Category Archives: WTCS Blog items

Must see

Maria Pierides
Ithaca

While working on my second novel, When the Colours Sing, I have been thinking about colour in painting and especially the use of colour by the Blue Rider painters. So it is with a lot of interest and pride that I visited my own daughter’s exhibition in the Deaf Cat Gallery in Rochester, Kent, and had the opportunity to start reflecting on her work.

Painting mainly abstract landscapes, Maria Pierides (http://www.mariapierides.co.uk) makes her paintings sing. They also draw the eye to areas, washes and masses of colour that suggest landscapes emerging from history, from maps, from physical and emotional references to the world.

Using “mixed media, building up and scraping back areas of paint to capture the atmosphere, mass, and light of the landscapes,” she is creating landscapes of the mind. Exploring aspects of the search for “home,” for “rootedness” in the moment, she works on the most basic and important areas of being.

Drawing on Kavafis’ poem ‘Ithaca,’ Maria investigates her own versions of Ithaca. If you can visit this exhibition do; let yourself experience her paintings by allowing the levels of beauty, meaning and lyricism in the pictures emerge in yourself. Don’t take my word for it: see for yourself!

The Deaf Cat is a spacious, warm and trendy exhibition space, with an excellent atmosphere, providing a much needed meeting platform for Kent artists and those interested in their work.

With both a real as well as a virtual space for local artists and art lovers to meet, it is fast becoming the place to be in Rochester and Kent.

The Deaf Cat was the winner in the category of Best Newcomer in the culture and Design Awards 2010, and received nominations in three other categories.

Maria’s work can be viewed in the The Deaf Cat daily, Monday to Sunday from 9.30 am to 5 pm.

Some of her work can also be viewed on her website here

Haiku Heaven

My haiku made it to the top five in the Iron Horse Literary Review haiku competition! I am delighted, especially since I wrote this haiku prompted by the name of the Journal and in response to their asking for haiku with either the word iron or horse.

I am particularly pleased because the competition caught me in the middle of writing my second novel, When the Colours Sing, set around the Blue Rider movement – it fitted so well. 

The five winners: Marty Smith, Lauren Tamraz, Sarah Spencer Pokla, Benjamin Vogt, and Stella Pierides.

The IHLR is a review of poetry and literary non-fiction published six times per year by Texas Tech University. I am going to follow them and read what they are getting up to from now on!

You can find the results of the competition together with my poem here

Memory Loops

Memory Loops

Researching my novel When the Colors Sing, I came across information about a new memorial to the victims of National Socialism that has opened in Munich. It is a virtual memorial, with personal accounts of the victims being read out from the specific locations where the events described occurred across the city.

Michaela Melian, artist, musician, professor for time-based media in Hamburg, won the first prize for this audio art work in the competition “Victims of National Socialism: New forms of remembering and remembrance” held by the city of Munich in 2008. She was awarded the city’s art prize in 2010.

Melian collected material from newspapers and Holocaust archives, interviewed survivors herself and put together a sensitive and remarkable collection. The individual accounts, read out by actors, are indicated by blue circles superimposed on a digital map of the city, and people can click on them to hear the stories.

The digital memorial can be accessed from across the globe, especially by the younger generation more interested in digital forms of communication. In Munich, some museums are lending their mp3 players to those wishing to tour the places where the events described took place. Bayerischer Rundfunk supports the project, broadcasting narratives in special programmes. The Munich Department of Arts and Culture is also offering its support.

Incidentally, the visual image of Memory Loops reminds me of Anselm Kiefer paintings: “the dark light falling from the stars” for instance. Here is the link to Memory Loops, by artist Michaela Melian.

See also here

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18 October 2010

Murnau (Moor)

Murnau is a small market town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. It is the place where Gabriele Münter, Wassily Kandinsky, and Franz Marc, inspired by the landscape, created The Blue Rider movement.

This is how the tourism office describes Murnau:

In Murnau nature, art and culture form a special bond. World-renowned artists like Kandinsky, Münter and Horváth lived here and found inspiration in the picturesque landscape at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps with its romantic lakes and unique moorlands.

The moor, Murnauer Moos as it is called in German, right next to the town of Murnau, is an enormous nature reserve, the largest in Central Europe and, surrounded by the Bavarian Alps, benefits from a micro-climate that supports an extraordinary range of animals and vegetation.

Meadows, marshes and mires; bog and creeks invite and nourish butterflies, insects, and rare birds. The light is translucent, the air uplifting, and the colors of the wild orchids, irises, grasses, and innumerable other plant varieties are thought to “sing.” Painters, photographers, art, nature, and bird-lovers make their pilgrimage to the moor to hear these songs.

