Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Quotes: Don Fernando (1935, rev. 1950) by W. Somerset Maugham


Painters, not unnaturally, since so much nonsense has been written on the subject, have always resented writers expressing their opinions on pictures. They have insisted, often with great vehemence, that only the painter can speak of painting with authority, and that the man of letters, looking at a picture from his literary point of view, can know nothing of its specific value. His part is to admire in silence and if he has the money, buy. This seems to me a narrow way of thinking. Doubtless they are right when they claim that only painters should discuss technique, but technique is not the whole of painting. You might as well say that only a dramatist can appreciate a play. The drama also has its technique, though it is not so abstruse as some of its professors like to pretend, but it is the business only of the dramatist. To understand the technique of an art may be a diversion, it may even give the layman the feeling, agreeable to some people, of being in the know (like addressing the head-waiter of a fashionable restaurant by his first name), but it is not essential to appreciation. It may greatly interfere with it. We know that painters are often very bad judges of pictures, for their interest in technique absorbs them so that they cannot recognise merits, unconnected with it, that may give a picture value. For technique is only the method by which the artist achieves his aim. It is no more than the knowledge that has gradually attain the specific excellence of which a medium is capable. It cannot touch the heart nor excite the mind. An inadequate technique will not prevent the artist from doing this.

[...]

I have long since abjured the heresy prevalent in my youth of art for art's sake. Oscar Wilde popularised in England and Oscar Wilde learnt it from Whistler. It gave art an esoteric quality that flattered the artist and it was accepted by the cultured public with the humility that characterises them. The cultured public have always taken a masochistic pleasure in the contempt that artists have shown them and, browbeaten and intimidated, have comforted themselves with a feeling of superiority over the common herd. It was believed that the object of a work of art was to arouse the aesthetic emotion and when you had felt that you had got all it had to give you. But what is an emotion that results in nothing? To experience the aesthetic emotion is pleasurable and all pleasure is good; but it is pleasurable also to drink a glass of beer and no one has ever been able to show that, taken simply as pleasure, one surpasses the other. Attempts have been made by moralists to prove that spiritual pleasures are keener and more lasting than sensual pleasures; they carry no conviction. No pleasure endures and to please it must be taken in small doses and at not too infrequent intervals. It would be no less tedious to hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony every day than it would be to eat caviare. And until age has blunted the sensibilities the general experience is surely that the pleasures of sense are much more vivid than the pleasures of the spirit. We have all known omnivorous readers who read for the delight of it; they absorb books as the machines in Chicago absorb hogs, but no sausages come out of them at the other end; and we have all known the people who moon their days away in picture galleries in imbecile contemplation; they are no better than opium smokers, worse if anything, for the opium smoker at all events is not self-complacent. The value of emotion lies in its effects. Santa Teresa insisted on this over and over again: the ecstasy of union with the Godhead was precious only if it resulted in greater capacity for works. The aesthetic emotion, however delightful and however subtle, has worth only if it leads to action.

The work of art, whether the artist intended it or not, and for my part I think he seldom does, proffers a communication. This has nothing to do with the artist. From his standpoint it may only be a by-product of his activity: so the esculent swallows build nests to rear their young and are unaware that for their aphrodisiac qualities they will go to make soup for the enfeebled but amative Chinese. This communication is made in two voices. For the work of art is a diversion, an escape from the bitterness of life and a solace in the world's inevitable cruelty, a rest from its turmoil and a relief from labour. This is much, and if a work of art has only this communication to make it justifies itself. But great works speak with another voice too; they enrich the soul so that it is capable of a nobler and more fruitful activity. Their effects are worthy deeds. But should you ask me what these are I must confess that I should find it hard to reply. Provisionally, at all events I should be willing enough to accept the maxim of Fray Luis de Leon: "the beauty of life," he says "is nothing but this, that each should act in conformity with his nature and his business."



El Greco: The Martyrdom of St Maurice,
Monasterio de San Lorenzo, El Escorial, Spain.
The second face from the right is the presumed self-portrait 
Maugham refers to (see below).

El Greco: The Burial of Count Orgaz,
Santo Tome, Toledo, Spain.
The sixth full head from the left is the presumed self-portait 
Maugham refers to (see below).


...I do not wish to say much of El Greco's pictures. Nothing is so tedious as a description of the greens, yellows and blues that are in a picture; you cannot visualise them even with a photograph before you and the narrators enthusiasm does not matter to you a row of pins. It is enough to say that El Greco's cool, silvery colours are lovely. When the art critics begin to talk of upper triangles and lower triangles, as they do with The Burial of Count Orgaz, or of inner and outer ellipses in the San Maurizio, I sigh. Do they really think that an artist bothers his head with such things? You look at a picture as a whole, that is one of the advantages the plastic arts have over the descriptive, and it is as a whole that it must affect you. The study of its parts is merely amusement. An emotion analysed is no longer an emotion.

[...]
I have had the greatest admiration for El Greco and if now my admiration is a trifle qualified that is perhaps because I have got out of him all that I am capable of getting. For my own part I find that when a work of art has given me a powerful emotion I cannot recapture it any more than I can eat a dinner I have already eaten. In this I am very unlike a cow. One gets tired of everything. But what remains is the personality behind the work of art; that to some minds is the great interest in the artist's work; and that, so complex is man, is an interest that endures when you know his work by heart.

