Painting with Helen

She certainly is not the only modern painter who preferred to work on the floor. But, judging from the photographs taken in her studio, Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) brought a passion to ‘floor-painting’ that had not been there before, not even with Pollock or Motherwell. In her case ‘to paint’ often meant: to crawl around on a large flat canvas (or an enormous stretch of paper) ‘tilling’ it with her colours as if it were a piece of land. ‘Colour-field painting’ applies well to what she did.

She knelt on her large canvases as if they were islands about to be flooded by coloured waters that only she could direct properly to follow the streams of beauty. (‘Beauty’ had become an incendiary word, she once said in an interview; she went on using it anyway). At some time in her career she had lost the habit of working with brushes, replacing them with sponges and other tools to rub and wash the paint onto her canvas-field. With her very fluidly applied paint she made space and colour meet in a way they had never met before.

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The remarkable elegance that distinguishes her work, where does it come from? It is a purely abstract elegance. This raises the question what elegance actually is, if, indeed, it is not just a human quality, appertaining to abstraction as well. I believe it is the movement of her painting arm – of her intensely painting body – that produces this elegance. So it is basically a gestural elegance we’re looking at, but one that spills over into the shapes, the lines and colours she creates.

Helen Frankenthaler can only be called an ‘action painter’ if that concept allows for circumspection. There always is caution in her work, even when it gets quite experimental. Her shapes interlock with tact. Her running wet colours seem to behave almost diplomatically. Apart from gesture, there is also an elegance of thought in her work. Or rather, an elegance of pictorial thoughtfulness.

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After all these years her paintings still seem to be as wet as they were at the moment of their creation; her gestures are still flowing, still streaming – a few inches above the surface. Looking at her work I keep seeing her in her studio, kneeling, trying to control the lake of wet paint she had, just seconds before, herself created.

These giant blots behaved like a flock of nervous sheep, moving in all directions, while she acted as the diligent sheepdog, working hard to keep them in check. This is how she brought her paintings home, safe and sound. The process of herding is still there, it can be seen within the confines of each frame: her paintings are, in the true sense, works of art.

Ardouane and its old volcano

Not far from buoyant Olargues (one of Languedoc’s most beautiful villages, blessed with a medieval ‘devil’s bridge’) there is a hamlet called Ardouane. A narrow and almost vertical road leads up to the tiny church. It looks shabby and one doesn’t have to be an expert to see that it badly needs some love and some money to restore it. My guess is that the few inhabitants left in Ardouane will not be able to take care of this themselves.

Opposite the church there is a massive building, locked away behind a fence with an official warning to ‘keep out’. Compared to the deplorable state of advancing ruin this huge building finds itself in, the fading little church no longer seems to have the moral right to complain of neglect. After the roof of one of the building’s side wings has recently collapsed, the rain and wind can enter freely to speed up decay. The sign on the fence only tells us that this is the ancien collège of Ardouane. Entering the wrecked building is easy, since everything that could stop us is open or missing: the fence, the front door, the windows.

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The many rooms of the collège are full of discarded stuff; the villagers obviously have decided to assemble all of their products that have lost their use in this sad and broken building, being the largest local symbol of the useless. This present state of futility is a sharp contrast to the elevated position and noble function the collège once had. Many children and young adults from all over the south of France – boys and girls – received their education here and in the process were saturated with the values of traditional Catholicism.

The useless has a strange aesthetic attraction. In decaying buildings and constructions of any kind (mansions, villas, castles, convents, towers, and bridges) resides a mystic beauty that is unique to their category. All over Europe photographers – more than any other species – are in love with the tragedy of crumbling stones and cracking arches. Their pictures show us how the trees that once were the building’s trusted green companions have now gone wild, their intruding branches pushing through a wall, their roots bursting the floor.

The situation of the ancien collège of Ardouane is not yet as dramatic as this. And we would be wrong in thinking that nobody cares. What to do with it has been much debated in the adjoining communities of Riols and St.-Pons de Thomières. The main reason for this seems to be that so many people in the region do not only remember the building in its former glory, but the institution as well. This used to be the ‘Ancien collège Saint-Benoît’, also called the ‘École libre’. In 2007 a plan was launched to restore the building and turn it into a complexe touristique: a hotel, a spa or an equestrian centre.

