Colm Tóibín’s latest novel The Magician, a fictional biography of the German writer Thomas Mann, is a very timely book, prescient of these times of pathological violence served on Ukraine and the Ukrainians by Putin. It was published towards the end of last year then won the Rathbone Folio Prize in March, exactly a month after Putin started his invasion. It is not only the obvious comparisons of the present with the horrors of WW1, then the unimaginable atrocities ordered by Hitler, then the fleeing of the Mann family first to France then Switzerland then America, but mostly the way Tóibín allows us into the lives of the Mann family, into the streets they lived on, into the rooms, the very furniture in the many houses they lived in, and into their most intimate dreams and conversations… intimate in a way the camera now records the innards of the  torn and blasted apartments and streets of Kyiv, Mariupol, Bucha, Irpin, and so on and on. But Tóibín does not take a missile or bomb to the Mann family, he is very gentle to them, especially Thomas, and at times very funny. It is a book about a large, diverse and extraordinarily gifted family that had their fair share of successes and tragedies in those most tragic of times; with three suicides, one drowning at sea while fleeing to America, morphine and other addictions, as well as destructive snobbery and mental instability. [The photograph above is of Katia Mann and their six children.]

Mann, soon after the publication of his first book is feted by writers and politicians alike, then is lucky to survive the purge of pro nationalists by the left wing Munich Revolutionaries soon after Germany’s defeat in WW1. He observes at a distance the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, not believing it possible that they can become a threat and is slow to write and speak out against them. He wins the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929, his books sell well all over the world and he becomes a very successful bread winner for his family; though at this time his two eldest children Erika and Klaus are possibly more famous for their theatre productions and life style that openly express their homosexuality and love of excess.

Tóibín allows us into Thomas Mann’s own inner life very early on in the book, when Thomas is a boy and infatuated with the beauty of another boy at the same school. He writes with incredible veracity and beauty about all his infatuations, the direction of glances and shy touches, the imaginative undressing of his object of desire; as well as writing coldly about advances by men Thomas feels no attraction to.  These infatuations occur throughout Thomas’s life and act mostly as a creative spur for his writings, sometimes disguised, sometimes not. There are few secrets in the Mann household and his admiration for male beauty is not one of them.

We rub shoulders in the book with Albert Einstein who sailed with them on a refugee boat to New York, and who like Mann was welcomed by Princeton University. We enter the White House and get a fly on the wall view of Roosevelt and his wife. At dinner parties, private meetings, and during many phone calls we learn to dislike the pushy Agnes Meyer and her rather sinister husband Eugene, the owner of the Washington Post. Though it must be said that it was only due to Agnes’ insistence that all of Mann’s family were allowed into America. We meet the two, up-themselves and bitchy old queens WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood, but yet again it needs to be said that it was Auden who agreed to marry the eldest daughter Erika, a lesbian, just so she could get a British passport. We also meet the deplorable Alma Mahler, married twice to Jewish husbands yet an unrequited anti-Semite and appalling snob. But most of all I think we get to admire Thomas Mann’s wife Katia. If there was ever a patient, firm, capable, but oh so kind and understanding power beside the thrown it was her. Tóibín conjures up a remarkable woman, and one is never in doubt that he shows her as she really was. 

Talking about conjuring, Thomas, or the Magician as his children named him, is as elusive as he is a man of habit. His dress is always formal and immaculate, his mornings always spent writing in his study, and if I remember correctly at the same desk that he carted around the world. He over thinks things, weighing up his response to the politics and violence of his time for what one feels often shockingly pragmatic reasons until corrected by his wife and children. Yet his inner life seems to have been filled almost entirely with erotic fantasies and of course the lives and stories of his characters. And I believe he was saved, both as a man and a writer, by inheriting a very un-Germanic spark from his mother Julia who was born in Brazil. The book opens with her, and one knows from the second page, from these lines below, that this is going to be a wonderful, beautifully written read.

“In the evenings, if the senator were at a meeting, or in the time when Thomas and Heinrich, having done their violin practice and eaten their supper, were in their nightclothes, their mother would tell them about the country of her birth, Brazil, a place so vast, she said, that no one knew how many people were there or what they were like or what language they spoke, a country many, many times the size of Germany, where there was no winter, and never any frost or real cold, and where one river, the Amazon, was more than ten times longer than the Rhine  and ten times as wide, with many small rivers  flowing into it that reached back deep into the forest, with trees higher than trees anywhere in the world, with people whom no one had ever seen or would see, since they knew the forest as no one else did, and they could hide if an intruder or an outsider came.

‘Tell us about the stars,’ Heinrich would say.

‘Our house in Paraty was on the water, Julia would reply. It was almost part of the water, like a boat. And when night came and we could see the stars, they were bright and low in the sky. Here in the north the stars are high and distant. In Brazil, they are visible like the sun during the day. They are small suns themselves, glittering and close to us, especially those of us who lived near the water. My mother said you could sometimes read a book in the upstairs rooms at night because the light from the stars against the water was so clear. And you could not sleep unless you fastened the shutters to keep the brightness out. When I was a girl, the same age as your sisters, I really believed that all the world was like that. The shock on my first night in Lübeck, was that I could not see the stars. They were covered over by clouds.”

And when the Mann’s move to California and chose a piece of land In Pacific Palisades, close to Santa Monica, to have a house built for them, it is a single pomegranate tree growing at the back of the garden, and the memories of his mother that it conjures up that prove vital to him choosing this particular plot.

“He knew how to open a pomegranate and fill a bowl with the rich, red seeds. If that was all he had learned from his mother, it would be enough, he thought…He loved the dry edge that mingled with the sweet taste of the pomegranate, and he loved the colour. But now it was his mother’s gaiety that he recalled, her voice, her pleasure at the news that a fresh consignment had arrived from Brazil, her assertion that a small piece of home, perhaps the best piece, had reached out to her across the ocean and would delight her days.”

But by the time America is eventually drawn into WWII, Thomas feels that their life in California has begun to sour. He had felt for a while that the house, designed by a well-known architect, was too ostentatious for a German émigré. He feels too exposed and used by Agnes and Eugene Meyer, both of whom have the ear of the President, by being told what to say and write so as to show gratitude for American hospitality to him and his family. One of the speeches he gives in Chicago is so rousing in defence of freedom and democracy, so aimed to get Congress and the American people behind the country declaring war that it must have surprised him as much as it did me. A later scene in his home, during a string quartet performance by one of his sons and three other beautiful young men, of Beethoven’s Opus 132, captures the constant pull he must have felt between being a writer but also a celebrated ‘man of letters’.

“To move from the bombast of the symphonies to the unearthly loneliness of this quartet, he thought, must have been a journey that even Beethoven himself could not easily comprehend. It must have come through as some strange, tentative, shivering knowledge emerged suddenly into clarity.

Thomas wished he had been able to do this as a writer, find a tone or a context that was beyond himself that was rooted in what shone and glittered and could be seen, but that hovered above the world of fact, entering into a place where spirit and substance could merge and drift apart and merge again.

He had made a great compromise. As he sat, perfectly washed and shaved, in his grand house, in his suit and tie, his family all around, his books arranged on the shelves in his study with the same respect and order as his thoughts and his response to life, he could have been a business man.”

I want to end by showing you two brief passages that made me think again very hard about Ukraine. It is 1949, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Goethe, and Thomas Mann returns to Europe to give a series of lectures ‘trying to connect the thinking of Goethe with the needs of the contemporary world. He could, he thought, preach, using Goethe’s example that in public as much as in private the world should recoil from single ways of seeing things, and begin to think in myriad ways. Goethe’s paradigm could be nourishing to a world threatened by a savage clash of ideologies.’  

He and Katia are being driven through the ruins of Frankfurt when “Thomas grips Katia’s hand as they came to a crossing where they could see buildings that were half ruined. Somehow, this sight was more direct and graphic than the scene of total destruction. What had survived, even though the windows were blown out and the roofs fallen in, gave them a sense of what had once been there. He studied a building whose whole front wall had been blown away leaving each floor visible as though for some elaborately layered theatre performance. He could see the radiators still attached to the wall on the first floor, like a parody of their pre-war purpose.’

