On Poetry and Vulnerability

Writing poetry, it is drawing with words. Words woven, moreover words interwoven in our feelings, within our beings, on our close intimacy and far relations to self, others and the universe. All drafts, all sketches, all attempts are worth the try. Because they testify the ferment of our inner life. 
It comes down not only to draw a mountain as an object but also what it arouses deep in us. Similarly to draw with words a river, or a lake. It is not only drawing but also diving into its waters with our beings and feelings. It is also inviting others to swim with us, to dive within us, to discover what we meant to share, what we felt when we drew.
Sharing the way of words, being intimate with words in the way words touch us, in the way words turn us upside down
by little sketches, by little drafts, by little attempts.
This is poetry.
But Poetry has an even closer relationship to the beauty and all its expressions. However not all the expressions of  beauty are written and therefore not all the poems in the universe are contained in written poems but in many other shapes, many other clothing which are waiting to be said, to be expressed etc.  John Fowles, in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, stated “We all write poems; it is simply that poets are the ones who write in words”
Poetry thus becomes a profound exposure of self to truths, feelings, life, values, time and love… This openness through self exposure is possible by touching and becoming familiar with our own vulnerability.
We are living in a technical era, very fond of efficiency. The jargon of scientific views from which we are building our world is a language of the mind that is at work into things and strengthened in the aridity of scientific concepts. In a world that is always productive and effective, vulnerability seems to become and pass as a weakness.
Nonetheless, there is such beauty into vulnerability that only love can embrace. We build upon our vulnerability. It does not make us lesser in merit than any other virtues. To say it with Kant “Beauty is what pleases without concept”. It is the same beauty that is the primary object of poetry itself and all its expressions written or not and also of love. Poetry, love and beauty are thus looking at vulnerability to start to open up.
 
Love within itself is not rigour in principle, nor lack of compassion. It is infinitely an opening, a movement. Its opening shows it vulnerable. Its movement  makes it understandable, mostly human. But the infinite plasticity of love is in its vulnerable face. Love is built on a ground of vulnerability. It is the vulnerability within love that allows us, to bud, to grow, even to love.
 
Only powerful people by decree are haunted by the idea that one day they are discovered vulnerable. So vulnerability is not a weakness within love. But just what Consolidates it. It is the other way around of love, the look-alike of strength and  power. Strength or love that will not consolidate themselves in acts virtues, as well as power which drifts from that kind of love are without vision. That strength based on that love, that power founded on that strength are unfounded. They may be necessary . . . But they are a love without intrinsic opening, without movement. They both succumb victims of themselves.
To be aware of our own vulnerability, may help us to turn it  into an asset. It is to allow an opening within us, a movement that carry us. Because love which opens itself, always opens itself in the world, where it exposed itself. Therefore  it cannot remain unchanged. It now knows that beyond it the world exists.
It is just a consciousness in the world among many others at work. To know our own vulnerability,  it is to strengthen ourselves in the events of life. It is also to be combative in the face of adversity.
Because hardship, adversity are part of life. It is also an act of deep compassion to the suffering of others. It’s coming to understand that the truth is in time. Being a human being, it is to be, a fragile being. Fragile as a truth, vulnerable as a thought, as  a vision, Which have to deepen in life.  Being just a thought, an idea, a vision, of  a vulnerable love, which are strengthened, which are empowered in time.
Poetry in its effort to seek to look at the expression of the beauty is not fully the expression of the mind but mostly of the heart to put into words the vulnerable heart of the poet. The soul of the poet is similar to the surface of a lake, its quietness reflects the life in the depth. If anything is changed, it is the whole calm that is altered. The colours of the lakes are due to the sky, to the presence of the algae or to the reflection of the sunlight.
It is in all these meanings in relation to the beauty, within the articulation of its expression which feeds upon the vulnerability of the poet that poetry comes to existence. All good poetry is a plural poetry in its composition as in its reading. We all have an acquaintance of this beauty without concept. It would be a mistake to try to make it equal to all, especially that its appreciation and evaluation are given  to us by our time and our culture.

Poetry and the vulnerability of the poet work together to allow us to have an emotional understanding of what is going on. It is touching from inside.