But a serious investor could not be found, which should not surprise us. This is a relatively poor region. Besides, the tourists would surely be disappointed that the Mediterranean is a one hour drive away. Even to get from here to the fashionable winegrowing area of St. Chinian will take you half an hour. The attraction of nearby picturesque Olargues seems, by itself, not enough to fill a large hotel for most of the year. Still, the council of Riols (of which Ardouane is a part) at the time believed the building could be sold for a very decent price.

Ten years later all hope seems to have gone. The building has much deteriorated and as a result the costs of a possible restoration have risen. The pessimist’s view is that even tearing it down would, because of its substantial size, be too expensive. Just leaving it there as it is and “let it in the hands of time to complete its job” (as a local website somewhat poetically suggests) seems the only way to go. Unless some kind of miracle will occur, the inevitable will happen: miles of cobweb will be woven in every corner of the old building, the mosses and the fungi will thrive, while stone and chalk will crumble to dust and wooden beams will, in the end, crack like match sticks.

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In the old days a train connected Ardouane and the collège to the rest of the valley, but the track has been transformed into a route verte for hikers and bikers. That is a fine example of a useful transformation. But, of course, it cannot make the glorious past return to Ardouane. Nevertheless, as long as the remains of the collège are still standing, there will be a visual incentive to remember and to retell its history. Long ago, in 1823 to be precise, Monseigneur Fournier (the bishop of Montpellier) acquired a monastery in St.-Pons de Thomières in order to establish a seminary there. This seminary was later, in 1907, moved to Ardouane, to the abbey the Benedictines had founded here in 1860. That is how Ardouane came to its Catholic collège, devoted to “the holy heart of Mary”.

The abbey-collège had its own vineyards and cherry orchards and, enclosed in the middle of the square building, there used to be a wonderful monastery garden. Nothing of these wonders – engraved in the memories of thousands of pupils who had their education here – has survived. Even the many dairy farms for which the region was known, producing their own brand of cheese, have disappeared. Decline has been rather merciless in the case of Ardouane.

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Rumour has it that, if anyone were interested, he or she could now buy the whole building for the symbolic price of one euro. But unless a useful and viable idea is formed on the building’s future destination, this bargain will not bring along the desired miracle. Even a basic restoration will need substantial funding of a million or more. After a short revival around 2011, the plans to restore and rebuild seem to have come to a complete standstill. The ancien collège is now in a time zone of its own, or rather in a zone of timelessness since it has no function left to connect it to time’s processes.

Ne me quitte pas, Jacques Brel sang. These could very well be the words of the ancien collège, moribund but, in a way, still speaking to us. Ne me quitte pas. Here is, from that great chanson, Brel’s ray of hope for the rekindling of a lost love: Don’t leave me now/We’ve so often seen/the rebirth of fire/in the ancient volcano/everyone believed to be too old/And is it not true/that the earth when scorched/will give more wheat/than April at its best?

As always, the original is to be preferred:

Ne me quitte pas/On a vu souvent/rejaillir le feu/de l’ancien volcan/qu’on croyait trop vieux/Il est, paraît-il/des terres brûlées/donnant plus de blé/qu’un meilleur avril.

Simone in Avignon

My memory already had failed me twice that morning in July. I had expected that, from our hotel near the Avignon railway station, we could walk to Saint Véran cemetery, on the other side of the medieval part of the city, in about half an hour. It took us more than an hour. Even at eleven the old streets of Avignon were bustling with activities, all related to the annual theatre festival. My wife and I were tempted to think that all citizens had received special instructions to wear an appropriate costume that day, be it a rococo dress, a Donald Duck suit or some Lady Gaga showpiece. They all tried to convince us that, later that day or in the evening, they would be on stage somewhere in the city and would be even more impressive then. (Does anybody know how many stages there actually are in Avignon? And why everybody who is on stage there will always claim to be off stage?).

