bemusing musings of a bewildered brush-wielder

el duende

This entry is a few years coming, and so I’ve got a long blog for you today.  Make a cup of tea, get your reading glasses on, and be prepared for the first inclusion of music on this blog, a new feature that I’ve added to my wordpress account.

A few years ago, in Madrid, I was wandering the streets at night, looking for a place to eat.  As I walked, my head was swimming with all of the paintings that I had seen earlier that day in el Prado- Goya, Velazquez, Zurburan, Ribera.  I made my way down grimy alleyways covered in diesel soot.  Mothers walked their babies in strollers, teenagers made out on the fountains, men called out to one another, and little boys played soccer in the plazas.  I made a few wrong turns, was thoroughly lost, and suddenly happened upon Plaza Santa Ana.  There, in front of an enormous, regal building, was a small and humble bronze statue of a man.  The man held a small bird in his hands in such a tender way.  He seemed to be cherishing its presence, and yet somehow releasing it.  It was a truly beautiful sculpture.

Two years before that, a fellow artist in Florence gave me a packet of paper, stapled in the corner.  It was an excerpt from a book, though the pages never said who the author was, or what the title of the work was.  It simply said “El Duende.”  I was so moved by the piece, so gripped by its substance, that I kept it with me.  I lost contact with the artist, but every so often I would read and reread the text.  Then I lost the packet of pages.  Margaret and I had moved so many times that I had unfortunately misplaced it, and so all I had with me was the internalized substance of the word, duende.  It stayed with me as I painted in Italy,  as I sought the ideal marriage of form and light.  It stayed with me as I painted in New York, as I painted tired work boots, a fallen bird, and a lonely Vietnam Veteran, Murphy, staring out the window.    Over the course of the next few years, I would continue to paint, with this word fluttering in and out of my mind.  I held onto duende as if it were a talisman, as I navigated the art world of New York City.  The word “duende” would validate many of my feelings on painting, on art; on a world view, on a way of living.

Then, a few weeks ago, in an old sketchbook stored away in a box in my attic, I came across the packet of pages.  I read “El Duende” again for the first time in five years.  Through a bit of research, I came to find that the man who was the author of this piece, Federico Garcia Lorca, was the subject of that same bronze statue in the plaza in Spain, that of the man holding the bird.  It suddenly all made sense to me.

Lorca first recited “Juego y Teoria del Duende” in Buenos Aires in 1933.  Here, I am going to include only segments of the text, as it pertains to the influence it has upon me.  But at the end of the blog will be a link to the full body of text.

“Play and Theory of the Duende”

Ladies and gentlemen:

From 1918, when I entered the Residencia de Estudiantes de Madrid, until 1928, when I finished my studies in Philosophy and Letters and left, I attended, in that elegant salon where the old Spanish aristocracy did penance for its frivolous seaside vacations in France, around one thousand lectures.

Hungry for air and for sunlight, I used to grow so bored as to feel myself covered by a light film of ash about to turn into sneezing powder.

And that is why I promise never to let the terrible botfly of boredom into this room, stringing your heads together on the fine thread of sleep and putting tiny pins and needles in your eyes.

As simply as possible, in the register of my poetic voice that has neither the glow of woodwinds nor bends of hemlocks, nor sheep who suddenly turn into knives or irony, I shall try to give you a simple lesson in the hidden, aching spirit of Spain.

Whoever finds himself on the bull’s hide stretched between the Jucar, Guadalfeo, Sil, and Pisuerga rivers- not to mention the great streams that empty their churning water into the tawny Plata_ often hears people say, “This has much duende.”  Manuel Torre, great artist of the  Andalusian people, once told a singer, “You have a voice, you know the styles, but you will never triumph, because you have no duende.”

All over Andalusia, from the rock of Jaen to the whorled shell of Cadiz, the people speak constantly of the “duende,” and identify it accurately and instinctively whenever it appears.  The marvelous singer El Lebrijano, creator of the debla, used to say, “On days when I sing with duende, no one can touch me.”  The old Gypsy dancer La Malena once heard Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach and exclaimed “Ole!  That has duende!”  but was bored by Gluck, Brahms, and Darius Milhaud.  Manuel Torre, who had more culture in the blood than any man I ever met, pronounced this splendid sentence on hearing Falla play his own Ncturno del generalife-  “All that has black sounds has duende.”  And there is no greater truth.

