“Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland,” at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth TX

Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland
an exhibition at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, TX. June 28, 2015 – Sept. 20, 2015 (now finished)
Exhibition website

Of what is great one must either be silent or speak with greatness.

– Nietzsche

In the following observations, I have failed to obey either of Nietzsche’s prescriptions. My hope was to see some themes, more elaborately developed elsewhere, emerge in these works. That is still my hope: everything here is being revised. I will keep rewriting until this is perfect.

I

Sandro Botticell, "Virgin with Sleeping Christ Child" (c. 1485)
Sandro Botticelli, “Virgin with Sleeping Christ Child” (c. 1485)

My clunky thoughts, at times, try to grasp this thing called “nature.” That already sounds too arrogant, granted. To be sure, the idea behind trying to think through it was simple enough. In Plato and Aristotle, the word is everywhere. It shows up, weighty and convincing, in a number of later authors. I could go read a bunch of scholarly papers with titles like “Aristotle’s Conception of Nature in De Anima,” or try and find out for myself what makes the term so intriguing, why an author would ever employ it. On the one hand, it speaks to the unity of all things, one which may be apprehended by human reason. The natural world, its beauty, laws, agency, all beg to be understood. Begin to understand one object and you’re much better about finding parallels and relevance in others. On the other hand, it speaks to us, directly. We have natures. Is our social life a necessary deformation of who we are?

Botticelli seems a far cry from all that. His graceful lines give figures suppleness, strength, removing them from my anxious questioning. Here, he indulges the supernatural. Contrived, iconic, contemplative, this painting boasts a young, blonde Madonna praying over a Christ child. He naps separately from her, resting only on her robes. No human family keeps such distance: there is no physical contact between mother and child. Exquisite and decorative, it abounds with mystical symbolism. His fitful sleep and the stone structure in the background suggest His passion and death. Pink flowers without thorns symbolize the Immaculate Conception. She wears pink, and the shape her garments form feels loose, natural, flowery. This contrasts with the lace of her veil, the subtly wrought halos, the gold thread of the garments.

The contrast enables a sharp distinction. Her robes are really the opposite of more delicate designs, even though they complement each other. Those delicate designs bear the mark of a creator. The robes fall because of gravity, because of laws that define the universe itself. In a similar vein: Does nature simply symbolize the details of eternal mysteries, or does it have a weight of its own? The Madonna demonstrates piety but no particular passion, as she seems genuinely innocent of all that is about her.

II

Titian, "Venus Anadyomene" (c. 1580)
Titian, “Venus Anadyomene” (c. 1520)

Somehow, I kept a rough version of that question with me as I walked through the gallery. It was a crowded day, and I was fighting through couples and old people pretending to be cultured. I thought myself making no such pretense. T-shirt, jeans, sad. It would have been nice to start blathering about a painting, make up some crap, find someone else who wants to make up crap, get a phone number. It would have felt affirming, maybe even helped me heal. Maybe I would have found myself able to join the art around me.

Two paintings, Titian’s “Venus Anadyomene” (c. 1520) and Veronese’s “Mars and Venus and Cupid with a Dog” (c. 1580) bring the gods to our level. Yes, Titian’s has a striking classical pose, one which seems to remove her from the everyday. Wringing seawater out of her hair is a detail one Apelles once painted: Is hers the truest, oldest beauty? The paradigm for all others? Still, the shell beside her does not necessarily make a goddess, no matter how divine her beauty seems. Venus in Veronese could be any woman smitten with a man in uniform. Cupid’s wings are almost invisible. An unholy family, the most natural thing; idealized beauty, I’m not sure. Art is a strange contrivance, and artists are fully aware of what they’re doing. The realism which impresses us bourgeois means nothing to someone concerned about how we see, how we can see.  Velazquez’s “An Old Woman Cooking Eggs” uses tight brushwork to render objects lustrous and precise; it won Velazquez fame for his eye and technique. Yet Velazquez loosens his brushwork considerably not so much later. Others with a parallel change, shifting their style entirely: Monet, Picasso.

III

Rembrandt, "A Woman in Bed" (c. 1646)
Rembrandt, “A Woman in Bed” (c. 1646)

It’s strange, thinking about the supernatural as a construct. I can’t help but feel like I’m condemned to superficiality. I probably should read those scholarly papers with titles like “Aristotle’s Conception of Nature in De Anima” and stay quiet. If I simply track what I saw and felt, then I saw Christian symbolism and pagan gods reduced to most natural elements. But it didn’t end there: the divine didn’t just become the human. Since many artists know what they’re doing, some create images knowingly, winking at us and wondering with us. They’re offering up idols for our consumption. It’s like this can’t be escaped, and I still don’t have a phone number.

