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A Humument Long revision David Jennings

Powerful southern light: ‘The Hotel Room’ by John Singer Sargent

His most original picture is of a strettitoio — a sort of winepress — being turned by three straining peasants in a dimly-lit back street, the blood-red grapes staining the barrels and floor in shades of pale violet.

Sargent apart, there’s a rather ragbag feeling to this show — the curators have scrabbled around for any picture with a vague American or a Florentine connection, as opposed to one with feet in both camps. So you get the portrait of George W.Vanderbilt by Whistler; a terrific picture, certainly, a study in greys of a stretched, etiolated Vanderbilt, looking like an anorexic Proust. But, as the catalogue admits, Massachusetts-born Whistler lived in London for 40 years and visited Rome only once, ‘taking the opportunity to spend a few days in Florence’. So, yes, he was an American in Florence, but only just.

‘What’s this doing here?’ you keep on asking yourself of things such as a late-Victorian seaside picture of Shinnecock, New York by William Merritt Chase. Chase did spend a lot of time in Florence — and there are some pretty enough pictures by him of Italian gardens and olive groves in the exhibition — but why pad them out with an American scene?

You ask the question again of pictures by Italians of Florence, like the Lorenzo Gelati of the banks of the Arno near Ponte


San Niccolo, painted in 1869. Not much of an American connection here but, again, a lovely picture — of Italian fishermen standing by their boats, their bed sheets dangling from a washing line strung between two timber shacks. A charmingly pathetic Italian tricolore hangs limply from a crooked tree trunk. Down here, by the river, it seems the spirit of Italian Unification has faded a little.

Still, at the end of this curious exhibition, you do leave knowing a lot more about the Americans who flocked to Florence ‘randy for antique’, in Larkin’s phrase. Some stayed on for ever, like Hortense Mitchell, heiress

Yes, Whistler was an American in

Florence, but only just to the Chicago banking fortune that subsidised her art-dealer husband, Arthur Acton. When their older son, Sir Harold, died in 1994, he was held up as the last of the quintessentially English, white-suited aesthetes of Florence; but it was American dollars that paid for Villa La Pietra, his Renaissance palazzo high on the hills above the city.

Recognition of the American contribution to Florence is long overdue; if only this show had been a little bit more focused in highlighting that contribution.

In 1966, under the influence of ideas about chance, the artist Tom Phillips pledged to take as the foundation for his next work the first book that he could find for threepence. That book, discovered in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, was a long-forgotten Victorian romance in journal form, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. Phillips set about effacing the pages of this book with sketched line drawings and gouache swathes of colour. The result was A Humument, described by Evan Anthony in the early Seventies in this magazine as ‘one of the freshest and most original pieces of art-literary work you are likely to see’.

When he started on this unusual work, which inhabits a limbo between coffeetable art book and Finnegans Wake, Phillips at first held back, working on it only in the evenings, having resolved ‘not to squander precious daylight hours of worktime’ on what he suspected ‘may be a wild, all-consuming folly’.

Forty-five years on, what could have become a dated Sixties curio has not only endured but has also anticipated successive generations of thought about image, text and meaning, right up to the iPad era. Phillips is 75 this month, and alongside two new exhibitions and the launch of a new website, he is publishing the ‘Fifth Edition’ of his treated Victorian novel.

Revision is the essence of A Humument, or, as the book itself says, ‘the changes are the method’. From the beginning the text was reworked by being drawn over, cut up, highlighted and resequenced, and generally subjected to every adulteration imaginable.

In each new version since 1980, between 40 and 100 pages have been revised from the preceding edition. Alongside cut-ups and fold-ins, one of the trademarks of the work is the ‘rivers in the type’, as Phillips calls them, the thin lines of white page left untouched by his drawing, which join disparate phrases, words or part-words from across the original text into new phrases and blank verse. From these rivers emerge Phillips’s own poetry along with, for example, lines from Samuel Beckett that Phillips has found ‘lying latent’ in Mallock’s novel.

While sticking closely to the rules that framed its creation, A Humument has an uncanny knack of keeping up with the times. In the Sixties it read like a development of William Burroughs’s cut-up method for remixing text, along with composer John Cage’s use of chance music. Twenty years later, the work’s playful way with authorship, fragmented narrative and ornament embodied the spirit of postmodernism. And now, in the digital age, A Humument has the spectator | 19 may 2012 |

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