Sunday, October 28, 2012

Jacqueline du Pré (1945 – 1987)

It is exactly 25 years since the death of the greatest ever English cellist, a player who will be forever associated with the Elgar Cello Concerto, and whose passion and directness struck all who heard or saw her. 

Jacqueline du Pré grew up in Oxford.  Her father was an accountant, from a Channel Islands family, and her mother was a piano teacher.  At the age of four, Jackie heard a cello on the radio, and decided that she wanted to play one.  Her mother supported her early learning on the instrument.  Jackie said later: 'My mother was a tremendous inspiration. She guided my first steps, wrote tunes for me to play, and drew pictorial descriptions of the melodies. These were quite beautiful and I used to find them tucked under my pillow in the morning so that I couldn't wait to get my hands on the cello again every day. My mother also taught me composition.”

As a child, she went to the London Cello School, and then Guildhall School of Music, where she won the gold medal.  She gave her first concert at the Wigmore Hall aged 16, playing a donated Stradivarius.  She studied with famous cellists such as Paul Tortelier and Rostropovich, who saw her as the heir of his talent.  Jacqueline du Pré became famous for her performances of the Elgar Cello Concerto at the Proms (1963-1969), and for the recording she made of the piece with Sir John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra (1965).

At Christmas 1966 she met the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.  The following year she converted to Judaism and they married in Jerusalem.  She played much chamber music with Barenboim, such as the Schubert Piano Quintet “The Trout”.  However, Jacqueline du Pré had little affection for more modern classical music.  Her recordings are justly famous, but not as extensive as her fans would have wished.

From 1971, Jackie’s playing began to decline, as she lost feeling in her fingers and strength in her arms.  Her last concerts came in February 1973, and in October 1973, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which she liked to call "multiple fuckosis".  She continued to teach: I have met one of her students, who talks of how they sometimes had to carry her wheelchair to overcome access barriers.  Jacqueline du Pré died on 19 October 1987, aged only 42.

The achievement of Jacqueline du Pre cannot but be overshadowed by the success of the film Hilary and Jackie, based on a memoir by her brother and sister, and telling the story of the months in 1971 when Jackie had an affair with Christopher Finzi, her sister’s husband.  The film paints Jackie as a manipulative person.  Hilary, a musician herself, wrote: "Nobody could be with Jackie for long without being reduced by her... People couldn't live with her week in, week out, because she unwittingly destroyed them."

In one sense, the film is a counter balance to the adulation of this remarkable musical talent.  The image of the tragic genius is a classic disability trope, and to hear about her bad behaviour makes Jackie seem more real.  Although, as Helen Meekosha points out, critics resorted to shallow disability stereotypes - the tortured genius - in their reviews of the film. Meekosha, who herself has MS, talks about the tragedy of dealing with a degenerating body, and the anger and frustration which is generated by impairment, not just by social barriers.  When identity and worldly success depends on exactly the fine motor control and sensitivity which MS destroys, the frustration must be even worse.

Those who knew Jacqueline du Pré well protest that the film portrays her wrongly.  Finzi was a serial adulterer, who had several illegitimate children, and a reputation as a “sexual therapist” for troubled people, in an era where “free love” was fashionable.  Hilary consented to her sister having the affair with him. 

More to the point, Jackie was “a giver not a taker” according to her close friends and colleagues.  Documentary films by Christopher Nupen reveal her as full of “warmth, honesty and enthusiasm”, with a charisma which has become legendary.  Many suspect that jealousy underpins the negative representation of her by her siblings.  When Jacqueline du Pré died, she was surrounded by her friends, not by her relatives.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Arthur Bispo do Rosário (1911-1989)

When I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see their show of the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosario, the nice ladies on the information desk had no idea what I was talking about.  It took some searching to find the rooms dedicated to this visionary Brazilian artist.  You won’t find him on Wikipedia either.  Maybe his obscurity is because Bispo do Rosario spent fifty years of his life on a Rio de Janeiro psychiatric ward, and did not even think of himself as an artist.

Born in Japaratuba on the east coast of Brazil, the descendent of African slaves, he was exposed to a strongly religious culture and to the hybrid traditions of folk art. Bispo do Rosario worked as a cabin boy, as a signaler in the navy (he was thrown out for insubordination), and then as a boxer, before finally ending up in Rio as an odd job man. 

In 1938, he had a vision of angels bathed in light.  He felt that the Virgin Mary had guided him to record the universe in visual form, in preparation for the Day of Judgement.  The same year, he was hospitalized for treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.

In an attic of the hospital of Colinia Juliano Moreira, Bispo do Rosario began his remaking of the world.  For the next fifty years he spent up to 20 hours a day working obsessively, creating more than 800 sculptures, objects, garments and banners which began to spread across the entire building.  Many of the pieces were recycled from scrap.  Back in Japaratuba, it was the men’s role to stitch the banners for the religious processions, so Bispo do Rosario was working within his cultural tradition.  He stitched religious messages and all sorts of other texts on his fabric creations – making the recent efforts of Tracy Emin look shabby by contrast.  Boxing, ships and other aspects of his past are also recuperated and integrated into his work.

For Bispo do Rosario, this creative outpouring was a spiritual, not an artistic task: he saw it as his duty to prepare for the Last Judgement.  He would carefully dress himself in his ceremonial robes for visitors.  He enjoyed authority and respect at the psychiatric hospital, which for him was a shelter and refuge, rather than the place of fear and abuse which these institutions have often been for others. 

His work has an extraordinary intricacy, complexity and impact.  It reminds me of surrealism, of the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp, of the fabric creations of Louise Bourgeois, the solitary confinement of Kurt Schwitters: all the more extraordinary in that Bispo do Rosario was entirely self-taught, worked in an artistic vacuum, and generated all this extraordinary art through his own originality and imagination.  He did not care about recognition and respect, just as long as he was left to do his appointed spiritual task.  

It was not until the 1980s that his work came to the attention of the art world: he had his first exhibition in 1989, followed by shows at the Venice Biennale, in Paris, and now in London.  There is a permanent museum of his work in Rio de Janeiro.

Outsider art, like that of Bispo do Rosario, is hard to evaluate.  How do you judge a creative work produced by someone who never saw himself as an artist?  How much does intention matter?  Talking about her fascination with it, critic Terry Castle describes outsider art as a  “gorgeous, disorienting, sometimes repellent phenomenon”.  Schizophrenia, depression and other mental illnesses have often been associated with original creative thought, as well as with religiosity.  Does it matter that these artistic activities are generated by extreme and unusual brain states?  Is there any significant difference between the work of Bispo do Rosario and that of Hieronymus Bosch?  Many artists and writers, after all, have experienced mental illness, which gives them a different perspective on the world, and perhaps a burning need to express themselves.

Further reading

Terry Castle essay on Outsider Art 

Extract from “The Prisoner of Passage” documentary