Gerhard Richter Painting

It snows. Violently. If these tiny snowflakes would be as heavy as they are sharp, we’d have a city in ruin. They whirl themselves through the air and stab with their microscopic daggers at buildings, pavement, cars, trees… Nothing is spared.

I have this image before my eyes – a young Gerhard Richter, with short, gently curly hair and blue eyes, saying that he cannot talk about his paintings. If he could talk about them, they would consequently not be paintings at all but objects wrapped in the mesh of language. Well, no he did not say it like that but that’s what he meant. The words “I don’t know how they happen” or “I don’t know what they mean” come up often in the interview episodes from his youth and later on during the documentary Gerhard Richter Painting. Throughout this film (made in 2011 by Corinna Belz) we can see Richter making paintings (a couple of them in more detail), going to openings, driving his car, meticulously planning exhibitions and dreamily or absent-mindedly watching his grandchildren playing and drawing.

I will pause a little on the couple of paintings we see taking shape before our eyes. One painting on the left side of the screen, the other one on the right. Between them, a door, through which the master makes his entrance. He makes a little bit of small talk. He then picks up his bucket of paint, a fairly broad brush, and slowly but firmly, goes towards the white canvas. He takes two steps up a ladder and starts painting. Thin layers of mild lemony yellow, spreading slowly on the white canvas. Then red. Then blue. How does he know where which color should go?, one would tempted to ask. I guess he does not know. He only does, he only paints and simultaneously he goes into himself and watches over his reactions to what his hands and eyes do. There is no particular path he chose to walk on, there is no aim he’s trying to reach. There is only discovery. A self-assertion that goes hand in hand with, that grows out of his dealings with the color.

I can only imagine how difficult it might have been for him trying to work while being filmed. He actually says so himself. “It is not right. It does not feel right.” After a while he stops and declares “It’s enough for today. We’ll stop here. We need a bit of space. They need to settle.”

Later in the movie he returns, this time equipped with something bigger than a brush and definitely  meaner looking. I found the paintings nice enough as they were, as I could see them on the screen, as the camera sensor recorded them. The colors had a certain way of interacting with each other, which was not at all unpleasant. They reminded me of the small watercolors I say a few years ago in the Albertina. Vibrant. Perhaps a tad too vibrant. Nice. Perhaps too easily nice. And then it happened! Armed with his weapon of choice, this huge Plexiglas board, brimming with paint, he walks towards the canvas like an executioner would towards his helpless victim. He sticks this apocalyptic instrument on the innocent body of his creation and starts pulling it from left to right, flooding the world he just brought to light in a monochrome climax. Sometimes this display of absolute power would not be enough and a dagger, beg your pardon!, a spatula would too be put to work. Scraping the excess, digging, giving a hand to the painting underneath the painting. Strong but careful. No radical gestures (à la Lucio Fontana) since there is nothing behind the canvas – only behind layers of paint.

It almost hurt watching. Even if not for very long. Just think about it: minutes ago I just saw something coming into existence, a combination of colors arranged onto a two dimensional space in a particular way, having a certain relationship with the artist and with me, their (temporary) spectator. I was happy, as one tends to be (I should think) when one has the chance to see something being made, when out of a lump of nothingness something beautiful, useful or practical sees the light of day.

But these two paintings simply vanished. One swing of the machine infernale and they were history. Not even history, actually, had it not have been for the ever bothering eye of the camera. Here and there, wherever chance stuck its head (or was it its tail?) one could begin to guess what is underneath. Or what might have been. Hiding the obvious, the new layer opened another world, one of endless possibilities and combinations. Was it real or just a dream? Induced memories, anyone?

This is by no means a new idea but indeed the very idea on which painting as such is based. It does not need to resemble anything in the real world. It only needs to come to terms with the world of the painter. Through his work he would veil and unveil whatever he would think was necessary. Until it would get to a point where an invisible ballance would be reached. That’s where he’d stop. That’s when the painting is done. The result is as good (or bad) as the idea/image animating the painter.

Looking at these paintings (and at paintings in general, actually), we not only see what is before our eyes but we also gain access to another sensibility. In Wollheim’s words, paintings somehow already contain a spectator and we are to see them through his or her eyes. There is a sort of triangulation at work here. Much in the same way Davidson thinks about learning a language. Richter’s paintings do not have anything to say and are not about something because they have nothing to do with language. But they do! Though not with the language as we know it but with anther one, a more richteresque language which we surreptitiously learn by looking at each of these paintings. Do not worry, though! We are not alone in this process. Not even Richter knows his language by heart. He discovers it with each new painting he paints, with each new painting he covers up and unveils for us.

