Musée des Beaux Arts

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

 

The Census at Bethlehem, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,  1566

 

For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

 

The Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1565-7

 

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

 

Landscape with The Fall of Icarus, Circle of Pieter Brueghel the Elder,  ca. 1590-95

 

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

W. H. Auden

 

Musée des Beaux Arts (French for Museum of Fine Arts) is a poem written in December 1938 while Auden was staying in Brussels, Belgium with Christopher Isherwood. It was first published under the title Palais des beaux arts (Palace of Fine Arts) in the Spring 1939 issue of New Writing, a modernist magazine edited by John Lehmann. It next appeared in the collected volume of verse Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940), which was followed four months later by the English edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1940). The poem’s title derives from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, famous for its collection of Early Netherlandish painting. Auden visited the Musée and would have seen a number of works by the “Old Masters” of his second line, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569).

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What Nijinsky Wrote About Diaghilev

Vaslav Nijinsky and Sergei Diaghilev in Nice, 1911

 

SEPTEMBER 1, 1939

(Excerpt)

“…The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have, Not universal love
But to be loved alone.”

Wystan Hugh Auden

 

The poem was written in 1939, just as German troops invaded Poland and began the Second World War. It was published in The New Republic that year and included in the collection Another Time the following year.

Auden came to dislike this work, finding it “dishonest” and a “forgery.” He had his publisher include a note that the work was “trash he was ashamed to have written”; he also tried to keep it out of later collections of his poems. It is unclear why he felt so embarrassed by the poem.

In January, 1919, Vaslav Nijinsky began scribbling in a notebook. Seven weeks later, Swiss doctors studied four notebooks full of his writings and promptly interned him in a sanitarium for the mentally ill. He was only 29 at the time; he was schizophrenic; and while his fame as the greatest dancer of his time never faded, he lived the last 31 years of his life in seclusion and incoherence. For the next 30 years, Nijinsky was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and asylums. During 1945 after the end of the war, after Romola had moved with him to Vienna, he encountered a group of Russian soldiers in an encampment, playing traditional folk tunes on a balalaika and other instruments. Inspired by the music and hearing his first language, he started dancing, astounding the men with his skills. Drinking and laughing with them helped him start to speak again. He had maintained long periods of almost absolute silence during his years of illness.

His 1919 notebooks contained his final words addressed to the world. These notebooks were his diary. They were published in 1936; however, more than half of the diary was omitted. In 1999, The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky: Unexpurgated Edition, by Vaslav Nijinsky, Joan R. Acocella (Ed.), Kyril FitzLyon (Trans.) was published in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Below are a few quotes from the diary relating to Serge Diaghilev, the Russian impresario who took the 19-year-old Nijinsky as a lover and made him the star of his Ballets Russes. Five years later, when Nijinsky left to marry Romola de Pulszki, Diaghilev threw him out of his dance company and tried to destroy his career.

“I loved him sincerely and, when he told me that the love of women was a terrible thing, I believed him.”

“Diaghilev dyes his hair so as not to be old. Diaghilev’s hair is gray. Diaghilev buys black hair creams and rubs them in. I noticed this cream on Diaghilev’s pillows, which have black pillowcases. I do not like dirty pillowcases and therefore felt disgusted when I saw them.”

“Diaghilev has two false front teeth. I noticed this because when he is nervous he touches them with his tongue. They move, and I can see them. Diaghilev reminds me of a wicked old woman when he moves his two front teeth…”

“Diaghilev liked to be talked about and therefore wore a monocle in one eye. I asked him why he wore a monocle, for I noticed that he saw well without a monocle. Then Diaghilev told me that one of his eyes saw badly. I realized then that Diaghilev had told me a lie. I felt deeply hurt…”

“I began to hate him [Diaghilev] quite openly, and once I pushed him on a street in Paris. I pushed him because I wanted to show him that I was not afraid of him. Diaghilev hit me with his cane because I wanted to leave him. He felt that I wanted to go away, and therefore he ran after me. I half ran, half walked. I was afraid of being noticed. I noticed that people were looking. I felt a pain in my leg and pushed Diaghilev. I pushed him only slightly because I felt not anger against Diaghilev but tears. I wept. Diaghilev scolded me. Diaghilev was gnashing his teeth, and I felt sad and dejected. I could no longer control myself and began to walk slowly. Diaghilev too began to walk slowly. We both walked slowly. I do not remember where we were going. I was walking. He was walking. We went, and we arrived. We lived together for a long time…”

The Sculptor of Images

Originally published on February 11, 2013

 
 

Self-Portrait. Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

 
 

“On the stormy New Year’s Eve of 1925, the liner Versailles reached Halifax from Beirut. After a voyage of twenty-nine days, her most excited passenger in the steerage class must have been a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke little French, and less English. I was that boy.

