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The best museum exhibit guide ever

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The Tate Modern's Gauguin show sparked an interest in Gauguin's life that prompted me to buy books.  As I mentioned in a previous blog post, one of the books upon which my hand fell (in the gift shop) was Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence.  Luckily, sitting beside Maugham's clunker was the Mario Vargas Llosa novel, This Way to Paradise, which I also snatched up.

A fictional double portrait of Paul Gauguin and his part-Peruvian grandmother, Flora Tristán, This Way to Paradise finds Vargas Llosa projecting himself into Gauguin's mind as he paints a number of his masterpieces, including "Manao tupapau" (pictured above), "Pape moe" (based on the Charles Spitz photograph below), "Nevermore" (below), "The Vision after the Sermon" (here).

Charles_Spitz_Tahitian_drinking.jpgVargas Llosa's imaginative reconstruction of Gauguin's psychology in the moment of creation captivated me.  I was excited by Vargas Llosa's audacity, combined with the singular opportunity that the Tate Modern's show afforded: I could stand in the presence of the paintings and test whether Vargas Llosa's words made me experience Gauguin as the paintings had made Vargas Llosa experience him.

The second time I went to the Tate Modern's Gauguin show, I took This Way to Paradise with me and read the passages that discussed paintings in the exhibit.  Here's Vargas Llosa on "Manoa Tupapau":

The raw material was in his memory, the image he saw every time he closed his eyes.
. . . .
The naked girl would be obscene without the fear in her eyes and the incipient downturn of her mouth.  But fear didn't diminish her beauty.  It augmented it, tightening her buttocks in such an insinuating way, making them an altar of human flesh on which to celebrate a barbaric ceremony, in homage to a cruel and pagan god.  And in the upper part of the canvas was the ghost, which was really more yours than Tahitian, [Paul]. . . . It was an old woman in a hooded cloak, like the crones of Brittany forever fixed in your memory.
(p. 23.)  I didn't see it.  The girl's eyes didn't show me fear, nor did I see an incipient downturn of her mouth - to me, she appeared to be smiling coyly.  The arch of her body was wrong for what Vargas Llosa was describing.  Far from the tautness that Vargas Llosa sees, the girl's lower half looked slack: her ankles are crossed, and her legs seem to be hanging off the bed.  And however much I ran between the galleries to compare the crones of Brittany with the spirit in "Manao tupapau," I didn't glimpse the connection.

Nevermore_Gauguin.jpgBut it didn't matter.  Tracking Vargas Llosa through Gauguin allowed me insight into the impact of visual arts on another writer's process.  This Way to Paradise isn't art criticism; Vargas Llosa isn't informing or educating his public about what they should see in the paintings.  He's exposing instead what he sees when he looks at them. 

That looking at "Manao tupapau" makes Vargas Llosa think about how Gauguin came up with the image reveals a mind intrigued by the artistic process, and one additionally that sees parity in the process between visual artists and writers.  Although I have wondered how other artists arrive at their images, I hadn't speculated previously about Gauguin's, in part because (before the Tate Modern show) I didn't identify with him: but Vargas Llosa must have.  And, although I sense that Vargas Llosa's connection with Gauguin is very masculine - a bond I can't share - Vargas Llosa nonetheless showed me one way of empathizing with Paul Gauguin.

Empathizing - with oneself, with other artists, and with one's characters - is part of the novelist's job, and it's not the easy part.  Somerset Maugham couldn't do it for Paul Gauguin (nor likely for himself), which is why Maugham depicts a Gauguin-like character, Charles Strickland, as being without compassion (discussed here).

But Vargas Llosa's way of always doing the hard part - and doing it well - is why I admire him so intensely.  Even his lesser works (and This Way to Paradise isn't his masterpiece) deepen and enrich my experience of life and art. 

I've never before entered a blockbuster art exhibit clutching a novel.  After This Way to Paradise, I'm not sure I'll be able to enjoy future shows as fully without one.

(Image of "Manao tupapau" from Shafe; of "Nevermore" from Tate; and of Charles Spitz' photograph from Cultor College

Not worth sixpence

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The Tate Modern's Gauguin show enthralled me.  I saw it three times, and if I were in London now I'd see it again. 

After my first time through the exhibit, I bought Somerset Maugham's, The Moon and Sixpence.  Like one of the characters in this novel, I was in "the cruel grip of appetite" (p. 108): I wanted to know everything possible about Gauguin, and The Moon and Sixpence was loosely based on his life.