[...]

The common view is that in Toledo he recognised his spiritual home. It is held that he acquired his magic colour from the grey walls of that city built upon a rock and from the austere tones of the surrounding country; in his encounter with the Spanish character it is held that he developed an originality that his early works had given small hint of, and in his contact with the passionate Spanish fate achieved the mystical exaltation that inspires his great religious pictures. He has been seen as a man of austere temper, indifferent to the things of the earth, who went his lonely ascetic way intent only on expressing his rapt vision; and those later pictures of his with their fantastic distortions seemed the final effort to represent a spiritual experience.

This is plausible, romantic enough to please the fancy, and coherent. But it is only credible if you leave out everything that is known of El Greco and that can be seen in his pictures that does not fit in with it. Those cool colours of his were there before ever he went to Spain: it may be that they were the colours he learnt in the Cretan monastery in which he had been thought to paint icons, or it may be that he discovered them in his own sensibility. There is no reason to believe that they would have been different if he had never left Italy. It is singular to find in the portrait of Julio Clovio, painted before his journey to Spain, a landscape with the same tortured sky that he painted so often in his later pictures. It is a sky that in point of fact you do not see in Toledo nearly so often as you do in Venice and indeed you will find it in several of Tintoretto’s pictures in the Scuola di San Rocco. In the Madonna del Orto you will find the heavy grey clouds, with their abrupt outlines, looking as though they were cut out of tufa, that are so characteristic of El Greco.

Tintoretto: The Brazen Serpent,
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice, Italy.

Tintoretto: The Presentation of the Virgin (detail), 
Madonna dell'Orto, Venice, Italy.

El Greco, Portrait of Julio Clovio,
Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.
[...]

Now let us look at the portraits he painted of himself. There is one in The Burial of Count Orgaz and another in the St. Maurizio in the Escorial. It is not certain that they are his portraits, it is only a tradition that they are, but they are evidently portraits of the same man and it is likely that the tradition is true. Accepting them then, on the great authority of Don Manuel Cossio, as authentic I think one may safely say that El Greco may not have looked like this, but this is what he thought he looked like. It is a thin, intelligent face, fresh-coloured, a rather long face; the beard, of a palish, reddish brown, is well trimmed; the hair is dark; the forehead is high and noble; the eyes, somewhat close-set, are cool, observant and reflective. You have the impression of a man who gave a good deal of thought to his appearance. You would have said from the look of him that this was a composed, intelligently curious man, but one capable neither of great passion nor of deep emotion. In neither of these pictures is there in the expression any of the seriousness which one would have thought the occasion demanded. This person seems to preserve a strangely ironic detachment; it would never occur to you that he was a mystic; you might have taken him for a sardonic humorist.

Often the portraits than an artist paints will tell you as much about himself as about his sitters, and I have wondered whether El Greco’s would not offer some clue to what I sought. Now when you look at a collection of El Greco’s portraits, in the Prado for instance, the first thing that strikes you is their distinction. They have a well-bred elegance. They have gravity and decorum. But it would be absurd to say that they are profound. They seem indeed to be painted in the most perfunctory fashion. […] You get the impression that the Greek was not interested in the people he painted. These men were the contemporaries of the conquistadores and the saints; they are as empty of character as lord mayors. When you compare these portraits with those of Zurbaran, so actual, so strongly individualized, they cease to exist. More than once certainly El Greco painted a magnificent portrait, but only when some eccentricity in the sitter’s appearance gave him the obvious opportunity. Now in fiction it is easy to make a striking character of a person with marked characteristics; the difficulty is to make a man live when he is more or less like everybody else. Any competent novelist could create the father in the Brothers Karamazov; he needed to be more than that who created the old servant in Un Coeur Simple. I should have thought it was the same in portrait painting. More insight and more imagination were needed, I should have thought, to paint L'Homme au Gant than the Grand Inquisitor. It looks as though El Greco regarded his sitters with a singular detachment. Is it possible that this mystic took no interest in the human soul? Though infinitely well-born these people look terribly stupid. They were. The history of Spain during the Golden Age is a history of the abysmal ineptitude of which the human race is capable. A Greek, subtle and quick-witted, a man of culture, it may well be that he was impatient of these fine gentlemen’s stupidity.

El Greco: Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.
El Greco: Portrait of Rodrigo Vazquez,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.
El Greco: Portait of a Man
(presumed self-portrait, not mentioned by Maugham),
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.


Titian: The Man with a Glove
Louvre, Paris, France.

[...]

Venice had lost much of its political power and the population was declining, but it was the playground of Europe and life, splendid still, was led by the rich with pomp. Manners were easy, scruples were few. The Bride of the Adriatic resisted as well as she could the efforts of the Papacy to reform her morals and to purify her faith. Thought was free and the intelligent were elegantly sceptical. Rome, alarmed by the Reformation, was making some effort to set her house in order, but there is no evidence that the individual was much inconvenienced by the fervour that reigned in high places. […] From the little that is known of El Greco it seems likely that he would have remained an indifferent spectator of a spiritual movement that his foreign birth made of no great moment to him. Since he died fortified by the rites of the Catholic Church he was presumably received into it, but when you look at his coolly sceptical face you cannot but wonder whether it meant as much to him as those have thought who see in his pictures the most fervent expression of the passion of the Counter-reformation.

