Thursday, 26 November 2020

Podcast for Sabinna and interview for Jakarta Fashion Week 2021

I am unashamedly blowing my own trumpet, here, thus this will be a short post. 

Yesterday 25th November, Sabinna. com released a podcast on ageism, a discussion of ageism in fashion, with myself, Venus Apovo and Jacynth Bassett.

You can listen to it on Spotify and also on Apple Podcasts.

Yesterday was also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women 2020.  Journalist Julia Suryakusuma has written a piece for The Jakarta Post,  of which she is a regular columnist, to mark the day. It can be read on my Facebook page.  If you are using beauty products containing palm oil (or even food) , it might be a good idea to think of the conditions in which the women that work in palm oil plantations, where exploitation, including rape, is rampant.

Finally,  I am really happy to share the video recording of my interview with Subkhan J. Hakim, managing editor of Dewi magazine, for Jakarta Fashion week 2021, which started today. 

Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

The colourful exploits of a beautiful Renaissance aristocrat


Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala

You may be familiar with Gina Sanseverina, the Duchess portrayed by Stendhal in his masterpiece, The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), a novel  praised in turn by Honoré de Balzac, Lev Tolstoy, André Gide and Henry James, as groundbreaking.  It seems that Stendhal's inspiration for the character of Gina was Barbara Sanseverino, Duchess of Sala, a Renaissance woman for whom the celebrated poet Torquato Tasso (he of The Jerusalem Delivered, 1581)  composed a  theatrical prologue, and passionate sonnets, a woman of great beauty known for her ability to stage elaborate games, involving masquerades and more, in the spirit of Renaisssance court  entertainment. That the games included bedroom antics is to be taken as a given. The Duchess of Sala behaved rather freely and was a most charming, refined, sophisticated companion. Renaissance court life was lascivious, and a noblewoman's ability to entertain at all levels was highly prized.

Gigliola Fragnito

In a new biographical account, the Italian writer and academic Gigliola Fragnito, a specialist of this period, author of countless studies  and of a  biography of Clelia Farnese, set in Counter-Reformation Rome, tells us the story of Barbara Sanseverino, her penchant for and ability to entertain, her love affairs and, most of all,  her tragic death by decapitation, on a charge of lèse majesté, due to her alleged participation in a conspiracy against the ruling Duke of Parma, Renuccio.

Fragnito has a personal investment in presenting to us the multi-faceted, unconventional Duchess of Sala. From her mother's side, Fragnito is a Sanseverino of Bisignano, a branch of the family. Barbara Sanseverino, from the Caiazzo side,  had no issue, thus Fragnito is not a direct descendant. But Fragnito was always greatly fascinated by the Duchess, and indeed wrote the book while staying in a small house located in the grounds of the Palace, currently belonging to the Caiazzo family. Thus, as she says, she wrote in the knowledge that whenever she went for a stroll in the beautiful gardens she treaded on the Duchess' steps. 

Among the women of the day,  Barbara Sanseverino shone for her beauty and her ingegno (wits), living a life of unusual independence from male control and always willing to push boundaries. Several princes were infatuated with her.  Energetic and resourceful, she was a first-class reveller and an indefatigable organiser of games, which were indeed all-important at court.

As for her role in the conspiracy, this may have well been inflated, bolstered by her ludic persona. Her death was marked by indignity. The executioner failed to kill her instantly and had to change weapon, the crowd demanded that her dress be lifted and the executioner slapped her naked bottom before using a smaller axe, normally employed for animals - there was no guillotine (a French invention)  in those days. 

Severino was a pioneer and paid a high price for her freedom. As  Fragnito says,  in the sordid conspiracy affair she was a  loser,  above all, for her challenge to social conventions, despising all conformism,  and adopting behaviours that did not suit her gender within the rigid constraints of her time. It will be a longtime before  a woman will be  allowed to cross the boundaries of the narrow perimeter that social norms had assigned her and that Barbara Sanseverino repeatedly overstepped. 

This was her real crime. Today, we salute her as a strong-willed woman who asserted her independence at a time when most women had none.

Gigliola Fragnito La Sanseverino. Giochi erotici e congiure nell'Italia della controriforma  Bologna, Il Mulino, 2020

Saturday, 14 November 2020

Gentileschi and other Italian women painters of Renaissance and Baroque

Artemisia Gentileschi 'Head of Holofernes'

Before the second lockdown, I was fortunate enough to be able to view the Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery. It's a great exhibition, which of course cannot be seen at the moment, but hopefully the Gallery  will reopen to the general public when this lockdown is over. 

