March 2010

ऋतु from the series Profane Icons

luz es tiempo

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judge for yourself, lest I be judged in your stead… from the series Profane Icons

… on the subject of proxy – or representation: to wit, the latest by Smythe & co. here?

or: bow wow – or: This is not a metaphor (except, of course, if, as the comments suggest, we consider that the NZ cultural polity is suffering a seizure)

National Scandal

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style is a personal form of originality‘ – Baudelaire; to the limit of all faculties – Deleuze’s Kant; truth is more important than art – Lord’s Giacometti

The problem of vision for Giacometti was to find the style which would most amply and truly embody it. That is the problem, of course, of all art, and it is the cruelest problem of all, for it tests the personal resources of the artist beyond the limit of his capacity. The expression of truth is an effect of style, and that pitiless fact only increases the difficulty of the search for a true style.

– photograph by Dong Wensheng, Meditating Head Sculpture from the Tranquilizing Room series

Alberto knew this. He once observed: “The truer a work of art is, the more it has style. Which is strange, because style is not the truth of appearances, and yet the heads which I find most like those of the people one sees in the street are the least realistic heads, the heads of Egyptian, Chinese, or archaic Greek sculpture. For me, the greatest inventiveness leads to the greatest likeness.”

– James Lord, Giacometti: A Biography, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1997, p. 166


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Better poetry with Benn, mit Beckmann, Dix and Hofmann


824: Der Frauen Liebe und Leben.
Das Cello trinkt rasch mal. Die Flöte
rülpst tief drei Takte lang: das schöne Abendbrot.
Die Trommel liest den Kriminalroman zu Ende.

Grüne Zähne, Pickel im Gesicht
winkt einer Lidrandentzündung.

Fett im Haar
spricht zu offenem Mund mit Rachenmandel
Glauge Liebe Hoffnung um den Hals.

Junger Kropf ist Sattelnase gut.
Er Bezahlt für sie drei Biere.

Bartflechte kauft Nelken,
Doppelkinn zu erweichen.

B-moll: die 35. Sonate.
Zwei Augen brüllen auf:
Spritzt nicht das Blut von Chopin in den Saal,
damit das Pack drauf rumlatscht!
Schluß! He, Gigi! –

Die Tür fließt hin: Ein Weib.
Wüste ausgedörrt. Kanaanitisch braun.
Keusch. Höhlenreich. Ein Duft kommt mit.
Kaum Duft.
Es ist nur eine süße Vorwölbung der Luft
gegen mein Gehirn.

Eine Fettleibigkeit trippelt hinterher.

– Gottfried Benn, 1912

– Otto Dix, The Journalist Sylvia von Harden, 1926

– Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with Champagne Glass, 1919

Night Café

824: Lives and Loves of Women.
The cello takes a quick drink. The flute
belches expansively for three beats: good old dinner.
The timpani is desperate to get to the end of his thriller.

Mossed teeth and pimple face
wave to incipient stye.

Greasy hair
talks to open mouth with adenoids
Faith Love Hope round her neck.

Young goitre has a crush on saddlenose.
He treats her to onetwothree beers.

Sycosis brings carnations
to melt the heart of double chin.

B flat minor: the 35th Sonata.
Two eyes yell:
stop hosing the blood of Chopin round the room
for that rabble to slosh around in!
Enough! Hey, Gigi! –

The door melts away: a woman.
Dry desert. Canaanite tan.
Chaste. Concavities. A scent accompanies her,
less a scent
than a sweet pressure of the air
against my brain.

An obesity waddles after.

– trans. Michael Hofmann

– Otto Dix, The Dancer Anita Berber, 1925

Trans-European Express

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Nicholas Fox Weber’s Balthus biography ruined by splashes of white vitriol, or, the Crac, cracks, a cat, a stilhetto, slits, a tit, one true line, more cracks, & tragedy ending in a crime

Baladine, Balthus’s mother, writes in a letter to her lover, Rilke, about her son’s teacher, Mr. P. The latter has in his possession a pastel by Balthus but is under the false impression that it is Baladine’s work. The preface referred to is by Rilke to Balthus’s bande dessinée, Mitsou.

The poor man was quite confused, and when I told this to Balthuz, he replied, “It’s a good thing Mr. Rilke said in his preface that I exist; otherwise Mr. P. wouldn’t have believe it.” – and now I’m obliged to make a present of one of my paintings to Mr. P. to bring him back to life – Oh my friend, does Baltuz exist? I myself suffer from his mischief-making – especially since we’re in the country of Calvin.
– quoted in Nicholas Fox Weber’s Balthus: A Biography, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999, p. 57

– Balthus, frame 3, Mitsou, 1921

Rilke replies. He refers to the Crac which he identifies with Balthus’s mysterious missing birthdays, on the 29th of February. Rilke has in letters to Balthus told him that to catch up with those lost dates all he need do is slip through the Crac.

