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With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton

I recently had cataract operations, which gave me a new view on the world. One major change is that having used contact lenses for nearly 50 years, I no longer need them. Another change is that some colours that I thought were black have resolved into dark blue and purple. And as well as an all-round improvement in my sight I sometimes see out of the corner of my eye what I call ghosts, just the fluttering of something sheet-like disappearing out of sight. Having read With or Without Angels I think these may be angels. 

I loved this short book because it is about seeing, about looking, and doing those things differently, more closely and with a more imaginative eye. And I have always enjoyed how the arts influence each other. With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton is inspired by a series of collages by the Scottish artist, Alan Smith, which in turn are a response to Il Mondo Nuovo by Giandomenico Tiepolo.

It is a short novel about creativity, about seeing, about looking, and about some important questions to do with art, illness, life, change and death.

With or Without Angels

The starting point is a fresco from 1791 by the Venetian artist, Giandomenico Tiepolo. It is called Il Mondo Nuovo, The New World. It’s a large piece, landscape form, showing a variety of Venetians with their backs to the viewer, looking out to sea, not excited but not at ease either. Tieoplo has placed himself in the picture, in profile, raising something to his eye, standing just behind his father. The picture is strange, and the viewer must ask, what is this new world that these people are awaiting? A reproduction of the fresco is provided at the start of the book and sections are used on its cover. 

The central character in this novel is an unnamed artist who, through sickness, has become less able to use his hands to hold pen, pencil or brush. The old artist has taken to using a small camera. Working with a digitally skilled assistant, they created a series of 11 montages. They begin in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, and by the penultimate image have assembled a response to Il Mondo Nuovo, in which the figures now face the viewer. A final montage includes some figures from Antony Gormley’s Another Place, an installation of 100 figures on the beach at Crosby. I visited last year and was very moved. 

Other elements of his photographs are found recurring in the series, such as a floating shape, a little like a sheet – angels? As the old artist and Livvy work on the series, the significance or the references to other paintings emerge, some are included. The old artist reflects on the wisdom of various artists, including Leonardo da Vinci.

Dimmi, dimmi, se mai fatta cosa alcuna – tell me, tell me if anything was ever done. (24)

And contemplating his own mortality he reflects on Philip Larkin’s comment that what will remain of us when we are gone is love, love will survive. The old artist thinks ‘it is the work that will speak for him long after he is gone’. (25) Later he recalls being on Crosby beach.

He walked out to stand by one of the bronze men, shoulder to shoulder and looking out to sea. Do they look with longing? As though they already miss the push and pull of the water, like being held in a crowd and now let go. He took one rusted hand in his, felt the roughness of metal that will not last.
Love will last; love is the thing that will survive us – he had not been convinced of that before. He thought maybe his work would be the thing that survived – misunderstood perhaps. Now, remembering that day on Crosby beach, holding the hand of a rusted man, he is not so sure. He is not so sure they can be separated, the love and the work. (103)

So this book makes one think on several levels. It’s an exploration of Il Mondo Nuovo and Alan Smith’s collages in which he is responding to that fresco, and finally the author Douglas Bruton’s fictional account of the creation of the collages. He has considered life, death, illness, interactions, love and meaning and so much more. In his Acknowledgements he tells the story of how an artist’s widow visited his garden and spoke about the work of her husband. She has approved the publication of this novel.

In the process we are given a demonstration of looking, seeing the details in a picture, and the relationships, the dynamics, between different genres, different works, different inspirations, and concerns.

It is beautifully written, and very tender.

With or Without Angels by Douglas Bruton, published in 2023 by Fairlight Books. 112pp. Includes 12 colour illustrations.

Related links

The review on A Life in Books is what put me onto this book. I love discovering books through other blogs, and this post described a work I knew I wanted to get hold of. It was part of a Read Indies initiative.

The author, Douglas Bruton, recommends the website of the artist Alan Smith where the images can be seen screen-size, and there is also a video about the creation of his collages. You can find it through this link: http://www.alansmithartist.com/the-new-world.html

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