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Some people have a bucket list — of extraordinary experiences they would like to have before the final extraordinary experience. My bucket, however is already full, in fact, it runneth over. 

It is probably much the same for most people. By the time you reach the age of 70, you can look back on a lifetime of extraordinary and satisfying adventures. Perhaps you have not swum the Hellespont like Leander or Lord Byron, nor circled the globe in 72 days, like Nelly Bly, but there are no doubt things you have done that brought your own life to its full. 

I’ve seen the Rhine at night in Dusseldorf; driven the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; spent a snowy Christmas eating hot homemade cookies at the home of a Hopi friend in Walpi on First Mesa in Arizona; twice circumambulated Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.; and been charged by a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

I was an idiot — I took the picture

I see birthday number 71 coming up next week and realize that translates to 852 months, 3702 weeks or nearly  26,000 days. They have gone by very quickly, picking up speed as they progress, like a train leaving the station. They are now barreling along at the speed of an express. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

From the rear of that train, I can look back and say I have seen the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa; the menhirs of Brittany; seen Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle live twice; made love surreptitiously in the North Carolina legislature building. 

Menhirs at Carnac, Brittany

I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific, but also the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Cortez and Hudson Bay — my personal seven seas. I have crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner. They don’t really have those anymore.

Mediterranean Sea

I have done other things that now seem quaint and ancient. I have twice crossed the continent on trains, once from North Carolina to New York on the Southern Crescent, from New York to Chicago on the Twentieth Century Limited, and then from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder. Amtrak never had the cache of those earlier routes. 

Years later, under the shrunken Amtrak banner, I took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami. 

Each of these things is stamped and notarized in my cerebral cortex.

Given the sum of those years, it is hardly surprising that so many things were seen, done, felt, tasted, smelled, heard. You turn the pages of the book one by one, and sooner than you realize, you are on page 852 and something has happened on every page. 

Chartres cathedral

Been to Chartres four times; and to Notre Dame de Paris half a dozen times; to Mont St. Michel; and to Reims, where French kings were crowned; and climbed the bell tower (illegally) at the National Cathedral in Washington; and descended the kivas at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. 

Kiva, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Been to 14 countries, including Norway and Namibia. Been to all 48 contiguous United States and all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island, and to the Yukon Territory. Alaska made 49 states (still haven’t been to Hawaii).

Omaha Beach, Normandy

Been to Lascaux and to Font de Gaume to see prehistoric cave paintings; been to the Normandy beaches of D-Day; to the shell craters still visible at Verdun; to all the major Civil War battle sites, and across the Old North Bridge. Stood on the piazza that Herman Melville built at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Mass. with its view of Mount Greylock (“Charlemagne among his peers”). 

Mt. Greylock, from Melville’s piazza

Three times I have walked Monet’s gardens at Giverny and seen the great waterlily murals at the Orangerie in Paris.

Giverny, France

I have ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and paddled a canoe down the white water of the Mayo River in North Carolina (admittedly, not a scary rapids). 

Once, I stood at the top of the raging Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge and stupidly jumped across the cataract, rock to rock, to get to the other side of the river. I’ve also climbed to the top of Pilot Mountain in the Sauratown Mountains of Surry County, N.C. (a climb that is now illegal). 

Linville Falls, N.C.

Hiked a fair portion of the Appalachian Trail; camped in the Canadian Rockies; and 65 miles from the nearest paved road on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Been to the telescopes at Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and the Kitt Peak observatories southwest of Tucson. 

 When I hear Hank Snow singing “I been everywhere, man,” I count the place names as they tick off and check them on my own list. “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota…” Yes, yes, yes, check, check, check.

And Bobby Troup singing “Don’t forget Winona,” well, yes, been there many times. 

