Manual of painting and c.., p.13

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy, page 13

 

Manual of Painting and Calligraphy
 


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  It is already night. Not too far advanced, eleven o’clock, perhaps a little later. I always remove my watch when I am painting, I also take it off to write and usually hang it from one of Saint Antony’s fingers or respectfully put it around his wrist so that he will stand out even more from the other saints and at least know how the time is going while I go in search of myself by writing or painting. This Saint Antony is made of wood which could be described as worm-eaten. A trunk for the rigid body, a block for the head, two branches (from a tree) for the arms, a lot of gouging, painted in the conventional manner, a hole in the nape of the neck to secure his halo, everything that is required to make Antony a saint. I took care to place him against a white wall reminiscent of his monastic cell, when miracles were no longer spreading faith in the outside world. With this wood (all from the same tree? or from trees which grew side by side? or from others which could only be found here?) other saints could have been carved, the entire Golden Legend, one of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, Eve, Magdalen, Mother Eternal and Earthly Father, the angel of annunciations, the first proclaiming life, the second death, none proclaiming resurrection. I look at the saint and start writing and it is as if I were painting. I fidget in my chair, can hear it creak, and everything about this world strikes me as being as simple as the fact that this chair in which I am sitting and this saint I am looking at are both made of wood. The greatest irreverence and the most sublime veneration.

  I am back at my writing, but had broken off to place the chair on which I was sitting beside the saint. Now I am on the floor with my legs crossed like the Egyptian scribe in the Louvre. I raise my eyes and look at the saint, I lower them, look at the chair, two manmade objects, two reasons for living, and I ask myself which is the more perfect, the more apt for its purpose, the more useful. And after much debate I withhold the prize from both the saint and the chair. An honorable draw, as sports commentators might say, the most conciliatory and unctuous writers of all, the high priests of the most reassuring religion ever invented. I should add that I nearly chose the chair, disloyally influenced by that other chair painted by Van Gogh. It would have been a case of blatant partiality, which I resisted. And in order to balance the world and its influences, I decided to paint the saint. Careful! What have I just written? Paint the saint. I know exactly what I am about to do, but could anyone reading these three words know it? To paint the saint means what? And what does it mean to paint the saint? Whatever I do will be right, I shall have kept my word, the three words I wrote, but no one will ever know if I have done what I said I would do: paint the saint.

  I went to the window and gazed at the river and the lights. The air is heavy and the faintest mist lightens the sky. Tomorrow I shall telephone my client at long last. I shall paint quickly, I feel confident that I shall paint quickly. It is a double portrait: husband and wife. Their daughter is getting married, as the man explained, and they want the newlyweds to have this oil painting of her loving parents for their new home. An excellent idea. But what does it mean to paint the saint?

  Third exercise in autobiography in the form of the chapter of a book. Title: Buying Postcards.

  They are timid, nervous people, already overwhelmed by the naves of cathedrals evoking skies laden with shadows, or by vast rooms where mysterious objects are on display. They have just arrived and are about to be subjected to the solemn test, the interrogation of the sphinx, to the challenge of the labyrinth, and because they come from an ordered world with traffic signs forbidding access or indicating speed limits everywhere, they feel lost in this new kingdom where there is a freedom to be won: that freedom commonly described as a work of art.

  And then they make a beeline for the stands where there are dozens of postcards on display, keeping the tourists occupied before they invade the galleries. The picture postcard, in the hands of the bewildered traveler, is a surface he can cover easily, something he can take in at a glance, which reduces everything to the tiny dimensions of an inert hand. Because the real work of art awaiting him inside, even when not much bigger, is protected from untrained eyes by an invisible net which the living hands of the painter or sculptor outlined as they laboriously invented the gestures which brought it into being.

