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Scratch "Faith" on Nameless Graves

I was discussing early influences with asakiyume the other day, and it led to a series of thinky thoughts. See, my father was not a spiritual man. One of the few hard materialists I've ever met. But he believed in the "spirit of places" and the nouminousness that people endow on objects, whether physical or abstract.

Towards the end of his life, he became obsessed with a particular kind of painting. Not a technique; that he hardly changed in all his years of painting, although he became more interested in simplistic planes of colour the longer it wore on. But it wasn't a generic subject either. It's the sort of painting you get when you are trying to capture a person's soul instead of their form. And, of course, the eyes are the windows of the soul. Sumerians knew this instinctively:

And you can see why early and middle biblical history has so much material about the banning of idols. It's hard to compete with a god that you can see can see you, instead of a god that you know can see you. I mean, how do you know that you know? Very poor evidence. Nobody gets the burning bush treatment. Except for madmen and liars. The visions of madmen are only worth something to them, and the visions of liars are worth fifty dollars or more.

I remember showing him an LP album cover when I was in my teens that I thought was pretty cool. It was of archetypes. People a little older than me might have even bought it when it came out. I put it on the chest in the living room and we looked at it for an afternoon. I didn't realize he absorbed any of this idea until he started painting faces of his own and putting them in the same location. Most of his artwork went there for consideration while he worked on it. Sometimes he'd stare at his paintings for weeks before moving on to a new project. The album cover was, of course, King Crimson's "In the Wake of Poseidon".

Clicky on the widget for the eponymous track which has a lovely poem as its libretto.

Plato's spawn cold ivyed eyes
Snare truth in bone and globe.
Harlequins coin pointless games
Sneer jokes in parrot's robe.
Two women weep, dame scarlet screen
Sheds sudden theatre rain,
Whilst dark in dream the midnight queen
Knows every human pain.

In air, fire, earth and water
World on the scales.
Air, fire, earth and water
Balance of change
World on the scales
On the scales.

Bishop's kings spin judgement's blade
Scratch "faith" on nameless graves.
Harvest hags hoard ash and sand
Rack rope and chain for slaves
Who fireside fear fermented words
Then rear to spoil the feast;
Whilst in the aisle the mad man smiles
To him it matters least.

Heroes hands drain stones for blood
To whet the scaling knife.
Magi blind with visions light
Net death in dread of life.
Their children kneel in Jesus till
They learn the price of nails;
Whilst all around our mother earth
Waits balanced on the scales.

So, being of the byzantine persuasion, he drew on christian iconography to create this kind of work.

What he came up with I think is his best work. It has all the crudity and intense colour of Byzantine iconography. I keep them in the stairwell of my house, since they are life size. These are of St. George and the Archangel Michael. Note the "holy red socks" and the childish scrawl above (just like an Attic pot from BC). But also notice the intense colour, designed to shine through in a dim church and under layers of incense-soot:

But what might be interesting is that because he was so steeped in the culture of the Mediterranean, his real inspiration for these paintings was the Fayoum portraits. These portraits, being caught between paganism and christianity, tried to preserve for judgement day rather than the afterlife, the visage of the dearly departed. It's a poignant moment in human history captured in time, and thanks to the aridity of the Sahara, preserved to this day. There are hundreds of them, all capturing a little bit of the soul of a person, looking out of the portrait with all the human traits of pride, and worry, and lust, and hope. Beautiful stuff. But notice, if you click on the Google link in this paragraph, it takes you not just to the prints, but to modern painting capturing the same feeling, that same desire to capture a soul through an image. I don't think the modern ones succeed as well. Perhaps we are different these days. We wish too much to have realistic flesh and realistic proportions. We're not so interested in a realistic peek at the soul. It's all too intangible.

But sometimes it works. In a funny way. When this cover by Erik Mohr came in by email for me to put on the CZP web site, I immediately saw the reference:

It was a couple of months, though, before I went looking for the original Fayoum painting, and I couldn't find it. But then I noticed the chipping of the paint on the portrait's cheek, and went looking for that. I found it not long after. Here's where some portion of the cheek was lifted from:

But there is a modern face worked into there. A very different one than the naïve, distracted, and somewhat melancholy look on the original. And some sort of headdress that I haven't identified. Probably won't—I can't decide if it looks Czech or possibly Hmong. But the eye has a kind of life. More of a life that has seen a bit too much. A tired but defiant eye. And what kind of a soul inhabits that eye? I'm looking forward to reading the book myself. Perhaps Mohr is capturing something about a character in the book. Or not, but the image is tantilizingly familiar and yet distant by time.

And isn't that a kind of a parable for the modern era? We are a hodgepodge of the ancient and the modern, the holy and the mundane, ethereal in eternity and yet also cracked and peeling egg-tempera pictures, just like those half-pagan-half-christians in Fayoum. But how effective to block off one of the eyes? Perhaps there was a mundane artistic reason, to cover over the join between two elements in a composite artwork, but it also brings a level of mystery to the picture that captures the transition between one way of being and another. As if the soul is half-hidden to itself. Like Odin, or, for that matter, Spazakia.


( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 8th, 2012 11:54 am (UTC)
Too incoherent to comment, but I loved reading this post and looking at those ancient faces. I could spend hours at that.
Apr. 8th, 2012 01:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Incoherence is our speciality, as you may have noticed. ;) But there's definitely something hardwired-bedrock-primal in watching the eyes. From playing peekaboo to permanent family portraits.
Apr. 8th, 2012 01:30 pm (UTC)
There's so much here that I don't even know where to begin. Those beautiful bright icons are by your father?! Is he, in addition to being a classical scholar, a painter, then? Wow!

