One could compare this book to the Odyssey as this story too has a mature, bearded man wandering between islands. Again there are sirens, again a Penelope waits at home, and just like in antiquity, again a lot of good wine. Ancient Greece was small, so is Latvia. And it takes a lot of courage for both the “little” Greek and the ‘little” Latvian to overcome all the challenges that fate presents. The only question that remains unanswered however, is whether the “little” Latvian would spend a whole ten years travelling home…
With more than a modicum of deceit, Odysseus overcame the hurdles and returned home. By creating five books that are in fact one book, the hero of our book, its author Ilmārs Blumbergs, slyly divests himself of the temptations of the Venetian islands to return to the bosom of home. Whatever it is that he has had to come to terms with in order to succeed, as Alexander Blok says in his poem The Artist, Blumbergs’ imagination “conquered by killing” some “strange previously unheard of sounds”. Only by the act of creation can Blumbergs transform his siren into a real artifact.
The Odyssey is a song cycle, some say – an epos, but it was always recited. So in current vernacular the long poem could be a radio play.
The format of a play can also be applied to Ilmārs Blumbergs’ Odyssey as his imaginary, narrative fantasy of the contemporary Cyclops is more than a mere remembrance of romance by the lagoon. Blumbergs turns himself into a narrator and a liar. Some say he thinks in images, fantasises beautifully. (Perhaps there are no sirens. Perhaps the beautiful girl in the photographs is simply an acquaintance, Ellen, the wife of a friend whose family he stayed with in Venice, while preparing for an exhibition?)
Someone else could observe that in Blumbergs’ emotional creations the events in Venice unfold rather more like in a passionate Shakespearian love triangle than in Homer’s epic hexameters. Later, when emotion and experience have intertwined, and in Blumbergs’ case experience, more often than not, springs from books and culture, he records it in this five-book format to achieve a post-Homerian, post-Shakespearean, post-Faustian megalomania. This kind of megalomania has a name – Gesamtkunstwerk – and its creator can be judged in the words of the conductor Christian Thielemann: “there was only one genius and he is dead”.
Architecture and visual arts lovers will no doubt object, saying that everything in the city of Venice is splendid, not to mention its artworks, and that some master named Richard Wagner who accidentally or by design arrived to die by the Grand Canal pales significantly by comparison to it!
In creating his five books, his own Gesamtkunstwerk, with its dramaturgy, its mythology, its passions and rhythms, its beauty, its visual narrative composition Blumbergs has unintentionally attempted to attain Wagner’s heights of genius.The rustling of pages creates its own sound.
Over a number of months, the scenic plot lines born of Venice coalesce in Blumbergs’ head and on paper to emerge as a modern dramatic work. Let the progression of SCENES before the real DRAMA takes shape form the basis of your appreciation of the five books! Only the vehicle of a play, wherein fiction cannot be distinguished from real feelings (for whom are they real?), can be a suitable parallel for this book.
A play, however, needs to mature, its characters must be internally motivated, the wings must crystallise as the emerging drama consists of too many ridges and coincidences. On first sight, the coincidences seem to be of a practical nature.
A few years ago, even before Blumberg created the exhibition A Prayer For Seeing for the San Ludovico church in Venice, the Director of the Latvian National Opera Andrejs Zagars, as impetuous as Wotan, invited him – a set designer – to work on the second part of the Ring Cycle, Die Walküre. Blumbergs never does things by halves and so he immersed himself into the Ring completely.
To cut a long story short, we can conclude that Wagner saved the hero of this book. It becomes obvious not on perusing the numerous drawings, photographs and collages but by studying the context. Thanks to Wagner, over the last few years our current hero’s human passions have been unrelentingly confronted with the Der Ring des Niebelungen. Under normal circumstances, one’s confrontation with this grand tetralogy does not become a shatteringly personal experience spontaneously igniting into a monumental, driving force. Not even if it occurs at the age of sixty. However, on contemplating Blumbergs’ creation, this inevitable conclusion is forced upon one. For the first time in his life, real cultural phenomenal experiences have truly overwhelmed and transformed him.
How banal one’s own passions or the idea of death in Venice from unrequited love appear in the face of Wagner’s sigh on completing Parsifal, his last opus, that he has nothing left to say. Accordingly we, too then, have the right to die in Venice only when we have said it all.
