Friday, October 14, 2011

Mackail's Life of Morris

Hi Everybody!

This is the first entry of my blog. I'm planning to talk about my experiences with all kinds of art. But the blog will likely be centered around books and ideas.

I'll try to introduce myself a bit more in depth as I go on.

I just happened upon JW Mackail's Life of Morris in the New York Public Library. I've been interested in William Morris since I started reading George Bernard Shaw. Actually, one of my first big projects in life was to go through the Bodley Head edition of George Bernard Shaw's plays from start to finish.

In Shaw, Morris is remembered as one of the Pre-Raphaelites and, unfortunately, as the creator of the line "The idle singer of an empty day," from "The Earthly Paradise." Shaw used that line in the prefaces to one of his plays -- I *feel* like it was Back to Methuselah, to describe the kind of attitude one might nostalgically leave behind upon taking up the Socialist (in Shaw's case, Fabian) cause.

In one of Shaw's other prefaces -- most of Shaw's plays came with foudroyantly polemic prefaces, espousing Shaw's social and spiritual beliefs -- Shaw mentions the E.B. Bax book on the growth and outcome of Socialism. This book may actually have been co-authored with William Morris. Anyhow, this book, I believe, finishes with a couplet which has always moved me:

"There amidst the world rebuilded, shall our eathly deeds abide,
Though our names be all forgotten, and the tales of how we died."

I'm actually not sure if that was written by Bax or Morris, but the sentiment is definitely very much like that of Morris during his fervently Socialist years, as portrayed by Mackail.

Shaw actually mentions Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites again in his Sixteen Self Sketches. I believe it's in that slim collection of memories that Shaw says he was occasionally obliged to help Morris remember an obscure word or two. Shaw said that Morris was generally such a knowledgeable person that helping Morris remember a word or two was kind of like loaning a millionaire five or ten cents.

The other memory I have of Shaw mentioning the Pre-Raphaelite circle is when he wrote about how, as he grew up, he felt the need to move away from that circle. Again, Shaw looks nostalgically to what is thought of by him as a too leisurely study of authors such as (he mentions explicitly) Henry David Thoreau.

This is especially interesting to me, as, when I read Mackail's life of Morris, I felt like Morris had a lot in common with Thoreau. But what's also interesting to me is that Thoreau actually spent time in jail because he stood up for social causes. So he can't completely be seen as an "idle singer of an empty day" personality type that should be nostalgically left behind.

By the end of Morris' life, there were really three Socialist groups left in England: the Democratic Socialists, the Fabians, to which Shaw, as well as H.G. Wells and Sidney and Beatrice Webb belonged, and the Hammersmith Socialists, which was a much smaller group run by William Morris.

A few years later, I got really interested in architecture -- and maybe I'll be able to talk about the reasons for that at a different time. But I found myself gravitating toward a few specific movements: the Arts and Crafts movement and the Art Nouveau movement.

There were a few artists that really stuck with me from those movements: Gustave Stickley, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Victor Horta, Rene Lalique, Greene & Greene, J.M. Baillie, Edward Burne-Jones, Phillip Webb, and William Morris. Out of the group, William Morris seemed the most interesting to me. This was largely due to the Red House, in which Morris spent so little of his life, but which seems to have been the central point in his personal development.

Red House was, of course, designed by the architect Phillip Webb, not by William Morris. But it was built according to Morris' philosophy on art. Pretty much everything in the house was designed by Morris and his group of Oxford and Pre-Raphaelite friends, also on a philosophy of what art should mean for life. Everything in and around the house is beautiful, yet stable, solid.

Because of the ideals of Red House, I came to admire Morris quite a bit. I never really liked his poetry. I still don't think I do. But his designs have always been really lovely to me.

What Mackail taught me was more about the circumstances, ideals, and methods of Morris' life.

Morris was born into a good family. His father was part of a brokerage firm in London. Morris' father also ended up making an investment in a copper mine. This investment ended up being wildly successful, and Morris' family was basically financially set for a long time.

Morris apparently read from a very young age: as long as he can remember --as long as his older sister seems to have remembered anything about Morris, as well.

After Morris' father died, Morris went to a private preparatory school, where he met Edward Burne-Jones. The two ended up going to university at Oxford.

At Oxford, Morris and Burne-Jones decided they were going to found a monastery. This became a really big plan for them. But they were already both very much into, and up to date on, art and poetry. They believed Tennyson was the last great poet, although they didn't think anything he did after "Maud" was very good. And they loved Dante Gabriel Rossetti's paintings.

