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General Topics Feature | Quiet Exposures: Elizabeth Bowen and Bill Brandt Picture Wartime London
This essay explores Elizabeth Bowen’s short story collection The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1944) in tandem with the photographs produced by Bill Brandt during the blackout and the Blitz. I argue that these works—often fusing an atmosphere of restfulness with restlessness—share an aesthetic that both artists developed as late modernist responses to real-world shocks. They offer a mode of resistant Pictorialism that, rather than being quietist, is unsettlingly quiet, constituting a response to the Second World War that stages a haunting depopulation. Refusing a “snapshot aesthetic” and opting instead for the duration of the quiet exposure, their stories and photographs refuse to lie flat, carving out realms of escape that are deeply disquieting.
Keywords Blitz / repose / Pictorialism / resistance / late modernism
Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, The Heat of the Day (1949), begins by framing a still image: of an open-air theatre in Regent’s Park, London, on the second anniversary of the start of the London Blitz. With its first sentence of three clipped clauses, “That Sunday, from six o’clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played,” the text seems to invite the reader to look through the lens of a camera, sturdily set upon this semantic tripod, while its shutter remains open (3). Illuminated by the “photographic half-light” of dusk, leaves drift and crepitate, people are slowly drawn to the “bosky theatre” by the music and the “sensation that they were missing something,” gnats quiver, and cigarette smoke dissolves; the “incoming tide” is “darkness,” yet the overwhelming sense is that these images and movements, not to mention the music, will not register on the figurative plate or film (9, 4). As the narrative frame widens to include a man “whose excessive stillness gave the effect not of abandon but of cryptic behavior” (6), Bowen merges an atmosphere of ghostly transit and quiet restfulness with disturbing unreadability. In what follows, I propose that her literary pictures of wartime London, here and especially in The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1944), when read in tandem with the photographs produced by Bill Brandt during the blackout and the Blitz, bring to light a shared aesthetic that both artists developed as late modernist responses to real-world shocks. This artistic mode, Pictorialism, is often circumscribed to photography of the early twentieth century, and is generally considered technologically and historically backwards-looking, tending politically towards conservatism. I argue, however, that to accept this perspective is to miss the ways in which wartime artists turned to Pictorialism as a resource when more "radical” modes seemed all too much in sync with the war’s brutal defamiliarizations of the physical world.
The unsettled atmosphere of peace and peril that pervades Bowen’s wartime scene is also evident in Brandt’s Chester Terrace, Regent’s Park, first published in the periodical Lilliput a month before the opening of The Heat of the Day is set, as part of his series “London by Moonlight” (Fig. 1).
Here we have an alternate view of Regent’s Park from the one that opens Bowen’s novel. Rather than an open-air theatre within the park, slowly being filled by music and people and drained of color and light, we have a perspective on one of the Regency terraces that architect John Nash designed around the outer circle of the park, looking, in the blackout, “like scenery in an empty theatre” (Bowen, “London 1940” 24). This photograph, along with the others in the series, is a postindustrial example of what Walter Benjamin, in “A Short History of Photography” (1931), calls a “quiet exposure.” Due to the “lower sensitivity to light of the early plates,” preindustrial photographs required a “long period of exposure in the open” in order to register an image, making it “desirable to station the model” in a quiet, secluded place. Only figures that remained still for a certain interval of time would leave a visible trace. According to Benjamin, this procedure “caused the models to live, not out of the instant, but into it; during the long exposure they grew, as it were, into the image,” in a manner that “can be sharply contrasted to a snapshot” (Benjamin 204).
Set on its tripod for precisely fifteen minutes, Brandt’s Rolliflex camera gradually registered an image devoid of human figures, presenting instead the fixity and seeming permanence of a long receding row of Regency terraces, illuminated by moonlight, as viewed from the shadows behind one of Nash’s imposing Corinthian arches.1 Presenting the perspective beyond the arcade as well as the shape and part of the supporting structure itself, this Pictorial photograph, by “one of the most brilliant of English camera-artists” (“Blackout in London” 551), creates a sense of depth and duration that Benjamin circumscribed to the early days of the medium’s history. Brandt’s image, like Bowen’s, fuses a sense of restfulness with restlessness, as our eyes are drawn back and forth between the shelter of the arcade and the serene view beyond it, or, alternately, from the darkly secretive enclave to the imperiled façade of the terraces. The power of the image derives from what Bowen called staticness, a quality that here simultaneously draws attention to the fragility of the scene.2 Sharply etched by moonlight, the buildings are also exposed as targets for German bombers.3 The image’s double function as respite and warning captures a sense of spatial and temporal retreat from the cataclysms of war being experienced as a day-to-day reality by the inhabitants of the city and presented in snapshots that flooded their newspapers and periodicals (Fig. 2).
Visually static yet surprisingly mobile, Chester Terrace, Regent’s Park takes time to fully absorb. Rather than stunning our vision with its record of a frozen fragment of time, it can be read as archaic, apocalyptic, or timeless; as either inviting or resisting occupation while suggesting the potential to elude visibility.
Taking up a number of photographs from Brandt’s series “Blackout in London” (December 1939) and “London by Moonlight” (August 1942) along with scenes from Bowen’s collection of stories written during the blackout and Blitz, I will explore how these artists cultivated a common aesthetic in the besieged city to which they both claimed an allegiance despite their status as outsiders. Brandt, who was born in Hamburg to a German mother and English father, strongly identified as English. At times, he even went so far as to lie about his place of birth, claiming a natal bond with London.4 He was deeply familiar with the British literary tradition (publishing a collection of photographs titled Literary Britain in 1951). He not only took a portrait of the Anglo-Irish Bowen in the late 1940s, she sitting statuesque and still by a window in her Clarence Terrace home (not far from Chester Terrace)—seeming to rest her eyes, her hands touching the open pages of a book—but he was also a great admirer of her fiction (Fig. 3).5
Bowen, who during the war divided her time between Bowen’s Court (the manor she inherited in 1930) in County Cork, Ireland, and her London home, had a powerful relationship with London that began in her childhood. In “Coming to London” (1956), she explains that as a child, before ever visiting the city, she “pictured the thing as a mass of building, a somehow impious extreme of bulk and height in whose interstices was fog”; significantly, she imagined it to be empty, and claims to not remember when she took it “in that this, like some planet, also must be taken to be inhabited” (85).6 A few critics have noted Brandt’s enjoyment of Bowen’s writing and have observed the similarities between his cityscapes and hers, but there has not yet been a sustained study of the deeper connections between their works.
