Sunday, 19 August 2018

Barzaga - Windows for Closed Doors

Some time ago a friend of the author related the story of how she had chanced upon a notable garage artist in Florida. Strolling the streets and frequenting yard sales, she spotted an oil painting that was to her taste. She found it to be unusually powerful and accomplished – far better than the type of amateur paintings one usually finds amongst the knick-knacks and detritus of backyard jumble sales. This was much more than a crude and derivative landscape made in an Adult Education course. Making further inquiries, she found that the painting had indeed been done by a local artist, the Cuban-American Yeilem Barzaga Garcia Zuniga, who – quite authentically – painted in the family home’s garage, an unknown, untrained ‘hobby’ painter, painting for ‘fun’ and only selling work here and there for a few dollars.

Yet it was immediately apparent that this painter was particularly talented and may not be aware of it herself. It so happens, of course, that very talented people may labour away quietly in their homes unnoticed and unappreciated for decades or more, before they are ‘discovered’ and their talent recognized. This is not usually a theme pursued in these pages, but in this case the work in question is so arresting and the artist so thoroughly unknown that it is worth making an exception. In addition, Barzaga's work is in a modernist vein not usually explored here, but again there is every reason to make an exception. The paintings of Yeilem Barzaga Garcia Zuniga are outstanding. There is a dynamism and emotional clarity that is rare. It gives the present author great pleasure to be able to feature them here...

Letting the paintings speak for themselves, the point of interest here is the artist's compelling sense of vocation: it shows in the work but is reaffirmed in conversation with the artist. She relates that painting is like 'breathing' to her. It is inconceivable that she not paint. She feels an inner compulsion that in itself is difficult to define and describe. The impulse, in any case, is to paint, not explain. Worthy art always stands without explanation. Barzaga does not need to explain her motivation or the degree to which she is driven by it. The paintings themselves speak of it, and so too do the photographs of her studio and the evidence of just how prolific she is. Some garage painters are just dabblers - the present author among them - but some are appointed artists who have no choice but to paint: it is their mode, the thing in which they find meaning. It is this sense of vocation - an inner and existential sense - that is most notable, and it is so because it is so completely at odds with the great economic mechanisms of modernity. Vocation, let us recall, is exactly what had to be broken before modern industrial capitalism could become fully established. Workers must be reduced to mutable 'units' that might be moved from task to task as production required. The idea that a person is born to a particular task, that they have a calling to it, is anathema in the modern workplace and (excuse the expression) "job market". 

This is finally the great divide between modernity and tradition. A traditional order is essentially vocational. The great moving force in such a society is what we might call 'karma yoga' - salvation through work. It was fully understood that a man might be justified to God and Heaven just by being a blacksmith or a scribe or a doctor or a soldier. Work was thus a spiritual path. Vocation is the very cornerstone of Plato's Republic. There is a type of work to which we are born, and in which we find deep fulfillment. All of this understanding had to be deconstructed because it is essentially at odds with the industrial mode of production. It survives in our surnames - "Mister Smith", "Mr Cooper" - but otherwise it has been displaced such that people work dreary and pointless jobs and pursue their 'vocation', their real work, after hours in the garage. Our true work has been turned into a mere 'hobby'. The present author once met an elderly gentleman who wove the most exquisite weavings - superb. 'How long have you been weaving?" he was asked. He said five years. Then he related that he had always wanted to weave, ever since he was young, but he had driven buses all his working life. Only when he retired did he have the leisure to apply himself to his true work. This is the great cruelty of the industrial order and its greatest failing. On this point alone it is to be condemned as an abomination. It is only in the abundance of late industrialism that some people - a few - find "careers" for which they have real "aptitude" (although, even then, this is never deep enough to constitute a spiritual path in itself.) For every thousand young men who only feel life is a-right when they are playing guitar, only one or two will get to make a living doing it. The industrial order is essentially inhuman.

But there is art. This is why much of modern art takes the form it does. It is in the face of an inhuman industrial order that one is force, along with Oscar Wilde, to say "All art is utterly useless!" Only thus can the artist slip free of the industrial paradigm. Art, at least, remains a sphere in which it is possible to express a true vocation. We still find painters who are driven to paint, just as, once, blacksmiths were driven to hammer and forge. Distinctions between art and craft are irrelevant here. The issue is the inner urge to create through skill. It is the demiurgic urge, properly considered (while in the industrial order we see the diabolic Demiurge, the demon of mad replication.) Among artists we find people who are painters by vocation - long after oil painting had any meaningful place in the culture and large, and long, long after there was money to be made in it. The artist-by-vocation will paint anyway. It is their very oxygen. It is an intriguing psychology, in any case. The classical account of it is found in Plato, with the "idiot" Socrates practising his peculiar calling among the craftsmen of Athens. More commonly today, sensitive souls take shelter in their vocation and find a quiet corner of the world - say, a garage converted into a studio - where they can spend their spare hours. This is the age of the amateur, taking that word in its proper sense - an amateur = one who does what they do out of love (amor), one who loves, one who works for love. 

Entitled 'Loneliness Companion' this seems an especially significant work in a series called 'Windows for Closed Doors': this closed door and its three primary colours. 

