One of Posada’s Calaveras: Street Cleaners

John Webster was a Jacobean dramatist known for the grimness of his plays. According to the first stanzas of a poem by T. S. Eliot called “Whispers of Immortality”:

Webster was much possessed by death
And saw the skull beneath the skin;
And breastless creatures under ground
Leaned backward with a lipless grin.

Daffodil bulbs instead of balls
Stared from the sockets of the eyes!
He knew that thought clings round dead limbs
Tightening its lusts and luxuries.

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience,

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

I cannot think of these lines without think of José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), who is famous for his depictions of cavorting skeletons.

Posada’s “The Day of the Dead”

As I am thinking once again of going to Mexico this next winter, I am thinking of the country’s great artists, including José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, David Siqueiros, and Rufino Tamayo, to name just a few. And Posada belongs on that list, though perhaps in a more minor key.

Unlike most Americans, the people of Mexico do not sweep the idea of death under a carpet. In fact, November 2, called All Souls Day in the Catholic Church, is the Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, throughout Mexico. Families visit their dead in the cemeteries with a picnic lunch and with all their children in tow. I remember a long intercity bus ride back in the 1980s on this day on which most of the passengers were joyfully looking forward to their Day of the Dead festivities. The children had white sugar calaveras, or skulls, which are a special treat available throughout the country.

This feeling about death goes back to the Maya and the Aztecs, who fought wars just to get prisoners to serve as sacrificial victims, whose hearts were cut out still steaming from their bodies with an obsidian knife and dedicated to the gods.

Henry Miller in My Life

American Writer Henry Miller (1891-1980)

I started out with Henry Miller the (forbidden) writer of erotica. There were the Tropics, Black Spring, Sous Les Toits de Paris, and The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Then I started reading his nonfiction, and I began to think more of him, especially with The Colossus of Maroussi (1941), his travel classic about Greece; The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), on his pessimism about America after the War; The Time of the Assassins (1946), an essay on Arthur Rimbaud;  and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch (1957), about his life in Big Sur. I have just finished reading Remember to Remember (1947), a sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which is mostly about artists he has met.

Henry Miller is very much a Jekyll-and-Hyde type of author. He can run off at the mouth for dozens of pages—but then he can zero in a key point in some Buddhist burst of contemplation. And, what I like about him, his instincts are right. His pacifist essay in this book, “Murder the Murderer,” spends some ninety pages telling us that he is against war and killing. All well and good. No burst of contemplation there, though it took balls to be a pacifist in the final days of the Second World War. But then he impales Hollywood poseurs in a brilliant spoof entitled “Astrological Fricasse,” which may be the best short work of fiction he ever wrote.

The artists Miller recommends—painters Beauford DeLaney and Abe Rattner and sculptor Beniamino Bufano—are worth closer study. It seems that public opinion has caught up with them, though they were controversial when Miller wrote his book.

I will continue to mine Miller for the occasional rich vein that one comes across with no advance warning, particularly in his nonfiction.



Two Friends of Henry Miller

Abe Rattner’s “Darkness Fell Over the Land” (1942)

I have been reading Henry Miller’s Remember to Remember (1947), his sequel to The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945). Miller has always been interesting to me, even when he descends into rant, as he not infrequently does. Where the earlier book talked about places, the sequel deals mostly with people. Two painters appearing in that book are Abe Rattner (1896-1978) and Beauford Delaney (1901-1979).

As you may know, I reject the tendency of much of 20th century painting, whether here or in Europe, to go in for abstract expressionism. That might well be of interest to interior decorators, but the result of that tendency is a body of work that, of itself, strikes me as empty. Colorful, perhaps, but not so much as inviting a second glance. Art has to represent something other than mere color and form. The literary equivalent might be a selection of adverbs or prepositions without any human context.

In “A Bodhisattva Artist,” Henry Miller expresses his unbounded admiration for Rattner as a person and for his work. such as the above illustrated “Darkness Fell Over the Land,” referring to the aftermath of the crucifixion. Rattner is an artist of the sacred, somewhat like Georges Rouault, but with both a Christian and a Jewish perspective.

Beauford Delaney’s “Jazz Club” (1950)

Beauford Delaney is an African-American artist who was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and died in Paris, France. Miller got to know him in New York, and wrote an essay about the painter and his work in “The Amazing and Invariable Beauford DeLaney.” He is considered to be a representative artist of the Harlem Renaissance, though when he moved to France, he converted (alas) to abstract expressionism.

According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Delaney felt an immediate affinity with [New York’s] “multitude of people of all races – spending every night of their lives in parks and cafes” surviving on next to nothing. Their courage and shared camaraderie inspired him to feel that “somehow, someway there was something I could manage if only with some stronger force of will I could find the courage to surmount the terror and fear of this immense city and accept everything insofar as possible with some calm and determination.”

I am always interested in finding outliers to the predominant currents of art. Henry Miller, being no mean painter himself, did at times exhibit exquisite tastes.


Giorgio di Chirico, Surrealist Painter

His Surrealist Landscapes Are Endlessly Fascinating

The scene is a port somewhere. You can see the unfurled sails of a ship just over the wall while two muffled figures hover around the entrance of a building. There is a tower just over the wall that could be a lighthouse, but maybe not. Note the conflicting shadows: The building on the left is casting its shadow in the 4 o’clock position, while the unseen structures on the right have shadows that are closer to the 10 o’clock position, I love these strange Mediterranean landscapes which seem to suggest so much but say nothing clearly.

