ENGLISHNESS AND VULGARIAN ARCHITECTURE

Here in France, I live together with an English woman, in a town colonised by Brits. I have often reduced our personal Krachs to a clash between her Englishness and my Duchness. My Dutch inner soul demands to be direct, to confront and to be utterly honest; her English bent of mind is to keep things ‘nice’, agreeable and a little bit shady. Of course, I am considered to be ‘blunt’ or ‘rude’, whereas in my eyes she is often a hypocrite, scared to bring it all out into the open.

Being confronted, in the literal as well as in the littoral sense, with English neighbours on the other side of our river, thus gives me abundant subject matter to think about these differences. Not only do I need to find an explanation for the glaring lights they installed this winter on their platform at the river side, lights which blind me every night, in all the rooms, even when our shutters are closed – Venetian blinds, with their delicate slits meant to let in the day’s sunlight, transforming it into a soft chiaroscuro…; I now also need to understand the hideous contraption which has just been installed by the male part of the couple, someone out there, always noisily constructing something.

Seeing something new, on the right side of their ‘court yard’, I thought: What the hell is going on this time!

Later, observing more closely, it turned out to be a sort of small préau – a covered little court inside the court-yard. Ugly it is, its wall higher than the stone wall, more particularly the roof having the wrong tilt, its proportions awkward.

A true French préau always opens up, unfolds itself into the yard, its roof not gloomily ‘eaving’ downwards, but proudly and honestly looking upwards to the sky. Like, for instance, the préau in the court of my little country house in La Roche:

So, I knew, I had to get out my hardbound, the illustrated copy of J. B. Priestley’s book on Englishness, more especially its chapter on the special characteristics of the British common man, the vulgus. Mind you, vulgus in Latin was a neutral term, not something deprecating. Priestley considers the English variety of the common people as uncommon, this due to its Englishness; they differ from the common man on the continent. What is specific about them, compared with the vulgus on the European continent, is their lack of fanaticism – in the 1930’s, for instance, the were never seduced by either fascism or communism. The men were far more interested in Football, cricket etc.; their women were wondering how to live decently on far too little money… Triviality is the word our writer uses for this, thinking it better than manufacturing fanatics.

Now, re: ugly préau on the opposite river bank, Priestley’s next sentence is enlightening: The greatest weakness of this style of life is – and possibly still is – that it removes so many people, not necessarily stupid and insensitive, from the challenge, excitement an inspiration of the arts. So true! We are entering the territory of The Vulgarians. To be honest, I personally also find the so-called Houses of the British upper-class, built after the 17th century, extremely ugly, certainly to be compared by the préau presented above.

Priestley may be rather good in pinpointing what is Englishness; yet, he does not give a good answer to my questions as to the obnoxious glaring of those lamps through my blinds, or the why of the visibility of this new horrid contraption. I shall try to give my own explanation.

An important characteristic of Anglo-Saxon society – yes England and the USA – is the dominance of the individual over the citizen. In latter-day capitalist society, each one of us is both an individual and a citizen, our two main aspects; thus, the question is not whether in a society people are either individuals or citizens, but which aspect in them is dominating the other one. Our individuality refers to the ethical, convivial part of our social life, with partners, friends, colleagues and acquaintances – the zone of existence where we meet eye to eye and judge one another morally. Our citizenship is linking us institutionally to one another in a web of solidarity, for instance, collective insurance systems, and a system of political representation of diverse class interests. On the European continent the citizen in us has always dominated the individual – that is till the Thatcher’s of this world tightened their ghastly grip of neo-liberalism, and took over. But in the Anglo-Saxon world they were always already prepared for this, whereas on the continent this onslaught of liberalism and the dominance of the individual over citizenship was against the grain of its society.

Thus, in England the definition of what is public space differs from what it was in the long history of the continent. My home is my castle, an ultimate British notion, implying also that the exterior of that ‘castle’ is delivered to the caprice of its owner. Thus: the glaring lights which bother neighbours, and contraptions which are an eye-sore in what Europe has always considered public space. When in someone the individual dominates his citizenship, he tends to make his individuality weigh on others in public spaces: for instance, talking too loud in a café, as if his opinion is as such relevant to others…

Strangely enough, Priestley stresses the passionate adherence to traditions as one element in Englishness. Combined with the dominance of individualism, this produces what I have coined elsewhere as conservative anarchism: the not giving a damn what others think, or whether one’s behaviour is hurting or damaging other people’s interests. Brexit, with its curious mix of ‘sovereignty’, ‘ruling the waves’ and so-called ‘personal pride’ in being an English individual, has been one of the results. The basso continuo of racism in British culture is another.

That this once British dominance of individual privacy over citizen publicity has now also imprinted itself on continental mores, may be read from the installing of ghastly sun panels on the roofs of gorgeous, old houses in la France profonde. Thus, the British river-neighbours fit in all too well in their new homeland and in the postmodern development of the continent. Why not say, that Englishness was postmodern long before it became modern and then, subsequently, Postmodern? The conservative anarchism of the Anglo-Saxons has always been… rude, though the essence of Englishness, so Priestley, is to be nice, strife evading in convivial situations. Inner contradictions galore. After all, Englishness is summed up by the author as being reasonable, yet not strictly rational.

Sierksma, Montmorillon 9.4/2021

FEMININE GAZE

An aquarelle of exquisite quality – because of the sheer beauty of its composition, colour and execution, as well as due to an aesthetic empiricism of detail.

The artist, J. H. Plokker, sought to convey the impression of urban architecture in a street in the middle of France, highlighting its mediaeval-like organicism of construction and the play of sunlight and shadow – yet, true to the facts, also giving us the rather ugly bit of modernist building, constructed at the back of all this and visible at the end of the ally of steps. Thiers it is, in 1963.

The artist’s gaze has taken it all in – with a warm, loving gaze, giving us the pleasure of retracing the slow steps made by his eyes. Such delicacy of detail is almost feminine, if not simply – feminine.

We know of the experiment re: human perception of our immediate surroundings, showing us the difference between women and men. A group of students from various faculties, not knowing what it was all about, were asked to come to a psychological lab for ‘some’ experiments. They were paid a fee in advance. Gathered in a large sitting room with furniture and various decorative elements, they waited and expected to be informed as to what it was all about, convivially enjoying titbits and refreshments served on a table.

It turned out that the whole experiment had already been in their gathering. After a certain period of time, each one was asked to step outside, to be interviewed about what they had noticed in the room: its size, place of doors and windows, pictures hanging on the wall, kinds of food and drink on the table and the various objects placed in the room. In a rather precise manner, the men were able to reproduce a map of the room, on it the place and size of windows and doors, pieces of furniture et cetera. Their recollection of smaller details, though, was miserable, all those little things here and there. With the women, the results were a contrast.

Whatever explanation one may give – I prefer an evolutionary one, in a faraway past the loving care for her children directing the gaze of a woman at details that were, perhaps, threatening them – it seems more generally the case that women are apt to observe details as well as care for them; they are less interested in the topographical lay out and order of things. If this were indeed the case, an artist like Plokker might be said to have a strong feminine bent; all good artists are marvels in their details, in which – according to one great architect – even God may be residing…

A male artist, then, may be said to have a split personality; why not call it a schizophrenic? I am well aware that the concept of schizophrenia must be used carefully, specifically in postmodern times when it is abused – galore, thus meaningless. However, as I started this little essay from the observation of a Plokker aquarelle, the term might be apt. The man was also a doctor, a psychiatrist, chief of the great hospital for schizophrenics in The Netherlands. He wrote an impressive dissertation on art and schizophrenia: Art from the Mentally Disturbed. Curiously enough, in this study he doubts whether the concept of art really applies to the work of his schizophrenic patients, whom he tried to treat by allowing them to paint, draw et cetera.

