Article written by Alx Phillips (“A literary landscape”)
About the English translation of Els sots feréstecs “Dark Vales” Translated by Alan Yates, edited by Eva Bosch
Barcelona Metropolitan Issue 215/18
Article written by Alx Phillips (“A literary landscape”)
About the English translation of Els sots feréstecs “Dark Vales” Translated by Alan Yates, edited by Eva Bosch
Barcelona Metropolitan Issue 215/18
Max Raphael by Max Pechstein 1910
“The Demands of Art”. By Max Raphael. With an introduction by Herbert Read. Translated by Norbert Gutterman. Princeton University Press (Bollingen Series), 1968. 258 pp.
Some fight because they hate what confronts them; others because they have taken the measure of their lives and wish to give meaning to their existence. Max Raphael was a very pure example of the second type.
He was born was born near the Polish-German border in 1889. He studied philosophy, political economy and the history of art in Berlin and Munich. His first work was published in 1913. He died in New York in 1952. In the intervening forty years he thought and wrote incessantly. Only a fraction of his work has been published and most of it is out of print. He left thousands of pages of manuscript which his widow and friends are ordering and hoping to publish. Their subject matter ranges from paleontology to classical architecture, from Gothic sculpture to Flaubert, from modern city planning to epistemology.
For five years I tried to interest European publishers in his work. In vain. A fact which I mention only because in a few decades it may be hard to remember how unknown and unrecognized Max Raphael still was in 1968.
His life was austere. He held no official academic post. He was forced several times to emigrate. He earned very little money. He wrote and noted without cease. As he traveled, small groups of friends and unofficial students collected around him. By the cultural hierarchies he was dismissed as an unintelligible but dangerous Marxist; by the party communists as a Trotskyist.
To appreciate the possible role of the book under review demands a clarity about the present situation of the arts. (Nobody who is not prepared to grapple with fundamentals should approach the book.) It is a situation of extreme crisis. The validity of art itself is in question. Many significant artists in the world question whether art is justified – not on account of the quality of a particular talent but on account of the relevance of art to the demands of the time in which we live.
Raphael quotes a remark by Cézanne (in the context of a quite different analysis):
“I paint my still lifes, these natures mortes, for my coachman who does not want them, I paint them so that children on the knees of their grandfathers may look at them while they eat their soup and chatter. I do not paint them for the pride of the Emperor of Germany or the vanity of the oil merchants in Chicago. I may get ten thousand francs for one of these dirty things, but I’d rather have the wall of a church, a hospital, or a municipal building.”
Since 1848, artists unready to be mere paid entertainers have tried to resist the embourgeoisement of their finished work, the transformation of the spiritual value of their work into property value. This regardless of individual political opinions as such. In the years after Cézanne, the resistance of artists became more active and more violent – in that it was built into their work. What Constructivism, Dadaism, Surrealism, etc., all shared was their opposition to art as a cultural alibi for existing society. In the last decade the tactics of resistance have changed. Less frontal confrontation. Instead, infiltration. Irony and philosophic skepticism. The consequences in Tachism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Neo-Dada, etc. But art is still transformed into the property of the property-owning class. In the case of the visual arts the property involved is physical; in the case of the other arts it is moral property.
Art historians with a social or Marxist formation have interpreted the art of the past in terms of class ideology. They have shown that a class, or groups in a class, tended to support and patronize art which to some degree reflected or furthered their own class values and views. It now appears that in the later stages of capitalism this has ceased to be generally true. Art is treated as a commodity whose meaning lies only in its rarity value and its functional value as a stimulant of sensation. Works of art become objects whose essential character is like that of diamonds or sun-tan lamps. The determining factors of this development – internationalism of monopoly, powers of mass media communication, level of alienation in consumer societies – need not concern us here. But the consequence does. ART CAN NO LONGER OPPOSE WHAT IS. The faculty of proposing an alternative reality has been reduced to the faculty of designing – more or less well – an object. Hence the imaginative doubt in all artists worthy of their category. Hence the fact that the militant young begin to use “art” for more direct action.
