Monday, January 10, 2011

Proust, Ralph Lauren, and the Sweet Torture of Memory


     When I eat macaroni with butter and ricotta cheese I am often transported to the distant past, to a happy childhood where my Mother regularly fed me this concoction on our terrace overlooking the emerald sea, in a garden filled with the fragrance of the lemons our home was famous for. Like most people my deepest sense of loss has involved loved ones who have departed this earth. In addition to this I have experienced real bereavement from the loss of loved things. Once I mourned the loss of my grapevines. Thankfully I did not lose the vines all at once, and it was so many years ago that the sting has now softened. If we live long enough we will see many things pass away.
My old attic - a place of memories, ghosts, and dreams.....
     As with loved ones and loved things we can also feel pain from the loss of a way of life or historic epoch that exists now only in memory. This pain is usually subtler than the other forms of loss, but it does exist and is often heart-wrenchingly poignant. Loss can also intermingle with what the Germans call sehnsucht - an indescribable, sometimes melancholic yearning or desire - almost as if something in our lives were missing. Years ago in Oxford I was at an informal meeting of The Inklings when I heard C.S. Lewis call the phenomenon "an inconsolable longing for I know not what." The Portuguese have a beautiful word for it - saudade - which roughly translates as "a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost." 
 La maison de Léves - the country house of Antiquarian Decorator Madeleine Castaing. In the 1930's Castaing acquired the nickname "reine de Puces" for her daily collecting at the Marche Jules-Valles in Paris - years before she opened her famous shop on the corner of Rue Jacob & Rue Bonaparte. 

      Back before the First War I was having a glass of absinthe in Normandy with the writer Marcel Proust when he told me that he had been reading about memories. He said that there are two types - deliberate memory - when we try consciously to remember something intellectually - and involuntary memory - those that are triggered by association. I mentioned to him about my Mother's pasta preparation and how it transports me back to her table and, with a grin he told me that, for him it was the taste of those little madeleine cakes when they're dipped in Linden tea - the way he used to have them as a child. As I'm sure you know, years later he retold this story in his masterpiece  À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU (In Search Of Lost Time) and it has become, perhaps, the most beautiful and well-known example of involuntary memory in the world. Proust's handling of this subject and his genius at stirring up our inconsolable longing has become a strong influence and inspiration for many subsequent artistic creations. As Georges LeMaitre wrote in his 1938 work Four French Novelists:

     "A great - perhaps the greatest - of Proust's writing is intended to show the havoc wrought in and round us by Time; and he succeeded amazingly not only in suggesting to the reader, but in making him actually feel the universal decay invincibly creeping over everything and everybody with a kind of epic and horrible power."

The Proust connection - Yves Saint Lauren, a great admirer of Proust,  created this interior for his Rue de Babylone apartment in 1972 with the help of Jacque Grange, a disciple of another designer devoted to Proust, Madeleine Castaing. 
     All these years later I find it amusing that two of my friends who were both trendsetting designers and lovers of contemporary art - the decorator Madeleine Castaing and the couturier Yves Saint Laurent - were amongst the biggest  devotees of Proust and his seduction of memory and the past. Once I was checking in at the Pierre Hotel on a visit to New York City when I ran into Saint Laurent. I thought it charming that Yves, in his shy manner, stopped me from calling him by name - he was traveling with a French passport under the name Swann, the central character of À LA RECHERCHE DU TEMPS PERDU.  And it was Castaing, on a visit to one of her storerooms on rue Cherche Midi, who told me,

"...nostalgia isn't so bad, it allows you to express things which come from the heart." 

