Time to flee the blazing Viennese summer and make for cooler climes, and old friends.
I was delighted to see Amanda Sage talk about her work at a homey vegan café on Neubaugasse last week. With strong connections to Vienna, Sage is a self-professed ‘visionary artist,’ which seems to mean something to do with new-age spiritualism, distinct from the rather more plain notion of having an artistic vision. And yet, there might be a closer connection between these ‘visions’ than I first imagined.
Sage’s rainbow-infused work, in spite of the multicolour cacophony, is very unified and seems to draw much of its stability from symmetry. Perhaps most dazzling is her flawless use of parallel lines that undulate across the surface, rainbow interference patterns that create buzzing optical illusions but don’t undermine the image. There’s a real crispness and clarity without any inch of the surface being plain or uninteresting. And her brand of vision seems very hidden and mysterious—her recurring symbols of rainbow serpents and eggs are part of a personal mysticism that seems to be divulged to her in her dreams.
Sage talked through her influences, her travels in Bali, her Viennese teachers (legendary in the visionary art realm—Ernst Fuchs and his son Michael Fuchs), her early apprenticeship. During this time, she worked alongside them on their paintings and cathedral projects, but at the end of her apprenticeship she painted her own masterpiece, to which she was finally able to sign her own name. We were treated to an image of this piece and I was absolutely charmed by it: a reflective orb in an otherwise quite ordinary still life—very literal, yet rather surreal. And then she spoke beautifully about the period after Fuchs ‘kicked her out on her own’ and her difficult struggle to move away from such representation and to attempt to ‘paint from her visions.’ She humbly showed an early painting that she was on the verge of destroying in utter despair and frustration, which she took to her old master for guidance. ‘This painting is sick!’ he told her. ‘You’re not listening to the painting.’
This phase in a painter’s life is very important and difficult. In many ways, we will always be students, if we are open-minded enough, and willing to learn from those who cross our paths. There is ever more to see in the grand galleries of the world, ever more to be in awe of. But there is a point at which you close the book on painting apples and wine bottles on a rippling sea of drapery under a steady spotlight, and you search out your visions—whether you listen to your dreams, or mine our cultural heritage, or attempt to tell modern stories. This is the time when we step up and struggle with something much harder than technical proficiency, though it certainly tests our technical proficiency. We see if what we have learned holds up to our artistic aspirations as we try to uncover something meaningful to say. It was very moving to hear Amanda talk about this struggle, and to realise that in this respect, we must all be ‘visionary’ artists. I’m reminded of Delacroix being renewed by Dante. We must all find our source.
When the egg came to her in a dream, Sage knew she’d found something important, and many of her paintings since have either incorporated an egg or been completely encapsulated in an egg, her ‘safe space,’ a safe compositional framework, in which she can allow the painting to unfurl. The egg, pregnant with symbolism, also offers her a guaranteed harmony.
The work which undeniably left the deepest impression on me was Ana Suromai, the ‘lifting of the skirts,’ a ceremony that she says every culture has a rendition of. When women have had enough, they lift their skirts, and this act has the power to stop armies and fend off demons. Sage (for it is a self-portrait) lifts her skirt to war and destructive consumerism and the table of power. Yet dissatisfied at making such a provocative painting, such a negative painting, she questioned herself as to why she would paint such a piece. She agonised over it for five or six years. But at last the egg emerged, bursting electric from her vagina, such a beautiful and feminine symbol of rebirth and hope.
This image struck me at such an important time. I’ll admit I’ve been wallowing in Alice in Wonderland, both the Disney animation and a German translation of Lewis Carroll, and loving that Alice is no sexualised princess caught up in a love story but simply a thoughtful girl trying to grapple with a nonsensical world through sheer logic and manners. While sometimes it can feel like having lady-parts is a magnet for unsolicited attention and false kindness, it came as a shock to think of them as a source of power. ‘Is this what you want? Here it is!’ A strength, rather than a weakness.
So thank you, Amanda Sage. It helps. And it helps to think so crisply and clearly in terms of painting from our visions.
