Visual Art, the Individual, and Society

This text set explores different artists, real and fictional, and their artistic needs and purposes; at its center is the question of how an artist relates to the world around him/her and how that relationship spurs or hinders the process of creating art. The consensus these texts draw is that it is pain and dissatisfaction or discomfort with the world that allow the artist to reach his/her potential, though I hope that does not have to be universally true.

Bibliography Information
Thoughts/ Connections/Questions
Kundera, Milan . The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.
(Book 1)
Philosophical novel
Non-linear and multi-perspective story of two intertwined couples: Tomas and Tereza, Franz and Sabina. On some levels a story about love and lust, fidelity and betrayal, it is more a philosophical meditation on the qualities of life in the increasingly totalitarian society in 1960s Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia. The narrator discusses the qualities of the “lightness” and “weight” of life, and the characters provide examples, though extreme, of these opposing views on life and human relationships. Tomas and Sabina embody those who desire lightness, freedom from restraints, even those many people desire, like marriage and family. Franz and Tereza are utterly devoted to their partners, and their weight causes them pain and loss, for Franz because it costs him Sabina and for Tereza because of Tomas’ perpetual philandering. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it is Tereza’s relationship with the family dog, Karenin, that illuminates both the “unbearable lightness” of life and the necessity of weight.
Kundera tells, he does not show. Thus the characters feel more like props or paper dolls than people. But the novel is not so much about those characters as the ideas they represent. The end of the book certainly brings together all the wanderings of the earlier sections, and the non-linear storytelling is rich and rewarding.
Sabina is the most intriguing character to me. She feels the most like a human being. She is similar to Tomas, but somehow much more likeable. Anyway, she is an artist, a painter, who is mostly concerned with the contradition between the way things seem to be and the way they really are underneath. She was trained in the Socialist school of art, but she doesn’t believe in that philosophy of art or of society. Her work after leaving school focuses on showing both the façade, the “kitsch,” of society and also the reality peeking through that veil.

I want to explore the relationship between the artist and society, and maybe societies’ reactions to the art. What is it about a society that inspires, through positive or negative environment, the artist. Is it the inner life contrasting with social life that inspires? Is that why many repressive societies go after art? Because it is a reflection of an inner life that the regime cannot control?
Dolnick, Edward. The Forger’s Spell. New York: Harper Perrenial, 2008. (Book 2)
This book tells the story of (one of) the most successful art forgers of the twentieth century. Like Hitler, Han van Meegeren was a failed artist. His portrait painting had been in demand, but his original work was derided as maudlin, sentimental, and bizarre (a strange grouping of adjectives). Embittered by his critical reception, he turned his considerable technical abilities and training (he was one of the last artists in Holland to be trained to create his own paints the way Vermeer and others had done, using traditional methods.) wreaking havoc on the art establishment. He began forging Vermeers. He figured out how to make his fakes look real, and old, and pass the chemical tests art historials were likely to subject them to in order to prove authenticity. He created plastic paints that could be baked until fully dry (whereas true oils would take years) and he bent the baked paintings over his knee or a table to achieve the ‘craqueleur,’ the web of spidery cracks that develop as time passes.
Dolnick also gives an accurate account of the devastation of Nazi-occupied Holland, as well as portraits of Hitler and Goering, who fancied themselves art collectors. He gives a painful look at the way the Nazis pillaged the great art collections in Europe, the Allies efforts to recover it, and the rise of the American art collector.
This bizarre confluence of events fostered a sense of urgency that allowed van Meegeren’s forgeries to pass all tests that came their way, and setting them up to confound “the eyes” of many highly-regarded experts in Holland and abroad. Fortunes were lost and reputations irrevocably damaged as van Meeregen wreaked his revenge on the art world.
Ironically, as the war came to a close, and the people of Holland learned how van Meeregen had chagrinned the arch-villain Goering, they celebrated the forger. If they had had enough money, they would have immortalized him with a statue in the city square.
The rape of culture that took place during the Nazi occupation made it possible for the unthinkable. It seems crazy to us today, who know Vermeer, that anyone seeing van Meegeren’s paintings could think they are Vermeer’s instead. Van M’s paintings are hideous, where Vermeer’s are sublime.
Dolnick shows how art becomes a pawn, a victim almost when people, and certainly politics and money, become involved. We all know how disgusting Hitler and Goering are, but their feelings about themselves as connoisseurs are obscene. I think people like them and the kind of environment they create are part of why Sabina has such a conflicted relationship with her own art, especially compared to the art her regime finds acceptable.
After reading this, it seems that the only true, pure relationship a person can have with art is that of the artist who creates the work, and the person who comes to love it by visiting it in a museum. Anything else is tainted by greed and the perils of acquisition. A great work of art cannot be owned by one person, bound; it will always be greater than that greed, that money, that hubris.
Dolnick, Edward. The Rescue Artist: The True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.
(Book 3)
In this book, Edward Dolnick focuses on the theft of Munch’s The Scream from it’s Norwegian home in 1994, just as the opening ceremonies of the Lillehammer Olympics were beginning. He gives ample background of Munch himself and on the circumstances surrounding the theft. The Norwegian museum does not come out of this looking very good.
He spends most of his time, though, on the man who headed up the operation to recover the painting, Charley Hill, a British police officer in the tiny art department of Scotland Yard. The story of The Scream is pretty anti-climactic because Hill was unsuccessful in his attempt to bring the painting home, so Dolnick spends most of his time developing the characterization of Charley Hill. The accounts of Hill in action are fascinating, and his insight into the world of art crime are interesting. Apparently most of them are thugs rather than Thomas Crowns.
Reading this book was interesting, but it was definitely wearing, especially for an art lover. The idea of these awful thugs with their mitts all over the beautiful paintings is almost physically painful. Again the view of art as a commodity rules in the story of this book. I realize that art is a commodity, an investment, but here the thieves treat it as that only, not as intrinsically valuable because of its aesthetic beauty and meaning and contribution to culture and our understanding of the human condition. I realize that’s a bit much to expect from thieves. And if they felt that way, they wouldn’t be thieves. Anyway, I’m definitely ready to move onto to something a bit more focused on the love of art. Something that won’t rip my soul with every anecdote.
Chevalier, Tracy . Girl with the Pearl Earring. New York: Plume, 1999.
(Book 4)
Historical Fiction
After her father is blinded in a kiln explosion, Griet goes to work as a maid in Johannes Vermeer’s household. She has to navigate the personalities that rule the house: the implacable matriarch, Maria Thins, Vermeer’s childish wife, the varying temperaments of his many children, and the irascible kitchenmaid, Tanneke. As soon as she braves one potential disaster, another comes her way; she is continuously assaulted by Vermeer’s patron, who has a penchant for impregnating maids. Much to her chagrin, she also has secured the heart of the butcher’s son, Pieter. And, as she begins to clean his studio and grind his pigments, she holds an unrequited love for her master, Vermeer. She now has to navigate her own feelings, and figure out how to live the life she can be proud of while balancing her responsibilities to her family, Vermeer’s family, and to herself.
What a breath of fresh air after all that non-fiction! Chevalier’s novel is as luminous as Vermeer’s paintings. The writing style is as much interior monologue as it is narrative. We see Vermeer’s Holland, and his home, through Griet’s eyes. After reading the scanty facts that we know about his life in Dolnick’s book, it was so lovely to see them present, and augmented by imagination in this novel. She has certainly done her research; the setting feels real and her characters and their personalities authentic.
I love Vermeer’s paintings for their color, their use of light, and their mood; all of these elements are present in Chevalier’s novel. She brings everything to life. It was wonderful to learn also about Vermeer’s other paintings, some of which have been stolen, and to see how he might have gone through the process of creating them. This is such a quiet but rewarding novel. It is a delicate and finely detailed as Vermeer’s Lacemaker. I think there is such power in combining the creative arts, in creating art about art. I felt the same way about The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and I think this enthusiasm of loving art for its own sake and beauty is what was missing for me in those non-fiction texts. They were definitely interesting, and Dolnick is a great storyteller, but the emphasis is on the story, not on the love and power of art.
Williams, William Carlos. Pictures from Breughel and Other Poems. New York: New Directions, 1949.
(Book 5)
The centerpiece of this volume is a collection of ten poems each focusing on a different masterpiece by Peter Breughel the Elder.
I know almost nothing about Breughel’s life, but his pictures (and the way Williams writes about them) seem to show mostly an overriding sense of joy of life, even including various peccadilloes of mankind and sufferings, but these shadowy spots are bound together with joy and exuberance. This is such a different sense of life than what we get now, what I see in the example of Sabina, an artist driven by the limitations of her time and place. It is even different than Vermeer, with his quiet contemplation, though there are about a hundred years separating them.
I’m not sure exactly what Williams’ inspiration for these poems was, or his intention for his audience’s reaction, except bringing the sheer joy of Breughel’s paintings to life through words. The most well-known poem from this set is probably “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” and the other poems in the series follow that one in form as well as in style.
I had read the “Icarus” poem several times before, even teaching it to my AP Lit class, but I had not read it together with the others in the collection all at once. The element that strikes me most clearly in these poems is less the precision with which Williams renders the painting in poem form (though that is exquisite) and more the ebbing, flowing, bouncing, swinging rhythm that Williams achieves with his minimalist punctuation. He does not delineate sentences in his poems; occasionally, he’ll stop motion all together with a dash or exclamation point, and even more rarely will he cause the reader pause with a comma.
The lack, or really sparing use, of punctuation is a defining quality of Williams’ poetry in general, but here it brings a life to Breughel’s scenes that some viewers may not have seen. His eye moves, as all eyes should, across the rollicking lines of these paintings, showing each moment of (ir)reverence, of fun, of the holiness of everyday life and traditions.
Youn, Monica. “Stealing The Scream.” n.d. Web. 15 Sept. 2011.
(Non-book 1)
This poem recounts the facts, the events of the theft of The Scream that awful morning in February 1994.
After reading Williams’ ekphrastic poetry on Breughel, I decided to see what else was out there. is my favorite site for finding poems, especially ones to use for my sophomore classes. They have a whole article on ekphrastic poetry and lots of suggestions. Lo and behold, there is a poem on the same subject as one of my books!
I’m not sure if it makes the theft more depressing that Youn is able to fit almost all the facts of the crime into such a short poem. Even though I know all the details already from reading Dolnick’s book, she builds suspense through her use of metaphor. The one I like the best has the world reacting to the theft in the same posture as the main figure in the painting: “houses clapping a thousand shingle hands to shocked cheeks along the road from Oslo to Asgardstrand; the guards rushing in--too late!--greeted only
by the gap-toothed smirk of the museum walls;”
According to Dolnick, the Norwegian public did seem to react to the theft in the way that Youn describes the museum walls--with a smirk; they seemed to think it was a huge joke, not a colossal national disaster that they should try to fix. The rest of the world, however, reacted more like Youn’s houses, echoing Munch’s scream all around the globe.
Potok, Chaim. My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Anchor Books, 1972.
(Book 6)
Fiction (Historical)
Asher Lev grows up in a strict Ladover Hasidic Jewish community in post-WWII Brooklyn. They do not believe in creating images, except for the ubiquitous photographs of their Rebbe, but Asher shows his genius for art from the time that he can first pick up a pencil. His mother cultivates his talent and sees it as a gift, but his much more severe father believes it is a curse from the sitra acha (the Other Side). His father struggles with resolving this tension in their family, and even sends Asher to live with his uncle Yitzchok so he and Asher’s mother can travel for the Rebbe. Asher’s father is eventually overruled by the Rebbe, who says that Asher should be trained as an artist.
The Rebbe arranges for Asher to be apprenticed to Jacob Kahn, an artist from the Ladover community who, as Asher inevitably will, finds himself living in self-imposed exile from the Ladover. He studies with Jacob Kahn for several years and struggles internally with how much he should or should not adhere to his family’s religious beliefs. He feels that both he and his father are pulling his mother apart, and for a long while wrestles with how to express this truth in his art. He paints prolifically and amazingly, eventually moving to Paris, out of the shadow of his community and out from under the wing of Jacob Kahn, who remains his mentor. He adores Picasso and Chagall, and in Paris finds the strength to paint his mother’s suffering accurately, using the symbolism of the Crucifixion. When the paintings are shown, his community is outraged, his father incensed, and his mother wounded. No one understands why he has to resort to this type of blasphemy, but he knows this image shows the truth that he has been seeking to convey.
This is one of my favorite books that I remember reading in high school. Potok’s writing, like Chevalier’s, is quiet, serene, and luminous, even when they are showing tumult and strife. Griet gives the view into the artist’s life and process, but it is still a limited view. With Asher, the artist, as protagonist, we get to see through his eyes his creation and feel his feelings, almost to experience what it is like to create like he does.
The philosophical and spiritual meditation in this book is also fascinating to read. Potok clearly thinks that the kind of creation Asher does is as pure in nature as the service his father does for the Rebbe. But what is less certain is what it all means. How will Asher’s spritual feelings and struggles reconcile with his need to express his world through art.
The artist I visualize most when I’m reading about Asher’s paintings is Chagall, which his rich colors, Jewish tradition, and free-flying imagination. Chagall does have a painting, The White Crucifixion, that uses the imagery of the crucifixion in a Jewish story. I wonder if this is the painting that inspired Potok?
In the end of the story, the Rebbe pretty much packs Asher off to Paris for good, saying “There are no memories in Paris of Asher Lev.” And that is where Potok leaves Asher, devastated at the pain he has caused for his parents, but firm in knowing that those were the paintings he had to paint. Asher is torn, but I think at this point he is grateful to be going away. I think he is torn between two realities that he values almost equally. He can’t deny his needs as an artist, his duty to his imagination and his gift, but how can one totally divorce oneself from the spiritual upbringing. He feels still a home for himself in the traditions, but he knows he causes trouble to his community.
Potok, Chaim. The Gift of Asher Lev. New York: Fawcett Books, 1990.
(Book 7)
Twenty years have passed since Asher fled from Brooklyn to Paris. He has married a Ladover woman, Devorah, and they have two children, Rocheleh and Avrumel, who they are raising in the Ladover tradition. The story opens with a brief recounting of events since My Name ended. Most notable among them, of equal importance to the birth of his children, is the death of Picasso, “the master.” Jacob Kahn has died as well, and Asher has moved his family from Paris to a village in the south of France. Asher has continued to amaze the art world, until his most recent show, when he was accused of complacency in his art.
The initial catalyst for action is the death of Uncle Yitzchok, who was for so long the only one who gave Asher emotional support. They immediately fly back to Brooklyn, and Asher’s family stays with his parents for the first time. Asher is made trustee of his uncle’s secret art collection which creates strife with his cousins. Asher wants only to rejuvenate himself as an artist, but in the Ladover community in Brooklyn feels stifled. His family however love spending time with his parents; his wife and Asher’s mother develop a bond, and Avrumel has the kind of relationship with Asher’s father that Asher never could. Overshadowing them all is the knowledge that the Rebbe is old and must choose a successor before he dies. Asher eventually goes back to Paris to work with Devorah’s cousin on some art, retreating in to Paris and contemplating both Picasso and his own place in the art world and his own community. He begins to fear that the Rebbe will choose his son Avrumel as his successor, and Asher will Abraham’s place as a father required to sacrifice his son.
This book fulfills the promise of My Name is Asher Lev. It is just as luminously written. The characterizations are rich, the culture vibrantly alive. Asher’s internal conflict has not abated; in fact, it has increased because now even the art that he feels pouring out of him seems to be scorned by the establishment that had so long feted him. It is at last the time for becoming truly who he is. For reconciling his family and his identity as an artist. The dream-visits, both waking and sleeping, that he has with Picasso and the Rebbe are such a fascinating feature of this novel. They seem so similar, both larger than life, authoritative.
I don’t know that this novel, or Asher Lev, shows the pattern for every artist. Perhaps not everyone is so bent on needing to do what is right. Asher needs this--he needs to know that he is living as rightly as he can, but he is torn between the requirements of his community. Though they shun him and insult him, they claim him too.
Perhaps what is universal here is the conflict. Conflict with oneself, with one’s family, with one’s community, and maybe even with history. Devorah’s parents died in concentration camps, and she spent two years hiding in a sealed apartment with her cousins. There are real wounds that Asher is trying to bridge and heal with his art, but he seems to have to do it while perpetually risking further hurt to those he loves.
In this novel, he is mostly drawing faces, portraits, sketching instead of painting. Mostly he is meditating on his son. Avrumel is only 4-5. But Asher fears that the Rebbe will choose him as his successor. There is a beautiful scene early in the books when Asher goes to his daughter’s class to talk about being an artist. He finds himself drawing Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. From then on, Potok develops the idea of sacrifice and it seems inevitable that Asher will have to sacrifice Avrumel to the community he has struggled so much to leave, and to live with peacefully.
Bantock, Nick. The Forgetting Room. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
(Book 8)
When Armon learns of his grandfather’s death, he must travel to the family’s home in Ronda, Spain to put his grandfather’s affairs in order. Upon arrival, he visits with some friends of his grandparents, who begin reminiscing about their friends, and give Armon one of his grandfather’s paintings. The reader soon discovers that Armon’s grandfather, Rafael, was a minor surrealist painter, influenced by Picasso and Braques, and under the spell of Lorca’s duende. Armon must come to terms with his own choices about life that rise up at him in every corner of his grandparents’ home; he sees how they lived with joie de vivre, in every moment, that they had a true love like he has never experienced. As he spends more time in Rafael’s studio, Armon begins reliving his childhood art lessons with his grandfather, and he begins, again, to make art, and thereby finds his way home again.
This novella is visual as much as literary art. Bantock writes a story about discovering identity through art, and he illustrates it with the art, the letters, the invitation cards, all the visual stimuli that the artist in his story sees. We get to watch Armon create his own work as we read the story. This style of mixing art forms must be pretty unique; I don’t remember hearing about any other books that do this. I guess it’s Bantock’s thing. He does do this, sort of, in his Griffin and Sabine books which I had read a while ago, but it’s mostly that the letters in those epistolary books are on real separate paper that comes out of the envelopes pasted in the book, etc. But here, the art and the beautiful poetry of Lorca, the gorgeous madness of duende, which must overtake every artist feels so real to the reader.
One connection I love about this book is the fact that Armon has these mystical conversations with his grandfather as he starts to create art, the same way that Asher Lev has these visions of Picasso. The master appears to help him on his way, especially at a moment of crisis in his work. Armon also is at a dead point in his life, he needs to be awakened to the beauty of life. I love also how this book is also a mystery story--the mystery of how Armon came to be himself, how to return to the identity he had with his grandparents, how they came to be, like the Adam and Eve of his family.
Wolfe, Tom. The Painted Word. New York: Bantam Books, 1975. (Book 9)
Tom Wolfe begins with sitting down reading the paper one morning, and--bam--right there for all the world to see is an article saying that one can no longer understand or enjoy a work of art without understanding the theory behind it. Understandably, he finds this troubling. He embarks on a brief and witty history of art from the end of the 19th century up through the 1970s. He details most especially the process artists must endure to be accepted by the culturati. They must be sufficiently anti-bourgeois to be attractive, but then they must submit to the monied classes in order to get out of their roach-infested lofts.
He discusses the dominant theorists of the time--Greenberg, Rosenberg, and Steinberg--and their attempts to one-up each other with taking their theories just a bit further. The most interesting aspect of the study is the underlying idea of art from the ‘40s through the 70s is that of Flatness, “fuliginous flatness.” Artists sought to eliminate every trace of traditional painting, even things like perspective and certainly content.
Wolfe cheerfully pokes fun at the art scene of these decades and also illuminates them in a way that has eluded many people, at least had eluded me even though I have taken a few courses in art history. He shows how one movement unfolds out of the previous one, who was reacting to what, and what the future may look like (at least up until the Photo-Realist painters of the 70s).
Well this is definitely one to re-read! Wolfe is funny and charming without being smarmy. He is able to convey the impression that he wanted to learn about all this information too, that he was just as baffled by what he was seeing happen in the art world, or what had happened, as we were, and now he’s written it all up in this helpful little book.
I do love art, and I even love the art from the time he’s writing about ( I guess many people do, hard to hate Lichtenstein), but he seems to be right that the Theory, the Word, is all for these movements. In some ways, I regret this because I think that everyone ought to be able to enjoy art and feel something coming from it out to them. On the other hand, I suppose art is just like everything else; you have to know a bit about it to really appreciate it. I’m not going to understand the beauty and significance of a football game unless I know the rules, the chants, the historical context of the rivalry, etc. I guess it’s the same with art, though there is something about the sensory art that should be able to touch you through your ignorance and make you feel, whether you want to or not.
In any case, we can’t help that every one rebelled so much against literary and representational art to the point that we need a bunch of theories to help us know what we’re seeing. It is nice to have such a succinct guide to what artists were thinking back then, where the installation came from, and other such curiosities. To a certain extent, I agree with the desire to have nothing but pure color and line, those basic elements that every painting has, but amplified, celebrated. Wolfe’s guide does help, but I’m glad that artists have begun to have more freedom than to just work in one school.
I feel like Asher Lev must have been some parts Abstract Expressionist. Potok is careful not to describe his paintings too minutely, because this is fiction after all, but he does talk about strong color and line and energy and rage. All of those elements combining to make Asher unforgettable.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “De Kooning: A Retrospective.” The New Yorker 26 Sept. 2011: 122-123. Print. (Non-book 2)
Non-Fiction (magazine article)
This article is not so much a review of the show, though it does a bit of that, as much as it is a paean to de Kooning by a knowledgeable writer who greatly admires his work. Schjeldahl describes what he sees as he visits the retrospective, and he also fills in a bit of history and biography for the reader who does not know details of de Kooning’s life and work, but perhaps only the highlights in art books.
Having experienced de Kooning only as highlights in an art book or museum, I have not really been a fan. I love his color and the exuberance of his works, but especially his famous paintings of women have always seemed, to me, to be gratuitiously ugly. The women more so than the painting itself. I think with art the saying we dislike or hate what we don’t understand is even more true. The writer talks about de Kooning with obvious love and clear knowledge. His helpful and clear tour through de Kooning’s career allowed me to see the works not just as an oddity, but as part of a living person’s experience.
Tom Wolfe talks a bit about de Kooning in The Painted Word, and so I was hopeful this article would shed some light for me on an artist who has always remained in the shadows for me. I would love to be able to see this retrospective, to take the totality (or a representative selection of it) in and see his evolution. See how his ideas grow and change and his art with it. I think this article has convinced me to give de Kooning a second chance.
Drakulic, Slavenka. Frida’s Bed. Trans. Christina P. Zoric. New York: Penguin, 2007.
(Book 10)
This stream-of-consciousness novel is a fictionalized memoir of Frida Kahlo as she is in her final days. She looks back at all of the major events of her life, so in that way it feels very much the same as a biography, or Julie Taymor’s film Frida, but Drakulic more fully connects Kahlo’s life and her works by creating the emotional bridge between life and art. She gives voice to Frida’s feelings and brings the reader into her life in a way that a straight biography seldom does.
Frida Kahlo is one of my favorite artists, and I have studied her on and off for several years, reading biography, studying her paintings, etc. But Drakulic surprised me in bringing her life and her work more closely together than other works have done. At first, I was feeling like it was no more than a biography, but as she reaches Frida’s adult life, when emotional treachery compounds the treachery of her broken body, that the book reaches for new ground. I realize of course that the book is fictional, that Drakulic is not claiming historical accuracy, but as she explores the physical pain of Frida’s life and its connection to her work, I think she finds a place that approaches absolute truth, whether or not it is actually accurate.
Asher’s pain, Chagall’s, even Vermeer’s, is more reaction to the external, rather than driven by something physical within their bodies. Only Munch, perhaps, has the same sense of neither the physical world or the emotional one behaving the way they should, the way they see happening for others.
Byatt, A. S. “Body Art” Little Black Book of Stories. New York: Vintage International, 2003. (Non-book 3)
Short Story
This story could really be a novella; it is thoroughly fleshed out and sparkling in its completeness and complexity. The main players are Damian Becket, a doctor in the “gynae” ward at St. Pantaleon’s hospital, and Daisy Whimple, an art student who volunteers to decorate the ward for Christmas. At first Damian has no idea what to make of Daisy, a frail waifish girl who appears to subsist on nothing. Eventually, though, they begin a relationship that is starkly juxtaposed with Damian’s desire for Martha Sharpin, who works with him on the Hospital Art Collection Committee. Daisy becomes pregnant with Damian’s child, and because of her history with abortions, she becomes obstinate and emotional in a way Damian cannot understand. He does his best to be responsible and planning for life after the baby comes, but Daisy resists all of his expectations and hopes. In the meantime, she has begged, borrowed, and stolen objects for an installation at her art school’s show--a terrifying goddess Kali created out of instruments of childbearing through the centuries. Though the installation threatens to sever her relationship with Damian, it draws Daisy closer to Martha, who admires her work. In the end, Daisy’s baby is born healthy and Damian and Martha look on in amazement.
A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession is one of my all time favorites, so I was thrilled to find this story in a book of hers I had picked up at the local bookfair. It is hard to explain the emotion this story evokes for me; I know the summary there barely does it justice, even to just the plot.
Byatt shows the reader a look into an artist through the eyes of someone who thinks he understands art, but is then confronted by an art that he cannot comprehend. Daisy is similar to Frida Kahlo in that she has experienced great pain, medically, and suffering in the loss of her family and the child of her first pregnancy. She creates art out of things we are not supposed to look at or talk about, especially in Western culture. Damian thinks he has all the answers, to Daisy’s medical issues, to the questions of what to do with the unborn child they share, and to the mysteries of modern art. What he, and the reader discover, though, is that he does not have them. For all his tolerance and knowledge of the female body and the mysteries of birth, he cannot but barely grapple with them when they confront him in his own tightly controlled world.
Byatt gives the reader a modern nativity story, at once completely shocking and completely traditional. Here, more than in any of the works I’ve read so far, is it clear that pain, physical and emotional, is what drives the artist to create. I know that sounds really cliche, but Daisy has been victimized in so many ways, and the only recourse she has is through her art. Her installation of Kali damages, but it also empowers. It speaks to the destruction that women have faced at the hands of advancing medical technology, but also of their unending power as the gender able to give life amidst such ruin.
In the Realms of the Unreal. Dir. Jessica Yu. Cherry Sky Films and Diorama Films. 2004.
(Non-book 4)
Documentary Film
This documentary explores the life and art of reclusive folk (naive) artist Henry Darger (1892-1973). Born in Chicago, Darger suffered the loss of both his parents early in life and was shunted around from orphanage to group home to children’s asylum to state farm. He finally escaped when he was 17, and hitchhiked his way back to Chicago. For the rest of his life, he worked as a janitor in Catholic hospitals by day, and by night he devoted his energy to his work The Realms of the Unreal, the story of the courageous Vivian sisters who battle against an army of child-slavers. When he died, he had accumulated at least 300 huge (doublesided) paintings and over 15,000 pages of single-spaced text that tell the story of “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.”
This documentary is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Like Asher Lev, Henry Darger had no choice but to create art. It was quite literally all he had to live for. Like Frida Kahlo, he had suffered (what to me seems like) unimaginable pain and injustice in his life. Today, a child like Henry could not be so grossly misunderstood and mistreated.
He was enslaved by his suffering as a child, by a society that did not understand him and did not know what to do with him. As a result, he completely withdrew from human contact, except for what was necessary to live. He maintained his relationship with God, though, even though it was at times furious and painful. I think he both did and did not understand the world around him. It seems as if he was truly cut off as a child, a real Peter Pan, who had been ripped away from the childhood that most people have, and he searched ever to reclaim it, to protect it for other children (at least in his Realms).
He uses art to make sense of his experiences, to right the wrongs committed against him, to act as guardian angel to his Vivian girls. His story seems to me so much more painful than artists like Chagall, Asher Lev, Frida Kahlo, because at least they could interact with world they lived in, make sense of it in life as well as through art. They had families and friends to help them. Except for a few kindly neighbors and landlords, Henry Darger had no one. No one knew him; no one recognized what was inside him.
Exit Through the Gift Shop. Dir. Banksy. Paranoid Pictures. 2010. Streaming.
(Non-book 5)
Documentary Film
What begins as a documentary about the street art movement that picked up steam in the late 1990s with the ever-widening presence of the Internet quickly turns into a portrait of Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash), the man behind the camera of the documentary to begin with. Thierry gets his introduction into the world of street art through his cousin, Space Invader, and falls in love with the culture--the danger, the secrecy, the art itself. He chronicles the outings of many street artists, but longs to work with the most famous--Banksy. By chance British street artist Banksy comes to Thierry’s hometown, L.A., and Thierry quickly makes himself indispensible to Banksy’s L.A. art show project. Eventually, when Thierry’s efforts to make the street art documentary fail, Banksy takes it over and encourages Thierry to go home and make art and have a small show of his own. Not one to do things by halves, Thierry mass-produces art on a scale that would make Andy Warhol blush and stages the biggest art show L.A. has ever seen. Banksy and the other street artists Thierry has worked with are aghast at Thierry’s venture and seem to feel that he has betrayed the legitimacy of the art they spent years cultivating. Ultimately, Banksy’s documentary leaves the viewer, and perhaps Banksy himself, with as many questions about the nature of art as it answers in exploring this latest chapter in art history.
I had heard about this film from several different people and saw that it was nominated for an Oscar last year. Especially after reading The Painted Word, I was excited to see this film, and I hoped it would help illuminate the world of contemporary street art the way Wolfe had guided his readers through the art of the mid-century.
The same path Wolfe describes--the boho dance and the consummation--are present, though not described in detail in the work of these street artists. They work for a long time by themselves and often anonymously (or at least under aliases) before attracting attention to their work through repetition and the instant access of the Internet. They eventually do ascend to the level of respectable artists, amassing a body of work in some traditional media, holding gallery shows, selling art to collectors, etc. They have done things the way that artists like Pollock, de Kooning, etc. have. Working on their own to hone their craft and discover their identities.
I would have preferred for this film to focus on the street artists, but just as they feel that Thierry has hi-jacked their art form, I feel that Thierry dominated the film. He seems like a joke; Banksy even admits that he feels Thierry has cheated by not taking the route all the rest of them had to take. The really galling thing is that Thierry seems oblivious to the discrepancy between what he has done and the choices of the street artists he admires and emulates. It was almost sickening to watch people flooding through Thierry’s huge art show of mass-produced work, most of it created by artists he hired (which I guess it not totally unlike the workshop model of the Renaissance, except that Thierry is hardly a master) and see them all together spending almost a million dollars on his work by the end of his show.
I think the main idea that I’m left with is that aside from a new idea or a fresh perspective on the world, art requires at least an attempt at going through the process of this boho dance. You have to take the time to find out who you are, not just pull a million things other people have done out of the air and delegate it to someone else.

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