Tag Archives: Brazil

Joan Ponç at La Pedrera

18 Jan

 

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Joan Ponç was a Catalan surrealist painter who seems to have lived – to a greater extent than most – almost entirely in and through his imagination. It is probably not an easy way to live, and it does cause certain logistical problems, not least for the protagonists and those who choose or are forced (in the case of children) to live by their side.  Ponç is not well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, and I had been looking forward to visiting this major retrospective of his work at La Pedrera in Barcelona.  Follow this link for a video tour of the exhibition itself.

 

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I spent a couple of hours wandering around the rooms, marvelling at some of the images, the startling use of rich colours and the bizarre and terrifying creatures that find their way into his narratives. I had reservations, however, about figures that reminded me of the kind of hippy art that used to adorn the night clubs of my youth, and was left cold by the quantity of flying phalluses, which I haven’t reproduced here. I guess, in a way, such imagery was of the era, and although he would probably have denied he was a surrealist painter, in the strict sense (is there even a ‘strict’ sense?) he was – as his friend and fellow member of the artists’ group dau al set Arnau Puig observes – a surrealist through and through ‘as a person’.

 

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The remaining members of dau al set (seven-faced dice, in Catalan) were the poet Joan Brossa and the artists Antoni Tàpies, Modest Cuixart and Joan-Josep Tharrats. As far as I know, Puig is the only one still living. The group was supported by the poet J.V. Foix and Joan Miró, and constituted a bravely defiant statement of intent in the darkest years of Franco’s dictatorship. As the exhibition leaflet tells us in rather wobbly language: ‘This [his output during the late 1940s and 50s] was a period of oracles and spells, magicality and demonism, heightened by nocturnality and the blend of highbrow literary sources of Surrealism and popular culture. Ponç often represented himself as a harlequin and his paintings became magical and surreal, night landscapes filled with strange creatures: fauns, top hats, harlequins, fantastical ruins, geometrical shapes and imaginary zoomorphic forms in denuded and metaphysical landscapes.’

 

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Ponç’s work leans to a large extent on the precedent of surrealism, but it is significant that in his diaries he speaks with admiration of painters such as El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, and most importantly, Cézanne. At times his painting seem almost devoid of the kind of technical skill exemplified by those painters, and one has to wonder at what level he internalised their lessons. I am not really in a position to say. Perhaps the fact that he always painted at night, by the light of a single stark lightbulb, is a clue. However, having bought a very attractive edition of his writings, I was struck his obsessiveness, by the dedication to his art that is in many ways remarkable, especially considering the severe ill-health he endured towards the end of his life. He also refused to exhibit for long periods, and was hostile to the idea of the art world as a market-place.

 

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Ponç, almost inevitably, fell out with the other members of dau al set, and in 1953, armed with a letter of recommendation from Miró, set off for Brazil, where he stayed for ten years. He radically revisioned his own art, became fascinated by science, especially physics, an interest that he pursued further on returning to Europe, settling first at Bruc, near to Barcelona, and then in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in an area he began to regard as his spiritual home (he referred to the Pyrenees as ‘the ground zero of the universe’). After living for a while in Cadaquès, then Collioure, and then Ceret, he eventually moved to La Roca de Pelancà, after spotting a house on hilltop that had been struck by lightning, and deciding make it his home (after the judicious placing of lightning conductors).

Reading Ponç’s diaries and notebooks I was reminded at times of Leonora Carrington’s writing, not only by some of the themes that obsessed them both but also by the shared capacity to dwell, as I stated at the outset, so thoroughly in their own imaginations. On Leonora, incidentally, I would refer the reader to Bill Herbert’s excellent blog.

Two anecdotes stood out for me in his short autobiography, which I read on the train home, and have reproduced here (Ponç’s journal entries are written in Castilian Spanish, although the book’s introduction and footnotes and commentary are in Catalan). The first concerned a visit to an antiquarian shop while Ponç was living in São Paulo, Brazil. He spends some time admiring a display of strange-looking angels, ‘some of them hanging by strings, their faces seeming to express a terrible fury’ and a wooden marionette with fully articulated limbs. As he turns to leave the shop, the owner calls out to him:

– Are you Joan Ponç?

