Monday, March 18, 2013

La Folie Baudelaire

Roberto Calasso's latest book translated into English is La Folie Baudelaire. Here is the author's note at the end of the book – Roberto Calasso, publisher of Adelphi in Milan, is the author of many books, among them The Ruin of Kasch, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Ka, K., and Tiepolo Pink, all parts of a work in progress of which La Folie Baudelaire is the sixth panel.

Around the pivot of Baudelaire, Calasso manages to encompass an entire century of the arts in France, from about 1820 to about 1920 (or from Ingres to Proust).

An anecdotal bit from Calasso's chapter on Degas –

Until Degas, custom reasonably located the subjects of a portrait in the center. In the same way, there was a tacit rule whereby every figure, even secondary ones, appeared completely. The visual field, with its arbitrary limitations, had to respect the intactness of the characters who came into the picture. 

With Degas, this changed. Perhaps not even out of a conscious decision and certainly not to state some new principle. Rather, it was the result of a kind of gestural drift. When did he begin doing this? Not exactly from the start, as the figures in Degas's early portraits are in an irreproachably central position. But we already see a dramatic novelty in The Bellelli Family, a key painting, which the young Degas worked on for seven years. Originally titled Family Portrait – and hence referring to something that is a nucleus par excellence – this painting develops around an empty space in the center. The father has his back to the painter, and the four figures are looking in different directions. All the figures seem to wish to exclude the others from their own visual field, as also happens in a portrait of the Bellelli sisters on their own. They are psychic entities determined not to come even close to one another. The mother's gaze is so fixed and absent as to make her seem blind. The two girls are recalcitrant: the one nearer the center avoids looking at the painter with mischievous determination, so much as to invalidate her axial position. The other gives the artist a bored stare, as if to say, "When is this torment going to stop?" The father ignores the painter; above all he has no gaze. We know from various sources that the Bellelli family was riddled with acrimony, rancor, and fractiousness, an exemplary domestic hell. A southern Strindberg. Group portraits were usually commissioned to emphasize certain features: unity, solidarity, and harmony. Their origins lay in pride and vanity. Instead, Degas wanted to paint – and stubbornly perfected – the portrait of a family united by reciprocal aversions. But it's not the oddness of the spatial arrangement that hints at a psychological state. It is psychological tension used to attain a spatial revelation: the absence of a center. A center that can no longer perform its symbolic function. Here the center is occupied by wallpaper and numerous frames, including that of a mirror.

Of the six books in Calasso's cycle (in progress), two I see that I have not read. But I think the best plan would be to go back and read all six in order, including the ones I haven't read and the ones I have read. To reread Calasso is always to find great flashing swathes of leftover genius that I completely missed the first time through.