Our destination was the grave of John Stuart Mill. I had visited the great liberal philosopher, forever resting at Saint Véran just outside the ramparts, several years before when I was working on my book to highlight Mill’s many French connections. Now, a decade later, it turned out that the cemetery no longer was in the exact location my memory was telling me that it should be. We were lucky: the digital maps on our mobile phones knew where to look. On entering the old and vast cemetery the same cycle of mental torture repeated itself: being sure you know where the grave is to be found – repeating to yourself that you remember it well but …. it all looks so different now – denying to yourself that you have forgotten the location – having to admit to yourself you forgot – admitting it to your wife. This was my third memory lapse that morning.

Are there any cemetery apps yet? Again we were lucky: the cemetery staff (the one member present) was most helpful and gave us a copy of a simple drawing. A few minutes later we were right in front of the grave of monsieur Stüwaaar Meal. I have always loved the way the French pronounce his name, respectfully leaving out the ‘John’.  Of course, it is the grave of Harriet Taylor, his wife who was buried here first, in 1858. The white marble is hers, her grieving husband selected it to do justice to her greatness. He remains a guest under that same stone.

We walked back to the old city, desperately in need of lunch. We took the Porte Thiers. Soon we were surrounded again by theatre lovers from all over Europe, and the joyous fuzz of every French individual promoting his or her own show. Everyone who appears on stage has a small poster printed, making their announcement. Masses of all these posters are mounted on cardboard and then tied, all with the same simple brownish cords, in endless strings on fences, along the pavement, so afterwards they can easily be removed. This festival of posters is an important contribution to the theatrical anarchy of Avignon summers.

Walking towards the Halles, I suddenly saw her face, on the pavement, stepped on by hundreds of most friendly feet: Simone Weil, printed on an Avignon poster. I immediately recognised her reluctant smile, the owlish glasses, the hair like two black wings alongside her cheeks. They had used a photo from around 1935, but because it had been colourised mademoiselle Weil looked much happier than I had ever seen her before, despite here awkward position of being run over on an Avignon parcours. The poster’s announcement didn’t excite me: Simone Weil, la Passion de la Vérité. Had it been a real play on the basis of her ascetic life, or a good documentary, I would have been interested. This, however, was about some lecture on stage, and an ensuing debate in the best tradition of political feminism.

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The Weil poster from Avignon

Still there was meaning in this moment I met Simone Weil. I had just paid my respects to John Stuart Mill, subject of my previous book. And on the way back I ran into Simone Weil, who together with Kafka fills a chapter in my new book. My two writing projects were wonderfully stringed together in the way Avignon connects creative concepts both familiar and diverse. As defective as my memory may have been this day, past and present now interlocked.

Weil would not have been surprised. “Let the soul of a man take the whole universe for its body” she wrote. Isn’t this what Avignon is doing, at least once a year in July: to let the soul of the city take the whole theatrical universe for its body? And she continued: “We have to change the relationship between our body and the world. We do not become detached, we change our attachment. We must attach ourselves to the all.” Here Weil and Avignon meet to converge. “This irreducible ‘I’ which is the irreducible basis of my suffering – I have to make this ‘I’ universal.” We are all attached by millions of strings to universal space, making us one.

Ptolemy and a Plane

The night sky over the Languedoc was very clear that evening. It was mid-September, we were on the terrace of a B&B and we could see as many stars as one could wish for. Even moving ones, or so it seemed. I spotted a moving star with a nice straight tail of smoke behind it, as if it were falling. It was a plane, of course, but the illusion, lasting about two seconds, of seeing a falling star gave me a rash feeling of childish happiness.

This high dome of the dark sky filled with stars was once scrutinized by Ptolemy. The sky and stars were, basically, the same as they had been then. Some things in life just don’t change. The star catalogue Ptolemy assembled on the basis of pure observation and mathematics was geocentric, not heliocentric (so digital and printed encyclopaedias tell us). It has to be admitted that this does constitute a difference with our present views. But the constellations themselves meet our natural eye the same way as they did Ptolemy’s.

As I mused along these lines one of the other guests informed me that the moving star was a Boeing 747, that it was heading for Girona, that its speed was 510 knots, that its altitude was 11 kilometres, and that it came from Amsterdam. She even added the name of the price fighter the plane belonged to. I had been teasing her, knowing that she was an experienced amateur pilot who, with her husband, proudly owned a small ‘Pelican’ aircraft. Well, I had mockingly asked her, you as an expert must be able to see from a distance what type of plane is now crossing our night sky? Indeed, she could! Soon it turned out that several other guests had the same magic ability of telling all the specifics of a passing plane, as well as the basic characteristics of that flight, just by looking at the starlike blinking light high in the darkness of the universe.

