24 Jan 2021

Steph Goodger: Lusitania

The Abyss, the Abyme and the Proscenium


Just the name RMS Lusitania has a haunting ring to it. This Cunard ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1915 and sank within 18 minutes, 11 miles off the Irish coast, killing 1,198 people.  Actually the story is more complex than that, as there was a much debated second explosion which led to the ship sinking so fast.

Intrigued by the story of the Lusitania, I was doing some research and stumbled upon a series of remarkable photographs of the sumptuous, stylish, First Class cabin interiors. The photographs were professionally taken for advertising purposes, evidently before a single passenger had set foot on board. Not one personal item or object of human necessity was visible in any of the rooms. There were no signs of touch or movement, with every bedspread identically folded, every lamp identically positioned and every curtain drawn in exactly the same way.  According to Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, a photograph, in essence, shows us That-Has-Been. These photographs were disturbing for being like an empty stage before the performance.

During the first lock-down last year, I decided to make a series of watercolours based on these photographs, to explore what was so fascinating and disturbing about them. In making this Lusitania series, I became fascinated by the mise en abyme present in a multitude of ways in the photographs.  The repetition of identical cabins, visible through the open doorways, and the reflections in the many mirrors, made it difficult to be sure what was real and what was an illusion of depth and space.

Although these interiors were physically weighty, furnished in polished wood and glass, I wanted the watercolours to have an illusory, ephemeral quality, as if they existed as floating apparitions, without an outside world attached to them, as in a dream.

Abyme or abime, is inherited from Old French abisme, from the Late Latin abyssimus, the superlative of abyssus, meaning ‘bottomless pit’. The term, mise en abyme, literally means, placed into abyss. In Western Art, the term drily describes placing a copy of an image within itself, or inserting a story within a story, suggesting an infinitely recurring sequence. Famous examples of mirrors in paintings, creating the mise en abyme effect, include Jan Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, and Diego Velázquez’ Las Meninas, 1656.

In The Arnolfini Portrait, the mirror is thick, round and heavily decorated. It is a little floating spherical world of its own inside the painting. In it we see the back view of the sitters in a miniature fisheye lens view of the room. We also see ‘l’envers du décor’ behind the scenes of the painting.  We can make out  two or three figures, witnesses to the marriage perhaps, framed in a doorway. This doorway is not to be walked through. The painting has trapped it in the orb of the mirror and it rebounds in reflection for eternity!

Something similar happens in Las Meninas, except that Velázquez has somehow flipped the scene. He has situated himself in the foreground, in the act of making a different painting. Or perhaps creating the painting he is in? We shall never know! The king and queen of Spain, the presumed original sitters for a different painting, are now out the pictorial space. They are still present however  as a reflection in a mirror  behind the artist on the wall. Unlike the subjects of The Arnolfini Portrait, they are facing their reflection, witnessing their mirror image and caught in an infinite moment of rebounding gaze and suspended narrative. Velázquez has turned what was behind the scenes into the subject and turned the subject into a phantasmic image.

‘..Velázquez has arrested a real moment of time long before the invention of the camera…’   EH Gombrich, The Story of Art, (Las Meninas) P. 323

The double meaning of the mis en abyme, placed into abyss, has an eerie significance when you consider the Lusitania’s fate. In the photographs the Lusitania’s First Class cabins appear identical in every disturbing detail. There is something infernal about the very idea of one identical room leading to another and yet another.

‘.. the always rather anxious impression of “going deeper and deeper” into a limitless world..’  Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, chapter Intimate Immensity. P. 185

(He is talking about forests here, but I think the description equally applies to the cabins.)

As well as actual repetition, the cabins are filled with mirrors of all sizes creating a myriad of reflections- long mirrors on wardrobes, mirrors on top of chests of draws, mirrors hung over sinks.  It starts to get confusing as you study the photographs for a while. What is real repetition and what is reflection?   Is that a doorway or the reflection of a doorway in a long mirror? It is disorientating not to be sure.

The mirrored reflections also show us glimpses of the cabin beyond the frame of the photograph. From the vantage point of the photographer, we see the fractured details of what exists behind him, beyond the scope of his vision. The mirrors disrupt the continuity of the image, interjecting random fragments of objects, pieces rebounding around the space. When, as often occurs in the cabin photographs, one mirror is reflected inside another, a dizzying mise en abyme of infinite repetition is created.

