Animal Pyramid Bruce Nauman

There was an old man who said, ‘Hush!

I perceive a young bird in this bush!

When they said – ‘Is it small?’ He replied – ‘Not at all!

It is four times as big as the bush!’


xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Edward Lear)


There is something capricious about Pisanello’s painting The Vision of Saint Eustache, in the National Gallery.  And there’s a mystery to it as well.  Why does the scroll at the foot of the painting remain empty of inscription?  The Vallardi Codex (Paris, Louvre) contains this artist’s meticulous studies of animals.  It is one of the the most important surviving collections of fifteenth century drawings.  The painting of Saint Eustache sitting on his startled horse, staring at a strange stag with a cross between its antlers, demonstrates that he could put these studies to use since the painting abounds with wild life; pairs of birds and solitary birds, a bear, a lamb lost in a ravine, another stag and a hind.  In the foreground one greyhound courses after a hare.  But a second greyhound turns in alarm, her tail pressed close to her haunches.  Some nondescript dog is attempting to sniff her behind.


Is this why the scroll remains anonymous?  Did some prospective purchaser consider this well-observed overture a trifle too indelicate?  Perhaps Pisanello flatly refused to change it, arguing that this is how dogs are.  Pisanello was active in the first half of the fifteenth century, and he was an exponent of the style known as International Gothic.  These artists prided themselves on the sharpness of their visual recordings.  Theirs was a fresh approach to nature which concerned itself with precise details: just how the leaves hang from that particular tree, just how the villain hangs from that particular scaffold, just how the linen shows through the slashes in those embroidered sleeves, and just how dogs go about their eager business.

The realism of Pisanello’s sketches is one thing, but his choice of subject matter is another, and though this inclusion of doggy foreplay may hark back to the earthy laughter of the middle-ages, it may well have been viewed in a dim light by Platonically-minded Renaissance viewers.  Indeed, this unseemly caprice may have cost Pisanello a client.  For surely it is a caprice?  The matter is hardly appropriate, considering the sanctity of its subject.  It seems like some comment on that subject: that stags adorned with crosses are simply beyond belief!  The danger of some mongrel interfering with a bitch of fine pedigree is far more the concern of a hunter such as Eustache.  But where Pisanello’s scroll remained blank, other patrons seem to have welcomed such arbitrary innovation.  Holbein’s ambassadors, in the painting with that name, in the National Gallery, were the sort of men who valued esoteria.  They would have appreciated the anamorphic skull painted below their table.  It has very little to do with the rest of the painting.  It’s a demonstration of skill, and of the science of perspective.  Located well above head height, and viewed from the side, the skull is supposed to compact itself back into normality.


Jacques Lacan was fascinated by this detail – again, the caprice is a detail – and he saw anamorphosis as essentially the problem of the male genital; for the proud phallus becomes an imaginary object when flaccid, and anamorphosis is a species of flaccid geometry – similar to Claus Oldenburg’s floppy toilet.  After all, there’s a received opinion that has to have been derived from some rather Platonic view of women’s bodies.  These are supposed to be more harmonious than the bodies of men.  Women’s bodies are well rid of the capricious detail which dangles in front of the male form, forever an addendum extrinsic to its gestalt.   Caprice is all too often a wilful detail.  Bear in mind that ‘will’ was the Elizabethan word for the penis.

Caprice is a maverick phenomenon – and its willfulness is in direct conflict to the innocuous sense of things “fitting in”, which distinguishes the quietism of much formal reiteration.  Caprice interferes with quietude.  It cocks a snook at too constant an adherence to “genre”.  Where formalism favours consistency, caprice favours inconsistency, and as such it was esteemed by mannerist artists in the sixteenth century – Parmigianino, Rosso, Bologna – they all favoured variety over unity.  While respecting that Aristotle preferred a form trimmed to the needs of its content, the mannerists argued that the “taste of their time” was for variety and the display of artifice or skill.  Their “stylish style” is replete with novelty, effects for effects sake, exercises in style and capricious surprise.  Caprice turns the world upside down, but still it shrugs disparagingly at the belly-laugh of the grotesque.  More artful, it celebrates the carnivalesque in a knowing way, in the style of the Fête d’Amour, presented as an intermezzo in a court masque.

Historically speaking, the term seems to define a reaction to too rigorous an adherence to convention – as is also true for the topsy-turvy feasts of fools and celebrations of donkeys as dignitaries which typified the medieval carnival, but it’s carried through in a more dandy-ish “manner”.  It’s a knowing aberration rather than a naive one.  A Capriccio, for instance, is a genre of painting related to the Veduta.  The veduta is a painting or drawing of a place.  Essentially it is a “view”.  However, there are several possibilities which go beyond accuracy of representation.  A veduta ideata, for instance, is an imaginary view while a capriccio is often “architecturally accurate but fantastic in its juxtapositions.”

Piranesi, Canaletto and Guardi are well-known vedutisti.  Piranesi’s etchings of prisons are imaginary views, and a good British example of a veduta ideata is the picture painted for Sir John Soane which depicts all his architectural projects as if they had been built.  Giovanni Pannini, however, is the first master of caprice.  In Roman Capriccio, painted in 1734, he combined a selection of Rome’s ancient monuments in one image, creating an ideal Rome where its best sights could be seen from one (imaginary) vantage point.  Enthusiast of ruins, he created the taste for the “folly” – which is after all an architectural caprice.


Pannini combined his caprice with grandeur, proving himself a master of two streams of art skillfully brought together.  In some works he juxtaposes contemporary events with historical ones.  His wilful assemblages of content, though they are all mediated through a single medium, prefigure the actual method of assemblage, and we can sense his influence in Paul Delvaux as well as in De Chirico.  William Marlow, who was painting in the late 18th and early 19th century, was also renowned for his capricci such as Saint Paul’s and the Grand Canal, which can be seen at the Tate Gallery.  Here Wren’s monumental cathedral is relocated to Venice.

Capriccio: St Paul's and a Venetian Canal ?c.1795 by William Marlow 1740-1813

The roots of this irritating weed in the well-tended garden of our culture can be found in the capricious behaviour of the Greek divinities.  Aphrodite is especially whimsical.  It is a celebrated fact that she prefers to have intercourse over a bale of hay in the stable or under the stairs rather than in some appropriate marital bed.  Such behaviour heralds in the notion of the piquant, the especially tasty.  A little jab of savour.  In other words, to return to Lacan, a prick.  This relates to the  punctum – the inconsistency that enlivens a photograph – considered so highly by Roland Barthes in Camera Lucida.

To indulge in a certain activity in inappropriate surroundings is supposed to enhance the pleasure one gets out of the act.  It amounts to an aesthetic of juxtaposition, a strategy devised to end ennui.  Hercules is the divine patron of innocent bystanders.  This is because he bumped off so many of them by accident in the course of his labours.  At one point in his career he took up with Omphale.  Omphale was the daughter of the Lydian king, and the wife of Tmolus, after whose death she undertook the government herself.  She was well-known for her relaxedly sensuous life-style.  Hercules had just bumped off his entire family by mistake.  He had been possessed by the goddess of Madness at the time, who was carrying out the orders of an incensed Hera.  And so he needed a change of scene.  Because he had also inadvertently murdered his brother, he’d developed a painful form of psychological psoriasis, which an oracle told him could only be got rid of if he were to become a slave for some three years.  Hermes sold him to Omphale.  She dressed the muscular hero in luxurious feminine fabrics – while she took over his lion-skin.  He held out his hands for her skein of wool.  He became one of her hand-maids.  Francois Boucher has a painting of her making love to him.  The languid sensuality of his acquiescence in this is belied by the size of his biceps.


For Hercules, such a sojourn in the luxurious is a caprice.  It amounts to a denial of his nature, represents a spirit of mourning, remorse for his fit of madness, renunciation of his true nature.  Among the Farnese collection, in Naples there’s a statue of Omphale and Hercules.  He is dressed in her gown and he holds her spindle.  She is clad only in his lion-skin.  She holds his club.  There may have been a religious basis for this travesty.  In a ritual mentioned by Plutarch at Cos, the priest was dressed as a woman.  It appears that the spirit of travesty presides over caprice – think of Rrose Selavy!

Travesty concerns becoming what one is not.  But it should not simply be used to describe cross-dressing and the imitation of the opposite sex.  One might equally dress as an animal.  This is of relevance when we consider the myth of Hercules.  His normal attire is a lion’s skin.  In a sense, he is always in travesty. This might account for, or be accounted for by, his unhinged condition.  It suggests that he is never himself.  His problem is the opposite of Christ’s.  Not God as man, but man as God.  Divinity has been conferred upon him by his parent (Zeus), but the antipathy of Hera (the wife of Zeus) obliges him to labour on earth.  Hercules is the first civically-minded super-hero.  Like all super-heroes, he is capriciously attired.  He takes the skin of an animal (the “king of beasts” but an animal none the less), and thus wears the garb of what is more lowly than him, to signify that he must perform a role more lowly than that which befits his true nature.  He is forced to deny his divinity.  Thus he finds himself at the mercy of terrible forces, forces larger than the role he imposes on himself.  This is what makes him so unpredictable, and very much the prey to impulse and caprice.

Caprice exemplifies a horror of the predictable.  For instance, it can be predicted that we are going to need to eat every so often.  This offended the existential epicurianism of the Romans, who were often obliged to attend several feasts in a day.  In the Satyricon by Petronius a lavish feast is described.   Roman cookery was distinctly capricious.  Adepts at wielding pestle and mortar, the Romans turned everything they ate into something else.  We have seen, from the xenias described by Philostratus, that the ancients read their food as subtly as the structuralist Levi-Strauss reads it in his book, The Raw and the Cooked.

A modest meal of raw figs, nuts, a jug of milk and a salad perhaps, signifies a natural relationship with the earth: it harks back to some Golden Age where men and women plucked what they needed from the boughs or sucked it from the teat and dined al fresco, innocent in their own nudity. Food which is cooked requires preparation, implies service: the bread must be baked, the ham smoked, the rabbit hung – and so this food signifies a greater level of sophistication – kitchens, servant/master relationships and so on.  Roman festal cookery signifies conspicuous luxury, and more than that, the overthrow of ennui.  At the feast described in the Satyricon, the goose is not a goose but some “kind of stuff” molded into the shape of a goose.  It is too boring for something to taste like what it looks like.  There must be some dislocation, some astonishment, if we are to attain the gustatory sublime.  Trimalchio, who is the host, explains:

“My chef made it all from pork.  There couldn’t be a more valuable man to have.  Say the word and he’ll produce a fish out of a sow’s belly, a pigeon out of the lard, a turtle dove out of the ham, and fowl out of the knuckle.  So he’s been given a nice name I thought of myself – he’s called Daedalus…”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Petronius, The Satyricon, page 80)

Daedalus was the mythical inventor and architect who designed the maze on Crete which housed the Minotaur.  King Minos broke this inventor’s leg – to prevent such an asset running away.  Daedalus contrived wings fastened to the arms with wax and escaped with his son, the ill-fated Icarus, by means of the sky.  Now the broken leg is the sign of the limping blacksmith.  Hephaistos, smith to the gods, was also crippled.  Those ill-equipped to fight design the tools of destruction.  As in parts of Africa today, the smiths were a cult, in ancient times, an esoteric priesthood – to some extent they were incarcerated in their villages.  After all, they fashioned all the weapons.  They inscribed runes on the blades, breathed spells on the spearheads.  Then as now, one had no wish for their abilities and secrets to become a property shared with some possibly hostile neighbour.  Bird-catchers contrive mazes of brushwood in which to catch partridges.  The partridge is the emblematic bird of the blacksmith sect.  It nests on the ground, and when its nest is threatened by an intruder, it runs away slowly, giving the appearance of suffering from a broken wing.  But this is pure contrivance.

