How to write (an occasional series)

I have in the past lauded Kevin D Williamson of National Review Online, for his remarkable ability to marshal facts, argue his corner and knock out umpteen witticisms in extraordinarily concise and punchy prose. Possibly his most famous knockdown was his commentary on the now annual State of the Union address, but it’s one of many. Here’s the opening:

The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live.

It’s the most nauseating display in American public life — and I write that as someone who has just returned from a pornographers’ convention.

He had, too.

That was more than three years ago, and this week Brendan O’Neill (1, 2, 3 ), hero of free speech and independent thinking courtesy of Spiked Online, has his say in the Spectator, on Blair’s possible Brexit comeback. It has a similar ‘oomph’. Here’s the opening:

Here they come, Tony Blair and his tragic chattering-class army. The former PM, whose rictus grin and glottal stops still haunt the nation’s dreams (well, mine anyway), is on the march with his pleb-allergic mates in business and the media. Blair and the Twitterati, linking arms, united in their horror at the incalculable stupidity of northerners and Welsh people and Essex men and women and other Brexiteers, their aim as clear as it is foul. They’re here to save us from ourselves. ‘Tony Blair is trying to save Britain from itself’, as one report put it. Excuse me while I pop an anti-nausea pill.

Yes, Blair, the political version of Michael Myers, the nutter in the Halloween movies who just cannot be slain, is back. Again. Remember when PMs were dignified and would bow out into their cobwebbed corner of the Lords when it became clear the British public had had a gutful of them? Not Blair. He’s considering a return to the frontline of politics, according to reports, because he wants to halt Hard Brexit. He feels so ‘passionate’ about this, he says, that ‘I almost feel motivated to go right back into it’ — ‘it’ being politics, public life, our daily lives. Make it stop, please

I doubt that he’s the sort that would accept a knighthood, but if he maintains this standard (he will)……

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Snappy dresser O’Neill

The SNP: decline and fall (8)

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balloons

 

I’d like to claim that I got in early on the meme currently gathering momentum: that the SNP’s shrill, frantic and infantile yelling about independence is now proving counterproductive to their cause. In fact, it’s probably all over.

I’m not criticising a legitimate wish for Scottish independence – the only coherent argument for which is self-determination and sovereignty, not economic benefits, not social justice, whatever that is. And that same nationalism contains a very hefty chunk of naked bigotry and resentment, naturally.

By early, I mean last September, which was just the latest in a long line of posts over more than 6 years (for example) about the genuine iniquities of the SNP and some of their fellow nationalists. Not all, but a significant and vociferous mob, even so. They can make life pretty unpleasant.

A few very switched on commentators like Iain Martin and Gerald Warner (try this gem) at Reaction have always got this, the latter dishing out dollops of well deserved and very funny contempt. The newly liberated Stephen Daisley is now another, but they were all in a minority compared to the breathless respect delivered to Ms Sturgeon by very many hacks who know better, or should do, both in England and Scotland. Well, it’s mainstream now.

This post is the latest then in an ongoing Decline and Fall series (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7…), which shows little sign of letting up.

 

30.  All the best writing is from the Nats’ opponents

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@kevverage revisits an Eck classic. Love the “oil analysis” bit

True, the SNP and their fans can do a good line in ad hominem brutality, but if you want top quality lucid, fair and rational writing on the whole independence malarkey, you generally have to go elsewhere. I won’t quote them at length, but apart from the hacks mentioned above, try the done-in their-spare-time work of Kevin Hague, Fraser Whyte and Brian Monteith  (try this). These guys are essential reading for lots of professional journalists, with good reason. The three mentioned, by happy coincidence reflect pretty much the political spectrum outwith the SNP Collective Groupthink. Funny that. I have yet to read a coherent, evidenced argument for independence beyond the very narrow confines of the self-determination thing. The Nats know there is no economic case, in fact the opposite, they’re just not allowed to say it.

 

31. The UK is doing much better economically than Scotland, which may be heading for a recession. Also, better than the EU.