Now, what a doctor as a doctor should apply to his patients is a clinical gaze: the doctor must be a cool customer, a distanced observer of certain facts, not involved in the persons, but aloof – then to place these facts, considered as symptoms, in a more general perspective of known diseases, irrespective of his own prejudice or partis pris. In short: a doctor must be ‘masculine’ par excellence. This, by the way, raises certain interesting problems re: female doctors, which I will leave untouched here.

If what has been analysed above is somehow right, it implies that Plokker must have managed the feminine/masculine extremes of his personality rather well. As a scientist-doctor, not only did he succeed to falsify in a Popperian manner his original idea of ‘schizophrenic art’; he was also capable of producing the most wonderfully detailed as well as wonderful aquarelles – a man in love with both the details of the object depicted as well as with his own child: this aquarelle.

Sierksma, Montmorillon 20.2/2021

SKEWED NUDE

Look at her – is what I do so often, during my siesta, listening to music, dozing a little. Her beauty is no debating point. However, whether the ‘nude’ as a picture is skewed, whether it is out of plumb is at stake here.

 

When, around this time of each high summer’s day, I am lying on my bed, I am often convinced that is in fact tilted – frame and all. Once in a while, reluctantly so, I even get up and check. Each time, though, I must concede to what one might call a Sachverhalt, the fact that contrary to my intuition it is hanging quite straight, upright, perpendicular.

 

 

Not a fallen woman – not even a falling one…

 

It must be her pose. Leaning back, she is – to show us all her beauties and make us shiver with the artistry of the draughtsman who rendered her nudity so well.

 

However, it cannot merely her pose. After all, while still living in Haarlem I have been looking at this picture for so long; never did I get the impression of something slanted, of it not hanging right.

 

It must be the blending of her pose and those shadows which a shy sun, peeping between the curtains on the left, is throwing on her frame. Together, they give my impression the stamp of reality – time and again.

 

Sierksma, Montmorillon 11.8/2020

A NUDE, OF A SUDDEN DRESSED

There she was, the house – naked, from the foundations up to her roofed head – undressed, bare and barren, bared to the unwanted gaze of others. Shutters – in this picture still there – taken off their hinges, a heatwave sun drilling into its innards, inside not a painting or an etching on its walls…

 

Then, one day ago – a nude, robed of a sudden! Shutters hung – so were my paintings, etchings and aquarelles.

 

The light tempered, the eye capable again of delicate observation, this time looking at a gorgeous drawing done by Noor Kooijman, the mother of my good friend Dion. She had hidden her work from all public view, friends and family included, perhaps afraid they would not like it.

 

Not all too long ago, after she died, amongst her belongings Dion found this gem, hidden away and almost thrown out as debris, together with a whole serious of superb images. I was given this one as a present – a brilliant aquarelle, even to be judged so while it is still behind the glass which reflects some of my books, an unwanted mirror that will be removed.

 

 

A nude foot, or rather a denuded foot, hairs on the leg clearly to be seen, those unkept toes, all being shown off as if were, this in detail. One intuits that new-bought second-hand boots were just too small to house both feet and socks. Thus, a half-naked foot it had to be, the leather around the toes cut off to ease their fit.

 

I find the image highly moving. Intrinsically: that is as work of exquisite art, both colour wise and qua composition. And extrinsically: because I know how this beauty had almost been thrown out with the infamous unwanted remains children find in the house of their last parent deceased.

 

The foot and its old shoe are accompanied by three etchings by Van der Haar, shown in one frame, bought long ago; two old coats hanging rather sadly on their separate hooks.

 

The poem I once wrote:

 

Two overcoats,

for the eternity which etching takes,

so prettily suspended

 

Once worn.

Perhaps that one a woman,

virile no doubt the other one.

Now – never again

 

Only the gaze of admirers

will wear them out.

 

Sierksma, Montmorillon 31.7/2020

JUST A FLESH WOUND…

 

Could it be that John Cleese went on pilgrimage to the great Cathedral of Laon in the North of France, to get his inspiration for the famous scene in the Holy Grail movie, the Black Night being slaughtered? After all, that movie is about Mediaeval manly and religious valour. Those guys went all the way to so-called Holy Lands…

 

When King Arthur – in the movie, that is – chops off the Black Night’s arm, right from the shoulder, blood spurting out like the Niagara Falls, the Knight, a good sport, tells him that it is just a flesh wound… The knight in Laon, shown in the picture – or could it be one of the Wise Men from the East? – obviously, is missing that arm of his.

 

The Laon Cathedral is a bit of a blasphemous object. Dangerously balancing itself on one of its huge towers, one perceives a magnificent goat espying the world down below – surely, an attribute of the Devil, the Unrepentant Sinner of all unrepentant sinners, an Angel at that, though a fallen one. Perhaps, it is the Bad Guy himself…

 

Inside, if I am not mistaken, between pillars of a feminine bleach-white quality, we find actual boudoirs, little cubicles fenced off with dainty curtains, behind which all kinds of obscenity may well have been performed and, perhaps, are still performed till this day.

 

This, then, is what happens to a visitor with a dirty mind. He begins to imagine things. Thank God – yes Him – for the fact that, as good old Jeremy Bentham put it, not other men, but only Higher Beings, if they exist, have access to the inner recesses of the mind. Pokerfaced, I could walk through that splendid church and dirtily love it.

 

Sierksma Montmorillon 28.7/2020

THE EXOTIC REVISITED

One may remember those days, when excited painters and poets were wandering the earth to look for what was non-Western, non-Bourgeois – the Wild and Weird Walks of Life.

 

Exotism it was – the search for the exotic – hunting for a different light on things, both painterly as well as perspectival. Thus, to be sure, in order that they would indeed find the unknown, French artists like Fromentin and Delacroix called the North-West parts of Africa the Orient. Instead of exotism, my word for it, their attitude was called orientalism, practiced as it was in the middle of the 19th century.

 

Fromentin went to North-Africa, to confront the Radically Different, whether in women, in landscapes or in clothes. In his Une année dans le Sahel he described, with a sense of admiration and awe, the black females he saw. That strange race – a species of its own, with a masculine footfall, during the day a pack donkey, woman in the night, with that robust riches of shapes, their large, immodest bodies with lots of breast, a long torso and an enormous belly. Beautiful – but disgusting. Fromentin doesn’t give one the impression to ever have touched even one of them, something his admirer Baudelaire quite often did in the middle of Paris, mating his black maîtressse Duval, though indeed with on his hands white gloves.

 

Fromentin was looking for the special oriental light and the landscapes drowned in it. In another of his other books, Un été dans le Sahara, written in 1853, he informs his reader that, while travelling the North-African desert, he wanted to achieve a symbiosis between traveller, voyage and landscape. Its nakedness attracts me. The very words that end his book – Land of Thirst – form also the title of his most famous desert painting. His Orientalist’s arid and sandy waste land was filled with what the painter experienced as a blinding light, blotting out all colour. The result was a series of paintings, all displaying a pastel serenity, as it were seen through eyelashes half-shut.

 

Whereas Fromentin seems to have painted what he saw, his brother in arts Delacroix wanted the real confrontation with the violent and the outrageous. Yet, many of his works show us lions which he must have invented, as no large lions were to be found in the Moroccan deserts. His examples mat very well have been seen in Northern-European zoos.