The book ends where it begins, in his birthplace Lübeck, still partially in ruins, with Thomas recalling another story his mother had told him and his siblings when they were children. It is a story about the most famous musician and composer from that city, Buxtehude, and about the young Johann Sebastian Bach. Briefly, the story is of Bach walking through wind and rain to learn the secret that he feels only Buxtehude knows. It is like a fairy tale and maybe is, because Bach is so travel worn that a kind women lends him clean clothes so he can present himself to the master. The weary traveller eventually arrives in Lübeck, finds the master and is recognised by him by the light behind him, “the light Bach has carried all the way, something glowing in his spirit.

 ‘But what is the secret?’ Thomas asked.

 ‘It is called Beauty,’ his mother said. ‘The secret is called Beauty. He told him not to be afraid to put Beauty into his music. And then for weeks and weeks and weeks, Buxtehude showed him how to do that.

Did Bach ever give the woman back the clothes? Thomas asked. Yes he did. On his way home. And on her piano, he played music for her that she thought came from heaven.”

I apologise for the messy way the last blog ended up on the page…lines of poetry cut short and the final words of these lines stuffed in, in an awkward and ugly way. I’m not even sure if the song came out well. And when I saw all this I tried in to cancel the whole bloody thing but only managed to remove it from my own computer. So I’m posting it again, below this very short piece of two beautiful Donatello sculptures from the current exhibition of his work at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, a photograph of a woman carrying and kissing her child while standing defiantly beside Russian soldiers in Mariupol, and a poem and landscape [see above] by the wonderful Russian artist, teacher, leader of a movement for the independence for his beloved mountainous Alta region, and victim of Stalin’s great terror or purge, Grigory Gurkin 1870-1937.  Gurkin’s work is both real and symbolic, just like every action and reaction by the Ukrainian people today. It may sound strange to say that their lives have become art, but in a time when art lacks all structure and therefore common meaning or reality, their forceful, determined and brave response to their vicious enemy and to their often soft-bellied and corrupt friends, is an act, perhaps most often an unconscious one, to save the very soul of man; something which should be the main concern of art.

                      

To end, here is an extract from Gurkin’s poem, The Alta Mountains and the Katun River…

Those birds of passage, the summer holiday-makers

who have their vacation dachas here, have long since flown away,

leaving behind them motley memories.

Only the peaceable long-settled Altai farmers are left,

busy on their small barley plots,

hurrying to take in the harvest.

Now and then a troupe of mounted hunters

will pass unhurriedly along the river, smoking their pipes.

Or an Altai woman, wearing the traditional chegedek,

will canter past on a chubby piebald horse,

with a clinking of metal ornaments in her plaits an on her saddle.

And again silence reigns,

again there is only the whispering of nature

and the wavering billows of gentle colours.

Again the Katun’s song swells undisturbed,

again the chest breathes freely,

and no sad thoughts darken the mind.  

   ………………………………………………….

Repeat of the previous blog…‘and I complain of the foul weather, hail and rain, a pear-tree broken by the storm’

I was going to start by showing you three paintings, one each by Titian, Artemisia Gentileschi, and Zurbaran [all from the 17C] and a small Etruscan bronze from about 400BC that shows the two winged messengers, Sleep and Death, lifting the dead King Sarpedon, son of Zeus, to carry him back to his home country Lycia. But, even though I’m looking at these paintings and sculpture almost daily, making copies/interpretations of them, I’ll leave them for further down the page. For at this moment I don’t believe, even though I’d love to, that art can offer true succour to the suffering, moral instruction to the instigators of war, or that beauty can sustain us physically. So I thought I needed to start with more doubt, less faith in art in times like this, then perhaps build up some hope.

The title of this blog is from section V of WB Yeats’ poem MEDITATIONS IN TIME OF CIVIL WAR.

              V

The Road at My Door.

An affable Irregular,

A heavy-built Falstaffian man,

Comes cracking jokes of civil war

As if to die by gunshot were

The finest play under the sun.

A brown Lieutenant and his men,

Half dressed in national uniform,

Stand at my door, and I complain

Of the foul weather, hail and rain,

A pear tree broken by the storm.

I count those feathered balls of soot

The moor-hen guides upon the stream

To silence the envy in my thought;

And turn towards my chamber, caught

In the cold snows of a dream.

‘To silence the envy in my thought;’ Yeats says. Yes, don’t we all wish we could do something more than offer sympathy in these times…get really involved in what is proving to be a last ditch attempt to turn the rising tide of despotism and greed. Don’t we at these times hate our staid lives, the lack of any true challenge? Don’t we admire the bravery of the Ukrainians, their beliefs so strong that they will die for them? Don’t we live as if mothballed, even the young choosing cotton wool and down above harder beds? Aren’t we disgusted by how low we aim?

Just look at me, a prime example of what it is to be cossetted, with one eye on the news, the other on the first signs of spring and a third on the beautiful paintings and sculptures that I mentioned above and that show cruelty, a redemption and a type of resurrection. I live like Yeats in rural semi-isolation, and even though I don’t have a stream or moor-hens and their chicks to watch and count, I do have a variety of wild birds, small and large to give me pleasure, as well as the occasional deer or wild boar, fox or porcupine, and our cat Annie who I love to watch find a patch of sun, wriggle on her back in it, then find a perch to watch me launch Frisbees down the lanes between the olive trees for Tina, the young Border Collie pup of our neighbour Catja to chase down. We both love to watch her speed, how she can leap and catch the spinning disc cleanly out of the air. I think Annie is secretly in love with her.

So this is what I’ve been doing during the war. Pathetic isn’t it? But I’d like to suggest that watching and playing with animals, watching them and the flowers and blossoms arriving is as important as art and perhaps more instructive.

It is of course wonderful to see how the rich common culture of the Ukrainians is becoming part of protests e.g. the art of Maria Prymachenko being made into banners. And how the various musicians, traditional, rock and classic, playing among the ruins, create a temporary respite from the horrors, and a call for strength and hope. But for me the problem is that art most often comes after the fact…it is always made or performed in response to life. It may, like Yeats’ poems carry a timeless weight because of its perfect structure and rhythm and its sense of place that links him and therefore us the readers to the universal. But art is far too often like journalism, saying, ‘look, this is bad, shocking, but now that we’ve shown it things will only get better.’ Unfortunately that is not true.

Here is part VI of the same poem by Yeats.

                    VI

The Stare’s Nest by My Window

The bees build in crevices

Of loosening masonry, and there

The mother birds bring grubs and flies.

My wall is loosening; honey-bees,

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned

On our uncertainty; somewhere

A man is killed, or a house burned,

Yet no clear fact to be discerned:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or wood;

Some fourteen days of civil war;

Last night they trundled down the road

The dead young soldier in his blood:

Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We fed the heart on fantasies,

The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;

More substance in our enmities

Than in our love: O honey-bee

Come build in the empty house of the stare

Yeats says, ‘More substance in our enmities than in our love’. When will that ever change? How can that ever change while we are fed on male fantasies about the power of brutish nationalism, of money, and of men over women?

Below are the three 17thC painting and the Etruscan bronze:

Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia is apparently the first time the death of Lucretia is shown as murder and not as her own suicide after the shame of being raped by Tarquin. That’s certainly an improvement, a step forward. But the painting, for all its mastery is too tame for our world today; the cruelty of the act second to the huge ability of the artist. If, all those centuries ago, it had put the lid on the murder and rape of women, it could now be held up as a truly great work of art. But all it is, is yet another hugely marketable/valuable depiction of another male fantasy and an icon of Western culture. Am I being absurd? Perhaps. But have there not also been countless laws passed in countries around the world, all after even more absurd debate over the rights and wrongs of something obviously so despicable, so anti-life? And have these done enough to slow or stop the killings and rapes? What the hell is the use of the creative and intellectual works of Man when his ability to engineer killing machines trumps everything? [Pun intended.]

Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith killing Holofernes is in the Uffizi in Florence. It is the most visceral work in the museum. As a precociously talented young artist living in Rome and working in her father’s studio she was raped by a fellow artist and associate of her father. The rapist was never punished. Ironically this painting hangs in what is called the Caravaggio room, named after the most famous and controversial artist of that time: a man who writers on art have always championed, but whose works in this room pale next to Gentileschi’s. This work is as close to a redemptive act as any painter is capable of achieving.