I’ve had some acquaintance with the Vienna Academy of Visionary Art through their open life drawing sessions twice a week during term, so I was happy to hop along to their end of year show and celebrate the conclusion of their first year with them. The Academy’s teaching faculty come from all over the world, even as far as Melbourne, and many of them were taught in turn by the Viennese Ernst Fuchs, whom they all hold in very high esteem. The small cohort of seven students are all from the US and Canada.
The school itself, on a workday, is light and airy, rocking new age beats, and generally exuding a peaceful calm. Shoes are often shed, and herbal teas steam alongside palettes. Each painting station is beside a window, a bright little hub without a place for a still life, because the students here admirably work from imagination. There is a strong emphasis on traditional techniques, and many works are done in the so-called ‘Mischtechnik,’ layering oil, egg tempera and varnishes. Paintings are built up from raw umber underpaintings through a series of glazes, and in the life drawing session students are encouraged to work into mid-toned paper with a dark and a white chalk or pencil preparation for such painting.
Principal instructor Laurence Caruana’s speech on the opening night expressed despondency with the commercialism that has crept into and strangled art over the last four centuries. The vision of this Academy is to salvage some human dignity in art, and it seeks to do this through (in Laurence’s words) ‘a return to the sacred in art.’ What this might mean in a modern, largely secular world is perhaps contestable, but a heavy dose of mysticism certainly comes as part of the package. And indiscriminately so: Paleolithic, Neolithic, and tribal goddesses are explored as part of the curriculum, as is Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Minoan art, barging right on through Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. And I’ve perused but one of Laurence’s books sitting by the altar in the teaching room, a novel based on his investigations into the Gnostic Christ.
Now, I know very little about mysticism other than garden-variety Christianity, but it seems you are welcome here to choose your poison, or concoct your own special blend. This desperate grasping after something, anything, spiritual feels strangely backward-looking, a denial of our collective growth and expanding and ever-refined knowledge over the last few centuries. I can’t help but think that a modern ‘sacred’ art ought to shed its gods and evolve into a humanist art, perhaps aligned with philosophy and science. Fractals, anyone? Conformal symmetry is pretty mind-blowing!
I have had some good conversations with students at the Academy about such things as symmetry and composition. When I questioned them about their penchant for symmetry, I was told that it is a calming, grounding compositional strategy: the balance in the image quiets the viewer to a state of steadiness, giving them a clear focal point from which to furtively explore other parts of the canvas. I’m reminded of the strength and simplicity of a radial composition, which may be built of quite complex elements, and wonder if this hypnotic simplification isn’t aiming too low. Then again, perhaps our collective visual literacy is so deplorable that we really do need such obvious cues to find our way around a still image.
Objects from the altar may be used for still lives, which seems to emphasise this somewhat Mischtechnik-mysticism over technical clarity—I try to fathom learning properties of light with the aid of pinecones and crystals instead of the humble spheres and eggs I drew repeatedly until I understood. Students of the Visionary Academy are certainly not in danger of lapsing into lustreless careers as painters of technically proficient but dull still lives and studio nudes, or forgetting that they are learning skills in order to produce art. At every step of the learning process, the Visionary student bears in mind their mystical vision—even the life drawing poses are modelled on famous mystically-oriented paintings or incorporate mythic weaponry props. The ambitiousness of this undertaking shows: the students all exhibited their major piece for the term as ‘works in progress.’ To some extent, I think it is admirable that they keep their vision ever at the forefront, but it also seems to obscure some valuable learning opportunities. I am deeply saddened at the way students are left to languish in the life class, critiqued and yet unassisted by their teacher, until they plead illness and head out in search of herbal teas. And when there is so much to be learned from the figure!