Delacroix: Lion Hunt

 

Or worse than a hunt, lions eating either the horses Arabs had been riding or the Arabs that had been brought down from them.

Delacroix: Lion eating an Arab horse

 

Delacroix: Lion eating an Arab

 

How extraordinary it was, when walking my favourite Dutch English Park Elswout, situated just outside Haarlem town, on the edge of the dunes that separate us from the North Sea, to be confronted with three enormous lions and a white panther. As if the anti-aristocratic, undisciplined wildness sought for in that kind of park had been suddenly realized, ready to burst out into the woods.

 

Orientalism revisited, the Exotic live! Inside the old 17th-century coach house, belonging to what had once been a grand old House, the sculptor Chris Tap has created his atelier, on bright days rolling out the trolleys on which – like a true Delacroix – he is inventing his Lions in the Dutch Dunes.

 

Sierksma, Montmorillon 6.4/2020

 

THOSE GREAT, PALE WOMEN

In one of his Romantic reveries, Baudelaire was contemplating the creation an erotic museum, of course something never realized. After all, one is a Romanticist, thus given to Sehnsucht and not so much to practicalities. In that gallery, he intended not to miss out on anything; it had to be all there. Genius hallows anything – therefore nothing in it could shame a visitor when confronted with all things erotic. Inside Baudelaire’s museum would reside only true art.

 

Our poet describes an etching by Tassaert, an otherwise utterly sentimental painter. One observes two transvestites on a canapé, truly at it – a woman dressed up as a man who is groping under the garments of a man dressed up as a woman. According to the caption, ‘she’ exclaims: Don’t be so heartless, my dear! Such a pedestrian image makes one fear for the quality of the poet’s intended museum of prints and what not. However, moralists should not be afraid of a want of taste… Baudelaire claims that he is perfectly fit to remain within the boundaries of what is proper. His museum dream embraced,

 

The immense love song, sketched by the purest of hands – the serious and cool Venuses by Ingres, the playful and elegant princesses of Watteau, the splendid pearls of Rubens and Jordaens, and the sad beauties of Delacroix. Those great, pale women – wrapped in satin!

 

I am not completely sure whether this gorgeous, though fathomless denominator only refers to the painted women of Delacroix, or also covers the princesses and Venuses of Watteau and Rubens. After all, pale and great are relative terms. Baudelaire’s preferences in sexualibus, however, do become clear. The nudes, depicted on an image of a Turkish harem, he found perhaps a shade too pink.  In 1859, thirteen years after he wrote his ode to his great, pale women, he described some sculptures as large dolls whose monotonous whiteness must tire even the true devotee. Obviously then, large and doll enough, yet too pale for his taste. His ideal of pale seems to connote the colour of Caucasian-pale women on paintings, in contrast with those black or brown women he met in the flesh, like his lover Jeanne Duval.

 

Taking this interpretation as hitting a target, we may once again look at his portrait, in 1855 painted by Courbet.

In the lower right corner of the of the painting reserved for him, Baudelaire’s face may seem to be a bit more youthful than it is shown on the portrait by Deroy which was done ten years before this one on. His bodily attitude and the absorption in his book, though, do indeed fit my idea of him at this stage in his life.

 

Courbet has depicted himself in the middle of his Atelier. Curiously enough – given the many people on the canvas – the artist is busy painting a landscape emptied of all human presence. Absorbed in his reading, Baudelaire completely negates the rather impressive behind of a naked woman, who – again given the landscape without human life – is an odd bit of accessory on Courbet’s canvas. Perhaps, she is admiring the painting on the easel and waiting to serve her master’s lust after he is done with the job. She most surely is a beauty, perhaps serving Courbet as an image-metaphor for Pure Nature. Studying this portrait of Baudelaire, we may also understand that, after the Bonapartist coup in 1851, the poet had retired from public life. After that event, he considered himself as physically depoliticised.

 

What is of interest in the context of Baudelaire’s varied appetite for great pale as well as black women, is the pictorially inexplicable black rectangle behind the reading poet. New techniques have discovered that in an earlier version of the painting, this space was occupied by black Jeanne Duval, the poet’s mistress. Suddenly, we see more then what we see. We also know that Courbet did not work with the poet as a live model, but was using an earlier portrait made of him in 1844. For that very reason, the artist did not as yet know that, at moment of painting, Baudelaire had already broken with his cursed black mistress.

 

So, on the explicit demand of Baudelaire, Jeanne was blackened out of the Atelier, the painting suddenly portraying not one, but two absentees: our poet who was not actually present in 1855, and Jeanne Duval, now veiled by her black rectangle. By this time, Baudelaire had already begun to favour the supernatural, despising both everything herbivorous and female. Courbet’s painterly correction must have pleased him enormously.

 

When in 1852he broke with Jeanne, it seems as though Baudelaire also distanced himself from her body, more generally speaking: from all things corporal. Where in an earlier poem, Sed non satiata, he still spoke of the hell of your bed, with hell written without a capital H, in the introductory poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, written much later, Inferno gets its capital I, thus giving it a meaningful twist.

 

Each day, we descend one step into the Inferno,

Without fear, through shadows which are badly smelling…

In the infamous menagerie of our vices,

There is one which is uglier, meaner, filthier!

It is Ennui!…

You know him, reader, that delicate monster,

You hypocrite reader, who looks like me –

Brother of mine!

 

In the portraits of the older Baudelaire I recognize the man for whom, in the gloomy forest of language, each shiny word is secretly referring tot this Inferno, a language in which women, seen as sexual pariahs, are dressed in the simulacra of the untouchable. However, he did indeed touch them – in a way.

 

Apart from Jeanne Duval, in the flesh Baudelaire preferred pale, and if possible skinny women. When it came to fucking them, he was wearing white gloves. Even a genius is in context, determined by a cultural milieu, which in Baudelaire’s case was the Romanticism of the first half of the 19th century. Was he, in his intimate intercourse with this mulatto woman, cultivating a kind of cynical exotism, a relationship at the same time physical and aesthetic? Unmistakably, he wished to remain aloof from the women whom he encountered erotically. Stories were told, which depicted him as merely stroking the woman’s body, sniffing their smells, without actually sleeping with them. Thus, he sang his odes to a Platonic love for inaccessible women who were only exciting him because they remained at a distance.

 

This separation of sublime love and pedestrian sex can also be found in the diaries of the contemporary painter whom Baudelaire highly admired. Eugène Delacroix notes, time and again, a rather intense desire for women whom he merely considered as helping him to get rid of his sexual passions that were irritating and regarded as interfering with his more sublime artistic calling. After the act, these women were shown the door, or they took up again their position as his model. I risked syphilis with her, is how Delacroix described one of these atelier copulations.

 

Apart from these little obscene remarks, apart from his crafty notes on the art of painting, lyrical passages in the Delacroix diary primarily describe splendid, beautifully dressed women.

 

The moment Mme Caen came close to me, I had to rein in my heart – however, this only when she was completely wrapped in her evening dress which showed her arms and shoulders. When, the next morning, she was dressed again in ordinary clothes, I remained completely calm and reasonable.

 

Those arms and shoulders Delacroix was first of all observing in terms of their aesthetic contrast with the satin dresses the woman was wearing. And apart from this shared aesthetism, he and Baudelaire also had in common a distaste for fruitful passions. Copulating for the sake of getting children they regarded as too natural, just as it had been for other Romanticists, staining as it were The Realm of Beauty. Perhaps, they also considered it too risky. Misogyny is perhaps another word.