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We all began to gaze, quite fanatically, into the high blackness of the night, informing each other immediately whenever a shining spot came in sight that it was an Airbus, a 737, or an Airjet. Most flights were to Majorca, Barcelona, or Perpignan. The human powers of observation obviously had increased dramatically since Ptolemy’s Alexandrian days, some nineteen centuries ago. It dawned on us that a fundamentally new way of observing had fallen into our hands. Peering the skies definitely had entered a new phase. It all came down to a simple app, which several guests had on their mobile phones, so it turned out. You only had to allow the app to know your location, and then it would tell you, ‘real-time’, many details of the planes and flights that, high above your head, would be crossing your path.

That afternoon there had been a fire in the surrounding mountains. Fortunately it could soon be stopped from spreading downhill. Several guests had seen the special planes that had extinguished it by dropping tons of water on the surrounding woods. They were Bombardiers, our pilot friend told us, a plane with the remarkable ability of taking in water from a nearby lake by flying over it, and then dropping the water on the flames and the environment. A tall young man, who had been listening in on our conversation, then turned the screen of his mobile phone in our direction. And there it was: the Bombardier skimming the lake to take in the water. In full colour and full sound. It was not just some example, but one of the real Bombardier planes the French authorities had sent in to combat ‘our’ fire that afternoon. It was on YouTube, already, for all the world to see, documented for eternity.

Though grateful for the extra information, nobody of the guests seemed surprised. The tall young man himself did show some pride, it seemed to me, in being able to make us all a part of his prompt digital discovery. But only slightly. Omnipresence is nearing the state of normality.

Brancusi’s spine

Soon after Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), who grew up in Romania, came to Paris in 1904, he was offered the opportunity to work with Rodin in his atelier. Rodin then probably was the most famous living sculptor. To work under the guiding hands of this established genius really was a piece of luck. Of course Brancusi knew this, but nevertheless he decided to leave Rodin’s studio after having worked there for barely two months. He is reported to have said, in explaining his remarkable step: “Nothing can grow under big trees.” He wasn’t being disrespectful, it was just his natural self-confidence coming to the surface. He knew it was his own talent he wanted to develop. Thus a pattern was established: Brancusi would go his own way, relying on the creative wisdom of his bare hands.

He would have his own studio at Montparnasse, in the Impasse Ronsin, first at no. 8, and from 1927 onward at no. 11. He would stall in his studio, as in an open depot of creativity, the sculptures he made, be they in stone, marble, bronze, or wood. This way he made sure he was permanently surrounded by his own work, in all its diversity. There would always be sleeping muses, birds in space, kissing goblins or high totems wherever he rested his eyes.

The studio had a glass roof, so in the daytime the sun shone on his creations, while at night the moon, when it was bright and full, would light the dark workshop with is milk-white magic, giving the bronzes a mysterious golden glow. Instructed by Man Ray, he often photographed and filmed the ensemble of his sculptures. He never tired rearranging them. Many of his avant-garde friends came to see him here, drawn as they were by this modest, workman-like, sacral place.
The American photographer Edward Steichen came to Brancusi’s studio in 1920 to have his camera capture some of its majesty. Although the studio certainly could not be called small, it represented Brancusi’s intimate world, where the creations he carved and moulded with his robust hands lived together, en famille, like happy children who, even after growing up, don’t ever think of leaving the parental house.

In 1997 the Atelier Brancusi was reconstructed in a separate little building just outside the gigantic Centre Pompidou in Paris. A whole collection of Brancusi’s works is grouped there, so the visitor can leave with a fair impression of the original studio. Still, like most reconstructed studios this one too somehow seems to be drenched in the sadness of futility. In general the workshops of artists long deceased only express desertedness: an empty cocoon with the butterfly long gone.