Glacier Bay, Alaska

But it isn’t just geography. There are cultural touchstones I count, experiences that have breathed oxygen into my soul. Not only Wagner, but also I heard Lenny Bernstein conduct La Mer with the NY Phil; heard Emil Gilels live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; heard Maurizio Pollini play all the Chopin Preludes, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata. I heard Jeremy Denk play Ives’ Concord Sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier in the same recital: That is like climbing Everest and Mont Blanc on the same day. Itzhak Perlman play the Strauss violin sonata — and made it seem like one of the most important sonatas ever. That was magic. Heard the Matthew Passion live twice and Haydn’s Creation. And, of course, twice heard Yo-Yo Ma perform all six Bach suites in a single program. 

I’ve seen a dozen Balanchine ballets with live orchestra, including my favorite, Apollo, five times, once by the NY City Ballet at the Palais Garnier in Paris. 

I’ve seen the full Angels in America four times through, including its original Broadway production. 

Remnants of shell craters, Verdun, France

These are all gifts, and made my life ever richer, and informed my growth, emotional and intellectual. I can say, they made me a better human being. 

I can’t count the art shows and museums I’ve visited that gave me rare treasures. The first I can remember was in high school when I went to the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 to see “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” It yanked the rudder of my craft and steered my life in a new direction. 

“Blue Poles,” Jackson Pollock

I also grew up with Picasso’s Guernica. I visited it over and over and never expected it would leave me for a new home in Spain. But in return, I never thought I’d get to see Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which had been sold to Australia; it came to New York in 1998 for the big Pollock retrospective at MoMA. 

I cannot mention everything. The list is already grown tedious and begins to sound like bragging. I don’t mean that: I believe a similar list can be put together for almost everyone, although it will likely be very different from mine. Not everyone has eaten grilled mopane worms or drunk spit-fermented Zulu beer. Or needs to. 

But we can all say, after a long life, full of boons and banes, joys and privations, evils we have done, and those we have suffered, the loves we have failed at and those that stuck and nourished our lives, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

My brother-in-law likes to listen to something he calls “ugly music.”

This is music with angles, asymmetries and dissonance. I first established my bona fides with him by recognizing a piece of music by its very first note, although it took at least a full second — maybe a second and a half — for the name to gather on my vocal chords and make the passage out past my teeth: “Bartok’s fifth quartet.” I think I shocked him.

Of course, I knew the piece well. For I, too, listen to and enjoy ugly music. And I own and read the score to the Bartok Fifth. Also to many other pieces of music that might be considered by fans of more consonant sounds as “ugly.”

But, I am a firm believer in the observation made by Tom Robbins in his novel, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, that “The ugly may be beautiful; the pretty, never.”

The “pretty” is conventional; it is bland. It requires no thought or consideration: It just lies there, accepted with lip service paid, but with little active engagement. It is a postcard sunset, a Montovani recording, a symmetrical-faced actress indistinguishable from other symmetrical-faced actresses.

But beauty is an active engagement. You have to actually look or hear. You have to notice. It takes effort on your part. Pretty soothes you into complaisance, beauty wakes you up.

There is a French concept, the jolie-laide, or beautiful ugly. It is most often applied to women whose features are not traditionally good looking, but in concert add up to striking beauty and attractiveness. Think of Cate Blanchett, with that slash of a mouth, squinty eyes and broad nose. Each odd by itself. Blanchett is no cornfed cheerleader. But together the features make up a stunning beauty.

The French have almost a corner on the jolie-laide. Consider Jeanne Moreau. Or Isabelle Huppert. Or Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was her father, Serge Gainsbourg (say “gaze-boor”) who wrote a song about the “Laide jolie laide.” He was no icon of handsomeness himself, although I think many found him irresistibly attractive.

But, I’m not talking simply about feminine pulchritude or masculine formonsutude, but about esthetic beauty, about art.

