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Coronavirus meets religion #5 – the arts and pestilence

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — — what novelist, poet, painter, composer or film maker will create the great works of our present plague? — with two quotes on pestilence ]
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I owe much to the Guardian for Jonathan Jones‘ article Plague visionaries: how Rembrandt, Titian and Caravaggio tackled pestilence, which provided me with the classic western exemplars here — and then there are those two quotes. But read on —

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Pilgrims, penitents, flagellants, corpse-bearers, gargoyles, vultures — the whole ghastly crew populate the first chapter of Carlos Fuentes‘ great novel Terra Nostra. It is a time of plague, and the river Seine is boiling.

Great artists not infrequently tackle subjects of death, decay and destruction, the antechambers of hell, as they do works of beauty, mercy and grace, the antechamber of paradise. Today’s edition of “Coronavirus meets religion” features a small cluster of the greatest works of European art, painted in time of plague — to ward it off, to beg God for his mercy, to instruct the faithful in the path of heaven, to petition God on behalf of oneself or one’s family..

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Titian: Pieta

This detail of a painting by the great color master Titian shows from left to right the virgin Mary holding her son Jesus, who has just been brought down from the cross, dead, his hand held by a an old and weathered figure half-clothed in rad, believed by art historians to be a self-portrait by Titian, and representing St Jerome. and bottom right, an image of himself and his son as they’d be represented in a peasant’s ex voto or prayer plaque.

Jonathan Jones notes:

Titian painted this twilit image when Venice was being ravaged by plague. He portrays himself half-naked, prostrated before the image of Mary cradling the dead Christ. To make his message clear, he includes a picture within this picture: a crudely daubed popular ex-voto panel you might see in a church, depicting him and his son Orazio in prayer. This most sophisticated of artists is offering this great ashen canvas in the same simple spirit as an offering any peasant might make. It didn’t work. Titian and Orazio both died in the 1576 plague.

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Mary Shelley:

Want a shiver down the spine? Mary Shelley gave us Frankenstein – here she is on pestilence, from this month’s Back Matter on Lapham’s:

Have any of you, my readers, observed the ruins of an anthill immediately after its destruction? At first it appears entirely deserted of its former inhabitants; in a little time you see an ant struggling through the upturned mold; they reappear by twos and threes, running hither and thither in search of their lost companions. Such were we upon the earth, wondering aghast at the effects of pestilence. Our empty habitations remained, but the dwellers were gathered to the shades of the tomb.

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Caravaggio: The Seven Works of Mercy

St Matthew‘s gospel gives the standard set of “works of bodily mercy” (Matt. 25: 35-36:

I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me

Various artists have depicted what are now known as the Works of Corporal Mercy, Bruegel the Elder painted them in pen and ink, Bruegel the Younger painted them in color, but nobody had brought all seven together combined in such a single image as Caravaggio‘s. From Caravaggio.ogr:

He set the Acts described in Matthew 25 : 35-36 in a little piazza, perhaps in front of the same Taverna del Cerriglio where three years later he was attacked. It is night, and the padrone is directing three men to his inn (“I was a stranger, and you welcomed me”). One is hardly visible. The second is recognizable as a pilgrim by his staff, Saint James Major’s shell, and Saint Peter’s crossed keys on his hat; perhaps he can be identified as Saint Roch but more likely, following the Gospel, he is Christ in disguise. The third, a young bravo, is Saint Martin c utting his cloak to share it with the naked beggar in the foreground (“I was naked, and you clothed me”). In the shadow behind the blade is a youth whose legs seem to be twisted (“I was sick, and you visited me”). The group of loiterers is completed by a husky man, Samson, in the desert of Lechi (Judges 15 : 19), pouring water into his mouth from the jawbone of an ass (“I was thirsty, and you gave me drink”). Opposite this group, on the right, is Pero breast-feeding her aged father, Ci-mon, through the bars of his prison (“I was hungry, and you gave me food” and “I was in prison, and you came to me”). And in the background, a vested priest holds a torch to illuminate the hasty transport of a corpse, perhaps recalling the plagues that periodically decimated the city’s population (burial of the dead, the seventh Act, not mentioned in the Gospel). Above the scene hover the Madonna and Child with two angels, as if to warrant divine acknowledgment of human charity, particularly of the protagonists in the painting, who may portray members of the confraternity.