Zurbaran’s Agnus Dei [the Lamb of God] hangs in the Prado in Madrid. I can still remember coming out of a room of enormous and breath-taking Velasquez works and seeing this small and utterly beautiful and still painting. Its symbolism was and is still lost on me. I choose to see only the beauty of the lamb and of the painting, the brush marks…as beautiful as those of Velasquez’s dogs and his court jesters and dwarfs…works of complete attention, admiration, and empathy with the subjects. This trussed lamb in its seemingly compliant beauty is for me a call for reassessing our self-appointed superior status in nature, for us to stop killing and eating beautiful animals and farming them, exchanging them, turning them into nothing but filthy lucre and human shit.

This Death of Sarpedon is the bronze handle of an urn for ashes and the most beautiful depiction of this story from Homer that I’ve ever seen. It is in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and although I’ve not seen it in ‘the flesh’ it haunted me when I first discovered this photograph of it over six months ago and haunts me even more now during these brutal times. It acts for me like the music being played among the ruins, but less fragile and coming from among the earliest stories ever told, the earliest tragic reports of battles won and battles lost.

I of course have no idea how to create a perfect world, one as near to a paradise on earth as is possible. But I do know that if we survive this war and don’t change our dependence on and worship of money, our fear of others and of women, another one will follow and again another after that.

Yeats again. The first stanza of LAPIS LAZULI.

I have heard that hysterical women say

They are sick of the palette and the fiddle-bow,

Of poets that are always gay,

For everybody knows or else should know

That if nothing drastic is done

Aeroplane and Zeppelin will come out,

Pitch like King Billy bomb balls in

Until the town lie beaten flat

But Yeats does come up with a charming and witty dream and partial answer in his RUNNING TO PARADISE. He imagines a place where ‘here the king is but as the beggar’ and where, as he says in the last stanza, ‘the wind is old and still at play… the wind that nobody can buy or bind:’… though unfortunately he can’t find a friend to follow him on his speedy journey. And below this, to finish, is my choice of a type of ‘music from the ruins’, the song I’ve been listening to over and over this past month. The song where Rhiannon Giddens and her band almost take flight; not like the winged messengers of death and sleep but like birds, any birds. The song is called The Last Kind Words.

RUNNING TO PARADISE.

As I came over Windy Gap

They threw a halfpenny into my cap,

For I am running to Paradise;

And all that I need do is to wish

And someone puts his hand in a dish

To throw me a bit of salted fish:

And here the king is but as the beggar.

My brother Mourteen is worn out

With skelping his big brawling lout,

And I am running to Paradise

A poor life, do what he can,

And though he keep a dog and gun,

A serving-maid and a serving-man:

And here the king is but as the beggar.

Poor men have grown to be rich men,

And rich men grown to be poor again,

And I am running to Paradise;

And many a darling wit’s grown dull

That tossed a bare heel at school,

Now it has filled an old sock full:

And there the king is but as the beggar.

The wind is old and still at play

While I must hurry upon my way

For I am running to Paradise;

Yet never have I lit on a friend

To take a fancy like the wind

That nobody can buy or bind:

And here the king is but as the beggar.

According to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the phrase beyond the pale or outside the pale or for that matter inside the pale was not coined in a dairy a couple of centuries ago, as I’d presumed. It comes from the name ‘The English Pale’ for a large area of eastern Ireland colonised in the 12thC by Henry II but that by the 16thC had been reduced to a small area around Dublin. So English law and the horrifying and boring aspects that no doubt came with it shrunk and the Irish beyond the pale increased in number.  

If you are anything like me and perhaps like me grew up in a suburb in a country under the lash of a suppressive regime, a regime of people who looked like me, you will recognise my attraction for those beyond the pale…the powerless living beyond the periphery of the mown lawns and the trajectory of the aspirations of those living in the houses beside these lawns. And the driving of cars, as in a board game, to these houses in the evenings through a grid of streets. Order, uniformity and discipline had defeated the Hun, or Gerry, or Adolf or any other comic terms we had for the Nazis, but had not stopped the victors adopting their ideas on eugenics and on the separation of races as some sort of law of nature that they grotesquely refined to even ban Jewish people becoming members of country clubs. Those places of perfect lawns and greens with dining rooms where one is waited on hand and foot [because one is white and not Jewish] and with wine and liquor lists from the old country, or the Frogs or the Wops, and where in the bar the inverted bottles with their tot-measures clamped to a high shelf, read like a row of coloured flags of all the familiar names that propped up suburbia as much as Hoover or Frigidaire.

I would be lying if I said I rejected the culture of white Apartheid South Africa at a young age. It was a copy-cat culture which made us feel more a part of the ‘real’ world than we actually were, with Coca Cola and Comics and the treasured lists and photographs of famous cricketers and footballers from England. White American and British music of the 60’s was there too in the record shops in town [unless banned for being too explicit]. Explicitness was not tolerated when it meant unreserved freedom or fun, but only when it pertained to the unambiguous racial laws of the country and their enforcement. Then I discovered a different type of explicitness at the age of sixteen: paintings and drawings that explained, in forthright colours, shapes and lines what it was to experience the world around you at first hand and not through the filter of a borrowed culture. These were not political works, so perhaps my political awakening was stalled. They were nudes, still lives, but mostly landscapes [some bordering on abstraction] and were done by the staff and students from the Rhodes University Fine Arts Department, or The Grahamstown Group as they called themselves when exhibiting. It would take me another three years to discover an equivalent power in literature.

I like the word periphery so much that I prefer it in the plural. They are never concepts, abstract notions, but always physical, either natural or man-made. There can be peripheries of gardens, villages, cities or countries. Continents as well. Oceans and lakes too. I like the soft sound of the word, the way peripheries can change size and shape like a mist seen from above. Things move in and out of the periphery of our vision, the periphery of our imagination, and we are drawn to these edges, to the mystery far beyond ourselves, and the excitement of discovery. Grahamstown was a place like that for me long before I went there to study art. To get there, on the many visits we made when I was young, I remember driving with my parents and sister through the semi-industrial periphery of Port Elizabeth, an area to me so thrillingly different from suburbia, so unkempt, so visually exciting, so full of the potential for exploration. The road then ran close to the sea’s edge, over a river [perhaps a municipal boundary] and into a different landscape of windblown shrubs, saltpans, and a second river with a few modest holiday cottages and upturned wooden boats. Then came abandoned fields with broken wire fences behind which at certain times of the year you could see a few young Xhosa boys wrapped only in dusty blankets and with clay smeared faces, isolated from their families during their circumcision rites. I remember the road then twisting and turning [as all roads should] between small fields [of chicory I think] or just bush, the sea sometimes glimpsed far off as a silver or blue/grey line, an edge.

Grahamstown lies in a small hollow surrounded by a periphery of hills. And it was one evening, almost twilight, while I was walking in these hills [a first year art student with an under-used sketchbook in my hands] that I first heard then saw a group of Xhosa women collecting firewood higher up on a slope of thinned out trees. I stopped to watch their practiced movements; the gathering in of the long, thin branches, the tearing or cutting off of the twigs then the tying of them into heavy bundles and with the help of the others placing a bundle on each of their heads…the wood perfectly balanced and horizontal above their straight backs and necks as they started walking home. And where was this home, this circle of mud and thatched huts or shacks of breeze blocks and corrugated sheeting? It was there as it had always been, in a myriad different places that were often dusty and dry but well swept and where nothing went to waste; often just a short walk or bus ride beyond the periphery of wasteful white privilege.          

There was such beauty and power in this scene…the need of the women and their families for the wood, the almost ‘undercover-of-darkness’ harvesting of it, the practiced movements and extraordinary skill of balancing and carrying the bundles on their heads.  And there was something familiar about this scene that I could not at first place. Perhaps it reminded me of one of those English, mystical, steeped in moonlight and shadow paintings and drawings by Samuel Palmer.  Perhaps there was a full moon rising above these hills as I stood there transfixed. [Let’s put one in and see the silvering of the edges of the trees and the retreating women.] But then I thought, ‘I must read that book again.’

So I walked home, found my old copy of a set work book from my final year of school, opened it and did not want to put it down. Then I read every other novel by Thomas Hardy that I could find, one after the other.  I’d not found The Return of the Native an interesting book at all when we had to read it at school. I’d thought it a strange choice to read in the 1970’s. I’d thought it too old fashioned, too English to read here in Africa. But I was to learn, starting in Grahamstown, that great art of anytime speaks to us, instructs us in how to become, not members of a specific race, country or class, but part of this strange, at times like this scary, but most often quite wonderful human race and all of nature that sustains us.

 The painting above is by Francois Millet and called The Gleaners, and the drawing below is Early Morning by Samuel Palmer.             

