by Zhiyi Fang | 31 Oct 2022
Winslow Homer: Force of Nature
As one of the most well-known Realist American painters of the late 19th century and early 20th century, Winslow Homer’s works is for the first time being exhibited in the UK at the National Gallery, co-organized with The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The exhibition contains over 50 of Homer’s paintings that span across 40 years of his artistic career, on view until 8 January 2023. Homer witnessed major historical events of America including the abolition of slavery and the American Civil War. One could see that his paintings are concerned with significant issues such as race, identity, and particularly the relationship between people and landscape. Born in Boston to an upper-middle class family, he travelled extensively to Cuba, Bahamas, France, and England during his lifetime. Even with paintings of the transparent Caribbean oceans, there is still a sense of uncertainty as the mighty Atlantic Ocean lingering in the background.
What strikes me the most is his painting The Gulf Stream (1899) which is reminiscent of John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Sharks (1778). Many view this powerful painting as an analogy for African Americans’ impending fate, however, I would argue that Homer still provides a hint of hope. Floating in the turbulent Gulf Stream, the man is isolated on a small boat crushing into a group of sharks and yet he seems to be unbothered by his environment as he looks out into the distance. There is a European ship in the upper left background which is in the opposite direction of the Black man’s gaze. It is unsure if the ship is coming to rescue him since he is not looking towards it. Potential dangers are present both in front of and behind him, but he is looking sideways perhaps in search of a third option, a new opportunity to get himself out of the situation.
Note that the figure is holding onto stalks of sugarcane which is an important supply used for sugar production and very much assembles the appearance of a rope in this painting. Similarly, the black servant in John Copley’s painting also holds a rope despite that the other end is disconnected. Although the two men have very different mindsets, one awaiting his imminent death while the other trying to rescue his master, the sugarcane and the rope both symbolize the idea of a thread connecting the transatlantic ocean. The Gulf Stream current played an essential role in the trade of sugar and the transportation of African slaves while also connecting multiple positions of the Homer’s favorite painting spots. Here the Gulf Stream could be seen as a symbol for the historical background. On a grand scale, the Black African cannot escape from his possible death just as he cannot escape from his enslaved past. The sublime shows how one is helpless and fragile in the face of nature and the imperial influences. One individual, or even one particular group, could only follow the stream as they go down in history, but there is still a sense of hope for rescue, reconstruction, and redemption.
In contrast, the painting The Veteran in a New Field (1865) evokes a brighter future, a new field. With his jacket discarded in the foreground, the ex-solider enjoys his peace as he harvests the crops. The composition of the painting is interesting in that the veteran is turning his back to the viewer with the fallen crops covering his uniform. It is as if he is trying to leave behind the war for the better future, and yet the past is inevitable. Again, Homer uses vast landscapes to speak to this complex interrelation of hope and despair.
As Homer approached the end of his career, people are portrayed less and less often. Instead, he almost solely painted the Atlantic Ocean and pure seascapes. He had a studio near the coast of Maine and he dedicated the last 25 years of his life to his appreciation of the sea. His work Cannon Rock (1895) is very ahead of its time in that he fits the “rocky shore, pounding sea, and leaden sky” all in a square canvas just like an Instagram post. Everything that has happened on this ocean is swallowed and washed away by nature. Nothing is left but the raw greatness of nature.
All images are courtesy of the National Gallery and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Zhiyi Fang is an MA student at The Courtauld and is Reviews Editor for The Courtauldian.
by Harry Carlson | 12 January 2021
Roth in 1977
Roth furthers this self-reflexivity in his next two equally metafictional novels – ‘Zuckerman Unbound’, ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ – in which Zuckerman publishes a sexually explicit novel called ‘Carnovsky’ about a young Jewish man, for which he is equally acclaimed and denounced. Zuckerman’s critics “mistake impersonation for confession” and accuse Zuckerman of both breaching the confidentiality around the intimate details of his family and of being anti-Semitic - a “self-hating Jew”. Zuckerman returns to his childhood home in Newark where he is disowned by his loved ones. In their eyes, Zuckerman has exposed them to public ridicule and forced them into private suffering. Afterwards, Zuckerman is afflicted by writer’s block for the first time and he retreats into deep contemplation of his life in middle-age; his failed marriages, crumbling family, most acerbic critics, his own identity and the nature of the literary form. Zuckerman has become too self-absorbed to write good fiction, he is unbound.
