For a while I thought that Kafka’s story Ein Hungerkünstler, like those other tales of madness, sprang from the writer’s morbid fantasy. This turns out not to be so.
There were, from the late 19th century on, in Vienna and its surroundings people who starved themselves and elevated this into an ‘art’. Professional anorexia – though I do not put it past them that they abused their nutritional disorder to earn some hard and good money.
Until the fifties of the 20th century, nota bene at a time I myself already was born, these starvation artists could be found in the better establishments in Prague and Vienna. Suspicious spectators came in regularly to conduct their own inspection, and see if the person fell off and how much, or whether he was not secretly fed. Sometimes, like in a circus, a Hungerkünstler was locked up in a cage.
It would not surprise me if the coupling of ‘hunger’ and ‘art’ was a direct result of the 19th-century movement of Romanticism. Poverty at the time had its own charm, one may think of popular works such as La Bohème and Les Misérables. More generally it was thought that an artistic would-be genius not only had to be poor, but sickly as well. Such a combination was supposed to feed the aesthetic imagination.
A Great Artist became great only after his miserable death; owners of his works then pocketed the dough. The hunger ‘artist’ in his cage, by the way, could very well have been the very first example of ‘performance art’. Although of the starvation artist no work of art remains, at best an emaciated corpse, the link with Romantic art stands, methinks.
Also the philosopher is often assumed to live sober and poor. Just as a budding artist, the starting philosopher has a slight chance to get rich quickly by way of his wise thoughts. When philosophy still rubbed against faith and all kinds of pseudo wisdom, the sage will indeed have considered his own body of little value.
José de Ribera, Philosopher with book, compass and set-square
This exquisite canvas of the Spaniard José de Ribera – the image of a philosopher, which is even as copy, owned by the Hermitage, something wonderful to see – can certainly not be called ‘Romantic’. Or you would deny any art-historical significance to that notion. After all, it was painted between 1630 and 1640, in the 17th century that is.
Not only did philosophy rub against religion in those days, the philosopher here depicted is also represented as a learned researcher with the symbols of measuring and counting. Wisely, the book that Ribera put in the hand of his philosopher bears no title. Fat chance, the man was also an alchemist, more of a searcher than a researcher, someone who tried to make gold from lead. Black Magic – the philosopher as an artist!
That wisdom and alchemy were considered to be practised outside everyday life, Ribera seems to indicate with the dilapidated clothes. Mind you, paintings from those days depict all other professions as well as members of the aristocracy in tip top dress. However, rather large, though indeed gracefully painted holes embellish this thinker’s outfit. A hungry philosopher, no doubt – perhaps even a bit of a Hungerkünstler.
That there may be some truth in all these assumptions – I write: some – may be illustrated by the following photograph:
Thus I wear my shirts – as they say: till they are ‘finished’. Whether this is in the manner of the philosopher – after all, this was my field – I do not know. My eldest son could not and still can not accept, nor bear this. He believes that you should always be smartly dressed, especially when at the university, but also as a retired intellectual. I could not care less.
What I have to admit, though, is that buying a new shirt – once the old one has dropped of me like the shirt of Ribera’s thinker – always gives me the feeling of a Self renewed. Like a snake having shed its old skin. This, while I have not the slightest sympathy for snakes.
Sierksma, Haarlem 23.12.15