One might argue that artists should continue, regardless of society’s immediate treatment of their work: that they should address themselves to the future, as all artists after 1848 have had to do. But this is to ignore the world-historical moment at which we have arrived. Imperialism, European hegemony, the moralities of capitalist-Christianity and state communism, the practice of constructing “humanist” cultures on a basis of monstrous exploitation – this entire interlocking system is now being challenged: a world struggle is now being mounted against it. Those who envisage a different future are obliged to define their position toward this struggle, obliged to choose. Such a choice tends to lead them to impotent despair or to the conclusion that world liberation is the pre-condition for any new valid cultural achievement. (I simplify and somewhat exaggerate the positions for the sake of brevity.) Either way their doubts about the value of art are increased.
In this present crisis, is it any longer possible to speak of the revolutionary meaning of art? This is the fundamental question. It is the question that Max Raphael begins to answer in “The Demands of Art.”
The book is based on some lectures that Raphael gave in the early thirties to a modest adult education class in Switzerland under the title “How Should One Approach a Work of Art?“ He chose five works and devoted a chapter of extremely thorough and varied analysis to each. The works are: Cézanne’s “Mont Sainte-Victoire” of 1904-06 (the one in the Philadelphia Museum), Degas’ etching of “Madame X Leaving Her Bath,” Giotto’s “Lamentation Over the Dead Christ” (Padua) compared with his later “Death of Saint Francis” (Florence), a drawing of Rembrandt of “Joseph Interpreting Pharaoh’s Dreams,” and Picasso’s “Guernica.” (The chapter on Guernica was of course written later.) These are followed by a general chapter on “The Struggle to Understand Art,” and an appendix consisting of an unfinished but extremely important essay entitled “Towards an Empirical Theory of Art,” written in 1941.
The editing, production and translating of the present volume – under the direction of two of Raphael’s friends – are a model of an efficient labor of love.
I shall not discuss Raphael’s analyses of the five individual works. They are brilliant, long, highly particularized and dense. The most I can do is attempt a crude outline of his general theory.
A question that Marx posed but could not answer: If art, in the last analysis, is not a superstructure of the economic base, why does its power to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why, asked Marx, do we still look toward Greek art as an ideal? He began to answer by speaking about the “charm” of “young children” (the young Greek civilization), and then broke off the manuscript and was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
“A transitional epoch,” writes Raphael, “always implies uncertainty: Marx’s struggle to understand his own epoch testifies to this. In such a period two attitudes are possible. One is to take advantage of the emergent forces of the new order with a view to undermining it, to affirm it in order to drive it beyond itself: this is the active, militant, revolutionary attitude. The other clings to the past, is retrospective and romantic, bewails or acknowledges the decline, asserts that the will to live is gone – in short, it is the passive attitude. Where economic, social and political questions were at stake Marx took the first attitude; in questions of art he took neither.” He merely reflected his epoch.
Just as Marx’s taste in art – the classical ideal excluding the extraordinary achievements of paleolithic, Mexican, African art – reflected the ignorance and prejudice of art appreciation in his period, so his failure to create (though he saw the need to do so) a theory of art larger than that of the superstructure theory was the consequence of the continual, overwhelming primacy of economic power in the society around him. In view of this lacuna in Marxist theory, Raphael sets out to develop a theory of art that he calls empirical “because it is based on a study of works of art from all periods and nations. I am convinced that mathematics, which has travelled a long way since Euclid, will some day provide us with the means of formulating the results of such a study in mathematical terms.” And he reminds the skeptical reader that before infinitesimal calculus was discovered even nature could not be studied mathematically:
“Art is an interplay, an equation of three factors – the artist, the world and the means of figuration.”
Raphael’s understanding of the third factor, the means or process of figuration, is crucial. For it is this process which permits him to consider the finished work of art as possessing a specific reality of its own:
“Even though there is no such thing as a single, uniquely beautiful proportion of the human body or a single scientifically correct method of representing space, or one method only of artistic figuration, whatever form art may assume in the course of history, it is always a synthesis between nature and (or history) and the mind, and as such it acquires a certain autonomy vis-à-vis both these elements. This independence seems to be created by man and hence to possess a psychic reality; but in point of fact the process of creation can become an existent only because it is embodied in some concrete material.”