As for my friend B., I wasn’t so wrong to advise him not to vanish into the “Crac,” since with regard to school, he was there already. Luckily, he was found in time! I nonetheless remain convinced that “B. exists,” only it will always be extremely difficult to agree upon the place where he exists!
– in ibid.

– Balthus, Mitsou, 1921

Rilke in 1921 on the Crac:

Many years ago I knew an English writer in Cairo, a Mr. Blackwood, who in one of his novels advances a rather attractive hypothesis: he claims that at midnight there always appears a tiny slit between the day ending and the day beginning, and that a very agile person who managed to insert himself into that slit would escape from time and find himself in a realm independent of all the changes we must endure; in such a place are gathered all the things we have lost (Mitsou, for instance) … children’s broken dolls, etc. etc. …

That’s the place, my dear B., into which you must insert yourself on the night of February 28, in order to take possession of your birthday, which is hidden there, coming to light only every four years! (Just think how worn out, in an exhibition of birthdays, other people’s would be compared with this one of yours which is so carefully tended and which is removed only at long intervals, quite resplendent, from its hideaway.)

Mr. Blackwood, if I am not mistaken, calls this secret and nocturnal slit the “Crac” …

This discreet birthday which most of the time inhabits an extraterrestrial space certainly entitles you to many things unknown here on earth (it seems to me more important and more exotic than the Brazilian uncle). What I wish for you, my dear B., is that you’ll be capable of acclimatizing some of these things on our planet so that they can grow here, despite the difficulties of our uncertain seasons.

– in ibid., pp. 84-5

Does every one get the biographer they deserve? (and in the case of most of us, none.)

– Balthus, sketch (made fifteen years after The Guitar Lesson), c. 1949

On the evidence of Nicholas Fox Weber’s biography of Balthus, this is a terrifying thought. 603 pages. The poor man – I do feel sorry for him – feels so deeply betrayed by his subject that he carries on in a role not unlike a Minor Inquisitor, a prosecutor, venting his hurt at Balthus’s duplicitousness. For example, considering the painting, The Victim, Nicholas Fox Weber cites its inspiration as Pierre Jean Jouve’s piece of the same name:

Extraordinary how easy it is to stick a knife into a woman, he thought, and when he saw the result – that she fell, eyes rolling back in her head, he withdrew the knife just as easily without any hurry, and tossed it on the floor. … Now that she was dead, he desired her furiously, and would have liked to kiss her on the mouth and make love to her.

– Pierre Jean Jouve, in ibid., p. 310

The biographer seeks out Linda Fairstein, chief of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit, to serve as expert witness in his case against the painter.

– Balthus, incomplete reproduction of La Victime, 1939-1945

“She looks like a sex murder victim,” the prosecutor pronounced – “exsanguinated.” The discolouration of the subject’s skin pointed to her having been “strangled or asphyxiated” – as if the dagger on the ground may have been used to threaten, but not to implement the crime. The conclusion was that this was not the aftermath of a spontaneous act of violence. Rather, it was a setup, which “looks disturbed” and in which “nothing is natural.” The exsanguinated hue, not by accident, was a similar colour to the flesh of Piero’s biblical personages and provided the detachment and remoteness that Balthus had imbibed at age eighteen and would cultivate forever after. Balthus had devised a scene in keeping with Pierre Jean Jouve’s text, but also very much according to his own taste.

– ibid., p. 311

I would like to note two things in this text, remarkable for its begging of the question, its setup, its transparency. Firstly, that “nothing is natural” implies that everything is artificial, that the painting depicts a scene devised by art and not a crime scene. Is there a difference? Wilde said that only bad art corrupts. He is my witness in the defense of this aesthetic act. Secondly, the mention of Piero: nothing is in fact known about Piero della Francesca, not even his date of birth. He is then the inspiration for Balthus’s statement, on being prompted to provide puff for an exhibition catalogue: “Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the paintings.”

– Balthus, Study for The Children, c.1936

His biographer finds – it’s all a matter of literally uncovering the literal truth – Balthus’s models for his five Three Sisters paintings. He meets the eldest, Marie-Pierre Colle, in 1991. She is the girl seated on the sofa, about eleven when she sat for the artist.

As she was recounting this to me forty years later, she was seated, as in her childhood portraits, on a sofa. … Marie-Pierre was an arresting sight in a very tight and short miniskirt. She kept changing the position of her legs – sometimes tucked underneath her buttocks, sometimes crossed in front of her. She appeared to be trying to keep from revealing too much thigh, yet the effort was exposing a provocative amount of leg.

