The house is full of books. There is not a room in it, including the bathroom, that does not contain a bookshelf. Even the hallway has a floor-to-ceiling at the far end. 

The kitchen has cookbooks; the bedroom has those I’m currently reading or have recently read; the office has one wall covered with poetry, another shelf filled with classical authors and a third wall plastered, not with books, but with CDs. The living room has the large, coffee-table art books and all my musical scores. Even the laundry room at the back of the house keeps an overflow. I just bought a new six-foot-tall shelf for it to keep up with the onslaught. 

The question arises: Why do we keep so many books? What is the purpose of holding on to so many, even some we finished reading decades ago and almost certainly will never consult again? Is it simply hoarding? Is it nostalgia? Is it insulation, making the outer walls of the house thicker against the winter cold? 

Many years ago, my wife invented a term for us. We had gone well beyond  being bibliophiles. We were officially “bibliopaths;” it was now a pathology. 

I remember the home of a favorite college professor. I was young and in love with learning and when invited to his home, I marveled at the walls lined with board-and-brick homemade shelves, stuffed with all the arcane and exotic tomes of scholarship. I knew then and there that I wanted that for myself. 

When I was older, and indeed had upholstered my rooms with books, I also knew I had to unload some of them. It was too much. Not only were the shelves full — so much that they no longer functioned as decor, but as hazard — the floors, tables, chairs and refrigerator were also piled with books. If nothing else, the cat was in danger of being killed by a bookslide, an avalanche of tumbling paper and leather that might squash the poor beast into a stain of blood and fur on the hardwood floor. 

The periodic cull was called for. Going over the collection and deciding, strictly, that one-in-ten or two-in-ten just had to go. Box them up and take them to the used bookstore for credit. Or donate them to the library book sale. Or drop them unannounced somewhere worthy.

When we lived in Arizona, we piled the car full of these overages and drove to the Gila River Indian Community at Sacaton, about 50 miles south of Phoenix. We came to the old wood-frame building that functioned as the community library. It was closed. I jimmied the door open, carted about 10  boxes in, left them by the front desk with a note saying, “The midnight skulker strikes again.” And left. 

A few years later, we thought we’d do the same thing with a new set of supererogatory volumes. Drove to Sacaton. Found the library. But lo, they had responded to our first visit by adding a deadbolt lock to the front door and a chain-link fence around the building. So, we had to leave our books on the front stoop. And left. 

But no matter how many times we culled, how many library sales we added to, we always seemed to refill the cup almost instantly with new books — or newly purchased used books — often from the same library sale we had given to. 

It wasn’t only at home. At my carrel in the newspaper office where I worked for a quarter of a century, a bookshelf half-blocked the passageway behind my desk and the whole flat surface on which my computer rested was also piled high with reference books. The paper had a perfectly good library and three librarians to help with research, but I still felt that in my particular field — art criticism — I needed my hundred specialized books. (In my last years, the research was largely transferred to Google and Wikipedia and so the books became more of a fashion statement than a resource). 

There was a moment, after a divorce (this is a common story), that I decided I should pare my belongings down to the essential, following the crank advice of Henry Thoreau. I would lose all the excess accretion of years and be able to carry all my belongings in a single rucksack. I had decided that the only two books I needed were a Shakespeare and a Bible. These were the foundations on which all else was built. 

Of course, it never worked out that way. Even when my lady friend and I decided to take six months and hike the Appalachian Trail, and weighed every ounce of our equipage, I still managed to pack a complete Milton. 

Yes, it’s a disease. But there are good reasons for the libraries that so many of my friends and relatives also keep. At least four.

The first and most obvious is for reading. If you read a lot, you will naturally find your collection growing. Some people manage to obviate this impediment with a library card. For such people, the pile of books gets replaced weekly or biweekly with a new pile. 

But, if you believe that reading requires underlining and the writing of margin notes, well, the local librarian tends to frown upon such vandalism. So, you must own the books, keeping them after you have read and responded to them. Anyone who reads regularly knows that books tend to spread in the house like kudzu. It is these books that you must force yourself to cull periodically.

Second, books are needed for reference. Especially if you are a writer, you know you occasionally need to look up a quote, a favorite passage, or at least to cite the birth or death date of someone you reference in the writing. For an art critic, it also means a ton of art books, so you can find a particular painting by Monet or Fra Angelico. You might need to remember if the house behind Christina is painted white or left weathered wood, or if there is a cat or a bear cub sitting in the front of the dugout canoe in George Caleb Bingham’s Fur Traders on the Missouri (comparison with an alternate version of the painting in Detroit makes it seem more ursine than feline). 

Both of these initial reasons for keeping books are built on utility. And there is no doubt, the usefulness of books should not be sniffed at (although the smell of books is one of their addictive qualities). 

