Ubi sunt and the snows of yesteryear

from the vanitas series (2007) by Guido Mocafico (b. 1962),
an Italian-Swiss photographer living in France.
Song of Love, Giorgio de Chirico, 1914

Pennsylvania Station

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1818 

“Where are the snows of yesteryear?” is a line taken from the Ballade des dames du temps jadis ("Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past") by the medieval French poet Fran├žois Villon. It expresses the sentiment of ubi sunt, a term I came across the other day and was surprised that I hadnt learned years ago. Latin, meaning “Where are....[they]?", it comes from a longer phrase, "Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerent?" [Where are those who went before us?]*.

The phrase is used as a literary term: a meditation on the transience of life, youth, beauty, and human achievement. A common motif throughout literature and song**, Hamlet's soliloquy in the graveyard is an example:

"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorr'd in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss'd I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?..."
Shelley's Ozymandias is, I think, an ubi sunt once removed.

In its emphasis on the brevity and ephemeral quality of existence, ubi sunt is on a spectrum between carpe diem's almost jocular parry against the implied futility of existence and memento mori's blatant corpse waving. Unlike carpe diem, there is no exhortation to embrace the now. Yet ubi sunt, I believe, stops short of the grim rumination and
extravagant, hand-wringing denial of life of memento mori. It is a softer rueful awareness.

In this way it is like mono no aware, a Japanese term for the mindfulness of the transience of things. Mono no aware incorporates both an immediate wistfulness at their passing as well as a more prolonged and resonant sadness about the reality of life. Significantly, in
mono no aware, as wikipedia notes, “awareness of the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty.” I think this engagement with and affirmation of the world as it is is also true with ubi sunt and further distances it from memento mori.

I find myself falling into an ubi sunt frame of mind all too often, which then leads to a bad case of sehnsucht, but that is for another post...

* I cannot track its source, if anyone out there knows.
** Wikipedia gives two interesting examples of 20th century popular music which incorporate the ubi sunt motif: the 1960s folk song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson and the final verse of the Simon and Garfunkle song "Mrs. Robinson" which asks, "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?" 


The penetrating gaze

Virginia Oldoini, Countess Verasis de Castiglione. Photograph by Pierre-Louise Pierson, c.1863/66
Albayde, Alexandre Cabanel, 1848

La morfinomane, Vittorio Matteo Corcos, 1899
Dorothea Benckendorff, Princess Lieven, Sir Thomas Lawrence, c 1820
Arrangement in Black; The Lady in the Yellow Buskin, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1883
Marchesa Luisa Casati, with a Greyhound, Giovanni Boldini, 1908
Sappho, Charles August Mengin, 1877
Green Pom-Pom, Walt Kuhn, 1944
Winter, Wenceslas Hollar, 1643
A small selection of ladies whose eyes caught mine.


Charles Burchfield and Bruno Schulz

“Came the yellow days of winter, filled with boredom. The rust-colored earth was covered with a threadbare, meager tablecloth of snow full of holes There was not enough of it for some of the roofs and so they stood there, black and brown, shingle and thatch, arks containing the sooty expanses of attics—coal black cathedrals bristling with ribs of rafters, beams, and spars—the dark lungs of winter winds. Each dawn revealed new chimney stacks and chimney pots which had emerged during the hours of darkness, blown up by the night winds: the black pipes of a devil’s organ. The chimney sweeps could not get rid of the crows which in the evening covered the branches of the trees around the church with living black leaves, then took off, fluttering, and came back, each clinging to its own place on its own branch only to fly away at dawn in large flocks, like gusts of soot, flakes of dirt undulating and fantastic, blackening with their insistent cawing the musty yellow streaks of light. The days hardened with cold and boredom like last years loaves of bread. One began to cut them with blunt knives without appetite, with lazy indifference.”
Bruno Schulz, Street of Crocodiles
Some aspects of Burchfield's work remind me of outsider art, some remind me of visual aberrations, specifically, scintillating scotoma, which I've experienced. This is a "visual migraine" in which a vibrating zig-zagged circle of light superimposes the field of vision for a few minutes.
“Afterward the gardens filled the air with enormous sighs and grew their leaves hastily, doing overtime by day and by night. All flags hung down heavy and darkened, helplessly pouring out the last streaks of color into the dense aura. Sometimes at the opening of a street someone turned to the sky half a face, like a dark cutout with one frightened and shining eye, and listened to the rumble of space, to the electric silence of the passing clouds while the air was cut by the flight of trembling, pointed, arrow-sharp black-and-white swallows.” Bruno Schulz, Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass
“Paint the feeling, regardless of drawing. At dusk there is an ominous feeling of something huge and black about to descend upon the earth; this should be painted, not sky or clouds.”
Charles Burchfield

I recently discovered the painter Charles Burchfield (April 9, 1893 - January 10, 1967). His work is singular though it evinces references to many — Van Gogh, the Fauves, Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hart Benton, Caspar David Friedrich. In his anomalous American Regionalist middle period in the 1920s and 30s, he was even like an Edward Hopper with more rain. But mostly Burchfield immersed himself in landscapes— and painted hundreds of them in watercolor sometimes so saturated it resembles oil.