Giorgio di Chirico (1888-1978) was, to my mind, the greatest of the surrealist painters. Although I prefer the landscapes, he painted other subjects as well:

Miscellaneous Objects Suggesting Strange Geometries

In one of his writings, the painter states, “What is especially needed is great sensitivity: to look upon everything in the world as enigma….To live in the world as in an immense museum of strange things.” The above image certainly qualifies.

Another Chirico Landscape

The flags atop the facing buildings show a strong wind blowing from right to left. The steam from the locomotive beyond the wall in the background, on the other hand, is going straight up. Again, we have two muffled figures in the middle distance and a strange statue of a reclining male in the middle of the square. Again—not unusual with Chirico—the shadows are a little inconsistent. Where, for instance, is the shadow of the tall phallic tower.


Outliers: James Castle of Idaho

Outlier Artist James Castle (1899-1977)

When I look at the recent history of art in, say, the last hundred years, I see a host of reputations I would like to see toppled. Enough of the Mondrians, the de Koonings, the Pollockses, the Rothkos, and their ilk! That’s why I am interested in exploring the outliers, who explored the boundaries of art without trapping themselves in some movemen such as abstract expressionism.

Today, I look at James Charles Castle of Garden Valley, Idaho. According to the Wikipedia entry on him:

Castle was a self-taught artist who created drawings, assemblage and books throughout his lifetime. Castle was born profoundly deaf and for at least some time attended the Gooding School for the Deaf and the Blind in Gooding, Idaho, but it is not known to what extent he could read, write, or use sign language. Castle’s artworks were created almost exclusively with found materials such as papers salvaged from common packaging and mail, in addition to food containers of all types. Castle mixed ink using soot from the woodstove and saliva and applied it with tools of his own making, including sharpened sticks, and other found objects. His drawings sensitively depict interiors, buildings, animals, landscapes and people based on his family’s rural Garden Valley homestead as well as the architecture and landscapes of the places he lived and visited.


Like many of Castle’s works, the above obviously used a folded sheet of paper that had come his way with a tear toward the lower right corner. Created as it is of spit, soot, and found paper, it beautifully balances shapes and tones.


Even when his own work approaches the abstract, Castle manages to make the viewer stop and think. What is this? A tree, a person, a skyscraper, a computer printer—all drawn at the same scale? And what of those geometric designs in the lower right corner? And the picture is in the form, basically, of a horizontal landscape.


“The Hostility of Life Outdoors”

Gustave Moreau’s “Triumph of Alexander the Great”

This poem by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño is based on the above painting. I thought it was interesting to match a poem with a painting, especially when the poet is as interesting a writer as Bolaño. The title of this poem is “The Outsider Ape.”

Remember the Triumph of Alexander the Great, by Gustave Moreau?
The beauty and terror, the crystal moment when
all breathing stops. But you wouldn’t stand still under that dome
in dim shadows, under that dome lit by ferocious
rays of harmony. And it didn’t take your breath away.
You walked like a tireless ape among the gods,
For you knew—or maybe not—that the Triumph was unfurling
its weapons inside Plato’s cavern: images,
shadows without substance, sovereignty of emptiness. You wanted
to reach the tree and the bird, the leftovers
from a humble backyard fiesta, the desert land
watered with blood, the scene of the crime where
statues of photographers and police are grazing, and the hostility of life
outdoors. Ah, the hostility of life outdoors!


American Car Culture

1934 Ford Model 40 Deluxe Roadster

One of the reasons I enjoy visiting automobile museums—of which there are five that I know of in Southern California—is that classic American cars represent a culture that is so uniquely different from that of our European cousins. That 1934 Ford Roadster from the Nethercutt Collection in Sylmar is brash, yet built along classical lines. Compare it with a Rolls Royce, Voisin, Maybach, Talbot Lago, or Bugatti and you will see it different from American cars in pretty much the same way that American literature is different from European literature.

There are some classic American car designs that are characterized by some restraint, but for the most part Detroit says, “Here! This is what you want! It’s you!” One feels one has to grow into a Bentley or a Hispano-Suiza: It is something to which to attain. The American model is much closer to the Id, whereas the European model is closer to the Superego.

The Pep Boys: Manny, Moe, and Jack

I was enthralled yesterday by this Pep Boys plastic logo at Oxnard’s Murphy Automotive Museum. I compare Manny, Moe, and Jack to the automobile repairman in Patrick Modiano’s novel Villa Triste: cool, detached, intellectual.

It is possible, perhaps, to carry this McLuhanesque comparison too far, but it does seem to make sense. Look, for example at the logos.

Plymouth Barracuda Logo

Can you imagine Rolls Royce calling one of its Silver Phantoms a Phan’? Or Talbot Lago, a ’Bot? Even though Rolls Royces are affectionately referred to as Rolls, the company would never abbreviate the name on one of their automobiles. Yet, Plymouth gladly adopted an abbreviated name to put on the rear bumpers of their later model Barracudas.

Now then, is the American approach any worse? It appears to sit well with the American automobile-buying public. Of course, it would be far better if the American automobiles themselves have not declined so precipitately. I have owned nothing but Japanese cars since I began to drive. Yet, looking back at Detroit products of the Golden Age, I would have had no trouble with Packard or Pierce Arrow or Duesenberg. They were beautiful cars that compared favorably with the best that Europe could manufacture.