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The Ghosts of Russell Kirk


The Ghosts of Russell Kirk


The Ghosts of Russell Kirk

On Kirk’s ghost stories and published fiction.

The subject of ghosts, both their literary and spectral forms, was a lifelong fascination for Russell Kirk. He was a scholar of speculative fiction, also called “genre” fiction. These days, stories of horror and the supernatural are often disparaged when held against the “quality literature” of modern realism. Yet Kirk saw realism as “dreary baggage,” the “art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads.” For a “writer who struggles to express moral truth,” wrote Kirk, “ ‘realism’ has become in our time a dead-end street.”

So Kirk appreciated what he called the “fearful joy” of ghostly tales. Such tales formed their own literary tradition, one that he traced from Horace Walpole to L. P. Hartley. Kirk was sure to distinguish these ghost stories from the more recent “flood of ‘scientific’ and ‘futuristic’ fantasies,” which he called “banal and meaningless.” “For symbol and allegory,” Kirk wrote, “the shadow-world is a far better realm than the hard, false ‘realism’ of science-fiction.”

Kirk did not fear ghosts. He feared the death of ghosts and their afterlife in myths and tales. In his own scholarship and writing, he saw to their revival. As he studiously wrote in “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” an essay he first published in The Critic in the spring of 1962, the

supernatural has attracted writers of genius or high talent: Defoe, Scott, Coleridge, Stevenson, Hoffmann, Maupassant, Kipling, Hawthorne, Poe, Henry James, F. Marion Crawford, Edith Wharton; and those whose achievement lies principally in this dark field, among them M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Meade Falkner, Sheridan Le Fanu, and Arthur Machen. Many of the best are by such poets and critics as Walter de la Mare, A. C. Benson, and Quiller Couch. Theirs are no Grub Street names. The genre has in it something worth attempting.

Regrettably, as Kirk went on: “since most modern men have ceased to recognize their own souls, the spectral tale has been out of fashion, especially in America.” Kirk called himself the “last remaining master of ghostly stories,” something he lamented as a “decayed art.” Still, unfashionable as they may be, it did not mean ghost stories went unread. Beneath our rationalist feet, as Kirk knew, there remains haunted ground. And, in fact, Kirk’s own supernatural fiction brought him widespread popular success. He began by publishing ghostly tales in the early 1950s in small periodicals, such as World ReviewQueen’s QuarterlyLondon Mystery MagazineFantasy and Science Fiction, and Southwest Review. Many of these stories have now been anthologized several times over.

Kirk’s thriller of a novel of 1961, titled Old House of Fear, became a surprise bestseller. Kirk said it outsold all of his other books; its royalties provided some financial buoyancy to the Kirk family for years after publication. These literary achievements form their own creative legacy, one not necessarily advantaged by Kirk’s more prominent political associations. Yet they were all of a piece. The writing quality and studied interest of this ghostly fiction were not ancillary to his conservative mind but central to his Gothic sensibility. Quoting Edmund Burke, Kirk wrote, “art is man’s nature.” And ghost stories were Kirk’s nature.

“The Surly Sullen Bell,” Kirk’s short story of 1950, first published in London Mystery Magazine, sounds a tone that resonates through much of his fiction. Kirk takes his title from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71: “No longer mourn for me when I am dead/ Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell/ Give warning to the world that I am fled/ From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.” The story lends its title to Kirk’s first story collection, published by Fleet in 1962.

It opens in the rubble of St. Louis, where “they have pounded the Old Town into dust.” Against this backdrop of so-called urban renewal, we read, “To the modern politician and planner, men are the flies of a summer, oblivious of their past, reckless of their future.” A character named Frank Loring is visiting, reluctantly, the home of Professor Godfrey Schumacher. The professor’s wife, the former Nancy Birrell, is an old flame. Loring is a self-admitted “reactionary . . . not yet forty”: “Ecclesiastes was Bible enough for him. . . . yesterday’s sun had been warmer than today’s.” Schumacher, in contrast, is a “complacent positivist.” Loring now finds the professor wrapped up in “a startling blend of psychiatry and quasi-Yoga, spiced with something near to necromancy and perhaps a dash of Madame Blavatsky.” Since Schumacher is “late a disciple of the mechanists,” what explains his new philosophy? “Well,” Loring admits, “the line of demarcation between the two cults perhaps was no more difficult to cross than the boundary between Fascism and Communism.”