 

In his poem Sed non satiata, the consummate macho Baudelaire takes pride in the fact that he embraced his bizarre goddess, dark as the night, nine times. But it was making love in a very aloof manner. Like Rousseau and Delacroix before him, he regarded not satisfying a woman as a good thing. The woman one loves, is the one who has no pleasure in it.

 

Perhaps, Baudelaire may have catalogued Rubens’ full-fleshed beauties as falling within the category of great, pale women, though in Rubens’ paintings there does not seem to be much satin around. These women are pink, though – yet, in Rubens this colour is just greyish enough that it might pass for pale in the eyes of Baudelaire.

 

These Rubenesque women are certainly great, or large if you like. The writer and connoisseur Stendhal, an art critic who was for Baudelaire a great example, also had his ideas about the women on the canvasses of Rubens. This Prince of the Northern Nude, could only have compensated the fog of Middelburg by inventing those exuberant, exotic women.

 

Apart from the seductive shapes of women, Baudelaire was also interested in what he considered their exciting size. He regarded Mediterranean women as too petite, and certainly in their youth far too slender. His aesthetic sympathy aimed at the Northern format. Even though, now and then, Southern women may be pale, they are in essence too petite. Just observe this curious double portrait of Gabrielle d’Estrées and her sister: two very slim young women, naked from head to navel.

 

While looking straight at you, her sister takes Gabrielle’s nipple between thumb and index, a symbolic gesture referring to Gabrielle being pregnant of her bastard child by king Henri IV, the famous protestant who confessed that Paris was well worth a mass – and changed his faith. This Belle Gabrielle, as she was known, is unmistakably not Baudelaire’s type of the Great, Pale Woman, even though both sisters are depicted against a background of rather shiny satin… They just won’t do.

 

Baudelaire’s ideal is probably approached by the marble woman in the Parc Monceau, by nature cold and barren, lying at the feet of Guy de Maupassant on his socle, at his service, without the slightest chance of becoming pregnant.

Taken the size of the sculpture, a colleague of mine said: Just imagine her ‘live’ – one and a half time the normal size! My response: At the same time, we would become both man and boy. The idée fixe of De Maupassant is great and pale indeed, then again – given Baudelaire’s rather detailed preference – perhaps too pale. Yet, as size is part of his obsession, this one might do. I quote from his poem La Géante.

 

How I would have liked to live, close to a young giantess,

Like a voluptuous tomcat at the feet of a queen.

 

It seems, that Baudelaire might have liked to chance places with the marble woman… However – and we should not forget this – his attention is directed primarily at women in art, artificial women, all those painted, poetical and sculpted versions of his great and pale women. Like Mme de Senonnes portrayed by Ingres; or women like those on Delacroix’ masterpiece Sardanapalus.

 

I am quite certain, that Manet’s full-pale beauty on Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) might also been asked to attend Baudelaire’s glorious love banquet in his erotic museum.

 

Though sharing his Romanticism with others in his time, the differences are also interesting. Negatively and sarcastically, Baudelaire describes two sculptures of black women by the artist Christophe. In his words they formed a successful endeavour to make at least something out of a flat Negroid face, with its lip-less and gum-less smile, and eyes like shaded hollows. Yet, Baudelaire’s mistress Jeanne was a dark woman…

 

Compared to the detached, yet practical exotism of Eugène Fromentin, the contemporary painter and writer, Baudelaire’s attitude towards black women is ambivalent, even inconsistent. Fromentin went to North-Africa, to come face to face with the completely different. In Une année dans le Sahel, in awe and admiration, he is describing the black women he saw there:

 

This strange race, a species apart – with a masculine gait, in the day time a mule, woman at night, with their robust rich forms, their immodest bodies with lots of breast, an elongated torso and that large waste line. Beautiful, yet repellent.

 

Fromentin gives one the impression that he never touched even one specimen of this feminine ‘race’. Baudelaire, on the other hand, did touch his Jeanne Duval frequently, though in his own aloof, gloved manner. Once with a woman, he certainly did not want to come. For this he produced an aesthetic pretext. To take a woman comes from the desire to penetrate the other. However, an artist never gets out of his own self. Perhaps, with the help of his dark bed mate Jeanne, Baudelaire could feel white and, first of all, intactus, which might well be an expression of that curious, as yet not all too aggressive, however already thoroughly puritanical racism of the mid-19th century, so well expressed in the works of his contemporary De Gobineau.

 

Artificiality, affectation and detachment were the defining traits of his character. In real life – the world existing outside his phantasy museum of erotic paintings and poems – the barren maiden, as Baudelaire called her, seems to have been his ideal kind of woman. It cannot surprise the reader that Baudelaire’s sympathies were for Marquis de Sade, in whose work satisfaction-in-phantasy was of prime importance, though perhaps accompanied by a periodical youthful onanism.

 

Baudelaire was a full-blown fetishist of scents, clothes and elegant gestures, considered to be more important than the woman herself as well as her sex. Aesthetism tends to see the artificial as the only thing fruitful and fertile. In the eyes of Baudelaire, a pregnant or nude woman was distasteful; he valued dressed women more than undressed – except of course, when painted beautifully. A woman undressing in his presence took away his excitement. Perhaps then, Platonism is the word. Even his mother he loved for her scent and her elegant clothes.

 

This is the crux of Baudelaire’s life story. Women for him were pure animal, motivated solely by their instinctive natural lust, as such incapable of making a distinction between body and soul, thus the antipode of Baudelaire himself: the male dandy-philosopher. How easily Baudelaire could have become a Roman-Catholic priest… Only men are spiritual and animal at the same time – a typical prejudice of almost any Romanticist of the period. So, how could a woman be a real artist… For poets and painters like Delacroix and Baudelaire, it is of vital importance to satisfy their animal side as efficiently as possible – that is, without emotionally binding oneself to a woman, nor to be absorbed fully in the physical contact. The ‘act’ had to remain disconnected from their artistic labour.

 

Thus, Baudelaire’s ode to those great, pale women wrapped in satin applies especially to the painted nudes in his love museum. In fact, for him painted women have to be nude. After all, in that case the artist’s detachment is guaranteed, the nude represented being at the same time eternal and perfect. On their canvasses their erotic bodies can never be real Medusa’s; after all, as paintings their deadly vagina dentata has lost its vicious bite. Standing, perhaps even lying in front of The Great Odalisque by Ingres, the grown-up Baudelaire would relapse in the paradisiacal condition of helpless onanism – a little boy, returned to one of the many versions of Mama.

 

Inside his museum he could appreciate the splendid, full-fleshed and obviously fertile beauties of Rubens and Delacroix; in vivo these same women would have scared him, as he preferred the skinnier and even sickly specimens of their race. By contrast, those full-blooded, pale women, imprisoned in their frames, are artificial per se; their nakedness is unreal, and because of this so exciting for the Baudelaires of this world.

 

Baudelaire’s fictitious love museum, so it seems, was a boudoir for his own impotence, even though poetically he may take pride in the nine embraces with his voracious and for ever unsatisfied mistress. He did not really need to be afraid to catch syphilis; after all, he already got the disease as a boy. However, perhaps because of this, afraid of women he always remained, merely subjugating that fear in tangential contact, copulating with gloves on, or simply smelling and touching her – or, of course, making love to them by way of pen and paper.

 

*

 

How different I am from Baudelaire and his fellow Romanticists, men with their Platonic prejudice. In the cathedral of Lâon, on the inside so tender and pale, on the outside dressed in dark and raw garments, I entered one of those cosy little side chapels, here provided with its own door and little curtains – a true chambre séparée.