These “black sounds” are the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore, the fertile silt that gives us the very substance of art.  “Black sounds,” said that man of the Spanish peopple, concurring with Goethe, who defined the duende while speaking of Paganini:  “A mysterious power which everyone senses and no philosopher explains.”

The duende, then, is a power, not a work.  It is a struggle, not a thought.  I have heard an old maestro of the guitar say, “The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.”  Meaning this: it is not a question of ability, but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation… Every man and every artist, whether he is Nietzche or Cezanne, climbs each step in the tower of his perfection by fighting his duende, not his angel, as has been said, nor his muse.  This distinction is fundamental, at the very root of the work… the muse and angel come from outside us: the angel gives lights, and the muse gives forms… but one must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.  The true fight is with the duende.

We know the roads where we can search for God, from the barbarous way of the hermit to the subtle one of the mystic.  With a tower like Saint Teresa or with the three ways of Saint John of the Cross.  And though we may have to cry out in the voice of Isaiah, “Truly thou art a hidden God,” in the end God sends each seeker his first fiery thorns.

But there are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende.  We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation and makes Goya (master of the grays, silvers, and pinks of the best English painting) work with his fists and knees in horrible bitumens.

The great artists of the south of Spain, whether Gypsy or flamenco, whether they sing, dance, or play, know that no emotion is possible unless the duende comes.  They may be able to fool people into thinking they have duende- authors and painters and literary fashionmongers do so every day- but we have only to pay a little attention and not surrender to indifference in order to discover the fraud and chase away their clumsy artifice.

The Andalusian singer Pastora Pavon, La Nina de los Peines, dark Hispanic genius whose powers of fantasy are equal to those of Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was once singing in a little tavern in Cadiz.  For a while she played with her voice of shadow, of beaten tin, her moss-covered voice, braiding it into her hair or soaking it in wine or letting it wander away to the farthest, darkest bramble patches.  No use.  Nothing.  The audience remained silent… When Pastora Pavon finished singing there was total silence, until a tiny man, one of those dancing manikins that rise suddenly out of brandy bottles, sarcastically murmured “Long live Paris!” As if to say: “Here we care nothing about ability, technique, skill.  Here we are after something else.”

As though crazy, torn like a medieval mourner, La Nina de los Peines [Pastora Pavon] leaped to her feet, tossed off a big glass of burning liquor, and began to sing with a scorched throat: without voice, without breath or color, but with duende.  She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes with the same rhythm as do the blacks of the Antilles when, in the “lucumi” rite, they huddle in heaps before the statue of Santa Barbara.

La Nina de los Peines [Pavon] had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music, with a body lean enough to stay in the air.  She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and beome helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight her hand-to-hand.  And how she sang!  Her voice was no longer playing.  It was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed but stormy feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni.

The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms.  It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm… In all Arabic music, whether dance, song, or elegy, the duende’s arrival is greeted with energetic cries of Allah!  Allah!, which is so close to the Ole! of the bullfight that who knows it it is not the same thing!  And in all the songs of the south of Spain the duende is greeted with sincere cries of !Viva Dios!– deep and tender human cry of communication with God by means of the five sense, thank to the duende, who shakes the body and voice of the dancer.

Naturally, when this evasion succeeds, everyone feels its effects, both the initiate, who sees that style has conquered a poor material, and the unenlightened, who feel some sort of authentic emotion.  Years ago, an eighty-year-old woman won first prize at a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera.  She was competing against beautiful women and young girls with waists supple as water, but all she did was raise her arms, throw back her head, and stamp her foot on the floor.  In that gathering of muses and angels– beautiful forms and beautiful smiles– who could have won but her moribund duende, sweeping the ground with its wings of rusty knives.

All arts are capable of duende, but where it finds greatest range, naturally, is in music, dance, and spoken poetry, for these arts require a living body to interpret them, being forms, that are born, die, and open their contours against an exact present.

