Van Gogh: texture, colour and light

There’s a lovely passage in Julian Barnes’s review of Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

We have a problem of seeing, just as we often have a problem hearing (or hearing clearly), say, a Beethoven symphony. It’s hard to get back to our first enraptured seeings and hearings, when Van Gogh and Beethoven struck our eyes and ears as nothing had before; and yet equally hard to break through to new seeings, new hearings. So we tend, a little lazily, to acknowledge greatness by default, and move elsewhere, away from the crowds discovering him as we first discovered him. But if, seeking silence and untrammelled Van Gogh, we then retreat into the art book, we are let down differently: however faithful the colour reproduction, the flat page always suppresses the urgent impasto of the paint surface, an impasto so thickly wet that the painter was sometimes kept waiting weeks before he could safely post off his latest canvas to his dealer-brother Theo. Julian Bell, in his useful short biography and appraisal, aptly describes Starry Night over the Rhône as ‘closer to a sculptural relief than a reproducible flat image’.


Every Summer, on our way south, we try to spend a night in Arles, and when the Foncdacion Vincent Van Gogh first opened in 2014 we made a beeline for it. And the first thing that struck me was the brilliant way the gate to the gallery captures that “urgent impasto” of the surface of a Van Gogh.

Barnes also writes very well about his use of colour:

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman who for so many years of his early career had drawn and painted dark, serious, socially concerned images of peasants and proletarians, of weavers and potato-pickers, of sowers and hoers. This emergence, this explosion from darkness, has no parallel except for that of Odilon Redon (who was prompted into colour more by internal forces, whereas Van Gogh was prompted into it externally – first in Paris by the Impressionists, and then by the light of the South).

For decades I couldn’t understood Van Gogh’s use of colour — and it wasn’t for want of trying: I lived in Holland in 1997-8 and often went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The fog only lifted in the summer of 2003 when I came to Provence for the first time. We flew in to Montpellier after dark, and drove to our destination through a tunnel dug by the car headlights into pitch-black darkness. Then, after a restless, hot night trying to sleep, I got up at dawn and opened the shutters — and looked out on a valley full of vivid ochres, yellows and greens, illuminated by a kind of light I’d never seen before (and, as a photographer, I pay a lot of attention to light). And then, finally, I began to understand Van Gogh.

Common sense about hacking

From the Economist blog:

FOR companies, there are two strategies for dealing with people who uncover flaws in their IT security: a right way and a wrong way. Our leader on hacking this week tells of the approach that Volkswagen took when a group of academics informed it that they had uncovered a vulnerability in a remote-car-key system: the firm slapped a court injunction on them. It is difficult to conceive of an approach more likely to be counter-productive.

United Airlines, it seems, has a far more enlightened attitude. It has just awarded two hackers 1m air miles each after they managed to spot security weak spots in its website. The move is part of a scheme called “bug bounty”, in which hackers are incentivised to contact the company with security flaws, rather than post them online. This approach is common at Silicon Valley firms, and makes just as much sense for old-fashioned industries too. Pound to a penny, there are nefarious types out there trying to break into most big companies’ IT systems. Encouraging “white-hat” hackers to uncover flaws, and then rewarding them for not revealing them to the wider world, may sit uncomfortably with people’s sense of fairness. However, if it gives firms time to fix the problem, in pragmatic terms the benefit is obvious.


The ghosts of thinkers past


In her newly-published autobiography Antonia Fraser opens with a quote from the autobiography of G.M. Trevelyan:

The poetry of history lies in the miraculous fact that once on this earth, once, on this familiar spot of ground, walked other men and women, as actual as we are today, thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone like ghosts at cockcrow.

I often think of this when walking through Cambridge, the city where I live and work. If one walks down Free School Lane, for example, one passes the lab where Ernest Rutherford and Peter Kapitza worked and where the father-and-son team of William and Lawrence Bragg did the research which earned them both the 1915 Nobel Prize for physics. Also off Free School Lane is the room where J.J. Thomson discovered the electron, the room where, in 1932, John Cockroft and Ernest Walton first split the atom, and the room where, in 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick assembled the double-helix model of DNA. Turn left onto Bene’t Street and you find the Eagle, the pub to which Crick and Watson repaired to inform patrons that they had “found the secret of life”. If you walk down St Edward’s Passage, you will see (over David’s second-hand bookshop) the apartment in which John Maynard Keynes lived with his wife Lydia when they were in Cambridge. On Trinity Street, next to the Great Gate of Trinity, is the window of Isaac Newton’s room. On the other side of the street is Whewell’s Court, where Ludwig Wittgenstein had his spartan accommodation, complete with camp bed and card table.