By indirectly positioning himself as the central figure in the malformed bildungsroman narrative that makes up the ‘Zuckerman Bound’ tetralogy, Roth had written three somewhat-faux-autobiographical novels and an epilogue on the consequences of writing autobiographical novels. The three novels read as both as an illustration and critique of self-reflexivity, with the added paradox of Roth’s own authorship. Central to the narrative is the way Zuckerman responds to accusations of autobiography and exploitation of those close to him; not by changing the way he writes, but instead blaming his readers for mistaking fact for fiction. There is a profound sense of self-confrontation and contradiction in almost all of Roth’s work.
This is never more apparent than in his work ‘The Facts: A Novelists Autobiography’. Published in 1988, Roth quite literally confronts his fictionalised self and identity through an absurd rendition of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Double’ or Freud’s theory of the shadow. The work is ostensibly a standard, even somewhat unremarkable, work of autobiography detailing Roth’s Newark upbringing, college years, first marriage and how he reacted to criticism of his early novels from the Jewish community. Yet, what gives the work significance to my discussion is the way in which the autobiographical section of the book is bookended by two letters: one from Roth to Zuckerman, and another from Zuckerman to Roth criticising an early manuscript of the autobiography Roth has sent him. In the first letter Roth writes to Zuckerman that “If this manuscript conveys anything, it’s my exhaustion with masks, disguises, distortions and lies”. In my reading, this is a deliberately facetious statement that is meant to be reflective of the book’s subtitle ‘A Novelist’s Autobiography’. Roth is acknowledging that a novelist is always a novelist, even when explicitly stating that a work is entirely autobiographical or fictional, there will be an inevitable presence of deception present in the work. ‘The Facts’ is a direct address from Roth to readers and critics – another work of self-referentiality and deflection. Peter Bailey best describes the work when he writes, “Roth manages to make the stand- off between fiction and autobiography emblematic of the impossibility of extricating the literary from the actual, the fictional from ‘the facts’”.
“This book is a work of fiction…This confession is false”
– Philip Roth, Operation Shylock.
Philip Roth pictured in 1968 revisiting Newark, his childhood home
In ‘Operation Shylock: A Confession’, Roth takes the postmodern and self-reflexive elements of all his previous novels and follows them to their extremes. ‘Operation Shylock’ is Roth at his most ironic, paranoid, referential and absurd – drawing the inevitable broad comparisons from Kafka to Pynchon. The novel follows the character of ‘Philip Roth’ on a visit to Israel, where he becomes wrapped up in a Mossad intelligence mission in in which he must seek out an impersonator/doppelganger who has stolen his identity and used this name to spread a counter-Zionist ideology advocating the return of Israeli Jews to their European nations of exile. By presenting a mimetic, absurd characterisation of himself, the start of the novel is fairly comical. It is clear that the bizarre actions of ‘Philip Roth’ throughout the novel are an attempt at mocking the reductive methods with which modern society aims to solve highly complex contemporary problems through comic irony. But this is quickly dampened when Roth introduces new pathways into the narrative by blending fiction with recent history through description of John Demjanjuk’s testimonies about the Sobibor extermination camp, passages on deeply upsetting Holocaust experiences, and the violence inflicted on civilians through the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a piece in The New York Times Book Review titled ‘A Bit of Jewish Mischief’, Roth describes how “a man of [his] age, bearing an uncanny resemblance to [him] and calling himself Philip Roth arrived in Jerusalem” shortly before he did. He then goes on to describe how these “factual” events are fictionalised in ‘Operation Shylock’. What Roth seems to be attempting with comic elements of the novel, in conjunction with his typically deceptive statements on his own work and the inclusion of recent history is to make the reader question the expectations around the boundaries between fiction and reality; the result is by far Roth’s most radical experiment in narrative form and representation of the self in fiction. Although the novel also invokes the ethical implications of the novel and the quasi-autobiographical work Roth had been publishing for three decades previously, I think that a discussion around the ethics of his work would deserve an entire piece of its own.