Rembrandt’s “A Woman in Bed” (c. 1646) at first indulges our want of luxury. Bright gold jewelry, elaborate thread on a pillow’s edge, carved woodframe, and a red-gold drape. A very healthy, handsome woman in bed pushes the drape aside, staring out at something. Maybe she’s Sarah, from the book of Tobit, looking on as her bridegroom chases away a demon. Maybe that can explain the look on her face of exhaustion, concern, hope.

IV

The beauty of art is a prelude. But to what? I’m ready to put aside the supernatural entirely, despite how it lingers over the Rembrandt. He doesn’t need to show a man fighting a demon to show a story that matters. Still, contrasting the natural with the supernatural alone doesn’t yield a coherent account of the former.

I am puzzled by what I think natural in the Rembrandt, the facial expression, as art need not directly point to the natural. Obviously, it can be lost in its own craftiness, toying with divine things, roaming between representation and making. Sometimes what one needs is a punch in the gut, and I don’t know “natural” is an appropriate term for what results. Picasso’s “Mother and Child” (c. 1902), from his Blue Period, features the unmistakable shape of a woman cradling a bald, brown lump. Her back is turned to us; in the corner, a pathetic basket with swaddling clothes. Picasso made this while visiting a women’s prison regularly. If to be a social, talking animal is natural, then what of being broken? Is it not natural to suffer, to feel the weight of one’s own expectations crush one? Do these questions make any sense?

V

John Singer Sargent, "Lady Agnew of Lochnaw" (c. 1892)
John Singer Sargent, “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (c. 1892)

In the end, the only plausible course is to continue attempting to track the natural, aware of perspective. Beauty itself becomes the question. Not “Why do we want it?”, but rather why I ever wanted it. Finding my own nature is the problem. Degas’ “Diego Martelli” (c. 1879), on this count, makes me wonder about who I want to be, the compliments I’ve received that I cannot possibly live up to. I need not mention the failures. Degas’ portrait of an immensely talented critic and friend is taken from exactly the right perspective: above him, angled down. Rumpled, surrounded by books, looking like he’s gathering thoughts and keeping himself from speaking, he looms that much larger in his thoughtfulness. Small wonder both artist and subject fought over who should keep the painting. – I am so jealous. –

Again, I’ve been lucky to receive enormously beautiful compliments, but when all is said and done, this life has been a failure so far. All I have are a few pretentious, egotistical ramblings and no practical skills. Maybe, at the heart of art, is what we love. Singer Sargent’s “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw” (c. 1892) gives us a great beauty in her prime. Relaxed and confident, she’s completely in control of the viewer. The flowery chair, the lavender dress, the silver ornament all mean nothing compared to her gaze. She’s looking up at us and will not take no for an answer. Her portrait made her a social sensation while building Sargent’s own reputation. The price of having an image alone dictate your life is rather steep, I should say. Lady Agnew eventually sold her own portrait late in life to keep her status afloat. It could be that I’m lucky to love and not possess.

Caesar III (Impressions Software, 1998)

“Have to make the people go where they must,” I keep telling myself. 

Playing Caesar 3, which some call “SimRome.” Efficient city-building means getting everyone access to goods and services. Except, say, when you set a Library down, it doesn’t cover a specific portion of the map unless you know exactly what you’re doing. The Library produces a Librarian, who walks on the paths built. Build the paths badly and he may wander over to the industrial section of town, never past any homes: there might as well not be a library. Some of the more complicated problems, in terms of the game itself, involve getting adequate information. Feeding people requires a seller from the Market to walk around the neighborhood, but that same seller has to make a trip to the Granary to get food. If the Granary is running short, it is quite likely she’ll attempt the trip and bring back nothing. Your city will look good, the workers will be busy, but the houses won’t evolve into better units consistently. You won’t realize your own citizens are starving.

Currently, I hold the title of Quaestor. My service to Caesar has resulted in some of the world’s ugliest cities. A solid strategy is to make simple paths: create a large 9×9 block, housing around the perimeter two rows deep, with gardens and a fountain in the center. Gardens increase property value; fountains are the water supply. The road around the houses lends itself to surrounding the 9X9 block with every service imaginable. The providers will walk around, their path obvious, and every home will receive in due time.

