Saturday, August 8, 2009

Effects of Art (on Jean Fremon's The Real Life of Shadows)

Jean Frémon The Real Life of Shadows, translated from the French by Cole Swensen (Sausalito, California: Post-Apollo Press, 2009).

The nineteen short récits of Jean Fremon's new collection, The Real Life of Shadows, mainly concerns art and artists (Frémon is also the director of the famed Galerie Lelong in Paris, Zürich, and New York), but these poetic tales are less about the artists than the aesthetic issues behind their art. Moreover, there is a kind of comic lyricism to the whole which pulls each work away from a demonstration of the obvious erudition of the author to a playful encounter with the reader on the subject of aesthetics. Although it obviously enriches the experience of these tales, one doesn't necessarily need to know about the Japanese artist Hokusai, Dutch artist Mondrian, or French artist Yves Klein to joyfully share in the experience of these works.

The Klein story, "On the Coast," for example, playfully invokes Klein's numerous blue paintings painted from 1949 to 1957: "Yves Klein, having painted vertical, horizontal, large, small, medium, square, rectangular, and oblong paintings in the same uniform blue, was unsatisfied." On a beach of the coast, Klein lays back and dreams, watching the "cloudless expanse of the blue [sky] with no visible limit." Klein claims the great monochrome as his own, adding his signature to it, an act not unlike his 1958 exhibition in which he chose to "show" a completely empty room with a window painted blue. Peacefully, the artist falls to sleep. Suddenly three seagulls cross the sky, waking Klein, who shouts "How dare you, you filthy fowls, how dare you make holes in my painting, the biggest and most beautiful painting ever."

But the story does not end there. "Not far away, on the other side of the Italian border," we are told, is the artist Lucio Fontana, whose own monochrome paintings were generally cut and slashed, often with holes bored through them. Entering Klein's dream, Fontana wonders how he might pierce the great blue monochrome, making it his own. The tale ends in the ironic statement: "But not everyone can be a bird."

In short, this fragile tale not only reveals the grand differences (and similarities) between these two modern artists, but challenges the very question as to what is art. Is it perception itself, and, if so, what determines that perception? Perhaps if art is what and how one sees, this particular sky has been created by the birds instead of the two men who, in their perception, claim it for their own.

The void is also the subject of Frémon's dream-like vision of a "Moonless Night." Awakened by a "blazing light," the narrator assumes it's day, but as he enters his garden, he realizes that the shadows of the trees and house have no source. He "seems" to hear a bird singing, but he cannot recognize the bird's cries. Suddenly it becomes clear that it is the "song of the bird that doesn't exist," and he returns to bed sinking comfortably into sleep. This gentle fable, once again with a ironic self-deflating ending, bears similarities to the world created by the artist Magritte, or the work of surrealists where the shadows emanate from some unearthly source. It is a dream-world of shadows that is somehow as real as life.

Perhaps the most profound work of the volume is the wonderful tale, "The Duke of Milan, Leonardo, and the Lying Prior." Frémon begins this tale with a sort of maxim: "History need stories in order to make itself clear." He then proceeds to tell a series of stories about the great Leonardo, beginning with a young boy, studying all forms of vile creatures—toads, snakes, salamanders, bats, and catfish—in order to create the terrifying visage of Medusa's head. In another tale within-the-tale, Leonardo is asked to create a painting for Ludovic Sforza in a refractory kitchen of the local priory, the painting that we would later come to know as "The Last Supper." The Prior in charge, however, is most unhappy with Sforza's choice of an artist, and oversees the work with careful disdain. After deciding upon the subject, Leonardo quickly renders all the disciples save one, the traitor Judas. Painting only the outline of the figure, he leaves the painting standing for several weeks as he goes about the countryside, nightly visiting bars and inns, without returning to finish the work. The Prior reports these facts to the Duke, who calls Leonardo on the carpet, insisting that the artist return to his work. Leonardo assures him that he has been working, seeking aspects of the face in the common people of the places he has visited, and the Duke is satisfied until, when once again Leonardo does not return to painting, the Prior once more complains. Leonard protests: "You must understand, my Lord, that I don't paint dolls or marionettes, but men dressed in hope, doubt, and distress. Their eyes, their hands speak for them." Explaining how he has used figures from the region as the basis for the completed Disciples, he explains once more that he has not yet found the right combination of eyes, nose, and cheek: "The division of light and shadow across the planes of a face is a subtle art...," he declares, reiterating his methods even as a child. However, when the Duke demands he finish the painting, Leonardo suddenly realizes that the face he has been seeking is that of the lying Prior, the man who has reported his activities to the Duke, and he quickly finishes the masterpiece.

Once more Frémon's gentle irony is interwoven with a tale about the relationship of art to life, the interdependency of the two where the artist steals from life, but transforms it into something else. It is that "unknown quantity" of art that must be added to life before we can perceive the real, what Leonardo seeks as the "right" lie that allows one to speak the truth.

One of my favorite works of this collection is a short work titled "Pieces." Arguably, I like it simply because it was supposedly written in response to a work I sent Frémon in 2001 for my collaborative book, Between (which I described in My Year 2008); reading it again in this context reminded me what a wonderful tale it is.

A woman cuts up an apple into numerous pieces and seeing the small pieces of apple upon her plate begins to sob uncontrollably. Her husband enters the room and sits down beside her, trying to reassure her that the pieces of apple on the plate are not her mother, her brother, sister, children. They are just pieces of apple which she must eat. She has not failed as a lover or mother or daughter any more than anyone else.

After a bath, he carries her to the bed and they make love. In the morning she goes down to her studio and gathers various pieces of wood and scraps, gluing them, screwing them together, wedging them in to various shapes and small sculptures, which, when she shows them to her husband, she speaks, "You see, I put the apple back together again." But her guilt will not go away, and she writes a note:

1 I love you 2) bad daughter bad wife bad mother 3) It's hopeless 4) I miss you 5) bad woman
6) bad life 7) where is it all leading? 8) I love you 9) forgive me

She tears up the letter. She writes Not guilty. Pasting the letter back together with scotch tape, she writes, "10) Not guilty Not guilty Not guilty," putting the letter back in the drawer and locking it away.

The very image of such fragmented and broken objects has, like all of art, revealed to her, temporarily perhaps, something of her own life, her fears and feelings of failure. Images, accordingly, are powerful things, dangerous in themselves, in their effects upon our lives despite their lack of reality. What we see, Frémon suggests, must also sometimes be mitigated, forgotten, locked away from our sight.

Time and again in these subtle stories, Frémon reveals to us how the shadow, the image of experience, is quickly transformed into reality.

Los Angeles, June 2, 2009

1 comment:

martin nakell said...

I would like to add some information which comes to me by way of my esteemed and wonderful colleague, Marv Meyer, on the same faculty as I. Last year, Marv was one of the translators of the recently surfaced Book of Judas, an ancient scroll which itself has a nefarious history of emerging, but which is authenticated no doubt, and sponsored in translation by National Geographic Society. The Book of Judas whispers to us from the ages what Jesus whispered to Judas. Jesus assigned Judas to his role as "traitor" in order that the Romans would discover Jesus, crucify him, and release the light within which life had trapped into his human form. Judas is not a traitor, but the most trusted of Jesus' followers, the only one who would understand and be able to carry out this incredible assignment.

As for the dangers in art & images, I should add that a scientist friend asked me, vis a vis my work on "what do you intend of your work? do you intend it to take us by the hand, lead us somewhere, and tell us, it's all right, you needn't be afraid?" although i had never thought i intended that i certainly didn't dissuade him of this view.