James Fen­ton

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - James Fen­ton

Like Life: Sculp­ture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now) an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met Breuer, New York City Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Luke Syson, Sheena Wagstaff, Emer­son Bowyer, Brinda Ku­mar, and oth­ers

Like Life:

Sculp­ture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now) an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Met Breuer,

New York City, March 21–July 22, 2018. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Luke Syson, Sheena Wagstaff, Emer­son Bowyer, Brinda Ku­mar, and oth­ers. Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art,

300 pp., $65.00

(dis­trib­uted by Yale Univer­sity Press)

In 1868 the Dutch-born English painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema com­pleted his Phidias and the Frieze of the Parthenon, Athens, in which he imag­ined a sort of var­nish­ing day at the Acrop­o­lis. The good cit­i­zens of Athens, hus­bands and wives, have turned out for the oc­ca­sion, climbed the some­what rick­ety-look­ing wooden scaf­fold­ing, and are now ad­mir­ing the work later known, in its ru­ined state, as the El­gin Mar­bles. Phidias him­self stands with a quiet pride in front of his roped-off frieze, which—this is the talk­ing point of the paint­ing—has been cheer­fully col­ored in: the flesh parts of the fig­ures in the re­liefs are shown as a rich earthy red, their hair is black, the back­ground a gray­ish blue. Cloaks and tu­nics and some of the horses are white, but the to­tal ef­fect is one of a bold poly­chromy—set off by or­na­men­tal bor­ders richly gilded and a painted beamed ceil­ing that would not have looked out of place in Alma-Tadema’s own beau­ti­ful Lon­don home—or in­deed in one of the “artis­tic houses” of New York, where sten­cils and or­na­ment and rich col­ors en­joyed their vogue in the 1890s, and where a frieze for the par­lor or any other grand room might be con­jured up on the ba­sis of the Parthenon mar­bles, the Bayeux Ta­pes­try, or a col­lage of Ja­panese wood­block prints. It is not, how­ever, the col­or­ing of Phidias’s work that im­me­di­ately strikes us as anachro­nis­tic. It is the vi­sion of hus­bands and wives on seem­ingly equal terms at­tend­ing a cul­tural event, rather as, in Al­maTadema’s day, pa­trons and the public be­gan mak­ing Sun­day visits to artists’ stu­dios in places like St. John’s Wood. Nev­er­the­less, the thickly col­ored Phid­ian frieze is a puz­zle. If this is in­deed what Greek poly­chromed mar­ble looked like, one won­ders what on earth was the point of seek­ing out the purest white mar­ble from Paros, which, ac­cord­ing to Pliny, was not so much quar­ried as mined by lamp­light (a dread­ful task, surely) to be trans­ported across the sea in spe­cially con­structed ships. Why did the fa­mous sculp­tors of the pe­riod ig­nore other col­ored or veined mar­bles (which might per­haps have taken paint just as well)? And why does Pliny, who was fa­mil­iar with Greek stat­u­ary, much of which had been looted and brought to Rome, make no ref­er­ence to its hav­ing been painted? Among the first schol­ars to sug­gest that the Greeks had col­ored their stat­ues was Qu­a­tremère de Quincy in 1814. He thought that the an­cients “sep­a­rated much less in their works than one imag­ines the plea­sure of the eyes from that of the spirit; that is to say that rich­ness, va­ri­ety and beauty of ma­te­ri­als . . . were for them more in­ti­mately linked than one thinks to in­trin­sic beauty.” Va­ri­ety here stands in op­po­si­tion to pu­rity of color and form. Ad­vo­cates of poly­chromy in sculp­ture brought the same gaudy en­thu­si­asm to ar­chi­tec­ture. So, in a lec­ture de­liv­ered in De­cem­ber 1850, “On the Dec­o­ra­tions Pro­posed for the Ex­hi­bi­tion Build­ing in Hyde Park,” Owen Jones, later fa­mous as the com­piler of The Gram­mar of Or­na­ment,

ex­plained to his au­di­ence why he was about to dec­o­rate the in­te­rior of the Crys­tal Palace (due to open the next year) in strong pri­mary col­ors:

We are only now be­gin­ning to shake off the tram­mels, which the last age of univer­sal white­wash­ing has left us, when ev­ery­thing but pure white was con­sid­ered uni­ver­sally (and in­deed is still held by many) to be want­ing in good taste. The ev­i­dences of colour on the mon­u­ments of Greece were first stoutly de­nied, and then, when proved to ex­ist, they were sup­posed to be the work of bar­barous af­ter-ages; and even when this last po­si­tion was no longer ten­able, it was said that the an­cients, though per­fect masters of form, were ig­no­rant of colour, or that they, at any rate, had mis­ap­plied it. Men were re­luc­tant to give up their long-cher­ished idea of the white mar­ble of the Parthenon, and of the sim­plic­ity of its forms, and they re­fused to re­gard it as a build­ing, coloured in ev­ery part, and cov­ered with a most elab­o­rate sys­tem of or­na­men­ta­tion.

