Monday, January 19, 2015

`The Unexpected Reversibility of Things'

“What a cemetery of memories a secondhand store is! If all the junk collected there could speak, if the Paris marché aux puces [“market with fleas”] had a voice, we would know the scandal of the past flowing back into the present, an occurrence which history excludes by the very laws of its nature.” 

Our equivalent in English is a literal reading of the French: flea market. A humbler name is junk dealer; a grander, curio shop. They were, and perhaps still are, a Paris institution, a place where the classes mingled (Zola writes about them). The writer is Eugenio Montale in a column from 1962, “Man in the Microgroove,” originally published in Corriere della Sera and translated by Jonathan Galassi in The Second Life of Art: Selected Essays of Eugenio Montale (The Ecco Press, 1982). Montale, too, seems to have been fond of mercatino delle pulci. In a 1953 essay translated by Galassi, “A Visit to Braque,” the poet writes: 

“An `accelerated course’ in French taste for tourists who are still in need of it ought to begin, in my opinion, with a visit to the marché aux puces and end with a visit to the studio of Georges Braque [1882-1963]. On the one hand the odds and ends, coffee pots, cast-off rags, the secondhand goods, in short, produced by several centuries of a unified and centralized culture; on the other, the same objects interpenetrated and flattened out in compositions that have little to do with the well-known genre of the nature morte [literally, “dead nature”; a still life], although they deserve the name much more legitimately than, for example, those by Chardin or Cézanne, which are so much more alive.” 

In Georges Braque: A Life (2005), Alex Danchev calls Braque “the painter of the dustbin” and writes: “His canvases are composts.” He pioneered, with Picasso, the the use of collage and papier collé. His was often an art of metamorphosis, seeing likenesses between disparate objects, turning one thing into another, a device both ancient (Ovid) and modern (Joyce).  Danchev cites another affinity:

“During the Occupation [Braque] had read Moby Dick [translated into French by Jean Giono in 1941] and been much taken with Melville’s delight in the unexpected reversibility of things. One of the characters, not knowing any better, carries a wheelbarrow which someone has lent him to carry his belongings. A tomahawk pipe kills and soothes with equal facility. A coffin becomes a lifebuoy. The narrator’s encounter with an albatross anticipates Braque’s encounter with the birds of Camargue.”

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