 

Courbet, who sympathised with the working class, once painted his decadent bathing beauty, full in her flesh, meant as his criticism of the indolent good for nothing bourgeoisie. Criticism or no criticism, how I would have loved to take his voluptuous woman in this little chapel – fully and completely. What a delicious ritual it would be. Celebrating our origin on the altar of her body, on what a naughty Chinese author once described as the meditation mat of the flesh, where all begins and all ends.

 

When Courbet painted that other magnificent beauty – his L’origine du Monde – he must have known all this. Looking this splendour, wrapped in satin straight in her orifice, one feels that all criticism is doomed to evaporate.

 

In Lâon I lit fragile, white candles for those great, pale women with whom I have shared a bed. As a one-day Catholic did I ask for intercession with Maria, the Mater Dolorosa, the Stella Maris, to be granted her guidance, once again, into such a woman. May their aging splendour grow and grow – as I myself grow older.

 

Sierksma, Haarlem 2000/2020

 

PORTRAIT OF A POET’S SOUL

It was weird, the geometry of reality, he thought. How it changed depending on where you stood.

        Martin Cruz Smith, Stalin’s Ghost

 

 

Each day, we descend one step into Hell,

Without fear, through the shadows which are badly smelling…

In the infamous menagerie of our vices,

There is one which is uglier, meaner, filthier!

It is Ennui!…

You know him, reader, that delicate monster,

You hypocrite reader, who looks like me –

Brother of mine!

                       Baudelaire

__________

 

 

During one of my journeys through four museums, I met the poet Baudelaire three times. As a souvenir of those meetings, while writing this piece, three reproductions of these paintings are lying on the parquet floor surrounding my writing chair.

 

One of them is a portrait of the French poet, painted in 1844 by Émile Deroy.

Deroy’s Baudelaire 1844

Next to it is a small version of the enormous canvas done by Courbet, The Studio of the Painter. We observe a large company gathered, amongst whom we discover Baudelaire on the far right, rather separate from the rest, sitting at a table while reading the book in his hand. As if he doesn’t want to be part of the show, as if he does not even want to be in the painting.

Courbet’s Studio of the Painter, 1855

 

My third image lying on the floor is a reproduction of a painting by Fantin-Latour, In Honour of Delacroix, done in 1864. On it, once again, Baudelaire who was a great admirer of Delacroix, the famous French painter. The poet, in the right lower corner, looks us straight in the eyes.

Fantin-Latour, In Honour of Delacroix 1864

 

Quietly contemplating these three portraits, thus trying to learn something about the character of the poet – is this possible? Is it possible to write a portrait of someone you have not known, and of whom you only know three painted portraits, reproductions at that, also done by three different portraitists?  Does a painted portrait ever reflect the character of the one portrayed, or is it rather the craft of the portraitist which one is admiring first of all, thus his idea of what the one portrayed stands for? All projections…

 

Close inspection teaches us strange things. Already busy projecting my interpretation of Deroy’s portrait on the figure of Baudelaire in Courbet’s Studio, asking myself how it is possible that the Baudelaire in the group portrait of 1855 looks more youthful than on his individual portrait from 1844, and already figuring out reasons for such a curious anachronism, in one of my sources I now read that Courbet did not have the live model of a sitting Baudelaire when he painted his Studio; he used his own earlier pencil portrait of the poet, already done in 1848. Something similar had been done in his Bathing Woman, for which – according to the eye-witness and his colleague Delacroix – Courbet did not use a live model but a nude he had done years before, hung next to his easel.

 

Case solved and dismissed; just in time saved by my lucky star from a projective blunder. I had almost served my reader some silly guess as to a rejuvenating cure in one of France’s famous health spa’s; or for that matter, a deprecating piece of critique on the lack of the portraiture craft in one of our great painters. The Baudelaire of Deroy and the Baudelaire of Courbet are contemporaries!

 

Thus, one becomes more reticent. While considering the repro of the portrait by Fantin-Latour from 1864, I decided to check Baudelaire’s biography once more. However, in this case again there is something wrong. Already early in that year, Baudelaire had gone to Brussels. It seems very much probable that Fantin-Latour was also working from memory or using a sketch he had already done. The issue then becomes: how much ‘portrait’ is left!

 

Yet some help came. I discovered that in 1862 the Baudelaire done in a drawing by Chevenard very much resembles the sketch used by Fantin-Latour. The two images reinforce one another’s authenticity. However, even this conclusion is dubious. Opening once again Baudelaire’s essays on art, I now looked again at the photo-portrait done by the famous Étienne Carjat, which illustrates the cover of my edition. I am well aware of the fact that photo portraits are also the result of stage-managing.

 

A photo like this also resulted from projection; it is a certain impression the photographer wants to give us of what he thinks the kind of man Baudelaire was. So, the similarity of three different painted images of the same face, even combined with a photo-portrait, does not tell one all too much. Each of them gives an impression the maker has of his model.

 

It is as simple as this: Nobody can ever set aside his own foreknowledge – his acquaintance with someone’s biography, his reading of the poems and essays; or for that matter, if we would consider portraits not of a writer but of a painter: having seen his paintings. It would be sheer foolishness to think that, while contemplating one or all of these images of Baudelaire, we are face to face with his essence and confronted with the ‘real Baudelaire’. Foreknowledge and portrait are complicit; our gaze is tributary to what has already been seen and what is already known. Together, they feed the idea we have of what somebody really is or was. Romancing the Soul.

 

Looking at these images, trying to get at the man’s soul, I also use Baudelaire’s own writings on art, as well as his poems and the comments others have made on these. In Sartre’s well-known Baudelaire biography, I just reread this alas undated description of the poet by a contemporary:

 

Slowly, with female-like, lightly rolling hips, Baudelaire was crossing the square at the Porte de Namur; he carefully avoided the dirt and, if it was raining, he used to mince his steps, walking on the tips of his patent leather shoes in which he also loved to find his mirror image. Freshly shaved, his hair curled behind the ears, dressed in a snow-white shirt, its soft collar curved over the collar of his long overcoat, appearing to be a cleric and a comedian at the same time.

 

To which Sartre adds: “This provides us with a snapshot far more authentic than a portrait. This description reminds one of the pederast, rather than of a dandy.”

 

However, that description cannot be the snapshot Sartre wants it to be, if only because of the phrase “…if it was raining, he used to….” Obviously then, when someone wrote that description, Baudelaire was not actually mincing his steps on tiptoe, nor was he mirroring himself in his shiny shoes. Once again, we are stuck with a mental image the unknown writer had of ‘his’ Baudelaire – a reconstruction of the man, post hoc, in an essay to characterise the poet – thus a written portrait and as such always fictitious.

 

Our French arch-existentialist summed up his whole Baudelaire biography as follows:

 

Thus, this is what – in the main lines – a portrait of Baudelaire would look like. Yet, our essay in describing him remains inferior to a portrait, simply because it is serial, not synchronous. Only actually seeing a facial expression or a gesture could make us feel that all characteristics which have been described consecutively, have in fact been amalgamated into an indissoluble synthesis, in which each trait is expressing itself as well as all others.

 

What does Sartre mean – a man as a psychological Gesamtkunstwerk? What to think, then, of my three different visual portraits of one and the same man, done within all together an interval of twenty years, yet now lying on my floor simultaneously, to be appreciated in one scoop? Perhaps, together they are approaching something like a Gesamt portrait?