Of Artemisia Gentileschi I have written in several blogposts, such as this one (you can do a search for the others) thus I will not repeat myself. A friend I met at the exhibition -  did not recognise him at first, it is difficult when people wear masks - wondered whether there were other famous women painters prior to the 19th and 20th century. Was Artemisia an exception? She was definitely very talented, a star among painters, but no, she was not unique. There were other women in Italy and beyond, who painted. The point is that art history books have,  by and large, been written by men - or perhaps I should say were - so it took a while for female talent to be acknowledged. 

Sofonisba Anguissola 'Self Portrait '

But women were indeed very active as painters during the Renaissance and the Baroque. In Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (1997) with 'picturing' meaning both women who painted and women as they were represented in paintings, a number of art historians of both genders discuss the phenomenon of nuns as artists, and noblewomen as patrons, and write about the celebrated Lavinia Fontana, a Renaissance painter from Bologna, daughter of a painter, who achieved fame for her portraits of nobildonne, gentlewomen, to whom she had privileged access, by virtue of being a woman. The volume highlights the role played in early modern Italian culture by women as subjects, producers, patrons and viewers of art.

Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque is the title of an exhibition held in Washington DC in 2007. I did not see it, but I have with me the catalogue with a number of illuminating essays. The exhibition comprised the work of 17 artists, starting with the 15th-century abbess Caterina Vigri, from Bologna and ending with Elisabetta Sirani, also from Bologna but separated from Vigri by two centuries and painting in a very different style. The others are Properzia de Rossi, Eufrasia Burlamacchi, Plautilla Necchi, Sofonisba Anguissola, Lucia Anguissola (her younger sister), Diana Scultori (aka Ghisi), Lavinia Fontana, Barbara Longhi, Fede Galizia, Lucrina Fetti, Chiara Varotari, Elisabetta Cattanea Parasole, Artemisia Gentileschi, Orsola Maddalena Caccia e Giovanna Garzoni. All these women were figlie d'arte - daughters of art - in other words, born in a family in which painting and sculpture were the main activities. They showed talent and began to receive commissions, but their work was always regarded even by themselves as 'that of a woman', except in the case of Artemisia. In her interactions with patrons and would-be-patrons, she emphasised that hers was  a male brain (and talent) in a woman's body.  It was this perceived extraordinariness that valorised these artists' work, the underlying principle being that women, as women, could not produce excellence. 

Orsola Maddalena Caccia. Detail Birth of the Virgin 

I am particularly interested in the women painters who made work in Naples and the South of Italy. We know that Artemisia Gentileschi was most productive when she established her bottega or atelier in Naples and we also know from art historian Ornella Scornamiglio of other women painters from Naples and surroundings such as Mariangela Criscuolo, Luisa Capomazza, Annella De Rosa, Caterina de Julianis. These are women mentioned in passing in works that discuss known male painters and one wonders about the many others who collaborated with their fathers or husbands and whose work is now lost. 

Elisabetta Sirani. Portia wounding her thigh

As Scornamiglio writes, Rosalia Novelli, Mariangiola De Matteis, Angela Maria Beinaschi, Cristina Beltrano, Angela Siscara, Angela Mansini, Elena Recco are almost totally unknown. Nothing is also known of other daughters of painters,  even in the case of the daughters of  Artemisia Gentileschi and Teresa Del Po, nor do we know of the pupils of Mariangiola Criscuolo or of Sister Maria de Dominici and many more.  The Neapolitan Baroque saw the rise of practitioners from the whole of southern Italy, among them De Rosa, Ribera, Giordano, Solimena who are regarded as part of the Barocco Leccese - but of the women of their household who worked with them, as that was the practice at the time, nothing is known. 

Why do we want to know about women artists? Clearly to redress the balance and understand that artistic talent should not be gendered, without denying that issues of gender do affect visual culture and in turn the visual culture of a given time is affected by them. 


Thursday, 5 November 2020

Alice and Peter Pan: take 2

Alice in the 2010 movie

I have been writing this blog for so long that I sometimes forget what I have written about.  As I began this post about Alice and Peter Pan,  I realised halfway through that I already wrote about them ten years ago. Not to worry, this is going to be a complementary post. 