To become involved in caprice is to see art as essentially artificial.  Thus one defines the artwork as a matter of contrivance.  A sculptor I knew maintained that art was all about doing something that nobody else had done.  He set great store by The Guinness Book of Records.  He spent several years designing a water-pistol which would squirt further than any water-pistol had ever squirted before.

And so one becomes a master of the game.  Remember that Daedalus had initially been responsible for making the wooden cow for Pasiphaë, the wife of Minos, who had become enamoured of the bull which came forth from the sea.  She hid inside the cow, another travesty, and the bull mounted her, and thus she conceived the minotaur.  The minotaur itself is a grotesque caprice – a monster with a human body and a bull’s head, or, according to others, with a bull’s body and a man’s head.   And surely Pasiphaë’s passion for the bull was a whim worthy of Aphrodite herself.  But let us not take such whims too lightly.  It was Poseidon, after all, who instilled the passion for the bull in Pasiphaë, furious that Minos had contrived not to sacrifice the bull to him, that is, to the sea.  Hercules is cursed by his psoriasis: and it’s the divine fume from the oracle which informs him that he must become a slave.  His “capricious” assassination of his own family is divinely inspired – it is Hera who sends madness to him, who sends him out of his mind.  So caprice may be a contrivance, the esoteric work of a sacred craftsman, or it may be a sudden catastrophic inconsistency meted out to some unfortunate by the divine will.  In both cases there is the sense that the anomalous act is a magic act, or an act signifying divine possession.  Whim may be too meagre a word to describe caprice.

Prehistoric man dressed in skins of animals, as did Hercules.  Travesty has a past which begins in shamanism.  It is thought that many of the labours of Hercules were concerned with sanitation – this is obvious when we think of the cleansing of the Augean stables, but the story of the many-headed hydra may actually relate to the notion of draining mosquito-infested marshes.  Were these operations blessed by a shaman wearing the pelt of a lion?  When we call some action capricious, or some tendency a caprice, in everyday intercourse, we mean that someone is acting without rational justification.  But since we are supposed to be rational beings it is surely feasible for us to suppose that we find it more easy to act rationally than to act irrationally.  The irrational has always been the domain of the possessed.  It is hard to be irrational, it takes some help from God – and naturally the irrational act proves a hard act to follow.

But, given the multiplicity of interpretations, analyses and deconstructions which can be brought to bear, when so many are trained to construct a meaning given the slightest provocation, or even given none, it is not in fact so easy to deliver a non sequitur.  The Mannerists distinctly disapproved of art where the whole was greater than the sum of its parts: they favoured allegories, a jumble of signs, each part executed marvellously well.  Look at Bronzino’s Allegory in the National Gallery, or Holbein’s The Ambassadors, or Durer’s Melancholy.  None of these pictures add up.  And this is as intended.


These days, though, confusion in the work may well be unintentional and due merely to lack of ability.  This is often camouflaged by some elaborate verbal screen, since it is now possible to construct a justification for anything.  There is also the chance that what might be construed as caprice may be accidental, or incidental, rather than wilful, as is indeed the case with the fits of Hercules.  Caprice may result when the formalist, for instance, takes some issue too far – when the preoccupation amounts to a perversion – and mannerism makes some progress along this route.  But mannerism as a tendency was already latent in earlier Renaissance art.  In Les Vies Imaginaires, written in 1896, Marcel Schwob asserts that Paolo Uccello (1396-1475) developed a mania for perspective:

“…Like the alchemist who bends over the mixtures of metals and reagents and watches their fusion in his furnace to find gold, Uccello poured all these forms into the crucible of form.  He united them, he combined them, he melted them together to bring about their transformation into the simple form upon which all others depended.  That is why Paolo Uccello lived like an alchemist in the inner rooms of his little house, He believed he could transmute all lines into one ideal aspect.  He sought to envisage the created universe as it was reflected in the eye of God, who sees all forms springing from a single centre…”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Marcel Schwob, The King in the Golden Mask

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxand other Stories, p. 151)

Uccello left several drawings where his obsession with perspective becomes apparent – especially one of a goblet with a curved rim, whose volume is conveyed precisely through the lines describing it.  This in itself is a formal concern, but Uccello’s capricious intellect comes to value these forms far more than anything else.  In Schwob’s imaginary life, a young girl called Selvaggia comes to live at the house of the painter, but:

“…without a thought, for Selvaggia, Uccello seemed forever bent over the crucible of forms.

Meanwhile there was nothing to eat in Uccello’s house.  Selvaggia dared not tell Uccello or the others.  She held her tongue and she died.  Uccello depicted the stiffening of her body, and the folding of her thin little hands, and the line of her poor closed eyes.  He did not realise she was dead any more than he had realised she was alive.  But he tossed these new forms among those he had collected…”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Ibid, p. 152)

Here caprice joins forces with the uncanny!

Another “pre-mannerist” who on one occasion at least seems to have allowed his preoccupation to develop into caprice is Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98).  His engraved study of a Battle between Naked Gods is a disturbing image.  So obsessed was the artist by his study of the articulations of the body – of its system of joints, tendons and sinews – that he did away with the armour which, common sense suggests, would normally have covered these fighting figures.  This has always been regarded as an anomaly.  However Seneca informs us that at poorly attended lunch-time shows at the Colosseum the gladiators were sometimes obliged to fight naked – with nothing but a weapon in the hand – in order to drum up business by increasing the rate of the mayhem.  But while this may provide a rational explanation for the etching by Pollaiuolo, at the same time, it points to a capriciousness on the part of the Colosseum managers and their public.


Still, in the work of Pisanello, Uccello and Pollaiuolo one senses that the caprice is unconscious – an accident produced by obsession, whether with natural detail, with perspective or with the body’s articulations.  This is a far cry from Pannini’s deliberate displacements, consciously termed caprices, as are those of Goya.  There is, though, something deliberately capricious about Leonardo turning up in Milan with a lute shaped like the head of a horse, and finding gainful employment not as a painter but as a musical entertainer.  Leonardo’s tendency to abandon his projects can also be seen as whimsical, while his religious scepticism and his willingness to explore conceptual hypotheses in his notebooks makes him the role-model for Marcel Duchamp.

In his book on Mannerism, John Shearman asserts that for the Mannerists, virtú consisted in the conquest of difficulty:

“…Around 1520, and thereafter, we find that works are commissioned for no other reason than the desire of the patron to have, for example, a Michelangelo: that is to say, an example of his unique virtù, or his art; the subject, size or even medium do not matter.  This is the birth of the idea of a work of art made, in the first instance, to hold its place in a gallery….In 1524 Castiglione is charged by Federico Gonzaga with obtaining anything from Sebastiano del Piombo, as long as it is not about saints, but graceful and beautiful to look at…”

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx(Mannerism, p. 44)

Bearing this in mind, another clue to the reason for Pollaiuolo’s Battle between Naked Gods may be gleaned from the publication in 1520 of an engraving by Raphael.  This is a study for a religious subject: The Transfiguration of Christ.  But it shows a preparatory stage, at which all the figures are drawn nude, testifying that the public was now more interested in the talent of the artist than in the subject of the work.

As a result of this vogue for their virtù, artists felt the need to demonstrate ability and, in particular, their ability to conquer difficultà; and so they constructed ever more serpentine figures:

“This manipulative ability was designed to be noticed.  Paolo Pino, in his Dialogo della Pittura, 1548, says that ‘the attitudes of figures should be varied and graceful…and in all your works you should introduce at least one figure that is all distorted, ambiguous and difficult, so that you shall thereby be noticed as outstanding by those who understand the finer points of art.’”

(ibid, p. 86)

This suggests that, by the middle of the sixteenth century, caprice had practically become institutionalised.

*        *        *        *

Caprice can be the outcome of a species of creative exasperation in the face of a superfluity of standard products, and it has often flourished at the end of “golden ages”: the golden age of Virgil’s Rome, or of Dante’s Florence – or, indeed, of Picasso’s Paris.  As if it were a debasement, historians say of the ensuing periods that they are “silver ages”.  Of course these ages overlap: silver poets can be found in golden ages, golden painters can be found in times of silver.  Whenever one has surfeited on standard classicism, standard high Renaissance, standard modernism, one turns to these more silvery times; times of mirrors, of reflection and deception – Mercurial times.  This mercurial element, that may well encourage caprice, can be aligned with the Renaissance notion of “Melancholy”.  Melancholy is inseparable from the Saturnine mysticism that permeates alchemy.  The ancient tradition that associates intellectual brilliance with this humour was attributed in the middle ages to Aristotle and promoted by the Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino, doyen of the Medici court, in his book De Vita Ivri Tres.

This brings us back to Albrecht Durer’s celebrated engraving Melancholia 1, executed in 1514, which is acknowledged as a compendium of Saturnine imagery: however, Durer’s mother died in the same year, so we cannot avoid a condensation of psycho-analytic interpretation accruing to the work at the same time.

Melancholy is the dark, dank spirit of artistic engrossment – the artist losing all sense of self in the fastidious intricacies of creativity.  Simultaneously it is the condition of manic-depression, mood-swing, elation followed by crushing ennui.  Thus the asymmetrical polyhedron, in this engraving, representing the base metal, lead, which is indispensable to the alchemical process, is both “the philosopher’s stone” and the leaden weight which “plumbs” the depth of mourning. The psychoanalyst Andre Green has argued cogently, in The Double and the Absent, that all literary endeavour is a species of mourning, since we write in order to “address” one who is absent.  After all, there is no need for a portrait if we have the presence, and perhaps this is as true for visual art as it is for writing.  Perhaps it is true for all art – or at least for art as representation.  We can posit that representation is an attempt to capture that which flows away down that river into which we never step twice.

Green has also written on The Dead Mother – not the mother whose actual death we may comprehend, but the mother who has turned from us in our infancy because of some deep personal pain which stultifies her feelings towards us at the time, so that she is “dead” to us.  One might hypothesise that this is the mother Leonardo mourned, having been wrested away from his natural mother within the first year of his birth – which possibly accounts for the “double mothers” in The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne.

