24 May 2016

John Osborne and Look Back in Anger (1956)

The Angry Young Men were a group of British writers who came to fame in the 1950s, especially John Osborne and Kingsley Amis. They were young males, often from working class families in post-WW2 Britain.

In once sense, this was not a good time for families who had been let down in the past by traditional British society, its education system, the economy and class structure. In another sense, the post war era (1950s) was the first time the working class had some disposable income and a degree of cultural respect. Unemployment was very low and young people could move out to a bed-sit or a shared flat, instead of living with mum and dad.

Osborne’s famous play Look Back in Anger 1956 was attracting attention to a new style of drama. He strongly expressed anger at what Britain had become post-war, deliberately provoking other people to also be dismayed about their previously proud nation. Literary works began to deal with lower class themes for the first time in ages.

My late mother, a child of the Russian Revolution and a Labour Party die-hard, admired the working class lads who became the Angry Young Men enormously. But in 1956 I was more interested in the Melbourne Olympic Games and the Christmas pantomimes than I was in the play Look Back in Anger. Now a new book caught my eye: “John Osborne: Anger is not About..” written by Peter White­brook (Oberon Books, 2015).

Why did John Osborne (1929-94) turn into an angry, insec­ure adult with an unstable career and a hopeless history of wives, girl friends and lovers? He married actress Pamela Lane in 1950, actress Mary Ure in 1957; novelist and screen writer Penelope Gil­liatt in 1963; actress Jill Bennett in 1968; and arts journalist Helen Dawson in 1978. For long periods of time, Osborne also went out with a myriad of other women including actress and writer Stella Linden, designer Jocelyn Rickards and writer Doris Lessing. He had only one child of his own, treated her abusively when she was an adolescent and never spoke to her again. In almost every relationship, he eventually treated his women with anger, hatred and punishment. Osborne’s hate knew no bounds.

John Osborne, 
Chelsea 1958

The crisis that made Osborne a subject of national scandal was learned at his mother’s knee. In his autobiography “A Better Class of Person” (1981) Osborne wrote that his mother Nellie Beatrice Osborne, was an uneducated Cockney barmaid who rained withering contempt on her son throughout their arid life together. She attacked him for his timidity, his spindly looks and his bed-wetting. His loving father, an adman with literary yearnings, died of TB when Osborne was only ten, leaving the boy alone with the grabbing, uncaring crone Nellie. A hateful mother would make anyone full of self-hatred and insecurities!

It was good (or bad) timing that Osborne became a celebrity at the start of an age of tabloid press intrusion. He showed publicly his impatience with the status quo, his refusal to be co-opted by a bankrupt society and an instinctive solidarity with the lower classes. But I still could not tell if he truly hated British society then, or if he was just using the tabloid press to whip up interest in his work.

To me his anger seemed very real. In his most important and provocative play, the working class character Jimmy Porter was indeed represented as an embodiment of the young, rebellious post-war generation that questioned the state and its treatment of the working class. But Jimmy was also brutal and abusive to his young and pregnant wife.

The author Peter Whitebrook chased every contemporary source of information. He read the playwright's own memoirs of course and those of many others in Osborne’s life back then, plus he recently held interviews with any of the playwright’s close colleagues who were still alive. Yet I realised half way through the book that Whitebrook and I were going to come to different conclusions.

Whitebrook's publishers wrote that here was a playwright from the wrong side of the tracks whose career rose very quickly and very early. Only in his mid 20s, his dazzl­ingly high-octane performance and in a succession of increasingly ambitious plays written in the late 50s/early 60s, he was able to unite a profound intelligence with a caustically honest depth of feeling. By refusing to submit to caution, he laid bare in some of the most poetic and incendiary language heard in the C20th theatre, not only his own struggles and contradictions but those of the era. Almost single-handedly, he made the theatre important again.

Mary Ure, Alan Bates, Helena Hughes and Kenneth Haigh, 
first night's performance of Look Back in Anger, 
Royal Court London 1956

But did he really revolutionise British theatre? Yes he did, but it was not overnight. Look Back In Anger was written in seventeen days while sitting in a deckchair on Morecambe pier. The legend is, of course, that Osborne’s play was an immediate success and in a flash British theatre was changed forever. Replaced by plays set in drab working class northern bed-sits, the posh drawing-room dramas from playwrights like Terrence Rattigan and Noel Coward, were seemingly banished overnight.