In the intervening years between my two posts, Peter Pan as a character got a bit sullied by the association with Michael Jackson, whose ranch was called Neverland and who identified with Peter Pan. His alleged paedophilia was discussed in Leaving Neverland (2019).  I am not going to add to that discussion, it really does not pertain to this post. 

I would like to point out, at the risk of stating the obvious,  that Peter Pan has nothing to do with paedophilia, even though there have been allegations that Barrie, author of the famous play (which then became a book), had a sexual interest in young boys. Similar allegations have been made about Charles Dogdson aka Lewis Carroll, in connection with his photos of a seminude Alice Liddell, upon whom the Alice of Alice in Wonderland is based.  But as Douglas-Fairhurst, author of The Story of Alice, comments  “the most probable conclusion is that Carroll’s strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual” and this would be in line with the Victorian idealisation of children and childhood.

The existence of a so-called Peter Pan syndrome (not a medically acknowledged one) also turns Peter Pan into a rather unsavoury character, whereas I would like to think of Peter Pan as a free spirit. Forget the syndrome and the charges of immaturity. You can interpret Peter Pan in a more positive key. A good friend of mine, who is in fact a responsible person,  definitely not lacking by way of commitment and maturity, tells me that he feels, in his heart of heart, like a teen. A Peter Pan, in other words, as he is a free spirit, a bit of a rebel, someone who tries to live in the moment and does not worry too much about the future. For him, life is for living and experiencing and there should be room for improvisation and the unexpected, rather than plan everything in the minutest detail.

Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

There is no reason for believing, that Peter Pan could only be a boy -  traits such as those described can also be easily applied to girls.

Do I then identify with Peter Pan? No. In my case the character I identify with is  Alice, from the celebrated Alice in Wonderland.  Alice is curious and embarks on an adventure in search for knowledge and identity. Through her journey she matures and grows; she is a young woman with agency, unusually so for a Victorian girl.  

Wonderland is not Neverland. It is none other than the mad world of adults. In Wonderland, Alice learns to be herself. When she says 'you are nothing but a pack of cards' Alice displays her autonomy and agency. Alice teaches you how to go through life, approaching it with curiosity and inquisitiveness and making up your mind about who and what you encounter. It applies to me at all levels. Even my penchant for research, as an academic,  is Alice's style curiosity.  

My favourite Alice quote?

“It’s no use going back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” How very true.

Thursday, 15 October 2020

The 40 rules of love of Shams al Tabrizi


A page from The Works of Shams Tabrizi (‘Dīvān-e Šams-e Tabrīzī’reblogged 

It is with some trepidation that I write about Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī and his spiritual master  Shams al-din of Tabriz, as there is already so much material available and written by people with a more in-depth knowledge of Persian poetry than I have. 

 However, Rumi is not just a Persian poet, he transcends boundaries. Nowadays he is one of the most quoted poets to be found on the internet, everyone seems to have read snippets of Rumi's poems. There are websites with the 'best quotes from Rumi', and you can even get them by email every day if you sign up.  New Age gurus have appropriated Rumi, divesting him of his Islamic cultural roots, as pointed out by Rozina Ali in a 2017 article in The New Yorker.  There was even a Hollywood movie planned in 2016 about Rumi, with Leonardo Di Caprio favoured for the role - it sparked a controversy about whitewashing Rumi, but Di Caprio's agent issued a disclaimer.

There are interpretations of Rumi's love for Shams al-din of Tabriz as being homosexual physical love,  which of course have been amply rebutted.  Rumi and Shams were very close, and Rumi addressed many of his love poems to him, feeling bereft by his disappearance, when Shams was no longer to be found, possibly murdered. But their relationship was based on a spiritual bond, underpinned by Shams' allegiance to Sufi ideals of ecstasy and divine love, which he passed on to Rumi. In any case, what does it matter if they were lovers? Shams inspired Rumi who went on to be a true poet from being just another religious scholar, as a result of his meeting with the much older mystic.  Shams unlocked the poet in Rumi.  

A midsummer night's dream by William Blake

Here I cannot help thinking of another great poet and supreme playwright who sang of love, from a different tradition, that is, William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's  sonnets were addressed to a young man, variedly identified by scholars.  Sonnet 20 holds some vital clues as to the sexuality of the narrator, William Shakespeare himself. 

Love was also the subject matter of another Shakespearean work A Midsummer Night's Dream and despite the comedic format, there are disquieting undertones and a depiction of the clash between dream and reality. 

