MY TOP SHELF

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

10

THE LIFE OF MOZART

Edward Holmes (1845)

Folio 1991; half red cloth with gold lettering and red silhouette on gold on blue cloth front with red slip-case.

For this blessing, I daily thank my Creator, and from my heart wish it participated in by my fellow-men.

Is there any point in reading lives of the great artists?  What we know about Shakespeare can be comfortably set out on an envelope, and none of it tells us anything at all about King Lear.  It was a drama in verse – what can fact or fancy in prose tell us?  Does it help to know that Michelangelo had a fight with a pope or that Beethoven went deaf?  Perhaps; but if you read too much about Wagner, you may never want to hear him again, and you might swear off Parsifal forever.

Well, there may be something to be said for reminding ourselves that even geniuses are, au fond, merely human, and only one man may have had a better claim to genius than Mozart.

Edward Holmes went to school at Mr Clarke’s Academy in Enfield where a boy called John Keats was a pupil.  He learnt music with the very musical Novello family and became something of a music critic.  He idolized Mozart, but this book is useful for the letters of Mozart and contemporary reminiscences.  This Folio copy is beautifully produced.

In a letter to his father, Mozart says that he played to a count for two days.  This one knew how to behave – ‘he always says bravo in those places where other cavaliers take a pinch of snuff…’  He went on to say that ‘on hearing German melodrama, I felt a violent inclination to write.’

The letters contain many references to his love of the German nation, and to his love of the fugues of Bach and Handel.  He put several of the fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier into his own handwriting.

According to Mr Hodge, Mozart always composed in the open air when he could.  Don Giovanni was said to have been composed on a bowling-green, and the principal part of the Requiem in a garden.  In a letter written in a garden, he told how he had arrived in Vienna to find that dinner was served ‘for me unfortunately rather too early’ – 11.30 am!  Mozart sat down with, among others, two valets, the confectioner, two cooks ‘and my littleness.’  (He was only about five feet in height.)  Mozart told his father that there was ‘a great deal of coarse silly joking’ from which he remained aloof.  Perhaps, but we know that Wolfie was big on ‘coarse silly joking’ in a way that may still evoke a mild blush in the matronly glitterati in the concert-hall set.  But all this was far too much for the Victorian sensibility of Mr Holmes.  Against silhouettes of Mozart, Salieri, Gluck and Haydn, Mr Holmes says: ‘That he whose transcendent genius had asserted its empire over the whole musical world, and who even at this time had put forth unmistakeable evidences of his greatness should be put down to table with cooks and valets, is something to marvel over in this retrospect of Mozart’s chequered existence.  But how admirably he bore himself in this situation, silent and grave and keeping aloof from the rude company…’

Here is a trivia question.  Name the opera taken from Comedy of Errors.  Da Ponte turned it into an opera called Equivoci.  The music was written by Signor Storace whose sister played the first Nanette in The Marriage of Figaro, for which Da Ponte wrote the libretto.  Mozart wrote the opera in a month.  The tradition was that the overture to Don Giovanni was written the night before it was first given, and was first played unrehearsed.

An Irish singer called Michael Kelly played in the first Figaro.  He reminisced about Mozart.  ‘Mozart told me that great as his genius was, he was an enthusiast in dancing, and often said that his taste lay in that art rather than in music….He always received me with kindness and hospitality.  He was remarkably fond of punch, of which beverage I have seen him take copious drafts.  He was also fond of billiards, and had an excellent billiard-table in his house.  Many and many a game I have played with him, but always came off second best.  He gave Sunday concerts at which I was never missing.  He was kind-hearted and always ready to oblige, but so very particular when he played, that if the slightest noise were made, he instantly left off.’

Mozart was only thirty-five when he died.  He was working on the Requiem, and had composed the Ave verum corpus, possibly the most ethereal sacred music ever written.  Einstein said of it that, Mozart had resolved the problem of style.  Either work could only have been written by a man of profound Catholic conviction.

We may be allowed to hope that Mozart was at peace with himself when he died.  A few years before that, this man beloved of God (amadeus), wrote to his father: ‘As death, rightly considered, fulfils the real design of our life, I have for the last two years made myself so well acquainted with this true friend of mankind, that his image has no longer any terrors for me, but much that is peaceful and consoling; and I thank God that he has given me the opportunity to know him as the key tour true felicity.  I never lie down in bed without reflecting that – young as I am – I may never see another day….’  Some hold that those who are beloved of God die young.

Here and there – Jeffrey Smart

Jeffrey Smart has something in common with Louis Armstrong.  He has his very own style and it is instantly recognisable.  Not many artists achieve that distinction.  But Smart is different to Nolan, Boyd, and Williams.  They taught us how to see and come to terms with the bush.  Smart taught us how to see and come to terms with the city.  In something of a manifesto, he said in 1968:

I find myself moved by man in his new violent environment.  I want to paint this explicitly and beautifully.

Some styles become outmoded for the artist’s message.  (If he has a message.)  But how would Bonnard paint a Hilton Hotel bathroom?  How wrong a jet plane or a modern motor car looks painted impressionistically!

A man is logical on horse-back: but in a satellite, surreal.  Only very recently have artists again started to comment on their real surroundings……

Security?  The bomb?  How much more insecure Fra Angelico must have felt riding to Orvieto with the threat of outlaws, robbers, and the plague.

Smart was born into a comfortable part of Adelaide in 1921.  He was obsessed with drawing as a child and the technique that he acquired would always be central to his painting.  While serving in a number of jobs, including the part of Phidias on The Argonauts on the ABC, he acquired a full education in art, most noticeably from an Adelaide lady called Dorrit Black.

She began with the geometric method for establishing the Golden Mean….This was a positive eye opener, and she linked it with compositions by Poussin, Tintoretto, Veronese, da Vinci and so on.  And it all related so clearly to Braque, Léger, and above all to Cézanne.

We see immediately how important this teaching was to the structures in Smart’s mature paintings.  He was very taken with the light and sense of place in Piero della Francesca, but Cézanne would remain his champion.

Like many Australian artists back then, he really got going in trips to Europe.  He studied with Léger for a while in Paris, and his early work shows some influence of de Chirico.  Smart said of him: ‘There is an element of the naïve in him, his perspective distorted without a care in the world while Cézanne agonized over the same thing.’  Smart would later say that his later paintings are better than his earlier ones partly because until he was forty-one he was working at other things to earn a living.  Someone said that post-modernism was like playing tennis with the net down.  That could never be said about Jeffrey Smart.  He had a life-long commitment to the high technique derived from the masters over the ages.

Peter Quartemaine says:

When a painting is ‘right’ it has for Smart a stillness, that quality he so admires in artists as diverse as Balthus, Poussin, Mondrian, Braque and Ben Nicholson.  He himself turns to T S Eliot for the best expression of what this stillness means in the work of art, a passage from Burnt Norton which he feels hints at the greater accessibility of the visual arts as vehicles of meditation compared with music or literature.  ‘At least, we do abolish time.’

…….Only by the form, the pattern

Can words or music reach

The stillness, as a Chinese jar still

Moves perpetually in its stillness.

Smart recalls in this connection reading a critical account of a Cézanne landscape as ‘nature in arrested movement’, where the critic assumed that the stillness came from the peacefulness of the original scene.  He insists that in Cézanne, as with Eliot’s Chinese jar or a perfect composition such as Guernica, the stillness comes from ‘the perfection of the design alone.’…..Eliot’s mature work, especially Four Quartets which has influenced the artist profoundly, is an expression of hard-won faith in the world and in the value of artistic endeavour.

