Meeting Vincent Van Gogh –

a-wheatfield-with-cypresses_vincent-van-gogh_57mil_msp1I can’t remember the first time that I ever saw a Van Gogh.  I have blurred memories of the Sunflowers – (I found them childish and inaccurate!) – at a lesson in school. Then, I saw some movie about him, based on his letters to Theo, that impressed me for the very wrong reasons: his madness, his ear mutilation, his unclear sexuality… Finally, when I saw one of the most mind-blowing movies I had seen thus far – actually I still find it mind-blowing- “Dreams” by Akira Kurosawa, I began to suspect the importance of such a sensitive artist.
(Yep, that is Martin Scorsese playing Vincent Van Gogh in that scene)
The scene where Kurosawa meets Van Gogh resumes the artist’s most empowering metaphor:  he lives like in a dream, Nature presents itself to him with overwhelming power and it is only through hard, hard work, that he was able to capture that intimate relationship that only he had with the sun or the cypress trees.  Dream and work, hard work. (…)
After I saw “Dreams” – even though the Van Gogh story is not the best thing in that movie (for me), it triggered my imagination and I became VERY interested in Van Gogh.  It made absolute sense that Kurosawa (another worshiper of Nature, its beauty and the direct interaction with humans) chose Van Gogh to tell one of his dreams about his metaphyscal interest in man’s interaction with the environment.  After I saw the movie I devoured “Dear Theo” by Irvine Stone, then I read a short biography and some of his letters, yet I feel it is only when standing in front of some of his paintings, that I can vividly feel him and fantasize about my own meeting with Van Gogh inside his oil charged scenery.  His self portraits almost seem to move, the masterfully captured eyes staring at you in deep conversation.
Still, I always felt I was far from understanding him until recently, when I was hired to write a half hour TV show for children on different artists;  the pilot is about Van Gogh.  Researching and re ordering my thoughts on him, I realized that what I wanted to convey to children about Van Gogh is his immense sensitivity, his innovative use of color and texture, his love for nature, his belief in hard work and his emotional bond with his subjects.  I didn’t want to write about his suicide, the episode when he cut off his ear… his madness…  If there is a child, seeing the show and learning about Van Gogh for the first time in his life, I want to make sure that he or she will fall in love with Van Gogh for what really matters, for what he lived and died for:  his legacy as an artist.  A vivid battle fought on the canvas, where pain and isolation met beauty.
Re reading some of his letters and looking at his work again,  I came to realize that I understand him so much more now, after I delved into a life of art myself, yet never ventured to risk my sanity, my family or my commodities for the sake of art.   I feel empathy for how much he sacrificed his life for the sake of creativity, inspiration and openness of heart to be able to reproduce an objective reality, with such absolute subjectivity and humanity at the same time. Uniqueness, I guess is what I am trying to define here.

He was one of the most quotable human beings in history. A madman in his lifetime, who famously cut off his ear after attacking his lover. A cardinal self, raw in his beliefs to the point of self-mutilation. (I read that Van Gogh cut his ear off after an argument with Gaugin because he “heard voices” whispering in his ear “kill him” and vividly quoting the Bible: “if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out” he cut off the organ that was offending him. Other reports mention him cutting off the ear in a rush of schizophrenia, which one of its symptoms is actually hearing voices)  He loved nature to the point of exhaustion for not being able to capture its beauty, yet he left behind snapshots that are nothing far from mystical lessons on appreciating nature. This man, was a being. Man is too short a word for Vincent (who would want me to call him “Vincent”, before I mispronounced his last name…)

Vincent was born on March 3oth 1853 on the Belgium-Netherlands border town of Zundert to a protestant preacher and a dedicated mother. It is said that the family lived a comfortable peaceful life and that Vincent’s father was very respected.   But I think that we can all imagine how hard it must have been for a young man with Vincent’s sensitivity and need to express himself, to have grown up in a preacher’s household at the end of the 19th century.  In his own words,  his mother was complicated and difficult: “I am sure that mother has very deep thoughts for her inner self is so complicated with such profound layers… That is why she neither can or wants to speak”.  He was named after a grandfather and a stillborn brother who died a year before he was born.  I personally find this detail disturbing for Vincent.   He was actually named after a dead sibling who came before him…

He wanted to be a pastor but changed his mind after failing to understand the politics of the position. He wanted to be an art dealer and eventually made it to Paris to work as an apprentice, but he managed to fail at that too.  Theo became successful in this field and as Vincent delved into his art and madness, Theo became his confident and patron.  It is to him that Vincent writes some of the deepest letters, where he unbinds his own psyche, makes sense of his artistic process and shares the workings of a  technique that would revolutionize art history.

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As a writer, Vincent knew that what it takes to put your idea on paper is as challenging as painting it on a canvas.  He wrote over 800 letters,  sharing an intimacy that I now spot in his self portraits.  His letters are charged with the need he expressed in his paintings. His loneliness and utter confidence that the world could, in fact, be the way he saw it, fills page after page. His choice of words, almost as deliberate as his choice of color to help in his desperate need to express emotion. His handwriting, the unconscious genesis of Expressionism.