(Titania's infatuation with Bottom should be a point of reference for all women  who dreamily fall in love with unsuitable men, only to wake up from their 'slumber' and  find out they have been  loving someone who was uttterly unreal. It happens to men too). 

Rumi has often been compared to Shakespeare. Some scholars have found similarities between Rumi and Shakespeare, the common thread being the influence of Neoplatonism on both.  But there is no direct connection between them even though some writers have been at pains to demonstrate that Shakespeare had read Rumi.

Source: Iran Territory

But back to Rumi and Shams in particular.  Shams Tabrizi formulated 'The 40 Rules of Love', also the title of a contemporary novel by Elif Shafak, soon a Netflix series, which focuses on the transformation brought about by love, interweaving the narrative of Rumi and Shams with that of an American housewife, part-time literary agent, who falls in love with Zahara, the author of a manuscript about the Persian poet that she had been given to appraise. Shafak intersperses the rules throughout the book.

The rules were elaborated after the two men spent a period of 40 days of intense meditation in a cave. There are beautiful Persian miniatures illustrating the 40 rules, it is a subject matter that has been amply exploredin this genre of painting. 

 Rule 11 particularly resonates with me.

"The quest for Love changes users. There is no seeker among those who search for Love who has not matured on the way. The moment you start looking for Love, you begin to change within and without".

As I said,  there is much you can find on the internet about Rumi and Shams Tabrizi from scholarly  works to blogposts.  The blog Iran Territory (link above) lists them all. 
I would recommend you do your own search. You will find something written about Rumi and Shams that speaks to you. 

Monday, 5 October 2020

When 'polemical' becomes synonymous with 'tendentious and somewhat shoddy'

I am a bit late in joining the discussion, but having finally read Catherine Nixey's The Darkening Age. The Christian Destruction of the Classical World (2017) and a significant number of its reviews,  I feel compelled to add my comments. Nixey's book is definitely engaging though a tad controversial.  It continues to sell steadily, having now been translated into five languages - you'd hardly believe its subject matter would be so popular, but there you are!

I got hold of the book after a good friend of mine,  greatly interested in this historical period,  having read it in its Italian translation, mentioned it in conversation. I am not a historian by training - I am an art historian - nor do I have in-depth knowledge of this period of history but if you mention to me an interesting book, I am game, I will read it. Moreover, Nixey discusses,  among others,  Hypatia of Alexandria, the famous philosopher and mathematician of antiquity whose fictionalised story found its way into a movie, Agora (2009),with the wonderful Rachel Weisz in the title role. As an aside, I will add that about four years ago I modelled for a painting of Hypatia. It was the artist who gave me the DVD of the movie, so that I could devise some appropriate poses for the portrait. Unfortunately, that painting was never completed, so I missed my chance of being immortalised as Hypatia.

Catherine Nixey is a journalist, not an academic, though she read classics at Cambridge University and taught in schools for a while. Her book, her first, is a polemic essay, a point that must be borne in mind when reading it and when wading through its many reviews. Nixey argues that Christianity is largely responsible for  the crumbling of the classical world and its culture.  Early Christians showed a high degree of stubborn stupidity and total inability to appreciate philosophical arguments; they destroyed and destroyed. The parallels with Islamic fundamentalists of ISIS, responsible for the destruction of Palmyra, in Syria,  are obvious. The book actually begins with a very evocative description of Palmyra being torn down by fanatic Christians, just like it was in 2015 by fanatic IS militants. 

The style of narration is idiosyncratic. Nixey is relentless in her condemnation, she hammers her point home with constant repetition and after a while, it gets rather tedious. You begin to wonder why the argument has not been nuanced, why it has to be drilled into the reader that Christianity was highly pernicious and that the tales of Christian martyrdom were largely fabricated by overzealous bishops.  

Then as Choam Goldberg notes in his Italian blog, one spots a couple of factual errors, particularly with regard to the library of Alexandria and you, the reader, begin to wonder whether there is further flippancy in Nixey's treatment of historical data. In other words, you begin to doubt. And when the death of Hypatia is described, in a rather cinematic way, you get the sense of a non-fiction work that is actually a fictionalised account, a written equivalent, but way less sensitive, of Agora. 

Rachel Weisz in Agora

There is a dearth of good popular books on history and yet there is, on the part of readers,  a desire to engage with the historical past, so books such as The Darkening Age easily fill a gap. But even though such books are not meant as academic studies, the responsibility of being thorough and unbiased in the way historical data is researched and treated weighs heavily on the writer's shoulders. 

