invisible ink on the badly-kept diary that is the city: intimate and fresh, and when it comes to privacy, one of the few alternatives to the stuffy back rows of cinema screens. Finding peace and intimacy in London is a rare treat, much like catching a glimpse of the London sunset from Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath – magnificent but seldom cloudless or without fog. All in all, the sun is a marginal character on the London skyline, locked in constant battle with the grey clouds and white mists for dominion over its vast expanse.

Generations upon generations of organic growth – London is the city of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. One fictional, the other real; one good, the other evil, but both united in their profound knowledge of the city. Holmes himself says in one Conan Doyle’s stories – “the thief or the murderer could roam London on such a day as the tiger does the jungle , unseen until he pounces, and then evident only to his victim.”

Having been out in London at night on many occasions, I’ve always kept this quote at the back of mind. My chance encounters so far have thankfully never been with any murderers or thieves. But strolling around the centre of the city at the early hours of the morning is the most intense experience the metropolis has to offer. At this point, it sleeps. Gone are the tourists; gone are the commuters; gone is the daily bustle. The city now dreams. Streetlights are reflected on the wet pavements and roads. Famous squares and landmarks are delicately illuminated, ethereal in the cool night air. Only shady clubs and McDonalds restaurants are still open, with crowds gathered outside throughout the night. It’s mostly quiet, save for some light traffic on the streets.

It’s dangerous but I feel bizarrely safe. Somehow I’ve grown to feel at home on these streets. The city acts as a sort of father-figure, embracing its sons and daughters. If I am walking late at night with a friend, there’s a ghost steadily walking along with us. It is no tiger waiting to pounce over us; it is London itself.

The city inhabitant (so called ‘urbanite’), is an adaptable creature. He is wary of what’s lurking around the corner, or who is walking behind him. He is confronted daily with human vice, in all sizes and shapes. In any big city, crime is a tradition, a spectacle, almost a ritual. Its dark labyrinthine alleyways enable crime, breed crime, from mugging to murder. The urbanite, engulfed by the ravishing spectacle of ubiquitous crime, becomes infected by its omnipotent presence. He is dwarfed by soaring corporate towers, stifled by congested roads, his voice lost in the buzzing metropolitan beehive. He is no longer the sturdy cowboy his ego urges him to be. Instead, he is a little rose-cheeked cherub, meek and shy, always finding himself around the edges on the epic canvas of city life. Such a peripheral existence makes him somewhat of a coward who sees but does not act. He enjoys the comfortable luxury of anonymity by being indifferent and invisible. A scuffle on a bus is of no concern to him – why risk getting stabbed to death or going through the arduous process of being a witness for the police, when he can walk out in one piece, free of the burden of civic duty?

With my dad being a bus driver, I’ve heard the same disturbing story time and time again- how when an argument erupts on the bus, or even a punch-up, and afterwards he calls for any witnesses among the passengers, they scowl and quietly depart from the scene.

This is the urbanite’s la condition humaine. Chin down, eyes low, brows high: snappy but subdued, with a shroud of fog descending upon his face at the first sign of trouble brewing before him.

In Derain’s painting, little specks of red and orange make up Westminster Bridge and show up on the Thames, and of course the sun itself. They are marginalised however, confined to a nominal existence on the peripheries of the image. Overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the blues and greens, they are nevertheless there. The sun’s rays still manage to illuminate a section of the Thames, and the contours of the bridge are almost entirely painted in red. These warm colours rebelliously assert their presence within the painting. So, in the midst of this dusky nonchalance, there are flickers of radiant warmth, rare and precious. Derain recognised the scarcity of this warmth and understood its true value, hence his defiant dabs of red and orange. He knew that London’s peace and warmth are as frail and fleeting as the colours of its sunset.

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