Schumacher has taken up an interest in mysticism, he claims, to help his ailing wife, who has become a neurotic suffering from “dreadful sights.” This Godfrey is playing God. “He wants to possess me, absorb me, lose me in himself,” Nancy confides to Loring. As Schumacher pours another cup of coffee, he also pours out his strong philosophy: “restraint is for spiritual weaklings. Strength is everything upon the physical plane, and that’s just as true, really, upon the spiritual—the moral—plane. Strength and appetite are the only tests. You’ll admit that soon enough, Loring.”

Kirk did not fear ghosts. He feared the death of ghosts and their afterlife in myths and tales.

Walking home “through the district of ruined and ruinous old houses,” Loring finds he is followed by a “hulking figure . . . slipping now and again into deep shadow.” After another visit, the figure follows him again. This time Loring collapses in a ruined alley only to see a spectral face taunting him from an abandoned window. Believing there was something off with the coffee, Loring barely makes it to the police station. When the authorities go back to investigate the Schumachers, they find Nancy dead of heart failure and Godfrey shot by his own hand. Nancy and Loring had been poisoned, yet our final understanding of Godfrey’s drug “was little better than approximation.”

In “A Cautionary Note on the Ghostly Tale,” Kirk writes: “Tenebrae ineluctably form part of the nature of things; nor should we complain, for without darkness there cannot be light.” Kirk’s 1957 story “Ex Tenebris,” first published in Queen’s Quarterly, takes on slum clearance front and center. The setting has been relocated to the fading English farm village of Low Went-ford and its supposed replacement by the new council-housing scheme of Gorst. Mrs. Oliver is a hold-out in the old town. Even though her windows “were too small” and her ceilings “lower than regulations,” she simply wants to “train rosebushes against the old walls” and to “spade her own little garden.” She also has little interest in Gorst, which boasts “six cinemas” but no churches, and was a “jerry-built desolation of concrete roadways” designed to “make it difficult for people to get about on foot.” S. G. W. Barner, “Planning Officer,” knows better, and has different ideas for Mrs. Oliver: “She would be served a compulsory purchase order before long . . . and would be moved to Gorst where she belonged.”

“A thick-chested, hairy man, . . . rather like a large, earnest ape,” Barner thinks he understands all he needs to know about the future:

He was convinced that the agricultural laborer ought to be liquidated altogether. And why not? Advanced planning, within a few years, surely would liberate progressive societies from dependence upon old-fashioned farming. He disliked the whole notion of agriculture, with its rude earthiness, its reactionary views of life and labor, its subservience to tradition.

He also disliked Low Wentford, which he believed served as an “obsolete fragment of a repudiated social order.” Therefore it must be effaced: “Ruins are reminiscent of the past; and the Past is a dead hand impeding progressive planning.”

Mrs. Oliver is frightened of Barner, who “seemed more unchristian than any Indian, worshipping his maps.” So she seeks refuge in conversation with Abner Hargreaves, the vicar of Low Wentford’s old church. Problem is, this church has been long abandoned. When Barner goes to investigate, he enters into an argument with the spectral vicar, who tells him, “Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbor secretly.” Barner says: “Individual preferences often must be subordinated to communal efficiency.” The vicar responds: “I speak not simply of whim and inclination, but of the memories of childhood and girlhood, the pieties that cling to our hearth, however desolated.”

Just then, as Barner feels the vicar’s hand on his neck, the “roof of the north porch . . . fell upon him.” A new planning officer abandons the Gorst scheme and recommends a “plan of deconcentration.” Mrs Oliver can stay in her cottage, where she “weeds her garden, and bakes her scones, and often sweeps the gravestones clean.”

Reviewing Kirk’s first collection of stories, Virginia Kirkus’s Service took note of how the ghosts of Kirk’s tales “generally work for the good to defeat the modern evils of city planners, hoodlums or census takers.” At the same time, “there is perhaps too much commonsense reality in these tales for them to be truly terrifying.” Set in the haunted Small Isles of the Scottish Inner Hebrides, Old House of Fear, Kirk’s first novel, quickly does away with terra cognita for a landscape charged with dark spirits.

Duncan MacAskival is an Andrew Carnegie–like industrialist who wants to return to his ancestral Scottish home. “Look at it all,” he says of his Iron Works. “I made it. And what has it given me? Two coronary fits. . . . Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” He taps Hugh Logan to travel to Carnglass, where the old Lady of the MacAskival clan still lives, to purchase the island and its castle, called the Old House of Fear. The name is Gaelic, we learn, and Fir means “man,” just as Carnglass means “gray stone.”

The first half of the book concerns Logan’s efforts to get on island; many conspire to keep him away—just as Kirk, famously resistant to editorial intervention, no doubt conspired to thwart any efforts at elision. Here we learn about the lingering old superstitions of this remote land: “to preach the Gospels among the Pequots or Narragansetts is a facile undertaking by the side of any endeavor to redeem from heathen error these denizens of the furthermost Hebrides.”

Kirk’s writing here is possessed of specific beauty. Having earned his doctorate of letters from the University of St. Andrews, the first American to do so, he luxuriates in the maritime Scottish scenery. Just consider the following passage:

At six o’clock the “Lochness” steamed away from the pier toward the Sound of Mull. They crossed the Firth of Lorne; and then, to the south they skirted the great rocky mass of Mull, while the wild shores of Morven frowned upon them from the north. Several islanders were among the passengers, and for the first time in years Logan heard the Gaelic spoken naturally, that beautiful singing Gaelic of the Hebrides. It went with the cliffs, the sea-rocks, the ruined strongholds of Mull and Morven, the damp air, the whitewashed loney cottages by the deep and smoothly sinister sea.

When Logan makes landfall, he meets Mary MacAskival, a red-haired ingenue and soon-to-be love interest. They pretend to be betrothed in order to get past a Dr. Edmund Jackman, a man, we learn, “who knows all about the occult. He has just come back from a trip to Roumania.” This guru figure has taken over the Old House and entranced the old Lady. It turns out he is also a Communist agent seeking to use Carnglass as a forward base of operations to disrupt advanced Atlantic defenses. Working with a henchman named Royall, the “humanitarian with the guillotine,” Dr. Jackman uses “sham bogles to frighten old women.” Says Logan: “But when you play with things from the abyss, you run risks. In this dead island of Carnglass, all round us things are ready to stir, if they’re called.”

“Fed on fantasies of one sort or another,” Jackman says of Mary, “the legends of Carnglass . . . are real.” Mary indeed knows the old Pictish “hidie-holes” of the island. She helps Logan escape and summons her relatives from Daldour, the island next door. While some of the island’s apparitions prove to be false—a happy warrior named Dumb Angus dons the skin of a sheep’s head to frighten Jackman—the legends of Carnglass also come true. Jackman is shown to be a demon, “the Firgower, the Goat-Man. And he saw all things, past, present, and future, through his Third Eye.” Far from being saved by the light of day, only Mary’s belief in these same dark legends preserves the island from Jackman’s boot.

In the last year of his life, Kirk spoke about ghosts at length from his “ancestral home” on Piety Hill in Mecosta, Michigan. He was convalescing from bronchitis, “an illness I contracted for the first and, I trust, the last time in my life,” he prophetically declared. Still, he had gathered a small audience in order to tell “some ghostly tales.”

Before he read one of his ghost stories, he elaborated on what he called the “true narration” of the ghosts in his life and the life of his family. Kirk’s ancestors were followers of the mystical Lutheran theologian Emanuel Swedenborg. A New York lumberman from the burned-over country of the Finger Lakes, Kirk’s great-grandfather came for the trees of northern Michigan and brought Swedenborgism with him, building a spiritualist church across from his settlement in Mecosta. After the church burned, the family conducted séances in their home. “My great-aunt Norma told tales of those days,” Kirk said. “A rocking chair levitated toward the ceiling. A great round mahogany table floated up.” Before the Old House burned in 1975, Kirk observed an increase in its spiritual activity. He remembers sleeping on the parlor sofa aged eight or nine, seeing two figures looking back at him through the bay window one winter’s night. They left no footprints in the snow, but years later he learned that his Aunt Faye reported seeing similar figures, with whom she would play. Kirk’s eldest daughter, Monica, also saw these men. “Three generations had some sort of experience,” Kirk concluded. “One of the more pleasant ghost stories of the house.”

