Realism is magic

I’m a literature nerd, as I realise today. And an arts nerd as well. Have always been.

How do I know? It’s the way I go on about this painting or that book, for hours, as if people with job worries and child worries and health worries are dying to know why the dog is such a ubiquitous presence in Canaletto’s pictures. Yes, Antonio Canal (1697–1768), of the Venice and London fame. He’s got a man piddling against a wall right next to the canal grande in one of those panoramas – or should we say vistas of Venice? Made me think of Kolkata. No wonder: my mother saw the photos I’d taken of the backstreets (back canals? Bacchanals? Sorry, nerd joke) of Venice and said they looked just like the flooded lanes and bylanes of North Calcutta during the rains.

To return to the canine, Canaletto’s dogs litter his fantasy landscapes as well. And stray dogs seem to have been as common on San Marco square in Canaletto’s day as they were in Kolkata in mine. Rembrandt’s etching of the Good Samaritan from 1633 has a dog shitting in the foreground, right on the doorstep. All these dogs and dog-lovers of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries make me thoughtful.

And the thought is spelt out in bold letters right on top of this blog: Realism is magic. I wanted to have that as my motto or my credo or whatever – where do all these Latin words come from? Ask a nerd. The first characteristic of this particular literary and arty-farty nerd that we’re talking about (ahem, there’s modesty for you) was that he fell in love with realism at an early age – shortly after Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959) and years before Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981). In other words, I said no to magic realism and proclaimed – to myself – that realism is magic. At least all the magic that I needed. And it’s remained that way ever since.

I did not even realise that I was falling in love with Europe at the same time, because this is the continent where realism was born (leaving out palaeolithic cave and rock paintings for the moment), especially in the arts, visual as well as the plastic arts such as painting and sculpture – look at Greek sculpture or its Roman counterpart. Go to the Duomo di Pisa – the Pisa cathedral – and you’ll see in the murals near the altar how the Middle Ages are straining towards the Renaissance by becoming more realistic. And then there’s that explosion called the Renaissance, my favourite being the English one in terms of literature and the Florentine one in terms of sculpture and painting.

What did you say? Nothing? I distinctly heard you mutter: ‘Nerd.’

Realism is perspective, of course, which means geometry, will blow your mind to realise just how much! And then you’ll have to read about Brunelleschi’s two-point peep-shows and Masolino’s St. Peter Healing a Cripple (1425) and about Raphael, above all Raphael. You’ll be told that it took nearly 400 years to understand the intricacies of perspective – by which time you’d have landed among the Impressionists! And if realism is a flowering tree, then Impressionism is its cherry-pink-and-apple-blossom-white; Impressionism is the short and tantalisingly beautiful springtime of realism (which includes naturalism, of course, so far as I am concerned). Impressionist paintings represent the Europe that I fell in love with, coming from a land of symbolic and decorative art as I do, both highly stylised. I fell in love with the Europe where realism was king as well as emperor – with or without clothes, new as well as old.

The joke is that if you look at the best of Bengali or Hindi literature, especially in the prose form, especially the novels and the short stories from the first six decades of the twentieth century, you’ll realise that realism has been king in India too – but mainly in literature. Modern Indian painting made the transition to the abstract a bit too soon, I feel.

What? Have I finished? Yes, I am done, you can go and watch The Big Bang Theory now. But remember what I was trying to tell you: Delhi consists of nine cities built on top of each other, they tell me. Europe is just like that, only that all those cities seem to have survived, often side by side. You can visit them and compare the slightly pink Candoglia marble on the façade of the Milan cathedral with the white sang-i-marmar of the Taj Mahal, if you’re that kind of a nerd.

Which you’re not, I’m sure. So how come you read this blog to the end?

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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?