Unfortunately Osborne's play was generally initially dismissed by most of the critics, took in very little money and the production was seen pretty much as a miserable failure. Only when the BBC decided to broadcast a short excerpt of the play one evening did listeners like what they heard, and decided to go and see the play for themselves. Takings immediately doubled at the box office. The effect snowballed and the play eventually transferred to the West End. Not an overnight success, but Osborne had now become a very famous angry young man indeed.

Osborne’s only musical, The World of Paul Slickey (1959), was not a success. When the angry audience booed Osborne out of the theatre, they followed him down the street yelling. Osborne escaped but the following morning, he read the newspaper critics’ terrible reviews. "The ordeal lasts for 3 boring hours" and "extraordinary dullness", wrote the Manchester Guardian, The Times and Daily Telegraph. Osborne proclaimed that the critical assault was exactly what he would have expected from ignorant London theatre reviewers. Soon Osborne got out of Dodge with the show’s costume designer, the two of them running away to France.

On a personal level, Whitebrook acknowledged that few drama­tists felt compelled to reveal so much of their own flaws, anx­ieties, passions and hatreds as John Osborne did. But Whitebrook exposed Osborne as a mixture of generosity and cruelty; charm and gracelessness; organised energy and chaos; sex appeal, depression and alcoholism – and about that, I am not so sure. I did not see any generosity or charm in Osborne’s life.

21 May 2016

Medieval hospitals in Islamic cities: scientific and evidence-based medicine!

Medieval hospitals in Christian Europe were typically represented as places of misery and squalor, over-crowded reservoirs of infection that had no medical role. Rather they were places in which sick people waited for death. My own notion of medieval health care, at least as offered to Christian pilgrims, was a place where the sick and dying lay on the floor in a cathedral crypt, and the slanted floor was sluiced down once a week. Care of the soul was more important than care of the body.

The David Collection of Applied Arts in Copenhagen includes a section on objects/images of Islamic Medical Science and on Islamic hospitals. They noted that the advent of Islam did not cause any disruption in the evolution of medical science. In fact the Classical Greek and Roman tradition for treatment and medication was positively enhanced in the Islamic world, where it was gradually enriched with new scientific thinking from the East.

By the early C9th, the famous medical works of Hippocrates and Galen were translated at schools and libraries in Damascus, Baghdad and other major Islamic cities. Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica was translated into Arabic and revised for a wider, reading public. And inspired by Dioscorides, new Arabic texts showed scientific research and progress in the medieval world (see photo below). Herbs and other medicines were categorised according to their effectiveness.

A very important contribution to medicine in the Islamic world was the pioneering manuscript by al-Razi/Rhazes: The Book on Smallpox and Measles. This volume, which was translated many times into Latin from the late C15th on, was the first to carefully analyse the two diseases.

1. Bimaristan Nur al-Din, 
Damascus, Syria (1154)

 2. Central courtyard Bīmaristan Arghun AI-Kāmilī, 
Aleppo, Syria (1354).
When the pool was filled with water, patients could enjoy the fountains.

3. Sultan Bayezid II mosque and hospital complex, 
Edirne, Turkey (1484)

The bimaristan/hospital was perhaps the most important medical innovation contributed by Islam. The first true hospitals were found in C9th Baghdad, with special departments for eye problems, internal medicine, orthopaedic complaints, mental illnesses and infectious diseases. Nasim Hasan Naqvi  reported that at least 63 major hospitals were built during the Middle Ages in all major cities in Iraq, Persia, Syria and Egypt.

In Syria only 4 medieval hospitals that were built during C12th-C14th have survived. 2 out of 4 of these hospitals are still standing in perfect condition, one used as a medical museum and the other was used as mental asylum. The other two exist in rundown condit­ion and can only been inspected from the outside. Historians of Syrian architecture have naturally taken great interest in all four.

