Sunday, October 28, 2012

Jacqueline du Pré (1945 – 1987)

It is exactly 25 years since the death of the greatest ever English cellist, a player who will be forever associated with the Elgar Cello Concerto, and whose passion and directness struck all who heard or saw her. 

Jacqueline du Pré grew up in Oxford.  Her father was an accountant, from a Channel Islands family, and her mother was a piano teacher.  At the age of four, Jackie heard a cello on the radio, and decided that she wanted to play one.  Her mother supported her early learning on the instrument.  Jackie said later: 'My mother was a tremendous inspiration. She guided my first steps, wrote tunes for me to play, and drew pictorial descriptions of the melodies. These were quite beautiful and I used to find them tucked under my pillow in the morning so that I couldn't wait to get my hands on the cello again every day. My mother also taught me composition.”

As a child, she went to the London Cello School, and then Guildhall School of Music, where she won the gold medal.  She gave her first concert at the Wigmore Hall aged 16, playing a donated Stradivarius.  She studied with famous cellists such as Paul Tortelier and Rostropovich, who saw her as the heir of his talent.  Jacqueline du Pré became famous for her performances of the Elgar Cello Concerto at the Proms (1963-1969), and for the recording she made of the piece with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra (1965).

At Christmas 1966 she met the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.  The following year she converted to Judaism and they married in Jerusalem.  She played much chamber music with Barenboim, such as the Schubert Piano Quintet “The Trout”.  However, Jacqueline du Pré had little affection for more modern classical music.  Her recordings are justly famous, but not as extensive as her fans would have wished.

From 1971, Jackie’s playing began to decline, as she lost feeling in her fingers and strength in her arms.  Her last concerts came in February 1973, and in October 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which she liked to call "multiple fuckosis".  She continued to teach: I have met one of her students, who talks of how they sometimes had to carry her wheelchair to overcome access barriers.  Jacqueline du Pré died on 19 October 1987, aged only 42.

The achievement of Jacqueline du Pre cannot but be overshadowed by the success of the film Hilary and Jackie, based on a memoir by her brother and sister, and telling the story of the months in 1971 when Jackie had an affair with Christopher Finzi, her sister’s husband.  The film paints Jackie as a manipulative person.  Hilary, a musician herself, wrote: "Nobody could be with Jackie for long without being reduced by her... People couldn't live with her week in, week out, because she unwittingly destroyed them."

In one sense, the film is a counter balance to the adulation of this remarkable musical talent.  The image of the tragic genius is a classic disability trope, and to hear about her bad behaviour makes Jackie seem more real.  Although, as Helen Meekosha points out, critics resorted to shallow disability stereotypes - the tortured genius - in their reviews of the film. Meekosha, who herself has MS, talks about the tragedy of dealing with a degenerating body, and the anger and frustration which is generated by impairment, not just by social barriers.  When identity and worldly success depends on exactly the fine motor control and sensitivity which MS destroys, the frustration must be even worse.

Those who knew Jacqueline du Pré well protest that the film portrays her wrongly.  Finzi was a serial adulterer, who had several illegitimate children, and a reputation as a “sexual therapist” for troubled people, in an era where “free love” was fashionable.  Hilary consented to her sister having the affair with him. 

More to the point, Jackie was “a giver not a taker” according to her close friends and colleagues.  Documentary films by Christopher Nupen reveal her as full of “warmth, honesty and enthusiasm”, with a charisma which has become legendary.  Many suspect that jealousy underpins the negative representation of her by her siblings.  When Jacqueline du Pré died, she was surrounded by her friends, not by her relatives.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1911-1989)

When I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see their show of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, the nice ladies on the information desk had no idea what I was talking about.  It took some searching to find the rooms dedicated to this visionary Brazilian artist.  You won’t find him on Wikipedia either.  Maybe his obscurity is because Bispo do Rosario spent fifty years of his life on a Rio de Janeiro psychiatric ward, and did not even think of himself as an artist.

Even his origins are uncertain.  He was born, probably, in 1909, in Japaratuba on the east coast of Brazil, the descendent of African slaves.  He grew up exposed to a strongly religious culture and to the hybrid traditions of folk art, which is usually defined as work produced by peasants or workers, with decorative rather than aesthetic intentions.  Bispo do Rosario worked as a cabin boy, as a signaler in the navy (he was thrown out for insubordination in 1933), and then as a boxer, before finally ending up in Rio as an odd job man. 