  Fearful of appearing cowardly, the traveler has no choice but to venture forth into the petrified forest of statues and wooden panels, amid noisy multitudes if the gallery is famous and a mecca for tourists, or in a silence which allows one to hear the muffled creaking of old floorboards (another use to which wood is put) if he happens to be in some small provincial museum where the security guards eye visitors with surprise and gratitude. Very much later, when the traveler is back home, the picture postcard will be of value as a means of confirmation. He really did make that journey. He was not simply dreaming.

  Yet I fail to recognize this view of the Castello Estense in Ferrara which I am holding in my hand. I circled its great walls like some tiny insect, while the postcard has been photographed from the air, from the wings of a bird in flight. This image was missing from my dream, but I rapidly weave it into an aerial view of Venice, minute in the center of the lagoon, surrounded by water lilies almost floating on the surface of the water, and with slow currents which, seen from on high, become laurel leaves in a state of perpetual transformation.

  (I HAVE RECEIVED A LETTER FROM ADELINA. SHE HAS DECIDED TO END OUR AFFAIR.)

  Ferrara is a tranquil place with long streets which even in the city center have a quiet, suburban air, with high walls overlooking gardens which at the slightest breeze send up invisible clouds perfumed with spikenard, an overpowering aroma which stops me in my tracks. In one of these streets, the Corso Ercole I d’Este, stands the Palazzo dei Diamanti, which is nothing other than that Casa dos Bicos the citizens of Lisbon would love to have in the Campo das Cebolas. There are eight thousand five hundred diamond-shaped stones on which sun and shadow play as within rock crystal. Situated in this same street is the Pinacoteca Nazionale, and no sooner do I pass through the modest entrance than I come face-to-face with a temporary exhibition of works by Man Ray, some two hundred of them, paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and all those other works by Man Ray which embrace all those genres without specifically being any of them.

  The museum is as peaceful as a garden. It has two tondi by Cosimo Tura which represent episodes from the life of San Maurelio (whoever he is?) and a Jerome attributed to Ercole de’ Roberti, which fully justify my visit. I sign the visitors’ book. And I can still see the affectionate look in the security guard’s eyes on learning I had come all this way (from Portugal) and chosen “his” museum.

  From there I make my way to the Palazzo Schifanoia to see the frescoes of Francesca del Cossa, Cosimo Tura, Ercole de’ Roberti and various other painters. The Salone dei Mesi, with its seven divisions which are virtually intact, presents a riot of color which can be quite overwhelming. I find myself absorbed in the wealth of detail and smile quietly to myself as I examine Ercole’s painting of the loves of Venus and Mars: their bodies discreetly covered with a sheet in folds which foreshadows abstract design. Mars and Venus lying side by side appear to be resting after making love. Of her there is only a fleeting profile, whereas Mars, in the background but half turned toward the viewer, stares at us over the face of his beloved with one eye, his expression at once defiant and embarrassed. On the ground and strewn over a chest are the warrior’s arms and his lady’s attire.

  A city with four attributes: dotta (wise), turrita (towered), città dei portici (city of arcades), grassa (fertile). Bologna is seductive, feminine, gentle. One accepts these platitudes which give a better description of the city than a thousand precious epithets. Bologna is also an ancient city which has achieved the miracle of preserving its antiquities, defending them from the scourge of tourism, which makes everything uniform. Take the Casa Isolani, for example, a private residence situated in the Strada Maggiore, which dates from the twelfth century, where people actually live and tourists are fortunately not admitte
d. I also try to visualize the Bologna of Dante around the year 1287, with its hundred and eighty noble towers competing in height and supremacy.

  The luminous Basilica di San Petronio is equally magnificent, its arches creating a perfect balance between religious ecstasy and a more human dimension, as if reluctant to abandon the ground from whence it sprang, even for heaven. Here on the outside, Bolognese life weaves its tempting spells of earthly pleasures. But in the nearby Church of Santa Maria della Vita there is one of the most dramatic sculptured groups in terracotta I have ever seen. It is The Lamentation of Christ by Niccolò dell’Arca, modeled sometime after 1485. These women, who throw themselves over the outstretched body, wail with a most human sorrow over a corpse which is not that of God: here no one awaits the resurrection of the flesh.

  But on this particular visit the towered city meant, most of all, the discovery of a great painter who lived in the fourteenth century: Vitale da Bologna. His Saint George Slaying the Dragon has both the simplicity of the best of primitive painting and a convulsive photographic quality which envelops the figures in a constant vortex. Deprived of a stirrup, the horseman’s right foot appears to rest unsteadily on the flank although firmly attached to the horse’s flesh. And straining its head upward in terror, the horse pulls on the reins as the saint tries to force it to confront the dragon. I am reminded of the horse Picasso painted in Guernica: there is the same horror, the same frantic neighing.

  In another painting Christ crowns the Virgin as she kneels on a crimson cushion. Vitale da Bologna has depicted two adolescents who could be mistaken for brother and sister or even lovers. There is no hint of religion in the graceful way the Virgin crosses her arms or in the sinuous movement of Christ’s left hand, where an almost imperceptible wound evokes chapters of blood and agony.

  The scenes from the Life of Saint Antony Abbot are as fantastic as a dream lived within another dream. Almost indecipherable for anyone who, like me, is not familiar with the Golden Legend or the Vitae Patrum, episodes which narrate as much as anything the history of painting, and in this context are constructed with a knowledge which is precious not simply because of those backgrounds covered in gold but also in the arrangement of the various planes with multiple perspectives, which place the viewer at every possible angle simultaneously. And such is the incongruity that one is confronted with a tiled floor receding into the picture, contrary to all the rules of Renaissance perspective, on which the artist has set a prison building in strict conformity with those very same laws to the point of absurdity. The effect (not because scientifically proven but in order to express myself more clearly in writing) is probably the same as that created by representing a fourth dimension wherein one can imagine an additional dimension.

  I come across Francesco del Cossa again and also a certain Marco Zoppo, whose work is unknown to me, apart from this truculent Saint Jerome kneeling in a rocky landscape, with a winding river in the background and even more remote hills fading into mist, an unconventional touch for the period. Several fine pictures by Carracci do not erase the memory of a polyptych by Giotto or The Enthroned Virgin by Perugino. At the far end of one of the rooms, as a sign that there all turmoil has ceased and every human gesture should be noble and considered, hangs Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy. My reaction to Raphael is purely personal: I find myself won over and at the same time irritated, waiting for something to happen to disturb that cold perfection, waiting for some rapport between myself and the picture. And then I rush back to Vitale da Bologna’s convulsive and dramatic Saint George.

  As I take my leave of these cities, I keep saying to myself, “This is where I should live.” And that is meant to be a tribute. But I am now approaching two cities where I should be happy to die: Florence and Siena. And that is a far greater tribute.

  Letter from Adelina.

  I know it is unfair of me to be telling you what I have to say in a letter. I had thought of speaking to you before coming here but did not have the courage. And for the last eight days I have been telling myself that I must talk to you when I return to Lisbon, but I know my courage will fail me. Not because I think you will be upset. Nor because I feel it will be any more painful for me than for anyone else. We are both old enough not to expect any great surprises in life, but it really is very difficult to confront someone whom one has loved and, for whatever reason, tell him: I no longer love you. This is all I have to say. I no longer love you. These words say everything. And now that I have written them I feel much relieved. I have not yet posted the letter but it is as if you had already received it. I have no intention of going back on my word and perhaps that is why I decided to settle this matter in writing. Were I in your presence, my courage would probably fail me. And so, although you do not know yet, I know: our affair is over. Will this decision surprise you? I doubt it. For some time now, perhaps from the very beginning, I found you evasive, reserved, wrapped up in yourself, as if you were in the middle of some desert and preferred to remain there. I am not complaining. You have never made me feel unwanted, but I am no fool, and like most women I can sense when something is wrong. I can no longer bear to hold you in my arms and feel you are not there. We needn’t be enemies even if we cease to be friends. Perhaps I still care for you, but it is useless. Perhaps you still care for me, but it is useless. Nothing could be worse than keeping up this pretense. People can be in love and suffer a great deal, but it has to mean something. Then people should go on loving each other no matter the cost. But our situation is different. We had an affair which, like so many affairs, inevitably had to end. I have taken the decision, but I know you would have been just as happy to end it. Despite everything, I feel sorry. Things could have been so different were it not for the want of that difference, that difference which distinguishes one thing from another. I have said more than enough. Goodbye. Adelina. P.S. I think you should go on writing. Forgive me. I have no right to give you advice since your life is no longer any concern of mine. But then, did it ever concern me?

