Books have been appearing in recent years celebrating the simple pleasures of life (such as swimming, walking, eating, not talking) and bearing such titles as Wanderlust – a history of walking; “Cooked; a natural history of transformation”; and A Book of Silence
Not that there is anything novel about this – Henri Bergson wrote an entire tract on Laughter in 1900 (popularised in the 1960s in Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation). And artist and art critic John Berger’s most famous book is entitled Ways of Seeing (1972)
Faithful readers will know that I have been working on a new (and enlarged) edition of Introducing the Bulgarian Realists which adds cultural and historical references and a lot more painters.
So it wasn’t surprising that I had dreamed up a new title – “Exploring Bulgaria – a cultural romp”. I briefly entertained the idea of making the subtitle “a sensual romp” before realizing that this would attract the wrong sort of reader! As the book includes short sections on such things as wine, food, video and cinema I even thought of the title “Using Your Senses ”!!
It was, however, only when I was going through a catalogue at the weekend - and found myself constantly having to add the phrase “a superb but forgotten painter” to the names in my book - that I realized that the book's sub-text is ….memory……and forgetting…and not just in Bulgaria
Like many other European countries, Bulgaria has had periods during which a “veil of silence” has been drawn over parts of its history – with September 1944 being the point at which individual memories became selective. By contrast memories of the struggles which brought independence from the Ottomans in 1878 have always burned brightly…..
It is our fate to be forgotten when we die – but one of the nice features of present-day central Sofia are the crimson plaques which now grace the street corners, reminding us of the events and individuals who played a role in Bulgaria’s history. Not just Tsars and Russian generals but poets, revolutionaries, politicians ….even an English one (William Gladstone). A small station on the gorge which winds through the hills outside Sofia on the way north to Russe bears the name (Thompson) of an Englishman (Frank) parachuted into the country during the second world war who was quickly captured and shot. His brother (EP) went on to become a famous British Marxist historian!
But it was only yesterday when I was about to send the text to the printer that it was brought home to me that the whole book is, in a sense, an ODE TO FORGETFULNESS and that my references to Bulgarian events and people are simply one of myriad examples about what I’ve now started to call “Memory’s Veil” – the highly selective way all of us – in whatever country - remember people and artistic talent
Some of you may know the author Nassim Nicholas Taleb whose book The Black Swan became a best-seller a few years ago. In it he makes a profound point about the process by which artistic “genius” is recognised (or not – the latter being more often the case)
More than four centuries ago, the English essayist Francis Bacon had a very simple intuition. The idea is so trivial that he puts to shame almost all empirical thinkers who came after him until very recently….. Bacon mentioned a man who, upon being shown the pictures of those worshipers who paid their vows then subsequently escaped shipwreck, wondered where were the pictures of those who happened to drown after their vows.
The lack of effectiveness of their prayers did not seem to be taken into account by the supporters of the handy rewards of religious practice. “And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like”, he wrote in his Novum Organum, written in 1620.
This is a potent insight: the drowned worshippers, being dead, do not advertise their experiences. They are invisible and will be missed by the casual observer who will be led to believe in miracles.
Not just in miracles, as Taleb goes onto argue…..it is also the process which decides whether an artist is remembered. For every artist of genius, there have been many more with the same talent but whose profile, somehow, was submerged….
Art, of course, is the subject of high fashion – reputations ebb and flow…..we are vaguely aware of this…but it is money that speaks in the art “market” and it is the din of the cash register to which the ears of most art critics and dealers are attuned……
One of the few other people I know who celebrates unknown or, rather, forgotten artists is Jonathan in Wales who runs a great blog called My Daily Art Display which fleshes out the detail of the lives of long-forgotten but superb artists…..