‘Let two mirrors reflect each other; then Satan plays his favourite trick and opens here in his way, (as his partner does in lovers’ gazes) the perspective on infinity…’   Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Mirrors chapter,  P. 538

The First Class cabins should have had the best views available, and yet another highly disturbing aspect of the Lusitania photographs is their lack of any view of the outside world. It is as if there is no outside world. Portholes cast what appears to be daylight into the cabins, but we never catch a glimpse of the world beyond.

‘..The way mirrors bring the open expanse, the streets, into the café—this, too, belongs to the interweaving of spaces…’ Benjamin, Mirrors chapter, P. 537

This is never the case, however, in the cabin photographs. There is no respite as the mirrors reflect and re-reflect the fragmented interior details.

‘..If there exists a border-line surface between such an inside and an outside, this surface is painful on both sides.’  Bachelard, chapter The Dialectics of Outside and Inside. P. 218

The painful border-line between the inside and the outside of the cabins resembles a passage between worlds-  something like the trauma of birth or the struggle of death. Above and below are another, similar form of border-line. What is bright, ordered and abounding with life above the surface of the water, completely transforms into darkness, chaos and deathly silence, beneath.

Proscenium arches large and small abound within the Lusitania’s First Class cabins. They allude to the sense that these are nothing but stagings. Within these little theatres, the passengers will play out their roles on the stage which has been set for them. Under the illusion of land-lubberly security, they will dine and dance, sleep and dream, in high-class, art nouveau grandeur.

‘Nevertheless, the pomp and the splendor with which commodity producing society surrounds itself, as well as its illusory sense of security, are not immune to dangers…’  Benjamin, chapter, Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century, P.15

The ocean liner was at the apex of the industrial dream in 1915. It was the epitome of power, strength and invulnerability. A phantasmagoria (Benjamin) of power and strength.

‘Every epoch has such a side turned towards dreams, the child’s side.’ Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, P388


To see the images: Lusitania Series


Steph Goodger (b.1974) lives and works between Bordeaux, France and the UK. Steph has been selected for the John Moores Painting Prize three times, in 2020, 2016 and 2004. She has exhibited widely in the UK and internationally. Recently, Steph has exhibited in collaboration with another painter, in two public galleries in the Bordeaux Region of France: Le Pôle Culturel, Lormont (2020) and Le Forum des arts et de la Culture, Talence (2020). She also had a solo exhibition at Christie’s International Real Estate, Bordeaux (2020). In the UK Steph was a judge for the BEEP Painting Prize 2020, run by Elysium Gallery, Swansea. In between lock downs she also took part in the group painting exhibition, Every Day at Terrace Gallery, London. 





24 Jan 2021

Ralph Hawkins: 14 Poems

Oh What A Glorious Feeling

there was milk in the rain
created twilight
falling over happiness
she learned to dance her way through it

is that what we do en stages
stopping here and there
to study a line of idiocy
perpetuated by plight

a part two:

he was as a small boy
walking oft times
alone in landscapes
painted by Kurt Schwitters

a grotto full of relics
and a toy tossed boat

see you what there?

imagination apparelled

blood seeping from small frogs
and plastic ducks

the forest turned to charcoal

watching a dance sequence come to wet fruition




imagine being and not knowing of slime mold

it was difficult to distinguish in monochrome

at times you hope it will never happen again


dramatic music raises the threat level

there is mass bobbing on the sea

let flee torpedoes like a Toulouse sausage

a beehive in Blow Up


how to get through this

(fog) (time) (idiocy)

Gericault’s raft of tasty limbs?

austere judgement

keeping us entertained

if there is time to be so

and wholly forgotten

which is no time at all



Thus Sing A Song

looking at the grass in high summer

alone in the middle of a field

there’s a certain celestial mechanics at work

a fine star-mesh over all

a deterministic chaos

sweeps through business parks

a coloured tattoo of signage

high rollers buying up vacant properties

islands by the boat load

the rooms are without decoration

dogs one after another

swimming in the sea

made of red mud and rubble

plant life coming into its own out of the ruin

bean, wheatgerm and flower




linked to pioneers
he told the story
the singing of a bird
in the meadow

at five he’d go to the well
realising that the
of animals
is perhaps more
dreamlike than ours

water and air
holding a silver fox
to breathe slowly
and patiently,
the protein switch
coding our genes



