Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The God of Spring by Arabella Edge

(In which it takes more than talent to be an artist.)
Reading art fiction has always been a good experience in feeding the artist in me, and the frustrated one at that. To discover how masterpieces were made, how big sacrifices were done in their creation makes me swell with respect to the trembling hands that wielded brushes of colors to last centuries and make people relive pasts and memories. Their lives, these artists, make me believe even more to the proposition that artists are indeed born. I haven’t read much yet and I don’t know a lot of names whose signatures appear on famous paintings. But through pages of biographical, albeit a little fictional, account of their lives, I am able to know and understand how artists pursue their greatest artistic dreams. I thought I knew and understood enough. Until I read The God of Spring.
The God of Spring is one of the most subtle art fictions in my book pile, i.e., it’s not easy to quickly discern its inclusion to the subgenre. Having found it on a tall pile of cheap books in a bargain bookstore, the only thing that I could heavily rely on is the title printed on the book’s spine. The God of Spring. It doesn’t ring a bell. Nothing to immediately indicate that it’s about a painter and his famous masterpiece. But perhaps it’s the glimpse of what appears to be a small fraction of a painting that compelled me to pick up the book and read the blurb, much to my glee.
The novel opened with the arrival of the French painter Théodore Géricault from Rome. Welcoming him were his benefactor-uncle Monsieur Caruel and his lovely young wife, Alexandrine –whom Géricault had an illicit relationship with. His uncle was oblivious to this betrayal and even commissioned him another portrait of his lovely, philandering wife to show his support and appreciation for the artist’s previous work. And in return, Géricault made love to his aunt with a feverish desire that tormented him abroad.
In the house of his friend (and rival) Horace Vernet, Géricault learned of a political scandal that shook France when he was away – the tragedy of the frigate Medusa. Driven by an intense desire for a magnificent tableau and an opportunity to reel away from Alexandrine and his lustful thoughts of her, Géricault set forth in tracking down the survivors of the shipwreck for the narrative. Then he found out the horrible stories of murder, betrayal and cannibalism that led to the creation of The Raft of the Medusa, the painting that made him known as the Father of French Romanticism.
The painting, with its huge scale of 24 feet long by 18 feet high, dramatically depicts a mass of bodies lunged forward with a great desire to live, their weakened arms waving signals to the blurred vision of their last hope at the first sighting of the Argus, one of the convoy ships to the frigate Medusa. The first sighting. For it will disappear again, leaving the survivors two hours away from rescue. (See the Louvre site for a larger image.)

Deeply moved by this tragedy, Géricault was even more eager to paint. He hired the ship’s carpenter to make a replica of the raft; he studied cadavers in morgues to observe the texture and color of death and even went so far as taking home corpses to observe the deterioration of human flesh. His obsession for his tableau made him able to resist Alexandrine and lose her forever. No distractions and detractions stopped him from completing his life’s work. During a hard emotional blow, he displays an impressive determination by choosing the glory of art over giving in to human pain.

There, it is done, he said aloud, staring at his shaved head in the mirror, proof that he would renounce all society, friends and pleasure of any sort until he had completed his tableau.

He too would incarcerate himself behind thick stone walls. Never venture outside except for the purpose of his work.

– page 210 – 211
At the completion of his work, he didn’t just paint a scene of a shipwreck. He made viewers share the suffering of the wretched men in the raft. His painting offered no redemption. What it showed was a constant battle and struggle for survival. When most artists in his generation painted reclining nudes and Napoleon’s victories in wars, Géricault painted people who fought, not as national heroes for they fought for themselves, strengthened by hope and weakened by the sudden loss of it. How else can an artist show truth? How else can an artwork be more human?

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Friday, November 12, 2010

How Would I Paint Thee?

(In which I picture painting.)


That afternoon, Géricault set his canvass on the easel. Such deceit and dissembling he would paint there, an encrypted narrative of illicit love. At Alexandrine’s feet, tethered on a gold lead, would sit a monkey dressed in a waistcoat embroidered with forget-me-nots and wearing a Moroccan hat, his tail plumed against her gown. Géricault was the monkey, gazing up with adoring eyes, yearning for freedom yet unable to leave his mistress’ side. What else in this picture would he pay tribute to their monstrous tryst? Long-stemmed roses arranged in a Venetian glass vase on a table; shortbread biscuits cut into the shape of a heart within reach of Alexandrine’s extended hand; yes, and in the background, for his mistress, he’d paint a corner of the divan beneath the open window . . . And would he dare give just a hint, just a shadow, of a white stocking draped over the back of a chair or flung in a moment of haste across a pillow?
– The God of Spring, p. 46
A couple of months (or so) ago, I posted a comment on a thread about what the cover a blogger might choose for his book if it is to be his life story. I said I would want mine (since everybody else posted what they want theirs to be like) to be a pair of paint-stained hands holding a silver flute with several gold keys. And not only once have I dreamed of doing a drawing of that. But I put that off in lieu of a portrait I can’t seem to finish for lack of time. The portrait was an attempt to reproduce a photograph. And just as my procrastination stretches on, I read a paragraph by Arabella Edge and started to wonder how I would compose an original portrait.