 

Interpreting such an indissoluble synthesis, Sartre uses words reminding one of his teacher Heidegger: “implying a vague, pre-ontological listening for which one often needs years to make it explicit and in which the most important characteristics of the object are gathered.” Perhaps, in this manner Sartre would like to fathom ‘the essence of the world’ – or of somebody; however, it does not help me much to come to know that Other by way of his portraits. This much is sure: not one of these three painters was allowed those ‘years’ necessary to ‘make explicit’ their sitters’ ‘indissoluble synthesis’. It is not the way painters go about their work.

 

Perhaps, we should already be grateful if – by way of portraits of someone – we may come to understand our own prejudices a little better, of course to replace these by new prejudices and once again cherish them. After all, thanks to intensive communication with others we may, at the most, hope for shared biases. Over time, one gathers experiences with things, people and works of art; subsequently, these experiences group themselves into an intuitive and delicate bias which makes one see nuances as never before. This is the secret of the true connoisseur. Intuition is past experience in capacity; concentrated, unified experience becomes delicate observation; it is certainly not experience of ‘things in themselves’.

 

Nonetheless, being conscious of my bias of any idea I have of another person when based on other people’s portraits and descriptions of them, I yet would, like to deduce some insight as to Baudelaire’s je ne sais quoi.

 

Deroy’s portrait shows us Baudelaire as the ideal sitter or model – the same poseur he also liked to be outside the artist’s atelier. When, in a rather awesome tempo, the poet was consuming the inheritance from his daddy, in 1844 his mother closed the money tap – without any doubt, at the instigation of her newly acquired husband whom Baudelaire already considered as a man having unnaturally usurped the position of his father. All this I simply see in Deroy’s portrait: a man injured, angry with his remarried mama, foppish in character, eternally lonesome and always ironic.

 

So what! is what he seems to think. But what a difference with the So what! that one hears in Rembrandt’s facial expression in the famous self-portrait which is hanging in the Rijksmuseum – an image of a man, middle age or even old, who does not care any longer about the impression he makes on others, lacking all vanity.

 

Baudelaire’s So what! by contrast is cynical and haughty. His Romantic-ironic face is vanity in the flesh, whereas Rembrandt, observing himself in the mirror while painting, is looking right through his own pose. Deroy’s portrait, by contrast, shows us Baudelaire as the poseur par excellence: a man, always masked. Having achieved this image on a canvas, the painter has succeeded to paint what in art history is known as a vanitas. Touché!

 

Baudelaire shows us his haughty little smile, the same man who, in that very year, wrote that in the Garden of Eden it is unbecoming for one to laugh. After all, the comical is devilish in origin, thus reprehensible. The poet’s angel-like Virginie seems to come from this Garden; sadly so, she was stupid enough to go the big city. Baudelaire’s comment: In Paris she will gather more and more knowledge; thus, she will laugh more and more. In all pure poetry, clear and deep as nature is, the laugh will be absent – just like in the spirit of the Sage.

 

When in 1864, Fantin-Latour painted the last of my three portraits, Baudelaire himself was already living in Brussels. Yet, what a weak face for a man who, in his Le poëme du haschisch (1858), had been criticising the will-less Ego, not any longer self-controlled! In the poet’s descent into the Hell of Evil Flowers, Baudelaire seems yet to have one foot in Heaven. However, in that very year 1864 Heaven was still one step too high, and his Hell not yet deep enough. He had still three years to live, which mustbeen Purgatory for the poet: a condition of utter aphasia. In Fantin-Latour’s painting the older poet, though faint-hearted, is still depicted on earth. To pose for the painter, however, had become impossible. Precisely this praesens in absentia, Fantin-Latour hit with bull’s eye precision.

 

However, even though the self-styled Romantic had always been complaining about the Hell of Ennui, Baudelaire in the evening of his life, out there in Belgium, was certainly not bored, busy as he was with a new edition of the texts that had caused such a fuss in France. In the margin of this undertaking, he still had the energy to get angry about Belgium not having any good painters.

 

The philosophy of these Belgian Brutes – a philosophy à la Courbet. Merely paint what one sees – thus not painting what I cannot see. All of them specialists – one painter for the sun, one for the moon, one for our furniture, the next one for fabrics and yet another one for flowers. Cooperation, here, becomes a necessity.

 

Poor Belgians. Poor Courbet!

 

In one of his last essays, Portraits de maîtresses written in 1865, the poet of the Sinning Flowers wrote: Then, one brings in new bottles, to kill Time which is living so long – to speed up Life, which is going too slow. It reminds one of that other great Romantic poets, the Brit Byron in his To Time:

 

The active agony of grief retards,

but never counts the hour.

 

Baudelaire never forgave life its slow detour towards death.

 

How would Baudelaire, once become old and faded, have considered his own three portraits? Surely, he could not have recognized himself in the one done by Deroy. He probably did not see the last one, that rather devastating portrait of Fantin-Latour. Perhaps, as the Lover of Death, who paradoxically was full of desire to be for ever young and always a child, he might have been pleased with Courbet’s version of himself. Already in the years when he still considered himself as a progressive, was he looking into the rear-view mirror – always in full contradiction with himself, now regretting the slowness of life, then again dreaming – in order to lengthen the hours with the help of the infinity of feelings – and perhaps with a whiff of hashish.

 

When Baudelaire was born, his father was already seventy-two years old, his mother no more than twenty-seven years young… Could it be, that – as a living anachronism – their son wanted to be buried in Courbet’s Atelier? For ever young, for ever a narcissist, never satisfied with the presence, always reading his own verse in which he created his very own Heaven and his very own Hell.

 

Sierksma, Haarlem 2000/2020

THE PORTRAYAL OF INTERIORS: PIETER DE HOOCH AT HOME

In his travel notes, made during a long journey through the United States of America, the country to which he had been forced to emigrate, the great Hungarian author Sándor Márai has come to San Francisco. Even though he appreciates this Californian town more than other towns in America, like for instance distateful Houston in Texas, he also makes the following apt observation while visiting the San Francisco’s museum of art.

 

In this museum reigns a desert-like solitude. In the rooms one may observe a few Sunday strollers. Here and there on the walls are hanging a lonesome Tintoretto, a Guardi, a beautiful El Greco – “Saint Peter” -, a Frans Hals or a Rembrandt. These images came, just like their copy of Rodin’s sculpture of The Thinker, from a distance, in terms of space and culture as well as timewise. They arrived here, now they are lonely: shivering, like anybody would when he arrives at the threshold where the ideologies of East and West are touching and old sparks fly around.

 

After having visited the exhibition of Pieter de Hooch’s canvasses in the Prinsenhof in Delft, I opened the catalogue to discover that some of the paintings I had seen, came from galleries in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Washington and Philadelphia. This reminded me of Márai’s observations made during that visit to the San Francisco museum.

 

It also confronted me with a contradiction in my own mind.  I have always claimed that the quality of a work of art should be considered without taking refuge in all kinds of extrinsic information, such as the biography of the artist, the mood he or she was in while  creating it, or the whole gamut of ideological considerations so often found in so-called ‘art criticism’. However, that position is rather difficult to square with my appreciation of Márai’s sombre description of those paintings’ loneliness in an American museum. Fremdkörper, they have become – alien things, orphan objects, not any longer fitting their surroundings.

