The Root of Cool

May 17, 2008

Henri-Paul Motte, Vercingetorix

Vercingetorix Surrendering to Caesar by Henri-Paul Motte 1886

It’s almost impossible not to empathize with Vercingetorix. Standing in front of this huge painting, you gaze up at him with that wild hair and his noble savage bearing and you just ache for him.You imagine what must be going through his mind as he must dismount in front of all those lined up troops with the judgmental eyes beneath those dented helmets and take that long walk through the gauntlet to hand his sword to Julius Caesar, seated on a red dais way in the background of the painting. The artist, a French painter few have ever heard of, one Henri-Paul Motte, grabs your heartstrings in a carefully constructed moment of intense drama. He plucks the sympathy from you with a pizzicato poignancy laden with cliché – but he has created something beguiling none the less.

This painting is not “high art.” The chic French aristocrat I later spoke with said it was in her old-fashioned schoolbooks. This painting begs for smug smiles. It is naïve, kitsch; a comic book of a canvas. I don’t care. I really liked it because it was one of the few things in the exhibition in Venice at the Palazzo Grassi of Roma: I Barbari (“Rome: The Barbarians”) that reached out in a friendly way to grab my attention.

I’ve seen some really great exhibitions at the Palazzo Grassi. Exhibitions in which I really learned something. This, alas, was not one of them. I had made a valiant effort. It was not my fault the handy guide was available only in Italian and French. I read every one of the exhibition descriptors that was in English but most of them were disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, there were a ton of great objects. Tribal jewelry, primitive yet elegant barbarian crowns, lots of little golden charms and semi precious stoned buttons and funky talismans and richly corroded swords and mysterious tools and wonderful helmets. But for the most part, due to a lack of descriptors, the many beautiful objects remained mute and inscrutable behind the glass. There were some exceptions. Hannibal’s spectacularly huge round shield, which shone the color of reflected zinc, needed no explanation. It was so highly charged with battlefield charisma it practically blinded you. But I was grateful to Henri-Paul Motte’s Vercingetorix painting for its bell-clear emotional beauty. The highly narrative canvas captivated me for one simple reason. Unlike the rest of the exhibition – it told a story.

So what is wrong with this sort of art? The art history professor would tell you it is simple and clichéd. It has all the subtlety and depth of a chocolate croissant. What is right with this sort of art? The same thing. It reveals itself all at once and draws you in. It has abundant guileless charm. Sort of like a Sherlock Holmes mystery; perfect non-think entertainment. So why am I writing about this? What can I say? The painting grabbed me. It told a story and it got me thinking about how enjoyable a good story really is and how discovering “the narrative” in art is a great way to learn.

Concentrating upon the narrative is a great first step in looking at a painting. I suppose in “reading” a painting, you must logically begin with a story. It is a way for the artist to attract your attention. The narrative becomes an on-ramp for a more subtle experience. The art history professor would encourage us to pay attention to more sophisticated painters. Guys like Poussin, and Caravaggio. Wow! They pack real artistic force behind the narrative punch. They can knock you flat. And the best thing is, every time you look at them you see something more, something profound, something life changing. The narrative sucks you in but the mastery and command of their artistic craft delivers so much more than a simple story.


Caravaggio, David & Goliath, Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna

The narrative however, provides the foundation. It is the super model inside the designer dress. One enhances the other. The libretto in opera, the plot in a novel, the “itinerary” in a building. If these are intriguing, or spectacular, then all the other gifts of the artist, musician, designer, and architect are truly able to flourish.

The movie poster is a great example. The good billboard is another. Every ad you liked in the super bowl hooked you with a good story or a clever idea. The TV commercial has destroyed our attention span, we now want our stories in 30 second “blink” spots. Forget the four hour opera, who has the time? I envy the attention span in a rapt opera audience, it is a rare and wonderful thing.

