The Daily

Arts & Culture

What’s the Use?

July 21, 2015 | by

Celebrity and oblivion in the Goncourt brothers.

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Edmund and Jules Goncourt.

Few documents provide as comprehensive—or as caustic—a view of celebrity as the diary of the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond. Chronicling literary Paris from 1851 to 1896, The Journal of the de Goncourts features enough searing bons mots and scandal mongering to make Gawker look like a Sunday school brochure. In one entry from 1852, the famed cross-dressing novelist and amoureuse George Sand threatens to “publish an account” of the behavior of her son-in-law, the sculptor Clésinger; he is quick to reply: “then I’ll do a carving of your backside. And everybody’ll recognize it.” The novelist, playwright, and bohemian Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is described as having “the face of an opium addict or a masturbator”; Edmond de Goncourt dismisses Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, like his poetry, as a “plagiarism from Verlaine.”

Whether or not one is familiar with the poets, novelists, and absintheuses of Haussmannian Paris, to read the Goncourt brothers is to plunge headlong into a world of bitter rivalries and bitterer friendships, in which every gathering around a café table on the Grands Boulevards is a chance to raise one’s status in the byzantine literary hierarchy. “Here,” as Christopher Isherwood put it, “gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry.” Of course, such a cynical, self-satisfied perspective can grate. André Gide, writing on the Goncourts’ novels, excoriated their style as pathologically shallow—a Perez Hilton of the Passages des Panoramas: “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.” Read More »

The Last Word

July 16, 2015 | by

The conundrum of writing about the dead.

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Photo: Jennifer Boyer

Recently, I stood in the woods near Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland—the same woods where Jews waited to enter the gas chambers. It was a picnic-worthy spring day. Sunlight filtered through the pine trees. Unable to imagine the horror that had happened there, my thoughts turned instead to a picture I had seen the day before. It was captioned “Sniatyn—tormenting Jews before their execution,” and it shows five naked Jews—four men and a boy—and a handful of Nazis in uniform and civilian clothing holding sticks, apparently gathering before the execution. One of the Jewish men stands looking at the ground with his hands folded in front of him, the Jewish boy is still wearing his hat.

Whenever I see this photograph, I always have the same thought: After all that they have suffered, why should they also suffer the indignity of our gaze? I would not want to be seen in this moment of humiliation. This thought is immediately replaced by another: they are not suffering our gaze. They are dead, they are not suffering anything. And I am looking at them precisely because they were humiliated—without this humiliation, they would have slipped from seen to unseen, as almost all the dead do. They have been chosen for contemporary viewing because this moment tells a larger story that eclipses any squeamishness we have about displaying them in such a scene of degradation. Read More »

A Right-Size Dream

July 9, 2015 | by

An appreciation of Tove Jansson.

Tove Jansson, ca. 1967. © Moomin Characters TM

Tove Jansson, ca. 1967. © Moomin Characters TM

One day my mother—who immigrated from Hungary forty years ago—was visiting my apartment. She noticed that on the fridge my boyfriend and I had taped a large picture of Charlie Brown, which we had torn from the pages of The New Yorker. It was just Charlie Brown standing there with his hands at his sides. Upon seeing the picture she stopped and said, “What a nice boy! Who is it?” The remarkable thing wasn’t only discovering that my mother had strangely never encountered Charlie Brown, but that upon seeing him for the first time, she immediately liked him, felt sympathy and tenderness. Until that moment, I had not fully understood the power of comics: I had never witnessed so starkly what a perfect line can summon. A line drawn with love can make us as vulnerable as what the line depicts. Whatever cynicism I had about how commerce creates familiarity creates conditioned responses creates “love,” it crumbled in that instant. An artist’s love for what they create is what creates love.

The first time I encountered Tove Jansson’s Moomin strips, I had the same feeling as my mother: what a nice boy! (Or whatever sort of creature Moomin is—a creature from a tender dream.) There is such vulnerability in his eyebrows, in his little round tummy, in the way he doesn’t have a mouth, in the babyish slope of the bottom of his face.

It was strange, then, to learn that Jansson’s first drawing of Moomin was an attempt to draw “the ugliest creature imaginable” after a fight with her brother about Immanuel Kant. Read More »

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Chez Donald Judd

July 6, 2015 | by

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Donald Judd moved into 101 Spring Street, in New York’s Soho neighborhood, in 1968. The area was then the “Wild West,” as artist Trisha Brown once put it: a wasteland in which anything was possible. Judd had purchased the five-story, century-old building for sixty-eight thousand dollars and immediately set about restoring its interior, floor by floor, detail by detail—a project that would take him nearly a quarter century to complete. (Today, it is the only single-use cast-iron building remaining in Soho.) He aimed to create open, minimal spaces for working and living in which all elements existed in harmony, both in the context of the building’s architecture and with regard to his own aesthetic. On the fourth floor, for instance, he reproduced the parallel wood planes of flooring on the ceiling; the room feels like a light-filled wooden box.

Judd also intermixed nineteenth- and early twentieth-century objects—such as a cast-iron wood-burning stove, tin ceilings, an oak rolltop desk—and pieces from his substantial personal art collection, which includes sculpture, drawing, painting, furniture, and prints by John Chamberlain, Carl Andre, Lucas Samaras, Marcel Duchamp, Alvar Aalto, and others. Some of his interventions, however, are less formal: in the second-floor kitchen, a flap of wood on the wall opens to reveal a puppet theater Judd devised for his children. Read More »

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The Machinery of the Universe

July 1, 2015 | by

Poe’s vision of the cosmos and the art it inspired.

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Alfred Jensen, Physical Optics, 1975, oil on canvas, 7'2" x 12'9". Image via Pace Gallery

Since adolescence, Edgar Allan Poe had been picking fights with science. His second collection of poetry, published when he was all of twenty, opened with a mischievous sonnet needling what he called that “true daughter of Old Time”:

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

By the time Poe wrote Eureka: A Prose Poem, the last major work he published before his premature death in 1849, his attitude toward certain men of science had softened. He eagerly absorbed—and sometimes rejected—theoretical works by the brilliant astronomer Sir John Herschel, the popular scientist J. P. Nichol, and the towering, eccentric naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. He was still capable, on the other hand, of caustic put-downs such as the one he attributes early in the book to a scientist from the distant future. It’s in that figure’s prophetic voice that Poe chews out most of his contemporaries for “their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths—the one of creeping and the other of crawling—to which, in their infinite perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul—the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of path.” Read More »

Lot 51

June 18, 2015 | by

Borges, Xul Solar, and the occult.

Alejandro Xul Solar - Trogloditas

Alejandro Xul Solar, Trogloditas, 1948.

This story is an excerpt from To the Country, a new iBook album by The Size Queens featuring fiction by Joy Williams, Rick Moody, and more.

Lot 51, “The Aleph” by Alejandro Xul Solar, oil, minerals and metals on canvas, 32" x 44.25", 1930.

Xul Solar first painted the Aleph in 1930, but years were to pass before he and his friend J. L. Borges were able to make full use of its divinatory properties, even though it was clear from the moment the work was finished that the quasi-reptilian figure filling the image’s First Door, known to the two as Platon, was able to move freely about the canvas according to his own purposes (his skin in motion acquiring bluish-silvery reflected tints that faded in repose.) Experiments demonstrated that the viewer’s affinity with Platon and certain other figures in the composition resulted in an increased ability to understand and speak foreign languages (“babelismo”); subsequently other correspondences were revealed. Borges, whose middle finger Platon learned to reach out and grasp in a papery but very tight clutch, drawing a little more blood each time, was to prove the image’s most successful interpreter. Such was the lure of the mental enhancement thereby produced that Borges never failed to offer his hand to the painting, which was hidden in the dark recesses of Solar’s attic chambers, whenever the opportunity arose. In time the author’s left middle fingernail split in two with a thick dark pointed scar in its center. And as his inward sight grew keener, Borges’s physical vision commenced to fail: another price he gladly paid.

Solar made three more attempts to depict the Aleph. The second of the four (1931–33, tempera on wood panel, 112.5 x 78 cm) proved to offer the richest “prepotencies” as the visions came to be called. Impulsively, Solar gave the painting to Borges at the end of a somewhat maudlin and vinous evening full of French poetry and games of panjedrez, all of which Borges lost, just before the sun rose on a fragrant Buenos Aires bower in November of 1936. Solar’s diaries and sketchbooks reveal a keen regret over having made this gift, but being a proud man as well as a kind one, he never asked for its return. Read More »