Italy after Mussolini

ice cream
and then coffee

ships off the coast

we are looking

and I wrap you

the band playing
in the piazza

an alien fallen to earth

swimming in the pool

clinging and wanting

handing me your hand

to buy a paper and
some hubba bubba



The Growth of Memory

tender displays
in a worn book

seals mate

or off the coast

yellow and bright orange
towards the waves

we are wrapped
against the weather

down a screed slope

your first steps
like a toy duck

to the ring road
and back again

you respond with




the hares stop and look, undisturbed

there are no fences

so the cattle can read the sea

the first eagle dips, dips again

the only store is filled with junk

you can buy knickers there

his eyes following you

waiting for the plane to land

they have gone now

left you sweating seeing

the clouds above hang below the buildings

and wander the coast



the duck wears shoes of tar

a little robin from the charnel house

and those wearing cone hats circle the moon

what a trek

I thought him honest but not open

exploring himself in his work,

in conversation he was guarded

he’d disappear for days

trying to punish those who loved him, gave him hot milk

who took away his dog

I don’t think, I said to his wife,

I’d ever met a kinder person

he worked at it, held out two sparrow eggs




it lasts about as long
all the effort
as lilies in a vase
set in a window

I fetched him a coffee
and something to ease the pain
the child distracted
kicking his shoe

but without him
I would never be with you,

my friend asked me
if I ever wanted to return

I enjoyed the park

on the look out
for expensive clothes
and well-bred dogs

learning Latin in the evening




the whistle of the wind
as sharp sand
through the trees

the fallen blossom
splitting the river

counting the days’ numbers
in percentages and footfall

the winter wood stacked
meeting the melting sky

Ah, coming in for
the news, he says
I’ve seen this one before

extras from Exodus
or Lifeboat

the sea’s inflatable hope



Bunter Goes Way Back

a crème anglaise sky hung in the boardroom

William of Orangeade one in a line of twats

the trees go far back towards the conker rule, escorted by slaves

his horse Noddy wearing a bright shabracque

I felt a ripe lemon in Orange County*

I have visited Lemon City**

he poured it over a sweet pudding of oranges

his porcupines lined up in the bedroom

I waver between understanding and anger

shaking the dust into the crowded ether

the poet’s husband waiting in the wings

from a high window they throw scraps as they have ever done

they feel the pressure mount but they know it will pass

Bunty sucking a lolly ready for a perm

humming my sticking-pin curse into their parliamentary hobbies





Banking on You

I saw her
the other day

I wondered
at what she felt

and the girls

a life he gave up

a necessity as to
who he thought
he was, could be

the extremes of
which seemed never
to leave him

the girls running
through a wheat field
the dog, happy

the snipe placed in a box
and buried

turning his back
on the estuary

outside an ATM



The Tree fosters a line of Mushrooms

when we are gone said a little bird who will fly

marry with the dropped ash, spores

we are careful as though stopped and afeared

peeping from an eyehole from a closing membrane

the sun O the sun’s piping of golden sand

and the girl, my niña, with her hoop running

I am shrunk into what I think, the little bird

a meadow pipit one to another again and again

breaks a little free from one curtain to another, anxious

there is no answer turning the soil over and over

take these moments in, a blackbird and then a robin




frost gathers
at the base of the mountain
the toes tingle

the wool is coated
dragged off the sheep
and mixed with polyester

the kettle hisses
‘cuppa’ standing by the door
she listens for the howl

waste upon waste
of ululation, damaged birds

move south in large numbers
pendent over cavity
they begin home building

far off Fuji glitters
on framed wall hangings
the window reflects
a concluding sky
discernible you are
a small dot on a large wave

studying a tide table



Ralph Hawkins latest work is leaf o little leaf from Oystercatcher Press 2019. Recent work can be found in Snow, The Fortnightly Review and Litter.

Current Projects

Glasfryn Project

+44(0)1873 810456 | LYN@GLASFRYNPROJECT.ORG.UK