Puppet actors waiting in the dark wings of the Quay Brothers studios London in 2017.
And so I began my investigations of puppetry. If the world was increasingly being emptied by the sterile textures of this shiny but hollow environment we were creating for ourselves. Could puppetry have an antidote to it? Since approximately the year 2000 music has become background soundtrack. Too much reading is now situated on another superficial glass plane. Art is the ‘wallpaper’ for your screen. I thought, maybe in this new world the puppet had a possibility of speaking into this flatness to help us to find the meaning of objects again? But that could only be true if humans were meant to live in textured environments not the glossy surfaces of our shopping malls and digital magazines.
But was that true? Could we not live anywhere? Has not humanity adapted to the Sahara Desert and the Arctic Coast? Maybe the distraction provided by our screens was exactly the kind of coping mechanism that we needed to live in this age? And nothing was wrong here. And there was no correlation between the vacuous commercial surfaces of this world and the insanity of our lives in this time.
Moose in a silt storm on the Chilkat River in Alaska.
Obviously the original human environment was the natural world. And nature has certain visual features. One is expanse, the other a fractalized complexity the closer you get. When you first see the natural features often what we grasp is the whole, the forest, the desert, the ocean, the mountains. Then as we approach closer things change definitively into unique specific unrepeatable objects. And the textures overwhelm us through their complex structures. And this twofold process does something for us. It acts upon us something like food. The larger vistas seem to calm us, while the closer explorations seem to excite us with discoveries. Thus the ocean at the beach leaves a strong impression, which is then interrupted by the discovery of a strangely shaped piece of driftwood floating up to the shore in front of us. This is our general experience of nature.
Traditional art has less complexity than the natural world yet it has a similar affect upon us. We stand in front of a Rembrandt at a museum. We take in the overall impression, then slowly we begin to attend to the many individual features, indeed textures of the piece. And it can take years to appreciate one work by such an artist. Hans Rookmaaker, the late Dutch art historian, tells the story of a woman who had been looking at Rembrandt’s Night Watch for years, yet had never even seen one of the figures in it, until it was pointed out by a casual visitor. Older architecture likewise made a similar impact upon us. We approach the structure seeing one building, a cathedral for instance, but the closer we observe it the more we see. Even its decaying texture becomes a part of its features. But it’s a lot more difficult to have that experience with a Ken Noland chevron or the Brutalist AT&T Long Lines building in Manhattan. And by the time you make a Google image search for dog photos or collect images of anime on Pinterest one is not encouraged to spend any time entering into these images. They are simply digested, stored, and evacuated of meaning.
Moths as Texture as Art in the Wunderkammer at the Strahov Monastery in Prague.
Do the objects and textures we are surrounded by mean anything to us? There is a story of a girl named Genie+ (not her real name) who was a prisoner of her own house from her birth until she was 12 years old. She was locked in a room with blank white walls and strapped to a plastic potty trainer. She slept in a plastic sleeper crib. She was not spoken to except to largely understand simple commands like ‘No!’ And that was her life until one day her mother finally (!) decided to get her away from her father and take her to a social worker. Sensibly they took the girl away from this negligent woman. And she was put in an adoptive situation with scientists who realized that she was the product of a forbidden experiment: What happens if you delay language acquisition in a child and cut down all outside stimulation? Well it’s ultimately a tragic story and unrelated to our theme. But here is what sparked my interest. When, for instance, introduced to the ocean for the first time, she of course had no words, and yet the indescribable expression on her face spoke of something beyond anything any of us can know. Yet even with that experience, what she was most attracted to was plastic. Plastic! The only thing in her formative environment. What she saw in her world. And that tells me something. What we surround ourselves with has a profound affect upon us. Far more than we realize. And yet there is her mouth open wanting to speak and unable to at the sight of the ocean.
Oh Brave New World that has such Textures in it! Brussels, but this could be anywhere.
Maybe we have been conducting a kind of forbidden experiment upon ourselves for years now as we have slowly manufactured this new empty world. Interestingly in my recent thinking about texture I have noticed that there is very little serious writing on the subject. And that has to relate to the fact that even 50 years ago the Modern world had far more texture in it than it does now. This slow ironing out of the wrinkles of texture has been creeping up on us relentlessly. And it is this that has focused my attention to the realm of the puppet, and specifically in Europe. Both traditionally and in its newer incarnations.