He shares Himself fully with his reader, what he is working on, his views, his doubts, his outrage, his illness… His letters are an amazing way to get to know him from a distance. You can tell how strong and stubborn he was. How sensitive, yet how arrogant he could be.  He is so candid in his writing, that you can tell that he never even dreamed of seeing them published.

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I thought I knew everything that needed to be known about Vincent Van Gogh by carelessly glancing at the famous, awkward, yet vivid sunflowers. He was Dutch, he met Manet and Gaugin, he liked color and texture, he was crazy, he drank absinthe, he wrote letters to his brother Theo,  he cut his ear off, he killed himself.   Having spent careful time trying to explain his legacy in a half hour engaging tv show for children, I have re met Van Gogh.  I discovered his meaning and his amazing compromise to what it takes to recreate the beauty and truth of life, sacrificing once own, when the other part of life, the ugly and unrealistic beats up your soul at every corner. These facts about his life  are only the worldly attempts to define Van Gogh; facts that were not as understandable or accepted  to human society as they are now, but limiting facts nonetheless.  Reducing him to these over publicized facts would make him feel as lonely today, when his paintings sell for millions of dollars,  as he was back then, when he suffered in poverty.

Red-Vineyard-at-Arles

(This is the only painting that Van Gogh ever sold when he was alive: “Red Vineyard at Arles” for 400 Francs, in 1890)

As I read his letters today, I can picture his voice and feel his breath in his paintings. There it is, the movement, if you allow it, it will just happen; as if his paintings were meant to be computer animated. The beauty, the underscribible Beauty of the blue sky, the compelling yellow of a sunflower, or the heartbreaking silent loneliness of his bedroom.

Vincent Van Gogh took my hand today and reminded me that I am an artist and as an artist I must dare to feel as deep as he did. Three candles burn around me as I write. I wonder if he is telling me to put them on my hat tonight when darkness falls and continue on, even if I don’t know what lays ahead. … or do I?

Here’s a little tiny story I wrote at a fiction class recently. A writing prompt about place:

“Emptiness didn’t bother him, in fact he needed it. He had left Paris in search of emptiness, desperately running away from the grey of the narrow streets and the desolation of the crowded bars that he roamed every night in search of Gaugin.  The empty room that the doctor assigned was exactly the place where his tormented colors would meet beauty.  The chair would become a study on wicker browns. The bed would speak up about his loneliness. The window would stay opened and exhale his soul in blues. In that empty room, silence would conquer the voices and God would take his hand where his thick strokes could finally meet his destiny.”

This is VG drinking absinthe (a hallucinogenic drink that he was highly addicted to) as seen by his friend Toulouse-Lautrec from a nearby table.painting_absinthe_lautrec

My favorite quotes from some of his letters.

“There are so many people, especially among our comrades, who imagine that words are nothing – on the contrary, isn’t it true that saying a thing well is as interesting and as difficult as painting it?” VVG

“Emotions are sometimes so strong that I work without knowing. The strokes come like speech.” VVG

“I want to try to paint my self-portrait in writing.” VVG

“Exaggerate the essential. Leave the obvious vague.” VVG

“I look at what is before my eyes and say to myself: that white board must become something.” VVG

“Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of: “you can’t” once and for all.”  VVG

“I put my heart and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process” VVG

“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reasons for remaining ashore” VVG

“I dream of painting and then I paint my dream”  VVG

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Don’t Blame Anyone.-

As you can see, by the continuous lack of posts on my blog, I have been quiet…artistically mute…blocked.  Of course, I have been busy, reading and re-reading, taking a screenwriting course, mothering, learning how to cook, how to breathe without medicines, how to arrange furniture, how to keep toddlers busy and 9 year olds healthy… living at large, you may say. But I must confess to you, reader, that I am blocked for words in my core.

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A lot of the reading that I have been doing is about this annoying problem I am becoming accustomed to: “Writer’s Block”.

Is it fear? Is it a stage fright- like paralysis? Is it a creativity problem? There I went and tepidly started Julia Cameron’s “The Writer’s Way” ( a separate post on that to come soon). Those morning pages have become inconstant and a struggle itself,  as if forcing myself to write about not writing, which  turned into nagging about my life, about the intruders, the “crazymakers” like Cameron calls, all those people who, in short, keep you from being your creative self and attempting creativity. The “crazymakers” are everyone around us! Of course your children, your husband, your family, your job, your need to exercise and anything that keeps you from writing is a “crazymaker”.

Thus, the title of this post, has to do with two things that happen to me when I am experiencing writer’s block: I tend to blame others and I re- read Cortazar, my Writing God.

600full-julio-cortazar His short story: “Don’t Blame Anyone” a.k.a “No se culpe a nadie” is my favorite Cortazar of all times, El Mago (The Wizard) at his best.  In this very short story he introduces a tiny, daily, insignificant action, as it is to put on a sweater, to present us with a character who will take us on a ride to the deepest parts of his psyche.

