Category Archives: postmodernism

Seeing Mona Lisa Differently

I’m sorry. I don’t know this clever artist’s name.  It so often happens that way with all the graphic art that surround us. For the past 100 years or so we’ve been increasingly inundated with mechanically reproduced images.  This has relegated most of what we see to the realms of anonymity.
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In this case, I wear it.  I bought the t-shirt. Twelve Euros, I think.

The problem here is that without the name, there’s no way I can properly credit the artist whose unsigned work I’m discussing here. And without the name, it’s hard to express my gratitude for way this playful work of  t-shirt art has changed how I  look at the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci’s  Mona Lisa.

Because it is customary to give credit where credit is due, at first opportunity I meant to return to shop in Florence where I bought the t-shirt and ask the lady to point me down the path to the artist. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile: Hey artist,  are you are out there?  Step up and let me know.  We’ll have an espresso.  I want you to know that I wear your shirt once a week.  That is, at work, in the packing house where other working people stop me all the time to ask me what it signifies. The lady who cleans the restrooms loves it and was the last to ask.

As I have told one or two of my co-workers in the packinghouse,  the truth is that Leonardo’s masterpiece is a painting I once literally turned my back on.  This was a long time ago. I was just 19.  I’m not fond of crowds then, nor am I now. I needed relief from the crowd-induced claustrophobia I was experiencing in the Louvre, where the painting hangs.  These people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, speaking of that “mysterious smile”, that “enigmatic smile”, that smile they were seeing under their own reflections upon the bullet-proof glass. The experience was less than I had hoped.

And so the this is how it was for me back then, and how I left it for years, a smile fixed in recollection and behind glass  I nursed a sour grapes feeling that the painting was overrated.

Not too long ago, I bought this Mona Lisa-themed t-shirt as a souvenir in Italy. Artsy T-shirts are about the only kind of souvenir I will buy when I travel. They’re reasonably cheap light, and perfect for the kind of travel packing I do. When I buy a new t-shirt,  I throw out the one in my backpack that is the most worn.

shirtszAs I was saying,  this unidentified  graphic artist’s work changed how I see the Mona Lisa, or rather how I see the Mona Lisa when viewing computer screen reproductions of the Mona Lisa.

How so?

That’s the question I’ve been mulling over lately. I believe the answer lies in how the brain likes to process visual images artists create in the form of a painting or sculpture.  At some level the brain has to ask, is this a thing in motion or a thing at rest?

Michelangelo’s David is stationary, and that’s important because that David is captured in a moment of intense mental preparation for the kill. Also,   Donatello’s David, stands posed with one foot resting on Goliath’s severed head.  But then,  Bernini’s  David  appears with his the body awhirl in the act of  launching of the stone from the sling.

The same can be said of paintings. A still life is still life. The fruit is not supposed to be going anywhere. Jesus can hang lifeless on the cross in one painting, but and in another be carrying the cross to the hill.

As for the Mona Lisa.  It’s a portrait. Ordinarily, a portrait’s  subject is a figure that is not in motion. Leonardo’s model is posed, it should seem,  positioned at rest, seated in a chair that someone has set out in a lovely patio or loggia,  an outdoor room with a commanding view of the rocky landscape.

So, is she, or isn’t she? Stationary, that is.  I sure thought so for years and years after I turned my back on the painting to extract myself from the crowd. Because Leonardo was an excruciatingly slow painter,  Lisa del Giocondo would be sitting for long time indeed.

Being a painter who liked to take his sweet time,  clever Leonardo arranged for entertainment to amuse the lady during her long sitting. Giorgio Vasari tells us that Leonardo hired musicians and clowns to perform for the lady.

So with clowns, we can assume there was some slapstick, high jinks and jokes. And from that, can we not assume that Lisa also laughed?  Now,  if she laughed, would that smile have been a fixed, long-posed smile?

The art on my shirt has lead me to think otherwise and process the image as one frame in a motion picture.  This graphic presents the lady’s expression in a series of twelve consecutive frames that appear to represent a face in full animation.

That is,  from the mild amusement of, say,  Leonardo’s hired clown entering the loggia, followed by more schtick and buffoonery,  leading up to a final moment of some rollicking ROFLMAO-worthy pratfall.  I particularly like how the graphic artist has her falling out of the right edge of the final frame.

Brilliant.

So these days, I’m going with Leonardo’s subject being a subject in motion. His notebooks do attest to an abiding interest in the motion of birds and other animals. He liked to purchase caged birds just to release them and study their movements.

Like some other works of art from the past, this painting remains in continuous play in our times. Duchamps and Dali have painted spoofs of it. I don’t bemoan the appropriation of old works for present day tastes and amusement.  I like it, perhaps in way similar to the way Renaissance era people enjoyed seeing the works Romans and Greeks at play in their time and in their art.  I relish the past achieving a presence in the present, like how  Mona Lisa made an appearance in Batman comics.

And these days, as forensic archeologists pick at the bones in her grave,  I see do imagine a much-alive Lisa del Giocondo laughing. I so love to wear her laugh across my belly. Better that, I think,  than just a smile behind bullet-proof glass.

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A Renaissance tale makes Pulitzer list

Among yesterday’s announced Pulitzer Prize winners was Stephan Greenblatt’s, The Swerve–How the World Became Modern. This is the story of the 15th Century Florentine book hunter Poggio Bracciolini, who rescued and recopied long-forgotten ancient texts he found stashed in the scriptoriums of remote German monasteries.

The lead story of the Pulitzer announcements was that they found no works of fiction worthy of the fiction prize. I’m sure they hunted around, so it’s interesting that a non-fiction prize would go to a book about a man who made difficult journeys to hard-to-get-to places in search of great books.

Unlike the Pulitzer folks, Poggio found great books. He found some lost oratories of Cicero, Commentaries on Virgil. He would copy them in his own hand in the monasteries, and then bring his copies back to Florence.

The most significant find, according to Greenblatt, was a previously unknown Roman poet. That would be Lucretius, whose “On the Nature of Things,” supercharged the secular humanism of the Italian Renaissance. After Poggio copied the book in his own handwriting, a script we now know as Italic, the Roman poem became widely read in the circles that included, Galileo, The Medicis, Machiavelli, and later Thomas Jefferson, Darwin, Freud and Einstein.

Greenblatt is the founder of a school of literary analysis called, “New Historicism,” which views history something that has properties of a all-at-onceness, rather than linear. With its subtitle, “How the World Became Modern”, Greenblatt’s book stands as a testament that events of the Italian Renaissance remain in play in our own era. I think one way to look at this is that our mindsets operate as part of a collective consciousness with past mindsets.

Vargas Llosa and the Florentine Literary Tradition

Like Dante in The Commedia, Mario Vargas Llosa casts himself in the dual role of both the author and the self-exiled narrator-character in the Storyteller We’ve seen this act before. In those few pages of the novel where Llosa speaks directly to the reader he speaks of his time in Florence, Italy. It’s here where Vargas Llosa plays with the Florentine literary tradition.

There’s a feeling that this Peruvian Mario is a man who to has lost his way. He is unhappy, sad, working his way through the circles of recollection, a kind of Purgatorio. He is remembering an old friendship, a faraway culture, and wanders the Florentine Streets whole world away from family and home.

Vargas Llosa’s account of his stay in Florence leaves the reader with the feeling that he means these months to be a period of self-exile. Throughout the account, Vargas Llosa experiences a longing for his homeland, together with sadness over the state of its political affairs back home. Meanwhile, he tells us, he spends hours in cafes and the libraries reading Dante and Machiavelli.

Why Machiavelli? Why Dante?

The simple answer is that modernist writers like Vargas Llosa tend to reference literary figures in their works. Beyond that, it’s a little risky to guess what is in the mind of a living writer. You never know. Vargas Llosa may one day Google himself and see this blog. Not likely, but you never know. The comment box is below. So, lets continue with this thought experiment in conjecture.

While Machiavelli is best known as the author of The Prince, a little how-to manual for despots on the art of political manipulation and deception, the bulk of Machiavelli’s writings are more benign than that. There’s plays, poems, history, and one work that praises the virtues of republics. Yes, bad old Machiavelli was an advocate of representative democracies that govern with the good will of the people. Machiavelli was also pragmatic. When he was out of a job after the Florentine Republic fell, he wrote The Prince and offered it as a gift to the city’s ruler. It would be the French who would later tag Machiavelli with Machiavellianism.

Dante and Machiavelli lived in much different times. Machiavelli lived during the high Renaissance, as opposed to Dante’s middle ages. And yet the thing they have in common is that both held high public office in Florence, and both the became exiles from Florence when the political tides changed. Here’s the risky part, Vargas Llosa appears to be identifying with their experience. Vargas Llosa was politically active in his country. He even ran for President. He fell out of favor with his country’s ruling party after he fought Peru’s nationalization of banks, and again when he protested against his governments human rights violations.

It’s less risky to say that writers and poets generally enjoy toying with the literary canon.  Dante and Machiavelli are clearly part of the canon, and there’s no reason to think that Vargas Llosa would not be deliberately putting the Dante and Machiavelli at play in his work. One can hardly be in Florence without sensing something of the  presence of  Dante. You can walk right up the Alighieri home, then cross the Ponte Vecchio and stand in the doorway of Machiavelli’s digs.

If one is a writer or a poet. one is going to be especially mindful of the likelihood down this or that old street,  or these stairs Dante or Machiavelli walked. If you write, and know something of your literary history, and have spent any time in places like Florence, or Paris,  or Stratford, you know this feeling.

Mario Vargas Llosa on Florence’s Mosquitos and Art

Mario Vargas Llosa once traveled to Florence with a plan to forget about his native Peru in “absolute solitude”. The 2010 Nobel Prize winning novelist tells us about this trip in the opening and closing chapters of The Storyteller. Florence’s Renaissance art was supposed to help with the forgetting. The mosquitos didn’t help at all.

The Storyteller is a postmodern novel in which Vargas Llosa is not just the author, but also a character and narrator in those chapters. It turns out that Mario’s time of solitude were mobbed by summer crowds and menaced by mosquitos he remembers attacking the tourists on behalf of displaced Florentine natives.

Even while viewing Florence’s Renaissance art, the mosquitos bite Mario. He can’t forget Peru. The mosquitos won’t allow it. The swarms continue to remind him of Peru and the Peruvian mosquitos that bit him on the arms, legs and neck years earlier when he visited the jungle’s Machiguenga people

While Florence’s art is clearly at play in the opening and closing chapters, specific works receive scant mention. The narrator mentions Botticelli’s Primavera and Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano. That’s it, and he mentions these only to praise a contemporary photograph taken in the Peruvian jungle, a photograph displayed as part of a temporary exhibit in a little gallery near Dante’s house.

In the jungle picture, a storyteller performs among a gathering of Indians. Mario is so captivated by the image that he says the photo is as much a masterpiece as those two paintings hanging in Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery. The story is, after all, a novel primarily about the immense cultural value of storytelling, and a Jewish man who disappears from modern Lima to live among the indigenous Machiguenga people as their storyteller. And as a postmodern Latin American novelist, author Vargas Llosa means to undermine the old Eurocentric grand narrative.

The Mario in this story rents a room in a pensione and spends his days either in galleries viewing paintings and photographs, or in cafes reading Dante and Machiavelli. He tells us that the stream of tourists inundate the streets like a flooding “Amazonian River.” So, instead of a comfortable and reflective solitude, he experiences a sense of isolation among the crowds, and a sense of loss and sadness in seeing foreign invaders occupy Florence. He says, “…there are virtually no natives left in Firenze.”