The trouble is that the resulting cities aren’t merely ugly, they’re untrue to life. The second book of Aristotle’s Politics tends to be a boring read for most. Aristotle spends considerable time there talking about this city planner who was overly devoted to the number three. Everything would be divided in accordance with his mystical number. It’s easy to laugh at him, but the problem cuts deeper than childish, utopian visions. In order to build a city, you have to impose from the very beginning. That initial imposition, as people better than me have noted for centuries, is pretty much nothing less than pure tyranny. Yet to so overwhelmingly lack any actual knowledge of how people behave or what they need and desire isn’t just inhumane. It leads to a potential knower’s own craziness: why not just divide everything up into threes? Your vision might be beautiful, and your “threes” will correspond with something pertaining to human life. If you actually know better, you should guess rightly.

There’s something about how cities organize themselves I’d like to observe better. The Librarian isn’t wandering to the industrial section because of his thirst for knowledge, but because the path was built badly. The busy work of those in the market, unfortunately, is too true to life. We don’t really know how many people in America live on $2 a day; the number is invisible and of the utmost significance. In game, I try to put buildings near each other you wouldn’t normally consider together to see what happens. What if a school is next to the blacksmith, a warehouse near the baths? What about a library adjacent to a barracks? My virtual citizens go about their daily business like nothing’s happening. Real cities, in their refusal of orthodoxy, reflect deeper needs. I think I read once that right across from Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, there used to be the city jail, and the prisoners had no qualms about begging from people like Thomas Jefferson or George Washington for food and alms as they passed by.

Kay Ryan, “Blandeur”

Blandeur (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

Comment:

Let less happen. Lord, cancel beauty and majesty, flatten Eiger, rid the Grand Canyon of colors and depth. Replace these with a perfectly spherical Earth, predictable, conforming to equations.

Give me a measure of control, perfection of a sort. Let the Earth be simply useful. Slightly higher valleys don’t hide fertility. Clearly mark where we can grow food, where we ought not tread. Above all, do not allow nature any independence, revoke its command over terror, change, beauty:

remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.

Unlean against our hearts. Let the world be ours, without question.

Paul Celan, “Vinegrowers”

Vinegrowers (from Poetry)
Paul Celan (tr. Pierre Joris)

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth,

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds,

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath.

Comment:

Titus Techera and I made a podcast about this poem. Titus has been working on an extended commentary on how the original German works. I’ve been fortunate to read part of it, and I can safely tell you it’s beautiful and thoughtful (but then again, who would expect any less?). When it is finished, I will be sure to share the link. For now, here’s the podcast and a brief discussion of the above translation. Credit to Titus for most of the observations which follow:

“Vinegrowers” is Celan’s last poem. Celan killed himself, and one might expect to find darkness attendant upon this lyric. Instead, we encounter a cryptic comment on Creation. First, a garden:

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth

Vinegrowers dig in the dark; both starlight and the clock attest to their earliness. They’re doing, but no matter what, they’re starting, unclear on what is actually being done. “Dig up dig” and “depth for depth” indicate the only accomplishment is an ever-increasing pile of dirt.

Suddenly, Celan switches the scene:

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds

Everything shifts with “you read.” You just read that vinegrowers dig in the dark, randomly piling in the name of making an effort. Your reading resulted in you imagining a scene. With the author, you have created.

That strange thought leads to the next scene, where “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds.” Prior to the garden, the word was present at Creation, governing it. The invisible logos commands the invisible “to stay in bounds,” to accept restriction and allow for differentiation.

Things actually are; this is a real world we live in. But our access to it is curious. Images are created, images which present forms which, in turn, seem to generate or define the beings around us. “Seem” is the operative word. Just as the poet digs, looking for the right words, ones which never quite match his object, the vinegrowers are all of us, not quite knowing what we’re doing. Only God matches the act of creating with a specific object. There are, for the rest of us, degrees of not knowing exactly what one is doing.

