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Just see where it takes you

7 May

Bible Dam by Jacek Yerka

 

Here at the end of things, a big drop, endless forest. Things fall away.

Here at the end of things where the forest is the world. A book falls on my head and I start into wakefulness. Never could I understand the cruel logic of beginnings.

Whoever might have predicted that I would wake up here?

Many years ago, I read a book by Ursula Le Guin called The Word for World is Forest. I can’t remember anything about the book, other than liking its title. It is a science fiction story with ecological leanings, that much I remember, and was apparently the inspiration behind the film Avatar. I probably wouldn’t read such a book now, my tastes have changed. In those days I read whatever was around. There is, as far as I know, no library in that book. Here, though, the library is the world. There are probably no dogs, but I can’t be sure of that.

 

Here are two pictures of dogs by Franz Marc, the German expressionist painter.

Hund Weiss by Franz Marc

 

We know that Franz Marc had a dog, but not whether this is it, in the painting titled White Dog, or another, Dog in the Snow, in which the animal appears to have a yellow or a tawny coat, perhaps in contrast to the snow in which it lies.

 

Dog lying in the snow

 

I suspect that the pictures are of one and the same dog, Marc’s companion, with whom he took long walks in the Bavarian hills.  So the story goes, at least.

I rely on a mix of biographical snippets, picked up in some art book, many years ago, remembering only the detail that Marc took long strides (he was a large man) and that his dog resembled his master in distinctive ways, the two of them sharing a strength of character and mildness of disposition as noted by the unknown, possibly fictitious memoirist.

And now I take this memory for granted, have even placed the reference to character and disposition in italics, because I have convinced myself.

The story cries out for authentication. The dog, in two portraits, offers something that approaches evidence.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting for Godot and Caspar David Friedrich

1 May

 

How wonderful the little connections that pile up in the day to day. Blanco has long had an interest in the German expressionist painters of the early twentieth century, and was interested to learn, while reading about them the other day that Caspar David Friedrich, the great Romantic painter of lonely figures cast against majestic landscapes, was resurrected by the expressionists after falling into obscurity during the latter part of his life (when he was deemed ‘half-mad’) and after his death in 1840. (Friedrich was also taken up by the Nazis, as embodying the concept of heroic individualism, but he can hardly be blamed for that, and would, in any case – had he lived in the 1930s and 40s –have been incarcerated by them as a madman.)

 

Caspar David Friedrich, who died "half mad" in 1840

 

Samuel Beckett had a great love for the visual arts, and – largely as a consequence of a love affair – during the 1920s and 1930s made several trips to Germany, followed by a longer trip in 1936-7, in which his diaries detail extensive visits to art galleries.

It is interesting therefore, to learn that the author of Waiting for Godot, considered by many to exemplify the most profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity in Western literature, and the absurd insignificance of mankind, should have identified a work by Caspar David Friedrich as the inspiration for his play. According to his biographer, James Knowlson (whose work is based on extensive interviews with Beckett himself) the writer told his friend, theatre critic Ruby Cohn, while looking at the 1824 painting Mann und Frau den Mond betrachend (Man and Woman observing the Moon) in Berlin: “this was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.

 

 

However things are rarely as simple as they appear. Beckett, it seems, might have been confusing two paintings, according to Knowlson, because “at other times he drew attention of friends to Zwei Männer betrachten den Mond (Two men contemplating the Moon) from 1819.” As you can see, the two pictures are not wildly different (and there are various versions of both, it seems).

 

 

The point is, the image of the two tramps, Estragon and Valdimir gazing out over an alien landscape, makes a lot of sense in relation to these paintings.

But there is more.

Caspar David Friedrich is regarded as representing the apogee of the Romantic movement in the visual arts, setting down images of the Byronic hero, manfully facing down the forces of nature, the unknown, the abyss. Romanticism is precisely this: it arose at a period when the idea of God was being translated into the idea of nature. Poets set out on hikes into nature (Wordsworth and Coleridge tramping through Wales and the Lake District, Byron in the Alps writing Manfred . . . and with Shelley in Italy). Posh chaps didn’t walk in the countryside until then – no one did except the peasant farmer and the humble shepherd – and suddenly ‘Nature’ was opened up as this vast, wild, unexplored terrain (which in turn informs an understanding of the Romantic Imagination).

According to the art critic Robert Hughes, in an article on Friedrich,

“If there is one word for the mood of Friedrich’s pictures it is “longing”: the desire, never satisfied, to escape from the secular conditions of life into union with a distant nature, to be absorbed in it, to become one with the Great Other, whether that other is a mountain crag, an ancient but enduring tree, the calm of a horizontal sea, or the stillness of a cloud.”

How does this lead back to Beckett? Is Waiting for Godot, in essence, a play about longing? Longing for union with the godhead, with a distant nature, absorption with the Great Other, as conceived by a Romantic painter such as Friedrich?

