BY Brian Dillon in Interviews | 30 SEP 12
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Issue 1

At Home

Brian Dillon visits art historian and novelist Marina Warner to talk about the art, books and objects that have shaped her thinking

BY Brian Dillon in Interviews | 30 SEP 12

Marina Warner was born in London in 1946 and brought up in Cairo, Brussels and Berkshire. Her first book was The Dragon Empress: The Life and Times of Tz’u-hsi, Empress Dowager of China (1972). It was followed by a series of influential studies of female archetypes and myths, most notably Alone of All Her Sex (1976) and Monuments and Maidens (1985). In these books Warner pioneered a mode of highly wrought and polemical scholarship that drew on literature, art, anthropology and religious, social and cultural history. In a period of increasing academic isolation, she maintained a role as independent scholar and essayist. Certain themes and motifs have recurred in her work, including ghosts, magic and enchantment: subjects whose modern technological incarnations she conjured in Phantasmagoria (2006). Warner’s most recent books may seem quite unalike. Stranger Magic (2011) is a vastly ambitious scholarly study of the Arabian Nights and its European reception, as well as a retelling of some of Warner’s favourite tales. It was begun, she says, at the start of the first Gulf War, and finished in the midst of the Arab Spring; in part, it’s a timely story about the value of cultural vagrancy and confusion. Her latest, The Symbol Gives Rise to Thought (2012) collects (in two volumes) nearly 80 of her essays on art; it also includes pieces on Roger Caillois, Leonora Carrington, Lewis Carroll, Tacita Dean and Tracey Emin. What links the two projects — scholarly and critical, if that’s the word — is her inveterate curiosity about how meanings are made and unmade, how they feint and slide between word and image and thing. I spoke to Warner at her house in London, surrounded by books, works of art by artists she has written about, and eloquent objects inherited from her parents: colonial cigarette boxes, ‘authentic’ relics of St. Ursula, and military maps of the North African campaign of World War II.

Brian Dillon Do you think of the essays and articles in your new book, The Symbol Gives Rise to Thought, as art criticism?

Marina Warner It’s true that I’ve written reviews and criticism, but it’s also true that I only really like writing about artists whom I like. So I’m not really a critic. I think instead it’s a form between forms, and it has a personal flavour — it’s a kind of essay form. I like the way you have to think your way into another person and their work, and in that sense it’s not that it is fiction, but it’s closer to fiction than writing literary criticism is, for example. You’re trying to intuit.

BD Much of the writing in the book was originally published in the form of catalogue essays. Who was the first artist you wrote such a piece for?

MW The first person who asked me was Helen Chadwick, although I’d written a lot about art in other ways. The first essay in the collection is from 1968, and it’s an interview with M.C. Escher! I went to Holland. I’d seen his work in Ernst Gombrich’s book Art and Illusion [1960]; he wasn’t yet very famous. But Helen was a fascinating person, and I found I liked the process. I was spending a lot of my time at home alone, and I really found I liked being in the studio with someone as charming and unusual as Helen — she was a very exhilarating person to be around. And I also found that I didn’t mind that what the artist wanted you to do was more like being Pindar: being told he had to write an ode to a sportsman, and then he would write some fabulous thing about some myth or other. I quite liked that relationship. It hasn’t always worked, of course.

BD Did that feel like a seamless move, from writing occasional pieces about the art of various periods, or touching on art in your books, to being more embedded in the art world?

MW When I began, contemporary art was a much more marginal activity. It was rather joyfully eccentric to be interested in contemporary art. There was no way of imagining it becoming mainstream in any way: it was avant-garde, dissenting, cosmopolitan. The Tate bought Matisse’s L’Escargot [The Snail, 1953] at that time, and there was a major outcry about how much it cost, which I think was about £5,000: not a great deal, but it was considered a huge sum of money and a complete waste! It’s not that long ago … The other thing that’s changed is that women were embattled. Women artists were few and far between, and there really was a question mark as to whether a woman could be a great artist. And that, of course, has just been totally turned around. So I began as a partisan. There were two sides of society I was committed to. One was the intrinsic vitality, energy and good, if you like, of culture — that it actually created civilization — and the other one was feminism. But those ideas have been superannuated; our generation succeeded on both fronts, surprisingly. Now it’s being pushed back, of course: not in terms of women artists, but the money side of culture.

BD How would you characterize your way of looking at contemporary art? It seems one thing that links your art writing with your books on literature, myth and religion is a fascination for meetings between text and image.

MW I think it’s partly to do with liking connections between objects. I like medals and emblems; they create a meaning that’s not in the image but between the image and the text: there’s a sort of third text floating between. A Catholic upbringing such as mine is very associative through things — it’s a sacramental relationship to the outside world, and that sticks even though other things fall away. In many respects I’m very iconophiliac. That’s definitely my training, and I like looking and meditating upon pictures: it makes me feel very good, and it does carry me away. It’s a sort of trick of the mind, which I learned at school; we learned to look at images and let them carry one into another place.

BD What kinds of things were you looking at?