The artist chooses his material – stone, glass, pigment or a mixture of several. He then chooses a way of working it – smoothly, roughly, in order to preserve its own character, in order to destroy or transcend it. What is represented is materialized in the worked, raw material; whereas the worked raw material acquires an immaterial character through its representations and the UNNATURAL unity which connects and binds them together. “Artistic” material , so defined, a substance half material and half spiritual, is an ingredient of the material of figuration.
The two processes which produce the material of figuration (the process of transforming raw material into artistic material and that of transforming the matter of sensation into means of representation) are continually interrelated. Together they constitute what might be called the matter of art.
Figuration begins with the separate long drawn-out births of ideas and motif, and is complete when the two are born and indistinguishable from one another.
“The characteristics of the individual idea are: (1) It is simultaneously an idea and a feeling. (2) It contains the contrasts between the particular and the general, the individual and the universal, the original and the banal. (3) It is a progression toward ever deeper meanings. (4) It is the nodal point from which secondary ideas and feelings develop.”
“The motif is the sum total of line, colour and light by means of which the conception is realized.” The motif begins to be born apart from, but at the same time as the idea, because “only in the act of creation does the content become fully conscious of itself.”
What is the relation between the pictorial (individual) idea and nature? “The pictorial idea separates usable from unusable elements of natural appearances and, conversely, study of natural appearances chooses from among all possible manifestations of the pictorial idea the one which is most adequate. The difficulty of the method comes down to proving what one believes – proof here consisting in this, that the opposed methodological starting points (experience and theory) are unified, brought together in a reality of a special kind, different from either, and that this reality owes its pictorial life to a motif adequate to the conception and developed compositionally.”
What are the methods of figuration? (1) The structuring of space. (2) The rendering of forms within that space EFFECTIVE. The structuring of space has nothing to do with perspective: its tasks are to dislocate space so that it ceases to be static (the simplest example is that of the forward-coming relaxed leg in standing Greek figures) and to divide space into quanta so that we become conscious of its divisibility and thus cease to be the creature of ITS continuity (e.g., the receding planes parallel to the picture surface in late Cézannes).
“To create space is to penetrate not only into the depth of the picture but also into the depths of our intellectual system of coordinates (which matches that of the world). Depth of space is depth of essence or else it is nothing but appearance and illusion.”
The distinction between actual form and effective form is as follows:
“Actual form is descriptive; effective form is suggestive, i.e., through it the artist, instead of trying to convey the contents and feelings to the viewer by fully describing them, provides him only with as many clues as he needs to produce these contents and feelings within himself. To achieve this the artist must act not upon individual sense organs but upon the whole man, i.e., he must make the viewer live in the work’s own mode of reality.”
What does figuration with its special material (see above) achieve?
“Intensity of figuration is not display of the artist’s strength; not vitality, which animates the outer world with the personal energies of the creative artist; not logical or emotional consistency, with which a limited problem is thought through or felt through to its ultimate consequences. What it does denote is the degree to which the very essence of art has been realized: the undoing of the world of things, the construction of the world of values, and hence the constitution of a new world. The originality of this constitution provides us with a general criterion by which we can measure intensity of figuration. Originality of constitution is not the urge to be different from others, to produce something entirely new; it is (in the etymological
sense) the grasping of the origin, the roots of both ourselves and things.”
One must distinguish here between Raphael’s “world of values” and the idealist view of art as a depository of transcendental values. For Raphael the values lie IN THE ACTIVITY revealed in the work. The function of the work of art is to lead us from the work to the process of creation which it contains. This process is determined by the material of figuration and it is within this material, which Raphael discloses and analyses with genius, that mathematics my one day be able to discover precise principles. The process is directed toward creating within the work a synthesis of the subjective and the objective, of the conditional and the absolute within a totality governed by its own laws of necessity. Thus the world of things is replaced within the work by a hierarchy of values created by the process it contains.