Perhaps most sadly of all, this spiritual quest does not seem to wrench art back from the clutches of Mammon. For unlike shows at large private galleries such as Philip Bacon in Brisbane, where money flows in the tens of thousands and the fine champagne flows just as freely—the lubricant of capital—but no one ever talks about the digits, one topic overshadowed all others on the Visionary Academy’s opening night: money. A student gave a public plea (not her first) in the opening speeches that left me squeamish, drawing our attention to all the money-giving opportunities available that night: that many paintings were for sale, that her own work was especially for sale in a silent auction format, that many small works were available at a ‘pay what you want’ table. After the formalities, we slipped to the bar for a little refreshment and were charged more than we would be at a restaurant per glass, a policy I’d never yet seen in place at an art show. Now that the term is over, the Academy is doggedly cross-posting in all the Vienna life drawing groups, trying to rent out studio space and accommodation over the summer. And all the while, it’s hard to silence that little thought at the back of one’s mind that a year at this Academy will set you back a not-so-trivial €9900. Peace and love, and capitalism, brothers and sisters. It’s the modern world, whatever mysticism you drape it in.
The graduate exhibition runs until June 28th 2014 at the Palais Palffy on Josefsplatz, Wien.
The apologetic cry, ‘I’m a perfectionist!’ is repulsive to me: a virtuous-sounding excuse for failing to complete a work, or failing even to start because one cannot put something aside and move on to newer projects. I want to contend that perfectionism can be disastrous because it begins at the end, and unjustly weights the final product as more valuable than the process of getting there. This is not to say that the outcome of a work is irrelevant, for ultimately we are hoping to contribute lasting and pleasing things to the world, to the utmost of our abilities. But the artist must keep both the end and the means in mind. Secondly, I want to contend that perfectionism, if it is to have any merit, ought to be a private quest, locked safely in the mind of the artist. She ought to be able to evaluate her own work, to engage in ruthless self-reflection, in order to improve her work rather than stall it in the paralysis of self-doubt. I see no place for this self-critique out in the open, begging for the validation of others.
I read a nice little story about students making pottery, where half the class was graded on quantity and the other half on quality. As it transpired, the half that had churned through a large volume of work, evaluated it, reconsidered their approach, discarded previous efforts and tried again, ended up producing the more consistently higher quality work. This isn’t a bald argument for quantity as a guarantee for randomly producing a masterpiece; it illustrates, rather, that time, dedication, risk-taking and self-reflection are necessary to improve. This may happen over the course of many works or in the fearless refinement of one. Perhaps working over many works has only this advantage: One learns to let go, and to not let everything rest on the success or failure of a single piece.
An enlightening book by David W Galenson, Old masters and young geniuses, describes the heartless method of the sculptor Giacometti: his unrelenting revision of his sculptures usually took the form of ‘completely destroying and recreating them. He did not feel it necessary to preserve most of his efforts because he considered them failures’ (2006: 119). Jean-Paul Sartre, a friend of Giacometti’s, recalled, ‘I like what he said to me one day about some statues he had just destroyed: “I was satisfied with them but they were made to last only a few hours”. … Never was a matter less eternal, more fragile, nearer to being human’ (p. 119). Despite his harsh self-criticism, Giacometti was not incapable of getting out of bed in the morning and setting to work. This is because despite not achieving his end, he saw the importance of each step toward that end. The creation of each smashed-up sculpture was indelibly imprinted in his brain: the sculpture itself need not continue, for its real value lay in the knowledge gained during the making of it.
And so it is with studies of any kind. Drawings that search out anatomy, or rhythms through the body, or that simply train the hand into a steadier hatching technique: these drawings might be pleasant enough to look at, but their real value lies in the marks hatched into the mind of the draughtsperson. Learning art is physical; it is bound up in the making of art, not in the theorising about it. And an outlook that every piece must be finished, polished, perfect, can inhibit the exploration, the risk taking, and perhaps stall the regular habit of simply drawing. It is worthwhile to take pieces as far as you possibly can. It is also invaluable to practice starting, to practice seeing the whole, to rehearse difficult fragments again and again.
