The Golden Boat

My advice to all artists, or to anybody trying to do anything creative, would be a dictum from the French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), toujour travailler, ‘work all the time’. And I’d add to that Überleben ist alles, ‘survival is all’, which is from the Bohemian-Austrian German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).

Why does a writer write, or an artist create art? Because it is in his nature. As the fish swims and the bird flies. Not every fish is a great swimmer and not every bird is a great flier – some birds have even lost the power of flight. Fish are always in the water but birds are not always in the air – arists are more like birds than fish, in that sense. But birds too nest on the ground – or in trees. Birds too die and in the end the earth is as full of birds as the skies.

What does that teach us? It teaches us that an eagle is just another bird until it spreads its wings and soars. The artist is most an artist, all of an artist, when he creates. The rest of the time he is just an ordinary human being, but an ordinary human being dreaming of fame & fortune, in the short run, and of immortality, in the long. Hey, I like that ‘in the long’ – ‘run’ implied or understood – which is actually a German usage, a teutonism of the kind that can creep in after you’ve spent a lifetime – well, half a lifetime – in this country. Where was I?

The artist hopes for remembrance and dreams of immortality. The great Nirad C. Chaudhuri of the Bengalis, of The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian fame, was hoping, as a nonagenarian and with tears in his eyes, that the Bengalis, at least, would remember him. Martin Amis reportedly told Salman Rushdie that he was hoping to leave behind a shelfful of books – presumably after he’d checked into the Horizontal Hilton (which is one of the 101 euphemisms for dying I found online). I call it the Tragical History Tour of the artists, on the parallel of the Magical Mystery Tour of the Beatles.

All artists, politicians and Great Men – women less so, strangely enough – are desperate to get on to that bandwagon called History. Now check the full definition of ‘bandwagon’ on Merriam-Webster/Google: a bandwagon is a usually ornate and high wagon for a band of musicians especially in a circus parade, wow! Is there a better description of History, that Eternal Circus Parade that all Great Men – less so the women – are ‘dying’ to get into?

The trouble is that you cannot write – or paint or make music – for posterity just as you cannot write a classic, which would be like giving birth to a baby with a beard. You have to write a bestseller first, which will turn into a classic some day – hopefully, since not every bestseller turns automatically into a classic. Hence the only way to find out whether you are a Tagore or a Shakespeare is to live 155 years (counting from 2016), if you are Tagore, and 452 years, if you are Shakespeare.

Tagore, good that the name has cropped up: take the ‘Ta’ of Ta-Ta and the ‘gore’ of Al Gore and you’ll have Tagore, or Tagoray, if you are a German, since the British cannot pronounce any word, the French pronounce everything by half and the Germans pronounce every letter of every word – including the ‘e’ at the end of Tagore.

Robindronath Thakur aka Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) was of course the national poet of the Bengalis who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913 for some of the most atrocious translations of his own poems from a collection called Gitanjali. I say atrocious because my Bengali soul revolts when I see ‘ekti nomoshkarey probhu’ turned into ‘One salutation to thee, my God’. Tagore did the translations himself, partially while residing in the feudal mansion called Kuthi Bari of the Tagores in Shilaidaha, in the Kushtia district of today’s Bangladesh.

The purpose of Tagore’s many sojourns in the picturesque Bengali countryside was mainly or partially to manage the family estates. That he wrote some of the greatest poems & songs of the Bengali language in his spare time – such as Sonar Tori or The Golden Boat – while lounging comfortably on the family houseboat – I’m sure nobody has anything against it, though I’m yet to ask Marx & Engels.

From his houseboat, Tagore must have seen what I used to see on the Bag Bazar canal in my childhood, while sitting in the 79c bus on my way to ‘Dhaneshkhali’ for the summer or the puja holidays. One couldn’t see the canal from the Jessore Road, but one could see what looked like giant golden tortoises creeping across the green ricefields – just towboats laden with hay, or floating hayricks, as I’d find out later. No corn, please note.

Tagore, on the other hand, wrote a wonderful poem in which the Golden Boat of Time comes and takes away the golden corn of the artist, who gets left behind like the poor farmer – it is an image which has not left me since, ever since I came across that poem for the first time, at around the same age that I was watching my own Golden Tortoises crawl past Jessore Road trying to hide from the ferocious Tata Mercedes Benz buses. The buses won, as usual.