“No se Culpe a Nadie” a.k.a “Don’t Blame Anyone” is about a man who is getting ready to meet his wife at a store to buy a wedding gift. It is a cold afternoon and he decides to wear a blue sweater to match his grey suit. (In the early 60’s, even Cortazar’s men wore suits)

He puts on the sweater, one arm first, but he has trouble forcing the arm through the sleeve. When the hand finally goes through, he looks at it and sees part of his hand deformed and one finger with a pointy black nail, that almost resembles an animalistic hoof.  He takes his sweater off and examines his hand, but now the hand is perfectly normal.  He starts the action of putting on the sweater again, but again his arm gets stuck along the sleeve.  He tries the other hand through the sleeve, which also gets stuck and then the head through the other hole. In agonizing detail, Cortazar describes what this man goes through to figure out how to get out of his own sweater,  realizing in the end, that he must have put the head through one of the sleeves, getting stuck on it. But it is too late, because the deformed hand, that made it out of the sleeve, is attacking him. Finally, still inside his sweater,  he falls 12 stories down the window unto his death, while trying to get out of the sweater.

It is a story about escaping and about the desperation of not being able to. It is about asphyxia. Scholars say that the sweater represents his life. A life of social norms and standards that he cannot fit into and the more he tries, the more he has trouble breathing. The more he tries to escape, the more he traps himself.

Cortazar calms me out of my mediocrity, his imagery, his mastery in writing details, inspires me to venture into writing, trying to decipher my own inner world.  His imagination is an overwhelming example of the limitless capabilities of our creativity.

But, and this is why he is a Wizard, words are not chosen randomly by Cortazar and images are most of the times, symbols of our own humanity.  So, if it has been said that the sweater is a symbol of this man’s life and the trap is what he experiences in his mind, then what if the hand that comes through the other side of that sweater, looking back at him in a deformed, monstrous shape, is a symbol of our power to create or destroy?  The hands create, mold, shape. The hand is the symbol of our power to construct our own lives, the way we want to, according to our needs and aspirations. The hand can create and protect or it can destroy and attack. The fight to come out of the sweater is a symbol of the fight that takes place inside all of us, to create, to destroy, to follow social morality, to break free from it, to be or not to be. We are all inside a blue sweater at one point of our lives, struggling to get out and seeing ourselves from the outside, not liking what we see.

Cortazar doesn’t preach. But he invites us “to see”, “to think”, “to imagine”. He is La Maga, from his own break-through novel “Hotchpotch”, a guardian of creativity, a cardinal believer in imagination.  He tells me to open my eyes and my ears, to put my fingers on this keyboard and let them “create” a connection between my imagination and your reality.

600full-julio-cortazar-1Cortazar played with imagery with such mastery, that he needed to invent words, because what was in his imagination, no one had ever named before.  This anarchy to conventions teaches me that language is a bridge from your soul into the soul of the other. However you use it, it will come through, but what’s important is to use it.  It is the essence of our humanity.  Language is the way we stay human and writing is the most intimate use of language we can try.  Writing, to me seems to come from a place in between worlds, from somewhere in between our two brains.  The one who is reading you, is listening to you in his silence.  That space, that silence where the reader hears the author, is the endless place, where anything can happen.

Cortazar also reminds me to take my heart along the way, because only with my heart on the tip of my fingers, these fingers typing these words, other hearts can listen, understand and follow me into any abyss I may fall into.

Today, reading Cortazar, a famous quote that I heard from one of my writing teachers, comes to mind:  “What comes from the heart, goes to the heart”.

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My writer’s block is my sweater and the more I try to fight it and force it out of me, the more blocked I am. Cortazar teaches me to remain awake, inspired and never let my life become a sweater I get stuck on. He teaches me to get hand, paper and heart and forget about words, forms, structures, Julia Cameron, blocks… He is my Writing God saying: “Hand, paper and heart!”.  The silence from the reader will do the rest.

Hand, paper, heart. … and… “Don’t you Blame Anyone”

My favorite Cortazar book:

“Salvo el Crepusculo” a.k.a “Save Twilight”

This is a book of poems, songs, notes and letters.  Cortazar was a big fan of jazz and music and spent a lot of his time listening and playing his trumpet. There is a prose poem about his wife’s face as she listens to music with headphones and he marvels at her face as she listens and lets herself be transported by it.

http://www.amazon.com/Save-Twilight-Selected-Spanish-Edition/dp/0872863336

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The English translation by Stephen Kessler is as precise as I have seen. I am attempting my own translation of some of Cortazar’s poems as well as Pizarnik, Borges and Bioy. … maybe you’ll find me on Amazon one day.

 

Wishful Thinking – Bookstore tourism…?

In my list of things that I’d want to do at one point in my life…. when time allows, children are ready to stay with extended family, and the extended family is ready to stay with them- the right dog sitter comes along, money seems spare enough, free time is at hand etc, etc, etc……I want to indulge in “Bookstore Tourism”…  Traveling around the world, scavenging independent bookstores, finding first editions or literary gems is probably my idea of perfect happiness.

Among the most famous bookstores in the world I am happy to say I’ve been to a few!

Here are my top 3:

Shakespeare & Co (Paris)

Absolutely at the top of my list. The history behind this bookstore, located on the Left Bank,  of the Siene river – first on Rue de l’Odion and now on 37 Rue Bucherie – has enraptured me ever since I first read Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast”.