I'd also wanted to read something by Somerset Maugham.  After reading Ruth Franklin's New Yorker review of Selina Hastings' biography, The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, I was curious about Maugham.  According to Hastings, Maugham was plagued by artistic doubts.  Of middling critical success (although he earned spectacular popular acclaim), Maugham judged himself of "small power of imagination" and made "earning a living . . . his first priority."

The Moon and Sixpence doesn't rescue Maugham from his own harsh assessment.  As a portrait of a sociopath, the novel conceivably possesses some descriptive accuracy; as an inquiry into the nature of artistic greatness, the novel is utterly a failure.

Charles Strickland, the novel's stand-in for Gauguin, is a monster:

He was a man without any conception of gratitude.  He had no compassion.  The emotions common to most of us simply did not exist in him, and it was as absurd to blame him for not feeling them as for blaming the tiger because he is fierce and cruel.
(p. 109.)  Even worse than inhuman, Charles Strickland is flat.  His dialogue is bad and, unforgivably, unrevealing.  Here is Strickland responding to the book's narrator, sent by Strickland's wife to retrieve him after he's quit his job as a stockbroker and abandoned his family:

"What makes you think you have any talent?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint."
"Aren't you taking an awful chance?"
. . . .
"I've got to paint," he repeated.
"Supposing you're never anything more than third-rate, do you think it wil have been worth while to give up everything?" . . .  
"You blasted fool," he said.
"I don't see why, unless it's folly to say the obvious."
"I tell you I've got to paint.  I can't help myself.  When a man falls into the water it doesn't matter how he swims, well or badly: he's got to get out or else he'll drown."
(p. 44-45.)  The pedantic - to say nothing of redundant - quality of Strickland's self-explanation is sadly consistent with the narrator's dull assertions about "life in general": 

  • "I had not yet learnt how contradictory is human nature; I did not know how much pose there is in the sincere, how much baseness in the noble, or how much goodness in the reprobate" (p. 36);
  • "I did not realize how motley are the qualities that go to make up a human being.  Now I am well aware that pettiness and grandeur, malice and charity, hatred and love, can find a place side by side in the same human heart" (p. 57);
  • "It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest" (p. 47).
Well call Maugham a bitch.

But the Maugham doesn't restrict the book's flaws to blithe sexism and insouciant lack of self-awareness.  In addition to denying both Charles Strickland and the book's narrator psychological and emotional depth, Maugham is cowardly in his handling of the facts of Gauguin's life.  Strickland has two children, not five, and they don't die (unlike Gaugin's, of whom only three lived to maturity); Strickland's Tahitian wife is seventeen, not fourteen; Strickland dies of leprosy, not syphilis. 

Taken alone, these details might be unimportant, but I can't help relating Strickland's avoidance of these dirty facts of sex and death to his overall lack of insight into life and the artistic process.  "It seemed to me that I could see a great many things that other people missed," Maugham reportedly said; in his insecurity-masquerading-as-arrogance, he must have hoped that everyone else, like Strickland (and Gauguin) at his death, is blind.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's "Vision After the Sermon" from Shafe)

Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing

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Gillion_Grantsaan.jpgToday is the closing date for the "NotAboutKarenBlixen" exhibition at The Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark.  A collection of collaborative work between Kenyan, Danish and other artists from around the world, "NotAboutKarenBlixen" featured an installation performance art piece called "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" by Gillion Grantsaan (pictured above) and Ato Malinda (pictured below).  Gillion and Ato constructed a shanty outside Karen Blixen's writing studio (pictured below), an artistic home for homeless real and imaginary writers in migration.  Gillion and Ato invited a number of writers (including myself) to collaborate on the installation.  Below is the piece I wrote in connection with the installation, which - consistent with the installation's themes of nomadism, immigration, displacement, alienation and assimilation - I developed in Denmark, wrote in Italy, and mailed to the The Karen Blixen Museum from England.

Maya Alexandri's stream-of-consciousness meditation on themes relating to Gillion Grantsaan's and Ato Malinda's installation "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" in the "Not About Karen Blixen" show at The Karen Blixen Museum, Rungstedlund, Denmark

Ato_Malinda&Gillion_Grantsaan.jpgBoats are destabilizing.

