I Know Where I'm Going

Anna Karenina, Mariano Fortuny, and the mystery of arrival

 

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Mariano Fortuny, The sons of the painter in the Japanese room, 1874, oil on canvas, 44 x 93 cm., Museo del Prado, Madrid

 

“And in the midst of the silence, there came an unmistakable reply to the mother’s question, a voice quite unlike the subdued voices speaking in the room. It was the bold, clamorous, self-assertive squall of the new human being who had so incomprehensibly appeared. If Levin had told before that Kitty was dead and that he had died with her, and that their children were angels and that God was standing before him, he would have been surprised at nothing. But now, coming back to the world of reality, he had to make great mental efforts to take in that she was alive and well and that the creature squalling so desperately was his son. Kitty was alive, her agony was over and he was unutterably happy. That he understood. He was completely happy in it. But the baby. Whence? Why? Who was he? He could not get used to the idea. It seemed to him something extraneous, superfluous, to which he could not accustom himself.”

Sometimes, I use audiobooks to help me sleep. I’ve been listening to Anna Karenina (a performance feat by Maggie Gyllenhaal, by the way), so around 4 or 5 in the morning, I got up, couldn’t go back to sleep, I duly noted the chapter I started listening to (because then I have to re-listen to everything, of course, since I doze off pretty quickly), and approximately two hours later and 14 chapters, I wake up, and I hear with a clarity that is almost unimaginable, the passage above. Every  single word enunciated to perfection. I don’t know why around seven in the morning, those words struck me as the truest expression of feeling, regarding the arrival of a newborn child in the world – here, from the aspect of the father, but I wouldn’t say it makes that much difference – that awe, that incapacity to understand, whence, why, who is this person. I remember clearly feeling that my son had fallen from the sky after I gave birth. I couldn’t fathom the math, the 1+1, and then three people returned from the hospital to the house. How? Sometimes, I still ask myself.

So, I am not sure what kind of post this is, if it is a literary one or what, but the photo to accompany it, naturally, was one of my most favorite paintings ever, from Mariano Fortuny, a late nineteenth-century Spanish painter – a painting whose poster I have framed in life-size format and which is hanging in my son’s room (framing posters, I used to look down to the activity as the worst kind of petty bourgeois habit, but there are few things that afford me greater pleasure than sitting across from it and staring at it for long intervals). I know that art historians can be insufferably pretentious, insisting that it’s not the same looking at reproductions, as opposed to the ‘real thing’ at a museum, but there are truly (relatively – OK, probably not true…) few things I would insist upon seeing in a gallery or a museum (one day, I’ll make a list). Fortuny’s paintings are one of those things, his brushwork is so lively, in a way that it deceives you into thinking that it’s actually swaying before your very eyes. And it’s so fortunate (pun intended) that the Prado finally, finally opened a sumptuous new wing dedicated to nineteenth-century Spanish painting, because there’s so much Greco, and Goya, and Zurbarán and Murillo a decent person can put up with, and one cannot imagine the treasures or the versatility of nineteenth-century Spanish painters (digression).

This painting, very much in the thrall of Japanese painting and un-apologetically so (suffice to look at the painted wall behind the low divan, you don’t know if things are painted on it, or just standing in front of it), he has captured his children in what looks like a late, languid Spanish afternoon, perhaps after lunch: it’s just too hot to move or play or do anything, so the children sit and lay around idly, doing pretty much nothing, which looks like bliss. These lovely creatures that have arrived, heaven knows where from and why, these inexplicable creatures, that they’re at the same time their own persons and somehow also part of us. It’s not that Fortuny’s painting captures the mystery of creation the way that Tolstoy manages, but I will always look upon this work as if it captures something of the beauty, the mystery, and – ultimately – the unknowableness of what childhood really must be.

 

 

An afternoon with a slight breeze

 

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Sounio, September 2016 (© Foteini Vlachou)

 

When someone breaks tragic news to you, you can’t really imagine the casual way this may be delivered. Monday past, I was announced to, in a rather summary way, that I wouldn’t be continuing with the initially predicted fourth cycle of immunotherapy. During a course of conversations that had taken place last week, I was informed that we had early proof that immunotherapy wasn’t working, and that we would continue with the fourth cycle, with the (very) slim hope that I might be a late responder. After that, if I still didn’t respond to treatment, anything administered would be a palliative measure, since there was to be no cure anymore.

