Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Remedy

                                *Gustav Klimt, Medicine (Hygeia) (1899-1907)*

Whenever they feel the need of summoning spirits to unravel the knots that have long entangled their very basic sense of reasoning, they will build a fire on the ground. A clairvoyant will mutter a string of rambling spells, and all participants are made to bow their heads in reverence. Nothing happens much after the spirit appears. Some remarks tentatively that the fire always hisses and flickers whenever the ghost slides pass. But most of them insist they witness nothing during the course of the ritual; anything abnormal that any of them happen to catch a glimpse of is dismissed imperiously as the result of their fantasies. Only the clairvoyant is endowed with the gift of seeing and communicating with the spirits, as one little boy once observed, no language or words are needed for communication, the clairvoyant merely blinks an eye and the spirit is infused in hers.

This time they summon a new spirit whose presence just departed from the earth not long ago- the poor girl was tormented then sent up to a pyre of fire. Her soul has been restless ever since- the witnesses of this haunting visitant said she did not utter a word, quite like her laconic self when she was alive, but stared straight ahead of her, gaze determined but empty. It is with a firm purpose that they should invite in this sleepless ghost. The little boy sees the clairvoyant raise her head heavenward with a jerk, and open her eyes from ecstatic slumber she cries: “She’s here!”

The man is rapt rummaging in a pile of pamphlets when he senses her entrance. She says plainly to him, voice icy-cold and every syllable that uttered sounds so far-off as if it grows wings, that she knows he sees her, unbeknowngst to the clairvoyant and other participants. He then sees her emulating what he was doing, leafing violently through the pages of several bulky tomes that lay gathering dusts on the shelves. He stops her movement by gently offering this interjection: “You really needn’t trouble yourself anymore. The case can never be solved.”

She turns abruptly to him, eyes brimmed with tears. It is weird seeing a creature who was stony-hearted in nature should become inexplicably sentimental when her flesh is no longer clung to her soul- he is almost convinced that the wetness permeated the eyes is only a refraction of light. But there are no sources of light save a dwindling oil lamp on the table. She regains her composure. Any sign of emotions peters away. No responses or words. For a second she takes him to be the clairvoyant.

Then softly she tells him she has always feared death, and the torment seemed to be an everlasting agony. The way she delivers her confession is like smooth water not bothered by any stones or obstacles. From the continuous din outside a second ritual seems about to be taken place. No fear or anticipation possesses her but she is standing awkwardly and irresolutely, as if an abandoned doll waiting for its master to claim it back.

“To be in peace,” he tells her in an almost inaudible whisper. A smile of relief creeps upon her face, not unmixed with the pain that is never to be blotted out by time. She bows her head in a jerk as if chancing to doze off, whilst from without he hears the clairvoyant finish her chant and knows she is about to raise her head heavenward. In this infinitesimal moment between absorption and unawareness, she is gone.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Medicine

     *Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment of a Bird in an Air Pump (1768)*

The speckled wall shows an interesting shadow play of figures rushing from one room to the next. The low moanings of a girl are punctuated with the occasional sputter of a candle. A little boy is made to stand guard at the front door, in anticipation of the imminence of the local doctor and his company, a proverbially ingenious apothecary. He has yet witnessed the current state of his bedridden sister- “It’s grave, it’s grave…,” comes the muttering of his father- and he can picture himself doggedly refusing to open his eyes if he was in the room. But anything could be worse than his imagination. And within the blink of an eye the moanings could seize.

The doctor raised slightly his eyebrows whilst feeling the girl’s faint breath caress his fingers like veil. The family bends over to read the doctor’s facial expressions but with no avail- the intricate web of indentations and wrinkles have made his face inscrutable. The apothecary’s is even more enigmatic: a clownish smile is constantly on his face as if he was buoyed by every sign of the girl’s affliction. He has been rapt in scribbling on a little notebook since he entered the house; not even prompted by any instructions of the doctor since the latter remains almost silent throughout. The little boy, still refusing to come close to the sickroom, pricks his ears lest any telling news might escape him. But he hears nothing. He wonders if it is because of the rain.