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…he has a point…

The first bit is a cause for joy, the second part, not so much. However, they’re the facts. Read Murdo Fraser here for a more detailed breakdown of what it’s all about. There are lots of reasons, but despite the ungrammatical talk of ‘growing the economy’, the appointment of gormless rabbit-in-the-headlights dropout Derek Mackay in the theoretically important role of Finance Secretary suggests that in reality the Nats will continue to be happy to dole out abuse to Westminster while hoovering up the excess cash provided by the increasingly controversial Barnett Formula. Scotland, viewed in isolation, is teetering on recession.

 

32.  Those pesky polls

Hot off the press are these two polls. If I may lift the details from Politics Home earlier today:

The Kantar survey found backing among Scots voters for the break-up of the UK has slumped from 47% to 40% since August last year.

It also showed that nearly half of them do not want a second independence referendum to ever take place.And barely a quarter of Scots back Nicola Sturgeon’s call for another breakaway vote to be held in either spring 2018 or autumn 2019.

The findings come hard on the heels of a Panelbase poll which showed the SNP is on course to lose nine seats on 8 June.

Honestly, what is wrong with the public?

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Scotland is not Hyndland

 

 

33. The Scots don’t actually love the EU. Why would they?

More polls, but in fact, any sentient human in Scotland might question why Miss Sturgeon is putting it about that the Scots love the EU. It’s hardly on everyone’s lips. At best people don’t really care.

The ScotCen annual Scottish social attitudes survey found that two in three Scots (67 per cent) either want Britain to leave the EU (25 per cent) or for the EU’s powers to be reduced (42 per cent).

This was a 14 point rise in Euroscepticism in Scotland from 2014 and 27 per cent increase based on opinions in 1999 when the Scottish Parliament was opened.

…..and so it goes on and on.

 

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…where did it all go wrong?

 

Free the serfs!!

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The Foundation doctors arriving at the hospital

In these exciting times, when morons/Lib Dems drone on about the entirely fictitious entities of hard and soft Brexit, I recommend interested parties to read a charming Spectator piece from last year: Reasons to be Cheerful. A symposium on the benefits of Brexit. All of it is good, with contributions from right across the spectrum of beliefs and politics.

Here is my favourite, because it begins to address a problem that’s blighted British medicine, the EWTD and the associated serfdom of medics in the NHS. It doesn’t mention the equally pernicious New Deal junior doctors’ contract, but it’s a fine start. The author is one of the great British medical writers, Theodore Dalrymple (AKA Anthony Daniels), a terrific writer and experienced clinician, with quite a fan club online (1, 2). Here he is:

No one wants to be treated by a dog-tired doctor, but even less does he want to be the parcel in the medical game of pass-the-parcel that is now commonplace in our hospitals. The European Working Time Directive has transformed doctors into proletarian production-line workers, much to their dissatisfaction with their work and to the detriment of their training and medical experience. It means that doctors no longer work in proper teams, patients don’t know who their doctors are and doctors don’t know who their patients are. The withdrawal of the directive would improve the situation.

Every working doctor that I know would recognise the problem described. Whether abandoning the EWTD (I would) and introducing a more sensible hours regulation would help is a moot point.

But we now need to at least have the conversation.

Easter Saturday: there is a great silence on earth today**

I’ve posted on this four times previously (1, 2, 3, 4), in part because it’s such an intriguing day.  Bryan Appleyard tweeted 3 years ago: Easter Saturday, a catastrophic, hopeless day of no hope. Some say all Beckett’s work takes place on Easter Saturday. I guess that hopelessness is how it felt back then, around 1984 years ago. But if you’re a believer it’s different – you know what’s coming. This astoundingly good Mantegna painting sums up the Appleyard view…

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Mantegna, Lamentation of Christ, 1480. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

……it looks to be all over. But the mysterious activities behind the scenes, so to speak, on this Saturday are Christ entering hell, as seen in this engraving, also by Mantegna. Note that Christ is trampling down the gates of hell, with the souls in limbo waiting expectantly through the open door…

