Liv Ullmann, Petrus Christus , Fanny Burney & Other BagatellesSunday, October 12, 2008
A nicely printed photograph of actress Liv Ullmann leans against the wall in my Robson Street studio. It has been there for at least 10 years. Fewer and fewer people who come to my studio notice her haunting face and fewer and fewer ever ask me who she is. When they do I like to throw the rather useless facts about her that she is not the most famous Swedish actress because she is known as a Norwegian even though she was born in Tokyo in 1938.
My grandmother never suffered fools and when someone uttered a folly in her presence she would tell me later, "La ignorancia es atrevida." Her Spanish origin "Ignorance is daring." is a much more damning version of "ignorance is bliss". When people really did make fools of themselves she brought up an expression which showed the Darwinian conflict the Spaniards had with Darwin in late 19th century Spain. "Asomó el rabo," she would say. It was equivalent to, "he showed his monkey tail".
I remember two particular daring and completely stupid utterances of mine that make me blush in shame every time I think about them. Sometime around 1964 I had a cultured friend with whom I went to concerts of all kinds. He was particularly keen on Ella Fitzgerald. One day he asked me, "Have you heard Carmina Burana?" He was extremely kind to me when I answered, "No, who's she?"
At an American high school in Mexico City where I taught around 1969 I had some interesting teen age students who one day asked me, "Mr Hayward, have you heard any Alice Cooper?" They all roared when I asked, "No, who's she?"
As a little boy in Buenos Aires we were all read in class the novel Corazón by Edmundo de Amicis. Until quite recently there was nothing about this Italian author in libraries or on the web. In most cases he has been forgotten as was the author (I have no idea who it was) of a biography in Spanish of Franz Schubert that our fifth grade teacher used to read to us every day.
For me, memory is much like a red carpet that is being rolled out at the same time that its opposite end is being rolled up. As we gain more facts our brains stores memories of our past into cubbyholes that sometimes are just about impossible to access later. Unlike computers we cannot buy more RAM. I think that this unrolling and unrolling happens with history, literature, music and just about everything else. John Gunther's Inside books were common knowledge and popular when I was a teenager. He has faded even more than my mother's favourite (and mine) spy novelist Eric Ambler. All those films based on Jane Austen or with Jane Austen as a protagonist have done nothing to revive much interest in one of her remarkable earlier contemporaries, Fanny Burney (below,left) who inspired Austen to write.
I have a student in a photography class, the history of photography, whose last name is Kertész. I found it odd that my student had never heard of the famous Hungarian photographer, André Kertész who was one of the early founders of photojournalism. I have another student, very tall with a profile that rivals Barbra Streisand. On the day that I pointed out her resemblance she had a tall hairdo much like Streisand's in Funny Girl. My student has no knowledge of Streisand. It does make my class easier to teach. Much of what I tell them is absolutely new.
A few years back (8, perhaps) I was driving my car while listening to a wonderful solo piano on CBC radio. I stopped and waited to find out what it was. It was Beethoven's Bagatelle for piano in A minor ('Für Elise'), WoO 59. I had to call someone to tell them of my experience. I dialed my friend and VSO pianist Linda Lee Thomas. Her husband Jon Washburn, the conductor of the Vancouver Chamber Choir answered. I unloaded my wonder on him. His remark is one I will never forget because of the sadness in his voice, "Oh, Alex, to hear something for the first time. I am so jealous."
I propose to be less vitriolic and more patient with my students' spotty knowledge of that I would consider important. Perhaps I can enthuse them to the wonders of Kertesz and even(!) Barbara Streisand. I have softened up thanks to the book that seems to be currently consuming my waking hours, Julian Barnes's nothing to be frightened of.
A few years ago I was at the Birmingham City Art Gallery. In one glassed-in corner, there is a small, intense painting by Petrus Christus, of Christ displaying his wounds: with outstreched forefinger and thumb he indicates where the spear went in - even invites us to measure the gash. His crown of thorns has sprouted into a gilt, spun-sugar halo of glory. Two saints, one with a lily and the other with a sword, attend him, drawing back the green velvet drapes of a strangely domestic proscenium.
As I was stepping away from my inspection, I became aware of a track-suited father and small son travelling towards me at a lively art-hating clip. The father, equipped with better trainers and more stamina, held a yard or two's advantage as they turned this corner. The boy glanced into the exhibition case and asked, in a strong Brummy accent, 'Why's that man holding his chest, Dad?' The father without breaking stride, managed a quick look back and an instant answer:'Dunno.'