The family sees the apothecary tending to the medicine like a conjuror exhibiting his magic. The whole event now turns abruptly to a fascinating entertainment. All watch jaw-dropped as the apothecary opens his arms heavenward, invoking spirits of all manner and corralling the earthly elements into the medicine he creates. Everyone is so arrested by this grotesque performance that no one is aware of a stout, diminutive figure, approaching tentatively to the bed. It happens on a moment of respite between the incessant ecstasies that plague yet excite the girl so. The girl smiles wanly to her brother, who stands transfixed and eyes destitute of emotions. He hopes the pain will end just like a single stroke on the neck in the bygone days. And birds will skid over the sky in throngs before the clouds cleared. All will be over.

The parents try to force the medicine into the girl’s mouth but the strong smell makes her retch. Her strength is no rival to the other healthier ones and resistance seems helpless. Without any cajoling the medicine is poured into her trembling mouth. The liquid is so golden that the room is suddenly lightened up, and the boy can see clearly the contortions of his sister before the medicine is consumed, and the room back to its original darkness. The parents whisper their prayers before tugging their girl back to bed, who is now panting heavily but seizes writhing her body in agony as she did minutes ago. The apothecary, still with a clownish smile, assures the family that by tomorrow everything will be fine. The doctor responds nothing but stares at the girl with an arched eyebrow. This time only the little boy catches the sign. He doesn’t know what the say to his sister even in a pinch. A new day will soon dawn. Even when the little boy senses the first light sifting through the windows, and the candle dwarfs itself to hand out authority, words fail on his lips. He can only wait and see everything happen.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Garish Colours

Some like to paint their world in soft colours, like those in an Impressionistic painting, in which the scenery is always pleasant, tinted with blossoms here and there, and everything is swathed in a gentle haziness seen regularly on a beach resort. For those the world cannot be a better place. Their days can be fairly uneventful if they are unimaginative enough not to be bothered by any uninvited incidents that might put an abrupt termination to their comfortable monotony. The opposite of an ”impressionistic” world is by no means a world of complete black-and-white. I never believe anybody can have a life so utterly devoid of colours, given the fact that today we are living in a turbulent world, anything surprising or incidental can seep into our days despite how hard we try to keep them mundane. A world of garish colours is what I suggest as the opposite of a world of pastel-softness. It best represents the extreme emotions of mankind, be it anger, excitement, amorosity, desperation and so on. As much as I am fascinated by some painters’ wilful use of colours, those paintings or artworks leave me an impression of cold disquietude.

The Night Café (1888) is what Vincent van Gogh once considered one of his ugliest paintings. The painting is teemed with contrasting colours: bright green, emblazoned red and gleaming yellow. The café looks not like a place for leisure but more like, what Van Gogh intended it to be, a madhouse. Besides the blatant colours one’s anxiety is compounded when seeing the yellow floor extend itself and approach towards the viewer. The hospitality of seemingly wanting to share intimacy with the viewers is not a comfortable one, not so much as that in those sacra conversazione pieces, in which Madonna and the Child are mostly placed on an elevated throne, and from it the carpet cascades and threads its way towards the viewers, inviting them to bear witness of this holy ceremony. The floor in Van Gogh’s is more like the golden brick road, but a golden brick road that leads not to a promising glory. Instead, within the picture frame, the loungers are cooped up in their solitude.

William Eggleston’s photography is an honest record of the banalities of daily lives. Disquietude and anxiety stemming from loneliness are augmented by the exaggeratedly vivid colours; regardless of how boisterously those colours assert themselves a sense of sparseness characterises Eggleston’s photographs. The work, Untitled (1975), reminds me of John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1851-52), for both heroines lie supine and resign their lives to nature- an evidence of how eerily mankind resemble or blend into its surroundings. I sense a vortex of hallucination surging out of the girl’s body, even when she is lying in complete stillness. Its bright colours, so bright that I am convinced the sunlight is also immortalised in this photograph, also contribute to the work’s overall giddiness. Different from Van Gogh’s claustrophobic Night Café, a world peopled by colours in Eggleston’s photography is ever-expanding, and this expansiveness can be unnerving.