When I lived in the centre of the city in the 1970s, one of the dustbins in a neighbouring house on Chesterton Lane (owned by Magdalene College) was labelled “I.A. Richards”. Walk down King’s parade and you pass the college where, in 1969, I attended E.M. Forster’s 90th birthday party (an event hosted by Francis Crick), where Bernard Williams was the Provost and where Alan Turing was both a student and a Fellow.

And so it goes on, seemingly ad infinitum. There’s Christ’s College, the college of John Milton and Charles Darwin (where they have restored Darwin’s room to its original state). And the Master’s Lodge in Peterhouse, where Herbert Butterfield once lived. And…

I once thought of organising a walking tour on the theme of “Cambridge ghosts”. Who knows, maybe I still might, one day.

How to travel in style to the Cote d’Azur


Note the bicycle pump strategically placed on the side of the engine compartment. And the effect of the stylish leather bag on the back seat is somewhat undermined by the modern rucksack next to it. There was also a starting handle to get the engine going. Those were the days.

Labour’s ‘leadership’ contest

This morning I watched one of the most depressing TV programmes of 2015 — Andrew Neil on Sunday Politics grilling the four candidates for the Labour leadership. At times, one had the impression that all four inhabited a parallel universe to the one in which the party was roundly defeated in May. This Observer editorial puts it well:

Two months after a disastrous election defeat, Labour is mired in a lengthy, inwardly focused leadership election. The debates are of micro-politics, not existential crisis. There is an assumption of relevance, just as the party is stalked by irrelevance. It is as though the election never happened. Maybe Labour needs reminding what happened on 7 May. It not only lost but was routed in many heartlands, crushed in marginals and rendered virtually invisible in the south. To paraphrase the now infamous foreign football commentator who relished an England defeat, “Labour, your boys took one hell of a beating.”

If a leaked poll is any guide, then a growing number of the Labour party membership now seem to view Jeremy Corbyn as the answer to that drubbing. This is like a pupil who, on being told they answered incorrectly, repeats the same answer shouting ever more forcefully. It’s still the wrong answer. The party faces a choice. It can strive to get re-elected and thereby have an impact on those it purports to represent. Or it can sink in to a warm bath of delusion and face an even larger wipeout in 2020.

On top of that, there are two looming problems: (i) the total wipe-out of the party in Scotland, and (ii) the impending revision of electoral boundaries in England. The implications are that Labour may never again win an election in a country effectively consisting of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. So the game’s up for the party hitherto known as “Labour”.

The only thing that will work is a radical conceptualization of it as a technologically-savvy progressive centrist party focussed on the socio-economic problems and challenges that will emerge in the next three decades. Reconceptualization on this scale is at least a ten-year project, which also means that Labour will not win the next election in 2020. So what the leadership election ought to be about is who could lead the re-invention of a party along the lines that are needed.

But — as today’s TV hustings showed — it isn’t about anything like that, but simply about which Westminster insider will get the nod and the official car.

So is Grexit really Germany’s policy?

Barry Eichengreen (who is currently the Pitt Professor in Cambridge) thinks so:

Germany wants Greece to choose between economic collapse and leaving the eurozone. Both options would mean economic disaster; the first, if not both, would be politically disastrous as well.

When I wrote in 2007 that no member state would voluntarily leave the eurozone, I emphasized the high economic costs of such a decision. The Greek government has shown that it understands this. Following the referendum, it agreed to what it – and the voters – had just rejected: a set of very painful and difficult conditions. Tsipras and his new finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos, have gone to extraordinary lengths to mollify Greece’s creditors.

But when I concluded that no country would leave the eurozone, I failed to imagine that Germany would force another member out. This, clearly, would be the effect of the politically intolerable and economically perverse conditions tabled by Germany’s finance ministry.

Barry thinks that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s idea of a temporary “time out” from the euro is “ludicrous”.

Given Greece’s collapsing economy and growing humanitarian crisis, the government will have no choice, absent an agreement, but to print money to fund basic social services. It is inconceivable that a country in such deep distress could meet the conditions for euro adoption – inflation within 2% of the eurozone average and a stable exchange rate for two years – between now and the end of the decade. If Grexit occurs, it will not be a holiday; it will be a retirement.

Economically, what this means is that

the new program is perverse, because it will plunge Greece deeper into depression. It envisages raising additional taxes, cutting pensions further, and implementing automatic spending cuts if fiscal targets are missed. But it provides no basis for recovery or growth. The Greek economy is already in free-fall, and structural reforms alone will not reverse the downward spiral.