Whenever I can, I go for walks there. My poem Murnau, published in escarp.org on the 8th of August 2010 is a twitter-sized attempt to condense the experience of walking on the moor without losing sight of some of the cultural associations of the area.

Nolde Question

Colour Clouds
Nolde Question

While working on my novel When the Colors Sing, about The Blue Rider (Der blaue Reiter) movement, especially Kandinsky, Münter and Marc, I came across the work of Emil Nolde and his struggles with the development of his art. Readers of this blog will know I recently visited his house – now a museum – in Seebüll, North Frisia, to get a better feeling of his surroundings and the areas where he liked to work.

Having dipped a bit deeper in Nolde’s bio, I came back with more questions than I went with; which is something I appreciate. For instance, I kept thinking, how did Emil Nolde hold the tension between his art and his craft; between his personal, conservative philosophy and his experimental and liberating work; between his roots in the farming community and artistically, in a German tradition of painting, and freedom of expression in his own artistic explorations of landscape, nature and humans. In other words, how did Nolde carry his own, individual cross to produce such work of great depth, intensity, and appeal?

Continue reading Nolde Question

Nolde’s Garden

Nolde's Garden

Having seen an exhibition of Emile Nolde’s “unpainted pictures” in the Berlin branch of the Nolde Foundation earlier on this year, I came to visit his house in Seebüll, North Friesland, Germany, where he lived and worked.

The house is built on higher ground – this used to be a tidal area – providing a panoramic view of the garden below and the surrounding flatlands. The “unpainted pictures” refer to the small-scale watercolors Nolde produced from 1941 onwards, after he was formally forbidden to paint by the Nazi regime. Even before that, the Nazis considered his work to be “un-Germanic” and “degenerate.”

In order to continue working, Nolde used watercolors since they do not emit the typical smell of oil paint and turpentine that would have been easily detectable by the Gestapo during unannounced inspections. Nolde considered the watercolors of this period “unpainted,” because he had planned to render them in oil after the fall of the regime.

Some of the “unpainted pictures” are of flowers, with vibrant colors that overflow the boundaries set by the line and spill over. Perhaps this is one expression of Nolde – like Kandinsky – seeing music in color: his color notes blending across space in the way musical notes blend in time.

Nolde found ample inspiration for these motives in his own garden, which abounds with joyous color and diversity of form illuminated by the immense skies of North Friesland.

Pascale Petit, Frida Kahlo and the Mirror

Dividing my time between England and Germany means I miss a lot of events I would have liked to attend. I would certainly have gone to a reading by Pascale Petit from her new book What the Water Gave Me. As it is, I rely on reviews such as
Ruth Padel’s “What the Water Gave Me by Pascale Petit” in The Guardian, or
blog posts such as Kathleen Jones’ “Pascale Petit and the paintings of Frida Kahlo” in her blog A Writer’s Life; and
Adele Ward’s “From Pain to Paint to Poetry: Pascale Petit” in Adele Ward the poet at the Bus Stop – well written and thoughtful reviews.

I love Pascale Petit’s work. She has an imagination bubbling with creative and often electrifying ways of seeing the world. What Les Murray said about a “powerful mythic imagination” in her poetry is certainly true, though for me, while she draws from the whole gamut and history of art and culture, she fizzles with new ideas of her own. As a result, on reading her poems you acquire a new set of eyes, different with every single poem.

This is what makes it even more remarkable for me, namely, that she is able to put herself into another person’s perspective so well, with sensitivity and humility. Her poem “War Horse,” from The Treekeeper’s Tale, an earlier collection, inspired by Franz Marc’s letter to his wife Maria, is a beautiful instance of this. Writing to his wife from the slaughter fields of World War I, at night, he speaks through Petit over the distance of space, time, and culture to us as individual human beings.

It seems that Frida Kahlo is given the same treatment. I have not read the whole book yet, but from the poems and the reviews I have read, it seems that Pascale Petit is putting her remarkable imagination and empathy to excellent use. Taking her lead from a painting titled “What the Water Gave Me,” in which images from Kahlo’s life float in the bath water of her painting, Petit gives voice to this remarkable woman.