I can give no indication here of the detailed, specific and unabstract way in which Raphael applies his understanding to the five works he studies. I can only state that his eye and sensuous awareness were as developed as his mind. Reading him one has the impression, however difficult the thought, of a man of unusual and stable balance:
“Since we cannot know ourselves directly, but only through our actions, it remains more than doubtful whether our idea of ourselves accords with our real motives. But we must strive unremittingly to achieve this congruence. For only self-knowledge can lead to self-determination, and false self-determination would ruin our lives and be the most immoral action we could commit.”
To return to our original question: what is the revolutionary meaning of art? Raphael shows that the revolutionary meaning of a work of art has nothing to do with the subject matter in itself, or with the functional use to which the work is put, but is a meaning continually awaiting discovery and release.
“However strong a given historical tendency may be, man can and has the duty to resist it when it runs counter his creative powers. There is no fate which decrees that we must be victims of technology or that art must be shelved as an anachronism: the ‘fate’ is merely misuse of technology by the ruling class to suppress the people’s power to make its own history. To a certain extent it is up to every individual, by his participation in social and political life, to decide whether art shall or shall not become obsolete. The understanding of art helps raise this decision to its highest level. As a vessel formed by the creative forces which it preserves, the work of art keeps alive and enhances every urge to come to terms with the world.”
“We have said that art leads us from the work to the process of creation. This reversion, outside the theory of art, will eventually generate universal doubt about the world as given, the natural as well as the social. Instead of accepting things as they are, of taking them for granted, we learn, thanks to art, to measure them by the standard of perfection. The greater the gulf between the ideal and the real, the more inescapable is the question: Why is the existing world the way it is? How has the world come to be the way it is? De omnibus rebus dubitandum est! Quid certum? We must doubt all things! What is certain? (Descartes). It is the nature of the creative mind to dissolve seemingly solid things and to transform the world as it is into a world in process of becoming and creating. This is how we are liberated from the multiplicity of things and come to realize what it is that all conditional things ultimately possess in common. Thus, instead of being creatures isolated among other isolated creatures we become part of the
power that creates all things.”
Raphael did not, could not, make our choices for us. Everyone must resolve for himself the conflicting demands of his historical situation. But Raphael does show, as no other writer has ever done, the revolutionary meaning of the works inherited from the past – and the works that will be eventually created in the future. And this he shows without rhetoric, without exhortation, modestly and with reason. His was the greatest mind yet applied to the subject.
There was a time when fish could fly and birds could live inside the sea. Water was hot and fire was cold and the body of the earth was made of a transparent substance and heavy clouds.
Around the earth creatures lived, they flew and swam. They sang to the tune of the winds, they danced to the waves of the sea. These creatures were a mirror of the earth; they were made of perfect halves. They had stems like trees; they had apertures like spouts of water. Their unity made them rock with the earth in a movement of to and fro. There was perfect harmony.
Each one had such unity that in their balance the earth could cradle them all in one same movement. They were called Snamuhs and inside they grew Evol, the substance that kept them alive. As they excreted, what came out as soon as it touched the air it turned into sound, so there was never any waste.
One day the sun was curious and moved closer to the sea, as he felt the heat, he sweated and a tear of cold sweat fell on the sea. The sea was so warm that the tear created a cloud of steam, which grew very large to the point that no one could see. Suddenly cold was cold and hot was hot, black was black and white was white. The Snamuhs were scared, so each one held to himself with their stems. Fear made them hold tighter and tighter. The sea was also scared so he held on to himself too and there were no waves. The wind left its shelve and the earth started to change colour, its transparent substance started to take a brown dark colour.
Silence had no longer sound and sound had no silence.
Everything and everyone held tight.
The body of the Snamuhs started to grow bigger and bigger, their apertures were blocked by the elements and could not release the Evol, so there was a very loud sound, like an explosion and their bodies split in halves; equal halves that were spread in the firmament like millions and millions of stars.