Everyone knows how Philip II commissioned El Greco to paint a picture of St. Maurice and his companions for one of the altars of the Escorial and when it was delivered liked it so little that he would not let it be placed in the church but banished it to the cellar. It hangs now in the Sala Capitular and is the greatest glory of the Escorial. In the eyes of the cultured not one of the actions of his long reign has redounded more to the discredit of Philip II. I think he has been harshly treated. He was a sufficiently enlightened patron of the arts to buy the pictures of Titian and to ask Paul Veronese to come to Spain to decorate the stupendous building on which he lavished such vast treasure. He was a deeply and sincerely religious man. He shared the common (and not unreasonable) opinion of his time that saints should be painted in such a manner that one did not lose the desire to pray before them, nay, that they should engender devotion, “since the chief effect and the end of painting them must be this.” El Greco’s picture is of superb vivacity, its colouring is so brilliant and original that the neighbouring pictures look dull beside it; but Philip knew a religious picture when he saw one. In the San Maurizio the three chief figures wear what I suppose are leather jerkins, but they are in effect nudes; their muscles are drawn as in a studio study and even the navels are shown. The angels that fly about the clouds or in easy attitudes rest upon them, playing musical instruments and singing, seem to take part in a divertisement like those prepared by great nobles to honour a royal guest. The figures in the background, the Theban legion, might be stripped for the Olympian games rather than to attest their faith by martyrdom. It would not be strange if Philip was shocked by the frivolity with which El Greco had treated the scene. The attitude of those various personages is a triumph of elegance. Never did El Greco more obviously paint gestures for their beauty rather than for their significance. It is a picture that gives enjoyment; it does not excite devotion.

I cannot but ask myself why El Greco, who could draw so beautifully when he wanted to, should, apart from his deliberate distortions, at times have drawn so carelessly. Why does he put a Virgin’s eye half way down her face or make it pop out of her head as though, poor thing, she had exophthalmic goitre? Why does he sometimes give his saints the look of ducks dying of fright in a thunderstorm? The Virgin in the Crucifixion in the Prado is grotesque; that face would not be out of keeping in a satiric painting by Goya. (But how lovely is the colour, the green tunic worn by St. John, the exquisite tone of the body hanging on the cross, so tender and ethereal, and the richness of that tempestuous sky!) I am tempted to ask myself whether when he painted a religious picture he did not give way sometimes to a sardonic humour. It is difficult to see more than a conventional devotion in those single figures of Franciscan saints which as we know he painted wholesale. The St. Antony in the Prado is composed so perfunctorily that it does not even make sense. In one hand the saint delicately holds a madonna lily, while with the other he supports a heavy open book in which is a small brown object that he seems to study in pitch-black night; for the background is that stormy sky that El Greco used with amazing pertinacity. And beautiful as I find the Resurrection in the Prado, with the slender, soaring, movingly painted figure; exciting as I find the sweep of those others with their arms raised in such expressive gesture; I am not conscious of any depth of religious feeling. Nor is there any that I can see in The Baptism of Christ. It is a lovely picture, with colour of an intoxicating beauty; those elongated forms, nude but for their loin-cloths, of the Saviour and the Baptist, have an exquisite sophisticated grace; but I feel there no fervour of belief nor rapture of ecstasy. It is disconcerting in that fine picture of Christ bearing the Cross to see the elegance with which the Saviour clasps it. Indeed it is on the hands that El Greco has concentrated the interest. The face, with the eyes showing a great deal of white under the pupil, which was the Cretan’s simple way of expressing religious emotion, is the face of a comic actor.

El Greco: The Crucifixion,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.
El Greco: St Antony
Prado, Madrid, Spain.
El Greco: The Resurrection,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.
El Greco: The Baptism.
Prado, Madrid, Spain.

El Greco: Christ Carrying the Cross,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.

[…]

Not far from the San Maurizio in the Sala Capitular of the Escorial is a picture that portrays religious emotion in a very different manner. It is a Deposition from the Cross, and it is by Van der Weyden. Here the emotion is sincere and natural. The expressions are real. The painter felt what he painted and expressed what he felt. You are moved because he was moved himself. It is an awful moment that is represented and there is a sense of despair in the droop of those figures that makes you feel that here is the most terrifying moment in the world’s history. The men are stricken with grief, but gravely masters of it; Mary has swooned and there is another woman, Mary Magdalen, I suppose, whose clumsy, broken attitude gives you a tragic impression of hopelessness. All these people feel as they would feel and act as they would act. It is a beautiful picture, a terrible scene, and one to bring home to a rude and brutal people the horror of the event represented. Its sincerity is shattering. You cannot look at it and again believe in El Greco’s religious sense.

Van der Weyden: Deposition from the Cross,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.

