Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Poetry of Decay

Time and transience - the aesthetics of ruins and broken statues......

The oil painting on wood, 30x40cms below I think is completed. 

The following thoughts and observations go towards providing a context to understanding a fascination with fragments of torn paper and bits of old photographs as subjects for oil painting. By making these kind of things the focus of particular visual attention and contemplation it confers on them a peculiar significance and aesthetic quality and suggests potential interest and value  can be found in things that are ordinary, unexceptional and conventionally worthless, even perhaps boring. Sustained concentration can reveal layers of meaning in unexpected objects, in discarded detritus or abandoned places.   
Circle of Giovanni Battista Piranesi 1720-1778
Travellers in the ruins of a vaulted rotunda 
The Romantic cult of ruins in the 18th and 19th cen. created a 'poetry of decay' by evoking a largely imaginary historical past that served to satisfy contemporary fashions and tastes and function perhaps as a warning or 'memento mori' or 'vanitas' for an emerging power with imperial ambitions as Shelley's 'Ozymandias' poem published in 1818 so famously expresses
I met a traveller from an antique land 
Who said Two vast and trunkless legs of stone,
Stand in the desert. near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,  
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear: 
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The Lone and level sands stretch far away. 

In 'Essays in Idleness, The Tsurezurgusa of Kenko'  written sometime between 1330 and 1332 by the Buddhist priest Kenko and translated by Donald Keene, published by Columbia University Press in a second edition in 1997, a Buddhist aesthetics of impermanence emerges that gives beauty and significance to people, things and places. Indeed, for Kenko then as as for Buddhists today all phenomena or 'Dhamma' are characterised by 'the three marks of existence',  'Anicca' ("inconstancy" or "impermanence"),  'Anatta' or "non-self"  and  'Dukkha' or dissatisfaction. 
'Kenko puts forward the most peculiarly Japanese of aesthetic principles; beauty is indissolubly bound to its perishability. he wrote; 
"If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in this world, how things would lose their power to move us !  The most precious thing in life is uncertainty." ....... 
Whatever has survived has aged, and the faded quality, the reminder of impermanence despite long survival, has been especially prized. Kenko quoted with approbation the poet Ton'a who said,   
" It is only after the silk wrapper has frayed at top and bottom, and the mother of pearl has fallen from the roller, that the scroll looks beautiful," ' 

Corner of a frayed Edo period Japanese gold silk damask Kesa or patchwork Zen priests robe decorated with peonies and chrysanthemums

How different is the tone of anger and bitterness directed towards the aged fragments, the 'broken statues' and 'battered books' of the Western civilization which Ezra Pound imagined symbolised the morally bankrupt culture which a lost generation had died for in the futile slaughter of the first world war.  
                                                             "THERE died a myriad
And the best, among them
For an old bitch gone in the teeth ,
For a botched civilisation,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth

Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books

Poem V,   'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley'    Ezra Pound  

This violent rejection of the aesthetic of ruins and broken statues that had so preoccupied the artists and connoisseurs of the 18th and 19th centuries was a premise that lay behind much of the revolutionary avant garde of early European Modernism. Rejecting the old and embracing the new involved a kind of violent wrenching, and sometimes a frenzied intoxication with the new technology of a imagined utopian machine age that has fascist overtones and undercurrents. This is from 'The Futurist Manifesto' by F. T.  Marinetti in 1909. 

   "We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath ... a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace."

The book 'Francis Bacon, 'A Terrible Beauty'  investigates the studio archive at the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane.  (Pub. Steid,  2009) It reproduces and discusses many of the the fragments of stained, yellowing, battered and creased photographs which Bacon used as sources for his painting. Although they clearly are part of a process of almost literally breaking down,  'masticating' and 'digesting' the image prior to 'regurgitating' it as a painted distortion of form, an excretion of paint, or as he famously put it,
" I would like my pictures to look as if a human being had passed between them, like a snail leaving its trail of human a snail leaves its slime, " 
 the photographic fragments reproduced in the book remain as charged seminal images in their own right and they take on the curated aura of venerated relics rather than the rubbish or left over detritus of the artist's creative process.  

 John Deakin, photographs of George Dyer c.1965
These same fragments of paper and other detritus charged with significance can be found on the walls and surfaces of any street corner of any city the world over, wherever the processes of time and change have a chance to reveal the 'marks of existence'. 

Photograph,  'Wall',  Naples.  2013

"One day I tried to arrive at silence … Those millions of furious clawings were transformed into millions of grains of dust, of sand … A whole new landscape, as in the story of one who goes through the looking glass, opened before me as if to communicate the most secret innerness of things … And the most sensational surprise was to discover one day, suddenly, that my paintings, for the first time in history, had turned into walls."       Antoni Tapies, Quoted in The Guardian Obituary.  2012  

                                                          Pintura XXVIII by Antoni Tapies

The Catalan artist Antoni Tapies, who died last year,  had a profound interest in Buddhism. This is quoted from the website of the Fondacio Antoni Tapies in Barcelona  

" Influenced by Buddhist thought, T├ápies believes that a better knowledge of pain allows us to soften its effects and therefore improve our quality of life. The passage of time, which has always been a constant in his work, now takes on fresh nuances when lived as a personal experience which brings greater self-knowledge and a clearer understanding of the world around him. " 

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