“Mine was not an Enlightened mind,” Kirk famously said of himself. “It was a Gothic mind, medieval in its temper and structure. I did not love cold harmony and perfect regularity of organization; what I sought was variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful.”

Directed not by ideology, but rather a prudential anti-ideology—a disposition—Kirk’s pathways were sinuous. There is no single key, no one access point or unobstructed promontory to give way to his worldview. Instead he left many clues, often medieval in temper and structure. And for this we are fortunate. He saw the modern age with a time-traveler’s remove. He surveyed the world with idiosyncratic fascination, looking for lost connections between the timely and the timeless; the past, the present, and the future. In his writing, he was his own poltergeist or “rattling spirit,” making critical noise to remind us of lost ties and of the subterranean spirits of culture just below the rubble at our feet and the theories in our heads. With his own Third Eye, Kirk saw through the many false faiths of the modern age: “The primary error of the Enlightenment,” he wrote, “was the notion that dissolving old faiths, creeds, and loyalties would lead to a universal sweet rationalism. But deprive man of St. Salvator, and he will seek, at best, St. Science.” That’s why fruitful inquests might still be made into Kirk’s dim views of post-war urban planning, for example, or the entrancing flicker of information technology—just two areas of many where he was remarkably farsighted. The more we look to the “variety, mystery, tradition, the venerable, the awful” of his life and work, the better we appreciate his Gothic form of conservative mind.

Kirk believed in ghosts. He believed in people who believed in ghosts. He believed in people who believed in the stories of ghosts.

Kirk believed in ghosts. He believed in people who believed in ghosts. He believed in people who believed in the stories of ghosts. Whether ghosts were objective or subjective phenomena, whether they were forces of the universe or of the human imagination, he would not definitively say. “Can we imagine a human soul operating without a body?,” he said at the end of his life. “You and I are just a collection of some electrical particles, held in suspension temporarily. We aren’t really solid at all. Can there be a collection of such particles in a different form that can occasionally manifest itself? Nobody knows.”

Subjective belief and objective existence were fluid dynamics in Kirk’s mind. He believed in the life of the dead. He believed in the afterlife of the soul and the soul imbued in the living spirit of the culture. His beliefs still haunt us. On the centenary of his birth, if we have managed to conjure his legacy, then we have also summoned a revenant spirit.


The Old College Try


The Old College Try

THE NEW CRITERION, December 2018

The old college try

On the renovation of Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art.

If the architecture of the American university is said to have a common style, it surely must be the style of aspiration. With no native vernacular academic form, there is little that is organic in the creation of American campuses. The appearance of our universities varies widely, and in recent times schizophrenically, not just school to school but building to building. What unites them all, for better or worse, is the desire to convey their mission in solid form.

Through the nineteenth century and into the first decades of the twentieth, such aspiration drove an extraordinary program of campus design. Today we still consider this era to have produced the quintessence of American academic architecture along with its most affecting structures. As campus buildings were grafted onto older Western roots, Georgian, Gothic, Classical, and other motifs elided the European past with the American present. Where more than one such style coexisted on campus, as they often did, the buildings engaged in quiet conversation. Such forms not only gave shape to external appearances, but also spoke to the coherent internal values of the institutions they housed and contained.

Education of the new nation, they said, derived from the inherited values of the Old World. Here the campus library took architectural precedence. As both the containers and conveyors of knowledge, these libraries became the focus of campus plans. Meanwhile, structures for administration, faculty, and students deferred in their appearance and ambition, often crystallizing in quadrangles arrayed around a central library.

Over the last half century, the increasing architectural incoherence of the American university has foretold changing academic fortunes. In the rush to declare the latest accommodations, auditoriums and gymnasiums, science labs and food halls have clamored for architectural attention. A cacophony of economic interests, fractious politics, and ever-changing priorities has turned the tone of college campuses from study halls into shouting matches. Today’s campuses have become sprawling noisemakers that echo their own educational discordance.

Architectural aspiration, once focused outward, has turned inward against the university’s existing motifs. Building has gone against building as campus architecture has become a blood sport. A competition of progressive forms has not only given shape to new appearances but also spoken to new values. Through rapid cycles of construction and demolition—heralded through never-ending campaigns for capital donations—campuses today aspire to be something smarter than their historical selves. As each new generation of college leadership turns against its predecessor, older buildings go down and new ones go up in the hopes that the ideas they contain will be of the moment. Replacing the timeless with the timely, aspiring to be in the fleeting present, a permanent evanescence has become the academic architectural norm.

The Dartmouth College green. Photo: Dartmouth College.

The Dartmouth College green. Photo: Dartmouth College.

The campus of Dartmouth College, where I was an undergraduate, has long been exclamatory in its architectural aspirations. This fall I had occasion to revisit it during the $50 million renovation of the school’s Hood Museum of Art by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects. Even before breaking ground, this renovation, set to open in early 2019, drew public scrutiny, since it includes the partial demolition of the award-winning 1985 museum building by Charles Willard Moore and Chad Floyd. Replacing Moore’s postmodern concoction with the lyrical brutalism of Williams-Tsien, this ostentatious enactment of burial and renewal speaks to the head-spinning shifts of the mercurial contemporary campus.

“The College on the Hill” of Hanover, New Hampshire, sited on a high plain along the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River, Dartmouth has evolved from a missionary outpost chartered in 1769 “to Christianize the heathen” into an elite but removed member of the laureled Ivy League. The college motto, Vox Clamantis in Deserto—“a voice crying out in the wilderness”—has likewise evolved from a passage from the Book of Isaiah, later recalled by John the Baptist, into an expression of the college’s own remote longings, which can be celebratory at times and resentful at others over its academic remove.

Throughout its long history, the architecture of the Dartmouth campus has pivoted around a five-acre open plot known as the Green, which was at one time the grazing land for the remote academic settlement. With the Federal-style Dartmouth Hall of 1784 on College Street to the east, the campus originally faced west, looking back over the Green and the Connecticut River. In 1839, Reed Hall, a neighboring Federal building designed in the dimensions of the Parthenon, housed the college’s first central library. Starting in 1884, Wilson Hall, a fanciful Romanesque pile south of the Green on Wheelock Street, began serving as a new and larger library facility as well as the college’s picture gallery. Finally, in 1928, the campus’s orientation pivoted again, this time to the north, with the completion of Baker Library.

With each of these turns around the Green, the college’s architecture added to the forms of what came before as it tracked the school’s rising stature. What was once an educational redoubt—“a small college, and yet there are those who love it,” as Daniel Webster said in defense of his alma mater in the Supreme Court case of Trustees of Dartmouth College v. Woodward of 1819—evolved into a venerable American institution.

Modeled on the Georgian design of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Baker Library, along with Dartmouth Hall, continues to serve as the architectural standard-bearer of the school. With its four-sided clock and bell tower, Baker represents the brains and heart of the institution, topping off at two hundred feet with a six-hundred-pound copper weather vane depicting the college’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock, with the Mohegan Samson Occom and a barrel of rum beneath the “Old Pine.” Just below, during trustee weekends, the elevated facets of Baker Tower are illuminated in green—a beacon in the color of the school now known during fundraising drives as the “money light.”

It is worthwhile here to note that the many traditional motifs brought to campus during this long period were revivalist forms incorporated by some of the leading architects of the day, such as Lamb & Rich and John Russell Pope. Their employment was supported by philanthropists with a deep engagement in art and architecture such as George Fisher Baker, a board member of the Metropolitan Museum, who dedicated his library as a memorial to his uncle Fisher Ames Baker. These commissions endured well into the age of the skyscraper. Beneath its traditional forms, Baker Library was built with the steel frame structure of a modern building.

Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center with the Hanover Inn in the background.

Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center with the Hanover Inn in the background.

In the post-war years, college planners have challenged the school’s cherished architectural vocabulary not despite but because of its high standing among students and alumni. An appeal for the new has cut against old ideas, old men, and old forms. In the late 1950s, the Choate Cluster of dormitories, designed to be an experiment in student living, landed on campus like a value-engineered lunar base connected through elevated air locks. Stripped of ornament, the River Cluster of dormitories, constructed between 1958 and 1982 and originally known as “The Wigwams,” had all the architectural ambition of a low-rise urban redevelopment scheme.