That in Blumbergs’ book a young woman arouses passion for youth and beauty doesn’t diminish any intelligent person’s appreciation and understanding of Aschenbach’s enthrallment and obsession with the young and beautiful Tadzio. Only, in the former case, dying by the lagoon in Venice for unrequited love would then turn it into a plagiarism.
Therefore, in principle, the question of whether the beautiful girl Ellen embodies true, fateful experience or is a sheer fantasy figure becomes an academic one. She plays no decisive role for the very reasons mentioned above. Firstly, because the artist’s association and confrontation with the cultural milieu of Venice is so overwhelming that the experience itself creates a filter of alienation. Secondly, any artist of Blumbergs’ calibre must by definition be such an egoist that he would never forego the opportunity of converting shattering emotional experiences into a work of art. That is not contemptible, but rather, it’s productive. The innumerable pages of his notebooks containing sketch after sketch are in themselves the most obvious proof of the validity of this statement. Only by the constant act of drawing and redrawing could the experience be drawn out to its ultimate transformation.
Wagner had a disciplining influence on Blumbergs. Similar to Wagner’s Ring, his books spew forth many strange characters that expressively intermingle with inaudible but obvious passions. Akin to Wagner’s leitmotifs, themes intertwine throughout, be they ornaments, the artist’s own face, the edge of St Mark’s Square, gondolas, masks, floods.
The very redness of the cover of the book turns it into a real Venetian, sensually appealing art object. One need not go to the carnival in Venice to be aware of what goes on there. But one does truly have to know Venetians which means getting in under the city’s skin in order to comprehend that it cannot do without either the licentious or the carnivalesque. Therefore, Venetians are reservedly “stylish” and, to a certain degree, affectatious. Blumbergs’ interferences with black gondola hats, doodles, dark shadings on water surfaces or the cityscape heighten this impression. His most powerful ornaments are the seals that playfully alight here and there like rococo flies. The first book’s colourful dynamics rotate around St Mark’s Square where sensuality is eternally engrained and voluptuously presented – in both the square and the book. Venetians primarily associate sensuality with food – cheese, fish, various molluscs, fantastic coffee. Blumbergs’ art conveys the supreme significance of this experience in spite of the playfulness that pervades everything. Therefore, the first part ends with a mask.
But just before this, Florian appears, the famous old café in Venice’s St Mark’s Square which, in the artist’s photograph, entices us to succumb to the aroma of coffee and the bubbles of Prosecco.
They went there together, they always drank Pinot Grigio, the special dry white wine of the Veneto region. Afterwards, he wrote the following:
“He touched her. Lightly striking her brown hair. It happened so simply, so effortlessly as if it were a daily occurrence. Like some small, lovely, favourite task. Then more conversation, laughter and wine. And then, out of the blue, an incidental touch of her bare neck. Or, on passing her, a kiss in her hair, not truly a kiss, but a mere movement of the lips without touching. It happened at the most unexpected times. At times we suspected he was not really aware of the rest of us. He loved her deeply. She was Italian. She didn’t even seem to notice.”
Every section of the book begins with a decoratively patterned page and water, but ends with a mask. The second section is the essence of the book. The presence of death never becomes a metaphor for a dying city. Who, except a careless reporter, would think of Venice as dying? Who doesn’t contemplate the presence of death wisely and calmly? Who hasn’t longed for a little death while hopelessly in love? Fortunately, Blumbergs isn’t Faust. He doesn’t need to cut a deal with Mephistopheles for the promise of Margareta. That is the privilege of an artist. In this book, death appears grey, minimalistic. It’s there in the background during the small and large floods in Venice. That is October and November. The season determines the melling of the photo and the style of his drawings. Those who know Venice in November are wise to the unbearably loud shrieks of the vaporetto sirens to prevent the boats crashing into each other. In the thickness of the November fog that appears in Blumbergs’ photographs and drawings, the relationships between the male and female faces are indistinguishable. He writes:
“It wasn’t a good night. She cried. He didn’t answer. They didn’t converse. She didn’t want to make love. He had spent the previous night in a church. She didn’t like the exhibition. In the morning after seven, two long sirens sounded and soon afterwards two more long ones. Then the church bells started ringing. Then everything converged together, sirens, bells, crying. Going downstairs the first floor was under water. Flood.”