Consider one of the ugliest paintings ever made, and how unbearably beautiful it is. I’m talking of Matthias Grunewald’s crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France. The Christ is writhing in pain; his skin is brown and gray, covered in sores; his hands are twisted, his head hung low and grimacing, his ribcage pulled up from his sagging gut, stretching him out, racked; his feet twisted and distorted. Even the cross bows downward from the weight, not just of the body, but of the suffering.

Around him are the mourners, also pulled and distorted, all crying and gnashing their teeth. The landscape behind is dark and barren. There is not a single note of grace in the frame, not a single square centimeter of prettiness. Yet, the painting is unutterably moving. You can hardly bear looking at it, yet, seeing it makes you recognize your own humanity in a profoundly deeper way.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying that only ugliness can be beautiful, but rather, making the case that it can be.

Like that ugly music. Brother-in-law listens to Schoenberg with pleasure. One of the first pieces that turned him on to classical music was Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge — surely one of the hardest pieces to listen to in all the repertoire, but also one of the most sublime.

And it’s not just classical music. He listens to jazz, also, with an ear for the more abstruse and difficult bop. Or free jazz. Let’s face it, Cecil Taylor is not a cocktail lounge pianist. Or Thelonius Monk. That is music proud of its own awkwardness, and uses it for expressive purpose.

One might compare Son House with Montovani. The one is pretty, the other is raw, ugly, powerful. House gets to the gut with the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade. Montovani, no matter how glossy and smooth, is a soporific.

Other ugly music: Tom Waits, grating in voice and peculiar in instrumentation, yet, more satisfying than, say, John Denver. I know, that’s not fair. Sorry. But you know what I mean.

I have a long history with ugly music of all kinds. Appalachia is weighted with ugly music that is beautiful. Consider those mountain Baptist family choirs, singing vibrato-less and consistently just a hair flat, making the most mournful keening. Or the scratchy mountain fiddling of Emmett Lundy. I treasure his few recordings.

Many years ago, I had an LP of field recordings of amateur Spanish brass bands playing for religious festivals, marching down village streets. Sour, scratchy, blaring, they were so intensely beautiful in their ugly way, I came to love them. Alas, the LP is long gone and I’ve never found a digital replacement.

When I was a teacher of photography, one assignment I gave my students was to make a bad photograph. I required that it not be a technical botch, but a bad photograph from conception in the viewfinder. What my students — or at least my good students — discovered, and I already knew, was that if you are paying attention to what you are doing, it is very, very difficult to make a bad photo, because the fact of your attention rules out anything not paid attention to — i.e., the ugly.

It is often said that beauty lies in the eyes (or ears) of the beholder, but I think this saying is basically misunderstood. It is taken to mean something like “To each his own,” or “de gustibus non desputandum est,” but I take it to mean quite differently, and more to the point, that beauty is found in the engagement of mind and senses with the object of perception. In other words, when you pay attention with the focus of someone defusing a bomb, you discover layers of depth and meaning — and therefore beauty — that you might not have suspected. And so, the stains on a concrete sidewalk, layered with fallen leaves and maybe a gum wrapper, will, when observed attentively and with the full engagement of your sensibility, may very well strike you as heartbreakingly beautiful.

This is not just something for pointy-headed esthetes. I have known a farmer who can squeeze a handful of spring soil in his hand and find its loamy odor beautiful enough to bring tears to his eyes. For most of us, it’s just dirt. But to someone who attends to it, it is the essence of existence.

It is the engagement that creates beauty, not the beauty that creates engagement.

And so, when you listen to the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with this sort of eager absorption, you discover a beauty in it that those listening passively, perhaps with the radio on while doing their taxes, can never enjoy, hearing instead only a jumble of disconnected noise. It is not disconnected; it is not noise. It is a carefully created esthetic whole and a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

When I was in high school in New Jersey, I spent as much time as I could in Manhattan, visiting galleries, museums, bookstores and concert halls. And I came to love the Museum of Modern Art. I’d get out of the elevator on the gallery floor and to my right would be Jackson Pollock, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pavel Tchelitchew’s Hide and Seek (a painting that primarily appeals to an adolescent, which I was at the time), and beyond those, the the farthest gallery was Picasso’s Guernica, 25-feet wide and 11-feet high.

