The Five Blogs of Christmas IV – The Art of Ambiguity

My muse takes me to the subject of architecture, psychoses and the joy of leaving people guessing


Readers of this blog may have noticed that I delight in the equivocal; indeed I find some of greatest artistic genius to be where the audience cannot quite nail down what it is they are supposed to be interpreting from something – or better yet, where several viewers will argue vociferously that they do understand it, but they cannot agree on what it is.

History of Art was, as with any non-science undergraduate at Oxford, a pastime one was shamed into knowing something about. Architecture in particular, given our surroundings, was a prime amateur concern: we had, after all, buildings spanning a period of eight centuries through which to decide that, of course, the University’s prime of life had been several hundred years ago and nothing constructed since Keble had any merit at all. I marveled regularly at the vista along Catte Street from the King’s Arms, a view which took in the Clarendon Building, the Bod, Hertford, All Soul’s, St Mary’s and of course the crowning centre of Oxford (and the closest answer tourists have to the question “where is the University?”), the Radcliffe Camera.

When studying this building as a dilletante, I learned that, apart from being Gibbs’ masterpiece, it was filled with traces of his Italian Mannerist heritage. Supposedly this was reflected in the complexity of cascading lines from one level to another, which were never straight and direct but staggered. And this was all very interesting, but to me, as I stood there occasionally breathing it in from the corner near Brasenose, there was something altogether more genius about it: I could never work out whether it was wide or tall.

Buildings and their designers aspire to something. Verticality is clearly a feature of modern urban skyscrapers; three centuries ago, breadth was more in vogue. But depending on the angle, the Rad Cam would be either imposingly tall or strikingly broad. It poses the onlooker an artistic and intellectual question which they cannot answer. Moreover it demands of you an emotional response which cannot be easily defined – and your response depends not only on your perspective, but on your mood, on your psychology, and on who you are.

For some time I had supposed this was an illusion of my own creation. Perhaps only my own deep-lying schizophrenia led to this. But over the years, as the internet came to catch more and more of our collective lives, I realised that you could see this in others too. If I were to Google “sketches of the Radcliffe Camera”, it turns up dozens of pictures; and within these casual drawings one can discern the same uncertainty and lack of consensus amongst everyone else.

To take these six at random, one can see all sorts of Freudian influences in the proportions observed. The “wide” school revels in grandeur, but is at the same time intimate and close; the “tall” school is aspirational, but distant and cold. Do these characteristics reflect something about the artists? Do the “tallists” have intimacy issues, or are the “wideists” overly deferential? Who knows. But one would be hard pressed to imagine that these sketches tell us nothing.

So much for other people. Above all, this reflects for me the occasional brilliance – inadvertent perhaps – of James Gibbs. He may not have achieved this in any other of his works – St Martin-in-the-Fields is a fine church, and the Fellows Building at King’s splendid – but neither of them had ambiguity. None of them left the observer with more questions than answers. But in the Rad Cam, the glorious and unanswerable paradox perceived in the eye and the mind are on full display. Many others, including Wren and Hawksmoor, arguably never surpassed it.

To not know what you think yourself is unfortunate; but to leave other people not knowing what you think – that is genius.

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