So the ‘agreement’ will eventually trigger Grexit, either because the creditors withdraw their support after fiscal targets are missed, or because the Greek people rebel. “Triggering that exit”, Eichengreen concludes, “is transparently Germany’s intent”.

Appeasement over encryption is a *really* bad idea

This morning’s Observer column:

Ever since the internet emerged into public view in the 1980s, a key question has been whether digital technology would pose an existential challenge to corporate and governmental power. In this context, I am what you might call a recovering utopian – “utopian” in that I once did believe that the technology would put it beyond the reach of state and corporate agencies; and “recovering” in the sense that my confidence in that early assessment has taken a hammering over the years. In that period, technology has sometimes trumped politics and/or commercial power, but at other times it’s been the other way round.

The early battles were over intellectual property. Since computers are essentially copying machines, making perfect copies of digital goods became child’s play. As a celebrated trope put it: “Copying is to digital technology as breathing is to animal life.” So began the copyright wars, triggered by widespread piracy and illicit sharing of copyrighted files, which emasculated the music industry and led to the emergence of new corporate masters of the media universe – Apple, Spotify, YouTube and the rest – and the taming of the file-sharing monster. Result: Technology 1, Establishment 1.

The second battleground was the monitoring of network communications. The internet enabled anyone to become a global publisher and to exchange information via email with anyone who had a network connection. And this posed acute difficulties for established powers that were accustomed to being able to control the flow of information to their citizens. Since nothing on the net in the early days was encrypted, everyone communicated using the virtual equivalent of holiday postcards – readable by everyone who handled them en route to their destination. The only difficulty that states experienced in monitoring this unprotected torrent was its sheer volume, but Moore’s Law and technological development fixed that. It became feasible to collect “the whole goddam haystack” (to quote a former NSA director) if you threw enough resources at it. So they did – as Edward Snowden revealed. Result: Technology 0 Establishment 1.

But the biggest battle has always been about encryption…

Read on

How business schools lost the moral plot

One of the drivers of inequality — as Thomas Piketty and others have pointed out — is the colossal increase in the remuneration of senior executives in major public companies. Since much of this increase is accounted for by the switch from mere salary to salary-plus-stock-options, it has incentivised executives to prioritise share price at the expense of almost everything else.

But who taught these executives the techniques needed to boost share prices? Answer: the business schools which gave them their MBAs. But in looking at modern business schools, it’s clear that they are very different from their first predecessors like the Sloan School in MIT. And so are their students. The huge fees charged for an MBA course by leading business schools (the cost of a Wharton MBA, for example, is currently over $100,000) are usually borne by the students studying for the degree. It’s a huge personal investment, which means that they are understandably desperate to start paying it back as soon as they can.

So what happened to turn an MBA from a sensible preparation for a professional career as an executive into a sausage machine for shareholder-value-maximisation? It might be worth looking to From Higher Aims to Hired Hands: The Social Transformation of American Business Schools and the Unfulfilled Promise of Management as a Profession by Rakesh Khurana for some answers.

Khurana is the new Dean of Harvard College as well as a professor in the Harvard Business School, so he knows his field well.

Here’s the blurb for his book:

Is management a profession? Should it be? Can it be? This major work of social and intellectual history reveals how such questions have driven business education and shaped American management and society for more than a century. The book is also a call for reform. Rakesh Khurana shows that university-based business schools were founded to train a professional class of managers in the mold of doctors and lawyers but have effectively retreated from that goal, leaving a gaping moral hole at the center of business education and perhaps in management itself.

Khurana begins in the late nineteenth century, when members of an emerging managerial elite, seeking social status to match the wealth and power they had accrued, began working with major universities to establish graduate business education programs paralleling those for medicine and law. Constituting business as a profession, however, required codifying the knowledge relevant for practitioners and developing enforceable standards of conduct. Khurana, drawing on a rich set of archival material from business schools, foundations, and academic associations, traces how business educators confronted these challenges with varying strategies during the Progressive era and the Depression, the postwar boom years, and recent decades of freewheeling capitalism.

Today, Khurana argues, business schools have largely capitulated in the battle for professionalism and have become merely purveyors of a product, the MBA, with students treated as consumers. Professional and moral ideals that once animated and inspired business schools have been conquered by a perspective that managers are merely agents of shareholders, beholden only to the cause of share profits. According to Khurana, we should not thus be surprised at the rise of corporate malfeasance. The time has come, he concludes, to rejuvenate intellectually and morally the training of our future business leaders.