This is how the perfectionist really works: smoothing out those rough patches, actively seeking out gaps in her knowledge, testing herself and starting again. Because privately, she knows her limitations, and confronts them day after day. But publicly, she can be proud of her efforts, and confidently lay out her failures without a hint of self-deprecation: These works are the best she can offer as a result of her dedication and discipline, and her mind is already fixed on new challenges, building on what was gained through these humble but infinitely valuable failures.
Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.
I was on my way to Berlin, buzzing with ambition, when I was seduced by Vienna. This proud city, with its somewhat faded opulence, in all shades of cream and flecked with gold, is not the ever-reinvented hive that is Berlin. While Berlin constantly recreates itself in the wake of the catastrophic pummelling it took in the twentieth century, Vienna lingers in its early twentieth century grandeur, reflecting nostalgically on its lavish achievements, and unhurriedly meanders into this century like its curling, well-tended garden paths. An exhibition at the Lower Belvedere currently reflects on the contrast between these two German-speaking cities, and on the flow of artists between them during the early part of last century. Wien – Berlin: Kunst zweier Metropolen (The art of two cities) traces the cross-pollination and divergences of the art of these two cities at a time of impressive growth and change.
In both Vienna and Berlin, artists broke away from the established Künstlerhaus system of annual central exhibitions and established their own Secessions in the late 1800s. Rather than bowing to the narrower demands of the traditional methods of exhibiting, artists banded together to create a more liberal environment that welcomed extremely varied art. Quality was prized over a strict aesthetic.
Even so, each city infused its Secession with its own flavour. Vienna, steeped in its tradition of the salon in which artists, writers, scientists, musicians and other intellectuals regularly came together and let their ideas be fertilised by other disciplines, moved a little slower than Berlin. Vienna persisted in its holistic outlook, cemented in these salons and in integrated design workshops like the Wiener Werkstätte which married luxurious and individualised ornamentalism with function. Life was infused with art, and art blossomed in sympathy with science, and Vienna sought greater and greater refinement in this cyclical motion, eternal as the leafy ring road that circles the Innere Stadt.
Berlin, meanwhile, marched onwards to the beat of industrialisation. Speed and progress birthed a buzzing metropolis, and this in turn transmuted into the dissonant, angular and aggressive art of German Expressionism. The Belvedere exhibition begins with the bustling optimism of the turn of the century—train stations flooded with people, glistening streets full of nightlife despite rain, charming dancers, an explosion of colour. Yet Vienna is already somewhat more sedate, with refined ladies elegantly poised as in the portraits by the Viennese Gustav Klimt (Johanna Staude, 1917/18) and Otto Friedrich (Elsa Galfrés, 1908; Gabrielle Gallia, undated). And the strains of industrialisation are already passionately depicted by the German Käthe Kollwitz in her Weavers (1897) series, with trauma etched into the extremely individual faces marching in protest, eyes crazed. German Hans Baluschek’s Montagmorgen (Monday morning) (1898) is a blue haze of Berliner debauchery, with independent modern girls stripped down to their stockings and undergarments languidly welcoming the dawn with their beer bottles and cigarettes. The ‘cultivated refinement’ of Vienna is contrasted with the ‘uncompromising progress’—and the ensuing stresses—of Berlin. Vienna’s ‘unhurried contentment’—Gemütlichkeit—was paraded as a singularly Viennese virtue, but was beginning to stand for the city’s inability to keep up.
As an intellectual locus, however, Vienna produced its own Expressionists to match the newer, more forceful art burgeoning in Berlin. As Eric R Kandel describes in his book The age of insight, the Austrian Expressionists were influenced by the inward-looking ideas of the emerging field of psychology, in which the Viennese Sigmund Freud was making bold strides. Austrian painters such as Max Oppenheimer, Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele were connected with, if not living in, Berlin, but producing a particularly Viennese brand of Expressionism. The ornamental heritage championed by Klimt found its way in to their compositions, which often place the figure on a flat, pearlescent ground; a sort of emotional reductivism. But the gallery notes also refer to ‘the psychologically precise observation of gesture and posture’ characteristic of the Viennese Expressionists, as well as their sculptural construction of volumes in the figure.