It is a painting of utter ugliness, not only in subject matter (the Nazi bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937) but also in the angular, distorted and abstracted shapes that make up its design. If one has a shred of humanity, the painting cannot be seen without a welling up in your gorge. It is the prime example in the 20th century of a political painting that is actually an esthetic success. It is Picasso’s shay-doov, and the one piece of art, if we had to choose a single one to represent that century, would be the consensus choice.

It is also profoundly beautiful. While I am pleased that the painting has finally been returned to a democratic Spain, I mourn its absence from New York, from my life. I treasured its palpable presence and its emotional power.

The ugly may be beautiful, the pretty, never.

turn here 1

A reader once asked me what I thought were the major turning points of art – by which he meant the Euro-American tradition in art from the Renaissance to the 20th century. Of course, he had his own list already prepared to share with me. On it were 20 items. He wanted to know what would be on my list. He had the enthusiasm of a puppy dog, and it would have felt churlish to refuse him.

Making it a list of 20 is, of course, arbitrary: There are hundreds, maybe thousands of “turning points” in art history.

Also, we must confess this is a parochial list, when you have the rest of the world and antiquity — to say nothing of prehistory — to consider. But that bobsled ride from the Renaissance to Postmodernism can be seen as a single unit, and that is what my reader wanted me to consider.

Off the top of my head, then, are the 20 most pivotal pieces of art, each of which could be a chapter heading in an art history text.

Admittedly, they function as epitomes. It is rare a single piece of art can change the course of art history; instead, they are stand-ins for whole movements in art, entire changes of esthetic outlook and purpose that propel the eras they helped codify or inaugurate.

But even given my guidelines, I had to start a bit earlier, because the reawakening of Europe after the Dark Ages doesn’t happen in Renaissance Italy, but in Gothic northern Europe.

Chartres north rose window

My list begins with the north rose window at Chartres – the single most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen from the hand of humankind. Actually, the list should begin with the basilica of St. Denis in Paris, the first truly Gothic church, and the inspired conception of Abbot Suger, one of the most important clerics of the 11th century. His Neoplatonist idea was that God was light and that a church, to capture the spirit of divinity, must be opened up with windows and color. The engineering was a breakthrough: He realized that you don’t need walls – the heavy stone walls of the Romanesque – to hold up a roof, but you could put the roof on pillars and fill in the space between the pillars with curtains of colored glass. It was a huge step forward esthetically and technologically. But St. Denis was a first draft: It is in Chartres that the ideal finds its apotheosis.

Giotto

Second, Giotto’s interior frescoes for the Arena Chapel in Padua, for waking up to the idea that painting not only could, but should try to capture something of the feel of reality.

Masaccio trinità

Third, the Trinity of Masaccio at the Sta. Maria Novella in Florence. It’s impossible to choose the single image that represents the triumph of Renaissance perspective over the Gothic style, but Masaccio is as good a choice as anyone.

ghiberti abraham 2

Fourth: The bronze doors of Ghiberti to the Baptistry in Florence, an astonishing display of inventiveness and naturalistic imagery.

three davids

Fifth: The David of Donatello, and the final destruction of the Gothic schema in Western art.

Sixth: The David of Michelangelo Buonarroti, and

Sistine ceiling detail

Seven: The Sistine ceiling. No artist so defined his age and the two hundred years after him more than Michelangelo, the single most influential artist in history.

caravaggio

Eight: Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, although most of the crazy guy’s central paintings would do: The Invention of the Baroque. “Energy is eternal delight,” as Blake says.