I felt somewhat dissatisfied when I reached the end of the book and I began my own research. I found reviews written by several scholars and one in particular by Dame Avril Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Late Antiquity and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford, who points out that Nixey is rehashing the views of  18th century English historian Edward Gibbon. Gibbon's historical interpretation of the 'fall' of the classical world gave rise to the very objectionable notion of 'Dark Ages'  a period, says Dame Avril,  "when the glories of classical civilisation were supposedly obliterated for centuries until the Renaissance and the Enlightenment made possible the triumph of Western European liberalism and secularism". Dame Avril had hoped this notion of dark ages had finally been rejected, thanks to the work of dedicated scholars. But no, the idea is back with a vengeance, apparently, wholly embraced by the likes of Nixey.  

Hypatia 's death from Agora

Katherine Kelaidis, a resident scholar at the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago, and a historian, provides an insightful corrective: " while Nixey is quick to cite the anti-classical sentiment of early Latin fathers, particularly Saint Augustine (who famously never mastered Greek) and Saint Jerome, she is strangely silent on the great Eastern patristic writing on the the subject of pagan education... It is a telling omission and speaks to a wider shortcoming of The Darkening Age. In a completely worthwhile attempt to expand the conversation and correct the record surrounding early Christian engagements with pagan learning and culture, Nixey falls into the same reductive trap that has shaped Christian understandings of the period."

My sentiments exactly. I applaud Nixey's attempt to throw light on a period of history that is not often discussed and which remains shrouded in mystery in the popular imagination but I cannot help reiterating that one has to take care in verifying the information gathered, undertake multiple cross-checks and make sure the sources used are credible and reliable.  Also, a less pugnacious approach would help to make the book more pleasant to read. As it is, it sounds so much like an invective against people and events that are long, long gone. Historical writing and historical research cannot be conveyed in a tone of recrimination, it defeats its purpose.  

(Should you wish to read  reviews of this book I would suggest you look up the following:

The Guardian  (a quick roundup)

Graphomania (for Italian speakers)

Great Antiquity (with links to published reviews)

Discourses on Minerva

Γεγραμμένα (in English, despite the title)

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Twisted roots, attachment and monsters

Image from Wikimedia

I have a phobia of contorted tree roots,  I really fear them. I cannot look at them, when I encounter them in real life or in two-dimensional images, a physical sensation of aversion grips me and makes me feel like running away or, at the very least, shut my eyes.

 (Choosing the visuals for this post has involved confronting this fear and I think I have managed, in  the space of one afternoon, to allay it, just about). 

At the same time, I am deeply fascinated by them, it is the appeal of monstrous beauty, as discussed by Umberto Eco in his Bellezza, storia di un'idea dell'occidente, 2004 (translated into English as 'On Beauty. A history of a western idea'). I remember my visit to Angkor and the Bayon in Cambodia, back in 1998, and the effect that Ta Prohm (also known as the 'Tomb-Raider ' temple, because it features in the movie) had on me, with its crumbling walls strangled by overgrown century-old fig, banyan and kapok trees. Strangely, I was not repelled but watched mesmerised, caught up in the eeriness of the place, the strange trees mingling with temple towers and façades. I even fantasised about living in a place like that, picturing myself as a modern-day dryad. 

Photo by Emiel

I have often read that growing wisteria indoors might lead to it swallowing up your walls in a similar manner. I vaguely remember that this was happening to my childhood home where at some point my father quickly got rid of the invasive wisteria on the large, front balcony of our house as it had shown signs of threading itself into the wall cracks, thus dislodging the masonry. I am currently growing wisteria on my modest balcony and am secretly hoping it will spread exuberantly and who knows, perhaps, slip through the wrong side of the balcony door? (I am JUST kidding).

'Roots'  have such a significance in our psychological makeup and our sense of identity, it is likely that seeing twisted roots evokes fear in me because the image reflects a complex, disordered, turbulent inner landscape. A recurrent nightmare of mine is me having to walk through twisted tree roots that keep on changing shape. I wake up in the middle of the night stifling an Edvard Munch-style scream. It is not pleasant. I have such a dream when I am particularly anxious and insecure, I feel suffocated. (When I was training as a psychotherapist and had to undergo an obligatory period of therapy myself, it was suggested that this might have been because as a young child I could have been locked up in a cupboard. I have no recollection of such an event, but I cannot rule out it happened).   