The most noticeable sculpture Brancusi created is far away from the crowded intimacy of old Montparnasse, or the lifeless reconstruction outside the Centre Pompidou. It is the tallest thing he ever made, the Endless Column, and it is reaching for the open Romanian sky, almost 30 meters high. It was erected in 1938 in Targu-Jiu, in the vicinity of Brancusi’s birthplace. The Endless Column (or ‘Column of the Infinite’ as it is also called) is, in fact, a war memorial. It celebrates the infinite sacrifice of the Romanian soldiers who defended their fatherland during the battle on the Jiu river.

Constantin Brancusi Endless Column InfinityThe Communist government, favoring social realism and thinking that Brancusi’s work represented bourgeois cosmopolitanism, for some time thought of simply destroying it, but instead chose to neglect it, and was most succesfull in doing so. It was only at great costs that the majestic column (made of cast iron and steel) could be restored, around the year 2000. It is, in fact, a stack of 17 heavy modules, held together by an invisible metal ‘spine’ on the inside, a spine within a spine. Although Brancusi supplemented the column with two other sculptures nearby – the ‘Table of Silence’ (a circular stone table symbolizing time) and ‘The Gate of the Kiss’, as a symbol to unity – it is the tall column that matters.

But what, apart from its ‘memorial’ quality, does it stand for? It certainly is not a stairway to the Romanian heavens, since the somewhat bulky segments will not allow one to climb it. Whereas his famous Bird in Space is streamlining the air and even cutting into it, the Endless Column slowly penetrates the air, step by step, putting one segment on top of the other. In this it resembles a cathedral, whose ancient builders went on piling stones until heaven was in sight. And like the cathedral’s tower it seems to rise from the earth, making dirt and ether meet. As a result it is cubist and organic at the same time.The regularity of its elementary form gives it the character of a lament, or a prayer, following in slow rhythm the plump beads of an enormous rosary.

Pearly muse

For some time the French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue (1894-1986) had believed she was a Mexican. He first met her on March 6, 1930, probably in the late afternoon, in Passy, Paris, when she crossed his path, wearing a parasol. He would nickname her ‘my parasol’. She made an impression; at twenty-six she was tall, slim, and elegant, with a slightly provocative style of her own.

The next evening he took her out to dance. When she made her entrance she wore a fur coat and long gloves. Her name was Renee Perle, she was a Jewish girl from Romania. Her long neck and ‘dark porcelain eyes’ fascinated him, and when they danced her hair, though short and slick in the Gay Twenties way, touched his mouth as well as hers. By now he must have learned that she worked as a fashion model for a Parisian couturier. That explained her looks and her self-assured manner of the coquette. Renee Perle would become Lartigue’s muse. She also was his mistress, for the next two years, but in the very first place she was his muse. If a camera can caress, his camera certainly caressed her. And if a camera can seduce, she certainly was seduced by his. In 1930 and 1931 she would, for many hours, be looking into Lartigue’s lens like a female Narcissus, as if that lens were a reflecting pond. She probably distracted him from making his usual, now iconic, photographs of dazzling car races, clumsy aeroplanes, lanky tennis players, and numerous people in free movement, jumping or diving as if they didn’t notice they were somewhat overdressed for the occasion. His photo’s seemed to freeze them in mid-air, just like they seemed to make the upper-class ladies float a few inches above the walks of the Bois de Boulogne.

Lartigue took his beautiful Renee to the beaches and the beau monde of Biarritz, Cannes, and Juan-les-Pins. These must have been endless summers of doing nothing in particular. In this sunny world of uncertain glamour, this Tender is the Night atmosphere, he created his pictures of her. We see her wearing enormous flapping hats, slim fit shirts, and baggy trousers that make her seem sporty in that particular female way. Then again she’s wrapped in fur, posing on a balcony not far from the sea. Or she sits in an open window, in white flannel, Riviera pines in the background. Other photographs, taken inside and therefore darker, show the mystique of her face, sometimes half covered by a sensual veil. Always there is this contrast between her large nightclub eyes and her small mouth with the peculiarly curved upper lip. To catch the camera’s attention, she performed as the femme fatale, or, stretching her long legs on a couch, as a Matisse odalisque, bringing out her feline qualities.

