Narrowing Down the History of a Déjà Vu
A piece of experimental non-fictional analysis of
a rare experience in front of a piece of artwork
by Bertil Falk
part 1 of 2
When I stood in front of the tempera work Sitting (1962) at the posthumous Öyvind Fahlström exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm in the autumn of 1979, I had a very strong experience of déjà vu. I knew that I had never before seen the artwork. Nevertheless, I could swear that in an impalpable way I recognized something difficult to define in it. There existed an annoying, permeating, well known and all the time recurrent trait in the work and it was there, wherever I turned my eyes on this muddle, this kitchen midden.
There was, to be sure, the comic book structure, but I did not only recognize the comic book structure, which I was familiar with as a persevering reader of comics since childhood. There was something in the subject itself, which I recognized, but it slipped out of my reach when I tried to define it. I could not put my finger on the crux of the matter.
I was about to turn to some other piece of artwork in the fine show, when I suddenly knew what it all was about. And I not only fully realized what it was I recognized, in a flash, I also perceived a context I had never seen before, never could have seen, even though practically every constituent part of it had long since been stored in my mind.
But now all the pieces fell into place, and the reason why it happened right then and now, here and there, was not only because Sitting in itself constituted one of the pieces but Sitting was also the very prerequisite for creating a consistency in my scattered visual pictures.
Sitting was my catalyst, which at one single go caused all the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle to fit together in a perhaps not particularly remarkable complex concerning the history of art.
Anyhow it came over me all of a sudden: Bats, vampires, Leonardo da Vinci, Emanuel Swedenborg, parachute jumping students in the 18th century, Spanish cloaks, Maxwell Grant alias Walter Gibson, Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster, Bob Kane and finally Öyvind Fahlström himself cutting old comic books in Greenwich Village.
The pilgrimage of a subject: straight tracks, twisty paths. An aha-experience, concerning the history of art, somewhat unlikely roads, but roads possible to map. A context throwing light on how Öyvind Fahlström had actually applied ideas in his visual art, ideas that he had originally emphasized in a literary context in 1953 in his ultimately famous Manifesto for Concrete Poetry, Hipy papy bthuthdth thuthda bthuthdy.
World citizen Öyvind Fahlström was born 1928 in São Paulo, Brazil. His father was a Norwegian, his mother Swedish. He spent his childhood in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. He was sent to Sweden in 1939 to spend the summer with relatives. At the outbreak of WWII he was in Sweden, separated from his parents. He was not reunited with them until 1947. That year the Brazilian-born Öyvind Fahlström became a Swedish citizen.
But let me start from my own beginning. My relationship to the artistry of Fahlström goes back to the beginning of 1954. At that time I was particularly interested in surrealism. A friend of mine, a poet, who swam like a fish in aquavit at literary restaurants in Stockholm, said to me that I should read a “surrealist” play by Öyvind Fahlström, which existed in manuscript. I wrote to Fahlström.
He straight away sent a play to me together with a Russian postcard, where he stressed that he had NOT written a surrealist play but a concrete drama. I read the remarkable stuff with great interest, but I couldn’t get the knack of it. I didn’t understand the intention, the underlying language-baking word-substance. Eventually, I returned the play to him and with that my personal contact with Fahlström was up. I never met him.
But pretty soon I read a stenciled fanzine-like avant-garde review called odyssé, where Fahlström’s concrete manifesto Hipy papy bthuthdth thuthda bthuthdy was published. The manifesto was like a revelation. Suddenly, I understood what he meant by concretism. The accompanying concrete poem “MOA(1)” made no deep impression on me. The poem appeared to me as merely a technical demonstration for the purpose of showing how the concrete method could be put into practice. Not very much of an appetizer, I am afraid.
But the manifesto was fascinating in itself. Fahlström pointed out that concrete poetry could not be measured according to any known standard. “What is to be made of the new material? Of course it can be shaken up and reconstituted in any form whatsoever and can then be regarded from a ‘concrete’ viewpoint as always equally viable. That can always be said in the early stages. But the fact that the new media of expression have not yet had their evaluative criteria established need not prevent us examining these new media, if our criteria are ever going to be clarified.”
Fahlström began by positioning the situation in the 1950’s and stated that poetry “is not just for analysis, but is also created as a structural entity.” This was perhaps his most important contribution to the debate: “And not just a structure with the emphasis of ideas, but also as a concrete structure. Let us take our leave of the systematic or unsystematic depiction of all kinds of personal-psychological, contemporary-cultural or universal problems. Words are symbols, of course, but that is no reason for not being able to experience and create poetry on the basis of language as concrete matter.”
Time is getting on. Fahlström is seen flashing past now and then. Years are passing by. During my rare visits to Stockholm and from my provincial outposts in Piteå and Bredbyn in the North, Örebro in the Center and ultimately from the heart of Europe in the Malmö-Copenhagen region in the South, I can see him cutting comic books in Greenwich Village. The cuttings are building stones for his collages running wilder and wilder.
At this time he had already made a stir when he sent two works of art to a spontanist exhibition, arranged by The National Federation of the Fine Arts. To protect the art works he used masonite he had wiped his paint brushes on. The arrangers thought that Fahlström wanted to introduce a new art form and the masonite was hung at the exhibition. “The scandal” made the front page of Sweden’s leading tabloid on September 3, 1959.
In 1968, he was back in Sweden and caused a new, more real scandal by smoking hash live on Swedish State television. And then in 1979, at last his work was shown at the Modern Museum in Stockholm. In between he had demonstrated against militarism and war, been the leading man in Happenings everywhere and spent a lot of time in the Village in New York. And I was in for that déjà vu in front of Sitting.
