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Gobblers

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Max_Beckmann_Prunier.jpg
Wandering through the Tate Modern a little over a month ago, I came across Max Beckmann's painting, "Prunier."  It arrested me because I had a moment of total recognition: "I've felt that way," I thought.

I'm sure I have felt like the people depicted.  I've participated in some fairly shameful decadent consumption.  But my moment of identification wasn't with the "Gobblers," as Beckmann apparently referred to the piece in his diary.  It was with Beckmann himself.

Revulsion at the undisciplined intake of food is a familiar response for me.  Whether Beckmann, like me, was on a first-name basis with such revulsion, I have no idea, but looking at "Prunier," I felt that I - like Beckmann - had had the same artistic response: transforming my horrified disgust into art.  I felt actually that I'd written the same scene that he'd painted. 

Here it is, a passage from my first novel, Portnoy's Daughter, during which two characters converse over a wedding banquet:

A man flops down in the chair next to me, picks up his fork and knife and interrupts my thoughts: "Not eating?"

Lifting my head out of my hands and turning to him, I am astonished to see the Don Juan of the wine cellar.  He freezes, fork mid-way to mouth, chilled abalone in shrimp aspic with lemon-caper aioli and Chanel No. 5 dangling in mid-air like jello.  Then, recovering his equilibrium, he locks eyes with me, uncurls his tongue and licks the abalone, abusing the helpless mollusk until the aspic dissolves and runs down his chin.

I take in his little spectacle coolly, and then say:  "Mr. Fist, I presume?"

He sucks the mollusk into his mouth and chews with his mouth open, smirking with self-satisfaction. 
. . . .
[He p]our[s] himself a glass of wine from the carafe on the table. . . . "May I?" he asks, gesturing at my glass.

"No," I say, covering the glass with my hand and looking at him.

"A woman who values her sobriety won't easily find a man," he quips, draining his glass and pouring himself another.

"Hardly.  The wine is cheap."

"Agreed," he says, after gargling with a mouthful and spitting it onto the ground behind me. 
The parallel between "Prunier" and the foregoing passage of Portnoy's Daughter made me reflective (and possibly a little combative).  In what I don't think is a terribly insightful display caption, the Tate Modern writes of "Prunier":

Beckmann suffered from heart trouble shortly after beginning the painting, so that the contrast between his daily, wartime realities and the sensual pleasure conjured up in the painting may suggest a meditation on mortality.
I don't have any particular insight into Beckmann, but because I feel such strong identification with the painting the Tate Modern's speculative caption strikes me as unlikely.  Excess, not mortality, seems to be under examination, and especially how excess signals decline and tends to violence.  The Tate Modern seemed much more on point when it referred to the "brutality" of the consumption being depicted.

Depiction may be an attempt at control - getting such excess on the canvas, or the page, is an enclosed space under the artist's command.  It may also be a habit: I have a hard time not making characters who are eating repellent.  (So much of accurate description of the mechanics of eating seems to invite unsavory characterization.) 

And it's also no doubt an attempt at understanding and empathy.  The tendency to excess is complicated.  The visceral impulse to gorge is often accompanied by a cerebral stupidity, apathy or arrogance about the consequences of taking in so much of the world; while the revulsion from such behavior often coexists with such impulses and mind-sets.  (Nor does preferring either the gorging, or the revulsion, have predictable results.  As Hilary Mantel made clear in A Place of Greater Safety, Danton was a revolting sensualist libertine, but refined Robespierre had the greater appetite for blood during the Reign of Terror.) 

By the time Beckmann's painting released me to continue my meandering through the collection, I'd come to recognize this tangle of impulses and judgments, additionally, as one of the enduring topics of art.  

(Image of Max Beckmann's "Prunier" from the Tate Collection)

The best museum exhibit guide ever

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Manao_tupapau_Gauguin.jpg
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

The apple in visual art's Garden of Eden

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PaulKlee_Zaubergarten.jpg
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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Mario_Vargas_Llosa.jpg
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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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Connection between literacy and visual arts category.

Articulating the inarticulable is the previous category.

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