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Mantegna, Descent into Limbo, ~1475, V&A collection

..and you may ask what that’s all about? I went into the background to it here. It’s decribed in the Catechism as the “last stage of Jesus’ messianic mission”, to “preach even to the dead”. It’s produced some pretty flamboyant painting, such as this derivation of Rubens, Bosch and other Low Country painters…

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Jan Brueghel the elder, Rottenhammer, Christ’s Descent into Limbo, 1597. Mauritshuis, The Hague

Easter Saturday then is quite a day. The transient attempted secularising of Easter makes no difference to these awesome traditions and beliefs. Here is a fine blog post on the Limbo thing and its depiction, if you’re interested, and also a great study of the ‘Appleyardian’ view in painting.

** the title is from the famous and highly poetic sermon of Melito of SardisSomething strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lent and Pasolini

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If I may rehash a film cliche: what can a gay Marxist atheist anticlerical football fan teach us about Lent? Well, quite a lot actually.

I have to admire Pier Paolo Pasolini whose range of subjects is pretty remarkable. His so called ‘Trilogy of Life’ is near the knuckle but amazingly evocative of those ages and places that it wishes to depict: medieval England and Italy and the timeless exoticism of Arabia. His gross and grotesque Salo is in its deeply unpleasant way a serious film. Given its inspiration and setting, if it was remade today it would be called Raqqa.

The man had a distinctive cinematic style, and like his fellow Italian Sergio Leone, he was an absolute master of the human face. The most ordinary of people become gripping subjects instantly. Emotion is routinely underplayed, and is the more powerful because of it.

When it comes to Lent, the key is his remarkably pure and beautiful Gospel According to St Matthew (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). At a stroke Pasolini went from being in trouble with the Church and others for Accatone and Ro.Go.Pa.G to being justifiably feted by the Vatican for this movie, described in 2014 by L’Osservatore Romano as “…the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema”, although when it came out 50 years earlier, some of the church old guard had struggled with the idea that Pasolini could do this in all sincerity. But he did.

Why specifically Lent, given that the movie tells the story of the whole of St Matthew’s Gospel? The answer lies in Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, praying and fasting, which is the most recent and most striking of the various allusions in scripture to Lent as we know it today. There he is tempted by Satan, and dismisses him with pointed references to the Old Testament.

In this film Pasolini typically used a lot of locals with no acting pedigree. He scattered in various acquaintances from his intellectual salon, and also his own mother. The locals are from Crotone, Matera, and Massafra, which is that primitive part of Southern Italy that stands in for ancient Palestine – totally convincingly. However, the desert sequence was filmed on Mount Etna, and it works brilliantly. The emptiness interrupted by the distant figure of Satan, walking purposefully towards Jesus, the dust billowing in his wake resembling, possibly intentionally,  sulphurous fumes. Satan himself is startling and charismatic, portrayed in the most understated way yet brimming with both evil and, one senses, confusion. Weirdly, this is the one main actor in the film who goes uncredited, as far as I can ascertain.

Other people find other scenes more compelling, but this desert sequence does it for me. Pasolini moved on to other things, some mentioned at the start, and got himself disapproved of again. However, he never disavowed his fascination with Christ and his teaching, seeing it in terms of its superficial similarities to socialism and more convincingly,  Jesus as a revolutionary, of a unique kind. He often mused on this paradox: “I am anticlerical (I’m not afraid to say it!)… but it would be insane on my part to deny the powerful influence religion has exerted on me”….“I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer—at least not consciously.”

Which is fair enough. But this man of contradictions was also anti-drugs, anti-establishment and remarkably, completely anti-abortion. This is from when he opposed the legalisation of abortion in Italy in 1975: “I am however shocked at the idea of legalizing abortion, because, as many others, I consider it a legalization of homicide. In my dreams and in my everyday behaviour – an attitude common to all human beings – I live my prenatal life, my being happily immersed in the waters: I know that I existed then. I will stop here, because I have more urgent things to say on abortion. That life is sacred is an obvious thing: it is a principle even stronger than any principle of democracy, and it is useless to repeat it.”