Jones was a gutsy lec­turer, an ex­pert on color in the an­cient world (he had stud­ied it first­hand in Greece, Egypt, and at the Al­ham­bra in Spain), and a polemi­cist for his views. When the Crys­tal Palace was dis­man­tled and re­assem­bled in South Lon­don, he cre­ated a col­or­ful Greek court in which brightly painted plas­ter casts of the El­gin Mar­bles were dis­played. Later he cre­ated a kind of tem­ple for the dis­play of John Gib­son’s Tinted Venus, a mar­ble statue sub­tly and (to Vic­to­rian taste) dis­con­cert­ingly col­ored. Seen now, in “Like Life,” the ex­cel­lent show at the Met Breuer, the Gib­son Venus seems in­of­fen­sive enough (it has ap­par­ently lost some of its col­oration), but at the time it was deemed shock­ingly sen­sual. This Venus had lost her “chastity” and was some­thing of a brazen hussy.

But Jones was still on the warpath, and his pavil­ion for the Tinted Venus

bore in­scrip­tions in Latin: NEC VITA NEC SANITAS NEC PVLCRITVDO NEC SINE COLORE JVVENTVS (With­out color there is nei­ther life, nor health, nor beauty, nor youth) and FORMAS RERVM OBSCVRAS ILLVSTRAT CONFVSAS DISTINGVIT OMNES ORNAT COLORVM DIVERSITAS SVAVIS (The sweet va­ri­ety of col­ors en­hances the dark form of things, dif­fer­en­ti­ates what is con­fused, and or­na­ments ev­ery­thing). Putting it in Latin, in the man­ner of an in­scrip­tion (all those V’s for U’s), was a good way of de­flect­ing the moral out­rage the Venus had pro­voked.

But it did not win the aes­thetic ar­gu­ment—not in the Protes­tant North, at least. Sculp­ture, it was felt, should be in mar­ble or bronze. If mar­ble, then a pure white Car­rara-style mar­ble was the cor­rect choice—cor­rect be­cause it was seen as the dif­fi­cult choice by dint of its hard­ness. Théophile Gau­tier’s poem “L’Art” (1852), some­times quoted as a plea for white­ness in sculp­ture, is more of an ar­gu­ment for tak­ing the dif­fi­cult route at all costs:

Stat­u­aire, re­pousse

L’argile que pétrit

Le pouce

Quand flotte ailleurs l’es­prit;

Lutte avec le car­rare, Avec le paros dur

Et rare,

Gar­di­ens du con­tour pur. (Sculp­tor, re­ject the clay that the thumb mod­els while the mind is on other things. Strug­gle with Car­rara, or hard and rare Par­ian mar­ble, keep­ers of the pure con­tour.)

This is the Ro­man­tic idea of the artist tak­ing the most chal­leng­ing route pos­si­ble. Mar­ble, thinks Gau­tier, is rare, as is, in the same poem, onyx and agate. Wa­ter­color is bad be­cause easy. Enamel is good be­cause it has to be fired. But painted wood or stone, when en­coun­tered, caused a pro­found un­ease. Mar­jorie Trusted, in her cat­a­log of the Span­ish sculp­tures at the Vic­to­ria and Al­bert Mu­seum, quotes two Bri­tish re­sponses to Span­ish poly­chromy. Here is Ge­orge Den­nis writ­ing in 1839 of Málaga Cathe­dral:

While con­tem­plat­ing these stat­ues, I was led to en­quire why plain mar­ble fig­ures seem su­pe­rior as works of art to this painted sculp­ture; which is un­doubt­edly the case. Is it the force of habit lead­ing us to as­so­ciate the coloured fig­ures with the wax-work busts that in Eng­land adorn the bar­bers’ win­dows? It may be so in part, but I think not en­tirely. There seems to be a le­git­i­mate rea­son why plain sculp­ture, cae­teris paribus, should be pre­ferred to coloured. The lat­ter is too nat­u­ral—the colour im­parts an air of life which de­stroys its ide­al­ity . . . . The very in­com­plete­ness of sculp­ture con­sti­tutes its pe­cu­liar ex­cel­lence.