Thus Orpheus had been able to sedate the Cerberus by the power of its musical instrument. But before touching others, the poet is touched first by the muses. To say it with Bob Marley in his song,TrenchTown Rock, “ One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain”
Written by Paul Ma
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Vienna city of culture

Vienna

A couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of being in Vienna for a few days. It had been ages since my last visit there, and I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed by the choices of what to see. Where should I start? Should I just stick with one topic? Or district? The amount of art, architecture, music, literature, culture is just so overwhelming.  My expectations and hopes were understandably high.

First Stop, St Stephen’s Cathedral

Straight upon stepping out from the metro at St Stephen’s Cathedral, I felt so many different periods around me. The Cathedral, of Romanesque and gothic structure, is topped by a fabulous colourful roof. Its images with a mosaic of the Habsburgs’ double-headed eagle and the city’s coat of arms on the Northern side is a motive for any tourist to see. Even though St Stephen’s Cathedral has been rebuilt or extended, it feels like a perfect unity. The square surrounding it, with the lovely small huts forming a Christmas Market and the buildings leading to the Graben or the Opera make it very much part of a whole too. Fin de Siecle, Renaissance, Baroque and modern all being one. The Haas house, for instance, just opposite, was the first shopping mall in Vienna. Built in 1866 / 1867, it was destroyed at the end of the second world war and was later replaced by a new building by Hans Hollein which opened in 1990. The building was initially very controversially accepted by the Viennese. Now, of course, with time it has become just as much part of the attractions on this square as the rest.

The Viennese Coffee House

The Viennese are proud citizens of their city. This is the city where one sits in coffee houses and reads the newspaper for hours. The Viennese “Kaffeehaus” is actually a fabulous cultural institution. Having a melange (a Viennese cappuccino) with a Maronitorte or a Sachertorte and philosophising with a friend, gossiping, reading a book, writing a novel or having a business meeting, that all is happening in Vienna’s coffee houses. The “Kaffeehaus” is probably where most of life happens in Vienna. It has nothing to do with the coffee to go, throw away modern life which wishes to be so green but doesn’t really have time for it, and thus fails to see that actually sitting down and just allowing time to go by whilst discussing, reading, or just taking a moment for oneself is probably the healthiest meditation in today’s hectic city life.

The history of the “Kaffeehaus” is closely connected to the end of the Viennese Siege in 1683. Legends have it that Georg Franz Kolschitzky (1640 – 1694)  got then the first licence to serve coffee using beans left by the Turks. Some say that coffee was also called Turkish soup. The first coffee house though was opened by an Armenian Spy called Diodato. This reminds me of the later huge impact of the Austro-Hungarian empire and of its creative influences and exchanges with the East. These are still very much present in the Vienna of today.

Spirits and personalities all around

Walking down to the Hofburg, the Opera, the Burgtheater, the Albertina, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, up the Bastei, the Jewish Square, the Musikverein, the Museumsquartier, the Belvedere, the Naschmarkt, the Theater an der Wien, the Secession or Spittelberg, one experiences history all around. The Renaissance, the enlightenment years, the Habsburgs, the fin de siècle and it’s Jugendstil and the modern times too, all these can be seen and felt in Vienna. I can almost sense the spirits of Beethoven, Schubert, or Schiele, Klimt, Freud and many others walking around me.

Being a musician, I am very much aware of the number of composers who lived here throughout the centuries. Mozart of course, but also Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven are the big classics. I just love that walking through the city one can read on plates who lived in that or this house. Walking to Theater an der Wien, I not only read that Beethoven‘s Fidelio was first performed there but that he also lived in the building for a while. I had never realized that one could live there too. Beethoven’s name is in all kinds of places actually, as he moved quite a lot. Other composers lived and created here too: Bruckner, Mahler, Korngold, Schönberg and the second Viennese school, the Strauss family,… The list could go on and on. It is quite incredible actually how many musicians lived here.