Slap bang in the middle of the road that every serious white South African writer must travel, there’s a large and immovable object that needs circumventing or clambering over. It is the body of works [still unfinished] and the body and face [still thankfully alive but as inscrutable as ever] of JM Coetzee. This is not Coetzee’s fault. To say so is similar to criticizing someone for the colour of their skin or hair, their height or lack of it. Coetzee is who he is; with his allegories, obfuscations, painful self-flagellation, flights of insightful and beautiful writing on many things including the dignity of animals, and pages of knypgat [tight sphincter] dialogue and descriptions, so formal and dry that his words seem to die on the page of over correction. The problem occurs when writers feel it necessary to try to be him, to understand him in order pass beyond him. Damon Galgut, judging by his latest novel, the Booker Prize winning The Promise, has no such problem. With a loose limbed hop, skip and jump, he’s passed the obstacle of Coetzee [leaving him to his own interests] and has written a dark yet very funny novel, set almost exclusively in and around Pretoria, from the heights of police and army oppression during the state of emergency in 1986 to the removal of the corrupt Jacob Zuma from the president’s office in 2018.

Galgut’s writing flows beautifully, his description of character and place pitch perfect, and the dialogue, unpunctuated, is not separate from the writer’s voice. And he often shifts from first to third person [sometimes within a single line and character] or at other times addresses the reader directly. As I’ve said there’s a lot of humour, hopefully not lost in translation, but also four funerals [one to every section of the book] and a great deal of aging, bodily decay, deception, lust, greed, alcohol and deceit—ag man what can I say, that’s just Pretoria. And that is almost how Galgut sometimes addresses the reader, whether e.g. South African, South American or Russian. He knows life is the same everywhere, but here among the Swart family on their farm beside the road between Pretoria and Hartbeespoort Dam, Galgut makes it specific and very real, writing beautifully, sadly, and with both anger and humour.   

I don’t want to give away anything of the story, or even tell you the main characters names or anything about them, except to say that two policemen investigating a murder are called Olyphant and Hunter, and a man/pervert working in a mortuary is Savage. When the two cops find that the person coming to identify the victim is constantly laughing and cracking jokes, one says the following…What’s wrong with this guy? Making jokes at a time like this! And in a mortuary! Who does he think he is, a policeman? But then later the same policeman says… Oh boy, things I could tell you. Any reason will do. South Africans kill each other for fun, it sometimes seems, or for small change, or for tiny disagreements. Shootings, and stabbings and stranglings and burnings and poisonings and smotherings and drownings and clubbings, wives and husbands slaughtering each other/ parents offing their children or the other way around/strangers doing other strangers in. Bodies cast carelessly aside like crumpled wrappers with no practical use. Each one a life, or rather used to be, and from each one concentric circles of pain ripple out in all directions, perhaps for ever.

There’s also a very beautiful description of life on the farm other than human life and so different to it.  He starts with jackals at night that… pass on through the dark landscape, stitching from shadow to shadow, following a path they themselves have worn down around the koppie. The landscape is luminous to them and the air swarming with messages. Traces and tracks and happenings far off. Near the electric pylons they pause, alerted by the humming of current in the power lines overhead, and they throw back their heads to send out wobbling howls in reply...Later, at the sight of a grave that is being dug and from which the jackals have moved on, he writes…A caterpillar ripples its way along a leaf/A meerkat sneaks through the grass, like a wisp of smoke/A beetle spindles by, stops still for an instance, resumes.

And Galgut admits, he has to, he’s already told us as much, or perhaps we came to this knowledge through our own experience that…there is nothing unusual or remarkable about the Swart family, oh no, they resemble the family from the next farm and the one beyond that, just an ordinary bunch of white South Africans, and if you don’t believe it then listen to us speak. We sound no different from the other voices, we sound the same and we tell the same stories, in an accent squashed underfoot, all the consonants decapitated and the vowels stove in. Something rusted and rain-stained and dented in the soul, and it comes through in the voice.  

The story of the promise of the title is on the blurb on the back cover and is explained early on in the story. But there are also other promises, unfulfilled…the promise of religion [there are five different religions with their followers and flounders that we encounter] of youth [aging and death are a constant] of the old South Africa for whites and the new South Africa for all. Perhaps only the promise of death is the one the book delivers: but that would be telling if I said I believed that to be true or not.  

Below, is Snor City [moustache city] by James Phillips, aka Bernoldus Niemand, a send up of Pretoria in the days of Apartheid. I pasted in the lyrics in as well, they are just so damn good.

Dagsê liewe mense, ek is vandag jou gids (In Pretoria)

Ons is op soek vir net een skoon bolip in Pretoria (In Pretoria)

Want dit is die stad met geen bolip glad (Dis Pretoria)

Want orals in die strate is die fans van Country plate (In Pretoria)

Stap, slaap, eet, drink, dink, raak mal

Stap, slaap, eet, drink, dink, eet, raak mal [In Pretoria]

Die grootste Afrikaanse stad in die Suidelike Halfrond Dis Pretoria

Hoe verder ek loop, dan hoe minder raak my hoop (In Pretoria)

Dit lyk vir my ‘n snor is meer nodig as a tjor (In Pretoria)

Hul ry ‘n Ford Snortina en hul eet snorgasbord (In Pretoria)

Ek soek nou al jare vir ‘n man sonder die hare (Van Pretoria)

O red, my liewe God, van die nare snor-komplot (in Pretoria)

As ek ‘n terroris was Sou ek ‘n snorbom ontwerp het (Vir Pretoria)

O, Mnr Snortjé, ek sien jou weer en weer en weer (In Pretoria)

Dis iets in die lug, dit trek die haar uit jou gesig (In Pretoria)

Elke man se bek leef in die skade van hierdie vrek (In Pretoria)

O my liewe aarde, ek het te lank gepraat, op my lip is die nare hare (Van Pretoria)

Dis die haargevaar Total onsnort! Snor city. Total onsnort! Snor city.

Today, as I’m starting this, is Tuesday the 28th December 2021. I know that because I can read it off my phone or on a calendar hanging in a corner of our spare room. The letters and numbers, arranged as they are in the language and simple arithmetic that I’ve learned, provide this information. The beauty of this simple and informative aspect of the written word is often overlooked, the lengthy history of how names came about unknown to most of us, or if once partially known soon forgotten. I don’t want to compare this ‘language as information’ to the at times as beautifully simple but often more high risk and complex arrangement of letters, words, sentences, punctuations and spaces that make up literature, poetry, and other fine writing. All I would say is that the great French poet Blaise Cendrars, who I’ve written about often, especially this year, apparently thought that the Paris telephone directory was a wonderful thing to read. But of course he had the most extraordinary imagination, and I can imagine the joy he took in the sound of common surnames repeated while running a finger down a page [the different first names perhaps acting as a man’s or lady’s hat to partially describe them] or at the surprise of a single surname, perhaps a tongue twister of exotic origin, jumping off the page.  I have no doubt he could have built  an imaginative street map of the city he loved and place these characters in homes and in clothes he felt suited them. It was a game, like all art, and as painters from Pissarro to Frank Auerbach have said: the best game ever invented.

The spare room where the calendar is hanging is also Gwynie’s study and sewing room, as well as a larder, a linen cupboard, a wine cellar and an ironing room. Our cat’s food and water bowl are also places on the floor below the calendar. Order is needed in this small room for us to function in it. Places have been roughly designated for each category of object and the actions needed to facilitate their use. It is a walk on board game with dangers of colliding with sharp edged objects or the chancing upon surprise bonuses such as a good bottle of wine discovered behind others of lesser quality. It is a game of humour and frustration as well as learning in the form of G’s online teaching. It also has a beautiful view, and in summer birds on the windowsill. But it all changes when a family member or close friend is expected, and with the change there is much excitement and anticipation. No one but family or close friends could be expected to put up with such rudimentary comforts, even when miraculously partially decluttered and turned into a small bedroom with only a computer in the corner by the window.

