Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Siren City

I popped into the elegantly bijou Estorick Collection the other day to see their latest exhibition: Siren City, photographs of Naples taken by Johnnie Shand Kydd.

It played, quite beautifully, to just about every preconception you might have about the city. Use of black-and-white film and an old camera (a Rolleiflex - I made a note as I now know how interested some are in this sort of thing) has given the images a timeless quality; subjects looked as if they'd stepped out of a film by Visconti or Norman Lewis's classic Naples '44 or even a Caravaggio.

The city itself looked strikingly unimproved, its people living in a present that seemed very like the past. And it's not just a case of artful photography. Old buildings - even sacred buildings: goal posts painted onto church gates, for instance - didn't look as if they'd been taken out of circulation in order to be conserved and revered; rather, they gave the appearance of being carelessly consumed.

It seemed very different to a city such as Paris, where one is too often conscious of looking at places that might be under glass; on display for the tourist and antiquarian rather than there for the unselfconscious use of the descendants of those who built them and first inhabited them.

Under-investment as a product of poverty and corruption is, I think, the main reason one receives this impression of Naples. Money applied rigorously and rationally brings a tidying up and a sorting out - of people as well as buildings - but it can tend to degrade a lived environment into empty heritage. Paris's Marais and Les Halles districts testify to the dangers of this approach - places once full of messy life that are now sterile and rather boring.

Mind you, the old-time poverty of a community often looks a lot less romantic from the other side of the lens. An improvement of the built environment is something poor Neapolitans - struggling with inadequate accommodation, unreliable services and other, sometimes dangerous, aspects of the area's poverty and corruption - would undoubtedly welcome. The trick is to put the money in without losing the people or, what we might sentimentally call, the spirit of a place. This seems to be a difficult one to pull off. Not that in Naples' case there seems any prospect of things changing for better or worse.

The images are exotically compelling and my reservations added to their interest: well worth a visit (as is the courtyard café!). The exhibition closes on September 12th.


  1. It has to be said though Gaw, it does honk a bit. You can't whack the old twin reflexers, ask old Fox-Appleyard.
    As for Naples, the movie Gomorah lifts a corner, well worth seeing. Lance Bombardier Spike Milligan also gives a vivid account of the area, pre his hollies at Monte Cassino, (Mussolini, my part in his downfall) this includes a vivid account of Vesuvius melting the locals.

  2. Naples seems like a fascinating place, but i'm glad someone else can go there instead of me and report back.

  3. Hello worm, wish I had time to pop by too, but it's great to be treated to a virtual visit and analysis by Gaw - looking out on rain soaked London, I'm esoterically transported to the Amalfi coast (not quite Naples, but somewhere close by... like Positano or Ravello)

  4. Shirley Hazzard's The Bay Of Noon evokes postwar Naples beautifully.

  5. Malty, Worm and Susan: I must say I didn't get any urge to visit the city. Being a remote tourist seemed enough. And thanks for the recommendation Nige (already ordered for 1p on Amazon!).