He also portrayed the actuality of hell in one scene from The Canterbury Tales, in a mind blowing mix of Hieronymus Bosch, the Carry On movies and Dante’s Inferno. One thing he gets right, based on the popular imagination, is the deafening, screeching noise of hell.

Having said that, the real Satan, who affects us all, is the one in the desert.

The SNP: decline and fall (7)

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Er….

Perhaps the neatest summary of the state of play of the SNP in power is from the erudite and perceptive farmer/historian/Hellenophile/linguist, Victor Davis Hanson. He is describing the then mayor of NYC, billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s inadequacy in the basic tasks that he’d been given:

The Bloomberg syndrome is a characteristic of contemporary government officials. When they are unwilling or unable to address premodern problems in their jurisdictions — crime, crumbling infrastructure, inadequate transportation — they compensate by posing as philosopher kings who cheaply lecture on existential challenges over which they have no control.

A second independence referendum is exactly that, something over which they have no control. Hanson poses a question, to which in Scotland the answer appears to be yes:

Do our smug politicians promise utopia because they cannot cope with reality? Do lectures compensate for inaction?

So with that in mind, here’s the latest choices from a cornucopia of SNP nonsense…

24. The creative use of the conditional

Thanks to Wikipedia for this: The conditional mood (abbreviated cond) is a grammatical mood used to express a proposition whose validity is dependent on some condition, possibly counterfactual. It thus refers to a distinct verb form that expresses a hypothetical state of affairs, or an uncertain event, that is contingent on another set of circumstances. So far then, regarding the fabled Indyref2, we’ve had:

The Scottish First minister claimed autumn 2018 would be the ‘common-sense time’

The SNP leader has claimed a vote on separation is ‘highly likely’ and has now given her clearest hint yet that Scotland could be just 18 months away from another vote…if that is the road we choose to go down.

Pressed on the timing of a possible second referendum while on BBC Two’s Brexit: Britain’s Biggest Deal, the First Minister said she was “not ruling anything out”.

Sturgeon said that if May failed to do so, then “proposing a further decision on independence wouldn’t simply be legitimate, it would almost be a necessary way of giving the people of Scotland a say in our own future direction”.

A Scottish Government source said: “We have made clear an independence referendum is very much on the table as an option if it becomes clear it is the best or only way to protect our vital national interests.”

Ms Sturgeon has warned another independence referendum is “almost inevitable” in the event of a hard Brexit and has hinted she could name the date for a new vote next month.

…and so on and so on and so on. I know that the highly overrated Sturgeon – who must now be looking over her shoulder at a predictably unpleasant sight– has to placate the noisy zoomer fraternity, but every sentient citizen of Scotland is rapidly getting fed up of this political footsie.

25. An opposition that works (a bit)

Which, bizarrely, is a Tory one.

26. There’s still no money

Says who? Er…says Salmond’s own economic guru, nice guy Andrew Wilson. Which lead to the correct response (from @murdo_fraser), “If the SNP is now admitting oil is a bonus, it must set out which taxes would rise and what public services would be cut in order to fill an independent Scotland’s £15bn deficit.”

27. A new referendum has never been less popular.

According to this poll: A Panelbase survey of 1,020 voters for the Sunday Times found that support for an “indyref2” before Brexit — which is scheduled to happen by March 2019 — dropped from 43% last June to just 27% last week. The poll also found that 51% of Scots oppose a second referendum within the next “few” years.

28. The SNP are hopeless at governing. Still.

The dismal education record of Scotland under the SNP actually lead to that very rare beast – a productive Holyrood debate. As Labour’s Iain Gray put it: “Yes, our schools need reform. But, above all, our schools need more teachers with more support, more time and more resources to do their job. That is the core reform. Failure to deliver it is the defining characteristic of the SNP decade in charge of education.”