The “literary flappers” and women artists of the 20’s have completely fascinated me my entire life. Virginia Woolf, Zelda,  Djurna Barnes, Adrienne Monnier, Romaine Brooks, Josephine Baker, Georgia O’Keeffe, Isadora Duncan, Dorothy Parker and so many others! But my favorite: Sylvia Beach.

An American expat who moved to Paris in the 1920’s, Sylvia opened an English bookstore and lending library – Shakespeare and Company –  which became the epicenter of the Lost Generation and Paris’ literary life.  She published James Joyce’s first edition of “Ulysses” – when no one else would, and defied the Nazis of occupied Paris.

Sylvia Beach founded Shakespeare & Co. in 1919 inspired by the owner of  La Maison des Amis des Livres, Adrienne Monnier, who would become her lover and companion for the next 36 years. Monnier’s place was not only a bookstore but the first free lending library in Paris which allowed her to reach people from all sorts of life, sharing readings with Andre Gide or extending her love for books to thousands of regular parisians. Sylvia wanted to copy this model in New York City but her funds were not enough for the high priced rents in Manhattan. She decided to open a bookstore in Paris that would specialize in English and American Literature.  Soon, the shop was so successful that she had to move to a bigger place and opened Shakespeare & Company right across the street from Adrienne’s legendary store, on 8 Rue De L’Odeon.

She hosted the most talented writers and artists of the 1920’s and ’30’s, but probably her most outstanding achievement, other than opening such a heaven for writers, was to encourage them, even to the point of translating their work or publishing it herself, especially James Joyce.

Joyce came to her store in the midst of his misery, while writing Ulysses. He couldn’t feed his family and lived on loans, while he labored writing his masterpiece.  When a few chapters were published in American journal The Little Review, the book was declared obscene and its publication banned.  Joyce was distraught, but Sylvia offered her help:  Shakespeare & Company would publish it.

Doing this took a lot of work and money from her. But Joyce’s book saw the light and became a classic. After a few years, Joyce decided to sign a contract for the rights to the book with another publishing house and left Sylvia out of the deal.   She went broke and struggled to keep the shop opened. Writers like Paul Valery, T.S Elliot, Hemingway and Andre Gide came together to help and organized readings to bring in the crowds and help Shakespeare and Co. to stay afloat.

But her passion for Joyce was undying and it was this same author who pushed the eventful closing of Shakespeare and Co.

In 1941 a German officer came in and demanded to buy Sylvia’s only copy of Joyce’s last novel: “Fienegan’s Wake”. She refused to sell it, stating that it was a type of literature that the uniformed gentleman would not be able to appreciate.  Appalled, he threatened to confiscate all her goods if she didn’t sell him that book, but she refused again. He told her that he would be back with more officers and take all her belongings from her immediately. As the Nazis left, Sylvia and all her friends emptied the store. In two hours there were no books, no pictures, no furniture, no shelves, not even the sign reading “Shakespeare and Company”. They hid all her books in the upstairs apartment where, Sylvia lived until the end of the war.

Then one day, as Paris was being liberated,  Sylvia and Adrienne heard a deep voice calling from the streets: “Sylvia! Sylvia!”. From their hiding tower full of books, Sylvia and Adrienne, saw Ernest Hemingway claiming back their freedom, carrying a machine gun, officially liberating Shakespeare and Company from Nazi occupation.

The store that stands now as “Shakespeare & Company”  is not the original place that hosted James Joyce, Hemingway, F.S Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein or Henry Miller, among so many other Lost Generation artists. It is a sort of impostor shop that took on the name after World War II,  but it has a charming back story as well. It is located in a picture book, almost unreal, corner of the world on: 37 Rue de la Bucherie, and continues with the spirit and traditions of the Sylvia Beach’s locale, where writers were hosted, heard, printed, read and fed.

 

Hay-on-Wye  (Wales, UK)

This one is a whole town of bookstores!

Hay – on- Wye, otherwise called the “Second- Hand- Book Capital of the World”,  where you can find all kinds of used books, especially, rare and first editions.

There are more than 3o bookshops in this small town that was founded by this eccentric book lover/seller, who bought the whole town, built his first bookstore where the fire station used to be, and by the time he made the place famous, he declared Hay-on-Wye an independent kingdom and himself King. (no kidding!)

His name is Richard Booth and his idea has attracted other booksellers to open their stores in Hay-on-Wye and thousands of tourists. Every May there is a book festival that started small but has gotten pretty big, featuring renowned authors, round tables, workshops and … books.

This one is 2nd in my list and will have to include staying at the Hay Castle…

http://www.castlewales.com/hay.html

“El Ateneo Grand Splendid”  in Buenos Aires (ARG)

This most beautiful place is an old fashion theatre, where Gardel- and many others of the kind – once performed on its enormous stage. The theatre became a cinema – I saw 101 Dalmatians there when I was a little girl – and then,  the cinema became a bookstore.                                         It is South America’s biggest bookshop. The English newspaper The Guardian ranked it #2 in their “World’s 10 Best Bookshops”

My husband and I have coffee and reading here EVERY TIME we go to Buenos Aires. A must!

VERY EXPENSIVE COFFEE though….:( but worth it!