Richard Ford in 1845 says that Span­ish works of sculp­ture

have a star­tling iden­tity: the stone stat­ues of monks ac­tu­ally seem pet­ri­fac­tions of a once liv­ing be­ing... from be­ing clothed and painted they are fail­ures as works of art, strictly speak­ing, for they at­tempt too much. The essence of stat­u­ary is form, and to clothe a statue, said By­ron, is like trans­lat­ing Dante: a mar­ble statue never de­ceives; it is the colour­ing it that does, and is a trick be­neath the sever­ity of sculp­ture. The im­i­ta­tion of life may sur­prise, but...it can only please the ig­no­rant and chil­dren...to whom the painted doll gives more plea­sure than the Apollo Belvidere [sic].

Painted Span­ish sculp­ture had flesh tones and re­al­is­tic wounds and tears and glass eyes, and it gave Protes­tants the creeps. But here’s the thing: Ital­ian sculp­tors of the Re­nais­sance also col­ored their works and were seem­ingly happy to do so. If we tend to for­get this, it may be be­cause the ev­i­dence we are look­ing at has been rigged: painted ter­ra­cot­tas of the Re­nais­sance have been stripped of their color, just as in­nu­mer­able wood carv­ings of the north­ern schools have been stripped and “an­tiqued” in a man­ner ac­cept­able to past taste and the an­tiques

trade. The art dealer Joseph Du­veen liked the sur­faces of his ter­ra­cot­tas to be cov­ered with a sort of brown gravy, so that’s what they got. But their orig­i­nal sur­faces might have been pre­pared with a thin layer of white gesso and then painted in ap­pro­pri­ate col­ors. Or, to the baf­fle­ment of later con­nois­seurs, they might have been painted to re­sem­ble bronze—a “trick be­neath the sever­ity of sculp­ture” in­deed.

The closer one looks at the Ital­ian sculp­tors of the Re­nais­sance, the more one finds them get­ting up to what the In­ter­net ads call these “weird lit­tle tricks.” In Siena Cathe­dral there was erected, in 1394, a mon­u­ment to Gian Tedesco da Pi­etra­mala, which (the scholar Bruce Boucher tells us) “fea­tured a horse and rider com­posed of wood, hay, and tow, cov­ered with a mix­ture of clay com­bined with scraps of wool cloth, paste, and glue.” Mixed me­dia per­haps. And this was not sim­ply some tem­po­rary dec­o­ra­tion (as for some fes­ti­val or sim­i­lar event). The equestrian fig­ure lasted, we are told, well into the sixteenth cen­tury. Not long af­ter the Siena mon­u­ment, in 1410, Donatello was com­mis­sioned to pro­vide a huge statue (one es­ti­mate sug­gests it might have been over seven­teen feet tall) de­pict­ing Joshua. The piece was for the open air, high up on one of the but­tresses of the Duomo in Florence. A block of mar­ble would be out of the ques­tion. The so­lu­tion was to build a core out of molded bricks, cover it with gesso, and paint it white. It didn’t last for­ever, but it seems to have been still in place in 1586.

Mar­ble-ish? Yes, from the ground it could have looked like mar­ble. “Truth to ma­te­ri­als”? No.

The first time I saw Donatello’s wooden statue of Saint Mary Mag­dalen, it was on a plinth in the Bap­tistry in Florence—mem­o­rably dark and fierce. Then came the flood of 1966, and the Mag­dalen was knocked off its plinth and sub­mersed in filth and heat­ing oil. Later it was cleaned and its col­or­ing was found to be present be­neath the grime, along with gild­ing of the hair and dress. No­body had quite ex­pected this. Sir John Pope-Hen­nessey wrote:

In this con­di­tion it spoke with the ut­most power, but the sur­face was later painted with a preser­va­tive var­nish, which has the ef­fect of di­min­ish­ing the rough han­dling of the wood and the emo­tive cut­ting of the head. A work that once looked like a fe­ro­cious Ka­makura sculp­ture has been do­mes­ti­cated. But the bril­liant white of the teeth, the sur­face of the hair and dress, and the flesh ar­eas, not only in the head and hands and legs, but in the right thigh seen through the torn dress and in the firmly modeled left shoul­der, still af­ford some im­pres­sion of the ef­fect it must orig­i­nally have made. Pope-Hen­nessey, in his mono­graph, il­lus­trates the head of the Mag­dalen dur­ing clean­ing, half of it col­ored and gilt, the other half ob­scured by the grime of ages.