[...]
It gives you a curious sensation to go from the room in which the El Grecos are hung into the Velasquez room next door. It is like coming into the warm light of common day. You cannot but feel that Velasquez is somewhat superficial, but he is superficial on the grand scale. He had an equable, sunny temperament and his pictures are delightfully gay. He had that alegria which is the Andalusian’s most cherished and characteristic grace. He does not in his portraits suggest a criticism of his sitters. He takes them at their face value. He was the greatest of court-painters. His charm was combined with a genial heartlessness. His dwarfs and fools are painted with amusement. So might Shakespeare have drawn them. He had no feeling for the horror of their deformity or the misery of their lot. His cheerful temper enabled him to look upon these loathsome abortions with the good humour of one who knew that the Almighty had created them to be the plaything of princes. I suppose no one can deny his miraculous skill in painting, the silvery lustre of his blacks and the richness of his sober tones. He could paint the dress of an infanta in such a manner as to take one’s breath away. But even as one admires one is filled with a slight sense of uneasiness and one asks oneself whether this wonderful skill is worth while. It reminds one of a writer who says things with an exquisite sobriety, but says nothing of any great consequence. But how skilfully these figures are placed on the canvas to make a pattern pleasing to the eye! In the full length of Philip IV with his gun and in the companion picture of the Cardinal-Infante pure representation seems to achieve perfect beauty. There is nothing to be said. You can only stand and admire.

Velazquez: The Dwarf Sebastian de Morra,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.
 
Velazquez: Infanta Margarita,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.

Velazquez:
Cardinal Infante Don Fernando as a Hunter,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.
Velazquez:
King Philip IV as a Hunter,
Prado, Madrid, Spain.










































When you go to the El Greco room you enter a troubled world. Here is a wild intensity that seems to seek utterance for no emotion that can be made clear by symbols. It is a vague and tormenting sensation that seems to oppress him, like that anxiety, common at times to us all, I suppose, to which no cause can be assigned; you do not know whether it is of the body or the spirit. It was not a man of equable and sunny temper who painted these pictures, but a man of uncertain humour perplexed by fantastic longings; it was a man striving with pain for an expression that he sought in the abyss of his soul as though it were a memory hovering just below consciousness that it exasperated him to be unable to recall. But if he was a mystic his mysticism must surely be sought in another sphere than the religious. Pacheco, who saw him in his old age, says of El Greco that he was a great philosopher, very witty in his speech, personal, profound, with an original answer to everything. We know that he was luxurious and improvident; indeed he died insolvent; the portraits he painted of himself suggest scepticism and irony; and one’s own sensibility persuades one that he was very lonely. Even in Rome he had a high conceit of himself and later on his arrogance was overweening. In the action over his remuneration for The Burial of Count Orgaz he finished his pleadings with the words: “As true as it is that the payment is inferior to the value of my sublime work, my name will pass to posterity, which will recompense my work and glorify the author as one of the greatest geniuses of Spanish painting.” He was a Levantine and the Levantines are apt to express themselves with grandiloquence. No writer can have gone to Alexandria or Beyrout without being visited by some young author who tells him in bad but fluent French that he has written a novel vastly better than anything that Balzac, Anatole France or Zola ever wrote. It is a bombastic use of words that does not preclude a real and often touching modesty. But humility is the very substance of the soil on which religious mysticism grows and it would be absurd to say that El Greco had it. There is a story which, if true, shows that he was something of an actor and the art of bluff was not unfamiliar to him. The story runs as follows: Tristan, his pupil, had painted for a stipulated price a picture for the Jeronimite monks of the convent of Sisla, but when the picture was finished the monks (doubtless with justice) thought it was not worth it and wanted to pay less. The matter was submitted to the arbitration to El Greco. He looked at the picture and then, flying into a passion, began to beat Tristan with his stick. The monks interposed. “Tristan is but young,” they said, “and does not understand that he is asking too much.” “Too much!”, cried El Greco. “It is a sublime and beautiful work and I am beating him for daring to ask two hundred ducats for a picture that is worth five hundred, and if you don’t pay the money at once I’m going to take it myself.” The monks paid.

Taking it all in all you have the impression of a man who possessed most of the traits that we generally hold to be typical of the Levantine, and if you combined these ingeniously I do not think it would be impossible to construct image coherent enough to be credible. The various particulars fit like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. The flaw lies in the fact that there is nothing in the sort of man you have thus created to account for the pictures he painted. One must look further.

Not long ago I came across the suggestion, made in a ribald spirit, that El Greco was homosexual. I have thought it worth considering. So far as an artist’s work is concerned there is as a rule little interest in knowing about his sexual life, upon which an exaggerated stress is generally laid. There is a notion that men who have in any way greatly distinguished themselves should in this respect be different than their fellows, and when the student discovers that they have had love affairs he is apt to think the fact strangely significant. For all the to-do that has been made over the amours of Shelley and Byron I cannot but doubt whether they were very different from those of other young men of their class. Many a smart young broker in the City of London would have looked upon them with supercilious amusement as extremely meagre. But when it comes to an abnormality the case is different. I have suggested that talent consists in an individual way of seeing the world combined with a natural aptitude for creation and that genius is talent with a greater capacity and a universal sympathy. Now it cannot be denied that the homosexual has a narrower outlook. In certain respects the natural responses of the species are denied to him. Some at least of the broad and typical human emotions he can never experience. However subtly he sees life he cannot see it whole. If it were not for the perplexing Sonnets I should say that the homosexual can never reach the supreme heights of genius. I cannot now help asking myself whether what I see in El Greco’s work of tortured fantasy and sinister strangeness is not due to such a sexual abnormality as this. I hasten to add that this can be nothing but surmise, as is all else I have said of him. Besides his pictures, the letter of Julio Clovio, certain legal documents, his death certificate and the list of his effects there is no material for any direct knowledge of him. Whatever does not proceed from this, however confidently it is stated, can be no more than plausible.