Blanco can’t say, in fact is rather bowled over by all this and in need of a lie down. Any comments welcome.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Drinking mate

30 Sep

I began drinking mate six years ago, on my first trip to Argentina, and liked it immediately, even though many find it rather bitter. The picture, Mate, in which the woman drinks from the gourd while two gauchos look on admiringly, is by Juan Manuel Blanes, taken with a flash (unfortunately visible in the centre of the picture) from a book of prints of his works in the library of the National Museum of Visual Arts (Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales) in Montevideo, where last Thursday I spent a couple of hours researching Blanes’ work, with the kind assistance of two librarians, after hearing about him from Diego Vidart during a lunch of pizza and warm chickpea bread.

Blanes is the most influential Uruguayan painter, and to a large extent, the creator of the myth of Uruguayan national identity. In fact he deserves a post of his own, and one day he may get one. He did many paintings of rather glamourized gauchos, frequently drinking their national beverage, lassoing horses et cetera (the word lasso is from the Spanish ‘lazo’, a knot, bow or loop). In Uruguay everyone drinks mate, all of the time. In Argentina and Brazil it is also popular, but the Uruguayans are nuts about it. Everywhere they go they carry a flask and a gourd, and a mobile phone. They wear dark glasses too, when the sun is out, which is most of the time. This site tells you all you need to know about drinking mate, especially its many health benefits (it is, among other things, a powerful antioxidant) but the site is, I would venture, somewhat partisan.

All I know is that it tastes like supercharged green tea, delivers a healthy-feeling kick, keeps me alert, and takes the edge off my appetite, so must be good for dieting, and might eventually relieve some of the circumference of the Blanco belly. Plus it is somehow very comforting, sucking on a silver straw.

A short walk in Montevideo

22 Sep

The infinite has no accent

 

So yesterday I was talking about how people often judge a speaker by the way they speak, my point being that some listeners go into a kind of paralysis when confronted by a strange or foreign accent. So I wander into the centre of Montevideo and find graffiti that puts an interesting slant on the discussion. It translates as:

THE INFINITE HAS NO ACCENT

This made me very pleased. I am not sure the phrase means anything, but it sounds pretty.

A wide road called the Rambla curves around the south edge of the city, bordered by the vast River Plate, which you would be forgiven for thinking of as the sea. In the midday sun (it is the start of spring here, but like a July day in the UK) people are sunbathing on the low parapet at the edge of the pavement: there is a drop of a few metres and then a narrow beach and the river. Most people are clutching mate and a flask (Uruguayans are always drinking mate). I am walking quite briskly, but begin to absorb waves of lethargy from the sun lizards.

Eugen Millington-Drake

Half way into town the Rambla Argentina turns into the Rambla Gran Bretaña and to my considerable suprise, there is a large bust, on a plinth, of the onetime British ambassador, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, described in Spanish as ‘a loyal friend of Uruguay’. Millington-Drake was ambassador during the battle of the River Plate, when the German cruiser the Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled in Montevideo harbour. The Graf Spee posed a major threat to Atlantic shipping in the early days of World War Two and had already sunk numerous vessels in 1939-40. Convinced by false reports of superior British naval forces approaching his ship, the Graf Spee’s commander, Hans Langsdorff, ordered the vessel to be blown up and on 20 December 1940 laid himself out on the ship’s ensign togged out in full dress uniform and shot himself . Apparently part of the ship still remains visible above the surface of the water in the harbour.

Three cheers for Millington-Drake, cast now on a stony plinth.

I wander through the old town, which reminds me of parts of Lisbon, but apparently also resembles Santiago de Cuba, but more than anything else resembles itself. Two boys are collecting rubbish on a horse and cart. It feels laid-back and gentle after the hectic whirl of Buenos Aires.

Diego Vidart

For lunch I meet the photographer and film-maker Diego Vidart and his colleague Martin Herrera. We eat in a restaurant above a very handsome bookshop. Diego and Martin have an exhibition opening today, part of an ongoing project that links Uruguay, Finland (and Wales) in a rather complex but ingenious narrative devised by Diego and which I first heard about last year in the back garden of Des Barry’s house in Cardiff. An account of the exhibition, titled Diario de un retrato can be accessed here. An unrelated, but parallel narrative can be found in David Enrique Spellman’s new novel Far South, which comes recommended by Des and which Blanco will be reviewing in due course.

The narratives that Diego, David and Des have respectively devised explore the tensions between our understanding of portraiture (and therefore of individuality), the blurred zone between biography and fiction (a favourite of Blanco’s) and the capacity of an audience to absorb and then unravel – in the manner of a detective – events which may or may not have happened. It is a fascinating exhibition based on the trope of an abandoned suitcase, a slide projector, and two simultaneous and overlapping videos, filmed in Finland and Uruguay. The show is on until the end of October.

Diario de un retrato

 

In the same square under which the exhibition takes place, there is a lovely sign, reminiscent of the one in Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano. In Lowry’s book the sign says:

¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?

¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!

Do you like this garden which is yours?

Make sure your children don’t destroy it.

 

The one here says ‘Montevideo is your home: this square also’.