Slowly the water returned to the sea, the sun moved back, the wind curled inside its shell and there was still sadness.
Then night came, the sun mirrored his reflection in the moon, the sea in the sky and the sky dampened the earth. The moon became the hat of the earth and the sun felt desire for its wetness and wanted to penetrate; he entered her through a ray that contained its totality, then the sea like a silver mantle covered their mystery.
Sighs wanted to get out and a gentle crack was made through which the sun came out carrying in his tail the scent of the earth’s womb. As it flew into the sky he left a tail of circles and stems that travelled across the sky. Each circle and each stem were created unique to fit into each other and there was a scent, an unmistakable scent that would draw each circle towards its stem, so that one day each Snamuh would meet their other half and there would be again harmony forever more.
I do have a few ideas borne from experiencing my chaotic passions and I often think that being a Spaniard, a woman and a painter I mirror myself very much in Picasso’s character, hence why I have attempted to say something about him and his work.
During my formative period I had a residency in Amsterdam. Cultural differences collided with the Dutch School of painting and I almost went mad. What I learnt from it was that when one is in an extreme state of pain some strange awareness opens up and you learn things.
At that time I had a fascination for the physical body, I was doing a lot of exercise and eating/sleeping very well and had beautiful men flying around me. Yet my emotional involvement with them was a total mess, therefore I tried to separate in my mind the body functions from the thinking emotional process.
I had a job cleaning hotels and swimming pools at the time. Shit became important. I realised that the human body is made of shit and so is this planet. There seemed to be two types: moving shit, while there is energy inside (soul?) and non-moving shit that returns to the planet when the energy goes (death). The body being a sack to contain this shit and with 9 holes to keep it moving. The principle of the Alchemist trying to transform shit into gold by “using” the holes fully, made sense to me. A perfect balance between the functions of the holes could transform matter into spirit (God?). I took some excrement and urine and had them in a glass for days observing them. The fumes, the smell, the colour and changing texture. There was a moment, which I thought that some sort of vacuum was taking place and that the glass would explode. I thought of the big bang; the beginning, if there is such a thing. Then I thought that if I was to eat and drink them I could exist without need for anything else.
My room was very small and to use the space I had fully, as I had no studio elsewhere, I hung my bed with four chains in the ceiling, which had beautiful wooden beams. Pinned up on the wood I had a series of post cards of mostly African statuettes of gods and goddesses. Big phalluses and vaginas everywhere. The little Venus (from Lespugue 22.500BC) in the Museum of Mankind in Paris was one of them. During many hours I lied on my bed looking at those. At times I would play with my own genitalia looking at them. Images kept on coming to my mind, strange things, revelations, I felt as if I was Moses and God was giving me the 10 commandments. Letters, I understood, were circles and sticks. The alphabet was nothing other than ordered circles (vaginas) and sticks (phalluses). Then I started to see triangles, squares, rectangles, and circles everywhere. I read Euclid’s theories. It all made sense then, although I could not explain it now. I understood how form came about starting from a minute dot (bacteria) and developing into geometrical forms. I also had a big spider, which I found, at some lavatory from the Hotel. Hence the dot becoming alive. Wherever and whatever thing I looked at, was constructed within the limitations of the geometrical form. I then thought of Cézanne. This is why I do not understand abstraction. The body itself being made of such combinations of forms. Also I wondered why is a particular curve erotic and another one feels revolting. When I think of the male body and its curves. If I compare a Japanese wrestler with a sculptural Jamaican young man, the first revolts me the second I desire. Yet they both are made of curves. Here is where I think of Picasso’s Demoiselles and of some of the drawings he did prior to painting that painting.
Perhaps it as all my imagination, but those drawings seem to be about this. When he was in Gosol he drew himself as an empty vessel. Some of the images of females drawn around this time were also empty vessels. He tried to work out the female body from the shape of his phallus. Using geometrical forms as well as the shape of amphoras and calculating distances from the different joints of the body trying to work out proportions. He also drew people from Gosol, there was an old man especially, from which I think he developed the image of the face of the woman sitting at the bottom right hand corner of the Demoiselles. I can imagine that on those days villages like Gosol where life was very hard, people physically resembled ancient Africans. I noticed this myself when I visited remote villages in the mountains around my own village. Physical suffering makes people look very primitive; there is a controversial beauty in it. Benin’s statuettes have it very much. On the other hand, extreme emotional pain forces you to dig down inside yourself and to return to bare basics, searching for clues to explain the dynamics of those emotions and therefore stop the pain. Kafka talks about this in a similar way in his book “The Penitentiary Colony”.
The first signs of we as humans are in Africa. I am wondering if through this emotional journey which I think Picasso went through, as I explain later on, and what he saw in Gosol (helped by his visit to the African museum in Paris) he touched (with that painting) the dividing line between the hooker and the Madonna. The point at which ugliness becomes beauty and a new avenue opens up. The curtain behind the women in the painting looks to me like a vagina, and it is red… He did preparatory drawings of that curtain, which look like vaginas anyway.
It seems to me that Picasso was a very isolated person. I can understand very well how he felt as a child being moved around from Malaga to Galicia, then to Barcelona. All the confusion of identity, which is a very important issue in Spain. The Andalusians hate the Catalans and vice versa. In those days Spain was very poor. Poverty seems to be a detonator for pride and honour. There are sides to both that are good but there are sides that are ugly and horrible. The desperation of survival produces people like Abdullah Ocalan, or the IRA or ETA for this matter. Spain is an extremely rich country in terms of culture. When I was a child I always wanted to be part of everything, I adored bull-fighting and flamenco dancing, but sadly as Franco imposed them to everyone, in an attempt to abolish any other form of cultural identity which did not agree with what he understood as Spanish, the natural reaction from the cultures that he was trying to censure was to ridicule and condescend at flamenco and bull-fighting. The Catalans tried to teach their children to dance sardana instead. It was for me a great dilemma to have to come to terms with my feeling bored with the Catalan dance and my love for the Andalusian one.
I can imagine that Picasso having lived for years in Spain’s different cultures, he developed similar likes and dislikes. Palau i Fabre talks about Picasso’s accent when he spoke Catalan, apparently he had the accent of Lleida. A Malagueño with a Lleidatá accent is like a Scottish person speaking Cockney in the middle of West Byfleet in Surrey. Being different turns you into an oddity and therefore you are always in no-man’s-land, hence the isolation and the need to find some answers for it. Of course the Franco-nightmare did not start until he was already 45 years old, and by then he was mostly in France, but I can imagine that he was always pestered by relatives and friends about his national and political identity. Then there was his father who seems to blame him for his failure as a painter. The weight of the Spanish family structure built on thick catholic guilt, haunts you to the grave.
Then he had to endure the death of his sister, followed by the suicide of Casagemas. It must have been very hard to bear. Palau i Fabre wrote about all this, he knew him quite well it seems. Barcelona with all its beauty is a trap. Much more so at the time he was there. In the Picasso Museum in Barcelona there are several paintings of roofs done around the time of his sister’s illness and death. The feeling of loneliness is unbearable. Then came his obsession for pink and blue. I often wondered why pink and blue. Babies when they are born are placed in a cradle and dressed with clothes which are pink or blue depending on whether they are male of female. For some strange reason this tradition is followed in many cultures all over the world.
In Amsterdam I was seeing shit everywhere, and I was obsessed with the body functions, I started to see Van Gogh’s still lives as an illusion of “matter” transforming itself. The way he used paint and the way he depicted his subjects: faces, trees, water, flowers etc. His paintings seemed to be a breeding surface where everything was alive without hierarchy. There is no difference between a tree or a human or the sun. All his images breathe in harmony like a symphony.
Picasso’s imagination could produce images non-stop. If he had some excitement inside, a red or a yellow on the surface of the canvas could become a living thing. So much has been said about his personal life, yet my own experience as a painter and being very much a woman proves that he was above all a passionate man addicted to the urge of life and therefore unable to ever compromise.