Smart would later recall that Dorrit Black spoke of ‘making a picture’ rather than ‘painting a picture.’  Léger suited his preoccupation with geometric shapes.  ‘I paint buildings a lot because they are rigid shapes…they go straight into the picture plane – they make a space, a box, where you want it.’  He said that Piero della Francesca and Cézanne had taught him how to compose.  He was engrossed by The Flagellation and the Gilles of Watteau (which is referred to in his painting Dampier III).  He surrounded himself with reminders.  One said that ‘an artist must himself be moved if he is to move others.’

Germaine Greer said:

Many observers, hypnotised perhaps by the occasional human figures isolated in a man-made environment in Jeffrey Smart’s work, have been struck by its mystery and ambiguity…..There are few artists who can provide the shock of recognition and they are all great.

The rest, as someone said, belongs to the madness that is art.

Happy New Year – and a Note on Art

The Art of Mark Rothko

(Some comments from and on the book ‘Mark Rothko, From the Inside Out’, Christopher Rothko, Yale University Press, 2015.)

The quest for meaning was at the root of all Mark Rothko’s  work.  What he sought was to express the human condition.  He sought to speak as directly as possible to us, in our inner selves.  He wanted passion dampened by as few mediators as possible.  ‘Since I am involved with the human element, I want to create state of intimacy – an immediate transaction.’

Rothko kept returning to the physical relationship between art and the viewer.  He said that form and proportion were dominant, but for us, it is likely to be the colours that seduce us.  Rothko said that sensuality was his essential way of getting the painter’s message across.  In his writing, Rothko expressed sadness that abstraction in modern art had been ‘at great sacrifice in the expression of human passion….and a tragic abnegation of the human spirit.’  He thought perspective had drained the impact of colour.  His hero was Giotto who had no interest in creating visual space.

Rothko spoke of his paintings as dramas. ‘The paintings are a stage for human concerns and human dialogue as drama, unlike narrative, inherently involves interaction.’  We speak of psychological dramas, and what we hear from people who love Rothko’s work is that they find the paintings to be moving.   Some are moved to tears (just as some react in that way to Casablanca)

The tears tell us that that viewer has been moved, and that some see tragic content in the work.  Something on the canvas strikes a chord with the viewer.  Rothko saw not just drama but tragic drama – ‘the tragedy of the human condition.’  Mozart was by far Rothko’s favourite composer.  His son tells us this:

Mozart generally wears a genial face, his music so tuneful it is frequently canned into packages of background music, much as my father’s work is often reduced to decorative wall covering.  But listening to Mozart carefully and openly, one becomes aware of the sadness, the longing, the ache of human suffering.  Mozart was ‘smiling through tears’, my father would often say.  Perhaps, I would suggest, the same was true for him.

(An English music critic said that the glorious tenor voice of the tragic Swedish drunk Jussi Bjorling was ‘full of unshed tears.’)  Mozart, too, expressed complex themes in the simplest way, and most of his music is nothing if not sensuous.

In his Poetics, Rothko’s son reminds us, Aristotle says that the best tragedies arouse ‘pity and fear’.  Aristotle said that pity is our response to ‘undeserved misfortune’ and our fear comes from seeing this suffering ‘in one like ourselves.’ (‘There but for the grace of God go I.’) Tragedy then may be the ultimate expression of the common experience of mankind – or just our humanity – and art becomes the lyrical reflection of humanity.

When Rothko offers us a painting, he is making an overture to us.  He is saying: ‘We’re not so different, you and I’.  He is inviting us to take a journey to explore the tragic drama of human life.  In his artistic development, he sought to strip away layers to achieve simplicity and clarity and to achieve the simple expression of something complex.  Quite by chance, Rothko’s son, who is a psychologist, stumbled on a formula: content + impact = contact.

And thank heaven, Rothko scotched one rotten myth:

I never thought that painting has anything to do with self-expression.  It is a communication about the world to someone else…..You may communicate about yourself; I prefer to communicate a view about the world that is not at all of myself.