The angular Bildnis des Verlegers Eduard Kosmack (1910) (Portrait of the publisher Eduard Kosmack) by Schiele, although stripped to a soft, bare ground, and although emotively distorted with monstrous joints and hands and heavy, dark-ringed eyes, pays careful attention to anatomical landmarks and three-dimensional representation. The distortions deviate from this certain frame, and the image shimmers with fury and intensity, as though Kosmack’s head might explode at any moment, a burning book cast to his side. Likewise, Oppenheimer’s Geißelung (1913) (Scourging), while expressively abstracted, clings to solid and fluid drawing, with pleasing graphic arcs of ribs showing through thinly painted flesh. The elongated Christ-like figure, whose innards are being torn to shreds, is surrounded by angular, universalised figures whose converging faces border on religious ecstasy. The pain is thoroughly depicted in the drawing, with the colours soft and subdued—the blood-stained drapery is a gentle, rosy shade of pink. This is in notable contrast with the German Expressionist use of colour to carry emotion, and the often flattened shards of shapes, heavy as woodcuts.
In the 1920s, a sober disillusionment seemed to overtake both cities. The heavy-handed heart-rending of Expressionism gave way to the distanced, dreamlike mood of New Objectivist painting. The portraits of the German Christian Schad are overly sharp and precise: egg-smooth, with deep creases, carefully outlined and overlarge eyes, empty and lifeless. As in Lola, the colours are strong and the light is bright but a deep melancholy pervades these seemingly bold personalities. The accompanying still lives are firmly delineated arrangements of perfectly ordinary objects that turn surreal in these impersonal representations. Hans Baluschek’s Sommerabend (1928) (Summer evening) is again drenched in an unsettling blue light, the shadows comprising the fleshier pink colours of the tired out tenants of a windowless apartment block in their dusty garden. The paint is lively and brushy, even on flat surfaces. The scene is framed by two lights: on the left, the blazing lights of a train forging ahead, and on the right, a full, low-slung golden moon. The people recline in awkward love-triangles, clutching desperately at simple pleasures, balanced between these two lights.
And then, tucked away in the last room, amongst sporting images and caricatures, are two incredible paintings by the German Lotte Laserstein. Her women are modern, sporting, beer drinking, and plain: their gazes are not empty, but heavy with understanding, a knowing and accepting melancholy. Tennisspielerin (1929) (Tennis player) is awash with watery shadows, the whole painting laid down over a rough, brushy layer that shows a thick texture through the image. The lighter tones look wiped away, leaving a dreamy, hazy finish despite the deep reddish colour of the skin. With her face turned away, it is her body that says everything. Im Gasthaus (1927) (In the tavern) is stunning in its own way: much smaller, and painted on wood, the paint layers build up like watercolour though they are oil, leaving an agitated, blotchy surface. The lady’s blue button eyes near fall out of her head; her fingers press deeply into her glove. The modern world is upon us.
Our pictorial history comes to a halt here, but life goes on quietly in Vienna; the former imperial capital overshadowed by Germany’s vibrant young capital. But while young people lust after a nightlife like Berlin’s, and know this is not the place to come to make a name for themselves, the comment of a young scientist resonates deeply: ‘In Berlin you are always having a good time. In Vienna, you get some peace at last, and can really get some serious work done.’ And so, perhaps another intellectual milieu is simmering under the surface of our elegant city, as undistracted artists and scientists continue to exchange philosophies in velvet-upholstered and wood-panelled coffee houses. Only, not before lunch, please.
This little guy is happily framed in his peachy, frosty jacket, all suited up for a big night at the Pine Rivers Gallery on Brisbane’s northside. I’m especially excited to announce that he’s been selected as a finalist in the Moreton Bay Region Art Awards! You can head on down and lend him some moral support next Friday, 16 May, at the Strathpine Community Centre. Doors open at 6pm with formalities taking place an hour later, and you can relax with a drink as your eyes take a wander.