But why should the Mag­dalen’s gilded hair and white teeth have come as a sur­prise, when we al­ways knew that Donatello worked in other me­dia be­sides bronze and mar­ble? The an­swer lies in a kind of per­cep­tual trick played on us by the his­tory of taste. We might know that he did so, but a quiet voice in our ear whis­pers that, to the ex­tent that he did use poly­chromy, he was a lit­tle less Donatello. He wasn’t fully him­self as an artist. It is the same with Michelan­gelo.

Yes, he carved and per­haps painted the wooden Santo Spir­ito cru­ci­fix, if you will. But he wasn’t quite there yet when he did it. That cru­ci­fix sat for­got­ten in some cor­ri­dor in Santo Spir­ito, in­vis­i­ble even to schol­ars who came look­ing for it, be­cause it didn’t look like the Michelan­gelo they were af­ter. And it had been white­washed sev­eral times, no doubt to con­form to later taste.

The case of the della Rob­bia fam­ily il­lus­trates per­fectly the op­er­a­tion of this per­cep­tual trick. Luca della Rob­bia, sculp­tor and ce­ram­i­cist, gets past the in­ter­nal cen­sor if he is seen as con­fin­ing his out­put to taste­ful finishes in white and blue. But then the rest of the della Rob­bia fam­ily come along and ruin ev­ery­thing, adding more glazes, more col­ors to the mix. And soon— be­cause this is a prob­lem of taste but also a prob­lem of genre—we have to pause to in­quire whether we are still in the world of fine art, or is this a kind of Floren­tine street crock­ery?

Of course, we are still in the world of a fine art that is re­spon­sive to the ex­i­gen­cies of city life (How can a work of art sur­vive the mud and grime of the street? An­swer: by be­ing glazed), and it is our un­ex­am­ined prej­u­dices that are get­ting in the way. Choices that may seem im­por­tant to us (to work in color or not) must have been less im­por­tant to a sculp­tor like Benedetto da Ma­iano, who re­ceived a com­mis­sion for an al­tar­piece of the An­nun­ci­a­tion. In prepa­ra­tion for this re­lief work he cre­ated sep­a­rate ter­ra­cotta

fig­ures, from which he carved the mar­ble. After­ward, rather than let the ter­ra­cotta fig­ures go to waste, he or some as­so­ciate as­sem­bled the ter­ra­cot­tas and painted them, so as to form an­other al­tar­piece else­where. There was no ei­ther/or for Benedetto in this case. He could en­joy the ben­e­fits of both.

We have al­ready seen the Bri­tish vis­i­tor to Spain look­ing at poly­chrome works in a cathe­dral and think­ing of the wax busts in bar­ber­shop win­dows, a genre that seems to have long since per­ished, along with so much else that was done in wax. It is a medium that per­mits a quite ex­tra­or­di­nary verisimil­i­tude, the for­tune of Madame Tus­saud makes plain. It is worth re­mem­ber­ing (and worth tak­ing time to an­swer the in­sid­i­ous in­ner voice in­sin­u­at­ing that wax mod­el­ing is a pe­riph­eral ac­tiv­ity in the un­fold­ing story of art) that all sculp­tors who worked in bronze—un­til the tech­nol­ogy changed—worked in wax. And rightly is it called the lost-wax process, since the re­sults from it are mostly lost to view. But for the sculp­tors of the Re­nais­sance the mak­ing of wax funeral ef­fi­gies was a part of the job, just as the cre­ation of wax re­liefs on flat slices of slate, from which dies could be cast and medals struck, was part of the job.