Edvard Munch 'The Scream'

I connect roots to attachment, the theory formulated by Bowlby in the 1950s, and further expanded upon by Lorenz, Harlow and Neufeld. The latter talks of the six roots of attachment which need to be cultivated in a baby, as the emotional attachment between babies and their main caregiver constitutes a blueprint for interactive relationships in their adult life, wholly dependent on non-verbal bonding. Insecure attachment, write  Segal and Jaffe, can variedly affect our adult relationships "The powerful, life-altering lessons we learn from our attachment bond—our first love relationship—continue to teach us as adults. The gut-level knowledge we gained then guides us in improving our adult relationships and making them secure."

There is a lot you can read up on the topic of attachment, from light-hearted articles to more serious essays. I mentioned it in passing; it was not the main point of this post.

Hieronymus Bosch 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'

What matters to me - and I think I am getting there -  is conquering my aversion to twisted roots and learning to see them as beautiful, because the divide between ugliness and beauty is permeable - think of the Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, where the creatures of Hell are even more beautiful in their complex, monstrous forms than the angelic beings of Paradise.     

Sunday, 20 September 2020

'Laocoön is the name of the figure'

Like millions of people around the world and across centuries I have always been awed by the Laocoön and his sons marble in the Vatican, attributed to Agesander, Athenodorus and Polydorus of ancient Rhodes. The agony of the two young sons attacked  by the serpent demons is palpable and Laocoön vain attempts to fight the serpents off only magnify his suffering. 

The myth is well known, recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid: Athena conjured up the serpents when Laocoön tried to persuade fellow Trojans to burn the horse left by the Greeks on the seashore. The Trojan priest utters his famous lines: "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" (I fear the Greeks even when they bring presents), a warning not to trust those who are notoriously untrustworthy (such as Odysseus, the most treacherous among the Greeks). In other versions, the serpents are sent off by Poseidon, whom Laocoön had deeply offended. 

Bust of Athena, copy of a bronze by Kresilas

 The myth can also be given a metaphorical meaning. The serpent demons are our own demons coming out and suffocating us. To me, the Laocoön has often been a signifier of my own inner landscape and the sense of choking always felt very real, just as it is so masterly depicted by the Rhodian sculptors.

The Trojan horse. Movieclip from Troy

Recently, I came across a beautiful reprise of the myth in a poem by the American  Marge Piercy , also known as a feminist novelist, as part of the collection Stone, Paper, Knife (1983) which is about the loss of an old love and the beginning of a new one, partly autobiographical (or at least drawing on the intensity of her experiences), articulating the emotional spectrum of a failed relationship in an original poetic voice, rich in imagery. 

The poem, first published in 1981 runs thus:

"That sweet sinewy green nymph /eddying in curves through the grasses: /she must stop and stare at him. Of all the savage secret creatures/ he imagines stealthy in the quivering night/, she must be made to approach, /she must be tamed to love him./ The power of his wanting will turn/ her from hostile dark wandering/ other beyond the circle of his/ campfire into his own, his flesh,/ his other wanting half. To keep her/ she must be filled with his baby/, weighted down./ 

Then suddenly /the horror of it: he awakens, /wrapped in the coils of the mother,/ the great old serpent hag, /the hungry ravening witch/ who gives birth and demands, and the lesser/ mouths of the grinning children /gobbling his substance. He/ must cut free. 

An epic battle /in courts and beds and offices, in barrooms and before the bar /and then free at last, he wanders. There on the grassy hill, how the body moves,/ her, the real one, /green/ as a Mayfly she hovers and he pounces." 

It is a  powerful reworking of Laocoön  as a  metaphor of the feminine and of the relationship between the sexes. 

"I think I pretty much exhaust much of my impulse toward autobiography in my poetry" says Piercy. And , as a piece of advice to would-be poets, she adds "Hold on to your politics and your identity. Don’t take critics seriously. They are always building their aesthetic on what has been done, not on what you want to do".

Even more to the point is what she writes in an article for the Poetry Society of America:
"Sometimes when students call me up or send me emails that ask, what does this poem mean? I despair. I say it means what it says, what it says in words, in sounds, in rhythms, in silences, in images. That's what it means".