Leonardo_da_vinci,_The_Virgin_and_Child_with_Saint_Anne_01 (2)

It is feasible to suppose that just as it may have lain at the heart of the madness of Hercules, the dead mother syndrome lies at the root of the work of many a capricious artist, generating displacements and substitutions as formidable as those strewn in such a resonant jumble around the figure of Durer’s Melancholia.  This mood-darkened figure might be the dead mother herself, while her comatose Cupid may represent the capricious artist; represented because already absent, already bored by the toys which he had intended to exhibit: like any neglected child, a little wanker – as is the maniken pis, or, better still, the boy peeing into the toddlers’ inflatable swimming pool in an early painting by Eric Fischl – a child obliged to create a magical aura about his transgressional indelicacies and masturbation substitutes.  Such a reading enables us to fuse the earlier interpretation of the capricious artist with this more sombre version: the capricious artist is a melancholy exhibitionist.  For the arcana of perversion can be construed as the perversity of the arcane.  Here the mythical element becomes some private allegory.


That advocate of the sublime, Longinus, loathed caprice, or at least, he dismissed a large part of the Odyssey as being too far-fetched – “Homer is lost in the realm of the fabulous and the incredible.”  This first century theorist of the sublime values the dramatic realism of the Iliad and the unity of its theme, whereas, to his mind, the Odyssey is merely picaresque narrative, a loosely connected string of stories in which the mythical element predominates over the realistic:

“How easy it is for great genius to be perverted in decline into nonsense.  I mean things like the story of the wineskin, the tale of the men kept as pigs in Circe’s palace (‘howling piglets’, Zoilus called them), the feeding of Zeus by the doves (as though he were a chick in the nest), the ten days on the raft without food, and the improbabilities of the murder of the suitors.  What can we say of all this but that it really is ‘the dreaming of a Zeus’?

There is also a second reason for discussing the Odyssey.  I want you to understand that the decline of emotional power in great writers and poets turns to a capacity for depicting manners.  The realistic description of Odysseus’ household forms a kind of comedy of manners.”

(Longinus, On Sublimity, p. 153)

We can imagine with what ire Longinus would have castigated Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock, first published in its enlarged form in 1714.  This a spoof on the epic, and its plot is briefly described in the Oxford Companion to English Literature:

“Lord Petre having forcibly cut off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor’s hair, the incident gave rise to a quarrel between the two families.  With the idea of allaying this, Pope treated the subject in a playful mock-heroic poem, on the model of Boileau’s Le Lutrin.  He presents Belinda at her toilet, a game of ombre, the snipping of the lock while Belinda sips her coffee and her demand that the lock be restored, the final wafting of the lock, as a new star, to adorn the skies…”

When Milord catches sight of Belinda’s graceful tresses, and resolves to snip them, he first makes a sacrifice to ensure his success in the enterprise, as any hero might.  However this hecatomb of his could hardly be more novel:

“For this, ere Phoebus rose, he had implor’d

Propitious heav’n, and ev’ry pow’r ador’d,

But chiefly Love – to Love an Altar built,

Of twelve vast French Romances, neatly gilt.

There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves;

And all the trophies of his former loves;

With tender Billet-doux he lights the pyre,

And breathes three am’rous sighs to raise the fire…”

(Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock, Canto II, lines 35-44)

Here again we are dealing in travesty – and this time its aim is to tease.  A travesty of the magnificent assaults we associate with the grand Homeric manner or with chivalric romances such as The Song of Roland is neatly handled when it comes to the game of Ombre:

“Now move to war her sable Matadores,

In show like leaders of the swarthy Moors.

Spadillio first, unconquerable Lord!

Led off two captive trumps, and swept the board.

As many more Manillio forc’d to yield,

And march’d a victor from the verdant field.

Him Basto follow’d, but his fate more hard

Gain’d but one trump and one Plebeian card…”

(Ibid, Canto III, lines 50-54)

Hyperbole is here turned against itself.  And it should be noted that several caprices seem inspired by parlour games – played perhaps at Christmas time, with the winner being given a prize of an apple or a pig made out of marzipan.  Lewis Carroll favoured cards and chess for Alice’s nonsensical adventures.  Marcel Duchamp seems to have preferred playing chess to making art – doubtless inspired by his spiritual mentor, Raymond Roussel, the inventor a notable chess gambit.  Duchamp also visited Monte Carlo, intent on devising a method for beating the house.  This suggests that while caprice may constitute a deliberate defiance of the convention that governs some discipline, it may adopt the strictures of some other discipline and adhere to these while operating within the parameters of the initial “game”.  Thus it may lift the rules from one activity and apply them to another, for it is in essence a tendency towards juxtaposition, transposition or displacement.  Capricious artists are often sticklers for the rules, and compelled to observe these in inappropriate conditions, or beyond the “call of duty”.   Lewis Carroll insisted that according to the rules of punctuation, shan’t should have two apostrophes – sha’n’t – since it constitutes an elision of shall and an elison of not, and technically speaking both elisions should be marked – (see Jean-Jacques Lecercle’s The Philosophy of Nonsense).

Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, published in 1798, is the product of capricious transposition.  The standard genre of a traveller’s journal is highjacked and becomes a vehicle for the relating of encounters with women – who in a sense become the sights experienced.  Thus the standard sights have been displaced, and re-placed by the fair.  In the Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud speaks about the “work of displacement”.  Displacement occurs when dreams are differently centred from the dream-thoughts which motivate them.  Such displacements can also govern our waking actions.  A banker with a tendency to abuse young girls would insist on having his bank notes ironed before making a payment.  He worried that germs might be transferred at the time the financial transaction was made, although, when Freud questioned him, he seemed to have no compunction about touching the genitalia of the girls.  Freud argued that his guilt about this abuse had become displaced, replaced by his fastidiousness regarding the possible infections which might be picked up by accepting a banknote from another hand.  The displacement permitted the banker to continue a practice he derived pleasure from, since the guilt was effectively suppressed by being displaced, that is, it could go disregarded when the matter to which it was appropriate was raised or about to be put into practice.

Thus, for Freud, displacement implies suppression, just as Hercules suppresses his strength when he hands his lion skin to Omphale.  Does suppression therefore operate on caprice?  Certainly caprice suppresses ennui.  It is also surely, I would reiterate, a form of exasperation, a spasmodic gesture of irritation directed against the conventional forms which generate ennui.

If we return to displacement in dreams, we can see caprice operating in a more deliberate way within the unconscious; bringing about reversals, for instance, such as when one dreams of burning or of being burnt – which Freud interprets as the suppression of the urge to wet the bed.  By the same token, a man might dream of trying to put on a hat that was too floppy as he experienced the burgeoning of an erection.  This strategy employed by dreams is the same as that of the chap-books  which deal with “The world turned upside down”.   These flourished from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.  Designed ostensibly as pedagogical aids, they were woodcuts and prints that described a world of contrariety.  Here horses sat in coaches pulled by humans, women beat their husbands or children thrashed their parents, while pigs slit the throats of their butchers.

The world turned upside down fliegende_blatter_1852

Magritte’s painting of a daytime world lit by street-lamps (The Dominion of Light) embodies a similar contradiction.  As a teaching method, the images of the world turned upside down operated like crude intelligence tests.  What is wrong with this picture?  But the spirit of the world engendered by this displacement came to inhabit a reality of its own, a reality very akin to the world encountered in dreams, a world where nothing is predictable except the possibility of some reversal of the standard visual rhetoric, or some contradiction of the text of normality.

Magritte night day

There is a nihilism which seems to promote this view.  Again we are talking about a product of ennui or some attempt to defeat it.  For it is as if the standard rhetoric were no longer convincing – in the sense that a picture of husbands beating their wives would no longer be read as normal, let alone acceptable.  A vegetarian might feel the same way about the restoration of the butchers to their approved role.  The accepted text is either too predictable to cause anything but boredom, or too spurious, given a shift in values, to be used as a cannon of conventional behaviour.  Many of the absurdities of such conventions were revealed by Goya in the Capprichos, his series of fantastic etchings whose violent displacements are underscored by the motto to what was originally going to be the prefatory etching: “the sleep of reason begets monsters.”   Goya seems to have perceived the title of this series as giving him licence to create whatever invention took his fancy.  Some of the resultant images are fantastic, many of them are grotesque, most deeply satirical.   They express an exasperation with the status quo.  One of them, with the motto You who cannot do it, exemplifies the sort of capriciousness which can be derived from the world turned upside-down.


Two donkeys are riding on the backs of men.  The men seem to accept the condition of being beasts of burden.  The donkeys appear contented too.  There is a Spanish proverb: You who are unable to do it, carry me on your shoulders.  It is interesting to formulate the logical antithesis to this: I who am able to do it ride on your shoulders.  Unfair taxes and exemptions reserved only for the nobility ensure that the poorer classes maintain the upper ones.  But this comes about through some acceptance of their condition on the part of the poor.  This print is one of six in the Capprichos dealing with human stupidity through the conceit of making donkeys do what humans do: a donkey teaching donkeys their lessons, a donkey applauding the serenades of a monkey, a donkey displaying his family tree, a donkey taking the pulse of a sick man, a grandiose donkey posing for his portrait and attempting to hide his ears in a wig.  Where men figure in this set, they appear more stupid even than the donkeys – since they allow donkeys to attend to their medical needs and permit them to ride on their backs.  The moral element in all this, though, together with the motto below each print, takes us into the realm of Aesop and his fables, and many of the satirical works of Goya properly belong in the genre of the fable – another great river of art, always deeply symbolic – traditionally so in order that the Mighty may be told their faults in some indirect way by comparison to the behaviour of an animal.

Even today, popular culture makes use of this mode.  Disney has made it his own, of course, and although they may not rely so heavily on symbolic camouflage, most big-budget films entail a moral outcome. To be convinced of a platitude is supposed to be uplifting.  But then, one of the dullest notions of art-education is that art should teach us something.  It’s a notion which can become dangerous since it ultimately operates as a form of censorship, screening out anything which is unedifying, or which fails to inform, or which has no moral point.  There is no denying that the fable is the source of a very wide river of art, but it isn’t one which interests me to any great degree.  The genuine caprice does not fall into the trap of insisting on some moral point – and thus becoming exactly the sort of homily that the capricious displacement was designed to subvert.   Caprice should be more nihilistic, as I have said.  It is more a matter of the displacement bringing about a cancellation, and the denial of any point whatsoever.

Any point, that is, that might seem proper to make in the circumstances: as the point in making a veduta ideata might be the splendour of the imaginary vista; as the point in a fine poem might be to move the reader, that is, to speak of the emotions in such a way that some participation in them is elicited.  This is the conventional view.  But Edward Lear’s nonsense poems, or the nonsense poems of Lewis Carroll, generally avoid such intentionality.  However, Lecercle points out – in The Philosophy of Nonsense – that these writers are nevertheless sticklers for the proprieties of usage.  The meaninglessness of the content enables the nonsense author to focus attention on the form of the writing, the quality of the syntax, the peculiarities of spelling.  In this sense it is profoundly Euphuistic, that is, taken up with style – and thus a bi-product of mannerism.