Burne-Jones found out that Rossetti often gave lectures at a college for laborers. The lectures were open to the public. So Burne-Jones went. He ended up going to a party afterward and spending the whole evening talking with Rossetti. By the end of the evening, Rossetti's personality had worked its magic on Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones became a follower of Rossetti. He also convinced Morris to follow Rossetti.

Rossetti believed that the only valid kind of life for any person in the world is that of a painter. He believed the only occupation for anybody in the world should be painting pictures. He convinced Burne-Jones of this. And he managed to convince Morris to be an artist.

One of the big things you did in those days at Oxford -- I really don't know what the attitude about this is nowadays -- was to get ordained to be a minister. The real mark of distinction at Oxford, it seems, was taking Orders, being ordained.

Well, Morris' mother was pretty upset when Morris said he wasn't going to get ordained. Instead, following Rossetti's suggestion, he was going to become an artist: an architect. But being an architect was still kind of okay. Morris could go do an apprenticeship with an established architect and, afterward, get in on some decent-paying work.

However, Rossetti wasn't quite okay with Morris being architect. Rossetti was rather forceful in his belief that everybody, especially a genius like Morris, should be a painter -- and nothing else. So now! Morris gave up his architecture apprenticeship and focused completely on being a painter. At this point, Burne-Jones and Morris, the original non-transvestite Bosom Buddies, moved into an apartment together and began living the life of two poor bachelors.

And *this* was really the point where Morris' life begins to take shape. Because Burne-Jones and Morris both insisted on living in a beautiful environment. So they began to make their own furniture, their own interior decorations. It was this sense of necessity that led Morris to create his first beautiful interior.

Morris didn't paint a whole lot. He didn't really like it. Rossetti coerced Morris into painting. But he also coerced Morris, whose mother hadn't cut off his funds completely, into buying paintings. However, Oxford had just constructed its new library building. Rossetti got the job of painting pictures on the ceiling. He pulled all his followers together and put them to work. This was probably the most constructive thing Rossetti ever did for Morris. Not only was it actual work, instead of continued spending, for Morris: it also helped him understand how to pull all his friends together in a creative effort.

A woman named Jane Burden had been modelling for Rossetti. Morris met and fell in love with Jane. They soon got married. Morris had to stop living the bachelor life in his flat with Burne-Jones. But he wanted to start family life out the right way. So he had his friend Phillip Webb design his new house for his family. The house was beautiful. But paying for complete interior design on the place would have been horribly expensive. So Morris got all his friends together. And they made or designed just about all the furnishings and decorations of Morris' house. The whole house was an artistic statement -- a unified one.

Now Morris got the idea that he and his friends could actually go into business designing things for other people's houses. So Morris and his friends, including Rossetti, all got together and formed Morris & Company. Rossetti apparently helped Morris get a start, with some starter jobs through some of his wealthier friends. Rossetti became a lot more tolerant of Morris' not being a painter, seeing how well Morris worked as a sort of master-designer for this firm.

So, again there's a kind of necessity leading Morris into the work of design. This time, the design work stuck. The theme of design work in Morris' life, from this point on, is more of Morris mastering one field, then another, then another. As Mackail presents things, it seems to me that the peak of Morris' production career comes with Morris' mastering of the art of dyeing. Morris spent years learning how to dye fabrics, so that he could produce his designs with the purest of colors. Some of the colors he produced hadn't been produced in England for a long time, if ever.

But I think this idea of producing dyes and of dyeing materials was very much characteristic of Morris. He loved color. But he loved physical work.

The process of dyeing is incredibly sexual, in my opinon. And I think that's one of the reasons Zhang Yimou uses it as the backdrop for his film Ju-Dou.

Dyeing is like taking the abstract concept of color, distilling it into something absolutely pure, putting it into a densely physical form -- the vats of dye are huge copper kettles, like gigantic wombs -- and suffusing huge amounts of raw materials in these liquids -- literally stewing the colors.

Morris had created something like 180 different "patterns," between his woven fabrics and his chintzes. Adding the different color schemes he used for each pattern, the number of different "designs," according to Mackail, is over 400.

This was the greatest work of Morris' life, in my opinion. Morris learned the processes of weaving and dyeing because he felt like Western European culture was getting too dependent on Persian rugs. Morris also felt like Persian designs were in a state of decline.

Art in a state of decline wasn't worth having, in Morris' opinion, as it created a culture in a state of decline. So Western Europe needed its own designs, and new designs. Morris took it on himself to create these designs, which, in my opinion, again, are very different from Art Nouveau designs.

