Sunday, August 25, 2013

Return Trip

Itineraries:  Booking a Night in the Chamber
of  Maiden Thought

There are, undoubtedly, many sorts of book reviewers: the scholar, the aficionado, the fan; the high priest, the lantern-bearer, the acolyte; the impresario, the promoter, the ad-man. There is the reviewer who writes teachy screeds; the pen pal who covers page after page: there’s the one who spills good intel – the confidante who can’t keep secrets. The Internet offers a platform to everyone. The blogosphere is, unsurprisingly, populated by colonies of acolytes. Surprisingly, most of them (of us) are intelligent people of good will who want to share their love of literature. Each and every style of reviewer performs a useful task, inscribing book media with opinions and enthusiasms, information and analysis.

Once in a while, there is a reviewer who possesses, not only a talent for description and analysis, but a vision, however subtly articulated. Read one article by such a reviewer––and you gain knowledge of a book and the world it inhabits. Read several articles – and a pattern emerges, bolder lines stand out: here is relentless logic, and something akin to wisdom. The reviewer is then a critic.

Every era has (should have) its Dr. Johnson, its F.R. Leavis. The sybarite was best appreciated following the appearance of his publicist Boswell’s biography. The charismatic, though sensitive to imagined neglect, was also recognized in his lifetime. Critics with zealous opinions, they both of them had the vision thing. One was also a writer of fiction and poetry, one not. Champions of literature, their visions served the book.

Who is your critic? It might well be the critic’s critic, James Wood. Or the eloquent Michiko Kakutani.

The last time I fell in love with a critic, I was young and living abroad. For a critic reviewing primarily contemporary British art in a British newspaper, he was improbably named Waldemar Januszczak. Like all infatuates, I couldn’t get enough of those qualities of the beloved that I longed to emulate: talent, wit, deep and extensive knowledge of a subject, and, by God, to cap it all off, philosophy––a world view! Here, then, was the perfect antidote to the fact that I had inexplicably been born American.

Also like all infatuates, I believed our love would always last, that I would ever be the recipient of this rich cultural transfusion, forever an active, if silent, participant in our vital conversation. Therefore I failed systematically to cull my critic’s reviews. Back home a year later, there was to be no more Guardian newspaper, no more Waldemar. Over time, love faded, then died.

I had inadvertently kept, however, one small token of that year of reading dangerously, a token the possession of which I believe retrospectively justifies the intensity of my appreciation, and indeed, every benignant term applied in the above description to my critic. That token emerges––hurrah! an article entitled “True state of the art” by Waldemar Januszczak!–-pressed like a leaf inside a copy of Tradition and Renewal: Contemporary Art in the German Democratic Republic (1983).

I had gone to see the contemporary art of the GDR in England, on the strength of this very article, convinced, and correctly so, that this particular exhibition wouldn’t be travelling to the U.S. It was the Eighties.

So, let’s take a look, thirty years on. Unfortunately I have only this newspaper clipping, and there’s no date on it. There are black-and-white photographs of a malnourished body in its shroud: male, and a live, fleshy nude––two panels of a 1976 triptych by Volker Stelzmann entitled “Investigation.” The caption between the photos reads,

Januszczak is
 impressed by
 the passion
 and discipline
 revealed in the
 first British
 survey of
 East German

Januszczak’s article begins with Delacroix’ cri de coeur: “Who will save us from the Germans and Romans?” The threat to French art was a pernicious form of militaristic nostalgia. The savior, The One who made French painting flourish once again under the auspices of Realism, was Courbet. More than a century later, the art critic echoes the same cry as he inventories the Neos and Neo-Neos of modern art. But wait! Ask the right question, and you may find your answer. Who will save us today? “The answer this time could be the East Germans.”

The East Germans would not, of course, have the opportunity to save anybody. But this was 1984, a murky year of Orwellian confusion, and it seemed a plausible enough scenario then that the gifted painters of the GDR, having rejected Social Realism for a hard-won aesthetic of historical truth-telling and modernist representation, might help the West get its cultural priorities in order, at least in Britain and Europe. And so the critic announces:

Realism is alive and well
and living in Leipzig,
Dresden and Halle.

(Remember how narrow those newspaper columns used to be?) 

Januszczak goes on to profile East German painter Werner Tübke, whose 123 by 14.5 meter mural in Bad Frankenhausen narrates the stories of the Reformation and the Peasant Revolt of 1525.

It doesn’t escape my attention today that so many of the battles fought over art, especially painting, were also fought over literature, especially the novel. Januzczak was reprising the mimesis battles: conflicts over representation in art. These were the same arguments made by György Lukács, brilliant literary critic and Marxist theoretician, about representation in literature. György Lukács has rightly been discredited for his role in the purges of the Hungarian Writers’ Union (1955-56). But on the printed page he fought the good fight, ever and again explaining the virtues of Realism; rescuing Realism from irrelevance, from the obfuscation of its detractors; salvaging the great Realist masterpieces for renewed understanding by a 20th century readership; preparing the
way forward for a Realism divested of Naturalism, and cut loose from Social Realism, its evil twin.