But let me start from another beginning. It is not easy to define exactly where this beginning should be located. Perhaps to the days when Life arose on Earth? Or to the moment when bat-winged giant dinosaurs swung into the air? Or should I be satisfied with a point of departure provided by mankind’s interest in spreading its wings, climbing towards the stars?
Legend says that Icarus tried, but his wings of wax melted as he climbed towards the Sun and he plunged into the sea. The Chinese tried as well and succeeded in flying kites. Reading the ancient Indian epics, it seems to me that the thought of travel in the air has existed in many a brain and that there have been supporters of the idea ready to give flying a try in the distant past.
Maybe the best starting-point is to turn to that universal genius Leonardo da Vinci, and yes it is the best, at least in connection with Fahlström and Sitting. Leonardo designed a helicopter-like flying screw and he also drew a device that should be able to fly the way birds fly. This contrivance was a catapult-like thing, a kind of a flying sleigh with wide bat-like wings.
Leonardo was so fascinated by the thought that man should be able to overcome his attachment to Earth, that he continually returned to the problem of flight after 1486.
He designed something that looked like a flying platform or a flying telephone booth without walls and, for obvious reasons, without a telephone. It was supplied with a landing gear and a ladder for boarding. He tried to establish the human muscular strength for the construction of artificial wings.
There were two things in this connection that should be noticed. There was, on the one hand, the abovementioned catapult-like flying sleigh furnished with big wings, which showed that da Vinci was influenced by the wings of the bats.
On the other hand, there was a “tent” to fasten on the back of a person before jumping from a high altitude, a “tent” making it possible to float slowly down to Earth. The word parachute had most certainly not reached a wide circulation in those days and the conception “tent” covers quite well the appearance of a parachute.
Let us try another side of the coin, for the parachute brings us to another universal genius, Emanuel Swedenborg. Like da Vinci, Swedenborg was interested in flying machines. In his technical periodical, “Daedalus Hyperboreus,” his Sketch of a Machine to Fly in the Air was published. (A model of it can be seen at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.) In that connection he hinted at an event, which probably created a stir in its days. He wrote in 1716: “As may be remembered, someone in Strängnäs unintentionally fell down from the church tower in a strong wind and the cloak he had on saved him in so far as he unhurt was put down on the ground.”
In another context Swedenborg wrote about “A student with a cloak who unhurt fell down in a wind from the church tower of Skara.” The schoolboys in those days wore cloaks, as do many of the superheroes of today’s comic books, using their cloaks as sails and parachutes.
But let me begin from another beginning. This time the starting point is Transylvania, a fascinating part of Romania with a strange and terrifying history. There Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), Prince of Wallachia and called Dracula, lived, ruled and ravaged between 1431 and 1476. His cruelty gave rise to a row of grisly stories.
When I, during the days of his worthy (!?) 20th-century successors, Mr. and Mrs. Ceausesco, visited Dracula’s home districts, it turned out that terrible anecdotes are still told about him in our time. The blood-curdlers about Dracula are so awful in their original, truthful form that they certainly do not need any embellishment. But during the centuries these stories have been intertwined with other uncanny stories, not the least with tales about vampires that are — or at least were — well spread among superstitious people in Transylvania.
In their book In Search of Dracula Raymond T McNally and Radu Florescu reported a case of vampirism that occurred as late as in the year when Fahlström got stuck in Sweden, 1939. That year, the daughter of a “vampire” said that when her father died, it was found the next day that his skin was still pink.
The girl, whose name was Tinka, and who was a gypsy, also said that the villagers immediately understood that her father was a vampire. They forced a stake through his heart. The Romanian word for such a vampire is moroi. It means ‘un-dead’, but the word strigoi is also used about a certain kind of vampire, the nightly devil-birds who feast on human flesh and drink human blood.
These winged vampires have a counterpart in Indian tales. In his translation of Vikram and the Vampire or Tales of Hindu Devilry, Sir Richard Burton reported an old and humorous Sanskrit story, where king Vikram tries in different ways to bring a baital-pachisi to a yogi. A baital-pachisi is a bat-like creature with a manlike body. It enters dead bodies and animates them, a talent Patanjali in his yogic aphorisms says that some yogis have.
As far as I understand, it was not until after the discovery of the New World that the bloodsucking species of bats was found. The vampire bat does exist in South America. Even so, the notion of a winged, bloodsucking vampire seems to have existed in Romania as well as in India before Columbus discovered America.
Anyhow, the discovery of bloodsucking bats in South America had a life-giving effect on the vampire-legend in Europe. The legend got a regular blood transfusion when Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood by Thomas Preskott Prest blessed the readers in England in 1847. A bat-winged skeleton surrounded by bats of different kinds graced the cover of the book. The Legend later took the plunge into the movies. There was a scene as early as in Le Manoir du Diable (1896), where an enormous bat is changed into Mephistopheles inside a medieval palace.
According to McNally/Florescu the designations Dracula and Dracul are kind of nicknames which have two meanings. On the one hand the words mean ‘devil’, on the other hand ‘dragon’. Both a devil and a dragon are often described and portrayed with wings, which in an atavistic way reminds us of prehistoric flying lizards as well as of the bats of our own days. Our subject is taking shape and we permit ourselves to flap on. And then, as we know, Bram Stoker wrote his Dracula.
Copyright © 2007 by Bertil Falk