In Filmmaking we all think of ourselves as storytellers. Only the truly cool transcend the story. The TV commercial formula trains us to expect that quick fix, known as “Beginning” (what are you hungry for when you don’t know what you’re hungry for?) “Middle” (side effects may include . . .) and “End” (your mileage may vary). Antonioni hated that idea. He just liked the middle, no beginning, certainly no end. Just gorgeous, redolent middle please. David Lynch, on the other hand, just likes to take the narrative and tease you with it. He tosses in a dwarf, a funhouse hallway and a few floating Olphelia-like corpses and laughs his ass off as you try in vain to figure it out.

In modern art the narrative is sometimes equally hard to find. In some cases it has deliberately been removed or obscured. The narrative rules of engagement are mostly broken in abstract painting. This art becomes harder or sometimes impossible to read. I think this is why many of us feel intimidated about contemporary art. We say, “I just don’t get it.” As if it were an obscure joke. Well, it is pretty hard not to “get” the Vercingetorix painting. On the other hand, a white on white painting by Robert Rauschenburg, (who died last week) initially comes off as a bad joke – easy to make fun of because the narrative is almost impossible to find.

I think you could easily argue a lack of a narrative, or a deliberately obscured one, is a form of it’s own “anti-story.” Consider this exchange from William Gibson’s new book, Spook Country:

“She was looking at the crazily elaborated black-letter work down the outside of both his forearms. She could make absolutely no sense of it. “Alberto, what does that actually say, on your arms?”



“It was designed by an artist in Tokyo. He does these alphabets, abstracts them till they’re completely unreadable. The actual sequence was generated randomly.”

Later on in the novel Gibson says, “Secrets are the very root of cool.”

He should know all about such things, he coined the term Cyberspace. Spook Country is a really good read and his descriptions of a new kind of “locative” art (you need goggles and a cyber helmet to see it) are truly fascinating. One NYT critic says Gibson is “like Raymond Chandler . . . an intoxicating stylist.” An apt comparison, but expect this hypercool Raymond Chandler to be slightly whacked on psychotropics chased with Ativan instead of good old fashioned private dick hipflask bourbon.

robert_rauschenberg_seated_on_untitled_1 copy

Photograph of Robert Rauschenberg seated on Untitled (Elemental Sculpture) with White Painting (seven panel) behind him at the basement of Stable Gallery, New York (1953). © Photograph: Allan Grant, Life Magazine © Time Warner Inc/Robert Rauschenberg/VAGA, New York and DACS, London 2006

The Rauschenberg White on White paintings referenced above are too old to be a shocker anymore. The Guggenheim Museum said of these paintings,

“In the summer of 1951 Robert Rauschenberg created his revolutionary White Paintings at Black Mountain College, near Asheville, North Carolina. At a time when Abstract Expressionism was ascendant in New York, Rauschenberg’s uninflected all-white surfaces eliminated gesture and denied all possibility of narrative or external reference.

The White Paintings shocked the artistic community at Black Mountain, and word of the “scandal” spread to the New York art world . . . While generally misunderstood at the time, the works were highly influential for Rauschenberg’s frequent collaborator, the composer John Cage. Under the sway of the Buddhist aesthetics of Zen, Cage interpreted the blank surfaces as “landing strips” or receptors for light and shadow, and was inspired to pursue the corresponding notion of silence and ambient sound in music.”

Cage’s silent piece composition is a conceptual friend to me. I listen to it every time the concert is about to start. That, as you probably know, was the piece. He began the concert, nothing was played, and you listened to the sound of the hall, the coughing, the restlessness of the audience. Brilliant. Cage said,

“To whom it may concern, the white paintings came first, my silent piece came later . . . Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look, this is an American discovery. Is when Rauschenberg looks an idea? Rather it is an entertainment in which to celebrate unfixity . . . Ideas are not necessary; it is better not to have one.”

I’ve seen enough Contemporary Art to relax a bit if I can’t understand the narrative. It’s sort of like an at first difficult book (like Spook Country or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest). Sometimes if you relax a bit and just keep reading, it grows on you and then it becomes your favorite thing. Sometimes just wondering where the heck your disgust, or your bafflement, or your queasy gut reaction is coming from is enough to send off a warning bell that something interesting is going on. But finding the narrative, or trying to find it, is a great way to increase your attention span.