When a big flood is under way, the sirens sound twice. Then the Venetians know to dress accordingly.
Churches in Venice remind one of death. Every church talks of death no matter how fervently one might want to concentrate on sacrifice, faith and redemption. Thank God that at least the church reminds one of death, otherwise carnival dancing would be forever foremost. Venice has many, many, churches but Latvians rarely visit them. How amazing that most of them don’t queue to view St Mark’s gilded Basilica. The flashy designer label clothing shops, the art Biennale crowds, pasta and grappa, boats and church facades have replaced the desire to look deeper, closer at the altar. Our national brand is atmosphere which excludes in-depth, detailed viewing. We get satisfaction from the lap of flowing water, a few memorable, poetic snatches of light over the lagoon, the waft of salty sea water mixed with the smell of sewage, a big bottle of wine. Of course that is not everything but rarely does anyone desire to get under the skin of the city. Here Blumbergs is an exception. He understood that in order to get under the skin of Venice he had to get intimately acquainted with the Venetians and their churches.
Once during a grey interlude, he captures a moment of Venetian everyday ecstasy:
“I went to Ss. Giovanni e Paolo Basilica early one morning. On the right hand side of the huge church interior a diagonally slanted shaft of light fell from the upper windows. The Bellini painting that I had come to see was in the shade behind the shaft of light. The space was empty. That’s what t I had hoped for. I wanted to see the painting in solitude. Only a servant of the church, dressed in black, was busy in the depths of the church by the altar. Peace and quiet. Like in a church.
Then I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. The steps were tiny. They advanced quickly and their light touch on the stone floor announced them as a woman’s. She was in a hurry. I glanced aside. A thin old woman with a small hat on her head, a black bag in one hand, a lily in the other, was hurrying in the direction of the Bellini painting and, as if afraid of being late, commenced praying at quite some distance from it. In the empty room her words resonated loud and clear. Her submission was absolute. I heard the typical sound of liquid flowing in a thin stream and hitting a hard surface in a wide and empty space. A body was relieving itself. The woman was peeing. She herself was unaware of it. Everything merged together – the praying, the peeing, the diagonal light, Bellini and me, although from some inbred Latvian modesty, I could not bear to watch. Both the physical and spiritual overflow came to an end and the old lady slowly walked diagonally into the depths of the church. It seemed that she had divested herself of everything and disappeared. To make sure I was not caught up in some kind of Venetian lagoon water hallucination, I went over to the Bellini – the man in the painting was holding a lily and smiled at me.”
It is strange, but just as in our hero’s other creations, there truly is a lily in Bellini’s polyptych. After having witnessed this and forgotten it, Blumbergs wrote the story down later, when it resurfaced from his subconscious, despite his not being able to prove that the painting exists.
The peeing episode is calming. Although recounted very poetically, its inclusion strips the veil of “divine sanctity” that exalted observers attribute to Blumbergs’ art. Both Blumbergs and the protagonist of this book – the hero that Blumbergs has invented – aim to de-mythologize obviously exaggerated “cultural fetishes” in order to replace them with his own, albeit no less strange ones. Later, in his 4th book, he sketches in figures that appear like photos of jackhammer-torn human flesh. That is his own world, a world where most of the space is for a personal mythology – his own body, his deceased grandfather, his future ashes. Culture both torments and redeems Blumbergs and the hero of this book. At times, however, he succeeds in standing outside his art instead of disintegrating under its weight.
He can also be sarcastic. The Phrase “Willkommen im Tod” appears on the Palazzo Verdamin, where Richard Wagner died, in this book and on the promotional visuals for the Der Ring des Niebelungen – welcome in death. Wagner doesn’t have such a text anywhere. Blumbergs created the text by modifying a poster of a murdered civilian that he photographed in Venice. The poster was part of an anti-war demonstration that took place on the occasion of the NATO defence ministers meeting in Venice. The original poster announced “Welcome to Venice”.
