Michael Ayrton Essay - Critical Essays

Ayrton, Michael

Ayrton, Michael 1921–1975

Ayrton was a British novelist, art historian, essayist, sculptor, painter, film maker, theatre designer, and illustrator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 61-64.)

[Ayrton] writes admirably about the process of making things. The best pages in ["The Maze Maker"] deal with such matters as repairing a boat, casting in bronze, building a table. He wastes no time in explaining the vagaries of primitive living, caught between the rivalries of jealous deities: the reality of Apollo and the rest is simply accepted, along with the mystery which cloaks that reality in legend.

It must be admitted that the legend becomes wearisome at times….

In general, however, Mr. Ayrton most powerfully evokes the ancient world. His thesis is that "the gods employ truths beyond fact and distort facts to fit these truths, whereas man distorts the truth to fit his superstition." Daedalus is presented as a credible human being who adjusts to his own superstition, much as the medieval Christian adjusted to a world in which miracle-working saints and malevolent witches were a part of normal experience….

"The Maze Maker" must be read slowly, if its intricacies are not to be altogether too mazelike. The modern world never intrudes its own attitudes or conventions. If this makes King Minos's Crete all the more credible, it imposes a constant strain on our own imagination…. [We] have to keep hold of an imaginative guideline if we are not to lose our way in the darkness of antiquity. But the gain is worth the effort.

Alan Pryce-Jones, "A Peace-Loving Man," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 5, 1967, p. 31.

[The myths of ancient Greece] are good stories or they would not have endured for nearly three millennia. But it is not their quality as narratives that excites the imaginations of … gifted novelists…. Other attractions, surely, are more important—among them, the challenge to create a new work of art out of old and primitive materials; the opportunity to ignore the multifarious complexities of modern life and to concentrate on the basic problems of all life such as the nature of courage, ambition, love, lust, power, and religious awe; and, perhaps most important during a literary era that exalts the symbol, the abundance of symbols in all the myths. These remarks are inspired by Michael Ayrton's brilliant, impressive, peculiar, and pretentious novel The Maze Maker.

It is about the artificer Daedalus … [and] is narrated in the first person. "I am a technician," says Daedalus. "I am no ordinary man." Indeed he is not. He is an architect, a sculptor, a painter, a bronze- and silversmith. Daedalus is both a superb manual craftsman and a creative artist. So one of the principal themes of Mr. Ayrton's novel is the pride, dedication, and self-sufficient isolation of the artist. (p. 56)

The lines between reality and illusion, fact and fancy, sanity and madness are never sharply drawn in The Maze Maker. Mr. Ayrton has tried hard to suggest the sense of wonder and the constant presence of the miraculous which played so large a part in the heroic age of Greece.

In some of his major episodes he is successful and creates a fine frenzy of piety and horror. Much too often, however, the emotional spell is broken, and Daedalus ceases to be a man of his remote time and becomes only a sophisticated and pedantic spokesman for Mr. Ayrton…. And many of his theories seem anachronistically modern. Daedalus says that he writes not for his contemporaries but for a distant posterity; he speaks to "you" (meaning us) directly….

Such exact prophetic knowledge of the future is dismaying. It breaks the sense of the past Mr. Ayrton has carefully constructed and excites only vexation….

The Maze Maker, then, is an uneven novel flawed by numerous minor lapses. It is sometimes dull and never achieves the magical power of Mary Renault's The King Must Die or Henry Treece's The Amber Princess. Nevertheless, Michael Ayrton, who is an English painter and sculptor, is as serious an artist as Daedalus himself. His accounts of ancient methods of bronze working seem intimately authoritative. The fabulous minotaur is superbly described, and Daedalus's journeys into the misty land of myth and magic are wonderfully imaginative. (p. 57)

Orville Prescott, "Architect of the Labyrinth," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 11, 1967, pp. 56-7.