If you want more do spend time with my lecture on Texture.
To be concluded…
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
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* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
+ – Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rhymer © 1994 Harper Perennial
My first visit to St. Peter’s at night.
My road did indeed lead me to Rome on a 13 hour train ride from Palermo, which also included driving the train onto a ferry to get it across the Strait of Messina. I arrived, late of course, at night in the Eternal City at my hotel a few blocks from the Vatican, where a woman, whose accent I guessed, much to her surprise, as Ukrainian, was waiting for me and late for her dinner. And soon I was back on the streets of Roma where I discovered that everything near a tourist site is expensive and nearly everything seems to be a tourist site. But I strolled over to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the dark and reflected on the fact that I was truly in Rome for the first time in my life.
Swiss guard at The Vatican
Now the reason I had never come to Italy before was mostly out of (a perhaps not misplaced) humility. There’s just too much history here. And I love history. Researching this trip I discovered that state of Tuscany alone has more cultural and historic treasures than any other single country on earth. And while you are rereading that line let me then add that Italy in total has more historic and artistic treasures than the rest of the world combined. That’s why I’ve never been here before. It is impossible for me to consider Italy as a quick vacation stop. And for that reason I didn’t even consider going to Florence or Venice. There’s just too much to see. There’s even a Florentine Syndrome that relates to people trying to squeeze in too much of Florence in too few days. The eyes just get clogged and one is unable to take anymore visual splendor. So Palermo Sicily was my specific introduction to the Italian world. And this would be an introduction to Rome. And if I was fortunate I’d be able to see a puppet show while I was here.
Not a crowded day at the Vatican Museum.
First things first. I wanted to go to the Vatican museum. I needed to see the Sistine Chapel. I almost bought a ticket the night before online. But I decided against it for practical and budgetary reasons. I decided to take my chances and stand in line. Curiously the line was less than 15 minutes long, I guess that’s what you get on December 1st. That isn’t to say it wasn’t crowded inside. It was 11:00 and pretty much like a cattle car. I learned long ago how to visit museums from a lecture by Dr. Hans Rookmaaker, you don’t mosey and look at everything. Especially in crowds like this. You save your eyes, avoiding Florentine Syndrome, and go straight to what you want to see. And so I passed up as many gawkers as I could, dodging in and out of the human traffic, using mi scusi and permesso often to push my way passed the bovine hordes. And at last I arrived at the place. And even with the relatively crowded room, the museum guards regularly saying ‘No Photo!’ to the selfie addicts I was able to find enough space to pause and explore the Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for ten minutes and the ceiling for another twenty. I was completely impressed by the life sized figures being sent off to judgment. Having seen them largely in coffee table books. Even the grandest off them does no justice to the size and intensity of the work. I was also caught off guard by Michelangelo’s various uses of trompe l’oeil, which did literally deceive my eyes.
The Baroque vision of Christ at the Church of San Francesco a Ripa.
I spent another couple of hours in the museum, basking in the statues and Raphael’s The School of Athens among many others. And I ended up walking through the Sistine Chapel once again. And I was glad I had gotten there early. Now it was so overcrowded that the assemblage were standing shoulder to shoulder. But at least I had had my time for reflection earlier.
Pope Francis as seen from afar
The next morning was Sunday and so I walked the few blocks to Saint Peter’s Basilica to see Pope Francis give a short message at noon. While there I decided to walk through great church. It was indeed more than suitably impressive. Massive. Yet light as though floating somehow. I came up to Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s great Baldacchino. Far grander than the photos had given me any notion of. And I continued making a loop along with many others, though it felt much less crammed with tourists than the museum had been. I almost left St. Peter’s when I noticed a group of people gathered around something. I was looking for Pope John Paul II’s tomb. And then I realized I was standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta. This depiction of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son, with young face and aging body is easily one of the greatest works of art ever made. Carved in marble, or should I say revealed in marble, for the carver’s art is not like the painter. The carver removes pieces very carefully to find this image. And as I was standing in front of the Pieta I was suddenly moved so deeply by it that I almost burst into tears. There was something in the face. That Michelangelo had found somehow the perfect face of tenderness and sorrow in the beauty of his Mary. And also knowing what it meant to my mother, one of the few artistic visions to haunt her, maybe because I was her only child, her son. But also the consolation in the face of Mary and that stark need we often crave when confronted by some of life’s darker tidings. I had to control myself so as not to be reduced to tears in public.
