Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The High Priestess

                                * John Everett Millais, The Bridesmaid (1851) 

The High Priestess dwelled in a shrine flanked by the portals of Night and Day. When I approached, she told me that her power came from the borrowed light, which sustained her throughout every sleepless hour. Never once in her life did she yield to the hypnotic spell of sweet somnolence. Her steely gaze could penetrate through the densest of fog, the most blinding of sunbeam, and the murkiest of the mounting darkness. Even the wolves were terrified of her unflagging vigilance.

Every day she saw people, large crowds of people, streaming through the portals of Night and Day. Some youths would leap through the threshold of the portal of Day with their faces all rosy and jolly, only to be led out and blindfolded to the other portal, still laughing hysterically and completely oblivious of their imminent entrapment in a nasty prank. The High Priestess would prick her ears and wait. Normally, it wouldn’t be more than five repeated tollings of bell when the deceived were suddenly awake. They found themselves abandoned on a foreign land where the comforts of warmth never touched, where any moment they expected their wretched existence finally eclipsed by an approaching, unknown menace. One individual’s cry of desperation was muted by that of innumerable others. None of those painful sounds ever went unnoticed by the High Priestess, but, already made numb by their staggering regularity, she stifled without much ado any feelings or emotions that crossed her heart.

She also told me that she was forbidden from saving the unfortunate ones from their implacable misery. They were too many, she said, and it was advisable not to bother with those whose doom was already preordained. I was taken aback by this statement, addressed by one whose head was ever encircled by a luminous halo, who was regarded as the guardian of all souls, in a manner that was nonetheless so matter-of-fact, so callous. The High Priestess shrugged. There was no crime worse than that done in the name of Loyalty, she said, I knew not any values superior to that, this Loyalty. Even if that meant she was to assume a silent tree the rest of her life. The High Priestess devoted herself to the omnipresent One.

But there were still some less tragic prospects. The High Priestess remarked that the tears of the lost ones offered nourishments to the Land of Day as they were carried over by the winds. Those in the Land of Night wept only for a season; they were mostly dry-eyed before the next, crying no tears but continually emitting a few feeble groans of pain and protest. How the High Priestess would like them to know, even after they finally disentangled from their protracted death, that their suffering did not go unrewarded. Every time a stranger entered into the portal of Day he would notice immediately how the little kingdom was blessed by eternal spring. The charity was unreciprocal, however.

If the High Priestess could have her wish granted, she confided in me that she would like to fellow sleep. Sleeping was a privilege and luxury she was eternally denied of. The strange and magical sensation of dreaming, where one was constantly slipping in and out of consciousness, would be a potent remedy for one who has witnessed with her indifferent eyes so many forgotten tragedies. Through the sweet act of dreaming her soul would finally be unfettered, and became her ghostly other. She and her ghostly other would fly to the land of the ancient fathers. And there, she said, she could finally pay tribute to myriads graves without names.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Review: Jean Fautrier, The National Museum of Art, Osaka, Sep. 27- Dec. 7, 2014

A sense of disquiet occasioning in the viewers exacerbated when they found themselves in an exhibition room that was almost unpeopled- quite normal I suppose for a Wednesday afternoon- and under the incessant, rigid vigilance of stiff-backed guards, who seemed unnecessarily outnumbered for a show so small. Small-scale, though, there were at least 100 paintings waiting to be beholden, to be confronted by whomever that had no apprehension of what they were going to see. We felt our ignorance jeered upon, our forbearance sorely tested. The sights that passed through our eyes were atrocious, relentless, bewildering. Once we hastened out of the exit, still stunned with the horrors we could not yet comprehend, how we wished we hadn’t subjected ourselves to such ordeal, in a supposed-to-be glorious afternoon.

But we should have been cautious in advance of the ordeal, because this was a Jean Fautrier’s retrospective we were attending. Jean Fautrier, a French-born artist whose life was punctuated with calamitous events: two World Wars, the Great Depression, the Occupation, dedicated his artworks chiefly to the unique portrayals of pain and ugliness. The exhibition began with his early realism works, the result of his academic training is apparent, but from which influence there are telling signs that he was desperately trying to refrain. Fautrier had the license to rebel. There was this portrait of a concierge, her head was ill-formed and lumpy; she managed a smile that should be as innocent and genial as that on the face of an avuncular elder lady, but on closer inspection we sensed something sinister. One was reminded of that Grotesque Old Woman by Quentin Metsys. This mocked-up portrait by the Flemish master is doubtlessly more jocular; the comedy of the old woman’s overblown deformity encourages light-hearted laughter. Whereas with Fautrier’s we see no amusements. It seems almost as if Fautrier envisioned every human being to look exactly like that, like an old, gnarled tree.

No sooner did Fautrier disentangle from the throes of academicism than the style of paintings took a drastic turn towards abstraction. I lighted on a painting that was to leave in me an equal measure of shock and disturbance as those of the Hostages series. Skins of Rabbits depicts five dead rabbits dangling on a string, their skins torn clumsily from hind paws to heads. Anyone familiar with the tradition of bodegón will surely not consider the work an anomaly in Western Art, nor its luridness too appalling to scrutinise with great concentration. Lurid inevitably one did feel when one judged it for some time, and seemingly saw the trembling fingers of a pair of hands appearing through the forms of the rabbits’ legs. This still-life is not a celebration of food, but Death’s exultant dances.

As Fautrier was inclining towards abstract art, his long pent-up anger and grief burst through the stoical façade that rendered his early works so peculiarly constrained. It was almost of no surprise that Fautrier’s career culminated in the Hostages series. The depictions of victims’ heads- wrung, twisted, fractured, rent, tortured by pain- are rather more of a trenchant response to the horror of war than merely the documenting of personal experiences. Combining figurations with abstractions, the heads are not so unrecognisable as doughs of flesh- one could still dimly make out the physiognomy; the victims were not yet dusting away into oblivion. The affliction is keenly felt yet at times dubiously muted; the emotions ferocious but constrained. A rare beauty exuded from such gruesome aggression when, despite the disconcerting feeling occasioned in me when browsing through the series, I lingered for a while on Fautrier’s sculpture, Head of a Hostage, and fantasised that I saw some obscure face born out of the amorphous rock. Not until when I read Andre Malraux’s exhibition catalogue did I realise I was not entertaining a fantasy, but, according to Monsieur Malraux, the Head, which he singled out as the centerpiece of the series, did entail a hope of “incarnation.”

However I couldn’t help doubting, with one who witnessed and was forced to digest so many horrors and tragedies, Fautrier could still find beauty in ugliness. Maybe at one moment- and let’s imagine if that were the moment before Fautrier breathed his last- he finally realised what human nature was all about: that we are a self-torturing sort, we are born to be forgiving, and harbouring the idiotic notion that every vice is permitted a chance of redemption. He was tortured not because he was unable to forget, but could never hate.