‘…the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass.’ (Wilde-the Preface/The Picture of Dorian Gray)
In the recent times no other ruler would have come close to absolute power than Joseph Stalin, who forged the shape of Soviet Russia. By 1929 he had complete control over the lives of his people and till death he was their undisputed leader. Did such power make him complete? He was vain enough to want be immortalized in verse. There were poets, writers like Ehrenberg and Pasternak but he avoided them lest they should see through the small man with bad teeth and pock marked face. A dictator’s rage at being made ridicule of is like the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. In his case his power is the face. Stalin’s rationale in not sitting for a painter who daubs in his warts and all is understandable. He has to be made a Colossus or not at all. Do you think the praises sung by bad poets are anymore remembered than the thousands of larger than life statues, all bad art? Power does not necessarily make good art.
“I can make lords of you every day, but I cannot create a Titian,” said the Emperor Charles V to his courtiers who complained that the monarch spent more time with the painter than in their midst.
Michelangelo was another who faced the envy of the powerful because Pope Julius II had him brought over to Rome. However the Pope was too busy to see him. After days waiting in the antechamber of the Papal Palace he had enough. “Tell his holiness, if he wants me, he must look for me elsewhere,” and he left for Florence. Thrice the Pope wrote for his return to no avail. The wilful Julius II threatened war with Tuscany if the celebrated artist didn’t immediately return.
Return he did. As he came for that awkward audience the artist knelt at the Pope’s presence and waited in silence. One bishop dared to mediate on behalf of the artist saying, ‘ these artists are a proud lot’. As Vasari in his Lives tells us, the Pope observed reproachfully, “You speak injuriously of him, while I am silent. It is you who are ignorant.” Raising Michelangelo, the Pope embraced the man of genius. It takes a genius to recognize the patent merit in another. To the eternal credit of the Pope we have works of this genius enshrined in marble. Michelangelo will not go out of fashion even after punk artists clutter galleries with their works, merit of which are encapsulated in its immediacy and shocking value. Like the newspaper of yesterday who cares for it once read?
Art at its best has the power to communicate. What is true for us if stated clearly can touch another no matter if he were far removed in time and place. Poets with their words and artists with their medium delineate truth. The Great masters are who hold a true mirror to our own inner self. Power that Stalin wielded did not really speak for his true self. Nor did in the case of Hitler. The rage of Caliban was not seeing his face in a glass. Their power factor, outrageous in its falsity cannot be captured in art. Why you might ask? For the simple reason it is not the true state of man who is, as King Lear would say,’poor forked animal.’ Even as I write this I am listening to Ombra mai Fú from Handel’s Xerxes,- and it is a consolation for anyone who has lived and longed for perfection and knows that life is a mirage. Art is the blessed salve administrated by man for his kind. He knows truth as seen in a glass darkly but must somehow dare to hit at it in a consistent way. He has dedicated his life, perhaps it is quixotic, and yet he cannot do otherwise.
An artist is foolhardy to think he will buy himself with art into affections of the world. The world in its own muddling ways shall not recognize man but truth has a way of settling accounts. Consider the life of Charles Baudelaire. Two years before his death the author of Les Fleurs du Mal took inventory of his poetic capital. (In this context let me point out that he had, at the age of 21 inherited a modest fortune of 100,000 francs.) Having squandered his inheritance very early on he found he had earned only 15,982 francs and 60 centime from more than two decades of versification.
Baudelaire is still read while fashions of age like clockwork rise and fall. Those who prostituted their art for praise of the mob are forgotten. Art of Baudelaire, Balzac and Van Gogh are for all time. Every generation in coming to terms with the human condition, – of darkness in men to work evil or be agents of that darkness, will discover in Baudelaire something useful and apt for its needs. Our nature makes us find in Baudelaire, ‘not a kindred spirit but a twin,’ the same he described of Edgar Allen Poe. The French poet seems to have also said, ‘if Poe had not existed, he would have had to invent him’. No one can invent what is not there in shadows and as tokens. Baudelaire was grateful there was his alter ego in another continent and he merely served as a medium. Truth shall call to account man’s works and proves from life of man that no sacrifice of life on the altar of truth shall go to waste. Power as wielded by Stalin or Putin shall always be shown by posterity for what it is.
(Ack: 1.Literary Characters-Isaac Disraeli, Pub: Fred. Warne and Co 2.Melvin Maddox review in Time Feb,14,1977 -Alex de Jong biography on CB)