A third reason for keeping some of these books is the emotional investment you may have in them. This book was given to you by your grandmother — that’s never leaving the house — or that one was a birthday gift from someone you loved who is now dead, or this one was the first book you ever owned, when you were in third grade and were wild about dinosaurs. You can have emotional attachments to books just as you can with people, or rather, the books are a ghost of the people you have cared for. 

A corollary to this is the problem of once having culled a book you thought you were over, you spend your time and treasure years later re-acquiring it. Sometimes my only reason for spending an afternoon in a used bookstore is the hope you might glimpse a long-lost book you wish to god you had never dumped. 

A fourth reason is the neurosis of the collector. A good quarter of the books I own are parts of such collections. I have dozens of books about the photographer Edward Weston. I have loved his work since I was an adolescent and have not only many photobooks filled with his images, but some rarer books: The Cats of Wildcat Hill, California and the West, My Camera on Point Lobos, a reprint of his book illustrations for Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass. Several of these have actual financial value. 

Another collection is of books from the Library of America. One whole floor-to-ceiling shelf is filled with the blue, green or red clothbound beauties from that publisher, each handsome and beautifully printed. I cannot afford them new, but I sconch any one I see used when I am scouring the used bookshops. 

I also have complete, or nearly-complete collections of the works of William Faulkner, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Herman Melville — and I am beginning to load up on H.L. Mencken. 

The sin of the collector, of course, is completism. I am not quite so nuts that I want first editions, or all editions of certain books. A single copy of each work is enough for my completist heart. 

There are no doubt other reasons for filling your home with volume after volume. But if nothing else counts, it should be enough that books are a delight. Not only their content, but the feel, heft, the buckram or linen, the morocco or half-leather, the gold print spine, the marbled endpapers, the scarlet headband, the deckled or gilt fore-edge, the texture of slight embossment that lead type presses into the paper, the sound of a turned page. 

Although none of this matters like the world-wiping ability of reading the books to give you access to places, thoughts, cadences, structures, values, opinions, insights, that you would never otherwise be privy to. 

If there is a problem that I face now, it is what will become of these friends when I am gone? A collection of books is so personal that they, together, make up a portrait of their owner. There is a reason Thomas Jefferson’s library was kept intact to form the basis of the Library of Congress. Mine, of course, is not so reverend, and there is no one who has any use for this particular selection of volumes. What is lifeblood for me, would be a burden for anyone coming after, having to disperse my estate. And my estate is almost entirely bound up in bound volumes. 

In the meantime, I am not yet going anywhere, and my books are my dear companions.

People hate speaking in public; it is often listed as the No. 1 fear — a nightmare of anxiety. It is a fear I never felt. I love speaking to an audience. Whether it is giving a lecture, sitting on a panel discussion or moderating an after-movie discussion, I am in my element. Over the years, I’ve spoken in public hundreds of times. It is exhilarating and leaves me pumped with energy. 

Yet, that comfort does not extend to acting. I cannot act my way out of a second-grade pageant (when I had my first onstage experience as a daisy in an Easter program.) The problem is two-fold. First, I have difficulty learning lines. I can’t memorize them. I can paraphrase them, extemporize them, but not repeat them word-for-word. In most plays, that is a problem.

Second, I am so firmly constructed of my own idiosyncratic personality — that ego is so well defined — that I can never leave it behind to assume the mask or persona of a distinct separate character. I am stuck with myself. 

Yet, there were two times over the years that I have trodden the boards. There is a theme to the twain. 

In high school, I took a speech and drama elective. As part of the class, the final was an assembly program in which we put on a series of one-act plays or skits. We were each required either to act in them or to write the scenes. I did not want to play-act on stage, so, I opted to write a play.

Three of us did that. One student was a natural for the stage, and he wrote a gripping dramatic scene built on the Kitty Genovese story. The second was an incredibly dumb James Bond parody. And mine was unbearably pretentious and literary. I had just read John Updike’s The Centaur and thought I might update, in like fashion, the Seven Against Thebes myth and set it in a modern high school. 

We were well into rehearsals when our principal, having been made aware that my play featured a suicide (Oh! The teenage angst!), outright banned the performance, which I was both miffed at and also puffed with pride over — I was banned! Just like Henry Miller or James Joyce. A point of pride. 

As a result of my cancellation, I was then coopted into acting in the James Bond parody. I was made an English bobby, shot in the first moments by the lead character, James Bomb. I was to remain motionless on the stage, an inert corpse, for the rest of the play. I had one line and then — bang-bang and then falls bobbie. 