Suddenly Rosita comes in with breakfast and brings me a piece of news that throws me into a joyous ecstasy. Tomorrow will be the 19th of July, and that is the date on which Monsieur and Madame arrived from Paris last year. I give an hysterical yell:
‘So I haven’t arrived yet! I haven’t arrived. Not before tomorrow will I come to Port Lligat. This time last year, I hadn’t even started my Christ! And now before I’ve so much as come here, my Assumption is almost on its feet, pointing to heaven!’
I run straight to my studio and work till I am ready to drop, cheating and taking advantage of not being there yet so as to have as much as possible already done at the moment of my arrival. …
In spite of all my stratagems to savour the last moments of my absence with an intoxicating intensity, here I am, finally home in Port Lligat. And so happy!
(Salvador Dali, p. 55)
It seems inevitable that I will live between two cities, and the pendulum has swung me back to Wien, sparkling Vienna, where I am taking time to breathe the fresh, cool air, savour the creamy coffee and gorge my hungry eyes on art. Most importantly, I’m setting up here with the primary aim of painting. My little Dachgeschoss studio is set up, my Dutch paints bursting from their tubes, a big, fresh roll of Belgian linen that I rolled home on my bike shivers in anticipation, and I have christened the floor with turpentine that I kicked over in my painterly haste. And I have cheated time, starting a little interior days before my arrival in Vienna! Yes, it’s not until tomorrow that I arrive!
Already I’ve met with my old friends in the galleries—Rubens, Van Dyck, Klimt and Rodin—and already I’ve fallen for many more, my sketchbook always in tow. Sketch clubs are sprouting like tulips all over the city, and I’m managing to satiate my drawing habit with more success than last year. And best of all, the ever-optimistic Jacques is a winning sidekick, ever adept at simplifying life and focusing on the work that really matters. As ever, we are scheming, and bursting with ideas, and trying to merge our art and science worlds that we see as springing from the same impulse, the same curiosity and wonder of the physical world.
Because, in the words of Editors, ‘If something has to give then it always does,’ and when life is crowding out the important things you have to put life firmly in its place, and regroup.
Dali, Salvador. 1966 . Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.
Having fallen headlong in love with sculpture, I resolved to start studying it upon my return to Brisbane. And so, once a week at the Atelier, Ryan has been teaching me about the literal moulding of form, about the three-dimensional finger-painting that is sculpture. I’ve been amazed at how I can ‘draw’ lines with my hands, lines that undulate as I circle my piece, and how I can work with the shapes of tones much as I would when drawing or painting.
I’ve struggled with the three-dimensional puzzles of lips—how the extremities of the profile must restrain the apparent swellings from the front; how the lips wrap around the teeth deeply into the cheeks; how the nodes at the sides collect everything in little fleshy pockets that leave expressive little indentations at the corners of the lips.
I’ve physically constructed the riddle of the bony eye socket, not a simple rectangle sloping back under the eyebrows, but simultaneously wrapping back around the head and reaching out to the crucial cheekbone turning point where front sharply becomes side. I’ve agonised over s-curves buried in facial furrows and shaped the thickening and thinning c-curves that spiral deeper than you ever first imagine.
Every slope you trace, observing its horizontal and vertical axes, moves backwards or forwards at the same time, its trajectory changing drastically as you circle to another viewpoint. The game is to try to conceive the whole, not a slice. The lesson of sculpture is that everything is doing more than two things at once.
Holding each facial feature in your hands, forming them from sticky lumps of plasticine, is a pretty thorough way to get your mind around them. Rather than reaching for generic shapes, you begin to build up in your mind an actual object, a complex three-dimensional form, that takes on various guises as it moves around. You don’t simply reach into your brain for that eye shape to fill that gap, but rather you grow to an awareness of how an eye socket shapes part of the head and how an eye slots into it, strapped in by thick and very-present eyelids. The face ceases to be an oval waiting to be filled with ‘the interesting bits’ like a china plate ready for its ornamental flowers. It begins to come together in your mind as voluminous bricks that lock into each other—some deep, some protruding, some spiralling, some tucking under.