The way we arrange our lives, our spaces, our relationships, is our art of living. What we emphasise, what we leave unexplored, how we use language, how we are accommodating to the needs of others and how we pursue our own deep interests; this is how we project ourselves, this is how others view us. Modest living is today a type of nakedness, more so perhaps than during the almost fifty years when Giorgio Morandi painted his modest collection of bottles, vases, jugs and boxes, over and over until his death in 1964. And it is to his modest room in Bologna that I want to take you to, now seen with my own eyes and not through photographs on the net that I ended my last blog with. For after writing and thinking about Morandi last month we took ourselves off to Bologna for a weekend to see the large collection of his work in the Museum of Modern Art Bologna, and to visit his home where he lived with his three sisters; now  a small museum showing how he lived, the tools of his trade, his collection of early art, and some of his books and letters with comments from his friends and admirers: such as museum curators, art historians, and the great film director Michelangelo Antonioni, and his muse the beautiful Monica Viti.

I loved visiting his home, to feel the presence, still there, of the alchemy of painting. For what is painting but alchemy? A transformation of coloured pastes into objects recreated from the unique light that oil paint holds. Being there reminded me of a book that I loved when an art student, and that I think was called The Studio. It was a book of black and white photograph showing well-known painters and sculptors of the 20thC in their studios. It was, I think, published in the 60’s, and was utterly magical. I remember the images of George Braque, Giacometti, Leger and Picasso, and think there were also those of British artists like Sutherland and Bacon, and the Mexicans Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. Was Giorgio Morandi there too perhaps? Because the photographs were black and white and very good, I remember the textures of the light falling on wood, plaster, canvas and paint, the stained walls perhaps scribbled on, high windows unwashed—all very different from the pristine white cube studios of the present-day army of internationally famous artists, whose studios are seldom places of discovery and magic. Rather, they are laid out, arranged [that word again] to facilitate the easy production of more of the same. More works of a brand that sells.

To me, the extraordinary thing about Giorgio Morandi and his work is that even though he painted the same few square miles of landscape and the same jugs, bottles and boxes etc. over and over, he never copied himself. He was always in search of the illusive, the illusive meaning of the concrete world he inhabited.

There is a room in Casa Morandi that was once the dining room where he enjoyed sharing meals with friends and where now a paragraph on the wall tells of his love of simple home cooked Italian food and his pleasure in receiving a present of a small basket of fruit to be shared at the end of the meal. His life was circumscribed, his carefully composed paintings full of composure, or at other times full of emotions, but always with the excitement of a discovery that inched him, and now us, toward a truth that is monumental.

 Morandi knew that to live in the present, to put work above nostalgia or dreaming was to get closer to the wonderful realities of life. So his paintings live outside historic time, do not owe anything to artistic fashion, and these two modest sized landscapes, one of strong light and shadows, the other of the granular quiet of snow, are testimony to this.

He eliminated what was not essential so as to bring what he was looking at into painted being.  Yet it is as if he’d hardly been involved in the painting, had not known how to, had had no style or tricks up his sleeve. He also did not plan a career, was not self-absorbed or pragmatic in that sense of the word. He was absorbed with familiar things for their own sake and for his love of them in which he always found newness.  He reminds me a great deal of my mother and of my wife. I’ve also read that he was an optimistic and humorous man, and these are also traits my mother had, and Gwynie still has…For how on earth could they have put up with me, let alone loved me for so long, unless they believed tomorrow could be better or that laughter could, on occasion, be the best medicine.To finish off I have a quote from Joan Didion, the American writer who died a couple of days before Christmas at the age of eighty seven. She is someone I’ve not read yet but certainly want to early in the New Year. There have been many good pieces on her in the press, plus the usual photographs of her as a dashing young woman and as an elderly, fragile but still daunting sage. There have also been the many quotes too, and the one below I liked the most. From what the writers on her say she wrote about the physical world, starting with that, with what we surround ourselves with, how we arrange these things in relation to ourselves and what this says about us. From what I gather she did not impose ideas on the world as she encountered it but grew her ideas from observing it. So like Morandi.  

There is also something else in this quote, from a commencement address she gave to young students at the University of California, Riverside in 1975 that reminds me of our time in Bologna. The day we arrived there was our 40th wedding anniversary, and as we walked the streets, under the miles and miles of beautiful colonnades, or sat in bars or restaurants, or stood in museums, there was one experience from our life together that we spoke about more than any other. It happened only weeks after our fourth wedding anniversary, not that things like that really crossed our minds then; it was enough to be young, adventurous and in Egypt, at Giza. Here, we were persuaded to take a camel ride across the desert to the step-pyramid of Saqqara, but when we realized our guide had no interest in returning us to Giza or even taking us close to Saqqara, we started wondering if the luck that is supposed to favour the brave was going to desert us. Anyway, we spent the night in a bare mudbrick room attached to the camel man’s house, miles from anywhere… but he didn’t get more money, or manage to separate us [which seemed to be his main angle] and in the morning we found the door unlocked and walked in the relative cool of the early morning towards the strip of green that we knew was the bank of the Nile where we would find a train back to Cairo.    

Here at last is Joan Didion, whose words I’d like to use as a New Year’s message to those of you who have managed to read this far. And below her words is a piece of music good enough to start any New Year’s Eve party, or the tapping of one’s feet in private, or to help you get the sense that something new is always just around the corner.                                      

 “I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.

This painting of St Augustine in his Study, by Botticelli, is possibly the smallest painting in the Uffizi. So, if I say I feel a bit like him at the moment, it is not his saintliness, intelligence, or writing skills that I identify with but this smallness, as well as with the twisted and discarded pages lying at his feet. Perhaps my almost constant on-line contemplation of the state of the world has caused my shrinking and indecisiveness, or perhaps it’s because we’ve had such a long and mild autumn [always my season of self-reflection, contemplation of time wasted or misspent, and the recalling of all the wrong turns and cowardly actions I’ve taken]. But, being an [almost] eternal optimist, and living and levitating in the beauty of Italy [both natural and manmade] I’m spoilt as far as the free therapy and drugs that are the landscapes, architecture, and art of where we live. Then there are books of course, of which I’ve been writing about more and more often.

Our trips to Florence most often include a visit to a gallery or museum, a stint of people watching on one of the sunlit squares, and buying a few books at the Paperback exchange or, as in this time, from the bookshop of the Uffizi. So we not only returned with images of some great paintings by Rembrandt, Gentileschi, Titian, Bronzino, Tintoretto etc. etc. still in our minds, but also with books of essays by Calvino and Pirandello that we had not read before. And it was that evening, while paging through the Calvino that I came across his short essay The Sculptures and the Nomads that told me more about what is needed in all our lives and in the world today than any shrill commenting [from all sides] that is our daily diet from the internet.

In this essay, Italo Calvino describes his visit he made to Persepolis [probably more than fifty years ago] starting with him going up the monumental staircase to the hall of a hundred columns, a line of sweaty tourists on his one side and the carved procession of “dignitaries with curly beards and curly hair, with cylindrical coiffures interwoven with feathers…and sometimes a flower in their hand,” on the other. And when I read his descriptions of the way “every so often a face looks back at the person behind, a hand is placed on the chest or on the shoulder as if in a gesture of friendship” I really started to pay attention. It is the ordered, repetitive, and cordial manner of this procession that affects Calvino, the detailed observation of clothing and weaponry and “the gift bearers from various nations with precious vases and little bags of gold dust.”

Calvino then travels a few kilometres to a sheer rock in the Naqsh-e Rustam gorge where a battle scene is depicted. And he comments. “The composed, rapt majesty of Persepolis has disappeared: here what dominates is pride, bellicosity; the affirmation of one’s superiority over the enemy and the ostentation of opulence.”

The essay then swings around again, full circle. He is still in the desert of Persia, but now not looking at carved stone figures but ones of flesh and bone, like the tourists he previously encountered but so different. And here I’ll quote at some length, his writing so perfect.

“On the way back, my route intersects with that of a tribe of nomads on the move. Barefoot women, with garish coloured clothes, are chasing forward a row of little donkeys, beating them with sticks and yelling. On some donkeys’ backs are balanced a hen, a dog, and a lamb astride the donkey; others have saddle bags from which lambs and new-born babies stick out. The last little donkey trudges along: on its back sits an old witch, roaring, riding side saddle, with a stick in her hand; all the kinetic energy that pushes the caravan forward seems to emanate from this old woman…The procession heads towards an encampment of black tents…Unlike the women, the men are dressed like city-dwellers; they wait at the threshold of their tents, greet foreigners with a Salam and invite them to drink tea. At the arrival of these strangers some of the women hide their faces and laugh in the black and white of their eyes; one of them pours water from a goatskin water bag; another starts to knead the dough. On the ground are the famous carpets woven on their looms. For centuries the nomads have criss-crossed these arid terrains between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea without leaving any trace of themselves behind apart from their footprints in the dust.” 