Staying in Buenos Aires I do have to mention another secret loved place: “Libreria El Tunel”   (The Tunnel Bookstore, if you wish). I bought first editions of Borges’ Literary Magazine “El Sur” here, among others.

It is a few feet away from the emblematic – and another one of my favorite places on Earth- Cafe Tortoni, where Borges, Cortazar, Garcia Lorca and Pirandello zipped coffee and whisky for endless hours. You can see their ghosts in between tables as you walk to the restrooms….

no kidding!

 

Shakespeare and my life path

 

 

These days I’ve been revisiting Shakespeare, delving inside his work, making precise incisions; finding the astrologer, the actor, the historian and the reader in him.

One superficial read when I was thirteen, was enough to transform the rest of my life; making of me an avid reader, an actress, a writer and a philosophy undergraduate. William Shakespeare has sparked in me a life long interest in history, astrology, alchemy and in mythological heroes. He has taught me about politics, rhetoric and the use of words, both in English and Spanish (when I was lucky enough to stumble upon a good translation of his works)

He has inspired me towards levels of high creativity, self observation and discovery. He has revealed hidden secrets of the human soul that only the messianic chosen ones have attempted to unveil.

I have learned how to act or cry as I played Ophelia. I understood confusion, as I played Desdemona; felt dignified playing Isabel from Measure for Measure and had the most fun ever playing Titania from a Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I have yet to convince my acting teacher or a brave director to let me play Gertrude or Lady Macbeth…. but that is part of my ongoing life path with Sir? William Shakespeare.

And this, is just mentioning the female parts…. I have to be honest and admit that the fantasy of ever playing Hamlet is a treasured secret I keep from the world, imagining my Hamlet, the best ever played in history……(!!)

The magic in it lies in the fact that we can understand ALL his characters, both as actors or audience; and for any actor, the difficulty may be the lyrical expression, but never the human  qualities. For his characters are as profound and three-dimensional as any of us.

 

My new readings of his work, are focused on his writing techniques, his plot development and specially his themes. Treason, Love, Doubt, Jealousy, Greed, Revenge, the ages of man, War, Peace….

It is exquisite to find traces of Ovid, Seneca, Chaucer or the classical mythological stories and understand this super icon as just another avid reader and lover of culture.

This I know for certain: he was a lover, a quality I most admire in him. He loves human beings as much as he can see and write about the most horrendous of human emotions and actions. He loves young people in love, princes without will power, kings drunken with power, greedy merchants, lonely girls, desolated soldiers… he just loves human beings! Only this love can drive such curiosity for the human soul and write it with such precise words. He was a lover of stories. A lover of mysteries, the sciences, music, philosophy, religion, geography…. a lover.

He delved into politics with absolute freedom, as a true artist should. Never minding being considered a communist, an anti royal or a traitor. He left behind a sort of canon for politicians of every good thing they could do as well as everything that could go wrong, managing to picture insightful human characters and never letting the plot of a story suffer.

He exposed mysteries, alchemy, magic, religion, astrology and fate, sometimes all in one scene, without ever minding being called a heretic, a puritan or plain crazy.

Everything he read, heard or pictured is translated into beautiful poetry and absolutely perfect playwriting! Every play offering entertainment as well as morals and deep tunnels for reflection.

With these “tunnels” Shakespeare has guided me through:

doubt:

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt” — (Measure for Measure)

Cowards die many times before their deaths,
The valiant never taste of death but once.
( Julius Caesar)

This above all: to thine own self be true
–( Hamlet)

fear:

“In time we hate that which we fear” (Anthony & Cleopatra)

sadness:

“A smile re-cures the wounding of a frown”
— (Venus & Adonis)

-“When words are scarce they are seldom spent in vain”

heartache:

“The course of love never did run smooth” (A Midsummer’s Night Dream)

“Expectations is the root of all heartache”

fate:

Men at some time are masters of their fate
— Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

-It is the stars,
The stars above us, govern our conditions.
Shakespeare, King Lear, 4.3.37.

-O, I am fortune’s fool!
(Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.139)

And my personal favorites: words to live by:

-“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none” (From “All’s Well that Ends Well”)

-“This above all: to thine own self be true”  (From “Hamlet” (my first true love…))

 -“There is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so”. (“Hamlet”, again)

The Mona Lisa & The Gaucho Thief.

The Mona Lisa, the most famous portrait ever, of course, has been a leading treasure for the black market and art thieves ever since it put on display at the Louvre. Thousands of newspaper articles, books and reports have been written about the many schemes to steal the prized, enigmatic lady out of her frame, but the one I love the most, is the story of Argentinean con artist (con artists do abound in my mother land… I must confess): Marquis Eduardo of Valfierno.

I am fascinated by this story and my favorite retelling of it is a book by Argentinean author, Martin Caparros, called “Valfierno”.  The book, written in first person, from the point of view of three different characters, tells the story of this con artist in the Argentina of the early 1900’s and the scheme to, not only steal the Mona Lisa from the Parisian museum, but also, to sell five fake copies of it. I liked the book to extremes and decided to spend half of my vacations in Buenos Aires finding the way to meet the author. And I did. I had the most enchanting coffee meeting with Mr.Caparros discussing the book, the characters, his personal sensitivity towards writing and the possibility of turning the book into a movie.