When you survey possibilities it must be admitted that there is in this one a good deal that saves it from being wildly improbable. […] I should say that a distinctive trait of the homosexual is a lack of deep seriousness over certain things that normal men take seriously. This ranges from an inane flippancy to a sardonic humour. He has a wilfulness that attaches importance to things that most men find trivial and on the other hand regards cynically the subjects which the common opinion of mankind has held essential to its spiritual welfare. He has a lively sense of beauty, but is apt to see beauty especially in decoration. He loves luxury and attaches peculiar value to elegance. He is emotional, but fantastic. He is vain, loquacious, witty and theatrical. With his keen insight and quick sensibility he can pierce the depths, but in his inane frivolity he fetches up from them not a priceless jewel but a tinsel ornament. He has small power of invention, but a wonderful gift for delightful embroidery. He has vitality, brilliance, but seldom strength. He stands on the bank, aloof and ironical, and watches the river of life flow on. He is persuaded that opinion is no more than prejudice. In short he has many of the characteristics that surprise us in El Greco. It may be that in this abnormality lies the explanation why his pictures fail of that ultimate greatness which is release. They thrill; they do not give you peace. They excite; but they do not satisfy. We know that whatever imagination El Greco had he did not apply it to the composition of his pictures.
[…]
It is curious that in the full flush of his early manhood, when fancy is generally exuberant, he should have been content so often to take his designs from the woodcuts, engravings and etchings that were at that time current articles of commerce in Italy. When he had to invent something out of his head he was not remarkable. The Burial of Count Orgaz betrays its Byzantine inspiration. A dozen artists in Italy could have arranged it on a more satisfactory plan. It is only the miraculous painting that prevents the row of heads, cutting the picture into two parts, from being disconcerting. And when he had to represent the martyrdom of St. Maurice he shirked it and painted a group of young men who might be discussing the handicapping for the school sports. There is in Toledo a San Bernardino, with a tiny head, a courtly little pointed beard and an immensely long body against a gloomy sky, which is quite charming; but in the same way as the twisted pillars of a plateresque patio are charming. It is a delicious picture for a great lady’s oratory. But it could hardly arouse devotion. It is perfectly frivolous. I think no religious painter ever expressed emotion so perfunctorily as El Greco. This would not be strange if he were entirely devoid of it.

El Greco: San Bernardino
Museo de El Greco, Toledo, Spain.

[…]

The artist is not justified in claiming to be judged from the standpoint of his intention. That is important to him, and to anyone who cares to study his personality, but it is of no importance to the observer. The artist is driven to produce by an instinct within him which impels him to express his personality. He does not try to do this; it is an inevitable accident that he does so. He is in all probability not very much interested in his personality. (I am not speaking of the journeyman who busies himself with the arts to earn an honest living or the spent worker who continues to do so from habit.) The artist can no more help creating than water can help running down hill. It is a release from the burden of his soul. It is a spiritual exercise which is infinitely pleasurable, and it is accompanied by a sense of power that is in itself delightful. When production fulfills it he enjoys a heavenly sense of liberation. For one delicious moment he rests in a state of equilibrium. What the painter paints or the writer writes is an experience of himself and the theorists of art for art’s sake were right when they claimed that it had no moral value. Nor need this experience and its expression, whatever its importance for the person who feels it, have any value for anybody else. That must depend on the interest for the world of the personality that has thus been forced to exteriorise itself.

I think there were two ways in which El Greco sought deliverance. One was in decoration. To my mind he was singularly indifferent to his subjects. They were given him and like all artists he worked out his own intentions within the limitations imposed upon him by the circumstances of his time. That is why he could paint the same picture over and over again. […] And that is why he was so much more interested in the hand than in the head. The hand has a possibility of a lovely gesture that is denied to the head. No one has painted hands more exquisitely. But in many of the pictures they are placed with such an affected grace, that considering the episode represented, you are shocked by the unseemliness. El Greco was ready to sacrifice truth of gesture to beauty of attitude. His reaction was, in short, baroque.

[…]

Now let me return to El Greco. There was in him to my mind a temper that exactly suited the spirit that he found prevalent to some extent in Venice, and at its height in Rome. So he became the greatest of baroque painters. […] Their immense elongation [of El Greco’s figures], which, I may remind the reader, he will find in many of Tintoretto’s pictures, seems to me a natural development of treating the human form as decoration. Because El Greco was aiming at this and nothing else I think he became more and more indifferent to fact. This, I think, explains also his cock-eyed virgins. If the body, with its mass, is treated as a unit of expression the face become of no importance. It is not strange that the moderns should set such great store by El Greco. If he were alive to-day I imagine he would paint pictures as abstract as the later work of Bracque, Picasso and Fernand Léger. And it may be that the interest in formal design of the present day is due to the same causes as produced baroque art in the sixteenth century. Now too we are spiritually at sixes and sevens. Afraid of the sublime, we take refuge in the multiplication table.