And for himself.

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The (art) Dealer

I knew about him but I never met him. I met his brother many times but I somehow managed not to lay eyes on him until today. And here he is: he is as tall as his brother is short and he is as thin as his brother is fat. But they both speak German with the same impeccably strong Russian accent. Together, they bought an immense number of paintings (too bad that many of them are worthless). And they keep buying. Each for himself, though. Never together. They don’t even talk to each other, actually. Like many dealers and would be dealers. There are at least a dozen brothers that I know of who do not do business together. It seems it is enough to have an altercation once. A second time will never happen because there will never be a second opportunity to work together. No money will circulate between them. No information about the artworld. No tips. Nothing!

So, His Tallness! FraKturing eVery German worD as his tongue might find it suitable, he explained pompously that he speaks all languages. He could even speak Chinese, if Chinese will be of help, that is. Or Yiddish. Or English, of course. You name it! If I can sell you something, I will speak your language!

His weasel eyes behind his tinted glasses spotted two small pieces we had hanging for a while without much hope to sell. He bought both of them. Paid on the spot. And then he bragged about how he is trying to bring down the reputation of another dealer who deceived him and how this is the only one thing he does not tolerate. Deceit is the worst thing there is! I wondered in how many languages would he be able to say that. And what is he going to sell the two small paintings for? He’d certainly stick a story to them, a story which would buy their way into the rooms and onto the walls of an average Russian who found himself to be too rich too soon and needed desperately an illustrated family tree. There you are! Your long dead uncles! And your grandmother, too! Isn’t she pretty? Look at her gracious hand, veiling this tiny rose! Oh…

Nabokov wrote a story (which later became a book) called Pnin. For some obscure reason I thought about the professor of Russian, as the tall, presentable, voluble guy before me was gesticulating and rearranging the world according to his views. Pnin though, Nabokov tells us, was not der zerstreute Professor as one might be tempted to think. It was the world that somehow seemed to continuously elude him, things getting lost as soon as they would come into his sphere of existence, falling apart, breaking down, or even attacking him. And he found it his duty to bring some order back into the world, to reinstate a required harmony. Pnin was beloved not because he had some essential qualities but because he managed (involuntarily, mostly) to always make unforgettable digressions: “nostalgic excursions in broken English”. See, for example, the time he landed in the US for the first time and was asked if he had something to declare. No, he answered. When they got to political questions he answered to Are you anarchist? with What do you understand with Anarchism? Anarchism practical, metaphysical, theoretical, mystical, abstractical, individual, social? His inquiry led to him spending two weeks on Ellis Island but his audience would be already on the floor laughing.

Leaving laughing aside – these people are made of work. Hard work. A seldom mix of outstanding memory, cunningness and cupidity built up gradually over years of practice. Pushing to the limit. But still…. There is always more. There is always something that will elude them. Mark Strand’s line “Wherever I am, I am what’s missing” has its counterpart in Borges’ Limits.

Jorge Luis Borges – Limits

There is a line of Verlaine that I will not be able to remember.
There is a street nearby that is widowed of my footsteps,
there is a mirror that has seen me for the last time,
there is a door that I have closed until the end of the world.
Among the books of my library (I am looking at them)
there is one that I will never open now.
This summer I will be fifty years old;
Death is wearing me away, relentless.

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Humboldt, Gauss and… Daft Punk

They have all talked about it. It is a very good book, they said. You have to read it!

And I did.

Yes, it does a very good job at portraying two great scientists: one running around the world, getting bitten by mosquitoes, crawling down narrow caves, almost growing a pair of sextants instead of eyes, the other one sporting a velvet cap and considering the act of crunching numbers as a vital dimension of one’s life, using his intellect as a weapon (both to get what he wants and to ward off anyone who’d dare to disagree with him). One has a chance to learn about these two people and about their great minds. Although… One can do something similar by reading the corresponding Wikipedia articles. Well, no! That was mean.

Almost…

The thing is, this is a book which is closer to David Sedaris’ kind of writing than to Philip Roth’s (just as a quick example). I do not mean to say it is bad (I do like Sedaris, after all). What I mean to say is that it is more funny and light, a sort of summer reading on the beach, than it is deep and serious (as both Humboldt and Gauss most probably thought we should all try to be). Measuring the world, at least as I see it, is not a leisurely activity. It is a sustained effort, it consists of breakthroughs as well as of failures, it needs time and support. In a word, it needs to be human.

