Yesterday I went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes with N.N., after submitting to his pleas. The excess of paintings exhausted me even before I began to look at them. We would walk from room to room, stop at one of the paintings, then move on to another painting. Of course, my companion exhaled "simlicity" and "naturalness" (that secondary naturalness that is a victory over artificiality) and, in keeping with the obligatory savoir-vivre, he avoided anything that could be construed as exaggerated. I belched an apathy that gleamed with revulsion, animosity, revolt, anger, and absurdity.
There were ten other people besides ourselves who walked up, looked, then walked away. The mechanical quality of their movements, their muteness, gave them the appearance of marionettes and their faces were non-existent compared to the faces that peered out of the canvas. This is not the first time that the face of art has irritated me by extinguishing the faces of the living. Who visits museums? A painter, more often a student from a school of fine arts or a pupil from high school, a woman who does not know what to do with her time, a few art lovers, people who have come from afar and are visiting the city. Other than these types there was practically no one else even though everyone would swear on their knees that Titian or Rembrandt are wonders that make their spines tingle.
This absence does not surprise me. Large, empty rooms hung with canvases are repugnant and capable of casting one into pits of depression. Paintings are not meant to be hung next to one another on a bare wall, a painting is meant to adorn an interior and to be the joy of those who live with it. Here in the museum, the paintings are crowded, the amount crowds the quality, masterpieces counted in the dozens stop being masterpieces. Who can look closely at a Murillo when the Tiepolo next to it demands attention and thirty other paintings further down shout: look at us! There exists an unbearable, degrading contrast between the intention of each o these works of art, which wants to be the only and exclusive one, and hanging the paintings all together in this room. Yet art, not just painting, is full of such marginal clashes, absurdities, uglinesses, and stupidities which we cast outside of the mainstream of our feelnigs. An old tenor in the role of the young Siegfried does not jar us, nor do frescoes we can't see, a Venus with a broken nose, or an old lady declaiming young poems.
I, however, am less and less inclined to divide my sensivtivity into compartments and I do not want to close my eyes to the absurdities that accompany art but are not art. I demand of art not only that it be good art, but also that it be well rooted in life. I do not want to tolerate its too silly temples or its too ridiculous prayers... If these are the masterpieces that are to fill us with admiration, why then do we feel afraid, uncertain and why do our emotions wander blindly? Before we fall on our knees before a masterpiece, we wonder whether this is supposed to be a masterpiece. We ask shyly if this is supposed to astound us. We ask ourselves diligently if we are allowed to experience these heavenly raptures, after whcih we surrender ourselves to admiration. How are we to reconcile this supposedly striking, irresistible, spontaneous, and obvious power of art with the indecisiveness of our reaction? Every step of the way arise amusing gaffes, terrible mishaps, and fatal mistakes which unmask all the falseness of our language. The facts challenge our lies every time. Why is this original worth ten million and its copy (even though it is so perfect that it makes the identical artistic impression) worth only ten thousand? Why is there a pious crowd that gathers before the original, but no one admires the copy? That painting supplied divine emotions as long as it was considered to be a "work of Leonardo" but today no one will look at it, because a paint analysis has shown that it is the work of an apprentice. That back by Gauguin is a masterpiece, but in order to evaluate this masterpiece one must be familiar with technique, have the entire history of painting in one's head, and have a specialized taste. By what right then do those who have no preparation admire him? If (and this is what I said to my companion after we left the museum) instead of analyzing paint, we would subject the reactions of the viewer to a more precise, empirical examination, we would uncover an unlimited falseness that would bring all the Parthenons crashing to the ground and explode the Sistine Chapel with our shame.
He looked at me askance. He understood that he was experiencing a crisis of confidence. My reasoning sounded simplistic not because, in his understanding, I was not right, but, first of all, because this was not the language of a person from "good artistic society" and because neither Malraux, nor Cocteau, nor any other of the people whom he respected would have expressed himself this way. This was a collection of concepts that they had long outgrown. Yes, this was a "lower sphere," something really beneath them. No one should not speak of art in this tone! I knew what flashed across his mind: that I am a Pole, that is, a more primitive creature. Yet at the same time I was the author of books which he considered "European," therefore, perhaps it was not Slavic primitivism issuing from my lips but perhaps I was making fun of him by making a nut out of myself? He said: You are saying that just to rile me.
Rile! If your stupidity riles me then allow me to rile you! Why don't you want to see that sophistication not only does not exclude simplicity but should and must go hand in hand with it? If a person who complicates himself cannot also simplify himself at the same time, then he loses his inner resistance to the forces that he has awakened in himself and that will destroy him. Even if there were nothing morein my words than a desire to submit to art, while maintaining sovereignty in the face of it, then this ought to be applauded. This is a healthy policy for an artist. Yet other, profounder reasons were crouching within me, about which he knew nothing. I could have said to him:
You think that I am naive, but it is you who are naive. You have no idea what is happening inside of you when you look at a painting. You think that you are getting close to art voluntarily, enticed by its beauty, that this intimacy is taking place in an atmosphere of freedom and that delight is being born in you spontaneously, lured by the divine rod of Beauty. In truth, a hand has grabbed you by the scruff of the neck, led you to this painting and has thrown you to your knees. A will mightier than your own told you to attempt to experience the appropriate emotions. Whose hand and whose will? That hand is not the hand of a single man, the will is collective, born in an interhuman dimension, quite alien to you. So you do not admire at all, you merely try to admire.
I could have said all this and a lot more, but I restrained mysel. All of this must remain stifled within me. How does one lend this thought the right weight, how does one build it up and organize it into a more elaborate work, if my time is that of a minor clerk and not respected by anyone. Should I speak out of the side of my mouth? Should I allude to a truth that is impossible to elicit in its entirety? I had to remain unconfessed, fragmentary, and helpless in the face of an absurdity that distorted me. And not just me.
He says: I admire. I say: You are trying to admire. A slight difference, yet on this slight difference is built a mountain of devout lies. It is in this deceitful school that style is formed. Not just artistic style, but the style of thinking and feeling of the elite which comes here in order to perfect its sensitivity and achieve a sureness of form.
--Witold Gombrowicz - Diaries
--Witold Gombrowicz - Diaries