Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Triduum Times

April 5, 2007


My third grade Jesus business in song and dance.

Interesting Feedback

January 29, 2007


Earlier this month, I wrote about Joachim Probst, a strange and wonderful painter. I described him as legitimately mad. The following showed up in the comments this weekend from Isabella McFarlin

Yes, Probst was mad. He and my parents, Irving Fiske (playwright) and Barbara Hall Fiske (painter and cartoonist) were close friends– they tried to help him and believed him a genius. He seems to have had some kind of fixation on my mother, and would burst into our farmhouse in Vermont from time to time during the 1950s, threatening my brother and me, and once (allegedly) trying to throw a cat into a fire. He also threatened, and this I remember, to burn down our barn. My parents and he had probably a more complex relationship than I can ever know, but it was no fun to fear his sudden appearances in my childhood.
Whether he was a good painter or not, I really cannot say. My mother is a far better one and unfortunately, she is at present little known!

Probst is also fairly obscure. Isabella no doubt found my post on a Google search, where it comes up near the top. Thanks for sharing this with us, Isabella. I do think he was a great painter, and I am interested in knowing more about him. I would especially like to see his work some time.

Dissipated Artists Week

January 14, 2007


I thought I’d try to get some kind of return on my Netflix membership last week. By Wednesday, I recognized a rather obvious thread connecting the movies I’d rented: Modligliani; Bukowski: Born into This; If I should Fall from Grace: The Shane McGowan Story; and Factotum, a film based on Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical novel. Running through all of them, like a river of whiskey, is a river of whiskey, lots of wine and beer, and art from the fringe that showed-up the mainstream art world.

Watching these movies raised that old chestnut—do alcohol and drugs enhance the creative process? For Modigliani, Bukowski, and McGowan, alcohol consumption is/was an inextricable part of painting, writing, and performing, because alcoholism is/was essential to their existence. It is unlikely that Shane McGowan could ever clean-up. If he does, he’ll have suffered irreparable damage. The other men died addicts who never stopped drinking.

It’s all very romantic, the stuff of really bad movies. And Modigliani is both. It focuses on the love affair between Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian Jew among the great starving painters in Paris at around the time of World War One, and Jeanne Heburtene, a French woman from a fairly well-to-do Catholic family. They had one child, whom Jeanne’s father would not recognize because of Modi’s being Jewish, and another on the way when the two heroes died—Modi of drink and tuberculosis, Jeanne of throwing herself out a window. The portrayal of Modigliani as an artist (not to mention the treatment of Picasso, Soutine, Utrillo, Rivera, and other painters in town at the time) goes beyond what might be a tolerable level of historical inaccuracy to serve narrative. There is nothing on painting worth watching, and a lot that I’d hope newcomers to this world would not take away as true to what went on or what these people created. There is a lot on the trap of alcohol, however, and the tendency of particularly brilliant people to shine through behavior that would put most people’s lights out.

The Bukowski documentary and Factotum are much better movies. Bukowski, who worked as a mailman after a storied life on the bum as a teen during the depression, wrote constantly. He wrote stories utterly lacking in sentimentality. He wrote poetry void of all the formal elements of poetry. It was a raw kind of writing that at times could be brilliant, though most of it was level spew about a life of drink, fornication, and gambling. It was published in various non-paying and paying formats in reams. It lacked the consistency and sublimity of Modigliani’s art, but that might be because Modigliani’s every scribble was not published in broadsides. The French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet considered Bukowski the most important writer in America. So did Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (though Bukowski was as anti-Beat as he was anti-Disney), rock star Bono, and singer/songwriter Tom Waits. The latter three tell you all about it in the documentary.

I started reading Bukowski after college, during my short residence in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. It was the perfect setting and time in my life for an introduction to Bukowski. I wanted to like him a lot more than I did. Part of the problem was my discovery that there were only so many hours in the day and that there were American writers who do stark, real, and dark much better. I discovered Cormac McCarthy at the Chlesea. I dropped Bukowski and never picked him up again with any serious intent (I still have yet to read enough Faulkner, for one, and the day has far fewer hours now). I get my Bukowski at the movies, I’m afraid (see Factotum–Matt Dillon at his absolute best).

The first argument I every had with my English friend Andrew Wood was over Shane McGowan. Wood said McGowan was faking it. I said McGowan was really drunk. It was the only argument with Andrew that I ever won.

