Nothing was as it seemed, when Van Gogh painted it. Roiling underneath the subject, flying above it, surrounding it, were his passions, his intensity, his flights into realms most of us could only guess at, if we can match him for moral imagination, or imagination period. With Van Gogh, a rose was not a rose was not a rose.
Ray Succre writes poetry along these same lines, or conjunctions, or coincidences, with a mask or two thrown in for good measure. Surreal, meant to be heard, meant to be spoken, they sing the uncanny.
In honor of Bloomsday, I wanted to point you in the direction of a fine little essay about the people, real people, and their descendants, who found their way into Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s by Bridget Hourican for the Irish Times. Click on the title for the link. An excerpt follows:
IN THE 1940s, after Joyce’s death, BBC researchers arrived in Dublin to find people to interview for a radio programme. They approached Richard Irvine Best, the recently retired director of the National Library, and a gregarious man, well known on the literary social circuit. He wasn’t gregarious on this occasion: “What makes you think I have any connection with this man, Joyce?” The researchers pointed out that he was, after all, a character in Ulysses. Best drew himself up: “I am not a character in fiction. I am a living being.”
Fifty years later, when a friend of mine was asked in Germany what he thought of Ulysses – as all Irish abroad are asked at some point – he admitted that he hadn’t read it yet, but saved his reputation and astounded his questioner by adding that his great-uncle was in it. This great-uncle was Hugh MacNeill (the more disreputable brother of the revolutionary Eoin MacNeill) who appears, with his name cannibalised, as professor McHugh, murmuring “biscuitfully”. In 2004, an online comment, from John Kavanagh in Billericay, to a BBC News piece for Bloomsday bragged that “My great-grandad appears as a character in the book – old Troy of the Dublin Metropolitan Police”.
What was degrading for Richard Best – his appearance in Ulysses – has become a source of pride to future generations. The range of “real-life” historical characters in Ulysses is vast, so the world is full of unsuspecting “descendants” of these characters. Anyone who lives in Dublin gets used to name-checking places in Ulysses , such as the Martello tower, Sandymount Strand, Eccles Street and Davy Byrne’s pub, and Joyce’s boast – “If Dublin were destroyed, it could be reconstructed from my book” – is cited frequently by architects and planners, but Joyce was speaking more than architecturally. The whole cast of Edwardian Dublin, from prostitutes to priests to MPs, can be reassembled from his pages.
This past October, we were blessed with a remarkable collection of Van Gogh’s letters, newly translated and complete, without censorship:
Vincent van Gogh: The Letters: The Complete Illustrated and Annotated Edition (Vol. 1-6) (Hardcover) ~ Nienke Bakker (Editor), Leo Jansen (Editor), Hans Luijten (Editor)
The collection contains pretty much every one of his paintings, is heavily annotated, and runs to more than 2000 pages. It will certainly revolutionize our understanding of one of the greatest and most misunderstood artists of all time.
For those of you who would rather not buy the book, his letters are now online at vangoghletters.org. Will blog a bit about the collection after I return from holiday excursions.
Sometimes, poetry is like a mystery, like a detective story put to song. Sometimes similes and metaphors string bits of life (like notes) into a song, a symphony, or a collage of chords never heard together. The point. Yes, that’s often the point. The bridge works for visuals as well. And for tactiles. The bridges work between humans, between nature, between humans and nature and beyond. Inside, outside, vertically, horizontally, depth and foreground, finding all dimensions, incorporating disparate elements. Harmonizing. Even atonally. Even off key to form new strings of keys washing into larger lakes, rivers, oceans of meaning.
The poet Jill Magi works some metaphorical magic on a seemingly unlikely topic below: Labor. To borrow a phrase, it’s a labor of love going back in time and leading to the present. Metacritical irony, in a sense, as she works in the vineyard to find the heart of work.