There is an incredible logic to designs. The logic of a culture is embedded in its designs. And Morris' work was to manifest the logic of his time in design.

Interior design is also very important from the standpoint of the collective unconscious. Carl Jung said he felt flattered whenever a patient would bring in a dream where Jung was the patient's interior decorator. Morris was, in his designs, giving voice to the interior life of his age.

Mackail's book is full of letters from Morris. From this point in Morris' life, Mackail gives letters from Morris to some of his most important clients.

In these letters, Morris' sense of color is just astounding. The interiors Morris is designing sound like treasure chests! And Morris isn't satisfied with just any old treasure chest. As he finishes describing one unsatisfactory color scheme to his clients with incredible passion and beauty, he explains, with equal passion and beauty, why a different color scheme would be so much better.

Mackail says that as Morris perfected his dyeing process, he often went through cycles of producing, and using, colors in his textile designs that he did not think of as perfect. Nevertheless, these colors became quite popular with the buying public. They were also utilized by companies trying to imitate Morris' style.

But Morris hated these colors, stopped using them, and even alienated some of his customers by suggesting that they cover their walls in dirt, if they so much liked his older, dirtier colors!

Morris' wallpapers were made with dyed fabrics -- dyed threads were produced. The threads were then woven together to produce the fabrics, with Morris' design. However, Morris also produced "chintzes." These were cheaper fabrics. In these cases, the designs were actually printed onto blank, solid fabrics.

Again, Mackail relates, the public had different ideas than Morris about Morris' products. Morris meant his chintzes for wallpapers and furniture coverings. But his public used his chintzes for dresses, book-bindings, -- everything, Morris complained, except what they were made for.

Interestingly, when Morris started printing books of his own, through the Kelmscott Press, he experimented with using one of his chintz designs for the book binding. It wasn't very popular with the public.

But one of Morris' arguments was that there is always a market for quality production. In fact, Morris said, the general public would always demand well-made products over mass-produced, bland, cheaply-made products, if they had the choice.

The problem, Morris believed, was that the general public didn't always have the choice. Morris saw the improvement in the quality of people's lives on a broad scale as of interest to business owners such as himself -- the more people there were who could make the choice for quality products, the more people there would be who would certainly make the choice for quality products. Hence, an improvement in the living situation of people overall would automatically create greater demand for his products.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of Morris' poetry. But I would say that the period of Morris' life where he became really devoted to Socialism was probably good for Morris' poetry. I think Mackail generally argues that Socialism was bad for Morris' poetry and his physical health.

But, in my opinion, Morris, before Socialism, tended to see people as statues in his poetry. Even Morris' letters, before he got involved with poetry, were incredibly beautiful, but were mostly full of descriptions of scenery. After Morris became involved with Socialism, you actually see his letters having ideas in them, drama. And I think his work takes on a dramatic flair, as well.

Morris' Socialist experience is, itself, a unique experience. Morris was the owner of a company. He compensated his workers a lot more fairly than other people treated their workers. And, due to his philosophy, his workers worked in beautiful conditions, and they always felt like they were a part of creating beauty. Nevertheless, Morris, as a factory owner, seemed a lot more to people like a Capitalist than a Socialist. And people would call him a hypocrite because of this.

At the same time, of course, large amounts of Morris' money were going into the Socialist causes he supported -- and, often, Morris was the main backer of these causes.

So, on the one hand, Morris seemed to be trying to create his own kind of quasi-Utopian environment in his factories. He also had very idealized notions of work and society, as embodied in his prose work "News from Nowhere."

On the other hand, Morris was constantly running up against Anarchists! It seemed like the Socialist League, the main Socialist group with which Morris was involved, was constantly at risk of being overrun by Anarchists. Eventually the Anarchists won out. Morris, with some others, left the Socialist League and formed the Hammersmith Socialists. The Socialist League eventually, according to Mackail, dissolved.

But I think the Anarchists were such a big part of Morris' experience with Socialism because he had something of Anarchist ideas of his own embedded in his own understanding of Socialism.

Morris felt that it was probably necessary for society to tear itself down completely before it built itself back up along Socialist lines. There wasn't really another way for it to happen, because too many people working along the current lines of society were benefitting too much to let things change in any really meaningful way.

But Morris believed something like this before he became a Socialist. I don't know if Mackail meant to bring this out. But, actually, in one of Morris' pre-Socialist letters, he actually explains how he believes that art in his time is bland because there is so much justice and equality in the world. He believes that society of necessity would fall apart, leaving injustice and inequality to reign again, and creating a new, fertile field for art.