Blumbergs wrote the following lines as a warning:
“We hear the Tannhaüser overture, people are coming out of the depths of a room through the open doors. They are all old. They come slowly with dreamy faces looking into the distance. They seem overcome by a vision that no one else can even imagine. Women in black clothes. All blondes. Their hair either in curls or backcombed in high piles. Jewellery sparkles. Only gold jewellery. The men also in black. Gold framed glasses. Some thin hands, adorned with gold rings, hold walking sticks. Some murmur to themselves or sing along softly. The procession turns left to an amphilade of rooms. On their entering the first room, a blond, petite woman, also in black, takes charge. It turns out she is a former opera singer. As her gaze crosses the room, seemingly enveloping the whole world, she starts talking about the objects in the room without looking at them. The procession continues through the room where the composer died but doesn’t stop there either. It flows onwards with the music. The last one in the procession, a bald man, looks back with a revealing gaze. In his mind’s eye he has witnessed “his” death. Then they take the stairs to the hall on the first floor. By the entrance to the hall each procession participant freezes for an instant in front of a lens. Their faces are captured and appear fixed on the nearby TV screen. Everyone gets recorded, becoming one among the privileged, rendered immortal, so significant seems the whole procedure. And then they all disappear into the embraces of Das Rheingold. Richard Wagner rented the second floor rooms of Palazzo Loredan Vendramin Calergi or simply Palazzo Vendramin. Here is where he left this world. Today it’s the Venice Casino.”
Here he is definitely not lying. Of course, nothing like that ever took place there, but it could have, similar to comparing a casino to Das Rheingold.
Wagnerites are a strange breed. For them the idea of a pilgrimage does not end with Bayreuth or Wagner’s last rented lodgings in Venice. The object of their current adoration is a dance studio in the Wagner Hall in Riga where the genius was once a Kapellmeister.
The strangely driven Wagnerites are a challenge to oneself – to not fall prey to delusions of grandeur. In a book where the sombre cypresses interplay with lovely linear images, it is difficult to find evidence of such.
The third book, after the decorative pattern and the water, opens with Ellen in Florian. This legendary cafe intruded into our public space, our own somewhat legendary space in Riga, the café Osiris, when these photographs of Ellen were exhibited there. A proud girl, the subject of many of the artist’s sketches. Most of them are somewhat melancholy or in a tasteful Latvian grey, in direct contrast to the brightness of her lips and the notional luxuriousness of the interior of her family home. Her mother, it seems, is Serbian, but that is of no consequence. The family and the place are important and so is the aged family nurse Pina:
“Pina takes the Cachi persimmon out of the refrigerator. It is frosty. A thin pale layer of tiny sparkling crystals covers the fruit. The old lady’s finger touches the persimmon. For an instant it freezes, then retracts. The dark orange hue can be seen through the melted spot. She is 86 years old. So says Ellen. She weighs 22 kgs. I don’t believe it, I think she weighs less. Thin hands, hair in a small bun. Every morning she drank strong coffee and ate a small muffin-like pastry.
That was Pina.
Pina often talked to me. She was convinced I could understand everything. Finally I believed that I really did understand, and answered her with a story of my own. And so we conversed – she in Italian, me in Latvian. Complete understanding. Every evening, after dinner and the TV program, with a warm caress, Pina would kiss everyone on both cheeks and say – Buona Notte!
This ritual was repeated with absolute precision and it seemed to be performed with the same amount of passion that the Italians devote to a goal by their favourite football team.
It didn’t take long for me too to caress Pina with the same precision after dinner. Saying Good Night! to each other, we departed.
Later I was told that Pina said good bye so earnestly because she believed that every night could be her last.”
Was there an understanding with Ellen? Obviously rarely, going by the predominance of grey and the wounds that would appear later. Fleetingly her boy appeared in the picture in a blurry haze. The artist remembers the good times:
“She came to sit at my table (it was the only free seat) and ordered a Spritz. She lit a cigarette. After some minutes we started to talk. She asked me to accompany her to a clothes shop to choose an outfit.
I felt quite confident in the shop. I made her try on bizarre combinations. It didn’t matter that they didn’t match, she had a gorgeous figure and I was fascinated by the process. We came to our senses when all the variations were exhausted.
I chose the long orange velvet skirt with a ripple at the hem. She also liked it because it made her look especially slim. We couldn’t agree on a top and so decided to go to her house where she had a long-sleeved violet top with no front.
In the morning the wind on the Molo della Riva Degli Schiavoni fanned the waves and one solitary person.
