29 September 2012

Zazie And The Oulipians

"Man oh man do I feel like writing a little poem
Oh look there’s one passing by now
Here poem poem poem          
Come here  and let me string you
On the string of my necklace with all my other poems
Come here ad let me ix you
In the firmament of my complete works
Come here and let me empoet you
Let me enrhyme you
let me enrhythme you
let me enlyre you
let me enpegasus you
let me versify you
let me prosify you

Aw nuts
It got away"
-      a poem by   Raymond Queneau,  translator unidentified, reprinted from Many Subtle Changes

Cherchez la femme.   Without a little girl named Zazie there might never have been a group called Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature), or OuLiPo for short. Without Zazie there would not have been an academic colloquium (perish the thought!) on Zazie's creator, Raymond Queneau.  Without Zazie, the participants would never have met again in the basement of Le Vrai Garcon, a Paris restaurant,  in 1960 to form a group the Village Voice would describe as a. "largely male gathering, whose docket of activities suggest a Rotary Club meeting on LSD."   I get ahead of myself.  Very well, I get ahead of myself.

Raymond Queneau was an established but  minor author and manuscript reader for Gallimard when he published Zazie dans le metro in 1959.  Queneau had written in 1937, "Anyone can push an indeterminate number of apparently real characters in front of him like a gaggle of geese, across a long moor comprising an indeterminate number of pages or chapters.  The result, whatever else it may be, will always be a novel."   And also a sensation..

 "We live in a world which, we pretend, is one, but instead is multiple and changing – and we try to deal with that contradiction."  - Louis Malle.  Malle was the right  filmmaker to adapt  Zazie to the screen in a dizzying, jump-cutting visual style that correlates to Queneau's dazzling wordplay.
While her mother has a weekend fling with her lover, Zazie is left with uncle Gabriel, a cross-dressing nightclub dancer and, rumor has it, a "hormosessual."   All the ten year old wants is ride the  Metro but it is closed.  The workers are on strike and the streets of Paris are clogged with cars.   Zazie is wise to the ways of lubricious adults, telling how her mother hit her (late) father over the head  when he came home drunk, but was acquitted.  

Visual slapstick and verbal satire ensue as Zazie evades her keeper to explore the city on her own.  By the time the show goes on that night, Zazie is exhausted and sleeps through a food fight, a fire, and the trashing of the nightclub.  What does it all mean?    When Zadie demands that uncle Gabriel tell her the truth, he responds “The truth! As if you knew what truth was. As if anybody knew. The Panthéon, the Invalides, the Gendarmerie, the Madeleine, all a lot of hooey!”

After Zazie, the time was ripe for oulipians. New members were 'co-opted' based on their   talent for mixing mathematics and verbal jiujitsu.   In Georges Perec's novel A Void, a man named Anton Vowel disapperas, taking the letter 'e' with him -  it never appears in the book.  Consider the words of  Paul Feval, a mid-nineteenth century French author of potboilers.  "I am working for people who are primarily intelligent, rather than serious."   In that spirit Queneau removed the "unnecessary" bits from Mallarme's sonnets, turning them into haiku and created A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems out of ten of them by cutting and pasting the remains.  Marcel Duchamp joined the group in 1962, although their aesthetic relied on the constraints of form.  Unlike the anarchic surrealists, oulipians even invented new forms,  My favorite is the perverb which splices together two proverbs, as in "A stitch in time gathers no moss."  Once you accept the idea that there are hidden forms, you can;t resist looking for them everywhere
Alfred Jarry, who invented ‘pataphysics  (“the science of imaginary solutions”) in 1911, was the true parent of OuLiPo.  The Beatles paid tribute to him in song, in  Maxwell’s Silver Hammer:  "Joan was quizzical/ Studied pataphysical/ science in the home."

Jacques Roubaud, a model of the interfering author, warned "each detail of this chapter must be observed with the strictest attention, for each is important in its own way and will not be brought up again."  Advice he applied to describing his heroine, Hortense, a beautiful 22 year old philosopher. Equally lubricious,  Harry Mathews in Singular Pleasures wrote an entire book of prose poems devoted to masturbation.  He said the oulipians "made me fell like someone who has been denying a shameful habit only to discover that it is perfectly honorable." 
In 1995, Herve Le Tellier invented  an imaginary Kantian philosopher named Jean-Baptiste Botul.    Bernard-Henri Levy quoted Botul in a 2010 essay on Kant's work, falling for the oulipian prank - never a good idea if you want to be taken, and Levy does.  Zazie could have told him.

Note: In keeping with French practice, I refer to the group oulipians without capitalizing their name.
Many Subtle Changes: In Praise of Potential Literature  by Daniel Levin Becker, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press: 2012.

Rene Magritte - Descent of the Garden Gate, 1928, Museee Magritte, Brussels.
All others are film stills from Zazie dans le metro, a film by Louis Malle, cinematography by Henri Raichi, 1960, Astor Pictures, France.

23 September 2012

Aristide Maillol: Painter Of Women

Aristide Maillol, the sculptor, whose bronze wood, and terracotta figures  are both modern in feeling and classical in form, is well known.  But there were other Maillols: Maillol the Nabi painter and Maillol,  the son of a fabric seller, whotried to revive tapestry-making and bring work to the people of his  hometown  in the French Pyrennes and nearly lost his eyesight while trying.

Now, the Rotterdam Kunsthal's new exhibition will display rarely seen works of Aristide Maillol the painter.  Just as his models in sculpture were classical (Phidias the Olympian), and in tapestry the medieval  weavers of Cluny, his models in painting were among the best of the Italian Renaissance.   Maillol portrayed his female sitters through the lens of Leonardo da Vinci and Ghirlandaio.  