Over the weekend, symptoms worsened considerably, so apparently the decision to dismiss immunotherapy immediately and turn to chemotherapy, in an effort to put brakes on the quick progression of cancer, was reached quickly between my doctors, and then announced to me, unfortunately, by the doctor least familiar to me, in that casual way I mentioned above. Afterwards, I was supposed to have another consultation, so I was taken (I was in a wheelchair) by the nurse, and subsequently placed in direct view of the garden, until I was called in.

The garden at Champalimaud is simply marvelous, a joy to look at. It was a sunny afternoon, with a slight breeze. I could see the leafs of the various plants sway gentle with the breeze, and everything struck me with its beauty. The word ‘terminal’ had not passed anyone’s lips, and it probably didn’t need to. I was perfectly aware what was at stake. But as I was sitting there, in my wheelchair, overlooking the rich variety of plants adorning the garden, I thought to myself: “What does that word even mean?” It sounded vaguely like a train station, a final destination of a long trip, not a medical condition, much less a final one. Does one receive this news and decide that they are going to die sooner or later? How do people even react to that? How do they handle their lives afterwards? How do they even find the strength to go on?

I looked at the garden again, and suddenly it didn’t seem that difficult. You can’t decide that you are going to die, when confronted with so much beauty. It’s not as simple as that. Life does not stop, just because someone announced something with terrible import regarding your future. I thought, screw cancer. No one can predict exactly the time stamp of my death. At that point, I realized there was nothing worse than the death penalty. To know exactly at what time you shall stop being alive, stop breathing. I can’t imagine a more cruel thing done to a person. At least, I don’t know exactly. It seems like small comfort under the circumstances, but a kind of comfort it most definitely is.

There I was, faced with that garden, having all those thoughts. Later, in the car, on my way back, I had the exact same thoughts: the ride from Champalimaud back home, passes what is still to me after all these years in Lisbon, an impressive stretch, containing one of my favorite buildings: the Torre de Belém, the gem-like nautical fortress, imbued with so much history – and despite being aware of the heavy colonial past defining Portuguese history, I cannot help marvel at the temerity of those who one day got into a ship, and sailed to a place they didn’t even know it existed. I shall never get over my awe, even a somewhat romantic feeling of adventure and admiration, an almost childlike reaction, in front of that historic building.

And with such a lovely day, everyone was out, strolling by, in plain summer clothes already, simply enjoying the landscape and the weather. I didn’t now how to be anything but happy and grateful for being alive that day. I didn’t know how I could have any fear about the future on that particular day. Yes, I will die. Perhaps sooner than later, compared to most people I know. But I don’t think I can spend my remaining days, independently of how many they are, in fear, or despair, when there’s sun outside, and life, and love, and a beautiful garden you can always hope to rest your eyes upon.

 

Elective Affinities, hors-série: Arthur Valle

 

 

[Some time ago, Arthur Valle used exactly this juxtaposition in his Facebook page, with a subtitle that resembled something like the following: “Warburg for the poor”. I decided to appropriate his brilliant association for the Elective Affinities series – with his permission, of course. It was not just the visual affinity that stood out, but the humorous reference to Warburg really got me]

 

Edith Wharton and art, pt. 2

Following up on the first part on Edith Wharton and her relationship to art (as it peeks through her literature), this second part is dedicated to the short story The Quicksand (1902), published in the 1904 collection of short stories The Descent of Man, and Other Stories. It is the heartbreaking tale of a mother who, in trying to convince her son’s beloved to accept his marriage proposal, finds herself in agreement with the girl in her rejection, on the same moral scruples that she herself harbored for her husband and his professional occupation, that the girl now gives for not marrying Alan. Mr. Quentin, Alan’s father, was the owner of a scandalous sheet, The Radiator, that made obscene amounts of money by exposing the secrets of society families.

After first meeting with Hope Fenno, Alan’s intended, and trying to convince her of her folly of denying the love of a man on abstract moral reasons, Mrs. Quentin accidentally runs into her at the Metropolitan Museum six months later and finds herself rather surprised in revealing her own story to Hope, when the latter admits that Mrs. Quentin’s initial arguments (about the necessity of being practical and sort of flexible) had eventually convinced her. She relates how she first discovered what The Radiator really was, how she tried to convince her husband of selling it, and how she gradually grew accustomed to the comforts and luxuries the money bought, attempting to disassociate it from the source it came. She raised her son in it, and by the time Alan grew up, it was too late to revert to her old scruples: he was accustomed to, ‘tainted’ by the money, with no hope of ever giving it or the newspaper up.