It has always puzzled me that communism and capitalism are generally seen as opposites. This is the wrong place and time to go into a long disquisition on the topic, as we are, of course, an Arts Journal. But I will say that I see Labor lost in the battle between two sides which are essentially about power relationships, not philosophical opposites. In short, Labor is still owned in both systems, in reality. In reality, being the key. Masters and slaves still line up pretty much in the same way, and Labor loses out in both systems. We have yet to create a system where it wins. In order for that to be the case, neither the corporation nor the state could “enslave” the worker. The worker would be owner of his or her own wares, contractually obligated not to a hierarchy in the private or public sector, but to herself/himself and the person on the receiving end of the product or service. In short, a horizontal, open-ended exchange, not a vertical trap/loss.
Ironically, an almost ideal and pure form of this horizontal exchange can sometimes happen in the world this journal chooses to focus on. Sometimes. If, for instance, Van Gogh paints a painting and sells it to a collector, he is almost there, almost to the ideal form of work/labor/control of self and one’s own production. There are, of course, all kinds of extenuating circumstances, compromises that may come into play, anxieties unleashed, frustrations provoked. But if the artist can create what he or she wants to create, without compromise, and sells that work at a price that meets their expectations of maintaining their livelihood, then they come very close to achieving the perfect exchange.
Of course, in our complex modern world, this is a very rare occasion for the artist/worker. Most of the time, hierarchies of scale come into play and generally take over. The more people involved in that transaction, the less horizontal it becomes, and the further away from a healthy exchange of labor/autonomy we go. Much of this is inevitable, given the fact of 7 billion people surrounding us. But we have yet to create a system that even attempts to reduce the vertical. Most of our creations induce, expand and protect hierarchies. This seems to me to be contra-human and continues to be unhealthy. We are beginning to see more than obvious signs that our current systems don’t work very well.
Time for something completely different.
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Update, 4-24-13: I should not have used the word “Communism” above. The Soviet Union, for instance, never got close to that point, being stuck instead inside State Capitalism. It wasn’t even able to implement real socialism, which requires actual democracy and the people must own the means of production, literally, not through proxies, not through a political party or dictator. Socialism comes before communism, and true communism is the absence of the state (as we know it today).
In the years since I wrote the above piece, I’ve tried to go back and burn away as many of my biases as possible — political, philosophical, religious and cultural — and become more precise with applicable terms. I often fail. But it is a current mission . . . .
My poem from yesterday was about many things, but chiefly about fighting the inability to write. Poems, prose, in journals. The painting above is about something else, though it ties some things together for me. Kandinsky, in this work from his Der Blaue Reiter period, was painting in part theoretically, putting theories into his paintings, arming his colors with monads of thought. Color as spirit. Spiritual color(s). Color to invoke the spiritual. And music as the bridge of bridges.
“Colour is a power which directly influences the soul. Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammer, the soul is the strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.” — Wassily Kandinsky
He, too, would paint improvisationally, in a way similar to my poem In Medias Res. But it is often easier to paint musically, spontaneously, and make it effective as a composition, than to write in that manner. At a loss, the painter can still make visual poetry from nature, internal and external, even in the midst of flailing. At a loss, the poet can make a mess of things.
The choice of the painting by Van Gogh was complicated. Memories of my own visit to Arles, and the recognition of his suffering there, combine with the tragic lot he noted in others. The patrons of the Café de l’ Alcazar. The patrons of the night. But he translated that tragic vision into art, again and again and again.
“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”
“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.” — Vincent Van Gogh
Sometimes when I think about writing, I think words wound that vision, that dream . . .
There are, of course, hundreds of beautiful regions in the world. Too many to see in one lifetime. So we must pick and choose carefully. Pick and choose carefully where to visit and where to live — if we have that choice and chance. Provence is one among hundreds, but unique. Unique being a word we can apply to those hundreds of places as well. And so it goes. Thousands, if we talk about towns, villages, cities, and so on. So far, in this life, my favorite places are in Ireland and France. But I hope to see much more of the world. Much more.