That part is an exaggeration, although it is true that some of the city’s streets become choked with foreign tourists in the summer. It’s true that many Florentines schedule long vacations from the city in the peak tourist season. Vargas Llosa is too good of a storyteller to let the facts spoil his story.

With his exaggerated crowds and mosquitos, Vargas Llosa raises those big questions of cultural hegemony and threatened native populations, and applies those questions to both the Machiguenga and the Florentines. While the Machiguenga are displaced by the corporate exploitation of their jungle homeland, Florentines see their lives altered by the tourists and the travel industry. And so, he asks, “Are the mosquitos the zanzare of the Firenze totem animals, the guardian angels of Leonardos, Cellinis, Botticellis, Filippo Lipis, Fra Angelicos?” He wants to know if the mosquitos are that, “or are they the weapon that the absent Florentines try to put their detested invaders to flight?”
–rs

Next time: What Vargas Llosa lifts from Florentine literary traditions.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s Florence

Who would expect the city of Florence to figure prominently in a novel about a man who lives among a threatened Indian tribe in the middle of the Peruvian jungle? The question came to mind last week with the news that writer Mario Vargas Llosa was being awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

Florence is the setting of the first and last chapters of The Storyteller. The rest of the book is set in Lima and the jungle, as the narrator tells the story about a friend who had become a traditional storyteller, traveling from one jungle village to another.

Stay tuned. Will follow-up.

That madness and art thing

Madness is that low-hanging fruit in the Eden of our art and literary history.

I was going to save that line for the next in a series improvisational prose poems I want to do, but that will have to wait. The truth is that I’m not ready to do the poem today. Perhaps tomorrow. I have what we called in Journalism school, “more reporting to do” here. So, even if there is a poem in that, today I’m doing the non-fiction prose thing. Journalism. That is, reporting on Humanity’s long and sometimes misguided tradition of yoking madness with creative output.

Here goes: Van Gogh cut off his ear.

No, wait, everyone’s heard that story. Besides, the meme is problematical here. This narrative of madness-induced creativity reminds us that it sometimes ends with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The madness stopped Van Gogh’s paintings from coming. Hemingway never completed the short piece Jack Kennedy asked him to write for an inauguration reading. Old Robert Frost filled in with a reading of The Gift Outright. Same problem with Silvia Plath’s suicide, but not before she went to the trouble of letting us know that her affliction impeded her art, “When you are insane, you are busy being insane – all the time,” she said. “When I was crazy, that’s all I was.” So much for the crazy romanticizing.

Who else? Ezra Pound? He lived a long life, thanks in part to his madness having saved him from execution for treason. Some said it was feigned.

No, lets do this: There was a Florentine painter who claimed he could see a city or landscape in phlegm and blood stains. That’s crazy, no? He found these compositions on a wall that the sick and dying had coughed and spat upon. His neighbors talked, saying he lived more like a beast than a man. They could not help themselves from thinking that there was a connection with the half-human figures in the paintings.  Ever since then, men and women  have come and go talking about the madness of Piero di Cosimo, 1452-1521.

Novelist George Eliot was among those who talked. After living in Florence in the 1860s, Eliot could not resist writing a historical novel about Florence. Perfectly understandable, of course. While she was writing her Florence novel, Romola, she could not resist giving Piero di Cosimo a crazed speaking part, tossing into the game some colorful madman eccentricities. A girl comes to Piero’s door with a basket of boiled eggs. Piero got to where he would only eat boiled eggs. He was so afraid of fire, he never cooked. He made one exception to that rule. He had to boil glue to seal the oils on his paintings, so he braved the fire for that, and while doing so he set out another pot to boil fifty eggs at a time. I particularly like the toads in Eliot places in his living room, and also the rabbit and roosting pigeons.

Before saying more about Piero di Cosimo, lets dig a little deeper into the history of this tradition of linking this madness thing with art and creativity.

Socrates, proclaimed, “If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, and are utterly eclipsed by inspired madmen.” Is this like, if you’re normal, don’t even bother? Stick to sales or accounting.

Poe bragged about being so touched. “Men have called me mad,” he said. “but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence.”

Freud was in the game. After observing the body language of Michelangelo’s Moses sculpture in Rome, the doctor diagnosed the sculptor as laboring under a repressed rage against his patron Pope Julius II. Freud saw all that in the positioning of Moses’ marble foot, along with the way Moses fingers his beard. That sounds like a stretch, but it did turn out that Michelangelo eventually unleashed that rage on Pope. He nearly brained Julius with scaffold planks that he tossed from his high perch in the Sistine Chapel.

Coincidence or not, Sigmund Freud published his analysis of Moses-Michelangelo shortly after reading Giorgio Vasari’s artist biographies. Vasari was commenting at length on the peculiarities of many of the artists’ personal behavior. That was in the Sixteenth Century. Freud was writing about Michelangelo’s rage in 1914.

More recently, there’s the case of Martin Ramirez too. After being confined for decades in a mental institution, Ramirez became the poster boy for  artistis mental illness.  In 2008 a New York times article declared  Ramirez  “simply one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.”  Ok, he is good. Got that.   Now get this, the Wikipedia article on Ramirez leads with a line that reads, “Martín Ramírez (1895–1963) was a self-taught artist who spent most of his adult life institutionalized in California.” See, Ramirez here is not an artist who happens to be mad, but a madman who makes art.

"Courtyard" by Martin Ramirez

We also have the poets weighing in their verse. Like Freud, some of them look at the art, and then think they see something of the artist’s mind.

Jean Valentine’s 2009 chapbook , Lucy, includes a poem called “Outsider Art”, about  Ramirez  and his art. In this case, Valentine acknowledges a whole lot more of the artist who happens to be insane, and gives him a place in our shared humanity. In the context of the rest of the chapbook, the Ramirez poem is among other poems thematically linked to “Lucy” a protohuman hominoid who died three million years ago. If Lucy is one of us, so is Ramirez.

Poet John Stone brings us back once last time here to Piero di Cosimo with “Forest Fire”, a meditation on the Cosimo painting of the same name. Just by making the painting the object of a poet’s attention, we are lead to wonder if “Forest Fire” has anything to do with Piero’s pathalogical fear of fire, or the beast-like nature that Giorgio Vasari claimed had strayed increasingly to the feral side over the course of his life. We wonder what, if anything, in the picture came out of the Rorschach visions of phlegm stains on a sickroom wall?

"Forest Fire" by Piero di Cosimo.

Vasari said Piero lived more like a beast than a man. Beast?  These words have lead to speculation about the Painting, “Forest Fire.” How can you help that when the painting is filled with beasts, one of which includes a pig with a half-human face, and a person with deer-like features.

Look here. Stone walks us back to a beastly primal myth time when people and animals were more alike. Lucy’s time, perhaps. The stories and pictographs of Native Americans sometimes speak of a myth time “when people and animals were not so different.” Stone observes in the painting:

A human snout
floats in the face of a swine.
A bearded man-deer nudges his doe.

Stone says all of them are “being” and because of the fire these beings are “being” driven out as the fully-formed humans discover the uses of fire. This brings on end of Eden and it’s low-hanging fruit. And so, Stone’s poem concludes with the expulsion:

…like God, Di Cosimo
conjured up a reason
to take it away.

–RS

(Thanks to Stefano Sandano, of Romanguide.com for passing along his take on Freud’s Moses of Michelangelo)

This post is dedicated to all my writer and poet friends who I met in those crazy days at the “Writers Asylum”.

More Renaissance Slam:

Passing this along because it demonstrates so perfectly

Thanks to Sue Miller for bringing it to our attention.