Nine: The David (above) of Gianlorenzo Bernini (although I actually prefer the Apollo and Daphne), and the perfection of the Baroque, and the most proficiently perfect sculptor in history. I choose the David only for the symmetry with Donatello and Michelangelo. Look at the three Davids together and see the direction of the 15th and 16th centuries.

rembrandt

10: Rembrandt Portrait of the Syndics of the Cloth-maker’s Guild, (chosen over the more flamboyant Night Watch) to show how the psychological acumen of the Dutchman could bring life to an otherwise utterly conventional group portrait. This sense of psychology, that there is a real person behind the eyes, is what Rembrandt brought to painting, as Shakespeare brought it to the stage.

benjamin west

11: The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, which manages to turn the conventions of the mythological painting onto not merely the historical event, but the current event. In a way, each of these choices is a step on a road from stylization and convention to a more aware and awake attempt to engage with the experience of being alive, with what we might call a more “real” vision of the world.

delacroix

12: Liberty on the Barricades by Eugene Delacroix, although you could also use Greece Expiring on the Ruins of Missolonghi, as the symbolic use of politics and the rise of the democratic spirit in the world.

Turner

13. Joseph Mallord William Turner’s The Slave Ship as another political comment, but more important as the first glimmerings of a kind of Impressionism in paint, and the turning point where what we now call Modernism has not its birth, but at least its conception.

Manet

14. Edouard Manet, The Fife Player, as the birth of that Modernism, flat, ironic, oblique.

Gauguin

15. Paul Gauguin, Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? and the continuing flattening of picture space, at the same time as opening up to non-Western pictorial influences — to say nothing of questioning the values of European civilization, and it’s about time.

picasso demoiselles

16. Pablo Picasso, Demoiselles d’Avignon as the source of Cubism, and the sense that the picture is a canvas and not a window. It was the single most revolutionary painting of the 20th century, although in retrospect, not Picasso’s best.

duchamp

17. Fountain by Marcel Duchamp – the “found object” urinal – and the single most influential sculpture of the 20th century, and an influence that is still oppressive today. Now, everyone thinks he’s Duchamp.

40-12-17/35

18. I would also include Picasso’s Guernica in this list, as his most ambitious work and the single most powerful image of the 20th century. I grew up with this mural size scream, when it was at MOMA in New York and I was a kid. It is the perfect meld of technique, imagery, symbol and “message.”

warhol soup can multiples

19. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Can and the rise of Pop. Warhol is the most serious postwar American artist, despite his public antics. Art is about the world we live in; Warhol reminds us that the world we currently inhabit is the one of commercial signage and media imagery.

beuys

20. Finally, Joseph Beuys How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, or any of a dozen other Beuys pieces, angry yet detached, symbolic yet utterly there physically as a presence. The most influential European artist of the postwar years.

This list is, of course, just off the top of my head. I’m sure if I gave it deeper thought, I’d switch out some of these choices. But this is a good enough start.

I’m sure you can think of things I’ve missed.

fighting for peace 1950

Politics and art; oil and water; Mitch McConnell and charisma.

Like alternate universes, the oppositions seem utterly irreconcilable.

”The only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters P and O,” the late poet Joseph Brodsky once quipped.

Yet, there are clearly many cases of political art. Much of the world’s greatest art, from the Antigone to Angels in America, has concerned politics.

So when I say art and politics are death to each other, what I mean is not politics as a subject — anything in life is fit subject for art — but politics as a lens, as dictator of what is permissible. If you have a political ax to grind, don’t try hacking tree stumps with it, hoping to make a masterpiece.

Another way of looking at it is that there are two types of political art.

The good and the bad.

If you are politically inclined, good political art is art that advances your ideology, and bad art is anything else. This was the inspiration for most Socialist Realism, and it’s making a comeback in a raft of forgettable politically correct art and theater.

But if you are aesthetically inclined, the good and bad are not defined by ideology but by aesthetic persuasiveness. Does the work ring true?