Kahlo became internationally known late in the twentieth century, long after her suffering polio, then catastrophic injuries from an accident in her teenage years, and her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera. Kahlo wove the strands of life, pain and art in her work: she used her injuries to inspire and fire her art, and her art to cope with her injuries and pain. The details of her injuries and private life have had a powerful effect on generations of women in particular, and have been written about extensively. It is a pity that a large number of her fans are said to be more fascinated with Kahlo’s tragic life than with the greatness of her art: the way she used life, pain and paint to speak in a unique language of painting. It is a unique “language” which conveys in colour, form, and Mexican folklore what it is like for a courageous intellect such as Kahlo’s to be looking at herself in the mirror.

One wonders what might have happened had Kahlo herself written poetry instead, or in addition to, her painting. Might she have coped in a different way, perhaps better than she did in her life? We will never know. Now, however, through Petit’s book, we can hear her voice.

While there is a plethora of writing about Kahlo, not many have managed the task of letting her speak for herself. Petit transforms the paint into poem in the same way that Kahlo transformed pain into paint. Unafraid of death, anger, blood, ugliness, loneliness, of the monkey and the other animals in Kahlo’s portraits, of Diego Rivera, and other disturbing realities in Kahlo’s life, Petit empowers Kahlo to speak and the reader to hear her.

The Hungry Tide: Language and Silence

The Hungry Tide

I just read The Hungry Tide, a novel by Amitav Ghosh, published in 2004. It has taken me a long time to find out about it, as well as its author, but, as they say, better late than never.
Such a well-written, well-researched, good read! But the added reason I bring it here is that it includes, among a number of other topics, the story of a Bengali refugee group, settled on Morichjhanpi island of the Sundarbans, forced to flee by the newly elected government of West Bengal, and the massacre of 1978-79. I have an interest in refugee groups, their experiences, itineraries and development – a refugee group appears in my forthcoming novel, Alexandrias’ 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree, as well as the one I am currently working on – and Ghosh’s story describes one such group, in a different part of the world, in a sensitive and engaging manner. In such a manner, in fact, that one might say that the refugees find a home and a voice in Ghosh’s novel. While they flee one way, and then the other, like the ebb and flow of the tide, they are given a presence, a ‘stable’ place in history by Ghosh.
He writes in English, weaving fact and fiction into a wonderfully clear, informed and at the same time enchanting tale.
While the refugee group is an important pivot to the story, the ebb and flow of the tides in the Sundarban islands off the easternmost coast of India, and the ebb and flow of language and silence, are the true stars of the novel. The main characters, an American Indian female researcher, an Indian male translator and an Indian male illiterate fisherman, carry the tidal shifts and currents between language and the areas around it, those places which inhabit the heart and the elemental areas of the psyche shared by all humans. This shared humanity provides the ground for the – unfortunately often undervalued – capacity to communicate with one another. “…Words are just air,” a character says, “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.” (see also my comment:  http://bit.ly/aGNY1P)

Ghosh’s achievement in this novel is to illustrate this ability through the relationships between these three characters and someone who, through his diary, is telling the tale of the refugees, using political, philosophical, and religious themes linked with passages from Rilke. In this novel, history, politics, poetry, biography, religion and myth are brought together in their varying forms of narrative language and yes, narrative silence, to tell a seamless story of incredible beauty.
More than that, however, the novel – through its metaphorical and symbolic richness and its assumption of the perspective of the American Indian scientist and the Indian translator, while contrasting them with the different qualities of the Indian fisherman’s discourse, and its unfortunate reception – reaches further into the colonial and post-colonial waters and invites critical reflection.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially for the outstanding achievement of bringing together so many strands, including the horrific tale of the refugee group, loss, history and a love story with so much humanity and humility.

A Tale of Two Passions

A Tale of  Two Passions

It is often said that life is stranger than fiction. Fair enough, I wouldn’t argue with this. Here I wish to point out two cases where fiction, narrative, or stories influence life. Admittedly, this is not any story, but the story based on the Passion.

Kazantzakis, perhaps best known for having written that other passionate character, Zorba the Greek, published his version of the Passion, Christ Recrucified, in 1948. It is a novel set in a Greek village in Asia Minor during the Ottoman Empire. The villagers are given a free hand in the running of their village affairs as long as they keep quiet, and the Agha (the local Ottoman governor), who likes to enjoy life’s little pleasures, happy.

Trouble, and the plot, comes to the village with the sudden arrival of a group of refugees led by their priest – their village was destroyed by the Turks in the fermenting tensions between Greece and the crumbling Empire. The locals don’t want the refugees in their village, but turn a blind eye, initially, to their camping on a barren mountainside just outside the village.