The moment I died, James Bomb was supposed to realize his mistake (he shot me thinking I was the villain), and he walked cross-stage to me, grabbed a glass of water from a handy nearby table and splash it in my face to try to revive me. Well, I was wearing this heavy woolen bobby costume and in rehearsal, the wet wool stunk and irritated my skin horribly. I had to lie there for the rest of the play, stewing in the wet clothes. 

So, on performance day, just before the curtain rose, as we were all standing on our marks, I reached for the glass and drank the water. I was so clever. And as the scene played on and James Bomb came over to splash me, and finding no water in the glass, he improvised. I had failed to take account of the full pitcher sitting next to the empty glass on the table. Our hero then ignored the glass and poured the entire pitcher of water on me. 

As if that were not humiliation enough, imagine me splayed out in my soup on the stage floor, my bladder slowly filling to the uncomfortable water-balloon phase, having to hold it all in till the curtain finally came down, went up again for the curtain call, down again and I could finally run down the hall to the boys’ room and pee “for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only seven minutes.” 

(I can’t take credit for that line: It was written my my friend, Doug Nufer of Seattle.)

 My next appearance, not an Equity production, came in 2005 in Phoenix, Ariz., as a bit of stunt casting in a play about a notorious local restaurateur. 

If you are not from that city, you may not have heard about Jack Durant, who opened the smoky eatery, Durant’s, in 1950. Decorated in whore-house chic, it became the meeting place of politicians, lawyers, and visiting Hollywood celebrities. Everyone who was anyone met at Durant’s. There was an in-the-know air about the place. No one who was a regular ever came in the front door. If you had your wits about you, you came in through the kitchen. Many customers had regular tables. Many a legislative deal was cut in the dark corners of the place.

Durant’s

Durant, himself, was more of a personality than any of his celebrity guests. A former colleague of Bugsy Siegel, reputed to have once bumped off a mob rival, married three or five times — the stories varied — Durant was ringmaster at his restaurant. 

Such a colorful character made for many stories, some of them true. Durant died in 1987, leaving his house and an annual allowance of $50,000 to his dog, Humble. The restaurant is still there, running on the ghost of its founder. It is still dark; people still enter through the kitchen, and deals are still negotiated over a great big porterhouse steak. 

In 2005, playwright Terry Earp did the inevitable, and created a play about Durant, called In My Humble Opinion, ironically because Durant was never humble — only his dog was. 

 The play was set in the restaurant after closing, a year after Durant’s death. The man’s ghost sits at a table, recounting his life to a passed-out drunk at the bar. The drunk was played by a different local “celebrity” each night. I was one of them — the local art critic, and rather low down on the celebrity list, but of course, the play went on for a month, so they had to scrape the barrel-bottom at times. Others who played the role included former Phoenix Suns center Alvin Adams, local TV star Bill Thompson and rocker Alice Cooper. 

My part had no lines. It also had no motion. I was to sit there, head in my arms flat on the bar for the full hour of the play. Not twitching a muscle.

I don’t know if you have ever had to do that — like you are playing dead during a bear attack — but it is not easy. Muscles begin to scream at you: “Twitch. Twitch, damn you. Shake a leg. stretch your fingers.” But, no, you have to pretend you are carved from marble.

I managed it, but then came the curtain call. I had to unlimber my limbs and stand up from the barstool to acknowledge the acclaim of the audience. My joints had become riveted in their static positions and to stand up required a full course of physical therapy. I wobbled. I nearly fell over. I was half asleep from meditating quietly for the hour. I tried to smile for the crowd, but I’m pretty sure I could only manage a silly grin. I must have looked like the drunk I played. 

And thus, my life as a thespian came to its rightful conclusion. Two motionless parts, lying still for the duration. And I never got my Equity card. 

The Morris Museum of Art

I have been out of the art game for nearly six years now. A good deal of the need for currency has sloughed off me. I was an art critic for 25 years, but now in retirement, I no longer keep up with this week’s latest and greatest. 

There was a time when I believed that knowing where the art world was headed seemed important. The biggest names were those breaking new ground, forging ahead into an unseen future of art history. Now, such things seem unimportant, and the concern misguided. For one, prognosticators are almost always wrong; we always seem to head in some new directions unforeseeable. When I was very young, the future of art was most certainly found in abstraction. Nothing was so disparaged as figurative art, and worse, art with narrative. 

Then came Pop. Cool, ironic, lowbrow and — fun. After that, bingo, along came Robert Longo, Mark Tansey and Cindy Sherman. Narrative and figurative — albeit with a great frosting of irony. There was politically engaged art, conceptual art, ironic politically engaged conceptual art. Comic book characters came, signing the Declaration of Independence. Then balloon animals made of shiny chrome. And, of course, the shark in formaldehyde. 

I am not writing to disparage any of this art, but to remind you that trends come and go. Julian Schnabel is first the new thing, then the forgotten thing and then the joke reference. 

But none of this actually matters. That is all stuff for the “Art World.” The Art World is only tangentially related to art. It is a parallel universe. The Art World in 1890 paid no attention at all to Vincent Van Gogh. Later, his paintings sell for million and millions. Did they get better over the years since his death? 

Making such judgments of art-value are really rather pointless. You can fix the price of any painting or painter at auction, but, like the stock market, the values go up and down. The art remains unchanged.  

No, keeping up with the latest shows, the hottest news, the catchiest trend, it has all fallen away. I no longer care. Let CNN announce the latest unfathomable number from the latest Christie’s auction; let Fox make fun of Jeff Koons. The art remains, waiting for us to see it for ourselves. 

I am reminded of all this once again as I walk through the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Ga. The Morris is a small museum, dedicated to Southern art: art by Southern artists; art by non-native artists living in the South; and art made anywhere about the South. It opened in 1992 on the second floor of an office building in downtown Augusta, by the river. With some 5,000 works in its collection, it is small by comparison with any of the Big Boys. 

“Candidates for the Horse Show,” 1893, John Martin Tracy

Yet, walking through its galleries gave me immense pleasure. There were a few familiar names, but most of the art was made by those with either regional reputations or little reputation at all. But what I came away with is the sense, reinforced, that there is an amazing amount of talent out there. You don’t have to be a brand name in a New York gallery to be worth the time. There is a great deal of art being made that is well-made, thoughtful, distinct and individual. Art that, if the cards had been shuffled just a bit differently, might well be the work we cover in the big art magazines. 

“Toula Waterfalls,” William C.A. Frerichs

I knew at least five artists in my years in Arizona who could have shown in any 57th Street gallery with pride. I loved their work: Jim Waid; Mayme Kratz; Marie Navarre; Anne Coe; Bailey Doogan. Actually, I can think of another dozen whose work I enjoyed. Each state has its share of excellent artists who just never won the Blue New York Ribbon. All giving great pleasure and thoughtful content. 

“Mrs. James F. Robinson,” Trevor Thomas Fowler

The Morris Museum features some historic art, mostly portraits from the 19th century, and a treasure of modern and contemporary art. There is glass and there are prints. 

“The Art of Drawing” 1998, James William “Bo” Bartlett III

The longest gallery contains the modern and contemporary work and moving from canvas to canvas provided me with one pleasure after another. This may not be cutting edge, but it is sharp enough. 

“The Merry Boatmen,” 2000, Terry Rowlett

The currents of Postmodernism are strong, but also the awareness of cultural roots. 

“Gospel Sing,” 1997, Dale Kennington

The artists represented are diverse; not all old white men. 

“Col. Poole’s Pig Hill of Fame,” 1995, John Braeder

The sense of Southernness is strong, and since I have been an adopted Southerner, deeply buried in a profoundly Southern family, much of it resonates strongly. 

“Tobacco Setters on a Hilltop,” 1938, Stephen Alke

If the South ever was the “Desert of the Bozart,” it no longer is. (Really, it never was — count your Nobel Prize winners, the writers anthologized in school texts, the “classical music” of America: Jazz. The South is more profoundly aware of its cultural heritage, Black and White, than any other region I have lived in). 

“Boundary Marker,” 2000, Kesler Woodward

We are misled if we think that art only counts if it is published in books. The fact is, that most of us only get to see the famous works in reproduction. But halftones can never capture the reality of a live work of art. You can gain more from seeing a lesser-known regional painting in person than from any slide in an art history class or jpeg on Google. The real thing is alive, not embalmed. 

“Azalea Cafe,” 1994, Shirley Rabe Masinter

Indeed, just the work you read about is already second-hand; the opinion you have of it has already been filtered and siphoned by those who have gone before. 

“Daughters of the South,” 1993, Jonathan Green

Seeing something fresh, uncategorized by authority, gives you the chance to discover it for yourself. Finding something unknown to the urbanized critics can make it your own. Like discovering a geode in the woods, or a Hermes handbag at the Goodwill. 

“Cotton Barn at Beech Island, S.C.,” 1998, Wolf Kahn

There are many such smaller art museums around the country. The Portland Art Museum in Maine; the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut; the Storm King Art Center in New York; the Brandywine River Art Museum in Pennsylvania; the American Visionary Art Museum in Maryland; the Delaware Museum of Art; the Maier Museum of Art in Virginia; Bainbridge Museum of Art in Washington; the Reno Museum of Art in Nevada; the Rahr-West Art Museum in Wisconsin; the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum in Michigan; and too many others to list. Check out what you have near you. 

“Rock Shop Billboard,” 2007, Julyan Davis

Most universities have art museums or galleries that are worth visiting. 

Pretty much any way you can get to see art in the flesh is worth it. There is an astonishing amount of talent out there to be enjoyed. 

Art is not some unimaginable enterprise reserved only for the cognoscenti. It is not something only made by the Enormous Reputations. Any art you actually get pleasure or ideas from is worth the time. And it’s all around. 

Click on any image to enlarge

It is a gray rainy day, cold and damp. I am standing at the glass door looking out. I am 70 years old. Yes, that is relevant.

Leaves on the ground, bare trees like leading against the sky, hands on the edge of being numb by the cold. I have my camera and decide to make photographs from where I stand behind the door. How many different images can I frame without moving my feet?

Each of the captures bears the weight of meaning. The leaves are dry, curled and brown. Some make patterns, but most are merely random scatterings. There is no avoiding the match between the internal and external worlds.

I am alone in the world. A lifetime of experience has built up a complex web of neurons in my brain, like interwoven roots. Those connections, alive with electricity, hold seven decades of memory, learning, disappointment, fears, joys and, perhaps more than anything, language. It is the means through which I most interact with the world.

Or so it seems. Yet, it is also imagery that carries meaning. I have been speaking since I was a toddler, reading since before kindergarten, but I didn’t begin making images until I was out of college. I don’t mean snapshots, but consciously trying to find visual analogs of emotional and mental states. Images as art, if that is not too fancy a word.

So, again, through the window, I see the tangle of vines that are axons and dendrites. I see the crisped leaves wet on the ground, their lives and usefulness complete. I see the trees as nudes against the colorless sky, a black-and-white photograph even while in full color. Naked we come into the world; naked we leave it.

The vines are not just a projection of brain-tangle. They are also the way I have come to understand the narrative of my existence. Once, it may have seemed like a simple story line — a plot with beginning, middle and an upcoming end. But the longer I live, the more the plot becomes muddied, clouded, balled like tangled yarn. What was linear becomes a Pollock painting. Where does my remembrance intersect with yours? Where does it knot, where disengage? We met once; which of us recalls? Or perhaps we didn’t.

There is more ahead. I write this as I perhaps begin a new adventure.

Someone, and I can’t remember who, once said that the best way to critique a photograph is to make another photograph. 

You can learn a great deal by the doing — a great deal more than by reading or hearing lectures. In the past, painters learned to paint by copying master paintings in museums (you can still take canvas and easel into the Louvre, with proper permission, to copy). 

If there’s any one thing that you discover by the process, it is that it ain’t easy. Things you hadn’t so far considered turn out to be crucial. I tried this many years ago, wishing to take black-and-white large-format photographs of waterlilies to find out what, besides the color, went into the structure of Monet’s paintings at Giverny. The color is so dominant in the images, that we too easily forget the form. 

There is form in them, but very like the harmonic structure of Debussy, it is subtle. The black-and-white photographs I made amplified form over color and made for very different results.

Years later, at Giverny, I made color photographs of the waterlilies and the resemblance to the paintings was much more overt.

This sort of copying, in order to learn, is something I have always done. I have a self-portrait, made in 1980, when my beard was still dark, that mimics Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet. 

Of course, Van Gogh himself was well known for copying to learn, such as his oil-painted imitations of Japanese woodblock prints. The translation from Hiroshige to Van Gogh tells us a great deal about the Dutchman. 

A portrait I made of Sharon Vernon in the early 1970s patterned itself on Degas’ Woman with Chrysanthemums. 

In 2011, I extended the copy to a series. As art critic for the daily newspaper in Phoenix, Ariz., I spent a lot of time at the Arizona State University Art Museum. It was housed in the Nelson Fine Arts Center, which opened in 1989 on the university campus.

The building was designed by noted architect Antoine Predock and won many awards — although there was a significant backlash from more conservative commentators who thought the windowless building looked too much like a prison. 

The building itself was a labyrinth of stairways, running up past others descending. There was a barred gate at the underground entrance to the museum, and many sight-lines that seemed to defy logic.

The entire complex is immense, and includes a theater, an outdoor movie screen and staircase that goes nowhere. But it is the art museum and specifically the entry to the museum that I was concerned with.

Of course, my source material — the Piranesi etchings (Link here) — are quite dark and airless. They are dungeons, after all. 

In contrast, the Nelson Fine Arts Center burns in bright sunlight, with bright walls. So, it would not be the murk I was trying to recreate in the photos.

Instead, it was the hallucinatory perspective that I tried to capture, the sense that up wasn’t always completely up and that down wasn’t always clear. 

I must note that I am not claiming for these exercises the status of art. Whether or not they achieve that level is quite beside the point for me. 

The point was simple and direct: I had fun in the doing, fun in the editing, fun in the printing and in the collating. 

I wound up with 24 prints, compared with Piranesi’s 16. The set, printed out on archival paper, I gave to the director of the art museum as a gift. 

I kept another set for myself, and I had the digital versions to arrange here for this presentation. At least, here are 16 of them, to match the number of the Carceri. 

I am also not the only one to consider the Nelson Fine Arts Center as a photographic subject. 

Arizona photographer Johnny Kerr has also attacked the building for a series; his series, however, is more consciously graphic, and sees the shapes and shadows as a form of Minimalist art.

You can see his version at: (Link here). 

Imitation, such as my meager attempt, is a great way to learn what you cannot just through cogitation. You get to engage with the physical world and see how it becomes transformed in the act of having its picture made.

It reminds me of Garry Winogrand’s manifesto: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”

But it goes beyond that. It makes the three-way connection between the subject, the photograph, and the long art history that stretches out behind us. Each photograph is a hinge between the real, physical world we wish to capture and its echo in the accumulated culture. 

Click any image to enlarge


Before the pot boils, it simmers. Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. The cusp of something about to be born. A rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. It is the ambiguous time between the discrete textbook ages of history that we name that is most interesting.

We generally name Romanticism in art as something that thrived in the first half of the 19th century. If it has a birth date, it is usually given as 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that seemed to be a clean break with the past.

Certainly there are other dates we could choose. In music, we often give 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In politics, it might be 1789 and the fall of the Bastille in Paris. Or Goya’s Caprichos, published in 1799. Picking a single date is absurd, because Romanticism wasn’t born like Athena, burst instantly from the head of Zeus. It wasn’t born at all; rather, it accumulated. 

And in the 50 or so years before we gave the movement a name, it kept popping its head up above the surface in odd moments, letting us know it was coming. 

Before Beethoven, there were the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Joseph Haydn, beginning with his Symphony No. 39 in G-minor of 1765. There was Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, that set all of Europe to sympathetic weeping and toward a penchant for suicide. In English, there was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, from 1764 that began a craze for Gothic novels, with their attendant gloom, rattling chains and ghosts in dungeons. There were the faux Celtic sagas that James McPherson published in 1765 as The Works of Ossian. All these, and many more came as a sort of antidote to the rationality of the Enlightenment. 

And, there are the prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These 16 etchings are sui generis in Piranesi’s vast output, and a fierce eruption rising to the surface of the simmering pot. 

Piranesi (1729-1778) was an architect, archeologist and printmaker who was fascinated by the ruins of Ancient Rome. While his architectural work consisted of a single building, and his archeology was more of a sideline, it is as an etcher and engraver that he became famous. One of the best printmakers of his time, his intricate detail and exacting craftsmanship were exceptional. 

Half his work functioned as a record of archeological evidence, cataloguing ancient architectural detail; the other half was as a profitable creator of souvenirs for European aristocracy, mainly British, who were taking the “Grand Tour” of Europe to flesh out their educations. 

These prints, known as Vedute, or “Views,” were in the Picturesque tradition — ruins covered in vines and under the arches of which lived peasants. It was a rich tradition in the second half of the 18th Century, and a bankable genre for artists wishing to make a good living. 

During this time, the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum prompted an interest in the past, including Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Gothic.  Johann Joachim Winckelmann was writing ecstatically about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Piranesi rode this rising tide and published hundreds of vedute engravings. 

Many of these transcended the reality of the ruins left in Rome and the Campagna and were pure fantasies of what might have been. The more extravagant the fantasy, the better. 

In the midst of these popular prints, in the late 1740s, Piranesi began making a series of fantasy prints of imaginary prisons, or carceri, built of immense dank spaces and torture devices. Each of the original 14 prints was roughly the size of a 16-by-20 photograph, large by most etching standards. But they were an anomaly, and didn’t sell well. Surely, they came a decade too early.

For, in 1761, Piranesi reworked the original plates, adding two new ones, and republished them as Carceri d’invenzione, or “imaginary prisons.” According to Belgian writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, they represent “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended.” And can best be understood as externalizations of internal mental and emotional states. Nightmares, even.

 

Plate I Title; Plate II Man on the rack

Plate III The round tower; Plate IV The piazza

Plate V The lion bas-reliefs; Plate VI The smoking fire

Plate VII The drawbridge; Plate VIII The staircase with trophies

 

Plate IX The giant wheel

 

Plate X Prisoners on the projecting platform

 

Plate XI Arch with a shell ornament

 

Plate XII The sawhorse

 

Plate XIII The well

 

Plate XIV The Gothic arch

Plate XV Pier with a lamp

 

Plate XVI Pier with chains

 

Comparing the first and second states of the series, one sees them change from rather sketchy drawings to richly inked, dark and menacing spaces, with architecture and geometry that are often physically impossible — almost Escher like. 