On a boat, humans come closest to experiencing the movement of the planet.  Standing on the deck of a water bus in Venice, with the deck rocking beneath me, I place my backpack at my feet and worry about it slipping between the slats of the gangway gate and sinking.  I watch an older couple standing at the wheel of a speedboat passing us.  Neither member of the couple looks to be in great shape, and I am amazed that they remain upright as the lagoon bounces their speedboat into an imitation of an airplane taking-off.

Perhaps because of their ability to connect humans with the reality of the earth's motion, boats are vehicles of momentousness.  Pirates sail on boats.  Slavers carried their human cargo across the world on boats.  Karen Blixen sailed to Kenya, and Paul Gaugin to Tahiti, and King Claudius banished Hamlet to England by boat.

Hamlet was kidnapped by pirates.

Slave_ship.jpgAt Kronberg Castle in Helsingor, Hamlet's abode, the Maritime Museum contains a small visual memento of Denmark's slave trade: a painting of a slave ship below deck (pictured right).  Black people, naked, peer out from where they are stacked in horizontal berths.  Descending into their squalor are a black cabin boy and a black steward, both impeccably dressed.  The painting is beautiful: did the artist think he was documenting a horror?  

In a later room in the Maritime Museum, in an exhibit about Danish emigrants to the United States, the display is accompanied by the following blurb:

In the early days of emigration the voyage was made by sailing ship with the emigrant supplying his own food and drink, which had to keep for up to six weeks without refrigeration.  Added to this was the lack of ventilation and bad hygiene, not to mention seasick passengers.  Even though steamships and increased competition gradually improved conditions one can still safely conclude that a trip in emigrant class was often like a trip on a slave ship - an experience for life!
Whatever the phrase, "experience for life," means, emigrants, colonists and slaves all have it.  Transplants, (mal)adjusters, uprooted, disconnected, identity-inventors - all.  The difference is choice and humanity.  Those who choose to uproot themselves may be crazy, but they're not property.

Paul Gaugin was crazy.  Although he may have been born with a predisposition in this direction, at his death, the cause of his mental illness was syphilis.  Who knows how long syphilis addled his brain?  

When he arrived in Tahiti and learned that missionaries had banished paganism and converted the island a hundred years previously, he was despondent.  He carved his own pantheon of pagan gods.  He was going to out-savage the savages.  He was determined to paint like a primitive.  

What did Gaugin think "painting like a primitive" meant?  Was he seeking a visual palette free from the overbearing influences of the Old Masters, of the Romantics, of the Impressionists?  Was he enraptured by the stereotype of pure, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, uncivilized primitives?  Did he think painting like a primitive was beautiful?  Or was he just crazy?

Mette Gad probably regretted that Gaugin was a colonist (a pariah within the French colonial system in Tahiti, perhaps, but still a colonist), and not a slave.  A crazy husband with no property was no good to her and their five children, freezing in Copenhagen while Paul was sunning his syphilitic phallus in Tahiti.  At least if he'd been a slave, she could have sold him.  (Being married to Paul Gaugin must have been an experience for life.)

Paul Gaugin never enriched Mette Gad, though.  Carl Jacobsen was another matter.  Gaugin's Danish wife correlated with a disproportionately large number of Gaugin's paintings landing in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the museum in Copenhagen housing Jacobsen's collection.  In the Glyptotek's sophisticated, well-appointed nineteenth century art wing, Gaugin's paintings don't look particularly primitive.  They don't have the appearance of paintings best viewed on a boat.
 
Shack.jpgI wonder if Karen Blixen ever saw the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection.  If she did, what did she feel?  A visual artist before she was a writer, Karen, too, had painted "primitives."  She, too, had sailed on a boat to live among primitives.  She, too, sought to understand their customs, religion and mindsets.  She, too, had syphilis.  She, too, was a prominent authority on whom Danes relied for information about primitives.  Did she see Paul Gaugin as her kindred?

Boarding my own boat - my imagination - I slip my toes inside Karen Blixen's feet and peer from her eye sockets at Paul Gaugin's painting, "Manao Tupapau."  No, he is not my kindred.  He is not noble; he represents nothing beyond himself.  He's a sexual adventurer among the savages.  I know his kind, and he wouldn't know the Crusades from the Renaissance.

(Isn't there always dissension among the ranks?  Geniuses tend to despise each other.  Byron and Shelley would've eventually hated each other if their premature deaths hadn't prevented them from doing so.  Wordsworth's ultimate treatment of Coleridge is abominable.  Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn't remain friends.)