[…]

But of course there is more in El Greco than the fantastic patterns he devised, his grace and distinction, the elegance of his gestures and his dramatic intensity, seldom falling into theatricalism, with which as I take it he satisfied the sardonic, ironic, sumptuous, sinister side of his nature. When you see many of a painter’s pictures together you find in them often a certain monotony. An artist can only give you himself and he is unfortunately always very like himself. The startling thing about El Greco is that, such is his vitality, he can under most unlikely conditions give you an impressions of variety.

[…]

I think El Greco put the most serious emotion of his strange, perhaps inexplicable personality into the colours that he set down on canvas. However he acquired his palette, he gave it an intensity, a significance, which were his own. Colour was his complete and unique experience. They are not so far wrong who see in him a mystic, though I cannot help thinking that to look upon him as a religious mystic is superficial. If mysticism is that state that renders you conscious of depths of truth unknown to the intellect, revealing like “glimpses of forgotten dreams” a greater significance in life and union with some larger reality, then I think you can hardly fail to find it in El Greco’s painting. I seem to see as great a mystic rapture in the painting of the right side of the body of Christ in the Crucifixion in the Louvre as in any of the experiences of Santa Teresa.

El Greco: Crucifixion
Louvre, Paris, France.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Review: Profumo di Donna (1974)


Do not compare this movie to Scent of a Woman with Al Pacino

Unless you want to prove that you have seen neither – or that you are entirely devoid of mental resources.

In addition to the title, only the very broad outlines are vaguely similar in both movies. Themes like loneliness, disillusionment and friendship are certainly complex enough, and important enough, to merit completely different treatments. The script, the characters, the cinematography, everything is indeed so different in both movies that to compare them is the highest form of stupidity.

Alessandro Momo
Agostina Belli
That settled, let's see how Profumo di Donna stands on its own. Well, it does stupendously well. Dino Risi is a fine director, with a flair for drama and a good deal of knowledge how to make the best out of each scene. The supporting cast is as unknown as it is excellent. The 17-years-old Alessandro Momo, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident just six days before his 18th birthday (and shortly after the completion of this movie), is terrific as the young chap who escorts the crusty old man, and the achingly beautiful Agostina Belli is certainly much more than mere adornment.

Vittorio Gassman
But the main reason for the overwhelming impact of this movie is Vittorio Gassman's stunning performance as the blind, bitter, blunt, bluff and boisterous captain who has to conquer his demons. This is subtle yet powerful acting, atmospheric and almost otherworldly in its depiction of changing moods. With a single expression of his face, Gassman can – and often do! – say more than many modern and famous actors have said with their complete careers so far. Fabulous acting. It will reward re-watching.

My only two minor complaints about this movie is that the dialogue is sometimes a little too clipped and fragmented (or so it looks judging by the subtitles) and that the visual side is occasionally a little drab. Neither "defect" is worth making any fuss about.

Vittorio Gassman
For those who admire Vittorio Gassman's presence on the screen, this is of course an obligatory movie; they probably have seen it already anyway. But I venture to suggest it is a must-see for everybody interested in cinema as a form of art with an important message. Surely Fausto, Gassman's mercurial character, is not the only human being who has to accept, at one time or another during his life, that he is "not a lion", that he is not fearless.

Vittorio Gassman and Alessandro Momo
PS Vittorio Gassman's stupendous performance here shouldn't come as a surprise to anybody who takes the trouble to do a little Web search. At least in Italy and in addition to half a century on the screen, he was a famous stage actor as well, with a long and distinguished career that encompassed parts from Shakespeare's Othello to Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Review: Scarface (1983)

Spoilers ahead!


Classic One Man’s Show

Almost everything about that movie is mediocre. Oliver Stone's screenplay is the ordinary, even trivial, story of the American Dream from a gangster's point of view: from a destitute Cuban emigrant to the most powerful mafia boss on the East Coast, if not the whole country. There are some really memorable lines but they are usually diluted with, if not obliterated by, a good deal of foul language (the charming word “fuck” and its derivatives are reportedly used 226 times, although it's difficult to count all of them). Brian de Palma does have occasional shots that are singularly illuminating, even haunting (check the sequence after Frank’s death, for instance), but on the whole he is the most overrated director after Tarantino and Scorsese. Giorgio Moroder's soundtrack is a cheesy semi-trash. The supporting cast is reliable and serviceable enough, but none of the players – and these include Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Steven Bauer, and Mary Elisabeth Mastrantonio – has much chance of making anything memorable.


Tony Montana: the American Dream from an underworld POV.
If this movie is a classic – and it certainly is – this is solely because of Al Pacino, one of the last actors in possession of genius and charisma prodigious enough to make a whole movie (and a long one, ca. 160 min uncut) well worth watching for generations ahead. If the brash, bumptious, having tons of ''balls'' Tony Montana has become one of the most iconic characters on the screen, this is entirely due to Al Pacino's incredibly vivid portrayal of every detail from his make-up. From the Spanish accent all the way to the violent temper, everything is presented in a most compelling and convincing way. Great acting simply doesn’t get better than that. Take special notice of the following lines, sometimes delivered with breathtaking audacity, sometimes with smug calmness:

Tony [to Sosa]: All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break them for no one.