In 1938, he had a vision of angels bathed in light.  He believed that he was Jesus Christ, and that the Virgin Mary had given him a mission.   His task was to recreate the universe in visual form, in preparation for presenting it to God on the Day of Judgement.   He believed that he had been brought by seven angels to the yard where he lived in Sao Clemente Street.  That same year, he was first arrested and then hospitalized for treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.  He was to spend the rest of his life in the hospital of Colonia Juliano Moreira in Rio de Janeiro.

In an attic of the hospital Bispo do Rosario began his work creating an inventory of the universe.  For the next fifty years he spent up to 20 hours a day working obsessively, creating more than 800 sculptures, objects, garments and banners that began to spread across the entire building.   In 2012, eighty of the pieces were loaned to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the exhibition where I first encountered this fascinating artist.    I remember a wall of Miss Universe sceptres, his tributes to female beauty.   I remember there were a lot of embroideries, as well as numerous model boats.  Many of the pieces were recycled from scrap and everyday objects.   Like Marcel Duchamp, he takes an everyday object – a bicycle, a bed – and made it into something cosmic.  Like Duchamp, he mounts a bicycle wheel on a wooden frame.

Recyling is also evident in the way that the imagery of Bispo do Rosario’s artwork draws on memories and fragments from his past.  For example, images of boxing, ships and other aspects of his life are recuperated and integrated into his work.   Brazilian coastal scenes are meticulously rendered, complete with little ships dangling silver anchor chains.  But religion is the central theme.

Back in Japaratuba, it was men’s work to stitch the banners for the religious processions, so Bispo do Rosario was working within his cultural tradition.  He stitched religious messages and all sorts of other texts on his fabric creations
Language is key to the work, with embroidered texts including poems, current affairs updates, romantic quests, adverts for bibles – with the poignant words “even with the bible, in the psychiatric ward one is abandoned”.    

A huge amount of effort went into these creations.  The ornamental embroidered texts have been compared to illuminated manuscripts.  For a British audience, there is an inevitable comparison with the recent production of Tracy Emin, only that the Brazilian artist is oriented not to this world, but to the next.

Words also flow onto paper, card and wooden boards.    In the V&A exhibition, it seemed that everything had writing on it.  As if cataloguing his own life, Bispo do Rosario created lists of names, columns of numbers.   For example, he made a list of everyone he ever met.   He also collected things – examples of hats, of shoes, of tin mugs.   I absolutely love his wall of objects – ladders, shears, tools of all kinds.  It’s almost as if he was Noah, gathering items for an ark.  We talk now of mental illness in terms of distress, but these productions do not seem like expressions of pathology.   Art has become a way of coming to terms with the world.  Ironically, despite this monumental act of curation, many aspect of his biography remain mysterious, including his exact date of birth or the identity of his parents.

This making was a spiritual, not an artistic task.  After all, he saw it as his duty to prepare for the Last Judgement.   When visitors came to see him at the hospital, he would carefully dress himself in his ceremonial Annunciation Garment robes.   When people came to see him, he would test them with a riddle: “What is the colour of my aura?”.  He carefully controlled who was allowed to see his creations.   Photographs were permitted, but only under his strict instructions.  He enjoyed authority and respect at the psychiatric hospital.  Patients, staff and visitors were all recruited to further his work.   He said

"The mentally ill are like hummingbirds: they never land, they always hover two meters from the ground."

I’ve also read All Dogs Are Blue, an autobiographical novel by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, which describes the terrors of being confined to a mental hospital in Rio de Janeiro.    But for Bispo do Rosario, the institution was a shelter and refuge, rather than the place of fear and abuse that these places have often been for others.   Apparently, he was the only patient with his own key to the asylum, perhaps because he was the only one who had no desire to leave the place where he had found fulfillment.

His work has an extraordinary intricacy, complexity and impact.  It reminds me of surrealism, of the fabric creations of Louise Bourgeois, of the collages and constructions of Kurt Schwitters.  Above all, there is the spirit of Dada in this complex and lunatic creation.  This creative achievement is all the more extraordinary in that Bispo do Rosario was entirely self-taught, worked in an artistic vacuum, and generated all this extraordinary art through his own originality and imagination.   He did not attend art therapy classes or have contact with other artists.  He did not care about recognition and respect, just as long as he was left to do his spiritual work. 