Imagining Karen Blixen viewing the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection, I am in a kind of matryoshka boat: a boat, within a smaller boat, within a boat smaller still.  In the boat of my imagination, I sail on a boat of another sort: Denmark.  For islands are boats more than other landmasses are.  And the ground in Denmark is moving perceptibly. 

Homogenous cultures breed conservatism that may mask the movement beneath the feet, but in the end it emerges because it exists: boats are destabilizing.  Shaky ground is not the place for an unstable structure, but instability is relative.  Paul Gaugin no doubt sailed on leaky ships, the Venetians rebuilt the Palazzo Ducale on its fire-damaged hulk, and a wobbly ladder didn't prevent Gillion and Ato from constructing the shack.  Instability, after all, lasts only until it is assimilated or eclipsed by the next cataclysm.

Every life - if we're lucky - includes more than one experience for life.   

(All photographs taken by Maya Alexandri)

The spiritual hometown of Jorge Luis Borges

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Being in Venice without thinking of Borges is impossible for me.  Although (unlike many other writers, including Henry James) Borges isn't linked to the city through past residency, many of Borges' stories feature labyrinths, among them "Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in His Labyrinth," "The Two Kings and their Two Labyrinths," "House of Asterion" and "Parable of the Palace" from The Aleph and other Stories; and a collection of his stories was published in English under the title, Labyrinths.  The importance of the labyrinth in Borges' work links him inextricably (in my mind) to Venice, a city and spectacular labyrinth in one.

I'd pondered Borges' fascination with labyrinths.  I know I'm not the first, and I'm sure many compelling explanations of Borges' labyrinth obsession exist.  Wandering around Venice yesterday, however, I came up with my own: a labyrinth is a physical representation of the brain's process of attaining insight.

As Jonah Lehrer writes in his New Yorker article, "The Eureka Hunt":

the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. "The relaxation phase is crucial," [Mark] Jung-Beeman [a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University] said. "That's why so many insights happen during warm showers."  Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up.  The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas.  The right hemisphere is also unusually active. . . . We do some of our best thinking when we're still half asleep. . . . [To attain insights, w]e must concentrate, but we must concentrate on letting the mind wander.
A labyrinth mirrors a path "unwound and disorganized," and in a labyrinth, we find ourselves wandering, searching our way, "open to all sorts of unconventional" directions.  In a labyrinth, we may feel lost, but we may also stumble on the Minotaur: wild, dangerous and totally original.  To enter a labyrinth is to embark on an expedition which may end in a creative breakthrough - or a despondent failure - but which in any event takes us beyond the routines of day-to-day living.  (And, in a lovely aesthetic lietmotif, the brain and its neural networks look like labyrinths.)

Perhaps, in setting so many of his stories in labyrinths, Borges was consciously or unconsciously referring to his own creative process.  And perhaps, in constructing their city-republic as a labyrinth, the Venetians were invoking the blessing of the gods of genius.  Among these possibilities, however, is one certainty: in the labyrinth of my neural networks, Borges and Venice are tangled up.

(Bolognino Zaltieri's map of Venice from Wikipedia)

The apple in visual art's Garden of Eden

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Viewing the permanent collection at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection today, I was struck by the explanatory note accompanying Paul Klee's painting, "Zaubergarten (Magic Garden)" (pictured left).  In this painting, the note claimed (I'm paraphrasing), Klee wanted to shed all his preconceived methodologies and techniques and paint like an unlearned child.

Klee's desire sounded familiar.  Having just seen the Gaugin show at the Tate Modern, I read two novels based on Gaugin's life: Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, and Mario Vargas Llosa's This Way to Paradise.  Both novels emphasize Gaugin's desire to paint like a "primitive."

Although to our ears - disinfected, as they've been, by political correctness - painting "like a primitive" sounds dangerously like racist twaddle (premised, as the desire seems to be, on the romantic and inaccurate assumption that primitives are pure, uncivilized, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, etc.), I believe the impulse exhibited by Gaugin, Klee and other modernists is legitimate, non-racist and non-romantic, even if the semantics are now dated.  Here's why:

Humans have been making non-realistic visual art - figurative, but with elements of abstraction, two-dimensionality, fantasy, etc. - for vastly longer than they've been making realistic art.  Despite the horrified reactions of art connoisseurs to the onset of abstraction in the late 19th century (and the continuing bafflement of the public to 20th and 21st century art), the realism of the Renaissance, Enlightenment and Romantic ages (and not the subsequent reintroduction of elements of abstraction) was the aberration.