And the lyrics of that song (which I'm listening to now)--how evocative. "Scratch 'faith' on nameless graves," yes, and the hag hoarding ash and sand, and netting death in dread of life.

And your own reflections on the two faces.We are a hodgepodge of the ancient and the modern, the holy and the mundane, ethereal in eternity and yet also cracked and peeling egg tempura pictures. Yes we are.

I feel more and more that our most common metaphors and understandings of time are insufficient and in some cases just plain wrong. When you speak to someone with dementia, you see how all times are accessible and present simultaneously. I understand that a person with dementia, their brain is not functioning properly, but in that one element, I think they're perceiving a truth. It's not one that fits with the way we live life, but that doesn't make it less true.
--that statement is a bit of a non sequitur, but it's reaching toward what you're saying about the hodgepodge of present and past, eternity and time.
Apr. 8th, 2012 02:13 pm (UTC)
You're really onto something there. Dementia strips away that barrier of time. My mother suffered from Parkinson's dementia and went through several personality shifts while earlier versions of herself (I suspect, but possibly amalgams of the parts of her brain still functioning) came out. One of them happy, one angry, one anxious and frightened, ome whoop-it-up-and-singing-Kalinka, one like a little lovesick schoolgirl. All of them "her", but not necessarily the here-and-now we had come to expect.

It's one thing I think we all need to keep in mind, especially when it comes to this internet judgementalism (as I call it), where people are trashed for things said, perhaps out of context, perhaps not, but certainly without any desire to give the benefit of the doubt, as if they are the sum of their thoughts. People aren't the sum of what's in their head, and for the most part, they're not responsible for what got put there by circumstance. I think it's much more important to see what people do with their lives, not what they think from moment to moment. People should be castigated for taking another person's rights or dignity away, not for voicing something stupid they probably wouldn't agree with if they thought it through. But we focus on the spoken thought and attack leads to defence leads to entrenched ideology.

I think dementia makes us understand that the image we have in out head of ourselves is probably the least unified and least coherent part of being a human being. A bubbling pot of thoughts that seem to be one person because the body that has them has a contiguous memory and a current in-the-moment perception of being. We call this illusion "self", but I think the ancient egyptians were onto a real truth when they said people had a thought-soul and a breath-soul, and each had a different fate.
Apr. 8th, 2012 08:03 pm (UTC)
the image we have in out head of ourselves is probably the least unified and least coherent part of being a human being.

I suspect you're right. We are not what we seem, even to ourselves. There is more to us than meets our own eye, or consciousness. Or less, if you like. Or perhaps the metaphor of amount is the wrong one--we're like the blind men with the elephant, but from within the elephant.

Apr. 8th, 2012 09:01 pm (UTC)
we're like the blind men with the elephant, but from within the elephant.

Oo. I LIKE that.
Apr. 8th, 2012 09:14 pm (UTC)
I don't know - the only dementia I've seen up close was my MiL's; the only version of herself she might have been was a cranky, frightened toddler.

I think the experience I've had that more closely matches what you are describing is that of attempting to understand my great-grandfather from the remaining evidence - the pulp adventure stories he wrote, in which somewhat cliched derring-do plots contrast with beautifully-observed Canadian wilderness settings; my mother's older siblings, who recall a cold, withdrawn man who always wore tennis shoes, spent most of the day shut in his study and seldom spoke to his grandchildren except to inquire after the health of their bowels; the two letters I've seen, in which he flirts awkwardly with his then-fiancee, and describes his (busy) social life and hunting adventures; and the photos of him in youth, middle and old age, all of which show an athletic, strikingly handsome man, but one with an unreadable expression.
Apr. 8th, 2012 10:59 pm (UTC)
It's a good contrast. My mother took a couple of decades, all told, for the full effects to be known, so the gradual slipping away was much easier to gauge from the outside. But there's also the smoothing effect of memory. In actual fact, it was more traumatic in bursts, with plenty of frightened toddler thrown in.

But I think what asakiyume said makes sense vis your grandfather. Bits and pieces of a life are all we have to go with sometimes. Maybe more of a jigsaw than an elephant in pieces.

But one thing I'm certain of, when people drop their walls, we find out that there are several clouds of person at work in there, and not all of them are clearly connected. How about the violent alcoholic who is completely docile without the booze? A lot of those floating around. And a man who can't relate to his grandchildren but who has an intimate understanding of the wilderness?
Apr. 9th, 2012 08:50 am (UTC)
Some of his attitude towards them (and I'm also having to judge this with only their side of the story) may have been generational - he would have grown up in the late 19th century; I suspect he also had strained relationships with their parents, and this may have coloured his view of the grandchildren, and theirs of him.

Apr. 9th, 2012 08:57 am (UTC)
True enough. I often think we underestimate the differences of internal landscape between generations. If we could truly tour the mind of your average Victorian, I think we'd come to the conclusion that they were, for the most part, batshit-crazy with truly weird sexual notions.

It's just that the more formal/conscious/written/spoken side of human thought and interaction has been better preserved and transmitted from head-to-head across the generations. But the part that isn't discussed grows leggy and insalubrious in dim light.
Apr. 8th, 2012 08:05 pm (UTC)
Also, confirm for me that those beautiful icons are by your dad. They are by your dad?

Apr. 8th, 2012 09:02 pm (UTC)
Indeed. He actually graduated university with a degree in Fine Arts. Which meant he had everything he needed to sell insurance. Then on to the State Department. He kept painting as a hobby/sanity keeper.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )