King’s Review is pleased to present material from Gilded Birds (www.gildedbirds.net). Gilded Birds offers ‘a snapshot of contemporary ideals of beauty’. Through a series of interviews with influential artists and thinkers, Gilded Birds explores broad conceptions of beauty through the narrowest of lenses. Interviewees are asked to discuss a significant object – a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a book – which, to them, is beautiful. The objects of Gilded Birds take us beyond ourselves, into questions of aesthetic judgment, the value of art, and the relation between beauty and ideology. They also turn our gaze inwardly, to something common in all of us. We may not all agree on whether a particular object is beautiful, but we all make such judgments. Beauty matters to us all. The beauty of the interviews in Gilded Birds is their ability to bring into focus the shared experience that lies hidden beneath a wide variety of different objects. In the words of the site’s curator, Kerry Shaw:
The porcelain makers of the eighteenth century believed that they were creating some of the most beautiful objects in the world. These painted figurines and gilded vases were miracles of craftsmanship in their day but are no longer seen by most people as beautiful objects. In fact some people find them hideous. Artists of today and tomorrow will always reject and react against previous ideals of beauty. But fashionable or not, we are still surrounded by beauty in the world. We are asking some of the world’s greatest creative minds to show us one object of beauty that can contribute to a bigger picture of today’s ideal.
Below is the first in a series of interviews, originally published by Gilded Birds, which will appear in the King’s Review. More will appear in the coming weeks, including an interview with King’s College’s Christopher Prendergast.
Jane Haynes, psychotherapist and author, on her husband’s photograph, ‘Dog and Grass’.
You’ve chosen a photograph of your dog. So is the beauty sentimental? Would you find this picture beautiful without any personal experience of this dog or this grass?
I have no interest in the sentimental and regard it as a vice. In both my consulting room and in my private life, I remind myself that beneath the sentimental often lurks repressed sadism. The reason I have chosen this image is because it represents a random moment of phenomenon I regard to be beautiful. The grass is not my grass. How could it be, and although the dog is ‘my’ dog, she does not ‘belong’ to me. My husband’s image captures a reflection of an autumnal dog in declining grass. The grass matters as much as the dog. It also reminds me of Dürer’s ‘Clod of Earth’. Snakes lurk in grass but so do daisies (which once upon a time I wove into endless chains of love), buttercups, sexy-milked dandelions and minute orchids with beautiful names: green winged orchid, the lesser butterfly orchid, the bee orchid. Although I cannot possess those exquisite seconds of nature they are re-membered in the fact that I prefer not to work in my consulting room without purchased consolations of moth-winged phalenopsis orchids that help me to soak up those woven-fine joys and woes of life that I listen to every day. Oh, I should add that the dog is a Magyar Vizsla and I regard the breed whose eyes and nails are polished autumn amber as ‘living art’.
Do you think your picture is universally beautiful? Does this choice reflect a current state of mind or would it always be an ideal of beauty for you?
I do not think there is any such thing as universal beauty. I am not interested in the universal or collective but prefer the subjective. I might allow the moon the privilege of being an universal image of beauty, but then again how to choose between its slither and full? I also privilege the sun, but unlike the moon, which inspires me with awe, my sensation of the sun is accompanied by an intrusive fantasy of foolish human beings sunbathing without realising that the God is flaying them alive.
Do you think it reveals other things about you other than simply what you think is beautiful?
Not unless I share them with you. I have already indicated that I like the idea of the grass concealing exquisite beauty and deadly snares. It also happens that the dog’s pedigree prefix is ‘Siriusbell’. It must already be evident that I find the natural universe beautiful and I also find it serendipitous that ‘Sirius’ stands for the brightest star in the universe but it is also the feared ‘dog star’. I value all combinations of opposites. I like the fact that Keats’ last poem was, ‘Bright star would I were steadfast as thou’; that Shakespeare immortalised the star to every wandering bark, and that ‘Bell’ is the name of my youngest grand daughter whose beautiful smile was born on the seashores of the world.
Do you think we can become more self aware through examining what we find beautiful?
Most definitely. I am obsessed with and by Beauty. My family would say I am Beauty-Obsessive-Compulsive-Disordered. I am not proud of that but it is true. I earlier referred to the fallen ‘snake in the grass’, and beauty can become that snake. Nobody describes it better than Yeats in his poem Prayer For My Daughter:
May she be granted beauty and yet not
Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught,
Or hers before a looking glass, for such,
Being made beautiful overmuch,
Consider beauty a sufficient end,
Lose natural kindness and maybe
The heart-revealing intimacy
That chooses right, and never find a friend.
But, I am consoled by physical beauty in men and women and when I was twelve I fell in love with the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I wanted to become her altar-maid because I swooned at her beauty, which was as aloof as any white tail deer fawn. Yes, I was fawning of her beauty. We are still friends although I have found it difficult to witness her decay and perish with age. ‘Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’. (I should add that she also became Ossie Clark’s muse, which was perhaps one mark of a cultural beauty pedigree. Ah, but to think of Ossie Clark is also to think of murder and to return involuntarily to fallen nature.) It goes without saying that she also has a beautiful mind although to begin with she did not heed Yeats’ warning and neglected it. Beauty may be foolish but it cannot be stupid.
To return to your question: beauty whether in nature or the flesh – since childhood when I searched in the grass endlessly to find a four leaf clover – has been a consolation to me for the loneliness and ugliness that I feel in being human and separate. I find it hard to forgive ugliness whether it is in architecture or ignorance.
What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
Symmetry. Soul. Mystery. Myth. Language. The Fall… Yes, a terrible beauty is born.
With thanks to Kerry Shaw and Jane Haynes for permitting the reproduction of this material. Introduction by Chris Townsend.