On her webpages Barazaga offers almost as many photographs of her studio working space as she does completed paintings. In many respects, these in situ photographs are artistic statements in themselves. In many respects, they are as interesting as - or even more interesting than - the finished paintings, as images. We can see the world of the artist: its vivid colours and its mysterious (ancient) faces. This is the world into which the artist disappears every chance she has. This is where she breathes. She has entitled a collection of her paintings "Windows for Closed Doors" signalling the intention to provide a purview into a private and inner world. But there is no element of voyeurism in this. These paintings are not part of the modern world's obsessive need to expose all mysteries to the light of day. The paintings are indeed mysterious. The mysteries are revealed and then left to be mysterious, not dispelled. In the best cases, the vehicle of mystery is colour. It would be wrong to say the colours are 'bold'. They are not trying to be. These are (usually) strong figures, but not 'bold'. The colour illuminates a necessarily inner world, and often makes no reference at all to external conventions.

Interestingly, though, many of the photographs she offers of her studio have been rendered into monochrome, stripped of colour. Colour is the soul of her paintings, yet the artist wants us to see her studio in black and white. Amongst other things this has the effect of making the space seem more industrial, much more a place of labour. 

Yours, Harper McAlpine Black

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Mary Fairburn and the Visual Tolkien

By a strange turn of events the present writer finds himself ideally situated to complete a half-written and long-intended post to these pages on the matter of making visual depictions of the hobbit tales of J.R.R. Tolkien. The impetus for the post first arose out of a sense of overwhelming disgust at the appalling misrepresentations offered by that feeble film-maker Peter Jackson. The wide popularity of the movies speaks for itself: it was only a matter of time before Hollywood debased Tolkien into a form the post-literate plebian masses could digest. The Tolkien epics are approachable and modern in themselves, but they are replete with values and sensibilities now long gone from popular culture. They already belong to a former age. Jackson remedied this and dumbed them down for twenty-first century audiences. 

This is not the place, though, for a full critique of Jackson's degeneracy. Suffice to say that he stripped the epics of any real sense of history, epic grandeur and mystical philology (which is the very fabric of the books), he took absurd and artless liberties with the motivations of the characters and the flow of the narrative, he filled the overblown cinema extravaganza with crude egotistic 'Oscar' baiting moments, and most obvious of all he depicted the hobbit hero Frodo as a dreary, snivelling sook. Indeed, it was as if there were only two settings in the movies: (1) Frodo and Sam are blubbering together and (2) Sam blubbers while Frodo is dying. Oh dear. This cheap melodrama went on and on and on. One critic caught the tone of such sentimentality with the astute observation: Jackson, he said, had turned Frodo and Sam into the guys from Brokeback Mountain. Indeed. 

Frodo, grizzling yet again. The director clearly does not understand that copious displays of sooking is no substitute for the proper mythopoeic depiction of a conflicted heroic character. 

And, as a disgruntled movie-goer asked: Has the entire Elven race suffered from a bout of mumps? And what about the immortal dialogue: "Looks like meat is back on the menu, boys!"  Then there were the truly abysmal, cliched, ill-crafted slow-motion scenes - dozens of them. Pure Hollywood cheese. And this is to say nothing of the use of pseudo-folk music by Enya - yes, Enya! - whilst entirely ignoring the great musical treasury of song Tolkien himself had written. The movies were simply dreadful. There can be no doubt whatsoever that poor Professor Tolkien is turning in his grave.

To put this billion dollar travesty into context though, we must admit that, more generally, visual depictions of the Tolkien ouevre have a most ignoble history. There have been some very bad attempts to render these literary masterpieces into visual media. Tolkien himself resisted any such enterprise, and with good reason. He understood the very nature of 'fairy tale' and accordingly had a deep mistrust of the visual image. This is revealed in a famous (but overlooked) lecture in 1939:

In human art fantasy is best left to words, to true literature. In painting, for instance, the visual presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it... 

We might take this as a general criticism of the entire genre of fantasy art. He also applied it to the question of illustration. He said very plainly:

However good in themselves, illustrations do little good to fairy-stories... 

Why? He gave the following reason:

The radical distinction between all art (including drama) that offers a visible presentation and true literature is that it imposes one visible form. Literature works from mind to mind and is thus more progenitive. It is at once more universal and more poignantly particular. 

And further, a point of which a second-rate Oscar-baiting hack like Peter Jackson has no comprehension:

Drama is naturally hostile to fantasy. ... Fantastic forms are not to be counterfeited. 

Moreover, Tolkien made no exception for his own work, and was emphatic about the question of  whether or not his own tales required visual supports and illustrations. In a letter to his publishers in 1967 he wrote:

I myself am not at all anxious for The Lord of the Rings to be illustrated by anybody whether a genius or not.

We can be sure, therefore, that he would have been horrified by the movies and their imposition of "one visual form." Who now can read The Fellowship of the Ring without Jackson's snivelling tear-jerking depiction of Frodo Baggins intruding upon the mind's eye? Once you have seen the movies there is a very real sense in which the books are ruined. To a lesser degree all illustrations present the same danger. It is a danger writers understand very well, artists understand hardly at all, and film-makers to no degree whatsoever.