Equally, in nonsense, the nature of narration may be called into question – and so identified as a topic of interest – or the structural nature of debate.  Philosophy is alive to such issues, and the nonsense writer is often making some point, a point of deep interest to logicians or to grammarians.  And then, our capacity for sympathy comes into play when we read a good bit of nonsense, for we usually find that we experience at least the ghost of an emotion when reading about the Jumblies in their sieve, or the demise of the oysters, or the hunt for the elusive Snark.  We seem to be able to empathise, to feel something at least, even when the tangible content of a credible reality or the actuality of a character has been syringed out of the stanzas or paragraphs presented.  This is food for thought, and it has implications for Roland Barthes’ notion of the “shadow of a meaning” – which he touches on in The Pleasure of the Text.

*        *        *        *

In the twentieth century, caprice came into its own, Ronald Firbank being one of its foremost exponents.  His form of caprice is delightful; an extended vein of whimsicality which enables his novels to dance along as they choose, altering course, diverting themselves, deftly sketching the most extravagant characters.  He is one of the great “camp” writers of all time.  Nevertheless, the characteristic negation of import we associate with caprice is operative in his work, for lightness is all, and impression always fleeting.  One might complain that his books have no ballast.  But then, most books have so much ballast they sink.  At first glance, it may seem an ephemeral and essentially unserious style, but there is a finely-tuned lyricism to Firbank’s impudent nonsense, and this makes it wistful and haunting.  The characters in his books are sketched so lightly that they seem not to be composed of flesh and blood.  Everything is ephemeral – as fleeting as a summer evening.  At the same time, juxtaposition is adeptly used: the powdered culture of the English counties is constantly obliged to rub shoulders with meaty negresses – their heaviness only suggested as a matter of content.  The writing remains its frivolous self as it sketches a sultry but alien exoticism which impinges on the mild green pleasantry of the shires.  These caricatures are as exaggerated as those truckin’ down the sidewalks of America in the cartoons of Robert Crumb.  Critics with a propensity towards correctness have castigated Firbank for this, and their disapproval has contributed to his marginality.  Ardent socialists may also dismiss his work. He is after all the limp-wristed aesthete par excellence.  However, his fusty old dowagers anxiously vetting their own wrinkles are just as extravagantly drawn as his negresses.  Firbank is even-handed.  The world he paints so preciously in airy artful words is an absurd one, a world crammed with snobbery, overwhelmed by its overweening masseurs and overdressed sultanas.  At the same time, it is a delightfully colourful world, full of textiles and textures and the right words for particular dainty objects.  It’s a world of repartee, of parasols and bons mots, where a flippant vulgarity gets slipped in between some esoteric references: a world made lively by its chatter, which is practically endless, for his characters will continue prattling away to each other even as they traverse Acheron.

Above all, Firbank is inconsequential.  There is no significance to his conclusions. His novellas simply end – as if the pageant he describes has simply reached the edge of its canvas.  But this arbitrary shrug of the shoulders is in keeping with modernism’s concern with exercises in style – which we see operating in Picasso’s variations on Las Meninas by Velasquez and in the witty paragraphs on running for a bus in all possible manners composed by Raymond Queneau (Exercises in Style).  The point is that Firbank is not attempting to “move” us.  As Ortega Y Gasset puts it succinctly in his 1925 essay The Dehumanisation of Art (long out of print in English translation but actually quite crucial to any understanding of modernism) moving the listener – or art as empathy – might have been the concern of the romantic artist of a previous century, but:

“Modernists have declared that the intrusion of the human in art is taboo. Now, human contents, the component elements of our daily lives, possess a hierarchy of three ranks. First comes the order of persons, then that of other living creatures, and finally, that of inorganic things. Art today exercises its veto with an energy in proportion to the hierarchial altitude of the object. The personal, by being the most human of the human, is what is most shunned by the modern artist.

This can be seen very clearly in music and poetry. From Beethoven to Wagner, the theme of music was the expression of personal feelings. The lyric artist composed grand edifices of sound in order to fill them with his autobiography. Art was more or less confession. There was no other way of aesthetic enjoyment other than by contagion of feelings. Even Nietzsche said, ‘In music, the passions take pleasure from themselves’. Wagner injects his adultery with La Wesendonck into Tristan, and leaves us with no other remedy, if we wish to enjoy his work, than to become vaguely adulterous for a couple of hours. That music fills us with compunction, and to enjoy it we have to weep, suffer anguish, or melt with love in spasmodic voluptuousness. All the music of Beethoven or Wagner is melodrama. The modern artist would say that this is treachery; that it plays on man’s noble weakness whereby he becomes infected by the pain or joy of his fellows. This contagion is not of a spiritual order, it is merely a reflex reaction, as when one’s teeth are set on edge by a knife scraped on glass, an instinctive response, no more. It is no good confusing the effect of tickling with the experience of gladness. Art cannot be subject to unconscious phenomena for it ought to be all clarity, the high noon of cerebration. Weeping and laughter are aesthetically fraudulent. The expression of beauty never goes beyond a smile, whether melancholy or delight, and is better still without either. ‘Toute maitrise jette le froid’ (Mallarmé).”

(Ortega y Gasset, The Dehumanization of Art, P. 73)

Later, Ortega compares Wagner with Debussy:

“In Wagner, melodrama reaches its highest exaltation.  And as always happens, when a form attains its maximum its conversion into the opposite at once begins.  Already in Wagner the human voice is ceasing to be a protagonist and is becoming submerged in the cosmic uproar of the other instruments. A conversion of a more radical kind was inevitable; it became necessary to eradicate personal sentiments from music. This was the accomplishment of Debussy. Since his day it has become possible to hear music serenely, without rapture and without tears. All the variations and developments that have occurred in the art of music in these last decades tread upon that extra-terrestrial ground brilliantly conquered by Debussy. The conversion from the subjective to the objective is of such importance that subsequent differentiations disappear before it. Debussy dehumanized music, and for that reason the era of modern music dates from him.  His was the art of sound.”

(Ibid, p. 74-5)

Firbank is the Debussy of the conversation piece.  His work represents a defiance of significance – as modern a trait as abstraction.  His influence can be felt on the dry conversational brilliance of the novels of Henry Green – in Loving, and in Party Going – and in the Ashbery/Schuyler collaboration A Nest of Ninnies.  He is surely the most underrated novelist of his time – and the same could be said for Green a decade or so later.

But while Firbank was obliged to publish his capricious novels privately in a staidly melodramatic England, a more organised approach to caprice was being pursued in Paris by the surrealists. Ultimately it was surrealism which gained most from the legacy of the veduta ideata, for the notion of a collage mediated by a single medium in which diverse fragments, ruins or details could be marshaled into the same field certainly stems from the capricci of Pannini, but it achieves its culmination when the sheer force of displacement in its own right is recognised; when it’s acknowledged that there need not be some binding subject – such as the sights of Rome.  For caprice is ultimately the art of the transference, and its displacements attain a startling resonance when fused with the Freudian discovery of the unconscious, and inspired by the imagery found in dreams.

By capriciously applying the values of visual art to poetry, Guillaume Apollinaire brought about a revolutionary displacement that was to influence both fields – legitimising the use of text in painting and the use of shape in poetry.  His Calligrammes (first published in 1918) led to the school of concrete poetry, though it should be born in mind that these vertical lines, falling down the page like rain down the sky, were not the first poetic shapes to be made.  George Herbert had written Easter Wings, a poem shaped like a pair of wings, in the early seventeenth century, and later, in the Victorian age, Lewis Carroll had written his mouse’s tale – which “tails” off at the foot of the page.  Sterne also plays games with the look of the text in Tristram Shandy.  To many a traditionalist, such games seem heretical.  Concrete poetry allows a visual concern to govern the construction of a piece of writing.  It becomes difficult to establish criteria for judgement since if we say, it’s not a very good poem, the creator can turn round and say, ah but I had to take the shape into account, and if we say, it’s not a very good shape, the response may well be, yes, but I had to make it poetry.  It becomes impossible to criticise the work according to its own rules.  But then, it could be argued, nothing is affected simply by itself.  And there is no absolute edict dictating that all art should be governed by its own rules, or that homeostasis, or a well-balanced condition, is the sole requirement for it.  Poetry may be influenced by visual art, visual art by poetry

*        *        *        *

The laws governing apples concern gravity.  Perhaps the laws governing the universe concern something other than the universe.  We can hypothesise that some external pressure ensures that every fifteen billion years or so, the dissolution of matter following a big bang reaches its fullest extension.  At that billi-second, there is nothing at the centre – and nothing anywhere else – as may have been the case before the big bang.  Then something like the opposite of the action of a catapult may occur – for whereas the catapult is drawn back relatively slowly, its release causes a rapid projection, while in this case, after the relatively slow extension of all matter away from other matter (a process which speeds up as the gravity at the centre becomes dispersed and therefore loses its hold), there may well be a sudden and immediate “pull back” of everything instantaneously into the centre – causing the next big bang.

Those who worshipped Mithras believed that there was a sun beyond the sun, and a god behind God, which they deduced from a shift in the equinoxes.  They thus surmised that there was a power capable of altering “God’s” universe, since it was able to bring about an alteration in the rotation of something as fixed as the stars comprising the Zodiac, a fact that was detected by Babylonian astronomers who had been keeping records over a period of some two thousand years.   Today the Mithras-worshippers may sound rather like free masons, and those critical of the police may mutter about “the firm within the firm”.   But artists and thinkers are at liberty to hypothesise a force external to our universe, a force which operates this reversed catapult which would ensure the eternal return of the bang.  No reason to suppose this force a “Being”.  It may be no more than it is, a force – the force exerted on our universe by adjacent universes – yet another manifestation of physics.  However, if this be the case, then Heracleitus has it right, and Nietzsche’s reiteration of his views can be endorsed.  Phusis is the nature of the universe – a state of constant change.  There is no absolute end, the big bangs constantly succeed each other at their vast intervals.  In this sense there is infinity.  However, there is no posterity, no immortal posterity, for everything, including the work of Phidias and Shakespeare, is destined to pass away, as humanity and the life-forms of this earth and this earth itself must also pass away.  Nor is there much chance of humanity passing the baton of its culture or life-form on to another habitable planet, since the universe is forever getting larger at a forever swifter pace.  By the time things have cooled down enough for us to have come into existence and to realise our need for contact, everyone else is too far away.

