Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pictures at an Inhibition

You will recall (or not) that when I began this blog I wrote about one of my students at UCLA who helped make a magnificent connection between my dancing daughter, Maurice Ravel, and one of my poems written in the early 1990s. ReNae was not only an accomplished concert pianist, she was an extraordinarily talented photographer. One year she decided to approach her photography in a novel way. In some manner she was able to reverse the lenses of her camera in order to take detailed close-up photographs of flowers. When she first told me about her project and the doubts that some people had expressed about it, I immediately thought of one of the final scenes of J.R.R. Tolkien's wonderful little story "Leaf By Niggle".

Niggle was a painter who had grand designs and managed over many years to produced a vast mural, a work that had originally started with a single leaf of a tree. Without going into all of the ramifications of the story, suffice it to say, that most of those who knew Niggle thought his life's labor to be hardly worth anything at all. After Niggle and his friend Parish had gone off to the Mountains, one of the town Councilors, Tompkins, and Atkins, one of Niggle's erstwhile companions, discussed the whole nature of Niggle's art.

"I think he was a silly little man," said Councillor Tompkins. "Worthless, in fact; no use to society at all."

"Oh, I don't know," said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. "I am not sure: it depends on what you mean by use."

"No practical or economic use," said Tompkins. "I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don't, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they're fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago."

"Put him away? You mean you'd have made him start on the journey before his time?"

"Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the Rubbish Heap: that is what I mean."

"Then you don't think painting is worth anything, not worth preserving, or improving, or even making use of?"

"Of course painting has uses," said Tompkins. "But you couldn't make use of his painting. There is plenty of scope for bold young men not afraid of new ideas and new methods. None for this old-fashioned stuff. Private daydreaming. He could not have designed a telling poster to save his life. Always fiddling with leaves and flowers. I asked him why, once. He said he thought they were pretty! Can you believe it? He said pretty! "What, digestive and genital organs of plants?" I said to him; and he had nothing to answer. Silly footler."

"Footler," sighed Atkins. "Yes, poor little man, he never finished anything. Ah well, his canvases have been put to 'better uses," since he went. But I am not sure, Tompkins. You remember that large one, the one they used to patch the damaged house next door to his, after the gales and floods? I found a corner of it torn off, lying in a field. It was damaged, but legible: a mountain-peak and a spray of leaves. I can't get it out of my mind."

ReNae invited me to her show of the photographs that was located in the Student Union Building on campus at UCLA. The following Friday afternoon I walked over to the campus center through the Mathias Botanical Gardens. I do not remember just how many pictures she had hanging in the gallery, but there must have been about twenty or so. These were large framed artworks, two and three feet square. They were stunning. I sat down hard on a bench in the middle of the room and just looked... and looked... and looked... at just one of the pictures.

As I sat there, I had a little quatrain come into my mind, a funny little piece about what I saw, how I interpreted what hung on the wall before me. I do not remember exactly which one I started with, but by the time I had spent an hour or two in the room, I had written twenty little subscripts, one for each of the pictures. One was about corndogs and split milk, another about a Spanish love song, a third featured one of the Voyager probes nuzzling for electrons. In the final poem, I pretended that I had been a honey bee in a wonderful garden, sipping at the lip of each flower. I laughed out loud a couple of times as I figured out what I saw there.

At some point, ReNae walked in and said, "What are you still doing here?" I handed her the little collection of epigraphic poems. As she walked to each photograph she began to laugh out loud. "These are great! Would you mind if I set these up in large type and put them beneath the pictures?"

"Be my guest," I replied.

After a couple of weeks, the art show came down and the beauty and humor became a sweet memory. A couple of years later, after we had moved to New Mexico and Renae had moved to New York City, she sent me copies of all of the photos (considerably smaller, but still lovely) mounted with all of the little poems I had written. She thought that she had a publisher that was willing to use her photos in a calendar and she wanted to know if she could use my poems as captions. I replied that I had written them for her and that she was free to use them as she chose. I do not know what became of the collection, but I have long since referred to that Friday afternoon experience as my "Pictures at an Inhibition".

My title played off Modest Mossorgsky's own title for his suite that was a musical response for a exhibition of over 400 of the paintings of Viktor Hartmann, one of Mossorgsky's personal friends, on display at the Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg in February and March of 1874. Hartmann had died the year before of a brain aneurysm at the age of 39. When Mossorgsky attended the showing, his creative genius took wings and within six weeks he had composed the ten set piano solos that constitute the suite, together with the "Promenade" that links each of the smaller works. In 1922 Maurice Ravel made the orchestrated version that is the most popularly performed today.

Again, here are integral connections that have been made between great creative efforts and the humble ones which have deeply influenced my own life. It really does not matter, I suppose, that ReNae has not become a world-famous photographer. It does matter that she touched my mind and heart in her own special way and I was able to respond in kind. It is not much different than that which took place between Mossorgsky and Hartmann. For those who would rather dismiss these experiences as minimalist tripe, I would say that it will be a long time before any of them find their way to the Mountains.

I hope Renae is still taking and showing pictures. She has a gift.

1 comment:

Bliss said...

Footle. :D

A footler's soaring of the soul is known only to himself. But that doesn't make it twaddle. Just ask Mussorgsky (not Arthur Henry King). :)