Rauschenberg played with this idea years ago when he literally erased a drawing by one of his heroes, Willem de Kooning. The painting was a watershed in Conceptual Art, the narrative contained not so much in the painting but in the audacious idea. The concept makes you curious. What the heck is this thing about? What is going on here? And then, of course, my favorite thing to do is to find a smart person and ask. (Which is pretty much what I get to do for a living.)

For a fabulous video interview with Rauschenberg which touches on the White Paintings and tells the story of his (in)famous painting of the “erased” deKooning look here (I wish I had done this! I think it was done by Chris Granlund of the BBC, in 1997) :

For a podcast about Rauschenberg with the truly genius art critic Dave Hickey check out

When you stop and consider all the time and money you spend on entertainment in all its forms (just take a look sometime at what you bought last year on Amazon) how much of that entertainment depended upon “the narrative?” All of it? I’m curious. And, if “the narrative” is so important, what is its role? You could make the case that the better your ability to recognize, interpret, decode, and “read” the narrative the more you are able to appreciate an art form.

Or, is it just a vehicle for some other combined package of craft or experience? Can a good narrative carry the day or is it just a hook to hang the art upon? I long for your thoughts on this.

Until next time, I remain your,


P.S. This just in.

All For One, the Telos film on the history of the Cleveland Clinic, narrated by Edward Herrmann, just won a Silver Telly Award, the highest honor from this contest which recieves over 14,000 entries.



  • Hartmut says:

    In regard to the Vercingetorix Surrendering to Caesar by Henri-Paul Motte 1886 painting I wonder if and when the TRUE history will ever be written. After all most, if not all, of our s0-called GREATS where nothing but brutal butchers of women, children and men, and Caesar was one of the worst.

  • Liz Hager says:


    Yet another far-reaching piece with well-expressed comments to boot! As someone who counts both Caravaggio and Rothko (and many in between) on her “best loved” list, I offer two more observations about abstract art. First, it invites the viewer to make up his/her own narrative, which can be truly powerful fodder for the psyche. Second, why shouldn’t a purely emotional response be justification enough to validate a work of (abstract) art?

    Caravaggio, as masterful a painter as he was, never has evoked for me, as a Rothko has, flights of joy while contemplating the wonder and mystery and excitement that is our world. Maybe it’s those reds. . . . For me this turns out to be the richest narrative of all.

  • Martha Towns says:

    I was really sorry to read about Robert Rauschenberg’s death. I was blown away when I happened into the Met in New York the day they opened the Lila Acheson Wallace wing and talked my way, as a journalist, into the press preview. There I saw his three and a half furlongs which blew my mind. He was always present on Captiva where we spent time but I actually met him at a gallery in Naples. He certainly influenced a generation of artists.

    Martha Towns is a popular and articulate columnist who regularly writes for Currents

  • Susan Miller says:

    It is always curious and enjoyable to hear the stories associated with works of art. But I am not sure that art needs them except to buoy them along and help others get a handle on them.

    For 25 years I presented and produced dance works. More than theater with its “words”, literature also with words (even when it is postmodernist – Barthelme comes to mind or poetry), music which can often have a catchy tune – a melody that one can carry home on one’s ear, more than visual art which can be photographed and revisited again and again – dance has an obscure ephemeral nature. Think of a gesture or a posture in a dance performance that sticks in your mind. Most likely it is a still point or a moving figure that has been photographed. You have looked at it much longer than it actually happened in the moment you saw it onstage. So the works have their lives in the moments of performance – each one different. Modern dance especially is a form where people go to the theater expecting to see just movement and are prepared to not find the “hook” or narrative. These works like many works of modern art, cubism, constructivism, abstract expressionism, etc. seem unintelligible to many unschooled onlookers. Nonetheless they are, as was mentioned previously, puzzles for puzzle solvers or for others, pure enjoyment of the form, color, composition, accomplishment of the artist. Sometimes there are stories.

