Month: September 2020
William S. Burroughs: Dead Fingers Talk
Dead Fingers Talk (1963) is a bibliographic oddity in Burroughs’s output. It was a composite text composed extracts from the novels Naked Lunch (1959), Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket That Exploded (1962). Dead Fingers Talk was the brainchild of John Calder. Calder was the Scottish London-based publisher of Calder Books, which specialised in avant-garde literature. This restored version gives us the text as it was intended to be.
The publication history of Burroughs’s texts in the 1960s is fiendishly complex. Myriad publications in various countries issued by different publishers in forms that ranged from partial, censored, jumbled, poorly proofed and corrected, not to mention revised, expanded and partially re-written forms. At the time Dead Fingers Talk was composed, Naked Lunch had been published twice in two versions, Soft Machine was in its first edition form and Burroughs was finishing the manuscript for The Ticket That Exploded for Grove Press. Dead Fingers Talk was produced as an introduction to Burroughs’s work for British readers, preceding Calder’s publication of Naked Lunch in 1964. Calder had brought Burroughs to the Edinburgh Festival in 1962, where his description of his cut-up technique in a literary panel captured the imagination of consumers of experimental culture and newspaper journalists.
When it appeared, Dead Fingers Talk disappointed those who had already heard responses to the imported Girodias’s Naked Lunch and deemed Dead Fingers Talk “merely pragmatic means to more important ends”, i.e. British publication of Naked Lunch. The book was a curiosity that went out of print and was not published outside of Great Britain. Dr Oliver Harris is the leading Burroughs textual expert. He has produced restored editions of classic early books – discovering missing parts and correcting errors – and now turns his attention to Dead Fingers Talk. His comprehensive and fascinating introduction discusses the initial reception of the book and its absence from critical literature since. “By ignoring Dead Fingers Talk completely, the consensus of the critics is that there’s simply nothing to say for or about it […]” Harris has provided full textual notes, explaining changes, for those wishing to understand what has changed. Of course, given the limited readership of the original book and its reprints, most readers will be encountering this book for the first time.
The book includes parts of the three novels of 1959-62, omitting the most sexually explicit and profane passages. There was also a small amount of new material. The texts were reshaped and re-ordered, forming a new semi-narrative. Notoriously, there is no linear narrative to any of the novels, so chopping up the material did not make the text less comprehensible, simply comprehensible in a new way. Dead Fingers Talks is a collage of recognisable materials; it is a famous symphony played by a chamber orchestra. There are absurd horror, mordant satire and memorable characters. There are passages of exquisite prose poetry in tangled streams of consciousness. “Hands empty of hunger on the stale breakfast table – Winds of sickness through his face – Pain of the long slot burning flesh film – Cancelled eyes, old photo fading – Violet brown souvenir of Panama City –” There are paragraphs of Conradian description. “Aching lungs in dust and pain wind – Mountain lakes blue and cold as liquid air –” There are cowboy-style gunfights. There are sections of science-fiction. The chapters are short. However dense a section, it does not last. Thus there is no grind or page after page of unindented word collage, which renders The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded tedious reads.
Describing the text in any conventional manner would be absurd. We meet again familiar characters such as narcotics agents, junkies, dealers and confidence tricksters. Dr Benway, the maniac physician of dubious means and morals, reappears as a part raconteur, part press agent, part Dr Mengele. Burroughs’s scepticism about authority leads him to treat religion as the long con – a giant experiment in control. His blasphemy is an expression moral outrage at manipulation. For Burroughs, restrictions on sexual activity are intolerable impositions on natural rights. This would become a core part of his libertarian fantasies of autonomous colonies in Wild Boys (1971), Port of Saints (1973) and The Red Night trilogy (1981-7).
A key element in Burroughs’s writing is discussion of drugs as a means of control and consciousness expansion. He invents fantastic drugs and also describes the reality of addiction. Sometimes fact and fantasy blur. “Shooting Eukodol every two hours. I have a place where I can slip my needle right into a vein, it stays open like a red, festering mouth, swollen and obscene, gathers a slow drop of blood and pus after the shot. […]” Burroughs is no way a hedonistic promoter of drug usage and is unflinching about the danger and squalor of drug taking. “Look down at my filthy trousers, haven’t been changed in months – The days glide by strung on a syringe with a long thread of blood – I am forgetting sex and all sharp pleasures of the body – a grey, junk-bound ghost.”