In the 1980s, psychiatric reform in Brazil, as in many countries, led to de-institutionalization of some people with mental illness.  In 1982, the Museo do Bispo Rosario was created, to look after the work he was making at the hospital.  The first exhibition of his artwork was held in 1989, just months after Arthur Bispo do Rosario died of cancer.  This was followed by shows at the Venice Biennale, in Paris, and now in London.  Today, more and more people in the art world venerate Artur Bispo do Rosario, for his authenticity and originality, even though he never saw anything he did as art.  His treasury of 802 works is now designated as part of the national heritage of Brazil, and his museum runs art workshops  for people with mental illness and members of the public.  In his hometown of Japaratuba there is a statue of him, wearing his Annunciation cloak.

The term Outsider art is used for creators outside the mainstream culture like Bispo do Rosario.   Outsider Art is hard to evaluate.  How do you judge a creative work produced by someone who never saw himself as an artist?  How much does intention matter?  Talking about her fascination with it, critic Terry Castle describes outsider art as a  “gorgeous, disorienting, sometimes repellent phenomenon”.  Schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses have often been associated with original creative thought, as well as with religiosity.  Should it make any difference that these activities are generated by extreme and unusual brain states?  Is there any significant difference between the work of Bispo do Rosario and that of the Netherlandish Renaissance master Hieronymus Bosch, who painted extraordinary visions of heaven and hell?  Many artists and writers, after all, have experienced mental illness, which gives them a different perspective on the world, and perhaps a burning need to express themselves. 

Indeed, Arthur Bispo do Rosario is only one of many people with mental illness who have achieved fame for their original artistic vision.  Adolf Wolffli was one of the first to be recognized as an artist from within the Swiss asylum where he was incarcerated in the early decades of the twentieth century.  At the same time as Bispo do Rosario, there was the Mexican artist Martin Ramirez, who insisted that the work he made should be destroyed at the end of each day.  In Poland, Edmund Moniel was another person with schizophrenia who thought he was on a mission from God, and for him, making art had a therapeutic role, in alleviating his symptoms.    It may be that it was the same for Arthur Bispo do Rosario, that his furious activity was a way of silencing the voices and visions.  After all, he said “I do it because they tell me to, if they didn’t make me do it, I wouldn’t do any of it.”

Even though Outsider art has something of the weirdness of contemporary art, it also holds out a great democratic hope, that the possibility of creation lies within every one of us.  You don’t need special materials or equipment.  Critic Roger Cardinal points out that “almost all Outsider Art has to do with the projection of deep meaning into shapes and materials which everyday living discounts as being of negligible value”.   Your medium could be scrap paper, cardboard boxes, nylon tights or even toothpaste.

Perhaps the key is disinhibition.  Dr Hans Prinzhorn, who created a pioneering collection of Outsider art in Germany, wrote that “a primal creative urge belongs to all human beings, but has been submerged by the development of civilization.”  Art by people with mental illness has sometimes been compared to that of children, but I think there are real differences.  Someone like Arthur Bispo do Rosario bought all his life experiences to bear.  His artwork was deeply considered and intended, not random or idiosyncratic.  Above all, his creation was not something external to him, it was the world in which he lived.

We’d like to think we could achieve something like the Outsider art of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, but I think we’d be mistaken. Most of us suppress our dreams and fantasies.    We are too self-conscious. We worry about what others might think, or seek approbation from the art world.  With someone Arthur Bispo do Rosario, you have unrestricted access to the recesses of the imagination, what curator Victor Musgrave once called “an exultant pilgrimage into the unexpected.”

Alongside the handful of people with mental illness who have been recognized as great artists, there are thousands more who are making art in their bedrooms, or in art therapy or occupational therapy sessions.  The vast majority of this art is as banal and uninteresting, as the work which you or I would create in our evening class – which is not to say that it is unimportant or useless, but to acknowledge that simply having a mental illness does not make you an artist, let alone a Van Gogh.

However, the association between mental illness and art is ancient.  Plato thought of creativity as a “divine madness… a gift from the gods”.  William Shakespeare wrote “the lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact.”   More recent research by Kay Redfield Jamison shows how a very high proportion of eminent creative people, from Hans Christian Anderson to Jackson Pollock had mood disorders – for example manic depression.   In many cases, their artistic work saved their lives.  When people are manic, they experience quickening of thought processes, fluency and flexibility of thought and intensified sensation.  At Harvard, Professor Albert Rothenberg has studied the connection of creativity to psychosis.   Translogical thinking, in other words being able to bring together different ideas and cross boundaries, is often key to original work in the arts. However, as the lives of Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath and many others demonstrate demonstrate, there can be a thin line between creation and destruction.