My first glimpse of the New World on a steely cold, sunny winter day was the Halifax wharf, covered with snow. I could not yet begin to imagine the infinite promise of this new land. For the moment, it was enough to find myself safe, the massacres, torture, and heartbreak of Armenia behind me. I had no money and little schooling, but I had an uncle, my mother’s brother, who was waiting for me and recognized me from a crude family snapshot as I stepped from the gangplank. George Nakash, whom I had not seen before, sponsored me as an immigrant, guaranteed that I would not be a “public charge,” and traveled all the way from his home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, for our meeting — the first of his many great kindnesses.

We went up from the dock to the station in a taxi, the likes of which I had never seen — a sleigh-taxi drawn by horses. The bells on their harnesses never stopped jingling; the bells of the city rang joyously to mark a new year. The sparkling decorations on the windows of shops and houses, the laughing crowds — for me it was an unbelievable fantasy come true. On the two-day journey to my uncle’s home, I marveled at the vast distances. The train stalled in a deep snowdrift; we ran out of food; this situation, at least, was no novelty for me.

I was born in Mardin, Armenia, on December 23, 1908, of Armenian parents. My father could neither read nor write, but had exquisite taste. He traveled to distant lands to buy and sell rare and beautiful things — furniture, rugs, spices. My mother was an educated woman, a rarity in those days, and was extremely well read, particularly in her beloved Bible. Of their three living children, I was the eldest. My brothers Malak and Jamil, today in Canada and the United States, were born in Armenia. My youngest brother, Salim, born later in Aleppo, Syria, alone escaped the persecution soon to reach its climax in our birthplace.

It was the bitterest of ironies that Mardin, whose tiers of rising buildings were said to resemble the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and whose succulent fruits convinced its inhabitants it was the original Garden of Eden, should have been the scene of the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians in 1915. Cruelty and torture were everywhere; nevertheless, life had to go on — albeit fearfully — all the while. Ruthless and hideous persecution and illness form part of my earliest memories: taking food parcels to two beloved uncles torn from their homes, cast into prison for no reason, and later thrown alive into a well to perish; the severe typhus epidemic in which my sister died, in spite of my mother’s gentle nursing. My recollections of those days comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, of persecution and peace.

I remember finding brief solace in my young cousin relating her Thousand and One Nights tales of fantastic ships and voyages and faraway people, and always, solace in the example of my mother, who taught me not to hate, even as the oppression continued.

One day, I returned from school, my forehead bleeding. I had been stoned by Turkish boys who tried to take away my only playthings, a few marbles. “Wait,” I told my mother defiantly, “from now on I am the one who will carry stones.” My mother took me in her arms and said, “My son, they do not know what they are doing. However, if you must retaliate — be sure you miss!”

My mother’s generosity, strength, and hope sustained our family. She took into our home a young Armenian girl, shared our few morsels of food with her, and encouraged her to use her hands instead of her eyes, which had been cruelly mutilated. My mother herself seemed tireless. She had to go every day to the distant mountain spring which was the one source of water for the whole community. Allowed only one small pail, she would wait patiently in line for hours to get enough water for her children. Running water, to me, is still a great blessing.

In 1922, our family was allowed to flee. We had to leave our doors open — with us we took no baggage, only our lives. And we had to flee on foot. During our month-long journey with a Bedouin and Kurdish caravan, which would have taken only two days by the forbidden train, my parents lost every valuable they had managed to save. My father’s last silver coin went to rescue me after I was caught foolishly making a sketch of piled-up human bones and skulls, the last bitter landmark of my country.