Valfierno is a well imagined fictional account of the real events and what could have gone through the minds of the people involved.  I takes you through the slums of Buenos Aires, where Eduardo works helping at a convenience store, to a dreaded jail cell in Santa Fe that he shares with a French man who teaches him the language, among many other things.  As he re invents himself, he makes it to Paris where he decides to be a Marquis and meets an art copyist and curator who works at the post office. His name is Yves Chaudron and copies major works of art into small little post office stamps. Perfect for the scheme. Valfierno meets Valerie, a pretty prostitute with horrible teeth, who is supposedly the person who gives Valfierno the idea to steal the Mona Lisa. She is sleeping with him as well as one of the security guards that works at the Louvre: enter Vicenzo Peruggia (this guy is not fiction; he was found in Florence with Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa hidden in a trunk, when he tried to sell it to an art gallery and confessed to the crime)

So Valfierno asks Chaudron to make five exact copies of the Mona Lisa. It takes time and Valfierno gets anxious and runs out of money, but when they are done, the plan is on. He tells Peruggia to stay overnight inside the museum, take the Mona Lisa and hide with her somewhere. Then, early in the morning when the museum is opened again, sneak out with the painting and take it home to his apartment.  Peruggia does exactly what he was asked to do. That next morning, the news brakes all over the world. The Mona Lisa has been stolen. Valfierno is never heard of again and Peruggia is arrested two years later.

Valfierno supposedly confessed this scheme many years later, in 1931 or 1932, to a Karl Decker. A journalist for the Hearst newspapers.  In the article, and in the novel, Valfierno explains why he never contacted Peruggia to get the original Mona Lisa. He had five buyers all over the world who wanted the painting. The day the news broke, all this buyers thought that they were buying the real Mona Lisa, when they were really buying one of Chaudron’s forgeries. Of course, someone who is buying stolen art is not going to go to the police and tell them that they were framed…

It was a perfect crime and a great story for a journalist to write about, and there are many claims that say that Decker invented the whole thing and that Hearst published it nonetheless. The theft had been real and it has haunted the whole planet for decades and decades but the facts and details of how it all happened are still a mystery.

Caparros’s book was highly criticized for the different voices he chose to tell the story, the journalist, the prostitute, Valfierno, Chaudron, and everyone involved have their first person account of what happened. But the novel was also awarded with one of the highest prizes in the Spanish written words: Premio Planeta.

What I liked the most about the book is that it intelligently poses the question of identity.  Valfierno is not just a con artist, he is a man looking to re invent himself because of his past, his rejected childhood and the hard times of the early 1900’s. The theft and the Mona Lisa are only secondary layers of interest in his story and the intricate question of who we want to be and who we really are, lingers all over the book. It even clouds the Mona Lisa and Da Vinci himself, as well as Chaudron, the art curator who forgers the painting for Valfierno; he too is searching for himself as an artist as he copies Da Vinci.

The facts:

La Gioconda was stolen and the newspaper article was really written by Karl Decker in the early 30’s. Even though Vicenzo Peruggia was arrested and found guilty for it,  Guillaume Appolinaire and Pablo Picasso, among many others, were suspected of the crime.  When the news of the theft broke, the world stopped in shock; thousands of newspapers were sold and the Louvre even opened its doors, for tourists to admire the empty wall were the Mona Lisa had been hanging for centuries.  For two years the disappearance of the masterpiece haunted investigators, art specialists, museum officials, journalists, writers and specially, buyers and sellers on the black market. If she was stolen, then who has it and how much is it?

Peruggia stayed overnight inside the museum, took the Mona Lisa off the wall and hid with her inside a small room. In the morning, he took her off the frame, hid her underneath his cloak, left the frame and the door knob behind and walked out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa. When museum employees found the empty wall they assumed the painting was taken to be photograph for marketing purposes. It was the following day that they realized that the Mona Lisa was not in the building at all.

The truth is that Perugia took it with him back to Italy and the general theory is that, as an italian, he thought that La Gioconda, an italian woman, painted by the italian maestro, belonged to Italy.  He even thought, they say, that Napoleon was the one who had stolen it and illegally claimed it for the French.

It is true that Napoleon took things from the Louvre, but the Mona Lisa was not one of those things.  He did have a special liking for it and called her “Madame Lisa”, hanged her in his bedroom wall during his days as an Emperor and returned her to the Louvre when his political career ended in disgrace.  But the real reason the painting ended up in France, is because it belonged to Francois I’s private collection.

Why the Mona Lisa ended up being in possession of Francois I is one of the many mysteries surrounding the painting, adding to our fascination with her.   Da Vinci did paint her in Florence around 1503 and it is very possible that it was commissioned by the lady’s husband, Francesco del Giocondo.  Why? Could be the birth of a new son or to commemorate the death of their daughter.

But the enigmatic artist took it with him to France, considering it unfinished, and kept it with him until his death in 1519. He died at Clos Luce,  a mansion, now a museum, that connects via underground tunnels to the Palace Fontainbleau, where King Francois I lived.  The King loved Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa and kept it with him.  It was passed on to Louis XIV and decorated one of the Versailles walls until the French Revolution. By then, the Mona Lisa was one of the most famous women on Earth.  With the Revolution and the birth of the Republic, she was considered national property and placed in her permanent home at the Musee du Louvre.