In the Catalan language of Maillol's native Pyrennes, maillol means "young grape vine."  The artist would need that kind of hardiness.
His years of study in Paris brought extreme hardship, overwork, unsanitary living conditions and malnutrition which caused Maillol's rejection for military service.  Yet, Maillol survived to  an age beyond most of his contemporaries, only to die in an automobile accident on a rainy road near his hometown of Banyuls-sur-mer.

"How did I escape unscathed?  I came close to losing my life,  Deathly ill as a result of deprivation and a lack of care, and knotted with rheumatism, I spent long periods of time in the hospital, and came out only to fall into misery.  I occasionally thought of putting an end to it by leaping into the Seine."

Maillol (1861-1944) only executed his first large sculpture at  thirty-five, after six months of temporary blindness brought on by eye strain caused him to give up weaving.  The tactile aspects of sculpting attracted him during this enforced period of limited vision.

Dina Vierny was a fifteen year old student when she met the seventy-three year old Maillol.  Vierny, like Maillol's friend the Hungarian artist Jozef Rippl-Ronai, was also from eastern European.  She came from Moldova, located between Romania and Ukraine. Vierny, like the artist's late wife Clothilde, radiated the calm demeanor of classical portraiture, or so Maillol has painted them.  Their self-possession is probably realistic, a sign of the artist's respect for his subjects, and he compels that in the viewer, and our admiration as well.

Visit Musee Maillol online.

1. Aristide Maillol - Two Young Girls, 1891, Musee Maillol, Paris.
2. Aristide Maillol - Woman In White (Clothilde Narcisse before her marriage to Maillol), 1891, Baron Adolphe Kohner Collection, Budapest.
Aristide Maillol - Dina At The Farm, 1941, Musee Maillol, Paris.
Aristide Maillol - untitled, Musee Maillol, Paris.

17 September 2012

Franco Fortunato: Recovered Cities

"  Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora.  These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today.  In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it an ideal city, but while he constructed his minature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe."

Situated on a hill above the Tyrrhenian Sea, not in a bottle, the old medieval town of Librizzi lies between Messina and Palermo in northeastern Sicily. Where the four communes of San Piero, Montalbano Helicon, and Librizzi, meet in a point called Quattrofinaiti. Each August, the commune celebrates a festival of macaroni!  My father's ancestors took their name from the commune of Librizzi,  founded circa 1100. 

When I purchased  La Citta Ritrovata (The Recovered City) by Franco Fortunato, I thought that I, too, had recovered a city, an imaginary ancestral home.  The image of a city in a bottle also made me think of the walled cities of Europe in the Middle Ages.  Fortunato, in Golden River (below) uses a palette similar to one often used on antique maps (see map of Parma at bottom).

Fortunato the artist can be recovered, in a way, through his work.  Italo Calvino's book, Invisible Cities, a series of imaginary conversations between the explorer Marco Polo and the emperor Kubla Khan, was an obvious beginning.  Through their dialogue in two languages, alternatives ways of looking at cities emerge.  Invisible Cities has become a sourcebook for architects and artists, and I suspect that Fortunato is one of them. 

 Although Fortunato was born in Rome in 1946, the city-states of the Italian Renaissance, particularly Florence with its red-tiled roofs, have served as his model cities.  He found his way to art after studying the sciences and then literature.    In images in blues and golds he pays homage to painters of the Quattrocento, and in his synthesis of geometrically ordered space with the fantastic there is a hint of an affinity with such recent Italian artists as Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988).

Fortunato likes to work in series: The History of the Park, Recovered Cities, Isolated Towns, The Vagabond, The Poet, and Leaves of Time.  He will take a quixotic idea, such as a city unfurling like a film strip, and come at his subject like the errant knight tilting at the windmill from every direction.    In Leaves Of Time, an entire city is revealed to be nested in a tree, and why not?   The planet we live on continues to be revealed as a small object in an ever expanding universe and our spatial sense is constantly being revised. If we know that we hang off the side of the earth at an angle, thanks to Isaac Newton, who knows what else we may learn in time?   Surrealism is a term often applied to Fortunato's cities, but his lack the forebodings of Giorgio de Chirico's surreal public spaces. 

"Beyond six rivers and three mountain ranges rises Zora, a city that no one, having seen it, can forget. ,,Zora's secret lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced.

‘The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake… Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected. Upside down.”

 “..every street follows a planet’s orbit, and the buildings and the places of community life repeat the order of the constellations and the position of the most luminous stars…”

“From one part to the other, the city continues in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images: but instead it has no thickness, it consists only of a few and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side, which can be neither separated not look at each other.”

All quotations are excerpted from Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, translated from the Italian by William Weaver, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1974.
To learn more visitwww.francofortunato.com

1. Franco Fortunato - La citta ritrovata (Recovered City), private collection, New York.
2. Franco fortunato = The Golden River, Himmelberger Gallery, San Francisco.
3. Piero Fornasetti - City Of Cards, Massimo Listri, Thames & Hudson.
4. Franco Fortunato - City In The Wind, Arte Lombardi.
5. Franco Fortunato - La Citta Isola (The Isolated City). Franco Fortunato website.
6. Franco Fortunato - Recovered City, Himmelberger Gallery, San Francisco.
7. Franco Fortunato - Recovered City, Arte Lombardi.
8. Franco Fortunato - La Spiaggia (The Beach, Salon at the Municipal Palazzo, Siena.
9. Unidentified artist - Map of Parma,  15th century.