MW There was the rosary, though that wasn’t a question of images — it was more meditative. The one that involved images was the Stations of the Cross, which was developed partly by Ignatius of Loyola as a spiritual exercise by meditation. It raises a lot of questions, and in fact they’re questions that I’ve wrestled with since and still wrestle with: when you contemplate pain and suffering, which is what we were taught to do, what is actually happening? I think people don’t bring that up enough when they’re talking about contemporary art. Damien Hirst, whatever you think of him, has a very strong streak of using emblems of suffering, and he has created an idea that it’s shocking, but actually when you’re taught it as a Catholic, it’s meant to be empathetic. The shock is only meant to be one of pity, not of actual thrill.

BD So this meditative act or trick of looking and thinking is common to all your writing?

MW I just meditate on things, and I do try to float away. I’m writing a novel, which is meant to be about my parents in Egypt after World War II. I began writing it when my mother was still alive, and I found all the things that she had that came from Egypt: some very banal objects, some less so. I began with that, and I opened up each one into a story that was emblematic. Then I did the things that my mother brought with her from her home in Italy: she wasn’t exactly a refugee, because she’d married my father, but she arrived with a suitcase. And there were Fascist textbooks in which she’d learned about England! The Italian Fascist textbook about England says: ‘If you look out of any railway at the land, it is all owned by princes.’ And the next paragraph: ‘The English are all bone idle.’
Then I decided that the whole book is perhaps an inventory. It’s all here, in boxes. The reason I want to do it as a novel is I don’t want to have any relationship to what actually happened. I want to introduce characters, and I want to introduce all the techniques of fiction, which you can’t use in a memoir: internal monologue, dialogue, things of that kind. Or you can use them in a memoir, but they take you far beyond memoir, and then you really are deceiving people.

BD But isn’t this perhaps what artists, or the people who commission you to write about artists, want from your writing — that it will concentrate (or meditate) on the work but then take the reader elsewhere, perhaps into the realm of fiction or myth or literature?

MW Partly it’s because I don’t do art history. I think the response I get is actually because I introduce a more anthropological look at art, and I think people feel quite sympathetic to that now. I really have become quite committed to it. I began thinking like that a long time ago with my book about the Virgin Mary [Alone of All Her Sex], in terms of mimesis being magical rather than representational: that the acts of looking and recording what one had seen were not so much to do with probing the nature of the visible, but trying to intervene in something, to create a kind of disturbance. And since then I’ve found a lot of very interesting stuff; the most significant is Aby Warburg, and his theory that one shouldn’t make a distinction between primitive and sophisticated cultures in terms of mimesis, assembly, dance, community, desire. All of these are instilled in the magical object, which is an art object.

BD The book you published last year, Stranger Magic, is about a specific history — the story of the translation and reception of the Arabian Nights — but it depends too on the notion that there’s another, magical or symbolic, order at work in history as well as in those stories. It comes out especially in the way you treat the tales of automata and magical objects: the idea that modernity and magic are not antipathetic, that there’s a kind of short-circuit between ancient and modern.

MW When I gave talks about this argument, before the book came out, there was quite a lot of resistance. I posit that the reason the stories were so loved in the 18th century was that aspects of incipient modernity were present in the magic of the Arabian Nights, and there were two aspects that struck me as truly powerful. First, the uncanny object: it’s one step up from the machine, and actually oscillates with life. In the Arabian Nights, everything is capable of this kind of enchantment, everything has this energy within it. When I said this, people would just laugh and say: ‘You think they invented particle physics, do you?’ Well, yes, sort of! Not that it was invented rationally, tested empirically. But the intuitions of the magical universe, and the way they shape and drive the stories, had a way of mirroring the beginnings of the cybernetic experience.
The second aspect, which is more important and more profound, is the activating of these apparently inert phenomena through inscription, and that seems to me to be absolutely the way we live now. The Arabian Nights describes a society in which the aural is turned into a kind of logos by being written down, and that process is shown in the stories themselves: if the story is good enough, it’s ordered to be written down.

BD It seems that your approach — transhistorical as well as committed to the meeting or clash between word and image — hasn’t always been acceptable in critical or scholarly contexts. It has been deemed too eclectic, too vagrant. Too curious, in fact.

MW When I started I was curious by nature, but I also probably embraced eclectic curiosity out of a certain defiance because you were meant to be rigorous and delimited. And also curiosity was meant to be a female vice, and I was very into embracing female vices when I was young, so it was important to me to embrace that kind of avid curiosity and restlessness and energy. I wanted to go into places that were forbidden. Why should they be forbidden to me? I want to be there — don’t tell me I can’t!
A work of art is also in the conditions of its making and its reception. One of the criticisms I would make about some forms of art criticism practiced now is that they spend too much time with the intentions of the artist. The meaning isn’t only there. Obviously I pay attention to what the artists say they are trying to do, but I don’t think one should only do that. One should ask what function the work is performing. And I also believe that thinking happens in a sort of iconotextual way; I’m less aural than some people might be, so for me it’s about pictures and semantics, and I don’t see that they can be divided. That may also come from my Catholic upbringing, because the way the image works in Catholicism is that the sign is compounded of meaning and vision.

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.