The 1761 version of the plates were enormously popular and were reprinted many times. They leave behind the comfort and orderliness of the 18th Century and look ahead to the Byronic, irrational and psychologically disturbing Zeitgeist of the early 19th Century. They are a harbinger, a precursor, a herald. 

They are a manifestation of the sublime — a concept fresh in the culture, with a translation, in French, by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux of the Perihypsos (“On the Sublime”) of the Roman author Longinus, and a book-length essay on the subject by English writer and politician Edmund Burke. 

The sublime is the profound psychological awareness of the immensity of the cosmos and vastness of nature compared with the puny insignificance of humans, but seen not simply as depressing or frightening, but as unbearably beautiful. Joseph Addison called it “an agreeable kind of horror.” It is awe, in the sense the word had before it became cant among American teenagers for whom a peanut-butter sandwich might casually be called “awesome.” 

In Longinus, we read: “We are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, of the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. A little fire which we have lit may keep pits flame pure and constant, but it does not awe us more than the fires of heaven, through these may often be obscured; nor do we consider our little fire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and mighty boulders or at times pour fourth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth. We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

And so, the Carceri cannot be made coherent and understandable. The prisons expand outward into unseen spaces that open again into other unseen spaces. There are stairs to nowhere, torture devices in the shadows, catwalks over bottomless pits, stones overgrown with moss — and many tiny, nearly unseeable figures, caught in this Kafka-esque labyrinth. 

—You can find a wonderful animated tour through Piranesi’s prison on YouTube (link here). 

And you can get some of the effect in reality in the actual Medieval prison, the Conciergerie, in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held before her beheading.

Mt. St. Michel

Or the rambling stairs and arches of Mont St. Michel at the border of Normandy and Brittany.

 

The Carceri are not anomalous for their subject alone: Unlike Piranesi’s usual draftsmanlike exactitude in his drawings, the prisons are nearly scribbled onto the etching plate. They imply a kind of fury in their creation, as if Piranesi were trying to get his vision down into line before they evaporated from his boiling imagination. Shelley once described the moment of creation as an ember rapidly cooling that needs be indited before the glow darkens. You can see Piranesi frantic not to lose the hallucination. 

The change from Classicism to Romanticism — like the change from the Renaissance to the Baroque — is not simply one of rationalism curdled to emotionalism, but of clarity as a virtue lost into a fog of ambiguity and incoherence. It is Racine metamorphosed to Rousseau. 

Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

The subject matter had enormous influence as the 19th Century was born. It is the Venetian prison and escape described by Giocomo Casanova in his 1787 Story of My Flight and later in his memoirs. Prisons and dungeons are everywhere to be found in literature, art and music. It is the prison where Florestan is rescued by Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. It is the dungeon where François Bonivard meditated in Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon. It is the prison that Alexandre Dumas, père, put The Man in the Iron Mask. It is the torture site of the Inquisition in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Not the least, it is, historically, the Bastille in Paris and its siege and fall that set off the French Revolution. 

“Dracula”

It is a trope that continues into the 20th and 21st centuries. It is Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. 

The very gantry ways and bridges make their way into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 

Now, that same spacious gothic sublime turns up in fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings, on TV in Game of Thrones and in nerd games, like Dungeons and Dragons. 

You can find its inception in 1761 with Piranesi. 

Awesome. 

Click on any image to enlarge

“Do you remember when you first bumped up against the real world?” Stuart was looking philosophical. “I mean, when you first came to the realization that all was not what it seemed?”

I thought about it for a moment, but then, of course, I realized that Stuart wasn’t so much asking a question about my life, as stating a prologue to his next monologue. 

“It was in high school,” he said. “It was in the 1960s and I was notoriously bored in school. The worst was study hall — really, a holding cell between classes where no one actually studied. I hated it. Where was Temple Grandin when you needed her? We were cattle in a pen. 

Vincent ‘the Chin’

“Mr. Taylor, the Latin teacher, took a liking to me. Not that many kids wanted to learn the ablative. And so, he managed to give me an entire pad of preprinted library passes, so I could spend my time among books, instead of among juvenile delinquents. Did I mention this was northern New Jersey and a large contingent of kids in class were the offspring of made men? Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante had a house not more than 200 yards from where I grew up — he was the famous ‘Oddfather,’ who feigned insanity to avoid criminal prosecution. (One day, years later, when I was in college, I heard on the radio that the entire police department from my town had been arrested for taking bribes.)