This kind of comment may seem cold and aristoctratic. Morris' movement into Socialism seems at first glance to be in contrast to this statement. But I think Morris' participation in Socialism was itself conflicted. I think Morris, from an aesthetic standpoint, wanted to be involved with Socialism because it matched the principles of his business. But I think he also wanted to be involved Socialism because the Anarchists were also involved in it. Morris may have seen his support of Socialism as a possible way to help tear down the current bland system of justice and equality.

If I were to make a TV drama out of Morris' decision to become a Socialist, it would probably be based on all the tangly, half-baked feel-osophizing you see in the paragraphs below.

I would involve the alleged affair between Jane Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, which Mackail seems to exclude from, but Wikipedia seems to include in, the story of Morris' life.

Morris' father died when Morris was young. Morris' mother all the way until four or five years before Morris himself dies.

But Morris' father basically, through striking it rich on a lucky though moderate investment in a copper mine (interesting how Morris' greatest work involves gigantic copper vats) set up the Morris family for a long time. William Morris could basically do whatever he wanted.

The fact that Morris went from Oxford for ordination to Oxford for architecture to "a flat with Ned" for "painting" obviously irked Morris' mother beyond belief. And it's probable that Morris' mother made Morris feel like, through all his choices, he was dishonoring his father's name. Morris' father was likely a hero to Morris' mother. And would Morris ever compare?

Of course, Morris found his own new father figure -- Rossetti, who insisted that Morris make of his life what his mother insisted was a waste.

Morris married Rossetti's model, Jane Burden. Probably even then Rossetti and Jane loved each other. So Morris was marrying into his new family structure -- by marrying his own mother.

But Morris could still not compare to his father, even in the form of his new father figure, Rossetti: Jane and Rossetti began seeing each other all over again. They renewed their affair.

Morris had involved himself in a family structure which he thought would bring him peace instead of the conflict that he had to deal with in his original family structure. Obviously he'd given his heart to Jane, his mother-substitute. But he'd had his heart torn right out by Rossetti, his father substitute.

Disappointed with and wary of ever again trusting his emotions to a hierarchical family structure, Morris became convinced that the only way his emotions could ever grow and flourish was in a situation aimed directly at tearing down the family structure.

And, as Engels'll tell you, political structures are based on family structures.

So -- Morris became convinced he needed to become a part of a political organization aimed at tearing down political structures. He became involved with Socialism because there were Anarchists -- who tear down political structures -- involved in it.

But, as Morris grew as a craftsman (oddly enough, fostered at the beginning by Rossetti's good word to some of his wealthier friends), he discovered that, through his business he could create a new family structure, one where he, in fact, was the father. And he could be benevolent, in ways that his mother's ideal of his father and his wife-mother's idea of his father-substitute were not benevolent to him.

But what Morris gained from his involvement with Socialism was the ability to play the "destroying son" figure. The emotions he could not let himself feel against his father, his mother, Rossetti, and Jane blocked his eyes from the emotion -- the personality -- of the world. But, as a Socialist, he could let his emotions play themselves out. The free play of these emotions allowed Morris to see the personality, the life, of the world.

According to Mackail, "News from Nowhere," made at the end of this whole cycle, was the most popular of all Morris' works, although it didn't deserve to be.

But -- I'm pretty sure "The Dream of John Ball" and "News from Nowhere" are the two works people remember most by Morris. They probably deserve it. And they are the result of Morris freeing up his emotions through acting in a social situation that allowed him to untangle, in some way, the twisted emotions of his family situations.

I had expected the story of the Kelmscott Chaucer to be the real climax of Mackail's Life of Morris. As it turns out, I was kind of bored stiff through that whole section. I'm not sure why. Maybe it was just me. But this years-long project, which involved close coordination between Morris and Burne-Jones, the life-long friends, seemed to be more a matter of logistics to Mackail.

Mackail really didn't like the fact that Morris had gotten involved with Socialism. And I'd guess that Mackail was just so convinced that Morris was spoiled by Socialism that he couldn't give the real drama behind the creation of the Kelmscott Press and the production of the Kelmscott Chaucer any true expression.

Still, would it have seemed to me (stupid me) like the real climax of Morris' life? The real jewel in Morris' crown?

I don't know. Morris at the dye-vats seems like Morris, not only at his most workman-like, but at his most Heraclitean. Unless you think of Morris in the depths of his Socialist involvement as being at his most Heraclitean. Because, at that time, he really was torn between two opposites, which were joined together in one whole.

What were Morris and Burne-Jones doing when they produced the Kelmscott Chaucer? Were they finally becoming ordained?