This is precisely why a poem such as 'Laocoön is the name of the figure' immediately works. I read it, enjoy its  musicality and am able to superimpose the anguished image of the Vatican Laocoön onto Piercy's words. And I weep, as it resonates and touches me, the reader, to the core.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The myth of Marilyn's size

I had a conversation this morning with R***, an old flame whom I did not realise I had deeply offended (well, conversation via text,  all of us don't seem to use the phone much these days, except my sister and I, who are constantly calling each other).
I have known this guy for so long, since the early 1990s, and have had epic fights with him, some of which have crept up in past blog posts, with me duly changing details (I am mindful of other people's privacy and right not to be recognised).
I take it for granted I can say to him anything that crosses my mind, especially now that we have long gone our separate ways.  To me, he is a friend. But obviously, I must have overdone it,  because for months he gave me the silent treatment and finally responded only today to a birthday wish message saying he had forgiven me after 382 days, which totally miffed me.
I asked for details - what did I do? -  and got no reply, so I sent him a quote from the one and only Marilyn, the one in which she said " I am selfish etc etc. but if you can't handle me at my worst, you do not deserve me at my best".   I am very fond of this quote and I occasionally send it to people, in fact, I sent it to someone else too, also recently -  and if YOU are reading this, do not be so vain, as Carly Simon allegedly sang of Warren Beatty, this post is not about you at all!

Anyway, the Marilyn quote elicited a response and we got involved in the silliest possible argument about her death, which my friend maintains was a murder, and I tend to believe was a suicide, as the official version goes, the desperate act of a troubled woman who took too many barbiturates. In those days doctors would prescribe them like sugar candies to everyone and anyway, a movie star of that calibre would not have trouble in getting them.  Said friend and I could not agree on this, so we ended the conversation (and hopefully I will not be given the silent treatment for another 382 days. I think this explains why we never managed to be together for longer than a few months, infatuation notwithstanding).
As a result, Marilyn was very much on my mind for the rest of the afternoon, so much so that I began to read about her.  Her impact on contemporary popular culture has been phenomenal and my take is that dying when she did and the way she did, magnified her and really turned her into the legend that she is. Much has been written about her, her struggle with depression, her sense of being unloved, her love affairs, her failed marriages, her discontent, her desire to be taken seriously. A recent biography by Charles Casillo puts her in context,  highlighting that she suffered from bipolar disorder, which was unknown as a condition at the time and the miscommunications that led to her tragic death. 
But I also came across a range of articles that discuss her size. These are most bizarre. It was comedian Rosanne Barr who began saying that Marilyn was a size 16 (today's size 16!) . You should not trust a comedian to tell it like it is!  Somehow it has stuck and it did not help that Liz Hurley said she'd rather kill herself if she had been as fat as Marilyn.  Liz Hurley never struck me as capable of saying anything remotely engaging, therefore I will not comment on her pronouncement.  But this idea that Marilyn was big is ludicrous. She was slim and well proportioned. Today's sizes are not those of the 1950s and today's bodies are definitely different. Marilyn had a 22-inch waist, without a girdle, which is incredibly small by today's standard (I am a  size 8 and my waist is 26 inches).  She had the perfect hourglass figure, with 35-inch hips and 35 bust. She had a bosom, definitely, it seems she had a 36 D cup. But she was not a size 16! She was also 5'5.5 in height, which is on the small/medium side by today's standards but was above average in the 1950s.

There are thousands of pictures of Marilyn, some of her naked and one can see she was not at all big.
I wonder why people have started this rumour. My take is that in an attempt to establish being large as normal and counter negative body image and weight-based discrimination, it may have been helpful to reclaim an icon of Marilyn's renown to breathe greater confidence in women (and men) who are trying to overcome the stigma of being chubby and corpulent.
At the end of the day, Marilyn was Marilyn. Immortalised in fashion, in art, in music she will always be as paradigmatic as Helen of Troy was in antiquity. Her size pales into insignificance, what stays is the image of this beautiful and troubled woman, whose wit and intelligence were never sufficiently recognised. It begs the question: would you want to be Marilyn Monroe?

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt

Saturday, 5 September 2020

The mysterious death of Adrienne Lecouvreur

Photo: Royal Opera House.