The post-Renaissance artist desiring to make abstract art, however, faced a problem that didn't arise for his pre-Renaissance counterpart: literacy.  As Walter J. Ong describes in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, the consciousness of people in primary oral societies is considerably different than that of people in literate societies (see especially pp. 31-77). 

In particular, "the shift from oral to written speech is essentially a shift from sound to visual space."  (p. 117).  While people in primary oral societies experience language as sound, alphabets and print have the tendency "to reduce all sensation and indeed all human experience to visual analogues."  (p. 76.)  Sound, of course, is invisible and dissipates rapidly; words, in Ong's analysis, are "events."  Writing, on the other hand, is visible and "immobile"; words become "things . . . for assimilation by vision."  (p. 91.)

What writing, print and literacy mean for the post-Renaissance artist is that the visual arena is now invaded by the word.  The instinct to seek a primitive state in order to paint is the impulse to return to primary orality, to a consciousness in which language is relegated to sound, and in which the visual sphere is uncoupled from linguistic communication. 

The impulse goads the artist into a near impossible task.  As is explained in Maryanne Wolf's, Proust and the Squid (discussed in this New Yorker article) and Stanislas Dehaene's, Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention (reviewed in the New York Times piece) both primary orality and literacy are encoded at the neurological level in the brain.  I'm no neuroscientist, but I'm guessing that to move from one system to another requires rearranging neural circuitry.  (Ong laments that "we can never forget enough of our familiar present [literacy] to reconstitute in our minds any past [of primary orality] in its full integrity" (p. 15).)

On a more personal level, in writing my last novel, The Celebration Husband, I attempted to portray characters from primary oral societies.  To do so, I needed to achieve an understanding of their thinking patterns, logic, motivations, emotional processes, etc.  Despite extensive research and imaginative effort, I am not confident that I got it right.  Although I believe that the attempt to gain understanding of primary oral consciousness is critical (even in failure), I doubt that a medium of literacy can ever bring to life fully a person from a primary oral society (with the possible exception of poetry).  Visual artists might have a better chance.  In any event, I feel in a small way that through my work on The Celebration Husband I can relate to the quests of Klee, Gaugin and other modernists to reconstruct a primary oral consciousness (even if they didn't understand their mission in those terms).

Significantly, conceptual artists represent an abandonment of this effort of the modernists.  Conceptual artists accept a visual field occupied by the word, and they put the word (and its corollary, ideas) to work in the service of art. 

The effect is necessarily less visually arresting.  After all, we literates already experience a visual sphere cluttered with words; conceptual art may invite us to think differently about those words, but it does not present us with a visual arena in which words are absent, as they are in the art work of a person from a primary oral society (or a child).

Ong describes writing as "a particularly pre-emptive and imperialist activity that tends to assimilate other things to itself."  (p. 12.)  In Klee, Gaugin and other modernists, we may have witnessed the last resistance of visual artists to this imperialism.  And though subsequent generations may not have picked up their fight, these rebel artists produced a legacy on par with that of the Renaissance.  We have yet to see post-modernist artists do the same.

(Image of Paul Klee's Zaubergarten from the Guggenheim website)

An artist and a nobelman

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One of the (many) aspects I admire and appreciate about Mario Vargas Llosa is his interest in visual art.  The connection between visual art and literacy being one of the great passions of my life, I feel a kinship with the author of In Praise of the Stepmother, a novel that includes fantastical elaborations on six great paintings, each of which is reproduced in the text.

I was thinking of Vargas Llosa earlier this week when I was in the Tate Modern.  First, I thought of him when I saw a Francis Bacon akin to the "Head I" that is among the paintings featured in In Praise of the Stepmother.  Then I thought of him as I walked through the Gaugin exhibit.  Gaugin's paintings seemed to court literary exploration.

In the gift shop at the conclusion of the exhibit, I found a copy of Vargas Llosa's novel, This Way to Paradise, which is inspired by Gaugin's life.  Imagine my delight at reading, in the second chapter, Vargas Llosa's take on the creation of Gaugin's masterpiece, "Manao Tupapau."  Vargas Llosa had beat me to the very literary exploration I'd sensed the paintings invited.

Congratulations on the Nobel Prize in Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa.  The stunning accomplishment of your oeuvre has merited this honor, but more importantly has earned your place among books well-loved for ages.

(Image of Mario Vargas Llosa from The Guardian)

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