Those degrees mean that “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds” has a special significance for the poet, the one thinking aloud through this problem. He’s a vinegrower too, but he knows what light can do. The last stanza:

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath

Once again, “you read.” The invisible power restricting the winds before? That was a myth you read, imagined, gave life to. It was not without consequence, though. “The Open Ones carry the stone behind the eye.” The invisible meanings from before led to a species of openness – you asked questions – and the very thing blocking your eye, forcing your reading to be a pipeline to your imagination only, has now moved behind the eye. It isn’t gone; it did not dissolve. When we truly learn, we remember how we learned. Understanding falsity is the path to knowledge. Yet we are not in control, not in the least: “it recognizes you.” True knowledge is a revelation of sorts, as we are remade and at rest in the world.

Miron Białoszewski, “Autoportrait as felt”

Autoportrait as felt (from unz.org)
Miron Białoszewski (tr. Czesław Miłosz)

They look at me
so probably I have a face.
Of all the faces known
I remember least my own.

Often my hands
live in absolute separation.
Should I then count them as mine?
Where are my limits?
I am overgrown by
movement or half-life.

Yet always is crawling in me
full or not full
existence

I bear by myself
a place of my own.
When I lose it
it will mean I am not.

I am not,
so I do not doubt.

Comment:

Titus and I did another podcast, this time on a poem of Białoszewski’s. It’s a jokey, philosophic poem with a fun narrator, and you’ll love the discussion. We’ve really improved since the first one, but are still working on our banter:

A walk down the street feels a little bit creepy, if someone utters the first lines: “They look at me[,] so I probably have a face.” Talk about awkward!

Still, the skeptical reasoning serves a purpose. The narrative voice wants to construct his experience out of what he knows. This may seem backwards to us, but he gives a compelling reason for the project: “Of all the faces known / I remember least my own.” Proust mentions how what we think about people comes to define our visual image of them. If someone is seen as disloyal and ungrateful, then we will see them that way, no matter how beautiful or handsome they are to others. Weirdly, this process would be a benefit to our narrator in his quest. If he could associate a proposition defining himself with his face, it would be memorable.

Just as he wonders about his face, he wonders about his hands:

Often my hands
live in absolute separation.
Should I then count them as mine?
Where are my limits?
I am overgrown by
movement or half-life.

Because the hands live in “absolute separation,” he does not know whether they are his or not. As hands are to possession, a face is to perception. He cannot know his hands are his because he cannot hold them; the typical criterion for possession is absent. Similarly, perception depends on having a face, but what to say when you can’t perceive yourself adequately?

The questions joke, but also convey a certain seriousness. The narrator is unclear on his humanity: “Where are my limits?” No face, no hands: is he human? An indistinguishable blob? More than himself? “I am overgrown by movement or half-life:” in movement, he has to step beyond something, always. “Half-life” I take to refer to the problem of his face. He cannot see himself, but can only see how others react to what he thinks is himself. In both cases of “movement” and “half-life,” he is too much.

Resolution of this problem involves a movement from human being to simply being:

Yet always is crawling in me
full or not full
existence

“Always is crawling in me,” as no matter what, he is a being-in-time. Whether or not his existence is full, or felt “not full,” like the doubting stanzas above indicate, he is because he is in time. This is not an uncomplicated proposition. It does create a sort of solace, as it accepts vague boundaries for himself. His burden is a place of his own:

I bear by myself
a place of my own.

A statement of resolve, but immediately challenged by the consequence of placing oneself squarely as a temporal being:

When I lose it
it will mean I am not.

In trying to find solace in simply being, one has to accept what at first seems like a strength. No matter how much one changes, one bears a place of his own. You are, no matter how much you change. You are a space for transformation. Unfortunately, this exposes the difference between simply being and talking about simply being. The latter, the words or logos if you will, can never be the same thing as actually existing. The narrator is taking solace in the words, in what he associates with the realization “always is crawling in me / full or not full existence.” If he loses this association, he should die a metaphorical death, no? “When I lose it / it will mean I am not.”

Does this mean the reflection was worthless? It did start from jokey premises and perhaps found courage too quickly. But I don’t think it was at all; as Titus and I discuss on the podcast, there are people with half their faces blown off, people who quite literally aren’t sure their hands are theirs. Anxiety and trauma make you question your place in the world, and you are forced into radical lines of inquiry in order to remember that you are still alive and can find purpose.

In that light, the final Cartesian joke makes perfect sense:

I am not,
so I do not doubt.

“I am not [a particular thing],” I am indeterminate – the emphasis is on the crawling of the always. Hence no doubt in the direction of the logos, no doubt until the burden is lost, simultaneously with the speaker himself.