29. Alex Salmond declares war, or something, by invading a playpark in Aberdeenshire.

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He’s increasingly reminiscent of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, and if Eck thought this would be a credible photo-op, I fear he’s mistaken. However it did provide one comedy highlight of the culture that prevails in parts of The Democratic Republic of Scotland (see pics below, my thanks to ).

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Who’s Eck’s new pal on the right?

Political debate is currently dead

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Would anyone like a neat precis of the state of play in contemporary political debate? I should probably write that as ‘debate’, such is the atrophied intellectual atmosphere surrounding much of it. As yet there’s no sign of this changing.

Here you go, courtesy of Kevin D Williamson – who, it should be emphasised, is no Trumpkin. While he’s writing primarily about the US, it seems globally applicable:

The Left, for the moment, cannot seriously compete in the theatre of ideas. So rather than play the ball, it’s play the man. Socialism failed, but there is some juice to be had from convincing people who are not especially intellectually engaged and who are led by their emotions more than by their intellect — which is to say, most people — that the people pushing ideas contrary to yours are racists and anti-Semites, that they hate women and homosexuals and Muslims and foreigners, that they could not possibly be correct on the policy questions, because they are moral monsters. This is the ad hominem fallacy elevated, if not quite to a creed, then to a general conception of politics. Hence the hoaxes and lies and nonsense.

Phony hate crimes. Phony hate.

Short and sweet

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Twitter, as ever, rapidly provides an example

Obama and the groves of academe

You might reasonably categorise this as a trivial semantic moan (it is), but it’s been bugging me, so I will indulge myself. Here’s the problem: too often the adjectives academic and cerebral are deployed on people who lack much in the way of proof of these qualities. They have become a sort of shorthand for enigmatic and socially refined. The number one candidate, inevitably, is Obama, much of it centred around the nature of his emerging post-presidential career. I would imagine golf and money making will figure highly in reality, and good for him. It’s his gushing fanboys who misuse the terms.

Like most medics, I have had a fair bit of exposure to academia, and after the awakening of A-levels it hasn’t been too great a stretch in truth. One acquires degrees and diplomas in the course of things. Teaching isn’t tough, but being a really good teacher is. Higher degrees such as doctorates, and peer-reviewed quality research are a different matter. These things are very challenging and require a great deal of thinking, time, struggle, disappointment etc. I do alright with publications, but I have no MD or PhD and I admire anyone who has. I spent 6 years primarily employed by a medical school (though most of what I did was clinical, for the NHS). Genuine, productive, relevant academic activity is hard. You don’t wander into it, perform amazingly for a bit and wander off again.

So please don’t bandy such terms around unless you want to devalue them, as MENSA has achieved with IQ.  Here’s an example from Twitter. I was unnecessarily rude to @iainmartin1, whom I generally like and admire, as he kept putting superficial anti-Trump rants into the usually excellent Reaction (it wasn’t about defending Trump, it was the lack of any balance or attempt at understanding to which I was reacting).

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This is not, I repeat, specifically about Trump v Obama. My point is that it is very easy to assume the mantle of the sophisticated intellectual, whose mind is occupied by lofty thought, often in comparison to the low-minded alternatives who lack this visionary capability. It has an exact comparison in the NHS: people who claim to be ‘strategic, not operational’. The latter is tough, and is demonstrated by tangible results, the former tends to be associated with promises of a golden future and not much more. The classic visionary who caused colossal amounts of trouble was of course Tony Blair.

A similar situation arose with the ludicrous idea that had Hillary won, Obama could himself replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, hence gushing articles like this. Again, it is all about how ‘impressive’ ‘mature’ and ‘curious’ he is. Not about cases fought, heard, won, papers published, previous experience at the highest levels of the law – basically just what a dude he is. This sort of crap patronises everyone, including Obama.

Interestingly, if you take Iain’s point about Obama’s early career and mode of thinking (the latter phrase is a bit of a copout too), it’s not as glittering as you might have been lead to believe. Did he actually write his books personally? Do people usually get to the end of them? Are they any good? Neither is ‘academic’ as such.