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Susan Sontag:

Sontag on pestilence, in Disease as Political Metaphor — courtesy the New York Review of Books:

From pestilence (bubonic plague) came “pestilent,” whose figurative meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “injurious to religion, morals, or public peace—1513”; and “pestilential,” meaning “morally baneful or pernicious—1531.”

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Albrecht Dürer: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse:

Most beloved of the most famous set of illustrations of the Book of Revelation is this work by Albrecht Durer. The Met explains:

[T]he Four Horsemen presents a dramatically distilled version of the passage from the Book of Revelation (6:1–8): “And I saw, and behold, a white horse, and its rider had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, ‘Come!’ And out came another horse, bright red; its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that men should slay one another; and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a black horse, and its rider had a balance in his hand; … When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, ‘Come!’ And I saw, and behold, a pale horse, and its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him; and they were given great power over a fourth of the earth; to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.” Transforming what was a relatively staid and unthreatening image in earlier illustrated Bibles, Dürer injects motion and danger into this climactic moment through his subtle manipulation of the woodcut..

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But as the Book of Revelation shows, better things eternally await us:–

Durer again, illustrating the Madonna portrayed as the “woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars” in Revelation 12.1

May you each and all receive a blizzard of blessings in these hard times.

Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis.

Worlds within the world: studio of Kiefer, mind of Vollmann

Monday, February 24th, 2020

[ by Charles Cameron — the worlds within this world are to be found in the workshops of Anselm Kiefer and William Vollmann ]
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Artist one of two: Anselm Kiefer:

Kiefer devoted himself to investigating the interwoven patterns of German mythology and history and the way they contributed to the rise of Fascism. He confronted these issues by violating aesthetic taboos and resurrecting sublimated icons. For example, in his 1969 Occupations series, Kiefer photographed himself striking the “Sieg Heil” pose. Subsequent paintings—immense landscapes and architectural interiors, often encrusted with sand and straw—invoke Germany’s literary and political heritage. References abound to the Nibelungen and Wagner, Albert Speer’s architecture, and Adolf Hitler.

Interwoven patterns? The Nibelungen? Albert Speer?

Seraphim? Jacob’s ladder, on which angels travel up and down? And in this time of nuclear and gas chamber holocausts, have they abandoned the ladder?

Seraphim is part of Kiefer’s Angel series, which treats the theme of spiritual salvation by fire, an ancient belief perverted by the Nazis in their quest for an exclusively Aryan nation.

Spiritual salvation by fire?

Okay, This fellow has the kind of dark mythological intensity that interests me. Let’s take a stroll through this man’s world — a deeper dive into his studio.

In we go:–

It was like a world inside the world. Huge metal slabs were leaning against the walls. Helter-skelter around them, on racks with wheels, stood large paintings of oceans and beaches, rivers and meadows, mountains and forests, some covered with corroded ravines of lead. Vitrines in every size were standing everywhere, filled with the strangest things: the roots of trees, rusty hammers, little clay pigs. Shelves that ran the length of the hall were stacked with balance scales, hooks, rifles, stoves, snakes, torpedoes, piles of bricks, heaps of dried flowers, even whole trees. There were more full-size fighter jets and a cage that was maybe 300 square feet that was filled with golden wheat and what appeared to be the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant with a bicycle dangling down the side.

Torpedoes! Whole fighter jets! Whole trees!

Kiefer‘s paintings, we learn, are overwhelming, dark and vast — Seraphim‘s a good example — enforcing silence before their enormous intensity. And then, suddenly — watercolors, “brimming with color — sparkling blues and brilliant reds” as bright as the moments of a life, and thus as intensely personal as the dark vast paintings had been impersonal and overbearing — as is, one is forced to admit, our century.