Often the duende of the composer passes into the duende of the interpreter, and at other times, when a composer or poet is no such thing, the interpreter’s duende- this is interesting- creates a new marvel that looks like, but is not, the primitive form.  This was … the case of Paganini, as explained by Goethe, who made one hear deep melodies in vulgar trifles, and the case of a delightful little girl I saw in Puerto de Santa Maria singing and dancing that horrible, corny Italian song “Oh Mari!” with such rhythms, silences, and intention, that she turned the Neapolitan gewgaw into something new and totally unprecedented that could give lifeblood and art to bodies devoid of expressiveness.

Each art has a duende different in form and style, but their roots meet in the place where the black sounds of Manual Torre come from- the essential, uncontrollable, quivering, common base of wood, sound, canvas, and word.

Ladies and gentlemen: I have raised three arches, and with clumsy hand have placed in them the angel, the muse, and the duende.  The muse stays still.  She can have a minutely folded tunic or cow eyes like the ones that stare at us in Pompeii, or the huge, four-faceted nose given to her by her great friend Picasso.  The angel can ruffle the hair of Antonello de Messina, the tunic of Lippi, and the violin of Masolino or Rousseau.

The duende… Where is the duende?  Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed grass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.

———-

Two years ago, my wife and I were expecting our second child.  In the morning we had a routine doctor’s appointment, and in the afternoon we had scheduled for her to pose for a painting.  In the doctor’s office, the sonogram showed that there were some problems in the brain development.  In the image, you could see my unborn child’s brain, with numerous, gaping holes in it.  These were cysts, and they were abnormal, though not altogether uncommon.  It could mean two things: the baby could die in the womb, or the baby could be perfectly normal.  The statistics were given to us.  It was one of the most painful times of my entire life.  As I sat and listened to the medical specialist describe this terrible disease, I found myself spinning, my head getting light.  I looked over at Margaret, and everything seemed to go quiet.  She was radiant, her head was held strongly, she was suffering, yet her eyes were determined.  She was a mother, and something was going on inside of her that was eternal, transcendent, and outside of me.  I was so impressed by her strength, her resolve.  She never looked more beautiful to me.

When we got out to the parking lot, I was speechless.  I asked Margaret what she wanted to do.  She said “I want to go to your studio, and pose for the painting.”  We went to the studio, and she put on a simple white dress, and stood beside the window.  Before her strength, I was speechless.  In her face, I saw pain and hope, coexistent.  Fear, and resolve.  She was radiant to me.  I admired her so deeply.  With tears in my eyes, I painted.  I finished the painting several weeks later.  A couple months after that, Margaret gave birth to our perfectly healthy boy, Evan, a beautiful boy with not a single health issue.

In my application of this untranslatable word duende, I don’t at all espouse an art form that is preoccupied with death.  That’s not what duende is.  Duende acknowledges the interwoven, full spectrum of living, ranging from joy to sorrow, and how these circles overlap.  It is opening one’s eyes to how wonderful life is.  Nick Cave writes “The writer who refuses to explore the darker regions of the heart will never be able to write convincingly about the wonder, the magic and the joy of love.  For just as goodness cannot be trusted unless it has breathed the same air as evil – the enduring metaphor of Christ crucified between two criminals comes to mind here – so within the fabric of the love song, within its melody, its lyric, one must sense an acknowledgment of its capacity for suffering.”

Here is a beautiful song that expresses all of the duende that I’ve been speaking about.  It was written by a gifted musician, Helene Samzun, from Brittany, the northwest coast of France.  Click the following link.

Valparaiso Bay-Hélène Samzun

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4 responses

  1. kittie

    And another reason why you are an artist. A full artist, a deep and visceral man bursting with life and about life.

    June 9, 2011 at 9:46 am

  2. An enlightening discussion. But for me, Gluck, Brahms and Darius Milhaud are rich in duende.

    June 9, 2011 at 3:44 pm

  3. Anonymous

    Thank you particularly for this blog, which illuminates so much of what you are searching for in your painting. “El Duende!” I hear it in the the gypsy dissonances with which Alessandro Scarlatti breaks the tranquil politeness of his harpsichord sonatas. Surely he learned that in Spain — “El Duende!” — Whence came to mind Keats’ line “I have been half in love with easeful death.” “El Duende? which then
    pulls us back to life with enriched desire and joy.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:50 am

  4. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2011/06/12/george_fraziers_duende/?page=1

    An op-ed on duende in the 6/12/11 issue of the Boston Globe.

    June 12, 2011 at 8:53 am

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