Meditations similar to the above have provided atheism with its concomitant nihilism.  There is no supreme being, no meaningful absolute, no immortality. And what occurs does so not according to the volition of the agent but according to laws governing the behaviour of the agent, laws concerning forces other than that agent.  Of these, chance and its contingencies – the laws of hazard, coincidence, possibility, serendipity, accident, aimlessness, probability and fortuity – seem to provide many artists with a better expression of our fate than any suggestion this destiny might be the outcome of the deliberations of some parental consciousness in the sky.  Our morality is not the issue.  We may wilfully ruin our planet, but this is simply to increase the pace of the atrophy.  The random laws of intergalactic physics have doomed the planet already.  Doomed it and us along with it.  We are at the mercy of chance and its caprices.  Chance is the force that many artists of the modern epoch have attempted to harness – since if chance has its way with us, perhaps we can have our way with chance.  This notion is given its first succinct expression in Lautreamont’s seminal and oft-quoted phrase: “Beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”

It is for this reason that the displacements in dreams become more interesting to represent than the realities of a too ephemeral world – because they throw up random conjunctions, rather than because they illustrate Freudian inevitabilities.   The attempt to work with chance and its contiguities and dislocations goes back to Mallarmé and to Apollinaire, continues through de Chirico and Duchamp, and persists till the end of the twentieth century and perhaps beyond it, taking in the collaborations of John Cage and Merce Cunningham – in music and in dance – and countless other examples of capricious operations instigated by artists.


Apollinaire was not only an innovative poet, he was also a critic who championed surrealism, and it was he who recognised the quality of the young Giorgio de Chirico who was living in Paris, drinking in its influences. This was just before the first world war, and the surprising juxtapositions we find in de Chirico’s work constitute fine examples of the surrealist tendency to insist upon “a drastic reshuffling of reality” (cf Giorgio de Chirico, James Thrall Soby, p. 75).  In The Song of Love, painted in 1914, a plaster cast Apollo Belvedere is hung next to a rubber glove on the wall of a building which is signed like a canvas.  It is twilight.  The dying light illuminates a cloud which slips behind the Apollo.  The portals of a nearby arcade are already dark.


Much has been made of the glove.  It may symbolise the intestinal complaints suffered by the artist.  It also relates to the fantastic series of etchings by Max Klinger – Paraphrase on the Finding of a Glove – created in Berlin in 1881.  In this series (already discussed under the Uncanny), a glove dropped by a lady on an ice-rink is purloined by the artist.  The glove becomes the object of his fantasies which in turn get infected by his guilt at having failed to return the object to its owner.  Capricious juxtapositions occur throughout the series.  The glove becomes magnified.  Crocodile-like creatures track its peregrinations.  But de Chirico got more from Klinger than merely the glove, as he states in his own perceptive essay on Klinger, published in Valori Plastici magazine, which flourished in the 1920s – and de Chirico’s articles in it are reprinted in Commedia dell’arte moderna, Traguardi, Rome, 1945 :

“Out of modern life, out of the continuous development of man’s activities, out of the machinery, constructions and gadgets of everyday progress, Klinger managed to extract a romantic feeling, strange, yet deep.  What is this romanticism of modern life?  It is the breath of yearning that flows over the capitals of Europe, down the streets darkened by crowds, over the booming crossroads of cities…”

(James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, p. 55)

One thing leads to another.  Caprice informs the writing of this essay, and so wilfully I pursue each lead.  Klinger also executed a series of etchings which depicted centaurs disporting in some mountainous Arcadia.  Like any chimera, the centaur is a capricious beast, or at least the outcome of caprice.  Thus the centaurs of the Elgin marbles become another source of this spirit in art.  The notion of a classical Arcadia is also of importance to de Chirico and later too to Paul Delvaux who capriciously merges it with that more everyday romance – the romance of railway stations and shipyards and tunnels under embankments – which de Chirico identifies as Klinger’s contribution.  But another influence on de Chirico was Arnold Böcklin – the Swiss-German painter active in the latter part of the eighteenth century.  Now Böcklin was as keen on centaurs as anyone.  In his book on de Chirico, Soby follows up this lead:

“Certainly one of Böcklin’s main accomplishments was to give fantasy the quick believability of everyday occurrence.  This aspect of his art attracted de Chirico most, as is altogether clear in the latter’s article on Böcklin published in Il Convengno in 1920.

The impact of surprise [de Chirico wrote] is especially strong in Böcklin’s painting, The Centaur at the Blacksmith’s.  The vision must have hit him suddenly.  The classical solemnity of the composition enhances the strangeness of the subject.  Peasants have come with their children to look at the centaur, and their figures have the ghostlike appearance of certain apparitions in Giotto and Uccello.  The body of the centaur is astonishingly realistic.  As you look at that perfect creature, who with his hoof on the block shows the blacksmith the work to be done, you do not think at all of the word “monster”; he is a likable person; he is nice

By the time this article was written, in 1920, de Chirico had been exposed to Guillaume Appollinaire’s theory that authentic modern art was distinguishable by the element of ‘surprise’.”

(Ibid, p. 25)


Now this element of surprise is essential to the spirit of caprice.  It is surely the key to the beauty of juxtaposition identified by Lautreamont.  Because it relates to the condition of the astonishing it carries with it an association with the sublime.  It also relates to the grotesque, however, through the surprising fusions which characterise the chimera, and through the confusion of emotions that the grotesque generates as to whether we should laugh or cry.  The confusion is well exemplified by the grotesque etchings of Alfred Kubin – whose coloured drawing Vision of Italy, executed in 1904-5, was clearly an influence on de Chirico.  Caprice incorporates opposing elements.  In its contrary way, it would benefit from the advantages to be gained by such a fusion at the same time as in its nihilistic moodiness it would cancel out all the gains that might accrue.  Thus it is both beautiful and grotesque, sublime and abject, subjective and objective, and, as we shall see, down-to-earth and metaphysical.  It makes a virtue of inconsistency.  It does not wish to be pinned down.

It’s the metaphysical aspect which de Chirico articulated most strenuously when the animosity of the Andre Breton caused him to break with the surrealists.  Breton, the power-broker of the surrealist movement, was to move on from the Freudian viscera of the dream-work to a Philistine and orthodox Marxism, taking the fine poet Paul Eluard with him, but alienating other artists and writers in the process.  De Chirico was one of the latter, and the interest in classicism which he had inherited from Böcklin was another factor which aroused an antipathy to his work among hard-line surrealists.  He reacted against the dogma of the two-dimensional limitations of the canvas – much espoused by modernists pushing towards abstraction – and emphasised instead an exaggeratedly deep perspective akin to that of humanism  – not, as Soby points out (de Chirico, p.41), “for reasons of plausibility or scientific accuracy, as with the mid fifteenth-century Italians, but as an instrument of poetic and philosophical suggestion.”

De Chirico was increasingly ostracised by the surrealists.  As the war broke, he returned to Italy.  By 1914 a different glove had begun to appear in his paintings – a glove de Chirico had seen as a store sign.  In Valori Plastici, he recalled his last months in Paris:

“All around me the international gang of modern painters slogged away stupidly in the midst of their sterile formulas and arid systems.  I alone, in my squalid studio in the rue Campagne-Première, began to discern the first ghosts of a more complete, more profound and more complicated art, and art which was – to use a word which I am afraid will give a French critic an attack of diarrhea – more metaphysical.

New lands appeared on the horizon.

The huge zinc coloured glove, with its terrible golden finger-nails, swinging over the shop door in the sad wind blowing on city afternoons, revealed to me, with its index finger pointing down at the flagstones of the pavement, the hidden signs of a new melancholy.”

(Giorgio de Chirico, “Zeusi l’esploratore,” p. 10)

But this new melancholy was not so far removed from the old melancholy engraved by Albrecht Durer.  We find a similar jumble of esoteric paraphernalia, a similar obsession with measurement, similar brooding figures and shadows.   It is also the lukewarm melancholy (that is neither hot nor cold) referred to by Ortega in his essay on modernism.  It exemplifies the paradox at the core of caprice.  This melancholy can be the domain of nihilists such as Duchamp or, more recently, Marcel Broodthaers; both of them logicians of the image, seeking a cool if ambiguous analysis of an ephemeral circumstance.  However its arcane territory can as easily be inhabited by artists like de Chirico or Delvaux, both of whom search for some spiritual subtlety.  Each of these factions demands surprise.  And equally each activates displacement.

For all these artists, titles are important.  The Uncertainty of the Poet, the Transformed Dream (de Chirico), Diurnal Propositions, The Anxious City (Delvaux), The Brawl at Austerlitz, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, even (Duchamp), and Advertisement for the North Sea (Broodthaers).  There is almost always a dislocation between title and work.  Why does a plaster cast of a classic nude next to a bunch of bananas with a train passing in the twilit background express the anxiety of the poet?  Is there a pun that the brawl at Austerlitz fails to deliver in English: how does the brawl relate to a glass-panelled door, its panes covered in whitewash?  Admittedly, the titles of the Belgian artist Delvaux are more illustrative.  The figures crowding into the canvas of his Anxious City look anxious enough, and this was a painting begun in 1940, as Belgium came under German occupation.    


Delvaux’s art is in several ways less capricious than either de Chirico’s or Duchamp’s, and perhaps this makes it softer, more amenable at first glance, and ultimately weaker, since the paradox he deals with seems more comprehensible than those which appear in the work of the other two artists mentioned.  Remember that Friedrich von Schlegel, the brilliant theorist of Jena romanticism wrote an essay On Incomprehensibility.  Schlegel maintained that all art should be incomprehensible when viewed in its own time, and that ensuing generations should be able to discover meanings in the work that were unapparent to its initial audience, for this would extend the duration of its significance.  Certainly de Chirico expected his paintings to stimulate a multiplicity of meanings, maintaining that the exercise of making meaning was a salutary process, a metaphysical process, spiritually uplifting for the viewer.

What makes Delvaux’s work more comprehensible than de Chirico’s is his insistence on the inclusion of the naked figure.  It is an insistence which amounts to a fetishisation of the nude.  And we soon come to understand that Delvaux’s work engages with an anxiety concerning sexuality.  With de Chirico, the issue is less clear: the figures are more often manikins or plaster casts of statues than representations of living beings.  Even the little girl running along with her hoop in The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street (1914) is merely a shadow.  It is as if we are contemplating the consciousness of the street itself rather than that of anyone who uses it – in fact, nobody uses it.  It is deserted except for its suggestions. And it is this enigmatic avoidance of any direct representation of personal life, or of actual people, which gives de Chirico’s (early) work its haunting and abstruse resonance.  Schlegel would have approved.

Delvaux’s environment is puzzling, but far more tangible than de Chirico’s.  The issue is more specific. Games are constantly being played with disclosure – a woman may be nude except for her head which is hidden, or she may be partially hidden by the leaves of a small sapling, or her breasts may be hidden by a huge bow which also makes a present of her.  The naked male is shown also, and sometimes the artist portrays himself thus, though the nude male figures less and less as the work develops.  In many cases these males seem underdeveloped, flaccid, adolescent, or neurotically pensive.  But we are more likely to catch sight of the departing figure of the man in the street, suitably clothed and bowler-hatted, often engrossed in his newspaper, oblivious to the women flagrantly naked on either side of him.


It is Delvaux’s caprice to take this availability of the flesh out of any appropriate context and place it in the street, in the public park or in the city square; for his nudes inhabit that contemporary romantic landscape de Chirico describes when praising the work of Max Klinger and speaking of the breath of yearning that flows “over the geometry of suburban factories, over the apartment houses that rise like cement or stone cubes, over the sea of houses and buildings, compressing within their hard flanks the sorrows and hopes of insipid daily life…It is the nostalgia of railroad stations, of arrivals and departures…” (James Thrall Soby, Giorgio de Chirico, p. 55).  Delvaux’s naked figures expose themselves indecently.  They ought to be arrested – except that one cannot be sure that they are aware that they are naked, and then, again, none of the men in the street seem to look at them, nor do they seem aware of their existence.

Differing times seem juxtaposed in his paintings.  Classical porticos are contrasted with contemporary attire, while nudes draped classically wander down modern streets.  Interior activity occurs outdoors, as in Chrysis, painted in 1967, where a meek nude female holds a candle at the edge of a dark street.  We sense that she has just emerged from the little house which we can see behind her.  A red carpet leads up to its door.  But she is not standing on the pavement.  She is standing on what looks like a railway platform running down the centre of a street.  The little house has been constructed at the end of it.  And it’s as if Delvaux had taken a cluster of sentimental cliches and tried to visualise them as they would be if they actually occurred.  “I’ll always be there, holding out a candle for you, and if you come back, dear, you can be sure of the red carpet treatment.”


But she is after all merely a suburban stopover.  It is true that the little house seems to have a larger extension built onto it where a light burns in the bedroom – but even so, he’ll just be passing through.

In many of Delvaux’s paintings we come across the figure of a long-nosed academic staring fixedly at a stone.  He epitomises the studied indifference of the male to the female sensuality surrounding him.  His sexual drive seems capriciously displaced onto this object of dubious scientific interest.  David Scott explains how Delvaux was influenced by Jules Verne when choosing to include this figure:

“The archaeological themes Delvaux explored in his neoclassical pictures of 1940 and 1941 are developed in a different but related way in the Phases of the Moon series of 1939-42, and in a number of allied paintings. The leitmotiv linking these works is Delvaux’s adaptation of the character Otto Lidenbrock as illustrated by Riou for the Hetzel edition (1867) of Verne’s Voyage to the Centre of the Earth.  In this adventure Lidenbrock, a geologist with an insatiable scientific interest in the origins and nature of the world, makes a journey, no doubt symbolic in import, in the company of his nephew, Axel, and the Icelandic guide Hans, into the bowels of the earth. (It was, perhaps, of special significance to Delvaux that only after this initiatory exploit was Axel able to return to Hamburg and marry the woman he loved.) The journey through the earth includes a trip on a subterranean sea, and ends in a symbolic rebirth, with the heroes ejected through Mount Etna’s mouth into the serene Antique world of Sicily. This novel, and others by Verne, provided Delvaux during his childhood years with a deep source of reverie concerning the origins of life and, less directly, of the nature of the unconscious mind. The theme of the Phases of the Moon is significant here for, as Lidenbrock observed during the voyage, the moon influences phenomena underground (that is to say, in the unconscious) as well those on the earth’s surface.

The Lidenbrock character first appeared in Delvaux’s work in 1939 as a minor detail in a painting entitled Nocturnes, turning up again later the same year in the foreground of two others, The Awakened Forest (private collection) and Phases of the Moon 1. In the former Lidenbrock appears, with the artist looking over his shoulder, in the prehistoric forest he explored in Voyage to the Centre of the Earth, in which giant versions of the earth’s more simple plant forms grow. In Delvaux’s painting, however, we discover not the pre-human giant of Verne’s tale but a Dionysiac troupe of naked men and women, some of whom are wreathed or swathed in leaves. In the latter painting, Phases of the Moon 1, all references to Verne have been dropped, except for the character of Lidenbrock, who appears, as remains the case for the next thirty years, as an isolated motif in juxtaposition with scenes entirely unrelated to his original fictional environments.”

(David Scott, Paul Delvaux, p.57)

One of Delvaux’s most intriguing pictures is The Musée Spitzner, painted in 1943 (Musée de l’Art Wallon, Liège).


Here a trio of partially clothed figures occupy an architectural environment particular to the artist.  It’s a sort of veranda, one side of it open to the street, although the lamp hanging from its ceiling gives it the feel of an interior.  A woman with her breasts exposed appears to be sleep-walking.  She crosses this space, moving between a wide-eyed, naked adolescent and a skeleton whose hands are opened towards her, as if welcoming her approach.  Meanwhile, behind a clothed woman seated rather rigidly at a table, the flayed body of a male, a figure out of a textbook on anatomy, enters through a dark doorway.  Here the theme of disclosure mingles with that of life and death, animate and inanimate.  Outside this veranda there is a clothed male statue of a dignitary on a plinth, while a naked female caryatid helps to support the veranda roof.  Meanwhile a group of very realistically painted men occupy the foreground outside in the street.  So a fairly exhaustive list of layered states of being or non-being can be derived from this work: clothed male statue, unclothed female statue, clothed “real” men, a clothed if entranced woman, a female sleep-walker with her breasts exposed, a naked boy, a flayed man, a skeleton.  David Scott explains one amusing aspect of the work:

“Whereas Delvaux liked to work stripped to the waist or in an open-fronted, sleeveless shirt, most of his male contemporaries were obliged to set off for work at their offices formally, and fully, clothed.  This point is developed further by the inclusion of the portraits of five of Delvaux’s male friends – Paul-Gustave Van Hecke, Gérard Bertouille, Emile Salkin, Olivier Picard and Yvan Denis – who, dressed in their business suits, look on with uneasy expressions on their faces.”

(Ibid, p. 62)

So here the displacements are gloriously capricious, it is as if the artist had taken his friends and thrust them into a fantastic world where the drawing-room experiences the chill of the cold night air and where anatomies intrude on exposed privacies and where the time-honoured, and ultimately rather academic theme of “Death and the Maiden” gets enacted before the eyes of these respectable Belgian professionals.

*        *        *        *

We have seen that caprice can be an exaggeration of some formalist nicety, an arrogant endorsement of wilful exhibitionism or the product of a melancholic displacement.  Equally it can be the desire to enter into a travesty of oneself or produce a mockery of some time-honoured and portentous form.  It can be a dislocation of the normative order born of ennui, or an endorsement of the modernist principle of surprise.  Caprice is inconsistency incarnate, so one might ask whether it can ever be consistent.  We may consider Arcimboldo’s faces composed of objects – fruit, books, bark and so on – to be grotesque or uncannily fetishistic, but are they capricious?  Surely he abides by his agenda with too much rigour, adheres to his mannerism too closely to be considered a capricious artist.  The same might be said of the perspectival illusions of Escher – the artist has chosen to stick to one specific gimmick.  This is professionalism, not caprice.

Perhaps the issue is less the constancy of the endeavour, and more a question of its rationale.  We can see the point to Arcimboldo and to Escher.  The reason they resort to their artifices and remain with them is because of the felicities that such artifices deliver.  Indeed, the success of these illusions is a little too obvious.  I don’t think that the same can be said of the strange mannerisms of Salvador Dalì.  Dalì’s brand of surrealism tended towards the grotesque, in the early years, rather than towards the capricious, but later he developed the strange habit of dislocating everything that would normally rest on something else.  It is difficult to comprehend why he found this so fascinating.  An obsession with illusion and trompe l’oeil may have been a contributing factor, of course. After all, there is something capricious, surely, about the painting of a back of a canvas by Dutch artist Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts (1630 – 1675).


Of course, the “canvas of a canvas” by Gijsbrechts can also be seen as partaking of the innocuousness of the quietism associated with formal art   – its caprice the result of the method of reductio ad finem being applied to illusion.  However, I find the dislocated realism of Dali genuinely capricious.  Dalì invites us into a world where the sea does not rest on the sand of the beach.  In fact it casts its shadow on the sand below it.  The throne does not rest on the ground, the queen does not sit on her throne, she hovers above it.  Finally even parts of the body become separated from each other – as in The Young Girl Auto-sodomised by her own Virginity.

Dali-00316-Salvador_Dali_Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity,1954

This world seems to be undergoing the process of its formation.  It is reminiscent of the diagrams which show one how to put together construction-kit furniture, or car-engines or model aeroplanes.

Another genuinely capricious work by Dalì is his painting Paranoiac Visage, derived from a photograph, of an African hut with an orchard in the background and a few people seated in front of it.

Paranoiac Visage

This reads as the face of a woman when one looks at it with one’s head tilted, and when one does this one reflects the position of the horizontal face which is to be found in the painting.  The work is a caprice, not only for its own wilfulness, but because it is out of series, a one-off.  Perhaps we should distinguish here between caprice and capriciousness.  It has been noted that Leonardo advertising himself as a musician was a capricious act on the part of the artist – and this is not to say that the music he played was anything but orthodox for its time however unorthodox the shape of his instrument – designed in all likelihood as a horse’s head in order to prompt that commission for the equestrian statue of Il Moro.

There have been other such acts: murders perpetrated by Caravaggio, Arthur Rimbaud giving up poetry and Verlaine and going off to Africa to become a gun-runner, Yves Klein (appearing to) fling himself from a high wall or using paint-daubed women to create impressions on his canvases, various well-orchestrated events by Manzoni, barking conversations by dadaists at the cabaret Voltaire, William Burroughs playing William Tell (with tragic results), the sustained uniformity of Gilbert and George – which perversely amounts to a caprice.   Some of these events occur in life: others constitute professional practice.  But the artist who made both caprice and capriciousness his life and his business was Marcel Duchamp.

Octavio Paz draws attention to the influence of Raymond Roussel on Duchamp:

“Duchamp himself has on various occasions referred to that memorable night in 1911 when – together with Apollinaire, Picabia and Gabrielle Buffet – he went to a performance of Impressions d’Afrique [a dramatized version of a novel by Roussel)… ‘It was fundamentally Roussel who was responsible for my glass, La Mariée mise à nue par ses célibataires, même…  This play of his which I saw with Apollinaire helped me greatly on one side of my expression.  I saw at once that I could use Roussel as an influence.  I felt that as a painter it was much better to be influenced by a writer than by another painter.  And Roussel showed me the way…’  The Bride is a transposition, in the sense that Mallarmé gave the word, of the literary method of Roussel to painting…”

(Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp, p. 8)

In How I wrote certain of my books, Roussel explains his method.  First he would devise two sentences which rhymed with each other in their entirety – that is, it was not just a question of the last word of one sentence rhyming with the last word of the second.  The sentences had to rhyme from the first word in each to the last, as “Simpletons defer ponds” rhymes – or nearly rhymes – with “Gentlemen prefer blondes”.  But both sentences would have to make sufficient sense for it to be possible to write a seamless short story which began with the first sentence and ended with the last.

Roussel’s method is capricious in itself.  Like Delvaux, he was a fan of Jules Verne, and like Duchamp a chess theoretician.  He probably suffered from the dead mother syndrome – for it’s clear that his mother was insensitive to his nature: after his death, she forbade the construction of the elaborate tomb he had designed for himself – which some enthusiasts believe would have constituted the key that would have revealed the arcane secret of his method.  He wrote, apparently, in a state of exhilaration, often followed by depression when his work was ignored or ridiculed – a typically melancholic mood-swing.  He preferred “the domain of conception to that of reality,” and his ambition was to write a work of pure imagination – in no way affected by observation or derived from day-to-day experience.   The rules he abided by in his writing enable the laws of chance to dictate the narrative that results.  Duchamp then compounds the caprice by taking this literary method and displacing it, transposing it into a work of visual art.  But what is a sentence in visual art?  What is a rhyme?  These are displaced questions, inappropriate to the medium, yet typical of caprice.

Duchamp’s act of drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa is an isolated gesture.  He does not extend the notion into a series.  This is typical of capricious inconsistency. Paz touches on the issue when he discusses Duchamp’s invention of the ready-made:

“In art the only thing that counts is form.  Or, to be more precise, forms are the transmitters of what they signify.  Form projects meaning, it is an apparatus for signifying.  Now, the equipment that ‘retinal’ painting uses to signify is insignificant: it consists of impressions, sensations, secretions, ejaculations.  The ready-made confronts this insignificance with its neutrality, its non-significance.  For this reason it cannot be a beautiful object, or agreeable, repulsive or even interesting.  Nothing is more difficult than to find an object that is really neutral: ‘anything can become very beautiful if the gesture is repeated often enough; this is why the number of my ready-mades is very limited…’  The repetition of the act brings with it an immediate degradation, a relapse into taste – a fact which Duchamp’s imitators frequently forget.  Only for a moment: everything that man has handled has a fatal tendency to secrete meaning.  Hardly have they been installed in their new hierarchy, than the nail and the flat-iron suffer an invisible transformation and become objects for contemplation, study or irritation.”

(Ibid, p. 14)

Paz appends a note to this paragraph: “According to Duchamp all modern art is retinal – from Impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism to abstract art and op-art, with the exception of Surrealism and a few isolated instances such as Seurat and Mondrian.”  My eye-brows raise at the notion that Seurat and Mondrian are non-retinal – brainy, yes, but still retinal, in my opinion.  However, Paz also points out that the ready-made is a criticism of manual art, as well as of retinal art, and a criticism of the idea that art has something to do with some mastery of execution.  So here we come across another characteristic of caprice: it may act as a criticism of art itself, an “up-yours” response to its cliched notions, its dogmas, its trends and received opinions.  De Chirico’s portrait of himself in Renaissance garb, executed with a very painterly realism, is quite distinctly a capricious critical riposte to the Breton mafia, which had constrained surrealism to a formula, attacked any approach to classicism and denounced de Chirico’s politics.

Caprice could be said to be diametrically opposed to method, yet in the work of Duchamp it almost becomes a method.  Capriciously, the artist will posit the ready-mades as a criticism of execution while contradicting this position with meticulous execution when it comes to the making of the Large Glass.  But then I think it was Yeats who maintained that a poet had a right to change his mind every three weeks or so, and anyway, the value of execution gets brutally devalued when the glass breaks in transit to the United States – and the artist maintains that this enhances and even completes the work.  Capricious thinking seems to have allowed Duchamp to proceed from intuition to intuition.  He is never held back, never constrained by some vested interest in a standpoint maintained while creating a previous body of work. He can celebrate “the juxtaposition of mechanical elements and visceral forms” in the painting of the Bride of 1912 – which may be considered his last real painting.  It amounts to ironic cubism, a cubism couched in perspectival depth and comprising shapes which seem agglomerations of found objects, odd organs and rare bobbins.  It seems influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings together with his drawings of contraptions.  If Leonardo was the Warhol of the Renaissance, then Duchamp was the Leonardo of the twentieth century.  Leonardo, Roussel, Duchamp.  They are all grand masters, Prosperos, masons of some mystic lodge.  And then there is Uccello, the alchemist of perspective, labouring away at his drawing of what might be the holy grail.  Without a backward glance, Duchamp can move on from “painterly” painting and execute drawings worthy of any Renaissance master – Chocolate Grinder No. 1, for instance – for as Jean-Christophe Bailly points out:

“The inspiration for it was a real object, seen by chance in the window of a confectioner’s shop in Rouen.  Duchamp appropriated the image, more or less as it stood, in just the same way as he later ‘appropriated’ his ready-mades.  For him the procedure represented the ‘absolutely dry drawing’ it was one of his ambitions to achieve: a precise and meticulous record of the form of an object from a straight perspective, resembling the technical exercises or mazzochi beloved of the quattrocento masters Piero della Francesca and Uccello.  The only difference between the painted object and the real one is that Duchamp’s grinder had three rollers instead of two.”

(Jean-Christophe Bailly Duchamp)

Duchamp was not alone in identifying Roussel as a writer with an intriguing method.  Though relatively unknown to general readership, he exerted a considerable influence on the art and literature of the twentieth century.  As well as the surrealists, Roussel influenced the writers of the Oulipo, and many of the writers associated with “the New York School”.  I must confess that I get irritated by the artful whimsies of the Oulipo, the “workshop for creative literature” founded by Raymond Queneau and Francois Le Lionnais in 1960.  The fruits of this workshop may be found in the Oulipo Compendium edited by Harry Mathews and Alistair Brotchie (Atlas Press, London, 1998). To me, their adherence to strict forms of acrostic, lipogram and antonymy (to mention but a few of their devices) seems more fetishistic than capricious, and in general they institutionalise serendipity and restrict that progression from one intuition to the next which I admire in Duchamp and identify as a genuinely capricious way of developing one’s oeuvre.

The New York School is a group of writers which grew up more casually in New York in the sixties – and they interest me far more.  The writers associated with it might very well deny that there ever was a school – it was just a matter of there being a crowd of writers living for the most part in New York at the time who shared an interest in Gertrude Stein and Raymond Roussel, writers who had in common an enthusiasm for the work of contemporaneous painters and performers and did not simply relate to the institution of literature – as exemplified by the academic poets flocking to the standards of Roberts Frost and Lowell.   Many of these “artworld” writers appear in The New York School – an anthology edited by Ron Padgett and David Shapiro.  In it you can find the work of Padgett himself, and Peter Schjeldahl, Joseph Ceravolo, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, and other peculiar writers too numerous to name.  There’s plenty of caprice in Padgett as there is in most of these practitioners.  Ashbery is fascinated by Roussel – who has also been an influence on the work of the “capricious” American novelist Harry Mathews – a dedicated member of the Oulipo whose poems are also included in The New York School.  Mathews and Ashbery edited Locus Solus together, an avant-garde magazine which took its title from that of one of Roussel’s elaborately constructed novels.  His own novels are often elaborately plotted according to some pattern of requirements for each chapter.

Ashbery himself has written several immensely capricious poems – there’s Into the Dusk-Charged Air, for instance, from Rivers and Mountains, first published in 1966:

“Far from the Rappahannock, the silent

Danube moves along toward the sea.

The brown and green Nile rolls slowly

Like the Niagara’s welling descent.

Tractors stood on the green banks of the Loire

Near where it joined the Cher.

The St Lawrence prods among black stones

And mud.  But the Arno is all stones.

Wind ruffles the Hudson’s

Surface.  The Irrawaddy is overflowing.

But the yellowish, gray Tiber

Is contained within steep banks…”

xxxxxxxxx(John Ashbery, The Mooring of Starting Out, p. 173)

The poem flows on for many lines, each one mentioning the name of a river.  Then there is Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape, a sestina celebrating the exploits of Popeye.  Ashbery, as already mentioned, has also collaborated with James Schuyler on a capricious novel.  This is The Nest of Ninnies.  He once told me that he and Schuyler used to drive up to the Hamptons together, on Long Island, most weekends, separating on arrival in order to grace diverse dinner-parties with their presences.  On the way home, they would regale each other with the remarks they had overheard.  The novel is nothing more than a glorified anthology of such prandial felicities, some witty, some devastatingly not.  Ashbery and Schuyler took it in turn to write replies to the other’s contributions.  The plot, such as it is, concerns a group of friends who meet for dinner, on one occasion, and then continue to meet each other either by design or by coincidence, so that they end up dining together in various parts of the world.  The book could be seen as an updated version of Flaubert’s thoroughly whimsical Bouvard et Pecuchet, with its appended glossary of received opinions.

In previous essays, I have dealt with several authors and their pioneering innovations – and at their most extreme these innovations may well seem capricious: the novels and poems of Roussel, for example, and those of Georges Perec (both of whom were equally adept at handling the regressive technique of the story within a story).  I have also alluded to the poems, plays and texts of Gertrude Stein (the formalist pioneer who chose could be accused of emphasising the signifier over the signified).  Stein wrote an abstract poem called Tender Buttons – a fairly fanciful title – is she referring to nipples or to mushrooms?  The poem itself is both erotic and abstract at the same time.  Then there’s the work of Daniel Spoerri (who is also discussed as a teller of tales within tales).  Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance is also indubitably of interest as a capricious work, mixing line drawings with text, and treating the reader to an almost scientific description of the objects scattered at random on his desk while providing esoteric footnotes and (almost) private jokes.

No list of authors engaged in caprice should exclude the prose-poems of Rimbaud, nor that strange, open yet enigmatic poem by Mallarmé Un coup de des ne jamais obolira l’hazard – “A dice throw never abolishes chance” – nor the surreal poems of Paul Eluard, nor the violent and abusive simplifications of tragedy perpetrated in the Ubu plays by the dadaist Alfred Jarry – though these have a grotesque aspect to them as well as a capricious one.  Nor should it exclude the writing of de Chirico.  That a painter should write a novel seems capricious enough, that it should be one of the most interesting literary works of its century seems a caprice of fate.  This work, Hebdomeros, published in 1929, was described by Ashbery in Newsweek in 1982 – when the de Chirico retrospective opened in New York – as “a great dream novel”.  Its strange dislocated landscapes which dissolve into others – as do the landscapes and railway carriage interiors of Alice’s “Looking-glass world” – seem infused with a Nietzchean stimmung or atmosphere.  Ashbery identifies Nietzsche’s influence on de Chirico: “The philosopher’s greatest innovation, according to the artist, was ‘a strange and profound poetry, infinitely mysterious and solitary…based on the stimmung of an autumn afternoon when the sky is clear and the shadows are longer than in summer…’”

A similar atmosphere pervades the poetry of Georg Trakl – a friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein – who committed suicide in 1914.  But while there is a startling dislocation of images in Trakl – as well as an intense melancholy – the images seem magically appropriate to the subject of each poem.  They possess an ‘inner mystical construction’ which accounts their kinship with the metaphysics of de Chirico.  They allude to chaotic emotions, certainly, but they nevertheless retain a coherence of mood.  They are not engaged in a critique of narrative and make no attempt at wilful displacement.  Much admired by his philosopher friend, Trakl was a melancholy quietist rather than an exponent of caprice, though perhaps his suicide can be construed as a capricious act – since to terminate one’s life amounts to an irrevocable inconsistency.