Rothko reaches pure abstraction where he is unfettered by tradition and the viewer is unfettered by social context.

The progression of a painter’s work, as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer….To achieve this clarity is, inevitably to be understood.

That last proposition might be safer, or less optimistic, when applied to writing rather than painting, but the stand taken by the painter is fundamental to understanding his work.  Rothko was not a religious Jew; a major commission was for a Catholic chapel; but his insistence on clearing away blocks between artist and his viewer has a Protestant air about it.

Compared to the forms, the colours suggest a type of abandon.  The end result is the painted expression of what it is to be human – ‘This is what it feels like to feel this way.’  He is looking for a chemistry between us and him, ‘a primal, preverbal communication’ conveyed by the painting.  He wants to get across to us feelings that can’t be put into words.  So did Mozart. (And if you put to one side porn and hookers, so does sex.)  And as his son remarks, ‘if Rothko’s works still make us uncomfortable, then perhaps it is not comfort we should be seeking.’

But even in the early figurative paintings, a similar drive to embrace humanity can be seen.  Rothko was a socialist painting during the Great Depression, but he was not painting the suffering of the ‘masses’.  He was looking at the individual struggling for air.  He was the reverse of the ideologue – he was looking at you and me, and not ‘the proletariat’.  What Christopher Rothko calls these ‘framed, cramped figures’ look to be trying to break free, to be liberated, and we are reminded of Kafka as he was writing at about the same time.  Aristotle also said that ‘Tragedy is essentially an imitation not of persons but of action and life.’  Yes, but we get there by looking at persons, not by looking at abstractions.

So, when Christopher Rothko says his father wanted to express the inexpressible, what he was saying is that his father sought to express emotions – or, if you prefer, sentiments or ideas – in paint that he could not express in words – and which we may be at best presumptuous if we try to express in words.  The son does refer to the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture.  But one of his father’s better known remarks is:

I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.

And whatever else you may say of Rothko’s paintings, he did compose them (and, for my part, I don’t get the sense that that composition came without a fight).  Christopher says:

The paintings are, in fact, my father’s abstracted notion of reality – his generalisation of the truth – communicated through emotional, sensual experience.

If, that is right, then for once a label – Abstract Expressionism – may have some merit.

Good news at last!

At lunch with a journalist yesterday, we discussed aboriginal art and footballers.  I recalled being at an exhibition looking at an aboriginal painting that seemed to change before my eyes.  The curator asked what I thought.  I said I was reminded of the Krakouer brothers.  She did not know them, so I explained that they were aboriginal footballers who just saw things and did things that were beyond us white people.

We discussed the paintings of Minnie Pwerle.  I have a fine one here.  They are collections of rows of semi-circles in about five different colours.  I said that I look at it a lot, and that I suspect that instinctively the artist may have arranged the colours very much after the Golden Rule or Ratio (sometimes called Fibonacci), which was applied by Jeffrey Smart.  A tutor at Oxford had explained how Verdi had apparently arrived at the same result in the last act of Othello, around the kisses that come before and after the death of DesdemonaThe class was of the view that this effect was probably instinctive rather than mathematical design.  So it was with the Krakouers.

By chance, when I turned the TV on last night, it was on The Winners from the past.  North Melbourne played South Melbourne in the second round in 1982.  What got to me were the ludicrous hot pants on the boys.  But the Krakouers put on a show kicking seven between them.  And the best part is that they were both in the studio to watch it.  I was aware that one had got into some trouble, but both were there looking fit and well, and not in any trouble, more than thirty years on.

I found it the show very uplifting.  They slowed down one clip.  The ball was free in a pack.  One brother could see that the other could get to it, and set off briskly to offer him a lead.  The other got to the ball, and instead of grabbing it and passing it, he just bunted the ball with a closed fist about twenty-five yards so that it just came in front of his brother on the lead.  He then just gathered it in and after three or four steps slotted a goal on an acute angle.  It was pure magic or consummate artistry – a joy to watch.  They could do things, in footy and in art, that we whites just cannot do.