[Admirers] of good writing know [Ayrton] as a first-rate raconteur and the most literate theorist in the art of drawing since Wyndham Lewis…. [The Maze Maker] is the old [Minotaur] myth retold, and not since Vincent Cronin's The Golden Honeycomb has an author got so near the strangeness of Daedalus's magic hand. It is, one suspects, something of an autobiography told in symbols and signs. It is a technical book about ancient sculpture, a psychology book about the ancient mind, a history book, and a book about the mind of the artist.

The reader will think instantly, after a few pages, of Mary Renault, for Mr. Ayrton begins in her manner, that off-handed familiarity with the past that has become by now more mannerism than manner. We are soon, however, into a mode of the imagination so strange and wonderful that there is nothing with which we can compare it. The first half of John Uri Lloyd's Etidorhpa—most peculiar of American novels—is the only thing even remotely like it. Lloyd, though, was batty, and Mr. Ayrton is sane. The measure of his sanity is in the closeness he dares with matters a less sure artist would keep a safe distance from—the first flight of man, the Cumaean Sibyl in action, the presence of the god Apollo in various disguises. Mr. Ayrton has the power to make us feel sources of energy, and the energy itself, so that his novel is an uncanny evocation of the artist's power. That a sculptor could transpose his talent with such success into another medium is as remarkable as the novel itself. (p. 1283)

Guy Davenport, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1967; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), November 14, 1967.

[The Maze Maker] tells a story, rich with incident and description and dialogue; it portrays characters who can be described and judged; it is poetic and exciting, imaginative and sometimes didactic. English critics have already praised it highly as a novel, rightly so. A historical novel.

Yet it is patently not a historical novel like those, say, of Mary Renault, with which one might be tempted to draw comparisons. It is even less the work of a fabulist. In a strict sense The Maze Maker is a long myth, the original creation of a myth-maker who employs the raw material of old myths to fashion a new one, as Daedalus fashioned his great works out of already available raw materials. Like all myths, it takes the form of a concrete tale about something that happened once upon a time and it can be read as such, as a story. But if a tale is a proper myth it also performs one or more basic social functions. For the ancient Greeks, arguably the greatest of all myth-making people, myth served to reduce the chaos of the past to intelligibility, by selecting a few incidents (believed to be true) which explained religious rituals or sanctioned royal dynasties or justified aristocratic status and power or held fundamental ethical implications.

The chief actors were gods and heroes, and even the gods were in a way heroes. Now comes Mr. Ayrton and out of the same incidents from the Greek mythical past he creates the myth of the anti-hero (and of the anti-godhero). He has done this coolly and deliberately, scattering signposts along the way, including a consciously anti-Homeric tone….

Throughout the book there is this play between the unheroic, anti-Homeric tone which Daedalus adopts in his language, and the full-bodied anti-hero which he is in his actions and in the situations in which he finds himself. (p. 35)

What Michael Ayrton set out to achieve—and has achieved—is to turn the "Homeric" value system upside down. The anti-hero is creative instead of murderous and destructive; humane and generous, never cruel, never indifferent to his fellows' needs and feelings in an unrelenting pursuit of victory and glory; capable of love and healthy sexuality; deliberative and ratiocinative…; a seeker after order in life; a man whose hands perform great deeds with tools, not with arms, who delights in combat with things, not with other men. He takes pride in his creative and constructive skills, but his pride falls short of arrogance because of his gentle melancholy, his awareness of his own powerlessness in a power-world. The career of Daedalus is dominated by men of power: they always have the final decision about him, whether he may stay or must resume wandering, whether he shall build a temple or a labyrinth or a fortress. He survives through his intelligence and his craft …, but it is always the triumph of escape, not of domination. (pp. 35-6)

It was fundamental to the Greek heroic and aristocratic ethos that the poet was inspired by the gods, whereas the sculptor or potter was only a craftsman and therefore of a lower order of being, a "banausic" man. The pejorative "only" is a focal point of Michael Ayrton's attack….