1950's Inspiration - August 2010
     Beyond mere sentimentalism, this longing is within each of us - it is part of the mystery of life - and I believe that an element of great art is to arouse it in us. If you think that this all sounds a little too  mystical I can tell you that tangible evidence of this longing surrounds us in our consumer culture - manifesting itself in a myriad of creative expressions and merchandising efforts.             
60's remix from Mathew Williamson
Although fashion is all about change, the allure of the new, and the present moment, we see an enormous amount of retro, vintage, and revival styles in the market. These are not all the result of a lack of imagination as many wrongly suppose - in fact, it is a sophomoric mistake to think that, in order for something to be original, it must not look like anything that has been seen before. Last summer's wave of 50's inspired dresses, Mathew Williamson's hot Bohemian 60's style, Tom Ford's sexy 70's glam, and Ralph Lauren's eternal aristocratic dream all tap deep emotions mixing nostalgia and longing with up-to-the-minute style for the present.
RALPH LAUREN - comfort food for WASP wannabes


 And so it is that, for me and many others, memories real and imagined are an important way to live in the present while looking towards the future. I must leave you now - it is time for me to go to sleep on this cold January night. All this reminiscing has gotten me longing for my beloved cousin's estate in Sicily, when the scent of jasmine filled the air on those warm summer nights....which was so like the ballroom scene in Visconti's rendition of Lampedusa's Leopard, of which I leave you with a short clip. 
Buona notte.  

VILLA AMALFITANA - La Costa delle sirene (Electa Napoli).
 Attic - MAISON de FAMILLE by Christiane de Nicolay-Mazery & Bernard Touillon (Editions du Chene).
La maison de Leves - Chateaux de France (Chene) 
Saint Laurent Apartment - Les paradis secrets d'Yves Saint Laurent et de Pierre Berge (Albin Michel).
Louis Vuitton advertising - French Elle - Août 2010
Mathew Williamson for H&M - google images.
Ralph Lauren Menswear -
Ralph Lauren Home ad - World Of Interiors, September 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Michelangelo, Michael Jackson, and How Arts & Crafts Might Help Save The World

I apologize in advance for my poor language skills - I am a visual creature more than a verbal one and I've been plagued with terrible grammar all my life. I also beg your forgiveness if I sometimes seem an egoist; I pray daily for deliverance from my insufferable vanity with limited success. I therefore beseech you in this, my first correspondence for Talianna, to overlook my faults in the hope that you might find something worthwhile in what I have to share.


     I have been asked to write about Arts & Crafts for this blog – probably because I’ve been a student of both all my life and, when you have lived as long as I have you witness a great many things. While I have been given a free rein when it comes to the subjects I write about, I’m not sure that my ‘keepers’ are prepared for my unpredictable digressions. For example, as I sit down to write about Arts & Crafts I start to daydream about the history of craft and how much I've seen change regarding how we view craft, work, and even Nature itself. This gets me thinking about our planet and the big question on everyone's mind these days - can our planet survive Mankind's abuses much longer? In July 2009 it was believed that there were 6.8 billion people on earth – with 212,035 new people born each day. How can we sustain such growth – particularly when we consider the rapid advance of industrialization and consumerism?  Don’t get me wrong, in my lifetime I have seen how technology has created healthier lives for hundreds of millions, so please don't think that I'm anti-technology. I knew Ned Ludd and I’m no Luddite (more on Ned later)! It is generally accepted that technology and industry have given Man a much improved standard of living, but the true cost of this development is only now becoming understood – and it might be too much for our planet to bear. Rampant consumerism has led many of us to acquire a whole lot of junk – and now the rest of the world wants the fashion & entertainment we few enjoy! How can the world endure such abusive waste? How did we get to this point? Is there a solution? Well, I've become a firm believer that some old world Arts & Crafts can help us as we seek to invent a new model for growth and a cleaner, more sustainable existence. 


     When I was a boy in Italy during an era we now call the Renaissance my father had a friend – the well-known Humanist Leon Battista Alberti - who advanced the idea that Man as an individual is limitless in his capacity to develop – that "a man can do all things if he wills.” As simple as this now sounds it was revolutionary at the time and it unleashed a wave of confidence and optimism that led to, arguably, the greatest age of discovery and artistic outpouring the world has ever known. Individual achievement and the creative process began to be valued much more than it had in the past  - and the authority of Church & State could now be challenged by individuals. (at their peril). Suddenly people like my friend, the sculpture Michelangelo who, only a generation earlier would have been considered a glorified ‘church painter,’ were being celebrated as superstars of creative genius.