“Well, one day, for some reason, I had run out of library passes and was forced to go to study hall. I arrived early and the only other student was Artie Mangano. You have to remember that there is a pecking order in high school. I was a dyed-in-the-wool nerd. I liked books. Artie was the biggest thug around, both physically and in terms of where he ranked. I was his natural target. We had long established that fact.

“We sat near each other saying nothing. Artie may have been reading a comic book. When in walked Mrs. Fisk, the French teacher who was going to be prison guard for the next hour. Mrs. Fisk had a thick accent and no sense of humor.”

“I know the type,” I said. “They are the second lieutenants of the world, right out of OCS.”

“And on the blackboard — and in those days, the board was still slate and was still black — Mr. Taylor had drawn a map of the Roman Empire. There was Illyrium, there was Gallia Cisalpina. Of course, Mr. Taylor’s writing was nearly illegible. He was a scribbler and the map was rather squirrelly. When Mrs. Fisk looked at it, she turned and looked at Artie and me and asked angrily, ‘Who wrote this on the blackboard?’ 

“We didn’t know what she was talking about.

“She clapped her hands to keep our attention. ‘Who wrote this filth? These obscene things? I must have been one of you two.’

“We had no idea what she meant. It was a map of the Mediterranean, albeit, it looked a little like an unraveled ball of yarn. She glared at us, getting louder and more incensed. 

“You two — go down to the vice principal’s office. Now! And tell him what you have done!”

“Our school had the ultimate good cop-bad cop. The principal was the soft-spoken — and unfortunately named — Donald Duff. He took a lot of mocking for that name. The vice principal was the enforcer, the meter-outer of punishment, Mr. Garbaccio, a hard-hearted disciplinarian who resembled nothing so much as Luca Brasi. 

“We walked down the hall, down the stairs and into the office. Artie was used to this routine; I was not. I was both mortified and outraged and at the same time unseemly meek and cowed. We sat in the outer office waiting for Mr. Garbaccio to finish with the miscreants ahead of us in line.

“When it came our turn, I tried to explain to him what was the reality: Mr. Taylor’s map of the Roman world offended Mrs. Fisk, who mistook it for an obscene graffito. 

“ ‘She wouldn’t have sent you down here for nothing,’ he said. Yes, she would, I thought. She was always kind of goofy. I remonstrated and re-explained. Artie said nothing. Since I was a reputed ‘good kid’ and had never been in his office before, and because Mr. Taylor’s handwriting was so well known, Mr. Garbaccio let up the pressure, but that didn’t help and so he said, ‘I understand. But, I’m going to have to give you two points anyway.’

“Discipline for misdemeanors was given out in the form of points. Collect enough and you were suspended. Artie knew the process well. I was a novice. My sense of injustice was boiling. I knew I had done nothing wrong. There is nothing so pure in this world as the flame of outrage in a kid who knows he has been unfairly blamed. 

“Two things of note resulted from this episode. First was that somehow I had acquired an unearned respect from Artie. He no longer bullied me, and in fact, his presence meant that none of his fellow mouth-breathers molested me anymore, either. It was a kind of privileged existence, a pet-nerd. We had shared a visit to Mr. Garbaccio. 

“But the second thing was that I figured out something about the real world: that sometimes form required a knowing injustice for the purpose of maintaining order, that I would have to accept my two points so that Mrs. Fisk wouldn’t be publicly outed as the flibbertigibbet that we all knew she was. The world worked by its own gears and pulleys, and sometimes the innocent get ground up in the machine. 

“You know, when you are in high school and you are given required reading, it usually sails right over your head. You don’t have enough life experience to understand what is going on with Mr. Darcy or with Fagin. They are just cardboard cutouts moving through a plot that you know you will be quizzed on come Tuesday. Really, high school kids are so much unformed clay, unlicked whelps, thinking they are so wise; but they are really just pimply-faced dorks with breaking voices and enough social anxiety to fuel a nuclear sub. 

“I mention this because when we were assigned to read Melville’s Billy Budd, I was hit upside the head with recognition — alone in the class, I knew for the first time what was really going on. I knew why the ‘handsome sailor’ had to die. I had understood the lesson of Mr. Garbaccio’s office and I felt a deep surging of sympathy for Captain Vere. He was not the villain, after all. He was understanding the bigger picture. The lesson was sobering but has been reinforced many times through the years.

“I memorized a lot of facts and dates in high school, was introduced to Shakespeare and Spanish pronouns, but all that is just information — confetti. It didn’t actually mean anything. True, I have drawn on that information a lot, but it is just the boards and nails I can use to construct a sense of the world. What I got from my two points was the only thing I can claim to have genuinely learned in high school.”