Having worked and reworked the masses, adjusted the placement of the features, sliced off and reattached an ear, grown the back of the head and massaged the trapezius and sternomastoids into an elegantly twisting neck, the pure delight of modelling the surface brings new challenges in the form of new expressive ideas. Juggling in your mind the knowledge of the softness of the skin of lips, the firmness of cartilage and the immovable frame of bone beneath, finding a way to express these structural differences in the treatment of the surface is mind-bending and infinitely expressive. The touch of your fingers leaves a different trace than that of hatching with wooden tools, and the art is in folding these strokes into each other in meaningful ways. These final caresses breathe unimaginable life into the sticky mass, small refinements seeking out the character of your subject and approaching a likeness by a means surprisingly removed from sheer accuracy.
One would imagine drawing is a practical enough way to approach the world—better than solely reading about anatomy, or cursorily looking at the world around you, for it taxes your motor skills. And yet, once you begin to sculpt, you realise the sheer kindergarten delight of kinaesthetic learning. Drawing, all this time, has been trying to find a shorthand for this grappling with mud. And the new battles of sculpture feed directly back into drawing, cementing spatial concepts and freeing us just a little more from a deep-seated reliance on shapes and outlines.
I recently read Bulgakov’s frenetic tale The Master and Margarita, and was struck most of all by how Bulgakov’s appeal to our integral Western myths proved so powerful in this story. All lightheartedness, frivolity and anti-heroes aside, the story toys with the reader’s clinging to our foundational myths, and, having been raised staunchly Christian, I found it unsettling and amazingly provocative. Bulgakov short-circuits my expectations in the story and because those expectations are built on such deeply-rooted characters and events, the effect is very confronting. The story drops a lot of little hellish jokes, interjections of ‘what the devil!’ in place of any ‘oh my God,’ but more than this, it takes the character of the devil himself and does only what Christianity suggests that he does in making him take the guise of someone appealing offering only things that human beings, easily amused creatures that we are, want. And then it conflates this playful devil with a benevolent, peace-giving power that acts discerningly and justly, not rewarding indiscriminately, not forgiving, but recognising the intentions of all and repaying the most courageous. An anti-Christianity, in a sense, that tests all, but heaps punishment on the weak, and applauds the strong.
Any simple sympathy with Christianity will make one bristle a little at this idea—the injustice of mocking the weak, of anything positive coming from the hand of the devil. And this is just the literary power of this book. Something is ingrained in us, some moral sense that has been taught to us through our stories, through our punishment and reward mechanisms, something about ideas of innocence and meekness. Even if straying from the explicit biblical narratives doesn’t bother us, perhaps because we lack a real familiarity with them, diverting the currents of the underlying themes probably still affects us in a profound way.
While the Greek myths in paintings are less accessible to me just because of my limited acquaintance with them, Western culture owes a huge debt to our ancient Greek heritage, including the philosophies that we continue to draw on. Similarly, the Judeo-Christian tradition has built a lasting foundation for our thought, and its imagery has persisted in Western art for centuries. If our earlier art has anything over modern art, it’s that it returned again and again to the unending font of imagery that the Greek and Judeo-Christian traditions have provided us with, meaning the artist had the power to bestow an instant and deeply profound visual impression on the (often illiterate) viewer. The modern artist, if making self-directed, largely autobiographical art, has to work harder to make such a profound impact, and has to provide so much background detail, probably through words, to convey anything so dramatic. My point is this: our myths give us a language, a system of ideas, even a set of symbols that act as shortcuts in our brains, letting us tap into bigger concepts with only subtle nuances. And, further, we can not only take short cuts, but perhaps even, like Bulgakov, short-circuit that existing framework and challenge it in a way that Vatican-employed painters of the past were not at liberty to do.