Burchfield painted the everyday in an extraordinary way. The mundane landscapes and streetscapes of the Ohio and upstate New York towns where he lived are transformed into pulsing hallucinatory visions.  A cryptic interpreter of nature, Burchfield created landscapes sometimes dark and brooding, other times manically aflame, often palpably dense with psychological weight. Common things become strange, and the invisible is brought into focus. Flowers and stars give off acidic halos, and the sound of cicadas or power emanating from telegraph wires is transcribed as thickets of shuddering line. It is anxiety made manifest. Evidently Burchfield never was fully at ease and suffered from anxiety and depression. As a teenager, he endured nervous exhaustion and later, astounding bouts of mania-- producing half his entire output of painting in the years 1915-1917 alone. His heightened psychological response and susceptibility is plainly visible and, I believe, informs his whole aesthetic. 

Interestingly, Burchfield was assigned to the camouflage unit during the First World War. At the time the Army was practicing a particular camouflage variant called "dazzle" where large Cubistic shards and stripes of light and dark would obscure the outlines of the structures being covered. Burchfield, I am sure, found a particularly sympathetic outlet for his nervous striations in this unit.

Dazzle camouflage, 1918
About the same time I came across Burchfield I rediscovered Bruno Schulz (July 12, 1892 – November 19, 1942), the Polish writer and graphic artist. I realized there were sympathetic ties between Schulz's intense mesmerizing verbal cascades and Burchfields hectic visions. Both artists' worlds are animate, mystical and heavily psychological. Both kept somewhat insular lives, Burchfield painting his immediate surroundings in Ohio and upstate New York, Schulz, describing familiar sites in Drohobych, the town he lived in his entire life. Each artist drew from a store of personal mythologies and preoccupations, and seemed to be able to train his eye on that which others overlooked or could not see.



Historical Dating

I'll just go ahead and admit it— I've found myself back on online dating again. Ho hum.

In a certain age bracket the selection of men seems to skew in 2 different directions: Old and old with a motorcycle. —Joke! —Actually, there are many at this age who go to great lengths to emphasize all the biking/skiing/rock climbing/surfing and general Fountain of Youth quaffing they do. Unfortunately, these dont work for me. I dread the inevitable big reveal when I have to admit that while, yes, I have been ON a bike, no, I do not actually bike. Or ski, or surf, etc. My intermittent exercise class attendance just wouldnt cut it with these silver Adonises so no, I guess I wont be checking you out on the slopes.

So, after scrolling and swiping my way through the bald and the beige, the Every Men, the superannuated skater boys, the dandies with unseemly numbers of profile pics, the leathery outer borough grandpas, each crag and jowl limned by the glare of a bathroom mirror selfie, I again find myself looking
for solace in... the long dead or fictional. (I've been here before, and you can read more of the back story.) If you are well over a hundred I will probably find you devastatingly attractive. And I could create an OKChronos of the historical hotties I've collected over the years.

Without further preamble feast your eyes on sometime Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte’s Canoer of 1877. The nip of his waist! The snap of his brim! That grip! His steely intensity belied only by the cherubic indolence of his mouth. He could be in Williamsburg serving you your next Absinthe cocktail, and he could rock my boat anytime.


attention art directors, part 2

Someone I met recently happened to show me a Super 8 movie he made with a few friends in 6th grade, about 1977. Based loosely on Baretta, the cop show with Robert Blake, his film had fight scenes, chase sequences, and even a panning shot as characters ran down the street. (It did not however, have a cockatoo.) It was kid-acted, -shot and -directed with surprising skill, with adult input on editing and driving the getaway car. In winning grade school fashion the production was called Barfetta and Eric hand lettered his title cards in puffy, balloon type. I'm not sure why I was so smitten with this little opus but I'm sure it has something to do with the iconic low-tech image quality and the 1970s color. (It made me think of this old post about footage of cars driving away from Woodstock.) I could see each of these frames as a Gerhard Richter painting.


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