He’s an artist — exhibit number one.

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Here’s exhibit number two: the mind of William Vollmann..

Deep dive number two:

Bill greeted me warmly and showed me around the art-making area of his bunker, where he has a power engraver—he was working on a suite of Norse block prints when I visited—and where he prints his Dolores photographs using an arcane 19th century method called gum bichromate, which takes up to 28 days to produce a single print. Then he led me to the walk-in.

What’s in here?

This is the meat locker, where Dolores’s parts are. When the electrician wired it up, he asked, “What do you use this for?” I said, “Oh, that’s just where I keep my victims.” There was a long silence….She’s got her dresses here and I have my bulletproof helmet and various stuff from my journalism in there

Lecter, Hannibal? “That’s just where I keep my victims”?

Vollmann, like Kiefer, is possessed of a world both dark and sparkling bright. The sheer extent of his variety, too, is impressive, overwhelming.

I have in my room at the Pine Creek Care Center only two smallish bookshelves, and in them one book of Vollmann‘s: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater. I mean, how not?

Kissing the Mask is so packed with beauty, understatement — erotics, Japan, Noh, Vollmann himself, Noh backstage, behind-the-scenes, photographs — ” a string ball of thoughts” — I’d like to say “torpedoes .. even whole trees” but Vollmann‘s world within the world is other than Kiefer’s, as though there were room for two worlds within our world — three perhaps — though I’ve yet to encounter the third — “with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses. porn queens, poets, housewives, makeup artists, geishas, valkyries, and Venus figurines” Vollmann addsall this in small print at the bottom of the book’s cover.

And Valkyries!

It takes my reading glasses and a Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass to read these days, and my copy of the abridged, one-volume Rising Up and Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence, Freedom and Urgent Means is in storage — a book fate which I both mourn and feel intense gratitude for.

When Vollmann turns to consider violence — “to establish a moral calculus to consider the causes, effects, and ethics of violence” as Wikipedia has it — he spends twenty and more years on the task.

The abridgment, Vollmann says, he made in half an hour, for the money. Truth to the work’s title is to be found in the $700, seven-volume original set, 3,500 copies. Even with dollar-store glasses and Holmes’ magnifying glass — enhanced with the option of bright light the better to read by — seven volumes is beyond me, as 700 pages of the condensed would be.

And there are yet other Vollmanns, with other worlds..

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Oh but let Van Gogh have the last word, eh, Vollmann?

Vincent Van Gogh, Japonoiserie, The Courtesan

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Sources

  • Guggenheim, Kiefer, Seraphim
  • NYT, Into the Black Forest With the Greatest Living Artist

  • 3 am, becoming dolores: william t. vollmann exposes his female alter ego
  • Wikipedia, William T. Vollmann

  • Metropolitan Publications, Van Gogh in Arles
  • A magical tale, in three accelerating acts

    Wednesday, November 6th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — magic is imagination, see my post Vlahos: violence is the magical substance of civil war earlier today ]
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    Act One: Jacob’s Ladder

    Jacob’s ladder, on which angels are show ascending and descending, is revealed to Jacob in a dream: sheer magic — and how richly strange to see the ladder emerge from a simple loop of string..

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    Act Two: Pavel Tchelitchew, The Concert {via Alabandine]

    That the string figure should become a stringed instrument, plucked by the teeth and accompanied by tambourine.. again, we are raised an octave above our grounded selves..

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    Act Three: Bob Dylan, Song and Dance Man

    And the song and dance musician magician Dylan — his harmonica, making an anthem for us all.

    Cats as 16th century weapons, foxes as Old Testament precursors

    Saturday, September 7th, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — cat picture meets strategy, history meets scripture ]
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    Here you go:

    With thanks to @alabandine.

    Moreau, Richter, I happen to think there’s a link

    Saturday, August 31st, 2019

    [ by Charles Cameron — it’s one of the perennial fascinations — what’s the relationship between embodiment and abstraction? ]
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    Do you see it?

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    Minimally, Richter could weave cloth for Moreau‘s goddess-women..


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