Tony: The only thing in this world that gives orders... is balls. You got that?
Frank [to his men]: Let’s go.                     

[Note Tony’s preoccupation with balls.]

Tony: Me, I want what's coming to me.
Manny: Oh, well, what's coming to you?
Tony: The world, chico… and everything in it.

It is incredible that this is the same man who played the title role in The Godfather a decade or so earlier, yet it happens to be true. The cold, extremely sophisticated and highly intelligent Michael Corleone is the very antithesis of Tony Montana who is clever and shrewd, rather than intelligent and sophisticated, and flies into passion at the smallest provocation. Having created these two extremely different faces of the same coin, it is safe to say that Al Pacino has done everything there is to be done as far as mafia bosses on the screen are concerned. (Of course, The Godfather is infinitely superior to Scarface in every other aspect, but this is not the point here.)

In addition to completely overshadowing a very decent, if far from brilliant, supporting cast, the explosive Tony Montana is also the only character in which there is some sort of deeper meaning than the small talk that occupies 95% of the screenplay. There are, indeed, some lines, such as those from the embarrassing scene in the restaurant, which are almost too perceptive to be entirely in character. No matter how clouded by the torrent of obscenities or by his innate inability to express himself with words, there is an important message in Tony’s rambling:

What you lookin' at? You all a bunch of fuckin' assholes. You know why? You don't have the guts to be what you wanna be? You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, "That's the bad guy." So... what that make you? Good? You're not good. You just know how to hide, how to lie.
                                                            
Nevertheless, one is bound to ask: why does Tony Montana fail? And fail he does, in the most pathetic way possible. After the world almost literally was his, he ended up with more lead in his body than it was used in the Gulf War. (Compare this with the aged Michael Corleone dying peacefully in the dusty garden of his Sicilian house.) The more simplistic explanation is probably the truer one: Tony is victim of his own temperament that knows no restraint. Perhaps, for all his cleverness, there also is some essential lack of astuteness in Tony; even though he ''knows the street'' and ''makes all the right connections'', he entirely fails to grasp that Alejandro Sosa is not somebody to screw up your business with. Then again, the rupture occurred at one of the very few instances – perhaps the only one – when Tony’s not exactly simple make-up is additionally complicated by traces of conscience. When it comes to killing women and children, he balks. This may not seem much to the faint-hearted, but in Tony’s circles it is a veritable proof of humanism.

Tony doesn't use the snowy mountains for skiing.
In a way, Tony Montana is a curiously inspiring figure, suggesting that you can achieve everything in this life – including the most important thing: freedom and opportunity to realise your personality to the full – if you have the character (or the ''balls'', to use his colourful language). And yes, it is dead true that most people simply don't have the guts to be what they want to be and have to satisfy themselves with third-rate lives rife with hypocrisies at every corner. On the other hand, if you aim at big money and unlimited power, you should keep in mind that ''balls'' may well put you at the top, but only brains may keep you there. What’s more, the higher you go, the more successful you become, the closer you get to the ultimate insanity of loneliness. Very few manage to overcome this. Tony wasn’t one of them.

Perhaps I was unfair to the supporting cast above. Of course they all pale in comparison with Pacino’s frightfully intense performance, but that can’t be helped: it’s inherent in the script. Yet there is more in Elvira, Gina, Manny and Frank. There is some superb light entertainment, for one thing, and there is, timidly peeping through the obscenity of the dialogue, some relevant commentary on human nature and the ill-suited society in which we try to imprison it.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira Hancock.
The young and seductive Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira Hancock, Tony’s wife after her former – shall we say, benefactor – was bumped off, provides some examples in both directions. In the restaurant scene mentioned above, she has a rare moment of brilliant if not very eloquent insight: “Can't you see what we're becoming, Tony? We're losers. We're not winners, we're losers.” This is both true and false. It is true because Tony is doomed by default. He just lasts longer than most, but in the end he is one of the losers; if he hadn’t been murdered, an overdose of snow would’ve killed him anyway: towards the end he was sniffing mountains of it. But it is also false because Tony lives more intensely than the vast majority of people do. In this case, he is clearly a winner, fulfilling his character to the highest degree, something unknown to most of us.

As for the light entertainment, there is plenty of sharp and saucy exchange not without humour. It is coarse, offensive and vulgar, but unless you’re a pathological prude or an arrant prig, you may find it funny. For example:

Tony: Now you're talking to me baby! That I like! Keep it coming!
Elvira: Don't call me "Baby". I'm not your "Baby".
Tony: Not yet. You gotta give me some time.

Tony: You know what your problem is?
Elvira: What's that?
Tony: You don't got nothing to do with your life. Why don't you get a job? Work with lepers. Blind kids. Anything's gotta be better than lying around all day waiting for me to fuck you.
Elvira: Don't toot your horn, honey. You're not that good.

Tony’s sense of humour is the very definition of triteness. What makes it funny is the delivery, the quaint inflections of the text and the elaborate body language. What makes it inoffensive, quite an achievement considering his vocabulary, is the attitude. Tony is always sincere and entirely devoid of self-consciousness. Perhaps his witty repartees deserve a few examples more:

Omar: Watch my back.
Tony: Better than your front, lemme tell you. Much easier to watch.