But I have made no mention of two writers who strike me as engaged in literary caprice without creating displacements within their texts. The first of these is Marcel Schwob (1867-1905) – part of whose text on Uccello has already been quoted in this essay.  It is shameful how Schwob has been neglected in the English-speaking world.  Schwob, to appropriate the blurb on the cover of my copy of The King in the Golden Mask and other Writings by this author, was “the dedicatee of Jarry’s Ubu Roi and Valery’s Monsieur Teste; a friend of Wilde’s, a correspondent of Meredith and Stevenson, translator into French of Defoe and chief collaborator in the famous version of Hamlet made for Sarah Bernhardt, a man admired by Remy de Gourmont, Edmond de Goncourt and Apollinaire.”    On the first page of his introduction, Iain White, his able translator, quotes some contemporary reactions to Schwob:

“You are the most marvelous, the most hallucinatory resurrector of the past: you are the magical evoker of antiquity, of that Heliogabalesque antiquity to which fly the imaginations of thinkers and the brushes of painters, of mysteriously perverse and macabre decadences and of the ends of other worlds.”

Edmond de Goncourt, writing to Schwob on the publication of Le Roi au masque d’or.

“History, linguistics, poetry, prose, astrology, chemistry, criticism, English, German, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Hebrew – Schwob animates, sets in motion, orders, reconstitutes, associates all the branches of knowledge in his immense and precise imagination.  He evokes adventuring sea-captains with the exactitude of Quicherat and the verve of Cervantes.  He describes the customs and manners of prostitutes and pimps in the city rookeries as eloquently as he does those of sixteenth century scholars or Spanish conquistadores.  With all that goes a perfect taste; never a false move, never is anything over-stressed.  His whole attitude is summed up in pity, pity which he applies without distinction to criminals and saints, to traitors and to heroes.”

Leon Daudet

These are paeans in praise of a literary dandy.  Schwob’s caprice resides primarily in his choice of subject – which is remorselessly esoteric.  The displacement consists in lifting matter out of one discipline – history, for instance – and relocating it within literature.  Schwob is the supreme wizard of the surprising anecdote.  Paul Valery dedicated L’Introduction à la Méthod de Léonard de Vinci to Schwob, so one gets the strong impression that one is delving into the laboratory of another Prospero.  The short stories collected in Coeur Double, Le Roi au masque d’or and Vies imaginaires are also capricious in their brevity – since they tend to complete themselves in some four pages.  Why is brevity capricious?  Because it is the outcome of ennui.  The strategy of a writer who refuses to be bored, especially by his own writing.  Within that brevity, the intensity and the density of these pages is extraordinary.  They have about them also an aberrant and fantastic gloom very much akin to the phantasmagoria of Goya’s Caprichos. This means that we could also include them in our consideration of the grotesque (Schwob was influenced by Edgar Allen Poe).  There is no rule that prohibits an artist bathing in more than one river at the same time.

Iain White makes a good case for concluding that Schwob was an influence on Jorge Luis Borges, the second of these authors who maintain a capricious position without resorting directly to surreal displacement.  Borges admired Rafael Cansinos-Asséns, who translated Schwob’s Vies Imaginaires into Spanish.  In his Autobiographical Essay (included in The Aleph and Other Stories), Borges mentions Schwob directly:

“In my Universal History I did not want to repeat what Marcel Schwob had done in his Imaginary Lives.  He had invented biographies of real men about whom little or nothing is recorded.  I, instead, read up on the lives of known persons and then deliberately varied and distorted them according to my own whims… I did the same for Billy the Kid…and the veiled Prophet of Khorassan…”

In a prologue to Schwob’s La Croisade des enfants, Borges speaks of the French author as being the spectator of a dream of which he is the creator.  The characters in the almost aphoristically brief stories of Borges have a tendency to dream their own lives.  Consider the melancholy fate of Funes the Memorious, in the story of that name.  Funes has total recall.  He is incapable of forgetfulness.  He remembers each cloud formation he has ever seen.  The weight of his memory is so overwhelming that he can do nothing at all.

It is the fallen angel of Melancholy, with thoughts too weighty to be born by wings, who presides over caprice with darkened face in the engraving by Durer, and it is this spirit which impels certain authors and artists who engage in caprice to solicit the world of dreams in preference to suffering the ennui of predictable reality.  This is why caprice is so intimately connected with surrealism and metaphysical art, and why it embraces the stimmung of  Nietzche which poeticises reality by making it into a Protean phantom, a Heracleitan dream.

*        *        *        *

Though antithetical to realism and too restless for the quietude of formalism, caprice is not a mere tributary compared to other rivers of art.  It shows no sign of running dry.  Indeed it appears to have influenced the latter half of the twentieth century as strongly as that formalism that emerges with Mondrian and carries through to Elsworth Kelly.  Caprice comes to life in music with Eric Satie, and persists today in the equally fanciful music of John White (who has composed music for psalteries – so quiet you can hardly hear it – and for miniature pianos). It is celebrated in the wayward architecture of Gaudì and is a key feature of Richard Ghery’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, though it also flourishes in the fantastic architecture of the outsider architect Clarence Schmidt who constructed a seven storey house of mirrors in the Catskill mountains.  Laszlo Moholy-Nagy created a wonderful caprice in an untitled painting done in 1922/23 which features the fencer of figuration duelling with abstraction and found materials.  Marcel Broodthaers inherited the mantle of Duchamp and regaled the art-world with visual puns and fanciful juxtapositions of image and word.  Trevor Winkfield’s paintings take the displacements and juxtapositions of surrealism and transpose them into a bright, highly coloured, up-to-date world.  This is another melancholy, of comparatively recent provenance: it’s the melancholy of the chrome-edged diner, the crisp paucity of nouvelle cuisine – surely as capricious a genre of cookery as anything faked-up by Rome.  Winkfield’s images seem lifted off board games.  There’s a puzzle here, or a game we should be able to play.  If only we could solve that puzzle.  If only we knew the rules to his game.

Pierrot and Harlequin

Then there is a vein running through the work of Bruce Naumann which is quite resolutely capricious.  His animal pyramids are particularly startling, though a grotesque element creeps in by dint of the fact that these acrobatic creatures are docked of tails and ears.  Caprice informs the charming drawings of Francesco Clemente: they seem purposeless and yet clear at the same time.  It is surely capricious of Georg Bazelitz to insist that his paintings are meant to be viewed upside-down, on the grounds that, since they have been painted that way, they are the right way up!  And caprice is very much the dynamic that motivates the kinetic sculptures of Rebecca Horn as well as the equestrian subject-matter of Mark Wallinger.

It is also the dynamic that informs the work of the late Stuart Sherman, an unjustly neglected performance artist and film-maker.   Sherman created brief events on small tables.  Deftly his hands would manipulate a small assembly of capriciously chosen objects.  As with the work of Trevor Winkfield there was precision and there was enigma – in equal doses.  Sherman may have had concise reasons for his choice of objects. Yet the full significance of these objects was often lost to us, the manipulation happened so swiftly, rapidly followed by another.  Nevertheless, an atmosphere settled about the table, an aura of significance concentrated our focus on his small non-narrative dramas.  It was as if we were the Kleinian or Winnicotian analyst, watching a child play with a small collection of toys and waiting for an interpretation to dawn on us.  Sherman’s short films convey the same feeling.  For his Spaghetti Spectacle Sherman created some twenty performance vignettes, all of which used spaghetti as an ingredient.   He also reinvented some classic plays – Oedipus, Hamlet, Three Sisters – according to his whim, or so it might have seemed, though the neatly condensed results were the product of an intense meditation on each text.  Gradually each of these reinventions became less incomprehensible, for with each fresh view of it it was possible to get more out of it.

Eleventh Spectacle Stuart Sherman Right_Brain_SS_11spec_Mangolte

Finally, a very strong tendency to engage in caprice informs the work of Mark Tansey.  He paints exceptionally large canvases dedicated to the smallest jokes.  These are meticulously painted, but done in some limited hue, as if they were one swathe of a printing process.  Purity Test (1982) shows a band of “Red Indians” out of the nineteenth century (doubtless lifted from the work of some painter of the wild west).  These braves are gazing down at Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.


The monochrome hue of the work smooths over the discrepancy and eases the displacement.  It permits us to dwell in the picture, to inhabit its imaginary time – for either they have come forward or the jetty has gone back in time, or perhaps both have shifted into this shared time which has an atmosphere of its own.  The atmosphere is one of contradiction however.  These two events cannot exist in the same time.  Tansey’s work is as capriciously contradictory in this sense as is that of Magritte with his image of a pipe above the painted statement, “This is not a pipe” – in The Treachery of Images, painted in 1929.  Again caprice is enabling us to escape the ennui of daily life by positing a world where one event can coexist with another occurring a century earlier.  For just as scientific method can posit a host of geometries working on principles other than the one which insists that the swiftest distance between two points is a straight line, so art can posit a host of times and spaces obeying other laws than those of chronology or scale.  Caprice enables these alternative laws to come into being.  At the same time, it mingles well with other rivers – consider Magritte’s image of a man looking at the back of his head (wonderfully entitled Not to be Reproduced) and how it fuses the capricious with the notion of the picture within the picture.


Capricious displacements succeed best when the conservative authority of the chosen medium is handled with the respect required to “suspend our disbelief” and convince us of the veracity of alarming result.

Anthony Howell, November, 2003.

Links to all of my eight seminal essays on art can be found at Art and its Dark Side

as well as under essays

See also Psycho-Painting and what you see in it

About anthonyhowelljournal

Poet, essayist, dancer, performance artist....
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6 Responses to Caprice

  1. Pingback: IMMORALISM | anthonyhowelljournal

  2. Pingback: ‘Nonfinito’ or the Art of Incompletion | anthonyhowelljournal

  3. Pingback: ART AND ITS DARK SIDE – INTRODUCTION | anthonyhowelljournal

  4. Pingback: Quietism, the ‘vacancy’ of Formal Art | anthonyhowelljournal

  5. Love this essay. Was thinking of Rosenberg’s Break of Day in the Trenches, his ‘queer sardonic cat’ and ‘droll rat’ and thinking in the sense of the topsy turvy aspect to caprice you outline that much of war poetry is capricious?

    And that the novella from Boccaccio to Sagan is suited to the notion of Caprice?


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: PSYCHO-PAINTING AND WHAT YOU SEE IN IT | anthonyhowelljournal

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