I also think of us ‘also-ran’ artists/writers – the scrub or the undergrowth of the art world in its semi-arid zones, if you like – I think of us as the farmers who have to take their meagre produce to the market, and haggle with the agents over the price, and get cheated by the middlemen and duped by the con men and harassed by the police…

No wonder we get drunk on hooch & go and visit bad women & come back and beat up our duteous wives – women are less violent – finally go and recruit ourselves as factory hands leaving the Golden Boat to find its golden corn at some other bend in the river the next time.

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So what’s wrong with the Scarlett Johansson bot?

Though I’d have preferred a Scarlett O’Hara bot, let’s say in the Vivien Leigh robotic version, unaccompanied by Clark Gable, I insist. We don’t need that kind of competition, not even from a robot.

Whereas the main objection to the SJ bot seems to be that it implies a new (?) direction as well as a new (?) dimension in the objectification of women. In which case every portrait of a beautiful woman by a male artist should be considered a form of objectification, I submit. My theory is that an object is an object, whether object d’art or sex object, and both equally objectionable as such.

Let us begin with the artist & his model in the cold & draughty painter’s studio: he, fully clothed like a Rembrandt in casuals; she, fully naked, because the artist is painting a nude and not experimenting in robotics. As a matter of fact, some part of art has always been like a key sequence from ‘The Nude and the Dude’, a film you’ve never heard of mainly because it has never been made, at least not under that title. To say that men have painted women in the nude solely for the sake of art is like saying that a man cohabits with a woman solely for the sake of reproduction.

The basis of human nature – perhaps of all human existence – is biology. And biology runs on sexual desire, sexual gratification and sexual frustration. Ergo, human civilisation runs on SD, SG and SF. It happened like this: God had created man and woman as His new toys and was playing with them happily – for a divine second or two – when either Adam lost an eye or a limb and Eve lost her – no, not oops I did it again, because this was before the Fall.

‘These new-fangled toys might be fun but they’re no good,’ God was telling the snake – might even have been Basuki, from our Hindu mythology. ‘They get broken and then I have to make new ones all over again.’

‘Or they get old and ugly,’ Basuki hissed with obvious schadenfreude.

‘Well, I can’t keep making new Adams and Eves,’ God complained.

‘What you need are bots,’ Basuki said. ‘The whole system must work like a watch; doesn’t even have to be a smartwatch, an old-fashioned watch will do; you just wind it up and it will run on its own, if not for all eternity then at least for a couple of million years.’

‘How do you wind up Adam and Eve?’ God asked.

‘Let me do it,’ Basuki said with a smirk. So Adam has been chasing Eve and Eve has been chasing Adam ever since, round and round the mulberry bush – with one difference: Eve has never gone to the extent of making an Adam bot, preferring to leave it to Mary Shelley to think up Victor Frankenstein.

To return to films and to acting: aren’t actors just humanoid robots understudying for fictional characters? The joke being that the bots are real in this case, whereas the originals are virtual! Ask any woman whether she’d prefer to watch a George Clooney film or go out with Amal Alamuddin’s husband in flesh and blood – if only for a coffee capsule Nespresso.

Madame Tussaud’s of the future will be filled with male bots the ladies can dance with and women bots you’ve been ordered by the management not to approach within ten yards. Don’t worry, your girlfriend will be sending you little, intimate, forget-me-not plastic statues of herself made on her own 3D-printer – just take care that they don’t get stolen.

But the ultimate Scarlett Johansson bot will be a clone. Order an SJ clone online and don’t let your wife/girlfriend know.

Meanwhile, if you look deep into the future, you’ll see that race of intelligent robots populating the earth as they enter a new millennium and are about to create their very first human being! Completely organic and recyclable! Reproduces itself without cloning! Just keep the man bot with the woman bot overnight in the lab – in the same cage – and see what happens after nine months.

They’ll be calling it the greatest discovery for robotkind since Karel Čapek.