[Tony shoots Bernstein in the gut, he gasps and groans]
Bernstein: Fuck. You can't shoot a cop!
Tony: Whoever says you was one?

Frank: Hey, Tony. Remember when I told you when you first started working for me, the guys that last in this business, are the guys who fly straight. Low-key, quiet. But the guys who want it all, chicas, champagne, flash... they don't last.
Tony: [scoffs] You finished? Can I go?

Hector the Toad: You want to give me the cash, or do I kill your brother first, before I kill you?
Tony: Why don't you try sticking your head up your ass? See if it fits.

Tony: I kill a communist for fun, but for a green card, I gonna carve him up real nice.

Tony and Frank (Robert Loggia)
Robert Loggia, deeply sunburned and dressed in a dashing white suit, plays Tony’s old boss, Frank. His bluff friendliness is in many ways the biggest diversion on the screen. It’s hard to suppress a smile when he teaches Tony his own “lessons”. These include the wisdom of ages concentrated in maxims like “Don't underestimate the other guy's greed!” and “Don’t get high on your own supply.” Like all other characters, there isn’t much depth in Frank, but there is more than meets the eye. He is smart but gutless, or “ballsless” if we have to use the movie’s official language. He lacks completely Tony’s visionary flair for enterprise. There are several telling moments, easily missed in the hectic action, where Frank briefly drops the hearty laughter or the artificial grin and his face becomes permeated by insecurity and fear. The latter reaches its culmination in his death scene, such as it is, where he sinks to the bottom of humiliation, pathetically groveling and begging for his life. Even Tony is embarrassed by such total lack of dignity.

Gina (M. E. Mastrantonio) and Manny (Stephen Bauer). 
Tony’s young and sultry sister, Gina (Mastrantonio), and his best buddy since the very beginning as destitute émigrés and blue-collar slaves in a fast-food restaurant, Manny (Bauer), are characters who almost reach tragic dimensions.

Gina, in particular, goes all the way from pure innocence to glamorous decadence – and back. She has her big moment in the end when, now largely out of her mind, she suggests a most plausible incestuous hypothesis why Tony should be so jealous of any man who dares to touch her, and that includes his best friend. Of all characters in the movie, she comes the closest to happiness. And she is robbed from it in the most brutal way. This is genuine tragedy. It’s a far-fetched parallel, but with Gina’s madness and Tony’s delusions of immortality, the finale of Scarface is almost Macbeth-like.

Manny is the voice of common sense, a rather ineffective antidote to Tony’s explosive temperament. Yet without Manny, he never would have made it to the top, and it is not a coincidence that their estrangement is the last straw in Tony’s self-alienation and, finally, self-destruction. Manny also shows himself as a fine psychologist. He is the only one who perceives the real reason for Tony’s deep attachment to Gina, or at least what is most likely the real reason. She is the only pure and innocent thing in his sleazy world of corruption. He is too simple-minded to realise that, but somewhere in his heart of hearts he probably feels it.

Paul Shenar as Alejandro Sosa
Tony and Omar (F. M. Abraham).
Even minor characters are rather unforgettable, mostly thanks to great actors who make you forget Oliver Stone’s indifferent writing. F. Murray Abraham as Omar, one of Frank’s most reliable guys, is a wonderful source of farcical fun. He is especially hilarious when he is “high”, as in the first confrontation, almost literally, with Tony. Harris Yulin plays the corrupt narc Mel Bernstein, a cocky fellow who considered himself untouchable (wrongly, as it turned out). Paul Shenar is Alejandro Sosa, the courteous, calm and dangerous drug baron from Bolivia, owner of a magnificent mansion in a place with the picturesque name Cochabamba. Sosa’s hit man, Alberto, is a particularly sinister fellow, beautifully described as “an expert in the disposal business”.

Like all classics, Scarface can always bear yet another rediscovery. It may be appreciated at so many levels. For my part, Al Pacino’s incandescent portrayal is by far the greatest asset of this movie. Tony Montana is not just one of the highest peaks in Pacino’s long and illustrious career, but a fascinating character in his own way. The subtle complexity of the secondary characters and the naughty piquancy of the dialogue are two reasons more to enjoy this movie. And if you simply want to savour the intricacies of the plot, the lavish sets and costumes, or the lots of rabid violence, you are at perfect liberty to do so.

Last but hardly least, it may be remarked that, sadly, there are some pusillanimous countries (like Germany, for one) where the movie used to be offered (hopefully this is now fixed?) only in a censored version some 16 minutes shorter. The final gunfight melee, the notorious scene with the chainsaw and the one in which Frank met his maker are the parts that suffer most badly, everything that offends the fainthearted being severely cut; also, a lot of cocaine sniffing and the scene of Manny with his bombshell blond in bed have been left out. Needless to say, this mutilated version is weaker than the original one. Besides, none of the cut passages has anything really shocking to offer; even the horrid chainsaw scene, though it does have lots of blood, is no big deal by the modern standards. I am always amused at such silly censorship today, when kids may easily access on the Web the most disgusting stuff human nature is capable of producing.

PS I've just learned a TV version exists, heavily edited of course. In addition to extensive cutting, even the dialogue has been re-dubbed with harmless alternatives of the numerous "offensive" words. Judge the results for yourself.