Italian painter Roberto Ferri comes to mind—his spectacularly rendered nudes curl their superhuman forms through gorgeous forestscapes, dripping red draperies, and his paintings unmistakably echo old master paintings in form and content. Religious themes and mythological creatures bring a solemn heaviness to his work. But there is no anachronism here: Ferri’s paintings all bear the stamp of the present age in his manipulation of that age-old subject matter. Nudes are not discreet church nudes with modest drapery and strategic foliage; rather they bare their genitalia in all their sexual glory. And the seemingly ideal human forms distort into fleshy mutations, or are gorily impaled, in the visually explicit way we have adjusted ourselves to in other media. Saints and goddesses and hybrid creatures abound, but they are never trite, nor nostalgic, nor antiquated. Our traditional ideas, rather, are subjected to modern thought and to modern eyes in an extremely provocative and powerful way. The violence is palpable.
American painter Jerome Witkin has a series called A Jesus for our time which likewise rehearses a familiar theme; he clothes his well-intentioned but ultimately fragile saint in a white suit and amplifies him and surrounds him with the dazzle and noise of an electric wonderland, before depicting his shattering end. The paintings speak to so much of what we know and what we expect from a Christ character, and there is something strangely appealing in the Jagger-esque prophet Jimmy. This character triggers so many of our hopes for the world, and Witkin reaches right inside us to grab that vein and wire us in to his parable of the modern world. This is not simple symbolism and substitution of modern-day paraphernalia. Witkin really pushes this myth and distorts it in a deeply disturbing and affecting way. Witkin (p. 53-4) himself said of this series that he wanted to appeal to ‘the sense of struggle; a mythic hero who is … beaten down by the world, yet still believing in a guide.’ He comments (p. 54), ‘There’s no real church art in our century; heroes are hard to find.’
American writer Kurt Vonnegut put forward the idea, many decades ago, that the shapes of stories could be plotted as graphs and thereby categorised. He describes simple waves like ‘man in a hole’ and ‘boy meets girl,’ where a character gets into a mess and finds a way out, and where a character gets something they prize, devastatingly loses it, and fights to get it back. ‘People love that story,’ he quips—‘every time that story gets told, someone makes a million dollars.’ The story shape that most fascinated him, though, was the one that incrementally lifts a character out of a miry pit, dashes all their hopes, and at the last minute rewards them, usually by sudden and supernatural means, with off-the-charts improbable happiness—a story shape shared by both Cinderella and the New Testament. Telling, no?
I’m reminded of Alain de Botton’s insight that the news—intentionally factual, though tauntingly drip-feeding us snippets of horror in a steady twenty-four hour stream—brings us to the brink of these complex and important emotions, but gives us no way to resolve them. Our myths are often dark, confronting, and pitching good and evil forces, or blurring those moral delineations, and delving into familiar tragic territory. But as de Botton is careful to distinguish, where horror pierces us and leaves us hanging, tragedy seeks a resolution. Awful things happen to ordinary people, and the only thing that separates us from the antihero is pure chance. Tragedy helps us comprehend the darkness in the world by tracing it back to ordinary creatures, not monsters, and walks us in their ill-fated shoes. Through stories—written or painted—we can confront these deep and difficult emotions and moral questions and perhaps even come out on the other side a little wiser.
Our myths are not obsolete, and not a cheap trick. They stick us right in the heart, but only because they get at the heart of things that matter to us. They give us a way to get instantly intimate with our audience, and after that it’s up to us to try to take our audience across that emotional bridge, rather than to shatter them.
Bulgakov, Mikhail.  1995. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. Picador: London.
Chayat, Sherry. 1994. Life Lessons: The art of Jerome Witkin. Second edition. Syracuse University: Syracuse, NY.
De Botton, Alain. 2014. The News: A user’s manual. Hamish Hamilton: London.
I am pleased to share that I have started writing regularly for the Atelier blog. This means a lot of happy opportunities to impose myself upon fascinating artists around Brisbane in a totally legitimate, professional capacity, and a lot of freedom to do some investigative journalism. The Atelier is both a school and a community, and its bomb factory walls have brought together many like-minded painters in a part of Australia that is too often considered culturally desolate. There is a richness here, and plenty of passion and gumption, and I can’t express how excited I am to be entrusted with the task of revealing all of this to the world.