Vienna, the Capital

Of course, I could compare parts of the old city, the first district, with for instance Salzburg. One also feels the presence of Mozart there. The major difference, however, is that Vienna is a city, a capital with a much wider scope of periods being felt. All different stages of growth are very clearly present in the various buildings and their architecture.  At one point this capital ruled over a major world empire, the Austro Hungarian Empire. It stretched way east to Bulgaria and Rumania and south all the way down to Syria. The influences and reactions to this huge empire on art and architecture are present all over the inner ring.

The Albertina going through time

A highlight representing the moving with the times was my visit to the Albertina. The Albertina used to be one of the biggest Palais of the Habsburgs in Vienna. Built on the remains of the city wall, it was used as a residence by Maria-Theresia’s favourite daughter, the Duchess Marie-Christine and her husband, the Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen. The Duke founded his collection in 1776, leaving upon his death in 1822 more than 14.000 drawings and 200.000 masterpieces including works by Dürer, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rubens, and Rembrandt. This is the central piece of the collection of the Albertina to this day and is the main attraction of the Museum. His nephew, Archduke Carl, administered and continued this collection, passing it on to his own son Albrecht upon his death. In turn, Archduke Frederick received the collection before having to let go of most of it in 1918, as Austria became a Republic.

 

In 1945, the museum was bombed. It was then partly rebuilt and partly newly built. The main attraction of the Albertina is, as mentioned earlier, the graphic Collection. The museum however also has big temporary exhibitions. My own visit was aimed to see the major Monet retrospective, which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, I won’t go into detail of it here, as that really deserves a post of its own. The big discovery for me though was when walking up to the Monet rooms, suddenly being in the living rooms of the Duke and Duchess. The wall tapestry, the carpets, the furniture, the paintings and lithographs of some of the artwork collected all make you understand that this was a residence lived in by great art lovers in the enlightenment period. It is a totally different world from the entrance and other section of the museum which are modern.

City of culture

I really could go on and on singing my praises to this city, but I really think each one should make their own impressions. What stroke me most is that culture is present all over here. For me, culture is identity, language, history, tradition, a way of thinking and of being, art in all its forms and education. I could experience all of this in Vienna. Is this unique to this city? This is an extremely hard question to answer, other cities have some of these attributes too. However, the amount of culture makes Vienna certainly a very strong contender for that first place. It makes me eager to discover more on my next visit.

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Stories, stories . . .

On the day when I was asked to contribute to this blog, I had by happy chance posted just a couple of hours earlier on Facebook about a children’s author who had attended our rehearsals for a production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” (she was there as a chaperone for her daughter), and ended up so inspired that she’d started writing a book based on what she’d experienced. I was thrilled by this, and ended the post with something like “art speaking to art”.

It’s something I feel passionate about, the way in which the arts can surprise each other, stimulating new ideas, waking us up to new possibilities, and ultimately connecting us in more and more interesting ways. We’re all telling stories, in our various ways, and the difference between a good story and a great one often lies in the details. Some of those details come from looking curiously at life as it passes, at the people we meet, at ourselves; others, given that we can’t experience everything for ourselves, come from the stories others tell. And the more different ways we can find of experiencing others’ stories, the richer our inner lives become, and the more we can tell our own stories in the most interesting way possible.

It’s a cumulative process, and one which definitely cannot be ordered and quantified (I like to think of it as similar to T. S. Eliot’s “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”.) You never know what might come to mind when, for example, trying to interpret an operatic role. An understanding of a particular facet of their nature might have come about from a character in a novel read decades ago; their bearing influenced by the beauty and pain of the ballet you last saw; a particular gesture cribbed from a painting seen in a foreign city; it’s all grist to the mill.

Of course, this applies to all of us, not just those who work in the arts. But I hope that a few of us who do can use this blog as an occasional place to drop in a few little words and hopefully inspire people out into the arts world to gather fragments and enrich all our lives. I personally can’t wait to read the children’s book I referred to in my first paragraph. Talk about shared stories! The author was inspired by our production, which was the combination of all our interpretations put together; we sang Puccini’s glorious music, which he set to a libretto by Giovacchino Forzano – and HE based his story on an incident in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”! Stories, stretching through history, being retold, embellished, refreshed, embroidered, twisted, watered down, peppered up, seen from a new angle – the more the merrier!