Her appearance was her artistic instrument, and purely by her looks she succeeded in creating a unique mixture of Parisian chic, bathing beauty, femme fatale, emancipated flapper, and avant garde muse. Especially the black nail varnish she used and the bracelets she heaped on her wrists added an exotic modernity to complete her style. She liked to paint, and when she took up the brush it was to create self-portraits. Obviously, she was herself fascinated by her appearance, no less than Lartigue.
These photographs are not the result of a creative man – Lartigue – registering the passive beauty of a woman. They are the result of co-creation. Maybe this is what a muse does: in her repeated posing it is her ongoing effort at self-creation and self-invention that inspires the artist. A pearl shines both out and in.

Today, Renee Perle is on Facebook. Her own process of self-creation has stopped, probably long before she died, in 1977. Whoever put her, posthumously, on Facebook must somehow have understood that our modern media open up the possibility to continue a person’s process of inventing his or her image, and of exposing it, brilliantly, in the name of that person.

Kokoschka on the look-out

Because of the First World War, the painter Oskar Kokoschka’s awareness has fundamentally changed. In the documentary Oskar Kokoschka: Ein Selbstporträt (1966) he explained how, living in the stinking trenches, he had felt trapped like a rat. In these terrible circumstances he made a pledge: when I will come out of these trenches alive, with my eyes and my right arm intact, I will climb the steepest hill to paint from there what I see; and I will observe from this elevated position what the people – all these insane people – are up to. Indeed, Kokoschka would make several paintings of cities, seen from a distance and from a high viewpoint. These paintings celebrate space. He intended them to be the opposite of the muddy holes that had enclosed him as a soldier.

When as a cavalryman he was shot in the head, his sense of balance had for some time been severely upset. One late evening in Vienna, after the war, when the white moonlight was stroking the cobble-stones in the street, he re-experienced that wartime sensation of completely losing his equilibrium. It felt as if he were elevated, floating above the street. Afterwards he knew it must have been a hallucination, but what really impressed him was the intense sensation of moving around in space freely, at least for some moments. Kokoschka is generally seen as an expressionist painter, who brought his inner feelings to the canvas. His own testimony, though, suggests that his work is mainly about regaining space.

Oskar Kokoschka

It had to be regained, he felt, because modernity somehow seemed to fear space: the technological civilisation of modern times is a cage (Kokoschka explains in the documentary), because it shuts us up in a very limited repertoire of actions and things, which are all goal-oriented, subordinate to whatever is trendy, and tied to the simple and uniform truths of a surface reality. At this point Kokoschka connects his cultural analysis to the many portraits he painted: they were deliberate attempts to restore the classical view that a human being is intimately related to space. This ancient truth can be rediscovered when a man, like Kokoschka, climbs on a hill to paint a distant city, outstretching; or when that man paints the face or the body of another person, and tries to catch that person’s inner feelings, as well as his own. He then adds the space of the inner dimension to the body’s surface. Skin and traits become a manifestation of the inner space. Inner man is a dimension, our ‘deepest’ reality is space. Look again at Kokoschka’s famous ‘tiger-lion’ from 1926: you can see straight through it, right into the space in and behind it.

Horowitz, or the meaning of anticipation

For nearly two hours I watched Horowitz play on Arte Channel, in a documentary from 1985 (The Last Romantic) and then in a concert given in Vienna somewhat later. He played from memory, not a sheet in sight. All went well in the complex coordination between his 82-year-old brain and his magical hands, same age. The old man and the Steinway, catching Liszt, Schumann, Scriabin, a Mozart sonata, a Chopin mazurka.

Once again the maestro seemed to own sound as if it were his private property. What fascinated me most, though, were these smooth hands releasing the piano’s poetry and revealing every key’s colour. In the intimacy of his New York apartment I found the opportunity to observe the little finger of his right hand, closest to the camera. What I saw was anticipation. His entire body, his hands, his little finger, anticipated every note just about half a second before it was actually played. Look at the slight twitching in the little finger that already knows, up front, what next note it has to play. I could see it was a tiny bit nervous, in anticipation, or was it just eagerness?

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The little finger, all alone, proved this was not an automaton playing: it had to prepare itself to perform its weighty task, again and again, and it knew it could fail, being human. Robots, surely able to play a piano as facile as any man – in the near future anyway – don’t have anticipating little fingers. Mr Horowitz said he detested perfection. I perfectly understood what he meant.