I wouldn’t want the portrait to be stiff. I wouldn’t want him standing like some nobleman proud of his expensive coats and heavy badges. Sitting perhaps. But not the way a schoolboy is expected to be doing the moment the teacher enters the room. No, I don’t want stiffness. I want personality in posture and expression. And there should be passion and mystery, too. Yes, passion and mystery. Like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or Gustav Klimt’s Emile Flöge, or Géricault’s Alexandrine. Mine would be a passionate and mysterious male.

Perhaps I would want him sitting hunched, facing me. His elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped under his chin or held out. I would want his shirt off. Draperies would only look good on his pants. Or the bed on which he’s sitting. A couch with fluid fabric covers looks good, too. I would want him to look straight at me with an intent gaze, as if he’s studying me, or the way I would transfer his image on paper. Or perhaps he already knows and he’d show confidence and expectancy. But his eyes wouldn’t be hard. Instead, they would be two brown irises of soft and tender attention. Of faith. Yes, I want him to show faith. I wouldn’t want him to smile. But his lips shouldn’t be closed either. I want his expression to be serious, expectant, wondering, and his lips should suggest that he’s thinking of something to say. For the background I would like a marbled wall of burnt umber and sienna and their shades. And there should be a guitar standing upright against the bed (or the couch). The floor, I would want them cold and dark.

Oh, and in that portrait, I would want him to become a painter, for he paints. So his hands would be paint-stained too.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


(In which some of my senses are deprived.)


I stood firm on the ground like everyone else.
Signals were given.
Heartbeats raced and excitement rose.

And then there they were.
Vibrant and bright and loud.
Strong and powerful and vivid.
Proud amidst the joyful claps of children,
those lovely children on their fathers’ shoulders.
Swaying and singing.
Their faced flushed with the shades of the colors’ gift.

There they were.
Magnificent amidst the deafening cheers of lovers around me.
Deafening, the cheers, yes.
And the whispers too – I can almost hear them.
The self-same words my lips want to utter
to you

Or maybe not.
For I held out my hand to my side and I caught air.
So I held up my palm to the darkness above me
and saw colors bursting in between my fingers.
Bursting and fading.
Rising and falling.
Calling out and running away.

You are like them, the colors of fire and air.
Vibrant and bright and loud.
Strong and powerful and vivid.
Beautiful and distant.

The children and their parents are leaving now.
And the lovers, too.
I’ll see you again.
You and that lovely display of bursting colors.

You –
the lovely display of bursting colors.

Photo source:Fireworks

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Lost Language by Marianne Villanueva

(In which home is still the best place.)

Reading Villanueva’s The Lost Language reminds me of the days when my classes in the university had at least two hours interval and I had to sit in the library throughout the entire period to pass the time. It felt good to pick up a small book and finish it. I especially love compilations – short stories, one-act plays, poems about the darkness of Manila and the backwardness of the provinces. Yes, Villanueva brought them all back. And then some.

What I like about the stories was the distinct Filipino feeling about almost everything. It felt as though I flew to America and witnessed another tale of another brave Filipino immigrant in a cruel city. The familiarity made me feel at home but unfortunately gave some stories a cliché mood. And the normality of a dysfunctional Filipino family, as believed by a character, lingers in my thoughts as I flipped the pages and jumped from one story to another.

Yes, jumped. There are some easy reads. But most of the time I find it hard to grasp the way a part of the story leads to another. And some endings were so abrupt that the feeling of finality was lost.

However, though I jumped from one story to another, I should say that when it comes to the characters, I glided – for the characters in The Lost Language share the complexities of the mind of people in a tormenting atmosphere intensified by pressure and loss.

I believe that there should be a good time for reading a certain book. In the case of The Lost Language, I couldn't say that it’s for either a sunny or a rainy day. The bitterness of it would break hearts during the former and make past wounds fresh and deeper in the latter. But if there’s a time when one wishes to see real life and feelings unfold as one searches for or looks back at the silent traces of his or her being Filipino, this book is a must read.

Photo SourceThe Lost Language