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Death in Trieste – A Tribute to Winckelmann in Munich

Tribute Winckelmann Munich

A little while ago I had some time to spend in Munich before catching the train back home. As a Greek who loves the ancient Greek element in Munich‘s buildings and museums, I was planning to go see the Greek landscapes in the Neue Pinakothek. King Ludwig I. commissioned them when his son Otto became the first King of Greece in the 1830s.

But then I happened to scroll through a cultural magazine and discover the announcement of an anniversary exhibition commemorating the 250th anniversary of Johann Joachim Winckelmann‘s death. The German Hellenist, who many consider as the founder of Art history and modern archaeology, was murdered in Trieste in 1768. I changed my plans and instead paid Munich’s Collection of Classical Antiquities (Antikensammlung) a visit.

The Antikensammlung in Munich

The State Collection of Antiquities on Munich‘s Königsplatz contains an exquisite collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman works of art and everyday objects. It provides a good overview of ancient art, from the Cycladic Culture of the Aegean region in the third century BC up to the late antiquity in the fifth century AD. Together with the Glyptothek, which is situated opposite the Antikensammlung and presents sculptures from the same period (currently closed for refurbishment), it showcases King Ludwig‘s I. passion for classical antiquity.

The Bavarian King‘s wish to turn Munich into a city of the arts was inspired by Winckelmann‘s guiding principle: „The only way for us to become great, or even inimitable if it is possible, is to imitate the ancients.“ When Ludwig I., not yet King, commissioned his art dealer in Rome to acquire works of art as to enlarge the collection of his family in the early 19th century, he listed 21 pieces that Winckelmann had discussed in his major work, “History of the Art of Antiquity”, written in 1764.

Winckelmann had developed a new historical structure of Ancient art from its beginnings to its decline, based on the chronological sequence of various styles. In Ancient Greek art, he saw the fulfillment of the task art should have in his opinion: the depiction of ideal beauty. He was the first to rely more on his own perception of ancient objects rather than the study of ancient sources as well as the first to view and interpret Ancient art through the eyes of Greek mythology instead of Roman history.

“Noble simplicity and quiet greatness” – Tracing Johann Joachim Winkelmann

An exhibition on somebody who, by profession, writes about art rather than creating works of art, obviously consists mostly of information around his person and his writings.  In the two halls of the Antikensammlung currently dedicated to the famous 18th-century German scholar, well written, informative texts are used to emphasize on Winckelmann’s importance for the reception of Ancient art in Central Europe and his influence on the future King Ludwig I. of Bavaria. A few sculptures or copies illustrate the works of art which became known to a wider audience through Winckelmann’s writings. Period furniture and chinaware inspired by Greek art complete the presentation.

Winckelmann’s sensory reception of ancient objects and belief in the liberal ancient Greek spirit had a big impact on Western writers, philosophers, sculptors, and painters. One of them was Swiss painter Angelika Kauffmann who became sought after as a portraitist after having portrayed Winckelmann in 1764.

Angelika Kauffmann – A female view of the ancient world

The presentation sets a second focus on the Neoclassical artist who specialized in historical paintings, finding her inspiration in Ancient mythology and participating in the reception of Homer. Influenced by Winckelmann’s less philological approach to Ancient art she chose her topics so as to evoke a higher empathy in her viewers. She thus broke with the tradition of the strong ancient hero. This, as well as her fascination for strong ancient women, display a notably female view on the Ancient world.

My thoughts on J. J. Winckelmann and Modern Greece

The visit to this exhibition awakened my interest in Winckelmann and his writings, which were perceived as a revelation by his contemporaries. The German scholar became the spiritual father of German Neoclassicism by insisting that Contemporary art should imitate Ancient art. His work on Greek art nourished the upcoming Philhellenism and thus contributed to the Greeks‘ uprising after 400 years of Ottoman rule.

But as proud as one might feel about the achievements of one’s ancestors and the interest later generations showed in them, I can’t get rid of the thought that Winckelmann’s approach also contributed to a strongly idealized view of Greece by Central Europeans, a picture that today’s Greece has trouble corresponding to.

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