The other good news is that Chris Wallace-Crabbe and I are moving solidly in our book on writing and thinking – the title and a few other things are yet to be settled, but more on this later.

Crime and punishment

The first time I read this novel – about fifty years ago – I thought that I should think that it was good, so I did – but I found it a bit of a drag.  Since then I have read all the major novels of Dostoevsky, and I have read The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Demons twice.  Only the first of them kept its charm for me; the other two crashed.  The problem seemed to me to be too many exclamation marks, and too much hysteria, or as Eliot said of Hamlet, emotion in excess of the facts as they appear.  None of these books made it into my top fifty, although War and Peace is up there with only two challengers for numero uno.

I have just had the opposite experience with Crime and Punishment.  It was so much better the second time.  The trick for me is to treat it like an opera, or at least a work or art, on a different plane, and just let it wash over you.  If you do, it can be ravishing.

A young man, Raskolnikov, who thinks too much, develops a Napoleon complex – Tony Blair did not read this novel – and decides to kill a mean old woman to give himself a start and to bring relief to his family.  ‘A single evil and a hundred good deeds….I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless nasty, pernicious louse.’  Here is the author’s version of probably the two most murderous lines known to mankind.  Having accepted his own dare, he finds that there is more to being a murderer than meets the eye.  He unravels in a way that looks logically determined but which is dramatically alive.

The book has a real plot – and a thrashing Act Five that I did not see coming.  (You might say it ends with a bang.)  And some of the interrogation scenes, where a wily cop plays cat and mouse with the murderer, reminded me strongly of that wonderful film Une pure formalite with Depardieu and Polanski.  (It too starts with a murder and focuses on the interrogation; I could never work it out, but it is a truly great movie.)

A lot of the characters and scenes are right over the top – you must treat it like an opera – but two women carry the back story (if that is the phrase) – Dunya, the straight talking sister of the hero who shrugs off a mean and uppity lawyer and whose palpable virtue drives men mad with sexual desire; and Sonya, the hooker who has God, the poor daughter of a drunk who gets a yellow card (goes on the game) to sustain her family, and whose transcendent spirituality becomes the only thing that stands between the hero and the hellish consequences of his crime.  (There is more than a touch of both Fantine and Cosette in Sonya.)  Theatre cannot rise any higher than these two women.  And you get renewed insight into the dark side of the Russians.

Somerset Maugham, who knew something about writing, thought that Dostoevsky was a jerk.  He said: ‘Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant.’  Well, none of us is perfect, but Maugham thought it was the badness of Dostoevsky that made him ‘one of the supreme novelists of the world.’  Interesting, but I want to refer to what Maugham said about the characters of this great novelist.

They are constituted of a desire to dominate and a desire to submit themselves, of love devoid of tenderness and hate charged with malice.  They are strangely lacking in the attributes of normal human beings.  They only have passions.  They have neither self-control or self-respect.  Their evil instincts are not mitigated by education, the experience of life or that sense of decency that prevents a man from disgracing himself.  That is why to common sense their activities seem wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential….They are devoid of culture.  They have atrocious manners.  They take a malignant pleasure in being rude to one another in order to wound and humiliate….They are an outrageous lot.  But they are extraordinarily interesting.  Raskolnikov, Stavrogin Ivan Karamazov are of the same breed as Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Captain Ahab.  They palpitate with life.

And they are like characters in an opera.  The point of this most extraordinary insight in literary criticism is that we are talking about works of art in Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, and Moby Dick – and masterpieces at that.

This mighty book is a cracker of a read – and I am not surprised that Hitchcock thought that it was too great a novel – or work of art – for him to chance his arm on with a film.  God willing, I will read it again at least once more before I go.