There is also plangent beauty throughout Burroughs’s writing, all the more striking when contrasted with the high comedy, street slang and horror. There is a persistent melancholy in Burroughs’s imagination. Sooner or later, the atrophying of the heroin high induces sadness. “There is no rich mother load, but vitiate dust, second run cottons trace the bones of a fix.” “Inactive oil wells and mine shafts, strata of abandoned machinery and gutted boats, garbage of stranded operations and expeditions that died at this point of dead land where sting-rays bask in brown water and grey crabs walk up from the mud flats to the silent temple of high jungle streams of clear water cut deep clefts in yellow clay and falling orchids endanger the traveller.”
Pleasure is plentiful in reading such free language and playful ideas, especially in a time when speech is policed so arbitrarily and tactically. That makes Dead Fingers Talk recommended reading for dissidents, critics, free-thinkers and lovers of imagination. Remarkably, for a compromise stop-gap measure meant to sustain notoriety with an eye to commercial considerations, Dead Fingers Talk is perhaps the best entry point for a reader who has never encountered Burroughs’s writings.
William S. Burroughs, Oliver Harris (ed., introduction), Dead Fingers Talk: The Restored Text, Calder Books, September 2020, paperback, 269pp + XLIII, £9.99, ISBN 978 0 7145 50015
To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art
© 2020 Alexander Adams
In Search of Old Mistresses
“”Where are the Old Mistresses?” That was the cry in the early 1970s among female art historians. The Women’s Liberation movement caused a wave of cultural reassessment to sweep through academia and it had no greater impact than in the field of art history. There was a scramble to find overlooked female artists and balance Old Masters with Old Mistresses. Artemisia, the currently suspended exhibition of Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654 or later) at the National Gallery, is the most recent attempt to advance the status of women artists. The exhibition is now set to take place at the National Gallery 3 October 2020 – 24 January 2021.
“In 1971 Linda Nochlin published the landmark feminist essay “Why are there no great women artists?”. Nochlin theorised that women’s creativity had been sublimated into craft and that, consequently, Western high art was shaped according to male standards. Finding overlooked women painters and reassessing their abilities was beside the point, Nochlin argued, because the standards were discriminatory. It was a bold statement and strategically astute: women artists could never be found justly neglected due to deficiencies because they were being judged by masculine standards designed to exclude them. Therefore there would never be any Old Mistresses. Nonetheless, every year fresh books and exhibitions about female artists appear, evidence of a compact of curatorial, academic and commercial interests….”
Read the article at The Critic here: https://thecritic.co.uk/in-search-of-old-mistresses/
[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Autumn at Kiziki (1976), oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm | 31 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]
Natela Iankoshvili (1918-2007) is one of the most prominent painters of Georgia, former state of USSR. This survey of Iankoshvili’s painting is published by Hirmer and Galerie Kornfeld, the Berlin gallery representing her estate. This book is a good guide to the life and work of this celebrated Georgian artist. Essays outline the artist’s biography and career, her work as an illustrator, the important support her marriage provided, her achievements in a Georgian context and contemporary reactions to her art. The publication includes a chronology and a bibliography. The selection of illustrated paintings covers broadly 1960 to her last years. (The only weakness of the catalogue is that a few of the illustrations are not crisp enough.)
Iankoshvili was born on 30 August 1918. In 1937 she entered the Academy of Art, Tiblisi and graduated in 1943, in the midst of World War II. She destroyed the art of her student and early years, which was Socialist Realist in character, later stating that it seemed artificial and insincere to her. One of the few paintings to escape the flames was the 1951 realist portrait of her husband Lado Avaliani (1913-1998), a noted author and biographer.
By 1960, when her solo exhibition (of 250 paintings) at the Georgian State Gallery of Painting (National Gallery) took place, her mature personal style was established, in which she painted over 2,000 pictures. The exhibition of 250 paintings was a breakthrough for her and a significant distinction for any Georgian artist, let alone a female painter. Iankoshvili’s mature painting is characterised by vigorous application of paint, heavy impasto, use of broad brushes and palette knives, strong local colour, an Expressionist palette and lack of academic finish. She frequently used square-format canvases. The paintings appear to be painted in a direct manner in few sessions, maybe only one. The artist commonly painted and drew over black or dark green backgrounds. (An example of a drawing employing this technique is a portrait – real or imagined – of a black Cuban.) The landscapes were principally black with motifs depicted in pungent colour. Her landscapes are remembered, invented and reconfigured. A particularly effective one is Landscape of Shatili from Above (1985), which the artist in green over black – almost without another hue, a few touches of yellow blended in the green.
