For this month, Write... Edit... Publish... is taking a much needed break and getting its collective breath back. No winners, no comment counts, no prize badges this month - no pressure. This posting is for the spirit of community only - which is what has kept me going through this annus horribilis. The online and offline support of my various communities. A huge thanks to the WEP members for all that you did.
Mind. Mandate. Missteps.
Sometimes it’s not the people who change, it’s the mask that falls off. ~ Haruki Murakami.
This year has forced nearly all of us to wear masks, like it or not. Masks are often associated with extreme attributes - positive and/or professional (health workers/firemen/anonymous benefactors) or massively negative (robbers). The pandemic has shown how uneasy we are when we cannot access facial cues to communicate, for all that eyes are said to be the windows to the soul. A mask is really a trade off - between power, protection and concealment, and we're not always outwardly comfortable with the balance struck.
But the mind wears them often enough, though the physical body may not be comfortable with one. Even as it morphs into a grasshopper it wears that of a pigeon or a bulldog, sometimes multiple layers without batting an eyelid. It armours itself in a myriad ways, sometimes playful, sometimes deadly serious, nearly always effortless. But let’s talk through the physical masks first.
|Credit Rock art in Lascaux, France.|
Masks may be used for ritualistic/religious/ceremonial purposes, for protection (in hunting, sports, combat), for entertainment (theatre, dance) or simply for ornamentation. It’s thought that ritualistic uses of masks were the earliest and the mask gave the wearer a specific persona of unimpeachable social, moral or divine authority. Death masks were used to honour and protect the dead person from evildoings by mischievous beings, think of the famous golden mask of Tutankhamun (1238 BCE) or the Mycenaean mask of Agamemnon (16th century BCE). Ancient Greek theatrical traditions made extensive use of masks as did Roman festivals such as the Saturnalia.
In medieval times, masks allowed people to escape the class constraints during festivals, adding an element of mystery and intrigue to the wearer. The Carnival of Venice, famed for its elaborate masks dates back to the 13th century, though it was discontinued for a couple of hundred years in between and revived again in 1979. Masks continue to be popularly worn for modern day festivals such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the Rio Carnival in Brazil.
Nearly all societies across the world show mask usage at some stage of their history. And of course, currently a vast number of communities across the world have a mask mandate in place. Of piquant interest is the beaked mask, invented in 1630, to protect plague doctors hired by city councils against infection during epidemics. But these are all visible masks. Of far greater interest and seriousness are the invisible ones.
Death removes the mask from every face. ~ Vincent van Gogh.
|Mask of Egyptian Mummy by Vincent van Gogh. |
Chalk on paper. Van Gogh Museum
Theo is primarily defined as Vincent's supportive, emotional rock, so it's easy to overlook the fact that he worked at the well known art dealers Goupil & Cie, from where he sold hundreds of paintings. Theo moved among the elite, he persuaded the owners to exhibit some of the Impressionists and painters of the Barbizon school, he advised artists, buyers, sellers and opinion leaders - in short, he had a serious impact on the contemporary European art scene. Why then did he fail to sell all but one of Vincent's paintings? Did he try too hard? Or not hard enough? We know from Jo's letter that Vincent was unhappy with the way his paintings were stored in the Paris apartment. How does that gel with the common impression of the high regard Theo had for his brother's work? Did Theo, in his heart of hearts, believe them to be 'worthless' too, as did the rest of the world?
That summer was marked by much uncertainty and tension for both the brothers. The work relationships between Goupil & Cie and Theo had deteriorated as the sons-in-law of the Goupil family - Valadon and Boussod, took on an increasingly active role in the running of the firm. Theo wanted to break away and start his own business, his brother-in-law, Andries Bonger, backed out twice after promising support, the infant Vincent was ill - a lot was going on, and so Jo was impatient with Vincent when he visited Paris early July. It's known that Vincent was overwhelmed, apparently by too many visitors, too much stimulation, and cut his visit short.
Evidently, things between Theo and Vincent were changing as the former established his own family and future directions. The prospect of financial insecurity and the loosening of the emotional ties troubled Vincent, which he wrote to Theo and Jo after the visit. Did they just misread the signs? Were they not mindful enough? Would a visit from Theo have prevented Vincent from taking his own life? Was his writing back a reassurance a misstep?...But then, it's easy to conjecture remedies in hindsight.
The ultimate cause for his suicide lay somewhere between his financial insecurity, the perceived hopelessness of his disease and the changing dynamics with Theo's household. Where exactly? We shall never know. That's one mask that never came off even after the tragedy was played out and the actors went home.
Since we're unstructured I haven't kept to the word count, thank you for your patience and time!
Time isn't kind to books! It's
fragile and falling apart now.
Still a worthwhile read.
This concludes my series on Vincent - I have loved revisiting his art and life story, which I first read as an adolescent decades ago. Especially enjoyed digging into all the research done since then and their results, made available to fans like me through technology. The digital archive of his letters I visit frequently, it's my go to van Gogh fix, as is the Van Gogh Museum site.
WEP is back in Year 2021 with some scrumptious prompts. See you there! Meanwhile, wish you a tranquil advent season and as Merry a Christmas as possible under these current circs. To your safety, continued good health and great writing outcomes!