    My company members and I developed relationships with several choreographers over the years. We looked at miles of video tape to select the works the company would perform. Because dance is the poor stepchild of the arts – these videos of dances were often blurry, with tiny moving figures – taken from one camera at the back of the house so as to capture the full proscenium. This however proved to be a good way to chose works. The dances somehow (because of their strong architecture) communicated to us despite dark and dire recording conditions. Once the choreographers came to teach the works, a rich banquet inevitably unfolded. But try to get a choreographer to tell you what the dance is “about”. Forget it. Choreographers are probably the staunchest when it comes to directing the eye of the viewer. They want you to see what you see and be satisfied with that. So it was always fascinating to eventually discover the roots of these processes that finally became dances. One such choreographer is Jose Bustamante. We had been rehearsing his dance Unending Rose for months, and it was the night before the work opened that I casually asked him what launched the work, what influenced him in making the dance. He said, “When I was in high school, I read Borghes’ story The Aleph”. That was it – that was all he would give me. The next morning I went to the library and checked out the book before rehearsals for the opening began. I read it to see if we were achieving any of the references he might have intended. Yes indeed, we were, but the work alone was and continued to be a thing in itself – no need for the reference. It was always a crowd pleaser and a work into which many stories were inserted by viewers. So the work had a story, but not a literal story. It was a stand alone as many works we performed were. David Dorfman’s Kilter it turns out was based on the fact that his mother developed MS and as a result his family was thrown off kilter; the work therefore was “about” finding balance. It was stunning in its abstract form, though, without this factoid. Doug Varone’s work Care was based on his grandmother and great aunt who lived together all their lives – his great aunt has contracted rheumatic fever as a child and had been developmentally delayed; she needed her sister’s care day in and day out throughout their lives. But these stories were never told to audiences – audiences were, as visitors to a gallery are, invited to add their own layers to the works. Viewers were touched by the performances in their own personal ways unaware of the narratives.

    Over the years, I had many occasions to consider audience reactions to modern dance. “What is, where is the story?”, they would ask. In ballet, there is a story. I think that ballet’s story is perhaps even more difficult to “see” today. We do not speak that gesture and posture language anymore, one has to read the story in the program and then make the arduous effort to identify the twists and turns of the plot as they are interpreted by the dancers and choreography. Some later ballets (Balanchine for example) is pure music visualization – phew, I can rest and enjoy! Archive that work for balletomanes – that’s my feeling. Let the works of today’s choreographers – the works with untold stories or the hidden seed of an idea as its launch pad stretch the minds and eyes and ears of today’s viewers. Watch a bit of the dance work of French choreographer Philippe Decouflé and see if you care about the narrative, make your own or are frustrated by not knowing what in the world this guy is getting at. You’ll have to navigate to “la galerie” in this flash site to view the videos.

    I enjoy learning the stories. They are the ephemera that keeps art historians in business, they are the research that engages those who have already been caught by the hook of the work itself. If the work does not on its own engage, capture, enthrall the likelihood of ever discovering that narrative is diminished. Who cares to know? OK probably some obscure theoretician looking for the security of a tenured position in the ivory tower of academia.

    How does one “see” art without one’s own filters? I can’t begin to imagine. This is the beauty and benefit of art, all arts to me. Interpretation and new levels of appreciation are left to me – these experiences are personal, can be private even. How many copies of Eliot’s The Four Quartets have I worn out reading and rereading them until the slim volumes fell apart? No one reading was the same, more and more was revealed as I grew older and amassed more experience. Even this bit of Eliot taken out of context is beautiful and telling in a wholly different way:

    Words strain,

    Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

    Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

    Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

    Will not stay still.

    Perhaps I am simply afflicted with movement disease. Art, how we “see it” is all always changing as we are changing. The narrative can at some point add to our appreciation, but I might suspect that some, knowing more, might put this information in a drawer and return to their own personal narrative, developed through their own filters, appreciating the work because of the way in which it touched or touches them in the moment regardless of what other information is available. I always read the program notes after the curtain is down.

    Susan founded the professional modern dance ensemble, The Repertory Project, in 1987 as an outgrowth of her work with dance students at Cleveland State University. Her blog can be found at –TB

  • Steve Ellis says:

    I am not accomplished in any of the arts so my take is from a completely different perspective. I think the “narrative”/”art form” split is fundamentally tied up with how we are wired. The man-ape that could actually figure out what was going on around him or her, and make the right decision based on ambiguous information, would have a natural advantage. The result is puzzle solving and pattern identification being at the center of what our brains want and need to do. I submit we are looking for the “narrative” in everything we see. It’s why when we were kids the coat over the chair in a dark bedroom turned into a monster. Our brains will take ambiguous information and try to turn it onto something we can recognize and respond to- like monsters. Or faces in clouds.

    So, my theory goes, if we’re confronted by an ambiguous work of art, our subconscious immediate gets to work trying to find the “meaning”. And finding a meaning (I don’t think it’s important that we get it right) is very pleasurable- unsolved mysteries make us uncomfortable.

    I believe our delight in solving puzzles is why we seek information in complicated packages- if the “meaning” is obvious, our attention wanders. . It’s why “Law and Order” or (Henny Youngman’s standup), is so unsatisfying- pure narrative; nothing to figure out. And it’s why films like “The Usual Suspects” are so satisfying- where the screenwriters keep us uneasy right until the end, when they finally reveal the last piece of the puzzle, so we can see the whole. If we’re confronted by a blank canvas, (or an erased deKooning) there are no “facts” to reassemble into a narrative , so we make them up, creating our own narrative as to what the artist must have been up to, or what all this means is the broader scheme of things. Or maybe that’s just me.

    Steve Ellis is a partner in the law firm of Tucker, Ellis & West – TB

  • Bruce Leimsidor says:


    I wonder if you are not creating a bit of confusion in our understanding of the role of narrative in art by mixing together music, the visual arts, and literature. Whether we remain with the narrowest definition of narrative, “telling a story,” or extend it to mean “the way in which the work of art relates to the world around it,” the role of narrative is essentially different in each of the three genres.

    Music seems to be almost pure form. Although how it relates to our thoughts and emotions seems to have some cultural referent— Asian music is at first “unreadable” to uninitiated Westerners, XVIII century musical expressions of anger and rage, e.g. the Queen of the Night’s Hölle Rache, do not necessarily evoke those emotions today —, it generally neither tells a story nor directly evokes an existential situation. Even in opera, the music generally exists above and beyond the text of the libretto, and even the profoundest sadness produced by a tragedy in real life is essentially different from the cosmic, intellectualized sadness evoked by the third movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata. (Furthermore, you don’t really have to know that Beethoven was deaf when he wrote it; it is music that studiously avoids seducing the ear. It’s music that goes directly to the brain and to the heart, or maybe to the soul.)

    Literature, on the other hand, even at its most plotless or Gertrude Stein at her most formalist, is, by definition, made of words, and hence, can’t escape constant reference to our world. Its building blocks are taken from our lives, It is, therefore, some way or another, always narrative. Likewise, it always has form, even though that form may be very simple or— in unsuccessful works— fail to raise the words above their narrative function.

    The situation with the visual arts is, of course, more complex. Visual art can reduce the existential referent to a minimum, such as in Rauschenberg’s white paintings, or even more clearly in Rothko’s work, making color play the role in painting that sound does in music— pure, or almost pure form. Or it can go to the narrative extreme of conceptual art, which, although it denies the importance of form, has form nevertheless. (O.K, I admit it. I can’t stand the stuff.)

    In this context your painting by Henri Paul Motte is quite interesting. In choosing a monumental, historical event in which the story, the history, was paramount, he represented it using an essentially classical composition with the visual realism of Courbet. He has, in the form and in the subject of his painting, married the aura of classical myth to journalistic realism. Wasn’t that what the France of Napoleon III was trying to do? Isn’t that what building a bourgeois empire is about?

    But Tom, if you will permit me, I think you could have gone to a better show in Venice to find stimulus for a discussion of the role of narration in art. Simultaneously showing with the Roman/Barbarian show at the Palazzo Grassi was the Late Titian show at the Accademia. There, with his ravishing “Apollo and Marsyas,” painted in his very late highly optical, sensual style, through his narrative the Master celebrates the victory of the intellect (Apollo) over the senses (Marsyas), but through the pure physicality of the rendition, he turns the tables on his narration of Apollo’s victory and the supremacy of the intellect, seducing the viewer into an orgy of flesh, blood, color and light. On the other hand, it is the form, the idea, that ultimately triumphs over the narration. Wheels within wheels— or no one wins. Painting, and life, ultimately need both, form and narration; the intellect and the senses; the idea and the flesh.

    On the other hand, Tom, had you begun by considering the Titian, maybe you wouldn’t have opened up this very interesting discussion. Titian’s answer is very, very convincing.

    Bruce Leimsidor is professor of European immigration law at Ca’ Foscari University, in Venice. I should mention that I did indeed get a chance to see the Titian show (on the very last day of its run) at the Accademia and unlike many of their shows, there were actually a LOT of great Titians included. I think it was 28 masterworks from all over the world. It was gorgeous and everything Bruce said it was. –TB

  • My youngest son, Evan, has just come home from his Freshman year in Multi-Media Design…guess what is the latest trend in learning about the world of Art–“The Narrative”! Years ago, I remember this as one of many possible themes, but now it is in the forefront. (Remember these? “Is it working for you?”, “Motivation”, or “Speaking Emotion”) Evan relays that he likes the concept of “The Narrative”, but he is tired of it used exclusively. It is sometimes stretched too far. His example is in sculpture class, where a student couldn’t build a clay form because “The Narrative hadn’t come forward yet.” Evan says, “COME ON! We’re just learning how to use clay!” As you point out, Art can tell a story OR NOT. And it is not surprising that we all like a good story now and then. For me, I enjoy going beyond The Narrative. Evan and I discussed how everybody brings a different story (or stories) forward from the same piece of Art. The possibilities are endless. So really, each work is a spring board for more creativity. Or not–you choose!

    Jane Bredendick teaches Children’s Theatre and Nia and serves “on countless community boards promoting humanities.” She lives in Marshfield, Wisconsin – TB

  • Mark Bowles says:

    Mark Bowles writes

    When I first entered high school in the early 1980s I was a committed loner. Not a Catcher in the Rye type loner, but one who preferred the quiet of my room, with my books, music, poems, and thoughts. Several of my artistic companions shaped the nature of my existence. One was the complete set of Beethoven symphonies in a boxed set of cassette tapes (not 8-track thankfully, if that was even possible). Beethoven spoke to me, and I listened in the darkness of my room, thick headphones surrounding my head (a 1980s version of a Gibsonian cyberspace goggle), jacked into a boombox that nearly deafened by ears with the melodic anger and euphoric ecstasy of a complex symphony. I never listened to Mozart, or any of the other obvious classical choices, only Beethoven. I never really gave much thought about this exclusionary affair till later in life, but the reason was most likely the “narrative” of deafness as the gateway to the music itself.

    The idea of a genius slowly being separated from the ability to tangibly appreciate the passion of his life spoke to an isolated youth who could manage no better rebellion at the time than what he could find in his room. Deafness was the narrative that made the symphonies transcendent for me. As I lay in my room I thought the music to be a great secret which the composer could hear only in the perfect acoustics of his mind. Those tones must have been intended as a vehicle for his anger, the glory of an Ode to Joy a perfect expression of beauty, permeated with sadness and loss. This Beethoven narrative was the way I let the first master enter my soul.

    For me, narrative was not the only thing, but when combined with an inspiring artistic experience, it created the perfect storm. That is why I could never understand the New Criticism when I came upon it and its practitioners in graduate school. These were the “close reading” literary critics from the mid-20th century and their elevation of the “text” above all else and the rejection of the importance or relevance of any extra-textual narrative. How can the biography of the author not matter to the reading of a text? To this day I will not begin a book until I have read the “about the author” section. If a book does not have one, I will likely not start it, because it feels distant to me, and I am unable to completely connect with it.

    This is also why I begin each of the books I write with a personal preface, layering my narrative existence into the story because I believe in its importance to what I am trying to tell. I began my latest book, a history of the emergence of the “polymer age” from the institutional perspective of the University of Akron, with me as a child. My father would sometimes take me with him to the university on Saturdays and while he worked I would play on the double winding staircase outside the president’s office, dropping my toy astronauts over the railing. I ended the personal narrative some 30 years later, at my father’s deathbed, watching him smile one last time at the distant Richard Fleischman designed polymer building, visible through his hospital window, reflecting sunlight on the Akron skyline. Polymers and the university meant everything to him, and maybe it is just the hubris of the writer, but I think the reader of my book should know this as they enter into its history as I tell it. My father would have loved the Dale Chihuly polymer sculpture, with eighty blue giant Polyvitro crystals, standing outside his polymer building today. The book, though a story of the rise of the rubber and polymer industry in Akron, is also a story of loss. Akron as the Rubber Capital of the World is no more…and I miss my father.

    Art is not created in a vacuum. To love it, to appreciate it, to internalize it most completely one must know the narrative and the creative touch from which it was born. To ignore it only serves to silence a voice that has a message not always best carried by the art alone.

    Mark Bowles is a historian and gifted writer. He lives in Cleveland. –TB

  • Juan Bastos says:

    Dear Tom,

    While reading your fabulous piece, a distant memory came to my mind. Bolivia, 1916. My very lovely sixteen year old grandmother, living at 11.700 feet high in the highest capital in the world, La Paz, was tired of the cold and the arid land. Only the men in the family made the three day trip to the lovely greener valleys where the family had a coffee plantation near Coroico, Yungas. It was done through the Inca trail by mule, reaching the snow peeks and descending like a Shangri La experience, leaving the cold, and embracing orange trees, and a semi tropical environment. “Cristina, a white woman has never gone to that land.” replied the brothers, outraged by her wish.

    Nevertheless, knowing my grandmother, she made up her mind, and decided to join them. The expedition left La Paz and the travelers crossed the Andes using the same road as the Incas did hundreds of years ago. As they were getting closer to the town of Coroico, my grandmother was comfortably riding the mule, and covered herself with a veil, to protect her milky skin from the strong sun. The people from the town suddenly were shocked to see her. As she passed, everyone around her were on their knees, followed by doing the sign of the cross. Well, the only time that the Indians of that area had ever seen a white woman was the depiction of a beautiful 16 year old young teenager, on a mule, in the stain glass windows of the Church in town…

    The power of the narrative in the visual world, for many centuries in the Catholic Church, started with depictions of The Bible and The New Testament. Many people didn’t know how to read, but certainly they were able to get the idea of punishment in Hell, and the rewards of Heaven. There’s an innate reaction, no matter how jaded our visual stimulation is, how sophisticated our perception of what “good art” is, to be affected by an image. Movies, TV, the internet, photography, have spoiled us a bit, but when in the 19th Century a piece like Henri Paul Motte’s was depicted, people were in awe of not only the subject matter, but also for the skill of creating the illusion of a moment, rendered in such a meticulous way.

    Nevertheless, no matter how far our civilization “progresses”, children will always want a good story. Yes, it starts in our childhood. We want to hear a GOOD narrative. I am sure those French children from the past who read “The Adventures of Tintin”, may feel a bit cheated when they see an Antonioni film, no matter how sophisticated their taste in movies is, one doesn’t want to be deceived! My grandmother was treated like a deity for a month, however,in the following trip to Coroico, she convinced her three sisters to join her, creating quite a confusion to the people of the town. There were no stain glass windows depicting four Virgin Marys anywhere to be found! I guess they felt cheated too.

    Juan Bastos is an immensely talented painter of portraits and works in Los Angeles – TB

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