This key scene takes place in one of the Met’s galleries, where Mrs. Quentin goes to see a painting by Giovanni Antonio Beltraffio (1466/67–1516), that has recently been added to the collection. No matter how hard I looked, in articles of the period, I could not find any reference to a Beltraffio (or Boltraffio) added to the museum’s collection that period, nor for that matter any work attributed to the painter in the collection today, apart from a drawing of a woman’s head in profile, with an attribution to Leonardo’s pupils, among which Beltraffio was documented (in the painter’s studio, in 1490). Certainly nothing that sounded similar to a painting like that in the passage, which I quote below. I am posting instead a work attributed jointly to Beltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, another of Leonardo’s pupils, which is today in the Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin and which includes a landscape, that might give an idea of the “mystic blue reaches of the landscape” Wharton refers to (with no specific mention of the subject).

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Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, The Resurrection of Christ with the Saint Leonard of Noblac and Lucia, around 1491, oil on poplar wood, 234.5 x 185.5 cm, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

“Mrs. Quentin, in the late spring afternoon, had turned in at the doors of the Metropolitan Museum. She had been walking in the Park, in a solitude oppressed by the ever-present sense of her son’s trouble, and had suddenly remembered that some one had added a Beltraffio to the collection. It was an old habit of Mrs. Quentin’s to seek in the enjoyment of the beautiful the distraction that most of her acquaintances appeared to find in each other’s company. She had few friends, and their society was welcome to her only in her more superficial moods; but she could drug anxiety with a picture as some women can soothe it with a bonnet.

The long line of mellow canvases seemed to receive her into the rich calm of an autumn twilight. She might have been walking in an enchanted wood where the footfall of care never sounded. So deep was the sense of seclusion that, as she turned from her prolonged communion with the new Beltraffio, it was a surprise to find she was not alone.

Mrs. Quentin, in the embarrassment of surprising a secret that its possessor was doubtless unconscious of betraying, reverted hurriedly to the Beltraffio.

“I came to see this,” she said. “It’s very beautiful.”

Miss Fenno’s eye travelled incuriously over the mystic blue reaches of the landscape. “I suppose so,” she assented; adding, after another tentative pause, “You come here often, don’t you?”

“Very often,” Mrs. Quentin answered. “I find pictures a great help.”

“A help?”

“A rest, I mean…if one is tired or out of sorts.”

“Ah,” Miss Fenno murmured, looking down.

“This Beltraffio is new, you know,” Mrs. Quentin continued. “What a wonderful background, isn’t it? Is he a painter who interests you?”

The girl glanced again at the dusky canvas, as though in a final endeavor to extract from it a clue to the consolations of art. “I don’t know,” she said at length; “I’m afraid I don’t understand
pictures.”

Film snippets, pt. 2

 

 

From yesterday’s glorious black and white to today’s delirious technicolor. Dizzying levels of narrative complexity, and bizarre excesses of artificial decor and saturated color characterize the Michael Powell – Emeric Pressburger masterpiece The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). It is unlike any other film – and, possibly, unlike the medium itself. An opera/ballet within a ballet within an opera within a film (and that’s not counting the puppet scenes within the opera/ballet), it has rightly been called hallucinatory. Its famous admirers include Martin Scorsese (who offers the audio commentary in the Criterion edition) and George Romero – but I suspect Christopher Nolan must be green with envy over this. There is a scene involving eyes, mirrors and illusions, that should be right up his alley. And as if the film itself wasn’t enough, the end credits include a surreal “meeting” between the opera singer and the ballet dancer that jointly interpret each character. Delicious!

