Gilding the goldfish: The painted past

Other People’s Places: New York in the 70’s, The Galapagos Islands, a flat above a butcher’s on Garrett Lane in the early 1990’s, where we used to live.

I went to the Defining Beauty Exhibition at the British Museum. It reminded me that classical statues were once decorated with paint, material and, in some cases, metal; amalgamating to create the effects of hair and skin. As part of my PhD and also one of the light shows I staged, I have explored the idea of painted buildings. For example, I worked on a project with Rouen and Amiens Cathedrals. Rouen recreated Monet’s series of paintings of the cathedral, in changing light, from a room opposite above what is now the visitor centre. These portraits of the building were projecting them back on to the structure. It was spectacular, disorientating, they didn’t quite fit, the images meeting the surface. Amiens Cathedral was not subject to our virtuous Victorians scrubbing the paint off the stones. They recreated the colours resplendently from slivers of paint (as many as 20 layers) and projected the pigments in light back on to the cathedral portico. It looked magical, busy, reminded me of cuckoo-clocks, the saints had glossy beards and rosy cheeks. If it was an inch of sculpture, it had a fleur de lis on it. The past doesn’t always fit evolving contemporary taste, as Barthes pointed out, Hollywood’s 60’s version of Romans have beehive hairdos and white lipstick. In the same way, we view our British cathedrals in untinted sepia, the colour seeped out with the chintz. Wells Cathedral used to sing, a choir hidden in a secret corridor behind the statues in the facade, so the advancing Sunday procession would be overwhelmed by the spectacle of the statues coming to life. In contrast, the artefacts and buildings of the past exist in blank monochrome, which we think of as somehow more authentic.

In Powell and Pressberger’s 1946 film ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ Conductor 71 comments that there is no technicolour in heaven. Heaven is portrayed as a surreal factory, futuristic, but portrayed in the black and white of the past. The dialogue and design feel contemporary, only the cut-glass received pronunciation dates the film. The colour and filters used to depict the present seem oddly modern, the ruby red of June’s lipstick, the air-force blue of Peter’s uniform.

Do we embellish our memories, or simplify them to black and white? Recently, I went to a 50th birthday celebration. Although I was friends with a few of the guests on Facebook and had an edited glimpse of their lives, I hadn’t seen most people for 25 years, so I was nervous. I chose a bright old, favourite dress to wear, but later I realised that the dress was still in my bag. I hadn’t changed. There was a comfort, loveliness and strangeness to seeing a large group of familiar faces in colour, slightly aged, like members of the extended family not seen between weddings. We picked up where we’d been, talked about the places we should have visited, the trip never taken to the Galapagos Islands, the absent friends who peopled the room. Places can be horizontal or vertical and this party was a horizontal environment, with no vertical jostling for position. On reflection, it was remarkable for its lack of discomfort, in Galapagos isolation, the ease of friendship was preserved untarnished, somehow uninterfered-with by new strains of time.

I am going to the Vertical City, New York, in September. I picture Stieglitz’s black and white Statue of Liberty in giant pieces, under construction, Harold Lloyd dangling from a girder and Frank Stella’s new Brooklyn Bridge. I have wanted to visit the New York of the 1970s, the backdrop of Starsky and Hutch, the home of the Harlem Globetrotters, derelict and painted with graffiti, Brooklyn before it was a neb-Bohemia. I will visit the present, but I know the past was painted more brightly, gaudily, and I’ll seek those layers and traces of Old New York which can never be scoured completely away.

A group of us at the party shared a flat in Garrett Lane above a butcher’s shop in the early 1990s. I remember the green front door, the striped red and white awning. This was pre-gentrification, a time of greasy spoons and rough tattoo parlours. I used to write in a Garrett room, with black and white photos of Sam Shepard on the wall and a goldfish called Jackson circling his bowl on the table beside me and South London rooftop sunsetscapes through the window. Mr Brownlow, the butcher, stood guard in his shop doorway, arms folded, full of stories of falling business and vegetarianism. Many years later I drove down Garrett Lane. The butcher’s shop was still there, despite the vegetarians, but next door was a new shop, called Organique.

I still have Jackson the goldfish, he has grown in the pond, orange against a pink waterlily. The past often seems simpler, particularly when meeting it again in the present, when its brightness is surprising.

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