 

Nietzsche once wrote, talking about philosophy more specifically, but also about mental make-up of the Yanks more generally, that Americans, when they think, always have a stopwatch in their hand. Such generalisations, of course, don’t hold for all Americans. Yet, having lived over there for two years, I cannot but agree with Nietzsche’s pointed remark: there is an utter haste in whatever Americans do; they are truly ‘at it’. However, one must also say that once they have decided to relax, they do so in an ostensive, if not hysterical manner, with their ‘free time’ behaviour conspicuously indicating that ‘now, we are not in a hurry…’ Like for instance, those Sunday strollers in the San Francisco museum whom Márai observed, perhaps more ‘strolling’ on their ‘day off’, than actually involved in the paintings.

 

Before going into the serious things of life, one more remark from Márai, which seems to echo Nietzsche. When somewhat later visiting the town of New Orleans, entering the smaller streets off centre, he writes: Perhaps this it was, what I experienced as European. There one could chatter and talk through one’s hat. Now it was a discussion, then again just playing around. The Anglo-Saxons do not chatter lightly; they hand out information or they are parlaying one thing or another. As a matter of fact, this European easy-going everyday life also seems to be at stake in De Hooch’s paintings.

 

A befriended artist once gave me a little plexiglass plaquette, with a little cord to put it up against my bookcase.  It reads: The Quality of this Work is its Place of Hanging. So, indeed, context may come into the judgement of a work of art. Architecture is, of course, the first thing one thinks of. But a painting? Yes, also in case of a painting. If only, when one considers the sometimes-brutal juxtaposition of certain works in one room, hung opposite one another, as the ‘invention’ made by a postmodern museum director who would like to make his imprint on art history by manhandling other people’s work. It becomes well-nigh impossible to quietly observe each one of those paintings and consider its quality.

 

In the case of the Pieter De Hooch exhibition in Delft something else is at stake. Walking through those two rooms with so much of  his work now collected, so well hung and so well lighted, one has the strong impression that, outside these rooms, the old city of Delft is their proper context, one of the few cities not yet ruined by a Walt Disney conception of tourism – their very own territory in which are hidden the interiors of the houses one is seeing all around, walking Delft’s canals.

 

However, this is what I claim: what made De Hooch a true Master, is his handling of light, making him the Saenredam of the House Hold Interior.

 

A church interior by Saenredam

 

As in the work of the other Dutch Master Saenredam of the interior, light is of the essence for Pieter De Hooch, the observation of how it is reflected on and through and by materials, ranging from window panes to brick walls to cobbled streets. However, whereas the reproduction a church interior by Saenredam may be appreciated as such, a reproduction of one of De Hooch’s interiors – of a house or of a courtyard – is impossible; it would simply kill his light effects. As with the proverbial pudding, the truth of a De Hooch painting is consuming it in vivo.

 

Yet, let me reproduce a surrogate, if only to try and prove that Pieter de Hooch is the master of what I always like to call Newton’s Light. In 1666, Isaac Newton experimented with the bending of daylight through prisms; he proved that all the colours we know are actually ‘hidden’ in that ‘white’ light, only coming out separately thanks to different speeds, due to the obstruction of the varying thickness of the glass of the prism.

 

 

Great painters had of course ‘known’ this long before him, intuitively so. After all, how else in the autumn could they get the strange reddish colour of the light on grass right, say at around four, five o’clock in the afternoon, the sun already so low that only the red of the spectrum hits it? Anybody enjoying that strange redness which is ‘added’ to green grass also ‘knows’ this. The prism experiment shows us why: the sphere of air around the earth in fact functions as such an enormous prism, thus in the late afternoon spreading the red part of the light spectre over our earth. By contrast, in the day time, at say twelve o’clock, sunlight strikes the earth more or less perpendicularly, thus arriving as our pure white guest.

 

Now for one of De Hooch’s masterpieces in this respect, keeping in mind that many of his pictures – perhaps best to be considered as portraits of an interior or of a courtyard – were done at the end of the afternoon.

Courtyard in Delft in the Evening, with a Spinning Lady

[ca 1657]

 

Again:  what you see is a miserable reproduction. Having said this, one may still observe De Hooch’s use of Newton’s Light. Even in the clouds is added a slight touch of red. However, it especially appears in the interior of the courtyard where its use can be observed well. Of great help for the Master of Light was the use in Delft of those small red bricks. In the picture, their redness has become intensified as a result of Newton’s Light.

 

The verdict on light, given in the catalogue, states that the painter did not choose rigorously for one time of day, but rather chose to find an ideal composition, by tuning the working of light to the ideal illusion. He did the same with separated bits of Delft, brought together in one and the same picture. The remark as to different times of daylight coexisting in one and the same painting is correct. However, if limited to this observation, I would argue, it would miss the contribution of dear Master Newton. Perhaps, the lighting of the spire in the picture above does indeed point to it being midday. That does not change the fact that inside the court everything seems to be working light-wise as I describe it, that is around four, five in the afternoon.

 

De Hooch’s master stroke is the stone floor on which the spinning old lady is seated. Here the shadow thrown by the house darkens the red even more, as it were doubling its intensity, as compared with the lighter reddish shade thrown on that same floor by the little wall, just a bit higher in the picture. All over the place, De Hooch has the red of the bricks intensify this reddish tone, because in the courtyard – at least – it is late afternoon. The contrast of the reddish white of the house wall also helped to achieve this effect.

 

Now observe his Woman with a Pale in the Courtyard, once again in a far too lightly coloured reproduction, yet it will prove my point. A gorgeous use of various red tints, giving one the mellow feeling of a lush summer’s day late afternoon. The fence glows, as does the high-up shutter and the wood of the porch. In almost all of his interiors, the same effect can be seen.

 

Woman with a Pale in the Courtyard

[ca 1660]

 

Later in life, De Hooch also worked in Amsterdam; however, what made him a true Master, were certainly not his rather stiff portraits and interiors made in that town, like this one:

Portrait of a Musical Family

[1663]

 

In paintings like these he was already catering to the snobbish, rich Amsterdam burghers, the artist now less interested in what was once his ‘thing’, more so in becoming part of the famous painters’ in-crowd – in which he failed. What had been the finesse of his simple interiors of bourgeois Delft, often filled with a working class staffage, in Amsterdam turned into a display of magnificence, strived for by its much more grandiose bourgeoisie.

Interior of the Council Chamber of Amsterdam’s Town Hall

[1663-1665]

Sierksma, December 2019 Haarlem

EXTREME PORTRAITS 2: MONSTERS – SERIOUS AND FRIVOLOUS

 

The author of this so called LIKENESS were not content to show my natural imperfections he must join my brows across my nose and twist my lips to render me the Devil the Horror of the ages…

Peter Carey, True History of the Kelly Gang

‘From what I learned’, the stationmaster replied, ‘during the Middle Ages in Europe, they thought people born with six fingers were magicians or witches, and they were burned at the stake’.

Murakami, Colourless Tsukuru…

_____________________

The question is whether Da Vinci’s mugshots are to be considered as monsters. Or, are they merely to be seen as ugly faces, genetic misprints created by either our evolution, or perhaps by master Leonardo himself? Mind you, having observed those fine, light-red drawings of his, you will never forget them. You know that you have been privileged to be received by the Grandmaster in his own inner sanctum. Yet, this should not prevent one from critically inspecting the relationship between his art and its time-bound context.

 

Living from 1452 till 1519, Leonardo may have had his qualms about the Institution of the Church, yet he was a believer. He wrote: Good Report soars and rises to heaven, for virtuous things find favour with God. Evil Report should be shown inverted, for all her works are contrary to God and tend toward hell. Could he escape from that very contemporary question: If God has created some of us so outright ugly, perhaps even inhuman so, at least far away from the Ideal Man or the Ideal Woman, how can this not be His sign of something truly evil?

