Monday, June 28, 2010

Appreciation (26) … Pan’s Labyrinth , revisited

Appreciation (26) … Pan's Labyrinth , revisited*
Torrey Orton
June 28, 2010

The last bits from my trip notepad have peered out at me longingly for two weeks. I couldn't really get any energy from their reference to two museum visits, one in Bilbao Museo de Bellas Artes) and the other in Barcelona (Museo Nacional D'art de Cataluña). As often, such notes are the surface evidence of an underlying wonder – in this case about Spain and the Spanish, a defined geography containing contesting populations, as it has for centuries. My wonder was something about how the Spanish came to be as they are, another confused European entity gathered together under one banner with regional populations struggling to reclaim historical identities and right historical wrongs. I was particularly interested in the forms violence takes culturally. Each museum had a very good exemplar couched in their regional histories.

This is a long history and too much to learn well enough to penetrate it with intellectual confidence. The Basque struggle is one of these, noisily in our awareness, while the Catalan is another, less prominent outside its region but ever present within it, paralleling the Basques' commitment to retention of original language. The Basque country is on the borderlands of the both the aboriginal peoples of that area and later the boundary between Christian Europe and the Moslem occupation to the south.

I realised only after allowing the two violences out of my notes that Pan's Labyrinth captures that history to some degree. The two museums carried powerful emblems of it: a history of bull sculpture and bull fighting art in Bilbao, and a history of Catholic Church art of the Catalan region from the 12th to 14th centuries in the Barcelona area. The shared theme is violence, one in the name of human dominance and the other in the name of God's.

The inevitable…
First the bulls. Their images predate modernity by millennia. But, what was stunning for me were the 18th and 19th century paintings and drawings in which the bulls often seemed to be winning. In a couple of sequences various humans and horses were torn up and in a final frame the bull was standing looking defiantly at the remaining attackers. Of course there were others showing what eventually happens to bullish defiance, but the amount of others' innards shed on the way to the inevitable was clearly substantial and explicit. Not surprisingly one of the sequences was by Goya .** The inevitable continues to this day.

Christian violences
Second, the Christian message to worshippers. Across the mountains an hour by air from Bilbao and two days later, Barcelona's grandiose Museo Nacional D'art de Cataluña hosted a Gothic religious art display mainly composed of items from the regional churches of that era. The earliest of these pieces in the show (some four or five galleries worth out of the total of 15 or so) were characterised by more explicit scarifications of saintly flesh than I had seen for a while. These were not of Goya's representational competence, but the facts were clear; roastings and toastings with solders piking the future saints around on the grills; beheadings, hangings, lashings, and intricate combinations of these, often as the backdrops to altars.

The scarification theme slowed down over a century or so, to the point that kids arriving in their parents' churches around the 14th century would see next to none such imagery. More your variations on the politer end of the biblical stories, with occasional implications of pain and tribulation. Holy families, visitors and ascended believers.

Organisational violence encourages the personal?
Shortly (1460's), the Spanish Inquisition came along to drive a new expression of God's violence with the added energy of royal sponsorship and partial funding (see PPPs below), which lasted actively until 1834! Not until I just looked up the Inquisition did I realise how both penetrating and persistent it had been. A love for public, terminal violences characterised both the church and the sports of their day, with the sport remaining to our day both in its lands of origin and exported to the Hispanic world. Its time may be going. Major public spectacle status of bullfights did not fully emerge til the 18th century, towards the end of the Inquisition's hold. Religious spectacle begets sporting spectacles, a link shared by the certainty of death in both? Religious violence pits organisation against individuals (carrying the burden of opposing organisations - Islam, Judaism and Christian protestants and heretics). Corrida de toros pits individuals against powerless but dangerous adversaries. Overpowering is the main theme, with black and white justifications the energisers.

And so, I wonder what it was like to live knowing that what you believe can bring you death by a thousand cuts, if it is known; and wonder how many refused to take the apparently easy way out (recanting, converting), and finally, wonder what it was like to be among the converted of all kinds – protestant, Jewish and Moslem - (13,000 Jewish conversos in the first 12 years) who were rigorously examined by the Spanish Inquisition. Just a little test of their faith, supported by a small army of local informers (who may, as always, have had other agendas than theological purity). After reading an early draft of this post, Charles recalled having been to an exhibition a few years ago in San Diego (Calif.) of instruments of inquisitorial torture, a visit he recalled with visible and audible horror.

Whateva, as we say these days, but that's hard times. Yet, the numbers shrink to relative peanuts in the scales of modern atrocity, and contemporary methods (Cambodia's "killing fields" come to mind) have little to learn from those of the pre-moderns. You can have it all on the web these days. But, it's not quite as clear about the look of the damages as were our precursors who, like Chinese road accident reduction campaigns in the early (1990's), posted explicit gore in unavoidable public places. I approve.

Finally, finally, this excursion reminds me how ordinary is the atrocious, permeated with its banal little vengeances and materialisms. If you want an argument against self-funding (for profit) public services, a trip to the Inquisition is instructive and easier to get the facts than our PPPs.

"Happy trails to you, until we meet again…."

*run through the first 20 posts to the Pomeranz / Stratton review for a glimpse of the range of takes on this film.

**I am aware that Goya is a major figure in my personal art history catalogue. This was because I was exposed to his realist treatments of Spanish civilians terrorised by an earlier group of foreigners in the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. When we were in Basque country, we spent time in Gernika and its Peace Museum which memorialises the 1937 bombing by German and Italian airforces. For some reason an album of Goya (Disasters of War) was in my family home in the 1950s. I imagine that it was through Goya in my later primary / early secondary years that I first encountered undisguised human butchery. In the 50's that aspect the Korean war was not in TV (MASH never got there either 15 years later), and visuals of the WW2 European and Pacific calumnies were not in everyday print or film, though the first book length coverage of the extermination and concentration camps was around by the late '50's I think. An American history of a Civil War Confederate concentration camp was published as the novel Andersonville (1955) which notably did not treat the northern camps of the same sort.

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