When I studied Art History in college, I would take a class and be overwhelmed by the greatness of this or that artist, this or that period of Art, and think: This is it. The best. I won’t find something I like more than this! Until I did. And I continuously did. And then it all seemed to come together for me. Greatness everywhere, if you look carefully, study carefully, pay attention, give your attention to that beauty and that truth. You don’t need to create hierarchies then. You don’t need to rate things.
Places are like that too. Traveling is like that. It’s the best until you see something else. Nothing can compare, until you see something else. And then step back. You stop rating things.
I loved the Pyrenees as well. And Normandy. And Brittany. So many different parts of France seemed the best to me. Until the next stop. And the next. And then I stepped back.
The above painting is one of Van Gogh’s finest. Though it’s rarely talked about or placed among those paintings we think about when we think about Van Gogh. It is perhaps too composed, too quiet, not wild enough. But, to me, it captures the magic of the land and Van Gogh’s brushstrokes, the magic of his encounter with Arles, and previously with Japanese prints. He called Arles the Japan of the South and wanted the sun of Provence to alter what he painted, to take out details he saw as unimportant, to mix and blend and fuse all things under that sun.
This painting is even more controlled for Van Gogh. Though he said he wanted the sun to wash away certain things, he retained great detail here. Van Gogh described the picture for his brother Theo:
“. . . a vast field of bright yellow buttercups, a ditch full of irises with green leaves and purple flowers, in the background a town, a few grayish willows, a strip of blue sky. A small town surrounded by a field of yellow and purple flowers–you know, it’s just like a Japanese dream.”
We humans often feel the need to compare things, to situate them inside our own biographies. Van Gogh painted that. His brushstrokes were like layers of visions he still held in his mind, seen elsewhere, seen yesterday, merging with the present. The past and the present. The sun of Provence merging Van Gogh’s biography with that land. Time and space. Places and years gone by. Nostalgia like colors placed on top of colors, beside other colors. Creating now.
Perhaps the liberation of the canvas helped do that. The liberation of brushstrokes. Their rise above the canvas. Their breakaway revolution from the hidden. As if past painters were ashamed of the process of painting. As if past painters wanted to hide that biography, that story, that deam of Japan.
One of my favorite places in France is Provence. Yes, I know. It’s not like I discovered it, of course. It’s been a very popular destination for . . . well, centuries. But especially in the modern era. Popularized best, perhaps, by painters such as Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh, and more recently by writers such as Peter Mayle. I recently watched a movie of one of his novels, A Good Year, starring Marion Cotillard (Vie En Rose), Abbie Cornish (Somersault) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind). It tells the story of a London Master of the Universe who returns to his boyhood home in Provence, falls in love all over again with the land and its people, especially Marion Cotillard, and has to make some serious decisions. A good, not great movie . . . but evocative of place and a state of mind. As in, I truly wanted to move there after seeing it first hand, and again after seeing the movie.
Of course, owning a vineyard, having a wonderful old house and living with Abbie or Marion adds a certain something to the attraction, but Cezanne’s Provence is appealing without that as well.
Why? Aside from the tremendous variety of landscape, the beautiful valleys, mountains, hills and the Mediterranean Sea . . . there is much history there. Roman ruins, Celtic markers, Castles, Avignon of the Popes, Napoleonic battles, Van Gogh’s Arles. His Night Cafe. And more.
The movie reminded me of the wonderful food to be had there, with its rich agriculture and closeness to the sea. And, of course, wine. Great wine. There is a symbiosis in the air between nature, humans, even buildings. The buildings fit.
Cezanne caught their essence again and again, showing how they coexisted with the trees and the hills and the vibrant colors, mesmerized by the sun. There is a rhythm of life there that falls in with the seasons and the harvest and is easy to romanticize, magnetic. Encourages the romantic. Easier because it has the ingredients for endless day dreams about a better life, a more harmonious existence, closer to the soil and the ancient shores of the dawn of Western Civilization.
Will talk a bit more about Cezanne and his paintings in the days to come. His impact on the history of painting. On Modernism. On Abstract Art.