Whether prophets, poets or painters, people with schizophrenia and manic depression have contributed hugely to our culture.  From the world of theatre, it seems appropriate to bring the thoughts of Antonin Artaud to bear.  After all, he spent time in mental institutions himself, and knew of what he spoke when he said “This is why a tainted society has invented psychiatry to defend itself against the investigations of certain superior intellects whose faculties of divination would be troublesome.”  For Artaud, the work of someone like Van Gogh was a way of “seriously upsetting the spectral conformity of the bourgeoisie”.  But the difference between Artaud and Arthur Bispo do Rosario is that the Bispo do Rosario did not consider the hospital a prison.  Nor was he in revolt against it.  Instead, he subverted it to his own ends.   Only in hospital could he have been recognized as Jesus Christ.  Artaud said “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.”   But Arthur Bispo do Rosario was different.  He did all his wonderful work in order to get into heaven.

Further reading

Terry Castle essay on Outsider Art 

Extract from “The Prisoner of Passage” documentary

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Ian Curtis (1956 - 1980)

I did not discover the music of Joy Division until a few years after the death of their lead singer, Ian Curtis, but it was love at first sight.  Songs of doomed romance like 'Love will tear us apart' expressed what most troubled teenagers were feeling.  Never was the gloom and despair and solipsism of youth better conveyed.  The poster for the album Unknown Pleasures decorated the door into the bedroom of my first girlfriend, and when we split up after a year and a day, I turned to Joy Division for consolation.

Ian Curtis grew up in Macclesfield, Cheshire, where he distinguished himself at school by his poems, if not by his hard work.  He won a scholarship to secondary school but left at age of 16 and did a series of administrative jobs.  These included working as an Assistance Disablement Resettlement Officer, where he was responsible for trying to help disabled people find work, in an era which was even less open to disability employment than today.

Ian Curtis married at age 19 and became a father at age 22.  By then, he had already met Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook at a Sex Pistols gig.  The resulting band was first known as Warsaw, then as Joy Division (after a novel which described the women whom Nazis forced to prostitute themselves at the concentration camps).  The band played their first gig as Joy Division in January 1978, and were soon signed to Tony Wilson’s Factory Records.  With their spare, brooding sound, their black clothes, and Curtis’ frenzied dancing, they became a post-punk sensation, and were to inspire most of the alternative pop music which came after them.  Curtis was both singer and lyricist, his dark songs drawing on his love of writers and musicians including William Burroughs, JG Ballard and David Bowie.

The manic dancing owed something to Curtis’ experience of epilepsy.  He was diagnosed in January 1979, and his symptoms were never successfully controlled by medication.  As his disease worsened, he would sometimes have siezures on stage, possibly triggered by the strobe lighting.  In his recent memoir, Joy Division bass player Peter Hook remembers "looking at Ian wondering if, or when, it was going to happen".  He records that Curtis’ onstage siezures left "some of the audience laughing, some scared, some cheering".

Curtis’ song, “She’s lost control”, describes the experience of a seizure:

Confusion in her eyes that says it all
She's lost control
And she's clinging to the nearest passer by
She's lost control
And she gave away the secrets of her past
And said I've lost control again
And of a voice that told her when and where to act
She said I've lost control again
And she turned around and took me by the hand and said
I've lost control again
And how I'll never know just why or understand
She said I've lost control again
And she screamed out kicking on her side and said
I've lost control again
And seized up on the floor, I thought she'd died
She said I've lost control again, she's lost control
Well I had to 'phone her friend to state my case
And say she's lost control again
And she showed up all the errors and mistakes
And said I've lost control again
And she expressed herself in many different ways
Until she lost control again
And walked upon the edge of no escape
And laughed I've lost control again
She's lost control again, she's lost control

Ian Curtis’ home life was increasingly difficult, particularly after he began an affair with a Belgian journalist, Annik Honoré, and left his wife and child.  His siezures were getting worse.  The band were under great pressure after the success of their first album, Unknown Pleasures.  Joy Division were due to tour America later in the year.  All of them still had “day jobs”, but were writing, recording and performing on evenings and weekends.    During an intense period of work, they recorded their second album, Closer, in April 1980.