– Yes, I answered.

– Don’t you remember me?

– No.

– Two years ago – he went on, – I bought one of your paintings. There was a black goat in it, against a dark red background.

I remembered the work in question.

– I want to talk to you about this work – he said, and continued. I was broke, I didn’t have any money to buy more pieces, and I decided to bring to the shop some of the works I had at home, among them your painting, which upset me, as I had given it to my mother. The day that I brought it here, someone was waiting for me at the shop. He bought all my merchandise and told me, as he went on his way: “the thing that interests me most is that goat, but you must never sell it.” From that moment onwards, my business began to prosper. A short time afterwards – the antiquarian continued – a friend who was on the verge of bankruptcy, and to whom I had told my story, came to see me, and begged me to lend him your painting. He hung it in his office and his business began to change for the better at once.

In spite of finding the story supremely interesting, I couldn’t stop myself laughing, never mind the sincere gaze of the narrator.

– It’s important that you believe what I’m telling you, and I’m going to give you proof. These things I’ve told you have spread around, and people come here often to ask me for the painting. Fearful of losing it, I’ve taken various photographs. Look.

He opened a box, inside of which were a good number of photos.

– Another proof. Choose from my shop the object that you most like.

Without wanting to, I let my gaze fall on the wooden marionette.

– Is that what you want? Then take it. It’s yours.

I didn’t want to accept it, but he told me that if I didn’t accept the gift, he would take it out on the street and leave it there for any passer-by to pick up.

– Please take it with you, it would bring me relief.

I know that some people will laugh, as I did, at this. Others will attempt to reduce it to something comprehensible. It doesn’t matter, we are all free to interpret things in accordance with our own manner of thinking. For my part, I can affirm – in the face of accusations of ingenuousness or dishonesty – that I have narrated these things exactly as they occurred and that anyone who had lived through the chain of events that over years have accompanied my life, would react in the same way. I remember a marvellous phrase from Saint John of the Cross: “The true way for man lies in believing less in what can be seen, but does not exist, and more in that which cannot be seen, and does.”

The other story in Ponç’s autobiography is altogether more trivial, but none the less entertaining. It concerns the artist’s time in Cadaquès, where Salvador Dalí was a neighbour. Ponç writes that he frequently dropped by on Dalí in his studio, that while he admired the older artist’s prodigious mental ability and profound sense of humour, the visits often terminated in a fierce argument. ‘One of these’, he writes ‘acquires huge proportions after he [Dalí] attacks van Gogh in an extremely violent fashion. He tells me that I am defending him because I am a madman like him [van Gogh], to which I respond that at least we have the papers to certify that we spent time in the lunatic asylum, and that we are, in any case, professional madmen. “You, Dalí”, I tell him “will never be more than an amateur madman.”

I left his house, determined never to return. The following day, we were both at the beach. I pretended not to see him, but to my great surprise, he called out to me, and began a conversation as if nothing at all had happened. It was an important lesson.’

 

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Montaigne’s Tower

23 Aug
Study in Montaigne's Tower, Summer 2013

Study in Montaigne’s Tower, Summer 2013

 