Michelangelo’s Pieta. The light is coming from a reflection on the bullet proof glass in front of the statue. Insanely the statue was once attacked and mutilated.
A little later it seemed anticlimactic to be out in the piazza with thousands of others as the Pope, the size of a postage stamp, gave his message. But it was good to know that on some level this journey had received the Pope’s blessing. And as I passed among people from so many countries again I choked up a little at the sight of Germans who were singing and dancing.
You are Peter.
The Tomb of John Paul II
Sunday Vatican Audience
My task for the rest of that Sunday, perhaps a bit too ambitious, was to find two more Bernini sculptures hidden in obscure churches and find the burattini (Italian for both puppets in general and also hand or glove puppets) featuring commedia dell’arte characters. So I hopped on bus from near the Vatican and ended up somewhere further up the Tiber River. I was looking for the Church of San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere with the funerary statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. I arrived to find the church locked for lunch. (!) And since this was Rome lunch would take over two hours. So I decided, sensibly, to find my own lunch. I wanted something authentic. And I found it. A little pizza place called Don, which served Napoli style fried pizza. (?) And that was a bit like a small round calzone that was fried on both sides in hot oil. Absolutely sensational. Biting into it released steam, everything completely fresh. Overwhelming satisfaction. (Not a pineapple to be seen anywhere on the premises.) Eventually I went back to sit on the church steps. A mother and daughter from Connecticut and New York City respectively came to wait, another half hour, with me. The daughter worked at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. And she was here exactly for the same reason that I was. Bernini!
The Blessed Ludovica in the Shadows
When at last, late in traditional Italian fashion, we were let into to see the Bernini it was indeed as awe inspiring as imaginable. The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni reclined in a nook of the church. A euro turned on a lamp to illumine her. A fence kept us a few yards/meters away. But I also appreciated the statue without the light. Cloaked in shadows. Exquisite. Profound. Bernini’s work has the ability to say many things at once. And this mysterious statue is a prime example of that.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa
As is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, which I was also on my way to see in another church in another zone. A steady rain began to wash the streets, making it all the more meaningful to step into the dry Baroque church Santa Maria della Vittoria. This Saint Teresa is a little more well known than the Blessed Ludovica. Simon Schama spent an hour discussing it on his British documentary, The Power of Art. And there were a few more visitors. And indeed the image of the angel plunging the arrow into Teresa is potent and sensual. Beautiful beyond a mere description. My photos hardly doing it justice. The whole church was indeed a dark Baroque masterpiece on ornate emotion.
But sadly I realized that my camera battery was nearly dead and I had left my spare at the hotel. Thus I had to forego the puppets I had come to see. And they weren’t performing the next day. Alas…
On my last full day in Rome I walked among the ruins of the Colosseum, but didn’t go in. The tourism seemed too thick, too much like a theme park. I eventually walked by a far too bustling Trevi Fountain, where my coin dutifully disappeared and made haste to leave the area. But not before seeing the Pantheon. And this proved to be the highlight of my tourism day. This really was the greatest Roman building from ancient Rome. After being converted into a church it had remained in use since its construction. It was the largest structure made of unreinforced concrete in the world. And completely majestic. And because it was free the crowds weren’t too oppressive. And just as I left the area I found one last great Bernini sculpture, a great Baroque elephant in a small piazza. And my esteem for his work grew with my discoveries. (Not too forgot his contributions to St. Peter’s Basilica itself!)
Trevi (Selfie) Fountain.
A rambling Nativity scene in the Pantheon
Inside the Pantheon
Looking up in the Pantheon
Over all while I was made many crucial discoveries in Rome, Palermo really was the highlight of my time in Italy. Yet I can fully imagine coming back here and making another round of aesthetic searches. My understanding of sculpture took on a new depth, having stood before Michelangelo’ and Bernini’s works in the ‘flesh’. I saw that sculpture in many ways was the noble cousin to puppetry. But for now I was tired. I had picked up a little sniffle from the Metro while I was there. I would be happy to return on an overnight train to Paris.
17 / 12 / 2017