Today, while looking for something else, I chanced upon the copy of an old programme of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, which I saw in Paris in 2015 at the Opéra National (Opéra Bastille). It was a great performance by the soprano Angela Gheorgiu and I was delighted to have the opportunity to go, as a guest, to the opening night of this international co-production, involving the Royal Opera House, Opéra Bastille,  Gran Teatre Del Liceu and  Wiener Staatsoper.
I mentioned my personal encounter with the music of Adriana  Lecouvreur in a post I wrote at the time but I did not tell the whole story, I simply talked about the DVD which I bought when I returned. How did I end up in Paris on the opening night?
As I recall, I was engaged in some major spring-cleaning and decluttering, in preparation for my going away to  Indonesia a couple of months later, to research my book. I had decided to rent out my place while I was away.  I could not get a tenant without doing that thorough massive cleaning and I had to do it myself rather than hire someone to do it for me.  I have books everywhere and cannot bear other people touching them without due respect - my books are my best friends, I am dead serious when I say so.
While engaged in this less than glamorous activity,  I suddenly got a text message from my then ballet teacher - I used to go to Pineapple Studios for ballet classes, I had only just started sleeking and had not switched to it completely.  He was in Paris at the time to work on the choreography of the opera, which he had once danced himself. I had seen some images of him in Paris with the artistic team and liked them, the way people do on social media. I even said I loved opera (mildly, I should add)  - people say all sorts of things when commenting on social media, they like, love etc sometimes in a very overstated way.
Anyway, in that text, my ballet tutor said he had spare tickets for the opening night and since I liked opera,  would I consider travelling to Paris to attend? It seemed a waste not to use them, as the seats were right at the front.  It was a no brainer,  I said yes, thinking of the wonderful seats which I would not normally be able to afford, and me being me, I immediately started listening to the music on YouTube,while carrying on with my springcleaning,  just to get more familiar with the opera, which I had never seen and of which I knew so little.
I have friends in Paris, which helps, as I could crash out at theirs. I went for the day and spent the morning at Père Lachaise, where I felt the need to pay tribute to the divine Maria Callas, whose ashes are preserved there. Then in the evening, I made my way to the theatre. The seats were as good as could be, I was close to the stage and was able to enjoy the wonderful music and watch the action unfold - and loved the dancing!
At the end of the performance, I lingered on to meet a few people and had a glass of champagne, to celebrate the evening and then went back to my friends' as I would be leaving by Eurostar the following day.

Opéra Bastille
 The details of my personal encounter with the opera (thank you again, Adam, for your gift) now out of the way, let's talk a bit about Adriana Lecouvreur as this is a rather unusual story to set to music, inspired by a real-life person. Adriana (Adrienne) was a French actress of the Comédie Française who lived in the 17th/18th  century. Adored by the audience, praised by Voltaire, who fell in love with her,  and by Diderot, Adrienne had, apparently,  a stormy affair with Count Maurice of Saxony and a tug of war with the Princess de Bouillon for the Count's affection.  She was poisoned by the Princess, so the story goes,  and died very young,  but the murder was never proven and she may have just died of exhaustion.
Francesco Cilea, originally from Palmi, Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy, set his opera to the libretto by Scribe and Legouvé, highlighting the mingling of tragedy and comedy,  the varied action and the passionate love of the protagonist for the Count.  Cilea's work is usually regarded as part of the 'verismo' opera but it has great sophistication and powerful élan. The music is very nuanced, pleasing, and soulful,  duly dramatic in all the right places.
Actresses of the Comédie had an official role to play within an organisation of international renown. They were powerful women, influential public figures, equal to men (and unusually so, in those misogynistic times) whose lives were constantly scrutinised - the most terrible accusation levelled at actresses was that of a loss of virtue, and their moral position constantly oscillated in people's opinion. Their task was to bring the theatre to the people and they were mandated to do so by the King. They did not adhere to the stereotypical views of the time of constrained femininity and they were active participants in public culture. As women, they had unusual agency.

The opera by Cilea is well-loved and it has been performed by great tenors and sopranos, internationally. The romantic twist makes it a favourite of audiences worldwide. It also has a soliloquy by Adriana which is powerfully delivered.
I particularly love the final scene: Adriana forgives her lover for his affair with the Princess, declines to marry him because she is wedded to the theatre and then dies in his arms.
Writing in 1957, Roland Barthes talked of 'la combustion de l'acteur', the actor's combustion, which Adrienne so aptly symbolises: "the actor gives himself over to the demon of the theatre, he sacrifices himself, allows himself to be eaten up from inside by his role".
I prefer seeing Adrienne in this light rather than going along with the story of romantic intrigue: to me, Adrienne is the actor who metaphorically dies for the art.

"Sans aucuns soins, sans étude, sans fard,
des passions vous fûtes l'interprete.
O de l'amour adorable sujette,
n'oubliez  pas le secret de votre art"