She spent a short period of time hidden at the Arsenal de Brest during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and then back to the museum, until the day she was masterfully stolen. Not bad for a humble, not so good-looking face, painted on a 30 by 20 poplar wood panel. Uh?

The fascination that this art piece has propelled on the world is life changing. Da Vinci is as superhuman as Shakespeare and everyone agrees on this; from the people who met him, the scholars who studied him and the millions of tourists who have stood in front of his masterpieces.

He was the purest among Renaissance Men: painter, humanist, mathematician, architect; he studied anatomy to draw the human body and participated in autopsies, concluding that “the painter strives and competes with nature”.  He studied astrology, was an inventor, an astronomer and most of all: a thinker.  His sensibility towards nature, humanity and the unknown was extreme and we can see traces of his search in each one of his works.  As an artist I feel deeply moved by the metaphor in his settings as well as his famous imaginative drawings of what would later become airplanes and submarines. He believed that the Sun and the Moon revolved around the Earth and that the Moon reflected the Sun’s light like a mirror because it was made out of water. Isn’t that lovely? By pure observation and connection with the Universe, he sensed the proven link between Moon and water…He looked at the world in wonder and he still invites us to do the same. He sensed the unseen and intended to grasp it in his art .

He approached painting as a scientific tool and deeply believed that a portrait had to portray the inner thoughts of the subject, otherwise, a portrait, was useless. His aim was to expose our true human nature, the one wee see within our eyes, the soul, the spirit exposed in a slight gesture…

And that, is what the Mona Lisa acquired. Unfinished or not, she sits looking at someone or something that enlightens her eyes and is only for her to know why. A smile pregnant with that which is beyond. Her thoughts dwelling  in another world…

La Gioconda fascinated even him, who considered it unfinished until his death and took it with him everywhere he went. Once he died, a few rumors and speculations, secretive facts and unchecked ones, was all it took to make this the most fascinating art piece in history. Even his contemporaries considered La Giconde as an example of an artist’s highest capabilities and by 1515 it was considered a relic.  The technique, the background, the layers, the realism and specially the very human, secretive, “half-smile” on her face, have changed the world forever; influencing every other artist who has ever touched paint with a fine brush.

There were rumors that there never was a Mrs. Giconde and that the painting is actually a self-portrait of what Leonardo would look like if he were a woman. (I like this one… but I admit it has conspiracy theory written all over it)

In the meantime, Vicenzo Peruggia is among the top 10 bandits in history and Valfierno remains the mystery he wanted to be.

Bonnie & Clyde & Henry Ford

Taking to this new-found interest in reading private correspondence I MUST share today some words penned by the two most romantic legendary criminals of all time.

During the 20’s Deppression era, some took to politics and became anarchists, others cramped cities and joined the long job lines or food banks and others… became criminals.

In the late ’20’s and 30’s, with the growth of factories, metropolitan cities and industrial life, all these farmers and country people from inland America, met poverty. Extreme poverty. Clyde, was a part of one of those big families with a lot of mouths to feed and no one to help. As a young teenager, he did get caught in crimes that had nothing to do with hunger, but he was also arrested for stealing turkeys. Small time crook caught and sent to prison, he left Eastham Prison Farm a true criminal, having killed for the first time another inmate who repeatedly sexually assaulted him. He was hardened, bitter and unstoppable. Ralph Fults was there with him and said he saw Clyde “changed from schoolboy to a rattlesnake”. It is well-known that he was obsessed with seeking revenge from that same prison system that hardened him with abuse.

As he took to small crimes, he visited an old girlfriend who had a broken arm. The girlfriend was being looked after by her neighbor, non other than Bonnie Parker. A Texas waitress who had success in high school writing poetry and was abandoned by her first husband.  They say that they were smitten with each other immediately and only separated when Clyde was sent to jail once again. From inside “The Walls” as they called it, Clyde asked Bonnie to smuggle a gun for him. Now, like Karen Hill says in Goodfellas, any other girl would have run the minute their boyfriend asked them to smuggle a gun into a vicious Texan jail. But Bonnie didn’t run. She brought him the gun and helped him escape from jail, never to leave his side again (unless when either one was doing time…)

There has been so much written about these two legendary danger loving couple and yet, it seems to me, none could grasp what these two were about. They are a clear example of their time, their guts made out of what happens to human beings in an industrial era, their anger produced by the Depression, their criminal activities confused by their anarchic vengeful convictions, a product of the innocence of an era that hadn’t yet provided people with easy access to information or freedom of speech; young adults who lived in an age too tolerant to intolerance.

One of the things that society in those days was getting used to was cars.  By the end of the 1920’s 20% of americans owned a car and something very modern happened: suburbs. Before cars, people who lived in the city stayed in the city and people who lived in the country stayed in the country. Now, people could live outside the city and drive into it.  And now, outlaws and criminals could run on something faster than their legs. Clyde’s favorite was the Ford V8. He loved the car as much as he loved Bonnie, robbing banks and getting his name in the papers. He called his car “Home Sweet Home”.