I tried to catch a hat that the wind had blown off. Dancing and whirling it escaped its pursuer.
I made some strange movements. They became more fluid and graceful. I was alone, and I danced.”
And then there are the memories of the wine, abundant as the water in the canals and the capriciousness which is as playful as the colours of the fine Venetian glass:
“The name of the wine, Pinot Grigio. Then she wanted prosciutto with pink melon. It was now the third restaurant that didn’t have what she wanted. Then she wanted something else. Both of us were very politely patient. He even started joking, and by doing so, making it clear that it would be better to stop desiring. Another restaurant. This too was no good. The view wasn’t good enough.
We met again after a month. She wanted Pinot Grigio. Yes it was there. Then she wanted posciutto with pink melon. Of course there was no pink melon and it all started again.
We agreed to meet again.”
In the third part he starts to reveal himself, to burn. Thankfully it’s not to burn up. The last mask in the third part is frightening, like the story about the revolver, because it’s a death mask:
“It’s raining in Venice. The water is slippery. It trickles thorough hair, by the ears and the forehead, over the forehead. It feels warm and soft. The water of the lagoon is also slippery. If you have swum in the lagoon, then skin against skin while making love is especially smooth.
I remember an interview with a wife (whose husband was then shot and murdered) who said that she had washed her husband’s hair that morning. Death and washing hair.
It’s still raining. It seems that I have stopped at Rio Tera, by number 2604 B, and am looking at a small silvery revolver displayed in the window. Wet and beautiful it lies on a piece of velvet in the Pietro Longhi firearms shop.”
Details are a saving grace, like experience garnered from books and music. Is Pina a detail, or are other people who form scenes in some play, details?
Is an image, the third of a photograph, a detail ? She is a girl of mixed race. For a perverse mind her darkness calls to mind Othello the Venetian, and so, jealousy and rage.
Blumbergs coolly, but passionately captures this in images and words:
“The coloured girl is a laundress. She sat almost immovably, her legs in the water and smoked. It would take another two hours for the water level to fall. The coloured girl ignored me so I could freely take pictures of the entire courtyard, but all the while I was actually trying to get her into the frame. I felt I had to do it unobtrusively and so I hung around waiting for the right moment.
Then she looked at me, quickly taking the wooden paddle from behind the bench, and gave it to me. With the paddle she slammed the water near the threshold with all her might, the water splashing in every direction. In the middle of this confusion I noticed a rat, that deftly trying to avoid the thrashing blows, was trying to get into the laundress’ house. Together we killed the rat.”
The fourth part is very voluminous but very little can be said about it. There are faces, a body. It is a chain of passion printed in a book. The exhibition overlays the elements of the play. Everything is fiction and everything emotionally once was real, even though it is covered with ashes like the dust of memories. Suffering is encoded throughout, imperceptible only to those of low energy, small temperament and little vivacity.
never meet them
Identification creates suffering. Now and then identification needs to be stimulated as if in church. Why ? Why is suffering necessary ? so that we can greedily see more, which is why there is The Prayer for Seeing.
This is where we find out that the author is not afraid of death, which is why we see the deceased grandfather, for he too has been fearless in the face of eternity. The finale – The Dullais Dauka line – going off to the horizon. Is there too much so-called art?
The fifth book is the thinnest. In it the world is as skewed as Blumbergs’ own collages until we find the revelation in the altar and the black mask. Black masks in Venice were worn by prostitutes and so aren‘t they seemingly out of place among noble memories?
The most inspiring is the discourse between the two soles: the golden soles converse with the eternal soles. A conversation signifies life – if you are talking, you are alive.
And so, the story about life:
”A.R. came up to me and after a few perfunctory courtesy phrases, explained how he had been ill. Not knowing how to heal himself, he started to pray to the Virgin Mary with a single question – WHAT SHOULD I DO?
He had received an answer.
What was the answer, I asked?
BE AS YOU WERE WHEN YOU WERE IN LOVE.
That was not what I expected. The answer surprised me. It seemed so absolute. I asked for permission to use it in my work. I hadn’t yet completed my Venice „long drawing” and immediately understood that fate had given me the solution to the drawing. In Italian it is COSA DEVO FARE? SII COM’ERI QUANDO ERI INNAMORATO.”