Now a book by Prof Ahmed Ragab called The Medieval Islamic Hospital: Medicine, Religion and Charity (2015 Cambridge UP). He agreed that the first bimaristans were built in the C9th in Baghdad, and spread to other Islamic urban centres within 100 years. Perhaps those early Muslim pilgrims understood that bimaristans were hospitals AND that they also functioned as a site of charitable care and support, essential for the sick and for long distance travellers.

Ragab's new book, The Medieval Islamic Hospital
published 2015.

From Baghdad to Cairo to Edirne, hospitals were major and integral components of medieval and early modern Islamic populations. But what role did they play in these societies? Were they sites noted largely for the development of medical knowledge?

Ragab examined the history and significance of hospitals in Mamluk Egypt and Syria. He argued that we must view these medieval hospitals as charitable institutions that provided needed services and drugs to the urban poor, rather than as the early progenitors of our modern medical institutions. He explored how these hospitals functioned as charitable institutions, what type of medical theories and treatments they employed, why medieval rulers regarded them as so important, and why their importance decreased after the end of the medieval era.

In mid-C12th Damascus, each hospital was beautifully designed and built. So much money was spent on the art and architecture that the hospital was seen as the crown jewel of any new ruler’s attempt to refashion his city. And not just hospitals. In Aleppo Nur Al din’s patronage extended to important madrasas and Sufi monstaries (see photo above). Bimaristans had become part of the politico-architectural landscape, part of a complex system of institutions that defined urban Islam!

Ragab’s book focused on the Egyptian and Levantine institutions of the C12th-14th. By the C12th, hospitals serving the sick and the poor could be found in nearly every Islamic city. Ahmed Ragab traced the varying origins and development of these institutions, locating them in their urban environments and linked them to charity networks and patrons' political projects.

The book Medieval Islamic Hospital explored the medical networks surrounding early hospitals and examined the particular brand of scientific, practice-oriented medicine they helped to develop. And since he focused on Muslim institutions in particular, Ragab analysed the effect of the Muslim religion on medieval medicine.

Ragab reiterated that European hospitals were religious and charitable institution in which healing the soul took precedence over healing the body. How different this was from Baghdad and other centres in the Islamic world! Ahmed Ragab explained the Islamic bimaristan by relating it to the medieval history of patronage, medicine, law and the economy. And he achieved this via the specific history of one hospital, the Mamluk sultan al-Mansur Qalawun c1285 in his empire’s capital, Cairo.

As part of a philanthropic and religious complex that included a mausoleum and madrasa, the al-Mansur foundation was examined against the background of its predecessors, in Islamic Egypt and the Levant, and in Crusader Jerusalem. Ragab placed the Mansuri establishment within medical history, of course, but also within a wider setting of rulers’ patronage and piety, and urban topography and architecture.

Medieval Islamic rulers regarded the hospitals as important because they were part of an overall architectural and urban buil­ding project in the centre of town. All the major and unifying estab­lishments were built near the main mosque and near the governor’s palace. The architecture of these buildings symbolised the governor’s power and control, as well as his religious piety and perhaps even his military might. The hospital definitely showed the governor’s care for his people!

I loved the Classics and Ancient History essay topic set by Warwick University, based on the writings of Ragab etc: "How were the changes in medieval and Renaissance medicine reflected in architecture?"

17 May 2016

Exhibition of Arthur Streeton landscapes at the Geelong Gallery

Undoubtedly one of Australia’s most important painters from the Heidelberg era, Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) was born near Geelong. From 1886 to 1888, Streeton was apprenticed as a lithographer in town, and in summer 1886 he painted with Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts in the more distant beach suburb of Mentone. In 1887 he camped and painted with Louis Abrahams, Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin at the weekends on an outer suburban/rural property in Heidelberg, and revisited this site in 1888. Thus the name The Heidelberg School of Art.

Timing for the Heidelberg landscape artists was perfect. With growing nation­alism and a push towards Federation, Australia was rapidly moving away from its colonial history. Artists and writers were searching for elements that were uniquely Australian – colours, landscapes, characters and weather. Their reputation in Australia was flourish­ing. Golden Summer, Eaglemont 1889 was painted during a hot summer of leisure. Despite the drought, Street consciously created a poetic and epic work about the Victorian landscape. He painted the foreground broadly, leading the eye up to the gum trees silhouetted against the sky, conveying oneness with nature and a feeling of wellbeing.