[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Shales Forest in Kakheti (1987), oil on canvas, 110 x 75 cm | 43 1/3 x 29 1/2 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]
Her subjects were not typical genres of official Soviet painters: local landscapes, wildlife, portraits of exotic figures rather than workers or party officials. She did also paint portraits of authors she admired, including Ana Kalandadze and Boris Pasternak. Depicting glamorous women in bourgeois costumes was a clear rejection of the official aesthetic and a way of connecting to Western European painting and art of the pre-Modern era and thus an act of defiance – albeit not a dangerous one by the 1960s. Her attachment to the religious and vernacular architecture and traditions of Georgia also distanced her from Socialist Realism. The cerebral light-filled optimism of an everlasting present of official Soviet art is supplanted in Iankoshvili’s art by a darkly luminescent night, redolent of intrigue, romance and history.
Authors note that Iankoshvili took inspiration for her work on black grounds from Niko Pirosmani (1862-1918), a famed Georgian painter. Pirosmani’s painting is not dissimilar to that of Douanier Rousseau’s primitivist painting. He used black sail canvas because he could not afford proper artist’s materials. In allying her practice to Pirosmani’s, Iankoshvili can be seen as drawing upon her Georgian heritage and seeking to take vitality from folk art, uncontaminated by the political correctness of her time. Another guiding light was the art of El Greco. His colours, sense of movement and spatial ambiguity seem points of attraction for the Georgian. Her 1965-6 illustrations to the epic poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin were done on black paper.
The year after her landmark 1960 exhibition, Iankoshvili was one of the artists who travelled to Cuba and Mexico in 1961 on a state-sponsored mission for the collaboration between the nations’ artists. She was attracted by the racial variety of the people and the lush vegetation and fauna of the island.
Iankoshvili had numerous exhibitions in exhibitions within the USSR and, from 1976 onwards, exhibited internationally. In 1977 she was awarded a gold medal for a portrait by her exhibited in Paris. In 1995 she received the Shota Rustaveli State Prize and the following year she was awarded the Medal of Honour of the State of Georgia. In 2000 a museum dedicated to her art opened in Tiblisi. Contemporaries commented that the painter’s attitude towards commerce seemed to be a blend idealism, cussedness and naivety: she gave away pictures rather than selling them, limiting the exposure her art would have generated through commercial dissemination, especially after the demise of the USSR in 1991. In recent years, her art has been shown worldwide, championed by Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin.
Iankoshvili’s individualism (which expressed itself in her decision to forego the official style and thereby limiting her opportunities for official commissions) is as important as her art. Although she benefited eventually from taking such a brave decision in the long run, her initial choice seems to have been based on a question of conscience. In the West today, we are too cynical. Our default response to acts of conscience and risk-taking in the face of consensus are to diminish them as careerism or motivated by materialism or ulterior motives. We should be more responsive and respectful of acts of honest conscience.
[Image: Natela Iankoshvili, Enigma (1983), oil on canvas, 125 x 155 cm | 49 1/4 x 61 in. Courtesy Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin]
Her art (developed independently) parallels the 1970s and 1980s school of German, Italian and American Neo-Expressionism. The directness, vigour, romanticism and glamour of her art shrugs off the caginess of art based on systems, unashamedly embracing the subjects of the past without apology and self-consciousness. For artists seeking an antidote to the irony and insincerity of Post-Modernism, art such as Iankoshvili’s is a route to an alternative future. Regardless of what one thinks of her art, Iankoshvili’s heroic individualism and love of art was in direct opposition to the anonymity and utilitarianism of Socialist Realism of the 1940s, yet it also (inadvertently) opposes the caution of Conceptualism, the irony of Post-Modernism and the utilitarianism of artivism of today.
The vitality, humanity and complete commitment to the principle of art-for-art’s-sake are what can make Natela Iankoshvili an inspiration for future artists who wish to reject the sterile cynicism of today’s art movements.
Mamuka Bliadze, Natela Iankoshvili: An Artist’s Life between Coercion and Freedom, Galerie Kornfeld, Berlin/Hirmer (distr. Hirmer), 2020, hardback, 160pp, 66 col. illus., £32, ISBN 978 3 7774 3513 8
© 2020 Alexander Adams
To see my art and books visit www.alexanderadams.art