“Here I come the invisible man, perhaps in the employ
of some huge Memory that wants to live at this moment
from December Evening, ’72, by Tomas Tranströmer
Like many artists, I’ve sometimes wondered why I choose to paint one subject rather than another. What makes a particular street corner or a certain flower attractive, but not a different one? Some years ago in Madrid, on a rainy November afternoon, a surprising answer presented itself. I was walking in the Botanical Gardens, admiring the falling leaves. There was no one else around and the hum of city traffic gradually fell silent. What triggered the epiphany I don’t remember; perhaps it was only rainfall and the colors of trees. But I suddenly realized that, with most paintings, I didn’t choose the subject at all; the subject chose me.
For many people, I imagine, this statement is nonsense. Perhaps they’re right. After all, can a pond or a doorway tell you that it wants to be painted? On the other hand, what might you learn from so-called inanimate things if you bothered to listen to them?
In his comments on the writings of the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, the American poet, Robert Bly suggests that the subject of Tranströmer’s works is a hidden Memory that wants to be heard. “There is a layer in our consciousness or memory, it seems, that runs alongside our life experience, but is not drawn from our life. It is perhaps older… Tranströmer often edges toward ways of containing in words the before-birth intensities, the intensities not entirely ours.” After years of traveling and living in Europe, Bly’s insight makes perfect sense to me.
In the United States it seems to me more difficult to connect with a deeper Memory. Perhaps this is because the U.S.A. is younger than Europe, and also because our national Memory consists of so much violence and atrocities, such as slavery, the eradication of the peoples who used to live here, the expansion of our Empire, and other brutalities we’d prefer to forget. As Gore Vidal remarked, “We are the United States of Amnesia; we learn nothing because we remember nothing.”
It’s much easier to encounter Memory in Europe because Memory is closer to the surface of everyday life. The cathedral of Notre Dame in flames and cinders is a heartbreaking example. Millions of people watched the tragedy in horror and grief, and condolences have poured in from every part of the planet because, whether we are Christians or not, the cathedral is part of our collective Memory. (Even Mike Pence, the current vice-president of the U.S. of Amnesia said he was “heartbroken to see a house of God in flames.” Predictably, he sent “thoughts and prayers” to Paris. But perhaps he ran out of his supply of them because he hasn’t yet managed to send any to the parishioners of three black “houses of God” that were deliberately burned in Louisiana, U.S.A. during the past three weeks.)
Spain has been called a “crossroad of cultures,” and its levels of Memory can be traced back at least a far as Iron Age Celts, whose descendants still live in Galicia, an autonomous region in Northern Spain, and whose national musical instrument to this day is the bagpipe. Muslims had already ruled Spain for more than four centuries when the French began construction of Notre Dame in 1163. Before the Muslims arrived, Spain had been home to Visigoths, Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Celto-Iberians, and who knows how many other cultures.
Constructed more than a hundred and fifty years ago, the Monforte Garden in Valencia is of relatively recent vintage. For me and for many other visitors, its irresistible charm lies in its neo-Classical evocation of Ancient Rome. The trees, ponds, shrubs, fountains, marble sculptures and geometric, maze-like hedges were designed to replicate the estate of a wealthy Roman aristocrat. Today it is a quiet haven from the racket of the city and, not surprisingly, a favorite location for weddings (and other romantic encounters.)
I have been drawing in the Garden since my old friend, Manolo Blasco introduced me to it more than twenty years ago. When I’m drawing, I feel like Tranströmer’s “invisible man,” listening: What are these statues, trees and hedges trying to tell me? What hidden Memory wants to be heard? Rendering the garden as it appears to my eyes alone would be painting only the 19th and 20th century layers closest to the surface.
One morning while reading the Spanish newspaper, El Pais, I accidentally discovered a photograph of an enormous head, sculpted in plaster. It was a leftover from the set of some forgotten 1950’s biblical epic that had been filmed in the studios in Almería. In my imagination, I saw it as a portrait of some forgotten pope. I added a white mask and a cardinal’s red skullcap and laid it on its back in the Garden. (I didn’t invent the two feral cats. Like the cats of Rome, they live in the ruins.)
Although I think “Our Father” is a compelling image, I’m not satisfied I heard the message. So this summer I’ll return to Valencia and visit the Garden yet again with my brushes and colors, still listening for a “Memory that wants to live at this moment.”