 

Let us remember that these drawings date from before 1500. They do belong to what has long since been considered The Renaissance, and more specifically have been created in the very midst of this revolutionary period. We should, however, not forget that the term Renaissance refers to a period with an intellectual attitude, a looking back to Antiquity for examples and inspirations. Interestingly enough, Da Vinci has made it quite clear that, not having been afforded a Classical Education, he was not interested in books from Antiquity, not in books generally so. So, a peculiar Renaissance Man, an Uomo Universale without Latin, he was.

 

The common people, of course also without a Classical Education, were certainly harbouring Mediaeval superstitions as yet. Then again, Da Vinci is known to have criticised the Roman Church and all kinds of belief not tested by empirical data; yet, no man escapes the aura of his Times. Vilifying the Church in writing, he said: O vile monster! How much better it is for men that thou shouldst go back to hell! For this the vast forests shall be stripped of their trees; for this an infinite number of creatures shall lose their lives. Written, like all his copious notes, in mirror writing.

 

Even many of those intellectuals and artists, who began their onslaught on the preconceived notions of our celestial system, thus inventing the beginning of modern science, yet often still believed in alchemy and in rather curious Mediaeval explanations of man’s psychological framework. Even the great physicists Isaac Newton, living around the beginning of the 18th century, was still meddling in alchemist experiments.

 

At the time, highly esteemed doctors and almost all laymen still believed in a system of humeurs, a variety of bodily juices, one of which would dominate a person’s personality and inexorably determine his character. One person was determined by phlegm; the other one was hotblooded or sanguine; the next person was melancholic, dominated by black bile. This outright psycho-somatic determinism suited both the followers of the Reformer Calvin with their predestination, who was a contemporary of Leonardo, as well as Roman Catholics of the Augustinian brand who also believed in it.

 

Even though, as Antony Flew has pointed out, the Scholastic, thus Mediaeval and Aristotelian concept of essence had lost its philosophical charm with Locke’s 17th-century criticism, such essentialist notions lasted long, as the above mentioned psychological ‘theory of the juices’ proves, which was still adhered to till in the 17th century. And we should never forget that what is doubted by a handful of intellectuals, remains a matter of strong belief for the many.

 

Interestingly enough, Locke, in his analysis of substance and essence, mentions the frequent production of monsters, this in all species of animals. In this passage the British philosopher refers to the Frenchman Gilles Ménage, who may have been our first feminist man, as he compiled a Historia Mulierum Philosopharum in which he discusses sixty-five women-philosophers he had found during his studies of the books of ancient writers. He meant to make a history for these female thinkers, dedicating his book to his contemporary Anne Le Fèvre Dacier, whom he considered the most learned of women, alive or already dead. Posthumously his friends published a volume titled Menagiana. Locke did not refer to the book dedicated to Anne, but he quotes from this collection of witticisms and table talk. In it, Ménage discussed the Abbot of Saint Martin, ill-shaped at birth, as Locke phrased it.

 

Gilles Ménage wrote that the Abbot had so little of the figure of a man that it bespoke him rather a monster. It was for some time under deliberation whether he should be baptized or not. In the end he was, and Locke applauds this. For him the issue was epistemological as well as ontological. As there can be no distinction made between ‘the species of substances’, the ‘precise boundaries set by nature’ are unclear. Thus, the Enlightened 18th century allows for the said frequent production of monsters, even though we must not consider them as not-human. Not surprisingly so, as the two early feminists, the Frenchman Ménage and the Brit Locke, also accepted women as their colleagues, in contrast with disdain for them from the side of many contemporary philosophers.

 

But about monsters they still spoke, thus accepting the common parlance from the not yet Enlightened centuries before them. There still reigned in those days an Aesthetics of Evil: what is ugly, who is ugly, it cannot be but aligned to the Devil and his Hell.  Let us not forget the strong superstitious belief of the common man in the Representatives of the Powers of Darkness, all those monsters populating far away regions of the earth and the deep-down bottoms of the oceans.

 

The 15th-century book Malleus Maleficarum, written by Heinrich Kramer in 1485-1486 and better known as The Witch Hammer, the instrument that would hammer those who did wrong, quite explicitly describes how the witch should be questioned and tortured. Perhaps, a belated text, as already in 1232 Pope Gregory IX had signed his bull Vox in Rama, about the witches’ sabbath where the devil met these supposedly horny women. As Michel Foucault was to say: words do indeed hurt – this papal bull was the true hammer. The Inquisition was to judge and slaughter them.

The Devil himself

 

Before this date, in church sculpture the devil had already often been contrasted with real angels. I write real; after all, if according to the Church’s teaching Angels are for real, common dialectics will of course take the devil to be real as well.

 

The devil in those days was represented as a human body completely flawed. The monsters from the depths of the sea were also hugely disfigured.

 

Curiously enough, whereas mediaeval science or what goes under this name, and all the rest of the heathen precursors of the Church, still made fun of witches flying and mating with the devil, since 1400 those same women were accused of these acts as real crimes.

 

As the Uomo Universale and the man of science that he was, Da Vinci did ‘portray’ a woman with a real identity, as if she was Madonna-unreal or, for that matter, Madonna-ideal or Madonna-surreal, something already pointed out in the first part of Extreme Portraits.  A woman with a name and a biography: Ginevra di’Benci.

 

He also pictured Ideal Man in a mathematical manner, taking his cue from antique Vitruvius, who considered mathematically organised proportions to be the essence of true reality.

Da Vinci/Vitruvius, The Ideal Man

 

Taking this ‘portrait’ of the Ideal Man as our benchmark, we should perhaps consider all men we see around us in everyday life as, somehow, a kind of monster, never living up to the standard. This Man surely resides in Plato’s Heaven of Ideas. Often, Da Vinci’s mugshots are said to be caricatures; some of them may indeed have that. Yet, I agree with Kenneth Clark, when he contrasts these caricatures with the search for ideal beauty; however, Clark also concludes that the mugshots connect Leonardo to an earlier, Medieval world – the hellish visions of Bosch and Bruegel.

 

We may even doubt whether ‘caricature’ is the right word for them. We should not forget that, as Park and Daston pointed out, people in 16th– and 17th-century Europe rarely viewed monsters, found on beaches or in fellow men, in a metaphysical void. In most cases, they were considered as bad omens, regarded as parts of multi-pronged warnings: earthquakes, floods, falling stars. Once dead on the beach such monsters became approachable, yet in the eyes of the common, superstitious man omens they remained.

 

The same can be said of the monsters in the Sacro Bosco, the Bomarzo Park full of weird and monstrous sculptures, often considered to be the frivolous imaginations of Pier Francesco Orsini. Take his grotto:

 

Is this grotto purely grotesque? Is it merely frivolous? Simply a literary reference to Dante, above whose Hell was written that who would enter it should give up all hope? Or is it at least the ambivalent expression of an age in which a counter-reality was still believed in, one with devilish powers and devilish monsters populating it? Look at this Greek-Roman mask made from marble, found in the Calpurnian Grave in in Rome of which Orsini’s grotto reminds me.

 

In quite a similar manner such masks scare, the Grotto version in Bomarzo even inviting us to risk a journey into the underworld. The grotto as such may protect us from rain and foes; yet, we should not endeavour to go to its bottom, its deep inside, not knowing what awaits us there… Perhaps, it is best to say that those in the Age of Leonardo, who were propelling an Idealist mathematics and the Empirical research of the world around us, were – at the same time – still highly ambivalent towards a reality that was still ambiguous, scary and mysterious.

 

Sierksma, Haarlem, January 2019