Calvino then reflects on this day, this magical day that he shares through his writing. Confronted on the one hand by fixed processions of stone cut figures and on the other “by people in perpetual transit” he wonders which of the two ways of being he would choose. To choose to live “only to leave behind an indelible sign…or living by identifying with the cycle of the seasons, the growth of grasses and bushes, with the rhythm of the years that cannot stop because it follows the revolution of the sun and stars.” But he admits that in each case “something holds me back; I cannot find the gap where I could insert myself and join the crowd.” But he ends. “Just one thought makes me feel at ease: the carpets. It is in the weave of their carpets that the nomads deposit their wisdom: these variegated, light objects are spread on the bare ground wherever they stop to spend the night, and are rolled up again in the morning so they can carry them along with all their other belongings on the humps of camels.”

To be able to make and carry your wisdom lightly, a wisdom specific to you, but because imaginative, one that others can feel and wonder at too: a wisdom that is art…Perhaps I was trying to put my thoughts into more ordered words like these when I finished Calvino’s essay, but it was this image below that came into my mind’s eye.

The etchings of Giorgio Morandi are as if created by weaving black threads through heavy white paper. They are meticulously and carefully made. If they were not framed you could safely roll them up, tie a ribbon around them and carry them in a deep jacket pocket, to take out when you needed something to combat the cold of the desert of capitalism. His paintings, mostly still lives of the collection of objects that he kept in his studio, and landscapes, are all small enough to transport in a saddle bag or suitcase. Yet he was anything but a nomad. Or was he?

Morandi, from all accounts, seldom left his home town of Bologna. One is also lead to believe that he was possibly never in a relationship. This may or may not be true, but when looking at his paintings it mostly makes us question, not the validity of that belief but what our idea of being in a relationship means. The relationships he created between his vases, jugs, cups, bowls, ceramic boxes and paper flowers [that he chose from flea markets for their shape, colour and sheen or lack of] was one of such charm, delicacy, yet conviction that I cannot imagine that, when younger, a girl or boy had not shaken him too his roots with a smile or even a slight glance through a window. It takes a man of great imagination, and a certain contentment or rather understanding of what love is, to create monuments out of such modest means.      

The fact that he lived with his sisters, in a flat close to the square outside the Basilica di San Petronio, is incontestable. And so is that inside this church is one of the most powerful depictions of hell, of the inferno, ever painted. It was painted in 1410 by Giovanni da Modena and below is an image of part of it that show just how shockingly relevant it is for today.   

So, was Morandi a nomad who hardly left his ‘tent’, or a man who wanted to leave a legacy, if not in stone then in paint and ink? I believe he was the former, a man closer to nature, an outsider to pride and the terrible damage it causes. I wonder what Saint Augustine would have written about a life like his? He would have found goodness in it, that I’m sure of.

Below is a photograph of Morandi in his studio, and another of the studio with his collection of objects that he painted; this room now part of the Casa Morandi Museum.

I meant to start the previous blog that dealt with the first four chapters of John Dewey’s Art as Experience with a photograph of its cover. So, here it is, with its lovely woodcut.  Dewey believed that art was important, both the activity and the resultant object, more important than any other produced or performed by man. I, of course, fully agree. But then why wouldn’t I?  For there are few greater pleasures for me than being in the presence of great art [visual, literary or musical] or great craft or ingenious and beautiful machinery. And now, in Dewey’s writings, I’ve found an ally.

He states early on that science acts in the realm of signs, helpful in giving direction, but that art does not lead us to an experience but constitutes one. Science separates objects for easier analysis, but “The poem or the painting does not operate in the dimension of correct descriptive statement but in that of experience itself.” He uses a simple analogy of a sign that only points us to a village and contrasts that with the experience of actually being there, spending time there, learning about it by opening all our senses to it. He goes on to say. “A hasty sightseer no more has an esthetic vision of Saint Sophia or the Cathedral of Rouen than a motorist traveling at sixty miles an hour sees the flitting landscape. One must move about, within and without, and through repeated visits let the structure gradually yield itself to him in various lights and in connection with changing moods… An experience is a product, one might almost say a by-product, of continuous and culminative interaction of an organic self with the world.” Here, he is describing the act and importance of drawing without perhaps even realising it. He continues. “The concept that objects have fixed and unalterable values is precisely the prejudice from which art emancipates us.”

This idea that art, both in its making and in our contemplation of it, liberates us and opens us up to our true nature and the true nature of nature, is argued often in these lectures. Here are two particularly apt sentences. “Any psychology that isolates the human from the environment also shuts him off from his fellows… Philosophy is said to begin in wonder and end in understanding. Art departs from what has been understood and ends in wonder.” Just imagine if we saw the world as a place of wonder, a place to explore, cherish and enjoy with all our being, to take that sense of wonder we had when children and carry it with us throughout our lives.

Here is Dewey again, and even better… “The sense of an extensive and underlying whole is the context of everyday experience and it is the essence of sanity…A work of art elicits and accentuates this quality of being a whole, and of belonging to the larger, all-inclusive whole which is the universe in which we live. This fact, I think, is the explanation of that feeling of exquisite intelligibility and clarity we have in the presence of an object that is experienced with esthetic intensity…Where egotism is not made the measure of reality and value, we are citizens of this vast world beyond ourselves.”

Dewey was a leading second generation philosophers of the Pragmatic School of Philosophy, founded in America by Charles Peirce and William James, and he angled this philosophy more towards politics, education and social improvement, believing that good practical outcomes should come from good thinking and good art. He was a lover of early modernist painters like Monet, van Gogh, Cezanne and Matisse, having less time for many of the Classic painters, Mannerists, and those of the Baroque Age.  His friend and fellow activist for equal rights Jane Addams was to invent the profession of social work as an expression of pragmatic ideas and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 for her work. According to the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy [from where I got the above information] Pragmatism as a philosophy lost its appeal around the 1970’s but has since undergone a revival, especially among thinkers in South America, Scandinavia, Central Europe and China. I believe this can only be good news, for his ideas are not created to solely question or undermine other philosophies [this would have been a far too narrow and meaningless undertaking for him] His ideas are steeped in the rhythms and forces of the world, both natural and social, and in the cyclical nature of our own biology and that of all living things. He believed that living organisms, like works of art, are the result of a process of doing and undoing over time until their material, the stuff they are made of, reaches fulfilment. And that this fulfilment comes as form, a physical shape or sound, perfect to that creature or object with regard to its interaction, its push and pull, with its environment. To quote him again. “The resultant form cannot exist without conservation of the import of what has gone before…Accumulation is at the same time preparation, as with each phase of growth of a living embryo… Only that is carried on which is led up to; otherwise there is arrest and a break…as we turn from reading a poem or novel or seeing a picture the effect presses forward into further experiences, even if only subconsciously.” Dewey’s formal conditions of esthetic form are: continuity, accumulation, conservation, tension, anticipation and resistance. “The existence of resistance defines the place of intelligence in the production of an object of fine art…without internal tension there would be a fluid rush to a straightway mark…there would be nothing that could be called development and fulfilment…art and nature are not in antithesis, the true antithesis of nature is conceit, fantasy and stereotyped convention.” He does spend some time arguing against other philosophies, and the way art historians place works in defined styles, saying in a nutshell that there is absolutely no esthetic value in solely identifying and discussing a picture as such and such or by so and so. This unfortunately is the very basis of the art world/market today, a system designed to generate immense profit by taking what was once, and still can be, and is, man’s greatest and most meaningful activity and reducing it to a cash cow for the few, by treating artist’s names as brands. Dewey, as an advocate of equality across class, race and profession, would have had no truck with this. He quotes Tolstoy on this subject. “Nothing so contributes to the perversion of art as those authorities set up by criticism…once an artist is pronounced great, all his works are regarded as admirable and worthy of imitation…Every false work extolled is a door through which hypocrites of art creep in.”

Dewey writes a lot about intensity, energy, rhythm, line and form. These essential elements in a work of art he says must be experienced in life to be expressed in art. “For art is a selection of what is significant,” he says, “ with rejection by the very same impulse of what is irrelevant and thereby the significant is compressed and intensified.” This impulse is of course unique to each individual artist, but the experience of both the creator and the viewer of the work of art, he says “is impersonal, because it is attached not to personal fortune but to the object, the construction of which the self has surrendered itself in devotion.”

So perhaps I could sum up, rather crudely, by saying that both the making of art and the full engagement with it by viewers or audiences are acts of devotion to the energies, rhythms, colours, sounds and shapes of life as we experience it. And I’ll end, as Dewey ends this book, with this quote from Shelley and a final line by him.

Shelly said, “The great secret of morals is love, or a going out of our nature and the identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own. A man to be greatly good must imagine intensely and comprehensively.”

John Dewey said [to end his fourteen lectures on art and experience]. “Art is a mode of prediction not found in charts and statistics, and it insinuates possibilities of human relations not to be found in rule and precept, admonition and administration.”               

September was the seventh month of the Roman calendar, before the Janus headed January was placed to look both back and forward and with February [from the Latin februum, purification, and februa place or instrument of purification] placed next; a perfect name for the coldest month of the year. The Latin sept means a place or tribe apart, and that is exactly what September feels like here; an escape from the heat to a kinder, better place.

Even though it has been the warmest September that I can remember, the light has changed angle as ever, throwing longer shadows at midday, and the white/blue heat of the summer sky is now at times dotted with woolly islands, or larger grey ones slowly passing; or with white streaks of high flying changes in the weather that bring on the first colourful sunsets for months. There has also been some welcome rain and a spring like freshness in the air; but not enough for us to close the windows at night, except for one early morning after more than a month of being woken nightly by deer and porcupine at three am, foraging noisily for fallen fruit or last years unpicked olives: the deer’s antlers clacking against the branches of the trees.

The last migrant birds seemed to have left later than normal this year; the call of European bee-eaters as they fed on the wing high up heard until recently in the beautiful stillness of the evenings. And it is this stillness of the September air, the stillness of the ink black shadows of trees across the white [earth] roads, yet the dancing of the light off everything when you’re in it that is the magic of this longed for change of season.

A few days ago I was driving on one of these white roads, through the long and black broken shadows of trees still in full foliage, my windscreen sparking as if with electric charges as I moved from the shade into small patches of sunlight. Later, on my return home, with the sun behind, the rear window was a golden opaque screen, turning what was behind into a Turner-like yellow evening.

We should have seen the last of the hornets, big and fat and noisy, but they are still very active, not drugged yet by any cold, and still noisily enter through windows and doors, crashing into walls to send us grabbing anything at hand to chase them out. And above the flowers that have come back into bloom, swarms of midges turn and rise and fall as if trapped in a large glass tube… and if you’re lucky you should still see the flick of colour that is a butterfly, most often in dark shade where they are like jewels on a dark green dress.

The wonderful painting above was done by Camille Corot in 1826. It is of an Italian landscape, probably done a little later in the year than September as there is snow on the far off mountains…but he has captured the silence, stillness and the blackness of the shadows so perfectly that it has inspired me to get outside again and paint from life in this last quarter of the year that is for me the most beautiful.        

The 1932 publication of the American philosopher John Dewey’s 1931 inaugural Henry James lectures at Harvard University, on the philosophy of art, Art as Experience, is by far and away the best book on the underlying reasons for and the meaning of art that I’ve ever read… and I’ve taken the liberty of inserting a few photographs of art and artists that came to mind while reading these extraordinary lectures.  

He gave fourteen lectures in all, but I’ll only manage to cover the first four in this blog: The Live Creature, The Live Creature and ‘Ethereal Things’, Having an Experience, and The Act of Expression.

Dewey’s writing is clear and he builds his beliefs with a thrilling logic and a determined democratic sensibility. He takes art off its pedestal on the opening page, not to diminish it but to start his argument that the esthetic [I will use the American spelling of aesthetic, as he does] is part of all true and vital experience. He abhors compartmentalisation and divisions in any form…all social hierarchies, the idea of the duality of body and mind and the separation of man from animals and nature. Let me start by quoting him at some length on the task facing anyone writing about the philosophy of art…

“This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings and sufferings that are universally recognised to constitute experience. Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations. It is the business of those who are concerned with the theory of the earth, geographers and geologists, to make this fact evident in its various implications. The theorist who would deal philosophically with fine art has a like task to accomplish.”

A page or so later he writes the following, which at times is charmingly of his era. “In order to understand the esthetic in its ultimate and approved forms, one must begin with it in the raw; in the events and scenes that hold the attentive eye and ear of man, arousing his interest and affording him enjoyment as he looks and listens: the sights that hold the crowd—the fire engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human fly climbing the steeple side; the men perched high in the air on girders, throwing and catching red-hot bolts. The sources of art in human experience will be learned by him who sees how the tense grace of the ball-player infects the on-looking crowd; who notes the delight of the housewife in tending her plants and the intent interest of her good man in tending the patch of green in front of the house…” 

 Dewey writes of museums and galleries, the places that separate art from life, as being products of imperialism and nationalism, as well as of capitalism that is an economic system based on separation of those who do the work and the others for whom the work is done. He talks about the artist, now side lined from his previous role in producing work integral to the life and experiences of the society he lived in and this resulting in what he calls the ’the peculiar esthetic of individualism’, and he continues… “Put the action of all such forces together, and the conditions that create the gulf which exists generally between producer and consumer in modern society operate to create also a chasm between ordinary and esthetic experience.”

 Below is something wonderful that could be called, ‘art for the people, and by the people.’

The reader soon learns that his deep interest in art is as deep as his interest in everything else in life: animals and nature; cultures different from his own; memory; work; and the rhythms and patterns created by all life pushing through life’s obstacles. Time and again he speaks of the creation of a work of art as a process in ways identical to other true or esthetic experiences that, through struggle and at times luck [often coming from an unconscious store of memories] come to a joyous conclusion. For him, both art and something we can call and remember as a vital experience are never static or preconceived but come from the past and push into the future. They are life.

 Here is a beautiful passage from George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss that he quotes to illustrate a ‘living experience’.

     “These familiar flowers, these well remembered bird notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedge, such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and grass of far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.”

Here is a detail of an oil sketch by Constable.

 Dewey starts off his second lecture with a bang… “Why is the attempt to connect the higher and ideal things of experience with basic vital roots so often regarded as betrayal of their nature and denial of their value? Why is there repulsion when the high achievements of fine art are brought into connection with common life, the life that we share with all living creatures? Why is life thought of as an affair of low appetite, or at its best a thing of gross sensation, and ready to sink from its best to the levels of lust and harsh cruelty? A complete answer to the question would involve the writing of a history of morals that would set forth the conditions that have brought about contempt for the body, fear of the senses, and the opposition of flesh and spirit.”  

  He goes to a lot of very precise effort to put forward his belief that true meaning comes always through the senses, which are not opposed to the intellect but are the organs of contact with experience and therefore inform the mind. He explains that animals respond to sensory input with an instinctive intelligence learned over time and that enables them to hunt, flee, or build homes and nests, and that we come from the same basic biology as they do. As Keats says, and he quotes. “The greater part of men make their way with the same instinctiveness, the same un-wandering eye as the hawk…I go out among the fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field mouse hurrying along—to what? The creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it. I go among the buildings of a city and see a man hurrying along—to what? The creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”

He continues with Keats and his statement in a letter that Shakespeare was a man of enormous “Negative Capabilities”...a man who was “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” For Keats and Shakespeare the insight of imagination must suffice, and their philosophy was one accepting life and experience in all its uncertainty and half knowledge and turning that experience upon itself to deepen and intensify its own qualities of imagination and art.

At the start of lecture three called Having an Experience, he writes...“Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living. Under conditions of resistance and conflict, aspects and elements of the self and the world that are implicated in this interaction qualify experience with emotions and ideas so that conscious intent emerges. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they compose into an experience…In contrast with such experience, we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfilment.”  

Every artist knows that feeling of completion and of fulfilment, not because the work is done and we can go back to auto-pilot mode and our hum-drum lives, but because we feel, with all that is us, that we can carry this fulfilment into a vital future of true experiences. As Dewey says, “In an experience, flow is from something to something”…and “a conclusion is no separate and independent thing; it is the consummation of a movement.”  

Dewey says the following of society in the late20’s and early 30’s, but could be speaking of ours today… “Zeal for doing, lust for action, leaves many a person, especially in this hurried and impatient human environment in which we live, with experience of an almost incredible paucity, all on the surface. No one experience has a chance to complete itself because something else is entered upon so speedily. What is called experience becomes so disperse and miscellaneous as hardly to deserve the name. Resistance is treated as an obstruction to be beaten down, not as an invitation to reflection.”                     

