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Σάββατο 22 Φεβρουαρίου 2020

The ontology of evil in the works of Cavafy, Hockney, Bacon

 Hockney, Cavafy, 1968

I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.

I didn’t want to stay

in Alexandria. Tamides left me...

(In the tavernas, 1926)

It makes sense. All metaphysics are concerned with what will happen next. The ontology, on the other hand is about what has happened before. The modernist themes of Cavafy, Bacon and Hockney discuss more or less what is happening in the time being and what are the ways that make it happen. It is natural. The body as both a wish and a wear and tear, together with its corresponding mythology being dominant since the cycle of the body is covering the entire spectrum of time that each of us deserves. Neither before or after, but now. We live long enough to condense into our lives the Entire Time, to condense History. In a way that history begins with our birth and ends with our departure from this world. These concepts run through modernism defining the affected person as metaphysics as well as the ontology of evil.
  • How can there be history after me?
  • -Since I'm going to die, how can I live? Doesn't this thought constitute an absurdum;

Art is the raft to sail across not the sea of ​​life but the swamp of death. Happiness and pleasure are mortgaged to decay. This can be nothing other than evil. What we may call the ontological evil. Or, if you prefer, a different face of death in a pleasant disguise. That takes very little but costs too much.
In Cavafy and Bacon, despite the value of life experience, frustration is lurking. Nothing is really happening now rather than the memory of wasted passion. Art as a mausoleum of desire presenting erotic bodies, stuffed shadows. Though Kant-according to the ontological duality (Marcel Gauchet1)-, first elaborated the wild beast, the man under Nietzsche2, should invent, should justify and bear himself the good and the evil, the moderation and the limits3. Since God is dead ... no one is exempt from the troubles and dangers of self-configuration. As an example to that stand Cavafy, Bacon, Hockney and their work. If evil is not the non-being, the non existent, as alleged by Philo the Alexandrian, then probably exists as something that has already happened and concerns weakness and deprivation (Dionysius the Areopagite). It becomes the evil demon of Descartes who resides in doubt (malicious demon - malin génie), whilst Kant's root evil meets the thought of Schopenhauer who believes deeply that life itself is evil (böse).
What we are is what we desire, says Lacan, so the fulfillment of desire is an early form of evil since we ignore what we really want. We simply acquire consciousness of desire through language. As beings who have wills and desires we only live its deprivation (manque à être) ...
-So is evil anything else but the illusion that hides the only truth you are entitled to, your death?
It sounds paradoxical, but it is rather true. Although CP Cavafy was known in the West by EM Forster during the second decade of the last century - through his Oxford classmate George Valassopoulos- what really made him famous in the late 60s was an unknown painter back then named David Hockney. How?
By illustrating with a very special way some "erotic" poetry of the Alexandrian (Illustrations for Fourteen Poems by CP Cavafy, Alecto editions, 1967). In essence, he made twelve engravings and aquatints which attributed in a plain, linear way the poet's lukewarm rooms, the youthful couples, the teen bodies of lovers, the lust. Above all that. Hockney, a homosexual himself, captured completely and without guilt the poet's unique environment and designed the images as innocently as a Fra Angelico of the twentieth century. The desire, the pleasure, the fatigue after love, the twilight, the sudden patches of sunlight on the wall, the wet sheets, the bodies that smell like flowers. He also captured the ambience of the multi-cultured East where Cavafy lived and worked and which he embedded in his verses with love but also with a sense of superiority. With his own consciousness of history. His poems are always full of innuendos, insinuations, anachronisms, historical reconstructions, "journalistic" information that could also be personal confessions; better yet he seems to hide himself in a corner, in a bend-and secretly laughing behind our backs. As if he is saying, "Find what I mean.". Hockney understands his wink and reciprocates not like a homosexual to a homosexual but as an artist to artist. That scared but arrogant and courageous young man accomplishes to completely lay claim to Cavafy4. From that moment onwards, the poet's illustrations (or portraits) will be full of greatness, historical accuracy, adequate design, if you prefer, or even mystery or drama ( the elder man of Alexandria incredibly amused himself with the mask he had directed for his fans) but will not have this playing atmosphere, the humor and the lust or even the sexual excitement. For Cavafy, Hockney's drawings are just one of the many incidentals (visual arts, film studies, other poems, myths, other prose etc.) that arise from his work. For Hockney those forms and themes will dominate his painting and will provide him with recognition as the indisputable protagonist of Pop Art on both sides of the Atlantic. It will also introduce triumphantly Cavafy into gay communities of the UK and U.S. initiating relative names as Warhol, Rauschenberg, Capote, Ginsberg etc. The era of Liberalism passes by the artistic neighbourhoods to universities and from there to the media and the general public. Andy Warhol simply made trendy, colorful portraits of Alexander the Great, Alexander Iola, of Marylin, of Nixon, etc. Cavafy never had the need for 15 minutes of fame. Eternity was enough for him.

Hockney, In a dull village, 1967

But why prints and not drawings to illustrate the poems? I think Hockney was aware of the famous engraving of John Kefallinos and indirectly he comments on it through his personal style. Note: not the photo (like that of Michael. Tompros) but the artwork. Not the implicit, but the metaphor. As he narrates he was just a little boy (born in 1937) when he first read the poetry of Cavafy on the back of Lawrence Durrell (apparently the "Alexandrian Quartet"). He then looked for the complete works of the poet in the library of Bradford, his native city and stole (sic) the copy. It was in the mid 50s. Since then, many of his early works are based on the Alexandrian's poems, as for example some engravings of '61 entitled "Kaisarion and all his beauty" and "Mirror, Mirror on the Wall" which illustrated the poem "The mirror at the entrance" 1930 (the project today in Tate).
Finally the painting that was obviously inspired by Cavafy "A Grand Procession of Dignitaries in Semi-Egyptian Style" set forth at a student exhibition of the Royal College under the title "Young Contemporaries" in 1962. An indicative detail of metaphysics that scans the art market as well: Hockney sold the painting in 1964 for 110 pounds. The same painting was sold again in 1989 at the price of $ 2.2 million. In 1963, Hockney visited Cairo, Luxor and Alexandria in quest of pleasure and inspiration. In January 1966, he is for the same reasons in Beirut where he has created many drawings from life with pen and ink.
So as if he has been long prepared and courageous he undertakes illustrations for poems about Alecto and carves about twenty plates. Finally, twelve engravings will be included in the 1967 version, as 500 limited copies, one of which is a portrait of the poet. The first 250 which were actually "Loose-leaf" included a second portrait of Cavafy. After many troubles (limited editions) and several adventures that made their creator famous, the plates were donated to MOMA in New York. Note that the translation of the erotic Cavafy was a work of Mr N. Stangos (1936-2004) and, later sir, Stephen Harold Spencer (1909-1995), writer, activist and friend of WH Auden, Ted Hughes, V. Woolf, T.S. Eliot, etc. ..
Cavafy, obviously, brings luck to Hockney: in 1967, he is awarded with the John Moores painting prize while in 1968 the Art Council commissions a short documentary about his engravings under the title "Loves Presentations". James Scott takes it on as the filmmaker. In 2010, one of Hockney's engravings, the "In the dull village" (1925) was included in the famous series of the BBC and the British Museum: "A History of the World in 100 Objects". It was object number 97 and was suggested by the director of the museum, the grand Neil McGregor5.
For the Alecto edition, in 1966, Hockney illustrates among others the poems (Two Boys Aged 23 or 24)/1927, (He Enquired after the quality)/1930, (The Shop Window of a Tobacco)/1917, (According to th Prescription of Ancient Magicians)/1931, (In Despair)/1923, (Beautiful and White Flowers)/1921, etc. It is clear that the selected poems come from Cavafy's senile, more mature and self confessing period. As an elegy to the youthful love, that is now being dismissed. As a reminiscence of the approaching procession. Hockney paints his own Alexandria, inspired by his travels in Egypt and Beirut. He reproduces the Arab and English inscriptions, he creates portraits of friends, modernises Cavafy by placing his lovers in a bedroom somewhere in Notting Hill. His own, rather British, orientalism is clearly different from that of Edward Said's . The book is printed in 1966 but released in 1967, in the year when the law in England and Wales is against the homosexuals. This edition makes Hockney known from one day to another (clips from related interviews are saved on Youtube) and restores the mythical Cavafy under different conditions. It is the time when Bacon and his sadomasochistic homosexual world prevail. It is the frame - not the "body" abstractly – that regains its rights ...

This little pencil sketch –

it’s certainly him.

It was done quickly, one long

charmed afternoon

on the Ionian. Yes, I’d say

it caught his looks –

though I remember him more handsome;

so must the sensualist, you’d say

he was lit up with it... Yes, he looks

so much more handsome,

now my heart recalls him

from so long ago.

It has always been the body and its loss.

The aging of my body and my beauty
is a wound from a merciless knife.

Bacon, Study for a self-portrait, 1980

Evangelos Moutsopoulos observes: The mental pain is not about the upcoming demise of the body, but about the loss of its ideal beauty6. No, this drawing could not have been made by Hockney. Nor he refers to the aesthetics of Notting Hill. This bittersweet taste of recollection is better fitted to Tsarouhis. And it was the icon that began to take on the custody of reality ...

Manos Stefanidis
Professor, University of Athens

1 Marcel Gauchet, Le Désenchantement du monde. Une histoire politique de la religion, Gallimard, Paris, 1985
2 Friedrich Nietzsche, Zur Geneologie der Moral, Leipzig, 1930, p. 318
3 Linde Salber: Lou Andreas-Salomé. Biographie. Rowohlt, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1990
4 Manos Stefanidis, Ζωγραφίζοντας την επιθυμία, ο Hockney για τον Καβάφη, περιοδικό Το Δέντρο, καλοκαίρι 2013, σ. 59
5 Μάνος Στεφανίδης, Ζωγραφίζοντας την επιθυμία, ο Hockney για τον Καβάφη, περιοδικό Το Δέντρο, καλοκαίρι 2013, σ. 59

6 E. Moutsopoulos, Le temps dans l'univers cavafien, Annales de la faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines d'Aix, pp 5-9

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