Only a sculptor and painter … could have written this book, which has a third level in addition to those of novel and myth, a level of great erudition. Daedalus can never resist displaying his knowledge and his sharp perceptions….

The Maze Maker can … be read straight, as a beautifully evocative, much extended, re-telling of some of the finest of the old Greek myths. But what a pity that would be. The mythical past still has an important role, and this new myth is as "true" in our time as the old versions were in theirs. (p. 36)

M. I. Finley, "Daedalus Lives!," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1967 NYREV, Inc.), November 23, 1967, pp. 35-6.

The sight of some of [Pisano's] enormous figures, "so eroded by exposure to the elements as to seem stripped of all corporeal detail" (and now housed for their safety in the Museo di San Matteo at Pisa and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena) overwhelmed Michael Ayrton to such an extent that they changed the whole course of his life, causing him to turn from painter into painter-sculptor.

[Giovanni Pisano: Sculptor] is, therefore—as should be and far too seldom is the case with all books on the arts—the outcome of intense emotional experience as well as long and loving contemplation. It is a work of piety and personal homage, the repayment of a lifetime debt. It is also an excellent book. (p. 29)

The book confirms what is so evident in Ayrton's own sculpture: his concern not merely with human values but with the whole cultural context, the world of ideas as well as of institutions, which the artist helps to focus, to form, and to transform through his art. (p. 30)

John White, "Marble Reverberations from the Fourteenth Century," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 9, 1970, pp. 29-31.

[Fabrications is] a collection of imaginative sketches from historical and literary models. Frequently [this] fantasy has echoes of Beerbohm. The first piece about a Giacometti bronze which adjusts itself to the space available can be read either as a pretty piece of whimsy, like The Happy Hypocrite, or as an immensely complicated satire on the drivel which passes for art criticism nowadays. The next piece, called 'An Imperfect Copy of Antichrist,' is about a miraculous book, half printed and half manuscript, whose writing changes under Nazism to be an indictment of the Nazis so that its owner burns it in terror. This rather more austere note is reminiscent, perhaps, of Wilde in the Portrait of Dorian Grey. Next, in 'The Ear,' we learn about the ear of the high priest's servant, Malchus, miraculously healed by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mr Ayrton invites us to imagine that the ear was thereafter endowed with miraculous properties of hearing people's thoughts. Chesterton might have thought of that.

[Other] pieces are less successful…. The impression created by each sketch may vary, but not the elegance of the writing nor the scope of Mr Ayrton's learning which leaves the reviewer gasping. Fabrications marks the return to an older tradition of belles lettres, where ingenuity and erudition are used to illuminate rather than mystify, to teach rather than to create a vague aura of cleverness and superiority. The book should find a place in every educated man's downstairs lavatory. (p. 844)

Auberon Waugh, in The Spectator (© 1972 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), November 25, 1972.

The English painter, sculptor, and film maker Michael Ayrton is a writer of unusual caliber, as I discovered some years ago when reviewing … his novel The Maze Maker, an opportunistic, vivid, and rippling "autobiography" of Daedalus the Greek protocraftsman. A piece of fiction less English in the conventional sense, by a writer still living in England, I couldn't readily think of. It was clear that Ayrton's prose was no mere avocation but a belated delivery by a complete man whose creative output is all of a distinguished piece.

Fabrications is a collection of 27 short pieces having to do with the labyrinth, not of one man's life, as in The Maze Maker, but of history reconceived….

[He] exploits his brainwave for all it's worth and succeeds, after Borges and Cortázar and Calvino, in fabricating extraordinary mutations of, and exceptions to, what supposedly happened. With the ordinary laws and ordinary rules suspended, he creates a "reserved area" of his own: a noetic reservation with no horizon, in which scores of incalculable fugitives can be found at play (in retreat from myth, theology, musicology, biography, rumor, slander, eye-witness—you name it). His manner is ascetic, sometimes mandarin, but its dry suavity fits his matter well; after all, Ayrton is teasing us here, insinuating that things were not thus but otherwise, and his circumspection is the foil to his essentially deviant view of history….