Color, said the Vic­to­rian vis­i­tor to Spain, “im­parts an air of life which de­stroys [sculp­ture’s] ide­al­ity.” The Met Breuer ex­hi­bi­tion as­sem­bles a range of clev­erly cho­sen items that tend to im­part that air of life—star­tlingly so. Donatello’s bust of Nic­colò da Uz­zano with its odd tilt of the head—does its “air of life” come from its be­ing cast from life or from a death mask? Or does its col­oration push it in the di­rec­tion of the un­canny? I think not. I think it is the artist’s hand. And that ex­tra­or­di­nary self-por­trait bust by Jo­han Gre­gor van der Schardt (one of the trea­sures of the Ri­jksmu­seum, and in­deed of North­ern Euro­pean sculp­ture it­self)—was there once more of this kind of thing in the world? Or was it a rare spirit who was pre­pared to as­sert his pres­ence in this way? As rare as Dürer with his nude self-por­trait. To de­stroy sculp­ture’s ide­al­ity—that could stand as a motto for Bharti Kher’s cast of her stolid nude Mother, or for Duane Han­son’s slightly pot-bel­lied black House­painter 1, paus­ing to con­tem­plate the task ahead. In Elm­green and Dragset’s The Ex­per­i­ment, a young boy in his un­der­pants tries on high­heeled shoes and lip­stick in front of a mir­ror. And in one of the star pieces on the con­tem­po­rary list, Reza Aramesh’s Ac­tion 105: An Is­raeli sol­dier points his gun at the Pales­tinian youth asked to strip down as he stands at a mil­i­tary check­point along the sep­a­ra­tion bar­rier at the en­trance of Beth­le­hem, March 2006, we see only the Pales­tinian youth, who has re­moved his sneak­ers and clothes, down to his shorts, and stands much like a Span­ish saint but with an ex­pres­sion of dread. The fig­ure is ex­e­cuted, we are sur­prised to learn, in hand-carved poly­chrome lime­wood, with glass eyes. Span­ish sculp­ture, for so long the least val­ued of the Euro­pean schools, is much cel­e­brated in the Met Breuer show. A mag­nif­i­cent re­cent ac­qui­si­tion by the Met is The En­tomb­ment of Christ, a small-scale de­vo­tional group by Luisa Roldán, who was known as La Roldana. It dates from 1700–1701. La Roldana was the mod­eler of these highly de­tailed and ex­pres­sive fig­ures in ter­ra­cotta. Ap­par­ently her hus­band was re­spon­si­ble for paint­ing them— an un­usual ar­range­ment surely. (Luke Syson in his cat­a­log es­say has an in­ter­est­ing sec­tion on women who modeled in wax.)

Such pieces hold their own re­mark­ably well among con­tem­po­rary works that share an “air of life,” such as the breath­tak­ing last item in the show, Ron Mueck’s Old Woman in Bed—an es­say in the shrink­ing and with­drawal of the dy­ing from the world. One is re­minded, con­fronted by this or by Paul McCarthy’s trouser­less self-por­trait on a lawn­chair, of the re­cur­ring sto­ries of sculp­tures that “seem to breathe.” In Lich­field Cathe­dral in Eng­land, it was al­ways said of Sir Fran­cis Chantrey’s white mar­ble Sleep­ing Chil­dren that if you looked long enough you could see them breathe. And Robert Low­ell re­calls of Saint-Gau­dens’s mon­u­ment to Colonel Shaw and his black Civil War in­fantry:

Two months af­ter march­ing through Bos­ton, half the reg­i­ment was dead; at the ded­i­ca­tion, Wil­liam James could al­most hear the bronze Ne­groes breathe.

And here at the Met Breuer, well cho­sen, is a recre­ation of Madame Tus­saud’s Sleep­ing Beauty (orig­i­nally 1765), equipped with a lit­tle mech­a­nism to mimic the rise and fall of a sleeper’s di­aphragm.

We are re­minded that we have seen the artist-cre­ator of the hu­man be­ing on stage, when he fea­tures as a vil­lain, in the bal­let Cop­pelia and in the opera The Tales of Hoff­mann. Both of these are based on E.T. A. Hoff­mann’s story “The Sand­man.” In the bal­let, Dr. Cop­pelius’s vil­lainy stems from his de­sire to make his doll fully hu­man, by means of hu­man sac­ri­fice. The young man who falls in love with an au­tom­a­ton puts him­self in peril. The cre­ator of Franken­stein’s mon­ster puts his own fam­ily im­me­di­ately in peril. Push­ing art too far comes across as a kind of hubris. This rich col­lec­tion of ob­jects—from El Greco’s man­ner­ist Pan­dora (small and eas­ily missed, but how many peo­ple are aware of such sculp­tures by El Greco?) to Charles Ray’s ab­surdly as­sertive Male Man­nequin (a stan­dard win­dow dresser’s model dis­play­ing the artist’s own gen­er­ous gen­i­talia)— is de­signed to pro­voke as much as to please. In the end, though, provo­ca­tion is a mug’s game. Plea­sure’s the thing— plea­sure, thought, a sense of an ar­gu­ment reach­ing back in time, art that tres­passes on the un­canny, that “im­parts an air of life which de­stroys its ide­al­ity.”

