“Yes What? Picture” is a 1920 work by the German artist Kurt Schwitters – a large painting in oil, cardboard and wood. As if making a habit for myself, I stood in front of it again this morning for several minutes in Tate Britain, and to remind myself of the meaning of Merz: ‘denotes essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials… a perambulator wheel, wire netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint . The artist creates through the choice, distribution, and metamorphosis of the materials’ Die Merzmalerie (1919, Article written by KS for Der Sturm magazine)… KS later adding elsewhere “deciding for the composition is the rhythm” (1940′s letter while in London).
I am on the clattering train from Waterloo to Southampton, and later tonight I am going to a performance at the splendidly 1930′s soviet looking Mayflower Theatre building in that city by the sea: Alban Berg’s opera LULU (a brand new production by Welsh National Opera).
LULU – the greatest opera of the 20th Century (some say)!!! Based on an play called Earth Spirit by Frank Wedekind, it is a rise-and-fall story of a very lively/sexually active woman. Berg’s 12 tone radical music has a similar rise-and-fall symmetry, running backwards note for note towards the end in a wonderful method of recapitulations: the perfect example of the modern coda – full of life – you might say.
Like Schwitter’s Merz work Berg’s music has also had to struggle hard to survive. Banned from Germany, the first performance of LULU was in Zurich in 1937, a few years after Berg’s death from blood poisoning (apparently following an insect bite). It was an incomplete work at that time, and following this performance his widow refused to allow the additional material which Berg had written to be added to the score. So it was that only after her death over forty years later the premiere took place on 24th February 1979 at the Opera Garnier in Paris (even the BBC felt obliged to put it on prime time TV).
These two naughties were separated by a certain distance (as you advise naughties should always be): as for Schwitters (he neither fits the description of abstract artist or constructivist), “Citizen and Idiot” is how he called himself. Berg might well have used a similar description for himself.
Two naughties and lives of suffering? It was Samuel Beckett who in his study of Proust wrote: ‘The laws of memory are subject to the more general laws of habit. Habit is a compromise effected between the individual and his environment, or between the individual and his own organic eccentricities, the guarantor of a dull inviolability, the lightning conductor of his existence. Habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit. Breathing is a habit. Life is a habit. Or rather life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals… the creation of the world did not take place once and for all, but takes place every day. Habit then is the generic term for the countless treaties concluded between the countless subjects that constitute the individual and their countless correlative objects. The period of transition that separate consecutive adaptations (because by no expedient of macabre transubstantiation can the grave sheets serve as swaddling clothes) represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being’ (Proust and 3 Dialogues with Georges Duthuit. 1999)
The lives of suffering of those two naughties Schwitters and Berg whether under the jurisdiction of Satan or Christ: considering your description of the new Pope like a ‘Man of Steel’, this of course was also the name Stalin took for himself. The Russian writer Bulgakov would have also especially appreciated this irony, as well as the kindred ironies of artistic pain experienced by Schitters and Berg. And also have praised their spiritual courage. And wished them the peace to be given to any Master.
But for Papa Francesco it is too early to say how the habits of his new clothes and vestments will recreate the habits of the man, or (as Bulgakov would have put it) his spiritual courage.