In the safety of Aleppo, Syria, my father painstakingly tried to rebuild our lives. Only those who have seen their savings and possessions of a lifetime destroyed can understand how great were the spiritual resources upon which my father must have drawn. Despite the continual struggle, day after day, he somehow found the means to send me to my Uncle Nakash, and to a continent then to me no more than a vague space on a schoolboy’s map.

Uncle Nakash was a photographer of established reputation, still a bachelor when I went to live with him, and a man of generous heart. If my first day at Sherbrooke High School proved a dilemma for the teachers—in what grade did one place a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke no English, who wanted to be a doctor, and who came armed only with good manners? — the school was for me a haven where I found my first friends. They not only played with me instead of stoning me, but allowed me to keep the marbles I had won. My formal education was over almost before it began, but the warmth of my reception made me love my adopted land.

I roamed the fields and woods around Sherbrooke every weekend with a small camera, one of my uncle’s many gifts. I developed the pictures myself and showed them to him for criticism. I am sure they had no merit, but I was learning, and Uncle Nakash was a valuable and patient critic.

It was with this camera that I scored my first photographic success. I photographed a landscape with children playing and gave it to a classmate as a Christmas gift. Secretly, he entered it in a contest. To my amazement, it won first prize, the then munificent sum of fifty dollars. I gave ten dollars to my friend and happily sent the rest to my parents in Aleppo, the first money I could send to them.

Shortly afterward my uncle arranged my apprenticeship with his friend John H. Garo of Boston, a fellow Armenian, who was recognized as the outstanding portraitist in the eastern states. Garo was a wise counselor; he encouraged me to attend evening classes in art and to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez. Although I never learned to paint, or to make even a fair drawing, I learned about lighting, design, and composition. At the Public Library, which was my other home in Boston, I became a voracious reader in the humanities and began to appreciate the greater dimensions of photography.

My interest lay in the personalities that influenced all our lives, rather than merely in portraiture. Fostered by Garo’s teachings, I was yearning for adventure, to express myself, to experiment in photography. With all my possessions packed in two suitcases, I moved to Ottawa. In the capital of Canada, a crossroads of world travel, I hoped I would have the opportunity to photograph its leading figures and many foreign international visitors.

My life had been enriched by meeting many remarkable personalities on this photographic odyssey, the first of many, to record those men and women who leave their mark on our era. It would set a pattern of working away from my studio. Any room in the world where I could set up my portable lights and camera—from Buckingham Palace to a Zulu kraal, from miniature Zen Buddhist temples in Japan to the splendid Renaissance chambers of the Vatican — would become my studio.”

 
 

Tennessee Williams

 
 

Wystan Hugh Auden

 
 

Albert Camus

 
 

Sir George Bernard Shaw

 
 

Ernest Hemingway

 
 

Vladimir Nabokov

 
 

Sir John Buchan, Governor of Canada

 
 

Jacques Cousteau

 
 

Martin Luther King Jr.

 
 

Muhammad Ali

 
 

Nelson Mandela

 
 

Albert Einstein

 
 

Jackie & John Fitzgerald Kennedy

 
 

Queen Elizabeth II & Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

 
 

Rainier III Grimaldi, Prince of Monaco & Princess Grace Kelly

 
 

Audrey Hepburn & Mel Ferrer

 
 

Humphrey Bogart

 
 

Lauren Bacall

 
 

Audrey Hepburn

 
 

Grace Kelly

 
 

Anita Ekberg

 
 

Ana Magnani

 
 

Brigitte Bardot

 
 

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier

 
 

Elizabeth Taylor

 
 

Joan Crawford

 
 

Sophia Loren with her son Edoardo

 
 

Martha Graham

 
 

Alberto Giacometti

 
 

Max Ernst

 
 

Alexander Calder

 
 

Isamu Noguchi

 
 

Josef Albers

 
 

Henry Moore

 
 

Man Ray

 
 

Joan Miró

 
 

Andy Warhol

 
 

Georgia O´Keeffe

 
 

Pablo Picasso

 
 

Norman Rockwell

 
 

Walt Disney

 
 

Frank Lloyd Wright

 
 

Mies van der Rohe

 
 

Charles Édouard Jeanneret-Gris (Le Corbusier)

 
 

Alfred Hitchcock

 
 

Christian Dior