Wry saliences and preposterous incidentals enliven the fabricating no end. An art connoisseur falls from a scaffold he's mounted in order to inspect a canvas by a painter who also fell from a scaffold. Sousa came into being as a Yorkshireman, Sam Ogden, whose baggage was stenciled "SO" plus "USA." Attending a summer stock production of the Bacchae at a small campus in New York State, Dionysus hears a hippy asking him, "Man, are you high?" Ayrton also plays some clever, confounding games with mirrors and identical twins, with unicursal mazes and painterly perspective….

Some readers will find this tricksy cerebrality too demanding and too allusive; it isn't addressed to them, anyway, but to Borgesians who relish a mind game in its own right and can see how the artist's lies conduct us to some kind of truth, the kind in this instance being stranger, and, in texture, much more orthodox, than fiction itself. One of the stories mentions a person who "knows everything, but nothing else," the implication being that to fabricate is to enlarge an All we can't envision. Ayrton's plus we take on trust, or we lapse back into a traditional factuality which, of course, fits Sir Robert Walpole's remark, "Anything but history, for history must be false."

Paul West, "Anything but History," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 25, 1973, p. 13.

I wish I had space enough to quote a long self-condemning stretch of Michael Ayrton's The Midas Consequence; I'll have to settle for describing its excesses. Novels about sculptors … tend to romanticise and inflate their subjects: literary people are awed by that muscular non-verbal energy. The other chief danger is that the book might digress into lectures on art and flurries of name-dropping. Ayrton's novel doesn't fall into these traps so much as leap into them. And it's supposed to be a record of a film, so the book perpetually gives us 'voice overs' and 'frozen' frames and is sectioned off into reels, rushes, cutting copy and print. It is ineffably tedious, monstrous with self-regard, a book with no narrative interest or tension whatever, and so pretentious it makes your eyes water. (p. 930)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 28, 1974.

For Ayrton deep psychic truth grows and does not appear by revelation, and for him getting on with the narrative is a practical matter, a concentration on how to deal with the situation. The business of the artist—to find a path through the maze so that by example others may realise a path can be found….

He told me, quite emphatically [in an interview in 1966], he was convinced that the weakness of modern art is the absence in general of any central myth….

It is not surprising then to find myth in [The Midas Consequence, his] novel about a contemporary artist, references to myths, story-lines in the plot of myths and myths reversed, mythical deeds (rape and the ram's sacrifice), mythical motives; and one should not be surprised that Ayrton makes myths inspire a memorable narrative….

Ayrton knows his Freud and his Jung as well as his myths in history, as well as art dealers and artists. Perhaps the introduction of a film unit, attempting a documentary about [the protagonist's] life as he grabs it off, is too much of an artifice; but on the whole this is one of the few novels about an artist which rings true, and rings with a drama which will still clang in the reader's mind long after he has finished the story of people who are 'not waving but drowning'.

Oswell Blakeston, "Artist in a Labyrinth," in Books & Bookmen (© copyright Oswell Blakeston 1974; reprinted with permission), July, 1974, p. 92.

I will call him Atryon. He is a well-known man of parts: painter, sculptor, illustrator, writer, mythraker. He identifies strongly with Zobriel, a 19th-century French romantic composer and with Aircus, a classical golden boy whose wings came unstuck. And now he comes up with a novel [The Midas Consequence] about a certain Capisco, i.e. Picasso as near as dammit: a world-famous, cocksure artist who, having towered over the art world for half a century, has worked himself into the position of King Midas. His every dropping and marking is as good as gold….

Capisco is surrounded by creeps and hangers-on, and they all have their say. There is the earth-motherly second wife, the juvenile lead upstart painter, plus accommodating good lady, the coffee-table publisher, who tends to call the artist 'Maître', the ancient German dealer, the spinster art historian and the lush photographer, one of the Maître's erstwhile lays. They are, Mr Atryon observes, through the mouth of one of them, a 'rich tapestry of vicarious life'….