The following month, Curtis tried to kill himself with a kitchen knife.  Neither his fellow bandmates nor his record label were seemingly able to give him the support or understanding he needed, even after a second suicide attempt by overdose.  But equally, Curtis was an introspective and secretive person who did not share his feelings easily or ask for help.  Tony Wilson said later "I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen... We all completely underestimated the danger.  We didn't take it seriously.  That's how stupid we were."   Another band member said "this sounds awful but it was only after Ian died that we sat down and listened to the lyrics." 

In the end, depressed, exhausted and under great personal strain because of the break-up of his marriage, Ian Curtis hung himself using a washing line in the kitchen of the house he had shared with his wife, on May 18, 1980.  His death helped propel him into legendary status, just as with the suicide of Kurt Cobain, or the  tragedies of Jim Morrison, Marc Bolan or Jimi Hendrix.  Perhaps the Romantic poets Keats and Shelley would be other apt comparisons for this tormented, disabled poet whose lyrics captured the ennui and angst not just of his generation, but of many since.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

“The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes, there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.”

Flannery O’Connor, who wrote some of the finest stories in the English language as well as two powerful novels, came from a wealthy family of old Georgia Catholics.  Her father Edward died from the disease lupus in 1941, but her mother Regina continued to run the family farm.

As a young woman at Georgia Woman’s College in nearby Milledgeville, she wrote and drew and edited a literary magazine.  After graduating with a social science degree in 1942, she won a fellowship at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa, where she got an MA in 1947, and then went to New York.  Her friend Robert Fitzgerald described her then as “a shy Georgia girl, her face heart-shaped and pale and glum, with fine eyes that could stop frowning and open brilliantly upon everything.”

In late 1950, as she was writing her first novel Wise Blood, she began to feel a heaviness in her typing arms.  On her way home to Georgia for Christmas, she fell very ill and was herself diagnosed with lupus, which is an auto-immune disease where the body forms antibodies to its own tissues. At Emory Hospital in Atlanta she had blood transfusions and cortisone injections, and improved enough to return home to the family farm with her mother, although she was expected to die within a few years.  Soon after, Wise Blood was accepted for publication, coming out in 1952, although its grisly aspects alienated her relatives and neighbours, and its religious aspects alienated the literati.

As a result of the success of her first book, she won a Kenyon fellowship, and continued writing short stories and began her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away.  Her disease continued to wax and wane, as the hormone treatments continued.  In 1954 she wrote to the Fitzgeralds: “I am walking with a cane these days which gives me a great air of distinction…I now feel that it makes very little difference what you call it.  As the niggers say, I have the misery.”  The lupus, or the treatments for lupus, were causing her bones to degenerate, and she  soon graduated to aluminium crutches.

However, with her mother’s support, and with the increasing success of her work, including her first volume of stories, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, she managed to achieve a stable way of life, and even travelled to speak and give readings around the United States.  At home on the farm, she raised peafowl, ducks, geese and exotic birds.  Her second novel was published in 1960, and her mobility improved when she was able to drive around her district.   During these last thirteen years of her life, when she was living at the family farm, often house-bound, she also painted still-lifes and landscapes taken from her surroundings.

O’Connor’s fiction is usually set in a rural Southern setting, uses local dialect, and has grotesque elements, hence the label of “Southern Gothic”.  She herself said “the stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism.”  Wendy Lesser points out  that “Sickness and dismemberment and ugliness and mental defectiveness and painful, irredeemable aging and its inevitable companion, death, are front and center in O’Connor’s view of the human condition.”  Racial themes are also prominent in her stories. I have always found her work uncomfortable, enjoyable, and very memorable.  There is also usually a strong strand of sardonic humour, which prevents it becoming overwhelmingly grim.  As well as her novels and stories, she was a very active letter-writer.

In 1958, at the urging of relatives, she went on a trip to Lourdes with her mother, and then to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius XII.  A devout Catholic, she nevertheless dreaded the possibility of a miracle.   While her disease went into remission for several years, she was stabilized, rather than cured.  Early in 1964, she underwent an abdominal operation, after which her lupus returned in force.  She died in Milledgeville hospital on August 3 1964, of kidney failure.


NPR discussion of her correspondence

Another article about her letters, with photos

Wendy Lesser, Southern Discomfort