If you do a Google Scholar search, there’s plenty of boilerplate almost certainly written by speechwriters and team members rather than BO himself. There is not really much else. Despite the hype around it, this piece in JAMA – and almost certainly not written by BO  – is not an academic paper at all. This, from 1990, is an adequate local magazine article, nothing more. Here is a fascinating if slightly bitchy analysis, by Jack Cashill, of the great man’s writing style and his output, it’s worth reading. Following on from that is a typically witty piece from a truly great prose writer, Bob Tyrrell, further deconstructing the whole Obama intellectual/reader schtick.

If you were wondering about his speeches, given his intermittently justified reputation as an orator (try this), well…they don’t read quite as well as they did in his Golden Era. I quote from Matthew Walther’s book review, starting with a strikingly Blairesque paragraph that also calls to mind a tedious NHS management workshop:

(we) are forever being asked with a steady, cloying, increasingly oppressive optimism to “rise to this moment,” to “have passion” and “a strategy,” to aspire to “a sense of purpose,” to “feel” things like “urgency” and “hopefulness,” to participate in “a conversation worth having,” to “summon a new spirit,” to remind ourselves that “change happens”—as if believing things or wanting to do them, considered in the abstract and putting aside the question of what exactly those things are, were a virtue

and

Its editors, E.J. Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid, set up our expectations very early—on the book’s first full page, in fact—when, after having compared him to Lincoln and FDR, they quote Obama responding to a compliment from Harry Reid, who had called one of his speeches “phenomenal.”

“I have a gift, Harry,” Obama replied.

Maybe, but I don’t think it’s particularly to do with speeches, writing and thinking.

Obama Speaks To Press After His Daily Economic Briefing
Spontaneous oratory in action

Things that I wish I’d written (1)

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Liddle, as he should be?

If you blog you have to hone your writing skills, and try to be concise. I’m sure that I often fail. However, you do occasionally sit back and admire something that you’ve produced with a friendly inner smug voice gently praising your brilliance.

There are a few writers though who consistently trump what you’ve done, and make it seem effortless. Wrong though he is about most things, Matthew Parris is one. Kevin D Williamson (right about most things) is possibly the dean of this school. Here is another, now a hate figure for half of the middle classes, Rod Liddle. Very funny, and peerless prose:

The remarkable thing is the change. The degree to which liberal lefties now cling to these most unlikely of heroes – a former right wing quasi fascist self-publicising dwarf like Bercow, or an investment banker like Gina Miller. Or a stupid bureaucrat like Jean Claude Junckers. And they do this because, I suppose, they have nothing left to cling to. Everything else is gone. They are left with these pathetic, bourgeois, right wing, half-wits. It really is all they have, so swiftly has the ground shifted beneath their feet. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for them.

Perfect

Great landscapes: Carel Willink

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Self portrait

I confess that I hadn’t heard of the Dutchman Carel Willink, and I owe my exposure to him to ace film critic, acquaintance of Russ Meyer, and all round arts maven, Anne Billson (whose extensive film database is a very witty and stimulating bargain on Amazon),

But if you like Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte, Lawrence Alma-Tadema or Paul Delvaux, then you’ll like Willink. Technically very gifted and versatile – his portraiture is outstanding – he had the ability to produce startlingly evocative dreamscapes like the one in this post. The elegaic mood and unspoken history in them remind me of neighbouring Belgian Fernand Khnopff, albeit the style is very different. Khnopff was inspired by the unique gloomy atmosphere of Bruges (which is still there, despite the tourism), and his literary parallel is with fellow Belgian Georges Rodenbach, whose beautiful (and readable) Bruges-la-Morte is effectively a symbolist novel.  In Willink’s work symbolism mingles with surrealism, classical landscape and technical precision. It’s an interesting observation that notwithstanding the Greek de Chirico, all this is very Nordeuropa, in a line that stems from the fantasy and improbable landscapes of Bosch, Bruegel and particularly Patinir, the most obscure of these three giants.

 

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Carel Willink, Landscape with fallen image, 1942 .Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp