Posted by: zyzygy | January 2, 2012

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, around 1500, Museo del Prado, Madrid

“The Master of the monstrous… the discoverer of the unconscious” – C.G. Jung

There is a paucity of detail about Bosch’s (Jeroen Van Aken) personal life most of which was lived in s’Hertogenbosch in the Netherlandish province of Brabant. Bosch was born around 1450 and died in 1516, a period when the Duchy of Brabant was still a Catholic state. He came from a prosperous family of painters, which included his father, grandfather and a couple of uncles. After his marriage around the age of 25 to a wealthy woman he was well set up financially with a fine house as a man of independent means. His position in society was underpinned by membership of the Illustrious Brotherhood of Our Blessed Lady, open only to the nobility and powerful upholders of the Catholic Church.

Portrait of Hieronymus Bosch. c.1550, Jacques Le Boucq, from the Recueil d’Arras

Bosch was bracketed in time by two other great Northern painters: Jan Van Eyck (1395? – 1441) and Pieter Breughel the Elder (1529 -1567). He was influenced by the former and strongly influenced the latter and perhaps also influenced Da Vinci and Raphael as well. Although his knowledge of Italian painting is said to have been negligible, some commentators maintain that he visited Italy and met Leonardo and Giorgione. Bosch was a near contemporary of Albrecht Durer (1472 – 1528), a more proficient draftsman but much less able than Bosch in the area of imaginative invention. However many drawings by Bosch show he worked from life and made detailed designs for his paintings. Like Leonardo, he indulged in caricature, both in drawings and in paintings such as Christ Crowned with Thorns, shown below.

Oil painting migrated from the Far East and first appeared in Northern Europe in the work of the Master of Flémalle, Robert Campin (1375 -1444) rather than in Italy. Bosch worked in oil on a prepared white ground on wooden panels. A sketch in black chalk would be adumbrated with pale beige and the painting completed with thin, transparent colours. Bosch eschewed the Italian emphasis on linear perspective and anatomical study in favour of his own version of space impregnated with spiritual or numinous force. He is thought to have worked quickly: this can be seen from calligraphic elements of his technique which harked back to a medieval tradition that was giving way to the innovations of the Renaissance in his own day. Despite his seeming insularity it is clear from his work that he was abreast of current religious and intellectual thought, such as alchemy, perhaps derived from figures like Erasmus who lived in s’Hertogenbosch.

In the late Middle Ages few Christians were literate. Church Services were held in Latin, so the role of the religious painter was to communicate the central doctrines of Catholicism visually. The painter had to satisfy: the Church authorities; the literate bourgeoisie; the ignorant masses; other artists and his own sensibilities. Fortunately for Bosch he was a man of means and could indulge his imagination within the bounds of doctrinal propriety, despite the operations of the Inquisition. The way in which he did this is controversial, some critics saying that he was a pious moralizer and others that he was a satirist who secretly espoused heretical views.

Christ Crowned with Thorns, 1495-1500, National Gallery, London

An examination of Christ Crowned with Thorns illustrates Bosch’s symbolic approach. The central figure of Christ, surrounded by the four apostles, had long been an established format, but in this work the four figures are antagonistic tormenters who represent the main classes in society: Knights, priests, merchants and peasants. In particular the top right figure represents Pope Julius II, the warrior Pope, identified by the oak leaf emblem. This pope was prosecuting a war with Venice at the time, in league with the Emperor Maximilian I, perhaps represented by the figure at the top left. The bottom left figure represents the merchant class, the crescent on the silk headdress implying infidel or heretical views. The figure on the bottom right represents the peasantry but also scholars, according to the dress.

From this rather superficial analysis it is clear that Bosch was not only a critic of church corruption, soon to be addressed by the Reformation, but also of the corrupt nature of society in general with its worldly sinfulness. The central figure of Christ appears passive and detached and perhaps represents ‘everyman’ or even the painter himself in his search for enlightenment. Psychologically the Jungian Christ archetype represents the perfect man, a balance between the humours of the surrounding figures: choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic and melancholic.

The Wayfarer, 1510, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Bosch painted two versions of The Wayfarer, the small one shown above and the figure on the outer panels of The Haywain, below. The century after 1450 was the golden age of beggars, who often travelled in large bands from town to town. The Liber Vagatorium, written in 1510 with a later introduction by Martin Luther, documented this phenomenon. The lone figure was called Picaro (wild man) by the Spanish and appears in early versions of the Tarot as the first card of the Major Arcana.

The figure depicted in both versions is an allegory of human life on earth, condemned to wander, suffering many temptations and vicissitudes. The Picaro was a misfit but enjoyed independence from the confining conventions of society whether religious or secular, perhaps indicative of the painter’s own attitude. François Villon was a typical example in Bosch’s time.

The Path of Life (outer panels of The Haywain), after 1510

In the smaller but later painting, Bosch depicts The Prodigal Son on the point of entering his father’s house, symbolized by the gate. He looks wistfully back to his life of dissolution, represented by the ramshackle White Swan Inn and its disreputable inhabitants. The swan can represent the end of life because of its dying song, a possible interpretation of the journey’s end. The magpie behind the gate symbolizes doubt but promises freedom after passing through, unlike the caged magpies at the corner of the Inn who remain trapped. The owl in the tree above the wanderer means learning or intelligence but the coal-tit represents the inconstancy of man, always running after new experiences. The spindle in the hat, held in the prodigal’s hand, signifies that the thread of life has run out. The outer panels of The Haywain show the many perils of human life in the background to the figure, who is about to cross over a stream (Lethe), the latter motif signifying the end of the ageing vagrant’s life.

“The world is a haystack from which each takes what he can” – Netherlandish proverb.

Triptych, The Haywain, after 1510, Museo del Prado, Madrid

The theme of life on Earth is elaborated in the central panel of the triptych, sandwiched between the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and scenes from Hell. Christ, shining in the clouds, presides over a grand charivari, with nobles and churchmen riding in from the left. Peasants support the hay juggernaut from below, which is being drawn by an assortment of devils and hybrid beasts. Riding high on the pile of hay a troubadour serenades a girl holding a musical score, flanked by a praying angel on the left and a piping devil on the right, while a pair of lovers makes out in a tree behind. The rural landscape recedes behind, deploying a blue aerial perspective which contrasts nicely with the pink and orange of the sunlit clouds.

Bosch’s most elaborate and puzzling work is the triptych called The Garden of Earthly Delights, a work of staggering invention and complexity. We should note that the Hebrew word ‘Eden’ means delight, so the central panel can be interpreted as Eden restored to mankind after the resurrection. The right hand panel would then represent the eternally damned. All of the figures are adult and youthful with no children or old people depicted. Furthermore the multitudes of figures seem more like curious investigators of a new world rather than habitués of the secular and corrupt world of The Haywain. After all, what boon would Heaven be if it did not permit enjoyment of everything in it, including intercourse among humans, animals or plants such as Adam was rumoured to have enjoyed before the appearance of Eve?

Triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510, Museo del Prado, Madrid

A curious feature of the central panel is the disregard for the scale of natural objects. For example, a huge bird feeds a nest of tiny humans or naked figures sit within a seedpod. A near analogy to this is Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, where fairies cavort in the English countryside and influence human lives. The fantastic art of William Blake and Richard Dadd are weak cousins of Bosch’s monumental construction of a fantasy world. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and similar mythological works drew upon the Greco-Roman tradition, which is entirely ignored by Bosch who creates his world from the social materials to hand, including contemporary accounts of new animals like the elephant and the giraffe which appear in the left hand panel of the triptych. It is little wonder that the Surrealists embraced Bosch as a precursor of their rejection of rationality and realism.

Detail from central panel of Triptych

A notable feature of the left hand and central panels are the architectural, crystalline structures which grow from spheres, cylinders and cones into fantastic organic forms. The artist seems to delight in creating almost perfectly transparent structures which house humans, animals, birds and chimerical creatures. However, only the diabolical right hand panel contains manufactured objects, such as houses, furniture, knives, musical instruments and the usual human artifacts available in the 15th Century, albeit distorted in size and function to conform to the nightmare scenario inhabited by the host of devils and their victims.

Tree Man, Detail from right hand panel of Triptych

The central panel is made of a great many vignettes comprsing clusters of human figures engaged in bizarre activities, many sexual but some seemingly innocent play. Describing and interpreting these is a vast labour which several scholars have attempted. The video below explores the main scenes of the painting and provide the best way of coming to grips with the elements of the design, which is a masterpiece with few equals in the world of painting. A useful analysis of sections of the triptych can be found in this link.

Hieronymus Bosch was predominantly a religious painter who expressed a world view as complex as that of Dante. His work stands at the juncture of a declining medieval age and the rising influence of renaissance learning. He successfully combined folk knowledge, as a means of communicating with the peasantry, and religious doctrine, couched in an almost impenetrable cloak of private symbols. In this regard he resembles a poet who uses and expands familiar symbols and creates new ones. The result is a mesmerising and delightful synthesis of the beautiful and the terrible.

But perhaps we should allow Bosch the last word.

Tony Thomas

Tony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: philosophy, writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes.

Posted by: zyzygy | August 17, 2010

The Cellular World



I always enjoyed the story of how Ludwig Wittgenstein, after delivering a four-hour  lecture  to his class in Cambridge on the intricacies of some logical problem, would then go to a movie in town (his favorite genre was the American Western) and sit in the front row, letting the images inundate his overheated brain. Intuitively, it makes sense, the need to turn off the intellect and immerse oneself in fantasy for a while. Now it turns out that it makes scientific sense as well. In her recent book, The Philosophical Baby, psychologist Alison Gopnik notes that magnetic imaging studies show that the occipital cortex, which is very active in the infant brain, lights up in adults while they are watching a movie, while the prefrontal lobe shuts down. In short, there is a reversion (if that is the right word) to pre-critical thinking, which adults often experience as a relief from the “tyranny” of the prefrontal cortex. This latter part of the brain is undeveloped in infants, and doesn’t fully form in most individuals until they are in their twenties. The implication is that imagination precedes rational analysis; to do art, be creative, or imagine hypothetical worlds, one has to play, to tap into that preverbal substrate of the mind.

In his review of Gopnik’s work (New York Review of Books, 11 March 2010), Michael Greenberg talks about how elusive and shadowy the infant’s consciousness really is. Tolstoy wrote that it was but a slight step from a five-year-old boy to a man of fifty, but a huge distance between a newborn and a five-year-old. Greenberg says of the first five years of life:

“Mysterious and otherworldly, infancy and early childhood are surrounded later in life by a curious amnesia, broken by flashes of memory that come upon us unbidden, for the most part, with no coherent or reliable context. With their sensorial, almost cellular evocations, these memories seem to reside more in the body than the mind; yet they are central to our sense of who we are to ourselves.”

Proust immediately comes to mind, of course: the scene with the madeleine in Du côté de chez Swann, where the taste of the cookie suddenly opens the door to a flood of childhood memories, long forgotten but still latent in the body. “Cellular evocations…central to our sense of who we are to ourselves.” If the phrase “human identity” has a meaning, surely this is it. And yet that fundamental cellular identity gets papered over, as it were; as we grow older, we become someone else. But it is not clear that the archaic self ever goes away completely.

In his autobiography, the psychologist Carl Jung tells the story of a man who comes to him for therapy, apparently at the insistence of his wife. The man is dull as a stick: a Swiss high school principal of about sixty years of age, who did everything “right” all his life, and never experienced a moment of ecstasy or imagination. Jung suggests that he keep a record of his dreams, which he does, showing up at the second session with something potentially disturbing. He dreamt that he entered a darkened room, and found a three-year-old infant covered with feces, and crying. What, he asked Dr. Jung, could it mean? Jung decided not to tell him the obvious: that the baby was himself, that it had had the life crushed out of it at an early age, and was now crying out to be heard. Exposing the “shadow” to the light of day, Jung told himself, would precipitate a psychosis in this poor guy; he wouldn’t be able to handle the psychic confrontation. So Jung gave him some sort of neutral explanation, saw the man a few more times, finally pronounced him “cured,” and let him go.

One wonders if the good doctor did the right thing. Is a living death preferable to a psychotic awakening? On the other hand—and I have a feeling Jung would agree with me on this—aren’t we all that man, to some degree? Perhaps not as wigged out, but it may be a question of degree, nothing more. Abandonment of that cellular identity is the abandonment of life itself; the abandonment of the part of ourselves that is in touch with the “miraculous,” as some have called it.

A couple of poems come to mind. One is by Antonio Machado (my translation):

The wind, one clear day, called to my heart
with the sweet smell of jasmine.

“In exchange for this aroma,
I want the scent of all your roses.”
“I have no roses; the flowers
in my garden are gone; they are all dead.”

“Then I’ll take the tears from your fountains,
The yellow leaves and the withered petals.”
And the wind left…My heart bled…
“My soul, what have you done with your poor little garden?”

Who, upon reading this, can’t feel a sense of guilt, a sense of something having been betrayed, and now faintly stirring, knocking on the door of consciousness, asking to be heard, at long last?

The same theme comes up in “Faith Healing,” by the British poet Philip Larkin, which describes a “workshop” being held somewhere in England by a visiting American guru. Undoubtedly, he is something of a charlatan; but even (or especially) charlatans know how to press the right buttons. The women in the workshop line up to be held by him for twenty seconds, to hear him ask, “Now, dear child, What’s wrong,” before he moves on to the next person. Most just come and go, but some start twitching, crying,

…as if a kind of dumb
And idiot child within them still survives
To re-awake at kindness, thinking a voice
At last calls them alone…

What’s wrong! Moustached in flowered frocks they shake:
By now, all’s wrong. In everyone there sleeps
A sense of life lived according to love.
To some it means the difference they could make
By loving others, but across most it sweeps
As all they might have done had they been loved.

Larkin goes on to compare this moment to the thawing of a frozen landscape, a weeping that spreads slowly through the body—just from the fact of being asked the question, of having someone recognize that there is even a question to be asked. As with Machado, it’s hard not to identify with the emotion that is being pulled out of a deep cellular memory. What is the “poor little garden,” if not the “sense of life lived according to love” sleeping within us, the cellular memory that never really goes away?

There is, of course, in virtually every society, a kind of conspiracy to keep that memory out of conscious awareness. We need to ask why that would be the case; but meanwhile, it’s clear that if it emerges at all, it is by “accident” (the madeleine that triggers a kinesthetic memory, e.g.), or in a therapist’s office, or in a dream (or a poem). If the cellular world is repressed within the individual, it is also repressed within society. Hence, to study human psychology is really to study abnormal psychology, and to study sociology is to really to study a kind of institutionalized insanity; or weirdness, at the very least. But it is hardly an accident that the two go hand in hand. Observing the phenomenon in the United States, the psychiatrist Thomas Lewis remarks that “A good deal of modern American culture is an extended experiment in the effects of depriving people of what they crave most.” “Happiness,” he concludes, “is within range only for adroit people who give the slip to America’s values.”

A grim assessment, but I doubt there is any way of denying it. Nor is it limited to the United States, of course; if Freud was right, there is no civilization without deep discontent. It just takes a different form in different cultures. And in any case, it is hard to imagine what a society based entirely on cellular memory would be like—although figures such as Rousseau and Nietzsche did their best to sketch it out. True, the results are less than impressive, but one would like to think that more can be done in this direction beyond individual initiative. It is very rare for a society to literally stop, for a moment, and collectively discuss what an authentic way of life might consist of. Indeed, I can barely imagine such a thing, except that it actually happened in France in May/June of 1968, and for those who were privileged enough to have been at the two-month “teach-in” held at the Sorbonne during that time, it was like breathing oxygen. What is man? What is the good life? What are we doing here? And: Why aren’t we asking ourselves these questions all the time?

“Come my friends,” wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson; “’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

What a thought.



Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 2003-6 he was Visiting Professor in Sociology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Dr. Berman relocated to Mexico in 2006, and during 2008-9 was Visiting Professor in Humanities at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico City.  He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness The Re-enchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000) and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a ‘Notable Book’ by the New York Times.  A volume of his poetry, Counting Blessings, as well as a collection of essays, A Question of Values, will be appearing later this year.


Posted by: zyzygy | August 13, 2010

The Strange World of M C Escher

M C Escher at work

I try in my prints to testify that we live in a beautiful and orderly world, not in a chaos without norms, even though that is how it sometimes appears. M C Escher

Maurits Cornelius Escher was born in June 1898, the youngest son of a prosperous Dutch government engineer. After a year in technical college, he attended the School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in Haarlem. He was diverted from a career in architecture by his teacher and mentor Jessurun Mesquita, who encouraged him to develop his drawing and printmaking skills.

After visits to Spain and Italy, he was impressed by the dramatic landscapes, particularly mountainous and desert regions with olive trees and cacti. Escher found Holland relatively uninspiring and returned to Spain again, where he visited Granada and saw the palace of the Alhambra, with its elaborate decorative architecture. Escher travelled widely in Southern Europe, working assiduously on drawings and prints. He married in 1924 and settled in Rome. By this time he had achieved a measure of success, including woodcut illustrations for a booklet Easter Flowers, a print that sold well St Francis Preaching to the Birds, and a one-man exhibition in Sienna and another in Holland.

Eight Heads, woodcut stamped print, 1922

The print, Eight Heads, was made when Escher was still at art school, and is an example of a side-grained woodcut, where the white areas are cut away, leaving the raised areas to impress the ink. This method was used exclusively by Escher in his early work, and is distinct from wood engraving (Intaglio) where the ink lies in fine grooves and the raised surface is wiped clean before printing. This early work already includes Escher’s hallmark: the division of the picture plane into repeating areas, and the ambiguity between figure and ground which challenges the normal perceptive habits of eye and brain.

It was not until 1929 that I made my first lithograph, and then in 1931 I tried my hand for the first time at wood-engraving, that is to say engraving with burins on an end-grain block. M C Escher, The Graphic Work Published by Benedikt-Taschen Verlag

Castrovalva, lithograph 1930

Escher was a perfectionist who strove to realise his ‘visions’ through meticulous study and practice. The seemingly conventional landscape, entitled Castrovalva, exerts a hypnotic power and demonstrates Escher’s complete mastery of tone and composition. The terrifying strangeness of this threatening landscape qualifies it as surrealistic and expressive of a deep intuition about the nature of being revealed through art.

I myself passed many years in this state of self-delusion. But then came a moment when it seemed as though scales fell from my eyes. I discovered that technical mastery was no longer my sole aim.

Reptiles, lithograph 1943

The lithograph above, entitled Reptiles. illustrates many of Escher’s abiding interests. On the drawing board is a tessellation (tiling) with drawings of three shades of alligators locked into a hexagonal grid. The realistically drawn objects in the nature mort establish the usual three dimensional illusion of naturalistic drawing. The tiny alligator on the dodecahedron, snorting fire, and the two lizards entering and leaving the tessellated plane provide clues that the picture is imaginative but fundamentally about the relationship between two dimensional space and the three dimensional representation by the artist within it.

Although not a trained mathematician, Escher took a great interest in geometry and what he called ‘the logic of space’. He wrote an essay in 1957 on tessellation, which he had first studied in the decorative work of Islamic artists in Spain.

In mathematical quarters, the regular division of the plane has been considered theoretically . . . Does this mean that it is an exclusively mathematical question? In my opinion, it does not. [Mathematicians] have opened the gate leading to an extensive domain, but they have not entered this domain themselves. By their very nature they are more interested in the way in which the gate is opened than in the garden lying behind it. The Mathematical Art of M C Escher.

Escher, Sketch of Alhambra Tiles, 1934

Escher went beyond the mere topological constraints devised by mathematicians, with their 17 possible ‘wallpaper groups’ by transforming the basic cell shape and the emblems embedded in them across the picture plane. This process is shown in the eight panels below.

Metamorphose, woodcuts 1939-40, 1967-68

Artists have been concerned with perspective and geometry since the Renaissance, none more so than Albrecht Durer whose output of graphic art was prodigious. The depth of his interest in mathematics can be seen from the magic square on the wall, the sphere, the compass held by the despondent figure and the irregular solid with its pentagonal sides. This emblematic engraving is crammed with esoteric meaning, befitting that more superstitious age, but heralds the intrusion of science into a world emerging from darkness.

Albrecht Durer, Melancholia, copper engraving 1514

A work of similarly disturbing power is Escher’s Still life with reflecting globe, shown below. A sinister, metallic bird man stands on a newspaper, which rests on a slim book floating in a dark void. The diminutive artists sits at his desk, trapped within a spherical bottle, which reflects a wide angle view of his study. This suggests a transformation of the alchemical aphorism: “as above, so below” into “as within so without”. We can see from the reflection in the bottle that the bird man is just an object on Escher’s desk, but appears to us as a menacing projection of the artist’s self into a terrifying, noumenal void.

Still life with reflecting globe, lithograph, 1934

Such metaphysical works invite contemplation, not only on the nature of space, but on our predicament as solipsistic beings trapped within our individual subjective worlds, which cannot be taken at face value.

By the 1950s, Escher had received international recognition, featuring in both Time and Life Magazine articles, and was knighted by the King of the Netherlands in 1955. During the 1960s his popularity increased further as he was embraced by the Hippie generation with its love of psychedelic art. This success was capped off by the publication of The Graphic Work of M.C. Escher, which included 76 prints and a commentary by the artist.

One of the most notable features of Escher’s later work is the puzzle picture, showing impossible architectural constructions based on the capacity of visual perception to translate from a two dimensional image to a false three dimensional interpretation. The simplest example of this is the Penrose triangle, which seemingly attributes the properties of the Mobius strip to the rectangular faces of a solid triangle. In Escher’s Waterfall, the system of channels and the waterwheel constitute a perpetual motion machine, which the mind knows is impossible, since water cannot run back uphill, but the eye insists it is possible according to the drawing. In even more complex works the artist uses several different perspectival vanishing points to turn parts of the picture back-to front, upside down and even inside out. The Mobius strip, also represented in Escher’s work, is not such an illusion, since it a possible three dimensional construction.

Waterfall, lithograph 1961

Escher was capable of evoking mystical thought and the usual aesthetic responses to fine art without resorting to such optical illusions. Prints such as Three Worlds and Puddle, shown below, are fine examples of this skill.

Puddle, three block woodcut, 1954

Escher describes this work as follows:

The cloudless evening sky is reflected in a puddle which a recent shower has left in a woodland path. The tracks of two motor cars, two bicycles and two pedestrians are impressed in the foggy ground.

He neglects to mention the moon, which gives this image such a poetic, oriental feeling, like a visual Haiku. Such works must be ranked among the highest achievements of this genre, comparable to the pastorals of Samuel Palmer.

There are a great many facets to Escher’s conceptual art, including the representation of infinity. In the image below, each circle of fishes recedes without limit to the finite circumference of the sphere in an infinitely diminishing series. It has been claimed by some scientists that Escher was one of the first people to make such intuitive representations of Einstein’s bounded but infinite model of the cosmos.

Circle Limit III, five woodblock print, 1959

After a lifetime of dedication to his unique craft, Mauritz Escher achieved both artistic success and much admiration from sections of the scientific and mathematical community. He died in in 1972 at the age of 73. His legacy is perpetuated in the Escher Museum, which is located in the Haarlem mansion where he was born.

A succinct description of Escher’s work can be seen in this short BBC video.

Posted by: zyzygy | August 12, 2010



BOOK after translated book, a soft-spoken poet who spent a long life writing in an awkward minority language unrelated to most others is taking his rightful place among the giants of world literature — even in his homeland.

György Faludy was born in Budapest a century ago this September. He was a Jew who wanted desperately to be a Hungarian, but had to spend some of his best writing years in exile or in prison. His poetry, circulated at home illegally during the grim years of Nazi and subsequent Soviet occupation, kept alive the flame of freedom and decency for generations of his adoring public.

Despite two decades since the advent of democratic rule in Hungary its literary establishment has managed to keep Faludy’s name out of the schoolbooks. Entirely in vain, for his poetry has now become a potent force in the struggle of post-Communist Europe to liberate itself from the lingering spirit of its bygone tyrannies.

Penguin Modern Classics has just released Faludy’s autobiography My Happy Days in Hell (trans. Kathleen Szasz, London, ISBN 9780141193205, £12.99p, 522pp), an elegant tale celebrating the triumph of the human spirit. First published in English in 1962, the book anticipated Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago by more than a decade.

A natural teacher and spellbinding raconteur, Faludy leads his reader across a blood-drenched landscape, sharing his enjoyment and surprise at morality, friendship, loyalty and sheer physical as well as aesthetic pleasure that have somehow overcome the carnage. His autobiography is an essential literary document of the 20th century, the testimony of a writer whose stature is comparable to that of his beloved Auden, Lorca, Rilke and Yeats.

Faludy, who died in 2006, was my teacher for most of my life and my close friend towards the end of his. I have discussed the book with two of its principal characters, also close associates of the author, who were impressed with the veracity of Faludy’s recollections. Many of the events of My Happy Days in Hell are also described in Faludy’s poetry, written during or shortly after their occurrence. These contemporaneous testimonies confirm the accuracy of the later work.

All his life, Faludy was relentlessly pursued by the hostile agents of repression while being well loved by a devoted public. He burst onto the literary stage of Budapest just before the rise of Nazi oppression with a collection of ballads exuding the love of freedom, adapted from the mediaeval French of Francois Villon. The following lines from the book (rendered in my translation) describe Faludy’s own life as well as the romantic character of Faludy’s Villon, now a familiar figure in Hungarian literature.

… Triumphant stars erect their vast cathedral

above me and dew calms my feet below

as I pursue my god (and he’s retreating)

and feel my world through every loving pore.

I’ve rested on the peaks of many mountains

and wondered at the sweating quarry-slaves

but whistling bypassed all the stately towers

for I knew well our ruler’s fancy games.

And thus I have received but scorn and kisses,

and thus I’ve learned to find an equal rest

in squalor and beneath the whitest pillars,

A man despised and welcomed everywhere.

The Penguin autobiography covers a lively and horrendous 15-year period from Faludy’s first exile to his release from prison in 1953. The book opens with a description of the country of his youth, a semi-feudal backwater locked in bitter resentment then as now over Hungary’s territorial losses suffered after the First World War. The author fled to Paris after a Hungarian parliamentary deputy had suffered a heart attack on reading one of his poems, lampooning the politician’s pro-Nazi voting record. The poet thought this was his greatest literary achievement.

In Paris, Faludy wrote and starved a lot, meeting and courting many of people who later influenced European history. As the Nazis advanced, he retreated first to French North Africa and then to the United States where he served the Free Hungary Movement as its honorary secretary. He later enlisted in the US Air Force to fight the war in the Far East theatre against Japan. He astonished his hosts afterwards by declining their offer of American citizenship and returning to his war-torn homeland at the first opportunity. He soon found himself in prison on trumped-up charges.

The poet endured torture in the dungeons of the Communist state security organization AVO, which had been used earlier for the same purpose by the Hungarian Nazi movement, the Arrow-Cross. Eventually he “confessed” to being a CIA spy, but laid a trap for the planners of a prospective show trial by identifying his alleged American minders as Captain Edgar Allan Poe and Major Walt Whitman. He spent his final night in that building — now a museum open to the public called The House of Terror, — awaiting his promised execution at dawn before, being dispatched, instead, to serve a 25-year forced labour sentence handed down without a trial.

He saved many of his poems composed in captivity by entrusting them to memory. He was assisted in this by his fellow prisoners — including my two informants whom I eventually interviewed in Toronto — who memorized and recited Faludy’s poems during work. On their release from prison in the confusion following Stalin’s death in 1953, the same comrades helped Faludy to compile the poems for publication.

Faludy chose exile again after the collapse of the 1956 Hungarian revolution against Soviet rule, edited a literary journal in London, taught at Columbia University in New York and received a Pulitzer Prize as well as an honorary doctorate from the University of Toronto. He was nominated for a literary Nobel Prize.

Faludy returned to his homeland yet again at the age of 78, together with his lover Eric Johnson, an American classicist poet, to witness the implosion of Communism and the birth of democracy. He was greeted by a tumultuous welcome and more literary prizes. More than a decade later, he married Fanny Kovács, a poet then aged 28. This was his fourth marriage, in which he spent his final, extraordinarily creative years.

English translations of Faludy’s poetry have been collected in East and West (1978) and Learn This Poem of Mine by Heart (1983), both ed. John Robert Colombo, and Selected Poems (1985), trans. Robin Skelton. Faludy’s irreverent Hungarian adaptation of the Villon ballads has been adapted further in my own English Free Women (1991).

His poetry is rich in unforgettable, romantic or flippant turns of phrase that unfailingly draw their power from keen perception. The poems are often composed in delicate, chanson-like tones that can unexpectedly give way to heart-chilling horror, without ever compromising the highest standards of literature.

Yet Faludy has remained an irritant to many Hungarian teachers, critics and editors. I think this is because of his irrepressible voice in praise of freedom, an anathema to the very nature of the literary establishment here that has evolved through the long decades of rigid regulation under successive tyrannies. And perhaps he was too successful at flouting social conventions and egging on his detractors to embarrass themselves.

The literary elite tore into Faludy’s reputation after his death by questioning the veracity of My Happy Days in Hell. While the world mourned the passing of a brilliant mind, a minor Hungarian writer opined in an obituary published by The Guardian newspaper of London that the book contained “picaresque adventures and saucy anecdotes… even if it is uncertain how much of it is based on fact”. He also asserted that Faludy’s verse was “rarely faultless”.

Another writer stated on an establishment literary website, without citing evidence, that the book was full of “fibs”. And even before his funeral, which turned into a spontaneous demonstration of national grief, the mass circulation Népszabadság newspaper of Budapest categorically ruled that “the Hungarian literary canon does not recognize Faludy”.

Perhaps the silliest and most revealing criticism was sounded during the recent election campaign by a leader of the far-Right Jobbik party expressing outrage over the recital of a Faludy poem at a public event. Faludy was a “well known Zionist enemy of the Hungarian nation,” the speaker declared (also in the absence of evidence) and proposed that in future all poems chosen for public performance should be routinely vetted by the authorities.

But all this will pass into irrelevance. The city of Toronto has already adopted Faludy as its own poet and named after him a small park beneath the apartment where he had spent 14 years of his exile. As Hungary passes through its awkward present transition away from authoritarian rule, Faludy may yet teach its administrators of culture how to trust their own public, and even their own hearts.

THOMAS ORSZÁG-LAND is a poet and award-winning foreign correspondent who writes on Eastern Europe. His last book was CHRISTMAS IN AUSCHWITZ: Holocaust Poetry Translated from the Hungarian of András Mezei (Smokestack, England) published in June.

Posted by: zyzygy | August 9, 2010

Brett Whiteley

Brett Whiteley 

Shaving off, Bret Whiteley

 “The most fundamental reason one paints is in order to see.”  Brett Whiteley.

Brett Whiteley was born in April 1939, a few months before the outbreak of WWII. Like Ginger Meggs, Brett had a mop of red hair and was a bit of a tearaway, but unlike the comic book hero was no Aussie battler, coming from a comfortable middle class background on Sydney’s north shore. He had a precocious talent for drawing, winning an art prize at the age of seven, the first of many that came early in his career. His parents were keen on the theatre and the arts and encouraged their son to pursue his interest in drawing and painting. 

Brett and his older sister Francis had plenty of opportunity to observe their parents enjoying the good life, partying with their friends at their big house in Longueville. The budding painter was introduced early to the joys of smoking, alcohol and sex among his adult acquaintances, possibly a factor relevant to his addictive personality in later life.

In 1948, Brett was sent to boarding school at the prestigious Scots College. While there, he asked his mother to buy him a second hand easel and some books about Augustus John and Jacob Epstein.  Brett’s father was involved in the reproduction of paintings, and this provided young Brett with an opportunity to meet famous painters like William Dobell, who taught him dry-brush technique. He also discovered the work of Lloyd Rees, another famous Australian painter who lived nearby. His apotheosis occurred at the age of sixteen, when he discovered a book about Van Gogh, an experience he recorded later in the following words:

“I picked up the book and studied it – it completely changed my way of seeing. The immediate effect was a heightening of reality in that everything I looked at took on an intensity… I remember having this very, very powerful sense that my destiny was to completely give myself to painting.” 

It is clear from this account that the young Brett Whitely had a deeply serious side to his nature and was both highly intelligent and mature for his age.

Brett left school in 1956 and went to work at Lintas Advertising Agency in the commercial art department. He attended life classes at the National Art School, where he met his childhood sweetheart, Wendy Julius. In the same year he won an award in the Young Painters section of the Bathurst Art show.

More important, however, must have been his mother’s decision to leave the family to live in England. In the period up to 1959, he converted the glasshouse at home into an art studio and painted landscapes in the local area. Like his hero, Van Gogh, he associated with the poor and homeless working on sketches for paintings at the Sydney Soup Kitchen and Night Refuge.

In 1959 Whiteley left Lintas to concentrate on painting for the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship, which he won, travelling to Naples in February 1960, and visiting London and Paris in the same year. After 1961 he exhibited widely and won many prizes, including the International Prix at the Paris Biennale. By the mid 1960s he had become firmly established as a leading young Australian painter whose accomplishments had become too many to record outside a tedious list.

A typical painting from this period is Woman in Bath, shown below. Brett had married Wendy in 1962 and fully exploited her as his model and muse. The design of the painting is dominant; with the bold, unrelieved black area highlighting the figure crouched in the bath, beneath a running shower. The painting expresses the concerns of contemporary painters: how to retain the power of abstraction whole introducing a degree of figuration. For comparison the works of Francis Bacon, R B Kitaj and David Hockney are important as moving away from the non-figurative forms US abstract impressionism.

Woman in the bath, 1964

Woman in the bath, 1964

At this time, Whiteley became obsessed with the Rillington place murders of the necrophile John Christie and exploited their horror in the manner of Bacon’s figures, isolated by a menacing, synthetic space. This element of psychological fragility was to permeate much of his later work that has been classified as surrealist. Brett’s father died in 1963 and Brett’s daughter, Arky was born in 1964, completing the transformation of his family life, although he subsequently had close contact with his sister Frannie in later years.

In 1967 Whiteley exhibited in Pittsburgh and won the Harkness Foundation Scholarship. After travelling in Spain he moved into a penthouse in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, a symbol of his meteoric artistic and material success.

The drawing, Shaving off a Second 1967, well illustrates his powers as a draughtsman and thinker, grappling with the radical ideas of his times. In 1965, the aspiring critic Robert Hughes had noted Whiteley’s continual dialogue with “the muse of art history… and the nature of art and perception”. The drawing, with its quotation from the Tao Te Ching, challenges the viewer, the narcissist in the mirror, to rise to the challenge of becoming a great artist at all levels. The finger is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s God sparking life into Adam or Leonardo’s pointing John the Baptist, but here, Whiteley electrifies his own inner Frankenstein monster. The slashing lines radiating from the wandering left eye suggest the subtext of Van Gogh’s shaving off a piece of his ear, rather than a slice of time.

In 1969, while in New York, Whiteley completed a large painting entitled American Dream. This predominantly red painting, which the painter described as, “a record of my struggle and resolve; it is an admission of failure”, makes clear his involvement with the pop and drug culture. He wanted the painting to make a difference but recognised that, “art can’t change things, can’t turn humans or politics or history around”1. The painting is more an inner landscape, rather than a depiction of American society, although the fifteenth panel shows a mushroom cloud, a matter of deep fear in the 1960s. The fish and birds are reminiscent of the fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch and the ‘worldly delights’ available to the successful painter in Gotham City. The painting is notable for its experimentation with photography, steel, Perspex, fibreglass, weaponry, pieces of musical instruments, fur, cloth, and barbed wire.

American Dream, 1968-69

In 1972, Whiteley began work on another 18 panel mural, entitled Alchemy, which can be seen as an attempt to consolidate his oeuvre in a masterpiece.

In constructing these lage scale works, Brett drew upon a wide range of drawing experience, both from life and from an intense study of painters from Rembrandt to Modigliani. There was much violence in Brett’s personality, which had been amplified by his American experience. These two large paintings have been described as disasters, because they are overloaded with cultural baggage from the 1960s. However, Brett regarded Alchemy as one of his best works, even though it had drained him physically and psychologically. “It was the transformative power of art that fascinated Whiteley in much of these transcendental works”, according to curator of Alchemy at the time.

Alchemy, 1972-73

In 1976, Brett won the Archibald Prize for his painting Self Portrait in the Studio. Apart from the mirror portrait, this was clearly inspired by Matisse’s

Red Studio, with the colour transformed to Whiteley’s favourite ultramarine blue. The sculpture depicted on the right and others in the background remind us that Brett was at home with this art form too.  In 1978 he became the only Australian artist to win the Archibald (twice), Sulman and Wynne art prizes.

Self Portrait in the Studio, 1976

Whiteley had scored his first success as a landscape painter and never forgot his first inspiration in the work of Van Gogh. The peculiar painting below is one of many attempts to capture the spirit of the Dutch painter, whose works also trod the fine line between drawing on nature and on a highly charged emotional and spiritual nature that contributed to his failure and early death.  In terms of success, the two painters could not have been more different, and Whitely must surely have wondered whether his perfect career might have had a deleterious effect on his work.

Blossom Tree

 Whiteley was also a graphic artist as shown in the lithograph below.

Lithograph Towards Sculpture 5, 1977

Brett was a master of line, a skill he augmented with a study of oriental art and calligraphy. In the nude portrait of Wendy 1984, the influence of both Modigliani and Matisse is evident. The inclusion of a drawing of the garden and small objects on the table adds to the intimacy and intense sexual charge of the painting, although both Brett and Wendy were heavy heroin users at the time. The elegant design and sonorous tones make this one of the great nude paintings of the 20th Century. Brett and Wendy divorced in 1989 after years of self-destruction and drug abuse.

Wendy, 1984

At the end of his career, Brett concentrated on drawing, travelling to Bali and Japan with his new girl-friend Janice Spencer. In 1991 he was awarded the Order of Australia, something of an anti-climax after his stellar career as one of Australia’s leading artists. Back in Australia, the decline in his health was dramatic, after near death experiences coming off heroin with the support of his sister Franny. He decided that he could never give up heroin permanently and recognised that his death was unavoidable as a consequence of this decision.

Brett Whiteley exploited his prodigious talents by living life to the full, depending on a heady mix of alcohol, heroin and sex for inspiration. His life went beyond mere painting, trying to achieve greatness through integrating life with art. The result was a fine consolidation of the best aspects of modern painting, from abstraction to meticulous practice and research into a multitude of techniques. Although his life was shortened, he was able to achieve a lasting body of work that elevates him beyond his outstanding fame as an Australian painter, into the pantheon of great artists of the 20th Century. He died of a heroin overdose in June 1992 in New South Wales at the age of 55.

Notes: (1) Brett, Franny Hopkirk, p.169.

Posted by: zyzygy | August 4, 2010

Pierre Bonnard: the Intimiste


Sel Portrait with Lamp

“I am not sure whether the term ‘vocation’ exactly applies to me. What attracted me then was less art itself than the artist’s life, with all that I thought in terms of free expression, of imagination and liberty to live as one pleased…I wanted at all costs, to escape from a monotonous existence.” Pierre Bonnard. 

Pierre Bonnard was born on 3 October 1867 at Fontenay-aux-Roses, a village outside Paris, into a comfortable bourgeois family. He studied at various Lycées, receiving a law degree in 1888. He began his artistic studies first at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and then at the Académie Julian, where he met his lifetime friends and collaborators, including Maurice Denis, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Edouard Vuillard and Paul Sérusier. Read More…

Posted by: zyzygy | November 23, 2009

On Genius

Response to essay “On Genius”,  by Lethe Bashar

The proposition is that the attribution of genius to an individual artist is misleading, because the artist has merely accessed some kind of universal experience that triggers admiration in the reader or viewer of the work. Consequently, it is these exalted states that the artist has stumbled on, through diligent practice, that are being admired not some special quality in the artist called genius. Read More…