Both Bonnie and Clyde were so charismatic that even people who were robbed by them or taken hostage, accounted for how kind and fun to be around they were.  Knowing of his fame as a robber and his charisma, he found the need to write a letter to another very big and famous person. He took it naturally to write to him. From one notable to another. From Clyde Barrows to Henry Ford. The man who freed people from the limitations of their geography. The man who had created his favorite runaway car.

Tulsa Okla

10th April
Mr. Henry Ford
Detroit Mich.

Dear Sir: –

While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusivly when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt enything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8 –

Yours truly

Clyde Champion Barrow

The letter is still in exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum. I don’t know if Ford ever wrote back…

It seems from her diaries and poems that Bonnie didn’t only love Clyde for who he was, she was also in love with the criminal, the tough “I-don’t-give-a-damn” young man from Texas and vice versa.  Clyde seemed to have a purpose other than being a petty thief. He wanted greatness in the underworld. His name in the papers as the revolutionary bank robber who rescued criminals from the harshness of the living conditions in their jails.  They were in love with their own image, they loved “Bonnie-and-Clyde”

Every time he was sent to jail or the one time Bonnie was,  they would write to each other almost every day.  In jail, Bonnie also wrote poetry. A famous poem about “Bonnie and Clyde” serves as premonitory epitaph till this day. Here’s an extract:

“Some day they’ll go down together

they’ll bury them side by side

To few it’ll be grief,

to the law a relief

but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde”

You can tell how young they actually were. Her letters so filled with poetry and unconscious passion, you can see how much in love with the myth she was.

They were so much in love that towards the end they were committed not to be taken alive or ever be separated. Marrie Barrow, Clyde’s sister said: “They never worried about anything except each other”. They knew they were going to die any minute, any day or night. Clyde had set up a system to be able to see his and Bonnie’s family in hiding. He would stop in front of his dad’s service station and from one of his stolen cars, drop a soda bottle with written directions to a hideout. Bonnie told her mother in one of those secret family gatherings, “Don’t bring me to a funeral parlor. Bring me home”.  Clyde was 25. She was 23. The mob of people surrounding Bonnie’s mother’s house was such that they couldn’t bring the body and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Dallas.  Clyde’s grave reads: “Gone but not forgotten”… upon his request.

A Sailor writes as deep as the Ocean.-

Yesterday I stumbled upon a blog that caught my distracted eye. It is one of those Listmania blogs where they list the best 10 songs of the history of the world, the best movies, the best lyrics, the best this and that. Yesterday’s list was about “The 10 Most Fascinating Last Letters”.

10 examples of the last letters some well-known and other not so well-known people wrote in their final hour. In that moment when they knew their fate was sealed, their destiny in front of their eyes as clear as a crystal, their death walking towards them so certain and inevitable that their hearts and minds urged them to reach out to their loved ones.

(Remarkably, most men write to their wives……… most women write to their children. But that is just an observation we can leave for a future discussion.)

One letter, written by Captain Robert Scott in 1912, as he was starving and freezing to death in a South Pole expedition gone wrong, moved me in my core and has reminded me of the essentials.  Just like Ulysses trying to come back from Troy to his loving Penelope and son, Captain Scott writes to his wife, what he knows are his last words.  So aware of his death that he starts the letter with:  “To my widow”

It is a beautiful letter of love and legacy and not only exposes what the human mind considers the most important things to leave behind, but also our innocence in front of the inevitable.  And specially, how much words and writing can mean.

All of us have written love letters out of the need to expose deep feelings that our mouths didn’t seem capable of letting out.  Letters of forgiveness, when regret cuts deep and it seems unbearable. Thankful letters, when just a phone call is not enough.  But “last letters”, at least I, haven’t had to write one and haven’t received one nor imagined to.

Here are some fragments:

To my widow.

Dearest darling. It is not easy to write because of the cold – 70 degrees below zero and nothing but the shelter of our tent…

…We are in a very tight corner and I have doubts of pulling through. In our short lunch hours, I take advantage of a very small measure of warmth to write letters preparatory to a possible end…

…If anything happens to me, I should like you to know how much you have meant to me…

… Cherish no sentimental rubbish about remarriage. When the right man comes to help you in life, you ought to be your happy self again…

… Make the boy interested in natural history if you can. It is better than games. Try to make him believe in a God; it is comforting…

…Oh my dear, my dear, what dreams I had of his future and yet, oh my girl, I know you will face it stoically – your portrait and the boy’s will be found in my breast…

… What lots and lots I could tell you of this journey. What tales you would have for the boy, but, oh, what a price to pay. To forfeit the sight of your dear, dear face…

I have been browsing pieces of his personal diary and details of his life and the expedition. His writing reveals the love for nature and for his country of a man who knows he is making history. But most touching and interesting is his love for the men in the group, the friendship, guidance, endurance and discipline of a true leader.

Very interesting read: “The Voyages of Captain Scott” by Charles Turley. And you can catch it online or download to your Kindle?/Nook?:

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6721/6721-h/6721-h.htm
And here’s the full long letter if you are interested:   http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/news/dp/2007010902

M.S