Dartmouth’s greatest architectural challenge came with the construction of the Hopkins Center in 1962. Championed by Nelson Rockefeller, Dartmouth class of 1930, the campus’s arts complex next to Wilson Hall on the southern side of the Green was designed by Wallace K. Harrison to be a beacon for what was thought to be a culturally impoverished student body. Harrison used “The Hop” as a prototype for New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, which opened four years later. The similarities here are both obvious and unfortunate. The Met’s older sibling has never settled into the look or life of the New Hampshire college. The shock and schlock it introduced to the Green, facing down Baker Library, continue to disrupt the school’s primary architectural fabric.

When Charles Moore took on the design of the Hood Museum for a back corner space left between the Hopkins Center and Wilson Hall, he confronted the challenge of uniting modern and pre-modern with a postmodern confection of the two. Named after the milk magnate Harvey P. Hood, Dartmouth class of 1918, the museum, when it opened in 1985, became Moore’s most notable institutional building and a reflection of the school’s own evolving architectural rhetoric.

Moore’s mode of postmodernism drew on traditional idioms for progressive ends. For the traditionalists, his style made amends for modernism’s campus follies, yet it did so with fingers crossed and tongue in cheek. Writing of the museum’s opening in these pages in November 1985, Roger Kimball took note of Moore’s “self-consciously historicizing architecture” that drew on the campus’s colonial and Georgian forms, but with an “underlying current of architectural trickiness and free play.” Treating tradition as a “more or less neutral storehouse full of stylistic tricks,” the building “exhibits an arbitrariness and frivolity that excludes it from any genuine tradition.”

Apparent in retrospect, the frivolity of the Hood was largely lost on me as an undergraduate. I am not sure I ever found the museum’s front door. Moore was known for oversized piazzas that went nowhere. His Hood began with a “triumphal arch” connecting Wilson and The Hop followed by an open courtyard of uncertain egress. Buzz Yudell, Moore’s architectural partner, applauded the building’s “wonderful sequence of invitation, of discovery unfolding . . . a choreography of experience that works all the way from the outside through the courtyard and inside the building.” Such balletic sensibility was supposedly conveyed through a sculpture of a dancing figure by Joel Shapiro commissioned for the site.

Nevertheless, this college dance always ended in heartbreak. Follow one path and you were spit out the back of the building. Follow another and you were clobbered by the snowdrifts that had built up on Moore’s rooflines. Taking classical orders and tangling them into an irrational knot, Moore disrupted the visitor’s wayfinding at every turn. Anyone looking for art would be stood up at the door. And if you made it inside, Moore placed a guard on an elevated perch at the front desk to frown on the frivolity. These obstacles to entry were a shame, since the college’s collection includes such treasures as Assyrian relief panels from the Palace of Ashurnasirpal II on through an impressive survey of work by the college’s artists in residence.

The old Hood Museum of Art. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

The old Hood Museum of Art. Photo: Timothy Hursley.

Like Jesus and Alexander the Great, it seems that the life of an architectural style now lasts thirty-three years, give or take. What starts in infancy praised by wise men ends in premature death. Moore’s Hood Museum was the height of sophistication in 1985. In 2018, his architectural references and games have been replaced by new demands for access and transparency, all against a backdrop of renewed suspicions of cultural inheritance along with a joyless sobriety that can be puritanical in its enforcement. Moore’s fall from grace reflects the decline of postmodern architecture in general, where even Philip Johnson’s landmark at&t Building now faces down brutalist intervention.

With such buildings as the “new” Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien have distinguished themselves through designs that impose brutalist order onto historical motifs, tempering their own anti-historicist forms with sumptuous materials. At the Hood, they have stripped off Moore’s archway and north façade and half covered over his courtyard with a pillbox bunker of Flemish bond brick. A solitary square fourteen-foot window faces Baker Library like a vitrine and gun emplacement to shoot the art collection onto the Green. With the right object in view during their somnambulating passage to class, not even a preliterate undergraduate may mistake this new building for anything other than an art museum.

Preservationists have been quick to point out the irony, if not the hypocrisy, of the partial destruction of Moore’s museum by Williams and Tsien. In 2014, these architects objected vociferously to the destruction of their own American Folk Art Museum building of 2001 after its takeover by the Museum of Modern Art. When MOMA floated the idea of salvaging parts of their building, Williams and Tsien maintained their museum was “a whole” and rejected such “façadism.” “The idea of installing a few panels somewhere doesn’t interest me,” Williams said at the time.