What is striking about both artists’ depictions of London, imperiled and bomb-blasted, is their quiet and ghostliness, which is especially notable given the actual conditions of the Second World War as experienced on the home front. In “Going Nowhere in Late Modernist London,” Marina MacKay describes the crowdedness and “involuntary collectivity,” the sense of immobility and contraction of “both literal and psychic space” in wartime London (1611). An enforced communality led to solitude becoming “an almost unattainable luxury” (1606); there was “no private life anymore, and no corner of existence” into which the war did not reach (1607). The novels of the Second World War, MacKay contends, are “about being forced into closeness with one’s compatriots” and are thus “obsessed with escape, and the journeys they describe are invariably thwarted, aborted, or unsatisfying” (1608). In this light, the “pictures” discussed above and in what follows can be read as successfully escapist, in that they depict a quiet and often a solitude that was nearly impossible to find in wartime London. This escapism, however, is not a straightforward one. Bowen and Brandt separately embraced the style of the quiet exposure, an intensified and ghostly aesthetic that in both photography and fiction captured the calm and vulnerability of wartime London. Specifically, this essay shows how these artists re-engaged the often disregarded and seemingly subdued techniques of Pictorialism to create charged “space[s] of time” between the major acts and impacts of world war.7 Within their respective media, Bowen and Brandt developed a resistant Pictorialism whose quiet was far from quietist. Understood through this shared aesthetic, their works constitute a response to war that stages an appropriately haunting depopulation; as I will show, their literary and literal pictures do not escape from but rather move into history as they modulate between different temporal and affective registers, refusing to lie flat.
I. A Quiet Aesthetic
“London is quiet for the first time in its history.”
—Max Beerbohm, “Advertisements,” 1942
In her postscript to The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Bowen describes her stories, “[t]aken singly,” as “disjected snapshots—snapshots taken close up, too close up, in the middle of the mêlée of a battle” (223). Meditating retrospectively upon the collection as a whole, Bowen insists that “you cannot render, you can only embrace—if it means embracing to suffocation-point—something vast that is happening right on top of you.” “Odd enough in their own way,” she remarks about her stories, “—and now some seem very odd—they were flying particles of something enormous and inchoate that had been going on. They were sparks from experience—an experience not necessarily my own” (216–17). With such claims Bowen seems to be positioning herself as a camera, like the ones that can be imagined recording the opening of The Heat of the Day or Christopher Isherwood’s “A Berlin Diary” (1939), which begins: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking” (1). Except this time, Bowen appears to be taking snapshots in the midst of a battle, catching fleeting impressions and wresting moments and images from the flow of time, leaving the processing for posterity. “[T]wenty, forty, sixty years hence they may be found interesting as documents even if they are found negligible as art,” Bowen diffidently maintains; “[t]ransformed into images in the stories, there may be important psychological facts: if so, I did not realize their importance” (223). The aesthetic underlying these stories, then, would seem to be one associated with snapshot photography—and thus the shock experience of everyday modern life—offering the viewer and reader direct records and literal impressions, or “flying particles,” of wartime experience that impacted the photographic film.
Bowen’s language of the snapshot invokes the work of photographers such as the Hungarian André Kertész, who, according to Delaney, took advantage of the Leica camera’s “speed and unobtrusiveness to capture the shock-effect of urban encounters” (76). Such images stake claims to documentary truth and turn the automatic nature of the technology to their advantage. With the quick click of a camera button, a fragment of reality can be frozen and archived, unprocessed, with all of its referentiality and infinite detail undiluted. Kertész’s working methods were antithetical to those of Brandt, who, as is observed in the technical notes and introduction to his collection, Camera in London (1948), “[did] not usually snap pictures in a hurry, but work[ed] slowly and deliberately” in taking and developing his photographs (89), “intensifying the elements” of an image to create a charged and emotionally evocative atmosphere (12). Brandt remarked, “Still the things I am after are not in a hurry as a rule,” adding, interestingly, “I am a photographer of London” (18). While Bowen’s description of her stories as “disjected snapshots” would seem to align her work with that of Kertész rather than Brandt, there is in fact a tension between these different modes of photography within her postscript to The Demon Lover that has not yet been remarked upon, just as the connection that she draws between her short fiction and photography is one that critics have given little serious attention to. One might claim that in her own way, Bowen, too, was a photographer of London, and that what she depicted was not, as a rule, in a hurry.