What will happen then if the garish colours all join the vortex of hallucination and everything run amok on the canvas? One might want to mention Jackson Pollock’s abstract expressionist paintings but the masterful Pollock seemed always manage to rein the haphazard pictorial elements into harmony- neither colours nor lines or patterns are permitted to claim as the singular star. Polish expressionist painter Feliks Topolski’s portraits are evocative of the explosive, destructive mess of Francis Bacon’s. Human figures are barely discernible save that of the diverse use of colours. In Topolski’s Portrait of T.S. Eliot (1961) it is the red that stands out amongst the others. The red of Eliot’s robe is a violent red, which portrays the poet more like Count Dracula, dressing in the blood of his victims. Like Bacon’s, Topolski’s sitters have their figures and identities undermined in the portraits, as if everything will soon peter out, leaving only the mass of colours and lines.

Or maybe the colours and lines will eventually fade away. In this case the garish colours are the intruders that disrupt the peace and harmony of a vapid world, but they are not unwelcome, they can easily become the essentials that make a painting more interesting. As one gazes long enough at a conglomeration of garish colours giddiness ensues. Little do we know it is the moment when we are unconsciously transported- into the painting, into the colourful mess and into the eternal swirl.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Big House

    * John Singer Sargent, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882)*

 (Born a cosmopolite, French painter Sargent's oil paintings were suffused with a feel of high-brow urbanity. Loneliness and claustrophobia, however, seep in from time to time throughout his oevure when the sparseness of mankind takes over the focus of the expansiveness of space. Whenever seeing a restricted space in a painting it always pricks my curiosity of what lies beyond the frame. And thus in my head the house and the room are imaginatively expanded, but always the room in the picture stays the same, as if the room itself could engulf all of the expansions. We always have that grand house within us; the house which only lends glance of one room but leaves the others shrouded in mystery.)

The adults left their children and went to the party so the kids could only entertain themselves by playing in the drawing room. The loftiness of the room was oppressive. One could not stay in it without feeling its looming presence descending upon him like clouds of smoke. Even the china vases were looming, standing obstructively at every turn of the corner. One of the girls inclined her back against the surface of the vase and immediately a cold shiver ran down her spine; the hostility of the vase was thus keenly felt. The slant of light diminished bit by bit, no sooner would the little girls witness a trail of it slipping away out of the window, so would the glints in their eyes, albeit how burningly they sometimes shone.

And no sooner would night fall. I touched the wooden wardrobe and felt something slowly unravel from underneath. I disliked anything that was not unquestionably concrete, as if the walls would suddenly collapse on us and we would be forgotten for good, like a cluttered pile of dusts eventually swept and herded into the corners of the room. But even if we did disappear in the end the house still stood. This grand house, always assumed a solemn air, soundlessly and soullessly when seeing from without, even when within every room is packed full with people. Yes. From where the girls and I were situated we could still hear momentarily some faint ring and clang in other rooms. In an eventless day like this when the adults all ventured out for fun, the house was however never still.

Every room was resonated with sleepless spirits and throbbed with ceaseless sounds. Sometimes it always seemed as if a ball had just taken place, and the trail of the elegant music left an alluring afterglow in every room. All rooms seemed alive saved that of the drawing room the girls were commanded to stay. As noticed by one of the girls, no matter how shrilly they shouted the strident noise ceased the moment they mouthed their howl; the house itself commanded them to stay sotto voce. The youngest played noiselessly with a doll found in the room. The doll stayed in a posture of ecstasy, hands reaching heavenward beseeching for the mercy of God. The little girl could not bend down the doll’s hands so she could only cradle it gently in her arms and run her fingers through its sandy hair.