* * * 

The publishing history of the Tolkien hobbit works is littered with travesties, despite Professor Tolkien's best efforts to prevent it. We are reminded that writers are often at the mercy of half-witted publishers and their stable of talentless drawers. Suffice to consider a few examples of the cover art that has blighted The Hobbit over the years: 

We could extend this gallery of bad covers much further, but this is enough for readers to see the dimensions of the problem. On some occasions publishers even went to great expense and employed renowned artists to supply cover art and some illustrations of the text, but very rarely with happy results. The letters of Professor Tolkien himself provide a record of his disdain for such efforts. The fantasy genre is, of course, a prosperous one in modern art and the works of Tolkien offer a compelling enticement for fantasy artists. Tolkien was inundated with letters from artists of various ilk hoping to provide illustrations for his texts. He was underwhelmed even by the best of them. Instead, he sometimes produced illustrations of his own, and wise publishers have appreciated their merits. Indeed, as we can see below, J.R.R. Tolkien was - quite apart from a great writer - a considerable artist in his own right, with a beautiful hand and a sure sense of line. In particular, his great sensitivity to language extended to a sensitivity for the calligraphic arts, and this has been featured somewhat in the more tasteful editions of his works. To this day the best editions of Tolkien feature his own drawings and experiments in runic scripts. 

Here are two little-known samples of Tolkien's visual skills that underline his great ability: 

A design Tolkien doodled on the back of an agenda notice 
for a staff meeting at Merton College Oxford, 1957. 
It features Elvish script.

A Japanese bamboo design by Tolkien showing 
his great facility with ink pen drawing. 

The few illustrations he made of scenes and places in the Middle Earth world are better known and have been published in calendars, posters and other forms, including book covers and feature pages in various editions of the hobbit tale books. There is no need to present them all here. A few will suffice to once again demonstrate his skill. His pictures have sometimes met with detractors amongst more formal artists who criticise them in various terms as "unpolished" or "untrained" or "a bit rough" or the like. These are the voices of those who have been clambering to have their own work illustrating his books - a very lucrative commission it would be. The present writer is firm in his view that, in fact, Tolkien's somewhat quaint drawings, pencil designs and watercolours capture the spirit of the text exactly. 

* * *


There was only one artist who almost persuaded Tolkien to provide illustrations for his books. As it happens, the present writer was recently enjoying her hospitality whilst residing temporarily in her house in Castlemaine, Victoria. She is an English-born Australian artist named Mary Fairburn, now a spritely eighty-five years old. She sent some of her drawings to Professor Tolkien in 1967.  Ordinarily, when he received such submissions he was polite but dismissive.  In the case of Mary Fairburn's work he was unusually enthusiastic. His letters to her have survived. Here is the first of them, typewritten:

As readers will note, he describes her work as "splendid" and says "They are better pictures in themselves and also show far more attention to the text than any that have yet been submitted to me.” More importantly, her pictures, he says, were of such force that they might persuade him to change his views regarding an illustrated edition of his books. After seeing your specimens," he says, "I am beginning to... think that an illustrated edition might be a good thing.” He draws her attention to his lecture on fairy tales (mentioned above) but, significantly, suggests that he might make an exception in her case. 

This, however, did not come to pass. Professor Tolkien died and events at his publishers, Allen & Unwin, were ill-fated for Miss Fairburn. Subsequently, her work has never adorned any editions of the book, though some of her pictures have found their way into Tolkien calendars, such as the following:

And here below are a few of the illustrations that Professor Tolkien thought so worthy:

Mary Fairburn's sketch of Minas Tirith

Readers will surely note a certain common spirit between her illustrations and Professor Tolkien's own drawings. Clearly, Miss Fairburn was able to enter into the author's imagination and capture its essence. Tolkien's enthusiasm was not misplaced. Over the years some have suggested that Tolkien was merely being polite and compassionate to the young artist - at the time Miss Fairburn was homeless and penniless and in some of his letters Tolkien expresses sympathy for her plight - but the quality of the Fairburn illustrations speaks against this. Tolkien's judgment was correct. Had she been given the chance, Mary Fairburn - more than any other artist then or since - would have been able to provide appropriate and apposite visual collaboration to the Tolkien texts. 

Here is a copy of a further extant letter in Tolkien's unmistakable hand:

Outside of these letters it is now difficult to establish exactly what transpired in this case, and why Miss Fairburn met such firm rejection by Tolkien's publishers after his death. And worst, some of the illustrations Tolkien saw are now lost. The hapless Miss Fairburn set out on twenty or more years of wanderings, eventually settling in southern Australia, and was never able to keep a proper account of the work she left behind as she traveled. These days her encounters with Professor Tolkien are only a dim memory, and most of the surviving works that she made for him are in the hands of others on the far side of the world. Her career and her life would no doubt have been markedly different if matters had turned out otherwise, and so too would have been the history of visual representations of the Tolkien classics. One can only wish that the two of them - Tolkien and Fairburn - had found the opportunity for a full and fruitful collaboration. 

Yours, Harper McAlpine Black