Tag Archives: arthur rimbaud

Death and collecting

The Wellcome Collection is currently showing a typically absorbing exhibition titled Death, but it’s not really about that at all. It features work from a private collection, that of Richard Harris, and largely consists of skulls and skeletons, many of which are actually rather lifelike.

In fact, despite its arresting title, this is in many senses a rather squeamish, clean exhibition. There’s no dying, no decomposition, no pain, little mourning or God. There are no worms eating dead bodies, no cancer destroying live ones. It’s not even particularly morbid. It’s more about one man’s obsession with the human skeleton, stripped of flesh and cleansed of blood, sinew and memory, as portrayed by a number of very beautiful works of art over the centuries. If you want a more gruesome, more real, idea of death, try the Museum of London’s Doctors, Dissection and Medicine Men.

Collection owner Richard Harris stands in front of a work my Mexican artist Marcos Raya called Family Portrait : Wedding  at the 'Death: A Self-portrait' exhibition at the Wellcome Collection on November 14, 2012 in London, England. The exhibition showcases 300 works from a unique collection by Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer from Chicago, devoted to the iconography of death. The display highlights art works, historical artifacts, anatomical illustrations and ephemera from around the world and opens on November 15, 2012 until February 24, 2013.

It is tempting to speculate why Harris is so fascinated with his particular idea of death – why so clinical? Why so safe? – but it’s also ultimately rather pointless. In his excellent essay on collecting, Unpacking My Library, Walter Benjamin noted that ‘‘Collectors, like artists, operate out of unconscious motives, and so we cannot be known to ourselves.’ A collection can be about anything, and may reflect a personal interest or a psychological flaw, but the reasons behind their creation are rarely as interesting as you may hope.

What is intriguing about Harris’s love for skulls is that collections are often built as a defence against death itself, a way for the collector to claim mortality for himself in the form of something that will exist after he no longer does so (even if most collections end up being broken by families who lack the passion or obsession to keep them intact). Collections are also about memory, a way for the collector to freeze a moment in time. Every item represents a second, an hour, a week, a month – however long it took to locate and acquire – in the collector’s life that he can look at and recollect for years to come.

A collection is also about surrounding yourself with cool things that you like, although whether this ever makes the serious collector happy is a moot point. In his study of the collecting impulse, To Have And To Hold, Phillip Blom astutely notes that ‘For every collector, the most important object is the next one’, an acknowledgement that the collector will never be satisfied by what they have, as their next acquisition could be the big one, the one that completes the collection, or sends it off in an exciting new direction. This will never happen, of course, locking the collector in a spiral of anticipation and disappointment.

All of this is true whatever is being collected, whether it’s sick bags from aeroplanes, James Bond first editions or things that might be haunted. And just about anything can be collected, if you have the right kind of imagination. My friend Carl Williams, who deals in the counterculture, talks about his idea of collecting around ‘the sullen gaze’, that look of cruel insolence and careless superiority perfected by William Burroughs but which can be traced to many others, putting arresting flesh on Harris’s ambivalent skull.

Une saison en Camden: Rimbaud and Verlaine in Victorian London

I am an ephemeral and a not too discontented citizen of a metropolis considered modern because all known taste has been avoided in the furnishings and the exterior of the houses as well as in the plan of the city. Here you would fail to detect the least trace of any monument to superstition.

Arthur Rimbaud on London in Illuminations

Getting a face full of wet fish is usually associated with Monty Python at Teddington Lock rather than French poets in North London, but such is the warping power of Camden Town. Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine were the Gallic rhymers in question. The pair enjoyed a tempestuous relationship in a variety of London addresses, which culminated in the aforementioned fish-slapping incident in Camden.

rimbverl

They had arrived in London in September 1872 after fleeing scandal in Paris. Rimbaud was 17, Verlaine ten years older, married with a child. Verlaine’s brother-in-law described Rimbaud as ‘a vile, vicious, disgusting little schoolboy’, but Verlaine found him an ‘exquisite creature’ probably for much the same reasons. At first they settled in Howland Street in Fitzrovia. They became part of Soho’s expat anarchist dissident set, reportedly attending meetings helmed by Karl Marx in Old Compton Street, drinking heavily, taking hash and opium (Rimbaud advocated ‘derangement of all the senses’) and keeping warm at the British Museum, where Rimbaud’s name  – but not Verlaine’s – was later added to the Reading Room roll of honour. Neither were particularly politically motivated, but the anti-establishment environment would undoubtedly have appealed to the outlaw couple.

Drawing by Verlaine of Rimbaud in Canon Street

They both loved London. Rimbaud felt that by comparison Paris looked like nothing more than a ‘pretty provincial town’ and loved the ‘interminable docks’, while Verlaine was captivated by the ‘incessant railways on splendid cast iron bridges’ and the ‘brutal, loud-mouthed people in the streets’. Together they travelled on the river, visited Hampstead Heath and rode the newly opened underground railway. They visited Hyde Park Corner, Madame Tussaud’s, the National Gallery and the Tower Subway (‘It stinks, it’s hot and it quivers like a suspension bridge, while all the while you hear the sound of the enormous volume of water,’ they reported back).

They wrote as well. Parts of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Une Saison en Enfer were written in London, and his relationship with Verlaine is recorded in the latter’s lines: ‘On several nights, his demon seized me, we rolled around together, I wrestled with him!—At nights, often, drunk, he lies in wait in the streets or in the houses, to frighten me half to death… In the hovels where we used to get drunk, he would weep at the sight of those around us, miserable beasts…’ Verlaine was also influenced by the hectic modernity of the docks, and wrote a poem about Regent’s Canal.

Their sojourn in Fitzrovia was briefly commemorated with a plaque written in French and erected in 1922, although it only mentioned Verlaine – Rimbaud’s name was omitted on grounds of morality. Unfortunately, the street numbers had changed by this time, so the plaque on No 34 was almost certainly commemorating the wrong house. These defects were solved in 1938 by simple means – the house was demolished. It’s said the plaque was saved from destruction, but if so it has long since been lost.

There is a plaque for their next house however, left by ‘unknown hand’ according to Simon Callow. This is on their residence at 8 Great (now Royal) College Street, which they moved to in May 1873, living in two rooms on the top floor for three months. Here the pair’s self-destructive instincts really blossomed. They argued relentlessly, and often fought physically. This reached its nadir one July morning when Verlaine returned from Camden market carrying fresh fish and olive oil. It was a hot day and Verlaine had a hangover, but Rimbaud, watching from an upstairs window, was unsympathetic. He laughed and bellowed, ‘Ce que tu as l’air con!’ (‘What a cunt you look!’). Verlaine responded with a kipper in the face (hurt, he later wrote to a friend rather pathetically,  ‘I retaliated, because, I can assure you, I definitely did not look ridiculous’), packed his bags and fled to Brussels. Rimbaud eventually followed, only to receive two bullets in his wrist for his troubles.

Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison, which he spent in part reading Une Saison en Enfer, and that was pretty much the end of that relationship. Rimbaud returned to London in 1874, living at Stamford Street, SE1 with the poet Germain Nouveau and later taking a room at No 12 Argyll Square in 1875. He then disappeared for four months – biographers still speculate about whether he was in Scotland, Scarborough or Reading. He barely wrote another word and died, one-legged, in 1891. Verlaine also returned to England, teaching in Boston and Bournemouth, before returning to Paris where he succumbed to alcoholism and died in 1896. Camden can do that.

Photo by Dornac of Paul Verlaine in the Café François 1er in Paris on May 28, 1892