Golden summer Eaglemont, 1889, 
81 x 153 cm
National Gallery of Australia in Canberra

Streeton’s name was known overseas as well. In 1891, the painting Golden Summer, Eaglemont was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and was well received by the public there.

Federation was not formally proclaimed in Australia until 1/1/1901, but the seductive lure of London and Paris was already calling artists “home” to Europe’s cultural capitals. In 1897 Streeton sailed for London. He held an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1900 and became a member of the Chelsea Arts Club in 1903.

Could Australian artists make a major impact on London and Paris at the turn of the century? Having an impressive reputation in Australia clearly did not guarantee Streeton an adoring public or a substantial income in Britain. This could have been a problem since he had to support his Canadian-born London-based wife, so we have to assume that his life style in Europe was well financed by the sales of his art back in Australia.

There was a huge excitement in living in London and Paris, but there was also a cost. Australian artists in Europe were out of contact with the land that had inspired them for 20 years and the cities that had nurtured them. As beautiful as the Normandy coast might have been, for example, it was not the Grampians and it was not Sydney Harbour.

Australian artists Rupert Bunny and Emanuel Philip Fox did not mind because their art was more international in any case, and less archetypally Australian. And artists George Lambert and Hugh Ramsay created beautiful portraits while they lived in Europe, not landscapes.

So Streeton returned to Australia in 1906 and re-engaged with the Australian landscape. He did some paintings at Macedon, before going back to London in late 1907. He visited Australia for a second time in April 1914 and was the star of exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne. Yet once again Streeton and his wife returned to the UK in early 1915.


Geelong Gallery is now showing Land of the Golden Fleece; Arthur Streeton in the Western District. It is a major exhibition of Arthur Streeton’s landscapes, focusing on Victoria’s Western District. For me the important part of this exhibition is that it does not focus on Streeton in the 19th century nor on Streeton in the decades before and during WW1. Rather this exhibition focuses on the vividly coloured artist’s work done in his years after he returned to Australia permanently i.e from 1920 on. 

The exhibition brings together 30 paintings from public and private collections including the state art galleries of New South Wales, Victoria and Canberra, and from Geelong Gallery’s own collection. It has been curated by the Gallery, working with Streeton-expert Geoffrey Smith.

Land of Golden Fleece 1926, 
50 × 75 cm, 
National Gallery Australia in Canberra

Corryong: Landscape with Sheep Grazing 1932,
36 × 46 cm
Private Collection, Queensland

The City of Geelong sees itself as gateway to the Western District, making this particular exhibition a very suitable project for the Geelong Gallery. The Streeton Exhibition depicts locations in Victoria’s Western District and in those coastal areas frequented by the artist — Lorne, Port Campbell, Dunkeld, Halls Gap and the Gramp­ians. In fact the display has been arranged according to the various Western District sites that Streeton so loved, later in his life.

When Streeton returned permanently to Australia after World War One, I had to ask if his style was the same as it had been up till 1897. After all he had been only 21 when he left Australia and was a mature 53 by the time he returned home permanently. And Australia too had greatly changed since the heady days before Federation. The War to End All Wars had devastated the young male population, leaving widows, orphans and a damaged economy.

After returning permanently to Australia in 1920 Streeton continued painting grand Australian vistas. Land of the Golden Fleece 1926 displayed an open and opulent pastoral Australia: full of potential, grand in scale and scenic in beauty. In this work Streeton presented a country rich in earth, sky and sometimes water. Even post–war Australia was still a land of youth and possibility. Streeton had been a war artist and understood the tragic loss of life, yet he still looked to the Australian land as a symbol of national pride and prosperity – a reaffirmation of place and identity.

Only now his mountains were more mountainous than in 1897, the sunlight was lower, the shadows were more shadowy and the fun-filled idyll of Golden Summer had disappeared. Even the canvases were smaller.

Streeton retired to the rural outer suburb of Olinda in 1938 and painted no more. The exhibition will end on 13th June 2016.