Of course, this is precisely what these two have done at Dartmouth—salvaging, modifying, and demolishing various parts of Moore’s design. “I don’t care about the criticism,” Williams said when I asked him about preservationist concerns, including those voiced by the Charles Moore Foundation. “We do everything we can, absolutely, to try to respect the Moore work, to respect Dartmouth, to respect the Hood as it grows and grows into the future. I am completely and utterly convinced that we have done everything we can. It was all entangled.”

The planned north façade of the new Hood Museum. Rendering: MARCH.

The planned north façade of the new Hood Museum. Rendering: MARCH.

Undoubtedly the new Hood will solve many of the problems of the 1985 museum, which Moore entangled quite deliberately. Sight lines have been straightened. New rooms for collection study and “experiential learning” have been established. New white-box spaces will display the school’s modern and contemporary collections to greater effect. Much expense has even gone into preserving parts of Moore’s waterlogged building, including the addition of new mechanisms to melt the snow that accumulates on his copper roof. After the mysterious departure of his predecessor, the Hood’s current director, John Stomberg, continues to manage the museum ably even through the construction, maintaining an interim gallery in a storefront on Main Street.

The most prominent change will be the addition of a new social space recovered from Moore’s courtyard. This cavernous lobby, performance hanger, and student lounge will also serve as a space for donor cultivation, much as the Barnes foyer by day converts into an entertainment venue by night.

Here ultimately is the latest priority for campus architecture. Institutions are now competing for increasingly concentrated and demanding donor dollars, along with wall space for their prized contemporary collections. Funded during the “quiet phase” of the plan, the new Hood is the leading edge of the school’s new $3 billion comprehensive capital campaign, titled “The Call to Lead”—in which, presumably, old ideas, old men, and old forms should not be followed.

Through rationalism richly appointed, the new museum breaks from the past by offering insiders first-class passage into the future. A lot less could have been imposed to preserve Moore in its entirety while still adding to the exhibition space of the museum. A one-time proposal to turn the romanesque arch of Wilson Hall into the museum entrance would have restored the primacy and original intent of this overlooked campus building. No less than Robert Frost credits Wilson Hall with inspiring him to become a poet when he walked through its arch as a freshman in 1892 and came upon a poem by Richard Hovey published in the November 17 edition of The Independent.

But such preservation is never the true aspiration of the contemporary university. Quite the opposite: the public destruction of old forms has become as important as the erection of new ones. The question is not what has been, but what could be created to “effect change and improve lives around the world,” in the words of Dartmouth’s new capital campaign. The American college of the present must be focused on the future. The results may be good for college architects but bad for college architecture. Once the shovel hits the ground, a building is already a thing of the past.


Death in Venice, alive in New York


Death in Venice, alive in New York

SPECTATOR, October 30, 2018

Death in Venice, alive in New York

Tintoretto looked not up to heaven, but down to the fallen angels of our modern age

Il disegno di Michelangelo e il colorito di Tiziano: The drawing of Michelangelo and the colour of Titian.

With these words, supposedly written on his studio wall, Jacopo Tintoretto staked his claim on cinquecento painting. We are lucky he failed on both counts. Tintoretto was no Michelangelo or Titian, but he could push paint like no one else in La Serenissima. Renaissance means ‘rebirth’, of course. Yet the paintings of Tintoretto can come as deadly shock. His ‘Crucifixion’ of 1565 in Venice’s Scuola Grande di San Rocco strikes like a thunderbolt. The painting is also the single best work of religious art in the Italian Renaissance. With Christ fixed to the cross front and centre, the action of this composition swirls around him like a dark cyclone. Everyone — carpenters, soldiers, a dog — makes up ‘a centrifugal energy that charges the entire picture’, as the late art historian David Rosand wrote. As onlookers gazing up as Christ stares down, we too are swept up in the storm.

With expressive, brooding, and in-your-face energy, Tintoretto never sought the safety of the neo-Platonic shore. In his draftsmanship, he did not trace out the idealised forms of Michelangelo. In his choice of colour, murky at best, he did not seek the fuzzy warmth of Giorgione. Yet with speed and drive, Tintoretto swept through the 16th-century scene by looking, not up to heaven, but down to the fallen angels of our modern age. He went low when Titian and Veronese went high.