My wall museum

I also call it my calendar museum. You see, among the presents I (am told to) wish for myself at around Christmas, the first and the foremost is always an art calendar – for the following year. You know, one of the larger ones, with a picture for each calendar month. And then it’s always the Impressionists – and then again a mixed bag. I’ve had a Monet calendar only once, I think, and it was like having just one friend to watch and to talk to, for the whole year.

I hang the calendar on the wall at the foot end of my bed. It’s a Danish bed and if I put the slatted frame up a bit at the head end, I can sleep in reclining like the medieval knights who were scared that the Devil might carry them off while they were asleep, mistaking them for dead. The Devil won’t mistake me for dead since I snore, nevertheless. So while I recline in that half lying, half sitting position waiting for sleep the sweet brother of Death to come to me – that’s when I watch the picture of the month. It’s a nice feeling to know that I’ve got a whole month to get to know that picture, intimately, in every detail and every blemish, the strong points as well as the weak points.

And I can’t skip a picture if I don’t like it, since I can’t skip a month. So I have to live for a month with a picture I don’t like – until it begins to grow on me. I’ve hated some pictures so much that I’ll never forget them in my life. And then there are pictures that I have liked but forgotten. Is there a lesson in there for us?

Looking at the picture during the day is a different experience all over again, especially if I don’t have the light on, as in summer. The window is on the other side, so I can watch the sky and the clouds getting darker or lighting up as I try to get an afternoon snooze. I don’t have to twist my neck to watch the sky and the clouds through the window – I watch the sky and the clouds in the picture, two parasolled ladies taking a walk in the fields near Argenteuil, say. The sky and the clouds in the picture begin to look dark and menacing as the sky clouds over in Plittersdorf, where we live. Did the Impressionists paint that way or is it a vicarious effect of light and shade? Who shall know?

I always recommend the Impressionists to our younger colleagues freshly arrived from Asia as the best ‘access’ to European painting. I show them a small, insignificant canvas of young birch trees in leaf (it’s by Monet, I think, but sometimes I think wrong) hanging in one of the museums on Berlin’s Museum Island. My younger colleagues are suitably impressed; they can even see the fresh green leaves sprouting on the branches, they say. Then I make them go up to the canvas until they’re practically rubbing noses with it – and the museum guard comes looking by. My younger colleagues see just bits of colour brushed in casually, somehow, anyhow, at times with the wrong end of the brush. And with what economy! Not of colour but of form and shape. ‘How does he do it?’ They’re talking about Monet and not about me. ‘He paints it directly on your brain’ – I tell my younger colleagues. Monet does half the painting and your brain does the rest.

The only true thing, really true, about an Impressionist painting is the light – I tell my younger colleagues. And light and dark is what even the human foetus can distinguish in the mother’s womb. That’s how they won, that’s how a motley crowd of Frenchmen could take on the Florentine Renaissance and the flying Dutchmen of the 18th c.

‘Don’t go directly to classical European painting, it’s too iconic and frightfully white Caucasian and Christian’ – I tell my younger colleagues. ‘Don’t go anywhere near Braque, Brancusi, Mondrian and the rest of modern art – not until your nerves are stronger. Get to know Europe’s skies and clouds and colours – painted with the simplicity of a house painter applying paint to a peeling door.’

December 2015 broke all records by being the second warmest December, ever. Every flowering tree in Bonn and surroundings thought it was spring and came out in bloom. But I had Camille Pissaro’s Winter Landscape in Louveciennes to stare at (painted 1872, oil on canvas, original in Folkwang museum, Essen, Germany). It’s just a snow-covered slope with some scattered trees and a farmhouse to the left. Until you realise that what is so fascinating about the painting are the shadows of the trees on the deep snow – and even in the hollows – how light changes colour, white into near blue, not quite grey, too bright for that, I suppose.

December 2014 I had spent staring at Claude Monet’s The Magpie (painted 1869, oil on canvas, original in Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The farmhouse in the picture is a long drawn out affair in the background, drowning in light, in the wintry sunshine. In the foreground there is a kind of wickerwork fence carrying a load of snow, throwing a wonderful silhouette of itself in steely grey-blue on the slightly soiled snow. There’s a very rackety and rickety wooden door to the left side of the fence on which a lonely magpie is sitting. Trees in the background all carry wild sprigs of fresh snow, fallen in the night, I presume.

My way of getting to know European painting. Know any better?