As a close consideration of the postscript reveals, Bowen only associates her work with a “snapshot aesthetic” (North 47) to a limited extent. She firmly insists, “I do not say that these stories wrote themselves—aesthetically or intellectually speaking, I found the writing of some of them very difficult—but I was never in a moment’s doubt as to what I was to write. The stories had their own momentum, which I had to control” (216). Bowen is very careful to resist the “mechanical nature of the medium” that is linked with snapshot photography (North 44), especially since she considered the mechanization and desiccation of day-to-day life to be one of the primary impoverishments of war on the home front.8 By drawing upon the language of the snapshot, Bowen was claiming a photojournalistic authority for her work that “she could not question” (216)—that element of “having-been-there” that Roland Barthes identifies as the unprecedented “consciousness of the photograph” (278). As Gill Plain has noted, “The urge to document, to bear witness and, in the process, make sense of the conflict was a persistent feature of 1940s writing,” even while the “war resisted straightforward inscription” (39). During the war, there was a “rejuvenation of the short story”; in “this allusive, fragmentary form, the inarticulable could be hinted at, gestured towards, the story becoming—in Elizabeth Bowen’s formulation—both a snapshot ‘taken from close up’ and a conduit for something more substantial that exceeds the boundaries of individual experience” (40). Again, I believe we need to question Bowen’s formulation of her stories as snapshots and as fragmentary, and focus more on Plain’s “something more substantial.” Bowen goes on to insist that while apparently only “nominally ‘inventive,’” the execution of her stories was undoubtedly in her control:
Painters have painted, and photographers who were artists have photographed, the tottering lace-like architecture of ruins, dark mass movements of people, and the untimely brilliance of flaming skies. I cannot paint or photograph like this—I have isolated, I have made for the particular, spot-lighting faces or cutting out gestures that are not even the faces or gestures of great sufferers. This is how I am, how I feel, whether in war or peace-time; and only as I am and feel can I write. (223–24)
The techniques of isolating, spot-lighting, cropping, and manipulating images, outlined in this brief statement of artistic creed, are those of Pictorial photography—the techniques of “photographers who [are] artists” rather than reporters or recorders of “reality.” Bowen even apologizes that her stories “do not contain more ‘straight’ pictures of the war-time scene. Such pictures could have been interesting: they are interesting in much of the brilliant reportage that exists” (221), yet evidently her focus lies elsewhere. These stories, then, cannot be read as, or simply as, “snapshots,” and in fact deeply resist the aesthetic of what Marcel Duchamp called the “snapshot effect” (qtd. in North 22), which is closely tied to Benjamin’s “shock effects.” They instead adapt and make use of another branch of photography, Pictorialism, that has often been overlooked in discussions of both the medium and of modernism.
Brandt and Bowen drew on Pictorialist techniques to challenge the temporally, affectively, and ideologically flattening effects of war, which pinned its subjects to the present, often paralyzed them with fear or resignation, and constrained them to the single interpretations of myth or propaganda. For these artists, the flatness and stunned paralysis of snapshots and other “radical,” modernist modes that aimed primarily to shock, simply matched the war’s brutality and violence. While Pictorialism—with its potential for nostalgia, its painterliness, and visual quiet—has been criticized as ideologically conservative, Bowen and Brandt engaged in a distinctly resistant version, one where, paradoxically, the shock effects of Surrealism are entwined with a serene calm that together offered war-weary citizens a sense of rejuvenation and potential escape.9 Rejecting the widely accessible, democratic, and mimetic form of the snapshot in favor of a more careful and refined artistry, they depicted disquieting as well as tranquil scenes focused on duration: on the time it takes for light to illuminate or drain out of a scene, to register an image, to convey an impression of endurance as well as transience and transit. More than providing, as the snapshot often does, “the always stupefying evidence of this is how it was,” their works also lyrically encompass other “space-time categor[ies]”: that of “being-there” (which Barthes associates with the “projective power” of film), as well as what-might-have-been, what-might-(yet-)be, what-still (as yet, even so, nevertheless)-is. Within this fraught “space of time,” I would like to suggest, which toggles between different temporalities, emotional states, and interpretive possibilities, lies the potential for a reprieve that isn’t necessarily safe, but which is nevertheless sustaining.
One of the primary claims of this essay is that we might read Pictorialism as, if not quite a transhistoric and transmedial aesthetic, then at least as one that extends beyond the early twentieth century and that operates within literature as well as photography. Michael North, in Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word, elucidates the history and underlying philosophy of this once flourishing photographic mode. By his account, it was conceived as a resistance to the automatic nature of photography as exemplified by snapshots that simply and mechanically recorded anything and everything within the range of the camera lens, including a welter of unnecessary, superfluous, and chaotic details. In the work of Alfred Stieglitz (who published the periodical Camera Works) and his followers, the visual “noise” of snapshots was quieted and their strict referentiality diluted through the use of careful composition, soft focus, and manipulation of the print in the darkroom. Making a claim for their images as works of art, and for themselves as artists, Pictorialists “tamed” the inherent disorderliness of the medium and “suppress[ed] the inessential” (45) “so that details could be recorded selectively, in response to human dictates, rather than automatically” (44). “The problem that is presented is practically one of elimination,” Stieglitz himself put it in 1905. Lacking composition, “a picture becomes restless and irritating, and the beholder turns from it with a sense of relief” (qtd. in North 45). Pictorial photographs attempted to provide a visual reprieve from such noise, creating “a particularly serene kind of photography” (43).
North seems to view Pictorialism as a dead-end for photography within the “pan-artistic” movement of modernism, as amateur, scientific, and commercial photography came to dominate the twentieth century and, ironically, influenced avant-garde artists like Picasso and Duchamp, whose innovative works were reproduced in Camera Works alongside Pictorial photographs (53). For Benjamin, too, the kind of quiet exposures that he nostalgically describes in “A Short History” comes to an end with newer, postindustrial technologies. However, as any examination of Brandt’s body of work makes clear, Pictorial photography did not die out with the end of Camera Works, nor are quiet exposures, with their sense of depth, duration, and fluidity, limited to daguerreotypes. In “Brandt’s Pictorialism,” Nigel Warburton points out the often unrecognized fact that Brandt saw no problem with manipulating his prints and staging his photographs in order to achieve particular effects. Even in his works of photojournalism from the 1930s, elements of Pictorialist artistry and aesthetic control are clearly evident.10 Most notably in his emptied-out photographs of London during the blackout and the Blitz, I would add, a sense of visual quiet in the elimination of superfluous details as well as of human presence is mirrored in, and intensified by, his quiet exposures, which ranged in duration from ten to fifteen minutes.