  I FEEL NUMB. At the time, mild shock, a moment of resentment, the annoyance felt by any male who has been given his marching orders, and then enormous relief and a strange feeling I can only assume to be gratitude or something akin to gratitude. I realize there is something monstrous about this feeling; in fact, if I start to think, it is as if women should have been born only for such gestures, to be exemplary and spare men certain disagreeable actions, certain tiresome and dubious, not to say downright obscene, tasks. Women are expected to sweep the floor, wipe their children’s noses, wash clothes and dishes, scrape away with an affectionate thumb any shit stuck to the seat of their menfolk’s underpants. This would appear to have been the situation ever since the world began. Therefore it is no less just (or essential, which is another form of justice) that women should look after the thermometers, barometers and altimeters which measure affections and passions and, once having checked and appraised them, should draw up reports about the combustible waste and energy produced for the male to approve and sign, because no more is expected or asked of men. It is monstrous, I repeat, to have felt gratitude, because this gratitude is once again relief, conclusive proof of the constant selfishness of man, of his inherent cowardice, not to mention his insolence when he starts to boast, at least to himself, and lie to himself in so doing, that all his earlier actions and words had been intended, on reflection, to force the other person (the woman) to take the final decision. In this way, the man can go on being romantically melancholic or histrionically outraged (whichever he finds more convenient) and declare himself the victim of female incomprehension, or, getting back to the point, imply, like someone not fully in control of what they are saying, that Adelina did what I expected her to do, for this is where I had guided her without her being aware of the doors I was opening and closing for her, of being pressured, of the gentle pressure I was exerting as I amiably pushed her toward an inevitable breach.

  I must confess that I never noticed before just how well Adelina writes
. She uses few words and short sentences, of which I am incapable or only rarely capable of using as she does. Her letter is worth keeping. I wonder how she wrote it? At one stretch, on a sudden impulse, or did she have to write it out several times, play around with words until she hit the right note, not too dry or too maudlin, neither disdainful nor tearful? I would love to know. I ask myself how this letter would have sounded if written by me, and I can imagine how long-winded it would have been, with interminable phrases, trying to explain the inexplicable or, worse still, giving vent to recriminations and insults, knowing full well, even as I write, that a deep anguish (but futile and damaging) could be breathed over the written words, however cruel or even malicious they might be.

  Earlier on I wrote that it is not yet time for the desert. I reread those words but cannot understand why I ever wrote them. Nor can I understand why I wrote that it is no longer time for the desert. Let us examine this more carefully. People speak of having premonitions. However, to believe in premonitions is far too easy, especially since it makes us seem interesting. An external force, but not alien to some, must be hovering out there, probably not in the common space inhabited by everyone, but in another space (which we can only enter by displacing ourselves, that nonterrestrial measurement which I call a hundredth of a second, a simultaneous dislocation in time, a second, and in space, a centimeter), and from there, by impenetrable methods of transmission and reception, we are forewarned as to what we shall say, think and (or) do much later, or what others will say or do to us. The only thing we are not told is what they will think, just as we were not told in time, if we were ever told, about what they thought.

 
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