Mr Atryon's real subject is not the life and times of the old Maître but something far more elusive and mystique-ridden: the nature of genius, the process of true creation, in bronze especially, and the perversion of talent by fame and glamour.

The book is well-seeded with neat, though somewhat plum-on-thumb observations. 'I can only hope that, because I play with paradox you will not find me clever,' Cap is given to remark at one point. But clever indeed it all is. Mr Atryon adopts the disarming device of shifting from one identity to another in a variety of rather funny voices, without ever entirely convincing. Much of what Capisco says is like Molly Bloom arranged by Irving Stone….

Ponderous, essentially affirmative music by Zobriel, none other, will undoubtedly be used for the film of the book. Reading the denser bronze passages, I fancied I could hear the first strains stealing round me.

William Feaver, "Good as Gold," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of William Feaver), August 29, 1974, p. 285.

If ever a man needed a Boswell, it was Ayrton (and if ever a man would have loathed the very idea, it was he). He was a supreme raconteur and anecdotalist, each story honed and polished for maximum suspense, joy, and amusement, but the stories were impoverished without that mellifluous, ironic voice. Like most substantial artists, he was an egotist; and he liked to converse because he liked to argue, and to learn, and was in fact omnivorous for knowledge, craving the didacticism of his peers in other fields….

The wit and wisdom of Michael Ayrton were, I think, among the chief reasons for his lack of true recognition. They were too public, too flamboyant. A man who can perform in front of a television camera with greater skill and professionalism than those who are supposed to sit in judgment over him is not likely to be popular. A man who writes better about aesthetic matters than those whose principal livelihood it is to do just that tends to garner not wholly favourable notices. (p. 87)

The hero of The Midas Consequence, a novel published some two years ago to a strange mixture of derision, hatred, puzzled respect and wary admiration, is a very old and fabulously wealthy artist called Capisco. The anagrammatically inclined inevitably identified him with Picasso, but this was facile. Capisco did, of course, have much of Picasso; but, with a nice mixture of eclecticism and egotism, Ayrton had in fact created an artist-hero who contained fragments of Matisse, de Chirico, Henry Moore and himself. He was also, since the author was not exactly a man short of inventive powers, a character in fiction, who performs properly invented acts in a novel of great ingenuity, using a number of cinematic techniques and devices in a novel whose very framework is the making of a documentary about the artist hero. (p. 90)

If, in retrospect, The Midas Consequence is a less satisfactory novel than its predecessor, The Maze Maker, I suspect the reason is to be found in Ayrton's preoccupation with myth. In The Midas Consequence he dealt with modern myth which is no more than fame (and fame in the end, like Capisco's fabulous wealth, is transitory) while ancient myth is, perhaps by definition, sufficiently everlasting and permanent and could bear more readily the full weight of Ayrton's erudite inventiveness…. The genuine mythology of the classical past is safer and, because more complex, more rewarding. Both Picasso and Ayrton made modern Minotaurs, and I cannot help thinking that is why The Maze Maker, which deals, among other things, with the origin of the legendary Minotaur, is a more powerful book, and the identification of author and protagonist/narrator is total. (pp. 90-1)

If his erudition made him culturally eclectic, his dexterity and his acute feeling for both natural object and effective materials gave him a magpie-like physical eclecticism. He used the skeletons of birds in paintings and collages, the skulls and bones of animals in sculpture.

All his fiction, the two novels, the prose and verse fragment The Testament of Daedalus (the precursor of The Maze Maker and, arguably, the best thing he ever wrote) and his collection of illustrated short stories, Fabrications, a kind of visual counterpart and homage to Borges's Ficciones, dealt largely with artists and their relationship to mythology. Ultimately Ayrton was a mythopoeic figure. Once he had done the conventionally talented work on which his early reputation was built, everything that followed was deeply rooted in mythology and antiquity….