Politics itself can be seen as two separate, almost incompatible things. On the basic level, politics is the acquisition and use of power. It is a basic characteristic of humanity. Politics on this level can be used for ill or good. It is not a thing about which a value judgment can be made. Like gravity, it just is.

But to too many people, ”politics” means political theory. It means not the way things are, but the way things should be. Life should be more fair, the aristocracy should rule, power to the people, a flat tax will solve all ills. Name your poison. human pyramid

When American politics works as it is supposed to, factions promote their causes and compromise is reached. The result is a continuous tension of interests, like a human pyramid in the circus.

But when ideology takes over, compromise is seen as an evil. Through the ideological lens, there is only one truth and everything else will lead to ruin. This is equally the case with Marxists and the Christian right.

”One law, one God, one king,” as William Blake has it. You are either with us or against us.

So, lost in the discussion is the fact that when we say something is ”political art,” we mean two very different things. On one side, there is partisan art, which takes a political stand and uses the art to proselytize. It is the art of the street theater, meant to persuade — although more often than not, its audience has already signed on, so its purpose really is to reinforce beliefs already held. socialist realism

At its worst, partisan art is Nazi and Soviet propaganda; at its best, it is Brecht. Always, it is didactic, and more often than not, it is forgotten by the following year. Name a Socialist Realist painter, I challenge you.

But art may approach political questions from another direction:

There is an art that is interested in the ironies and passions of politics, in its human toll, not its theories.

Partisan art is interested in answers, certainty and action; the other direction is interested in questions, ambiguity and contemplation.

The problem is that ideology is system, and systems are dehumanizing. It matters not whether it is left- or right-wing. The machine is supreme: We measure success not in human terms, but by whether it adheres to theory. Read any Marxist criticism and you will see such. Or listen to a House Republican talking about the National Endowment for the Arts.

In both cases, the question is whether the art is orthodox — does it adhere to the party line.

It is a mark of critic John Berger’s intelligence that his Marxist theory inevitably leads to gibberish and double talk. He must wind up saying something patently silly or else he must ultimately abandon the theory.

People simply do not act the way Marxist theoreticians say they do; neither do they act the way capitalist theoreticians say. Humans are much more complex, much more contradictory.

No, art, if it is to last, must concern itself with the human, not the system.

Goya’s Disasters of War, Picasso’s Guernica, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, even Homer’s Iliad, all approach political questions from a human point of view.

So do Citizen Kane and Oliver Stone’s Nixon. And so does Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror. It does not take a stand on one side or the other; rather, it allows each side to say its piece, incompatible as those sides may be.

Such art examines the possibilities and tests them against the human heart.

Such art is dedicated to this one human truth: There is always a larger context.

Compare Maria Irene Fornes’ A Conduct of Life with Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. The first deals with the rape of a 12-year-old girl; it knows who the villains are and what we should think of them, and it tells us in no uncertain terms.

Death and the Maiden, about a woman brutally tortured under a South American military regime, is much more equivocal. We are never quite sure whether the man she accuses of carrying out the torture is guilty or innocent, and we surely find that the woman’s revenge on him is brutal in return. There is blame to go around.

As W.H. Auden wrote, ”Those to whom evil is done do evil in return.”

Or Barbara Garson’s MacBird, which lampooned Lyndon Johnson as a Macbeth who killed his Kennedy/Duncan for his own political ends. It is a sour-toned comedy and nearly forgotten except by graduate students with theses to complete.

And that brings up another reason the narrow partisan art dies such a stiff death. Its concerns are almost always so transitory. Does MacBird still have meaning 45 years after the events it describes?

Nothing is more dated than a superannuated political idea. We’ve moved on; we have our own problems, thank you.

Compare that with Citizen Kane, which is equally a hatchet job on a public figure. But because filmmaker Orson Welles concentrates on the human rather than the partisan, it still contains meaning, still has that resonance which is the ultimate test of a work of art.