‘Habit’ according to Samuel Beckett, ‘is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’: and it is precisely what Montaigne seeks to uncover and dismantle in his essays. He does this in various ways, but one of his favourites is to run through apparently marvellous and diverse customs from distant cultures in order to convince his readers that what they take for granted is only a matter of what they are accustomed to. As he himself put it: ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.’ His essay ‘Of Custom’ discusses, by turn, the question of whether or not one should blow one’s nose into one’s hand or into a piece of linen; how in a certain country no one apart from his wife and children may speak to the king except through a special tube; how in another land ‘virgins openly show their pudenda’ while ‘married women carefully cover and conceal them’; how in other (unspecified) locations the inhabitants ‘not only wear rings on the nose, lips, cheeks and toes, but also have very heavy gold rods thrust through their breasts and buttocks’; how in some nations ‘they cook the body of the deceased and then crush it until a sort of pulp is formed, which they mix with wine, and drink it’; where it is a desirable end to be eaten by dogs; where ‘each man makes a god of what he likes’; where flesh is eaten raw; where they live on human flesh; where people greet each other by putting their finger to the ground and then raising it to heaven; where the women piss standing up and the men squatting; where children are nursed until their twelfth year; where they kill lice with their teeth like monkeys; where they grow hair on one side of their body and shave the other. By blasting his reader with these numerous examples of apparent strangeness, Montaigne makes them question the practices which they habitually regard as unquestionable and normal in a new light. Indeed, he raises many of the issues that cultural anthropology began to tackle four centuries later, and he can safely be regarded as an early relativist. When he had the opportunity to speak with some American Indians from Brazil, the Tupinambá tribe, of which a delegation was brought before the court at Rouen, he was not simply concerned with ‘observing’ them, as though they were rare specimens of primordial life: he was much more interested in recording their amazement at their French hosts. The observers observed.

A bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne, 2007 vintage

A bottle of Chateau Michel de Montaigne, 2007 vintage

 

Coetzee’s Foe

10 Aug

 

‘When I was young there were degrees of certainty’: these words I quoted the other day from Anne Carson evoke a sense of certainty instilled by the repetition of known stories. In childhood, if the world makes sense at all it does so because the stories we hear about it cohere. The ‘storied world’ takes on new meaning when applied to the central character of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one Susan Barton, who, having travelled to Brazil to search for her kidnapped daughter, is cast adrift by mutineers, and washed up on an island inhabited by a dull and grumpy ‘Cruso’ (who after briefly becoming her lover, dies on her) and a mute Friday, whose tongue has been cut out, according to Cruso, by slavers.

Coetzee’s book is a story about the making of stories. Susan, on her rescue and return to England, writes an account of her adventure and sends it in instalments to the famous writer Mr Daniel Foe, while living in penury with Friday, first in rented accommodation in London, then on the open road as vagrants. She convinces herself – what a common fantasy – that the telling of her story will make her fortune:

“The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” Then I made a list of all the strange circumstances of the year I could remember: the mutiny and murder on the Portuguese ship, Cruso’s castle, Cruso himself with his lion’s mane and apeskin clothes, his voiceless slave Friday, the vast terraces he had built, all bare of growth, the terrible storm that tore the roof off our house and heaped the beaches with dying fish. Dubiously I thought: Are these enough strange circumstances to make a story of? How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso’s ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?

Thus Susan Barton is unwittingly made the mouthpiece for the story Defoe actually wrote (but she cannot). How poor Susan needs to satisfy the need to tell and tell, and yet not to cross that invisible line into mere ‘invention’. How curious that the confection of her story demands such truth-telling; and yet all around her are those whose very lives depend on the invention of fictions.

This is a book rich is allusion, and in stimulating reflection on the writer’s life. Here is Foe speaking to Susan: “You and I know, in our different ways, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. We sit staring out of the window, and a cloud shaped like a camel passes by, and before we know it our fantasy has whisked us away to the sands of Africa and our hero (who is no one but ourselves in disguise) is clashing scimitars with a Moorish brigand. A new cloud floats past in the form of a sailing-ship, and in a trice we are cast ashore all woebegone on a desert isle. Have we cause to believe that the lives it is given us to live proceed with any more design than these whimsical adventures?”

And here is the crux of it: all our lives are story; much of that story is conjecture, the rest invention. A tale heard in passing between sunrise and sunset. There is room for many more such stories. Or, as Coetzee’s Susan tells the mute servant Friday, after being confronted by a strange girl who insists she is Susan’s long-lost daughter:

“It is nothing, Friday . . . it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr Foe’s house there are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie.”

Even without the lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores, Coetzee has the patience to furnish a story that is both intriguing and beautifully crafted. And my copy now carries the invisible traces of a thousand other stories, and of a hot day in August.