Ayrton was clearly fascinated with the nature and ambiguity of man and animal. The Minotaur was the figure that most clearly expressed his pain, while Daedalus and Icarus most deeply expressed his obsession with not merely flight but a quest for a mastery of stress, a desire to transcend disability and literally take wing. (p. 91)

T. G. Rosenthal, "Michael Ayrton," in Encounter (© 1976 by Encounter Ltd.), June, 1976, pp. 87-92.

The Maze Maker [is] one of the best of the many mythological novels written in English since 1955, when Robert Graves offered, in his two-volume Penguin Greek Myths, a handy compendium with-it and far-out enough to make the Hellenic legends interesting again. Mr. Ayrton's tale of Daedalus, supposedly written by Daedalus himself, picks its way nimbly among the scattered and conflicting classical references to its hero, ingeniously exploits Graves's jumbled treasure of semantic and anthropological explications, and—though the narrative turns rather mazy amid a welter of mysticism and interlocked symbols—repeatedly draws energy from the author's excitement over the art, business, and mystery of fabrication. The primitive craftsman's careful magic comes to life in a dozen procedural descriptions. (p. 227)

Fittingly, then, Mr. Ayrton's next, and present, volume of fiction is entitled Fabrications. Twenty-seven short prose pieces, fashioned in a variety of styles and with a variety of pictographic devices, propose to insert into the packed and stacked reality of documented history various shims of speculation and fantasy. Imaginary pages of actual memoirs are supplied…. The stories presuppose a reader able to delight in pedantry, with enough sense of history to find enchantment in its odd nooks and corners—Rome in 1001, Jotapata in 67. Embroidery of the archival texts is not, in this eclectic era, an unfamiliar form of art: witness the stories of Borges and Barthelme, the poems of Richard Howard and, a century ago, Robert Browning. As a cherisher of old oddities, Mr. Ayrton shows much erudition, wit, and spirit…. He is especially vivid, predictably, when he deals with art. Brunelleschi and Giacometti are seen interfering with the space of their time, and Piero della Francesca and Caravaggio deliver monologues that startle with their intensity—for Mr. Ayrton, not predictably, is an excellent mimic of dead styles.

Yet, though Fabrications pulls us willingly along from one conceit to the next, and a number seem perfect, something makes resistance all the way, and we emerge feeling that we have left the shop not of an artist but of a hobbyist. Why is this? For one, Mr. Ayrton's voice, when not engaged in a work of impersonation, gravitates toward an off-putting archness…. In flirting with clichés, he does not always avoid being seduced by them…. And [there is more than one instance] of the clarifying that stupefies….

More than a matter of an occasional careless or windy sentence, it is an error of tone, this trivializing fussiness of diction. In contrast, Borges (whom Mr. Ayrton several times names, as if defying an invidious comparison), though equally recondite in his matter, maintains a directness and simplicity of prose that carry us into the heart of his shadows and bestow upon his fabrications—his Ficciones and Labyrinths—the nobility of monoliths.

Nor are Mr. Ayrton's fancies uniformly pretty. It is one thing to bring Dionysus to modern America in search of devotees ("Cool it, man" is the greeting he receives) and another to have Kierkegaard watch the progress of Abraham and Isaac up Mount Moriah in an episode of a television Western. The former impossibility has a certain pith; given the existence of gods, this is how they might behave. The latter is merely impossible; given the existence of television, it could not have been turned on in 1843. The incongruity seems wantonly—even, with the attendant gibes at the Dane's theology, spitefully—produced. Mr. Ayrton takes too lightly his own dreadful freedom to invent what he pleases. (pp. 228-30)

John Updike, "Ayrton Fecit" (originally published in The New Yorker), in his Picked-Up Pieces (copyright © 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975 by John Updike; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1976, pp. 227-30.