I announced to the girls- most of them staring at me with consternation- that we might be left alone again tonight; alone in this grand house. We were only left alone once but the memory failed us as it happened when we had yet gained knowledge. Waves of fear and excitement attacked me once I finished the announcement. No. I should not show my fear. To reassure the dejected girls I made with my hands a sweeping gesture around the room- we would be safe as long as the house was with us. And we in this house where nothing eventful could have happened. We could feel the enormity of the house gradually reduced to minutiae and infused with our souls. Once the house was within us we became the architects of the house; we built it, the house.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Light Against the Darkness: Light and Dark in Western Art

If still-life painting is not invariably an art of contemplation, then what comes closest is perhaps the painting of faint light against dark, like candlelight in the time before electricity, or the gleam of moonlight in the pitch-dark of night. Those are the lights that give out hopes, a sense of security and serenity. I am not referring to the lights that partly reveal the true colour of a monster- the shock of lightening that triggers all the wicked happenings. Those paintings of more sinister overtones are not discussed here. I always value more the glimmer of light than the overwhelming darkness.

Georges de La Tour’s The Penitent Magdalen (1638-43) is a painting embedded with symbolisms. The skull nestling on Mary’s knees is the emblem for mortality; the candle, the spiritual enlightenment; the mirror, the reflection of human’s vanity. Mary is aware of herself as a mortal and thus she is staring at herself instinctively into the mirror. Or rather, she is staring at the candle, or the reflection of the candle in the mirror? It is an irony that the candle is deliberately placed before the mirror. The candle and the mirror therefore are the contenders that fight to become the most lasting value in human lives. Obviously the candle claims the victory in the end, with the mirror submissively allows an imprint of the flame which burns determinedly and coruscatingly- an implication of the dismissal of earthly vanities and the triumph of the power of divinity. Seeing such image Mary is visibly entranced. Her fingers crossed and poised atop the skull; Mary harbours a momentary wish of aligning herself with the deities.

The gleam of hope can also be engendered in a time of hardships and predicaments. Vincent van Gogh’s Potato Eaters (1885) is a testimony of all the sketchiest and the crudest. The peasants’ faces are scarily grotesque: eyes are sunken and creases and indentations ploughed deep. The image is unapologetically ugly, with the its ugliness augmented by the loose brushstrokes and dark colourisation. Amidst the oppressive gloominess the only source of light comes from what hangs from the ceiling. But an artificial light it is, which seems also to serve cruelly as a mockery of the peasants’ impoverishment. Whilst most viewers tend to sympathize with the peasants’ misfortune, what reached me first when seeing this painting was all the characteristics that made Van Gogh distinct from his ancestors. The light therefore is not artificial at all, but a torch bore by Van Gogh, shining up the path treaded by his fellow post-impressionists.

Warmth oozes from the break-through of light, most evident in Jean-Francois Millet’s Angelus (1857-59). This is a painting of contemplation, and the committed love of the earth. Both the man and the woman’s heads hung in devout prayer before heading home after a day’s toil. The figures are shaded with sombre tones and made similar to that of the soil. Their affiliation with the earth they step on is so strong that at any moment the two can blend together unsurprisingly. The setting sun has some pale blueness and redness trailing behind it- the only light colours that leavened the heaviness of the painting.

I do not know if Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when writing One Hundred Years of Solitude, had any particular picture in mind that echoed the image invoked by the novel. By my humble estimation, after reading Marquez’s epic novel, Jean-Francois Millet’s depictions of the farmers’ lives are what come the closest. Both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Millet’s genre paintings exude a sense of humility, not only to the home they are raised in but also to nature and the universe that encompass. Darkness never befalls those people’s lives but only a greyish murkiness that comes and goes periodically. At times a ray of light peeks through the gathering clouds, yet once the heads are lifting up in search of hopes, the light diminishes, leaving merely a trail of faint afterglow that swans weakly around the heaven.