In its darkness and quiet, disrupted but not destroyed by the violence of the Blitz, nocturnal London naturally presented conditions suitable for Pictorialism, silencing the chaotic noise of crowds and the stimulation of electric lights that are associated with a snapshot aesthetic, and that one would otherwise expect to find there. Sara Wasson notes that, “Apart from raids, when sirens, incendiaries, and high explosives made the city a chaotic orchestra of sound,” London was “uncharacteristically quiet” (13). Indeed, “[l]ight was the first casualty of the home front” (12). The blackout lasted for over five years; in order to “prevent bombers having clear targets,” “[n]eon signs were forbidden, traffic lights were reduced to slits, street lights were dimmed, house windows were covered and car headlights were screened. The sheer profundity of the darkness amazed people” (12). On 22 October 1939, Virginia Woolf marveled in her diary that the nights were “so verduous & gloomy that one expects a badger or a fox to prowl along the pavement. A reversion to the middle ages with all the space & the silence of the country set in this forest of black houses” (242). London, strangely, wonderfully, seemed to mirror the serenity found in, for instance, the Yorkshire countryside, which Brandt photographed in 1944 as the war was still raging (Fig. 4).
In this image, we see the silhouette of one cow grazing as two others hunker down for the night, one by a sliver of water illuminated by the crescent moon and the soft glint of clouds. The gently sloping hill and outlying fields are demarcated as if by a piece of charcoal, and the entire scene seems to evoke a simpler past rooted in the rhythms of night and day, hunger and satiety. Wasson argues that the city’s unfamiliar darkness resulted in an ominous state of “silence and emptiness” that set the stage for the “urban gothic” of the Second World War (13); yet rather than (or for Bowen, in addition to) populating their wartime “pictures” with the ghosts, corpses, and entrapped females of the gothic, or with the genre’s characteristic atmosphere of “terror, anguish, paranoia or a perverse emotional deadness” (Wasson 2), I suggest that Bowen and Brandt merged the kind of visual, pastoral quiet found in Yorkshire with the unnerving, dream-like aesthetic of the surreal.
II. The Territory of War
In Street Corner, published in Lilliput as part of the series “Blackout in London,” the techniques of contrast, composition, and proportion are used to powerfully convey both a sense of potentially suffocating darkness as well as idyllic repose (Fig. 5).
Illuminated by a quarter moon, an unlit lamppost stands in the narrow passageway between the black vertical mass of a building on the right and a dark row of houses sloping irregularly towards the moon on the left.11 The viewer’s attention is caught in the triangulation between the delicate scrollwork at the top of the lamppost, the suspended moon below it, and the cobbled street lit by the moonlight, which leads the eye back to the lamppost. Details and visual noise are quieted in the stark contrast between the black masses of shadow and the light of the moon, between the crisp vertical lines and the roundness of the moon itself. Meanwhile, the scale of the image, set at ground level yet emphasizing the looming verticality of the buildings and solitary lamppost, suggests a stifling compression as well as the potential for retreat within this silent and empty urban forest. Clearly, this is not a snapshot captured at a “decisive moment,” but rather a photograph produced during a quiet exposure and controlled in its effects in order to capture and intensify a sense of immobility, polytemporality, and beauty at a time when German attacks were expected but still imminent.
This scene visually echoes the one we see in the first story of The Demon Lover, where Bowen begins to explore the possibilities of Pictorialism that she expands upon in several of the stories that follow. Demonstrating Bowen’s “atmospheric acuity” (Jordan 76), “In the Square” depicts an empty square “At about nine o’clock” on a “hot bright July evening.” At this time, the square looks “mysterious: it was completely empty, and a whitish reflection, ghost of the glare of midday, came from the pale-colored façades on its four sides and seemed to brim it up to the top.” There is a pervading sense of quiet to this “extinct scene,” which has “the appearance of belonging to some ages ago”—a stillness that the story allows to unfold with a sense of duration as the sun, “now too low to enter normally,” enters “brilliantly at a point where three of the houses had been bombed away.” No longer quite timeless once we have glimpsed the “breach” where the houses once stood and the blacked-out, “semi-blinded” windows, the scene is not unduly ruffled by the entrance of a taxi that “cruise[s] round the polish to a house in a corner,” depositing a man who gets out, pays his fare and glances about him with satisfaction “to find the shell of the place still here.” The fact that it is still there seems more remarkable given our view of the breach that lets the light in.
Juxtaposed against the “fixed outdoor silence” of the square, the interior of the house that this visitor, Rupert, approaches is full of noise that is unfiltered, chaotic, mechanical (with “fittings shocked from their place”) and fatiguing; one recalls the empty, still square with a sense of relief, just as, according to Stieglitz, one turns with relief from the tiring visual noise of a snapshot. Inside the house, there is a claustrophobic lack of boundaries. Not only do the carpets look thin, but the walls are thin as well, and the shell of this home seems to offer no space of retreat for its various inhabitants, from its original mistress, Magdela, to her visiting nephew, Bennet, to her husband’s secretary and lover, Gina, to the caretakers of the house with their grown-up children, as doors swing open and shut and the smell of cooking wafts up from the basement while bath water trickles down from the pipes at the top of the house. In this contrast between silence and noise, emptiness and crowding, with each element intensifying the other, Bowen produces the effect of a photomontage—a technique that continues as the story progresses and shifts abruptly from one character’s perspective to another.
Near the conclusion of the story, Bennet goes out to “hunt food,” eventually finding an outlet from the square, while Rupert and Magdela look down upon a square that now seems ruled by primitive appetites and desires, populated by couples and restless figures. Ultimately, retreat does not fully rest in the square nor in the enclave of the window, in the intimacy between two friends who have become strangers to one another. The repose of the story instead seems to lie in a shift back and forth between different visual and emotional registers, opening up a space of multiplicity that resists uniform readings that might be marshaled for the purposes of propaganda or myth-making. There is a comfort in the criss-crossing transit through the square—in its sense of transitoriness, which in a ghostly way doesn't seem to fully register human figures, only buildings and shades of light and growing darkness. Bowen, like Brandt, employs Pictorial techniques to explore the city as “a site of desire and dreaming” (Jeffery 35), both frightening and sustaining.
