Night by Max Beckmann 1918

Promulgated by Madame Blavatsky in the late latter half of the nineteenth century, Theosophy profoundly influenced those who created the Modern Art scene.  A Russian aristocrat-turned-visionary,  Blavatsky went East to study with her Master at an early age.  Twenty years later, she published her master work, Secret Doctrine, in 1888.

Composition 8 by Piet Mondrian 1914

Theosophy holds that ancient wisdom is inside all of us – a Super-Ego, in a way – with whom we struggle to please.  But our sexless souls must reincarnate, ever approaching a deeper knowledge of ourselves, seeing our past lives just as our present life passes out of our mortal bodies, compelling us to work toward enlightenment.  Madame Blavatsky also believed in ghosts, rewrote history to suit her teachings, gave Hitler the idea for his Aryan SuperMan…and she was uglier than Gertrude Stein, not that that means anything…But painters like Kandinsky, Paul Gauguin, Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Robert Delauney, Theo van Doesburg, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi, the writers Boris Pasternak, Aleksandr Blok, Katharine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and even Bauhaus teachers Johannes Itten and Walter Gropius were all great pioneers of Modernism, and were all involved in Theosophy*.

The year following The Secret Doctrine, the world had yet another exalted view from on high.  More specifically, the view of Paris, as seen by the Paris artists, from the new Paris symbol, at the moment it became the symbol.  The Eiffel Tower was the biggest attraction of the 1889 World’s Fair.  Only three years after France gave us the Statue of Liberty, she upstaged our new icon with her own indelible one.   For the first time (pre-airplanes, pre-skyscrapers), the public could see the City of Lights from an entirely new perspective.  It ushered in the New.

In 1996, my future ex-husband took a leak in the bushes near the base of the Tower, an hour after proposing to me.  The line was too long to ride to the top, so I decided to forego an aerial view of the City of Lights at night for a good long look at the ceiling of our hotel room.  Lying in the “just-got-engaged” afterglow, I pondered- did he bring the romance to the city or did the city bring the romance to him?  I watched my life pass before my eyes.

Elevated by the works of artists like Delauney and Marc Chagall and writers like Hemingway and Somerset Maugham, her spirituality cannot be denied.  Paris IS for lovers- doomed, self-destructive lovers.  The poet Blaise Cendrars, who later lost his right arm in the war, explains the allure in this excerpt from Trans-Siberian Prose and Little Jean from France (1913):

Bird in Space by Constantin Brancusi 1923

She is but a child, blond, blithe and sad,
She doesn’t smile and never cries;
But deep in her eyes, when she lets you drink from them,
There trembles a gentle silver lily, the poet’s flower.

She is meek and silent, and without reproach,
With a drawn out shiver at your approach;
But when I come to her, from here, from there, from a party,
She takes a step, then closes her eyes – and takes a step.
For she is my love, and the other women
Have nothing but golden dresses on great bodies ablaze,
My poor companion is so lonesome,
She is completely nude, she has no body – she is too poor.

She is but a candid, frail flower,
The poet’s flower, a slight silver lily,
So cold, so alone, and already so wilted
That tears well up in me if I think of her heart.
And this night is like one hundred thousand others when a train presses on in the night
— The comets fall —
And a man and a woman, even when young, muse in making love.

The sky is like the shredded tent of a poor circus in a small fishing village
In Flanders
The sun is a smoky oil lamp
And at the very top of a trapeze a woman makes a moon.
The clarinet the piston a sharp flute and a bad tambourine

And here is my cradle

Self-Portrait as a Soldier by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner 1915

My cradle
It was always next to the piano when my mother

like Madame Bovary played Beethoven sonatas
I spent my childhood in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
And skipping school, in the railroad stations in front of departing trains
Now, I have made all the trains run behind me
I have also bet on the races at Auteuil and at Longchamp
Paris – New York
Now, I have made all the trains run the course of my life
Madrid – Stockholm
And I lost all my bets
There is now only Patagonia, Patagonia, that suits my immense sadness,
Patagonia, and a journey to the South Seas
I’m on the road
I’ve always been on the road
I’m on the road with little Jehanne from France
The train makes a perilous jump and falls back on all of its wheels
The train falls back on its wheels
The train always falls back on all of its wheels

 “Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?”

We are far, Jeanne, you’ve been on the move for seven days
You are far from Montmartre, from the Hill that nourished you from Sacre-Cœur that cradled you
Paris has disappeared and its enormous flame
There is nothing but continuous ash
Falling rain
Rising peat
Whirling Siberia
Heavy rebounding sheets of snow
And the bell of madness that quivers like the very last wish in the bluish air
The train beats at the heart of the heavy horizons
And your sorrow sneers…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”

SUGGESTED READING:   The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes (1980)




November 15, 2009


Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 by Marcel Duchamp 1912

In 1909, with the first Cubist show in the works, the Futurist Manifesto in the papers, Three Lives self-published and The Waste Land being penned, what Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, F.T. Marinetti, Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot were doing was ‘Making the New’.  Ezra Pound moved to Europe to become the chief cheerleader for this, the Modern Movement.  Hard to pinpoint exactly, Modern stared primitively from canvases, ran multi-footed from printing presses, danced heavily to strange bassoon notes.  Max Jacob and Guilliame Apollonaire wrote Cubist poetry inspired by the art and Wyndam Lewis used Vorticist writing as a muse for his painting.  Tristan Tzara headed to Switzerland to take nothing to a whole other level, and James Joyce dictated endless sentences to the most patient of ears, streaming thoughts Freud himself couldn’t codify.

Lee Miller's Neck by Man Ray

Speaking of Freud, I guess you want me to get to the sex part, huh?  I mean, it does come first in my tagline, doesn’t it?  One hundred years ago, Freud was developing his manly Pleasure Principles, noting “…the vulva is a void while the phallus is a presence….”

Well, here I am, one hundred years later, finding myself in bitter agreement.  In man, Freud saw two things- the drive for life and the drive toward death.  The life drive – survival, propagation, hunger, thirst, sex- he called the libido.  Notice my blog isn’t called Modern Soup or Ego?

In 2009, with my marriage ended, my business bankrupt, my father’s cancer finally cashed in and my fortieth birthday a distant memory, what I am doing is ‘making the new’ out of my new disillusionment.  Much like my compatriots of the previous fin de siecle, I seek meaning in this meaningless world.  But what if there isn’t any?  That was really the question a century ago.

I like art that touches my emptiness.   I like poetry that surprises me mid-sentence.  I like literature that speaks to me when it knows I’m hard to reach.  But I like sex more than any of those things.  I think that was really the point a century ago, too.

Lee Miller by Man Ray


We were very tired, we were very merry-

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.

It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable,

But we looked into a fire, we leaned across the table,

We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;

And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry-

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;

And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,

From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;

And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,

And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,

We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,

We hailed “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,

And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;

And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and the pears, 

And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

                                         -Edna St. Vincent Millay


SUGGESTED READING:  Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature, 1912-1939, Julian Symons (1987)