[watched on February 12, 2016, at the Cinemateca Portuguesa]

 

 

Film snippets, pt. 1

 

 

Such heights and depths of depravity, cynicism and perversion have rarely been captured on film. A dark, vicious masterpiece, shot exquisitely in black and white by James Wong Howe, directed to perfection by Alexander Mackendrick, scored superbly by Elmer Bernstein and with crisp, unforgettable dialogues by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman; it is the kind of film that not only lives up to its hype, but manages to surpass it. It was well worth the anticipation of several years to finally be able to catch it on the big screen. The night imagery of New York is stunning – and the performances of Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis unsettling to a remarkable degree. The kind of film that alone would suffice to immortalize all its contributors.

[Sweet Smell of Success (1957), watched on February 11, 2016, at the Cinemateca Portuguesa]

 

 

Edith Wharton and art, pt. 1

 

Recently, due to poor eyesight, I discovered the pleasure (and relief) of audiobooks. As someone who reads (and reads and reads), it was so distressing not to be able to. But, through LibriVox, and its amazing volunteers, I have discovered a whole new way to get to literature. It is imperative, of course, to find one voice that suits one’s taste, but I’ve been incredibly lucky in discovering David Clarke’s impeccable reading of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon, and Nicholas Clifford’s readings of Henry James and Edith Wharton.

The latter, especially, gave me the opportunity to discover the short stories of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite authors, in two volumes, The Descent of Man, and Other Stories (1904) and Tales of Men and Ghosts (1910). I never fancied myself as one who appreciates the short story as a literary form, but I was surprised to find out that I did, and that I enjoyed Wharton’s short stories as much as her novels (Summer, Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence rank among the novels I most cherish). The Tales of Men and Ghosts even includes two masterful ghost stories, The Eyes and Afterward (which I strongly recommend to fans of the genre). Her stories are always evocative and ambiguous, leaving ample space for interpretation, many times with enigmatic endings. But another aspect of them that I enjoyed (as I do with James’s writing as well), were the frequent allusions to art and art objects. This is why I am devoting two posts to The Reckoning and The Quicksand, both from The Descent of Man, and Other Stories.

In The Reckoning (1902), a bitter tale of marriage and divorce, there is only a fleeting mention to painting, a deprecating reference to contemporary art – and to the profession of painters as little more than an excuse for sociable interactions. I always find the impressions of writers precious, as they denote a particular form of reception, expressed through their literary sensibility, and they frequently allow a vivid image, not only of their personal tastes and distastes, but also of those of their contemporaries.

So, without further delay, the passage from The Reckoning goes as follows: “The Herbert Van Siderens were a couple who subsisted, socially, on the fact that they had a studio. Van Sideren’s pictures were chiefly valuable as accessories to the mise en scene which differentiated his wife’s ‘afternoons’ from the blighting functions held in long New York drawing-rooms, and permitted her to offer their friends whiskey-and-soda instead of tea. Mrs. Van Sideren, for her part, was skilled in making the most of the kind of atmosphere which a lay-figure and an easel create; and if at times she found the illusion hard to maintain, and lost courage to the extent of almost wishing that Herbert could paint, she promptly overcame such moments of weakness by calling in some fresh talent, some extraneous re-enforcement of the ‘artistic’ impression. It was in quest of such aid that she had seized on Westall, coaxing him, somewhat to his wife’s surprise, into a flattered participation in her fraud. It was vaguely felt, in the Van Sideren circle, that all the audacities were artistic, and that a teacher who pronounced marriage immoral was somehow as distinguished as a painter who depicted purple grass and a green sky. The Van Sideren set were tired of the conventional color-scheme in art and conduct.”

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Henri-Edmond Cross, Pines Along the Shore, 1896, oil on canvas, 54 x 65.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The ‘purple grass’ and ‘green sky’ reminded me of neo-impressionist (yes, these interminable sub-categories of modernist art…) painters, such as Henri-Edmond Cross and, although a bit later, Henri Matisse’s fauvist canvases, which may provide an apt illustration of the kind of painting that Edith Wharton had in mind.

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Henri Matisse, Olive Trees at Collioure, summer 1906 (?), oil on canvas, 44.5 x 55.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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Henri Matisse, The Riverbank, 1907, oil on canvas, 73.2 x 60.3 cm, Kunstmuseum Basel

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Henri Matisse, Moroccan Landscape, 1912, oil on canvas, 115 x 80 cm, Moderna Museet, Stockholm

What I see when I see the world: Pompeii

 

“Architectures of Control”: Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015)

Eyes wide open, pt. 3

Johnny Guitar (1954, Nicholas Ray)

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