It is Easter Week approaching, and the village elders are preoccupied with allocating the roles of the Passion story to the locals: who will be “Judas,” “Christ,” or “Mary Magdalene?” Once the preparations for the Holy Week are underway, the chosen actors begin to identify with their allocated characters; they become more saintly, with the exception of “Judas” who becomes treacherous. The novel then takes off, with the actors coming in between the newly arrived refugees and their needs for food and shelter, and the resenting and increasingly intolerant locals. It has a terrific climax, wonderful psychological portraits both of individuals and social groups; it is one of my favourite Greek novels.

Well, in the Bavarian village of Oberammergau, in the foothills of the Alps, another Passion Play has been performed for centuries. In the year 1633, the village suffering from the plague, struck a deal with God: they would perform the Passion Play every ten years if God, in return, kept them free from the plague. Both sides seem to have kept their bargain – though the villagers did not hold the metaphorical plague of the World War II against God – and the play goes on. This year, 2010, sees the 41st performance.

The village performs the Play wholeheartedly, with villagers living and growing up with the preparations and performances all through their lives. Their aspirations, dreams and competition for the main roles achieve the status of basic needs. However, only those born and bred there, or those who have lived for at least twenty years in the village, are allowed to take part. Over two thousand locals (half the village) are involved in the performances that last the whole summer, from May to October, performing to an audience of over four thousand people daily! The rest are involved in the catering for and accommodating of the thousands of visitors in a small village.

Now the reason I brought these two together here, the novel by Kazantzakis and the performances of the Passion Play in real life Oberammergau, is more than that they share the same basic story; more important than the fact (and my need to brag about it) that I will be going to see the Play this year; more than the influence that Kazantzakis’ novel had on the background to my own novel, Alexandria’s 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree. It is how in both, Kazantzakis’ novel and the village of the Passion Play, a similar psychological phenomenon seems to be taking place. The actors tend to become more like the characters of the Passion story. The villages tend to show similarities with the folk of the original story.

In Oberammergau, one of the locals cast as Virgin Mary, I read, refused to marry afterwards; one of the “Jesuses” kept ‘blessing people’ long after the performance was over. One of the actors playing this year’s “Jesus” is reportedly tempted to defer to the actors who played previously “Jesus” and let them mount the donkey entering Jerusalem. There is also the story of King Ludwig II, making presents of silver spoons to the actors of the performance he attended, with the exception of “Judas,” to whom he gave a tin spoon. As for the village politics, they are reported to be tinged with the sometimes polarizing passions of the original story.

In the Kazantzakis novel, a similar but more pronounced process seems to be taking place. The main characters of the Play take on the qualities of those they portray. The actor Judas behaves like “Judas,” the local prostitute starts behaving like “Mary Magdalene,” similarly “apostle Peter” and “Christ.” The villagers and the mob equally seem to become caught in a web that almost dictates a necessity of action that follows the Passion. It is as if a need arises for the Play to become embodied and concretely played out in the village of the novel.

It is this unsettling echo between the two depictions I wish to highlight. Even on the side of the spectator, newspaper articles about the Oberammergau Play, inchluding the Spiegel online,  attract our attention by reporting that one of this year’s chosen inhabitants to portray “Jesus” is a psychologist; “Mary Magdalene” a Lufthansa flight attendant. This points to an expectation in ourselves to weld together the roles in the Passion Play with the Oberammergau locals playing them. When they do not fit – after all who would have thought of Christ been played by a psychologist? – a sense of discrepancy, perhaps a sense of the Uncanny arises.

An interesting analogy may be found in the discrepancy between what one wants to say and the way one expresses it through language, which is smaller in one’s native language than in a second/adopted language. While in the first case the metaphor of “bathing in language” is appropriate, in the second – when the gap between what one wishes to say and the way it is said is too wide – the expression “like bathing in a ski-suit” has been used by Tammy Ho Lai-Ming. A shift from the latter, uncanny experience to the more comfortable one of having the appropriate linguistic tools (the “bathing suit”) to express oneself is accomplishable through practice. In real-life Oberammergau, the endless rehearsals, revisions and reworking of the text, the advice sought and given, ensure that the fit between the Passion and its performance improves with each passing decade.

Kazantzakis’ novel, of course, has the advantage of setting this theme of the actor, the role and reality on a fictional stage. On this stage, the actors no longer simply perform but rather re-enact – as if the role fitted them like a glove. Better still, as if there were no distance between the narrative of the Play, the specific role, and the self. Or, as if: “World and dream are one,” as a boy in the novel sings to the Agha.

But then perhaps I am making too much of this: after all, one of the Oberammergau inhabitants who played Christ in the year 2000 performance is now, in the year 2010, playing Judas!