And so he links philosophic, scientific, industrial and political inquiry [if they are ambitious and their different ingredients constitute an integral experience] to the inquiry into experience by an artist.  They all can have an esthetic quality, a quality of discovered order, and the joy of that discovery. To repeat…when art is seen as something separate from other imaginative activities, or life as separate from art, it impoverishes both, making of them static and dull things. And, esthetic experience is connected with the experience of making…“Without external embodiment, an experience remains incomplete,” says Dewey. 

Leger always springs to mind when work or making is mentioned.

 Lecture four, The Act of Expression, is perhaps, even more than the previous chapters an act of expression itself…a work of philosophical art. He starts, “EVERY experience, of slight or tremendous import, begins with an impulsion, rather as an impulsion. I say ‘impulsion’ rather than ‘impulse.’ An impulse is specialized and particular; it is, even when instinctive, simply part of the mechanism involved in a more complex adaptation with the environment. ‘Impulsion’ designates a movement outward and forward of the whole organism to which special impulses are auxiliary. It is the craving of the living creature for food as distinct from the reactions of tongue and lips that are involved in swallowing; the turning towards light of the body as a whole, like the heliotropism of plants, as distinct from the following of a particular light by the eyes… Impulsions are the beginnings of complete experience because the proceed from need; from a hunger and demand that belongs to the organism as a whole and that can be supplied only by instituting definite relations [active relations, interactions] with an environment. The epidermis is only in the most superficial way an indication of where an organism ends and its environment begins. There are things inside the body that are foreign to it, and there are things outside of it that belongs to it that must, that is, be taken possession of if life is to continue. On the lower scale, air and food materials are such things; on the higher, tools, whether the pen of the writer or the anvil of the blacksmith, utensils and furnishings, property, friends and institutions—all the supports and sustenances without which a civilized life cannot be.”

He continues by insisting on and explaining the difference, in great detail, between an instantaneous expressing [squeezing out] of emotion in the form of tears or laughter or rage, and the ‘act of expression’ which he calls… “The carrying forward to completion of an inspiration by means of the objective material of perception and imagery.”  

This seems, on the surface, to reject the importance of spontaneity in art, but it is not so.  His belief in the importance of memory in our appreciation of the present [as argued in the previous lectures] allows him to conclude his thorough argument in this way. “And then, even though after long incubation and after precedent pangs of labour, the final expression may issue with the spontaneity of the cadenced speech or rhythmic movement of happy childhood.”

And I’ve chosen to illustrate this point with probably my favourite photograph of Picasso, looking older than he normally did and perhaps more pensive beside his semi complete masterpiece Little Girl Skipping.

Dewey expands his argument with these words. “Only the psychology that has separated things which in reality belong together holds that scientists and philosophers think while poets and painters follow their feelings.” And then concludes lecture four with this passage.

“Works of art that are not remote from common life, that are widely enjoyed in a community, are signs of a unified collective life. The remaking of the material of experience in the act of expression is not an isolated event confined to artists and to a person here and there who happens to enjoy the work. In the degree in which art exercises its office, it is also a remaking of the experience of the community in the direction of greater order and unity.”

This is by the Sienese Renaissance sculptor Jacopo della Quercia.

There’s nothing at arms-length about this self-portrait by Chaim Soutine, a painter who never just copied his subjects, [though he’d only paint with the person, landscape or still life in front of him]. He never worked from memory or drawings…he reconstituted the world as paint. Painting was everything to him and everything lives cheek by jowl in his paintings; just as he lived in his mostly poverty stricken life. Distance and separation, the classicists’ cold hearted and egotistical approach to painting technique and life was anathema to him. He inhabited his own convulsive nature and the convulsions of the real world, the ever-changing birth and decay of matter, while knowing full well that making images was forbidden by Jewish law. The painter he admired most was Rembrandt.  

In an essay on Soutine from the early 1980’s, the late art critic David Sylvester wrote the following about Rembrandt and Soutine.

 “Rembrandt always seems to have an extraordinary attraction for Jewish painters…This could be partly because of a scarcely conscious response to the sympathy with which Rembrandt painted Jews. It could also be partly because of his legend—the idea that as a result of his integrity he became a social outcast…But there were other reasons more to do with painting. Jewish painters tend to have an exuberant relish for the manipulation of oil paint. Rembrandt is unequalled in his mastery of paint.”

Sylvester concludes the paragraph with these important words. “Jewish painters unanimously and vociferously affirm that art has no business to exist if it does not speak to the onlooker of the miseries and occasional triumphs of human existence [and thereby mitigate the breaking of the law against representation by assuming a high moral purpose]: Rembrandt, above all the great masters, is unashamedly a painter with ‘soul’.”

 And I would add to that, ‘undoubtedly, so is Soutine.’ 

 I look at reproductions of Soutine’s paintings more than those of any other artist. I look at them for his fearless use of paint and for the soul of both him and his subjects, visible in his portraits, flayed oxen, fish, rabbit and fowl, and especially in his landscapes of the French Pyrenees around the village of Ceret, and those from Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Cote d’Azur, as well as ones from closer to Paris.

 But now I’m seeing them in a different light; not a better or a more enlightened light, just one that speaks of the convulsive times we are in right now and will continue to do for the foreseeable future.  He would hate to be thought of as the painter who predicted, about a hundred years ago, the fires and floods and plagues that so offend our sense of self these days, that disrupt our holidays and that make us think [perhaps twice or perhaps not] before behaving like our capitalist god’s offspring…entitled, thoughtless and greedy. But just look at his leaning and red edged trees, the houses teetering and the landscapes turned perpendicular, about to crush us, as well as the lone figures splayed like dead insects on the impossibly steep roads of his imagination.

Yet I don’t think Soutine would be afraid or surprised by rising sea levels, floods and fires or food and water shortages. He suffered enormously during the first thirty of his fifty year life: from hunger, severe beatings by his brothers, father, and leaders of the Jewish community in the Lithuanian village of Smilovitch. And later, filthy and living in squalor in Paris, he suffered rejection, ridicule, and more hunger. To quote David Sylvester again, “The power of Soutine’s art rests upon his driving necessity to see the forbidden thing and to paint it.” And it is for that bravery, that necessity to break societal laws of false privilege [that are killing the earth today] that we need to look at his work and take courage from it.

It is interesting that Soutine was plucked out of poverty by the American art collector, chemist, business man, educationalist and writer Dr Albert Coombs Barnes, when he bought a number of his paintings in 1923…some say between fifty and one hundred. Barnes, like his friend the philosopher and writer on art and education, John Dewey, believed that art is the best way of expressing our responses to life and the best way to learn from it. Art, for them and Soutine, was about life not about art. Barnes was a rich man who despised the rich and who spent a great deal of his time and money helping Black American artists of all disciplines forge careers. His enormous collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and early modernist paintings is apparently one of the great private collections in the world, and his Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia is both an educational institution and a museum open to the public. His collection also includes African and Native American art, as well as works from Asian and South and Central America. He also collected over 900 wrought iron objects that are on display, side by side or above the paintings and artefacts/sculptures and arranged in what he called ensembles. So it should be of no surprise that this man, who read the shapes and colours of work from all over the world as common to the needs and experiences of all men, should have been bowled over by the paintings of Soutine. Below is The Pastry Chef, the first painting by Soutine that Barnes saw and bought. 

Barnes’ contempt for the rich and morally bankrupt is captured in three humorous episodes I found on his Wikipedia page…

On receiving a request from Walter Chrysler to visit the foundation [this was before it was open to the public] Barnes was said to have replied that he was not to be disturbed during his strenuous efforts to break the world record for gold-fish swallowing…[how Soutine would have loved that!] Then, when he first showed his collection at the conservative Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and when his works by van Gogh, Matisse, Soutine, Renoir etc. were called crazy and worse, he responded by saying that a writer from a local newspaper could not call herself an art critic until she had relations with the ice-man…[ditto Soutine’s pleasure if he’d heard that]. And thirdly, after helping the struggling British philosopher Bertrand Russel by setting him up as a lecturer, he later terminated his contract because Russel’s wife insisted on calling herself Lady Russel.

Barnes, like Soutine believed that bullshit kills creativity; kills life.  And now we have the proof of that staring us in the face.