Through Roth’s constantly evolving preoccupation with the self, reality, textuality and fiction in his work, Roth is constantly engaging. When some begin to read Roth’s novels, they expect a straightforward satirisation of Roth’s own comic experiences of a young Jewish American man, mostly due to the success of and controversy surrounding his early novels. Instead, they are asked to question their own fundamental expectations and assumptions around the act of interpretation, both on the part of the reader and the author. Roth refuses to distinguish between fact and fiction, and in doing so is commenting on the inability to extricate the literary from reality and vice versa. By utilising all the central postmodern devices of self-reflexivity, intertextuality, and irony, Roth kept his work compelling and sharp – even when his prose is at its most economic and sparse.
To me, Philip Roth is representative of a class of exceptional writers that came to define contemporary American literature in the mid to late twentieth century. Unfortunately, that usually means almost exclusively 'pretentious, white, male and middle class’ - but this doesn't have to be entirely to his detriment. Roth offers the reader an honest insight into the male psyche in all its stupidity, impulsivity, insecurity, contradictions and occasional vulgarity. The author can be quoted in a 2014 interview with the New York Times as explaining that his “focus has never been on masculine power rampant and triumphant but rather on the antithesis: masculine power impaired”. All criticisms around the absence of minorities and the lack of depth and complexity in Roth’s depiction of women still withstanding, I feel this explanation summarises a large part of what makes Roth’s work so brilliantly compelling.
Roth's first four novels. Goodbye Columbus (1959), Letting Go (1962), When She Was Good (1967), and Portnoy's Complaint (1969
Goodbye, Columbus (1959)
Roth’s first published work, a novella on middle-class Jewish-American life. The novella won the national book award, but Roth was heavily criticised by parts of the Jewish establishment due to his satirisation of Jewish-American life. He was accused of being a self-hating Jew and an anti-Semite.
Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Roth’s first enormously commercially successful work, it was equally as controversial. The novel is a portrait of Jewish identity in the 60s through candid, explicitly lust-riddled monologue to a psychoanalyst from a young Jewish man, Alexander Portnoy, and the situations his fixation upon masturbation gets him into.
My Life As a Man (1974)
Split into two sections: first consists of two short stories, titled "Salad Days" and "Courting Disaster” about a character named Nathan Zuckerman. The second section, "My True Story," takes the form of a memoir by Peter Tarnopol, a Jewish writer who authored the two stories in the first section.
The ‘Zuckerman Bound’ tetralogy is made up of ‘The Ghost Writer’, ‘Zuckerman Unbound’, ‘The Anatomy Lesson’, and ‘The Prague Orgy’ – all of which follow the character of Nathan Zuckerman.
The Ghost Writer (1979)
An up-and-coming writer, Nathan Zuckerman, visits an acclaimed writer and professor in New England. The novel explores the process of writing, authorship and the condition of Jews in 1950’s America. At the professor’s house he also briefly meets a young woman who he begins to fantasise about and later comes to believe is Anne Frank, living anonymously, having survived the Holocaust. Parts of the novel are a reprise of sorts on Anne Frank’s diary.
Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
Zuckerman has been catapulted into notoriety by his novel Carnovsky (a satirical novel detailing a young Jewish man’s rampant sexuality) and is receiving both critical acclaim and a storm of controversy. His family is falling apart as they think the characters in the book are based upon them, their conflicts and insecurities.
The Facts (1988)
Roth’s autobiography, detailing his upbringing, time as a young man and the development of his writing career. The text is bookended by a letter from Roth to the fictional Zuckerman that serves as an epigraph, and a letter from Zuckerman to Roth, commenting on a manuscript of the text Roth has sent him and the criticisms that lead him to believe the autobiography shouldn’t be published.
Operation Shylock: A Confession (1993)
Follows a character named "Philip Roth" on a journey to Israel, where he becomes involved in a Mossad intelligence mission. Roth seeks out an impersonator/doppelganger who has stolen his identity used this name to spread a counter-Zionist ideology advocating the return of Israeli Jews to their European nations of exile.