It's time to get back to Write...Edit...Publish..., I do hope all WEPers are coping and doing well. Keeping in mind the ongoing pandemic situation and the personal challenges we are all facing, WEP is going Lite this month. I'm sticking to my comfort zone of photo-essays, aka non-fiction ramblings. I have done better this month on the wordcount control, finally! -
Pigeon. Panic. Pandemic.
There is nothing you can see that is not a flower; there is nothing you can think that is not the moon.
~ Matsuo Basho
Right in the middle of the urban nightmare to beat all nightmares, the pigeon desperately wants to fly home. But it can’t. Borders are closed. The mind can go wherever it wants, it can think only flowers, it can think beyond the moon, it can morph into whatever it desires, but the body? The body is governed by the natural laws, physics and biology and biochemistry and abstruse electrochemistry. It is subject to boundaries both physical and geographical. There is no shaking off its shackles. There is no escape from this city. And so it burrows back into the mind, where it can devise its own escape and try on the grasshopper wings again.
|Credit: View from Studio (1886)|
The rise of the city is inexorably linked to settled agriculture. And art as we know it today is linked to it as well. If there were no public buildings – the monuments, the necropolis, the places of worship, the town square, the library, the parks, as also the private grounds and the sitting room, there would be no need to hang art on walls or install statues or design frescoes and fountains and what have you. The beginnings of Homo sapiens’ art, as with most other beginnings, lie in Africa, in Tan-Tan and Blombos. Some of the prehistoric art we have remnants of, were either made to decorate living humans with – beads and a mix of pigments to hang around and ornament various limbs; or were independent free standing, portable figurines. A purely nomadic hunter gatherer life does not lend itself to monumental art for obvious reasons. Rock art which dates from around 35,000-40,000 years ago or even 200,000 ya is clearly an attempt to beautify or glorify a cave/surface which humans were at for long enough to create those artworks. Therefore, we can safely assume that though art happened pre-agriculture, wall art required a surface that humans stayed put at for some time or they knew they would come back to. If there are no walls, they can’t be decorated, right?
The ancient cities rose on the back of the Neolithic Revolution – or settled agriculture, in the region commonly known as the Fertile Crescent. The oldest cities such as Jericho (9000 BCE) and Ur (6500 BCE) coalesced along its curve. The first writing and recordkeeping happened in Ur in fact, slicing off the ‘pre-‘ from prehistory in one fell swoop. Cities were predicated on an agricultural surplus and humans changed profoundly, from foragers into a society based on specialisation of labour. Not everyone needed to be growing food, so some turned their minds and skills to other things. A non-farming class of residents - that of the artists/artisans – grew as a corollary to settled agriculture.
The earliest civilisations rose out of these communities in the river valleys of Mesopotamia, India, Egypt and China. Settled agriculture meant an exponential growth in the population, as the same piece of land could now support many times the original inhabitants. As the civilisations grew, their cities became political capitals, centres of education, trade and commerce hubs, forums for artistic and creative exchange. But there was also a price to pay for this luscious, spanking new lifestyle. An organised society meant more rigid class divisions and inequalities leading to high crime rates. Living in close proximity meant higher pollution, and last but not the least, diseases on an epidemic scale. The urban nightmare started early - from ancient times.
Normality is a paved road: it’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.
~ Vincent van Gogh.
Vincent’s nightmares were both urban and various. The most famous of them is the ear incident in Arles. That happened after a heated debate with Paul Gauguin. But there are others as well. Let the grasshopper stop whirring about for a minute and recap his time in Paris.
In 1886, Vincent moved to Paris where his brother Theo was already working at an art dealers. Paris had acquired the reputation of being the art capital of Europe in prior centuries. By the time van Gogh moved there, it was in its artistic prime – it had some of the finest painters and the art schools associated with them. Paris was the centre where several art movements – Romanticism, Impressionism, Cubism, Fauvism, Art Deco etc evolved. Van Gogh arrived in Paris splat in the middle of the Impressionist movement - Monet and Pissarro were already established. Vincent admired the old masters he saw in the Paris museums, at first he didn’t like the Impressionists much. But that changed a year on – he started experimenting with the loose brushstrokes and lighter, brighter colour palettes of the Impressionists. His art evolved at an exponential, breath-taking pace. He worked in the studio of Fernand Cormon and found inspiration from his circle of artist friends such as Emile Bernard and Paul Gauguin.
However, living in Paris drained him, even as it elevated his art and grew him as an artist. He smoked and drank too much, ate poorly, the pace of the big city wore him down.
It seems to me almost impossible to be able to work in Paris, unless you have a refuge in which to recover and regain your peace of mind and self-composure. Without that, you’d be bound to get utterly numbed.
~ Letter to Theo van Gogh, Arles, 21st Feb 1888
I could never get used to climbing the stairs in Paris, and was always dizzy in a dreadful nightmare that has left me here, but recurred regularly there.
~ Letter to Willemien van Gogh, Arles, June 1888
The self-portrait he painted in Paris reflected this, he looks exhausted and depressed. And he described it as such to his sister Wil ‘with…wrinkles in forehead and around the mouth, stiffly wooden, a very red beard, quite unkempt and sad.’
|Credit: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam|
Paris ultimately gave Vincent the artistic lift-off he had sought, but he had had to pay a heavy price.
Always a heavy price. Whether as a heedless species traversing the broad arc of history; or a single, keenly aware individual, a misunderstood genius ahead of his time, trying to make a little space for his art.
WC - 1054
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