Uruguay and Wales: Wales and Uruguay. I can see where Diego, Martin, David and Des have found so much to share between their respective countries and I think their ongoing projects are tantalizing. The problem – if it is a problem – is that the possibilities seem endless, or rather, infinite. Outside the gallery, on the Avenida 18 de Julio, my attention is caught by a neon sign advertising a financial service called GALES. Gales, of course, is the Spanish word for ‘Wales’. I waited for the red light before taking the picture. It seems to go with the sign better than the green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cándido Lopez

18 Sep
http://www.unlp.edu.ar/bellasartes/pano/candid...

Image via Wikipedia

A walk down to the Museo de Bellas Artes here in Buenos Aires and a discovery that leaves a deep mark of weirdness on the Blanco brain.

Cándido Lopez (1840-1902) was an Argentinian painter who took part in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) and lost his right arm in the conflict. Although right-handed, he taught himself to paint with his left hand and produced a number of sprawling battle scenes, developing a naïf style that pre-empts L.S. Lowry, many of his pictures depicting the regimented lines of troops preparing for battle, and the horrific aftermath of the conflict, bloody corpses littering wide and desolate spaces.

The War of the Triple Alliance pitched Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay. Something of an uneven contest, you might think, although at the start of the war Paraguay actually had a larger army than the other three put together. It was the bloodiest of all the bloody wars to afflict South America in the nineteenth century and when it was over Paraguay was utterly devastated. Some estimates calculate that Paraguayan losses alone, due to the conflict and disease were as high as 1.2 million (90% of its prewar population) though a more conservative estimate suggests a mere two thirds of the male population – a gender imbalance that had a significant impact on the country’s socio-political development.

 

The causes of the war are still disputed by historians but their dictator at the time, one Francisco Solano López, had aggressive and expansionist ideas, and one of the main arguments is that the British encouraged him to develop an Atlantic coastline in order to supply their Empire with cotton, which was in high demand due to the American Civil War. A not unfamiliar story.

 

 

 

Casting Ashes

30 Aug

 

The three of them think they are carrying this fish somewhere and the fourth one, the blue man, he knows better. In my mind the blue man is the artist, Lluís Peñaranda, and this is one of my favourite paintings. Lluís died last December, having contracted liver cancer from a viral hepatitis infection contracted many years before.

Lluís was my first and closest friend in this part of the world. He picked me up when I was hitchhiking, soaked to the skin and two-thirds drunk, during a June thunderstorm on the Portbou-Llança road, sometime in the early 80s. It was a risk, on his part. But despite the strange circumstances of our meeting, we recognised something in each another, an affinity of sorts, maybe even an attraction of opposites. Sometimes it just happens like that.

 

 

Last Sunday his son Davíd, his partner Ramona, myself, Mrs Blanco, Joan Castelló and Juliette Murphy – his close family and friends – made an excursion into the Albera mountains to cast his ashes to the wind. We did so at Puig Neulós, the advantage of this peak being that it is visible from all over Alt Empordà, this magical zone which Lluís so magically reflected in his work.

 

 

The first painting Lluís ever gave me was this picture of a suprised-looking tiger flying above a mountain ridge (representing the Collsdecabra mountains, where I was doing very weird rehab in a small village in 1988). The rehab didn’t work, but the message implicit in the painting did, and I became a soaring, startled tiger. Well, okay, I made that bit up.

 

 

I once wrote: “Landscapes appear to rise out of water in Lluís’ work. The ubiquitous cypresses, and especially those moons, poised in the night sky, emanating a numinous light that illuminates the somnolent wanderings of the principal characters. The landscape of Empordà is the subliminal topic or perpetual subtext of Lluís’ work. It provides the mirror for an interior landscape which is essentially dreamlike, and, at times submarine, but the artist surfaces too, gasping, drawing in air in great thirsty gulps, and when he strides onto dry land he carries over his shoulder a bulging net of treasures found scattered on the sea-bed: old trumpets, olive oil cruets, rusting film spools, trowels, deckchairs and an old accordion, which, when beached and squeezed, releases a symphony of pilchards, starfish and seaweed. His is an elemental iconography: we are never far from sea, birds, beasts and the accumulated force of these creatures in the imaginative repertoire. Lluís is a collector of materials, and of symbols.”  Being in Water”: Lluís Peñaranda, Iwan Bala – Notes for an Exhibition bu Richard Gwyn (Cranc, 2001).

 

High above the castle of Requessens and the villages of Alt Empordà, straddling the border with France (actually marked by the broken fence) a young cow swishes away the flies.

 

 

We stand against the lowering sun and the shadows of the six of us are cast upon a giant rock. Only Lluís is absent. I write that, although in the shadows it is always hard to tell who exactly is whom.

Next to the halter of cow dung, secured by a rock, is the empty box that contained Lluís’s ashes. I have no idea how long it will stay there. Lluís insisted that his earthly ashes be kept in a biscuit tin until their dispersal, for reasons that will, like so much else, remain forever a mystery. Knowing Lluís, a shaman and artist of true originality and vision, it was perhaps his last joke, although I would not be surprised if some day I find others planted along my pathway.

It was a very strange day, that began weird and then found its own measure, there in the mountains. By the time we walked down, on the French side, everything felt right, and as it should be. Apart from him not being with us, that is.

 

Ricardo Blanco and Lluís Peñaranda, Cistella, June 1995

 

 

 

 

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