As we mark the 500th anniversary of his birth with exhibitions stretching from the Doge’s Palace in Venice to the house of Morgan in New York City, the wild child of the Venetian Renaissance is receiving his due. In New YorkDrawing in Tintoretto’s Venice at the Morgan Library & Museum explores the draftsmanship of this son of a dyer — tintore — in comparison to works by Titian, Veronese, Bassano, and others. Meanwhile at the Metropolitan Museum, Celebrating Tintoretto: Portrait Paintings and Studio Drawings, a focused exhibition in the Robert Lehman Wing, looks to the painter’s quick-fire portrait studies.

Sacco di Noce — ‘bag of nuts’. That’s how Tintoretto’s figuration came to be known, in particular for the dashed-off studies on paper of his later career. What sounds like an insult, in fact, signals an expressive brilliance. Lacking time and inclination, Tintoretto refused to labour over sculptural shading. At the Morgan Library, the torso of his ‘Seated Male Nude’ (c. 1549), on loan from the Louvre and reproduced on the cover of the exhibition catalogue, looks like it ingested some bad shellfish. His ‘Seated Man with Raised Hand’ (c. 1577–78), from nearly two decades later, resembles nothing less than an aquaman pulled from the rippling Grand Canal. The wavy lines of these drawings do not have a sculptural meaning. But they have an expressive feeling — queasy, awkward, very human, very off.

By focusing on works on paper, with seventy drawings by Tintoretto and his circle now on view, the Morgan show makes the case for a ‘drawing school of Venice’. That’s the title of the first chapter of the catalogue, but it ends with a question mark. Ever since their disparagement in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, the idiosyncratic drawings of Venice have been considered a poor imitation of the Florentine school. An opening example here by Titian, ‘Embracing Couple’ (c. 1568-70), should not give Michelangelo or Leonardo cause of concern over the grading average of the drawing school curve. A tangle of marks, with bodily forms barely discernible, Titian’s drawing appears entirely preliminary, a primo pensiero. But more than that, it seems built up and worked over, as if you were applying layers of paint to canvas rather than lines of charcoal to paper. In other words, here is the richest of painters with the poorest sense for basic draftsmanship.

The exhibition follows through with examples by Andrea Schiavone — the ‘Slav’ — who avoided the whole disegno-colorito feud by finding some fusion of the two. His ‘Apostle (St Matthew)’ (c. 1550), and ‘Virgin Annunciate’ (c. 1550-60) of ink, chalk, watercolour, and wash are drawn paintings — or maybe that should be painted drawings. The Venetian Jacopo Bassano went with a similar approach, using coloured chalk to give some heft to his sketchy figures. Meanwhile, practice makes perfect, and Paolo Veronese, ever the dutiful student, drew study after study in pen and brown ink. In ‘SS. Leonard, Mark, and Francis’ (c. 1549-51), he arrived at his own Venetian sense for sharpened form with highlights of white gouache.

Yes, there was a drawing school of Venice. Tintoretto started his own. At the Morgan, there are several examples of the students in his workshop drawing studies of Grimani Vitellius, or at least a fleshy cast of him, all from slightly different angles. There are also numerous attempts by the Tintoretto Workshop at depicting a cast of Michelangelo’s ‘Samson and the Philistines’. Of Tintoretto’s many pupils, Palma Giovane may have been his best. With white paint over brush and brown, he traces the light reflecting off Michelangelo’s bronze like muscles beneath oily skin. Meanwhile Domenico Tintoretto, Jacopo’s son, carries on the family name with drawings that look to the female nude laid bare in a newly naked way, unidealised and full frontal, from the bottom up.

At the Metropolitan Museum, the diminutive scale of the Celebrating Tintoretto exhibition belies the birthday party within. For someone known to go big, Tintoretto painted some of his most arresting portraits small. Collected in a single room in the Lehman Wing, the show looks behind the quickfire brushwork, or prestezza, for a selection of personal portrait studies, some of which informed larger compositions. Along with drawings from the Lehman collection by Domenico, these closely cropped figures appear out of the darkness in a raking light. Like the ‘Crucifixion’ in the Scuola di San Rocco, they also face us head on.

There is nothing idealised, nothing reserved in their poses. Focused on the elders of the Venetian Republic, these are powerful portraits of powerful men, and they glare back from the canvas. Tintoretto may not have had the drawing of Michelangelo or the colour of Titian. But in his stare, he was death in Venice.