Snow

The Tamara De Lempicka exhibition at the Royal Academy reminded me of nothing so much as John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses; whereby modernism was born in an access of elitist revulsion to the spread of literacy and popular culture. Despite some resemblance between Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon and Lempicka’s Women Bathing, Lempicka tended to be viewed as an essentially popular artist (something that continues today; odd that the criticisms of her for being too aristocratic are themselves so elitist). There are two reasons for this. Lempicka’s work largely consists of society portraiture, including many portraits of exiled Russian aristocrats; the desire to epater le bourgeoisie is significant by its absence. Secondly, most schools of modernist painting represented a fundamentally new way of depiction:

"Picasso and Einstein, Miller has shown, were both influenced by the French thinker Henri Poincaré, who published his book La Science et l’Hypothèse in 1902. In it he argued that, far from being universally or absolutely true, the Euclidean geometry that had defined mathematics since ancient times was only one of many possible systems, its three dimensions nothing like the only ones that could be conceived. But, said Poincaré, Euclid’s is the most "convenient" set of assumptions with which to negotiate life…. The perspective system invented in Florence in the 15th century was a shorthand for the way things looked, a brilliantly usable fiction of the appearance of the world. Our sense impressions are complicated, chaotic data that the brain has to make sense of. Western painting had its own scientific assumptions, established in the Renaissance. Picasso and Braque unmasked these as conventions. The concepts of absolute gravity and time that gave way to relative ones in the early 20th century had been established by Newton in the 1600s. The doctrine of single-point perspective, whose inadequacies Braque and Picasso exposed, had been asserted by Leon Battista Alberti and Filippo Brunelleschi two centuries before."

In Lempicka, this is absent; the geometrical quality to her art represents a relatively superficial Cubist influence while the underlying pattern is precisely that of Renaissance portraiture (albeit with all symbolic and mythical connotations stripped in favour of a pose of studied alienation against a stark background similar to those in Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari). On the other hand, if as Carey suggests, modernism represented the inability of art to bridge the gap between elite and popular culture, then Lempicka has more of a role. Her work can be argued as being an artistic analogue of art deco design in a way that cubism and modernism were clearly not (in this regard only Jean Dupas stands as a competitor); just as art nouveau found an artistic analogue in Mucha rather than in impressionism. What is particularly interesting in Lempicka is the gender politics; her bisexuality and depiction of female and lesbian subjects in particular (even the occasional overtone of sadomasochism). The other galleries of the Royal Academy are of less interest; a striking Hockney depiction of the Grand Canyon and a Waterhouse painting of a mermaid.

WG Sebald’s The Natural History of Destruction presents an argument that the blitzkreig directed against German cities during the second world war left Germany a deracinated country that had been severed from all aspects of tradition and history, including German history prior to the Nazis; "a reconstruction tantamount to a second liquidation in successive phases of the nation’s history.. a sense of being unable to stay anywhere, a constant need to be somewhere else." It’s a powerful argument, but does seem rather overstated; if one looks at the rebuilding of many British cities one sees the same symptoms Sebald identifies as a purely German phenomenon (not to mention the similar themes evinced in Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots). While my impression of the new Berlin is that it indeed does suffer from that dislocation from time and place endemic in modern architecture, nonetheless much of the reconstruction has been done with considerable care for Germany’s heritage.

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow resembles his previous novel, My Name is Red in occluding the causes of events from the reader out of a sense of existential mysticism. A Russian doll structure is again used, where the writings of the principal character are lost and his actions are reconstructed by the narrator, leaving many questions unanswered; whether Ka betrays Blue, the cause of a coup that ends as soon as the snow melts, or why girls would violate the tenets of their religion by committing suicide. With much of the character’s interior life occluded events are seen as through a glass, darkly; "you say you want democracy and then you enter into alliances with Islamic fundamentalists.. you say Europe is the answer but you go around buttering up Islamists who hate everything Europe stands for."

As a means of countering such tendencies towards fragmentation the novel assigns an important role to writing and narrative; "when they recalled this story they found meaning in their lives… we’ve forgotten our own stories." But this cure shows all the symptoms of the disease and competing narratives proliferate through the novel, as with Necip’s tale of Hircan and Kadife’s version of the same tale, or the counterpointed narratives of Ka, Orhan and Ipek. Equally, the novel casts it’s own narrative into doubt; "I’d like you to tell your readers not to believe anything you say."

The novel casts religion as a means not of seeing the world as a unified entity defined in social terms but as a secret symmetry whose nature can only be intuited (and witnessed in the various prophecies that come to pass throughout the novel), as with Ka’s role as an amanuensis for the poetry of another (recalling how the Greek root for poet was the same as that of priest); "the emerging book had a ‘deep and mysterious’ structure… everything on earth was interconnected and I too am inextricably linked to this deep and beautiful world… every life is like a snowflake; individual existences might look identical from afar, but to understand one’s own eternally mysterious uniqueness one had only to plot the mysteries of one’s own snowflake;" the symbolism of the notebook recording this being lost is clear.

The main character establishes a view of god that accords with his own status as an outcast; "it’s because I’m solitary that I can’t believe in god… god is not among you. He’s outside, in the empty night, in the darkness, in the snow that falls in the hearts of outcasts." The novel refers to the Greek root of atheism as athos, a reference to the lonely ones, something linked to Western social atomisation; "to become an atheist you must first become a westerner… I want to be a Westerner and a believer." Within this one cannot be Turkish and individual since that is to alienate oneself from Turkish culture; but to stand against the West is to do so as an individual. However, it is regarding this aspect of the novel that a dialogic element emerges; "I felt guilty about having refused all my life to believe in the same god as the uneducated… pride was what got Satan expelled from heaven." Ka’s love for Ipek is seen as a symptom of Western isolation and leads him into the most disturbed acts. Accordingly, the crux of the novel rests on a fundamental paradox; that its view of religion is Occidental, individual and mystical, its view of society Oriental and collectivist, based on shared notions of sin.

The common pattern in novels like Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room With a View is that sexuality is seen in terms of a pagan cultural other, which then naturalised to some extent. The Hill of Devi replicates this to some extent; "men wrestled, resembling Greek statues in so far as they wore no clothes.. beautifully formed and their savage cries." The novel depicts a homosocial environment where Krishna sleeps resting his head on a herdboy’s thigh. As such religion almost serves as a proxy for sexuality in its release from Western norms; "one was left aware too of a gap in christianity; the canonical gospels do not record that Christ laughed or played." His descriptions of mystic unconsciousness of the world mirrors the sexual crises of his Italian novels precisely.

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