Milan Kundera,The Unbearable Lightness of Being,1984

 

 

max-ernst-les-cages-sont-toujours-imaginaires-kunsthaus-zurich

The Beauty of New York.

   Franz and Sabina would walk the streets of New York for hours at a time. The view changed with each step, as if they were following a winding mountain path surrounded by breathtaking scenery; a young man in a black suit directing an invisible orchestra while crossing the street; a fountain spurting water and a group of construction workers sitting on the rim eating lunch; strange iron ladders running up and down buildings with ugly red façades, so ugly that they were beautiful; and next door, a huge glass skyscraper backed by another, itself topped by a small Arabian pleasure-dome with turrets, galleries, and gilded columns.

   She was reminded of her paintings. There, too, incongruous things came together: a steelworks construction site superimposed on a kerosene lamp; an old-fashioned lamp with a painted-glass shade shattered into tiny splinters and rising up over a desolate landscape of marshland.

   Franz said, ‘Beauty in the European sense has always had a premeditated quality to it. We’ve always had an aesthetic intention and a long-range plan. That’s what enabled Western man to spend decades building a Gothic cathedral or a Renaissance piazza. The beauty of New York rests on a completely different base. It’s unintentional. It arose independent of human design, like a stalagmitic cavern. Forms which are in themselves quite ugly turn up fortuitously, without design, in such incredible surroundings that they sparkle with a sudden wondrous poetry.’

   Sabina said, ‘Unintentional beauty. Yes. Another way of putting it might be “beauty by mistake.” Before beauty disappears entirely from the earth, it will go on existing for a while by mistake. “Beauty by mistake” – the final phase in the history of beauty.’

   And she recalled her first mature painting, which came into being because some red paint had dripped on it by mistake. Yes, her paintings were based on ‘beauty by mistake’, and New York was the secret but authentic homeland of her painting.

   Franz said, “Perhaps New York’s unintentional beauty is much richer and more varied than the excessively strict and composed beauty of human design. But it’s not our European beauty. It’s an alien world.’

   Didn’t they then at last agree on something?

   No. There is a difference. Sabina was very much attracted by the alien quality of New York’s beauty. Franz found it intriguing but frightening; it made him feel homesick for Europe.

Part 6. The Grand March. Chapter 11.

   In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions a question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza: on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth

   But the people who struggle against what we call totalitarian regimes cannot function with queries and doubts. They, too, need certainties and simple truths to make the multitudes understand, to provoke collective tears.

   Sabina had once had an exhibition that was organized by a political organization in Germany. When she picked up the catalogue, the first thing she saw was a picture of herself with a drawing of barbed wire superimposed on it. Inside she found a biography that read like the life of a saint or martyr: she had suffered, struggled against injustice, been forced to abandon her bleeding homeland, yet was carrying on the struggle. ‘Her paintings are a struggle for happiness’ was the final sentence.

   She protested, but they did not understand her.

   Do you mean that modern art isn’t persecuted under Communism?

   My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!’ she replied, infuriated.

From that time on, she began to insert mystifications into her biography, and by the time she got to America she even managed to hide the fact that she was Czech. It was all merely a desperate attempt to escape the kitsch that people wanted to make of her life.

Milan Kundera, b.1929. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1984  Czech: Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí

Part Three. Words Misunderstood. Chapter 5. A Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words (continued). The Beauty of New York

Part Six. The Grand March. Chapter 11.

Image: Max Ernst, 1891-1976. Les cages sont toujours imaginaires, 1925. @Kunsthaus, Zürich

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Author: jeh

Jeremy Hunt is Director of the AAJ Press (Art & Architecture Journal / Press) – a writer and consultant on art and public space

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