Balthus was “tender, gracious, loving” she told me. He “felt responsible” for her. She went out of her way to make it clear that now he was very much misunderstood by the public at large. Neither she nor her sisters “felt any erotic connection with him; he was completely paternal, and in no way improper.”

As she was saying this, suddenly this attractive, youthful woman – impressively svelte and smooth-skinned at fifty – began, with her right hand, to massage her left breast: the one nearer to me. She was wearing a loose-fitting, silky blouse that was unbuttoned to mid-chest, and she had reached through the opening and under her bra. She looked unconscious of the act, as if she were in a trance.

– ibid., pp. 460-461

Nicholas Fox Weber bravely recounts this episode, giving also that he is unsure of whether Marie-Pierre is trying to “lure” him or is prompted to stroke her breast by the memory of sitting for Balthus.

In 1992, Nicholas Fox Weber meets Sylvia Colle Lorant, the youngest of the Three Sisters. He quotes her as saying:

As a person, he was tender, present. He amused himself with us; he joked a lot. The paintings were enigmatic, but he was not. There was never any danger: the sexuality was in his head. His cerebral world was different from the world out there in the painting. He had the audacity to express his ideas in his art.

– in ibid., p. 464

I have made this big, because I think it contains greater insight into the artist, Balthus, than all of his biographer’s 603 pages put together. It is in short asides like the following that Nicholas Fox Weber gives us any indication that he is capable of objective examination of his subject, or has, indeed, looked at the paintings for any reason except to strengthen his case for the prosecution.

When Balthus’s line wavers, it is because ambiguity is a truer state than clarity is.

– ibid., p. 542

Gae Aulenti, an architect the biographer meets in 1999, tells him the story of Balthus receiving the Imperial Prize from Prince Masahito Hitachi, in 1991.

Balthus, although naturally “very tall – I think he was one metre ninety, ” was further elevated by the unusual leather clogs with thick wooden heels that he was wearing with his evening clothes. … “Balthus went in front of the prince to take the prize, and he had more height because of these shoes. And the Japanese prince was very short.” The architect’s attention was further drawn to these black clogs because of the “violet socks” Balthus was wearing. … “Balthus kneeled in front of the prince at ninety degrees.” Once he had lowered himself to the ground, he was down “for two minutes. I the complete silence you could hear his bones: crack, crack, crack. It was like something out of a Japanese play, Noh theatre.” …

“He couldn’t get up.” The suspense was palpable as the notables assembled in Tokyo looked on, while no one uttered a sound. …

By Aulenti’s calculation, it took the artist “three minutes to come back.” … As she imitated Balthus taking that seemingly interminable time to straighten up his body, she said it seemed as if he would never rise again. In Gae Aulenti’s eyes, “the most elegant man in the world,” Balthus, had stolen the show.

– ibid., pp. 595-596

Notice how Nicholas Fox Weber barbs the end of the story, as if Balthus’s intention had been to steal the show, as if it was his show and not a ceremonial occasion, as if in his biographer’s mind Gae Aulenti’s eyes are mistaken. Notice the inelegance of the prose.

– Balthus, Alice dans le miroir, 1933

A little more on Pierre Jean Jouve, the owner of Balthus’s Alice dans le miroir, who wrote, in fact, of his obsession with the painting. Balthus’s Alice is not to be confused with Carroll’s: the former possesses the only hairy vulva in the painter’s oeuvre. She is not a little girl.

In Jouve’s eyes, an element of death inspired both the invention of Balthus’s paintings and their execution. He found that their candid morbidity provided both authentic grandeur and a constantly tragic character. Jouve revered Balthus’s art for this revelation of a world other than the absurd one in which we pretend to live, for its rich mixture of anguish and splendour.

– ibid., p. 308

I like this. It is surprising on rereading it how it recalls Eliot’s belief that tragedy is no longer possible in the modern world. Now, the biographer-as-prosecutor intervenes:

With Alice hanging where it did – alongside the bed in his wood-panelled bed chamber – he experienced the cold, enticing, nasty lust of Balthus’s vision full force, unadorned and unrepentant.

– ibid.

L’art est délivrance, même dans la souffrance; mais aux yeux de ceux, parias, qui n’ont pas le sens intime de la liberté de l’esprit, l’art est le crime.

– Georges Rouault

luz es tiempo

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Auckland Airport from the series Profane Icons


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watermelon from the series Profane Icons


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Pauly, Condom Alley, 4/3/10


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you were so modular, Newmarket, from the Unisex Architecture series


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you were so modular, Fort. St., from the Unisex Architecture series


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