The characters in the book, on the other hand, the way they talk and act and move have, curiously, something mechanical to it – it made me think, uncannily, of Daft Punk’s video Around the World. What you see in this clip are figures (human, but not quite) running about a small stage (in a circular manner) with robot-like gestures, following the music. They do go “around the world” but they do not wonder/wander. Kehlmann’s guys seem to be always in a hurry. If they have a reason to take it easy and if they attempt to ruminate, the scene comes rather abruptly to an end. He tells us that Humboldt saw the Aztec calendar and had a quick chat with a worker there about the number of people who were sacrificed when the temple was ready. Then, in the next scene, just like that, he has dinner with the viceroy. He does think about it a little bit. Just a little bit and then he’s done! Puff!

The four oarsmen, taking him and Bonpland through the jungle and on the Orinoco looked like interesting people, who’ve seen quite some things, but we never learn enough about them. If anything at all.

Gauss, on the other hand, flies with a balloon and sees the world from above. One might write a whole book only based on this happening. Gauss is in love with Johanna and wants to marry her but he is refused. He asks again and, fearing another refusal, he contemplates suicide. He almost kills himself. Again, there is so much stuff in here one could work with. The Gauss we meet through Kehlmann seems to be rolling on a beaten track. His actions do not need an explanation. Later on, he wants to kiss Weber’s wife on the shoulder (he only fantasizes about it). Why can the author not push it up a bit? Why does he not make it more appealing, playful, sexy? Why not? Because it’s not in the letters? How far do fiction and biography go hand in hand? And if they already seem to be so intertwined, why not take it a step further? Write more about less. So what if the epistolary exchange is not as rewarding in this regard as one would expect? You’re a writer, make it new!

Make it new!

But I guess I should not bring Pound to the mix. It might get (too) loud!

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This is not about running!

No, it is not! But it so happens that….

Really, now. The kid was sick yesterday. I stayed home with him. Poor thing. He’s very seldom sick and he does not really know how to deal with it. Throwing up scares him. His whole little body arched stiff above the bucket, quivering. By the evening he got better, though. He ate a bit and started chatting and chatting and almost jumping around, as usual. Going to bed took some time (he slept a couple of hours in the afternoon) and, even though I planned to go running, to loosen up a bit from mostly doing nothing but stroking a tiny stomach the whole day, I realized it got quite late (already ten pm) and I was sleepy actually. Almost five minutes passed by with me debating with myself what to do.

GO!

And off I went. It was not to be a long run. Just five km. Or so. And stay in the neighborhood! That’s what I intended. Thus, I ran on most streets in a two km radius. After a while I thought I kept seeing the same few people over and over again, walking the same dogs (one of them tried to bite me). I even almost embraced a guy after taking a rather sharp corner (which btw, led the me to a cul-de-sac, thank you very much) and, startled, tried not to knock each other out.

The five km got to be ten. Time well spent: I listened to an interview with Goli Taraghi and another one with John Burnside. There is so much to discover! The Loki analogy in a Taraghi story got me thinking (and it got her thinking too): I somehow do not find Silverblatt very appealing but he’s very good. Wachtel? No reservations here!

An hour later I was home again. Everybody was asleep, exactly as I left them.

It was quiet and good.

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So now get up.

“Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.”

That is how Wolf Hall begins. And it keeps going on like that. One blow at the time, one sparking remark after the other. Mantel said the idea for the book came with this sentence: “So now get up.” The whole trilogy is pretty much built up on this. And, it is actually catchy and… forceful. You know he’s on the ground, almost finished but you also know he’ll get up. And boy, will he get up!

It could make a good slogan. It could have been written on banners in Greece before the election. Tsipras could have chanted it while laying out his plans to end austerity.

It could have been printed out, white on black, and held up in line with Je suis Charlie!

It might have been as old the legend of Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Just think how often they would have said it to each other. I could fantasize hearing Shamhat telling that to an Enkidu who is no longer the man of the wilderness.

It could begin another story. Or stories. A lot of them. Most of them. It could be our story. The Tree of Life.

It could be part of a poem about the old grandmother whom I see each Tuesday afternoon bringing her rascal grandson to his English lessons. Will she ever “snap”?

So now, let’s get up!

We have work to do!

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