I have to say that Bukowski carried his alcoholism better than McGowan—unless, of course, Bukowski was faking it, which I’m pretty sure he wasn’t. Still, McGowan achieved something phenomenal. He brought traditional Irish music and balladry not only into the rock idiom, but into the Johnny Rotten punk rock idiom. And he did so with striking legitimacy. He wrote with phenomenal ease and heart—an Irish trait, I must say—and sold it on stage to the point of self-sacrifice. Ditto.

Like the rest of the Pogues, McGowan was an Irishman living in London, though he spent much of his time with family in Tipperary. I’ve read that he had an aunt who introduced him at the age of five to alcohol as a means of keeping away the devil, or some such blarney. He wasn’t a pretty boy, like Modigliani. He was more like the acne vulgaris-stricken Bukowski in the looks department. His teeth, many of which are now gone, whacked out in strange trajectories and his ears made his head look like milk truck with both doors open. McGowan is a classic case of someone being so ugly, by conventional standards, that he ends up cute. This could have contributed to his alcoholism.

The hard life of the drunk certainly contributes to his writing. He wrote, what I think, is one of the best Christmas songs of all times—Fairy Tale of New York, which opens with these beautiful lines:

“It was Christmas Eve, babe—in the drunk tank”

And there’s the opener of Dirty Old Town:

“I met my love by the gasworks wall”

McGowan wasn’t the only drunk in the Pogues or on the punk rock scene. But he’s one of very few—right now I can’t think of any—who made it without coming to terms with addiction. His friend, the songwriter Nick Cave, comments in the documentary that there came a time in his, Cave’s, life when he faced a choice between being a singer and songwriter or being a junkie. This came after a year, says Cave, of the piano in his apartment taunting him, untouched, from across the room. McGowan never faced that choice. He did everything perfectly drunk. I read an interview in which McGowan advises that very few people are able to do this and that nobody should try it at home. Leave it to the chosen.

There, I think, is the answer to whether substance abuse enhances creativity to the point of it being a prerequisite. The answer is no, unless you happen to be addicted. In which case, you had better have a very supportive life partner. In the case of these three artists, those partners were women, a topic about which Bukowski and Modigliani, especially, had a lot to say. Bukowski, who could be pretty brutal in his treatment and description of women, makes a very good point in the documentary—one of his brilliant moments. He says that a woman’s love is a beautiful thing. It asks very little compared to what it bestows. A man blessed with a woman’s love has to pretty much work at f***ing things up for himself, Bukowski notes.

Jeanne Heburtene going through a window, Linda Lee Bukowski’s adding ten years to the life of a frequetnly abusive man by getting him off of skid row and making a home for him, and the recent split between McGowan and his long-time partner, Victoria Clarke, all attest to the truth in what Bukowski says.

Painting: Jeanne Heburtene in a Black Hat by Amedeo Modigliani

Trot, Trot Back Again…

January 7, 2007


I mentioned the city of Boston loosely regarding my trip to Josh’s wedding on Saturday. It actually took place in Worcester, Mass, about twenty miles west of Boston.

In classic sloppy-blogger fashion, I forgot to bring the camera–hey, I remembered my good shoes, and that’s more important, right? Not to fear, however. Niece Erin from St. Louis will send me some of the photos she took, including a bunch of the little kids dancing and one of Josh and me. I’ll post a few when they arrive. It was pretty much the most I ever danced at a wedding. Great fun.

I can show you the picture above right now, however. I found it at the Worcester Art Museum. Josh’s mom, my sister-in-law Laura from Syracuse, and her husband, Tom, were on their way from brunch at the hotel to the museum just as we arrived. My three daughters immediately ran off with their cousins, Maureen got sucked into the brunch scene, and I, as you would expect, tagged along with Laura and Tom for the two-block walk to the museum.

It’s fairly sizable institution with a wonderful collection. I found a Soutine portrait just inside the door to the European paintings. There is also a glowing Rembrandt portrait of Saint Bartholomew, The Repentant Magdalene by El Greco, a Goya portrait, and a strong representation from most of the big-name impressionists. I was most thrilled to come across the painting above, a small, typically cracked Albert Pinkham Ryder oil on wood in the American Paintings gallery. It’s called Pegasus (The Poet on Pegasus Entering the Realm of the Muses). It was painted by Ryder, a late 19th century American mystic, for an editor, critic, and poet named Charles de Kay, who gave it the longer parenthetical subtitle.