On the printed page, he fought the good fight. Like Czech writer Milan Kundera, Whose The Unbearable Lightness of Being shall be a joy forever, and read and re-read, whether the young Kundera once informed on a pilot or, as appears more likely, did not.

But let us continue reading “True state of the art.” There is more about Werner Tübke, and a marveling at the high level of the East German painters’ skill. And then, having walked us through two white-walled rooms of Oxford’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and across its polished wood floors, the critic brings us face to face with a masterpiece. I remember encountering the painting, as I again read Januszczak’s description of his experience of regarding it: “The Three Women of Cefalu.”

And here they are––the words that made me want to see this work of art. Technically a virtuoso feat, Werner Tübke’s “Three Women of Cefalu” dizzies with its angles and dazzles with the deep colors of the Sicilian landscape and the luminosity of the two younger women in the painting. The three women of Cefalu are in fact revisions of the Three Graces, “brought up to date as the three ages of women. The last age, the oldest and bonniest, the one we are clearly being asked to respect, is in the middle, supported by the others.”

Are the women of Cefalu, two of them dressed in the almost iridescent colors of boho-chic peasant clothing, contemporary updates of Jungian archetypes? Indeed, one of the young women has big hair, richly dark and abundant, a disciplined Afro. The other young woman has the long, rippling mane of a mountain hippie.

The other night on Facebook I “Liked” the post of a childhood friend, now married to an ex-military Texas artist. The post was entitled “America Remembers,” and showed elderly Navajo Code Talker Roy Hawthorne, USMC, dressed in a colorful orange shirt, finishing the last half-mile of a parade route, supported by two Navajo Marines. Like the Sicilian woman in the painting, the soldier in the photograph represented “the last age…the one we are clearly being asked to respect.” Also “in the middle, supported by the others,” he was the brightly clad one. Indeed, he was held up by two younger versions of himself, in this case Marines in navy blue uniforms. The photo, which went viral, was taken during a parade to honor the Navajo Code Talkers in Arizona.

Maybe the painter’s composition was drawn from an archetypal configuration, one that inspired high art in the 1980s, and fired millions of people’s imaginations for a few seconds in the new millennium.

What lies at the heart of this archetype? If the American public was fascinated, for a few fleeting seconds, by the male version of the trio of supporters and supported, the painter and the critic were deeply interested in pondering the female version. And the critic thought about the meaning of it. What then are we being asked to respect? Januszczak comes to the point:

What we are celebrating here
is not fertility, but wisdom,
not sexuality, but humanity.
The painting has
a deeply refreshing coolness,
partly because of the skill
with which Tübke has painted
the fresh mountain air
and partly from
the immense composure
of its composition.

The Code Talkers played an important role in American espionage in WWII. Britain took the best and the brightest from her pre-eminent universities and sent them to Bletchley to crack the code of Germany’s Enigma. The United States used the serendipity of cultural difference, and the language of one of its most sociologically afflicted minorities, to safely transmit coded messages.

A World War is a terrible thing, sweeping all before it in its path. Transporting Native Americans from the Reservation to the theaters of war; transforming loyal European citizens into traitors as governments change overnight. The aftermath of the Second World War split Germany into East and West. It reconfigured the map of Eastern Europe, creating a vast diaspora of displaced people: the refugees, the emigrés. Waldemar Januszczak’s father, a policeman, opposed Communism in his native Poland, presumably leading to the refugee status of the Januszczak family in England after the War.

The Twentieth Century had two World Wars, two cauldrons of horrific destruction. It would be a long time after the end of the second war before East German painters could meditate on the three ages of women, a longer time before Americans could contemplate East German painting.

Since the terror attacks on America’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in 2001, terrorism has either dominated our psyches, or disappeared entirely from awareness. Our consciousness of terrorism, as of so much else in the 21st century, is binary: present or absent, hot or cold, on or off. There are only two terms to this syllogism. Tertium non datur. But were anything to happen, we would be ready to witness it. We have our Tweets and Facebook and YouTube. We have Reddit.

The Internet offers a platform to everyone. The blogosphere abounds with energy and goodwill. My favorite art critic from the Eighties still writes columns for a British newspaper. I suspect that his articles are as finely wrought and thought-provoking as ever. And I’m guessing that those who have the good fortune to read his columns will read through to the end.

In America, the average age of a newspaper reader is about sixty. Will newspapers die off along with my generation? The Internet offers everyone a platform, and nearly everyone wants one. Everybody is busy posting and blogging, aspiring to be a “thought leader” or at least an “influencer,” “creating content.” Cognizant of Page Views, Visitor Flow and SEO, beset by spambots, bloggers like me quite possibly have too much information about who is and who isn’t reading their electronic pages. 

We crave information, however much we disparage our compulsive drive to acquire it, and the Internet offers more, every day, of what we crave. But what of talent, wit, deep and extensive knowledge of a subject? What of analysis and interpretation, philosophy and a world view? I’m pretty sure no one ever fell in love with a search engine.

Is nostalgia really all that dangerous? Because I’m feeling nostalgic for at least two things about the Eighties. Reading page after tangible page of the Guardian. Reading the reviews of art critic Waldemar Januszczak.

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