Early in his career Brandt worked as an assistant to Man Ray while in Paris; his willingness to manipulate his photographs, Warburton suggests—to "treat the photograph as raw material for a picture, rather than as sacrosanct"—may be the result of this early contact (16). Bowen's fiction has also been linked with the aesthetic and techniques of Surrealism: for instance, in "Elizabeth Bowen, Surrealist," Keri Walsh perceptively argues that Bowen was engaged with Surrealism throughout her career, both absorbing and critiquing its techniques. Indeed, “Bowen’s training as a painter” made her “a sensitive reader of visual culture” (3). The presence of Surrealism in the work of both Bowen and Brandt is undeniable; there is a "strangeness and dream-like quality" (Warburton 16) within their works that also electrifies the productions of Man Ray, André Breton, and Luis Buñuel.
I would contend, though, that Surrealism and Pictorialism may be placed on opposite ends of a spectrum. The aim of Surrealist works is essentially to shock, and mainly to shock a bourgeois public out of its staid complacency by tapping into the irrational current of dreams, operating according to a dream-logic rather than a logic of the conscious mind. The project of Pictorialism, on the other hand, is to soothe and offer visual relief. In the wartime work of Brandt and Bowen, Pictorialism's quiet exposures become entangled with the strange and the dream-like, anchored in the possibilities of duration, yet with the ultimate goal of refreshing “senses, nerves and fancies that had been parched” by the war (Heat of the Day 4). As the shutter remains open, we might ask: what is permitted to drift by, careen past, or stomp within the frame without leaving a mark? What escapes registration, leaving the spaces of the city seemingly, eerily, exhilaratingly, unoccupied? The very quiet of the pictures possess an unsettling power to soothe and disturb, provoking shock while also offering shelter, moving beyond the serenity of earlier Pictorial images. Both artists embrace documentary “truth” while at the same time challenging the inexorability of the “indexical,” defined by Laura Mulvey as the “physical link between an object caught by a lens and the image left by rays of light on film” (18). Their pictures, both literary and literal, frame spaces of transit, of layered temporalities, where human beings have curiously little purchase on the physical world while they also possess an incredible power to shape and warp it.
III. Resistance Fantasies
Several of the “between-time stories” in The Demon Lover—“mostly reactions from, or intermissions between, major events” (Postscript 222)—draw on Pictorial techniques to quiet the chaos of visual noise and deepen the plane of representation, creating, as in Brandt’s photographs, a charged and emotionally evocative atmosphere. I will now turn to two of these stories, “The Demon Lover” and “Mysterious Kôr,” which “linger with especially poignant intensity on abandoned and ruined places” (Lee 151), exemplifying how wartime London became the site of a certain imaginative work that counteracted the potentially deadening effects of life on the home front. “The Demon Lover” opens by setting the scene and developing an image of the territory of war. This scene is the end of a day in “late August; it had been a steamy, showery day: at the moment the trees down the pavement glittered in an escape of humid yellow afternoon sun. Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out” (91).12 Already, there is a play between the scene’s staticness and motion, with the delayed placement of “stood out” generating a potential energy that accumulates, held in abeyance.
Mrs. Drover, a housewife, has spent the day in London and is returning to her “shut-up house” in Kensington to gather a few things to take back to her family, now residing in the country. In an opaque yet slippery tone, Bowen’s narrator describes how,
In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of the railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover’s return. Shifting some parcels under her arm, she slowly forced round her latchkey in an unwilling lock, then gave the door, which had warped, a push with her knee. (91)
With the opening of the door the pressure of pent up “dead air” is discharged into this nearly empty and wholly silent scene. The atmosphere of “unfamiliar queerness” is elevated to a frightening pitch when Mrs. Drover suddenly stops dead and stares “at the hall table—on this lay a letter addressed to her” (92). With this momentary arrest, the story shifts to a different register, one that is potentially, but not assuredly, supernatural. We are informed that, after taking this letter up to her bedroom, Mrs. Drover reads it in “the tenseness preceding the fall of rain.” It consists of a few lines, from a former beau—a soldier from the First World War who was reported missing in action and assumed dead. He writes, “You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise” (93). The letter sends Mrs. Drover into a controlled panic, prompting in her a desire for flight and escape, dissolving the barriers between past and present as the past “discharges its load of feeling into the anesthetized and bewildered present” (Postscript 221), while throwing into question the status of the future. She vividly recollects her last meeting with him twenty-five years earlier; the young girl had agreed to wait for the soldier’s return, yet immediately felt “that unnatural promise drive down between her and the rest of all human kind. No other way of having given herself could have made her feel so apart, lost and foresworn. She could not have plighted a more sinister troth” (95). The archaic language invokes the ballad tradition that this story is drawing upon and responding to, while adding to the cryptic ambivalence of the narrative. With the appearance of the letter, this figure of the past insists, unreasonably and even outrageously, upon the still-ness of the past—“nothing has changed,” so the troth as yet possesses a binding power.
Mrs. Drover’s memory of the past is acute “—but with one white burning blank as where acid has dropped on a photograph: under no conditions could she remember his face” (98). “So,” she muses, “wherever he may be waiting, I shall not know him. You have no time to run from a face you do not expect” (98). That blank face of the imagined photograph magnetizes the fear in the story, intensifying the atmosphere of suffocation within the “hollowness of the house this evening” (96). Unable to make the letter disappear by convincing herself that she is just experiencing a “mood,” Mrs. Drover quickly collects what she came for and lets herself out “by inches from her own front door into the empty street,” encountering “one of those creeks of London silence exaggerated this summer by the damage of war” (99). She finds some relief from the pressure of her and our mounting fear in the noise of ordinary city life, which seems to dissolve the disquieting supernatural element of the scene with the power of acid “dropped on a photograph.” Correspondingly, Mrs. Drover—Kathleen—seems to want to escape the very unreadability and interpretive openness that the story builds the effect of through its control of perspective and focus: that is, she wants for there to be just one interpretation of the situation.
Yet as Bowen claimed in her postscript to the collection, “The hallucinations in the stories are not a peril; nor are the stories studies of mental peril. The hallucinations are an unconscious, instinctive, saving resort on the part of the characters: life, mechanized by the controls of war-time, and emotionally torn and impoverished by changes, had to complete itself in some way” (218). Mrs. Drover’s encounter with her “demon lover” may indeed seem terrifying, as the narrative ends with a startling tableau: as her taxi takes her away, the driver brakes, turns around, and slides the glass panel open, essentially turning the vehicle into an enormous long-exposure camera. “Through the aperture driver and passenger, not six inches between them, remained for an eternity eye to eye.” Her “demon lover” then drives her off screaming “into the hinterland of deserted streets.” Bowen insists that “one counteracts fear by fear, stress by stress” (221). Or, in Wallace Stevens’s words, “It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality” (665). Compared to the desiccation of her life by the routine drudgery of war, and the silting up of twenty-five years of married life in her London home, Mrs. Drover’s “resistance-fantasy” is an indirect form of escape.13 Seemingly beyond her rational control, the force of the past as it discharges into the present and imagined future, while frightening, nevertheless offers a retreat and a form of powerful resistance. The Surreal and the Pictorial here and elsewhere mutually enhance one other to powerful effect.
In the contrast between the spectre of a photograph that frightens a London housewife and the Pictorial techniques that Bowen deploys to create and intensify her effects, there is a fraught atmosphere that allows the blank of the photograph to remain blank rather than filled in. In this ambivalent and cryptic space, escape is both denied and offered within the same frame. Brandt’s photograph of two houses in Mayfair, published as part of the “Blackout in London” series, communicates a similar sensation of claustrophobia and crowding through its use of perspective and focus. Seemingly pressed against the houses, the viewer has no outlet within the scene, whether in the blacked-out houses or in the street that is entirely cropped from view. The two architectural masses dominate the image, uncompromisingly and blankly, one overshadowed by the other and nearly merging with the blackness of the sky, its dimly visible vertical lines contrasting with the round face of the taller, lighter building. There is an unreadability in this photograph that is potentially threatening (what is behind the windows? is anything or anyone there?) as well as restful, as the eye finds repose in the balance of symmetry and the contrast between light and dark, with no random details cluttering the scene. In the photograph’s rigid stillness and quiet duration there is a pressure—a confrontation—that is highly charged and ambivalent, suggesting the impossibility of escape while paradoxically providing a retreat within its very fixity. While Brandt’s photograph was taken during the blackout but before the Blitz, it provides evidence for, and powerfully emphasizes, a mounting pressure that “had to complete itself in some way”—with some counter-force that offered the potential for respite, however imperiled.
IV. Quiet Exposures of the “Abiding City”
“The idea that life in any capital city must be ephemeral, and with a doom ahead, remained with me—a curious obsession for an Edwardian child. At the same time I found something reassuring and comforting in the idea that, whatever happened, buildings survived people.”14
In its fascination with moonlight and the mesmerizing emptiness of a blacked-out city, Bowen’s “Mysterious Kôr” seems, out of the collection of stories in The Demon Lover, the one most closely aligned with Brandt’s moonlit photographs of London during the war. Originating for Bowen in an “all but spell-binding beholding”—a vision of “weird moonlight over bomb-pitted London” (qtd. in Jordan 75–6)—this story describes the “siege” of the city by moonlight with searching, meticulous care. Seeming to replace the searchlights of German planes now that the “Germans no longer came by the full moon,” the “[f]ull moonlight” drenches and searches the city and does not leave a “niche” to “stand in”:
The effect was remorseless: London looked like the moon’s capital—shallow, cratered, extinct. It was late, but not yet midnight; now the buses had stopped the polished roads and trees in this region sent for minutes together a ghostly unbroken reflection up. The soaring new flats and the crouching old shops and houses looked equally brittle under the moon, which blazed in windows that looked its way. The futility of the black-out became laughable: from the sky, presumably, you could see every slate in the roofs, every whited kerb, every contour of the naked winter flowerbeds in the park; and the lake, with its shining twists and tree-darkened islands would be a landmark for miles, yes, miles, overhead. (196)
Also like the beginning of The Heat of the Day, this opening creates the effect of a quiet exposure. Within the fixity of the cratered, illuminated scene, there is a duration and motion that is mirrored in the ordering of words. The sky remains “glassy-silent” and people stay “indoors with a fervour that could be felt: the buildings strained with battened-down human life, but not a beam, not a voice, not a note from a radio escaped” (197). One can imagine Brandt, with his camera set on a tripod, out on such a night, quietly capturing the glare of the full moon on the blank façades of London buildings.
Outside of Regent’s Park on this moonlit evening, “three French soldiers, directed to a hostel they could not find,” stop their singing to “listen derisively to the waterbirds wakened up by the moon” (197). These spectral figures and others like them vanish and we next see two figures, one a tall man, the other a diminutive woman, heading towards the park. The woman soon steps “to the edge of the pavement” and chants: “‘Mysterious Kôr’” (198). “This,” she insists to her companion, gesturing to the scene around them, is Kôr, the “completely forsaken city, as high as cliffs and as white as bones, with no history.” She recites lines from Andrew Lang’s sonnet, “She,” which was dedicated to Rider Haggard, the author who first imagined this city into being:
“Mysterious Kôr thy walls forsaken stand,
Thy lonely towers beneath a lonely moon—”
Speaking as an authority on this deserted city, Pepita imagines that Kôr, after the war finally ends, might be “the one city left: the abiding city. I should laugh” (199). After all, if places can be blown “out of existence, you can blow whole places into it.”
Rather than thinking about people, which she cannot bear to do, Pepita thinks about Kôr, occupying it imaginatively as a place of respite, of solitude and freedom, where she and her lover, Arthur, can be alone together. She finds repose in its emptiness, in its visual quiet and stark contrasts, which resembles that of a Pictorial photograph, verging on abstraction. Her vision of the city recalls Brandt’s Houses in Bayswater (Fig. 6) from 1939, with its air of dereliction, absence, and stillness in the searching illumination of moonlight.
Like Atget’s photographs of Paris from the early twentieth century, which are, as Benjamin observes, “all empty,” “swept clean like a house which has not yet found its new tenant” (210), this image is of “a landscape of exclusion and negation, a landscape of absence” (Jeffrey 35). It is both searing and somehow restful. Diluting the “strict referentiality” of the photograph and emphasizing the pattern of razor-sharp lines and symmetrically repeating architectural structures, Houses in Bayswater suggests, as do Brandt’s other moonlit images, not timelessness, but rather an antiquity, futurity, and contemporaneity that is difficult to determine. Its visual staticness belies its mobility, and in its eerie depopulation seems both to invite and resist occupation.
Like Brandt’s cityscapes, the exact location of Kôr is ambivalent and refuses to settle in one place or time. Pepita insists to Arthur that they are in Kôr, prompting him to ask, confusedly, “‘What, you mean we’re there now, that here’s there and now’s then?...’” (200). The illusion of actually inhabiting this city shatters, however, once Pepita remembers that “they were homeless on this his first night of leave. They were, that was to say, in London without any hope of any place of their own” (201). The spell is broken, that is, with the bitterness of sexual frustration and the deflating realization that they are to share a crowded flat with her girlfriend, Callie, for the night. This is what the virginal Callie sees when she turns off her bedside lamp:
At once, she knew that something was happening—outdoors, in the street, the whole of London, the world. An advance, an extraordinary movement was silently taking place; blue-white beams overflowed from it, silting, dropping round the edges of the muffling black-out curtains. When, starting up, she knocked a fold of the curtain, a beam like a mouse ran across her bed. A searchlight, the most powerful of all time, might have been turned full and steady upon her defended window; finding flaws in the black-out stuff, it made veins and stars. (205)
She parts the curtains and looks out “—and was face to face with the moon.” Moonlight becomes a global event; we see what stands out in the marching light, how objects stand at attention in the glare, including two photographs that reveal the thoughts of their subjects as they faced the camera, creating the effect of mobility within this static scene. In the transformative presence of the moon, the lateness of the lovers is “exonerated and beautified.” When the lovers do finally arrive, the awkwardness and crowding of the situation in the small flat is underscored. It is not surprising that Pepita, after falling asleep next to Callie, returns to the “abiding city” of Kôr in an “avid dream, of which Arthur had been the source, of which Arthur was not the end”:
With him she looked this way, that way, down the wide, void, pure streets, between statues, pillars and shadows, through archways and colonnades. With him she went up the stairs down which nothing but moon came; and with him trod the ermine dust of the endless halls, stood on terraces, mounted the extreme tower, looked down on the statued squares, the wide, void, pure streets. (215)
With its incantatory repetitions and intonations that conjure the vision of an empty city that can be explored and temporarily occupied but not inhabited, Bowen’s description of Kôr, as a still image, spot-lit and carefully manipulated to create the effect of wideness, voidness, and purity, provides an escape that also offers a means of engaging with and resisting the political realities of war.
The question of where people would sleep, what spaces they would occupy, was particularly fraught for Londoners during the war. Not only did people find shelter in Underground tube stations, basements, and church crypts—a phenomenon that Brandt photographed for the Ministry of Information in a well-known series that includes Elephant and Castle Shelter (Fig. 7)—but also, when this story was first published in January 1944, parts of France were still occupied by German forces, and had recently been occupied by Italian forces.
This dislocation is reflected in the presence of the three French soldiers who momentarily appear at the beginning of “Mysterious Kôr,” searching for a hostel they cannot find. Indeed, with the enemy so close across the Channel, the potential for German invasion and occupation was a threat from very early on in the war.15 The emptiness of Kôr, and of Brandt’s cityscapes, while they invite occupation as a form of retreat through an imaginative projection into their still, void streets, also suggest the transience of any occupation. The quiet exposures of their images register a sense of duration and permanence, but of buildings rather than people. As the supernatural mingles with reality, as emotions build and are released, as temporalities cross, and as interpretations accrue, there is a sense of respite in the knowledge that occupation is only temporary. While not apocalyptic celebrations of the end of human civilization, the images of London presented by Bowen and Brandt, enabled by a Pictorialist aesthetic, suggest an indeterminacy at once restless and restful, as well as deeply disquieting.
These artists’ wartime scenes are at times eerily reminiscent of the bomber’s-eye-view of a target city; in a time of total war, their largely uninhabited streets might even seem to collude with the widespread strategy of erasing urban masses from cities through bombing campaigns. In each case there is a fantasy of erasure, yet for Bowen and Brandt, this fantasy is a liberating rather than a violent one; their “pictures” of London explore the freedom of eluding visibility and indexicality, while structures endure. One of Brandt’s most well-known and recognizable photographs is of Stonehenge, taken in the winter of 1947. Positioned between a field of snow that composes the foreground and a darkly luminous backdrop of clouds that obscure, and are broken up by, sunlight, the stones seem like black paper cut-outs with a flattened symmetry yet cryptic, solid obduracy. In 1949 this photograph was published on the cover of an issue of Picture Post, above the monumentally posed question: “Where Stands Britain?” Paul Delaney suggests that “London’s mightiness created the need to find a balance for it in the English countryside,” and that Brandt’s landscapes may have been empty to “compensate for the city, where people could never be avoided” (203). While he does make an exception to this dichotomy between country and city—that exception being Brandt’s moonlit photographs of London during the war, Delaney goes on to maintain that by “eliminating every trace of present occupation, Brandt showed Stonehenge as the ancient capital of another Britain. This mystical realm could be imagined as what had guaranteed the survival of modern Britain in the ordeal it had just endured” (203).