     Through the years I continued to watch as this idea of Renaissance Humanism evolved and permeated the cultures of Europe and her newly established Colonies around the world. I remember being in France in 1661 when André Le Nôtre showed me his designs for Louis XIV’s garden at the Château de Versailles. In them Le Nôtre illustrated how Man can force Nature to bend to His will and, to the Monarch’s delight, symbolically showed the Sun King’s absolute sovereignty over his realm. In this new Age of Reason the natural world was no longer a place in which Man was trying to survive within Nature – instead Man would control Nature and dominate it, using its resources for His enjoyment and pleasure. Most people now believed that God created the Universe and gave Man  dominion over the earth, setting the Monarchies to govern Man as Man ruled over Nature.

     By the 18th century Man had invented ways to harness the natural world with great beneficial effect. All sorts of newly invented machines replaced hand labor and, as productivity increased so did living standards - the Industrial Revolution had begun.  

        The social impact of this revolution was enormous and craftspeople immediately felt their ancient ways of life threatened. In the second half of the 18th century a new artistic, literary, and intellectual movement called Romanticism emerged and began pushing back against the effects of increasing  urbanization  and industrialization by looking back at all that had been lost since the Middle Ages. As early as 1812 skilled handloom weavers in England revolted - smashing and burning the new wide-framed automated looms that could be operated by less expensive, unskilled labor. They called themselves Luddites after the weaver Ned Ludd who, it was said, had smashed some looms years earlier (I happen to know that Ned broke those looms as a rebellion against his father – Ned wasn’t a revolutionary at all – he just hated weaving!). So, while many benefits accrued from increased industrial output our civilization began losing something vital – a connection with nature and handwork – and this loss increased as the earth continued to turn, the seasons changed, and industrialization intensified.


     During the next hundred years I spent a lot of time in England, where the Industrial Revolution had  started, and I watched as London and other cities grew larger, the factories grew more pervasive, and handcrafted traditions disappeared in the wake of mass production. I saw how Mankind became aware, right from the start, that we were losing something important amidst the gains technology brought us. Amongst my circle of friends was the painter Edward Burn-Jones who was so alarmed at the changes he saw happening in the Decorative Arts that he and William Morris helped start the Arts & Crafts Movement which pursued the authenticity found in handmade folk traditions and Medievalism.

In 1895 I was urged to visit  a place in New York called Roycroft - a community of crafts workers and artists founded by Elbert Hubbard. I sat with Hubbard discussing the phenomenon of mass production and how it had steadily  gained strength in America during and after the Civil War. When I commented that, although these large quantities  of standardized products being made in the new factories could be criticized as lacking 'personality,' it was good that their relatively high quality  and  low cost allowed workers to afford what used to be considered luxuries. Hubbard replied saying, 

"One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man."

And with those words of Elbert Hubbard floating in my head I sit here today - daydreaming in the 21st century - as Industrialization spreads throughout the Earth via the phenomenon of Globalization. Nowadays even the most remote corners of our globe are connected, controlled, assessed, and gleaned of their resources. As we lose more and more of our world's cultural and natural diversity, as our planet groans beneath the weight of Man's abuse, as we struggle to improve global poverty, health, and the environment - I believe that Arts & Crafts offer some answers. And it pleases me to know that I am not alone, that many feel that we would do well to recover some of what we have lost...that Arts & Crafts can help save the world. As I wind this up I leave you with a relevant song from Michael Jackson and A quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky I saw in ABOVE  magazine: "Beauty will save the world."

Portrait of Piro Amalfitanna by Raphael (originally thought to be the banker Bindo Altoviti) Washington National Gallery of Art (google images).
Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Vatican City, Rome (google images).
Jardin de Versailles (google images)
Frame Breaking - 1812 (wikimedia Commons)