film­mak­ers. He has had a long and pro­duc­tive life, and his stature is se­cure in the his­tory of cin­ema and the present art world of New York. The goal of my es­say was not to find “wrong­do­ing” by Mekas, as Sch­wab­sky puts it, but rather, as I state at the out­set, to demon­strate that “Mekas’s life dur­ing the war years was more com­pli­cated than he makes it out to be.” With the help of other sources, I sit­u­ate his ac­tiv­i­ties, state­ments, and writ­ings, as best I can, in their his­tor­i­cal con­text. I try to be fair to him, while re­main­ing fair to the his­tory and to the other peo­ple with whom his life in­ter­sected, es­pe­cially the vic­tims of mass vi­o­lence in Biržai. Mekas was not just a naive, neu­tral poet wan­der­ing the fields and forests of the Lithua­nian coun­try­side, as he would have us be­lieve. He was deeply in­volved in po­lit­i­cal ac­tivism that led him to sup­port the Nazi oc­cu­pa­tion of Lithua­nia dur­ing the crit­i­cal pe­riod when Jews were killed; he only turned against the Nazis later, when, as he told me, “it be­came clear that they’re not go­ing to give Lithua­nia real in­de­pen­dence.” His in­volve­ment in these un­der­ground ac­tiv­i­ties and above-ground pub­lish­ing was ex­cep­tional for some­one his age. While Mekas seems to have en­gaged in some an­tiNazi ac­tivism from 1943–1944—no doubt bravely and at great risk to him­self—he has re­peat­edly ma­nip­u­lated his story, tak­ing ad­van­tage of peo­ple’s ig­no­rance of wartime Lithua­nia, to make him­self ap­pear, when use­ful, as vic­tim, hero, or obliv­i­ous by­stander. This is not merely an aca­demic mat­ter, an at­tempt “to un­cover facts that re­main ob­scure,” in Sch­wab­sky’s words. Mekas’s ex­pe­ri­ence of the war is at the heart of his highly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal work, and his at­ten­dant artis­tic po­si­tions—ex­treme sub­jec­tiv­ity, nega­tion of his­tory, rev­er­ence for ro­man­ti­cized ru­ral folk­ways—pulsed through the Amer­i­can coun­ter­cul­ture of the 1950s and 1960s. You can’t un­der­stand Mekas and his work with­out un­der­stand­ing where he and his ideas came from. Sch­wab­sky says that Mekas seems to re­mem­ber “events he couldn’t have seen.” Based on my re­search, I think it’s pos­si­ble that Mekas could have seen them. I do not think that Mekas was a killer, and I cited sev­eral pieces of ev­i­dence to un­der­score this point. Sch­wab­sky claims that I do “not have the right” to at­tribute guilt to Mekas, but I bring up the ques­tion of guilt in the con­text of Mekas’s own state­ment about Lithua­ni­ans who did kill Jews: “Isn’t a nots­mall part of the curse and guilt of what you did also on me?”

Mekas has re­pub­lished dozens of po­ems he wrote dur­ing the war, demon­strat­ing that he is able to re­trieve as­pects of these years that re­flect well on him. Sch­wab­sky de­fends this se­lec­tive mem­ory of the war and sug­gests that it is per­haps an in­vol­un­tary re­sponse to trauma. But in April, in Lon­don, Hans Ul­rich Obrist asked Mekas at a public in­ter­view about the his­to­rian Eric Hob­s­bawm’s di­rec­tive for the “need to protest against for­get­ting.” Mekas in­ter­rupted the ques­tion to de­clare, “My dream is that hu­man­ity some­day would to­tally lose all mem­ory. So there wouldn’t be al­ways re­mem­ber­ing who did what to my na­tion, to me.” This sug­gests to me that Mekas’s mem­ory is not only se­lec­tive but ide­o­log­i­cally so. As for Mekas’s films, the truth of his life does not di­min­ish the beauty of his work; it com­pli­cates and even en­hances it.

Tip Toland: The Whistlers, 2005

Mas­ter IPS: Christ at the Col­umn (de­tail), 1697

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