Ryder often drew from classical mythology, as well as from Northern European legends and biblical texts, eliciting images that glow from an essential darkness. His habit of constant over-painting, using less-than-high quality materials, resulted over the decades in the kind of brick-work crazing or cracking evident in this picture. The blemished surfaces of Ryder’s paintings are a blessing, really, giving them a timeless, even ancient quality that matches their subjects. It’s as if he designed the work to age quickly in this way. He was, it seems, a man out of time, not unlike his contemporaries Poe and Van Gogh. An anti-social recluse in New York City (I’ll try to find one from another city to write about soon), Ryder also is said to have used his smallish paintings for beer mug coasters, which may have aided in the cracking process.

I’ve seen Ryders in smaller collections, such as the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC. I’ve seen good ones in the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well. They are hidden treasures—embers glowing from dark spaces between the big-name-artist pictures. I enjoy finding them, and I remember where they are. My fortuitous hook-up with Laura and Tom served to broaden my cracked web of known Ryders.

“Turn not from gloomy madness.”

January 4, 2007


Here’s a painting by a guy who dared to paint Jesus Christ. Joachim Probst was his name, and he did it in the 1950s.

Probst chose what was then, as it is now, the most controversial, outside-the-mainstream subject imaginable for serious art. It’s a vagary of the post-war Weltanschauung, and a sublime irony as well, that in a big-business, big-media art world given over almost entirely to shock and irony, nothing is more shocking than an image that dominated Western art for 2,000 years. You want to snicker, Saatchi-like, at the masses as they howl before your perpetrated outrage? Then out-Saatchi Saatchi. Skip the eviscerated sharks in aspic. Skip the Virgin smeared in elephant crap, and just show them Jesus. Not Piss Jesus, not Eviscerated Elephant Crap Jesus. Just the man himself, straight up, portrayed by someone who believes or is terrified.

Mel Gibson will tell you the same thing. Well, not exactly. I don’t think his intent was to snicker at the masses. But he created a monster.

Back to Joachim Probst who seems to have been a legitimate Greenwich Village madman. Here is his brief autobiography:

“I was born September 1, 1913, in New York City. Self-taught. Through my endeavor to seek self-esteem, I became a misanthrope with a firm hand on delusion. This brilliance soon introduced me into poverty, and with so fearful a future granted me, I coined and struck this phrase, ‘Art is the stand against decay.’ And with this in mind, I entered my paradise of immortality. And with this paradise came my hell. And in hell I called on Satan.

O noble Son of God
‘Consider my madness.
I am a lunatic without an asylum,
Even a cripple without a crutch,
Surely the angels must weep for me.’

I feared, I trembled, and I painted. I stood in dark places (clothed in black) calling, ‘Would’st that I could take a sure step in a sure direction.’ Alas, Satan spoke. ‘God thou shalt never know, guilt is thy name. Art thou shalt have, best be thy lot an instrument to uphold the faith, Art thou shalt have. Sing thee Christ forever. Will is woe, woe is thy will, change “me” to “I,” brevity is thy purity—Seek the pact, turn not from gloomy madness. Despair is thy mother.’”—From an article in Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture, University of Illinois, 1959.

In the catalog for an exhibit of Probst’s work at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in 1962, the Rt. Rev. James A. Pike, Bishop of California, wrote:

Joachim Probst is one of the few contemporary artists who has recklessly committed himself to deal with the ultimate symbols themselves; the Christ, the Mother, King David…and Ahab. These are some of the figures he dares to paint.

“Christ painter, go away,” was the epithet hurled at Probst by some of the Greenwich Viallage habitues who paint. Our Cathedral church again pushes the lesser over and makes room for the Christ painter who uses the contemporary idiom that few others can handle with any but non-objective work. This artist with unique defining power comes among us. His Christ will cause many of us to tremble as we are confronted by Him.

Greenwich Village hasn’t changed much from the place Pike describes. And his description of Probst is very powerful, I think. Few, indeed, can deliver these images, can handle this truth in paint–Christ, King David, Ahab.

My friend Paul Weingarten, a painter, would see Probst in the Village back in the ’60s. He never spoke to him. Few people did.

So, the Christ painter. Irony trumps irony, and we see through a glass clearly. Some tremble.

Painting: February Christ by Joachim Probst