As we have seen, the city of London itself offered “spaces of time” for contemplation, danger, and refreshment in between the “stupefying” acts of the World War, with its “headlines and broadcasts [that] came down and down” in “hammerlike chops, with great impact but, oddly, little reverberation” (Postscript 219). What partly, at least, “guaranteed the survival of modern Britain” was to be found in the non-mystical realm—within the modern capital of which Bowen and Brandt were occupants and to which they claimed a deep allegiance. In other works of the 1940s, we can see, as Plain describes, how “the public and historical could only be comprehended through the lens of the personal, with the result that, from the ennui of the phoney war to the crisis of the Blitz and the longeurs of the long haul, the conflict’s documentary record” became a “profoundly domestic affair,” with its impacts “refracted through personal relations and the incremental minutiae of daily life” (44). However, there is another perspective on and picturing of wartime London that is profoundly un-domestic, depersonalized, and thrillingly, reassuringly strange. The resistant Pictorialism of Bowen and Brandt offered the potential, within Pictorialism’s seeming sleepiness, for enlivening movement, ghostly transit, and an unsettled indeterminacy that refuses to be flattened. Their wartime works are as fraught as they are freeing, and surprisingly refresh the territory of war as experienced on the home front.
1 See the “Technical Data” section of Camera in London (89–90).
2 Bowen uses the term “staticness” in her “Notes on Writing a Novel,” Picture and Conversations (177).
3 Paul Delaney, in his study of Brandt’s life and work, notes that during the war, “danger came by night. The city’s first defense was to extinguish every glimmer of light, in the hope that German bombers might lose themselves in a vast, featureless expanse. The most dangerous nights were those of clear weather, and a full moon, when the German raiders could orient themselves by the Thames and such great buildings as Battersea power station or St Paul’s Cathedral” (165–66).
4 “In notes for a 1976 exhibition catalogue, Brandt said that he was born in London in 1904, to parents of Russian origin. Only the date was true” (Delaney 14).
5 According to the biography of Bill Brandt on the Victoria and Albert Museum website, Bowen was “one of Brandt’s favourite writers." Thomas S. Davis mentions Brandt with Bowen when discussing the “conspicuous absence of the injured and the dead” as “one of the more noticeable changes in Second World War” from First World War works (147), yet he does not explore their connection further. He writes, “The damaged city supplied late modernism with ‘a surreal landscape in which repressed fears and dark emotions erupted through the fissures of everyday life.’ Commenting on their aesthetic appeal, Bill Brandt remembered how ‘the bombed ruins made strangely shaped silhouettes.’ They decorate the landscape of Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories, figure heavily in the poetry of David Gascoyne and the New Apocalypse poets, and they become central in Graham Sutherland’s paintings and in the photographic work of Cecil Beaton and Brandt” (159).
6 As Hermione Lee describes Bowen’s wartime activities, “Like the heroine of her next novel, she was in the thick of everything. She volunteered as an ARP warden for Marylebone, and Alan Cameron joined the Home Guard. During the Blitz, their area of London was badly bombed, and they once had to evacuate Clarence Terrace in the middle of the night....In July 1944 their house was blown hollow inside by a V1, and they moved out until October of that year” (149).
7 Woolf, The Years: “A feeling of great calm possessed her. It was as if another space of time had been issued to her, but, robbed by the presence of death of something personal, she felt—she hesitated for a word; ‘immune?’ Was that what she meant? Immune, she said, looking at a picture without seeing it. Immune, she repeated” (214).
8 “Dreams by night, and the fantasies—these often childishly innocent—with which formerly matter-of-fact people consoled themselves by day were compensations. Apart from them, I do not think that the desiccation, by war, of our day-to-day lives can be enough stressed” (Postscript, 96).
9 As I argue elsewhere, there is a “dream of rest” at the heart of late modernism. In the period leading up to, during, and after the Second World War, a desire to find respite from the “shock effects” of modernity and from the exhaustion of war becomes more powerful, more collective, and perhaps more understandable than ever before.
10 "Brandt’s Pictorialism” in Bill Brandt: Selected Texts and Bibliography (1–26). See also Lee Ann Daffner’s “‘No Rules’: An Illustrated Glossary of Bill Brandt’s Retouching Techniques,” in Bill Brandt: Shadow & Light (194–203).
11 Different versions of this image, as is the case with many of Brandt’s works, are reversed; as Sarah Hermanson Meister notes, “In many respects each Brandt print is unique because the pervasiveness of his hand in retouching his work—to correct and to enhance, with a variety of tools—means that it is rare to find two prints presented in an identical manner” (12).
12 Hermione Lee remarks on Bowen’s wartime style: “To get its feeling of tension and pressure, The Heat of the Day uses double negatives, inversions, broken-up sentences, and passive constructions”; which can “make for an evasive surface but for an impenetrable one” (158). “Such effects...express the oddness and dislocation of the wartime experience...These mannerisms deliberately establish a peculiar, fraught place and state of mind” (159).
13 Adam Piette, in Imagination at War: British Fiction and Poetry, 1939–1945, discusses the machinery of propaganda, myth-making and the routine drudgery of war.
14 Broadcast on Rider Haggard’s She, in The Mulberry Tree (249). Bowen insists that “The book She is for me historic—it stands for the first totally violent impact I ever received from print. After She, print was to fill me with apprehension. I was prepared to handle any book like a bomb” (250). The illustrations that accompanied her book included “an extinct, deserted city under the moon…” (247).
15 Graham Greene’s short story, “The Lieutenant Died Last” (adapted into a film, Went the Day Well?, in 1942 by Alberto Cavalcanti) imagines a German invasion of a fictitious English village by men dressed as British soldiers, and the valiant resistance offered by the villagers to expel the threat.
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